Tuesday, January 27, 2015

'The Book of Strange New Things' by Michel Faber


2015 Reading Challenge, Week 4 - A Book with non-human characters.

It's easy for the non-human folk in this novel to grow on you. 
It begins with Peter, a devoted man of faith, as he is called to the mission of a lifetime, one that takes him galaxies away from his wife, Bea. Peter becomes immersed in the mysteries of an astonishing new environment, overseen by an enigmatic corporation known only as USIC. His work introduces him to a seemingly friendly native population struggling with a dangerous illness and hungry for Peter’s teachings—his Bible is their “book of strange new things.” But Peter is rattled when Bea’s letters from home become increasingly desperate: typhoons and earthquakes are devastating whole countries, and governments are crumbling. Bea’s faith, once the guiding light of their lives, begins to falter.

This book is expansive, original and amazing, but the plot can be summed up in one sentence. Peter is a Christian missionary to aliens on another planet.

A lot of the action takes place among the people of the land, who consider the Bible to be their 'book of strange new things'. Peter considers himself the luckiest Christian minister with the cushiest job. Why do the locals consider Jesus their redeemer when they apparently have no human pride issues to be redeemed from? The truth of their situation turns out to be more bizarre than he had imagined. Their odd characteristics end up making perfect sense.

Peter also mingles with his fellow humans back at the USIC base, who are mostly the scientist/engineer types. Although he can understand their presence at the new space base, he has more trouble trying to justify the big money necessary to get him there too. Two members from a previous mission have mysteriously disappeared; Kurtzberg, the prior pastor, and Tartaglione, the linguist. Alex Grainger, the pharmacist who drives him out to the natives' village, is an interesting lady who often seems to be holding something back. Meanwhile, Peter's wife, Bea, keeps writing to him about the state of affairs back on earth, making him feel helpless.

I really like the hero. Peter is always apologetically awkward and prone to self doubt, but he's astute, perceptive, and genuinely humble. 'I try not to think about myself too much. I'm just a man who loves God.' An old pastor from back on earth had him summed up neatly as a man who genuinely loves people, a rare thing even for a pastor. At one stage, Peter considers that there are many ways of becoming a Christian but the one that worked for him was switching off his capacity for cynicism and switching on the light of trust. He's a bit like a fish out of water among his sarcastic team members who never seem to take anything seriously, but survives because of his faith and straightforwardness.

I love his concept of how prayer works. 'It's not a matter of asking for things and being accepted or rejected. It's a matter of adding one's energy, insignificant in itself, to the vastly greater energy that is God's love.' And simple, infantile prayers are often the best sort.' Although this book isn't without sadness, it's the sort of novel which makes you feel better for having read it. If those Oasans can be content in their circumstances, why should we humans make our deeper blessings so complicated? It might be good to sum up this review with the quote from Peter's predecessor, Marty Kurtzberg. 'For all I've had and seen, I'm truly thankful.'

Actually, I'll finish with some logic from the USIC base, when Peter first arrived, felt hungry, and was refused.
Peter: I was told by the USIC people that food was available whenever we need it.
Stanka: Correct, bro. You gotta make sure you don't need it at the wrong time.

Although this is Christian novel, if you don't like profanity, swearing and sexual content, this might not be the right book for you.

Thanks to Blogging for Books for my review copy.

4.5 stars.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Interview with Paul Daniels from 'Secrets and Lies'

Welcome to this year's first interview. Today on my blog, I have the privilege of talking to an interesting and talented young man named Paul Daniels. He and his mother, Carol, are a couple of main characters from suspenseful novel, Secrets and Lies, which I've reviewed here.


1) Those who read this blog are probably aware of a family member of yours who you're not proud to claim, to say the least. You're among friends here. How has having Harry Silver for an uncle impacted your life?

