Monday, October 26, 2015

'Crazy Stories, Sane God' by John Alan Turner


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2015 Reading Challenge, Week 43 - A Book with Antonyms in the title.
I searched through my kindle and discovered this one, which fits the bill.

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You probably know a lot of Bible stories: Joseph and his coat, David and Goliath, Daniel and the lions, Jesus walking on water. These get mentioned everywhere from popular literature to your local church.

But there are other stories in the Bible that preachers and Sunday school teachers tend to skip over because . . . well . . . because they seem crazy and mad; the kind of stories that make us change the subject quickly when children bring them up, because we don't know why they are in the Bible or what they could possibly mean.

In Crazy Stories, Sane God popular author and teacher John Alan Turner takes us on a wild and unpredictable ride through the weirdest and least familiar stories in the Bible. Through it all, Turner shows us how even these odd episodes reveal important things about the character and nature of God and, consequently, what they mean for us today.


MY THOUGHTS:
This book is full of entertaining and well-written summaries of Bible stories from someone who seems to be a natural comedian. For example, the author suggests that Abraham must have felt ripped off (he says no pun was intended) when God gave him the covenant of circumcision, because he knew Noah got a rainbow. What it doesn't contain is much help making sense of some of the curly incidents many of us have no doubt wondered about.

Here's a handful of the questions the book claims to address? Why would Noah curse his grandson, Canaan, who apparently had nothing to do with Ham's gesture of disrespect? Why would Elisha call down a curse causing teenage boys to mauled by bears, simply for making fun of his bald head? Why would Lot protect the strangers beneath his roof by offering to sacrifice his own daughters to the evil, lecherous crowd of Sodom? (That one always made my skin crawl.) Why would Jesus allow the demons he'd exorcised to enter a herd of pigs, and ruin a man's livelihood, rather than simply sending them off into the ether? Why would God choose to kill Ananias and Sapphira outright, rather than giving them a stern warning? And what about that weird passage near the start of Exodus about the 'bridegroom of blood' when Zipporah apparently saves Moses' life from God's wrath by circumcising their sons by hand?

Turner's responses seem to fall among the following.
a) God's ways are beyond our comprehension, so just trust Him.
b) Maybe we're asking the wrong question.
c) Maybe we're not supposed to know.
d) If the people involved had behaved better, it wouldn't have happened to them.

These four responses may indeed be our only human recourse, but then why set yourself up for criticism by writing a book with a title and blurb that suggests you're going to attempt to provide more complex and threshed out answers? Overall, it provided some laughs but seemed fairly superficial and didn't really satisfy the interest it stirred in me.

2.5 stars

Thursday, October 22, 2015

'Bandersnatch' by Erika Morrison


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Contemporary Christianity seems to be suffering from an epidemic of sameness. Uniformity. Monotony. Those trapped inside are often afraid to step beyond established norms and express their creativity, and those on the outside often see little that attracts them. Yet God, out of the abundance of his own creative force, made each one of us unique. Peculiar. Irreplaceable. So why so much pressure to conform?

Bandersnatch* explores this intersection of disillusionment by inviting readers on a journey of liberation. It’sorganized around four creative terms viewed through the life of Jesus: Avant-Garde, Alchemy, Anthropology, and Art. Each expression reveals a diverse facet of God’s unorthodox creativity planted within us.

Providing a fresh look at God’s avant-garde nature and a new set of definitions by which to live, Erika Morrison gives us permission to break free from the expectations and labels that cramp our souls. Only in embracing our uniqueness can we create artful, holistic lives that matter to both heaven and earth.

*A bandersnatch, while more commonly known as the wild, ferocious, and mythical creature of Lewis Carroll’s creation, is also a person with unconventional habits and attitudes.
 


MY THOUGHTS:
I'm more familiar with the jaberwocky, but another mythical creature introduced by Lewis Carroll is the bandersnatch. It's a fairly wild creature with unconventional habits, and in this book we're invited to embrace our inner bandersnatches, figuring out who we are deep down rather than just going with society's flow and fitting in.

'Human made systems are taking up space where our identities should be blooming,' Erika Morrison declares. She urges us to examine every box we've ever accepted without question, looking at the beliefs, rules, formulas and assumptions that fuel them.

She discusses a system she calls 'crossing over' in which words, ideas and values which have been typecast by the world are given new, more fitting definitions. For example, the world may think the word 'blessed' equates to wealth and popularity, but when Jesus used it, he meant that a person had come to a point when they realise they really have nothing but him. She focuses on four 'A' words or terms in particular; Avant Garde, Alchemy, Anthropology and Art. I really like her take on 'alchemy.' The world would have us believe it means turning something of base value into something more showy and expensive, but to Morrison, real alchemy is simply noticing the treasures in what is generally passed by as unnoticeable. And to her, the word 'art' encompasses any of the 1000 ways a person might reveal themselves to the world.

