Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Lieutenant Don't Know

The Lieutenant Don't Know: One Marine's Story Of

Warfare And Combat Logistics In Afghanistan

By Jeff Clement

Published in the UK & USA by Casemate Publishers,

 March 7th, 2014

Although I have read a few accounts of modern-day warfare and the challenges soldiers face in conflict, for some reason it had never occurred to me to wonder just how it was that they had equipment and supplies no matter where they were in the sphere of conflict.  Combat Logistics was not a term I had even heard of, let alone knew anything about, until I read this absorbing book.

Jeff Clement joined the US Marines and became a logistician, making sure that the chain of supply remained fully functioning and intact so that all necessary equipment and supplies were in the right place at the right time. His extensive training in the USA was to prove vital for his work when he had to ensure the supply of items for the use of both American and British troops in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan.

The Afghan terrain was rugged, brutal and naturally dangerous; added to this was the determination of hostile forces to do everything in their power to destroy or at least impede the progress of supply convoys. No matter how carefully they planned their convoys, checked for explosive devices and hazards, each convoy was a risky undertaking and there were many confrontations and injuries. And still the front-line troops needed their supplies, no matter what.

 It was an essential, stressful, difficult and  frustrating role, but one without which no battles could ever be fought.Those providing Combat Logistics required initiative, sound common sense, minute attention to detail, the habit of meticulous planning, a huge amount of background knowledge about the items needed and used by the troops and a phenomenal ability to think outside the box; they had to be prepared for anything and everything and to be surprised by nothing.

This is a remarkable look at the unsung heroes who provide the backup and support for the front-line troops, and whose work is often equally dangerous. Thoroughly enjoyable.

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Monday, April 21, 2014

American Saint

American Saint

The Life of Elizabeth Seton

By Joan Barthel

Published by Thomas Dunne Books, March 2014

This book is about about the life of Elizabeth Seton, the first American-born canonised Roman Catholic saint, but it is no hagiography.

St Elizabeth Ann Seton was born in 1774 and dying at only 47 years of age. In her short lifespan she married, was widowed, brought up her five children and set up the first Catholic school as well as  founding an active religious order, the Sisters of Charity. 

She was only too aware of the social conventions and pressures upon women at that time, but she chose to convert to Roman Catholicism, knowing full well she would be ostracised and mocked by many of her family, friends and social circle for so doing. This was a sacrifice she made willingly, trusting God to guide and lead her.

The life of St Elizabeth Seton is fascinating but it grieves me (and I am not RC!) to see this Saint being suborned as a poster child for a group with whom she would find very little in common. The life, faith and importance of "Mother Seton" have been interpreted through an entirely modern mindset and subjected to  an agenda of political correctness and ultra-feminism.  Joan Barthel, in her introduction, references the  beliefs of  the vocally strident American Leadership Conference of Women Religious, whose passion for "reform"  has put them perilously close to espousing ideas which would risk putting them beyond the pale as far as traditional Catholic doctrine is concerned. St Elizabeth Seton was willing to struggle to follow what she believed was the will of God for her, but she still accepted the doctrine and Magisterium of the Church.

St Elizabeth Seton certainly understood the importance and true function of the religious life in the church; I am not convinced that the author truly  does and sadly, I cannot in conscience recommend this book to my Catholic friends.

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Monday, April 14, 2014

Pieces Of Someday

Pieces Of Someday

By Jan Vallone

Published by Gemelli Press, November 2013

How does a Catholic lawyer of Italian-American descent end up teaching in a small Yeshiva?

Jan Vallone's father was a highly ambitious lawyer who wanted her to become a professional, which to his mind was either a doctor or a lawyer. He certainly did not want her to be a teacher like her mother! Pushed and prodded, she ended up eventually becoming a lawyer, but then she was the wrong sort of lawyer for her father's taste.

 When her adopted daughter Cristin struggled to make progress at school, Jan investigated becoming a teacher, but was deemed not qualified enough to undertake teacher training; nevertheless, by a series of chances, she ended up becoming a substitute teacher at a Jewish Yeshiva and a whole new life began for her.

As she poured out everything she knew and loved about writing, she learnt an enormous amount about Judaism and life from her students as well as gaining insight into her own Catholic faith, her life and marriage. She learnt, as well, just what it means to be a true writer and a true teacher, no matter how difficult things might become - and they became very difficult indeed.

This was a very pleasant read indeed; part autobiographical and part travelogue about her family's roots in Italy. I particularly loved the literary, Christian and Jewish quotations  scattered in the text to mark the themes of different parts, as well as the "discovering your vocation workshop" at the end.

