For me, 2017 was to be a year of jubilee. For several reasons, it didn’t turn out that way, not least because I powered on with my MA in Christian spirituality, sometimes appearing as a crazed woman while juggling other writing and speaking engagements along with reading the assigned academic articles and writing the coursework, end of year essays, and the dissertation over the summer. I missed out on family holidays and sometimes sported a haunted look as I tried to be present to those whom I was with while inside wondering how I was going to reach the next deadline. I’ve decided to take a year-of-jubilee-observed in 2018, and after a few more deadlines for the middle of this month, I will well and truly have some breathing space and a fallow period. Hooray!
One thing that didn’t suffer in 2017, however, was reading. I was pleased when putting together this account to learn that I had read 58 books not related to my MA. (I didn’t know how many I read throughout the year because I kept track not with a spreadsheet but by mostly remembering to jot down a short review in Evernote after reading the book.) A nice surprise to know that I have indeed been reading.
How did I read so many books? One reason was the need to switch off my brain from the heavy academic stuff I engaged in, so I gobbled up some novels. Another was, of course, the lovely gig I have of running the Woman Alive book club, meaning I highlight fabulous Christian books each month, including interviewing authors. Reading transports me to another world and can fill me with wonder. I do have to discipline myself to stop scrolling and start reading, but when I do, I don’t regret it. And I can’t imagine falling asleep each night before having some time to read.
I want to warn you now that this is a Very Long Post, so you have full permission to scan and skim and skip to the end. Do bookmark it if you find it helpful.
Onto the books!
Books I Endorsed
What a joy to be asked to give an endorsement to these fine books! I don’t take this honor for granted. I’ve ordered the list according to the books’ release date.
Wild Spirit of the Living God: Prayer Poems for the Journey, Russ Parker
These aren’t poems to peruse, but words that will grab your heart and lead you to worship the awe-inducing Father, the risen and life-giving Christ, and the wild and wonderful Spirit. Russ gives us poems that will spark our imaginations and fill our hearts with wonder and love. A resource to use individually and with others – I know I’ll take it on retreat with me. Don’t miss this faith-building gift.
Praying the Bible with Luther, Michael Parsons (BRF, July 2017)
As featured in the October Woman Alive book club.
Michael Parsons proves a wise and gentle guide to reading the word of God not only with our head but with our hearts. His passion for the Bible and Luther is infectious. He introduces Luther’s love of the Bible and how we can pray with the reformer using God’s word as our text and guide. Praying with the Bible can become an instinctive and living experience, in which we grow in our faith.
I find it interesting to note that the way of praying with the Bible highlighted here is lectio divina – the ancient four-part practice that was birthed in the (Catholic) monasteries. That Luther would pray according to this form reveals the influence of his decade as a monk – he didn’t leave all of those practices behind. Parsons’ book is practical and encouraging, giving a hands-on means to introduce another way of praying into our lives.
The Dog Who Thought His Name Was No, Judy Moore (CWR, October 2017)
With humour and depth, Judy Moore shares real-life stories that bring the Bible to life. I loved this little gem by an engaging storyteller, and hope many people will pick it up for fun and encouragement.
The title comes from the story Judy shares of a dog who hears the word No said to him so many times that he starts to answer to it as if it were his name. As she observes, what we are called can shape our identity. She unpacks some of the names we might have taken on, and contrasts these God’s view of us.
Those Who Wait: Finding God In Disappointment, Doubt, And Delay Tanya Marlow (Malcolm Down Publishing, October 2017)
I’m often skittish about biblical narratives, for I want to know what the writer imagined and what she found in the text. No worries here, for Tanya Marlow mines the riches of the biblical stories with respect and great craft. She also includes a helpful theological guide with the narrative, which answered my questions about what was in the biblical account, and what wasn’t.
What’s the book about? Waiting – it’s something we run from as we choose to scroll on our smartphones or tick the next item off of our to-do list. But we can’t escape it, whether we’re longing for a partner, baby, job, good health, and so on, and so on. What shall we do during the waiting? How can God redeem it? These are the questions Tanya explores in her engaging look at four biblical characters who had to wait. She brings their stories to life, all the while imbuing hope and strength in those of us who wait. Which is everyone, I reckon. Don’t miss her creative engagement on this universal theme; you’ll be encouraged and strengthened.
I’ve found great joy in seeing Tanya’s book make such a lovely entrance in the world. She is bed-bound with severe ME, and pours her experience and wisdom into her writing. She’s an encouragement to so many people, including me.