She and her homeschooling family carry out these principles in a really hardcore way which I find extremely challenging. Certainly nobody could ever accuse Erika Morrison of not practicing what she preaches. The extreme lengths they take to clean up their city and show their love to others convince me I'd have to be a bandersnatch in a far more low key way. However, as I read, I can't help wondering whether the Morrisons are doing just what Jesus might do if he showed up in the twenty-first century. It's not a book that leaves me feeling completely comfortable, which might show that her intention is working. Then suddenly, the reader is off the hook, when she says that following her example to the letter is the last thing she'd want to tell us to do. A good combination of conviction and grace.

I'm sure I'll delve into it from time to time when I need a shake-up. I can't help wondering what might come next. Some of the passages are so beautiful, I've copied them down to ponder, but they're too long for the scope of this review. Even the author states that she's only half as weird as she longs to be, but her quotes all through make a paradoxical sort of sense.

Why would we want to define our 'thisness' by somebody else's 'thatness' indeed?

Thanks to Thomas Nelson and NetGalley for my review copy.

4 stars

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Books with Cool Literary Cats

I've always found cats to be mystical and bewitching. So have others, judging by all the legends about black ones riding on the backs of witches' brooms. They are among the most mysterious and other-worldly of domestic pets.

Maybe it's their aloof manner of prancing so lightly on their velvet paws, which never make a sound when they touch the ground. Or their eyes, which light up the night like exotic gems, especially when caught in car headlights. It could be their way of turning warrior when they fight, with howls that could raise the dead. Or the rumbles of their purrs, like a mysterious inner motor no other creature seems to have. Perhaps it's partly the roughness of their tongues, enabling them to complete their fastidious grooming without needing the indignity of a bath. Of course, their acrobatic way of falling on their feet, even from great heights, fuels an intriguing myth that they have nine lives. All of the above makes me wonder if it's true that they simply allow us to refer to them as our pets, while they think they know better. I saw a funny facebook post recently, in which a dog says, 'These people feed me and care for me, they must be gods,' and then a cat says, 'These people feed me and care for me, I must be a god.'

My son and I often go for night walks around our district, and the drawcard for him is a group of cats which spring over to us, greeting us with meows. Two of them are black as the night. It's really not a good thing to have so many cats next door to the Wetlands, our bird-watchers' haven, but that's one of life's ironies. Even though I don't really approve either, I still stop to pat them, seduced by their mystique as usual.

Here are my top picks for cat lovers. (I'm not including majestic, large cats like Aslan, Richard Parker and Shere Khan, who probably deserve a post of their own, which I've now done, here.) Together, this lot embodies many of the features which intrigue us about cats. Here they are, counting down from ten to one.



11) The Cat from 'A Man called Ove'
I consider this cat as much of a hero as any of the humans in the story. He's a battler, a true survivor, a sweet-natured companion who has been through the feline version of hell on earth. His presence works on the devastated and crusty Ove, helping to give him a reason to live. My review is here.

10) Garfield.
He's so fat, lazy and sarcastic. And he knows he's smart enough to manipulate not just Odie,
 the exuberant and simple-minded dog, but also Jon, their owner.

9) Cat in the Hat.

He does exactly as he pleases, sauntering in when he knows the children's mother is out, to wreak havoc in their house. And he does it all with such an insouciant, 'She'll be right' attitude, knowing he has everything under control, despite the neurotic goldfish's opinion. Nobody can accuse this cat of needing chill pills.

8) The Cheshire Cat.
He has plenty of sauciness and wisdom to match that wide, crescent shaped grin spread across his face. He fits well in Wonderland with the other characters Alice comes across. I remember driving through the town of Cheshire with my parents when I was younger, and it's filled with grinning, stone cats.

7) Dick Whittington's cat.
This one belongs in a old English legend which is based on truth. The desperate servant boy bought her for a penny, to stop rats and mice scurrying over his face at night. She proves her worth for the boy, and later a ship's crew and African king's court. She's always equal to the challenge of stopping rat plagues single-handedly (or single-pawedly), not to mention the theme that giving up his most treasured possession resulted in untold glory for young Richard.

6) Puss in Boots.
The naive and simple young hero, the Marquis of Carabbas, would never have gone far on his own wits, but luckily for him, his loving cat takes it upon himself to look after his young master's future. Puss' plans involve all sorts of far-sightedness and trickery. The young man agrees to simply trust him and go along with it all, no matter how weird and counter-productive it sounds. And Puss brings him through every time.

5) Khat 
This wily character is from Midnite by Randolph Stow. Following the tradition of cats taking it upon themselves to look after their orphaned and bankrupt young masters, I guess this is our Australian colonial offering. Khat is the brains of the outfit, setting himself up as the young bushranger's tough Siamese confederate. He's a ruthless crook, but as he's articulate and astute, Khat pulls them through on a number of occasions.

4) Hamish.
He belongs in 'The Lighthouse Keeper's Lunch.' As the seagulls keep stealing from the delicious basket which the lighthouse keeper's wife sends on the line across the water, they decide Hamish can guard the food. Needless to say, he's not impressed by the hair-raising ride and they can't force him to repeat it, however much they want to.

