Saturday, December 28, 2013

"The Celtic Stone" by Nick Hawkes

The Celtic Stone
Chris Norman's dreams of being a commercial pilot are shattered when he crashes his light plane in central Australia and is badly wounded. His life hangs in the balance, a balance that is swayed by the intervention of an Aboriginal man. He leaves Chris with a mysterious and incongruous legacy, a Celtic cross made of stone. Partly blinded and in deep grief at no longer being able to fly, Chris finds his way to the inhospitable islands off the West Coast of Scotland where he seeks to unravel the secrets of the Celtic stone. A blind Hebridean woman, shunned by many in the local community, becomes his reluctant ally, along with a seven year old boy who is as wild as the storm tossed seas that surround the islands. But violence remains and Chris must overcome his grief to find answers to his questions. But the threat of murder lingers ...


A really clever, engrossing and surprising book.

Chris Norman is saved from his light plane wreck by a tribal hunter named Raberaba, who attempts to pull him back to white man's domain. After another accident, Chris is left with the strangest thing anyone would expect to find dangling around the neck of a tribal Aboriginal-an ancient Celtic cross.

After inheriting his grandfather's property on the Isle of Skye, Chris gets a chance to live there and research the origin of the cross. At first the mystery of how it turned up in outback Australia seemed pretty easily solved, but I had no idea of what was coming. It was all tied up as evidence in a historical feud, almost getting Chris and his loved-ones murdered by corrupt locals who knew a travesty of justice had been covered up for a century. There was even one extra, potentially scandalous secret thrown in for the reader which the main characters never discovered anything about.

What I loved most about this book is the terrific insight the author, Nick Hawkes, has into characters of all sorts of diverse international backgrounds, allowing us to get deep into their heads. I wish Raberaba could have been in it longer, because his point of view, with such a deep sense of spirit and place, really showed that although his people share Australia with white settlers, neither are on the same wavelength at all.

The attitudes and feelings of the Scottish clans folk are shown by several characters. There is Morag, the beautiful girl with a tragic event in her past which blinded her, Ruan, the independent and recently orphaned little boy, and Alsdair, the son of the local laird who is bright and principled, but a bit too fond of his whiskey. Amongst all these, Chris himself comes across as an accurate representative of a young Aussie bloke. I appreciated that he came from Adelaide, which has always been my home city.

The descriptions of settings are beautiful too, both equally harsh in opposite ways. It begins in the arid Australian outback, but later most of the story takes place on the bleak, cold Isle of Skye. Through it all, you've got to appreciate how the Celtic stone found its way back home to where it started, and how all sorts of events which seemed unrelated were tied together.

Probably the last book I'll read in 2013, but in many ways, one of the best.

4.5 stars

The Celtic Stone available from Amazon

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

"Book of Days" by James L Rubart

Book of Days
… in Your book all my days were recorded, even those which were purposed before they had come into being." —Psalm 139:16 Young Cameron Vaux’s mind is slipping. Memories of his wife, killed two years earlier in a car accident, are vanishing just as his dad predicted they would. Memories he knows he has to remember. His father tells Cameron that to save his mind he must find "the book with all days in it" —the past and future record of every soul on earth. When an obscure clue leads Cameron to a small central Oregon town, he meets enigmatic Taylor Stone, a possible guide to finding the book who seems to carry secrets far deeper than anyone imagines. Local hotshot TV personality Ann Bannister thinks the legend of the book is a farce, but she has her reasons to join Cameron’s search anyway. Finally, there is fanatical New Age guru Jason Judah, who will stop at nothing to find the book of days before Cameron does. 

Psalm 139: 16 tells us that our days were all recorded in God's Book of Days before any of them came to be. The idea of the physical existence of such a book, with past, present and future histories of every man and woman written in it, is fascinating. As the characters in this story search for such a book, I was looking forward to getting stuck into it.

There is an Indiana Jones quest type feeling about it from the very start. The hero, Cameron Vaux, believes his wife and father found it when they young, but both have passed away. Cameron's father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease at a freakishly young age, and now Cameron feels his own memories slipping away at the tender age of 32. He enlists the help of Ann Banister, the foster sister of his dead wife, Jessie, to help him locate the Book.

Two men in their late fifties were the most intriguing characters. Jason Judah, the town's spiritual leader, has an intense, manic sort of desire to find this Book. Taylor Stone has had a history of a Midas touch since he was a High School boy, leading many to believe he knows more about the Book than he ever lets on. Interestingly, these two, who were childhood best friends, have a long history of enmity.

For the first half of the story, clues were as subtle as mosquitoes landing. Characters were acting as if they were going to reveal something significant, and at the end of each exchange, I wondered how they wriggled out of saying anything at all. I kept reading on, knowing there would be a big reveal at the end, but if I'd been in Cameron's shoes, I probably would have packed up and gone home. Maybe he was used to dealing with elusive people. The flashbacks of his talks with his wife, Jessie, before her death, showed her to be just as slippery.

