Monday, December 18, 2017

Novels of the Borgias

Novels of the Borgias, Kate Quinn

I have continued reading Kate Quinn’s books recently, enjoying her ability to combine history with a great story and interesting characters.

There are two books in these novels of the Borgias – The Serpent and the Pearl and The Lion and the Rose.

Set in Rome in the final years of the 1400s, the story revolves around 3 main characters. Giulia Farnese is a prize bride with her gorgeous beauty and floor length hair. Excited to have her marriage arranged to a handsome young man, she is shocked to realised it’s a sham set up so that Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia can have her as his mistress. As he ascends the papacy as Alexander VI, she is installed openly by his side as his lover. Knowing that such a set up will create enemies, Leonello is hired as her cynical yet powerful bodyguard, his skills hidden because he is usually ignored or ridiculed because he is a dwarf. In the kitchens is talented cook Carmelina, a runaway from her family with a devastating secret to hide.

The Pope already has numerous children by other women, openly acknowledged as Borgias and all given positions of prominence and power in the church and throughout the Holy Roman Empire. None are checked and their ruthless and callous natures are readily apparent. Giulia and her entourage need to learn to survive and thrive in such a bed of vipers.

As a story it’s fascinating, the fact it is based in truth is somewhat terrifying. It goes to show, yet again, that truth is often much stranger than fiction. Again, Quinn explains at the end what she took liberties with and what appears to be true. There is also a murder mystery to solve along the way which I didn’t love, but did certainly add to the tension.

One of the thoughts that kept returning to my mind in this 500th year anniversary of events of the Reformation was, “no wonder!” Europe was ripe for reform; the church robbed the people, lied, stole and cheated to get what it wanted with excessive preference given to those of privilege. It's no surprise Luther had a lot to say.

Some of the quotes that prompted such thoughts:
“The Borgias, in the eyes of most of the world including themselves, had been put upon the earth by God to lead sumptuous lives on behalf of the masses. Their pomp was God’s will.”

From a very stressed master of ceremonies: “Before this wedding I should have quit. Because there is no proper way to host an official wedding of the Pope’s daughter, attended by the Pope’s sons and the Pope’s concubine! None! Because by rights, none of them should exist in the first place!”
“Pope Alexander VI. I wondered if anyone else besides myself has thought it significant that he chose not an apostle’s name or a virtuous name – no Paul or John, no Innocent or Pius – but the name of a conqueror.”
One of the delights of these books is Quinn’s clear research into the cooking of the times. One of her real characters, Bartolomeo Scappi, became one of the greatest cooks of the Renaissance and was Vatican chef to two popes. Many of his recipes are included in the book. The details of cooking, food preparation and how kitchens worked at that time are both intriguing and lovely.

More impressive offerings from a very gifted writer.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Eddie the Eagle

It’s always a little odd to watch a movie about a time you clearly remember. The 1988 Winter Olympics, Calgary: Husband can remember learning the anthem in school orchestra and I sang it in choir. This is part of recent history.

Even so, memories fade and while I recalled Michael Edwards (Eddie the Eagle), the British ski jumper; the details eluded me, particularly what he actually did and did not achieve. So for me there was still some tension as the story unfolded.

We all enjoyed it: the likeability of Eddie, his never doubting determination to go to the Olympics and his working-class family background with a supportive mother and frustrated father. Once he realised he could not be a summer athlete, he turns his attentions to winter sports. Losing out on the downhill skiing team, he sets his sight on being the only British ski jumper. The British Olympic Committee want nothing to do with him and set the distance to jump higher than they think he can manage, but with perseverance and the addition of a mentor Bronson Peary (greatly acted by Hugh Jackman), Eddie goes on to prove them wrong.

There is one uncomfortable moment for family viewing, as Peary vividly describes to Eddie that a ski jump should mirror the emotions of a climax. There are mild echoes of the restaurant scene in When Harry Met Sally: younger children won’t really get it, but teens probably will.

It was obviously a memorable Olympics with the Jamaican bobsled team providing the inspiration for the 1993 film Cool Runnings (we might turn to that soon too). Rules have been changed since and we don’t seem to have these ‘outsiders’ in the Olympics anymore. Edwards has been quoted as saying that the movie is only about 5% accurate and even Peary is a completely fictional character.

I quite liked this quote from the Huffington Post:
This movie focuses on the good times in his life. It's fun and it's inspirational. A real movie reviewer would no doubt come up with better adjectives but those are the best I've got. But so what? Fun and inspirational should never be under-valued. As I said, three generations of my family loved this film. You can't believe most of it, but you can believe in it. That's a subtle but important difference.
It was a fun one.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Empress of Rome

Empress of Rome Saga, Kate Quinn

Five years ago, I reviewed the first two of four books in Kate Quinn’s Empress of Rome Saga. I always meant to return to the rest of the series and have just done so, probably because I got caught up in the Ancient Roman world of Caesar reading Iggulden’s Emperor series. That was about 50BC, this series starts about 100 years later and covers about 50 years of Emperors, their families and their courts, often told from the perspective of the women, including the Empresses. Mistress of Rome was a fascinating although disturbing read of Emperor Domitian, who was vicious, cruel and probably mad; the woman who became his mistress Thea and her love, the gladiator Arius.

Empress of the Seven Hills and Lady of the Eternal City focus on Vix (son of Thea and Arius) and Sabina, a member of the Imperial family. The first centers around beloved Emperor Trajan, who held the empire together and expanded it through large scale warfare. Vix slowly rises through the ranks of the legions, while Sabina balances the interests of her husband Hadrian, potential heir to the Emperor, while the Empress Plotina is mastermining her way through Rome. I enjoyed this one, it didn’t have same level of evil characters that many others had, although Plotina is pretty awful.

Lady of the Eternal City is darker in numerous ways. Hadrian is now Emperor, having gained the throne in suspect circumstances. His vicious side always threatens to erupt and Empress Sabina treads a careful dance trying to manage him. Hadrian’s long time enemy Vix struggles to maintain his vengeful streak when Hadrian’s love and attention turns to his son, Antinous. Quinn’s comments at the end note that much of what she has related here is confirmed in historical record, it was a passionate and long affair between two men that affected the Empire and people’s opinion of the Emperor. Numerous statues, cities and temples were erected in Antinous’ honour by Hadrian. Quinn also notes that numerous Roman Emperors lived openly homosexual lives, particularly with their attention turning to young boys and slaves. It's an acknowledged part of history. At the same time, she dwells in these details. I really enjoyed the story of Sabina, Vix and their travels around the Roman Empire. I enjoyed the explanations of the way the Empire ran, the details of the characters, both good and bad, but I didn’t need to spend that much time in the details of the relationship between Trajan and Antinous. We all have our reading preferences.

Quinn is a gifted writer, she sets a cracking pace and keeps you interested the whole way along. She has written books of other times as well, I’ll turn to them soon.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Wonder

Four years ago, we were given a book which shot to the top of our favourites list: Wonder by R. J. Palacio. I read it to each of our children when they are ten, and everyone we know who has read it has loved it. It’s the story of ten-year-old August Pullman, a boy who loves his parents, his sister, his dog and Star Wars. Yet starting a new school in Year 5 presents a challenge, because Auggie has a severe facial disfigurement. It’s a book that teaches, tugs at the heart strings, and challenges and encourages children and adults alike.

