Friday, April 28, 2017

The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey

I was already an admirer of Josephine Tey because of  The Franchise Affair (reviewed here), but The Singing Sands knocked my fandom up to the next level.

Alan Grant works for Scotland Yard and is on the brink of a nervous breakdown. He catches a train, looking forward to a much needed vacation, only to discover a dead body in compartment B-7.

Who is the dead man? How and why did he die? Typical questions for a mystery novel. But the book diverges from the commonplace with it's atypical detective. The protagonist makes this novel twice as interesting as he struggles with his various demons. Conversations he has with his alter ego are laugh-out-loud funny. Even after the name of the dead man becomes known, in Grant's mind he is often referred to as "B-7." I loved how the mystery helped lead him to healing and wholeness.

All of the characters are wonderfully drawn. The writing is top-notch:

Grant had the island to himself, and for five days in the company of the whooping wind, he quartered his bleak kingdom. It was rather like walking a bad-mannered dog; a dog that rushes past you on narrow paths, leaps on you in ecstasy so that you are nearly knocked over, and drags you from the direction in which you want to go. (p. 86)

Charmingly British, The Singing Sands was Tey's last novel. Alas, no more Alan Grant! In spite of some off-color language, this is a splendid read.


Friday, April 21, 2017

Don't Waste Your Life by John Piper

Don't Waste Your Life is John Piper's call to modern-day believers to a more radical faith walk. In spite of the choppy, repetitive first half of the book, I appreciated his clear-sighted proclamation of a personal righteousness that affects EVERY area of our lives.

Daily Christian living is daily Christian dying. (p. 71)

If Christ is an all-satisfying treasure and promises to provide all our needs, even through famine and nakedness, then to live as though we had all the same values as the world would betray him. (p. 107)

1 Peter 3:15 says, "Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you." Why don't people ask us about our hope? The answer is probably that we look as if we hope in the same things they do. I am wired by nature to love the same toys the world loves. I'm tempted to call earth "home" and to call luxuries "needs" and to use money the way that unbelievers do. (p. 109, 112)

My Calvinist friends emphasize God's sovereignty and glory. My non-Calvinist friends focus on His love and grace. But the Bible doesn't give us this either/or option. According to Piper, the sole motivation of the Christian life is to live for God's glory. I'm not against the theme of this book. My daily, hourly prayer is that my life will honor and glorify God. But it's because I love Him with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. (Mark 12:30) And because He loved me when I was completely unworthy of his love. (Rom 5:8) I was astounded at the pains Piper took to evade the word "love" in relationship to God. In fact, the only time he uses it is in the negative sense:

So here is the question to test whether you have been sucked into this world's distortion of love: Would you feel more loved by God if he made much of you, or if he liberated you from the bondage of self-regard, at great cost to himself, so that you enjoy making much of him forever? (p. 36) In other passages he talks of "treasuring" Christ rather than loving Him.

Yes, I agree that God is most glorified when we are most satisfied in Him. Yes, "His name and renown is the desire of my heart" (Is 26:8), but I am dumbfounded by statements Piper makes such as, There is no greater joy than joy in the greatness of God. What about His goodness? His steadfast love is the sustaining lifeblood of every Christian. Surely, those who understand His costly love (not the cheap grace that Piper must be referring to) are the most likely to spend and be spent for His glory. (2 Cor 12:15)

Any thoughts on this?


Friday, April 14, 2017

The Lilac Girl by Ralph Henry Barbour

Life was quiet, but far from humdrum. On the still, mirrored surface of a pool even the dip of an insect’s wings will cause commotion. So it was in Eden Village. On the placid surface of existence there the faintest zephyr became a gale that raised waves of excitement; the tiniest happening was an event. It is all a matter of proportion.

I’ve written before about my mixed feelings over vintage novels. Though clean and quaint, they are often overly sentimental. There are exceptions, of course, and I’m glad to say that Lilac Girl is one of them. At first I wasn't so sure. In the very first chapter an awkward phrase made the English major in me bristle up. Then there is a ridiculous instance of a man declaring his passion for a woman he has just met. But in subsequent chapters he sees his foolishness. My initial prejudice against the story was soon overcome by its charm.

Wade Herrick and his best friend Ed Craig are partners in a mining enterprise in Colorado. When Ed dies of typhoid, he wills his little house back East to Wade. Wade spends his summer there and learns to love the people of Eden Village, particularly his neighbor Evelyn Walton.

Ralph Henry Barbour (1870-1944) wrote sports novels for boys and occasionally forayed into romantic fiction. Could this be why the book isn’t overly sappy? In any case, I loved it that the protagonists were never coy or excessively insecure. Their conversations were friendly, open and honest – such a breath of fresh air after two recent books I read in which the opposite was true (The Elusive Miss Ellison and Vienna Prelude).

