Book Review: I’ll Be Home for Christmas

Home I’ll Be Home For Christmas: Four Inspirational Holiday Novellas by Lenora Worth, Belle Calhoune, Jill Kemerer, and Allie Pleiter contains, as the title suggests, four stories that involve coming “home” in some way.

In A Hope Valley Christmas by Belle Calhoune, Mallory Jefferson is visiting her family over the holidays. The one person she hopes she doesn’t run into is Colton James. She’d had a serious crush on him back in the day, and her youthful exuberance and infatuation had led to some pretty embarrassing attempts to get his attention and show him her feelings. Yet who should walk into her father’s mechanic shop, just when she’s helping out, disheveled, and greasy, but Colton. Her father suggests she give Colton a ride home. As Colton and Mallory talk, Colton tells her his grandfather isn’t doing well. His grandfather wants to see Colton happy and settled with someone he loves. To ease his grandfather’s mind, Colton told him he did have a girlfriend. Then Colton gets the bright idea that Mallory can stand-in as his pretend girlfriend at an upcoming family dinner. Reluctantly, Mallory agrees, and they get to know each other as they are now, and not as they were in their high school memories.

In Sugarplums and Second Chances by Jill Kemerer, Chase McGill is a former NFL star trying to recover from mistakes in his past. In a fit of vengeance he had assaulted his wife’s killer and served time. Now he’s trying to make up for lost time with his son as well as help out another young man. Courtney Trudesta is the widow of his former teammate and wrote him regularly to encourage him while he was in prison. Courtney stops by on her way to a new job to visit with Chase for a few days. As they try to help each other deal with their losses and find their purpose in life, they wonder if those purposes might include each other.

In A Brilliant Christmas by Allie Pleiter, Zoe Walters’ passion is the community arts center that she runs. She has mixed feelings about the new artist-in-residence for the next six weeks: Nigel Langdon, a famous animator who has fallen from Hollywood graces. Besides the fact that he’s not currently popular, his gruffness doesn’t promise good things for his time with “her kids.” His first session does get off to a rocky start. But Zoe begins to fathom the hurt and the heart underneath his crusty exterior, and her devotion to her kids and program opens his eyes.

Seashell Santa by Lenora Worth is a different kind of Christmas in Key West, Florida. Navy Seal Rick Houston‘s beloved grandfather, Pappy, has died and requested that Rick come to his old cabin at Christmas and disperse his ashes. Who else should show up at the cabin but Willa Kincaid, Rick’s ex-girlfriend, who had received the same request. Realizing Pappy’s trick, they decide to put aside their differences to honor his wishes. In the meantime, as their arguing gives way to further discussion, they each realize they didn’t know everything about the other’s motives for their previous actions.

I’m not a fan of romances in general, both because of the silliness of tingling sensations and such, descriptions of kisses, and the end-all of romances being the declaration of true love (when, in real life, that’s just the beginning.) However, I do like when the characters have to learn or overcome something in the process of coming into a relationship, and that happens in each of these stories. Some of the stories have more of a faith element than the others. A couple of them contain characters from the authors’ other series, but the stories were complete enough in themselves that I didn’t feel I was missing pieces.

My favorite was Allie Pleiter‘s Brilliant Christmas. Both the story itself and the writing were refreshingly different. I’ll be looking up more of her work in the future. My favorite line from the book came from her story:

Our job is to bring out whatever talent or self-expression is there. Help them see that picking up a paintbrush might just be more powerful than picking up a knife. Get their emotions out in ways that don’t involve sending each other to the emergency room.

My least favorite line in the book came from Lenora’s story, about a character who “put out feelers to the Big Guy in the sky.” Big Guy in the sky? Seriously?

This collection is not showing up on Amazon anymore, but Sugarplums and Second Chances and A Brilliant Christmas are available individually. I’ve not read any of these authors, but I used to follow a blog that Lenora contributed to, so that’s probably what prompted this purchase. All in all it was a nice Christmas read.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)

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Two Reading Challenge Wrap-ups

I have been finished with these two challenges for months, but just have not written the wrap-up posts for them until now.

Karen at Books and Chocolate hosts the Back to the Classics Challenge for reading classics at least 50 years old.