So, the news that it was being turned into a movie was met with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Could it possibly be as good? How would they portray Auggie?

I had the treat of seeing this with a Year 6 school excursion. So, even surrounded by 50 twelve-year olds all chatting and snacking, the movie experience was undiminished. And when they all cheered at certain points, it was certainly fun to be part of a larger group experience.

It is truly an excellent adaptation. The wonder of Wonder is not only the engaging story of August himself, but the depth and range of characters. Different parts of the story are told from the perspective of other people, including his sister Via and friend Jack Will. No character is one-sided. These are fully fleshed people, each with positive and negative traits.

This a family movie and families would do well to see it together. It’s ideal for ages 10 and up. While it’s mostly appropriate for kids a few years younger, they won’t really get the nuance. It’s also a great movie for teens, who will both appreciate and understand how kids behave, but also will see their own lives reflected in Via, Auggie’s older sister at high school. She adds the insight of how siblings of kids with special needs learn to manage. (“August is the Sun. Me and Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the Sun ... I’ve gotten used to not complaining, and I’ve gotten used to not bothering Mom and Dad with little stuff.”)

The parents are cast brilliantly with highly dedicated mum Isabel (Julia Roberts) and fun, caring father Nate (Owen Wilson) almost stealing the show, demonstrating a strong marriage and real parenting strengths. It’s no wonder even despite their family’s complications, Via’s friend Miranda wishes Auggie’s family were her own.

The teachers (including Mandy Patinkin) are just the type of teachers you want your kids to have: committed, fair, able to determine kids’ issues and be sensitive to them. The idea of the monthly precepts isn’t as strong in the movie as in the book, but the main one taught by Mr Browne is emphasised: “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” This has become somewhat of a motto in our home in recent years. With kids that are very black and white, and keen to point out each other’s errors, choosing to be silent at points in order to show love has been a helpful lesson. Of course, I suspect this could be taken too far by some, being interpreted that you choose to only love rather than stand up for truth—but that is never the point of the precept in the book.

It’s full of fun cultural references. Auggie is a big Star Wars fan and this is woven beautifully into the movie with Chewbacca making a few special appearances; something that greatly appealed to my own Star Wars fan (and to be honest, to me too). When Isabel decides to return to her research thesis (put on hold when Auggie was born) she tries to recover her work from a 4” floppy disk. Of course, the kids have no idea what it is.

While there is nothing overtly Christian in the movie, the themes sing out the truth that we are loved, we have value, and that it’s who we are and how we live that matters, and nothing to do with how we look. This is a truth that God has already proclaimed: “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7a). We are called to love our neighbours, and that includes people that look different. There is much here that could lead to honest discussion in our homes about we treat people and how we want to be treated. The messages within are ones you want your kids to think about.

There is no swearing but some insults fly between kids, there is one kiss between teenagers, one teen finishes her mother’s wine while she is asleep/passed out and Isabel jokes with Nate about getting drunk. Nate & Isabel make a few references to enjoying each other’s company (which would go over most kids’ heads) and there are a few scenes with kids fighting and bullying each other. This is what many kids see every day in their real lives.

There is however lots and lots of emotion. Numerous children in the group I saw it with were crying by the end, and all of the adults were weeping at points throughout. Be prepared to cry, even if you usually don't. I suspect parents will find it harder emotionally than kids, but be prepared for your children to react. While throughout the movie the tears may be expressing concern, grief and pain; the tears at the end are joyful. The ending is excellent.

Few movie adaptations live up to the hype, but this one definitely does. Obviously, some details had to be jettisoned, and kids who know the book well may feel the loss of those elements. But the overall message of “choose kind” and that you need to get to know people on the inside has remained.

This is a highly-recommended movie with really only one condition—make sure you and your kids read the book too.

This was posted on TGCA yesterday.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Getting in the Christmas Spirit

How does your family approach Christmas? Does everyone sing happy songs, cheerfully greeting each other saying “thanks for a great year and all those lunches you made Mum & Dad!” and “Wow I love this time of year, I have so much energy and joy!”?

Perhaps your family is a little more like mine: everyone is tired, tests are on, reports are being finalised, end of year performances and concerts abound (does anyone else secretly cheer when the end of year school concert is cancelled due to bad weather!?). I often think the Northern Hemisphere does it better, as they aren’t also finishing the school year, and really, there is always something appealing about snow…

So, what to do?

Chances are, you like Christmas. You rejoice that God came to earth as a baby who would be the Saviour of the world. A well-sung carol can fill your heart with praise. Bible readings of the incarnation remind you again of the joy of the season and the reason we celebrate.

However, translating that into a positive family experience takes a bit of thought, when the pressures of finishing school, making meals, buying presents and planning for holiday leave all add up.

Christmas books abound and treasured ones can be found in both secular and Christian offerings. Spend some time in a bookstore reading before you buy and you’ll soon develop a collection your family will love re-reading as the years go on.

But without a doubt, the best thing to read in the lead up to Christmas is the biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth and the promises that lead to him. The Good Book Company has produced some excellent material, including Beginning with God at Christmas for pre-schoolers (designed to go with The Beginner’s Bible), XTB: Christmas Unpacked for early readers, and family advent packs such as Christmas Opened Up. I’m excited to see more high-quality material for Christmas developed in recent years. If you don’t have the energy for anything organised, just grab a kids’ Bible (or a full Bible) and read through the accounts of Jesus’ birth in the days together leading to Christmas.

When our family was very young and we were trying to figure out how to do the lead into Christmas well, there was very little material available. So, we made our own. That’s why we don’t use any pre-produced material although much of it is excellent. We have three sets of Advent material that we work through in various years. They are Genesis to Jesus (covering the background of the Old Testament and the promises leading to Jesus), The Birth of Jesus (from the gospel accounts) and Who is this man? (each bringing out a different aspect of who Jesus is). They’re available free for download and you can find more details here.

Perhaps you personally would also like to read further and reflect this time of year. I always enjoy O Come Though-Long Expected Jesus by Nancy Guthrie. There are new advent materials for adults out now from both Tim Chester and Paul David Tripp. I’m going to try to get my hands on some of those for future years.

Sometimes having music playing is what makes it Christmas in your home. For fun family Christmas music, you can’t beat Colin Buchanan’s King of Christmas album – lively, funny, illustrative and instructive, it always makes the playlist this time of year. For some more mellow reflection, we all love Third Day’s Christmas Offerings and Nathan Tasker’s A Star, A Stable, A Saviour. Perhaps Handel’s Messiah is what works better for you, or a beautifully sung choral group of carols.

Perhaps what really gets you excited is talking to people about why you love Christmas. There are usually a myriad of events to invite people to – carol services, kid’s church options, Christmas services. Perhaps even invite them into your home and show how Christmas is all about Jesus for your family.