The author has an excellent website at http://www.janvallone.com

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Thursday, April 10, 2014



By Chris Ryan

Published by Random House, April 10th, 2014

Chris Ryan is well known for his adult SAS fiction and his remarkable autobiographical account of his mission in the Gulf War from which he barely escaped with his life; he is also a prolific writer of great young teenage fiction.

Raphael and Gabriella are expert agents, charged with teaching and training the orphaned fifteen year old Zak Darke for a classified government agency represented by the mysterious "Michael".

Zak has survived several perilous missions for which his cover as a teenager was necessary. Once more he is on a mission, this time to South Africa to see if his one-time friend turned enemy, Cruz Martinez - who had been presumed dead - is actually still alive and involved in drug smuggling.

What looks like a simple and straightforward reconnaissance of a toy shop goes badly wrong and Zak is captured by Cruz's gang, forcing Gabriella and Raphael to find Zak's computer hacker genius friend Malcolm in order to track down Zak and join in the chase for Martinez across the African rain-forests, encountering deadly hostile wildlife and confronting a dangerous gang of child soldiers as they do so.....

 Action-packed, exciting and a compelling read from start to finish, I thoroughly enjoyed this as much as I enjoy Chris Ryan's adult fiction.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Harry's War

 Harry's War:

The Great War Diary of Harry Drinkwater

Edited by Jon Cooksey & David Griffiths

Published by Ebury/Random House UK, October 2013

August 4th of 2014 will mark the centenary of the start of the Great War, the war that was believed would be the war to end all wars,  and which almost destroyed an entire generation of men who fought in the four years of bitter armed conflict.

We are far enough removed from that time for it to be almost impossible to truly comprehend just how terrible it was, and it is perhaps only when we are able to catch glimpses of how it appeared to those who actually experienced it that it becomes real for us in our own generation.

Harry Drinkwater was rejected when he first applied to join the army. He was all of half an inch too short to meet the criteria, but he persevered until he found a battalion that was prepared to overlook that half an inch; he left his home in Stratford upon Avon to become a soldier with the 2nd Birmingham City Battalion in October of 1914. After basic training, he was set to France in November 1915, to the Somme, where he had a baptism of fire. It was to be fourteen long months before he slept in a bed again.

For Harry and his companions, the war meant that  barns, rough billets, tents and the vile, muddy trenches were to be their home and rats and vermin their uncomfortably near neighbours as they saw their friends and colleagues die around them. Exhaustion, privation, lack of food and clean water, harsh military discipline which saw infractions punishable by execution added to the horror of being surrounded by rotting corpses and the ever present danger of death from incoming sniper fire and mortar shells.

 Harry broke the rules and secretly kept a diary of what his war was like; this was in itself an offence for which he could have been court-martialled.  The delights of actually being able to have a proper wash and a shave after a week pale into insignificance as the war progresses and he has to scrape the trench mud off his hands and clothes with a knife and ends up wearing the same clothes for over a month before the bliss of finally being able to get clean ones and bathe properly. Cold rations and heavy rain are frequent companions, making tots of rum both a welcome treat and a morale-booster.

  Harry saw active service in Arras, the Somme, Passchendaele, French Flanders and even Italy before the war ended and although he was wounded twice, he was one of the fortunate few who survived. He was awarded the Military Cross for bravery (he had completed a trench raid although badly wounded) and was an officer by the time the war ended; he remained in the army, being sent to Italy and then to Egypt before being finally discharged on medical grounds with a pension in May of 1920.

This is the remarkable story of a remarkable man, who willingly did what he felt was his duty to his King and Country, like so many of his compatriots. Major Harry Drinkwater's spellbinding diary speaks for the many equally brave souls who did not survive that terrible war and is a tribute to all who served.

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Monday, April 07, 2014

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Making and Remaking Horror in the 1970s and 2000s

Making and Remaking Horror in the 1970s and 2000s:

Why Don’t They Do It Like They Used To?

By David Roche

Published by University Press of Mississippi / Jackson

January 22nd, 2014

This is outside my normal remit of book reviews, I must admit, but one of my daughters is doing a course on Media Studies and as she is learning things, she is sharing them with me and I too am becoming fascinated with how and why films/TV shows are made they way they are.

It is popularly assumed, particularly in the tabloid press, that our culture is becoming more and more disturbed and disturbing with each successive year, with violence and mayhem infecting the general populace to the detriment of society as a whole. This may not be the case; David Roche carefully examines the types of films made in the 1970s to those being made more recently to ascertain what has changed in the media industries and why.  It would not have occurred to me to investigate the political and economical milieu of the era in which films were made to see what effect that would have, and I found this a particularly absorbing aspect of the book. The differences between types of remakes was particularly enlightening to me.

