Thursday, August 29, 2013

Shakespeare v Lovecraft

Shakespeare v Lovecraft: 
A Horror Comedy Mash-Up featuring Shakespeare's Characters and Lovecraft's Creatures

By D R O'Brien

Published by D R O'Brien, January 2013

No words of mine can do justice to this remarkably clever pastiche/parody mix of characters from H P Lovecraft's wonderful  horror stories and Shakespeare's plays. 

This is not a combination which would have sprung to my mind, but it works brilliantly well and I spent a considerable amount of time laughing immoderately. Based largely on The Tempest, it contains many of  the most notable characters from Shakespeare's plays, including Henry V, Sir Thomas More, Romeo & Juliet, Caliban and Lady Macbeth. Add to the mix the rise of Dagon and Cthulhu, and you have a very satisfying read indeed. 

I really don't want to spoil the plot of this short but very satisfying story, but I simply have to say that 
Lady Macbeth confronting Cthulhu is a clash of the titans and I was surprised at just who managed to wrest control over the dread Elder God in the end. 

Great fun, and I hope  there will be a sequel in due course......

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Imitating Mary

Imitating Mary:

Ten Marian Virtues for the Modern Mom

By Marge Fenelon

Published by Ave Maria Press, April 2013

Marge Fenelon is at pains to point out that being a Mom for the purposes of her book is certainly not restricted to being a biological Mom and that this book is aimed at all women who are in a position of nurturing others, whether physically, mentally or spiritually.

Motherhood is a calling, a vocation and not something to be looked down upon or trivialised. I was particularly taken by one comment in the book which keeps coming into my mind:
"I’ve observed quite a few women being tossed to and fro by a culture that’s trying to convince them that motherhood is either a commodity or an affliction.It only follows that if our culture doesn’t value motherhood, then it won’t value the mother either." So very true.

The Most Holy Mother of God  is the Mother par excellence, who has opened her heart and her love to all those who accept Christ as their Saviour. We can learn so very much from her, and this wonderful book outlines ten of her virtues which can be of inspiration to us and for us to aspire to imitate. Each chapter is devoted to exploring a virtue both in the biblical narrative and the mind and tradition of the Catholic Church, accompanied by Fenelon's own devotional thoughts and some points to ponder and discuss.

It certainly brought home to me that there was so much I did not taken on board when reading the Gospel accounts of the Annunciation and Visitation - I had no idea that when Our Lady went to visit her cousin Elizabeth, it involved a journey of seventy miles - that was no mean undertaking in those times!

Written in a fresh, lucid and respectful style, this lovely book looks at significant events in the life of the Mother of God and what we can learn from her example and the way she lived her life in total obedience and trust in God.  This book is firmly rooted in the Roman Catholic tradition but most of it would also be of enormous value to Christians of many other traditions, especially those of  Eastern Orthodox, Anglican and Episcopal Churches who hold Mary in veneration, respect and high regard.

This is a book I would certainly re-read often.

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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Pennsylvania Patchwork

Pennsylvania Patchwork

By Kate Lloyd

Published by David C. Cook, June 2013

Holly Fisher is a thoroughly modern woman, complete with laptop and cellphone, currently engaged to a Mennonite vet but living with her mother Esther and ailing Amish grandmother Anna in Pennsylvania's Amish country.

Esther is engaged to be married to Nathaniel and is preparing to be baptised and join the Amish church, many, many years after she left the community and got married to her husband Sam, who  went missing in Vietnam.  Everyone assumed he died but did he? Did he make it back to America, as the note in the mysterious parcel claims? Is he still alive? Shouldn't Esther divulge this to her daughter Holly, her fiance Nathaniel and the Bishop  instead of destroying the note?

 Added to this, Holly's fiance Zach's old girlfriend has turned up, claiming that the little boy with her is actually Zach's son, and one of Holly's old friends turns up out of the blue, determined to court her. Rumours are abounding that Nathaniel's long-missing and presumed dead wife has been seen alive and well, so Nathaniel has to go on a quest to try to uncover the truth which may mean that he cannot marry Esther after all......

Sadly, I have to say I found the characters very "flat" with the exception of old Anna and I simply could not relate to them; the vagaries of the plot left me frantically backtracking through pages to see if I had missed something crucial earlier on, which I found frustrating in the extreme.

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The Mysterious Death Of Miss Jane Austen

The Mysterious Death Of Miss Jane Austen

By Lindsay Ashford

Published by Sourcebooks Landmark, August 6th, 2013

When I saw this listed in the NetGalley catalogue, I had not a moment of hesitation in requesting to be allowed to read and review it. I have an interest in all things Austen and the Regency period and have often pondered the symptoms of Jane Austen's final illness and untimely death.

It is nice to see that others have also exercised themselves in finding out what her illness actually was; Lindsay Ashford has a degree in Criminology and is an accomplished mystery writer, making her well-placed indeed to weave an intriguing and highly convincing fictional account of what may have happened during Jane's final years.

