Book Reviews Winter 2016-17

Normally I post a monthly ‘What I’m Into’ catch up. But three months have passed with no such review. (Note the passive voice, as though I weren’t in fact responsible for this dismal effort…)

If I don’t end up doing a proper ‘What I’m Into’ post, know this – November I worked hard on editing my book (which creatively explores the journey of four Bible characters who wrestled with the weight of waiting) and wore excellent lipstick and tried to embrace autumn; December was Christmas (which always seems to take over the full month), and January I filled in a disability benefit form, and that pretty much wrecked me for the month. Voila! All my news!

However, I also did some reading. So here is a juicy selection of some kids’ books, adult fiction, and Christian books out there.

Christian books:

What Falls from the Sky – Esther Emery

In one sentence: Outstanding, beautiful, witty memoir about rediscovering yourself and God through unplugging from the internet and connecting with nature. Buy it now.

Full Review: Every now and again there comes a memoir so insightful and beautiful you wish you could press it into the hands of everyone you know and say, ‘Eat this. It will nourish you.’ This, and more, is What Falls from the Sky.

I often talk about Esther as my ‘friend who lives in a yurt halfway up a mountain’, drinking her own goats’ milk, and using a bicycle-powered washing machine. But a decade ago she was a very different person – a workaholic successful theatre director, surrounded by people. This story is how, after a personal crisis, in a new place with no friends, she took a year off the internet (not just social media, but no email, not even using credit cards), and in the solitude reconnected with herself, the natural world, and God.

Like Wild or Glass CastleEsther has a dry wit, immaculate storytelling with lean and elegant prose, and I often found myself oscillating between laughing aloud and wiping tears from my eyes. It is a gripping read, and I gobbled it up in two days. Read it for the insights into the impact of the social media revolution, the split between Generation X and Y, the spiritual value of silence, what the mess of love and forgiveness looks like in practice, and the understated, beautiful love story that is interwoven throughout.

I have a photo of myself as a sobbing mess at the end of the book, because it moved me so much. Buy it immediately – I would put good money on it being the best memoir you’ve read for a very long time. Highly recommended. Note: even though the hardback is a little pricy (c. $14, £10), it is the kind of book you’ll want in hardback, so definitely consider it. Get it from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Eden UK or Wordery UK (free P&P).

The Contemplative Writer – Ed Cyzewski

In one sentence: Gentle and practical – spiritual and reflective practices for writers. Buy it now.

Full review: Every now and again, when my soul feels on edge, I sit down and think, “I need a bit more Ed Cyzewski in my life.” This book is no exception. Where Ed Cyzewski excels is in making spiritual disciplines non-scary for people with an evangelical heritage. He writes well, using few words, and this short book contains much wisdom.

A wonderful resource for any writer seeking to keep their spiritual life healthy – highly recommended. Best of all, you can get it for FREE if you sign up to his email list (which in itself is well-worth doing). Get it for $1.24 from Amazon.com, £0.99 from Amazon.co.uk.

The Woman Who Named God – Charlotte Gordon

In one sentence: Creative and well-researched commentary on Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, with plenty of historical context. Buy it now.

Full review: In my research for my book on waiting I found biblical commentaries on Genesis frustrating. Most academic ones either analyse the Hebrew or tie themselves in knots trying to work out which redactor may have written a particular sentence. None of this is of any help to me for the questions I am asking as I recreate Sarai’s story, which consist of, ‘what was her tent made of? It’s a hot day, she takes a drink of water – from what kind of vessel does she sip?’ This is why this book is one of the most remarkable commentaries I’ve read.

The author holds both a PhD in history and a Masters in Creative Writing – the result is an academic, thoroughly-reserached historical and contextual commentary on the lives of Abraham, Sarai and Hagar, drawing on Christian, Jewish and Muslim research, but – refreshingly – also a highly-enjoyable and gripping read (with plenty of details about life in the time of Genesis – goat-hair tents and pottery cups).