I enjoy this challenge because I was not exposed to many classics as I grew up, and this challenge inspires me to expand my horizons and explore books I might not otherwise read. I’m happy to report that I have read all 12 classics on my list (I actually read 13, but no extra points for extra books. 🙂 ). The titles link back to my reviews:

  • A 19th century classic. Villette by Charlotte Bronte (1853)(Finished 6/30/18)
  • A 20th century classic (published before 1968). The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (1903)(Finished 3/31/18)
  • A classic by a woman author. Adam Bede by George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans)(1859)(Finished 5/19/18)
  • A classic in translation (Any book originally written published in a language other than your native language.) 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1870)(Finished 1/26/18)
  • A children’s classic. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)(Finished 2/3/18)
  • A classic crime story, fiction or non-fiction, which she goes on to say can be a detective or spy novel. The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton. (1908)(Finished 1/18/18)
  • A classic travel or journey narrative, fiction or non-fiction. Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne (Finished 2/17/18)
  • A classic with a single-word title (no articles). Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (Finished 3/12/18)
  • A classic with a color in the title. Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls (1961)(Finished 3/17/18)
  • A classic by an author that’s new to you. He Fell in Love With His Wife by Edward Payson Roe (1866)(Finished 4/8/18) and Invincible Louisa: The Story of the Author of Little Women by Cornelia Meigs (1933) (Finished 6/25/18)
  • A classic that scares you (due to its length or it intimidates you in some way). The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo. (1831)(Finished 8/4/18).
  • Re-read a favorite classic. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace, (1880)(Finished 4/17/18)

Karen allows for three children’s classics, and I am counting Where the Red Fern Grows, The Secret Garden, and Journey to the Center of the Earth for those. I’m not counting 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea because nothing I read about it indicated it was written for children.

Karen likes for us to let her know how many entries we earned for her drawing: I earned three. She also requests an email here: mine is barbarah06 (at) gmail (dot) com.

I enjoyed all of these except Journey to the Center of the Earth, but I think my favorite is He Fell in Love With His Wife. Adam Bede would be a close second. Frankenstein was the biggest surprise.

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Adam at Roof Beam Reader hosts the TBR Pile Challenge to encourage us to get to those books on our shelves, Kindles, or TBR lists. For this one we had to name the books we were going to read, along with two alternates (in case we couldn’t get through a couple on our list). The books for this challenge had to have been published 2016 and earlier.

I read thirteen books altogether. Titles link back to my reviews.

  1. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Finished 2/3/18)
  2. The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton (Finished 1/18/18)
  3. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (Finished 3/12/18)
  4. Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls (Finished 3/17/18)
  5. Adam Bede by George Eliot (1859)(Finished 5/19/18)
  6. He Fell in Love With His Wife by Edward Payson Roe (1866, Finished 4/8/18)
  7. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1870, Finished 1/26/18)
  8. Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne (Finished 2/17/18)
  9. Ghost Boy: The Miraculous Escape of a Misdiagnosed Boy Trapped Inside His own Body by Martin Pistorious (2013, Finished 1/8/18)
  10. Going Like Sixty by Richard Armour. Set this one aside, disappointed in the content.
  11. Sins of the Past by Dee Henderson, Dani Pettrey, and Lynette Easton (2016, Finished 3/28/18)
  12. Another Way Home by Deborah Raney (2015, Finished 4/16/18)

Alternates: Anchor in the Storm by Sarah Sundin (2016, Finished 5/7/18) and Mozart’s Sister by Nancy Moser (2006)(Finished 1/28/18)

I enjoy both of these challenges and plan to participate in them again next year. Karen already has the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge categories here.

I’m still working on the Mount TBR Challenge and the Literary Christmas Challenge.

Book Review: Twelve Days at Bleakly Manor

BleaklyTwelve Days at Bleakly Manor by Michelle Griep is the first in her Once Upon a Dickens Christmas series set in Victorian England.

Clara Chapman’s family has lost its fortune, and the person seemingly to blame was her former fiance, Benjamin Lane. Not only did Ben abscond with the family fortune, but he left her at the altar with no explanation. She’s been living with an aunt, trying to survive in reduced circumstances.

Out of the blue Clara receives an invitation from an unnamed host to Bleakly Manor. If Clara can stay the entire twelve days of Christmas, she’ll receive 500 pounds. At her aunt’s urging, Clara accepts the invitation.

Clara finds no host at Bleakly Manor, but she is surprised to see an assortment of people there who have all been promised various rewards if they will stay twelve days. A late and most startling arrival is none other than Ben!

As the participants get to know one another, personalities clash. The host remains absent. And odd occurrences begin happening: one person’s jewels go missing, strange foods are served at mealtimes, accidents happen that turn out not to be accidents. And then the group is informed that only one of them will win what they were promised.

