Non-fiction and Children’s Book Reviews May-Dec 2018

This is overdue, but let me present to you the 6 non-fiction and 14 children’s books I read in the latter half of 2018.

Christian Books

1. Catching Contentment – Liz Carter

Readers of this blog will definitely want to check out Liz Carter’s book. Liz recently wrote an excellent blog post here on her experience of fighting for contentment while being chronically ill, so you can check out her writing and story. You may also be interested to know that my story and books are featured heavily in a couple of her chapters!
I was very pleased to write an endorsement for it:

Not a quick fix or cheap answers for shiny happy people, Carter invites us into a compelling journey of fiercely pursuing God, even when we are wearied by disappointment and loss. As someone who also struggles with chronic illness, I found empathy, hope and spiritual sustenance.

Biblically anchored, persuasively written theology, Catching Contentment is a must-read for any Christian who wrestles with a nagging desire for something more. 

2. Through Martha’s Eyes – Corinne Brixton

This is a well-written fictionalised account of Martha’s life from childhood through to Jesus’ death and resurrection, by an ordained minister who thoroughly researched her material. Author Corinne Brixton said she wanted to write this novel to help students of the Bible see the New Testament in its correct historical and cultural context – and it achieves this aim beautifully.
My favourite parts were the beginning chapters, describing Martha’s childhood: she writes so evocatively about the temple rituals that I felt like I was running outside the temple stalls along with the little girl Martha. Brixton writes cinematically, so you feel like you’re truly inside the temple – and then as a woman, on the outskirts of the action.
It’s a gentle read that brings the physical world of the Bible alive with plenty of interesting detail – even down to the delicious food that Martha cooks. If you’ve ever read the Bible and felt like the Jewish customs were alien to you, this is the book to bring them to life. Even issues like leprosy came to life in a fresh way as one of the characters was banished from society while being ill.
Paula Gooder is currently making this genre of ‘biblical fiction’ more popular in the UK: whereas Gooder uses story to teach theological themes, Brixton is more interested in writing a good historical novel with well-rounded characters. It flows a little slowly, but it’s written well so it’s a pleasurable read.
If you want an easy and enjoyable way to know the traditions, culture, geography and life in Jesus’ day that will open up the Bible in a new way, then don’t hesitate to buy this helpful and well-written novel. And do note that she is just bringing out a new series that explores characters from the Old Testament, too: Altars of Stone.
If you enjoyed Corinne Brixton’s books, you may be interested in my own book, Those Who Wait. It uses the biblical fiction genre but frames it as gripping, shorter monologues from characters in the Bible who struggled with waiting, with reflection questions and creative exercises as a devotional aid.

3. Vintage Saints and Sinners – Karen Wright Marsh

This is a lean, well-written book reflecting on saints of the past, distilling their teaching into bite-size pieces and using the author’s own life to integrate that learning into practice. The 25 saints include Augustine, Benedict, through to Martin Luther and John Wesley, plus more recent saints, including women and people of colour like Sophie Scholl who defied Hitler and American favourite Fanny Lou Hamer.
As a lecturer, she is well able to succinctly draw on the essentials of the teachings of the various saints she lists, and there’s a great variety of them, including people of colour. When she refers to her own life it doesn’t feel self-indulgent or a distraction but a helpful and thoughtful reflection on the relevance today. It also offers gentle critique where the ’saint’ (also a sinner) has allowed harmful beliefs from their own culture to distort the spiritual wisdom they offer.
It’s written in a literary and intelligent style which benefits from slow but smooth reading, and I’d say that the emphasis is slightly more on the saints’ teachings than their lives, so if you want a detailed history of the saints, it’s not the book for you. Neither is it a devotional that brings home fully to the reader the practice or impact of the saints’ lives. However, it makes a thoughtful and reflective reference book to dip in and out of and is a pleasure to read.
Its real strength lies in gently exposing the fact that the ‘saints’ of the past were still sinners: they struggled as we do, doubted as we do and were loved by God. In addition, the foreword by Lauren Winner is a beautiful essay in its own right. Highly recommended.

4. 3-minute Devotions with Charles Spurgeon (Barbour Books)

This has a varied selection of Spurgeon’s writings divided handily into devotional sized chunks for daily reading. The format was good, though I found his content a little hit and miss. It felt often like judgement was his favourite theme, and some of his comments on healing felt a little dated. But when Spurgeon is good, he’s very very good, and this is a great resource for getting a taster of it.

5. Eye Can Write – Jonathan Bryan

I absolutely loved this memoir as a unique and important book, and it has really stuck with me.

