Thursday, July 30, 2015

10 stories in which reading and writing feature in the Bible

Reading and writing have played a pivotal part in my own life. I looked up some Bible precedents, hoping to show the vital role they've played through history. I've set these ten examples out not in order of importance but roughly chronological. Rather than just stating how important reading and writing are, there's nothing like seeing it in action. The best part is, you don't have to hunt out several books to check these incidents out, but just one.

1) Moses smashes the tablets
The great leader of Israel had been up on Mount Sinai, taking dictation from the great Author Himself. The 10 Commandments, so crucial to living a good life, formed the basis of Old Testament Law. God wanted all the people to be familiar with them, and instructed Moses to etch them into stone. It sounds like an early version of publication.

Meanwhile, the people were running amok down on the plains. They'd managed to coerce Moses' more pliable brother, Aaron, who had lost all reins of leadership, to make them a golden calf. They wanted something visible to worship instead of the One True God. When Moses returned to find this going in full swing, his temper flared and he smashed the stone tablets to pieces. However, God allowed him to replace them later.



2) David's poetry rocks.
From the time he was a young shepherd boy, Israel's great king had spent years recording his impressions and prayers in writing. His Psalms have been a comfort for thousands of years to billions of people all over the world. Those words which he wrote so long ago still ring clear and true for many of us in our own circumstances, helping us to form our prayers. In retrospect, prophecies which have been fulfilled are also evident in the writing of David.

3) Solomon writes a love song.
David's prosperous son is well known for his love of the fairer gender and the size of his harems. The recipient of the Song of Solomon must have been truly remarkable, when you consider the thousands of women he had been intimately acquainted with. This beautiful literary work has become synonymous with the love of God for us, who form His church.

Solomon also wrote the Proverbs, which have helped people find their wisdom within for centuries.

4) Josiah discovers an archive.
This good-hearted boy king had set his heart to follow the true God of his ancestors, unlike the generations directly before him. One day, a discovery was made in the depths of the temple; a copy of the Book of the Teachings, written centuries before his time. Its contents showed Josiah just how far they'd fallen in their moral standards as a nation. Knowing that he was in the position to take action, Josiah used this piece of literature to change multiple lives and make massive reforms. Those in his kingdom may have had mixed feelings about the changes, but this event shows that as far as the recorded, written word is concerned, the passage of time is irrelevant.

Read here for more about Josiah.

5) Jeremiah's book is incinerated by the king.
This long-suffering prophet and his secretary, Baruch, had worked so hard on their book. Jeremiah had received the contents of the prophecy from God. When their work was brought before King Jehoiakim, he showed his contempt by clipping the scroll into pieces and flinging it into the fire. Not disheartened for long, Jeremiah and Baruch started all over again.

Although Jeremiah never saw many tangible results of his prophetic work in his own lifetime, the book he wrote was destined to become included in Biblical scripture, which such beautiful passages as the potter and the clay, favourites of thousands through the ages. It's a great encouragement for anyone tempted to lose heart because our writing seems a waste of time.

6) Young Jesus talks to some intellectuals.
On their way back to country Nazareth after spending Passover in Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph each assumed their 12-year-old son was with another caravan. They came together to discover he was nowhere to be found. In a panic, they rushed back, and found the boy chatting with Bible scholars in the temple about God's Word. He was surprised to find them worried, and told them he thought they'd guess where he'd be.

This story is fodder for homeschoolers like us. Even Jesus had to study the written word of scholars and prophets to help him figure out his life's purpose. The scholars learned something that day too. Never underestimate the impact of somebody less qualified than yourself. They might be young, they might be country-bumpkins (and to all appearances, this person was both) but you never know who you might be talking to.



7) Jesus reads to an audience.
Near the start of his public ministry, he was asked to read in the synagogue, and chose the Book of Isaiah. Jesus clearly explained that he was the one hailed as Messiah, ready to fulfill the prophecy. It didn't appear to go over so well. The people rose in anger, ready to stone him for blasphemy, but because his time had not yet come, he was able to get away.

Just because a crowd may react badly to somebody's interpretation of a piece of writing doesn't mean it's not true. It's also possible to be so familiar with said piece of writing that we miss its true meaning, even when it's right in front of us.

8) Jesus explains the significance of stories.
This has probably surprised many, but he was known as a storyteller rather than a typical preacher with a message or sermon as we think we know them. The Bible goes so far as to tell us that he rarely opened his mouth without a parable. His followers asked him why, and I love his reply. Jesus said, in effect, that rather than being bombarded with truth in a blunt, straightforward manner, it has a way of sneaking into people's hearts, and opening blind eyes and deaf ears, when it comes in the form of a story.