3) Mrs Norris.
She's from the Harry Potter series. Mrs Norris is owned by Argus Filch, the grouchy caretaker. The Hogwarts students dread the sight of her, because they know she's a trouble-maker and a spy. Whenever she sneaks up behind them, it's a sign that her owner is never far behind.

2) Crookshanks.
Another Harry Potter cat, he belongs to Hermione. Crookshanks is one of the few creatures who senses something untrustworthy about Ron's rat, Scabbers. A cowardly criminal is on the loose, but his escape is no fault of Crookshanks, who does his best to pounce on him at every opportunity. And Sirius Black calls him one of the smartest of his kind he's ever come across.

1) The Cat from Coraline.
He's too arrogant to bother with a name, because names are for commoners. ('But what if someone wants to call you inside for dinner?'...'Then they can simply call "Dinner!"') As the rats are clearly evil minions of the villainess, he's being a good guy when he takes every opportunity to thin them out by ripping their heads off. He's able to move freely between the two realms of the old house, no matter how hard the evil mother tries to stop him, so whenever he's near Coraline, she knows she's not quite as friendless as she feels.

There's my round-up. Looking down the list, it's interesting to note that some of them come from really old tales, which make them heroes simply for killing the rats which carry the plague, or as we now know, kill the rats which carried the fleas which carried the plague. If you can think of any extra cool literary cats to add to my collection, please tell us in the comments.  

Monday, October 19, 2015

'Madeline' by Ludwig Bemelmans

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2015 Reading Challenge, Week 42 - A Book Based on or Turned into a TV Series.
 It was nice to choose a short book for this week of the challenge. It brings back memories of watching the animated TV series with my little 1990s kids. I wish it was still on TV.

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Madeline is one of the best-loved characters in children's literature. Set in picturesque Paris, this tale of a brave little girl's trip to the hospital was a Caldecott Honor Book in 1940 and has as much appeal today as it did then. The combination of a spirited heroine, timelessly appealing art, cheerful humor, and rhythmic text makes Madeline a perennial favorite with children of all ages.

MY THOUGHTS:
It's basically a big poem with simple, gorgeous illustrations. In the TV series, there is lots of happy singing. The setting is such a great place, it's never even referred to as a school, although it's easy to imagine that's what it must be. Since the girls receive parcels in the post from their families, it's definitely not an orphanage. It's only ever called, 'the old house in Paris all covered with vines', and the director/teacher Miss Clavell, never seems to need to discipline anyone.

Madeline is the smallest of all, and presented as the most fearless and original in just a few short lines. Part of her charm is her bright attitude, finding interesting things everywhere, even when they might seem dull and mundane to others. Without any effort, Madeline can make the other girls envy her appendicitis instead of pity her. Proudly showing off the scar on her tummy is enough.

Their genuine affection for each other is a hallmark of Miss Clavell's little girls. I remember how they used to chant, 'We love our bread, we love our butter, but most of all we love each other,' in the TV series. They regarded their neighbour, Pepito, as a nuisance until he showed that he does have feelings and became the sole boy in their adventures. He was just as picturesque, in his little tailored suits with lace collars and cuffs. The beloved dog Genevieve, who Madeline rescued from the river, was a faithful sidekick too.

Each story was always rounded off with, 'That's all there is, there isn't any more,' but we were always glad there would be, until one day when Madeline seemed to be taken off the air along with several other great kids' series from the 1990s. That's the topic of another blog post.

5 stars

Friday, October 16, 2015

Should people write biographical fiction?

I've started work on my grandfather's story. I never knew him, as he was born in 1892 and died in the early 1960s, but he lived life to the fullest. As well as serving in both World Wars, he was one of South Australia's champion boxers in the welterweight division, and came from a very large family. All this combined to give him a life of amazing highs and lows, many of which fit into an interesting historical context.

Years ago, my father (his 2nd to youngest son) researched a lot of genealogy about his family, including all the information about his father's early life. He asked me to type it out for him, but Dad's writing is mostly factual statements about what happened, and sometimes it's all around the place. At the time I thought how excellent it would be to read it all in the form of an actual story, but didn't feel up to trying it myself.

Seven years have passed since then, and my dad's remaining brother and sister have passed away, leaving Dad as their father's sole surviving child, and his health is failing too. It made me want to write it even more, but something still made me hesitate for a very long time. I sat down and figured out what it was.

Writing about real people who lived and breathed, especially those who were that close to me, makes me edgy as I'd be sure to misrepresent a lot of what really went on, taking poetic license, putting words in their mouths and making up connecting scenes to join things together. I couldn't help thinking that may not be doing previous generations a favour. Perhaps my efforts would be deplorable in their eyes, but they're dead and can't tell me. Wouldn't that be the ultimate case of a misguided do-gooder, thinking I was doing something great, when I was really doing something cringe-worthy? I didn't want to be that person. Yet the idea still stuck around.

