Book Review: The Silent Songbird

silent-songbird The Silent Songbird by Melanie Dickerson is a Christian fiction retelling loosely based on “The Little Mermaid.” It’s book 7 of the Hagenheim/ Fairy Tale Romance Series, so some other characters in the other books appear here, mainly from The Merchant’s Daughter, as the hero here is the son of the couple there. But it could be read as a stand-alone book.

In this book, Evangeline is the ward of her cousin, King Richard II. When he plans for her to marry Lord Shively, a much older man whom she finds disgusting, she decides to escape. Her maid, and older woman named Muriel, finds out and, not being able to stop her, comes with her.

Evangeline is known for her beauitful singing voice, so she decides to act as if she is mute as part of her disguise. She and Muriel travel with a group going away from the castle back to their home village. Right away Evangeline notices that the apparent leader, Wesley le Wyse, is both handsome and kind. He notices her as well, and feels sorry for her when Muriel tells him that Eva (as she’s known now) lost her voice when her master beat her. Eva and Westley find ways to communicate, and as she comes to know him better, she regrets deceiving him. She wants to tell him the truth but is afraid of how he might react to her deception.

When they get to Westley’s village, he gets Eva and Muriel jobs at his family’s home. But Eva has never been trained to do menial labor and either injures herself or someone else at everything she tries. Muriel is more capable but also more miserable, longing for home and a special someone there.

Eventually Westley catches on the Eva is not who she seems to be, learns of her deception, and is understandably angry. Just then Eva learns that Westley’s life is in danger, as is the king’s safety, but will anyone believe her now? And can she ever be forgiven, not only by other people, but by God?

“Losing everything is sometimes the price one must pay for doing the right thing.”

I wasn’t sure if perhaps Westley’s name was a nod to The Princess Bride, but when “As you wish” was said a couple of times, it seemed so.

This series is labeled as Young Adult, and I mentioned last time that most of them didn’t read that way to me. This one did seem meant for a younger audience, but I generally enjoyed it.

Genre: Christian fiction fairy tale
Objectionable elements: None
My rating: 8 out of 10

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“The Beauty of the Bone”: Finding Beauty in Bleakness

img_00231A couple of weeks into January, and the excitement of Christmas and new beginnings has died away. Darkness comes early, the skies are often overcast, it’s cold, the landscape seems barren with no hope of any new blooms or growth for months yet. Our family makes a big deal of Valentine’s Day, so we have that to look forward to as well a few birthdays before spring. But otherwise this time of year seems bleak and colorless. I feel I’m just longing for that first warm breeze and green shoot indicating spring.

John Updike’s poem “November,” from A Child’s Calendar, seems more suited to January for me except for the last verse and the line about the year being old:

The striped and shapely
Maple grieves
The loss of her
Departed leaves

The ground is hard
As hard as stone.
The year is old.
The birds are flown.

And yet the world,
Nevertheless,
Displays a certain loveliness–

The beauty of
The bone. Tall God
Must see our souls
This way, and nod.

Give thanks: we do,
Each in his place
Around the table
During grace.

The first time I ever read this, the quote I was reading stopped at “the beauty of the bone,” and that phrase arrested me. (This, by the way, is not a total endorsement of Updike: I’m not familiar with his other work.)

Leafless trees do have “a certain loveliness.” You see the structure, the symmetry, the basic form that is usually hidden underneath the leaves. Artist Andrew Wyeth is quoted as saying, “I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape – the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.”

The lack of foliage also allows other sights to come into view. On the “scenic route” to church, there’s a stretch where trees line the road. But in the wintertime, when the leaves are gone, I can see what was hidden before: a pond with various animals coming to drink from it. Mountains covered in varying leaves most of the year display houses and meadows I would never have known of without the missing leaves.

These observations led to reflections about winter times of the soul, when everything (financially, relationally, or otherwise) seems stripped down to the bone. My own salvation was like that. Everything in my life that I had ever leaned on was no longer available: my parents divorced; my mom, with whom I had always been very close, was distant for a while; we moved from a very small town of less than 200 to Houston, a city of over a million, causing a major culture shock, especially when I started school; I had no contact with friends or relatives for a time. I never felt so totally alone in my life. I had not grown up in a church-going family, but I had heard enough in going occasionally with friends and relatives to know where to turn. I had made a profession as a child that I struggled with, but at this point I desperately needed to know God was there and He cared for me. Through a series of events and seeming “coincidences,” God led me to a Christian school and then a church where I was regularly under solid teaching and eventually made sure of my salvation.