Written from the viewpoint of the witty, highly intelligent and somewhat unconventional Anne Sharp, governess to Jane's niece Fanny, Jane's life is described, her  achievements celebrated, her death mourned and then brooded over as Anne's horrifying suspicion is confirmed that Jane Austen's death was the result of poisoning. Anne Sharp sets her formidable intellect into uncovering the truth about the death of her adored friend, unearthing layer upon layer of intrigue and covered-up scandal as she does so.

Based upon letters and documents of the Austen family, this clever story makes for compelling reading and will certainly appeal to anyone who likes Miss Austen's works or has an interest in her life and times.

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Hazelet's Journal

 Hazelet's Journal

By George Cheever Hazelet

Published by Old Stone Press, November 2012

George Cheever Hazelet was a remarkable man by any standards. Initially a school principal in Nebraska, he became an entrepreneur who saw his chicory drink business collapse during the Great Panic of 1896/7.

Undaunted, he  was inspired by the news of the Klondike Gold Rush to try his luck prospecting in Alaska and kept a detailed journal of his life there.

To say conditions were brutally harsh there is an understatement; many men died in the attempt to live in the Alaskan winter and it is a testament to Hazelet's tenacity, determination and remarkable courage that he not only survived his years prospecting but actually prospered, acquiring 720 acres of land in 1901 and eventually permanently moving his family out to Valdez.

Even when cold, exhausted and dispirited in the worst conditions, his thoughts were with his wife and children and he writes with  a sweet and tender dignity of his love for them all, mentioning repeatedly how precious his letters from home were to him during his extended stays in Alaska. He was a compassionate man, refusing to treat livestock cruelly when prospecting even though so many men worked their dogs and horses quite literally to death and he comments thoughtfully in his diary entries about his daily life and the people he meets.

The finding of large reserves of copper meant it was an ideal time for Hazelet to take advantage of the need to build a railroad to the area. He later became Mayor of Cordova, and was a highly respected man who was also nominated to run as senator. He died at the age of 65 in 1926, and his descendants treasured the remarkable journals he had made. Thankfully they have been published so that a true life account of his life and times prospecting has been preserved for future generations of readers to marvel over and wonder if they too could show the same sort of grit and moral character that he did.

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Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Guardian

The Guardian

By Beverley Lewis

Published by Bethany House Publishers, March 2013

A teacher whose beloved sister has died, causing her to lose faith in God and to be afraid to commit to having children when she marries her fiance for fear of losing them too...

A young child whom she finds wandering alone and lost out in the countryside...

A widow raising her young family and coming to terms with the loss of her husband and now the loss of her beloved youngest daughter...

A tightly-knit Amish community with its far share of worries and problems who join forces to search for a missing child....

This is without doubt the best Beverley Lewis book I have read, and the one with utterly believable and very memorable main characters. I laughed, I cried, I worried and I rejoiced with them, and was sad to reach the end of the book and have to bid them farewell.

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River Notes

River Notes:

A Natural and Human History of the Colorado

By Wade Davis

Published by Island Press, 2012

I had a particular interest in reading this as my daughter and son-in-law live in this area. It covers exactly what the cover says, and quite remarkably so when the book is only 155 pages long.

From the dawn of the world through to a modern day "river trip", humans have been interacting with this enormous river , sometimes harmoniously and to mutual benefit, but in more recent history, mankind's interference with the great river has had devastating effects.

The damming of the river at various points has meant that the once thriving estuary where the river met the sea was reduced to a salty arid region where the very water itself  had become toxic as it was reduced to a trickle. The effects on humans and wildlife has been incalculable, yet the damming provides water for a vast region with little natural rainfall to depend upon.  Would such a preponderance of dams - or even any dams at all - be allowed under modern planning and development restrictions?

In contrast is the lo-tech way the native Americans interacted and continue to interact with the river and the region, and David gives a sympathetic and absorbing account of the people he met and the ancient customs which survive to the present day, despite the odds.

This is a book I am glad to have read.

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Saturday, August 24, 2013

Survive the Unthinkable

Survive The Unthinkable:

A total guide to women's self-protection

By Tim Larkin

Published by Rodale, August 20th, 2013

Violence generally falls into two major categories:

a/ anti-social violence, where people are aggressive , confrontational and hostile but can often be "talked out" offering outright violence to you

and b/ asocial violence where you are faced with someone who does not give two hoots about the unspoken rules and conventions of society but just wants  - for whatever reason - to rob with violence, severely maim or kill the victim.

Learning to differentiate between the two is crucial, argues Larkin, and knowing exactly which one you are dealing with gives you the best chance of walking away from such an encounter alive. With  the first group, you can often talk your way or walk your way out of trouble. With the second, he asserts that you cannot and should not even attempt to assay it. With this second type of assailant, you need to think quickly and react in such a way that you temporarily disable your attacker in such a way that he is not able to hurt you any further or stop you from escaping to safety.

Violence of this nature is unsettling for many women to even think of, let alone plan for and prepare to deal with, but it is Larkin's belief that with violent crime against women on the increase, it is essential for women to know how best to defend themselves using their own bodies if necessary, to give some thought to preparing themselves psychologically to transcend societal norms of behaviour and to know exactly where to hit an attacker for maximum effect.