When I was little, he was this famous racing driver and being related was awesome. Then he got arrested. Mom just said it was for murder, but it didn't take long to find out the rest from the older kids at school. That was a pretty dark time for me. One day my uncle was a hero, then suddenly he's this monster. My whole family took some abuse over it, and we learned not to talk about it. It's kind of our deep, dark secret. Especially for me now, growing up – if I ever get serious with a girl, how am I supposed to tell her about him? And if I don't, you can be sure it'll come back to bite me.

2) I can understand your dilemma alright. Awkward, to say the least. You've recently made a big move right across the country. Was that your idea or your mother's? And was escaping to a place where people don't know your relationships to Harry the only reason for the move?

Don't get me started on moving! I love my mom, but she ripped me away from my friends for no reason. Fitting into a new high school wasn't fun. She says we're in hiding. Sometimes people who find out we're related to Uncle Harry get nasty, but did that mean we had to move? You'd think we were in danger or something.

3) Has your quality of life improved since the move?

Actually, it's great. Don't tell Mom, but I found a music store where the owner lets me work for lessons. Through him, I met some guys at school and we've started a band. Mom won't let me play – she's afraid I'll turn out like my dad – so it's one more secret to keep.

4) Better not to go there, hey? The band and lessons sound great. But living with a jittery, anxious mother who always feels the need to watch her back can't be easy. Is there anything you feel you have to hold back from your mother that you wish you could say?

I wish she could just trust me. I saw what drugs did to my brother, and I'm not going there. Ever. And maybe Dad wasn't a great father, but I'm going to be a musician like him. Mom wants me in some kind of corporate career with a steady salary. Music means crazy hours and hard work, but I need to play. I wish she could accept that, but I don't dare even mention it.

5) Doesn't sound easy but I hope you can come to some sort of understanding. Sounds so tricky, when you both feel as if you have good reasons for your own stances. Perhaps when she sees how good you are, she might come around, but you know your mother best. Can you tell us a bit more about your goals for your own future? We'd heard rumours that they might include music.

Mom didn't say anything, did she? No, if she suspected, she'd be all over me. I do have goals – Mr. Morelli, my guitar teacher, is the best in the city. Our band at school is pretty novice, but it's a start. As I develop my talent, I may move through a few bands until something clicks. With the right mix, we'll have a chance. Right now it's all about developing. And keeping up with school work. That's why I'm single. Thanks for giving me a place to vent, Paula. It was good meeting you.

Great to meet you too, Paul. I'll be hoping things work out for you.

Janet Sketchley is the author of Heaven's Prey and Secrets and Lies, two novels of suspense and redemption. She also blogs about faith and books. Janet loves adventure stories, worship music, tea and Formula 1 racing. Like Carol in Secrets and Lies, she loves music and tea. Unlike Carol, Janet isn't related to a dangerous offender, has a happy home life, and has never been threatened by a drug lord. May those tidbits continue to hold true! You can find Janet online at janetsketchley.ca. Fans of Christian suspense are invited to join Janet's writing journey through her monthly newsletter: bit.ly/JanetSketchleyNews.

Join Janet's author journey – sign up for her monthly newsletter: http://bit.ly/JanetSketchleyNews
Secrets and Lies page (includes purchase links): http://janetsketchley.ca/books/secrets-and-lies/
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Monday, January 19, 2015

'Emissary' by Thomas Locke


2015 Reading Challenge Week 3 - A book with magic

This novel fits the bill. I'm taking 'magic' in the literal sense of the word, rather than simply a book which appeals to us. That's what I think we're meant to do.

Hyam is a likeable lad who will make a fine farmer someday. But he carries a burden few can fathom. As his mother slips toward death, she implores him to return to Long Hall, where he spent five years as an apprentice. It was there that Hyam's extraordinary capacity for mastering languages came to light--and soon cast him into the shadows of suspicion. How could any human learn the forbidden tongues with such ease? When Hyam dares to seek out the Mistress of the Sorceries, her revelation tears his world asunder.

He has no choice but to set out on the foreboding path--which beckons him to either his destiny or his doom. An encounter with an enchanting stranger reminds him that he is part hero and part captive. As Hyam struggles to interpret the omens and symbols, he is swept up by a great current of possibilities--and dangers.