There’s no doubt this can be a busy and hectic time of year. Yet, even in the midst of it, it can be a time of reflection, purposeful teaching, and a celebration of God’s wonderful gifts.

We want our families (and ourselves) to remember it’s not about the presents, or the food, or cleaning the house for visitors. It’s not even about time with family, or friends, or the holidays. It’s about Jesus. Jesus. God’s very precious son, sent by our Heavenly Father to fulfil all his promises to humanity. The Word made flesh who made his dwelling among us, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). That is indeed good news of great joy for all people (Luke 2:10). Let’s make sure that news is the highlight in our homes this month.

This was published on Growing Faith yesterday. 

Monday, December 4, 2017

Think Again

Think Again: Relief from the Burden of Introspection, Jared Mellinger

This great new release from New Growth Press is designed for those of us who tend towards introspection, including overthinking and analysing, and self-absorption as a result.

Jared Mellinger clearly enunciated his goal from the very first page:
The goal of this book is to show how the gospel rescues us from fruitless self-examination, false guilt, discouragement, and inaccurate thoughts of ourselves. I want to offer practical counsel on battling unhealthy introspection and give hope to all of us whose minds are stuck on ourselves. Ultimately, I’m eager to draw our attention away from self and toward the glory of Jesus Christ. (p1) 
Many of us are familiar with the problem of too much introspection. Our minds wander to our responsibilities, our spiritual growth, our appearance, or some other aspect of our lives. We spend excessive amounts of time evaluating ourselves. We overanalyze the things we say and do. We constantly second-guess ourselves and fear we might be making the wrong decisions in life. (p2)
He also outlines a clear road map of where he is headed. If only more authors would do this, it’s so appreciated by reader and reviewer.

Mellinger starts with some personal reflections and the encouragement that we only truly know ourselves by looking to Christ, for in Christ we see our dignity, sin, identity, value and destiny; and that knowing Jesus is the way out of both self-hatred and self-love.
The gospel sets us free from thinking about ourselves too much. There is an outward-focused God who delights to rescue an inward-focused people. He is leading us into a better way to live. (p13)
The next chapters look at introspection in more detail – including the reasons we do look at ourselves, dealing with the despair that comes from too much introspection and how to deal with false guilt. There were very helpful things in these chapters. There were practical suggestions – sometimes we look for a spiritual solution for introspection when what we actually need is a practical solution such as more sleep, a holiday, or time with friends.

I personally found chapter 6 on fighting false guilt very instructive. Mellinger lists six distinctions for fighting false guilt. These question whether we feel guilty or are actually guilty; and whether our guilt is a false guilt. They include thinking about whether your guilt is from man’s assessment or God’s:
We spend so much of our time and energy making negative judgments, condemning ourselves, and condemning each other. But when Christ comes, human condemnation gives way to divine commendation, and all those who are in Christ will receive personal affirmation from the King. Therefore, not only is God’s assessment of us more important than all other assessments, it is often far more gracious. (p72)
He challenges us to assess whether we have accurate self-assessments; whether something is a weakness or a sin (eg. it's not a sin that you need more rest than another person, just an acknowledgement that your body is different); whether it is a temptation or a sin; whether something is an area of responsibility for you or a wider area of concern (that you are not responsible for); and finally whether you carry guilt over the principle or the practice:
For example, a principle is to treasure God’s Word; a practice is to have a plan to read through the Bible in a year. A principle is to disciple your children; a practice is to schedule weekly one-on-one time with each of your kids. A principle is to love your wife; a practice is to write her a poem. Practices that flow from biblical principles are commendable. In fact, practices are essential if we are to faithfully apply God’s Word. But specific practices are not to be confused with biblically mandated principles. (p76)
Imagine the relief of false guilt over parenting practices and comparisons this truth could bring!

Later chapters move on to addressing self-examination well – how to evaluate yourself (ch 8) was incredibly helpful including tips such as: start with Christ, choose the right time, ask for God’s help, base your evaluations on the bible, look for grace, involve others and confess sin. He goes on to encourage us both to find the grace of God in our lives, to see that there is good; and also to confess sin willingly which will lead to greater joy in Christ.

Mellinger’s final chapters challenge us to look outside of ourselves. We can’t be too self-absorbed when looking at the wonder of the created world around us. When we are involved in community we realise that people aren’t looking at us nearly as much as we think; and we find the joy of serving makes us more outward focussed. And finally, when we look to Christ we are truly set free:
The Christian life is a life of radical extra-spection. For every look to ourselves, we should be taking ten looks to Christ. And every time we look at ourselves, what we see should lead us back to Christ. Any sin we find should drive us to the work of Christ for us. And any good we find in ourselves should reveal the work of Christ in us and through us. Any weakness we find should lead us to the power of Christ toward us. (p155) 
Sing songs that will help you consider him. Listen to sermons and read books that are full of him. Join a church that is committed more than anything to helping people look to Jesus and treasure him. Looking to Christ is not only a sight that brings joy; it is also a sight that transforms. Beholding his glory not only makes our souls happy, but it is the best and surest way to make our souls holy. (p165)
As I reflect on this book, I really only had one hesitation. I was surprised that in the ways he encouraged people to look outside themselves, in things such as worship, love, art, sport, preaching and work; there was no encouragement to prayer, particularly prayer that praises God for who he is and how he has acted. Dwelling prayerfully in praise of God will always turn our minds from ourselves to his glory.

This is a book well worth reading. It’s relevant for everyone; but especially anyone who tends to look at themselves a little more than they possibly should – either with pride or despair.  You will find it a challenge and an encouragement, but most of all, it will be a pointer to Christ.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Moana

This latest Disney release has grown on me the more I have watched it. At the first viewing I wasn’t very impressed, the themes of demi-gods, and reincarnation didn’t sit very well. But upon more viewing and reflection, I’ve realised it has some good things to offer.

Daughter of the Polynesian village chief, Moana, is destined to lead her people one day and that is what she is being raised to do. The villagers have become used to being on their island and never venture out beyond the reef, yet Moana feels the ocean call her to explore it. She struggles with her desire to discover new places, yet knows she is to fulfil the role she has to stay and lead her people. Encouraged by her elderly grandmother, she is slowly told the real story of her people and how they used to be explorers and travelers but that fear now prevents them continuing that tradition.

When dangers start to threaten the island (through the long reaching tentacles of the lava demon Te Ka), Moana knows she must travel beyond the reef to find the demigod Maui and make him restore the stolen heart of Te Fiti.

The music is pretty catchy, I do find myself humming along, probably because our very kind piano teacher has provided our girls with some of the sheet music.

