Saturday, December 27, 2014

2015 Reading Challenge

I've decided to attempt the 2015 Reading Challenge from Popsugar. It's kept popping up to my attention from several difference sources . As I read down the list I thought it sounds achievable, although not necessarily easy. Several of these categories will force me out of my normal reading comfort zone, which may prove to be a good thing.

I believe we are to stick to one title per category, even if a given books does fit into two or three. I don't think it's necessary to tick them off the list in order. It's fine to do it randomly, as long as we end up covering everything on the list. So each week, I'll aim to tick one off among my reviews, to cover all 50 (or 52 counting the trilogy).

My question is who would like to have a go with me? I like the thought of accountability and encouragement. I challenge everyone to make it a goal for 2015. Otherwise, I hope you'll follow my attempt to carry this out anyway.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The First Christmas Presents

A couple of years ago at Christmas time, I bought this little box at the Community Aid Abroad shop down in my city. On the box is a picture of the three kings, and inside is a gold candle and two little bags, full of chunks of frankincense and myrrh. The idea is to place the little rocks in the candle flame to fill your room with fragrance. So far, I've preferred to leave them intact, for a sniff every so often around this season. They are a beautiful, sensual Christmas keepsake.

A small roll of parchment tells how these three items were presented to the Baby Jesus by the Magi, after their long trek from the east to follow his star and find him. Once, one of my sons said, "They weren't very thoughtful presents, were they? Why would a baby or toddler want those last two things? It sounds like they were giving him what they would have wanted to receive rather than what he would have wanted." I was glad he was thinking about the principles of gift giving, but had to laugh to think of the Wise Men toting rattles and building blocks across miles of desert on their camels. I've even heard theories that Mary and Joseph themselves might have been bemused by those last two items, after saying, 'Thanks very much for the gold.'

But things in the Bible always carry great significance. A lot of thought did go into those gifts, and in retrospect, they were proven to be perfect for the recipient. Maybe the Magi themselves didn't even know how prophetic they were to be. Here's a quick summary, to show how perfect they were.

Gold represents kingship. It has always been an extremely precious metal valued by royalty, and symbolises Jesus' kingship over us, and all his creation. He is Sovereign over things on earth and in heaven.

Frankincense is a luxurious perfume or incense made from the resin, or gum, of a particular tree. It's highly fragrant when burned. This may symbolise Jesus' priestly role in our lives. He was the ultimate High Priest, willingly born to be a bridge between God and mankind, identifying perfectly with both. Nobody else could intercede so perfectly. What he achieved by his life and death allows us directly into God's presence. The frankincense in my little kit smells awesome.

Myrrh is an anointing oil obtained from another specific tree by making incisions into the bark and allowing the gum to flow out. This gift looked ahead to that baby's sacrificial death on our behalf, enabling us to stand clean and right with God. The baby grew up to be somebody who would take the punishment all men and women deserve on his own shoulders. Now, as well as being assured of a heavenly afterlife, we know we can shake off all guilt and feelings of unworthiness and being unable to measure up in this life too. The myrrh also smells really lovely.

I love pondering the men who brought these gifts to Jesus too. They had the best ever reason to embark on a long, gruelling trek through scorching sun and driving wind. Their route no doubt varied from appearing totally God-forsaken to containing dangerous brigands and crooks, anxious to prey on passers-by. I can imagine their satisfaction when they finally made it to the modest abode of the infant boy, and were able to say, "Here he is. Not many know his significance, but we do."

These men are the perfect examples of the benefits a well-read life may produce. Their vigilant reading and studies enabled them to grasp what was taking place in history. If they hadn't been so vigilant, they would have missed it and been none the wiser. It reminds me of the great things that can happen, and the insights we can receive, when we delve into books. Fiction and non-fiction alike can contain lots of treasure we may miss. Here's to a good year of reading in 2014, and more ahead of us in 2015.

I wish you all a wonderful and blessed Christmas. See you back again soon.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

'Love Unexpected' by Jody Hedlund

A Perfect Blend of History and Romance, with a Whisper of Mystery

All she's ever wanted was a home. But stranded at Presque Isle port after their steamboat sank, Emma Chambers and her brother, Ryan, couldn't be farther away from security. While Ryan at least can find work, Emma can't even find a place to stay. An unlikely solution arises when the lighthouse keeper, who recently lost his wife and is struggling to raise his young son, arrives in town. A traveling preacher believes they might be the answer to each others' problems, and after a hasty marriage, Emma is headed back to the lighthouse with this handsome but quiet stranger.

But nothing in her wandering life has prepared her for suddenly being asked to raise a child and keep a house. Struggling at every turn, Emma also suspects Patrick may be keeping something hidden from her. In town she hears whispers about strange circumstances surrounding his previous wife's death, and it seems as though Emma's answered prayer for a home and family may actually be something much more dangerous.


I like books with lighthouse settings. What an important job to take on, yet with a feeling of isolation and freedom for those inclined to live a quiet life. I've sometimes thought it would be perfect for an introvert who still wants to make a difference. It seems Patrick Garraty thought so too.
The setting creates a nice, melancholic feel for the plot, in which two people have their own desperate reasons to get married, having just met each other.

Gentle-natured Emma, who hadn't been brought up to be domestic, is thrown in the deep end! I felt her side of the arrangement involved a lot more stress than Patrick's. Most women get a chance to ease themselves into housework and childcare, without suddenly shouldering the full load with no experience. At times, she seems a bit saintly to be true. I hope not to sound like a grouch here, but I've had to babysit kids like Josiah, and find it incredible that never once was Emma tempted to call him, 'Little Menace' instead of that never-ending, 'Little Love', even in her thoughts. He was running rings around her, and she was letting him be boss. Although Bertie Burnham is not the most lovable character, I was pleased when she pointed this out.

Although I found the novel a breeze to read, I did get frustrated with the two main characters. Their nervous and secretive attitudes cause many hassles. Emma quietly decides what she thinks will work best for those she cares for (Patrick and Ryan) without giving them any idea what she's thinking, so she has no way of getting feedback from them. Perhaps it's natural that Patrick returns the same treatment, withholding important family information which Emma would surely want to know. No wonder when trouble comes, they are both left reeling, because they still don't know each other as well as they could at that stage.

It's good when child characters strengthen the plot instead of being just tacked on. Josiah controls a lot of the action. I'm sure we've all come across toddlers like him (or maybe you've had one or two). He has such a big, overbearing personality, they have to plan their own schedules around when he's in bed. He's demanding, he pushes boundaries, sometimes he makes me exhausted reading about him. There's nobody like a two-year-old for clinging to someone's leg one moment and throwing a tantrum the next. Not every character can believably undergo mood transplants to suit the story, but Josiah can easily.

I think my favourite character is Emma's brother, Ryan. He's always direct, a refreshing change from all the bottling up done by the two main characters. Ryan seems to have a more common-sense and decisive approach than his sister's, and I wouldn't mind reading a novel with him as the main character.

I like the nice little teaser for Jody Hedlund's novella, with the same setting. A fascinating bit a history between another young couple at the same lighthouse is hinted at within the pages of this story, and intrigued me enough to go and get hold of their story, 'Out of the Storm' which I'll review soon.

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

3.5 stars

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

My Top Ten Reads for 2014

I've shared this Top Ten list with the Australasian Christian Writers blog. Now, I'll going to share it here too. In a rough chronological order, here are my outstanding reads for 2014.