This is a scholarly book, naturally based heavily on media studies theories and encompassing sociology, psychology and anthropological underpinnings, but it is surprisingly accessible to a general audience too. Amongst the topics covered are text, subtext and context, the functional/dysfunctional American nuclear family, race, ethnicity and class, gender and sexual stereotyping and just what really constitutes horror and terror, whether it be masks or monsters.

I found it an absorbing read, even though I have only seen a fairly small number of the films and remakes it studies and references. I have very vivid memories of being truly scared by some films I watched in my late teens/early twenties, and it is fascinating to discover just why they had the impact on me that they did.

 This remarkable and compellingly readable book  will be an important addition to the library of Media Studies students and would be a source of unending interest to anyone who has an interest in sociology and/or anthropology, and as well as those who enjoy horror films as a genre.

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An Amish Garden

An Amish Garden

Four Amish Novellas

By Beth Wiseman, Kathleen Fuller, Tricia Goyer & Vannetta Chapman.

All four of the novellas in this collection are connected by gardens and gardening, and this tried and tested format succeeds once more.

Rooted in Love by Beth Wiseman tells the story of Rosemary and Saul, who had been a courting couple for a brief period when Rosemary was sixteen. She is now 21 and like her, Saul is still single, although he shows his continuing interest in her as well as his regard, by his regular requests that she would consider going out with him again.

When Saul and her father have an unfortunate accident which leaves her father unable to work for a while, Saul decides to make amends by overhauling the family's long neglected vegetable garden. As the story unfolds and her widowed father seems to be developing a love interest of his own, we gradually find out exactly why Rosie broke off her courtship with Saul. Can she overcome her anxieties and give her relationship with Saul another chance, and can she come to terms with her father developing a new life for himself?

Flowers for Rachael by Kathleen Fuller introduces us to Rachael Bontrager, currently helping her grandfather and lovingly tending her garden. Her neighbour Gideon is handsome, shy and eager to court her, but unsure of how to start, until he takes advice from his sister, Hannah Lynn. Soon, Rachael is intrigued and baffled by the mysterious admirer who leaves beautiful flowers and attached short messages of regard at various places on her grandfather's land, but will these tokens of esteem be enough to make their friendship develop into something more?

Seeds of Love by Tricia Goyer
Eli Plank is an adventurer at heart. As a young lad living in Florida, he loved to read the stories in the Amish newspaper, The Budget, about those brave souls who set out to build an Amish community at West Kootenai in Montana and at long last, he was there, working and also writing the stories of his newly adopted community for The Budget for others to read and enjoy. Excited children and a bear cub lead him to meet Sadie Chupp, who has recently moved to the area after a family tragedy and she is determined to successfully raise tomatoes from her late mother's precious heirloom seeds. She has to decide if she should accept Eli's help and advice, or may there be an ulterior motive behind his kindness...

Where Healing Blooms by Vannetta Chapman

This was an interesting one to read. Emma Hochstetter is widowed, and lives with her beloved but frail mother-in-law. Her neighbour Danny is someone she has known since her childhood and it once looked as if they might one day get married, but Danny had left to travel and explore, only to return not too long before the death of Emma's husband. Their friendship endured, and when it turns out that a young runaway Amish lad is living secretly in Emma's barn, she and Danny confront him together.  Other problems occur in the community and when secrets from her mother-in-law's past come to light, it seems that there is a definite direction developing for the rest of Emma's life which will involve both gardening and healing, and maybe also love.

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Thursday, April 03, 2014

Stone Soup With Matzoh Balls

 Stone Soup with Matzoh Balls:

A Passover Tale in Chelm

By Linda Glaser

Published by Open Road Media/Albert Whitman

& Company, 18th March 2014

The fictional Eastern European village of Chelm is well-known in folklore as being a village of somewhat foolish people. This is the story of what happens when a mysterious stranger arrives in Chelm, just before the Passover Seder.

The villagers say they cannot offer him hospitality as they are all struggling to feed themselves and their families, but the stranger will not leave and says he can feed them all with soup made from the stone he has in his pocket.......but can he?

This is a well-known story, nicely re-told for young children and beautifully illustrated by Maryam  Tabatabaei, about the blessings of hospitality, communal action, care and consideration for others - as well as what happens when you utilise that sometimes rare commodity, common-sense! A truly lovely story for children and very appropriate indeed to read at Passover.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2014

The Rev Diaries

The Rev. Diaries

By The Reverend Adam Smallbone

Published by Penguin/Michael Joseph, March 27, 2014

I had never seen a single episode of the cult series "Rev.", before picking up this book, but that did not matter at all. Within a very few pages I was in hysterics,  and I alternated between laughing and crying  as I devoured the book.

Our supposed diarist is the Reverend Adam Smallbone, an Anglican priest who moves from rural Suffolk to the rather less salubrious surroundings of a London inner-city parish. Valiantly supported by his non-believing, talented lawyer wife, Alex, he is thrown head-first into what initially seems like Bedlam.