This reflects what others have said about deeper truths to be threshed out in myths and stories. Don't ever underestimate them just because they appear to be nothing more than made-up fictions.

Read here for more about this.

9) Philip helps a eunuch.
This man, reading in his chariot, happened to be a high official in the court of Queen Candace of Ethiopia. God found it so vital to provide help for him, as he tried to fathom scripture on his own, that he transported Philip from miles away, to be the one to help shed some light. Never underestimate the value of discussing a piece of literature with others. It would seem God doesn't.



10) Paul's letters go the distance.
The great Apostle may not have imagined his letters would go any further than their intended recipients. What would he think if he'd known they'd be incorporated into the Bible? Not only Timothy and Titus but millions of young men through the ages would benefit from his fatherly counsel. And not only the ancient churches of Thessalonica, Ephesus and others, but a countless number would benefit from having his guidelines before them, helping them not to slip up. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

'Flash' by Rachel Anne Ridge

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2015 Reading Challenge, Week 30 - A Book based entirely on its cover.
I couldn't resist the sweet little donkey face, and a read of the blurb made me curious to find out how he was going to become the hero of this family memoir. 

The heartwarming tale of an irrepressible donkey who needed a home--and forever changed a family.Rachel Anne Ridge was at the end of her rope. The economy had crashed, taking her formerly thriving business along with it. She had been a successful artist, doing work she loved, but now she felt like a failure. How would her family pay their bills? What would the future hold? If only God would somehow let them know that everything was going to be all right . . . and then Flash the donkey showed up.If there is ever a good time to discover a wounded, frightened, bedraggled donkey standing in your driveway, this wasn't it. The local sheriff dismissed Flash as "worthless." But Rachel didn't believe that, and she couldn't turn him away. She brought Flash into her struggling family during their darkest hour--and he turned out to be the very thing they needed most. "Flash" is the true story of their adventures together in learning to love and trust; breaking down whatever fences stood in their way; and finding the strength, confidence, and faith to carry on. Prepare to fall in love with Flash: a quirky, unlikely hero with gigantic ears, a deafening bray, a personality as big as Texas, and a story you'll never forget.

MY THOUGHTS:
This is one of the best books I've read so far this year. My kids were asking me how I could be laughing one moment and crying the next. I think the story of Flash and the family who adopted him touched my heart with its blend of the simple and profound. Maybe it's because my family is at a similar stage to theirs, making the Ridges easy to relate to.

Rachel and Tom were struggling to keep their family afloat financially, working hard and spreading themselves too thin. They prayed for a sign of God's love, or at least some relief, and He sent them.... a stray donkey in the middle of their driveway. The likeliest explanation was that he'd been dumped by his previous owners. The sheriff told them donkeys didn't have much value. Too soft-hearted to get rid of him, the Ridges decided he'd at least make good yard art and a conversation piece.

Flash, the donkey, proved to be a pure blessing for their family, making a deep impression just by being his humble, plodding self. The blessing went both ways. It's great to think that even though Flash might have been regarded as unimportant by the world, God had His hand on him. Rachel and Tom's driveway turned out to be the best place he could have randomly found himself. I loved reading about the love and gentle treatment they showed him, instead of the harshness he seemed to expect, transforming him into a beloved family member who adored them in return.

Every chapter was a gem, but I'll mention just a few points.

Flash taught Rachel the gift of finding enough, even when times are lean. As donkeys have a knack for finding obscure food which others would walk past or turn their noses up at, his human family learned to relish the same. She realises that donkeys are prolific throughout scripture as critters who simply serve in their ordinary way, and that's all God expects us to do with our humble abilities. They see him break down barriers for his passion (which, in his case, involved fathering a little mule), and wonder why humans tend to lose heart more quickly. And his criss-crossed patterns of well-maintained trails encouraged them to keep faithfully plodding their own paths through life, which seemed to lead nowhere special. This is just scratching the surface of Flash's simple adventures.

Not only did Flash prove that his worth was more than surface deep, but now, every reader probably wants to go out and buy a donkey. I would if I could.

Thanks to NetGalley and Tyndale Publishers for my review copy.

5 stars

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Alchemy of Stories




 I think human nature has always been intrigued with the idea of taking any sort of basic raw material and transforming it into something infinitely more valuable. Alchemy is defined in my dictionary as a medieval science which attempted to change ordinary metals into gold. Most of us are familiar with the fairy tale of Rumplestiltskin, the cunning little fellow who was able to pull this feat off with straw, making him one of history's most successful alchemists.

My dictionary goes on to give a second definition of alchemy; any strange or mysterious process or change. That is where I believe writers, readers and storytellers may work magic.

