Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Hutterite Diaries


Hutterite Diaries

Wisdom From My Prairie Community

By Linda Maendel

Published May 18th 2015 by Herald Press



If you mention the word Anabaptist to most people, they will generally say "Amish". Few will say "Mennonite" and fewer still will say "Hutterite", which is a shame as the Hutterite philosophy and culture is absolutely fascinating.

The Hutterites believe in living communally in a Biblical fashion, eating together, working together, praying together and holding many things in common. No-one is rich or poor; everyone works, depending on their skills, aptitudes and ultimately the needs of their particular community. They  take the concept of Christian living and caring for each other very seriously indeed. The community farms, rises livestock and makes wooden items for individuals and businesses; they are happy to use modern technology when beneficial to them, but still keep to their traditional dress and the women wear headcoverings.

Linda Maendel is a school teacher at her Elm River colony near Oakville, Manitoba, Canada, and this is  a vivid and entrancing depiction of life there. It is often very hard work, but the blessings and happiness shine through in each and every vignette, illustrating aspects of the philosophy, customs, religious beliefs and organisation of her particular colony and an introduction to the history of the Hutterite movement in general. The chapter about Hutterites who were enslaved is particularly intriguing!



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Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Real Lives Of Roman Britain



The Real Lives Of Roman Britain

By Guy De La Bedoyere

Published by Yale University Press (London)

May 15th, 2015


The author is at great pains to point out that this is not yet another history textbook about the 360 years of Roman occupation in Britain. Instead, it is a book which talks about what we know about the people who lived and worked, prayed and fought in Britannia when Roman rule held sway and influence.

This knowledge comes from artefacts, buildings, archaeological excavations and inscriptions, ranging from brief fragments which tantalise to rather more extensive information, and I was really surprised to find that Britannia was a real cultural and racial crossroads, a melting pot of people from all over the Roman Empire - the idea of only modern-day Britain being a cosmopolitan place is wholly erroneous! It is, however, important to bear in mind that the cultural and racial identity of native Britons was largely determined by the tribe or clan to which they belonged and the idea of being a Briton  as we understand it now would have been quite alien to them.

The illustrations at the beginning of the book are extremely interesting, depicting  examples of pepper pots, gold buckles, wall paintings, mosaics, coins, altars, clay pots, tombstones and statues. Each has a story to tell and a point to make, and the workmanship of native craftsmen is lovely indeed. From the initial contact between Rome and Britain with Caesar's invasion, frontier life, Roman London, death and dying, religious beliefs and practices, this book answered many questions I had about everyday life under Roman occupation, and anyone interested in Roman Britain would definitely find this an enjoyable and enlightening read.




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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Thomas The Tank Engine Man


The Thomas The Tank Engine Man:

The Life Of Reverend W. Awdry

By Brian Sibley

Published by Lion Books, 15 May 2015



My daughters grew up with Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends; I read the books to them till they were old enough to read the stories themselves and played endless games of trains with them when they were small. Every train trip was a delight to us all, even though our trains weren't pulled by steam engines, I am sad to say!

 I am thrilled and delighted to have been able to read and review this book about the life and work of the Reverend Wilbert Awdry who created the stories for the entertainment of his own son Christopher, when that young lad was confined to bed when ill with measles. Christopher's misfortune proved to be a blessing for countless children ever since. Wilbert Awdry had grown up in a family which loved trains and model train sets and he passed on this love to his own children, along with his precise, in-depth knowledge of railway workings, lore and minutiae.

 His wife felt that the stories he made up for Christopher (and he also had to write them down to make sure that he told them exactly the same every time, or Christopher would correct him!) were infinitely superior to the children's books she saw in the shops.  When published, they proved to be equally popular with many other children and their parents.  Most of the stories were based on events which had really happened, which made them even more convincing and enjoyable. The crafting of the stories and their eventual publication makes for fascinating reading indeed as his attention to detail was legendary and the stories of his polite battles with his publisher over the illustrations which inaccurately portrayed engines and rolling stock will come as no real surprise to the reader.

As an extremely busy parish priest and father to a growing family, he had little spare time to devote to writing, yet he did so, and spent a huge amount of time replying to the questions posed to him by his eager young readers and their parents throughout the rest of his life. His younger brother George  willingly acted as a sounding board to his mapping out of the fictional Island of Sodor, where the stories were set and soon they had produced a complete topography, geography and history of their own island. Family holidays revolved around railways, new ideas blossomed and soon Wilbert found that the writing of the stories acted as a tonic and a way of de-stressing from his parish work.

In 1950, some of the stories were translated and published in Welsh and eventually they would be translated into many other languages. By 1958, merchandise was also being produced, starting with a press- out model book, a map of the Island of Sodor, nursery wallpaper and even records of the Rev Awdry narrating some of the stories. By 1961, some two million books had been sold -  a remarkable achievement, although the royalties he received were actually very small - and eventually Wilbert Awdry decided the time had come to give up being a parish priest and devote himself to his long-suffering wife and to the necessary in-depth research which  his writing career  made necessary.  He continued to be an active priest, acting as a visiting priest to Gloucestershire parishes where the incumbent was on holiday or ill, and saw his writing as a specific ministry to children.

This is an absolute "Must Read" book for any "Thomas" fan; absorbing, engaging and altogether fascinating reading.
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Monday, April 27, 2015

A Buzz In The Meadow





A Buzz In The Meadow:
The Natural History of a French Farm
By Dave Goulson
Published in the USA by Picador, April 28th, 2015


 The author is a conservationist and scientist (currently Professor of Biological Science at Stirling University) who has bought a tumbledown, derelict farm in the Charente region of rural France which he turns into a wildlife sanctuary. He does not intend it to be a book about an eye-catching conservation species which will capture the public imagination, but rather an in-depth look at the remarkable, beautiful yet often unnoticed nature all around us: flies, butterflies, wasps, newts, bees, deathwatch beetles and the like - which he sees in his everyday life around the farmhouse and its land.