When life seems like a barren winter landscape, we can see and understand spiritual truths we never realized before, or at least not in the same depth. In a different metaphor, Hebrews speaks of  ” the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain” (12:27, ESV). Spurgeon said in the June 22 reading of Morning and Evening:

We have many things in our possession at the present moment which can be shaken, and it ill becomes a Christian man to set much store by them, for there is nothing stable beneath these rolling skies; change is written upon all things. Yet, we have certain “things which cannot be shaken,” and I invite you this evening to think of them, that if the things which can be shaken should all be taken away, you may derive real comfort from the things that cannot be shaken, which will remain. Whatever your losses have been, or may be, you enjoy present salvation. You are standing at the foot of his cross, trusting alone in the merit of Jesus’ precious blood, and no rise or fall of the markets can interfere with your salvation in him; no breaking of banks, no failures and bankruptcies can touch that. Then you are a child of God this evening. God is your Father. No change of circumstances can ever rob you of that. Although by losses brought to poverty, and stripped bare, you can say, “He is my Father still. In my Father’s house are many mansions; therefore will I not be troubled.” You have another permanent blessing, namely, the love of Jesus Christ. He who is God and Man loves you with all the strength of his affectionate nature–nothing can affect that. The fig tree may not blossom, and the flocks may cease from the field, it matters not to the man who can sing, “My Beloved is mine, and I am his.” Our best portion and richest heritage we cannot lose. Whatever troubles come, let us play the man; let us show that we are not such little children as to be cast down by what may happen in this poor fleeting state of time. Our country is Immanuel’s land, our hope is above the sky, and therefore, calm as the summer’s ocean; we will see the wreck of everything earthborn, and yet rejoice in the God of our salvation.

Sometimes when things are shaken to their core, we see the strength of that core of God’s truth; we see what really matters. Corrie ten Boom said, ” “You can never learn that Christ is all you need, until Christ is all you have.” Or, taken in reverse, when Christ is all you have, you find He is all you need.

Nancy Guthrie wrote in  Holding on to Hope. “Trusting God when the miracle does not come, when the urgent prayer gets no answer, when there is only darkness—this is the kind of faith God values perhaps most of all. This is the kind of faith that can be developed and displayed only in the midst of difficult circumstances. This is the kind of faith that cannot be shaken because it is the result of having been shaken. “

Our winters shall not frown for ever; summer shall soon smile. The tide will not eternally ebb out; the floods retrace their march. The night shall not hang its darkness for ever over our souls; the sun shall yet arise with healing beneath his wings. – ‘The Lord turned again to the captivity of Job.’ Our sorrows shall have an end when God has gotten his end in them. ~ Spurgeon

Glory follows afflictions, not as the day follows the night but as the spring follows the winter; for the winter prepares the earth for the spring, so do afflictions sanctified prepare the soul for glory. ~ Richard Sibbes

The tendinous part of the mind, so to speak, is more developed in winter; the fleshy, in summer.  I should say winter had given the bone and sinew to literature, summer the tissues and the blood. ~ John Burroughs

So winter is still not my favorite season, but I have learned it has its purposes. I almost never see a bare tree any more without thinking of that phrase, “the beauty of the bone.” Sometimes winter is a time of rest or preparing for new growth. A friend who describes herself as a homesteader loves winter for catching up on reading and knitting and planning for her garden, things she can’t do when planting, weeding, harvesting, and tending animals are all in full swing. Hard freezes kill bugs. And if nothing else, winter helps us appreciate spring and summer all the more. So in spiritual “winters,” we can “hunker down” with the bedrock of God’s truth, nourish our souls with it, and trust that spring will come.

Thou hast set all the borders of the earth: thou hast made summer and winter. Psalm 74:17.

See also:

Colorlessness.
Help for the “Winter Blues.”
The Winter of Life.

(Sharing with Inspire me Mondays and Testimony Tuesday)

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Laudable Linkage

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I usually go a couple of weeks or more between these, but had so many, I decided to go ahead and list them. These are all thought-provoking reads found in the last week or so.

Believing in the somehow.

God’s Work in Your Bible Reading. “The Bible was precious because it mediated a sight of God, and a relation to God, which are sweeter than any other experience. This was the spring of what Sweeney called ‘Edwards’s lifelong love affair with Scripture.'”