Think of this. An author has a fascinating idea for the plot of a story in her mind. She mulls over it, daydreaming a cast of living, breathing characters. The more time she spends on this, the more real they become, with vivid faces she can see in her mind's eye and voices she can hear in her mind's ear. As their interactions with each other in the setting she devises for them take shape in her mind, she begins to think of them as some of her best friends. However at this stage, they are still confined to the inside of her own head.

Then the author decides to make a wonderful bit of alchemy happen. She transforms the characters and images in her head to marks upon a page. In my case, according to my family, it begins with illegible scrawling on a lined pad. I can write neater when I need to, but when I'm writing stories my mind races and the pen in my hand needs to keep up with it. Then these messy, handwritten pages are transformed to typed, 1.5 spaced lines on A4 paper. When an author works really hard, these may eventually become a novel or book with a lovely glossy or matte cover reflecting part of what the pages contain. Either that or an electronic book which can be transferred to reading devices all over the world.

Now more alchemy takes place. A reader comes along, likes the look of the cover and the sound of the blurb on the back, and decides it might be worth spending a bit of time reading this novel. He opens it up and begins reading the typed words and letters upon each of the pages. And the story ignites in his head. The characters described with those basic words and letters begin to live and breathe for him just as they did for the author while they were still confined in her own head. He can see their faces in his mind's eye and hear their voices in his mind's ear. Maybe he begins to think of them as some of his best friends too, at least for the duration of the story. He finds himself drawn into the action of the plot and can't turn the pages fast enough to find out what is going to happen.

We are all alchemists, writers and readers alike, of a more superior sort than Rumplestiltskin. When you think about it, a great, engrossing story has more potential to bless and change lives and evoke more tears and laughter than mere gold. It seems so ordinary on the surface, but what amazing feats of alchemy are happening at people's desks and in their reading chairs every day.

Monday, July 20, 2015

'Pollyanna + Pollyanna Grows Up' by Eleanor H Porter

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2015 Reading Challenge, Week 29 - A Book which is more than 100 years old.

I went nostalgic for this week's challenge. What clinched this choice for me is the publication date, 1915. This just qualifies it, assuming that 'more than' can be inclusive.
My volume includes both Pollyanna and Pollyanna Grows Up, which were both published in 1915.
These were the only two in the series written by the original author, Eleanor H Porter, although other authors, such as Harriet Lummis Smith, did a great job on future Pollyanna titles.

These two are, in fact, among the only titles which can still be found. When I was 13, I had a frustrating time, coercing my parents to drive me around to several antique bookstores across the city, looking for out-of-print copies, to no avail.

Many people have a fair idea of Pollyanna's life philosophy, (see 10 Characters we know without even reading the books), so I'm always keen to encourage friends to read the actual books, to see if their opinions change.  



MY THOUGHTS:

Pollyanna 
This book deserves its position as a children's classic.

The little orphan girl, Pollyanna, is sent to live with her gruff Aunt Polly after the death of her father. What a potential set-up for a sad life outlook, but she manages to transform not only her aunt but many other townspeople with the 'Glad Game' her father taught her. Always look for the silver lining in every cloud and you'll be bound to find it.

I've noticed Pollyanna has been given a bit of a bum rap in recent years. She's almost always poked fun at as an unnaturally, over-the-top optimist, and very rarely do people point us to her as an ideal example of how to live our lives. I think people assume that she refuses to acknowledge the bad side of life at all, choosing to live in a delusional world of denial. Most people probably haven't read the book. That's off track.

Pollyanna doesn't deny the bad. She just chooses to accentuate the good, which seems a healthy way to live. So many people who acknowledge the benefits of this attitude are the same people who say, "I'm not suggesting that you become a Pollyanna." As a matter of fact, I believe they are.

There are other characters with good supporting roles. Aunt Polly was surely a product of the austere nineteenth century. I'm glad I don't come across such sourpusses in the twenty-first century. I like the laugh we got when Pollyanna asked Mr John Pendleton if she could see the skeleton in his closet. And one of my favourite scenes is one which Pollyanna wasn't even in. It's when little Jimmy Bean goes to explain to Aunt Polly why she must let Dr Chilton see Pollyanna.

If you follow modern labels, she's obviously one of those sunny, sanguine children, a true extrovert who gets her energy from rubbing shoulders with other people. But even those of us who are introverts and more on the melancholic or phlegmatic scale can take on board the main theme of Pollyanna in our own way.


Pollyanna Grows Up
  
This is a fairly entertaining sequel to 'Pollyanna', full of characters from the first book, including Aunt Polly, John Pendleton and Jimmy Bean, who is now Jimmy Pendleton.

In the first half of the book, Pollyanna is sent to stay with Mrs Ruth Carew, a lady in deep depression because her beloved little nephew was taken away by his eccentric father. Even though her brother-in-law has passed away, little Jamie's whereabouts are still unknown. These days he'd be on the missing person files. Ruth can't bear not knowing whether he's suffering, or even dead.