In spite of the ever present question in the mind of anxious readers (“Will he win her?”), an undercurrent of humor makes the book a delightful, light-hearted read. From the hymn-singing maid, to the poetry-quoting old doctor, to a calico cat named Alexander the Great, there are plenty of light moments to balance the heavier ones.


Monday, April 10, 2017

April E-book Deals at Amazon

I combed through this month's offerings at Amazon and found a few good titles:

Fiction: Old Yeller, Jacob I Have Loved by Paterson, and Melanie Dickerson's retellings of fairy tales. (The Fairest Beauty for 99 cents, Silent Songbird, Beautiful Pretender, and Huntress of Thornbeck Forest for $1.99)

Biography: Joni and Ken: An Untold Love Story (99 cents), and Sully

Christian Interest: He Chose the Nails by Max Lucado, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity, and Integrity by Henry Cloud


Friday, April 7, 2017

The Genius of Jane Eyre

As an INTJ I rarely gush, but I could jabber like a fool about Jane Eyre. I've read it so many times that I've lost count. I remember writing a paper about the book for my Freshman Composition class in college and having my professor scoff at my infantile gleanings. Whatever.

Thirty-five years later I may not be any more of a literary expert, but I am certainly much more familiar with its main characters and themes. I've read the Brontë family canon and various books about the siblings, but Jane Eyre still stands out to me as the brightest of the family gems.

It's stunning to think that a sheltered pastor's daughter in Victorian England was capable of such beautiful writing, witty repartee, and insights into human nature. This time through I saw dozens of metaphors. parallels, and incidents of foreshadowing that I never noticed before. If you've never read Jane Eyre, please read no farther because I'll be including spoilers.

I loved it that the previous owner of my copy of Jane Eyre
had marked one of my favorite passages.
My favorite discovery was looking up the meaning of Bridewell, one of Rochester and Blanche's charades in Chapter 18. Oh my word! Is it just a coincidence that Bridewell was the first English prison? Could the reference possibly refer to Rochester as a prisoner in a loveless marriage?

Several rich contrasts hit me for the first time in this reading: Jane visited her dying aunt in the room where she had been sent as a child to ask forgiveness for wrongs she had never done. Eight years later she gives her full and free forgiveness there. Then there were the two horrible Reed sisters vs. St. John's sisters. And both Rochester and Jane disdain the worth of their rivals so much as to not be capable of feeling any real jealousy (Miss Vale's lover and Blanche Ingram respectively.) Both St. John Rivers and Mr. Rochester exert a certain power over Jane. She gladly calls one of them her "master" and retains her own identity in his company, but she says of Rivers, "vivacity in me was distasteful to him. I did not enjoy my servitude."

I loved all these revelations because it shows high tightly-knit the story is. It's MUCH more than a  Victorian sensation novel. Someday I'd like to read the annotated version. I'm sure it would reveal even more of Brontë's genius.


Monday, April 3, 2017

Books I read in March

Thanks to the Intentional Christion Reading Challenge at Goodreads, I read three non-fiction books this month. My two favorite fiction titles were Around the World in 80 Days and The Lilac Girl. (both free for Kindle download) Here is a list of all the books...

The Language of Sparrows by Rachel Phifer - better than average Christian fiction
Radical Hospitality: Benedict's Way of Love by Homan and Pratt - reviewed here
Jane Eyre - audiobook, a delightful re-read (for the umpteenth time)
Beyond Opinion by Ravi Zacharias - a thought-provoking book about living the faith we believe, reviewed here
The Elusive Miss Ellison by Carolyn Miller - okay
Around the World in 80 Days - audiobook, reviewed here
Vienna Prelude by the Thoenes - Christian historical fiction/WWII
The Lilac Girl by Barbour - better than average vintage fiction (review forthcoming)
Don't Waste Your Life by Piper (review forthcoming)



Thursday, March 30, 2017

Beyond Opinion by Ravi Zacharias

I was delighted with the premise of Beyond Opinion by Ravi Zacharias. He writes, "I have little doubt that the single greatest obstacle to the impact of the gospel has not been its inability to provide answers, but the failure on our part to live it out. Apologetics is seen before it is heard."

The book address three components of discipleship: Giving an Answer (addressing the questions of non-believers), Internalizing the Questions and Answers (spiritual transformation), and Living out the Answers. I have to admit I was hoping for more emphasis on the third component since that is what the title implies, but much of the text is given over to apologetics and thus requires a slow, careful reading.

Beyond Opinion covers everything from the authority of scripture, atheism, Islam, the "science vs. faith" dilema, to the importance of understanding the Trinity in order to defend one's faith.

The lack of trinitarian thinking and preaching has exacerbated the prevailing individualism of our culture and has brought it right into our Christian life and practice. If we do not think of God as a relational being in himself, we cannot appreciate the point that we are made to reflect his image in our relationships with one another. (p. 246)

The most helpful chapters to me were on Islam (written by Sam Soloman, a Muslim scholar who later converted to Christianity), Buddhism and Hinduism. I was fascinated by Stuart McAlister's story of imprisonment (for handing out Bibles in a communist country) and his subsequent realization that his theology of suffering was completely inadequate. Chapter 13 (Idolatry, Denial and Self-Deception) was more psychological and didn't quite seem to fit with the others, but every chapter had important ideas to mull over. I even highlighted many of the footnotes.