Rethinking Phil. 4:13. It’s for far more than positive thinking and winning ball games.

How many days would it take to read through the Bible? A friend and missionary tried reading straight through the Bible in a week and discussed it here, then followed up with Meditations on binge-reading the Bible afterward.

Friends your age are not enough. We need friends of all ages.

#NotMyPresident. I’ve been appalled at some of the reaction to the president-elect. Many of us weren’t happy with the last two elections, but we didn’t act like this. I don’t agree 100% with everything about Trump, but, as a Christian, I appreciated this perspective.

Why Kids Ask Why (and How to Respond Lovingly)

Want to raise successful boys? Children, especially boys, learn better when they have more opportunities to move around than the average school gives them.

Must Christian Homeschool? Well thought-out response from Rebekah.

More than slightly Christian novels. Yes! This resonated with me.

Writing tips from Charles Spurgeon, HT to Challies.

And finally, someone posted this on Facebook, and I found it adorable:

Happy Saturday!

Friday’s Fave Five

FFF snowflakes

It’s Friday, time to look back over the blessings of the week with Susanne at Living to Tell the Story and other friends.

This has been….not the best week I’ve had in a long time. I caught my husband’s cold last weekend, started feeling better Tuesday, then felt worse on Wednesday. I hadn’t had one in a while and had forgotten just how much they can take out of you. But sometimes when the week isn’t all sunshine and roses, it’s even more important to stop and look for the blessings in it. Here are a few from last week:

1. Restoring order. I always have mixed emotions about putting the Christmas decorations away. I hate to see them go, especially the lights, but do like getting everything back in order again. I’m thankful my husband and youngest son help with this – otherwise it would take me days rather than taking us together a morning. Then I’ve been able to declutter a bit here and there the piles that accumulate when life is busy and some paperwork from last year.

2. Snow day! We got maybe an inch or two last Friday, which for us Southerners is a really big deal. 🙂 Thankfully the roads weren’t too bad at all this time. Jason and his family came over on Saturday so Timothy could sled down a little hill in the back. There was such a difference from last year – when he was frowning and not quite sure what to make of it, to this year, when he loved it.

timothy-in-snow

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Unfortunately I don’t have any photos of him smiling and laughing on the sled – those are all on video, and I can’t upload personal videos here without paying extra for the privilege. But it was a fun day. 🙂

3. The bath aide came in the snow. That might sound like an odd one, but in the past, if we’ve had any kind of snow or ice on the ground, no one from hospice comes out, though I guess they would in an emergency. I can’t blame them – those of us who aren’t used to driving in the snow get kind of anxious about it, plus our roads aren’t treated as much as they are up North where snow is a regular occurrence. On my mother-in-law’s usual bath day, I was thinking I would probably have to do it, which I wasn’t looking forward to with both a broken toe and a cold. But we’ve had a different aide for the last several weeks, and she did come, just a little later than usual.

4. Brownie mixes when you want something sweet but not terribly involved.

5. A slight schedule change for my mother-in-law’s afternoon routine has made a big difference for the better in how I can arrange my time and tasks.

Bonus: Cough drops and tissues with lotion in them. 🙂 And I’m thankful that my m-i-l hasn’t caught anything from either of us.

I think we’ve turned a corner with our colds, so I’m looking forward to a more productive week ahead. Hope you have a good one, too.

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Book Review: The Golden Braid

Melanie Dickerson’s Hagenheim/ Fairy Tale Romance Series retells familiar old stories and sets them in medieval Germany and England with no magic or fairy godmothers coming to the rescue. The sixth book in the series is The Golden Braid, based on Rapunzel.

golden-braidRapunzel’s mother has her locked up, not in a stone tower (at least at first), but in a prison of fear. She’s told Rapunzel all her life that other people are not to be trusted, men especially, and to keep to herself. They move frequently, which, combined with her mother’s warnings, makes it hard for Rapunzel to ever make any connections or feel like she belongs anywhere. At 17 she’s beginning to wonder if her life is normal.

Her mother is a midwife who found Rapunzel when she was 3 and has raised her ever since. Rapunzel has no memory of her life before and feels abandoned by her family.

As the two are traveling to a new location one day, they’re attacked by robbers. One of Duke Wilheim’s knights, Sir Gerek, happens to be nearby and comes to their rescue. But instead of being grateful, Rapunzel’s mother, Gothel, wants to be rid of him as soon as possible and Rapunzel is distant. He insists on accompanying them to Hagenheim, however, for their protection.