I keep talking about this book to people – if you want an academically rigorous yet compellingly-written commentary on the lives of Abraham, Sarai and Hagar, this book is worth its weight in gold. Highly recommended.  Get it for $9.35 from Amazon.com, £7.49 from Amazon.co.uk.

God Is in the Manger – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In one sentence: Collection of Bonhoeffer’s and others’ theological reflections on Advent themes.

Full review: I bought this book because it’s one of the Advent books Addie Zierman recommends. It consists of a page or two of theological reflection on Advent themes. While I liked this book and it makes a good devotional, it should be noted that it’s a collection of Bonhoeffer’s (and others’) writings on Advent collated together, and so feels a little more scattered than a single-author book on the subject. Some of it felt a bit out of context and harder to follow, but when it’s good, it’s truly excellent.  Get it for $8.93 from Amazon.com, £8.99 from Amazon.co.uk, £10.99 from Eden UK, or £8.20 Wordery UK (free P&P)

The Road Back to You – Ian Cron and Suzanne Stabile

In one sentence: Readable and thorough Christian introduction to the enneagram

Full Review: Everyone’s talking about the Enneagram (a sort of personality test/tool for self-reflection based on the seven deadly sins), and so this book is a very timely one. After a brief introduction to the enneagram, it goes through the nine types. In each chapter there’s a brief description of the type, examples of the type in practice: in children, at work, in relationship, and sometimes a biblical example. The most helpful parts are the suggestions of practices to become more emotionally healthy, depending on which type you are. It’s fairly fast-paced and conversational in style. Although this is a wonderfully succinct and thorough introduction to the enneagram, I struggled with some elements of the book.

One quibble was that, rather than quoting people directly who are that type, and allowing them to describe how they fitted it, they described people they happened to know who fit the description; sometimes those descriptions of behaviour felt superficial, and were often more negative than positive. I also felt uncomfortable by the inclusion of ‘celebrity examples’, because the enneagram is about motivation rather than behaviour, and they don’t know which enneagram type celebrities are. Likewise, Leigh Kramer and Tara Owens (my two favourite Enneagram experts) have always taught me that the enneagram describes adult personalities, so I was uncomfortable with labelling children’s personalities when children are still forming and discovering themselves.

Aside from these minor complaints, it’s a real achievement as a readable and thorough introduction to the nine types of the Enneagram. It really fills a niche in the market, between the excellent but more basic ‘Enneagram Made Easy’ and Rohr’s and Miso and Hudson’s more clinical and academic tomes on the Enneagram.

Get it to see what all the enneagram fuss is about, and listen to their podcast to hear guests talking about their own type to get more nuance. Recommended. (Note: when ordering, check that you’re getting the book, not the study guide). Get it for $16.76 from Amazon.com, £17.99 from Amazon.co.uk, £17.99 from Eden UK, or £14.20 from Wordery UK (free P&P)

Fiction:

Ink – Alice Broadway

In one sentence:  Set in a world where everything you do, whether good or bad, is tattooed on your skin for all to see, this hot new trilogy could be the next Hunger Games.

Full review: The first time I heard the premise I had goosebumps. Ink, the first of a trilogy, is set in a world where every significant thing you do, whether good or bad, is tattooed on your skin for everyone to see. There are no secrets. When you die, if you are deemed worthy, your tattoos are made into a book and so you can live on for eternity. When Leora’s father dies, she discovers there’s something missing from his book – and her world starts to unravel.

I knew, even from the premise, that this had all the makings of being the next big Young Adult trilogy – and sure enough, it is flying off the bookshelves, with bookstores already selling out of their copies. It’s like Hunger Games, except with doubt, folklore and cups of tea instead of mass-murder. While the world is unsettling, there are three-dimensional sympathetic characters you root for.

There are fairy tales (some traditional, some new) woven into the story, and the whole book has a fairytale quality, in the best ways. It tackles themes of faith, doubt, identity, coming of age, redemption, but also seems a prescient commentary on our times – xenophobia and racism; the effect of social media, and how much you reveal of yourself; how the stories we tell in our society shape our beliefs.  It’s going to be a GCSE teacher’s dream.