You may already have heard of twelve-year-old Jonathan Bryan, as the ‘”locked-in” boy who learned to write with his eyes’, as he’s been featured on national TV and press as a remarkable writer, poet and campaigner.

Born with severe cerebral palsy, incapable of controlling his movements, it was assumed that Jonathan had very little brain activity. However, his mother, Chantal, always believed that he was more alert than the doctors told her, and she persevered with teaching him the alphabet and basic words until they hit upon a system where he could learn to ‘write’ using an alphabet board and eye movements.

What she discovered was astonishing: a clever, thoughtful, funny boy who was also a firm Christian, having encountered Jesus in visions. Jonathan’s memoir was ‘dictated’ by him and transcribed by his mother in a painfully slow process, letter by letter.

The world now has access to the inside of Jonathan’s mind, and we are the better for it.

The first part of the book is written from his mother’s perspective, telling the story of his traumatic birth after a car accident, her battle with medics and schools to allow him access to learning. The remainder is Jonathan’s own reflections of his life. Jonathan’s writing has its own mature voice, distinct from his mother’s, with an amazing range of vocabulary, consistent with those who have learnt to read before speaking. His poetry is remarkable and deeply moved me.

Highly intelligent and with a poet’s soul, Jonathan’s perspective on life and faith is unique and beautiful.

I devoured the book and it’s one of my favourites from last year – I recommend it to everyone as a unique and important story, beautifully written. Buy it immediately.

Self-Help Books

6. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up – Marie Kondo

The first thing to say is that although everyone is talking about her now because of the Netflix show, I ALREADY KNEW about her because I’d read her book back in May 2018. I’d love to be a sceptic and critique her, but I need to say that this book really did change my life, or at least made it possible for me to downsize my belongings in a way that fitted the space in our new house.
The basic premise of her book is we are bad at tidying because we have too much stuff in our houses, and we’re only supposed to keep the things that spark joy in us. You do this by emptying out all of your possessions, by genre rather than by room (e.g. start with all your clothes, then all your CDs etc) and holding them, one by one, to see if they spark joy. It’s a surprisingly effective way of decluttering. She has some slightly unusual parts that some reviewers have suggested come from a Shinto philosophy: believing there are spirits in possessions and paying respect to your belongings as though they are sentient beings. However, even if you don’t buy into this, which I don’t, the physical movements themselves and letting your body interact and ‘converse’ with the possessions as if they were sentient really helps psychologically with the process of letting go. I’m a fan, basically, and I feel a lot better for it.
If you want to declutter your house and get rid of the feeling of ‘overwhelm’ then buy this book, read it in one sitting, and follow her guidelines (as far as they help you). It’s still worth buying the book even if you’ve been watching the show on TV, because she explains a lot more of her reasoning for it and that helps with motivation. Highly recommended.

Children’s Books

In 2018, the boy and I also read some great children’s literature:

1. The Magician’s Nephew – CS Lewis. I had forgotten about the magic rings that lead to the other worlds. This was my favourite CS Lewis as a kid, and this time it was a joy to read how Aslan sang the world into being. (Age 8-10, reading age c. 10)

2. A Horse and His Boy – C S Lewis. This is, for the most part, a bit rambling and involves a long journey, but there were some real spiritual jewels in there that hit me in the gut. (Age 8-10, reading age c. 10).

3. The Explorer – Katherine Rundell. Really outstanding book, and perfect for kids who like Bear Grylls and surviving. Beware: swear words. Suitable from age 8/9 but also recommended for younger teens. I read it as an adult and it was beautifully written with real meaning, so this is a classic. (Age 9-11 and upwards).

Ramona books by Beverly Cleary #1-4 – If you’ve never read the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary, no matter what age you are, you should treat yourself immediately. Starting with pre-kindergarten and following through each year of her life, this series is about an ordinary kid, in an ordinary family, in an ordinary town in America – and it’s extraordinarily good. Kids will love this series – she writes through a child’s viewpoint perfectly, bringing drama and comedy out of the everyday – and if you yourself are after a bit of comfort-reading, you can’t go wrong with these. Age 6-10. (Reading age is c. age 8).

4. Beezus and Ramona –   This wonderful series of sibling rivalry starts with the elder sister’s perspective. Highlights include Ramona calling her own party and the apples in the cellar.

5. Ramona the Pest – Ramona starts kindergarten but finds herself a dropout when she gives in to the temptation to ping Susan’s ginger curls, just to see them go ‘boing’.

6. Ramona the Brave – About as perfect a book as you can get. When I’m teaching writing, I use the story of the paper owls as an illustration of how every day things can become extraordinary when you draw out the conflict: Beverly Cleary is one of those master writers where you don’t even notice how good a writer she is because you’re enveloped by the story.