Great quotes:

The task of the apologist is plainly and simply to remove the doubts and point people to the cross.

Tossing a verbal grenade down the chimney chute will not do.

This is the age of therapy, the domination of market values, where looking good and feeling good replace being good and doing good - and most people don't know the difference.

Our role is to win the person, not the argument.


Monday, March 27, 2017

Back to the Classics Challenge 2017

Karen at Books and Chocolate is hosting a Back to the Classics Challenge for 2017 (I was so late finding out about it that sign-ups are now closed, but I still plan to do it.) Because of the original challenge (50 Classics in 5 years ), I read 48 books on my list! I loved having the gentle pressure to keep chipping away at my goals. As I neared the end of the challenge, I looked around for a new one and found Karen's today. I have many classics I still want to read so I'm adapting some of them to her requirements.

1.  A 19th century classic - The Scarlet Letter (1850).
2.  A 20th century classic - The Heart of the Matter (1948) 
3.  A classic by a woman author. - Uncle Tom's Cabin, Little Women (re-read), or Silas Marner
4.  A classic originally published in another language.  - The Iliad
5.  A classic originally published before 1800. - Shakespeare play
6.  A romance classic. by Trollope or Gaskell (Mary Barton?)

7.  A Gothic or horror classic. – Picture of Dorian Gray or House of Seven Gables 
8.  Classic with a Number in the TitleAround the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne 3/16/17
9.  A classic about an animal or which includes the name of an animal in the title.   - Where the Red Fern Grows, Watership Down, or Old Yeller
10. A classic set in a place you'd like to visit. (real or imaginary) - Secret Garden (re-read)
11. An award-winning classic - The Yearling

12. A Russian classic. – Anna Karenina by Tolstoy

Other classics I hope to read in the next ten years:
13. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
14. Augustine's Confessions
15. Ben Hur by Lew Wallace
16. The Betrothed by Manzoni
17. Bleak House by Dickens
18, 19. Two Brazilian Classics (O Guarani? Jorge Amado or Machado de Assis)
20. Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky
21. Canterbury Tales by Chaucer
22. Chronicles of Wasted Time by Muggeridge
23. The Daughter of Time by Tey
24. Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Gibbon
25. The Deerslayer by James Fenimore Cooper
26. Divine Comedy by Dante
27. Dombey and Son by Dickens
28. East of Eden by Steinbeck
29. Everlasting Man by Chesterton
30. Far from the Madding Crowd by Hardy
31. Holy Living and Holy Dying by Jeremy Taylor
32. The Inferno by Dante
33. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
34. Journal of a Plague Year by Defoe
35. Journals of James Cook
36. Journals of Lewis and Clark
37. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
38. Kon-Tiki by Heyerdahl
39. Last Days of Pompeii by Edward Bulwer-Lytton
40. Lilith by George MacDonald
41. Jungle Book by Kipling
42. Lark Rise to Candleford
43. Madame Bovary by Flaubert
44. Man in the Iron Mask by Dumas
45. Martian Chronicles by Bradbury
46. Morte d'Arthur by Malory
47. O Pioneers! (or My Antonia) by Willa Cather
48. Phantastes by George MacDonald
49. Princess and Curdie (re-read)
50. Red Badge of Courage by Crane
51. Rise of Silas Lapham by Howells
52. The Story of my Life by Keller
53. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
54. (Something by Solzhenitsyn)
55. Things Fall Apart by Achebe
56. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
57. Walden by Thoreau
58. War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells
59. The Way We Live Now by Trollope 
60. Water Babies by Kingsley (re-read)

Alternate titles: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Irving, Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, Pickwick Papers, Shakespeare, Origin of the Species by Darwin, Freckles and Girl of the Limberlost  by Porter (re-read), Father Brown stories, Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Scarlet Pimpernel (re-read), Pursuit of God by Tozer


Friday, March 24, 2017

Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne

I didn't enjoy Around the World in 80 Days the first time I tried to read it, but when my sister told me it was one of their family favorites, I decided to give it another try. It helped that the second time around I listened to the audible version, wonderfully narrated by Patrick Tull. Tull is British, but does a great job with Passepartout's French accent, and also with the gruff American voices.

Phileas Fogg leads a quiet life, living alone (except for his valet), frequenting his men's club and living by the clock. His previous valet was fired for bringing him shaving water at 84 degrees Fahrenheit instead of 86. All of that changes when he wagers that he can circumnavigate the world in eighty days. The story takes place in 1872 when most modes of transportation were extremely unreliable, so the men in the club are eager to bet against him. Although he encounters many obstacles on his journey, he remains delightfully unperturbed. Even when he's accused of a crime and hunted by a determined English detective.