This is the sort of book you wish you never, ever have to read, but reading it may well save your life by buying you enough time to get out of a dangerous situation alive and relatively unscathed.

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Friday, August 23, 2013

A New Home For Lily

 A New Home For Lily

By Mary Ann Kinsinger & Suzanne Woods Fisher

Published by Baker, February 2013

This is the second in a series following the life and adventures of Lily Lapp, a delightful young Amish girl. In this book, Lily and her family have moved from their community in New York State to a new community in Pennsylvania, and things are very different here.

 Head coverings, clothes and customs are different, and they all have a lot of adapting to do. Their new house is not as nice as their old one and Lily doesn't have a proper bedroom, much to her dismay, though she certainly does enjoy the novelty of having electric lights for a while till her father finishes converting the house to a proper Amish home.

Lily has to learn some hard life lessons in this book; some children in her new school are thoughtless, unpleasant and outright viciously mean and she has to learn to deal with some sad situations, though she has plenty of fun both at school and home too to counterbalance all this. There is a bereavement in the family and Lily attends her first funeral as well as celebrating the return of her favourite cousin and the birth of another new sibling.

It may have been intended to be enjoyed by 8 - 12 year old children, but I find Lily to be a truly delightful and very sweet child and I really did enjoy this book from start to finish. I was sad to reach the last page and am looking forward to the third book.

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A story of evil, blessings, grace and solace

By Beverly Donofrio

Published by Viking (Penguin), March 7th, 2013

Beverley Donofrio is a writer who has turned her experience of being raped into an unusual book indeed.  She had moved to Mexico in her fifties to make a  new life for herself and to explore and develop her interest in monasticism and Christian spirituality; being attacked in her own home by a serial rapist shook her profoundly but also acted as a catalyst to pursue her spiritual journey more emphatically.

This is a memoir which encompasses pain, regret for her failings as a mother, dealing with the aftermath of being raped, sadness at wasted opportunities in her life, the problem of why God allowed such a thing to happen to her and the others attacked, and an awareness of a possible - albeit short-term - vocation to a form of religious life. Her decision to stay at five different religious communities provides insight into her own and others' religious development and outlook; some of the communities are rather less conventional than one would associate with Catholicism, but Domofrio's own brand of Catholicism and somewhat  esoteric beliefs regarding the Mother of God do not appear to be entirely conventional either!

It is generally an engaging read, but for those of a traditional religious theology and mindset, it may prove to be infuriating in places. I did seriously consider whether or not to continue reading a book which seemed to be simultaneously superficial and complex, heretical and insightful, but I persevered. I'm not sure whether  would want to read it again though.
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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Bosworth Field

  Requiescant in pace.

This year, the anniversary of Bosworth seems particularly poignant in the light of the recent excavation uncovering King Richard's grave. 
I am very sorely tempted to make the trip to his re-interment funeral service.......

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Why Of Things

The Why of Things:

Causality in Science, Medicine, and Life

By Peter Rabins

Columbia University Press,  20th August 2013

Wow. Quite simply, wow.
This is one of the most complex, mind-boggling and ultimately satisfying books I have read in a very long time. All of us have sometimes wondered "Why has this happened now?" when serious problems have arisen on a personal, medical, national or global scale; this is a question which has resounded throughout recorded history and engaged the minds of the most able and articulate philosophers throughout the ages.

Rabins, an eminent psychiatrist, takes us on a succinct yet clear whistle-stop tour of philosophical musings, some famous, some less well-known: from the ancient Greeks (Democritus, Plato, Aristotle) through Scholastic thought in the Middle Ages (Aquinas) to the modern scientific age beginning with Bacon, Galileo, J.S. Mills, and moving on to Descartes and Hume, Vico, Kant and Popper who observed flaws in the previous "scientific" method and proposed further refinements to the idea of causality.

 Reassessments of current theories were made with the increase of medical knowledge by way of Sydenham, Virchow, Pasteur and Koch. Later again, Weber and Jaspers identified two specific types of causal logic and Weber's concept of needing different types of reasoning to solve different sorts of causal questionings is explored in depth in the latter chapters.

 I cannot think of any other book I have read which encompasses Einstein's Theory of Relativity, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, Godel's Incompleteness Theorem, Chaos Theory , Systems Biology , Networks (including the World Wide Web), empirical causality in the physical and biological sciences, historical and modern epidemics, gene/environment interaction in modern medicine, epidemiology, the benefits and pitfalls of randomised controlled trials in medical care, narrative truth in historiography, current opinion, inventions and modern sociology, Chernobyl, the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings on 9/11 and the Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster which are some of the events discussed and analysed using a variety of models of causality. A later chapter deals specifically with how religions look at causality and this was of particular interest to me and will repay intensive study.

As far as I was concerned, this was a book which is best being read in small chunks, pondered over and the contents thoroughly digested before moving on to the next chapter, but it was a profoundly revelatory read for me and one which I found truly fascinating.