There in Boston, Pollyanna continues her tradition of helping people transform their lives, including Jamie, a crippled boy in a wheelchair, who might even turn out to be Mrs Carew's lost nephew. Although Jamie plays his own version of Pollyanna's 'Game', he's not as good at it as she is. Possibly because he seems to have the typecast despondent, creative temperament of a literary author.

In the second half, Pollyanna is in her early twenties. Jamie and Jimmy have grown up too, of course, so there is plenty of romance in the air. Aunt Polly is now a widow, and back to her crabby old self. All sorts of lovers' tangles and mix-ups take place. There were so many, "So-and-so is madly in love with So-and-So's" which were way off track, while it's probably clear to every reader how the three couples are going to end up being paired off.

Pollyanna turns out to be a very dutiful girl, who will defer to her elders when it comes to choosing a spouse. It's a dated outlook (thankfully), which I doubt modern young readers would go for or understand. She ends up with the man her heart chooses, but only after clearing it with Aunt Polly, then Uncle John first! It wasn't easy.

There are a few loose ends, which tighter, more modern editing might have addressed. When the identity of Ruth's nephew is finally revealed, nobody seems to think of telling her sister, Della the nurse, who surely deserved to know the truth as much as Ruth. It bothered me that she wasn't on the very small list of people who would learn the secret.

Still, I was glad Pollyanna ended up with the guy who was perfect for her, which says a lot for him, as Pollyanna is such a super-heroine. If I'd been Pollyanna, I would have been tempted to rub it in with Aunt Polly. But being Pollyanna, and being a wholesome, early twentieth century plot, she found a way to please her aunt and get her man at the same time.
 


Overall, it's the sort of book which can get away with being extreme and predictable in its plot based on its vintage, which modern novels can't. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

5 Reasons why I hesitate to read 'Go Set a Watchman'

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Ever since I was 13 years old, I've considered Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird one of my all time favourites. When I heard about the release of it's sequel, Go Set a Watchman, fifty-five years further on, I was overjoyed. July '15 sounded like such a long time to wait, but now that it's here, I have misgivings and hesitate to click 'buy'. I'm surprised at myself, but here they are. Do you agree, or are you getting straight into this new release?

1) Jem's death

I'm not a big fan of one of my favourite characters passing away prematurely.

At the end of every novel, I always like to imagine futures for the characters I love. This sensitive, large-hearted, perceptive boy had so much to offer the world. He was supposed to be making his mark on it, not pushing up daisies before the age of 30. When that bombshell came out of Chapter 1, it hit me like a physical blow to the gut. Surely I'm not alone in this.

Jem's 'large-heartedness' may have extended to the physical realm. Reading between the lines, it would seem that he inherited the cardiac defect which also stole their mother at a young age. There were subtle hints in TKAM that Jem may have shared more traits from the maternal side, while Scout was far more like the Finches. Perhaps if they'd lived in a later decade. his life could have been extended by proper heart screening and surgery. Biographical detail tells us that Harper Lee also lost her brother at a young age, but even so, this is not the sort of detail I like to see translated to fiction. If there was no place for him in this book, couldn't she have just had him working overseas, or something?

2) Atticus' supposed racist sympathies

This is what seems to have everyone talking, and no wonder. The background of GSAW may have seemed reasonable to Harper Lee at the time she wrote it; an adult Scout is disillusioned by her discovery that the father she idolised had feet of clay after all. Sure, it's a fair enough theme and may work fine with any other book or character, but please not with Atticus Finch!

It might have even worked if this novel had been published first, following the order Lee had written them, but it's too late now!! He's already become a heroic icon, inspiring the public to work diligently at purifying our own hearts. Atticus has challenged us to regard all fellow humans in a truly inclusive, Christ-like manner, to bravely stick to what we know, deep down, is true, to not waver in the face of personal danger. His literary legacy has become more than mere human, and it's arguably unfair on the general public to disillusion us with his frailties now. Not after more than half a century of school essays in which millions of us have argued what a great man he is.

3) A depressed and jaded Jean Louise

Reviewers have paid homage to the 'sassy swagger' of the little Scout in TKAM, and that's what I loved about her too! It hurts inside to think that she's been around for long enough to have lost her edge, that life has molded her into just another harassed and careworn female. Losing the beloved brother she had sibling spats with, but who was her ultimate confidante, is tragic enough on its own. Some reviewers have mentioned that she has moments of being a bit annoying and histrionic in GSAW. I can well believe it, but it still makes me sad. Even the fact that she's put aside childish ways and decided to go by her formal Christian name is a bit of a loss. I hate the thought that life has a way of belting the sass and character out of people until they are wistful shells of their former selves.