Hyam's mother dies the week he turns 21, and he returns to a Long Hall where he used to be an acolyte, to tell his father of her passing. He hates having to go back, as he has traumatic memories concerning his time spent there. Hyam learns that his father is deceased, but that he himself was actually an orphan with unknown origins who his parents took under their roof. Although Hyam is willing to return to his village and farm his land, his magical heritage catches up with him now that he is of age. In fact, his powers turn out to be so vast that he must fight to ward off evil powers which are threatening the whole world.

Allies he teams up with along his journey include his faithful animal sidekicks, Dama, his wolfhound and Matu, his noble steed. They are joined later by Joelle, the beautiful young woman Hyam rescues from a hostile Long Hall, and Trace, the wise old Mage.

I've got to admit this isn't one of my favourite fantasies. A fair chunk of the magic seems to happen unintentionally, giving the plot an impression of randomness at times. The astral travel which both Hyam and Joelle embark on at different stages seemed so out there (excuse the pun), my head was spinning. I found this way of whizzing out of their human bodies to be present at various significant gatherings verged on making discoveries a bit too convenient at times. Sometimes it even happened while Hyam was trying to have a good night's sleep. Having said this, there were always huge challenges ahead of the protagonists, no mistaking that. To judge from other reviewers, it seems I might be in the minority with these misgivings anyway, so you may choose to take them with a grain of salt.

This novel's author and publisher are Christian, and I found the themes to be hidden rather than in-your-face. Some of the imagery and storyline I did find interesting include the following.

* The user/bearer of the powerful orbs is the one who determines how the force is to be applied. The power is present for anyone who can tap into it, and the orbs take on the colour red for those who wish to use them for destruction.
* Hyam gets a chance to reveal the supposed experts, the controlling mages of the Long Hall, to be not as adept in their magical arts as they think they are.
* The setting has a Medieval feeling I liked a lot.

Yet overall, although there's a lot that's good, I'm not sure I'll be interested enough to read the sequel.

Thanks to Net Galley and Revell for my review copy.

3 stars

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Prevent Reading Indigestion

I've been reading a book by Eugene Peterson, whose name many of us may recognise as the author of 'The Message' Bible translation. He believes that writing is intended to change our lives, rather than simply stuffing information into our brain cells. Reading should be a ruminative and leisurely experience, as if we're actually eating.

On a few occasions in the Bible, people were told to physically eat books. In Revelation 10:9-10, the Angel of the Lord tells Saint John to eat a small scroll, which turns out to be as sweet as honey in his mouth but bitter in his stomach. I used to think that was a weird, symbolic occurrence which I couldn't understand, but can't help remembering that both Jeremiah and Ezekiel before John, were also told to eat books on earlier occasions. I've been told that the Bible never wastes words, so when something unusual happens more than once, it's evidently quite important.

Okay, when we eat food, we take it into our bodies where it gets digested and makes its way to our bloodstream and our cells to be assimilated as part of our bodies. We all know that this is why we're counseled to eat healthy, rather than junk food. And we're probably all familiar with the slogan, 'You are what you eat.'

Peterson suggests that the same is true of what we read. We're meant to chew and ponder, to mull over healthy books until the words strike a chord and become absolutely true for us. He's speaking especially of holy scriptures. The truth gets into our imagination and spirit, and becomes part of us. It's a similar sort of process to actual, physical eating. It's surely more than just a good analogy, as we know there's a strong link between the mental, spiritual and physical parts of us. I believe that something grasped strongly in the mental and spiritual planes, does become manifest in our physical bodies.

At the same time, I've been dipping into another book. Coincidentally, they complement each other. The author, Ruth Haley Barton, describes the serious scripture study she did as a young adult at Bible College. She discovered that it helped improve her grades when she got really good at memorising verses, filling in blanks, ticking chapters off a 'To Read' list, and coming up with clever, gimicky, creative ways to impress the staff and fellow students in class. One day, it dawned on her that she was tired and what she was reading seemed lifeless to her. She realised that she was approaching scriptures as a tool people were using to rein her in or coerce her to their way of thinking. And it was a very subtle shift. Those purposes totally squashed the greater purpose of reading them, which she believes is similar to what Peterson said, to allow it to sink into her heart and soul, becoming part of her make-up.