1) Sensible Shoes by Sharon Garlough Brown.
Sensible Shoes: A Story about the Spiritual Journey This was the first book I read in 2014, and still makes the list as one of my favourites. It's about four very different women who decide to take a spiritual retreat, and not only do we share their experiences but get to benefit from the course notes too, making the novel a virtual retreat for any of us who would love to attend something like this, but can't.
My review is here

2) A Cast of Stones by Patrick W. Carr.
A Cast of Stones (The Staff and the Sword, #1) The two sequels, A Draw of Kings and The Hero's Lot, would have to be included here too, as it was a wonderful fantasy trilogy whose characters stayed in my mind long after I finished the books. I'm taking the liberty of squeezing three books into the slot of one here.
My review of A Cast of Stones is here

3) Making Marion by Beth Moran.
Making Marion: Where's Robin Hood When You Need Him? It was very interesting to read a Christian novel from Britain, to compare with those from elsewhere. This one is set at a caravan park in Robin Hood country, Sherwood Forest, as the heroine seeks her father's past. It's full of mystery which unfolds at just the right time.
My review is here

4) Keepers of the Covenant by Lynn Austin.
Keepers of the Covenant (The Restoration Chronicles #2) Set during Old Testament times and featuring the prophet, Ezra, as the main character, this book spans several years and cleverly highlights ways in which his times were similar to ours. Novels such as this are great to be read in conjunction with the Bible itself.
My review is here

5) The Road to Testament by Eva Marie Everson.
The Road to Testament I liked this novel because it's fun and helps us to think again, if we've been unconsciously using stereotypes in our assumptions. The story uses some mystery and romance to achieve this.
My review is here

6) Out of the Storm by Jodie Hedlund.
Out of the Storm (Beacons of Hope, #0.5) This one is a novella which may be read in an hour or two. I'm including it on my list because it shows that a story doesn't need a lot of space or an extensive cast to be great.
My review is here.

7) A Most Inconvenient Marriage by Regina Jennings.
A Most Inconvenient Marriage One of the last novels I've read this year, it's just plain fun. This novel incorporates an unusual plot situation with characters who are easy to admire and understand. Two of the best ingredients for an enjoyable romance.
My review is here

And now for some non-fiction highlights for the year.

8) The Sacred Year by Michael Yankoski.
The Sacred Year: Mapping the Soulscape of Spiritual Practice -- How Contemplating Apples, Living in a Cave, and Befriending a Dying Woman Revived My Life The author does what some of us may have dreamed of trying. He puts aside a year to try several different spiritual disciplines and writes about his attempts. It really helped me to delve into the meanings behind several practices which sounded extreme, not to mention the features of our 21st century lifestyles which inspired him to make the attempt.
My review is here

9) Good News for Weary Women by Elise Fitzpatrick.
Good News for Weary Women: Escaping the Bondage of To-Do Lists, Steps, and Bad Advice Several of the principles she mentions would apply to men too, of course, but women are the consummate jugglers of commitments. A great read for those of us who may have ever had anxiety about measuring up to society's expectations. Her revelation of the one important thing is something we should keep in mind always. And I do appreciate books which expose the ridiculousness of traditions which have been keeping us bound.
My review is here

10) Grace for the Good Girl by Emily Freeman
Grace for the Good Girl: Letting Go of the Try-Hard Life This is essential for those of us who have always tried hard to do the right thing. Freeman writes for a class of people who many may believe wouldn't even need books to be written for them, and shows how desperately we do.
My review is here

Friday, December 12, 2014

'The Songs of Jesse Adams' by Peter McKinnon

Set in the turmoil of social change and political unrest of Australia during the 1960s, The Songs of Jesse Adams traces the meteoric rise of a boy from the bush - a farmer's son who breaks away to follow his heart, his dreams and his love of music. But as Jesse travels with his band and the crowds gather, it becomes clear that something else is afoot. This rock singer captivates and transforms the host of fans who hear his songs and encounter his touch.

Lives are changed in unexpected ways and the enigmatic Jesse becomes a symbol of hope and freedom for those on society's edge. But not all will celebrate the rising tide of influence of this charismatic figure whose words and actions challenge those in power - the media, the politicians, the church. In one tumultuous week this clash of ideals comes to a head - with profound consequences.

Awash in all the protest and collapse of conservative Australia, the colour and madness that was the sixties, The Songs of Jesse Adams is a tale of conflict, betrayal and tragedy, but ultimately the triumph of love.

It doesn't take the canny reader long to realise that Jesse Adams is an analogy for somebody else. His story evokes how the four New Testament gospels might have looked, had the events taken place in Australia in the volatile 1960s instead of ancient Palestine.

Peter McKinnon uses strokes of genius to translate Biblical events to a more modern and local setting. Jesse is a talented singer/musician and his band is originally comprised of hard-working shearers willing to give the spotlight a try, as they are down on their luck. It's intriguing to match this novel's characters with their biblical counterparts. To mention just a few, the apostle Peter is the loyal and spontaneous Big Al, and you'll recognise James and John, the Sons of Thunder, in Johnny and Dean Moyle, the 'Chunder Brothers.' Annie Martin, a burned-out journalist who senses something special in Jesse, is this story's Mary Magdalene. Melbourne becomes the Jerusalem Jesse breaks his heart over. Then there's Flash, the Judas character, with his gripe that Jesse refused to sign a recording contract. And the Last Supper takes place in 'The Doubtful' hotel, after which Jesse retreats to the beer garden. He is crowned with the unofficial title of 'King of Pop' instead of King of the Jews. His songs, of course, are this story's version of Jesus' parables.

I found reading this story in a twentieth century, Australian setting extremely moving. It challenged me to wonder if I would have willingly followed Jesus, as I was always certain I would. Reading this book makes it harder to fault those ancient people who decided to turn away from Jesus without at least understanding the position they found themselves in. It's easier to sense the clout and power the ruling class and Pharisees would have wielded, presented in the form of three formidable men; Timothy Grady, the Cleric, Frank Pigdon, the Premier, and Bob Craven, the Media Mogul, each with their own reasons to want to silence Jesse Adams permanently.

The character of Jesse must have been a challenge to fine-tune perfectly from start to finish. At times, I felt he might have been unduly taken by surprise by some of the lines his detractors delivered to him, while at other times he seemed to lash out rather more reactively and emotionally than I would have expected. Then, at other moments, I wondered at his letting others talk him into their plans against his better judgment. Still, other readers may well disagree with me. As the historical Jesus caused stirs, rifts and factions wherever he walked, it seems reasonable that the character Jesse Adams may well do the same.

I recommend this thought-provoking book to to anybody willing to read the familiar gospel story in a fresh and imaginative way. Prepare to have your pre-conceptions challenged.

I received a copy from RISE Magazine, for the purpose of writing a review

3.5 stars

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

'A Most Inconvenient Marriage' by Regina Jennings

A Marriage of Convenience Turns Most Inconvenient in this Historical Charmer

Having fled a difficult home life, Civil War nurse Abigail Stuart feels like her only friend in the world is sweet but gravely wounded patient Jeremiah Calhoun. Fearing he won't survive, the Confederate soldier's last wish is that Abigail look after his sickly sister at home. Marry him, return to his horse farm, and it'll be hers.

Left with few choices, Abigail takes him up on his offer and moves to Missouri after his death, but just as the family learns to accept her, the real Jeremiah Calhoun appears--puzzled to find a confounding woman posing as his wife. Jeremiah is determined to have his life back to how it was before the war, but his own wounds limit what he can do on his own. Still not fully convinced Abigail isn't duping him, he's left with no choice but to let the woman stay and help--not admitting to himself she may provide the healing his entire family needs.