Just over the last week or two, I've read an unrelated book which has encouraged me. The author discussed how God knows each of us better than we know ourselves, which may come across as bizarre since we are the thinkers, observers and formers of our opinions. As we live inside our own heads, groom ourselves and keep a careful eye on how we're presenting ourselves to the outside world, how could anybody possibly know us better?

The answer is, the person who knows the extent of our genealogies knows us far better than we know ourselves. I was intrigued by the scope of what Dad found in his research, yet God knows even more. He's the one who can number the hairs on our heads when we wouldn't have a clue (unless you're totally bald, and then the answer would be zero). Although the author's point was that there is someone even closer than ourselves who loves us accordingly, I got something different and extra from it.

It was a bit silly of me to put off writing this family book until I could do it perfectly, because that could never happen anyway, no matter how much I delved in and dug up. Human, self-kept history is bound to be sketchy and inaccurate in comparison to God's complete bird's-eye view, unfettered by time and space. Even if I was to write a memoir about my teenage years in the eighties, it wouldn't come out on the pages exactly as it happened, although I was there living it.

The bottom line - we might as well give what we've got, if it's intriguing enough to capture our imaginations. With a choice between writing something based on fascinating historical fact, and writing nothing at all, the former may be the best choice, sketchy and inaccurate though it might be. In my case, the information we have recorded is more detailed than I imagined it would be, so I'm going for it.

When you really stop to think about it, books like this are everywhere. Here is a sample from some of my most recent reads to books I read years ago. Most are about really famous people but the same principle applies.

1) Luther and Katharina
Luther and Katharina Jody Hedlund's take on the love affair between Martin Luther and his wife, Katharina von Bora.
I've reviewed it here.

2)  Lynn Austin's Biblical fiction. 
Return to Me (The Restoration Chronicles #1) She uses the Biblical records from King, Chronicles and the prophets to to write the events in the form of novels. There is her Chronicles of the Kings series, and more recently, her Restoration series, focusing on the lives of Zechariah, Ezra and Nehemiah. I've reviewed some here, here and here.

3) Mesu Andrews' Biblical fiction.
In the Shadow of Jezebel (Treasure of His Love) She does the same thing, choosing to focus on the possible stories of women who seemed rather marginalised in the Bible, threshing out in her imagination what might have happened between the lines. I've reviewed some here and here.

4) Nancy Moser's novels about famous women throughout history.
Mozart's Sister (Ladies of History, #1) She's done Jane Austen, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Mozart's sister, Nannerl, that I know of.

5) Carol Preston's Australian colonial fiction based on her family history research.
Mary's Guardian (Turning the Tide, #1). These books have encouraged me the most, as her stories provide a really valuable insight into what living in the early days of Australian settlement would have been like. If Carol hadn't delved into her ancestry and written the stories, we'd never know. I've reviewed some here, here and here for a start.

And although I haven't read it yet, this is one I intend to get to very soon, because the thought of it intrigues me.
Henry and Banjo

What do you think about the matter? How would you feel to think that somebody who hasn't even been born yet may choose to write about you 50 or 100 years after you've passed away?

Thursday, October 15, 2015

'Luther and Katharina' by Jody Hedlund

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Katharina von Bora has seen nothing but the inside of cloister walls since she was five. In a daring escape, Katharina finds refuge with Martin Luther and seeks his help to pair her with the noble, wealthy husband she desires.

As class tensions and religious conflicts escalate toward the brink of war, Martin Luther believes that each day could be his last and determines he will never take a wife.

As the horrors of the bloody Peasant War break out around them, the proud Katharina and headstrong Martin Luther fight their own battle for true love, in one of the greatest love stories of history.


MY THOUGHTS: 
I once read an article about the true love story between these two, which sounded romantic and well worth making into a novel. I'm glad Jody Hedlund has done it.

The story starts with a mad dash by Katharina and her friends to escape their abbey. She's no Julie Andrews type of nun, and the prison is poles apart from the Sound of Music convent. Young daughters of noblemen were often forced to become nuns, and the place was ruled over by cruel Abbot Baltazar, who Martin Luther had good reason to call, 'the Devil's Sword.' Reading smuggled literature written by Dr Luther convinced the young nuns to flee, and because he felt partly responsible for their homeless plight, he took it upon himself to help provide for their futures. Many times suitable marriages could be arranged, but in Katharina's case, he just didn't want to let her go.

This novel is a real tribute to Martin Luther's heroism. When you're a forward thinker, you must be convicted of the truth enough to risk doing illegal things and even cope with death threats. Back then, you couldn't help keeping in mind that execution wasn't humane, but involved being burned at the stake or other creative methods of torture. When others came to you for mercy, you couldn't help taking responsibility for them too. And showing people how your teachings were backed up by the Bible wasn't a viable option, since common folk had been brought up to believe that delving into the holy book themselves was not wise or safe. Every page in this story shows that Luther's position in history as a hero of faith was earned with sacrifice and agony.