This book started out as a cozy mystery, dragged just a bit in the middle for me, and then took a darker turn as the “accidents” increased in intensity.

I had to look up my review of Dickens’ Bleak House to remind myself of the characters there and see the parallels. This story is not meant to be a point-for-point retelling, but it does contain elements of the plot and some characters.

All in all an enjoyable Christmas read.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)

Book Review: Susie: The Life and Legacy of Susannah Spurgeon

SusieSusie: The Life and Legacy of Susannah Spurgeon, Wife of Charles H. Spurgeon is a new biography by Ray Rhodes, Jr. Susannah’s life can’t be told apart from apart from her husband’s, but Rhodes doesn’t describe her just in relation to Charles. He tells her own story fully.

Susie, as she was called because her mother and an aunt were also Susannah, “shared a lifetime” with Queen Victoria. “Susie was five when Victoria was crowned, and she died two years after Victoria’s death.” She was a city girl, living in London all her life and traveling often to Paris.

She became a Christian at about age 21, but experienced a lot of doubts for a while thereafter. She was not impressed with Pastor Spurgeon at first. He came from a rural background, and:

Charles violated her preconceived notions of what was appropriate for a polite young man in Victorian times, and a preacher at that. Susie found Charles’s hair, suit, mannerisms, and his provocative preaching style offensive. Later, reflecting on her earlier sentiments, she wrote:

Ah! How little I then thought that my eyes looked on him who was to be my life’s beloved; how little I dreamed of the honour God was preparing for me in the near future! It is a mercy that our lives are not left for us to plan, but that our Father chooses for us; else we might sometimes turn away from our best blessings and put from us the choicest and loveliest gifts of His providence.

Charles’ counsel and gift of Pilgrim’s Progress helped Susie. It wasn’t long before his pastoral concern turned romantic. The sections about their courtship are sweet, but Susie had a cold splash of reality one day. Charles was asked to preach somewhere and Susie accompanied him. They got separated in the crowd, but Charles never noticed. Lost, alone, and upset, Susie went home. Her mother “wisely reasoned that my chosen husband was no ordinary man, that his whole life was absolutely dedicated to God and His service, and that I must never, never hinder him by trying to put myself first in his heart.”

Charles and Susie married and enjoyed home life, travel, and togetherness. They had twin sons, Charles and Thomas. But both Charles and Susie developed health problems. He suffered from gout, kidney problems, and depression. It’s not known exactly what Susie’s health issues were, but severe endometriosis is suspected. She had surgery at one point but spent much of her life in pain. Sadly, she usually could not accompany Charles to places he was advised to go for his health. But he wrote to her every day, and their letters to each other are often delightful. In one of his letters from before they were married, Charles wrote:

I shall feel deeply indebted to you if you will pray very earnestly for me. I fear I am not so full of love to God as I used to be. I lament my sad decline in spiritual things. You and others have not observed it but I am now conscious of it; and a sense thereof has put bitterness in my cup of joy. Oh! what is it to be popular, to be successful, to have abundance, even to have love so sweet as yours, if I should be left of God to fall and to depart from His ways? I tremble at the giddy height on which I stand, and could wish myself unknown, for indeed, I am unworthy of all my honors and my fame. I trust I shall now commence anew and wear no longer the linsey-woolsey garment; but, I beseech you, blend your hearty prayers with mine, that two of us may be agreed, and thus will you promote the usefulness and holiness and happiness of one whom you love.

Once Susie wished aloud that one of Charles’s books could be sent to poor pastors who could not afford a much-needed library. Charles said, not in these words but to this effect, “What are you going to do about it?” That was the beginning of Susie’s book fund, which grew far beyond what she envisioned at the beginning. In one particular month, Feb. 1883, Susie received 657 letters. In 1886 she distributed 9,941 volumes. Correspondence as well as packaging, sending books, and seeking donations was a blessed ministry yet took time and energy. This ministry spawned others, like a pastor’s aid society for sending money and clothes, an auxiliary book club for lay preachers, and the Home and Foreign Sermon distribution. She said, “It is the joy of my life thus to serve the servants of my master.” She felt that the confinement necessitated by her illness enabled her to minister in these ways.

Though Susie knew some congregations were themselves poor and could not provide for their pastors, she encouraged those who could to do so in her book Ten Years of My Life in the Service of the Book Fund:

Keep your minister’s table well provided, and you shall be fed with the finest of the wheat; see that his earthly cares do not press on him painfully, and your own hearts’ burdens will be lifted by his heavenly teachings; supply him with this world’s needful comforts, and he will not fail to bring you solace and consolation in the time of your extremity. If he has sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if he shall reap your carnal things?