This is one of my favourite books of the year, and we're into December.

Abigail Stuart is a war nurse who makes an agreement to marry a dying soldier who calls himself Jeremiah Calhoun. She's estranged from her family and needs a new home, and he claims to need a nurse to care for his ailing sister, and a competent horse woman to help with the family business. Abigail will have to break the news of his death to his fiance, but he's sure she'll understand. Everything seems to be going to plan, when the real Jeremiah Calhoun arrives home from the war. It seems the dead soldier was an imposter, playing some sort of twisted game, which sets these two up for a very rocky start.

I'm proud to say that I figured out the identity of the pretend Jeremiah, including his motivation for the act he played, on my own. It was great fun watching it dawn on the characters. There's a very lovable cast in this novel, including Josiah and Betsy, two very mischievous children from a neighbouring property, who steal the scenes they are in with their comic relief. There were plenty of humorous incidents to keep me smiling. Being an Aussie, I can only imagine the stench of a skunk.

As the novel isn't set during, but in the aftermath of the Civil War, there is a hopeful overall impression of building up and restoring. A lot of the action deals with some sneaky crooks who don't hesitate to kill.

Most of all, I adored the two main characters. Abigail is a capable, resilient woman who has made up her mind to guard her heart, determined to never experience hurt like she received from the hands of members of her family, but her tendency to love deeply is her vulnerable point. I found a scene where she cries silent tears at night most poignant simply because she's not the cry-baby type. The 'hillbilly boy' she'd made up her mind to resist has broken through her defenses, and he couldn't even seem to be bothered trying.

Jeremiah is a young man who was made head of his family too early, which may explain the control freak tendencies he's accused of during the story. He really only wants his family to be happy and prosperous. Jeremiah has learned to assume a gruff, suspicious persona through necessity, but hides a tender heart. Some of his revelations are great, such as what really constitutes a true home. Through him, we see that sometimes when things appear to be going haywire, they are really the best things that can happen.

I'd recommend this novel to anybody who wants a fun historical romance with a bit of depth.

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

5 stars


Saturday, December 6, 2014

'The Bracelet' by Dorothy Love

The mystery surrounding Celia's home in Savannah threatens her family reputation . . . and her very life.

Celia Browning is counting the days until her childhood sweetheart Sutton Mackay returns to Savannah after two years in Jamaica looking after his family's shipping interests. She's certain he will propose marriage, thus joining two of the city's most prominent families. But just as Sutton returns, an unsavory newspaper reporter arrives in town, determined to revive interest in the secret tragedies that occurred in the Browning mansion on Madison Square when Celia was a child.

A series of mysterious notes arrives at the house, followed by an anonymous gift--a bracelet imbued with a sinister message. Is it merely a coincidence, or is someone out to harm her?

As war clouds gather over Savannah and her beloved father's health worsens, Celia determines to uncover the truth about what really happened all those years ago.

Inspired by actual events in one of Savannah's most prominent 19th-century families, "The Bracelet "combines romance, rich historical detail, and breathtaking suspense as one young woman embarks upon a dangerous quest to free herself from her family's tragic past.


The story is set in the time of political turbulence prior to the American Civil War. Celia Browning is reunited with her childhood sweetheart, Sutton Mackay, who has been abroad. She expects a proposal any day, but her happiness is marred when a snooping journalist threatens to write an expose about a scandal in her family's past. Celia never really grasped the details. If she doesn't ferret out the truth, it will wreck their reputation. Especially since somebody is sending her threatening messages and the gift of a bracelet with a sinister meaning.

It's a fairly long book which I found a bit slow at times. There are detailed conversations about politics and business, and plenty of small talk about peripheral characters. There are also quite a few shopping expeditions, horse rides, afternoon teas and dress fittings. I was expecting these to have some plot significance, but a lot of their purpose seems to be simply to show what shopping expeditions, horse rides, afternoon teas and dress fittings used to be like.

The story did hold my interest despite the slower patches. The general feeling of time and place was well evoked. In modern times, having such a scandal exposed wouldn't be such a big deal for all concerned as it was for Celia and her family. There are plenty of sudden, shock revelations for those who persevere and discover the mystery. So many that even though I predicted some, others took me by surprise. 

I'm sure every reader will agree when the 'baddie' is revealed, that it's a complex, non-stereotypical villain. There may even be discussions about whether this person deserves censure or pity. I certainly found it easy to feel sorry for the perpetrator, and understand where they were coming from.

Thanks to Tyndale House and NetGalley for my review copy.

3 stars

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

'The Secret of Pembrooke Park' by Julie Klassen

Abigail Foster fears she will end up a spinster, especially as she has little dowry to improve her charms and the one man she thought might marry her--a longtime friend--has fallen for her younger, prettier sister.
When financial problems force her family to sell their London home, a strange solicitor arrives with an astounding offer: the use of a distant manor house abandoned for eighteen years. The Fosters journey to imposing Pembrooke Park and are startled to find it entombed as it was abruptly left: tea cups encrusted with dry tea, moth-eaten clothes in wardrobes, a doll's house left mid-play . . .

The handsome local curate welcomes them, but though he and his family seem to know something about the manor's past, the only information they offer Abigail is a warning: Beware trespassers who may be drawn by rumors that Pembrooke contains a secret room filled with treasure.

Hoping to improve her family's financial situation, Abigail surreptitiously searches for the hidden room, but the arrival of anonymous letters addressed to her, with clues about the room and the past, bring discoveries even more startling. As secrets come to light, will Abigail find the treasure and love she seeks...or very real danger?

Abigail Foster and her family are struggling financially after a failed investment. They are offered an anonymous tenancy by a distant relative. Pembrooke Park turns out to be a wonderful, rambling old manor house which is grand enough to satisfy her choosy mother and sister. But the mystery surrounding the house is a bit creepy. The Pembrooke family who lived there previously suddenly disappeared one day, leaving food on plates, tea in cups, clothes in cupboards and a partially completed chess game. And there are rumours of a hidden treasure left by previous owner, Robert Pembrooke, which apparently sent his mercenary brother, Clive, almost mad searching for it.

Abigail is the sort of heroine we may recognise from other historical novels. She's like Elinor Dashwood, a sensible older sister with a good head for business who considers herself plain and has a secret fear of being left on the shelf. Her younger sister, Louisa, is the shallow coquette who is considered the family beauty and demands the best of everything for herself. However, not everybody is immune to Abigail's more modest charms.

During the course of the story, an abundance of young men take an interest in Abigail. They either have romantic intentions, secrets to conceal, or both. I was very sad about one of them, when I considered his back story along with what ends up happening to him. Still, the story is written in such a way to leave no doubt that, as far as Abigail's hand is concerned, the best man wins.

I've compared Julie Klassen's novels to old English authors in the past. This one put me in mind of the writing of Wilkie Collins. It's full of mysterious secrets, sudden surprises, concealed identities, and rumours of treasure attracting several hunters. And there is both an unidentified veiled lady and a sinister man in a cloak hanging around, each for their own reasons.

I've got to mention William's sermons. He is the young curate who has received mixed feedback of compliments and criticism for their shortness. One of the samples we got seemed only a few paragraphs long, making me think I could understand any parishioner for feeling ripped off. However, their premises were sound, and on a personal note, as I sat on my kindle and broke it while on holiday, the one about where our treasures are hit home for me. All ended well.