His new church of St Saviour's in Hackney has a small, very mixed congregation and he throws himself heart and soul into winning souls for Christ and improving the church's attendance. We meet Adoha, the lady who rather fancies him, Lisa, the potty-mouthed girl who serves in the local shop, Colin - who attends every service, often sleeps in the church building and is always in trouble of some sort - and Nigel, the erudite and earnest young pastoral assistant who yearns to be a priest himself.

Adam's remit includes the local C of E school and he quickly discovers the lengths some parents are prepared to go to  in order to secure a school place for their children.  Added to this  is the disastrous damage to one of the stained glass windows in the church and all the fund-raising to secure money for its repairs and Adam soon ends up spending far more time with his parishioners than he does with the long-suffering Alex, whose longing for a child seems unlikely to be fulfilled any time soon.....

Unsupportive (okay, frankly back-stabbing) clergy "friends" and superiors  play ultimately quite mind-boggling roles and it is hardly surprising that eventually Adam's world falls apart at the seams and he has a mammoth Dark Night of the Soul during which anything which can go wrong, does go wrong. Catastrophically so, in fact.

I have several friends who are Anglican  and Orthodox clergy, and I can see echoes of what they have told me about broadly similar episodes in this clever, thought-provoking, funny, touching and sometimes heart-rendingly sad book.  Candid and sometimes crude, these diaries open up what Adam really thinks and feels about his London life and what others think of him too.

This definitely, definitely will have a permanent home on my bookshelves, and I am looking forward to catching up with the TV series!

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

50 Body Questions

 50 Body Questions: A Book That Spills Its Guts

By Tanya Lloyd Kyi

Illustrated by Ross Kinnaird

Published by Annick Press, February 2014

There s nothing about this book *not* to love, whether you are a child or an adult.

Although aimed at children, the facts are fascinating for adults too, and presented in exciting and unusual ways; I am used to seeing that the lengthy of the unravelled small intestine equals so many football pitches, which is of no real use to me as I have no idea how long a football pitch is anyway! Being told that that the straightened out small intestine is the same height as a two-storey building makes it much easier for me to visualise.

Snot, spit, poop and digestion start the book off, including a page on how to make your own synthetic snot, should you feel so inclined. Circulation and respiration are well-covered, as are bones, muscles, how the body fights off infection, how the senses work and exactly how the nervous system functions.

All in glorious colour and well-illustrated, this is a super, simply-written book for children interested in how the body works.

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First Steps Through Insomnia

First Steps Through Insomnia

By Dr Simon Atkins

Published by Lion Books, March 2014

This is a very short book (only 96 pages long), but one which contains a lot of information relating to insomnia resulting from a variety of causes including jetlag, shift-work, menopause, restless legs and cramps.

Written by a GP who regularly sees and treats patients suffering from insomnia, and whose own wife suffers from the problem, this is a clear, concise and simply written book outlining how much we need to sleep (highly variable), what can happen if we do not get enough sleep (a heightened risk of developing high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, depression and heart disease), how sleep works, what might be causing our insomnia and what to expect when we visit the doctor to request help and treatment.

He discusses the pros and cons of medication, alternative remedies and cognitive behaviour therapy as well as outlining a series of simple yet effective measures for training the body and mind back into sleeping better.

I found it very helpful indeed, especially as I have suffered with the problem and so has one of my teenage daughters; we have implemented lots of the sleep hygiene routines he suggests and we have found them to be of benefit. The section about teenagers' increased need for sleep is particularly interesting.

 It is an excellent  and very useful book indeed!

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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Admin Notes

Dear Readers,

Just a gentle reminder that *all* comments are viewed by me before they appear on the blog.

 I very much enjoy receiving comments from all over the world, but if I am unable to translate the comments, I do not publish them on the blog.

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Sunday, March 09, 2014

Falling In Honey

Falling In Honey:

How a Tiny Greek Island Stole My Heart

By Jennifer Barclay

Published by Sourcebooks, March 4th, 2014

Jennifer Barclay studied classics at school and her love of Ancient Greek inspired several trips to Greece. When her life imploded after a particularly traumatic end to a relationship,  she swore off men and managed to finagle a working sabbatical in Greece. When she found the tiny island of Tilos, she had found a place where she could "be", and she slowly pulled herself and her life together while exploring the island and making friends. She found healing and peace on the island, and when she returned home again, her life was showing signs of settling down on an even keel once more.

 When she met a promising man named Matt who, as their relationship developed, was happy to relocate and set up business and home with her on her beloved Tilos, her happiness seemed almost complete. Sadly, her life once more reached crisis point when Matt was not what he seemed and her hope to settle down and start a family was dashed to the ground in the most unexpected way imaginable....but she picked herself up, dusted herself down and set off to make her home in Tilos just as she had planned anyway.