Is it suitable for younger readers, e.g. pre-teen? I’d think so, depending on how sensitive your child is: although there is mention of drinking alcohol, there’s no sex, threat and peril rather than graphic violence, and although there’s mention of flaying it doesn’t describe it explicitly.

I devoured it in a day and a half – I just couldn’t stop reading. Sure enough, from the first page to the last – goosebumps. If you want a gripping read that’s thoughtful, beautiful, and unlike anything else you’ve read, do yourself a favour and buy Ink. (Before it gets turned into a film). As a bonus, it has the most beautiful, shiny cover I’ve ever seen on a book. Highly recommended.  Get it for $7.40 from Amazon.com, £5.59 from Amazon.co.uk, or £5.45 from Wordery UK (free P&P)

 

A Keeper’s Tale: Tomkin and the Dragon – J A Andrews

In one sentence: Novella: a fun and feisty love story – with a dragon, too.

Full review: This novella begins with a young duke with an inferiority complex being dragged reluctantly from his study to hunt down a dragon he doesn’t believe exists. He then meets a dragon – and a girl. The result is witty, fun, action-packed Pride and Prejudice (if Pride and Prejudice had dragons instead of stuck-up English people).

What I loved about this book was the sheer fun of it. Although the plot is a classic one, it never feels tired, because the characters and dialogue are so sparky and draw you in. J A Andrews’ first novel, A Threat of Shadows, a fantasy in the mould of Tolkien, was up there as my favourite book of last year. This is a related novella, but it stands alone.

If you’re looking for a quick and comforting love story, with magic, interesting characters and a beautifully-drawn world, look no further. I found it utterly charming. Highly recommended.  Get it for $3.11 from Amazon.com, £2.49 from Amazon.co.uk

 

Three Daughters of Eve – Elif Shafak

In one sentence: A Turkish girl, divided by religion and haunted by a spirit, tries to find life and love in Oxford.

Full review: A Turkish girl, whose family is split down the same secular-traditional religion faultiness as the country as a whole, goes to Oxford University – but for some mysterious reason never completes her degree. Also – she keeps seeing visions of a baby, which may or may not be a demon-spirit. From the beginning this book hooked me – the writing is excellent, and the portrayal of Turkey as a melting pot between East and West was fascinating.

The main character walks religious tightropes of Turkish culture, and I was gripped by the Turkish parts. However, the religious debates in Oxford grew a little tiring, and I felt let down by the end third, where the plot petered out a little. But the writing is superb, and I would be interested to see what this author produces in the future. Recommended.  Get it for $21.99 from Amazon.com, £10.49 from Amazon.co.uk, or £11.49 from Wordery UK (free P&P)

 

Swing Time – Zadie Smith

In one sentence: Two childhood frenemies to try to find their place in the world

Full review: This is a story of two black girls in a very white council estate in London, UK. They bond over their love of dance, and then become enemies, in the way that girls do. It then follows their adult life, including the main character following a pop-star to Africa in order to do good. It has much in common with Americanah, but in reverse: beginning with the racism in Britain, and then examining the ethical complexities of charity work in Africa.

I loved the early chapters about the girls’ friendship in childhood, but I felt like I lost sympathy for the main character as an adult, and never really regained it. However, Zadie Smith’s prose is always intelligent, slow and beautiful, and what this novel does so well is highlight the nuances and complexities of racism, without resorting to stereotypes or sentimentality. Although it didn’t particularly make me feel, it definitely made me think. Recommended.  Get it for $12.99 from Amazon.com, £8.99 from Amazon.co.uk, or £12.89 from Wordery UK (free P&P)

The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

In one sentence: 1920s spinster embarks on a doomed affair with her female married tenant; weak love story with interesting plot twist

Full review: Set in 1920s London, a spinster living with her mother takes in a married couple as lodgers. However, Frances holds a secret – she is a lesbian – and embarks on a doomed affair with the female tenant. I felt so conflicted about this book. In the first third, Frances seemed predatory and lustful rather than in love (see especially the creepy snakes and ladders game), and the explicit descriptions of sex were more cringe-worthy than passionate (see, for example, their rapturous mutual excitement about their pubic hair). The first third belongs firmly in the realm of lesbian romance genre, and I nearly gave up then.

