Book Reviews July Aug 2016

book-reviews-jul-aug-2016
 
(It seems I’m late on everything at the moment, but I’m hoping to improve… A bumper ‘What I’m Into’ will be coming soon – but in the meantime, these are the books I’ve read recently – some absolute diamonds here!)
 

Books – Novels

a-threat-of-shadows

A Threat of Shadows – J A Andrews

 
This is an enchanting fantasy novel by a talented writer, exciting enough for 8-10 year olds to enjoy, but with real emotional depth for adults to savour. I’m not much of a fantasy genre fan, but by the first chapter I was utterly hooked. It starts with a haunted man running away from his job as royal Keeper (i.e. keeper of the records and stories), desperate to defeat death because his young wife has been poisoned and only a dark magic can save her. It turns into a classic quest and good versus evil book.
 
I loved that although the main characters sound a bit Tolkien – an elf, a dwarf, a dragon, a wizard – the characters are unique, and drawn so emotionally realistically that you are swept up in their world. The plot zips along, with plenty of surprises and twists along the way, and I gobbled it up in just a few days. The magical elements (e.g. vitalle, memory stone) have stayed with me, and I absolutely loved the character of the complicated elf. No spoilers, but I keep wanting to discuss the ending with people who’ve read it!
 
But where this book really shone was the emotional truth of the characters – it resonated with my own experiences of grief and desire for healing, and was, in places, incredibly moving. I laughed, I gasped, I sobbed – more than just a good story, it made me feel. Though this was a fully satisfying story in itself, I’m so excited this is part of a series, and can’t wait for the next one – highly recommended.
****NB FREE! on Amazon Kindle – but ENDS TODAY! Weds 13 September.***
 
Get it for $12.99 (paperback) from Amazon.com, £8.92 (paperback) from Amazon.co.uk

 

 Arcadia iain pearsArcadia – Iain Pears

This is a wonderful, intelligent, playful, genre-defying quilt of a book by one of my favourite authors ever. It combines an Oxford professor caught up in a possible Cold War spy plot, a girl looking for a cat who walks into a Utopian world where Storytellers are revered, and a possibly-mad scientist trying to escape a dystopian one, along with theories of time, religion, the nature of history and archetypes, the power of story (writers will love this book), art vs science, and a dash of a love story – all blended together.
 
So far, so Narnia – and there are amusing self-referential nods to Tolkien and CS Lewis (the Professor was supposedly one of the members of their writing circle, for example). It’s not a typical fantasy book, and it twists and plays with the fantasy genre enough that it has its own identity – and does it with wry humour and intelligence. It’s challenging, but well worth the brain-stretch. There are books I love because they have good characters and make you feel, but at the end of the day, there’s nothing like a darn good plot to wrap your head around, and this is an absolute humdinger of a plot.
 
Iain Pears is up there with my favourite writers of all time and I love his style of lean prose and dry wit. He’s an intelligent writer but he doesn’t show off his writing with flowery language that distracts – the plot and character come first. Weaknesses? It makes you work hard – there are three worlds, ten narrators, and several brain-stretching theories to get your head around, so it’s not a book to read chapter by chapter late at night, but great for holiday when you can get a good run at it. It doesn’t have quite the pathos and depth of his magnificent previous books, An Instance of the Fingerpost or Dream of Scipio, (though the ending of Arcadia is beautifully bittersweet). However, it reminded me of a Shakespearean comedy or Tom Stoppard’s play by the same name: big themes tackled in a complex, intelligent and amusing way. Highly recommended. Tip: buy on Kindle – the hardback is HUGE.
 
Get it for $16.99 (hardback) from Amazon.com (watch for it to appear on Kindle?), £3.79 (ebook) from Amazon.co.uk, £7.02 from Wordery (UK)
 
A little life

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

 
A young man with a mysterious past meets three friends at university in New York. The rest of the book follows those friendships while slowly uncovering his past, exploring how it impacts on the present. It’s wonderfully-written, effortlessly graceful, whilst carrying you along with the story: character and plot-driven rather than shouting ‘look at my beautiful writing’, as some other Booker-Prize shortlisters do. It carries a MAJOR trigger warning for abuse of all kinds and suicide ideation.
 
What I loved about it was the sense of intimately knowing the lives of these four people – the kind of book you turn the pages because you’re invested in what happens to each character. I smiled, I sobbed. It was only when I got to the end that I wondered if, after all, it had been more parable than novel, and that took some of the sheen off for me. But for me, the real strength of this book was seeing the beauty of kindness, in all kinds of guises. Highly recommended – except for those with PTSD from abuse or those in the midst of depression or suicidal.
 
Get it for $4.86 (ebook) $11.55 (paperback) from Amazon.com, £3.66 (ebook) £3.85 (paperback) from Amazon.co.uk, from Wordery (UK)
 
Siracusa Ephron

Siracusa – Delia Ephron

 
Two couples and one child go on what turns out to be a disastrous holiday in Siracusa, Italy, as secrets unravel, and fractures in the relationships are exposed. If you haven’t heard of New York Times bestselling author Delia Ephron, you will have heard of her sister, Norah Ephron (creator of When Harry Met Sally) – and they co-wrote many films together, (e.g. You’ve Got Mail). Like these movies, Siracusa is full of dry and intelligent humour, but also has a sinister and intriguing centre, making it part-dry comedy and part-social comment, part-psychological thriller.
 
It’s set out with each character telling their version of events on each day of the holiday, which reveals the layers to the plot little by little, whilst getting to know the character of each from what they are saying, and not saying. The only one who doesn’t speak (the child, Snow) is somehow at the centre of it all, and made me reflect on the power of silence.
 