The descriptions of Tilos are lovely, and her experiences there are generally fun. How many people have stroked a living octopus, I wonder?   She swims, goes dancing, enjoys the food, the warmth, the flowers and the scenery, and paints an idyllic picture of life on the island. It is a pleasant and easy read and would be ideal for taking away on a holiday, but during parts of it I found myself wanting to give her a stern talking to.  She seems to be particularly unlucky in love and the lengthy introspections about her failed marriage and then two failed relationships did stretch my patience somewhat.

I do hope that a sequel will be able to describe her having a more settled and successful romantic life than hitherto!

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Thursday, March 06, 2014

Me And Murder, She Wrote

Me and Murder, She Wrote:
My Adventures in Television with Angela Lansbury,
Peter Falk and Jerry Orbach...among others

By Peter S. Fischer
Published by Grove Point Press, September 2013

Peter Fischer is probably not a terribly familiar name, yet his work has provided a substantial number of well-known TV  series. Have you ever seen an episode of Murder, She Wrote, Columbo, Ellery Queen, Marcus Welby, M.D. , Kojak, Blacke's Magic or Black Beauty? Then you have been watching shows which he has either created, produced and/or for which he has written scripts for episodes.

This is a delightful and entertaining autobiography by a man who has always loved to write, and who  finally, at the age of 35, took a massive leap of faith and became a professional writer. A prolific writer, and blessed with a wicked sense of humour and of the dramatic, in his working career he has created or breathed new life into some truly memorably characters. I must confess to loving the character of Jessica Fletcher and could not pass on the chance to read about how she came into being and how Angela Lansbury, a massive star of stage and the big screen was interested in  playing her character in what turned out to be a phenomenally successful and long-running TV show.

Angela Lansbury and Murder, She Wrote  inevitably occupies a significant part of this fascinating book,  and it was an absorbing look into the world of television and how shows are created and produced. The effective and professional working relationship between Angela and Peter Fischer quickly became an enduring friendship between Miss Lansbury and the Fischer family.

 Murder, She Wrote is just one of the many shows discussed in detail. Having read about the truly Byzantine intrigues and power plays which go on behind the scenes between different departments and people, and the power the "men in suits" have to make or break a potentially brilliant show, it's amazing that any ideas ever actually make it to a completed show, and even then it can all go disastrously wrong very quickly. The wrong producer, budgetary constraints, a wrongly cast part, an overly simplistic or overly complex script or a temperamental actor can cause utter havoc and wreak death to a promising show. Peter Fischer is able to describe this all too well from his insider knowledge as the man who himself has a wealth of experience of pitching ideas, writing the scripts and producing programmes.

Working with stars has its ups and downs, and it was immense fun to read how differently people handle disputes over story-lines, casting and scripts. Peter Falk comes across as a very likable and thoughtful chap and Fischer's respect and admiration for Angela Lansbury are self-evident, but there are some who are much less likable and end up being the stars of very different scenes!

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Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Catching Up.....

Sorry for the lack of posts - it was my younger daughters' school half-term break last week, and on top of that, I have had a dental abscess which meant a week's worth of antibiotics and generally feeling under the weather.

Reading has resumed in earnest and more book reviews will follow in the next few days :-)
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Friday, February 21, 2014

Groundbreaking Food Gardens

Groundbreaking Food Gardens:

73 Plans That Will Change the Way You Grow Your Garden

By Niki Jabbour

To be published by Storey Publishing, March 5th, 2014.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this is the most versatile, user-friendly, practical and absolutely gorgeous food growing manual I have ever seen!

Niki Jabbour has worked in close collaboration  with gardeners, all expert in their own fields, from all over America, Canada and even the UK and Germany, and this delightful volume is the result.  

No matter how big or small your garden, even if you only have access to a patio or a windowbox, you CAN grow some of your own food.  Whether your garden is shady, cold, windswept, shared with livestock or chickens, subject to extremes of temperature or short growing seasons, this is the book you need. Are you a chili aficionado? There is a garden plan which will enable you to grow no fewer than 24 different varieties!

Culinary herbs, bee and butterfly gardens, raised bed gardens, balcony gardens, "square foot" gardening, using patios and greenhouses, combining a food-producing garden successfully with raising chickens in the same space (I especially loved this one), growing figs in Canada, keeping wildlife critters out of your crops, growing from your grocery store leftovers, growing your own fruits and using wall space for espaliered fruit trees, wildlife and children-friendly gardens and growing heirloom varieties and saving your own seeds are all covered in detail, and so very much more. 