The whole story pokes fun at British exactness (and later at American energy/ingenuity). It is a nice light-hearted read if you are looking for clean, escapist literature. There are damsels in distress (in India), gun fights with Indians (in America), kidnappings (on the high seas), and other hair-raising adventures. And a good dose of humor.

Is Fogg a criminal? Or just an eccentric? Will he fall in love with the lovely Aouda? Or is it true that he has no heart? Will Detective Fix be able to stop him? All these and other questions are answered nicely by the end of the book.


Thursday, March 16, 2017

Radical Hospitality: Benedict's Way of Love

Radical Hospitality is not a book about recipes and table-setting techniques. Instead Father Homan defines hospitality as listening to and opening space for the strangers in our midst. He cuts to the chase by listing the most “dangerous” strangers that most of us can think of: the homeless, the AIDS patient, the Muslim.

Hospitality has two meanings for most people today. It either refers to hotels or cruise ships, or it is connected to entertaining friends and family in the warmth of candlelight with gleaming silver and ivory lace. One model makes it an industry, making it profitable. The other model relegates it to the domain of entertainment and housekeeping…Thus it has become safe and cozy, rather than revolutionary, risky and world-rattling. (p. 10)

The subtitle refers to the Rules of Saint Benedict (480 – 550 AD) which were guidelines for living in monastic community. When St. Benedict wrote of hospitality he stressed the importance of welcoming the outsider, the poor the pilgrim. Benedict understood that guests are crucial to the making of monk. Benedict was a realist; he knew there would always be people at the monastery door. It was a means of grace given to monks, a complicated reality that contributed to the making of their hearts. (p. viii)

The theme of the book is hospitality as a spiritual discipline: Listening is the core of hospitality, and while the people we listen to benefit, in the end we are the ones transformed. (p. 220)

This book challenged me to think in new ways. The only reason I'm not more enthusiastic about it is because of its average prose ("You like yourself better after you've reached out to someone.") its occasionally fluffy theology, and it's unnecessary length. The same truths could have been delineated in half the number of pages. My biggest gripe, though, is that it emphasized grace at the expense of truth. (The Rules themselves are very biblical, but this interpretation of them is less so.)

Oswald Chambers put it quite sternly when he wrote, If sympathy is all that human beings need, then the cross of Christ is an absurdity and there is absolutely no need for it. What the world needs is not “a little bit of love,” but major surgery. If you think you are helping lost people with your sympathy and understanding, you are a traitor to Jesus Christ. You must have a right-standing relationship with him yourself, and pour your life out in helping others in his way – not in a human way that ignores God. (from December 20th of My Utmost for His Highest)

Favorite quotes:
Gratitude is the center of a hospitable heart.

We greet the morning sun each day with our to-do lists, while the monk greets the sun with prayer and silence.
None of us likes or welcomes the sudden interruption or change that alters everything. But hospitality is not a planned event… It is the stance of the heart that is abandoned to Love.


Friday, March 10, 2017

Celia's House by D.E. Stevenson

Celia's House is vintage Stevenson. The house is one of the main "characters" (as in Amberwell) and is often described in human terms: It was a lovely afternoon and Dunnian House slept peacefully in the sunshine... (p. 13) and The years passed, but Dunnian showed little signs of change. There was electric light in the old house now, and four bathrooms, and there was a new garage behind the stables that held two cars, but Dunnian had assimilated these modern improvements without losing character or dignity. (216)

The book starts at the turn of the century and ends in the middle of WWII. (It was first published in 1943.) Celia is a lively spinster who wants to ensure that the house is inherited by someone who will not just live there, but love it. So she re-writes her will to the consternation of all her relatives, except her moneyless nephew Humphrey

For a moment Humphrey felt quite alarmed. Would he and Alice be able to "live up to" the place? They were used to a different standard of life and to all sorts of makeshifts and expediencies; this would be quite a new experience with new responsibilities and new problems to solve... and then he remembered the children and his heart was suddenly at peace, for the children would make the old house into a home and that was what it should be. Dunnian had been built by Old Humphrey Dunn, not as a sort of glorified hotel in which to entertain strangers, but as a family house for his children and his children's children. (p. 91)

The rest of the book details Humphrey's life at Dunnian House, especially the personalities and life decisions of each of his children. Not a lot of plot, but delightful nonetheless. Biblical and literary allusions are sprinkled throughout. When the young people decide to put on a Shakespeare play, every one of them is familiar enough with A Midsummer Night's Dream to know which part would be best for them. (Imagine any group of young people knowing that today!)

One thing I enjoy about Stevenson's books is that she often shows the shallowness of romantic love and emphasizes friendly enduring companionship. Oliver, a neighborhood playboy, falls in love with Debbie because he can see himself settling down with her and being happy when the first frenzy of love is over. Jerry has a similar revelation about Sam in Miss Buncle Married.