The part which deals with the Book of Days was worth waiting for. I really liked the way the predestination/free choice conundrum was addressed in this story. And the humorous dialogue and ready dry wit of the characters, particularly Cameron and Taylor, made it fun to read. The red herring was pretty funny too.

4 stars

Book of Days: A Novel

Sunday, December 8, 2013

"Atchison Blue" by Judith Valente

In this meditative spiritual memoir, Judith Valente, celebrated PBS religion journalist and celebrated poet, invites readers along on her transformative pilgrimages to Mount St. Scholastica monastery in Atchison, Kansas. The Benedictine sisters who invited Valente presented her with a view of monastic life and wisdom that brought spiritual healing to her fast-paced life--and promises to do the same for her readers. The first time Judith Valente arrived at Mount St. Scholastica monastery, she came prepared to teach a course on poetry and the soul. Instead, she found herself the student, taking lessons from the Benedictine sisters in the healing nature of silence, how to cultivate habits of mindful living, and the freeing reality that conversion is a lifelong process. With the heart of a poet and the eye of a journalist, she tells how her many visits and interviews with the Benedictine sisters forced her to confront aspects of her own life that needed healing--a journey that will invite readers to healing of their own. A beautiful and heartfelt work that crosses The Cloister Walk with Tuesdays with Morrie, Atchison Blue will resonate with readers of Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Mary Gordon, and Anne Lamott.


Judith Valente is a PBS correspondent with a hectic job of jetsetting around conducting interviews and working with others. She decided to take time out to spend with the sisters of the Mt. St. Scholastica Monastery at a quiet town called Atchison. As I'd often wondered about what happens within the walls of such places, this sounded like an interesting book to read. Did the sisters in "The Sound of Music" romanticise the lifestyle? If so, to what extent?

The book did reveal a bit about how long lives devoted to reflection, routine and acts and mercy do often provide a different perspective to that of those of us who are rushing about, taking everything the twenty-first century has to throw at us. It also raises questions as to whether people can choose to live contemplative lives outside of a monastic setting, and if so, how successfully. Some of the sisters' revelations about moments when they felt closest to God surprised me, challenging our assumptions about what such ladies might be expected to say.

I did find it a bit slow-going at times. The reflections are about all sorts of things from birth to death and the coping with the stress in between. There was a little too much focus on death, making it a bit melancholic for my tastes. Still, it was definitely good to read, just for showing me that no matter what lifestyles we may choose, we are all much the same when you think about it.

I received a copy from NetGalley and Ave Maria Press in return for an honest review.

3 stars

Atchison Blue: A Search for Silence, a Spiritual Home, and a Living Faith available from Amazon

"A Million Little Ways" by Emily Freeman

A Million Little Ways: Uncover the Art You Were Made to LiveThe majority of us would not necessarily define ourselves as artists. We're parents, students, businesspeople, friends. We're working hard, trying to make ends meet, and often longing for a little more--more time, more love, more security, more of a sense that there" is" more out there. The truth? We need not look around so much. God is within us and he wants to shine through us in a million little ways.
"A Million Little Ways" uncovers the creative, personal imprint of God on every individual. It invites the discouraged parent, the bored Christian, the exhausted executive to look at their lives differently by approaching their critics, their jobs, and the kids around their table the same way an artist approaches the canvas--with wonder, bravery, and hope. In her gentle, compelling style, Emily Freeman encourages readers to turn down the volume on their inner critic and move into the world with the courage to be who they most deeply are. She invites regular people to see the artistic potential in words, gestures, attitudes, and relationships. Readers will discover the art in a quiet word, a hot dinner, a made bed, a grace-filled glance, and a million other ways of showing God to the world through the simple human acts of listening, waiting, creating, and showing up.


Books which encourage people to continue our art, especially from a Christian perspective, are always welcome on my shelf. This one by Emily Freeman has several aha moments. She talks to all kinds of artists; the type who know what they want to do but are too scared to step out, and the type who launch out, confident in their mastery of their craft, but are disappointed by results.

It begins by explaining how anything at all can be made into an art form - hence the title. Our divine image bearer is reflected through the distinct lives and work of millions of people.

Freeman gives us tips on figuring out which of all the millions of possibilities will suit us. Joy and enthusiasm is the key. She suggests that our heart's deepest desires are imprinted into us. Hints of our passions shine out of us while we are still too young to think about meaning and vocations. They are woven into the fibers of our being.

She talks about the way we get seduced by the human habit of measuring our productivity. We assess our perceived usefulness and the impact we're making by using attention and appreciation as our gauges, which makes us miserable. I loved her statement that 'small is fast becoming my new home.' Working hard to become big is not a wise way to operate. If Jesus came down as a baby and became way less, why is it strange to think humans might be called to do a fraction of the same thing? I think this attitude may be the key in freeing us up in our work, helping us keep the important things forefront.