4) What even happens?

I've been keeping my eye on early reviews. There were 15 on Amazon at the end of yesterday, which was the release date. These swelled to 18 as I was reading them. This morning, there were over 78, and will surely be in the triple figures soon. Having read several of them, I can see plenty of waffle about the theme, but hardly anything about a plot!

In TKAM, we had the sneaky shenanigans which revolved around trying to coax Boo Radley out, as well as all the drama surrounding Tom Robinson's trial. In GSAW, as far as I can tell, Jean Louise simply goes home and has lots of long discussions about human rights in drawing rooms with elderly relatives. She does have a boyfriend, but from what I could tell in my quick read of Chapter 1, she doesn't even like him all that much.

Maybe somebody who has read this book already can tell me, because I'd really like to know. Is there an actual plot?

5) Should it have simply been left, respectfully alone?

I've read articles in which Harper Lee has been described as a very private person who has always shunned publicity. Thrilled with the thought-provoking acclaim of TKAM, she felt that she did what she had to do, and that GSAW was an earlier, less polished story draft which she believed couldn't ever add anything TKAM didn't already deliver. I applaud her if she really thought that, instead of jumping to the normal writer's default of 'What should I write next?' whether she was burning with ideas or not.

 There are theories rife on internet that her hand was forced by business-thinking friends and relatives, now that she is nearing the end of her life and her faculties aren't as sharp as they once were. These articles suggest that having GSAW out in the world is the last thing Lee would have really wanted in her normal frame of mind.

Whether or not this is true, I did have a few doubts about the reception of this book all along, simply because TKAM is such a well-beloved classic. Even if GSAW is a literary masterpiece in its own right, it would be made an underdog at the very outset, simply because it will be compared to a book which many of us consider incomparable. Sure enough, when I look at the Amazon reviews page, there is the inverted bell curve I expected, with 1s and 2s already springing up to balance the 4s and 5s.

I've come across other novels by beloved authors, which haven't lived up to the amazing qualities of their first releases. They haven't even come close, and I've had the distinct feeling that the later insipid, 'meh' sort of follow-ups are the results of publishers and authors alike wanting to keep flogging dead horses. If there's nothing left in the tank, then it's dry, and it's such a pity when loyal fans have to bear the brunt of later releases which are pretty ordinary. I hope GSAW doesn't turn out to be something similar, put out in the world just because it was written by Harper Lee with characters from her classic.


So those are my five reasons for not wanting to dive straight into this hot new release, as I fully expected I would when I heard about it earlier in the year. If you have read it and would like to convince me either one way or the other, please go ahead.


Monday, July 13, 2015

'Bystanders' by Valerie Volk


 
2015 Reading Challenge, Week 28 - A book with a one-word title.
Its subtitle is 'Echoes of stories past' but the main title is just one word.
Valerie Volk is a fellow South Australian author and a friend of mine. She has published several books of award-winning poetry, and this fascinating book of short stories is hot off the press.

Bystanders is a collection of short stories, each one exploring a minor or incidental character in the Bible. It is a work of fiction written to encompass the Bible's information and extend it by imagination, to flesh out the people and enable readers to see the similarities between these people of long ago and ourselves.

At the end of the book there is a resource for further study, particularly for small groups, with questions to stimulate thought and discussion, furthering the reflective process the stories naturally stimulate.


MY THOUGHTS:
Fifteen Bible stories are retold from the points of view of observers who didn't have pivotal roles. This shift makes the stories multi-faceted, showing them in a whole new light.

Some of the bystanders are close to people who did feature most strongly. Esau's wife, Basemath, quietly fumes about the stunt her husband's twin and their mother pulled on him. The mother of Elisha's servant, Gehazi, wonders if her son's attraction to material goods was partly her fault. The father of the former blind man doesn't feel completely willing to thank Jesus for his son's healing, since it brought a decrease in begging earnings and trouble with the authorities.

Other bystanders happened to be nearby for whatever reason, perhaps in their line of work. The soldier who delivered messages between David and Joab gives his opinion on the king's dealings with Uriah and Bathsheba. The son of the bandit who attacked the Good Samaritan lurks in the shadows, watching the aftermath of the mischief.

Revisiting action through the eyes of people we wouldn't expect packs a powerful punch. They sometimes highlight how crazy the ways of God can strike people, compared to human wisdom. Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, ponders what appears to be a suicide mission to move the Israelites out of Egypt, when the only reasonable response would seem to be, 'It's not going to happen.' The man who could have won Ruth's hand explains why he chose to waive his family rights and let Boaz make the move as kinsman redeemer instead. A servant in the household of Mary and Martha describes the general sense of disbelief when the respected Teacher turns out to be a simple, uneducated country yokel from Galilee with a rough rabble of followers, who twists the prophets' words until they make more sense than before, if possible.