It is well-written indeed, at times almost lyrically poetical, yet can veer very sharply into a fairly detached scientific mode.  Every single chapter is remarkably engaging given it is dealing with quite ordinary creatures; there is an absolutely fascinating chapter about houseflies with a lot of detail about  how both battery hen farms and refuse sites need to be managed carefully to avoid enormous infestations of houseflies engulfing the surrounding areas. Flies are ghastly nuisances and the cause of all sorts of unpleasant bacterial contamination, but their role in the world's ecology is vitally important. His work in this field was very interesting indeed, and most enlightening. I will still swear when flies get in the house, but at least I now have  a much fuller appreciation of the reasons for their continued existence.


Was the book worth reading?
Without hesitation, I would say most definitely yes. Even if you only read the quite heartbreaking chapter on how modern agriculture is affecting our bee populations, this book is well worth reading and well worth the money.

 Do I agree with everything he writes or does?
No. Don't start me ranting about the poor newts, the destruction of whose habitat on his farm he inadvertently engineered and spent an inordinate amount of time  trying to rectify. For someone devoted to preserving the ecological balance of his farm, he seemed surprisingly laid-back by the problem he created for the newts, yet he was utterly enraged by a local hunter shooting a red-legged partridge on his land. I would argue that to shoot one bird in no way is equivalent to destroying an entire local habitat of a species, let alone taking several years to restore that habitat. It may take many more years before the newts return to his farm, if indeed they ever do.

Relating his experiences as PhD student studying Meadow Brown butterflies, he recounts wanting to study the mating process in greater detail which necessitated finding copulating butterflies and immersing them in liquid nitrogen to freeze them and then study the engaged genitalia under a microscope, as well as killing then partially liquefying butterflies in order the study their genitalia under a microscope. Having only this  morning rejoiced at seeing an Orange Tip butterfly flying exuberantly in my area for the first time in several years, I would be sad to think that someone would one day be chasing after it to kill it in order to study in closer detail. I know scientific knowledge is not always gained easily or without sacrifice, but even so.....I would prefer to see the butterflies in their natural habitat than their genitalia painstakingly dissected out and photographed for the scientific record.

I found it to be factually interesting and on the whole, very enjoyable.  It might well challenge your ideas and expectations about ecology, wildlife, the scientific method and how humanity is interacting with the other denizens of our planet, but it will definitely open your eyes to the lives of some of the almost invisible yet quite remarkable creatures that surround us. Do bees know their left from their right? Read this book and find out!



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Friday, April 17, 2015

The Little Paris Bookshop





The Little Paris Bookshop
By Nina George
Translated by Simon Pare
Published by Abacus, April 16th, 2015



 A man with a unique gift of seeing people's feelings, their inmost needs and knowing exactly which book will bring them healing, solace and will meet their needs exactly.

A man who has a floating bookshop  in Paris called "The Literary Apothecary".

A man who can help heal others, but cannot bear to confront, let alone heal, his own grief about being left by his mysterious lover so long ago.

His name? Monsieur Perdu.

"Perdu re­flected that it was a com­mon mis­con­cep­tion that book­sellers looked after books.
They look after peo­ple."

This was the point I was irrevocably hooked by this entrancing, captivating delight of a book.

M. Perdu lives in a bare flat, with a disused room barricaded by books. Despite his work, he lives an isolated life, never allowing anyone to get too close to him emotionally, not even the other tenants in his apartment building, 27 Rue Mon­tag­nard. That is until he is told of the dire need of a new tenant, Madame Le P, whose husband has not only left her but also stripped their flat bare. M. Perdu donates a table from his his secret room, and in so doing, unleashes a chain of events which forces him to confront his past and head off on a journey across France on "The Literary Apothecary" with Max Jordan a newly famous author who has developed a severe case of writer's block and marked ennui, and is fleeing from his publisher.....

Chock-full with allusions and references to books, some famous and some less so, the importance and usefulness of books of all kinds is allowed to shine brightly through the lives and emotions of people they meet on their expedition to Provence, until at last Madame Le P, Jean Perdu, Max and their fellow travellers are able to move on with their lives.

Simply wonderful. Read it! And enjoy the recipes at the end, as well as  "Jean Perdu's Emergency Literary Pharmacy" :-)




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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Grace Of Incorruption





The Grace Of Incorruption

By Donald Sheehan

Paraclete Press, March 28, 2015


It's always a delight to find quality modern Orthodox books popping up on publishers' lists and I jumped at the chance to request a review copy of this.  I had read a few articles by and about Donald Sheehan which had piqued my interest and I knew this was a book I needed as well as wanted to read.

This collection of essays covers his writings on how his Orthodox faith has permeated every aspect of his life, including his career as an educator, as a professor of literature and as a man who loved poetry, a career which is reflected in his often lyrical prose.

He describes his early life, living in a family affected by the violence and alcohol-fuelled aggression of his father, and how it was only after his father's death and a visit to the grave accompanied by his own family, that he was able to fully make his peace with his father and receive the wholly unexpected gift of the constant Jesus prayer. The prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner",  was his constant companion, leading him to a conversation with a Benedictine monk and thence to Orthodoxy. The rest of the book leaves the reader in absolutely no doubt that he found his heart's true home within that Orthodox faith.

An enormous range of topics are covered in these essays: from the obvious aspects of  Orthodoxy found in Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov", St Isaac the Syrian's depiction of the Chalcedonian use of the term "hypostasis", depression and asceticism to  the elements of Orthodoxy found in  Shakespeare, Salinger and modern poetry too. The relationship between Orthodox Christians and the natural world, the loving respect for animals which characterises so many of the great Saints and the bodily incorruptibility of some reposed souls are mentioned, and the second half of the book discusses Psalmody, especially Psalm 118, in great and enlightening depth.