There's more. She discusses dealing with criticism, getting into comparison mode and considering other people's art a threat to ours. I liked was her admission that sometimes she hates her calling. As a writer, mine is similar enough that I could relate to her. Difficult to summarise, too complicated for an elevator pitch, I get it all. Yes, I admit I've looked at the fine arts and wished I could do some of them. Yet Emily Freeman says that, deep down, we know what makes us tick and brings us joy. She's right, I probably wouldn't really change for the world. It's touching that somebody else gets that we aren't always in love with our craft, though.

I'm sure there's something to get everyone thinking in this book, and I'd recommend it.

I received a copy from NetGalley and Revell in return for an honest review.

4 stars

  Million Little Ways, A: Uncover the Art You Were Made to Live available from Amazon

Friday, December 6, 2013

'Thrashing about with God' by Mandy Steward

Thrashing About with God: Finding Faith on the Other Side of Everything
What if Jesus didn’t die so our lives could look perfect? What if He died so we could stop feeling like our lives have to be perfect to mean something? What if we simply live out our own story, even if it doesn’t look as others say it should? Mandy Steward set out in pursuit of these what-ifs. She didn’t find answers so much as she discovered a messy grace that knows no limits and a God that was and is willing to thrash about with her no matter her questions or struggles or doubts. What she found was abundant life, but it didn’t look like she thought it was going to. It was far different, and much deeper. This is a book without “easy” answers that lets those struggling with faith and searching for more know they are not alone.

Giving a book a ranking at all is something I'm loath to do in most cases but especially in this one, as it has a lot to do with what Mandy Steward addresses, including how she's decided to tackle her reactions to the opinions and labels of others. Given the subject matter, I'd hate to come across as a prime example of the type of person she's talking about within the pages. However, part of the process of writing a book includes inviting feedback from members of the public, so now I'll attempt to explain the great good I got from reading this on the one hand, and the niggling misgivings I had on the other, pulling me in different directions and resulting in a 3 star ranking; a tied vote, so to speak.

First, I've got to applaud her for being brave and honest enough to take a stand, and fight for her right to take time out from her normal life to reflect. A pastor's wife deciding not to attend church until she's worked through the issues in her mind and spirit is surely not a common occurrence. Mandy decided to break from her established pattern of seeking answers from older, wiser, (usually male) figures outside of herself to delve within.

Here are some of the issues she addresses. Jesus has promised us 'life to the full', but what do we really make of this? We keep searching, although we're not sure what it will look like when or if it comes. It's easy to get into a pattern of striving, assuming God must be holding back because we're falling short in some way. Taking time to reflect showed her how often she'd been stuffing genuine feelings of inadequacy deep beneath the web of performance she was trying to weave to make up for it. It took stepping back to help show her how she'd exhausted herself, chasing approval from others through performing and achieving. She has an eloquent way of writing which convinced me that this could be my story too. I'd be willing to guess that almost every reader of this book will come away recognising the benefits they could get from a similar performance detox.

However, as I was reading, I couldn't help wondering if her depression, many times, was tied up to a self-focused digging around where she didn't really need to go. Sometimes it seemed as she had a permanent "How am I feeling today?" thermometer attached to her. We all know that someone who continually takes their own temperature may most likely end up feeling unwell. It would be a shame not to live our lives because we're too busy examining them. I read this memoir on my kindle, but I'd be willing to guess it'd be a pretty thick hard copy book. That's a lot of soul searching.

Her stance to take a fast from Bible reading, as if it's all tied in with people pleasing, seemed a bit shortsighted. She gave the impression that she's fed up with it because she knows it all so well, but she doesn't seem to take into account how multi-layered it is, or to open herself to the possibility of being surprised by a fresh insight.

I think it's the sort of book to delve into one chapter or so at a time, when we're in the mood to feel challenged and have a good discussion. Reading it straight through from start to finish may bog us down a bit. Being inside my own head, grappling with a train of thought, gets tedious over the long term, and so it is with someone else's.

Although it's classified as a memoir, this felt a lot like reading someone's personal journal; a prolific artist/writer's free flowing thoughts. As I said, I felt awkward about reviewing it for this reason, as I wouldn't like somebody to rate mine. Mandy Steward has made herself vulnerable, so in the end, I respect and admire her for that. At one stage she said she came to the point of saying, "So what?" to people's value judgments, accepting that we all have our mixtures lightness and darkness that make us unique. Maybe that's one of the best things to take away from this.

I received a copy from Net Galley and David C Cook in return for an honest review.

3 stars

Thrashing About with God: Finding Faith on the Other Side of Everything available from Amazon