Whether you want to try growing Asian vegetables, recreate a World War Two "Dig For victory!" garden, make magical gardens to encourage children to learn to grow food, recycle metal, wood and blocks to make raised beds, make a drought-resistant garden, use your rooftop, grow food for Italian cuisine, terrace a hillside, devote your whole garden to garlic or create an edible hedge,  this is the book you need.

Absorbing, comprehensive, delightfully illustrated, the only problem I now have is deciding which plan to try out first from this wonderful book......

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Friday, February 14, 2014

Noble Conflict

Noble Conflict

By Malorie Blackman

Published by Random House, June 2013

Malorie Blackman is an incredibly popular author of teen fiction and writes consistently high-calibre books, always about thought-provoking topics.

This book does not disappoint; set in a world torn apart and virtually destroyed by nuclear war, young Kaspar Wilding is delighted to have completed his training to be a peace-keeping Guardian instead of spending his life working on his uncle's farm.

Sworn to protect the Capital City and its inhabitants from the violent rebels in The Badlands, he is convinced of the rightness of the civilised enclave in which he lives and works - after all, the Guardians do not kill the insurgent rebels, only stun them, no matter how violent the rebel attacks may have been -  until one day, he meets one of the despised rebels in the person of a girl named Rhea and his outlook on life changes completely.

Discovering that he has only ever been  made aware of part of the truth about the rebels and their cause, he is determined to find out the whole truth,  but even with a trusted group of friends to back him up, the talented young Guardian may well have bitten off far more than even he can chew.....

Gritty, fast-paced and action-packed, this certainly kept my attention!

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The Gift Of Love

The Gift Of Love

By Amy Clipston

To be published by Zondervan on March 4th, 2014

Amy Clipston is a popular writer of Amish-themed fiction (including my favourite series, the Kauffman Amish Bakery series) and I was delighted to see that she has now written an autobiographical account of her momentous decision to undergo major surgery and become a kidney donor to someone else so that her husband Joe could himself receive a desperately needed kidney transplant .This was not the first hardship to hit her family; her beloved father had a massive and life-changing stroke, becoming a changed personality and whose physical problems and outbursts of anger caused much heartache and anxiety as they all worked together to deal with each difficulty as it arose.

Amy pulls no punches about how hard it is to see your young and fit husband's health deteriorate terrifyingly quickly to the point that he needs not just a first kidney transplant, but then a second.  It would be so easy to portray oneself as almost Mary Poppins-like, trusting, pious and always caring and understanding, but she is very quick to be brutally honest and point out just how hard she and her family found it to deal with Joe's illness and how badly it affected them all, coming very close to pushing their marriage on the rocks and massively testing her faith.   Amy was working full-time, caring for Joe and her boys with the help of her mother and writing her novels to try to make ends meet and cover their never-ending medical bills and expenses; against all the odds, a match for Joe was found and their lives were transformed once more.

 It really is an inspirational story of how faith, perseverance and courage allowed them to overcome hurdle after hurdle as a couple and as a family, and a delight to read that things turned out well for them in the end.

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Romance Of Religion

The Romance of Religion:

Fighting For Goodness, Truth, And Beauty

By Dwight Longenecker

Published by Thomas Nelson, February 4th 2014

This is NOT a ghastly romance in the sense of "Jesus is my boyfriend", let me reassure you! It is a book about the romance of Christianity in the purest sense of the historical and romantic tradition of storytelling, where:

 "A fine romance is a good story—a story, like all good stories everywhere and at every time, that reveals eternal truth within a gripping tale. We are entranced by a good story because the plot is slick and the storyteller skilled. We are captivated by a good story because it incarnates the truth. A good storyteller locks the truth so tightly into the story that you cannot get at the truth without telling the story. The romantic believes the truth in the story, but he also believes that he can make that story come true in his own life."

Christians and Christianity get a generally bad press in the modern world - seen as boring, outdated, out of touch with the modern world, irrelevant, judgmental - you name it, it's been applied to Christianity. But is this what Christianity is all about? Not at all, says Fr Longenecker, who sees Christianity as the biggest, boldest, most awesome and outrageous adventure quest that has ever existed.

Using examples from Cyrano de Bergerac, C S Lewis' Reepicheep, Darth Vader, Neo Anderson from "The Matrix", from Greek philosophers and metaphysical poets right through to Hollywood movies and material science, the subject of "reality" is explored, along with the concepts of good and evil, war and the dangers of political ideologies, truth, beauty, love and heroic self-sacrifice.

Christianity calls us to leave behind our old lives, to take on a quest for salvation which will require all our strength, determination, ingenuity, integrity and commitment, yet we will only accomplish our quest by having faith in God and trust in His abundant grace and love for us all, and by being prepared to sacrifice absolutely everything for Him.  I cannot think of anything more compelling, exciting, terrifying and demanding than being called to be a Christian - can you ?