A good quote: People are apt to take you at your own valuation. I mean, if you lie down on the floor and look like a doormat, people can't be blamed for wiping their boots on you. (p. 455)

Please note: The "sequel" to this book is Listening Valley. The young American soldier who is introduced in the last pages of Celia's House reappears in Chapter 20 of Listening Valley. Many of the allusions to family names in Listening Valley make more sense if you've read the first book. BUT Listening Valley can be read as a stand-alone because the story line is completely different. It is not as satisfying as many of Stevenson's other titles because it is not as light-hearted. And the whole "listening valley" theme is not that convincing. It was published in 1944 and many of its characters have been frightened and damaged by the war. Others are very unhappy due to the unkindness of others. And unlike most of her books, Stevenson takes a cavalier approach to marriage in this one (as she did in Shoulder the Sky) when she includes a man who kindly divorces his wife so she can be happy with another. Ugh!


Friday, March 3, 2017

Books I Read in February

You can't tell from my reading log this month that I made a New Year's Resolution to read more non-fiction. I am plodding through the fantastic Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith We Defend, edited by Ravi Zacharias. But for every 50 pages I've read in it, I've read an entire light novel. 

Here's what I read in February:

By the Light of a Thousand Stars by Jamie Langston Turner (reviewed here)
Heartless by Stengle - Christian fantasy (I got through 193 pages before giving up.)
Seek and Hide by Amanda G. Stevens (Christian suspense, reviewed here)
Found and Lost - the sequel to Seek and Hide (mentioned in the above review)
Home to Harmony by Philip Gulley (humorous look at a fictional pastor's life in small town Harmony, Indiana)
Celia's House by D.E. Stevenson (review forthcoming)
Listening Valley by D.E. Stevenson (sort of a sequel to Celia's House, but not as good)
A Fool and His Monet by Sandra Orchard - mystery/chick lit, I prefer heroines who are less insecure and less boy-crazy.


Friday, February 24, 2017

By the Light of a Thousand Stars by Jamie Langston Turner

After I read Jamie Langston Turner's Winter Birds (2006), I was quick to download several of her other titles because I was pleased to finally find an author who could write good Christian fiction without bashing me over the head with the gospel.

By the Light of a Thousand Stars (1999) is another example of excellent writing and intriguing characters. Each of the protagonists has a unique story of brokenness and is at a different stage of her faith walk. Dottie has been a Christian for a long time and is struggling with her faith since the death of her daughter. Della Boyd has lived a life of service to others and can't imagine why anyone would call her a sinner. Catherine is a cantankerous, shallow housewife who criticizes everything and everyone. Barb is the fairly new Christian who is trying her best to share her faith with others. Each woman is likable and believable. I loved the other kooky characters (the poetry club members) that Turner introduces into the story as well.

Turner taught in the English department at BJU for many years and weaves references to poetry and plays throughout her narrative, which I enjoyed. But the book fell short in two areas. First, the excessive teenage banter/humor got old after a while. And the fact that so many people ended up getting saved robbed the book of the sense of authenticity that I so appreciated in Winter Birds.

But I'm still a Jamie Langston Turner fan. Her writing ability is light years ahead of most Christian novelists and I look forward to dipping into her other books.


Friday, February 17, 2017

Seek and Hide by Amanda G. Stevens

One of my New Year's resolutions was "no more substandard fiction," so I've been ignoring all the free Christian e-books that have come across my path. But when I saw the premise of Seek and Hide, I couldn't resist:

Six years ago, the government took control of the church. Only re-translated Bibles are legal, and a specialized agency called the Constabulary enforces this and other regulations. Marcus Brenner, a new Christian, will do anything to protect his church family from imprisonment--including risk his own freedom to gain the trust of a government agent. (The story is a lot more complicated than that, but that gives you the main themes.)

Brenner is doing his best to save people before they can be arrested for hate crimes (i.e. owning a Bible) and in the process he meets an intriguing mix of good guys, bad guys and folks in between. I was especially intrigued by the number of people who were not Christians in the book, but who were sympathetic to believers because they felt that their loss of religious freedom was unjust. The book takes place in the not-so-distant future when evangelism is equated with terrorism and Christians are "re-educated" to give up their antiquated, hateful ideas of sin.

I liked this book for so many reasons. Beside the fact that it is darn good storytelling, I appreciated that Christians are portrayed in a realistic manner and that the book offers no easy answers to life's problems. In addition, Stevens manages to write about gritty situations without sordidness. The conversations are believable. And, unlike most Christian novels, the characters are complex and interesting.

If you like your novels squeaky clean, you may be uncomfortable with a few brief episodes of women ogling a bare-chested man. There are also references to rape and alcoholism. These were handled discreetly and added to the multi-layered story.

A fascinating read!