Overall, it's a love story between two people who can see each others' faults, but also their wonderful qualities. Katharina can recognise the truth in a man's teachings without any blinkered, hero-worship of the man himself, which was just what he needed. In the 21st century, a woman with her strong qualities could have been a high-flyer in any industry, but she no doubt added her stamp to world history even though her name and input is virtually unknown.

I've got to admit, their romantic hiccups and misunderstandings drove me crazy at times, and often seemed tied in with Katharina's habit of treating her friends like children who needed to be looked after rather than women of equal footing. If I had a gripe with this book, that would probably be it. She seemed to unconsciously set herself above her peers in strength and wit, always thinking of them as more vulnerable than herself - yet maybe if she'd been less like 'The Leader', they wouldn't have taken the roles of cringing sheep. However, as Luther claimed Katharina's abrasive and imperial ways annoyed him most at the outset, her take-charge manner may all be part of her learning curve and not a problem in others' opinions.

The story got me interested enough to look up the Wikipedia pages of other historical figures who appeared, such as Philipp Melanchthon and Justus Jonas. I liked being transported to sixteenth century Germany, and seeing how some things never really change. For example, Katharina chooses to shun the new Bible which has been written in their modern German, in favour of the ancient Latin ones she'd used all her life. It puts me in mind of some twenty-first century people I've come across who still insist on using only the old King James.

One of my favourite quotes is Katharina, to Luther. 'You're lucky I'm here to help you, Dr Luther. The devil cannot abide me.'

Thanks to the publishers, WaterBrook Multnomah, and NetGalley for my review copy.

4.5 stars

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

'On This Foundation' by Lynn Austin

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When news that the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire, Nehemiah, Jewish cupbearer to King Artaxerxes in Persia, seeks God's guidance. After fasting and prayer, he's given leave to travel to Jerusalem and rebuild the city wall, not anticipating all the dangers that await him on his arrival.

The leaders of the surrounding nations become his fierce enemies, plotting to assassinate him and halt the work. A drought, meanwhile, has left the country impoverished, many families resorting to selling their children as bondservants just to keep from starving.

Capturing the rebuilding of the wall through the eyes of a number of characters, On This Foundation is a powerful exploration of faith in the midst of oppression, and hope that, in spite of appearances, the gracious hand of God is upon those who believe.
 


MY THOUGHTS:
If anyone deserves to be the hero of a book, it's Nehemiah. His courage and leadership skills are outstanding in the Bible, and this story starts before his days as the Persian king's cup bearer. I'm glad Lynn Austin began with a traumatic event from his childhood. It sets the scene for his close-knit relationship with his two younger brothers, not to mention why security is his calling and passion. It set me up to want to back Nehemiah all the way.

It's fun to read how the reasonably young governor hides his lack of confidence and relies on the hand of the Lord to see them all through. As a result, his enemies can't help respecting him, much as they despise the threat he presents. Yet Nehemiah is only human and still reacts the way the world does at times, such as when he notices Shallum's daughters working on the wall and ticks them off. What I love about him though, is that he's always willing to admit when his own point of view may be lacking. It takes a woman, Chana, to show him that harbouring internal rage, however righteous it seems, may not be pleasing to God.

Chana is recovering from the loss of the man she was going to marry, but I found it hard to like her new betrothed, Malkijah ben Recab. He had a way of breaking up families to be his bondservants, and not noticing what his sneaky, lecherous sons were doing practically beneath his nose. Through most of the book, I'd been hoping for a loophole to break their betrothal, but the plot holds a few surprises. Malkijah actually delivers one of my favourite lines. 'Don't waste time in useless worry, dear Chana, fretting over what might never happen. Worry doesn't change a single thing. Just live.'

Some of the best characters are among the servants. Nava is a pretty teenager forced to work in Malkijah's household to help repay her parents' loans. She learned what many people haven't grasped far older than sixteen, that circumstances don't always go a person's preferred way, in spite of prayer. Her friend Shimon, the old goat keeper, is a true hero.

I would have liked the addition of a scene from the enemy leaders' perspectives when they realise they haven't outsmarted Nehemiah, in spite of the lengths they went to to bring him down. After all, we sat through plenty of scheming from them when they thought their plans would prevail.

One of my favourite parts of the story is when Nehemiah ponders what should come next in his own life, when the wall building is finished. It's interesting for anyone who has finished a meaningful task we feel is our calling, but flounder when it comes to deciding what to follow it with. We've even coined a modern term for it, 'the next big thing.' Nehemiah's story makes us ask the question, is there always meant to be more glory to follow on from a big success? His enemies are crafty when they send bogus prophets to tempt him with dreams of future leaderships and admiration in Judea. And Nehemiah's eventual way of putting this to the test is a good, simple method any of us may use.

I can't end a review without a quote from the man himself. Nehemiah always recognised the symbolic meaning behind the broken walls, and told the people, 'Rebuilding this physical wall won't do us any good unless we also rebuild our lives with the Almighty One at the centre.'

Thanks to Bethany House and NetGalley for my review copy.