7. Ramona and her Father – Slightly sadder themes here as her father becomes unemployed and her family feels different – but the happy and comic ending makes the tension worthwhile. Amusing scenes as Ramona persists in trying to get her Dad to stop smoking, and the parents row about who makes the best pancakes.

8. Five children and It – E Nesbit. I’d never read this and assumed it was about a cute fairy that kids made friends with. Actually, it’s about a grumpy sand-fairy who grants one wish to the children per day, but only until sunset. It ends up as a sort of feel-good morality tale that shows us that we should be careful what we wish for, and there’s plenty to be thankful for already. The five children feel like fully formed characters, with plenty of funny moments. NB mention of overcoming prejudice about gypsy travellers, and also they’re attacked by fearsome ‘Red Indians’. Age 7-12 (complex language but unthreatening themes).

9. Book of Dragons – Cressida Cowell. This is only really relevant to those who have loved the How to Train Your Dragon series, as it’s a fan book full of ‘top trumps’ descriptions of dragons and beautiful illustrations. My boy absolutely loves it. Age 6-11.

10. Second Form of Malory Towers – Enid Blyton. Someone is stealing money – but it’s not who you expect. Classic Enid Blyton. Age 7-9.

11. Wilf the Mighty Worrier series – Georgia Pritchett. These are really funny illustrated books about a boy who is anxious about many things but has to save the world from a (comically) evil but stupid man next door. Great, award-winning easy read for helping anxious children laugh again – plus several jokes about pants and farts. Age 5-8

12. Ottoline and the Yellow Cat – Chris Riddell. These are funny, award-winning detective books that provide a halfway house to chapter books because they are full of annotated illustrations. Age 6-8.

13. Lord of the Rings – J R R Tolkien. I last read this series about 18 years ago, pre-illness, and all I could remember was the film version. I had forgotten just how good it was. Tolkien knows how people think and feel and writes so well about the psychology of power. I still struggle with the second book and the lengthy battles, but there’s nothing in literature quite so terrifying as Aragog. The Grey Havens chapters at the end made me sob in a way I didn’t before. Here was a man who understood suffering. If you’ve not read this in a while, it pays to re-read. The boy wolfed it down by himself and declared it the best trilogy in the world, and he may well be right. Age 9 upwards (reading age of c. 10-12, complex themes and language).

14. Harry Potter Book 1 – J K Rowling. I had the joy of introducing my boy to Harry Potter. The kids were a bit ruder to each other than I had remembered (after all, this is aimed at 11-year-olds onwards) and some scenes are darker than I remembered (Voldemort drinking unicorn’s blood), but this is still a wonderful and special story. For anyone aged 11 and under, do make sure you read the HP books beforehand; they get pretty dark and scary, especially from Book 4. NB I know some Christians are wary of Harry Potter because of mentions of witches and dark magic: but having read the books I am convinced that magic is used as a metaphor for power and Harry Potter actually has Christian themes and messages. 

Phew! Coming soon – a belated ‘Best Books of 2018’ – just so you know. 🙂

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Have you read and reviewed my book yet? Those Who Wait is perfect for people who feel in-between, stuck on pause while everyone else lives their perfect lives.


4 Responses to Non-fiction and Children’s Book Reviews May-Dec 2018

  1. Monika Bucher 21st February, 2019 at 8:59 pm #

    Thanks for this review, Tanya! Ordered the book by Liz after reading her post on your site! – Kids books: YES, Ramona books, they are such fun and our kids and now grandies have read them. I have reread the first 2 Narnia stories last year, as I got back into some of Lewis’s adult books and am now reading The Horse and his Boy. Lord of the Rings I have also reread the first one so far. On the sideline: our son was invited for a 3 course lunch last week with Sir Richard Taylor from Weta Workshop, where they made parts for the movies and had a tour through the whole complex. This was in connection with a design job my son did for another guy who knows Taylor. He had a fantastic time. He lives in Wellington anyway, so it’s close for him. I am into George MacDonald novels and fairytales these past months. Beautiful!

    • Tanya Marlow 21st February, 2019 at 9:07 pm #

      Wow! Your son is mixing with the famous! How cool! And great that we’re reading parallel books what with Narnia and Lord of the Rings… Haven’t heard about George MacDonald – will have to look him up. Nice to see you here!

  2. Penelope Wallace 20th February, 2019 at 8:11 pm #

    Aragog, Tanya?? Don’t you mean Shelob?
    But thank you anyway.

    • tanya marlow 21st February, 2019 at 9:05 pm #

      Oh my goodness. I do totally mean Shelob. I’m getting my fictional spiders mixed up again…!

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