P.S. The sequel, Found and Lost, is very, very good. Unfortunately it contains some mildly steamy love scenes, which I thought were unnecessary. (This is a risk some Christian writers are willing to take so as not to replicate the saccharine-sweet tripe that is peddled as Christian fiction, but it's a hard line to toe.) If you watch American TV, it won't faze you at all.


Friday, February 10, 2017

The Four Graces by D. E. Stevenson

The Four Graces is another winner from D.E. Stevenson. It isn't technically a sequel to the third Miss Buncle book, but it has some of the same characters (newlyweds Jane and Archie for example) and continues the saga of small-town English life during World War II. Although the gist of the story takes place in the home of Pastor Grace, there are side stories of clothing, food, and gas shortages, as well as a poignant tale of an evacuee child from London.

The vicar of Chevis Green is a widower with four daughters, each of whom is splendidly drawn by Stevenson with her own personality and challenges. Addie is serving the war effort by living and working in London. Liz is a "land girl", serving as a farm hand in place of a young man who has gone off to fight. Sal and Tilly live at home, helping their father with his parish responsibilities. Though a couple of the girls have love interests, this book cannot be classified as a romance. It doesn't really have much of a plot either. It's just a splendid recounting of every day life in an English town where people are trying to make the best of difficult times.

The friendly conversations, the bravery through hardships, and the literate dialogue make this book a treat. Stevenson did not write "Christian" novels (thank goodness!), but her characters were familiar with the scriptures and quote the Bible (as well as poems and works of literature) in casual conversation which I find delightful. In fact, the book is twice as funny if you catch the biblical allusions. (I could not read this in public places because I chortled too loudly.)

Some good quotes:

When Mrs. Smith meets Mr. Grace, she says she hopes is broad-minded. "No," he answered. "Not in the sense you mean. I have noticed that nowadays when people speak of being broad-minded they really mean muddleheaded, or lacking in principles...Nowadays people are anxious to appear worse then they are. It's a queer sort of inverted hypocrisy."


Sometimes the girls disagreed with each other and said so, making no bones about it, but they were so much in tune, and so fully in accord upon essentials that it did not matter how violently they disagreed upon nonessentials. In fact, a good hearty disagreement was welcome, adding spice to their talk.

"Books are people," smiled Miss Marks. "In every book worth reading, the author is there to meet you, to establish contact with you. He takes you into his confidence and reveals his thoughts to you."

This was my tenth Stevenson title, and definitely one of my favorites.


Friday, February 3, 2017

Audiobooks for Cheapskates

I've written before about free books at Librivox. And I've mentioned previously about how I avoided joining Audible because I thought the books were too expensive, but then changed my mind. Later, when I had a surplus of books I cancelled my monthly fee and signed up for the "Inactive Light" option which was ten dollars a year, enabling me to buy books whenever I wished (at full price) and to receive e-mails about daily deals.

I have LOVED this option for several reasons. First, even though the daily deals are mostly garbage, occasionally a gem pops up like Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey a few weeks ago, and The Secret Garden a few months ago. Both cost about $3 on sale. Secondly, if I download a classic (free) title from Amazon for my Kindle, the same title is often deeply discounted at Audible, just because I own a copy of it. That's how I got a fantastic version of Anna Karenina for almost nothing. (It's usually $23.)

The last time I checked, the "Inactive Light" option was no longer listed on the site, so I called and they said it was available by request.

In addition to Librivox and Audible, I've just discovered that I can get thousands of free audiobooks (movies, music and e-books too) via my Michigan library (even here in Brazil) through something called Hoopla.

Feeling spoiled rotten (and wanting to share the wealth), 

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Books I Read in January

I was crazy busy last month so I could hardly believe it when I saw on my Goodreads' list that I'd read eight books. Part of it was due to attacking my New Year's goals with gusto, but part of it was because I had time to read on the subway to and from my substitute teaching job.

1) I don't usually count cookbooks but The New Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day had plenty of text and tips so I decided to include it. I love homemade bread without stress so this method intrigues me. Their maple oatmeal bread recipe is scrumptious!

2) The Leavenworth Case, a vintage mystery by Anne Katherine Green was just okay.

3) The Sea Glass Sisters by Wingate is a novella that is surprisingly good for Christian fiction.

4) Amberwell by D.E. Stevenson was a light, comforting read. (reviewed here)

5) Eugenics and other Evils by G.K. Chesterton was not as brilliant as some of his other books.

6) The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (audiobook was reviewed here)

7) The Four Graces by D.E. Stevenson - possibly one of my favorite Stevenson titles (review forthcoming)

8) Songs of Heaven by Robert Coleman was a worshipful study of the poetic passages in the book of Revelation.

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

In every single book I've read by George Eliot, the characters are unhappy in love yet press on to do what is right. (Adame Bede, Daniel Deronda, Middlemarch). But Mill on the Floss wins the prize for the most unhappiness.