4.5 stars

Monday, October 12, 2015

'The Devil's Disciple' by George Bernard Shaw

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2015 Reading Challenge, Week 41 - A Play.
While I was searching, I vaguely remembered seeing this one on TV when I was a teenager. Finding it as a kindle freebie on Amazon clinched it.

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At the most wretched hour between a black night and a wintry morning in the year 1777, Mrs. Dudgeon, of New Hampshire, is sitting up in the kitchen and general dwelling room of her farm house on the outskirts of the town of Websterbridge. She is not a prepossessing woman. No woman looks her best after sitting up all night; and Mrs. Dudgeon's face, even at its best, is grimly trenched by the channels into which the barren forms and observances of a dead Puritanism can pen a bitter temper and a fierce pride. She is an elderly matron who has worked hard and got nothing by it except dominion and detestation in her sordid home, and an unquestioned reputation for piety and respectability among her neighbors, to whom drink and debauchery are still so much more tempting than religion and rectitude, that they conceive goodness simply as self-denial. This conception is easily extended to others - denial, and finally generalized as covering anything disagreeable. So Mrs. Dudgeon, being exceedingly disagreeable, is held to be excee-dingly good. Short of flat felony, she enjoys complete license except for amiable weaknesses of any sort, and is consequently, without knowing it, the most licentious woman in the parish on the strength of never having broken the seventh commandment or missed a Sunday at the Presbyterian church.

MY THOUGHTS:
This is an American satire with tinges of dark humour set during the War of Independence. It takes place in 1777 at Westerbridge, a small frontier town.

The self-proclaimed devil's disciple is Richard Dudgeon, a young man who is regarded as not just the rotten egg of his family but the whole town. He's simply grown fed up with the mean spirits and hypocrisy he sees from several supposedly devout religious folk, and lives life on his own terms. He might have got along a little better if he didn't call himself that, but Richard is a bit of a stirrer.

Judith Anderson is the pretty, young wife of the old local minister. She fears and hates Richard because of his behaviour and reputation, but one day when British soldiers storm into her house to arrest her husband, the devil's disciple does something truly astounding. She has only a matter of moments to decide whether to re-think everything she's ever taken on board about him.

In many ways, this is really Judith's story. She's the only one with much character development, including Richard. His own epiphany obviously took place in the past before this story began, so he's basically the same man at the finish as he was at the start, except for a bit of a crisis concerning the display of his softer feelings. However, she has to turn upside down everything she ever knew, before it's too late.

Judith starts off in the first act parroting what the supposed moral guys are saying. Circumstances force her to respond to a genuine show of sacrifice and goodness from the least likely person. If I'd been an actress, I'd love to play her role. She genuinely detests a man one day, then tells him she'd go to the ends of the earth with him the next.

I'm sure lots of male actors would have wanted the role of 'Gentlemanly Johnny', the British general Burgoyne who's in charge of the court case in the second act. Based on a real person, he's a gruff dandy with a reputation for finding fault with everything, and delivers lots of memorable lines. These include, 'Martyrdom, sir, is what these people like. It is the only way in which a man can become famous without ability.'

It's a work of literature that needs to be read as a text to get most out of it, rather than just watched. We read things we wouldn't necessarily otherwise know, such as the history of General Burgoyne, who is 'gallant enough to have made a distinguished marriage by an elopement, witty enough to write successful comedies, aristocratically connected enough to have had opportunities of high military distinction.

Here's another example. When the devil's disciple inherits his father's property, leaving his mother out in the cold, we're told the courts will sustain the claim of a man-and that man the eldest son, against any woman if they can. Then in parentheses, it goes on to say, 'Remember at this time, Mary Wollstonecraft is as yet only a girl of 18, and her vindication of the rights of women is still 14 years off.'

It's interesting to read a play, after several years, reminding me how much I used to enjoy them. With novels, we're advised to show and not tell. Not so with plays, which have so many directions about the emotions and detailed facial expressions the characters are supposedly to showing.

Overall, it was a fun way of spending a couple of hours. As a bonus, it really brings to light different types of heroism and reminds us not to make snap judgments.

4.5 stars

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

A Good Story Belongs to Everyone



I was once congratulated at a party for sharing funny jokes and stories on Facebook. The person I was talking to praised my posts for being either food-for-thought or day-brighteners. I smiled and thanked him, although I honestly didn't think it was worthy of a compliment. All the creators and artists had done the hard work putting them together. My only input was clicking 'share'. I shrugged it off as the easiest praise I'd ever received. Only in retrospect did I begin to reflect that he was actually onto something. I started to see how sharing things and passing them on actually makes them ours.

It started dawning on me when I was directed to a blog where someone had reviewed one of my novels (Best Forgotten.) I read her lovely review and then clicked on the comments. A friend of the blogger had written something like, 'Thanks so much for the recommendation. I'm really getting into this book.' And then the girl who wrote the review replied in words to this effect. 'I'm so glad you're enjoying it. I couldn't help thinking it was tailor made for you all the way through. Glad to have been able to help your reading pile grow.'