Susie did a fair amount of her own writing, and, after Charles’s death, was instrumental in planting a church and edited The Sword and the Trowel magazine.

I’ve read Mrs. C. H. Spurgeon by Charles Ray several times, and this book draws heavily from that one. But Ray’s book was written in 1903, not long after Susie’s death. I’m sure more resources were available to Rhodes than Ray might have had, plus over 100 years of perspective adds to Rhodes’ book.

I did get just a bit frustrated at times with how the book was laid out. Though Susie’s life is covered chronologically, at each point Rhodes goes backward and forward in time to pull details about that point. So there’s a lot of back-and-forth and repetition. It helped to think of the book as a documentary. I listened to the audiobook, but I think this book would be better read than listened to.

Nonetheless, this is a great resource. I enjoyed so much hearing again the parts of Susie’s life that I knew and learning what I did not know. I appreciated the historical context, something Ray’s book could not have given as effectively since it was written in the same era. I especially enjoyed both Charles and Susie’s letters. And I was blessed by her heart and her walk with God. One phrase that stood out in many of her writings was “the glory of God.” Everything she did was ultimately for His glory.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday)

Book Review: Homeless for the Holidays

HomelessIn the novel Homeless for the Holidays by P. S. Wells and Marsha Wright, Jack Baker’s future looks bright. He has a lovely family, a great job, and expectations of a good Christmas bonus and possibly a promotional. His boss is a bit demanding, calling him nights, weekends, even Thanksgiving. But if Jack can hang on til he gets the promotion, everything will be better – so he tells his wife.

As the Bakers prepare for Christmas, they stuff shopping carts, max out credit cards, competitively search for the last of the “hot” toys. And when encountered by a child seeking donations for a charity or a Salvation Army bell ringer, Jack begrudgingly hands over the spare change in his pocket and gripes about people who don’t work for a living.

Then the unthinkable happens. A mistaken label on one of Jack’s company’s products creates a hazard. To save face, Jack’s boss makes Jack the fall guy, placing the responsibility for the fiasco on his shoulders and firing him. Jack’s boss promises Jack that once the hoopla has died down, Jack can have his job back.

In the meantime, Jack’s search for a job proves fruitless and bills start piling up. One by one his family loses services, then their car, then their home.

The book’s tag line says, “One family learns what is truly important when they lose it all and find they have everything.”

Overall it is an enjoyable book. You feel the characters’ fear and angst as the walls close in and the losses pile up and then as they discover that having all the “stuff” doesn’t matter as much as time for each other, humility, faith, and compassion. There’s a telling exchange when Jack’s wife tries to apply for food stamps and runs into all kinds of weird rules.

The one factor that keeps this story from being just another “learning the true meaning of Christmas” tale is that it is based on true events from the life of scriptwriter George Johnson. George eventually produced a movie based on his experience called Homeless for the Holidays, which released in 2009. In the back of the book George tells about his own situation and how the movie came to be.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)

 

 

Book Review: Come Back, Barbara

Come backFather and daughter C. John Miller and Barbara Miller Juliani team up to share Barbara’s prodigal daughter story from both sides in Come Back, Barbara. In each chapter John – also known as Jack – shares situations from his point of view at the time, then Barbara shares hers.

Miller and his wife, Rose Marie, thought they had a fairly normal Christian family until Barbara suddenly announced at eighteen that she wanted nothing to do with their rules and their Christianity any more. She wanted freedom on every level. The Millers were stunned. They had caught Barbara in a few lies over the years but thought those were isolated incidents. Her outward conformity for most of her life had fooled them into believing her heart was right as well. They realized they had been mistaken in not looking below the surface.

For a time they puzzled over comparing what they had always thought about her and the “new Barbara” emerging now. It just didn’t seem to fit – she had seemed like a genuine Christian. They thought at first that perhaps she was just going through a rebellious phase and would hopefully come out of it soon. Gradually they realized that her rebellion and deception went further than they had ever guessed. They had to accept, by her words and actions and reactions, that she was not a Christian, though she had once professed to be.

There’s no five-step foolproof plan to winning back a prodigal, but Jack shares some of what he learned. First, he had to realize he was truly powerless. All his efforts backfired. Often control is the first weapon against rebellious children. Of course, some degree of control is necessary in raising children, but parents “have to confront your own manipulative techniques of consolidating power” (p. 160).