She had to re-train herself to chew slowly and savour each word, letting its meaning sink into the deeper part of her, instead of rushing on to the next chapter to complete whatever assignment she was working on. She learned to allow change to take part at deeper levels of her being as she slowed down and meditated on those words.

I found myself nodding, "Yes, yes, yes" time and again. That's the way many of us are taught to function. We are even given recommendations of books which help us to speed read. I remember facing a thick pile of old British classics on the English syllabus back when I was a student. There was no way we could have read them all with the attention they deserved, and I'm sure the lecturers secretly wouldn't have expected us to. They were just trying to cram as much into a semester as possible.

I see the same habits in my 19-year-old son's approach to his studies. We aim to develop techniques which enable us to read as little as possible for the best grade possible. Barton says we get pretty good at cramming information into our heads to keep there just long enough to regurgitate onto exam papers. I thought it was an interesting choice, that word 'regurgitate'. Getting back to the physical analogy, it's like eating so much and so fast, we can't contain it and throw up.

So that's how I was when I was a student, and I had to ask myself if I'm still like that. I've got to admit the answer is often yes, even though I can try to convince myself it's for the best intentions. I like to read several blogs, along with interesting articles I stumble across through Facebook or Twitter links. I instantly see many of them will take some time to read. It's evident that it would take all day if I was to read them all carefully, so I find myself skimming hurriedly to get the highlights, gulping down the points that seem most important. Sometimes I don't even finish them. With books also, I want to find out what will happen next or what life-changing advice may be contained within the pages, so I gallop ahead. And it does give me something similar to physical indigestion when I eat too fast. I'm bloated in the head instead of the belly.

I'm taking these books as a wake-up call and training myself to chew more slowly, when it comes to both food and whatever I'm reading. It'll be worth the effort, I'm sure. Although these authors were focusing mostly on Bible reading, I think that what I've spoken about in this blog will apply to a broader range of good books.

*If you're interested in reading those books I quoted, here they are.
1) 'Eat this Book' by Eugene Peterson (It's a great name)
2) 'Sacred Rhythms - Arranging our Lives for Spiritual Transformation' by Ruth Haley Barton
3) 'Choking on a Camel' by Michal Ann McArthur (This is a good novel about a heroine who finds herself grappling with just this sort of thing. It'll stay in my memory.)

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

'A Thing of Beauty' by Lisa Samson


It's a wonder to behold what happens when love moves in . . .

Former child star Fiona Hume deserted the movie biz a decade ago--right after she left rehab. She landed in Baltimore, bought a dilapidated old mansion downtown, and hatched dreams of restoring it into a masterpiece, complete with a studio for herself. She would disappear from public view and live an artist's life.

That was the plan.

Ten years later, Fiona's huge house is filled with junk purchased at thrift stores, haggled over at yard sales, or picked up from the side of the road. Each piece was destined for an art project . . . but all she's got so far is a piece of twine with some antique buttons threaded down its length.

She's thirty-two years old and still recognizable, but Fiona's money has finally run out. She's gotten pretty desperate, too, and in her desperation she's willing to do almost anything for money. Almost. So it is that she comes to rent out the maid's quarters to a local blacksmith named Josia Yeu.

Josia is everything Fiona isn't: gregarious, peaceful, in control without controlling . . . in short, happy. As the light from the maid's quarters begins to permeate the dank rooms of Fiona's world, something else begins to transform as well--something inside Fiona. Something even she can see is beautiful.


Fiona (Fia) Hume is the daughter of a pair of movie stars. She grew up taking on several high profile roles herself, but was hurt in the show-biz world and wanted out. She divorces her parents and buys a run-down old mansion, where she's hidden for years. Fia is a hoarder with good intentions. She's collected all sorts of knick-knacks and bric-a-brac which she intends to make into art, but never gets around to. Into this haphazard world steps Josia, the boarder in her only clean room.