Some of the positive elements in this movie:

  • Moana has a more realistic girl body than we’ve seen for a while in a Disney movie. Her clothes cover her body appropriately, her proportions are more like an actual, normal girl. With the exception, of course, of the crazy large Disney eyes.
  • Moana doesn’t need to be rescued. Of course, this is an emerging theme over the last 10 years with Disney women, especially with Tangled and Frozen 
  • There is absolutely no love interest at all. Moana is out to save her people and her island, and she co-opts Maui to help her. Boys and romance don’t even enter the equation. It’s a refreshing change.
  • She has loving, caring parents who want what is best for her and their people. Parents have not had a good rap or much presence in Disney movies with most heroines being orphans (Frozen), with evil step parents (Cinderella) or removed from parents (Tangled)
  • She knows she has a responsibility as the daughter of the village chief (“not a princess!” she claims). While she wants to explore, she acknowledges her responsibilities. Yet, once her people really are threatened, she acts in their best interests.

Moana has a lot of character traits which are admirable and we would be happy for our children to imitate.

As I pondered some the themes more, it was good to be able to talk about the ideas of demi-gods. The song “You’re welcome” by Maui is a good chance to talk about “Do we actually thank God for everything he has given us in creation and our lives?” The ideas of worshipping numerous gods and creation is a good conversation point for understanding other cultures. The concept of reincarnation and the sea being a living, active entity are all things that make kids think and if you are willing to interact with it, can be interesting conversation points.

One other major thought I had after this latest Princess movie was – has Disney gone too far? Where are the boy heroes now? They’ve essentially done away with the prince as rescuer (probably a good thing), the father as wise guide (there’s something we could have back), and any men get relegated to fun sidekick following the capable women (think Kristoff in Frozen, Flynn Rider in Tangled and now Maui). I mentioned this to my kids and Mr 14 agreed wholeheartedly, but Miss 12 and Miss 10 still thought most superheroes were men so it was fair. We might have to explore that whole idea another time!

Monday, November 27, 2017

Seven Stones to Stand or Fall

Seven Stones to Stand or Fall, Diana Gabaldon

No, this is not the long awaited ninth Outlander book, but rather a series of novellas which fit into the Outlander universe. There are seven in all, five of which have been published previously in other anthologies. So, if you are a fan and have followed up all of Gabaldon’s writing over the years, you will already have read many of these. As I worked through them, I recalled I had read several before, but couldn’t remember the details. However, it’s always nice to return to this series for I do enjoy Gabaldon’s writing and the world she has created.

She claims they are all standalone novellas which anyone could pick up, but you would want to have read at least the first three Outlander novels to have a sense of what is going on. Particularly when they focus on Lord John, there are so many characters that I still struggle to connect them all.

This is an enjoyable collection. Three of the novellas cover Lord John and where he is based at the time, including Havana, Quebec and Jamaica. They are close to the timeline of Voyager. “Virgins” is a prequel to the whole series, with some of Ian and Jamie’s adventures in their late teens. I particularly enjoyed “A Fugitive Green” covering how Minnie and Hal (Lord John’s older brother) end up together. There is the account of Roger’s father and what really happened to him, and also a side story including Jamie’s nephew Michael, Marsali’s sister Joan and the Comte St. Germain in Paris.

For those already existing fans, this is another addition to the collection which adds depth to the story as a whole.

For those who do not know the series yet, this is the brief summary I wrote ten years ago, in the first month of starting this blog:
Diana Gabaldon, Outlander Series. There are 6 books so far in this historical fiction series. I discovered them when I was pregnant with #3 and bedridden for about 7 weeks with morning sickness. They are huge and completely draw you in to the story. The premise is that an English woman in 1945 manages to travel back in time 200 years in Scotland and gets caught there (don't worry about the physics of it!). However, she knows what is to come in the future (eg. Culloden). There is (as to be expected) a love story wound through it all. They are very detailed, enjoyable and interesting. If you don't like overly descriptive love-making scenes, you may be put off, but even then I think they are worth the read. I have just downloaded all her podcasts off her website to listen to how she writes, for some listening while I exercise. I am eagerly waiting for books 7 & 8 to be released.

Other posts on this blog include this one about An Echo in the Bone (book 7), and after reading the Lord John novels.

I am eagerly awaiting the publishing of #9, but her blog suggests it won’t be for a while yet!

Monday, November 20, 2017

Emperor

Emperor series, Conn Iggulden

This five-book series by Conn Iggulden charts the life of Julius Caesar. Iggulden’s undertaken a massive job: to collate the data on Caesar and present it in a coherent and interesting form, and has succeeded. It’s still historical fiction; Iggulden reveals at the end of each book where he changed and adapted things, and he has written a gripping account.

The Gates of Rome covers Caesar’s childhood, through the eyes of best friends Gaius and Marcus. I have always enjoyed reading of Ancient Rome and Iggulden brings it to life: the senate and their intrigues, the lifestyle supported on the backs of slaves, the massive difference in wealth and influence in the city, and the extent of power exerted by Rome on the ancient world.

The Death of Kings show Caesar’s exploits around the Mediterranean, first with the Roman army and then after capture by pirates. He starts his rise to power with his charisma bringing men to his side in Greece and then later in Italy. At the same time, Brutus is gathering a legion of men to be loyal to Caesar, and to deal with ongoing enemies in Rome.

The Field of Swords charts the years of Caesar’s invasions of Gaul and England; I had no idea how long he spent away from Rome on campaign for the Empire.

Gods of War is his campaign to beat Pompey and claim Rome for himself, with increasing opposition from previously loyal friends. For those that know the line from Shakespeare “Et tu Brute?” and the significance of the Ides of March, there is an inexorable waiting to see how that plays out.

I had very little knowledge of this time, barring the main facts. But the extent of this man’s achievements provably cannot be overlooked. He conquered much of the world for Rome and eventually made his own name synonymous with King or ruler; the word Kaiser and Tsar both derived from Caesar.

The fifth book, The Blood of Gods, covers the years after Caesar as Augustus rises to power. Notably, not one of those involved in Caesar’s assassination died of natural causes.

It’s a time of bloody violence and horrible warfare. The few brief descriptions of crucifixions remind you of why it was such a feared and hated method of death. The extent of the military campaigns by Rome are astonishing, considering the distances covered and the numbers of men involved. 

I have enjoyed numerous books that tackle this period of time. Iggulden’s writing probably appeals to me the most. Many others dwell in the debauchery of the times. It’s present here too, but it isn’t a focus.  I finished the series with much more understanding of these years of the Roman Empire, and a begrudging appreciation of what was achieved by the sheer charismatic force and willpower of a few men, despite the methods often employed.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Move Fast and Break Things

Move Fast and Break Things, Jonathan Taplin

As I continue reading and thinking about digital technology, this book came across my radar. The title is coined from a comment by Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook “Move fast and break things. Unless you are breaking stuff, you aren’t moving fast enough”. With the subtitle “How Facebook, Google and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy” this book is clearly designed to grab your attention.

Jonathan Taplin worked in the music industry as tour manager for Bob Dylan and The Band, and was also a film producer for Martin Scorsese and others. He saw first-hand what free streaming and piracy did to destroy a music artist’s ability to earn money from their craft; and what the digitisation of the film industry has done for creativity and originality.

He notes the five largest firms in the firms in the world are now: Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook. He traces the beginnings of the Internet which was founded on much more co-operative and creative principles that we see at work today. He looks at the libertarian value and belief systems of the men who founded Amazon, Google and Facebook and how their views shaped their company model and practice. Much of it seems to be based around the principles of “I can do it, so I will” and “Who will stop me?”