Maggie Tulliver, grew up with her brother Tom on the Floss River where her father was a mill owner. Although she is twice as smart as her brother, he gets sent off to school and she is left to languish in poverty (both mental and financial). She receives some schooling later, but it is cut short through poor decisions made by her father. Throughout the book she is torn between being dutiful to those she loves and snatching at bits of joy that come her way. She is miserable with a capital "M," but that's all I can say without giving any spoilers.

Eliot's prose is always exceptional and her insights into human nature and human suffering are thought-provoking. Like Trollope, her wit is an occasional, lovely surprise in the midst of heavier text. Nevertheless, I don't know if it could have kept up with this book if it had not been for the audiobook, narrated by Wanda McCaddon. She did a wonderful job with all the voices, making the reader sympathetic to each character no matter their faults and foibles.

Although this was not a happy book, I take my hat off to Eliot for having written love stories that are antithetical to what comes out of Hollywood. The Mill on the Floss may be the only book you ever read that asks the question, "If two people are madly in love, why shouldn't they marry?" and then gives a negative answer. The people in Eliot's books love deeply, but the cost of their love comes very high. Because of that, her stories are unsettling - in a good kind of way.



Friday, January 20, 2017

The Laws of Murder by Charles Finch

I read a lot of books that I never review because I want to recommend only the best. But I'm breaking my rule for this particular series because it's too good not to mention. Please note that I've read just one book (#8 of the Charles Lenox mysteries), so I can't speak for the other books.

Basic story: Charles Lenox has always loved solving mysteries. After a career in Parliament he decides to become part of a detective agency, but business is tediously slow. When a former colleague is murdered, Lenox plunges headfirst into crime-solving again.

Author Charles Finch was educated at Oxford and Yale, majoring in English and history, and it shows. He gives little sketches of Victorian practices throughout the novel that enrich the story. His writing is excellent in spite of the occasional use of profanity. This particular story includes some references to prostitution, but never crosses over into the tawdry. I appreciated Finch's restraint.

The mystery was good, but it was not what kept me reading. The reason I highly recommend the series is because Finch does a bang-up job of creating characters that you really care about. (90% of the fiction I read in 2016 had unappealing protagonists, which has left me slightly traumatized.)

Charles Lenox is happily married (imagine that!) and so is his friend Dr. McConnell. Other friendships and relationships include the young widow Polly, the former butler who is now in parliament, and amateur detective Lord Dallington.  I loved them all and look forward to meeting them again as I read the whole series. (Although I had not read the previous novels, Laws of Murder gives enough of a back story so that you know who's who.)

The kindle versions of Finch's books are pricey ($10 range) but some of the hardcovers are already available for one cent from Amazon and for free at PaperBackSwap. I got my copy as a free e-book download from my Michigan library. Where there's a will, there's a way!


Friday, January 13, 2017

Amberwell by D. E. Stevenson

Scottish author D. E. Stevenson (1892-1973) is a favorite of mine when I need literary "comfort food." But her books are almost impossible to find in libraries and are costly for Kindle. So I was thrilled to nab Amberwell when it was listed for 99 cents last week.

The novel begins with five children being brought up on the family estate of Amberwell. Their life seems idyllic. But as time goes on we see how terribly neglected they are by their parents and how hungry they all are for love. As World War II arrives, each goes their own way, some making poor choices, some suffering through no fault of their own. All of them grow. In spite of the episodes of heartache, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It's been the first time in ages that I've read a book in "one gulp." I'm disappointed the sequel, Summerhills,  is unavailable for Kindle. (There is an Audible version for $15.)

One of the themes of the book is the gardens. Each owner of the home wants to improve its grounds, but only for show. The children love the place for itself and treasure the weeds as much as the finely manicured lawns. This joy in living is coupled with another theme, the joy of serving. Those who truly love Amberwell are willing to make the sacrifices to keep it running. And they are the only truly happy ones.

Not all Stevenson books are created equal. Though I thoroughly enjoyed the Miss Buncle series (you can ignore the one star rating from a disgruntled Stevenson fan) and have heard raves about the Mrs. Tim books, most of the other titles have fallen into obscurity for a reason. The Gerald and Elizabeth books were just "okay."

Several sources say this is one of three, but I've been unable to find the title for the third book. Anyone know what it might be?


Monday, January 9, 2017

2017 Reading Challenge for Christian Books

I was looking around for a book challenge targeted at Christian books and found this one at Goodreads. They suggest 52 books in 52 weeks. Even though that is more than I'm aiming for, I decided to join so that I'll have some semblance of accountability.

Here is the challenge:(on the Goodreads page they even list possible titles for each category) The 20 books marked in brown are my (flexible) plans. I'm thrilled to finally be attacking my TBR list of Christian books on my Kindle.