Many fathers and mothers are simply more satisfied with a child’s conformity and less concerned with the youngster’s motivation and hidden desires, with what the Bible calls “the thoughts of the heart.” Often unconsciously, the self-centered parent labors to form an orderly child who performs well in public and does not shame the family by disturbing the status quo. The problem, of course, is not with the orderliness of the child, but with the shaping of a person with a desensitized conscience, a performer who has never learned to love God or people from the heart (pp. 160-161).

He had to give up control to God and depend on Him to draw Barbara to Himself. He also had to confront his own sins, realizing the irony of God’s using a rebellious child to show him his own heart.

And he had to genuinely apologize to Barbara. Even though he felt wronged and wounded, he could not hold on to victim status. He had to confess his wrongs whether she did or not. And that humility and honesty was a step in the right direction in their relationship.

The constant practice of forgiveness leaves no room for self-righteousness. Frustrated condemnation of others and treasuring of old wrongs are not part of the artillery of God, but the slithering, slimy, deadly creatures of the Prince of Darkness (pp. 79-80).

Jack and his wife wrestled for a long time over whether Barbara had apostatized and how to respond if she had. Finally they just had to accept that she was not a believer and treat her as they would any other unbeliever. They just had to show her Christ’s love. That didn’t mean accepting everything she did, but she knew where they disagreed. They asked that some things not be done in their house.

Showing such love in the face of disdain and rebellion is exactly what God has done for us. “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, NASB). Drawing from His love and grace enabled them to show love and grace to Barbara.

We were facing the death side of the Christian life, but there was a resurrection waiting to take place as we stepped into the grave. Today it is my conviction that no matter how heavy the blow inflicted by circumstances, each negative experience is part of the heavenly Father’s perfect plan for each believer. He allows the hour of destruction for the purpose of building something better in its place. Our part is not to run away from the pains but to walk through the briars and thorns and let Christ teach us how to turn each scratch into positive learning about the depths of God’s love (p. 67).

There is no more impenetrable barrier to God’s love than the sense of being right. So often self-righteousness controls a parent’s attitudes toward a rebellious offspring (p. 150).

He’s not saying to ignore right and wrong: they had to stand up for right and truth often. But they had to “speak the truth in love,” not from a sense lofty condescension.

Many parents tend to turn out an erring child, and sometimes indeed that’s the only option. The prodigal in Scripture left his father’s house in rebellion, and Barbara did that for a while, too. But Jack and his wife felt they needed to be open to Barbara, and when she moved back in their area, the Millers welcomed Barbara and her friends in their home, to show love and kindness to them as Jesus did with “tax collectors and sinners.”

At one point Barbara had “come back” in the sense of “settling down,” becoming responsible, not engaging in destructive behaviors. But she still was not a believer. As Jack pressed that point, it led to a major battle between him and Barbara.

Barbara, meanwhile, began “groping for the light while still resisting it” (p. 139). “Many painful things happened to me during this period, but the work of the Holy Spirit was to gently lead me from darkness to light” (p. 167). She described it like walking into a large, dark room, turning on the nearest lamp, moving to another area and turning on another lamp, continuing until there’s enough light to clearly see. She didn’t think she could have stood it if God had turned all the lights on at once. “Instead, God showed me the truth about myself bit by bit, in pieces I could handle” (p. 167.) One “light” was the realization that the things she thought would bring her happiness and allay her insecurities and anxiety could not. She was still unhappy, anxious, and insecure though at one time she had everything she thought she wanted. Another “light” was realizing her tendency to deceive and blame-shift. One by one God opened her eyes to the needs of her own heart and to His love.

I’ve noticed that C. John Miller has written some other books, but I don’t know anything about his theology other than what is in this book. One aspect that I was a little wary of was what he called “praying with authority.” In my experience, people using that kind of terminology advocate “demanding” answer to prayer, which to me seems to contradict the humility and surrender manifested in Scripture. But from what’s said in this book, that didn’t seem to be what they were talking about. Jack’s wife had said in the beginning of their troubles that she felt like an orphan. But gradually she realized she could come to God as a child to her Father, basing her requests on Scriptural truths. If that’s what they mean by praying with authority, then, yes, I agree. I was also a bit cautious when they talked about “claiming” certain things, associating that with the “name it and claim it” culture. But, again, in the context here that doesn’t seem to be what they are referring to.