He spends time on the power of the digital monopolies, the lack of any real regulation to guide or limit their power, and the how the quality of accurate news had been eroded. He highlights the ongoing danger of non-stop data mining, where the only real benefit is for advertisers whose targets become more and more specified.

There is an element of conspiracy theory to it, but much of it also rings true; and really, it certainly feels like these digital tech companies are working in conspiracy. Amazon corners the market on book sales, pushing actual stores out of business and threatening publishers who won’t fall into line. Facebook algorithms are changing the way we view news, and ensuring we are surrounded by a group of similarly minded, homogenous ‘friends’ in our feeds. Google knows where you are almost at any time of the day, can read all your mail, tracks the places you go and what you search for and buy online. These companies have massive power in terms of market share, income, and data; and there are very little checks and balances to ensure this power is used carefully and wisely. Google’s motto “Don’t Be Evil” is a nice marketing ploy, but really, are Google the ones to judge what is evil? And at what point does the end product justify the means to how you got there?

As I read this book the phrase kept coming to mind (partially attributed to Lord Acton) “Power corrupts, but absolutely power corrupts absolutely”.

Taplin doesn’t leave you hanging at the end, he has the beginnings of a proposal for a way forward. He considers what it means to be human, and that part of that includes the sense of community. He comments on the starkness of the contrast between a shooter who killed nine parishioners of a church: “When you think that the families of the slain churchgoers were able to forgive the shooter, you can only marvel at the power of their faith. Never was the difference between between community cooperation and individual separation more starkly outlined. I’m not sure my faith would afford me that amount of grace in the face of such evil, but I am awed to see it exist in the hateful political climate we inhabit.”

After being on a Benedictine monk retreat, he was challenged that “I am not Catholic, yet I find the monks’ prescriptions to be helpful [these include prayer, work, study, hospitality and renewal], a model of how I want to live in the world. The idea of an examined life is missing in our current digital rush.” These are the only comments that Taplin makes in the whole book that have any hint at faith or belief yet he has identified something. We know our lives will be examined, and we should be examining them before the Creator of the world. What will He conclude regarding our digital lives?

He concludes that part of being human is “we need a life narrative in which we take pride in being good at a specific task, and we value the experiences we have lived through”. He thinks art is one of the ways that lays the ground for the internal condition, for moral behaviour. I agree in part. There will have been artworks, pieces of music, books and other creative expressions that have moved and challenged each of us. For those of us who are believers, the creative expressions of others can drive us closer to God. I think of certain hymns, books, and artworks that make me realise anew the mercy and grace of God and the creative power he has given his people.

Taplin finishes by proposing ways the internet could change (with legislation and regulation) to allow for proper use of artists’ work where they are paid fairly. He notes that there are many things that the digital world cannot do: “When I ask myself what it means to be human, I think that having empathy and the ability to tell stories rank high, and I am not worried that these skills will be replaced by A.I. A great artist’s ability to inspire people – especially to compel them to think and act – lies at the heart of political and cultural change. It really is the reason we tell ourselves stories”.

Taplin has included a lot of information, background and explanation throughout, and those with knowledge of economics may get a lot more out of it than I did; but it is certainly is an interesting and thought-provoking read.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Our Mob, God's Story

Our Mob, God’s Story, Sherman and Mattingley

This wonderful art collection book was produced by the Bible Society to commemorate 200 years of work in Australia.

I should say upfront that I am not a connoisseur of fine art. We do not buy art, and I have struggled to appreciate much art except the older fashioned Renaissance style, especially those with biblical themes. I loved Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and like the various works of Monet, Hans Heysen and others, but my knowledge and therefore understanding of the skill involved is very limited.

Combined with that is the increasing realization that I have almost no knowledge of Aboriginal culture and tradition. Part of that could be attributed to a childhood spent mostly overseas, and an Australian education system that didn’t include such things until after I left. Having been raised in a part of the country that included almost no Indigenous people, my exposure to Indigenous people and culture is very limited.

That all goes to show that in coming to this book I was a complete and utter ignoramus.

From page one I was entranced. There was an explanation of a worthy cause – the gathering of a vast variety of Indigenous artworks that reflected stories of personal faith and understanding of the Scriptures. In using the artworks of different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, each artist with their own unique style; the truths of the gospel have been clearly, colourfully and winsomely explained.

Each double page spread contains the artwork, an explanation of the work, and some information about the artist and the area they are from, and a bible verse relevant to the art. With a helpful explanation at the beginning of what some symbols used in the works represent, suddenly there is a key to see the meaning – you can see the Trinity,  men and women bowing down, the Holy Spirit, people travelling to God and away from him on narrow and wide paths.

It covers the chronology of the bible, starting with creation and through the Old Testament.

Seven Days of Creation, Safina Stewart (sourced from: http://artbysafina.com.au/portfolio/spirit/seven-days-of-creation/)

Noah's Flood, Kristy Naden (sourced from: http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2017/03/07/4631489.htm)
This was one of my personal favourites
How that double page spread looks

Most of the art is based in the New Testament, particularly the gospels.

Bright Star, Grace Kumbi (sourced from: https://www.biblesociety.org.au/our-mob/)

I read a few pages a day as part of my own personal devotion and each time I came away refreshed by the art, the bible verses and the explanations. There is a wide variety of art, many contains elements of dot painting (like the ones I have included here), but others have very different styles.

This book is a treasure. I first found it at our local library (which in itself was amazing), but quickly realised we wanted to own a copy. Not only for our own encouragement and edification, but also because the proceeds go to publishing of Aboriginal Scriptures.

If you already appreciate art and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, make sure you get this book. If you are more like me and own no books of art at all, make this one the exception - get a copy. You will be so encouraged by the faith displayed by our Indigenous brothers and sisters.

So Loved, Glendora (Glenny) Naden (sourced from https://www.eternitynews.com.au/good-news/indigneous-art-book-our-mob-gods-story-wins-australian-christian-book-of-the-year/)

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Land of Stories

This review was written by Miss 12:

The Land of Stories is an engaging, adventurous 6-book series. Written by Chris Colfer, it’s based on the travels of Alex and Conner Bailey, twin sister and brother. Their father, John dies when they are nearly eleven and they are raised by their caring mother, Charlotte. However, Charlotte’s pay is little and they just get by with what they need. On their 12th birthday, their fun grandma shows up, cooking a feast and giving them her fairytale book, The Land of Stories. At night, Alex notices a strange thing happening with the book and barely sleeps investigating it.

At school, Alex is a genius while Conner is a sleeper in class. Their teacher Mrs. Peters gives Conner detention several times for dozing while she’s teaching the morals of fairy-tales. When a mistake Conner makes goes horribly wrong, he and his sister become lost in the Land of Stories, where fairytales come to life. Alex is thrilled but all Conner wants is to go home.