An Extra Mile, Sharon Garlough Brown (IVP, February 2018)
I loved being able to endorse the last book in the Sensible Shoes series of novels, which I’ve adored, and which many in the Woman Alive book club have read and discussed. Sharon manages to bring alive the spiritual disciplines in a novel form – a remarkable feat. Here’s my blurb:
I finished reading An Extra Mile at exactly midnight with a tear and a sigh. Sharon Garlough Brown has done it again! I loved this final book in the series, and especially enjoyed seeing the transformation of the characters who now feel like friends. In this book we experience grief up close and too personal—I wept with the friends at their losses. But I cheered with them too when they found meaning and hope in the God who loves them. How I will miss these women and their spiritual journeys…
And I got to endorse the series as a whole:
The characters in the Sensible Shoes series have become friends. Sharon Garlough Brown has created them to feel like real people—which is why so many of us readers love her books. We laugh; we cry; we puzzle at their actions; we see ourselves in them. And more importantly, we see how a loving God can conform them to his likeness – he can change them. And, therefore, us.
I wholeheartedly recommend this series and want to say please, please, read the books with expectancy and joy. Not only will you see yourself in them, but you’ll be surprised at how God can use them in your own journey of faith. They are, quite simply, the best books on spiritual formation I’ve seen in a long time.
The Mirror that Speaks Back: Looking at, Listening to and Reflecting Your Worth in Jesus, Anne LeTissier (BRF, February 2018)
My very first foreword! I was chuffed. Here are a few edited excerpts from it:
As Anne LeTissier writes so wisely and so well, we don’t need to be beholden to the lies and false proclamations we are bombarded by through social media, advertising and peers. We can turn to the truth of God’s word and his still, small voice, in which he affirms the truth of who we are in him…
Anne shares deeply of herself and her story as she points us to our solid foundation in God. She is a lovely companion in The Mirror that Speaks Back to walk alongside us as we examine some hard but necessary things. She points us to look to God for his truth and his ways, where we will find hope and healing. Be encouraged during this journey, knowing that God is in the transforming business.
The Power of a Promise, Jen Baker (Authentic Media, April 2018)
I’ve enjoyed watching Jen Baker blossom this year, including engaging in a bunch of writing. In this book she shares movingly from her journey of learning to cling to God’s promises as rooted in his word. Leaving a good job, her family and her country, she responded to God’s invitation to live fully dependent on him. How he’s taught her to follow him – including one time whether or not she should buy a certain pair of socks – I found truly inspiring. Her stories of God’s provision and her increased faith as rooted in the stories of the Bible will spur you on to love and good deeds, creating your own legacy of faith. Need a boost to your faith? Read this book.
No More Friendly Fire: When Gift before Gender Wages Peace in the Church, Helen and Tim Roberts (sometime in 2018)
Helen and Tim Roberts herald a resounding call to end the gender wars in the church by following God’s plan for partnership between men and women in sharing God’s love and truth. Delving into the Bible and their own stories of leadership, they make a winsome case for unity in a combined purpose. Read this book to be bolstered in your faith – and perhaps empowered for ministry!
I turned to many general fiction books as an escape from the heavy academic reading, and also received many of these (especially those in the Meh category) as review copies via NetGalley. These are ordered according to my level of enjoyment.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman
What a fantastic novel! Probably the best I read – and reread! – in 2017. The characters stuck with me for at least a day after I finished, and I really enjoyed rereading it, for I gobbled it up the first time around. It’s a story about quirkiness and loneliness, and what it means to love and live. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
How to Stop Time, Matt Haig
I wasn’t sure if I’d like this book, as I’m not one normally to go for things like time travel. But this isn’t a fantasy book, if you allow for the protagonist being able to age very, very slowly – a device the novel hangs on. And I did enjoy it. What I liked best was how it through the likeable protagonist brought to life so many different periods of time, from modern-day London to Shakespeare’s Globe and lots in between.
If like me you’re not one for science fiction, don’t be put off by the thought of time travel to keep you from reading this book. I’ll recommend it to my local book club as it’s one for discussion.
Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty
This one had me up too late at night. Far too late. At first when reading I was stumped as to where it was set, for the mothers were ‘mums’ but their kids were in ‘kindergarten.’ Ah – Australia!
A book ultimately about friendship, with themes of the lies we tell and the relationships we navigate. The picture of the school-gate friendships (and the frenemies) was painted all too realistically.
The denouement left me breathless. A gripping novel with much to discuss. I also enjoyed the miniseries, set in California.