I found this book on a sale table at a Christian bookstore years ago: the name in the title caught my eye. 🙂 I don’t know why I haven’t gotten to it before now, but I am glad I finally did. I marked many more places in the book than I have space and time to share here. I’d highly recommend it to anyone with a prodigal friend of family member or anyone who wants to read how God worked in lives to bring people to Himself.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday)

Literary Christmas Reading Challenge

 

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Tarissa hosts the Literary Christmas Challenge in December: actually, it started in November, but I like to hold off on Christmas reading til after Thanksgiving. The main rule: read Christmas books! And link up your posts about them (via a blog, Goodreads review, etc.).

Tarissa is giving away this cute Christmas ornament, and participating in the Literary Christmas challenge is just one way to enter to win it.

aliterarychristmas-sweetberrygifts-2018

Here’s what I am planning to read this month:

Finding Christ in Christmas by A. W. Tozer (99 cents for the Kindle app as of this writing. Tozer always makes one think.)

Tozer Christmas

 

Homeless for the Holidays by P. S. Wells and Marsha Wright.

Homeless

Christmas Stitches by Judith Miller, Nancy Moser, and Stephanie Grace Whitson. I’ve read many of Judith and Nancy’s books, so I am looking forward to this Christmas collection.

Stitches

Baby, It’s Cold Outside by Susan May Warren

Cold Outside

I’ll Be Home For Christmas: Four Inspirational Holiday Novellas by Lenora Worth, Belle Calhoune, Jill Kemerer, and Allie Pleiter. This is not showing up on Amazon anymore, but you can read more about it on Goodreads here. I’ve not read any of these authors, but I used to follow a blog that Lenora contributed to, so that’s probably what prompted this purchase.

Home

If I should finish all these and I’m not tired of Christmas stories at that point, I’d love to get Terri Blackstock’s Catching Christmas and Michelle Griep’s Once Upon a Dickens Christmas series, Twelve Days at Bleakly Manor and A Tale of Two Hearts. I’m trying to read what I have already accumulated through sales before I add any more.

And that’s it for this year! Do you plan to do any Christmas-themed reading this month?

 

Book Review: Florian’s Gate

FlorianIn T. Davis Bunn’s novel, Florian’s Gate, American Jeffrey Sinclair is bored in his job. His mysterious uncle, Alexander Kantor, has a glowing reputation in the antiques business in London. Alexander never reveals where his exquisite pieces come from, but their high quality always fetches good prices and willing buyers. When Alexander invites Jeffrey to become his assistant, Jeffrey jumps at the chance, quickly learning both the details and the instincts needed.

Jeffrey hires a part-time helper who rapidly becomes a valuable assistant, Katya. Jeffrey falls head over heels for her, but she is guarded around him. He senses her past contains pain, but she’s not willing to reveal it to him yet. Plus she is a believer, but he has turned his back on God after a family tragedy.

When Alexander asks Jeffrey to take a trip to Poland, Jeffrey is thrilled to be trusted enough to be asked. There he meets Alexander’s brother, Gregor, and begins to learn some of Alexander’s sources. Poland is still reeling from being trampled underfoot by WWII and then Soviet occupation. At first Jeffrey thinks everyone looks sad and depressed, understandably. But he soon finds an underlying resilience in their character. Alexander, Jeffrey, and Gregor visit some of the most unlikely places to find some of the poorest people with great treasures they’ve been holding on to for years but are now in desperate enough straits to sell.

Surprisingly, Alexander comes face to face with his own painful past, which Jeffrey learns of for the first time. When Alexander is incapacitated for while, Katya comes to assist and translate. What Jeffrey learns through all these experiences helps him understand his uncle and Katya and helps him come to grips with his own past as well.

A few quotes from the book:

Dissatisfaction tends to lift one’s eyes toward the horizon. Those who are comfortable rarely make the effort to search out something better. They may yearn for more, but they do not often receive it. They are too afraid of losing what they already have, you see, to take the risk. And there is always risk involved, Jeffrey. Always. Every major venture contains a moment when you must step off the cliff and stretch your wings toward the sky.

Even in the darkest of hours, people have a choice. They can turn toward self, or they can turn toward God. They can turn toward hate, or they can turn toward forgiveness and love.

The world says there is no greater tribute you can grant yourself than to say, I can make it on my own. My perspective says there is no greater deception. The power within our own will and our own body and our own confined little world is comfortable, and it is tempting. It gives us a wonderful sensation of self-importance. Thus most of us will try to live outside of God until our own strength is not enough. Yet the way of the cross is the way of inadequacy. We need what we do not have, and therefore we seek what is beyond both us and this world.