Find out the amazing characters they meet, their quest, and their encounter with one of the most feared enemies ever! I enjoyed this book and the rest of the series. The first one is The Wishing Spell, and it continues; The Enchantress Returns, A Grimm Warning, Beyond the Kingdoms, An Author’s Odyssey and Worlds Collide. I have not yet read Worlds Collide, as it is not yet out in paperback.

The rest of the books in the series are about Alex and Conner helping when there is a crisis in the Land of Stories and attempting to restore peace. They make many lasting friends, such as Jack, Goldilocks and Queen Red Riding Hood of the Red Riding Hood Kingdom. They meet the wonderful monarchs of the Land of Stories Kingdoms, and travel to spectacular places. Alex also makes a tough, heart-breaking decision at the end of book 2, and at one point in the series, she and Conner find out something Charlotte had hidden from them that will change their life!

I loved reading this series after a friend suggested it to me. They are funny and sarcastic, scary and fun and very interesting. They give a new, exciting perspective to the fairytales and I would recommend it to ages over 10 as there are a few hard things to grasp but overall, I think most would enjoy it. You should read this series! (if you haven’t already)

Monday, October 23, 2017

It Takes One To Tango

It Takes One to Tango, Winifred M. Reilly

As many of you know we’re involved in marriage ministry and so I try to keep up with reading. Sometimes this means I grab books off the library shelves to see what secular titles are on offer. It’s good to have a wide range of recommendations.

This one caught my eye with its subtitle “How I Rescued My Marriage with (Almost) No Help from My Spouse – and How You Can, Too”.

Reilly takes the reader on a journey, explaining both her own marriage and its near demise; and also draws on her experience as a marriage therapist. She starts by debunking the myth that marriage should be easier:
Most people believe that marriage should be easier than it is. It’s one of the great myths … No one told me the one thing that would have helped me the most: “It isn’t just you. Marriage is hard.”
She also challenges a widely-held view that you both must be willing to change for any progress to occur. The core of her message is that change has to start with you, not your spouse. Stop focusing on what they do that is wrong, annoying, irritating, etc, and work on yourself instead. Figure out what you add to conflict, why you fight the way you do, what pushes your buttons. You are responsible for yourself alone, so take charge.

She draws strongly on Bowen family theory so there were strong echoes to things I had read in Jenny Brown’s Growing Yourself Up. I also appreciated her analysis of the stages of a relationship (from Ellyn Bader) which move through four stages:

  • Symbiosis - high interconnectedness (in those early heady stages of in-love),
  • Differentiation - seeing the differences and struggling to resolve them
  • Exploration – developing separate selves, own interests and needs, and having more independence
  • Rapprochement – turning back towards each other with more connectedness

A lot in this analysis made sense, especially how it is at differentiation where most problems lie and where many couples become stuck.

She moves through three sections – how to identify the real problem, how to implement change by yourself, and how this will develop into a stronger relationship.

She identifies the cause of many problems: “Anxiety is at the root of most of the craziness that goes on in our relationships”. The time she takes to consider this is well worthwhile. One comment really struck me, quoting trauma expert Dr Noel Larson: “if it’s hysterical, it’s historical” – if some issue really sets either of you off, there’s a reason why.

A lot of what she says makes perfect sense: you have to be in control of yourself and manage your own reactions; take a break from conflict and find ways to dampen it rather than escalate it; and you have to develop your own self-soothing and self-management and not expect your partner to meet those needs. None of this is new, and for those of us who are Christian, there are similar elements of what we would expect a marriage to look like: seek to serve each other, not yourself; manage your anger; be self-controlled; exhibit the fruits of the spirit in your marriage as well as the rest of your life. While she doesn’t label it as such; there are also ideas of giving forgiveness, extending grace and not bearing a grudge.

I would recommend this book particularly to:

  • Non-Christians. Most of the books I read are Christian and that doesn’t sit well with everyone. But there is good general wisdom out there, and this book has it. She doesn’t assume couples are married, and includes same-sex couples in her stories, thus widening the audience appeal.
  • Couples who are mired in conflict. Some marriage books assume that goodwill, grace and forgiveness is occurring between couples. Some don’t get to the nitty-gritty of what to do when you are mired in bad patterns of relating. The stories she tells of her own and her client’s marriages are real and raw, they are honest yet give hope of ways forward.

I’m glad I picked it up!

Friday, October 20, 2017

Star Wars

Does this really deserve a review 40 years after its release? In our family, yes. Not only is it a major favourite here, but Miss 10 finally watched A New Hope (the original #1) in the last week. As I mentioned in the Rogue One review - like her siblings, there was no surprise or suspense for her, having read numerous books about the episodes and played all the Lego Star Wars xBox games. This time the main difference was that when characters died, they really died, rather than breaking into re-connectable Lego pieces!

She loved it, and we quickly moved onto Empire Strikes Back and then Return of the Jedi (she watched all of them twice) I enjoyed seeing them with the fresh eyes you have when observing someone else’s first-time reaction. It’s the humour that strikes me in those movies, it remains clever, quirky and fun, and mostly driven by Harrison Ford.

She may have to wait a bit to venture into the rest of the Star Wars universe – the ratings get a bit more mature, and the graphics have caught up to look much more realistic. Although every time I watch it I am impressed by the originals from 40 years ago. With the major exceptions of all the stupid extra stuff they shoved into them in the 1990s! I keep calling out (to the annoyance of the rest of the family) – “that wasn’t in the original” when some extra bit appears. And I still cannot believe they changed the song at the end of Return of the Jedi, ‘yub nub’ was a treasure and a classic, at least in my view!

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Anti-Princess Club

The Anti-Princess Club book series, Samantha Turnbull

From Miss 12:

In the HQ of Emily, Bella, Grace and Chloe, princess is the P word, tiaras are NOT allowed, and fairytales become unfairytales. These four girls, age 10, are all tired of being called princess and being treated like one. All Emily wants is to be a mathematician, while Bella wishes to design amazing architecture. Grace wants to be an athletic superstar and Chloe dreams of becoming a scientist. All four of them couldn’t be more different, but are all best friends. Together, they form the Anti-Princess Club, where Emily, the president, leads the group on missions to prove to the world that girls can do more than wear a tiara.

Each of the five books is from the perspective of a different Anti-Princess, with the last one narrated by them all. Emily, a computer genius, codes the Anti-Princess Club website, where girls all over the world can join up to chat and get help from her with maths homework. At first, some of their parents don’t understand, know, or accept that they don’t want to learn ballet or go into beauty pageants. Emily’s mum runs a beauty salon and her dad’s in the army. Bella’s parents are doctors, and they live in a mansion, and the HQ of the Anti-Princess Club meets in her backyard. Grace’s mum and dad are soccer nuts, just like her and her three brothers but they don’t think she should play sport. Chloe lives with her yiayia (grandma), her parents and brother, however she believes they only want her to run their restaurant because she’s an amazing cook.

These books, written by Samantha Turnbull and set in Australia, are great. Girls ages 6-12 could enjoy them.

Miss 10’s extra comment:
“I like them because they are interesting, the girls have adventures, there is a bit of tension and they are like me and my friends.”