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

4 stars

Friday, November 28, 2014

Why Fiction is so Important

To celebrate the merging of my two blogs, I'm putting up this post which I shared some time ago on the old blog. So although it may be familiar to some, I'm sure it won't be for everyone.

Sometimes just one moment can change the way we look at things.

An eye-opening experience I had was stopping over at Tokyo Airport on the way to Heathrow, when I was 20 years old. As we walked through the long airport terminal, the only three Anglo-Saxon faces to be seen anywhere belonged to me and my parents. The rest of the vast crowd was comprised of Asian faces, Japanese specifically. There were thousands of pretty girls with glossy, jet-black hair, cute toddlers and smart-looking men. Undoubtedly, a stream of western tourists turn up in that international airport all the time, but at that moment, for as far as I could see, there was just us.

We were getting covert glances and sometimes smiles. Growing up as a fourth or fifth generation Australian in Adelaide, I had carried an unconscious sense that most people were like me. We were the 'common' type. Of course I'd been taught at school that the vast majority of the world was filled with other races, who had different coloured skins and spoke different languages. The dry facts and text book photos obviously hadn't made it sink in. Now, during that long walk with our suitcases through Tokyo Airport, I had my first experience of feeling 'foreign'. The world was a far bigger place than I'd ever imagined.

I sometimes remember my impressions of that day in 1990. It's healthy to think of ourselves from someone else's point of view for a change. I find it a good remedy for remembering that the world doesn't revolve around me. It's wise also to consider how easy it is for individuals to carry a sort of delusion of grandeur and self-importance. Although I am ME to myself, the crucial person in my life's story, I am an OTHER to everyone else on our planet, who are busy being the centre of their own stories. From this perspective, any special sense of entitlement has to be rejected.

It's the same for why fiction is a good medium to read and write. When people ask me why I write it, I've sometimes felt put on the spot, unable to come up with a reasonable sounding answer. I have an inner conviction that it's excellent and important, but a simple, "I've always enjoyed it," seemed a self-indulgent answer and certainly not acceptable. When I remember my impressions in Tokyo that day, I think it's all tied in with the reason why.

Fiction enables us to remove ourselves from our own egos and look at the world from the perspective of others. Studies I've read about have indicated that fiction readers really are higher on a measured empathy scale than non-fiction readers or non-readers. This doesn't surprise me. When we are reading a novel which switches from one character's point of view to that of another, we are filled with new ways of looking at the world. We may begin a story automatically endorsing one person's opinion and rejecting another, but when we read part of the story being told from the opposite point of view, it allows us the experience of entering a head which is totally different from where we might have expected to find ourselves.

It's so easy not to realise that all this is happening when we are simply reading a good story. What a great exercise for helping to understand and broadening our tolerance, even if just a little bit. This is what I often aim to do with characters who don't seem so lovable. In my opinion, being able to see a glimpse of the world from someone else's perpective, even just a flash, is well worth the effort a fiction writer may have to put in to provide this.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

'Finding Spiritual White Space' by Bonnie Gray

Move beyond Coping and Surviving to a Rejuvenating Place of Soul Rest
How many of us find ourselves exhausted, running on empty with no time for rest, no time for ourselves, no time for God? Bonnie Gray knows exactly what that's like. On the brink of fulfilling a lifelong dream, Bonnie's plans suddenly went off script. Her life shattered into a debilitating journey through anxiety, panic attacks, and insomnia. But as she struggled to make sense of it all, she made an important discovery: we all need "spiritual whitespace."
Spiritual whitespace makes room--room in one's heart for a deep relationship with God, room in one's life for rest, room in one's soul for rejuvenation. With soul-stirring vulnerability and heartbreaking honesty, Bonnie takes readers on a personal journey to feed their souls and uncover the deeper story of rest. Lyrical writing draws readers into Gray's intimate journey through overwhelming stress to find God in a broken story and celebrate the beauty of faith. 

"We live in a culture that brags and boasts about being busy. Into that reality steps Bonnie with a new idea. Whitespace is an important concept and Bonnie has captured it perfectly. If you're exhausted with being exhausted, read this book. If you feel too busy to read this book, then that's probably the best sign of all that you need it."--from the foreword by Jon Acuff, "New York Times" bestselling author of "Stuff Christians Like"


I think this book is unusual, but not for the reasons the foreword says it is.

Many self-help style books are authored by people who seem to write from a lofty position as if they have all the answers. Perhaps publishers and marketers think their authors won't have enough credibility if they don't come across as 'super pastor' or 'super psychologist' who aim to tell us how to be as strong and together as they are. I've been getting a bit tired of the mold, but Bonnie Gray is different. She has been in a really dark head space and isn't too reticent to share about it. She starts from the devastating events of her childhood, when her parents used her as a tool to vent their bitterness at each other, and goes on to explain how hard it's been for her to hold herself together as a wife and mother of small boys. She lets readers glimpse everything from her fits of tears to her hopelessly messy house. It's all very well for some 'expert' to tell us what to do, but sometimes what we need more is an understanding friend who may say, "I've been there too. I was a mess and still am sometimes. I'm familiar with panic attacks and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder." It's refreshing to see Bonnie Gray write with a tone that doesn't try to set herself up as different or better than the rest of us, as she has experienced her share of terror and shame.

I didn't find Bonnie's ideas of moving forward particularly unusual. I'm sure you've often heard many of them before. Clear out your clutter, pamper yourself, eat tasty food and chew slowly, phone a friend with a sympathetic ear.  But to be fair on her, maybe the ideas don't come across as original because they are tried and tested, and proven to work.

I'm sure it will be valuable for some readers to understand, through Bonnie's experiences, how the terrifying features of PTSD may strike a person out of the blue, years after the events which set the ball rolling. It may be just what some people need to see that our dreams and foibles, rather than being shameful idols or self-indulgences, are features of the way God made us. I think people who need to learn to treasure themselves more may get a lot of good from this book, but on the other hand, some readers may let Bonnie Gray's long, sad flashbacks into her own childhood stir up their own melancholy natures and do the opposite of what they expect. I think it's a good idea to mention this, so potential readers may be forewarned.

Thanks to Net Galley and Revell for my review copy.

3 stars.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Interview with Carol Preston

Today, I'm happy to introduce my fellow Australian author friend, Carol Preston, who has written several unique novels. Carol bases her stories on her own extensive family tree research. As well as being her direct ancestors, the characters in her novels give us an accurate picture of what life in the Australian colonies of the 1800s must have been like. I enjoyed the opportunity to ask her some of the questions I've often wondered as I've read her stories.

Welcome, Carol.

1 Do you do all your research before you begin planning a book or do you get excited by what you discover and begin to combine both stages?

For me the research mostly happened before I planned to write a book. I was immersed in my family history research for quite a few years. It was a great hobby. It was only when I had completed most of it that I began to feel the urge to write the stories which had emerged from my research. I didn’t want to write them up just as a social history. I wanted to delve into what my ancestors’ personalities might have been like, think about their day to day existence and survival. So my ‘faction’ stories started to take shape in my head. Of course as I write, even now, I go back to my sources and check various details, and inevitably find new bits of information that I love to include in my stories. 

2. Do you get a feeling for individual personalities as you begin to learn about facts from the past? Are you able to share some memorable discoveries which have surprised you?