There are an infinite number of lessons to be drawn from the cross, my boy….All human hope lies at the foot of the cross. In the two thousand years since it first rose in a dark and gloomy sky, it has lost none of its luster, none of its power, none of its divine promise.

Normally Bunn’s stories involve quick-moving plots and page-turning intrigue. There was intrigue here, but a different sort than I am used to from him. His mother’s former ownership of an antiques gallery and management of others informed his knowledge of antiques. He says at the beginning of the book that each piece he describes is real. The different Polish people and stories that he shares are based on real people and situations in his wife’s family in Poland.

I thought the story ended somewhat abruptly, but then I found that this book is the first of three in the Priceless Collection series. So maybe some day I’ll find out what’s next for Jeffrey, Katya, and the others.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

What’s On Your Nightstand: November 2018

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The folks at 5 Minutes For Books host What’s On Your Nightstand the last Tuesday of each month in which we can share about the books we have been reading and/or plan to read.

A few sick days this month afforded more reading time than usual.

Since last time I have completed:

Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne by Douglas V. Mastriano (audiobook), reviewed here. How a Christian conscientious objector stopped an onslaught of the Germans in WWI, captured 132 of them, and won the Medal of Honor. Well-researched, good true story.

Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery by Eric Metaxas, reviewed here. Good.

Perfect Piece by Rebeca Seitz, fiction, reviewed here with the rest of the series about four grown adopted sisters of different ethnicities. Good.

Fly Away by Lynn Austin, fiction, reviewed here. A disgruntled retiree crosses paths with an unbeliever with a terminal diagnosis. Loved this one.

Hidden Places by Lynn Austin, fiction, reviewed here. A young widow struggles to support herself and her children when a mysterious stranger arrives to lend a hand. Very good.

Someday Home by Lauraine Snelling, fiction, reviewed here. A widow opens her home to share with two other ladies. Okay.

Florian’s Gate by Davis Bunn. Review coming soon.

I’m currently reading:

Reading the Bible for Life: Your Guide to Understanding and Living God’s Word by George Guthrie.

Christian Publishing 101: by Ann Byle

Susie: The Life and Legacy of Susannah Spurgeon, Wife of Charles H. Spurgeon by Ray Rhodes, Jr., audiobook

Come Back, Barbara by C. John Miller and Barbara Miller Juliani

Homeless for the Holidays by P. S. Wells and Marsha Wright

Up Next:

In the next few days I’ll be rustling up a list of Christmas reads for Tarissa’s Literary Christmas Challenge. I’ll also need to choose a new audiobook soon but have no idea which one yet. (Update: My Christmas reading picks are here.)

Happy reading!

Book Review: Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery

WilberforceA few years ago a video titled Amazing Grace and a companion book, Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery by Eric Metaxas, were published to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain.  I saw and enjoyed the film, but somehow was not aware of the book until this year.

Wilberforce did not accomplish abolition single-handedly, of course, but he was the driving force behind abolition and a host of other social causes.

William was born into a well-to-do family. He was always small, with poor eyesight and stomach issues (modern historians think he suffered from ulcerative colitis all his life). But he had a sparkling wit, an entertaining personality, and loads of ambition.

As a boy he stayed for two tears with an aunt and uncle to attend school nearby. Unbeknownst to William’s parents, these folks were Methodists whose frequent guest was John Newton. Methodists were thought at the very least to carry religion too far, as evidenced by the nickname used for them, Enthusiasts. Others thought they were radicals. Newton and Wilberforce seemed quite fond of each other, but William’s mother whisked him away as soon as she became aware of the religious climate of her relatives’ home.

Before long William forgot his early religious leanings and became the life of many parties. If he wasn’t hosting, he was a frequent guest. Deaths of his grandfather and uncle had left him wealthy. His friend William Pitt, who was planning to enter into politics (and eventually became Prime Minister), urged William to enter politics as well. William became a Member of Parliament (MP) as an independent at the age of 21. Then he set his sights on “the most coveted seat in all of Parliament” (p. 42), Yorkshire, and was elected to it at the age of 24.

That same year, William was on a holiday with friends and spent most of the journey with the brilliant Isaac Milner. As they traveled, they read and discussed The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul by Phillip Doddridge. William had a tendency to think through every aspect of a decision before making it. He came to an intellectual agreement of Christianity’s doctrines first, then heart and will yielded to what he thereafter called “the Great Change.”

At first he thought such a change would necessitate his leaving government. John Newton encouraged him to “stay his post” and assured him God could use him where he was. Newton wrote to his friend, William Cowper, of Wilberforce: “I hope the Lord will make him a blessing both as a Christian and a statesman. How seldom do these characters coincide!! But they are not incompatible” (p. 61).