The bystanders also give the stories a feeling of immediacy, evoking time and place so vividly. I found it worth jotting down a few quotes from the unusual perspectives.

Pontius Pilate's wife, who'd known him since childhood, explains how he became a man 'whose name will be remembered in ways that he'd flinch at.'

A man waiting in the crowd to stone the woman caught in adultery looks at Jesus and reflects, 'If he truly wants to be seen as a man of God, he needs to pick up a stone himself.'

My favourite perhaps, is the line ex-Persian queen Vashti says of Esther. 'She might have saved the Jews, but she didn't do much for women.' That was quite thought-provoking, and got me laughing. The discussion questions at the end are worded in such a way to stimulate deep thought, rather than simple answers, so I'd recommend the book for any group or person who wants to delve beneath the superficial.

5 stars

Saturday, July 11, 2015

'The Curiosity Keeper' by Sarah E. Ladd

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“It is not just a ruby, as you say. It is large as a quail’s egg, still untouched and unpolished. And it is rumored to either bless or curse whomever possesses it.”

Camille Iverness can take care of herself. She’s done so since the day her mother abandoned the family and left Camille to run their shabby curiosity shop on Blinkett Street. But when a violent betrayal leaves her injured with no place to hide, Camille has no choice but to accept help from the mysterious stranger who came to her aid.

Jonathan Gilchrist never wanted to inherit Kettering Hall. As a second son, he was content working as a village apothecary. But when his brother’s death made him heir just as his father’s foolish decisions put the estate at risk, only the sale of a priceless possession—a ruby called the Bevoy—can save the family from ruin. But the gem has disappeared. And all trails lead to Iverness Curiosity Shop—and the beautiful shop girl who may or may not be the answer to his questions.

Curious circumstance throws them together, and an intricate dance of need and suspicion leads the couple from the seedy backwaters of London to the elite neighborhoods of the wealthy to the lush, green Surrey countryside—all in the pursuit of a blood-red gem that collectors will sacrifice anything to possess.


Caught at the intersection of blessings and curses, greed and deceit, two determined souls must unite to protect what they hold dear. But when a passion that shines far brighter than any gem is ignited, each will have to decide how much they are willing to risk for their future, love, and happiness.


MY THOUGHTS:

I was very much looking forward to getting stuck into this book. It's great when a scenario that could have come straight out of Dickens is written by a contemporary author, because we can enjoy the action without being held up by arcane language and waffle. For the first three quarters, this story met my expectations.

I love the characters. Camille has lived through some tough and seamy times without destroying her natural sweet disposition. Her dad is not very paternal, to say the least, but she still loves him as much as she can while she gets on with what she has to do. Jonathan is a really nice guy, who honours his family without stooping to all the Victorian snobbery he's been raised in, even though his brother and sister didn't escape it. He's found a caring path in life and sticks to it, despite his father's very outspoken disapproval. And we can't help loving his dad's gruff character just because he's such a mad antique collector. I would have been interested to find out how the eldest brother died, but we weren't told.

I enjoyed the description of place, including the huge chasm between the lifestyles of the rich and poor in London, and the freshness of the countryside, which Camille truly deserved to experience after all she'd had to put up with. On the whole, the mystery and drama surrounding the Bevoy Ruby drew me in. There was just a crazy plot snag toward the end which I couldn't bring myself to believe. It stretched my credibility to breaking point, and that was disappointing, as I'd been enjoying the story. I try not to give plot spoilers in reviews, but feel I must here. Stop reading if you want to.

Plot Spoiler

The baddies are desperate to find a precious object which they know for sure is in a person's possession. They've already tracked her down and searched thoroughly through her belongings on the premises where she's staying, to no avail. Next, they capture her and tie her up, intending to force the truth out of her. But the treasure is in Camille's apron pocket the whole time, and none of the crooks even think to frisk her person! It's in a box which would have made a fairly decent bulge, and these three experienced and forceful desperadoes still overlook it. I wanted to just ignore this and go with the flow, but found my belief was stretched that bit too far.

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

3 stars

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Do you finish all the books you start?



I've heard excellent cases for both sides of this one. To be honest, I was conditioned not to read every word during my time at Uni when I was studying English, and we were given way more books in the syllabus than we could possibly read. It seemed impossible to cram in one per week, when we were talking about novels the size of Little Dorrit, Bleak House or Middlemarch. The staff surely knew we'd focus on our essay topics and skim through the rest, but was it a good habit they were molding us into? Here are some pros and cons for both sides.