I definitely get a feeling for individual personalities when I start to write. I usually spend quite a bit of time immersing myself in the particular facts around the story I have decided to write and try to imagine what the main characters were like, how they developed, what made them make the choices they did. I guess the psychologist in me focussed in very much on individual personality traits, and I like to think about how my ancestors might have grown and changed depending on the events going on around them. I find human nature and human interactions fascinating and it’s great fun to develop and explore these when creating a story. 
My great grandmother, Sarah Oakes, ne Taylor, kept a small photo album which was given to me by my father when I began my family research. This had photos of most of her family and I spent many hours examining those faces, for clues about the individual personalities. It also started me on a search for some of her descendants who were still alive. Contacting a few of those, exchanging memories and hearing their stories, gave me great insights and fascinating bits of history to include in my books. I have often been surprised by how much I didn’t know, and how diverse have been the lives of those descended from Australia’s early colonials.

3. You have written several interesting novels over the past few years. Have you a personal favourite or two? If so, why?

Mary's Guardian (Turning the Tide, #1).
Charlotte's Angel (Turning the Tide, #2)
I have to say that Suzannah’s Gold, my first novel, is definitely one of my favourites. Perhaps it’s because in writing this I discovered the joy of writing, and had the satisfaction of completing something that was very precious to me. I also found myself very attached to the character of Suzannah, (my great, great grandmother) who arrived in Australia alone at the age of thirteen, and made a life for herself with a thirty-five year old ex-convict in southern New South Wales, in extremely difficult circumstances. When I first put these facts together, I could hardly imagine how she survived, and I thoroughly enjoyed putting together her story.  One of my other favourites is The Face of Forgiveness, my fourth novel. It’s about my recalcitrant Irish ancestors and I had great fun writing about an Irish rogue. I also found the focus on forgiveness a very stimulating and helpful process. A few years ago I re-released that story in serial form in a blog, under the title, Forgiving Michael, so it’s available for anyone to read, should they be interested,  

4. Have you a writing routine which you try to stick to? Do you aim to write a certain amount every day and stick to a certain time of day?

Tangled Secrets (Turning the Tide, #3)No, I don’t have a writing routine. My life and other commitments at the moment don’t allow for that. I write whenever I have opportunity, and if I can block out a couple of days here and there I do so. When I’m in the middle of a chapter or a scene that’s flowing well, I push aside other things and focus on it for as long as I can. I prefer to begin writing early in the morning when it’s possible, and then I can become so immersed in it, the day is gone before I know it. I think I could fill any amount of spare space with writing.

5. What advice would you give anybody who would really like to write but may feel daunted by the work and the research involved?

Truly Free (Turning the Tide #4) I can only say from my own experience that writing comes from being thoroughly familiar with the subject matter, immersing yourself in it, loving it, being fascinated with the characters, whether based on real people or imagined ones. I find the research almost as much fun as the writing. It’s like being a private detective. And the writing is very cathartic as well as an exciting art. If a person feels all those things, then I think writing happens. It’s not work at all.

Carol lives in Wollongong with her husband, Neil. She is a psychologist and has a part time private counselling practice, as well as being an author and speaker. Carol enjoys spending time with her children and four grandchildren, as well as bushwalking, gardening and holidaying overseas with her husband. One of her hobbies over many years has been family history research. It was this research which started Carol on the journey of writing novels.   Her first trilogy is about the Oakes Family; Suzannah’s Gold, Rebecca’s Dream and The Price of Peace, which takes the reader from 1838 when her great great grandmother, Suzannah Casey was transported from Ireland, through to the end of the First World War when Suzannah’s children and grandchildren are involved in the battle, not only to survive the war but to survive the waiting at home. The first two of these have recently been re-released by EBP. Carol’s fourth novel, The Face of Forgiveness, is about two young women who are transported to Australia in 1839. The most recent of Carol’s novel is a series based on her mother’s family, which begins with the First Fleet of convicts to Australia. These include Mary’s Guardian, Charlotte’s Angel, Tangled Secrets, and Truly Free. For more information about Carol’s books and her other interests she can be contacted on her website:, on her Facebook author page:

or her Amazon author page:

Thursday, November 20, 2014

'Buttermilk Sky' by Jan Watson

Weary of the expectations imposed on her by her strict upbringing, eighteen-year-old Mazy Pelfrey prepares to leave her home in the Kentucky mountains for the genteel city of Lexington, where she'll attend secretarial school. She knows her life is about to change--and only for the better. Everything will be blue skies from now on.But business school is harder than she thought it would be and the big city not as friendly, until she meets a charming young man from a wealthy family, Loyal Chambers. When Loyal sets his sights on her, Mazy begins to see that everything she'd ever wished to have is right before her eyes. The only hindrance to her budding romance is a former beau, Chanis Clay, the young sheriff she thought she'd left firmly behind.Danger rumbles like thunder on a high mountain ridge when Mazy's cosseted past collides with her clouded future and forces her to come to terms with what she really wants.

Young sheriff, Chanis Clay, looks forward to eventually settling down with his sweetheart, Mazy Pelfrey. He's just waiting until she finishes secretarial school, which he considers a bit of a whim to get out of her system. He doesn't stop to consider that things may have changed for Mazy while she's away. She's been enjoying a more fashionable lifestyle in a bigger town, and the flattering attention of Loyal Chambers, a young man who is completely different to Chanis.

A strong romantic thread is hinted at, especially with the addition of the lover's triangle, but as Mazy and Chanis are in different scenes, living their separate lives, for such a large part of the book, it lost some  of its impetus with me. It wasn't the sort of novel I wanted to grab every spare moment to find out what was going to happen next. Having said that, I was vaguely curious to eventually find out why Mazy would choose one of the fellows when her heart seemed to be so wrapped up in the other.

It's clear this is a character driven book. Many of the secondary characters are well-depicted. The 'girl stuff' at secretarial school seems true to life. Eva is the ringleader, who all the others tread carefully around because her opinion carries weight. I felt 'princess' was a good appellation for this entitled girl who felt she should have even been exempt from the dishwashing roster. In contrast, there's Cinnamon Spicer, the cheerful, poverty-stricken girl we first see raking through garbage dumps, intending to sell other people's trash as treasure. As Cinnamon was the first character in the story, I'd expected to see more of her than we did. She seems like such a strong, unique person to end up with what turned out to be a supporting role in which nothing much happened to her.

Overall, although the characters were really well-depicted, I found the plot itself to be a bit episodic and rambling to carry them well. Still, some other readers may well love it, as I've seen books of a similar style do well for themselves. Jan Karon's books set in Mitford spring to mind. If 'Buttermilk Sky' does suit you, I see there's a whole series, featuring other members of Mazy's family, to pick up next.

By the way, I don't know if this was intentional, but it would seem Chanis might have been right about secretarial school.

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

2.5 stars


Monday, November 17, 2014

'Secrets and Lies' by Janet Sketchley

A single mother must protect her teenage son-from organized crime and from himself.

Carol Daniels thinks she out-ran her enemies, until a detective arrives at her door with a warning from her convict brother. Minor incidents take on a sinister meaning. An anonymous phone call warns her not to hide again.

Now she must cooperate with a drug lord while the police work to trap him. Carol has always handled crisis alone, but this one might break her. Late-night deejay Joey Hill offers friendship and moral support. Can she trust him? One thing's certain. She can't risk prayer."