As William began to be convicted with how he used his resources and time, his attention was drawn to those in need. Slavery was just a given fact in Britain then. The entire economy was built upon it. Because most of the slaves were in the West Indies, they were hardly thought of. But as word began to get out of their harsh and inhumane treatment, various individuals began to call for action on their behalf. Writers and poets like Hannah More and William Cowper used their pens. Artist and industrialist Josiah Wedgwood, of Wedgwood pottery fame, produced medallions with a cameo of a slave kneeling and asking, “Am I not a man and a brother?” People who had been aboard slave ships reported their findings. Others circulated and signed petitions. They thought Wilberforce should be their voice in Parliament, and after giving the matter his characteristic thorough consideration, he agreed.

They thought it would be an easy victory. Who, after all, would disagree with their cause? The ones who benefited from the slave trade, first of all, not only opposed any reforms but used lies and other tactics to sway public opinion. Then when the French Revolution broke out, anything smacking of liberty and equality was decidedly unpopular.

It was twenty long years before legislation passed to outlaw the slave trade. But even then there was still work to be done in enforcing it, dealing with smugglers who would fly other countries’ flags so as not to be stopped, etc. Those fighting for abolition realized they could not stop there: they needed to fight for emancipation.

Abolition of slavery was one of two main objectives in Wiliiam’s life: the other was the “reformation of manners.” By “manners” he did not mean etiquette and politeness. The Clapham Sect or society was a group of people who want to change some of the cruelties common in society then, like hangings for small offenses, public dissection of criminals’ bodies, and even bull-baiting and bear-baiting. Wilberforce financed schools for the poor run by Hannah More and her sisters even though society at large thought their education would either be fruitless or would upset “the order of things.” He was involved in penal reform, improving conditions for laborers, and a host of other causes. Yet he felt he had not done enough. He wrote to a friend:

I am filled with the deepest compunction from the consciousness of my having made so poor a use of the talents committed to my stewardship. The heart knows its own bitterness. We alone know ourselves the opportunities we have enjoyed, and the comparative use we have made of them…. To your friendly ear… I breathe out my secret sorrows. I might be supposed by others to be fishing for a compliment. Well, it is an unspeakable consolation that we serve a gracious Master, who giveth liberally and upbraideth not…. I always spoke and voted according to the dictates of my conscience, for the public and not for my own private interest…. Yet I am but too conscious of numerous and great sins of omission, many opportunities of doing good whether not at all or very inadequately improved.

In his later years he turned his attention to India and the East India Company’s abominable practices like keeping underage mistresses (what we would call a child sex trade today, only it was legal at the time) and the country’s inhumane practices like burning widows at their husband’s funeral pyres.

By the end of his life, most of his wealth was gone. He had heavily invested in his oldest’s son’s business venture, which failed. But before that he had given much to various causes and needs. He had to sell his home and take turns living with his two other sons.

Though most of the book focuses on Wilberforce’s public life, the author gives us glimpses into his private life as well. William married later in life, but was absolutely smitten once he found his wife. Visitors to the Wilberforce home would find the family in the midst of mild but happy bedlam with children and animals running around indoors and out.

Wilberforce was sometimes called the moral conscience of the nation. He did not ask for that position nor think of himself that way, but his character was such that, when he saw a wrong he could help to right, he felt obligated to do so.

My only complaints with the book were with some aspects of the author. Though Wilberforce is an admirable man, and even Lincoln and Frederick Douglass cited him as inspiration, Metaxas laid the praise on a little thick at times. Plus I felt too conscious of Metaxas as the author: usually in a biography the author does not insert himself into the subject’s story so much. Part of that insertion was evidenced in seeming attempts to be witty and clever. Plus, everything I have ever read about writing encourages using recognizable words, not in an attempt to “dumb down” the text, but to make it more accessible to the average reader. But this author sprinkled his narrative with words like uxoriousness that did increase my vocabulary but interrupted the text while I looked them up.

Oddly, Metaxas does not have a list of footnotes or endnotes with citing the sources he used, though he does close with a list of other worthy Wilberforce biographies.

However, overall I thought this was a very good book. I knew a bit about Wilberforce from the Amazing Grace film, Hannah More‘s biography, and assorted other references, but I was glad to hear about the rest of his life and to have a fuller picture of the character of the man himself. He is an example for all of us to use our resources and influences to help others.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)