I would not describe the book an easy read; it requires the reader to concentrate hard, to think, to ponder deeply and above all  to pray. For the reader keen to delve deep into the riches of the Orthodox tradition in the multi-faceted aspects of its glory, this will be a treasure, a source of joy, and a blessing to read.

















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Thursday, April 09, 2015

Introduction To The Psychology of Ageing for Non-Specialists




              Introduction To The Psychology of Ageing for Non-Specialists
        by Ian Stuart-Hamilton
          Jessica Kingsley Publishers, March 2015


Even with a background in midwifery I found parts of this book a little heavy going and had to re-read several sections. It is, however, a book that is well worth the time and effort in studying if you have an interest in ageing and how it affects the psychological make-up of people. It is a distillation of his much larger and more comprehensive medical textbook and is both succinct and clear, with touches of humour and real-life experiences.

 My motivation for reading it was to explore the psychological effects of various forms of dementia which was a particularly interesting section, but the chapters cover intelligence, memory, language, the general background of ageing, personality changes, lifestyle and mental health issues amongst older people. It might be thought that such a book would be depressing reading, but I was pleasantly surprised that to find quite the opposite; by taking account of the changes occurring in ageing, it is perfectly possible to make small but logical adaptations to one's lifestyle in order to minimise the adverse effects of the ageing process on well-being. 

The overwhelming tenor of the book is very positive indeed and this is a very useful introduction to the subject of ageing.




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Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Long Fall


The Long Fall
No 3 in "The Hawk & The Dove" series
By Penelope Wilcock
Published by Lion, March 2015

This review has been a long time in coming because of the very nature of this quite remarkable book. This is one continuous narrative rather than a collection of short stories as the previous volumes were, and considering it is a slim volume of 224 pages, it packs a devastatingly powerful emotional and spiritual punch.When I first read it, I was rendered speechless, quite literally, and rather unnerved; I have had to read it through a second time, much more slowly, and ponder and pray over what I have read and how it has affected me.

"The Long Fall" is the third in the wonderful "The Hawk & The Dove" series. Life at the monastery continues in its predictable routine, following the seasons of the year and the liturgical pattern of the Church until Abbot Peregrine is stricken down by a severe stroke. His faithful cell attendant, our dear Brother Tom, is utterly devastated, grief-stricken and has no idea how to cope with the abbot's physical incapacity or his own sadness and feeling of inadequacy. He begs to be allowed to do farm work instead and labours like a man possessed in his attempt to blot out what has happened, until the Infirmarians, Brothers John and Michael, take him aside and open his eyes to what is going on and what he needs to be doing to support and help Peregrine.

 How do we cope with an unexpected and  profound change in our intellectual or physical abilities, whether as the persons affected, those caring for us physically, or those who are closest to us? Denial, stunned shock, rage, depression, avoidance, bargaining, understanding and finally acceptance are stages that both Abbot Peregrine and Brother Tom have to work through before they are reconciled and together, with the help of the Infirmary staff and Brother Theodore, they all work to restore the Abbot to meaningful speech and movement.  Can we or should we expect, hope or ask for death? Should we ever ask another to help put an end to our suffering, no matter how great or whatever the circumstances? Why do we suffer and what is its purpose? These are all things the Abbot and Tom discuss before Peregrine is stricken down once more and dies.

The spiritual, mental, physical and emotional effects of suffering, dying, death and grief are covered incredibly well in a short narrative and this has to be the best depiction of the classic Elisabeth Kubler-Ross academic pathway of the stages of grief ever to be portrayed in a novel, let alone in one which manages to be a remarkable, touching and eye-opening book.

Penelope Wilcock's background as a hospice chaplain shines through in her compassionate and tender look at something most of us try to avoid thinking about. Being encouraged to examine our own beliefs and to study those of our individual religious traditions regarding these topics is important in an  increasingly unchurched society where religious beliefs in the value and nature of suffering are often not understood or even acknowledged; although I may not entirely agree with everything said, this is one of the most thought-provoking, beautiful, heartbreaking yet uplifting and important books I have read, and I have learned so much from it.

Not only has Brother Tom been enlightened and supported by the end of the book; the reader has too. Thank you, Penelope, for writing this story. It cannot have been easy to do so.









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Saturday, March 28, 2015

Dubuque's Forgotten Cemetery





Dubuque’s Forgotten Cemetery:
Excavating a Nineteenth-Century Burial Ground in a Twenty-First-Century City
By Robin M. Lillie and Jennifer E. Mack
University of Iowa Press, March 2015


This has been a timely read, considering the re-interment of King Richard III of England at Leicester Cathedral this week. All that pomp, pageantry, splendour, with enormous crowds to witness the re-burial proceedings for a king - but what about the humble, the ordinary, who have been long forgotten until a chance discovery brings their deaths back into public view once more?

People in Dubuque, Iowa, knew there had been a Catholic cemetery long ago, but everyone believed that virtually all the burials had been re-sited in the new graveyard in the late 1800s, and that perhaps only a few might remain  on the original site. The land was about to be developed; a contingency plan had been made to deal appropriately with any bodies that might be found in the course of the development, but what nobody expected - least of all the person who bought the land - was that there would be lots and lots of people still buried there. Iowa has a robust policy for dealing with human remains, both modern and historic, and in this case, the State Archaeology service was heavily involved right from the very beginning - which was just as well.