This is a cruisy sort of story with a sudden, non-traditional wrap-up. Maybe as it's an anti-Hollywood story, it doesn't need a Hollywood sort of ending. In fact, readers are left to make up our own minds about many things. Josia is a strange character with a touch of the supernatural, just enough to intrigue us. I was more than half expecting him to be revealed as an angel, but others may decide he's just a lonely guy with a great talent, amazing intuition and the constitution of Superman.

It's a story that makes us question what it was all about. To the world, Fiona has squandered all the advantages she was born with, which many would kill for, to the point of actually misplacing her Oscar in her mess - the ultimate loser. Social media is quick to put her down whenever she has a brush with the paparazzi. But Fia might have latched onto something of far more value than all the baggage that goes with being a celebrity. And thanks to the care of other characters, she begins to learn to see herself as a treasure too, just like the sort of discarded and used items she's been collecting.

(I can imagine some ladies saying that anyone might recover with men like Josia and Jack in their lives. I tend to agree.)

It's the sort of thoughtful story whose appeal is in the quotations rather than the action. The characters are fresh and original enough to spout the sort of quotes worth recording. Fia herself has a perceptiveness coupled with a dry sense of humour. She finds herself wondering why someone doesn't write a self-help book about the three steps you need to take before you're ready to take any steps at all. "But so far I haven't found anything like it."

And Josia fascinates me with his aim to help unkempt, uncared for things look like how they were intended in the first place. "This place was made to be beautiful. It's pretty now, but just now how it was made to be."

Any novel which may help us question the value of what 'the world' tells us we should be pursuing is worth a read in my opinion.

Thanks to Net Galley and Thomas Nelson for my review copy.

4 stars

Monday, January 12, 2015

'Heaven Sent' by Amanda Bews

2015 Reading Challenge Week 2 - A book set in High School

 I was given this novel and thought it would be perfect for this challenge, as such a lot of the plot does take part at school, including the catalyst for the trouble the heroine finds herself in. Some people taking on this challenge have been wondering whether they could get away with school aged protagonists, without having action take place in an actual school. But 'set in a High School' sounds pretty clear to me, so I'm glad I had one up my sleeve.

Heaven’s life seems perfect. She has good grades, popularity, a rich family and the perfect boyfriend. Only she knows none of it is really true.
But one drunken mistake changes everything, as her life goes from bad to worse. With the end of school looming, a disappearing “boyfriend” and no parental support, Heaven can only wonder what her future holds.
Little does she know that it will be more than she bargained for. Sent to New Zealand to “protect” her father’s reputation, Heaven discovers a different kind of community and a different kind of future.


This Young Adult novel is set in both Australia and New Zealand. Heaven is the older daughter of a straight-laced, politician father and a hippie mother. She's lucky enough to be beautiful, smart and sporty in a culture which admires all three, and spends a lot of time trying not to be seduced into side-issues which have captivated most of her friends. As the story shows, one lapse to pressure may be enough to derail somebody's life completely.

The theme of the novel reminds me of toddlers playing with matches. We're taken instantly to a school setting with senior High School students. They are fascinated with sex and alcohol, but their flippant attitudes reveal that they don't really consider the potential dangers of what they're handling. Then, sadly, they are judged for their morals and mistakes, as if they are adults who knew entirely what they were doing all along. The reactions of both Heaven and Jarrod to the sudden twist in their plans speaks volumes.

I like that the main characters aren't completely typecast, as many of their friends seem to be. Jarrod certainly isn't the typical boyfriend who is after just one thing. He cares deeply for Heaven in his own way, and pays dearly for his impulsive mistake. For that matter, Heaven herself can be selfish (although I'm not sure this ever occurs to her). At times in the story, she doesn't give others the thing she craves most from them. At different times her mother and Jarrod both approach her, hurting and wanting to talk, but Heaven freezes them out, assuming that she already knows and won't like what they have to say.