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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Finding Mercy

Finding Mercy

By Karen Harper

Published by Harlequin, October 2012

Alex Caldwell is in hiding; a key witness to a major international espionage incident, he has to be kept alive to testify at the trial of his former boss. After private security failed to keep him safe (although that was partly due to his own foolishness), he is taken to stay with the Amish Lantz family and pose as one of their cousins. He meets the shy and secretive Ella, a lavender-grower who has secrets of her own which she keeps hidden, and they are attracted to one another as their lives become increasingly complicated and endangered.

This is an Amish/Englisch thriller reminiscent of "Witness", parts of it were extremely well-written and got me well and truly gripped, but parts of it just did not ring true to me. I did struggle to reach the end and I was particularly struck by three things:

1/ The scene where Sarah returns to ask Ella to give a wedding gift to Hannah and is taken ill, in severe pain. As a Registered Midwife myself, I cringed at the explanation given later on that   "The baby was turning inside her— got stuck against her spine, hurt her nerves" and that the medic men (presumably ambulance crew?) checked her out, said the baby's heartbeat was strong and for her to see her own doctor (presumably an Ob/Gyn) soon.

This simply would not happen. As Ob/Gyn is one of the highest litigation rated specialities in medicine, any woman six months pregnant, rolling on the ground in severe pain would be treated as if there was a potentially major emergency:  any trained medic/paramedic/midwife would be alert to the possibility of placental abruption and of pre-term labour and would want to ensure an in-depth obstetric consultation, fetal monitoring, assessment and ultrasound scan to exclude these possibilities, as well as being alert to the risk that there may be one of several  non-pregnancy related abdominal problems such as appendicitis/kidney stones causing the pain and which may have needed urgent surgical intervention.

2/ Later on in Florida, Alex and Ella are fleeing from the would-be assassin in a clown costume and Alex dumps the assassin's rifle in a dumpster next to a petrol station. If Alex is in hiding on a witness protection program, it would not be bright for him to handle a rifle, leave his fingerprints all over it and then dump it, with the possibility it may well be found by the cleaning crew and handed in to the police to complicate matters.... why did he not handle it with a piece of fabric, a handkerchief etc to leave no fingerprints? Here in the UK, all the petrol stations I have seen have security cameras and footage would have been checked if anything resembling a weapon had been found.

3/ At the risk of sounding prudish, I read Amish fiction out of respect and fascination for their way of life and as a way of tuning out so much of the worldliness of modern everyday life; I really do not want to be reading repeated episodes of heavy petting or lovemaking involving Englisch or Amish characters. If I wanted to read that, I wouldn't be reading Amish fiction, I would have been reading contemporary fiction :-)

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The Letters

The Letters

By Suzanne Woods Fisher

Published by Revell, August 1st, 2013

I initially thought he opening of this book was a little disorganised, briefly introducing many strands and characters in a seemingly random order in a short space of time, but it soon became apparent that this was a carefully written story on many different levels.

Our widowed heroine, Rose, is struggling to pay off her late husband's business debts (incurred under somewhat mysterious circumstances), bring up her children and step-children and care for her difficult and ailing mother-in-law.  She ends up desperate to remain financially solvent and decides to run a guest house to augment her finances. We quickly meet a  woman named Delia who is devastated to find that not only has her husband been having an affair, but she has just been diagnosed with cancer too. She flees, and by a lucky encounter, is directed to Rose's home where she feels safe and nurtured, and she begins to reassess her life, her relationship with God and her marriage.

This was a delightful, sweet, thoughtful book about relationships within families and what is important; the eponymous "letters" are an absolute joy to read and I only wish there had been more of them! Highly satisfying with no absolute chocolate box happy endings, but instead, the hope of happy endings being worked out.

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Friday, August 16, 2013

Unknown Museums of Upstate New York

Unknown Museums of Upstate New York:

A Guide to 50 Treasures

By Chuck D'Imperio

Published by Syracuse University Press, 15th August 2013

I always enjoy visiting museums when I am travelling, and reading about them is almost as much fun, so I was certainly looking forward to reading and reviewing this book.

What on earth do Jell-O,  model (and real) steam trains, cutlery, gibbets, Lucille Ball & Desi Arnaz, the slave Underground, cobblestones, salt and Kazoos have in common? They all either have museums devoted to them or are exhibits in little-known museums - and they are just a very few featured in this absolute treasure of a book which I simply did not want to put down. From clocks to drain tiles by way of a magnificent Tiffany chandelier, coverlets, the Civil War, race cars, boats, Jewish refugees and so much more, people have been busy creating museums about them.

This is definitely not your common-or-garden guide; Chuck D'Imperio writes with knowledge, passion and a real desire to make these unusual, often almost unknown yet truly remarkable museums better known to the wider public so that they will be visited, supported and survive to pass on their knowledge and artifacts to yet another generation.

There are maps, full location, opening hours and contact details for each museum, but what sets this book apart ? Things which the author - or one of the museum curators - describes as "The Wow Factor" of each museum and what the author feels would be "TheTake Away" memory for each, giving a very individual "take" for each place.

Any criticisms? Only that I am sad I live several thousand miles too far away to visit any of these museums in the near future.....

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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Culture Clash With A Vengeance...