However, there is a plot twist, and the middle third of the book was utterly compelling. Unfortunately, it then peters out in the final third. What Waters did really well in The Little Stranger was create an atmosphere of menace, and describe a world so brilliantly you feel you’re living it. This is still true of The Paying Guests – but the love story element is so badly written that I’d want to steer you towards The Little Stranger rather than this one.  Get it for $4.98 from Amazon.com, £3.60 Amazon.co.uk, or £5.02 from Wordery UK (free P&P)

Kids’ books:

Mustard, Custard, Grumble Belly and Gravy – Michael Rosen

This is a collection of Michael Rosen’s best poems, together with a CD for an audio book. I hadn’t read Michael Rosen since childhood – I had remembered his delight of nonsense words, but as an adult I appreciated the way he captures life from the child’s viewpoint. Some made me laugh, others made me cry.

I loved it – and more to the point, my six-year-old read the whole thing in one sitting, and then proceeded to read the poems to me. I’m always on the lookout for good children’s poetry collections, and this is a great one. Get it for $0.77 (used) from Amazon.com, £7.94 from Amazon.co.uk, £4.99 from The Book People, or £6.78 from Wordery UK (free P&P)

 

The Wishing Chair – Enid Blyton

Well, we read the first few chapters until boy got scared and we had to stop… A story about a magic chair that grows wings and transports you to magical lands, I remember loving this as a kid, but as I was reading it back, it was more creepy and scary than I remembered, and unfortunately was too much for my tender-hearted six-year-old boy. He loved The Enchanted Wood, but this was too much.

I think he’ll love it in a year or two, but right now I’m on the hunt for well-written, well-plotted, non-silly children’s stories that have minimal peril. Can anyone help me out?  Get it for $0.75 (used) from Amazon.com, £6.29 from Amazon.co.uk, or £7.29 from Wordery UK (free P&P)

Papa Panov’s Special Day – Mig Holder and Tony Morris

I bought a hardback copy of this charming book. The story is a classic one (and always makes me cry), about a man who is promised that he will meet Jesus on Christmas Day, and instead meets people in need and helps them. The moral is based on Matthew 25 – ‘whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me’, but in this gorgeous retelling it is not over-egged.

The writing is excellent, but the real star of the book is the stunning, realistic illustrations. A wonderful book for reading at Christmas time. I’d love more recommendations of good Christmas books like this. Get it in hardback from Amazon.com, £4.99 from Amazon.co.uk, £4.99 from Eden, or (bargain!) £3.83 Wordery UK (free P&P)

 

East of the Sun, West of the Moon – 15 Nordic Fairy Tales

– illustrated by Kay Nielsen, ed. Noel Daniel.

This one’s special. I bought this stunning book for a friend, and just had to get my own copy. It is one of the most beautiful books in my possession – hardback, with beautiful calligraphy and original 1920s colour illustrations. The language is far too old-fashioned for a young one to read by themselves, but if you have a child who is happy to have the ‘translation’ of phrases like, “THOU WEST WIND! Canst thou tell me the way to Soria Moria Castle? Here’s one who wants to get thither”, they will be richly rewarded by the discovery of previously-undiscovered fairy tales.

As an adult, it is an absolute pleasure to enter into these unfamiliar fairy tales, and begin exploring differences and parallels between our more familiar Grimm Fairy Tales. Would also love a recommendation for a similarly beautiful collection of unabridged Grimm Fairy Tales. Ideal as a gift or one for the family book treasury. Get it for $25.99 from Amazon.com, £19.98 from Amazon.co.uk, or £16.94 Wordery UK (free P&P)

This is what it’s like inside:

(I’m also always looking for good recommendations for Christian books for kids, both fiction and non – hit me up with your best!)

Quick links

Christian Books:

Fiction: 

 

Kids’ Books: 

 

And finally… Looking for a Lent book?