Meanwhile the robber turns the tables and comes after Gerek, and Rapunzel comes to his aid. Years ago she had some boys teach her how to throw knives, and she disables the attacker. But Gerek’s horse has thrown and and landed on top of him, breaking his arm and leg. Rapunzel feels compelled to help him, so they care for him until they come to a monastery where they leave Gerek to recover while they travel on to Hagenheim.

Rapunzel has always wanted to learn how to read, and sneaks away back to the monastery to ask if they will teach her in exchange for her working there cleaning. They agree and assign Gerek the task – since he’s not doing anything but recovering anyway. Neither of them is pleased with the arrangement, but they carry on anyway. Rapunzel finds Gerek haughty and grouchy. He thinks she’s pretty, but would never marry a peasant: he wants to marry a wealthy widow with land since he has none of his own.

Eventually life with Gothel becomes so precarious that Rapunzel wonders about her mother’s sanity, and she runs away to the castle in Hagenheim. With Gerek’s references, she is able to work as a maid. As she gets to know him in a different setting, she finds much to admire, but knows he would never consider her. But she when uncovers the mystery to her own identity, she struggles with the best way to handle it. And with the castle coming under attack by an enemy, that will have to wait anyway.

The action in the book, especially after Rapunzel comes to the castle, overlaps with that in the previous book, The Princess Spy, but I don’t think you’d have to have read that book to enjoy this one. I like how each book in the series can be read alone yet connects with the others and how characters we’ve met before show up again. I was delighted by who Rapunzel’s parents turned out to be.

I love a Christian fiction book that’s not ashamed to be Christian. Melanie weaves the faith element in quite naturally.

This series is listed a Young Adult, but to me they don’t read that way (except perhaps for The Princess Spy). It got a little too romance-y for me in places (shivers running up their spines when they accidentally brushed against each other’s fingers while handing something to the other and that kind of thing). But otherwise I enjoyed it very much, not just for the story, but also for the spiritual steps each character needed to take.

Others in the series, linked to my reviews:

Book 1: The Healer’s Apprentice based on Sleeping Beauty
Book 2: The Merchant’s Daughter, based on Beauty and the Beast
Book 3: The Fairest Beauty, based on Snow White
Book 4: The Captive Maiden, based on Cinderella
Book 5: The Princess Spy, based on The Frog Prince

This book and The Merchant’s Daughter have been my favorites. I’m reading the seventh, The Silent Songbird based on The Little Mermaid, now.

If you like fairy tale retellings, medieval stories, or clean romances, you will probably like The Golden Braid.

Genre: Christian fiction fairy tale
Objectionable elements: None
My rating: 9 out of 10

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)

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Book Review: A Fall of Marigolds

marigoldsIn A Fall of Marigolds by Susan Meissner, Clara Woods is a nurse on Ellis Island in September of 1911. She describes it as something of an in-between place. Immigrants who come in are kept on the island for a time if they have been exposed to any kind of contagious disease. Clara is in her own in-between place as well. Some months earlier she had worked in Manhattan and encountered a man named Edward every day on the elevator. Their relationship had never progressed beyond mutual attraction, but she felt certain they were going to know each other better. But she lost him in the Triangle Factory Shirtwaist Fire.  She moved to Ellis Island to work and hasn’t set foot in Manhattan since. She does her work well and is friends with her roommate, but never goes out, never pursues other friendships, has no future plans.

One day she notices one of the incoming immigrants has a colorful scarf, a woman’s scarf, around his neck. She learns that he lost his wife to scarlet fever on the voyage to America. Since he has been exposed, he is detained, and he indeed comes down with the fever. Clara is drawn to him in their mutual grief, and in trying to help him, gets herself embroiled in a dilemma that causes a crisis of conscious.

In September 2001, that same marigold scarf is brought into the heirloom fabric shop where Taryn Michaels works. It has been passed down through the customer’s family, and she and her sister both like it and wanted to see if the print could be found to make another one. Taryn is delayed in meeting her husband by the customer, but that ends up saving her life, as the 9/11 attacks occur while she is on her way. Unfortunately, her husband was in the Towers and could not escape. So for ten years she has been in her own in-between place, until the tenth anniversary of 9/11 causes a resurgence of photos from the event, one of which shows her with the scarf, the beginning of a chain of events

The author goes back and forth between the two women’s timelines to unfold their stories, their similarities, the history of the scarf, and how the women get out of their in-between places.