Still Me, Jojo Moyes
I won an early copy of the third in Jojo Moyes trilogy, and gobbled it up one weekend, to the detriment of chores and family facetime. I read it acknowledging the pain that Me Before You has brought to those living with various disabilities; I got drawn into Jojo’s characters unthinkingly and rather enjoy Louisa Clark, even though I wish the author had handled things differently in the first book. (Read Ros Bayes’s blog which raises the issues well.)
This novel explores Louisa in New York City, and I loved as an American-in-London how the author painted the whole new country experience. I only had a few quibbles with her characterization of things American; on the whole it was a delightful romp with an optimistic character.
A Boy Made of Blocks, Keith Stuart
What an uplifting story, drawn so well and inspired from real life. The journey of a father getting to know his son – and himself. Don’t miss this life-affirming novel that charts a family living with autism.
My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout
Most in my local book club didn’t love this look at mother-daughter relations from the vantage point of a daughter in hospital, but I enjoyed it, perhaps because the flashbacks take the reader to Wisconsin, next door to Minnesota where I grew up. I also enjoyed the look at a writer’s life. Still, not for everyone.
The Vanishing Act of Audrey Wilde, Eve Chase
A story of four sisters in the fifties with one hot summer in the English countryside, alongside the story of a modern-day family in the same house. The narrative revolves around the missing girl from the fifties and her young cousin who looks just like her. It’s a coming-of-age account along with the loss of innocence, as the sisters grow apart and return to each other in crisis. The modern story revolves around a new marriage after the first wife died and in particular the distraught teen who struggles to have a new mum.
I almost gave up on this book but persevered. I found the denouement interesting but it’s not the greatest book out there. Seems like these two period historical books are all the rage now. The challenge when reading is to try to figure out how the two periods will relate to each other.
General Fiction in the Meh (not-so-great) Category
The Art of Hiding, Amanda Prowse
A wrenching story of loss and rebuilding life. Of searching through the dross to see what foundations were – and weren’t – there. It wasn’t a pleasant read, and at times I skimmed through it, because it felt such a downer. I’m glad I finished it though, and was glad for the real-life growth of the protagonist.
The Break, Marian Keyes
A long novel that seemed to go on forever. A bit depressing – it’s one of the spate of many domestic reads that are a downer. Ugh.
A man decides he wants six months off of his marriage. How will the wife handle it? A deep descent into marriage and Irish family life, with angst, joy, pain and love. Not my favorite read of the year but interesting to descend into the protagonist’s mind and heart.
The Betrayals, Fiona Neill
What happens when the lives of a close-knit group of friends and their children overlap again and again in almost unthinkable ways? The result is The Betrayals, the title of which should have warned me that this would not be a happy-go-lucky holiday read. I finished it, slightly depressed by the plot, having found the layers of relationships hard to accept. I found its exploration of memory (including false) interesting, and it’s narration of OCD from the viewpoint of one of the children rather harrowing. Well written but not one to pick up if you want a light escape.
The Scandal, Fredrick Backman
A novel by the author of Ove set in a hockey-obsessed small town in Canada. It made for uncomfortable reading, exploring the lies that we believe as promoted by group-think. I thought the author did a good job of drawing the individual characters, but I didn’t find it a pleasant read. It’s so different from Ove – didn’t have the lightness and humor, and addressed such a different subject matter. Called Beartown in North America.
The House of Hidden Mothers, Meera Syal
I loved being transported to India and back to London, but this novel felt bloated and too considered with pushing issues in the story.
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, Joanna Cannon
This one appealed especially to those who lived through that scorching summer in England, 1976. I wasn’t one of those, and didn’t like it too much. I loved learning all of the things that Tanya Marlow saw in it in her review though.
Small Great Things, Jodi Picoult
One my local book club is reading. Maybe I will have enjoyed it more after the discussion? Not my favorite, so I look forward to hearing the wisdom the others gleaned.
Jane Austen-inspired fiction
2017 marked the hundredth anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, with many fangirl books published as a celebration. I gobbled up four of them, and have long intended to write a blog on them, which I will do in February. Here are the four I read.
Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld
An update of Pride and Prejudice. Didn’t quite work.
Jane of Austin, Hilary Manton Lodge
Loosely based on Sense and Sensibility. Did work.
True Love at the Lonely Hearts Bookshop, Annie Darling
Fun and enjoyable.
The Austen Escape, Katherine Reay
A good read.
Fiction for Youngin’s Which Is Suitable for Adults
I’ve found it a joy to see my daughter and her friends enjoying their junior book club. Some ten to fifteen girls (and sometimes boys) who are mostly 11 years old (with older and younger siblings welcome) read a book and discuss it. We have a wonderful mum who does a great job of coming up with questions and activities for them to engage with – although we’re going to spread out the leading in 2018. I confess I didn’t read along very much, except for the two below.