I devoured this book in a few days, staying up late to read it, and loved it for its dry wit, clever narrating, and tension-building plot. It’s an easy read, but it stays with you. Highly Recommended.
 
Get it for $17.10 (hardcover) from Amazon.com, £19.50 (hardcover) from Amazon.co.uk
 

Christian Books:

 
Lord Willing Kelley
 

Lord Willing? – Wrestling with God’s Role in My Child’s Death – Jessica Kelley

Everyone has a background theology of suffering – but does your theology hold up when you undergo major tragedy? This is the question Kelley addresses in her powerful book on God’s role in suffering. It’s a sandwich structure – theology at the start and end, and in the middle an (incredibly moving and beautifully-written) memoir of her four-year-old boy dying of cancer.
 
Her contention is that much Christian theology (especially conservative evangelical) overemphasises God’s sovereignty, with the effect of making God a monster when it comes to suffering. Rather, she wants to emphasise a theology where God is a warrior, in battle with Satan, and although Satan creates suffering, God anticipates Satan’s moves and can bring out some good things from tragedy and will ultimately win. To put it slightly crudely, if John Piper and others are at one end of the scale, saying that God is sovereign and therefore we must thank him for everything (including cancer and suffering) as a gift to make us holy; she is representing the other end of the scale, downplaying God’s sovereignty and emphasising God’s goodness, as a warrior against Satan and suffering (who sometimes loses?).
 
Kelley is a gifted theological teacher and communicator, and her writing is powerful and persuasive, particularly on exposing the weaknesses of the ‘strong-sovereignty’ theology. I’m still processing it, but it left me wondering whether there was a third way between these two dichotomies. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for anyone in the midst of suffering, and she herself says that if your’e going through suffering and happy with your theology, then maybe the book isn’t for you. But for anyone wanting to explore the theology of suffering, this is an incredibly thought-provoking, intelligent-without-being-academic, clearly-written and moving book, and an important counter to the majority of Christian books on suffering.
 
Get it for $14.94 from Amazon.com, £11.39 from Amazon.co.uk, £9.28 from Wordery (UK)
 
Assimilate or go home

Assimilate or Go Home – Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith – D L Mayfield

This is part-memoir, part-creative-essays about the author’s experience of living alongside and working with refugees in America, and how it completely changed her view of mission. What I loved about this book was that it wasn’t guilt-mongering – she manages to walk the line between passion, compassion and gentleness, not only for those she’s working with, but for herself and other missionaries who’ve made mistakes. To read it is to re-encounter the grace of God and the wonder and love of Jesus.
 
Insightful, intelligent, inspiring – it’s the sort of book I keep talking about and want everyone to read. Vital reading for all wannabe missionaries, and the best place to start to learn to love refugees well – it is, quite simply, brilliant. (Read more on my personal response to the book here).
 
Get it for $8.92 from Amazon.com, £8.99 (ebook) £11.30 (paperback) from Amazon.co.uk, £9.65 from Wordery (UK)
 

 God Useful Healthy Esther

But God, Wouldn’t I Be More Useful to You if I Were Healthy? – Esther Smith

 

This is a short book, just 33 pages long, but helpful for anyone who’s feeling they’re no longer useful to God because of their chronic illness. The real strength of this book is in her ability to articulate what it is like to experience chronic illness and chronic pain, and her practical ‘you can do this!’ suggestions for starting anew with being useful in a different way. Ideal for those no longer in the raw grief stage of illness diagnosis, but wondering what life will look life from now on, I’m sure that many who have chronic illness will find this encouraging.
 
Get it for $2.91 (ebook) $5.99 (paperback) from Amazon.com, £2.19 (ebook) £5.30 (paperback) from Amazon.co.uk
 
***
 
Photo copyright Nell Goddard
 
I also had the privilege of reading an early draft of Musings of a Clergy Child by Nell Goddard (to be published June 2017) – this will be a must-read for all clergy parents and children. Look out for this young and talented writer – she’s one to watch. (You can read her God and Suffering story here).
 
Also noticed (sale): 
 
Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans (for those in a mid-faith-crisis) – kindle edition down to $2.69 or £1.99
 
Coming Clean by Seth Haines (on the ways we all use addition to numb pain) – kindle edition down to $2.71 or £1.99
 

Over to you: 

  • What have you been reading recently?

 
This post contains Amazon and Wordery affiliate links, which means if you click through to Amazon.co.uk  Wordery.com or Amazon.com from this site and buy absolutely anything in the worldyou help this site, at no extra cost to you. I received a free advanced copy of some of the books above in exchange for my honest review, which these all are. 

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3 Responses to Book Reviews July Aug 2016

  1. Rebecka Jallén 14th September, 2016 at 4:02 pm #

    These books all sound fascinating! I’m currently reading Ready Player One which was recommended to me, but I’m not making much progress because I just don’t find it very interesting.

  2. JA Andrews 14th September, 2016 at 3:19 pm #

    I have never read anything by Iain Pears, but after that review, I’m going to! I may start with An Instance of the Fingerpost for the title alone.

    And the Lord Willing? one…don’t know if I can read it, but I am SO very pleased that there are voices that discuss suffering in a way different than the strong-soverenty view. Because if there’s anything that is TRUE about God and about suffering, it is that there is no way it can be boiled down to a simple, pat answer. There are truths that are more three-dimensional than an single view can ever encompass.

    That Threat of Shadows one looks excellent… 🙂

    xoxo

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