Immediately, Carol struck me as a woman on edge, jumpy and suspicious not by personality but because of circumstances. Not only is convicted serial murderer and rapist Harry Silver her brother, but she lost her husband, and also a 12-year-old son due to drug overdose. All she feels she has left is Paul, her 16-year-old remaining son, who she will do anything to protect. Joey, the DJ, recognises Carol as a survivor without even knowing the full picture at the start. She has fled across the country to start fresh in a new province where nobody will connect her with her brother, but discovers that an angry drug lord, who seems to feel he has unfinished business with Harry, has chosen to target her and Paul as victims of his threats.

I was interested to see how Carol and Paul were going to fare as I soon as I found out about this book. Having Harry Silver as a brother and uncle is a huge challenge on its own. This mother and son were always going to have to deal with the challenge of having something to hide, even though they were innocent, for revealing close blood ties to a man like Harry would never win them friends. How do you live when your whole life is forced to be a cover-up? How do you approach possible friends, not to mention potential dates, when you have something (or rather, someone) so sinister to hide?

As with the prequel to this novel, Janet Sketchley has evoked a chilling, edge-of-your-seat atmosphere. Through Carol, we learn that even when we are on constant vigilance, never relaxing, determined to trust nobody, threats may still find their way through the cracks because of their innocent appearances. Other themes in this book include the nature of legitimate faith, the danger of using drugs, and who your real friends are. All through, I was hoping for relief and trust for Carol, and a satisfying life for Paul, who was a down-to-earth young man who sometimes perceived things his mother couldn't. And there's always the question of how Carol will ever choose to let down her guard, trust God and pray, after all that she feels life has delivered her.

Thanks to the author for providing me with a copy to review.

4 stars

Saturday, November 8, 2014

'Mortal Insight' by E. B. James

 New Release: Mortal Insight
Detective Sergeant Steve Keller has begun to see things. He desperately hopes the visions mean something and not that he's going crazy. But the visions don't go away, and when they start meaning something more, Steve finds himself caught in an investigation way bigger than he ever imagined. As the pieces begin to fit together, something dangerous emerges. He can't hide what he knows, but to expose it doesn't just stir up controversy, it provokes someone who lurks in the shadows; someone who will kill to keep this information quiet. Mortal Insight, E.B. James new novel, brings you conspiracy, crime, action and asks the question: when your life is at stake, are some truths worth bringing out into the open?
I thoroughly enjoyed this unpredictable plot. It was great having no idea what might happen next. It's categorised as a detective/mystery story, and there's also a touch of the supernatural.

Detective Sergeant Steve Keller has started to see some weird phenomena on the job at sexual assault scenes. Although some believe his visions to be a stress reaction following a break-up with his wife, the accuracy with which he's able to predict potential perpetrators and victims indicates that there's more to it. He also has a very personal reason to believe the introduction of a new 'feel good' chemical, tanordebetian (TDB), added to non-alcoholic party drinks and the mains water supply, may help explain a heightened wave of sexual crime.

Steve is one of a handful of Davids trying to fathom the Goliath behind TDB. Others include his mother-in-law, Dorothy, who leads a group of social activists, Isaac, a local politician and his personal assistant, Nicole. It doesn't take long for them to work out that whoever wants them silenced is prepared to stoop to murder.

Are Steve's supernatural visions integral to the plot? I think the main storyline of the research being conducted could stand without this element, especially as he decides early on to keep quiet about it. However, it does make things more intense by revealing deeper truths which emphasise the stakes of their quest. Anyone who wonders about the significance of the front cover image will quickly figure it out.

I like the questions this book raises about the nature of our society. We've got to love the sort of novel that challenges us to think. Do groups, such as the Community Aware Group, cause more harm than good through the way they operate? Does their input extend to the reputations of others who side with their issues? Anybody would have to wonder whether they would even want the well-intentioned help of the CAG. And is it possible for anybody with integrity to last in politics over the long term?

May we sometimes be too quick to judge individuals for crimes without delving into all the extenuating facts? And to what extent does the media filter and spoon feed exactly what they want the public to know? To quote Steve's superior officer, Alan Pryor, in this story, 'they are notorious for twisting the facts to represent the agenda of whoever is paying their bills.'  Do Davids really stand a chance against huge, corporate Goliaths?

If asked whether this story finishes with a 'good' or 'bad' ending, I have to say there's good reason to say both. That's just one of the surprises of this story. I hope E. B. James has more of this genre up her sleeve.

4.5 stars

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Doughnuts and Books

A second Krispy Kreme doughnut outlet is very soon to open in Adelaide, this time in the city centre. People will surely be camping outside the doors, because the very first customers will be given a lifetime supply of free doughnuts, whenever they want them. With the media hype beginning again, I'm reminded of this post I wrote earlier this year, in the winter when our city's first outlet opened. I'd like to share it again.

Last week, some poor teenagers were mugged for the boxes of doughnuts they'd bought at our new Krispy Kreme factory outlet which has just opened in Adelaide. In news reports, the robbers were hailed as the 'Krispy Krooks'. I'm not sure if they've been discovered and apprehended yet, but our city is going crazier over the new outlet than I ever would have expected, just because they are a well-known brand we've never had before.
On Saturday, my teenage daughter and her best friend got caught up in the hype and decided to make a trip to the factory outlet. They had to catch a bus into Adelaide from the Hills where we live, followed by a tram to the suburb where the shop is situated. They found a line twisting and curling from the shop door way down the road. The girls decided that as they had already spent so long getting there, they might as well join the end of the queue.
The wait turned out to be almost three hours. As they inched closer to the door and into the shop premises, they saw a policeman on the job, striding around eating doughnuts the staff had given him. I don't think there would have been any risk from muggers in a crowd that size. He was probably there just to make the public feel safe. The two girls decided to buy a couple of boxes each, since they'd already put in such a lot of effort.
On the way back to the tram stop, they began feeling nervous that crooks might spring out at them from the shadows, to steal their doughnuts. By the time they'd caught the bus back to the Hills and made it nearly home, the winter night was pitch black and had started to rain. They had covered many kilometres in public transport for their treats.
I couldn't really blame my daughter when she snapped at her brothers not to dig into them straight away. 'You don't know what I've been through today to get these doughnuts. My feet are aching, I've spent heaps of money, and I was cold and bored. You can have some when I say so.'
When we did get a taste, were they any good? Well, I have to be honest and admit that they were okay, but nothing special. Certainly no better than the doughnuts we can buy from our local shopping centre. The boys agreed they were nice but nothing to rave about. If I'd done what the girls did, I might have considered it a bit of a wasted day.
In fact, the loveliest, most delicious cakes and doughnuts I've ever eaten were from an Aussie country town named West Wyalong. It's like a scrub oasis in the middle of New South Wales. We were on a tour of our country with our three children, aged 9, 5 and new born. We stopped to stretch our legs and chanced upon the bakery with these delicious goods. Even though it was 2004, I've never forgotten them. I'm afraid they were far more delicious than those from Krispy Kreme last week, but nobody hears about them.
How true such things are in all of life, including the books we read. We can't help hearing about the books which are at the top of the most well-known publishers' lists, because they tend to spread through the media. Maybe these are the equivalent of Krispy Kreme in the literary world. They are the books which we hear hype about, and can't help having our curiosity aroused. We may find it easy to forget that these are by no means the only books in the market.
I enjoy receiving recommendations of more obscure books from trusted reader friends who tell me, 'I'm sure you'll love this.' And I love stumbling across books I can spread the word about in turn. It is a joy to get stuck into fiction from different nations, which I can pass on to others, saying, 'You really get the feel of the setting from this story,' or 'You'll never think of the place in the same way again.' It's been fun hosting guests who let us know about their new books. The best thing about them is that, thanks to digital purchasing options of the 21st century, they are readily available, unlike the delicious doughnuts from West Wyalong.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

'Annie's Stories' by Cindy Thomson

The year is 1901, the literary sensation The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is taking New York City by storm, and everyone wonders where the next great book will come from. But to Annie Gallagher, stories are more than entertainment—they’re a sweet reminder of her storyteller father. After his death, Annie fled Ireland for the land of dreams, finding work at Hawkins House.
But when a fellow boarder with something to hide is accused of misconduct and authorities threaten to shut down the boardinghouse, Annie fears she may lose her new friends, her housekeeping job . . . and her means of funding her dream: a memorial library to honor her father. Furthermore, the friendly postman shows a little too much interest in Annie—and in her father’s unpublished stories. In fact, he suspects these tales may hold a grand secret.
Though the postman’s intentions seem pure, Annie wants to share her father’s stories on her own terms. Determined to prove herself, Annie must forge her own path to aid her friend and create the future she’s always envisioned . . . where dreams really do come true.