1. A book about Prayer. - Power of Praying for Your Adult Children
2. A book about Forgiveness
3. A book by a Christian conference speaker. - Divine Design by MacArthur
4. A book by or about a Pastor's wife. - Church-Planting Wife by Hoover
5. A Christian Novel - Seek and Hide by Amanda G. Stevens 2/14/17
6. A Christian Non-Fiction book. - The Cross of Christ by Andrew Murray 4/22/17
7. A Memoir.
8. A book on the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) Awards list.
9. A book by or about a missionary. - Climbing by Goforth
10. A book by C.S. Lewis. - On Stories
11. A book with the word "Gospel" in the title. - The Gospel in Ten Words by Ellis
12. A book about Christian Living.
13. A book someone tells you "Changed My Life".
14. A book by your Favorite Christian Author - By the Light of a Thousand Stars by Jamie Langston Turner 1/17
15. A book on Marriage or Living a single life or as a widow/widower for Christ.
16. A book longer than 400 pages. - The Island of the World by O'Brien
17. A book you own but have never read. - Songs of Heaven by Coleman 1/17
18. A book about a current controversial issue. - Rosaria Butterfield title
19. A book with a one-word title.
20. A book more than 100 years old or takes place more than 100 years ago. - Poetic Wonder of Isaac Watts
21. A book published in 2016.
23. A book recommended by a Christian Friend. - Death by Living
24. A book about Joy or Happiness.
25. A book whose title comes from a Bible Verse.
26. A book on Theology. - Creed by Winfield Bevins
27. A book by an Indie Christian Author.
28. A book on Christian Growth. - Don't Waste Your Life by Piper 3/22/17
29. A book about Church or a specific Church.
30. A book with Heaven in the title.
31. A Christian Romance novel.
32. A book about Christian Persecution.
33. A book on Spiritual Warfare.
34. A Wilbur Award winning book.
35. A book about a Religious Cult.
36. A Christian Dystopian book.
37. A book about Biblical Prophecy.
38. A book by a Christian Author you've never read before - Because we are Called to Counter Culture by Platt
39. A book that was a Christy Award winner. - Heartless by Stengle (I got through 193 pages) DNF
40. A book on any of the Goodreads Christian book lists.
41. A Christian science fiction/fantasy book.
42. A book on depression or how to help a friend/family member who suffers from depression.
43. A Christian fiction book with a beautiful cover.
44. A book with 100 pages or less.
45. A historical Christian book.
46. A Historical Christian Fiction book. - Vienna Prelude by Thoene 3/12/17
47. A book on Evangelism. - Nudge by Sweet
48. A book about a Faith different than yours - Beyond Opinion by Ravi Zacharias 3/17/17
49. A book with God in the title.
50. A book with Jesus or Christ in the title. - The Loveliness of Christ by Rutherford
51. A book of the Bible.
52. A book of your choice. - Weakness is the Way by J.I. Packer



Friday, January 6, 2017

Wiersbe Commentaries on Genesis

Although Warren W. Wiersbe has worked with Youth for Christ, pastored Moody Church in Chicago, written for Christianity Today, and broadcast his own radio show, he is probably most known today for his "BE" series, an explanation of every book of the Bible for laymen. I recently worked my way through his Genesis series and would like to share a few thoughts.

Be Basic deals with the first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis. If you are wondering why there's so much confusion and destruction in today’s world, one reason is because people are ignoring or rejecting the basics. But that’s like going on a voyage without a compass or radar, or trying to perform brain surgery without lights. Wiersbe goes on to say that to know the book of Genesis is to know the fundamental truths about God, the world, yourself and other people, law, sin, salvation, marriage, faith, and spiritual fulfillment. In addition to these are themes of God-ordained work and rest, male and femaleness, scripture as our authority, and God as covenant keeper. As always, Wiersbe combines his insights with biblical cross-references and memorable one-liners such as, We live by promises, not by explanations, and Faith is living without scheming

Be Obedient focuses on Abraham. At first I was miffed at having to buy three separate commentaries, but I see now that the life of Abraham demanded its own separate volume. Wiersbe does a great job of explaining Old Testament practices and of teaching the truths of the book being studied within the context of the whole Bible. (From page 62, Take time to read Galatians 3, Romans 4, and James 2, and you will see how Abraham illustrates salvation by faith.). A very helpful commentary and probably my favorite of the three.

Be Authentic covers the lives of the patriarchs that came after Abraham. They were "authentic" in that the Bible does not try to cover up their faults. Yet they trusted God and proved that He can use imperfect people who choose to follow Him. There was a little too much supposition about possible motives for why people did what they did, but for the most part, I appreciated his insights. Again, Wiersbe had me scurrying to read many other Bible verses to put the ones being studied into the context of all of Scripture. One of his NT cross-references which shed light on the Genesis stories was Hebrews 6:12 - It is through faith and patience that we inherit the promises.

All three of these Bible study guides were excellent. By the way, Wiersbe's commentaries cost about $10 each, but I never pay full price for them. By subscribing to e-book bargain sites such as Gospel E-books, I often get them for 99 cents or for free. At the time of this writing, books one and three are priced quite low.