It's very up-to-date, full of references to cutting edge technology and current Hollywood celebrities. This all makes the teenage characters' voices strong, but keep in mind that I'm writing this review at the start of 2015. Will it become dated in time, the same way as other YA novels from previous decades? On the other hand, will it even matter? Perhaps a well-written story will stand the test of time, no matter when it's set.

It's a Christian novel, but the denomination to which Heaven is introduced is identified outright as the Seventh Day Adventists, something I've found more unusual for fiction, in which churches are given indiscriminate names, such as 'The Community Church' so denominations won't be evident. I assume 'Heaven Sent' was published by a Seventh Day Adventist publishing house. The second half of the book may surprise readers who aren't expecting any type of Christian fiction, as it's not clear from the back cover blurb or the first half with the school setting.

Anyone who enjoyed the movie, 'Juno' might like to give this story a go, as Heaven's experiences are similar to Juno's in many ways. Another book this story reminds me of is 'The Last Virgin in Year Ten' by Rosanne Hawke. Overall, I think the story flows well and Heaven's voice is strong, making us want to stay with her, to see what she decides.

3.5 stars

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Books are Memorials of our Lives

I shared this reflection on another blog not long ago, and though the start of a new year may be a good time to share it here too, when our minds naturally drift to times gone by. I hope you enjoy it.


I was having a rest on the couch in the front room, where we keep our bookshelves. Even though they are a bit jammed and higgledy-piggledy, as you can see, I still think they look lovely, in these days of e-books, and that's what I was thinking as I let my eyes slide over the spines on several shelves. In that lazy moment, it occurred to me that I could vividly remember the occasions in which each of them came to me.

* There's the one I found in that unexpectedly excellent little country town bookstore, with all the twisting passages, when I was on holiday with my family last year.
* I found that one at Dubbo, just before we took the kids to visit the old gaol.
* The one next to it was from the bookshop in the foyer at
Hillsong Church, when we reached Sydney on the same trip.
* That's one I saved up for, to buy from John Martins when I was a kid, and that department store no longer exists.
* That's one my sister gave me, when she was working in
England and we flew across to visit her in my teens.
* That's one of the few I decided to hang onto after a Uni English course, which I thought would be worth reading again.
* I bought that one with a Koorong voucher somebody gave me for Christmas.
* That one was a quirky find on the bargain table at my local library.
* I swapped one of mine with the author of that one.
* That's the trilogy my husband bought me when we got engaged, and he was still my fiance. We later chose one of our sons' names from it.

Memories kept rolling through my mind with each book I looked at. What a fun way of keeping track of the events in our lives. I realised that almost every occasion in which a book joined our family was a happy one. I'd never thought of doing an exercise like this before, but now I'd recommend it to everyone as a quick and simple way of boosting your mood. Just peruse your books, and re-live the occasions when you received them. Our books can serve a multi-purpose. As well as being valuable for their stories or other content, we can also use them as memorials of our own lives.

For those of us who are authors, our books become happy memorials on other people's shelves too. With second-hand books, I may be inheriting the special memorials of other people, which will remain a mystery to me. And each one that I give away or add to piles for second hand shops may end up adding memories to other people's lives. The beautiful thing about books is that their histories can last centuries, if they are not knocked around too much. I have books that bear inscriptions in long-forgotten handwriting from my grandparents. Once, I went to a second hand book sale at an old church hall, and discovered that most of them were the ancient, hard-backed type with plain covers. There were so many, they were crammed behind each other and looming over my head in columns. The thought of all the buried memories, not to mention generations of fingers turning all the pages, is astounding.

So without even leaving my spot on the couch, I revisited some of the best moments of being 10, 15, 16, 21, 34, 28, 5 and several ages in between (because they are a bit of a hodge podge at the moment). And I'm sure there are new ones which are yet to join those already on my shelf in years to come.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

'Out of the Storm' by Jody Hedlund

Having grown up in a lighthouse, loneliness is all Isabelle Thornton has ever known--and all, she assumes, she ever will know. But when her lightkeeper father rescues a young man from the lake, her sheltered world is turned upside down.