Ink, Alice Broadway
Simply wonderful! This book though is right on the edge of being a bit too advanced for the 11-year-olds, mainly because of the central conceit of the book – a young woman in a world where all of one’s life/deeds are tattooed on one’s skin. So there are characters who are inkers and the harder one is the flayers – those who remove the skin after the person dies and puts them into the Skin Books.
I adored this book, not least because the author is part of my online writing group, and I got to see the behind-the-scenes glimpse of its birth and triumphal entry into the world. I look forward to the second in the series.
Emil’s Clever Pig, Astrid Lindgren
By the author of Pippy Longstocking. Imaginatively delightful.
A discussion that rages online among readers and writers is should fiction be “Christian”? I take an opposing view to many, as I don’t have much time for books that tack on God in a quest to reach a Christian-fiction reading market as well as the general market. I prefer the stories in which faith isn’t cringey but integral to the story and the characters’ development.
A Fragile Hope, Cynthia Ruchti (Abingdon, 2017)
As featured in the June 2017 Woman Alive book club.
Cynthia Ruchti writes stories to inspire hope, but doesn’t shy away from problems or real-life failings. Her characters feel real, so I was looking forward to reading her latest, A Fragile Hope. It’s the story of a long journey for a couple who face a life-altering situation. Without giving away the plot, the husband is a writer who enjoys big book deals and the praise of readers. But at home he ignores his wife, and she slowly withers away. The life-altering occurrence could be the catalyst for him to move from being self-absorbed to loving and other-focused.
The book didn’t disappoint me but it wasn’t my favourite of hers (that would probably still be They Almost Always Come Home). Her writing is strong with believable characters, but I didn’t warm to the main protagonist (the husband) and felt the ending was a bit inevitable. That didn’t stop me from crying when I read it, however! I should also mention that Julia Wilson, an active member of the Woman Alive Facebook group, posted a review of this book there. To her it was ‘The most beautiful book ever’ and one that soothed her soul. A good reminder that not all books will speak in the same way to all people.
The Second Bride, Katharine Swartz (Lion, 2017)
As featured in the June 2017 Woman Alive book club.
Another favourite writer in the Woman Alive Facebook group is Katharine Swartz. The third in her ‘Tales from Goswell’ series, The Second Bride has the plot device of switching between the 1860s and the present day. In her stories of Ellen and Sara, the author explores the complexities of second marriages and the relationships that have gone before, including the betrayals that often occur and the sides people take.
It’s a harrowing book at times, particularly when we encounter the terrible conditions in which the Victorian women lived. The relational challenges of the modern times too can be difficult to read – a young girl cutting herself at the age of ten was particularly wrenching. But it’s good to explore the hard and the good in fiction, especially when, as with Cynthia Ruchti’s books, the redemption element is so strong (it’s present, but fainter, in Katharine Swartz’s Goswell series).
The Sweet Smell of Magnolias and Memories, Celeste Fletcher McHale (Nelson, 2017)
As featured in the July Woman Alive book club.
This novel falls into a favourite category – modern-day fiction set in the American South. I found the plot a bit predictable, but even though I knew my emotions were being manipulated, I shed a few tears at the end. The protagonist is Jacey, a woman who meets a man while she and a few others were stranded on a rooftop during a flood. Yes, this novel uses outside circumstances such as natural disasters to bring about the action – which can feel unbelievable at times.
What I appreciated, though, was Jacey’s friendship with her headstrong and opinionated friend, Georgie, an A&E (US: ER) nurse. I liked the snapshot of trust, forgiveness and fun in their relationship. The story charts not only Jacey’s transformation, but Georgie’s too, and the author doesn’t shy away from some tough issues.
The Captain’s Daughter, Jennifer Delamere (Bethany House, 2017)
As featured in the July 2017 Woman Alive book club.
Reading this on moved me out of my comfort zone, for historical fiction isn’t always my favourite. I chose it partly because it’s the first in a series set in Victorian London, which for us in Britain could be more interesting than, say, Texas. I didn’t expect the various plot turns, for the author interweaves historical people and events in her story in unusual ways. We meet three sisters who live in an orphanage founded by George Muller before focusing on how one of them, Rosalyn, ends up working in a London theatre on a Gilbert and Sullivan production. Although I enjoyed the female protagonist, I thought she seemed a bit naïve, especially in contrast to her pioneering and tough sister. I enjoyed the glimpse at theatre life and especially appreciated how Rosalyn’s faith fuelled her actions. Note that as the author is American, you might find some of her language jarring for a novel set in England, with things such as sidewalks, silverware and shoes being on the other foot.