 A Simple Song

By Melody Carlson

Published by Revell, June 2013

I cannot imagine a bigger culture clash than catapulting a young Amish girl into the media frenzy of a talent contest reality TV show, so this was a great plot-line.

I've read several of Melody Carlson's contemporary books and enjoyed them, so I was all primed to indulge myself in an enjoyable read, but at the end of the first chapter, my heart was in its boots. I do not know why, but I simply could not immerse myself in the Amish world depicted here in the beginning; I was really sad but decided to keep on reading anyway, curious to know more about Katrina's late Mammi with a very mysterious past history.

Perseverance paid off and as Katrina and Aunt Alma enter the hurly-burly that surrounds the production of the "American Star" TV show, I was soon utterly, utterly spellbound and stayed up very late to finish reading about how Katrina makes friends with some of the other contestants and struggles to be true to her Amish heritage and beliefs whilst having to do her very best to help her group of friends win through to each successive round of the contest.

This all rang very, very true and was totally believable; Katrina achieved what she set out to do - to help her family, make up her own mind about her future life and find out more about Mammi's past. Definitely one I will be reading again.

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Monday, August 12, 2013

The Amish Canning Cookbook

The Amish Canning Cookbook

By Georgia Varozza

Published by Harvest House, July 2013

Something that features in almost every Amish fiction book I have read is canning, whether the characters are actually engaged in canning their home-grown produce or simply cooking using foods they had canned the previous summer. It looks quite hard but very rewarding work and it must be gratifying indeed to be able to eat one's own harvest over a period of months, long after the fresh growing season has passed.

Although in the past I have made my own jams at home, I have never attempted anything more adventurous and I was hoping that this book would give me a good basic knowledge of the principles and practice of canning - though it would more accurately be described in the UK as "bottling". Georgia Varozza's book certainly does give a comprehensive guide to how the Amish preserve their food, augmented with some modern scientific data and advice to ensure safe production and storage. 

I was under the impression that it was mostly fruit and vegetables, chutneys, relishes pickles etc that were canned so I was fascinated to read about how it is possible to can meat too. Both water-bath canning and pressure-canning are described, and it is really helpful to have plenty of sidebar space specifically designed so you are able to add your own notes and comments to the recipes. Both the information and layout have been carefully thought through and the book is well-designed, with a spiral bound cover for added practicality.

If you are expecting a glossy illustrated book, this is probably not what you are looking for, but if you want a usable and highly informative 272 (in the UK edition) page guide to the do's and don'ts of canning, complete with recipes and a great troubleshooting section, this is likely to be the book for you!

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Sunday, August 11, 2013

Though Mountains Fall

Though Mountains Fall

By Dale Cramer

Published by Bethany House, January 2013

This is the third in the 'Daughters of Caleb Bender' series, and although I had only previously read the first book, I found it easy to catch up with events.

Action-packed, fast-paced and positively heart-rending in places are not phrases you would expect to spring to mind when referring to an Amish genre novel, but they are so appropriate for this book!

Set in Mexico in the 1920s, the new Amish settlement is growing apace with ten families farming, although life is as different from their original home on Ohio as it is possible to be. The natives can be hostile and life is sometimes both difficult and dangerous in their new home even though they have made some trusted friends and allies.

It is hard to maintain absolute pacificism when confronted with bandits who would be happy to kill or defile one's family as well as steal one's property, and the faith of the community has been sorely tested on more than one occasion and undoubtedly will continue to be tested. A bandit whom they managed to outwit  the previous year is bound on getting his revenge against both the Amish community and the native Domingo Zapara who works for Caleb Bender on his farm, and the turbulent local and national politics have to be dealt with as well.

Caleb and his family have to decide whether or not to continue to live in this part of Mexico, as they believe is God's will for them, and possibly risk losing everything, even their lives. Or should they return to the safety of Ohio, and spend the rest of their lives wondering if they had abandoned the path God intended them to follow?

I loved the first book and this was just as good.
I now need to track down Book Two :-)

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Just Keep Swimming.....

 I have been remiss in not blogging about something - apart from reading, of course - which has occupied a fair amount of my time over the last eighteen days!

DD4 went on an activity/adventure holiday with her school at the very end of the summer term and absolutely loved it., even the bit where they went kayaking in the sea under very close supervision. Considering she does not like particularly like being in swimming pools or doing anything other than paddling in the sea, we were heartened by this show of interest and decided to strike while the interest remained keen, signing her up for one-to-one swimming lessons at the pool in BlogTown. To our delight and hers, she has suddenly taken to swimming like the proverbial duck to water and has made remarkable progress in the six lessons so far. She has one final lesson in this "block" on Friday next, and can now do front crawl, back crawl and breaststroke.

Two weeks ago, the Hubster and I decided that she would get more benefit from the lessons if she was actually swimming much more often than once a week, so some investigation revealed that instead of paying £4 each for an hour swimming session, we could purchase a weekly pass for £12 each which would entitle us to make as many one hour visits a day or week as we wished. Obviously much better value, so I purchased two weekly passes so I could take her to the pool about fifteen minutes walk away from our house.