What was anticipated to take only a month ended up taking years and uncovering almost a thousand graves, as well as opening a complex and costly legal minefield. Despite all the problems, this turned out to be a remarkable opportunity which allowed archaeologists  to use the scientific examination and testing of buried human remains and their grave goods to identify at least some people and to use newspapers and census/religious records to help build up a truly fascinating picture of the health, wealth, life and death of people in multi-cultural Dubuque during the settler period of the 1800s. Many of the deceased had appalling dental problems and must have been in great pain as many of them show signs of having active dental abscesses at the time of their death.

 I found the section dealing with the religious medals - some very unusual indeed - and rosaries buried with the dead particularly fascinating. Several bodies had been buried wearing their rosaries around their necks, which is currently a fashion decried by modern Catholics, but obviously was just as acceptable then as the more mainstream custom of having rosary beads wrapped round the deceased person's hands. The medals depict saints whose specific devotions reveal the geographical origins of some of the settlers as from areas within France, Italy and Germany. It is truly staggering how much information the archaeologists have been able to retrieve from what they unearthed yet there are still many mysteries, such as the purpose and meaning of the silver-plated  dish resembling a paten which was buried with a child, a ten-sided plate buried with a woman and the presence in a grave of a pair of large scissors.

An excellent and highly readable book, detailed yet clearly written, well-illustrated and which shows the puzzles, triumphs and detailed detective work that is involved in archaeology, ending with the respectful re-burial of the dead and a discussion of the function of cemeteries as sacred space and their appropriate management over time.









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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Bless Me, Father


Bless Me, Father
By Neil Boyd
Published by Open Road Media, 
24th March 2015


It is nice to see this classic book back in print, thanks to Open Road Media. First published in 1977 in the UK, this is the first of five books featuring the exploits and mishaps of Father Neil Boyd, a newly-ordained RC priest, when he starts his ministry under the tutelage of the formidable Father Duddleswell in the London parish of St Jude's. Thrown in at the deep end, he learns to deal with organising a Sicilian family wedding, persuading Fr Duddleswell to agree  to take part in a clerical swimming competition as well as protecting the seal of the confessional with a pair of scissors, teaching would-be converts and very much more.

We meet a whole host of memorable characters, including Mrs Pring, the kind-hearted housekeeper who lives in a state of almost permanent sniping warfare with Fr Duddleswell, the truly terrifying Mother Superior of the local convent, the local doctor who likes a tipple and the rascally neighbour Billy Buzzle, who is always looking to for a way to annoy or outsmart Fr Duddleswell

Set in the pre-Vatican 2 days of the 1950s, when the services were in Latin and life in general was very different, it is not in the least bit politically correct and reduced me to fits of laughter in several places. The clergy are shown as human, fallible, wily, gullible, prone to bad temper and occasional outburst of swearing, just like the rest of us.  It's a pleasant and memorable read.

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Friday, March 20, 2015

Gods of the Morning





Gods of the Morning
A Bird's Eye View of a Highland Year
By John Lister-Kaye
Published by Canongate Books
March 5th, 2015


This is the story of a year in the Scottish Highlands, at an idyllic place called Aigas, as told by the eminent naturalist and author, John Lister-Kaye. He may primarily be a naturalist, but there is a good deal of the poet-philosopher in Mr Lister-Kaye and he does not shy away from looking at how man's interaction with the environment can be less than successful or indeed catastrophic in some cases. His Field Studies centre studies all aspects of flora and fauna in the area and he combines extensive scientific knowledge with a warm appreciation for his subject and an obvious desire to inspire the same sort of enthusiasm in the reader.

I certainly feel he succeeds in this. His love for the  area and every aspect of its wildlife shines through in every sentence, and he does not just describe the more appealing and marketable denizens such as golden eagles; I was delighted to find an incredible chapter about spiders, for instance!   Even the small events, such as a bird flying into a glass window and dying can reveal all sorts of natural history information; the fact that it was a blackcap was sad, but then it transpires that he had not heard any blackcaps singing for several weeks, yet they were still obviously in the area prior to migrating. What makes them stop singing before they fly away for the winter? He writes about owls, the delights and hardships of owning dogs, tracking animals, filming wildlife, cooking and eating swans whose corpses he found, fox-watching, how wildlife fares in the harsh winter months, wildfires, raptors, gamekeepers, butterflies and so much more.

Some of my favourite parts are when he discusses incredible migratory feats by birds, how leaves change colour and then fall and the remarkable ability of his local wood mice to navigate the area around his home, recounted with humour and a degree of delightful amazement. He tries not to interfere with nature, no matter how red in tooth and claw it may be,  yet he found he could not leave a stranded Whooper swan to perish and made sure to take some corn every day for it to eat  until it regained strength to fly off again.

A book which is worth reading and re-reading.





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Thursday, March 12, 2015

Sad News




                                      The amazing, incredible Terry Pratchett has died.


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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Authentic Amish Cookbook


The Authentic Amish Cookbook
Compiled by Norman and Marlena Miller
Published by Harvest House, 1st March 2015


This book will be a welcome addition for anyone who collects cookbooks or who is interested in the Amish food culture.  In keeping with the plain and simple lifestyle of the Amish, this recipe book is simply laid out and presented. Its simplicity has presumably contributed to its production costs as this is an inexpensive yet surprisingly comprehensive book compared to many other Amish cookbooks I have seen.

I liked seeing the words (and music!) for popular hymns, both English  and German, interspersed throughout the book as well as the quotations. Each chapter opens with a simple yet effective black and white photograph; many of the recipes have attributions to the contributors and there is a useful notes section to add your own recipes or annotations.  

Some recipes in the main body of the book, such as the Potato Salad, serve huge numbers - this one makes 5 quarts - and are ideal for catering for pot-lucks, church meals etc and there is also a special section for catering for large numbers of people, as well as a specific chapter on canning and freezing, a chapter with miscellaneous recipes such as dandelion jelly, honey butter, beef or venison jerky, Play-Doh and finger paints and a few pages of "Inspirational Gems for Mothers" which may sound a little twee but are actually very practical and useful. For those with specific dietary needs, a section entitled Health Food Recipes provides healthy alternatives to the main recipes, using carob, honey and whole grains.