Bestselling author Jody Hedlund's Out of the Storm is her first ever novella and introduces readers to Beacons of Hope, a new series set in the 1800s amid the romance, history, and danger surrounding the Great Lakes lighthouses of Michigan.

I've sometimes avoided novellas in the past, partly because I believed a wonderful story with characters we care deeply for can't be achieved in such a short book. I thought novellas would have to be more bland and simplistic than longer books, just because of the shorter word count. This story blows that theory right out of the water. It took just an hour or two to read and I loved it.

There are just three main characters; Isabelle, Henry and Isabelle's father, Captain Thornton. Her father is the lighthouse keeper of a remote isle, and Henry is the only survivor of a shipwreck washed onto their shores. Isabelle is sweet but a bit melancholic at times, partly because of her lonesome lifestyle and partly because of something in her genetic make-up clouding her horizon. Henry is the privileged son of a wealthy family used to a life of ease and comfort, yet he doesn't come across as a spoiled, obnoxious, rich kid. As for Isabelle's dad... well, Henry likens him to a protective bear standing on hind legs, just waiting to be baited, but the captain has his reasons.

The romance sizzles off the pages at times. I loved it that I was cheering both younger characters on so hard, even though I felt as if I'd really just met them. I love the open-ended nature of some of the threads, so we can imagine some of our own bright possibilities. Most of all, I love how I stumbled upon this novella. Isabelle and Henry's story was alluded to in a novel with the same setting (Love Unexpected by Jody Hedlund) which made me curious. I'll have to remember this clever way of hooking us in.

So there you have it. Short book, small cast of characters, remote setting, dynamite. Perfect proof that a great story isn't bound by supposed limitations.

5 stars

Monday, January 5, 2015

'Like a Flower in Bloom' by Siri Mitchell

 2015 Reading Challenge Week 1 - A Funny Book

This is a worthy novel to begin this year's challenge. The characters and situations kept being comical throughout 368 pages, yet the underlying themes touched my heart. I love it when comedy is combined with depth.

Victorian-Era England Comes Alive in This Witty Romance

For years Charlotte Withersby has worked as an assistant to her father, an eminent English botanist. As she approaches the old age of twenty-four, her father pushes her out into society, swayed by an uncle who believes God's only two roles for women are marriage and motherhood. When one of the Withersbys' colonial correspondents, Edward Trimble, returns to England, he's drafted as the new assistant so Charlotte is free to marry. This suits Edward's plans quite well, since the last thing he wants to do is reunite with the family he is ashamed to call his own.

Though Edward proves himself vexingly capable on the job, Charlotte won't surrender the job without a fight, and schemes with her best friend to regain her position. Perhaps if a proposal seems imminent, Charlotte's father will see his error and ask her to return. Charlotte tries to make headway in her town's social life, but reveals herself to be unaware of all the intricacies of polite society. Though Edward pitches in, tutoring her in society's expectations, she just seems to make things worse. And the more she comes to know of her father's assistant, the more trouble she has imagining life without him. Caught in a trap of her own making and seeing the hopelessness of her prospects, will Charlotte get to keep her work or will she have to cede her heart?


This is an excellent and hilarious parody of the Victorian era.

Charlotte Withersby is a talented botanist who has kept her father's records (and even written some of his books) for many years. Suddenly, he and her uncle decide that she should seek a husband before life passes her by, because that's why God created women. They hire a young man named Mr Trimble to replace Charlotte as her father's assistant. She feels obliged to go through the motions of complying, all the while longing for Trimble to botch up, so she can have her old place back again. Meanwhile, Charlotte finds herself sucked deeper into a social vortex, while all she wants is to be left alone with her plants and flowers.

Charlotte is so fresh and forthright. She doesn't get the appeal of the fashionable life, and implicit expectations keep soaring way over her head. Many funny and awkward predicaments occur because she genuinely doesn't understand all the artifice and insincerity required of her. She finds herself relying increasingly more on her friend, Miss Templeton, who knows all the ropes. Charlotte singled her out as the 'ideal specimen by which the rest of us must be judged'. Already eighteen, Miss Templeton 'knows' that she must settle on somebody soon or her matrimonial chances will be slim.