That was it. It was pretty simple, but made my day. There I was, a total stranger, and these two ladies had adopted my story and made it their own. One of them was thanking the other for sharing her thoughts. And she was accepting the thanks, as if Best Forgotten was her own. And in a big way, it was. I like that a lot, and it's just as it should be.

Copyright laws exist to protect authors and creators from direct plagiarism, and rightly so. But at a deeper level, when a story is released into the world in the form of a book or screen play, it becomes common property.

Somethings in our hearts responds to something that was in the heart of the author. That's why fan groups are formed around popular stories, where people discuss the plot and dress up like the characters. It's why my daughter has ordered so many T-shirts featuring her favourite stories. Emma is the perfect fan to have, because she walks around doing everyday things, but quietly claiming 'Game of Thrones', 'Hunger Games' and many others as her own, from the moment she rolls out of bed and gets dressed. What a great free advert for the writers. (The photo above is just a section of Emma's bedroom wall, which she's covered with different posters, so she virtually sleeps in a collage.)

I've seen the pay-off continue for her, in the form of ice-breakers. Just yesterday, we were in a seaside Goodwill store at Victor Harbor, and the lady behind the counter noticed Emma's Game of Thrones T-shirt and started engaging her in a long conversation about whether or not Jon Snow is really dead, and then they moved on to talking about other stories. Fan T-shirts seem to be a great way of connecting with other members of your own tribe.

It's great that the sum of good stories is like a potluck supper of the best type. Everyone brings something to the table, and it becomes one big, luscious, festive spread which anyone can share.

Anne Lamott said, 'When you love something like reading, or drawing, or music, or nature, it surrounds you with a sense of connection to something great.'

And I love J.K. Rowling's response to the throngs of people who have ever said, 'I wish I received my invitation to Hogwarts when I was 11.' She tweeted something like, 'You all received your personal invitation to Hogwarts the moment you opened the Harry Potter books and got engrossed in them.'

I like to think of many people contributing to the wealth of the story banquet by either adding their own plate to the table or partaking of what's there already with great relish and recommending each dish to others.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

'The Fold' by Peter Clines

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2015 Reading Challenge, Week 40 - A Mystery or Thriller.

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The folks in Mike Erikson's small New England town would say he's just your average, everyday guy. And that's exactly how Mike likes it. Sure, the life he's chosen isn’t much of a challenge to someone with his unique gifts, but he’s content with his quiet and peaceful existence.

That is, until an old friend presents him with an irresistible mystery, one that Mike is uniquely qualified to solve: far out in the California desert, a team of DARPA scientists has invented a device they affectionately call the Albuquerque Door. Using a cryptic computer equation and magnetic fields to “fold” dimensions, it shrinks distances so that a traveler can travel hundreds of feet with a single step.

The invention promises to make mankind’s dreams of teleportation a reality. And, the scientists insist, traveling through the Door is completely safe.

Yet evidence is mounting that this miraculous machine isn’t quite what it seems—and that its creators are harboring a dangerous secret.  


MY THOUGHTS:

The intriguing blurb and clever cover made me want to read this book straight away, but it turned out to be a bit of a letdown.

Mike Erikson is a high school English teacher working beneath his intellectual capacity. Along with a sky high IQ, he has an eidetic memory, giving him complete photographic and instantaneous recall at all times. One day, his friend Reggie who works for DARPA almost pleads with Mike to take on a special job over his holidays. A team has been working on a device (the Albuquerque Door) which enables people to cover immense distances with just a few steps, but Reggie fears something sinister may be happening behind the scenes. It will be Mike's job to figure out whether or not everything is on the level.

After a riveting prologue, the first part of the book was very slow moving. With each new chapter, I hoped something exciting or breathtaking would occur, but no. There was quite a lot of technical chat about how the device was built, when all I wanted was to see first hand what happened when it was used. Maybe science buffs would enjoy the intricacies, but I'm a reader wanting to get stuck into a story, and it got beyond 40% on my kindle before anything noteworthy happened.

The dialogue is funny at times and flows well, but every character had to show their most unpleasant side, to fit the requirements of the crawling plot. Each team member had their own version of prickly defensiveness, as they feared Mike was going to pull the plug on their work. He in turn, had to be annoying, persistent and nosy. From the start, there were hints of attraction brewing between him and Jamie, and sure enough, she gradually opens to him. By then I didn't care about that subplot, as they'd both been getting on my nerves for some time. And I grew sick and tired of the over-used analogy running all through the story, comparing Mike's mighty brain to the movement of ants. It must have been repeated a thousand times.

Although I wanted things to happen, when they started, things got pretty strange. I was glad to finish this book.

Thanks to Crown Publishing and Blogging for Books for my review copy.

2 stars

Saturday, October 3, 2015

'The End of Me' by Kyle Idleman

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Are you sometimes perplexed with Jesus’s teaching? Do you really want what he wants? Bestselling author Kyle Idleman reveals that the key to the abundant life Jesus promised lies in embracing His inside-out way of life.