I Finish Every Book

These are the people who grit their teeth and plow through no matter what. They believe being faithful in small commitments proves them more likely to be faithful in larger ones. Quitting in small matters, such as reading a book, makes them more likely to be quitters in life.

One lady wrote that she can't count the numbers of times she was bored at the beginning of a novel and wowed by the end. Sticking to a book, in her opinion, is its own reward. She reminded me of times I've loaned books to people who I'm sure would have enjoyed the story if they'd only persevered.

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, "I've only abandoned three books that I can remember, preferring to soldier on through unmemorable chapters than to let an unfinished plot clutter my thoughts." He'd probably be aghast by this superficial skimming era we find ourselves in, and perhaps he'd have a point. What can be more shallow than making snap judgments about any given book based on first impressions?

I Don't Bother Finishing Every Book

These people may be aware of statistics. Google says there are nearly 130 million books in circulation in the world, and 4500 are published in the USA alone, daily. A person who commits to completing 50 books in a Goodreads challenge each year, would have to read for a century to tap into 0.00004% of them.

As the years are short and fly by so fast, and there are many books we'd enjoy far more just waiting to be discovered, what is the point of slogging on with a book which isn't engaging us? It simply wastes the precious time we could be spending on those which could be a far better fit.

My Point of View

I probably side more with the non-finishers. I believe in giving books a fair, fifty page trial, but by then, you've probably developed a fair idea of whether you should keep going. I've stuck to books I've been forced to study. In more recent years, I also try to stick to books I've committed to review for blogging programmes such as Net Galley. This has been enough to show me that the first third of any given book is usually enough to help form an accurate, overall impression.

If it's a novel, and the characters are flat and the plot creeps along like a tortoise, it probably won't get much better. I've read a lot of books in my lifetime, and generally find that if I'm going to like them, I'll be engaged from the start ninety percent of the time.

Many of us used to complain about having to read books we hate at school, just so we can churn out boring essays about them. Some of these school novels left us with bad after-tastes about perfectly good authors for years. Well, the good news is that in most cases, nobody is forcing us stick with unenjoyable books any more. I'd encourage more people to appreciate and use the freedom of no longer being in school.

If you need somebody to give you permission to quit a book you're finding tedious, maybe I can be that person. Although the books may feel like people, they are only books. It's not as hard as breaking up with somebody you're dating. If it's not making you look forward to your next spare moment when you can pick it up, then drop it. If you don't daydream about it and want to rave about it and shout about it from the rooftops, it probably doesn't matter if you don't finish it. I don't agree with Tolkien about letting unfinished plots clutter my thoughts. If I'm finding them hard going, I'm more than happy to let them disappear from my thoughts completely.

So take it back to the library, donate it to a Goodwill shop, delete it from your kindle and get on with something good.

Monday, July 6, 2015

'Tiffany Girl' by Deeanne Gist

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2015 Reading Challenge, Week 27 - A Book by a Female Author.
Any and many could fit this category, but as this one has such a beautiful, feminine cover, and an interesting theme about a woman's true place in society, I'm choosing it.

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 As preparations for the 1893 World’s Fair set Chicago and the nation on fire, Louis Tiffany—heir to the exclusive Fifth Avenue jewelry empire—seizes the opportunity to unveil a state-of-the-art stained-glass mosaic chapel the likes of which the world has never seen.

But when Louis’s dream is threatened by a glassworkers’ strike months before the Fair opens, he turns to an unforeseen source for help: the female students at the New York Art Institute. Eager for adventure, the young women pick up their skirts, move to boarding houses, take up steel cutters, and assume new identities as the “Tiffany Girls.”

Tiffany Girl is the heartwarming story of the impetuous Flossie Jayne, a beautiful budding artist who is handpicked by Louis to help complete the Tiffany chapel. Though excited to be an independent New Woman at a time when most of the fair sex stayed home, she quickly finds the world is less welcoming than she anticipated. From a Casanova male to an unconventional married couple and a condescending singing master, she takes on a colorful cast of characters to transform the boarding house into a home while racing to complete the Tiffany chapel and make a name for herself in the art world.

As challenges mount, her ambitions become threatened from an unexpected quarter: her own heart. What or who will claim victory? Her dreams or the captivating boarder next door?


MY THOUGHTS:
 
This beautiful novel is based on history. Just before the 1893 Chicago World Fair, Mr Louis Comfort Tiffany lost his glass workers and glaziers in a strike. They thought that because of the dicey timing, he'd cater to their demands for better pay and working hours. He called their bluff by hiring several female art students to finish the job in time for the Fair instead. These girls were delighted to be using their talents, regardless of the conditions, and added fuel to an already fierce debate about a woman's true place.