Amy Boucher Pye – The Living Cross (devotional on theme of forgiveness throughout the Bible) (Amazon, Amazon.co.uk, Eden, Wordery UK) and

Paula Gooder’s – Let Me Go There – The Spirit of Lent (Amazon, Amazon.co.uk, EdenWordery UK) are on my list.

Phew!

Over to you: 

  • What good books have you been reading lately?

This post contains affiliate links for Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com and Wordery.com. If you click on the links above or at the side bars, and then buy anything at all, you will donate a few pennies to me, at no extra cost to you. NB Anything you order from Wordery includes free worldwide delivery. Some of these books were Advance Review Copies. 

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13 Responses to Book Reviews Winter 2016-17

  1. Stephanie Offer 4th February, 2017 at 5:44 pm #

    For your son I’d suggest:
    Lucy and the big bad wolf by Ann Jungman, Mrs Pepperpot, he might like Just William (available free on gutenberg), some of MIchael Morpurgos (choose carefully as they can be adventure), the wombles (set cheap on the book people), Paddington, Happy Families, Please Mrs Butler (poems), Joan Aiken Arabel’s raven, Alfie the railway cat, Professor Branestawn
    Oxford &Usborne are good for children’s poetry, Old Possum’s Book of Practical cats too

    • Tanya 20th February, 2017 at 4:13 pm #

      What a great list! Thank you so much! We’ve bought the Arabel’s Raven series and already loving it. SO good. I’d forgotten about Just William and Mrs Pepperpot! He really likes poetry, so he’d love Please Mrs Butler. Are there any specific Oxford/Usborne poetry collections you recommend? And do let me know which are the best Michael Morpurgo to start with – I don’t know his work well

  2. Rebecka 3rd February, 2017 at 7:49 pm #

    You always make me want to read so much more than I do!

    • Tanya 20th February, 2017 at 4:13 pm #

      Mission: accomplished. 🙂

  3. Stephanie 3rd February, 2017 at 6:06 pm #

    I agree with everything you said about What Falls From the Sky. Devastatingly good.

    • Tanya 20th February, 2017 at 4:13 pm #

      YAY! Isn’t it, though?

      • Stephanie 20th February, 2017 at 5:52 pm #

        Yes, and I was thrilled that to learn she’s just started writing her next.

        I gave Arcadia to my daughter for Christmas and she’s enjoying it very much. I learned of it here, so thank you for the recommendation!

        • Tanya 30th June, 2017 at 5:36 pm #

          Really glad someone’s enjoying Arcadia and that my recommendation helped! I feel like more people should be enjoying Arcadia 🙂

  4. Miriam 3rd February, 2017 at 6:03 pm #

    I used to be an avid reader in my previous life but since getting sick (M.E.) I struggle with cognition & over time it just became easier get most of my entertainment & information from other media. This year I want to change that so I made a goal to read at least one book a month & I’ve already read two! ? (Although I am including audiobooks!) Thanks for the recommendations.

    I loved ‘Counting Grains of Sand: Learning to Delighted get in a Promise Making God’ by Natasha Metzler. This book spoke straight to my aching heart. I just devoured it, sobbing & messy crying all the way through! Its the authors story of how she learned to delight in God through the pain & suffering of her infertility and her journey to become a mother. I just finished this book yesterday so I’m still processing it but I know I have much to learn from Natasha’s story. This book reminded me of Gods goodness and grace towards us and of how much He knows when we are in the dark. I also appreciate that she doesn’t wrap the story up in too neat a bow and acknowledges that her life is not ‘happily ever after’ despite becoming a mother & seeing God work amazingly in her life. She still has struggles and unanswered prayers but the real conclusion of the story is what she has learned about God and how she herself has changed. Highly recommended especially for those struggling with God through painful circumstances.

    • Tanya 20th February, 2017 at 4:15 pm #

      I’m so glad you’re getting to enjoy books again! Audiobooks can be a real lifeline for so many, I know. I keep on meaning to put mine on audiobook, but the whole process is quite intimidating! Glad you enjoyed that book by Natasha Metzler – sounds very cathartic!

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