I loved the historical aspect of this book. I hadn’t known much about Ellis Island and nothing about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Taryn’s experiences on the streets of NYC just after the 9/11 attacks were gripping.

The two women’s journeys toward moving on were compelling and empathetic as well, except it was a little hard to account for the depth of Clara’s grief given that she had known Edward for only two weeks and only on the surface at that. Of course, she was dealing with not just the loss of the relationship, but the potential as well. There is an interview with the author at the end of the book in which she says, “I really do believe that the capacity to love is what gives meaning to our lives, even though we are never more vulnerable than when we let down our guard and trust our hearts to others. The world isn’t perfect; nor are other people. It’s quite possible that loving flawed people in an equally flawed world is going to subject you to the worst kind of heartache. But I like to think that the heart is capable of surviving the costs of loving because it was meant to. The heart is made of muscle; we are meant to exercise it. This is what Taryn and Clara come to realize. It seems to me the best kind of takeaway I could hope for.”

A few of my favorite quotes:

The person who completes your life is not so much the person who shares all the years of your existence, but rather the person who made your life worth living, no matter how long or short a time you were given to spend with them.

It should always make us happy to say that loving someone and being loved by someone is worth whatever price paid.

Everything beautiful has a story it wants to tell. But not every story is beautiful.

If the book was meant to be Christian fiction, I found it a little lacking in that department: I didn’t find much distinctly Christian about it except that the characters wonder sometimes whether God is at work behind their circumstances. But if it was meant as a clean, historical, inspirational novel, then it was very good.

Genre: Historical inspirational fiction
Objectionable elements: A couple of “damns”; God’s name used carelessly a few times.
My rating: 8 out of 10

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)

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Loving as Jesus loved

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Some years ago I read in a missionary biography about a woman who struggled for years to truly love the people she came to minister to. Finally she stopped looking at herself, her failures, her lack, and began thinking of God’s love for her. And almost unconsciously on her part, God changed her heart, to the point that people commented to her husband on the change.

I thought I knew which writer shared that, but I’ve looked through her books and haven’t found that passage. Yet that lesson has come back to me many times over. I feel the same lack, and pray often for repentance, forgiveness, and change.

How does the Bible tell us spiritual change comes? II Corinthians 3:18: But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.

Jesus said, in John 13:34, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” He had said it before in John 15:12, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you,” just after the section about about in Him. Ephesians 5:1-2 say: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

So how did Jesus love? This is a topic worthy of much more study, but after just a brief time of thought, I have plenty to meditate on:

Jesus us loved us “while we were yet sinners” Romans 5:8. He didn’t wait for us to clean up our act before He extended love to us.

He loved us before we loved Him: “We love because he first loved us” 1 John 4:19. He took the initiative.

He gave Himself.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father. Galatians 1:3-4.

 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Galatians 2:20.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. Ephesians 5:1-2.

 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. 1 Timothy 2:5-6.

Who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. Titus 2:14.

That giving involved inconvenience, weariness, misunderstandings, false rumors, humiliation, pain, and death.

He ministered to others when He was the only One who deserved to be ministered to.

He laid down His life for us. “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” 1 John 3:16. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” John 15:13.

He loved not only in word but in deed.

Early in my Christian life, I had trouble forgiving others because I’d get stuck going over and over what they did to me, how wrong it was, and how they didn’t deserve forgiveness. And then I encountered the parable of a man who was forgiven a devastating amount that would have been the absolute ruin of him, yet wouldn’t forgive his fellow man a very small amount. That made clear to me like nothing else that forgiveness wasn’t based on how small or large the wrong or how “deserving” the wrongdoer was. It was based on God’s forgiveness of me. I had wronged Him so much more than anything anyone else has done to me, yet He fully forgave. In light of that, how can I withhold forgiveness from anyone else?

Similarly, my love for others is not based on whether they deserve it and doesn’t come from my paltry efforts. Oswald Chambers said in the My Utmost for His Highest reading for April 30, “The springs of love are in God, not in us. It is absurd to look for the love of God in our hearts naturally; it is only there when it has been shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.” When the Holy Spirit sheds abroad His love in my heart, when I abide in Him, when I behold His great love for me, then His love will fill and overflow from me to others.

(Sharing with Inspire Me Mondays,  Testimony Tuesday, Wise Woman, Tell His Story, Woman to Woman Word-Filled Wednesday, Thought-provoking Thursday)

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