I had a bad experience during a school swimming lesson when I very nearly drowned, which gave me a fear of any water deeper than my own waist, and my own swimming has always been limited to a few assays at breaststroke then a gradual sinking to the bottom of the pool, so I  really did have to gird up my loins to take Munchkin into the vast expanse of water.........

Her new-found confidence and knowledge has rubbed off on me, and she has taught me how to float effectively on my back;  eventually the busy nature of the main part of the pool inspired us to go to the sectioned-off area for "real swimmers" who wish to do lengths of the 25 m pool. I wondered if I could do it too, and from struggling to complete  two lengths in the course of an hour, I have gradually improved to the point where I have managed 33 lengths of the pool in one hour, which is the equivalent of half a mile, at the end of last week. She and I have great fun swimming and are at the pool at least five days out of every seven at the moment.

I am very, very slow at swimming and can only manage a  highly modified front crawl due to limited movement in my shoulders and elbows, but I am swimming and feel so much better in terms of health and fitness. I have not lost an ounce of weight, but do actually have something approximating muscles rather than flab.....

Munchkin  can easily outswim me, and even if she gives me a head start of almost half a length, she can still beat me to the  end of the pool!  She will be having regular compulsory swimming lessons when she starts at the local Comprehensive School in September, but as I know from my own bitter experience, these do not make much difference to anyone  who is not already actually able to swim reasonably well. Hopefully Munchkin will be in a position to benefit from these school lessons now, which she would not have done if she had not had the one-to-one lessons. They were not cheap, but have definitely been worth every penny.

Once the girls are back in school and our normal busy routine  recommences, I hope to be able to continue swimming as often as possible because it is making such a positive impact on my mobility and general health. Finding time for that swim session is going to be well worth it, even in the grim winter months when my joints normally seize up and my muscles ache constantly :-)
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Friday, August 09, 2013

Sherlock Holmes and the Needle's Eye

Sherlock Holmes and the Needle's Eye

By Len Bailey

Published by Thomas Nelson, May 2013

Sherlock Holmes undertaking a case involving a time machine (from designs by Professor Moriarty) to investigate ten Biblical mysteries  set in both Old and New Testaments is a brave and clever premise indeed, given the great detective's disdain for anything other than rational, scientific and deductive thought.

But does it work? 

 I can certainly imagine Holmes and Watson careering around the time stream with a Time Machine. I can imagine Holmes scrutinising the biblical scenes with a keen eye, ready to debunk the slightest inconsistency - and that is where it falls down for me.  

Holmes, being Holmes, has undoubtedly read his Bible, but does he actually believe any of it? Could even his visits to Bible times bring Holmes to real and sustained belief? Would he be well versed enough to be able to recite and reference from memory whole chunks of a book which he would undoubtedly view with a great deal of scepticism? 

Dr Watson always subtly comes across as a Christian believer in the Holmesian canon and this is continued in The Needle's Eye; Watson  - to me -  is more convincing than Holmes in this tale. 

The book captures a great deal of the atmosphere and language of the original Sherlock Holmes canon, perhaps a little more ponderously and definitely more verbose than the original stories and I found it an enjoyable read which very nearly had me convinced - but not quite.

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Creating Room To Read

Creating Room To Read:

A Story of Hope in the Battle for Global Literacy

By John Wood

Published by Viking/Penguin, February 7th, 2013

I had not read John Wood's first book about how he made a deliberate decision to leave his high-powered job with Microsoft to follow his dream of  helping children in some of the remotest and poorest parts of the world to become literate, and I simply jumped at the chance to read and review this second book following his adventures around the world with his organisation called "Room To Read".

Born into a family which cherished literacy and surrounded by books from his earliest days, he was encouraged to follow his dream by his parents and by people who supported his ambition. Help came - and continues to come - from some of the most unlikely places and people, and this is a remarkable book about a truly remarkable man who travels to, negotiates with, donates to and encourages communities to cherish learning, value literacy and schooling and foster a real and abiding sense of ownership and pride in educating their children. We follow him through the trials and tribulations of his current projects and share his delights and frustrations when he meets with successes and hitches. It is  awe-inspiring to think that because of his efforts, thousands of villages now have libraries and schoolrooms - he is indeed a modern-day Andrew Carnegie.

It puts the attitude of many Western countries about education and literacy to shame, and brings home that our children have opportunities that are unthinkable and almost unattainable to children in so many parts of the world, yet many Western children disdain both school and education. Perhaps some of our disaffected youth should be sent to poorer countries to see for themselves how much they are taking for granted and to have the chance to help those so much worse off than themselves.

One person can make an enormous difference, and the fact that John Wood is a successful man has enabled him to make even more of a difference, but that does not mean we should not all be trying to make positive differences both in our local and global community. An inspiring book!

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The Tattered Quilt

The Tattered Quilt

By Wanda E. Brunstetter

Published by Barbour Books, August 6th, 2013

I was delighted to see that there was a sequel to The Half-Stitched Amish Quilting Club, which I reviewed here last year, and which I have re-read several times since I reviewed it.