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Sunday, February 09, 2014

An Amish Miracle

An Amish Miracle

Three Amish Novellas 

By Beth Wiseman, Ruth Reid and Mary Ellis

Published by Thomas Nelson, December 2013

I really do enjoy these collections of Amish themed novellas by different authors, and this is one of the best I have read. Each story has a problem or situation which causes heartache and worry, and in each, a miracle  occurs to put things right.

Always In My Heart by Mary Ellis

Hope Bowman has three lovely daughters and is expecting a fourth child. When this baby is also a girl, she begins to wonder if God will ever bless her and her husband Stephen with a son.  Stephen has no idea that she was raped and became pregnant when only sixteen, and that her stern and unbending father Silas forced her to move away and give her infant son up for adoption so that no shame would be brought on their family.
When she tells Stephen the truth, she has no idea that soon her son James would turn up at their farm, looking for his birth-mother...but can James come to terms with the Amish way of life, or will Hope's heart be broken a second time when her son goes back to the Englisch world? And how will their community react to the truth about what happened all those years ago?

PS: Stephen has to win a prize for the best fictional Amish husband!

Always His Provision by Ruth Reid

Rosa Hostetler is a young widow, struggling to manage financially but fiercely independent and determined not to be a burden on her family or her community. She keeps her straightened circumstances hidden even from her best friend Hope Bowman, but finds her faith being tested when overdue back taxes on her farm bring her to the point of losing her home.  

When a series of dog attacks on her hen flock mean she is struggling to earn money from egg sales, disaster seems inevitable, especially when her attempts to protect her flock produce a huge vet's bill from the Englisch neighbour whose dog is responsible. It seems only a miracle can help her now, but is that miracle going to be in the  form of her neighbour, Adam Bontrager, who was a good friend of her husband's and is keen to help her too...?

Always Beautiful by Beth Wiseman

Becky Byler has a serious weight problem, even though she is only eighteen. She is mentioned in the two previous novellas, but this story is about her struggles with being seriously obese and how much it affects her life, her happiness and her relationships with her family, friends and neighbours. At the start of the story, she feels isolated and is in serious despair, begging God to grant her a miracle and help her to lose weight so that she can be pretty and slim like the other teenaged girls in her community.

When the miracle happens and she loses huge amounts of weight, her relationships with those around her change too. Her best friend Elam (who has eye problems and is awaiting corrective surgery) loves her dearly and hopes to marry her one day, regardless of her weight, because he loves the person she is. However,  Becky has another potential suitor, the popular, handsome and kind Matt King, and as her weight continues to drop off, her life and attitudes change and not necessarily for the better, either....is the miracle the blessing she had hoped for, or was she happier before it happened?

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Monday, February 03, 2014

The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyne-Sheyndl & Motl, the Cantor's Son

The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyne-

Sheyndl and Motl, the Cantor's Son

By Sholem Aleichem

Published by  Open Road Integrated Media / Yale 

University Press, October 2013

Sholem Aleichem was a Jewish author and playwright from the Ukraine and lived from 1859 - 1916; the most well-known of his works in English is undoubtedly the story of Tevye the Dairyman, which ultimately became immortalised as the musical "Fiddler on the Roof."  This translation of his two works " The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl & Sheye-Sheyndl" and "Motl, the Cantor's Son" is by Hillel Halkin, who also wrote the introduction to the volume.

What can one say about Menakhem-Mendl and his wife, Sheyne-Sheyndl? He is utterly convinced that he has the ability to make a huge success of what he believes to be his financial acumen in speculative trading as he travels the cities of Russia in his attempts to make a fortune with which to support his family, but his business schemes regularly go awry, much to his wife's consternation and distress;  she often berates and scolds him for his reckless gambles and is increasingly puzzled and disturbed by him, especially when he heads over to the New World to seek a fortune there too. The dialogue between them ranges from loving, sweet and actually very charming, to outright fury, often making me laugh out loud at their interchanges in this intimate glimpse into pre-Revolutionary Jewish life. 

Motl, the son of Peysi the Cantor, who dies at the beginning of the story, is able to make the journey over to America and make a new life for himself, his mother and brother. Motl's talent and passion is for art, and he seems to be able to quickly assimilate into American culture and life; his learning to speak American English in a variety of accents is wonderfully described. Eventually the family launches into business with a newspaper and soda stand and things just keep on looking up for them after that.

Both stories were enjoyable and it has been a delight to have been able to finally read them in English.

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Amish Cooks Across America

Amish Cooks Across America:
Recipes and Traditions from Maine to Montana

By Kevin Williams & Lovina Eicher

Published by Andrews McMeel Publishing, May 2013

From reading Amish-focused fiction, one could be forgiven for thinking that there are some very traditional foods which are common to all Amish; this is simply not the case, and this excellent book sets out to show the huge range of foods utilised by Amish communities across America to make meals for their families. No recipes for shoofly pie  in this book, according to the index!