Annie Gallagher is a young Irish woman who immigrated to New York around the turn of the twentieth century. She leaves behind a volatile extended family situation and some traumatic experiences, but does manage to hold onto her beloved father's stash of children's stories. He was a hedge school master, who used to try to make a living traveling around, teaching under his own terms in the great outdoors for barter. Annie lives at a boarding house run by the loving Mrs Hawkins, who treats all the young women beneath her roof as if she's their mother.

Stephen Adams is the friendly postman, who has lost everything, including his family, but still tries to stay optimistic. He finds himself in a bind when his landlord, who is also a publisher and a bit of an opportunist, threatens to kick him out for his debt, unless Stephen can find a great children's manuscript for him to publish. Given the title of this book, it's not difficult to predict where the story is heading.

A great chunk of Annie's back story jams up the first few chapters, making me wonder if there's a prequel. It turns out there is (I haven't read it), but not necessarily the sort I would have expected. It's about Grace, one of the other girls who lives in the boarding house, and I don't know how much of Annie's story is revealed in it. I just finished wading through her back story, when another great block, this time her friend, Kirsten's, is introduced in the next chapter! It all made the movement grind off to a slow start, deferring the start of this novel's plot.

I never really got over this feeling of dragging, even though the premises of the story were so good. We have the backdrop of interesting, early 1900s America, and the sensation the publication of L. Frank Baum's 'The Wizard of Oz' was making. There's also Annie's dream of building a library to bless and cheer poor folk like herself. Maybe it's because the plot seemed to move like clockwork in several ways, with things falling into place, reminding me of a High School drama performance. I couldn't get over the feeling that an author was pulling the strings for these characters.

I did appreciate the evidence of Annie's wounds from her past, which she found hard to shake off. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder wouldn't have been named in 1901, but it was happening. Even though Annie had been rescued from the trauma of her past, she was still grappling with the memories of betrayal and dread feelings. I looked up Magdalene Laundry, and discovered that such a horrible place really existed under that name. How human, to be insecure and worried that something awful might happen again, even in new and cheerful surroundings.

Overall, though I wanted to love this book with its appealing blurb and cover, it wasn't really my cup of tea.

I received a copy from Net Galley and Tyndale House in return for an honest review.

2.5 stars. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

'Dancing on the Head of a Pen' by Robert Benson

A compelling combination of advice and inspiration, Dancing on the Head of a Pen will challenge and encourage writers, artists, musicians, painters—anyone drawn to a life of artistic expression.

Digging deeply into his own writing habits, failures, and successes, Robert Benson helps you choose the ideal audience for your work, commit to it, and overcome the hurdles that inevitably confront both aspiring artists and accomplished professionals.
Extending beyond the craft of writing, this gentle book moves into a rich discussion on the relationship between spirituality and art. Including wisdom from revered writers past and present, Dancing on the Head of a Pen is a beautiful mosaic of inspiration, practical help, and a glimpse into the disciplines that shape one writer’s life.


This is a likeable book which focuses more on the attitudes we should embrace when we set out to write, rather than the craft itself. The author is whimsical, wry and willing to poke fun at himself. He comes across a bit like the type of friendly University Professor whose classes and lectures we always look forward to.

The book is full of short chapters, each designed to coerce us into the right head space for writing. Some of Benson's advice includes not to think about the fact that we are attempting to write a book, but just enjoy each step, because when you really think about it, who needs another book anyway? So many good books have already been written, that anything by us will seem audacious and pretentious anyway. To quote Robert Benson himself when impressed by another author, 'I felt if I wanted to contribute to the literary world, I should offer to do his laundry and mow his grass, so he has more time to write.' I appreciate books which help us to just plow through inferiority complexes and get on with it.

More of his advice includes courting our muse, who often shows up when we're just wandering around doing something else. He calls Writer's Block  'the affliction that must not be named' and has handy tips on dealing with it. My favourite chapter is one on the several hats we have to wear as writers, but never at the same time. Benson keeps a beret, a baseball cap and a fedora on prominent display to remind him of his separate roles. The first is for the creation of his initial drafts, the second for editing, and the third for getting out into the world to do all the scary, but necessary, PR stuff.

Finally, he counsels us to take it slowly. Fast is good for many pastimes, but not writing, and to help us stay patient, he reminds us that our work in progress is more important to us than to anyone else, after all. In spite of all this common-sense reasoning, it is a book which encourages me to pick up my pen and write more.

Thanks to Blogging for Books and Water Brook Multnomah for my review copy.

4 stars 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Guest Post by Rosanne Hawke

It's my great pleasure to welcome award-winning South Australian author Rosanne Hawke to the Vince Review today. I invited Rosanne to share some of her insight about writing for the young adult market, gleaned from her wealth of experience in both writing and teaching. Many of her stories for children and young adults have filled our shelves during our years of homeschooling. Her most recent publication is the second edition of 'Zenna Dare' published by Rhiza Press.

Thanks, Rosanne, and welcome.


Writing Young Adult Literature (YA) from Rosanne Hawke

My writing career began with young adult novels because that was the age of my children. Since then I have learned more about YA. I don’t call YA a genre as there are many genres included within YA; rather I call YA a field of writing. Some of the series and genre books found on YA shelves are labelled teen fiction and are not true YA literature. YA fiction is usually stand alone literary and innovative fiction that explores the human condition for young people between the ages of 12-18. The protagonist is a teenager and the content is interesting to a teen audience, often including high school life, identity issues and coming of age. YA may have begun as a marketing ploy or as a gap for those readers who had outgrown children’s books but weren’t ready to jump into adult-themed works. However, it has become a strong field of writing which is widely read, and by more adults than many realise.

When writing YA I believe it’s imperative to capture the ‘voice’ of the narration. I didn’t start writing Marrying Ameera for quite a while as I couldn’t ‘hear’ the right voice for Ameera’s first person narrative. Once that came the story followed. Jennifer Hunt, editorial director of Little Brown, says, ‘When the character has an original voice and it’s coupled with a great plotline, that’s what makes a book truly distinctive’.1 As with other age groups I find it important to know as much about my characters as possible: most importantly what they want, which will drive the plot; what they fear, which will supply conflict; plus their talents and flaws, which help shape the ending.

Dialogue is an important part of YA writing. If the dialogue isn’t genuine it won’t get past a commissioning editor. The dialogue doesn’t need to be in ‘teen speak’ or the book will easily date. As with all good writing it’s the appearance of a type of speech that shows the character’s personality and age without having to spell it out like dialect. YA is often written in first person as young people enjoy the intimate style, though it doesn’t have to be. There is no formulaic structure for YA which contributes to its innovative power. However, it does need to target the age group. Issue or problem novels do abound but are not precursory.