We revisit the home of  Emma Yoder, now happily married to Lamar Miller, as they embark upon teaching another group of students how to quilt. Several classes have been taught since we met the would-be quilters in the first book, and we get to catch up with first group by their connections - some obvious and some very much more complex - to the members of this latest group.

I think I might actually like the characters of the new students more than the originals, which surprised me:

Terry is a smoking, long-haired roofer who loves biking.
Carmen is a Latina investigative journalist with a hidden motive for learning to quilt.
Anna is an unhappy young Amish woman who resents the tight rein her parents hold.
Blaine is a salesman who has to learn to quilt as the agreed consequence of losing a wager with his boss. Cheryl initially simply wants to get her beloved grandmother's tattered quilt repaired for her as a birthday gift and ends up joining the class herself.
Selma is an older lady who is bossy, nosy and very unhappy, and is given  membership of the quilting class as a way to keep her occupied instead of prying into her neighbour's business.

They are a complex group of people who gradually polarise into friendships, and in one case, quite bitter rivalry over a female member of the class. Will Emma and Lamar manage to keep the group running harmoniously and teach all of them how to quilt and to care for each other as friends, as well as encouraging them to develop as individuals?

 Emma is a sweet and lovely character who seems a little less decisive and more measured in her comments and actions since her marriage, and Lamar's loving and willing acceptance of Emma's ministry to others through her quilting class underpins and underlines the fact that a good marriage does involve give and take and thought for one's spouse's wishes, needs and feelings. Marriage is a strong theme running through this story and some of the best advice seems to come from some of the most unlikely characters from the first story. The twist at the ending was unexpected and although almost all the loose ends were tied up,  I did feel that perhaps that part of the book could have been a little longer and explored some of the characters' feelings  more deeply.

It was a highly satisfying read nonetheless and I will definitely be buying a print copy to add to my collection of feel-good and heart-warming books which I read several times.

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Monday, August 05, 2013

Madhouse Cookbook

Madhouse Cookbook (UK edition)

By Jo Pratt

Watkins Publishing Ltd, February 2013

I know that I said this was going to be a parenting/education book review week but feeding your children and saving your sanity certainly comes under the category of parenting in my opinion!

Jo Pratt used to love leisurely cooking in her pre-children days. She still loves cooking but has had  to change how she cooks to fit in with the demands of a busy lifestyle with children. This is a really neat cookbook with a difference.

Divided into three main parts, it covers the need for fast, nutritious meals which are appealing to children and which can have an adult spin put on them for the adults' portions in "Monday to Friday Survival";  snacks, substantial breakfasts, family meals and Saturday night food for grown-ups are featured in "The Busy Weekend" and finally, "Cling On To Your Social Life", which is self-explanatory.

Need to get a meal on the table in 45 minutes to get kids to after-school activities? Sorted.
Need to rustle up a birthday cake or a last-minute request for cakes to take to school for a bake sale? Covered.
Healthy, delicious recipes that can easily be tweaked to suit adult/child/picky eaters tastes? Sorted.
Cook ahead and refrigerate/freeze for later recipes and ideas? Covered.
The recipes are fun to eat, easy to prepare from scratch  - with endless scope for variations - and do not involve large numbers of expensive ingredients. Baked filled baguettes, raspberry & marshmallow muffins, special chicken fried rice, Moroccan lamb stew, banana & peanut butter milkshake, baked fish in a bag, ricotta & courgette fritters, cheese fondue, smoked salmon, cream cheese and chive pasta, pea & tuna fishcakes with mayonnaise, mini naan bread pizzas......and so much more.

I absolutely love this cookbook and it is going to be one I use a great deal that's for sure.

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Sunday, August 04, 2013

Raising Respectful Children In A Disrespectful World

Raising Respectful Children In A Disrespectful World

By Jill Rigby

Published by Howard Books, 6th August 2013

As Christians, we are called to be counter-cultural, to live in the world, but not be of it, mindful always that our heart's true home is with God. Living our lives this way can be tough indeed, but raising children to be respectful of themselves and of others is tougher still.

The world's "experts"  are busy telling us that we just need to nurture our children's self-esteem instead, but  look at the world around you and see what awesome results that has led to. We can see a "Me me me first, foremost and only" generation all around us. No thanks.

Jill Rigby looks at raising children not primarily to have self-esteem, but to have both healthy self-respect and  equal respect for others, which is psychologically much healthier for them and for those around them.

How does she achieve this? By setting behavioural boundaries and  teaching children self-discipline as well as teaching parents that they also need to set a good example to their families and to be consistent  in how they discipline their children. She really does mean discipline in its truest sense as in "disciple", and definitely not punishment. She advocates being firm but fair, loving and respectful towards children, always being a parent and not trying to be a child's best friend.

I found myself nodding my head in agreement with virtually every page except where she spoke about putting her twin sons on a strict four-hourly feeding schedule as soon as possible after birth.  As a  midwife, breast-feeding advocate and mother I cannot in my heart say I endorse or agree with that, but I must be fair and honest and say I have never ever had to face the challenges of raising twins, so if that worked for her, that is great, but it may not be the best advice for other mothers.