I would add for the UK or European reader, that there are recipes which are sadly going to be a bit difficult to make due to the specific American nature of some of the processed ingredients, although you can always look upon it as a perfect opportunity to experiment until you find an appropriate substitute ingredient - I still cannot find anything which approximates well to Cool Whip!



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Monday, March 02, 2015

The Wounds Of God



The Wounds of God
By Penelope Wilcock
Published by Lion, 20th Feb 2015



We meet our old favourite characters from The Hawk and The Dove and learn much more about their lives and past histories in this marvellous sequel, as well as making the acquaintance of some new friends too.

 In this book, Melissa is much older, and we are immediately thrown into seeing how she deals with the tragic suffering and death of her friend Maggie and how she coped with that whilst wishing she still had her mother with her. She reminisces about her childhood, which was indeed rather spartan due to the family's relative poverty, but filled with love, laughter and family experiences of the sort which provide a whole lifetime of good memories and acting as a counterbalance to the unfairness that a sensitive child like Melissa can experience in a school setting where religious musings and thought were strongly discouraged if not actively punished. This book gives us more stories told by her mother, stories which continue to sustain and teach Melissa.


Brother Thomas is in deep disgrace when he is told he must accompany Father Abbot to a monastic conference chaired by Prior William, one of the most sinister and ungodly monks one can imagine. William is a man who delights in posturing and self-serving, taking pains to  persecute, humiliate and put down others, all in order to enhance his own self-importance in a disturbingly passive-aggressive manner....

 The conference is a lively one, (and I never, ever thought I would find someone who would write about theological concepts of justice, mercy and grace, while referencing in the Athanasian Creed in a novel!) and  I found myself heartily cheering on our dear Brother Tom when he leaps to Abbot Peregrine's defence. It was particularly nice to read about Abbot Peregrine's delightfully ebullient, erudite French equivalent, Pere Guillaume, who sees the great good in Brother Tom immediately, yet it is not long before Brother Tom is in trouble again, falling head over heels in love and leaving the abbey, only to realise at what cost, and making a painful return to monastic life.

It is enlightening, too, to see how hard the role of abbot is. He is responsible for the physical, spiritual and mental well-being of all the monks and novices at the abbey; he must make sure that each is given a role or task which is beneficial for his spiritual growth even if it is not always obviously best suited to his strengths and talents. The story of Brother Cormac and his stint of work in the kitchen with the fiery Brother Andrew is a case in point, but by the end of the book, we see how wise Father Abbot has been in these placements.

Steadfast loyalty, love, courage, friendship, repentance and spiritual growth are the deep, deep themes in this deeply moving and thought-provoking collection of stories which are definitely more aimed at adults and middle/older teens this time.  This book gives the open-minded reader some tender, loving, heartbreakingly raw and honest insights into the monastic life, what it costs the monk, even his family as well as the whole monastic community  before he reaches his heart's true home and the fullness of God's peace, which is the goal of each and every one of them.

I wept openly at several points and rejoiced at others, and I still find it hard to believe that these are only fictional characters, so deft and skillful are Penelope Wilcock's  portraits of these monks and their monastic struggles.

A wonderful read.


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Trauma Junkie


Trauma Junkie
By Janice Hudson
Published by Firefly Books, 2010


This is an updated and expanded version of a book which was originally published in 2001 and just as the title says, describes the working life of an Emergency Flight Nurse.

Just about the only thing Janice did not experience was treating a shark attack victim (a rival medical flight team got that experience), but she saw and treated just about everything else: burns, car crashes, cot death, truck crashes, drug-related shootings, overdoses, kids with meningitis, earthquake injuries, hit and run injuries, heart attacks, drownings and jet ski/motorboat injuries, to name but a few. 

Not only that,  but her work has put her in situations where her own safety has been at grave risk, being more or less trapped in  car wrecks as firefighters struggle to extricate the injured people she is helping, having to be winched  up to a helicopter as part of a cliff-rescue as well as being on the helicopter when there was a duck strike to the engine and when fire warning lights came on in mid-flight. 

She's crammed more adrenaline -fuelled incidents in her working life than the collected population of the average small town, and this fascinating book is the result. Lots of detail, but not too much, which is always a hard tightrope to walk for a medical writer, this book  filled me with whole-hearted admiration for the work these amazing crews do, day in, day out.


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Monday, February 23, 2015

The Hawk and the Dove



The Hawk And The Dove

By Penelope Wilcock

Published by Lion, February 20th, 2015


When we first meet Melissa, she is a lively teenager, desperately wanting to find her place in the wider world as well as already knowing her place in her beloved family. She loves all her family, but has a very special relationship with her mother, who holds the household together, surrounds them all with love and security and cares for her children 's bodies, minds and souls in equal measure.

Her mother is also an accomplished teller of family stories which go back hundreds of years to when their distant ancestor, Brother Edward, was a Benedictine monk at St Alcuin's Abbey in Yorkshire in the 1300s.  When the abbot dies, we find that the monks are all agog with curiosity to see who will be brought to them to be their new abbot; it turns out to be a monk named Columba, who is actually a relative of Edward's, a young man whose name in the world was Peregrine - hence the title as a play on words. The unlikely young monk has turned out to be a competent, fair and accomplished abbot, but it is only when he is badly injured does the true nobility and depth of his character really emerge as he struggles in his day to day life in the monastery.

Each of the delightful stories is a closely-woven tale which binds the world of these long-ago monks  with the modern world of Melissa and her family, encompassing family life, school, problems with friends and church life with the joys and difficulties of living in community in a monastery, learning to deal kindly and lovingly with each other no matter what vicissitudes may face them all. Each episode provides lessons both for the monks and for Melissa in a very Christian, non-preaching, gentle and loving manner; I found myself caring immensely about what happened to these monks and to Melissa and her family.