Charlotte is a great representative for all readers who are happily enjoying a different world to the one which seems to be inhabited by everyone else. Throughout the story, it comes to light that several other characters have been relying on social norms and conventions to form their behaviour, convincing themselves that they are happier than they really are. It brings home that people who set themselves up as experts don't know what's best for every unique individual. Reading this story is a good wake-up call for those of us who keep doing what we think we ought to, just because others have told us it will make us happy.

It's also a great encouragement to keep doing the things we love in spite of lack of support. Passionate women like Charlotte, who were limited in their career outlooks because of their gender, just kept working away anyway.

This book is full of quotes guaranteed to get a laugh, because characters so often mistake what other people mean. To give one example, Mrs Bickwith, a snooty hostess, tells Charlotte, "I don't think I've ever met anyone so secure in their expectations that they can afford to flout convention,"and watch Charlotte's innocent reaction.

Thanks to Net Galley and Bethany House for my review copy.

5 stars

Friday, January 2, 2015

'Aloof' by Tony Kriz


"God, are you there?" is a near universal cry of the human heart.

We have all longed for God to be tangible. Some might sway to worship music, others go on missions, others fast from food. The universal quest is to feel the divine . . . and yet the divine seems aloof, even shy. In this narrative-driven book, Tony Kriz leads the reader on a journey of "orchestrated epiphanies" along the eternal quest to tangibly encounter God, including the unpredictable moments that give us hope, and even more so, the long gaps between those moments that challenge our faith.

Written in an authentic, conversational style, "Aloof" is easily accessible to those who don't know much about the Bible, yet the message is still theologically informed and culturally relevant. This book will help you process how God acts uniquely towards us, depending upon each stage of life. The chapters include contemporary real-life stories that normalize the experience of an often hidden God, while also aiding the reader to acknowledge the very real moments (rare though they may be) when God has shown up in a tangible way. 


Tony Kriz tackles the elephant in the room many of us have skirted around at some stage, especially in Christian company. If God is all powerful, loves us so deeply, and has proven Himself to be an apt communicator, why does He seem to hide from us most of the time? Kriz describes the futility he's grown up feeling, while other, apparently more 'super' Christians talk at length about their supernatural encounters with God, making him wonder, 'What's the problem with me then?' He even became a missionary and God still seemed to be too busy with others to bother with him. He is honest in admitting his tendency to pretend that God is closer than he actually felt Him to be; such as the time as a teen, when the pastor invited him up on stage to share the amazing insights he received on his mission trip.

He describes his personal experiences. Children brought up in the Christian faith may subtly learn accepted ways of talking about God from 'religious' people. He searched for what he called the 'super faith serum' he hoped would charge up his relationship with God, following every lead he could. After hours of Bible study, prayer, retreats, outreaches, and prayers for extra blessings from mighty warriors, the magical elixir still seemed to elude him. What can you do then? Tony Kriz decided to walk away, no longer bothering to try getting close to God anymore, as it seemed to get him nowhere. Parts 2 and 3 of the book explain how he unexpectedly ended up back in God's fold.

The thoughts he puts forward for us to ponder are interesting. It's clearly for the earth's own good that the sun's distance is maintained. Could it be similar with us and God? We may say we long to get closer to God, but who wants to be an Icarus, getting his wings burned? Do we really want mountain top encounters and Shekinah moments, such as people like Moses, Isaiah, Paul, Peter, James and John experienced? There were often serious repercussions for those who got up that close and personal, so maybe God is honouring our deeper selves who appreciate the distance, even though we don't know it.

There are several stories about coincidental moments and times in which God came through, although He skirted the 5 senses. Altogether, it's an honest and thought-provoking read, packed with ideas to make us reconsider the way God relates to human beings.

Thanks to Net Galley and Thomas Nelson for my review copy.

4 stars