She covers the whole gamut of parenting problems and dilemmas from tots to almost adult teens, and although she would not say she has always got things right herself, she is insightful and honest about her own failures. Like her, I am just as concerned about teachers'comments about my children's attitudes and behaviour to staff and their peers on end of year report cards as I am about their actual grades. I want my children to do well, but I also want my children to grow up to be decent human beings, and if you share that concern, I am sure you will enjoy reading this book.

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Leap Write In

Leap Write In:

Adventures in Creative Writing to Stretch and Surprise Your One-of-a-Kind Mind

By Karen Benke

Published by Roost Books, April 2013

It can be quite hard to encourage youngsters to write creatively and finding appropriate writing prompts is nigh on impossible for this age group.  

Karen Benke has devised a workbook about creative writing designed specifically for tweens to older teenagers to use, and it is enormous fun!  The prompts range from colours, pets, emotions, bizarre body parts, places, events and feelings to discovering things about yourself you never even knew.....

I like the fact that it is designed as a workbook with space to record your own writings about the prompts, although I think I would probably buy my daughter a separate journal for recording her writings. 

This would be an ideal gift book for a youngster who already likes to write or who has expressed an interest in creative writing; it will also help encourage those who are still reluctant writers to become more adventurous and enjoy exploring writing.

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Saturday, August 03, 2013

Parenting For Education

Parenting For Education:

Any Parent Can Teach Informally

Revised Edition

By Vivian Owens

Published by Eschar Publications, 15th June 2013

This book is a TREASURE and is chockablock full of great ideas and plans to help you learn how to help your child learn from infancy right through to when your child enters college.

This book does not aim to guilt-trip parents who work long hours - far from it. It acknowledges that many parents have to juggle their lives in a fast and furious fashion and aims to provide encouragement, help and advice on how best to work with a school to help your child succeed.

It starts with the absolute basics of how to parent and nurture children, which then lays the foundation for effective education to take place.  Babies in arms learn and benefit from being read to, looking at pictures and observing the world around them and it is important not to underestimate the value of actually spending some time really interacting with  them from a very young age.  What sorts of toys are truly valuable and encourage children? How can you introduce Math concepts into your everyday life so that children begin to learn without formally learning? The answers are in this book, along with so much more.

  All youngsters need to see that their parents are really interested in what they are learning and this is especially true even with older teenagers. Children certainly find it hard to learn in a chaotic home setting and Owens takes time to show what children actually need to maximise efficient and enjoyable learning. Obviously children gain  a great deal from a variety of settings and experiences and families can organise their own educational visits - enhancing education does not have to be expensive.

This is a great resource for making the very best use of educational opportunities that might arise at home or on holiday. It is also a great tool for problem-solving: if your child is struggling to cope with self-motivation, organisation or distractions when doing homework, there are ideas to help. What do you do if your child is having problems learning, is under-achieving at school or conversely, over-achieving? There are many strategies  in this book to assist you.

If you want to know how best to act as an advocate for your child with the school system , I strongly recommend getting a copy of this book. It is certainly something I  intend using with my children still at school.

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Thursday, August 01, 2013

The Business Of Baby

The Business Of Baby

What Doctors Don't Tell You, What Corporations Try to Sell You, and How to Put Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Baby Before Their Bottom Line

By Jennifer Margulis

Published by Scribner, April 2013

Having trained as a midwife, I thought I was pretty clued up about most baby-related things in Britain but this book was a real eye-opener into how different things are in the US. 

 I have to say, I had no idea things were quite as grim as  depicted in this book. Women and babies get a very raw deal  with higher rates of mortality and morbidity in the US than in developing countries which have far fewer resources than America. Why should this be the case? 

It makes for depressing and quite frightening reading. Money is the driving force behind virtually everything related to babies, and chapters are devoted to ante-natal care, the abuse of ultrasound, normal and cesarean birth, post-natal care, circumcision (do not read this chapter whilst eating a meal. I did and regretted it!), formula promotion, diapering/potty training and vaccination. The vaccination chapter is perhaps the most contentious in the book and I was shocked at how many more vaccines American children receive compared to the normal routine in Britain. 

Babies - and anything to do with them - are now a multi-billion dollar industry aimed at perpetuating and peddling the idea that things *have* to continue to be done like this. This is patently untrue and is far more for the benefit of the industries underpinning the baby business which have a great deal of influence on many medical professionals. Neither mothers nor babies benefit from such a system.

I was particularly interested in the chapter dealing with diaper/disposable nappy manufacturing and promotion;  I used disposable nappies regularly with  my youngest daughters and both took longer to potty train than my eldest daughters who were used to cloth nappies. The rise in urinary tract infections and continence issues in children encased in modern disposable diapers 24/7 for up to four years is sad and shocking, especially as it can be easily prevented, and the  alternative methods of potty training and cloth diapering are covered in some depth.

This is a fascinating, horrifying and thoughtful book. It would be worthwhile any couple who may be considering having a baby obtaining a copy, reading and discussing its contents thoroughly before deciding what areas they would like to research further; it would be a very wise idea to make informed decisions about the health care and marketing tactics they will be exposed to once a pregnancy has begun......

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