I can say with my hand on my heart that "The Hawk And The Dove" is engrossing, absorbing and utterly delightful.  I was truly saddened and sorry to reach the end of the book and am delighted to find that this is only the first in a whole series. Clearly written and utilising compellingly vivid language, these would be ideal stories for older children, "tweens" and teens to enjoy and ponder, as well as for adults; the stories challenge our conceptions about mediaeval monastics as well as modern concerns about simple living, priorities, relationships and beliefs.

 Well done indeed to Lion for deciding to re-publish this truly superb book for a whole new generation of readers to enjoy and to treasure. I know I will be cherishing it.




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New Habits


New Habits
From Sisterhood to Motherhood
By Eleanor Stewart,
Published by Lion, 20th February 2015

When Eleanor Stewart left her Catholic convent in order to pursue her desire to be a wife and mother, she was re-entering society as a young woman in 1969 - a society which was dramatically different from that which she had known when she entered the convent almost a decade earlier. 

Her first few months were a steep learning curve as she had to adapt to different clothes, different customs and different ways of behaviour, not to mention the aftermath of her parent's separation and her mother's mental health problems.  From going to the cinema, ordering alcoholic drinks, buying clothes and being horrified at the cost of living, she documents everything about her new life, and does not shy away from describing the trials and tribulations of dating boyfriends after having been a nun.

Eleanor continued her career as a midwife, this time in Chichester instead of Liverpool where she had worked as a nun-midwife, and quickly made new friends and forged a new life for herself. She and a friend moved and found jobs in Dorset for a period, enduring a bitter cold winter and an equally chilly working environment in the local hospital before she finally moved and settled in Portsmouth, where she met and married John, a self-avowed atheist. Having the children she so earnestly hoped for  was not as easy as she had envisaged, but eventually she and John were to have their adoptive family after medical problems made it impossible for her to conceive again.

I did enjoy finding out what happened to Eleanor after she left the convent, but many of the mistakes she made in her relationships with men were obvious to those around her (and to the reader) and were to have ramifications later in her life. When the book ends, she has finished work to look after her young family, but I am sure that certainly is not going to be the end of Eleanor's story.



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Saturday, February 14, 2015

An Amish Cradle




An Amish Cradle

By Beth Wiseman, Amy Clipston,
Kathleen Fuller  and Vannetta Chapman

Published by Thomas Nelson, Feb 10th, 2015


There is nothing more natural and joyous in an Amish family than the arrival of a new baby, but even for the Amish, a new baby can prove to be a challenge and change family dynamics. This interesting collection of stories looks at how  new arrivals change the lives of four extended Amish families.



In His Father's Arms by Beth Wiseman

When Ruth Anne and Levi's eagerly awaited baby, Joshua, is born with Down's syndrome, it is a total shock as they are only nineteen.   The young couple struggle to talk to each other and retreat further into isolation and misunderstanding each other.  When Joshua is subsequently diagnosed with a heart defect and other problems, he needs regular reviews and tests, causing added anxiety.

Ruth Anne struggles hard to be a good Mamm to Joshua and deal with what she fears is the disintegration of her marriage. Levi appears to have withdrawn both from his wife and his son, and it is only when he visits the bishop to ask advice that we find his cousin had Down's and died at a very young age; Levi is afraid to love baby Joshua  in case he dies too and is finding it hard to open up about his feelings, anxieties and fears about what lies ahead of their family. Levi's relationship with God is losing strength and although he begins to help care for Joshua, all is not well at home.

Can this loving young couple get their marriage back on track and unite in their love and concern for their wonderful little boy?


A Son For Always by Amy Clipston

Joshua and Carolyn are rejoicing in the birth of their baby girl, Sadie Liz, but Carolyn still worries that she needs to provide for the future for her son Benjamin, born when she was a young unmarried mother. Joshua loves Benjamin dearly and treats him as his own son, and struggles to convince Carolyn that he loves both children equally and for ever, and will always provide for both of them, no matter what. Carolyn feels torn between her desire to stay home and nurture her family and feeling she should go back to her job at the hotel to continue earning money; this causes tension between her and Joshua, and an interfering mother-in-law makes everything ten times worse.....

A Heart Full Of Love by Kathleen Fuller

Ellie and Christopher are overjoyed  about Ellie's pregnancy, but Ellie's mother has expressed concerns about how they will manage with a baby due to Ellie's blindness. When it turns out that Ellie is expecting twins, her mother's concerns threaten to spiral out of control, no matter how well Ellie is coping with being a wife and homemaker.

Even after Irene and Julia are safely born, Ellie's Mamm Edna allows her concerns to overrule what is best for the new family and makes Ellie feel threatened and inadequate. Poor Christopher is caught in the crossfire and wants to wholeheartedly support his Fraa while worrying about what is best for the twins. Edna's constant presence allows the young family no chance to settle down together. When he takes his courage in both hands, he inadvertently makes the situation worse before it gets better.

An Unexpected Blessing by Vannetta Chapman

Etta and Mose thought her days of childbearing were over at the age of 42, but God blessed them with an unexpected pregnancy, a joy after the sadnesses of the  stillbirth of their daughter Sarah and the moving away of their son David.  When Etta goes into labour in the midst of a blizzard, they struggle to reach the birthing centre in time, and when they do, Etta's labour proves not to be straightforward.