I really enjoyed the fictional escapades of Flossie Jayne, one of these Tiffany Girls. I think many contemporary readers really like heroines who have faults and blind spots, and she has plenty. That's where the book gets interesting. Many times, we assume that a person's character defects are their own fault, don't we? I don't think that's at all the case with Flossie. Her over-confidence and inflated sense of her own talent are probably inevitable, when we consider her personal history. Her sheltered upbringing and doting parents have helped her to assume that she's brilliant at everything she sets her hand to, and that the world revolves around her. Although the events of the story made me cringe for her several times, (and you'll know when you get there), it's written in such a way to show us that getting out into the world did her the world of good, but not necessarily in the ways she expected.

I looked at a few other reviews before starting this book, and expected not to like the hero, Reeve Wilder. Others glossed over him as a journalist who resented working women, but he wasn't as black and white as all that. Like Flossie, when we take his personal history into account, his reasons for thinking women belong in the home are easy to understand. In fact, I found his attitude toward them a compliment rather than the opposite, and know several modern women who'd agree with him. He grows through the story anyway, refining his opinions when he perceives that they're too rigid. And never, from the very start, does he treat women with superiority or rudeness. He's actually a very sentimental hero, for a person who doesn't think he is.

We get to experience the World Fair through Flossie's eyes. It sounds impressive enough for those of us who live in the twenty-first century, so it's no wonder these Victorians found it so stunning. I loved the way frequent pictures and photos brought the era to life, and learned a few things, showing that they were basically the same as us. For example, I got the feeling that Sears and Roebuck was a bit like the Victorian version of IKEA, and the poor girls had to contend with 'bustle pinchers' who were just common, forward men. In fact, they wouldn't get away with it in our era, as they did then.

My only issue with the book is that it seemed a bit drawn out at the end. A lot of activity and changed was compressed into it, but the pace of the last few chapters felt a bit different to the rest of the story, which I powered through. Maybe it's because the bulk of the novel took place in a reasonably short amount of time, and last little bit spanned several months. Overall, it's a story which I'm sure all lovers of Victorian time settings will love.

4.5 stars

Thursday, July 2, 2015

'What every Christian needs to know about Passover' by Rabbi Evan Moffic



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The Passover was celebrated by Jesus and the disciples the last time they were together. Now popular speaker and writer Rabbi Evan Moffic brings an understanding to the Last Supper that will forever change how Christians celebrate Communion and prepare for Easter. Beginning with the Hebrew Bible and Jewish history, Rabbi Moffic shows how these inform the roots of Christianity as he weaves together history, theology, Jewish practice and observances. Then he provides the background and resources for Christians seeking to experience an authentic Jewish Passover Seder and integrate it into their own preparation for Easter. Rabbi Moffic brings an informed and ancient perspective, explaining and bringing to life the source of so many of our modern Christian practices.

By exploring and explaining the ritual and story surrounding the Jewish Passover, Rabbi Moffic shares with Christians the wisdom and inspiration of the Hebrew Bible—what Christians call the Old Testament—in a way that increases appreciation and understanding of the culture in which Jesus lived and taught. For contemporary Christians desiring to enrich their understanding of the faith they practice today, this book offers deeper understanding of their spiritual heritage shared with Judaism.


MY THOUGHTS:

This is an interesting book written by a Jewish Rabbi for Christians. All his life, he has celebrated Passover meals, and sometimes suffered through them when he was a boy and they tended to drag on.

It begins with a good overview of the Bible's two most famous Passovers; the first one ever, observed by Moses, Aaron and Miriam on that tense night when Egypt's first born males were killed, and the one directly before Jesus' crucifixion, when he became the Lamb of God. I wonder how many young or modern Christians may not twig that when we celebrate Communion, we're essentially celebrating the Passover too. 

A great chunk of the book outlines how to prepare and celebrate a traditional Passover if we should ever want to. Wow, to say a lot of preparation is involved is a vast understatement. It's not just the normal rushing about everyone does before dinner parties, but making super certain that the house is completely clear of breadcrumbs and anything which may contain leaven. It gives me greater understanding of a lady from a non-Jewish background I read about, who had major panic attacks when it came to preparing Passover for her husband's Orthodox extended family.

The book delves into the significance of the central elements on the table, including the Seder Plate and the candles. It helps us understand how nothing slips through which isn't filled with rich symbolism, and the ritual objects are intended to connect those around the table to one another and to God. Although I've never felt brave enough to have one of my own, I've attended a couple organised by others. They were very special, and if you ever want to try your own Passover, this is the book you would want to refer to. I think what stood out to me most was that you wouldn't want to do it flippantly, but as a solemn, meaningful experience as it was always intended.

Thanks to NetGalley and Abingdon Press for my review copy.

3.5 stars