I suggest reading YA books and check what works. Pull apart the plots to see how the authors have structured the novel. Remember what teens are going through in their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual development and how that is going to impact on character growth in a story. Be genuine and wise, always offering hope, and your story will move readers who are forming their own view of the world.

An exercise to try is writing a dialogue between two teens (maybe one wants something from the other). Then try another dialogue between a teen and an adult to show the difference in their voices and also the power struggle in their relationship. Enjoy, I believe YA is an inspiring and important area of writing where authors can offer rich narratives of redemption and hope.

1 Brooks, R. (2009). Writing great books for young adults. Naperville, Ill: Sourcebooks, p 26.

Rosanne Hawke has written over twenty books for young people, including , The Messenger Bird, winner of 2013 Cornish Holyer an Gof Publishers Award for YA Literature and Taj and the Great Camel Trek, winner of the 2012 Adelaide Festival Award for Children’s Literature. Rosanne was an aid worker in the Middle East for ten years and teaches Writing for Children and YA at Tabor Adelaide. Her latest YA novel is Zenna Dare (2nd edn) from Rhiza Press.

Friday, October 17, 2014

'Mercy and Melons' by Lisa Nichols Hickman

 Mercy and Melons: Praying the Alphabet is a collection of lyrical meditations on the practice of praying the alphabet. Each chapter focuses on a letter of the alphabet by naming an everyday object and a theological theme offering subtle and elegant takeaways to spark the reader s imagination as well as their practice of prayer. In the Hebrew acrostic tradition, praying the alphabet served as a pathway to memorization as well as a prompt for thoroughness. Even more so, praying the alphabet put all of the letters into God s presence so that He might arrange a person s unspoken prayers. Drawing on this rich tradition, the book adds two dimensions. First, the book encourages eyes to see the word made flesh in the melons and grasshoppers of daily life. And second, the meditations draw the reader into the flesh made word by asking the reader to articulate and name in specific ways what came alive for them each day. Praying the Alphabet is a practice as timeless as the Old Testament and for every day that ends in y, this book offers momentum for the journey of prayer and paying attention."

This is a prose book written by an author with a poet's heart if ever I saw one. She suggests a new way of forming our prayers, based on the alphabet. You pair up the name of a common object with a theological attribute. They must both begin with the same letter. Then you ponder possible connections and insights about God and life. Lisa Hickman gives us her own examples in separate chapters ranging from A to Z. Mercy and Melons, of course, is her contribution for the letter M.

She believes it's an exercise which helps broaden our imaginations. I was skeptical to start with. It seemed restrictive to confine ourselves to things beginning with the same letter, as if we're trying to force connections. Just as I was thinking of giving up on the whole concept, I found her examples beginning to grow on me. Next, I found my own imagination ticking away with ideas which made me dash for my notebook. It does work.

As well as the prayerful purpose for which Lisa Hickman uses it, I believe this would be a good tool to get ideas flowing in creative writing workshops. I've heard that prayer and writing have the same taproot, so no wonder that makes sense.

Anyone who wants to take up the challenge could fit it easily into a year. You could do one letter each week, doing two rounds, or take it fortnightly and go through the alphabet once. Maybe I'll even consider giving a go myself at the start of next year.

Thanks to Abingdon Press and Net Galley for my review copy.

4 stars

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

10 Places Books have made me want to visit

Today's list is this week's topic from 'The Broke and the Bookish' I always hope my books will want to make readers visit the Adelaide Hills the way these other books have made me curious to visit their settings. Although imaginary settings are permitted, I've decided to stick to places on earth. So no Narnia, Hogwarts or Middle Earth will appear, however much I might want to see these places. The last place on my list may be fanciful, but somewhere that could exist on earth.

Summer House1) Nantucket Island from 'Summer House by Nancy Thayer. I borrowed this novel from my local library. Being an Aussie, I wasn't familiar with the setting, but was impressed enough to visit it via Google Maps. It even looks like a big smile in the sea. The characters seemed to live in a beautiful holiday setting with beaches out of every window. However, when I saw the average climate chart on Wikipedia, I decided it would be a bit too cold for me, ranging from 3 degrees C in January to highs of just 23 degrees in July and August.

Anne of Avonlea (Anne of Green Gables, #2)2) Prince Edward Island from 'Anne of Green Gables' and every other book by L.M. Montgomery.
LMM surely put the place of her birth on the world map of places to visit. I visited here via Google Maps too, and it still looks as beautiful as she described it, including the famous red roads.

The Tutor's Daughter3)  Cornwall, Britain from 'Jamaica Inn' by Daphne du Maurier and 'The Tutor's Daughter' by Julie Klassen. This is a place I was lucky enough to actually visit, back in the 90s. I even have ancestors who lived here. I can say through experience that it felt like the warmest place in Great Britain, although still cool by my standards. The treacherous coastline makes it clear why authors such as these use it for settings in their historical novels about wreckers and other crooks. It was at a town named 'Mousehole' in Cornwall, where my dad was attacked by an enormous seagull (bigger than Aussie ones) who stole his whole Cornish pasty. 

Pilgrimage: My Journey to a Deeper Faith in the Land Where Jesus Walked4) Israel from novels by biblical authors such as Lynn Austin and Mesu Andrews, (not to mention the Bible itself). After reading 'Pilgrimage', a memoir about Lynn Austin's own recent travels here, I had a real hankering to go and explore Jerusalem, Bethlehem and surrounding landmarks.

Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim's Tale5) The Italian countryside from 'Chasing Francis' by Ian Cron. I visited in a tour bus as a teenager, but that was a long ago. This novel is set among wonderful rustic towns where folk are simple about everything except their food. If you ever watched Jamie Oliver's TV series in which he visited country Italy, you would have seen the heckling he got from angry locals who had never heard of him. 'This upstart chef from London thinks he can come and tell us how to cook!'

Cathy6) Papua New Guinea from 'Cathy' by Elva Shroeder. This post is about places books have made me want to visit. That was definitely the case here, as I never had any desire to visit before reading this novel. Cathy's experiences as a missionary in PNG were so vivid and interesting, I would have been willing to go.

African Hearts7) Country Africa from 'African Hearts' by Laura O'Connell. The same as above. The flora and fauna described in this novel, and the community spirit shown by the characters, is very appealing. It is easy to see why cosmopolitan main character, Gina, wanted to stay, although she never thought she would.

Song of Erin8) Ireland from 'Song of Erin' by B.J. Hoff, and many other books she's written. Many forebears of mine hailed from here too, so I guess I might have the Emerald Isle in my blood.

A New Resolution9) Resolution Island from the Resolution trilogy by Rose Dee. Although Resolution Island itself is fictional, I was able to visit far north Queensland with my kids just last year, staying with my sister and her family in Cairns. If you've heard that this part of Australia is a tropical paradise, it's all true. When I returned home to South Australia, I missed the bird calls of the curlews at night, which sounded like screams.

Austenland (Austenland, #1)10) Austenland from 'Austenland' by Shannon Hale. This is a fictional tourist centre/ theme park in which ladies pay to live in Jane Austen's Regency England for a period of time. You get to dress like the characters and rub shoulders with charming, costumed gentlemen all day, who are willing to put on shows, making you the heroine of your own story. Who wouldn't want to stay here?