I've now read two of these myself and I quite like them too. They are definitely aimed at girls around age 10 and contain the type of messages I want mine to receive:
[From Emily's mum as she tries to fit her into a pageant dress] "Don't be sooky, Emily, she says. "Beauty is painful."
That, I think to myself is exactly what the anti-princesses are fighting against and why I have to pull off this mission. There are so many more important things in life than prettiness. And girls definitely shouldn't have to hurt themselves to look good.
The second book covers some bullying that results from their antics in the first book, which is a good reminder to kids that all actions have consequences. And while acknowledging the tensions which can exist between boys and girls at this age; thankfully they discover in the end that they are more alike than they realise.  

It's a good series if you have an anti-princess yourself who is sick of some of the other princess books out there; or if you want to reinforce the message that it's OK to be sporty, academic or just a bit different.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Going in Style

If you’re in the mood for a light-hearted heist movie, with some favourite old actors, this one might be for you.

Long-term friends Joe (Michael Caine), Willie (Morgan Freeman), and Albert (Alan Arkin) are struggling to make ends meet in retirement. Their pension has been cut off by their employer, the bank is threatening to take Joe’s house and Willie’s health is failing. When Joe is caught up in a bank robbery where the thieves make off with millions in cash, he realises perhaps there’s a way to make ends meet.

It’s fun. Watching these three actors, as well as Christopher Lloyd, is entertaining and they play up the age-jokes well. At the same time, it highlights the reality of poverty and isolation in old age. It’s set up to convince you that the banks and the big companies are the bad guys. These men did their time, served their jobs and have little to show for it in the end. It’s not highly realistic, one assumes that in the real world they would be caught quite easily, but that’s the fun of the movies. While of course we don’t condone robbery, it’s easy to be caught up in the justifiability of the premise and the underlying message sticks - we should look after the aged better.

There is little violence, only a few swear words, mild drug usage and a little romance along the way. Directed by Zach Braff, it's an entertaining spin on the heist genre.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Books by Lucy Dillon

I’ve discovered a new author that I’m really enjoying. Lucy Dillon writes modern fiction, somewhat lighter than some of my usual choices, so I’d personally classify it as more holiday reading – that enjoyable type of book that takes a few days to read, you get drawn into the character’s lives and relish the satisfying ending.


All I Ever Wanted is from the perspective of two sisters-in-law. Caitlin and Patrick are separating, for the personality traits that once so attracted them to each other are now driving them apart. Their four-year-old Nancy is changing from a gregarious, outspoken, chatty little thing to becoming increasingly quiet and withdrawn. Her older brother Joel can draw her out at times, but her absolute silence is becoming an increasing problem.

Meanwhile Eva, Patrick’s sister, two years widowed to an older rock star, is trying to figure out what the rest of her life will look like. As Patrick searches for a suitable ‘weekend visit’ location, it seems ideal to stay at Eva’s with the kids. But Eva has never had kids, will she want them around?

Over a few months Caitlin and Eva are both forced to face different realities about their marriages, and decide how they will respond. I liked it, they are engaging, realistic characters, with a depth to their story.


A Hundred Pieces of Me narrates Gina’s life through various objects of meaning. Reeling from her recent divorce and astounded by how many things she has, Gina is forced to finally sort through all her possessions. Deciding to only keep 100 things that really matter, we see how her life has unfolded to date through the lens of various objects. The story flicks between present day and her job of managing the restoration of an old manor house; to her relationship with her ex-husband Stuart and its development; her battle with cancer; her childhood and twice-widowed mother, and her first real love and relationship with Kit. I found it had similar style echoes to The Time Traveller’s Wife, with moves in the chronology filling the gaps as the novel unfolded. I wondered too if it was going to be a fiction version of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying and there are elements of that philosophy as well: that organising your life will make you happy. I didn’t find the ending to be quite what I was after, but it was a good read and made you think again about the things that you really value, and why.


One Small Act of Kindness starts with Libby and Jason who have moved to Longhampton to take over their parents B&B, a decision sparked by the death of Jason’s dad and their need for a fresh start from London. One day a young woman is hit by a car outside the hotel, and wakes up in hospital with no memory of her past and apparently no one is searching for her. A friendship sparks between Libby and Pippa (the name she chooses for the moment), with Libby keen to aid Pippa find out who she is, and Pippa assisting as the hotel renovation plans turn to dust.

With Libby’s tricky extended family relationships to manage, the slow revealing of Pippa’s life story, and the surprise to both of them that there are good people around who want to help other; both Libby and Pippa come to discover they have more strength, resilience and purpose than they thought.


The Ballroom Class charts the lives of a disparate group of people through their ballroom dancing class. Ross and Katie are making one last ditch effort to save their marriage. Lauren and Chris are trying to perfect their wedding dance, all the while uncertain they are really on the right track. Lauren’s parents are there as support, seemingly perfect in their relationship, but is Bridget hiding something from Frank? At the same time, teacher Angelica is sorting through her past as she watches each of her students and reflects on he own life

Dillon is clearly a dog lover and some of her novels have dogs strongly featuring, so if that appeals to you, there’s another level of interest.

I’ll keep an eye out for new releases from Dillon. I enjoyed her writing style and the characters she develops.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Calvary Road

Calvary Road, Colin Buchanan

Everyone here has appreciated the depth of Colin Buchanan’s new offering for adults, Calvary Road. There are songs about faith and family, many with his usual Australian and outback perspective. He has used a new producer, Matt Fell, on this album, and while my musical talents don’t extend to spotting these types of things in detail, even I can tell it’s very well produced with Colin’s usual musical skills evident, along with arresting lyrics and very importantly, it’s easy to hear each word.

Miss 12 loves The Hardest Thing, the life story of his father and the insight it gives into the life of one man who was loved and cherished. I really like Will I Be Missed, which questions how many of us will be remembered in the future – and whether what we do now matters. Mr 14 likes You’d like Jesus, pointing out that if you struggle with hypocrites and want people to be real and true, you’ll like Jesus.

A highlight of the album for me is It Was His Idea, attributed the glory of the world to God and his creative work:
It was his idea
He’s the reason that we’re here
Jesus got his fingerprints
On everything that’s good.
Upon continual listening, all of us have reflected that it seems there is a deeper side to this album that reflects grief and the loss that comes through in the telling in the music about his father. I know none of the story and it’s not my business to, but the same happened in listening to Nathan Tasker’s album Home and his hymn albums. Those also echo stories of personal grief and they show in the depth of the music.

Songwriters have a gift and a privilege to turn music and words into stories that connect, and enable people to give a voice to their own experience, especially when they don’t have the skills to do it themselves. We have always enjoyed Colin’s music – from his kids and family Christian albums, to his adult offerings, and more recently his TGIF songs from ABC Drive Radio. I’m thankful to God for Colin’s ability, he has encouraged a generation of Christian children, families and adults, and this album is an excellent addition to his canon.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Prayer

Prayer, Timothy Keller

Sometimes you read something and think “Yes! This now THE book I will recommend to people on this topic”.