 The whole family's rejoicing over baby Hannah's arrival is muted when it looks like financial problems means they will need to sell their family home, even though they still have treasures such as the family cradle handcrafted by Mose and used by their own children and grandchildren too. Can David's unexpected return home alter their future?
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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

My Basmati Bat Mitzvah





My Basmati Bat Mitzvah
By Paula Freedman
Published by Amulet Books, 2013


  Tara Feinstein's mother converted to Judaism when she married and Tara has grown up in a mixed Indian Hindu/Jewish American extended family, filled with love and laughter.

 For her parents, it is a no-brainer that Tara will be having a Bat Mitzvah to mark her passage into Jewish adulthood, but as the occasion draws nearer, Tara is beginning to have doubts.  Does she really believe in God? Is she really Jewish when her mother is a convert, not Jewish-born herself?  Will she be betraying her Indian/Hindu heritage by going ahead with her Bat Mitzvah?

Added to all of this is her life at school, her Robotics project, her best friends Rebecca and Ben-O, her arch-nemesis, Sheila Rosenberg, and attending Hebrew school to prepare for the ceremony, as well as trying to stop her mother going totally overboard with the reception afterwards. It is an enormous amount to deal with, especially in the teenage years.

Friendships wax and wane, disasters happen and life becomes incredibly complicated, especially when secrets come out into the open, but with the help of her beloved Gran and Rabbi Aron, she starts to make sense of who she is, what she believes, where she "fits in" in her school, social circle, family and her religious beliefs, growing up in every sense of the word.


This book, aimed at tweens and early teens, was an absolute delight to read :-)
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Monday, February 02, 2015

The Last Jews In Berlin


The Last Jews In Berlin
By Leonard Gross
Published by Open Road Media
January 2015


Before the Second World War, Berlin had a large Jewish community of 160,000  which took part in most aspects of Berlin's commercial and cultural life. The rise to power of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party meant that by 1943, fewer than 5,000 Jews remained there, a truly staggering diminution of numbers. Some lucky ones had fled Germany in the early days of the war, others were sent to the dreaded concentration camps, still others were killed in Allied bombing raids or starved to death in abject poverty or even committed suicide as a last resort.

At the end of the war, there were only a thousand Jews left in Berlin, and this is the quite amazing story of how some of them managed to survive epidemic disease, starvation, predatory Nazi officials, unfriendly neighbours and the infamous "Catchers", who managed to survive themselves in exchange for finding and denouncing others to the official regime.

Based extensively on interviews with the survivors, Gross outlines the stories of twelve Jewish men and women, from all backgrounds (from a teenage orphan to an intellectual) who relied on their own skill and wits, compassionate people and serendipity to survive the last hideous few years of the War and emerge to rebuild their lives once more.

This is a book which will certainly appeal to anyone interested in German history, the Second World War, the Holocaust or Jewish history, but I would advise that if you are thinking of buying this book as a gift, do check with the intended recipient that they do not already have a previous version of this book which was released in 1985 and again in 1999.


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Sunday, February 01, 2015

More than Happy: The Wisdom of Amish Parenting


More than Happy:
The Wisdom of Amish Parenting
By Serena Miller & Paul Stutzman
To be published by Howard Books
Feb 3rd 2015

Serena Miller writes Amish fiction and this foray into non-fiction makes for interesting reading. When researching the Amish way of life, especially in Holmes County, Ohio, she noticed that Amish children seemed to be the happiest, most well-behaved children she had ever seen, despite their lack of modern material goods.

Intrigued, she used her contacts to meet a variety of Amish people who were willing to discuss what makes Amish children so happy. Gradually she came to realise that it the key to it all is family. Her co-author, Paul Stutzman, was born into an Amish family who subsequently became Mennonite;  he himself married a Mennonite girl and remains in that faith community, and adds a great deal by his own accounts of growing up "Plain". The Amish believe in putting the needs of others before their own and they have a steadfast adherence to avoiding hochmut (pride) at all costs, while still believing any job of work needs to be done honestly and to the very best of their ability. 

Each chapter deals with a different topic, covering just about everything you could wish to know, starting with family, marriage, divorce (exceptionally rare), the extended family, the importance of family meals and gender roles, cherishing heritage and  the value of being bi-lingual, discipline, the importance of life-long learning, punishments and shunning, chores, allowances and the work ethic, technology and quality time, as well as faith related issues such as patience, forgiveness, generosity etc.

Having family members who enjoy your company, treat you as a blessing and a gift from God, who cherish you, love you, admonish you and are not afraid to correct you when necessary, means the world to children, who feel confident, secure and safe in their extended community as a result.
They are regarded as valuable and useful members of the family and community, quite able - and encouraged - to learn skills and work along with the adults at a very young age, to take responsibility for their actions and to share fully in the joys and sorrows of their community; to bring up a child to become a kind and decent godly adult is the priority for Amish parents, and happiness follows on naturally from their parenting process, rather than being seen as a goal in itself.

This is a fascinating book which will appeal to anyone interested in alternative styles of parenting or  the Amish way of life.


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Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Skeleton Cupboard


The Skeleton Cupboard:
The making of a clinical psychologist
By Tanya Byron
Published by Macmillan, May 2014


Tanya Byron is a well-known British clinical psychologist who has appeared on many tv shows about child psychology and problems with children. In her 20+ years of clinical practice, she has met people of all ages with all sorts of mental health issues and problems, and it is her early training placements  covering the period 1989 - 1992 which are the focus of this book. In many respects she was thrown in the deep end, sometimes feeling only remotely supported by her clinical supervisors and  basically left to learn how to put her theoretical knowledge into practice and actually help her patients. 