Many Amish communities are vividly described and  very beautifully photographed; some of their most notable recipes are given, ranging from maple syrup based recipes made in the syrup producing area of Conewango Valley, Cherry Creek, New York, to rhubarb bread and cookies made in Fredonia, Pennsylvania. Amish in Dover, Delaware like to use seafood and the Amish settlement at Flat Rock, Illinois, loves its venison; in Beeville, Texas, the Amish make okra gumbo; in Ethridge, Tennessee, they cook cornbread and pork 'n beans as well as making their own molasses from sorghum.
Montana Amish make their own elk bologna, moose steaks and huckleberry pancakes and in the San Luis Valley, Colorado, burritos and tortillas are often to be found on the menu.

I particularly liked that the Amish reticence about courting publicity is honoured and so is their reference not to pose for photographs; the Amish who are photographed are done so very carefully, with the focus firmly on their clothing, items they are carrying or their homesteads and scenery rather than their faces. This is a lovely book indeed!

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Friday, January 31, 2014

And Then There were Nuns

And Ten There were Nuns:

Adventures in a Cloistered Life

By Jane Christmas

To be published by Lion Books, February 21st 2014

Jane is a fifty-something Candian woman from a mixed Anglican/RC family who has been twice divorced and is in a long-distance relationship with her boyfriend who is living in the UK. Before she makes her final decision to marry him, she decides that she finally has to listen to the small, nagging voice which has been encouraging her since her teenage years to explore the monastic life - so she sets out to visit the Anglican Sisterhood of St. John the Divine in Toronto to test her vocation. 

 From there she heads to the UK, to stay at the Roman Catholic Quarr Abbey and St Cecilia's Abbey, both on the Isle of Wight before heading north to Whitby and the Anglican Order of the Holy Paraclete's St Hilda's Priory, which is based at Sneaton Castle. She has a variety of experiences, some religious, some very secular, some good and some very unpleasant indeed and she discovers that not everyone is welcoming of a wannabee nun of her age and life background. Gradually, she comes to realise that before she can tackle the idea of becoming a nun, she needs to properly deal with the emotional and psychological aftermath of a sexual attack she suffered many years previously.......

The book is well-written, with some passages that were poetically arresting in their imagery:  "On the surface, praying seems easy. Knit your eyebrows in concentration, mutter a few words, and then get on with your day. It’s not like that in a convent. Think of the hardest job you could do—mining comes to my mind—and then imagine doing that in silence and in a dress.

Every day the sisters descended into the Pit of the Soul, picked at the seam of despair, sadness, tragedy, death, sickness, grief, destruction, and poverty, loaded it all onto a cart marked “For God,” and hauled it up from the depths of concern to the surface of mercy, where they cleaned it and polished it. It was heavy, laborious work."

but then I would find myself harumphing furiously over her very passionate proclamation that the Anglican communion's "discrimination" against women was akin to racism, and later in the book, she states that:
"The way women are treated by the church reminds me of
my rape. Like rape, exclusion and bullying are emotional violations
intended to punish, to subdue, to “teach a lesson,” and
to assert the oppressor’s domination."

- which is a very blanket condemnation of a Church in which I grew up and spent my early adult life, and never, ever encountered anything even remotely akin to the behaviour she describes.

I won't spoil the ending, but it is a very interesting book and one I will definitely read again, even though she and I are diametrically opposed in our viewpoints on the ordination of women :-)

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Thursday, January 23, 2014



By Ronald Frame

Published by Picador, November 2013

The unwritten back-story of Great Expectations has always fascinated me. Charles Dickens tells us that Miss Havisham was jilted, but the finer details are never given and we are left to wonder at her life prior to her much-anticipated but ultimately disastrous wedding day.

Ronald Frame has bravely chosen to pick up Miss Catherine Havisham's story and he fleshes it out well. We learn of her guilt at causing the death of her mother in childbirth and her lonely and rather sad life as an only child in the large Satis House so closely attached to her family's brewery.

With her rich yet emotionally distant father, she grew up with everything money could buy, yet was so vulnerable on many levels; she was too "trade" for the children of upper-class families to play with but the local town children  were "beneath" her, according to her father's estimation.

Although the books starts off slowly, it gradually gathers pace and complexity as we meet a half-brother of whom she had been completely unaware and who tries to usurp her place in their father's affections. When her father arranges for her to stay with the wealthy and influential Lady Charlotte Chadwyck's family, she eventually meets the man who would, in her own words, ruin her life -  the charismatic, manipulative and utterly self-serving Charles Compeyson....

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