Timothy Keller states that as a pastor he “didn’t have a first book to give someone who wanted to understand and practice Christian prayer”. I think he has certainly met his own goal, outlining the theological, experiential and methodological in one volume. Long term readers will know I am a big fan of prayer having been challenged and encouraged by numerous books on the topic, such a A Praying Life, A Call to Spiritual Reformation, Praying the Scriptures for your Children, Pray for the World and books of prayers such as the Valley of Vision. I have done a series on praying with your family and once had a blog of prayers.

So, I am deeply committed to prayer, but by no means consider myself to be an expert. There is always more to learn, and I have been encouraged by Keller’s insights.

He arranges his work into five logical parts:

1. Desiring Prayer. As he explores both the necessity and the greatness of prayer, our vision is immediately lifted to seeing the extraordinary privilege of being able to pray and the need to prioritise it.
“Prayer is the only entryway into genuine self-knowledge. It is also the main way we experience deep change – the reordering of our loves. Prayer is how God gives us so many of the unimaginable things he has for us. Indeed, prayer makes it safe for God to give us may of the things we desire. It is the way we know God, the way we finally treat God as God. Prayer is simply the key to everything we need to do and be in life. We must learn to pray. We have to.” (p18) 
“Prayer is awe, intimacy, struggle – yet the way to reality. There is nothing more important, or harder, or richer, or more life-altering. There is absolutely nothing so great as prayer.” (p32)
2. Understanding Prayer – expanding that prayer is both conversing with God, through immersion in his word, and encountering God personally.
“Prayer is continuing a conversation that God has started through his Word and his grace, which eventually becomes a full encounter with him.” (p48)
It must however, be tethered to our knowledge of God through Scripture:
“Without immersion in God’s words, our prayer may not be merely limited and shallow but also untethered from reality. We may be responding not the real God but to what we wish God and life to be like.” (p62)
3. Learning Prayer

This was where I found the true gold. Taking us through the thoughts of Augustine, Calvin and Luther on the topic, Keller helps outline a way to closely link our bible reading and our prayer.

I particularly appreciated Luther’s two patterns. The first is to look at every part of scripture four ways: determine the point, praise God for the truths found in it, confess our failings regarding it, and pray for change for ourselves and others in response. I have started this practice myself and have been so encouraged by the breadth and depth to which I can understand and respond to God’s word. His second suggestion is to ‘riff’ the Lord’s prayer, taking each phrase in turn, and expounding on it in depth in prayer. I have heard this suggestion before, but am now encouraged to return to it in my own practice.

4. Deepening Prayer

By thinking about both what meditating on God’s word can look like, and encouraging us not to fear experiencing God in prayer; Keller expands both the evangelical practice of careful bible reading and more mystical, experiential expressions of prayer, and argues there is a way forward which embraces the biblical aspects of both, in a way that enables us to truly experience the presence of God.

“an encounter with God that involves not only the affections of the heart but also the convictions of the mind. We are not called to choose between a Christian life based on truth and doctrine or a life filled with spiritual power and experience. They go together.” (p17)


5. Doing Prayer

Breaking this down in four categories, he starts with awe – the importance of praising God. Then to intimacy, or finding God’s grace, that is rejoicing in forgiveness through confession and repentance. Thirdly he moves to struggle, or asking for help. Very insightfully, he applied Packer’s ideas as to what we should do when we ask God for things:
       1. Think about why we ask for it (this may revise our list to start with)
       2. Acknowledge God may will otherwise with the assurance that he wants what is best for his children.
       3. Consider what we might need to do for the prayer to be answered (what does it tell us about our own motivation, sin, etc). This can place limits on what we pray for.
He finishes with the strong encouragement to daily prayer, with his suggestion actually being 2-3 times per day.

He concludes with a great bibliography, explaining why he recommend each of the books. As a result I have four more books on order, so that I can push my thinking further and also encourage me in my practice.

Did I have any hesitations? Only a few. His method of prayer rightly asserts that if you pray like this, you will not have time for long prayer lists, because you will praying in much more depth about each person or thing. I agree, but I don’t want to reduce the range of people that I pray for. I think a wide variety of people and situations broadens our minds and hearts to include those not in our immediate circle. Related to this, I didn’t find a lot of encouragement to really pray about mission, world situations, the persecuted church, etc. I think it was implied, for really praying God’s word should lead us to those far-reaching, outward-looking prayers, but I didn’t overtly see it.

What have I concluded as a result? I can now understand how some of the great people of faith of the past (and surely some of the saints of today) spent hours in prayer. With the tools I am grasping, plus the desire to apply them, I now want more time to pray.

This book is theological rich, pastorally astute and practically applicable. Keller has met his own goal and produce a definitive book on prayer for a generation. I have read and appreciated other excellent books, but for now, this is my favourite.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Dunstan

Dunstan, Conn Iggulden

Having loved Conn Iggulden’s Wars of the Roses books and with his other series already on my ‘must read’ list, I was pleased to spot this new offering Dunstan. Charting Dunstan’s life in 10thC England, you follow his progression from Benedictine monk apprentice, to abbott of Glastonbury, to archbishop as well as instigator of the building of Canterbury cathedral. Along the way, his fortunes rise and fall with the English kings of the age; and his life span covers seven of them, from Æthelstan to Ethelred over a period of 80 years.
“Of all the estates of man in the world, the best is the born the fine, shrieking son of a king. I have seen mighty lords fall to their knees at the sight of a babe, all for a crown pained on its crib… If you can’t be born a king, be made a king, though that has thorns. When violent men secure your crown, they keep a knife at your throat ever after. Last, and not the least of these, is this: if you can’t be born a king, or made a king, you might still anoint one… I chose the Church.”
I really appreciate Iggulden’s writing. Even this though this was a period of history completely foreign to me, he’s very skilled at making it readable and accessible. He creates characters with real depth. I wasn’t sure at any point that I actually liked Dunstan, but I loved the first-person portrayal of him. He was arrogant, convinced of his own rightness, yet at times he did question his motives and some of the choices he made. You can hear the writer’s interpretation of the man coming through, and that’s a skill to do well. It’s a book that requires a bit more concentration, but it was worth it.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Dead Letters

Dead Letters, Caite Dolan-Leach

This intriguing mystery had me hooked quite early on and kept me wondering the whole way through.  Identical twin Ava gets a garbled message from her alcoholic, demented mother that her sister Zelda has died in a mysterious fire. But Ava refuses to believe it, for it’s much more likely Zelda is playing a game again, keeping her guessing as to what really occurred.

And that seems to be the case, as emails from Zelda start to appear. It seems that Zelda is leading Ava through the alphabet with clues for each letter explaining what has happened over the two years of their estrangement.

As such, their messy past is revealed. A dysfunctional, split family with financial problems. Two sisters entwined in every aspect of their lives, able to love and care completely, yet also hurt and betray absolutely. For those that prefer a warning - there is a fair amount of swearing, and a lot of references to alcohol and drug abuse.

It was a well-crafted mystery with a creative way to tell a story.  It’s an impressive first novel from Dolan-Leach, hopefully she will go on to write more.