As he examines Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, Kyle unpacks the many counter-intuitive truths, including: brokenness is the way to wholeness, mourning is the path to blessing, and emptiness is required in order to know true fullness. Ultimately you will discover how Jesus transforms you as you begin to live out these paradoxical principles. Because only when you come to the end of yourself can you begin to experience the full, blessed, and whole life Jesus offers.


MY THOUGHTS:
It's always refreshing to come across a book with a theme like this, when so many people promote the opposite point of view. Kyle Idleman begins with a letter. It has the salutation, 'Dear Me' and many of us could surely appropriate what follows. Basically, it's something like, 'I've spent my life looking out for you, keeping you happy and putting your desires first, but here's why I can't keep it up.' And that's what the rest of the book addresses.

Idleman looks at some of Jesus' paradoxical commandments, then goes on to argue that paradoxes form our lives. Like Simon the Pharisee, we're often broken but don't know it, because the world tells us we're on the right track. And like the Pharisees, although we may be legends in our own minds, the things we care about don't necessarily match the things God cares about.

I'm glad Idleman highlights the special features of our day and age, namely social media, on which we can confidently control what we want people to know about us. He draws attention to sneaky ways we have of promoting ourselves without seeming to do anything of the sort, such as the 'humblebrag.' We're reminded that Pharisees might have had huge Twitter followings had they lived in our time. The question of how much we do to be seen is one we should ask ourselves not just once or twice but regularly.

Kyle Idleman suggests way to run counter-culture to the world, to help us become more pure in heart when our insides are more likely to match our outsides. These include voluntary confession of sin, giving sacrificially and anonymously, treating others as better than ourselves, and asking for help. He expounds upon each of these in turn.

We're left with timely warnings such as this. 'Woe unto those who play the game, trying to inflate their reputations by being someone they're not. They will ultimately collapse from sheer exhaustion, their pretenses collapsing with them.'

Thanks to David C Cook and NetGalley for my review copy.

3.5 stars

Friday, October 2, 2015

Six novels with celebrities as main characters

One of the benefits of reading fiction is that we get to experience different lives through the characters for a short time. Celebrities lead lives most of us can only ever dream of. This list of books contains main characters who have dealt with big-time fame and fortune. Some have managed to achieve it while others have been born into it. Some are girls and some are guys. While some keep on with their amazing careers, others decide the cost is too high a price to pay. They're interesting reads for times when we want to imagine how it might feel to be media darlings, hounded by paparazzi, showered with accolades and enjoying physical luxuries.


6) A Thing of Beauty, by Lisa Samson.
A Thing of Beauty The heroine, Fiona Hume, has chosen to live like a hermit in a rambling old mansion in which she compulsively collects antiques and bric-a-brac. She was the child of two movie stars and won an Oscar herself, but terrible incidents in her past have caused her to put the lifestyle of a star behind her.
My review is here


5) Freefall, by Kristen Heiztmann.
Freefall A young woman finds herself alone in Hawaii with amnesia, and gradually comes to remember that she's a star of the screen. This makes life interesting both for her and the new friends who were trying to help her.
My review is here.

4) Screen Play, by Chris Coppernoll.
Screen Play: A Novel Harper Gray is a budding actress who is happy to achieve minor roles in stage shows to help pay her bills, but circumstances come together to help her score an amazing role in a Hollywood movie which turns her life around.
My review is here.

3) The Wind in the Wheat, by Reid Arvin.
Wind in the Wheat Andrew Miracle (he has a great name) is a farm boy whose musical ability catches the eye of a talent scout. Andrew believes his dreams and prayers have come true when they want to make him a Christian music star. That is, until he realises how many sacrifices will be required of him, and starts to question what's genuine and what isn't. As this was written by an author who knew the nature of the industry well, it's hard to stop thinking about long after you finish.

These next two are Australian novels written by friends of mine, and I highly recommend them both.

2) A Simple Mistake, by Andrea Grigg.
A Simple Mistake Lainey and Nick used to go out together in their teens, but circumstances split them apart. Some years later, they both decide to give their relationship another try, but there's the added complication of Nick now being a star of both the music arena and big screen. From being anonymous, Lainey is now thrown into the spotlight too, through her association with Nick. She never would have imagined that re-kindling her old romance would have so many complications.

1) Ehvah After, by Rose Dee.
Ehvah After This novel is hot off the press. The heroine, Ehvah Rowe, was brought up in the spotlight, but her famous parents were tragically killed in an accident. Since then, she's found her own notoriety hasn't helped stave off loneliness and disillusionment, and now she's witnessed a murder beneath her own roof. Before she knows it, she's trying to steer clear of a group of desperate crooks. The author, Rose Dee, was one of my co-authors in The Greenfield Legacy, and for anybody who knows her, there's plenty of the suspense, mystery and romance set in the tropics of Queensland you've come to expect.

So these are just picks I've read. If you've read any novels about the rich and famous you'd like to recommend, let us know in the comments.