The fact that she was so often able to do so in cases involving familial sexual abuse, transgender issues, sexual dysfunction issues, families struggling to come to terms with the impending death of sons from AIDS, anorexia and  dementia amongst many others is a testament to her own resiliency of spirit, determination and patience. Not everyone can be helped and not everyone actually wants to be helped, however. Dealing with such heart-rending and often tragic circumstances is draining and learning a certain degree of detachment from the clientele is a skill which is necessary but very difficult to learn, as this brutally honest memoir demonstrates. The cases she describes are vividly portrayed and her own thoughts and feelings about her experiences are laid bare for the reader, as are some distressing yet formative experiences from her own life. As a young clinician, she struggled to avoid allowing her work experiences to overwhelm her through maintaining her network of close friends, but on occasions her own immaturity and "nit-picking" of her supervisors did, I must admit,  irk me a little.

Many stories of tragedy and abuse are written by the person who suffered; this is the only book I can recall which has actually been written  solely from the therapist's point of view. I am sure that both clinical training placements and supervisory support have changed in the intervening years, but this remains a remarkable look at this period in Professor Byron's career, and the cases she describes will stay with me for a long, long time. Individuals described have of necessity been thoroughly anonymised, amalgamated and details changed to protect confidentiality, by the way, as I would expect in a book of this nature.

Not an easy read, and in places incredibly distressing, but a worthwhile one nevertheless for anyone with an interest in mental health issues.


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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The New Enemy


The New Enemy
(The Liam Scott series no 3)
By Andy McNab
Published by Doubleday, Jan 15th, 2015


Liam Scott might be young, but he has seen and lived through more than most people could ever imagine in their entire lives. Having survived two tours of duty in Afghanistan and shown aptitude for gathering Intelligence, his superiors have supported and encouraged his application to go on the Light Reconnaissance Commander's Course.

The course in the UK is gruellingly bad enough, but when the training in Kenya starts, he finds himself teaching members of the Kenyan Defence Force some of the things he has just learned as they fight against a vicious terrorist group based in Somalia. A simple "intel" gathering exercise mission about these terrorists unearths essential information which means the patrol goes back out to the danger zone and into almost unimaginable horrors when they are set up, ambushed and captured by the terrorists.

I've read the first two books in this series but this is by far the best, compelling me to read it in one session, my heart pounding along with Liam Scott's as he battles to save both his own  mission members and the Kenyan captives  held hostage by the Al Shabaab extremists.

Captivating, gripping and exhilarating, don't be put off by the publisher's "Young Adult/Teen" categorisation - anyone who enjoys action-packed adventure or military fiction will be sure to enjoy this book.  I'm just left wondering how on earth Andy McNab can top this story as he continues to chronicle Liam Scott's army career......


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Monday, January 19, 2015

When Books Went To War



When Books Went To War
By Molly Guptill Manning
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
December 2nd, 2014



The Nazi desire to control the minds of the German populace was quite remarkably terrifying. Books deemed demeaning or inimical to "true German" thoughts and beliefs were destroyed, especially books by Jewish authors, for fear they would pollute the pure minds of Germans.  Books by Helen Keller, Albert Einstein, Jack London and many others were destroyed in orgies of book burnings which were broadcast on TV and radio. 

Ordinary German citizens were careful to make sure they had nothing in their homes which could make them open to criticism on this front, and during the Second World War, 100 million books were destroyed in Germany. The destruction of proscribed books was shortly followed by the imprisonment and destruction of people whom were deemed a threat to Nazi Germany and its desire to rule Europe.

The need for books to accompany American troops as they journeyed to and travelled within Europe, to lift their spirits, boost morale and occupy their time, was quickly recognised. This remarkable book outlines the story of how the Government, librarians, publishers and authors worked together to make this a reality. Raymond L. Trautman, a reserve soldier who had a library degree, experience of running bookstores and knew how the book industry operated, and Althea Warren, who was allowed leave of absence from her post at Los Angeles Public Library, were the initial key players. Supported by the Red Cross and wholeheartedly backed by the general public, America's largest book drive was soon underway, collecting new books and second-hand books for the troops.

The importance of the printed word in sustaining troops was recognised and the American Government agreed to authorise the printing of both books and magazines out of the war effort budget. Publishing companies found that it was too expensive and difficult to produce so many quality hardback books, due to a shortage of raw materials, and the birth of the mass market paperback edition was born.

A huge variety of fiction (both classic and modern) and non-fiction to suit all tastes and reading abilities was commissioned and many authors were delighted to be told their books had been chosen to be re-published in this special edition for the troops. Feedback from the troops about which titles they particularly enjoyed or found helpful was disseminated back to the authors, many of whom  took pains to answer each and every letter they received. Reading the accounts of how much these books meant to the front-line armed forces is both heart-warming and heart-breaking in equal measure, and when you consider that 120 million new books were printed for the troops, it was a remarkable and highly successful undertaking, yet so few people are aware it even happened.

With the 1944 Soldier Voting Bill, known as Title V on the statute books, accusations of political propaganda and potential censorship as well as the morality of some titles became a strongly contentious issue, and eventually it was deemed better to avoid publishing a title at all rather than censoring and expurgating it for publication and affecting the ideal of free speech and freedom of the press. It is fascinating to see the lists of titles which were printed in Appendix B, and I now have an additional list of books I hope to read in the near future.

This was an amazing read, and a superb addition to my bookshelf.




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The Simple Life Devotional


Wanda E. Brunstetter's The Simple Life Devotional
Published by Barbour Books, November 2014

Everything about this book, from the layout and design, the background colour of the pages, the decorative touches and photographs, is a delight to the eye. 

The devotional content, which is even more important, is based on the Amish way of life and of looking at things, which can certainly help those of us who do not live the Plain Life but are faced with the stresses and burdens of a very different way of living. 

Short and sweet, and therefore much more likely to be sustainable as a book of devotional reading,  we are treated to anecdotes, sayings, quips, recipes (oh my, the recipes! Yum!) as well as short Biblical quotations for two whole months worth of daily readings to amuse, challenge you and make you think what you need to work on  as you progress on your life's pilgrimage to Christ.

A delightful book indeed.



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