Deadly Encounter, DiAnn Mills (Tyndale, 2016)
I featured an interview with this author in the July 2017 Woman Alive book club.
I felt I should read this Christian thriller, as suspense is not my favorite category of fiction. Yes, the plot was action-packed, but I didn’t fall head over heels in love. Those who enjoy suspense will like it, though.
Nashville Dreams and Nashville Sweetheart, Rachel Hauck (Nelson)
I polished off these two books by lovely author Rachel Hauck that were satisfying. They were a wee bit dated technology-wise (the PA using a Pilot, for example), but were a fun look into life in NasVegas, as she calls it. I love the TV show Nashville! And these books have a strong faith theme, which I appreciated too.
Perennials, Julie Cantrell (Nelson, 2017)
I was disappointed with this book. The storyline was good; I liked the protagonist; I was moved by the central conflict between her and her sister; I found the Southern (America) setting engaging. So why so disappointed? Mainly because I kept wondering why this novel was being published by a publisher who normally publishes so-called ‘Christian’ books. For me, as one who reads a lot of these books, I felt the spiritual input was syncretistic at best – a Buddhist prayer wheel featured but scarce mention of Jesus. If a general publisher had produced this book I wouldn’t have been bothered. But for Thomas Nelson, part of HarperCollins Christian Publishing, I only have one question – why?
Ascension of Larks, Rachel Linden (Nelson, 2017)
Well written, but another novel that makes me wonder why a Christian publisher puts this out – I kept wondering, where’s the redemptive story line? The protagonists don’t seem to be Christians at all. God is only mentioned by the minister in the story.
Maggie is a likable character. She has to make a sacrifice when her best friend dies, the man she loves, but who is married to her other best friend. I’m glad I read it but would probably give it a 3 out of 5. Not one I’ll remember in a year or two.
Christian Fiction Appearing in the 2018 Woman Alive Book Club
Luther and Katharina, Jody Hedlund
I’m featuring an interview with this author in January 2018.
With the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, many books were published on the topic, including some fictionalized accounts. I enjoyed this look at Luther and the nun who became his wife. The story’s action kept me reading and I liked both of the main characters.
The Space Between Words, Michèle Phoenix (Nelson, 2017)
I am featuring an interview with this author in March 2018.
A novel that explores Paris just after the recent terror attacks. Some mind-blowing plot twists kept me surprised in this one. She’s a good writer, whose books I’ve enjoyed in the past.
The Masterpiece, Francine Rivers (Tyndale, 2018)
Full review appearing in the Woman Alive book club, March 2018.
Francine Rivers is a master at creating a fictional world in which the characters journey towards God through Jesus Christ. Her latest, The Masterpiece, features two people who both suffered major trauma when they were young. How each character dealt with that trauma has affected who they are as adults, and how they see the world.
The Secret Life of Sarah Hollenbeck, Bethany Turner (Revell, 2018)
Full review appearing in the Woman Alive book club, March 2018.
A novel charting the life of a romance novelist – think steamy shades of gray – after she becomes a Christian.
The Writing Desk, Rachel Hauck (Zondervan, 2017)
I love the way Rachel Hauck draws us in to her story. It took me some time to figure out who was who, as the story alternated between the Gilded Age in New York City and the modern day, with four points of view. But that’s part of the fun of reading – figuring out the characters and how the girl is going to get the guy in the end. Or in this case, the girls getting the guys. A longer review to come later in the spring or early summer.
True to You by Becky Wade (Bethany House, 2017)
A contemporary romance, which I enjoyed very much. It’s the start of a trilogy by this popular author. A longer review to come later in the spring or early summer.
Driving Over Lemons, Chris Stewart
A look at life in Spain by an English expat. I enjoyed this sort of travelogue especially because of the joy of many weeks spent in Spain leading retreats at the gorgeous El Palmeral, led by an English couple who have immersed themselves into their Spanish village.
My Life in Houses, Margaret Forster
A lovely look into the life of this writer through the houses she’d lived in, and how they helped her foster the work of the imagination.
84, Charing Cross Road, Helene Haff
A reread for my local book club of this gorgeous epistolary work of an American writing to a London bookseller. I watched the movie version too, which I really enjoyed.
The Magnificent Story: Uncovering a Gospel of Beauty, Goodness & Truth, James Bryan Smith (IVP, 2017)
As featured in the September 2017 Woman Alive book club.
I came across James Bryan Smith’s devotional book Hidden in Christ in 2013, and recommended it widely. I love how he brings Colossians 3:1-17 alive, and how he embraces a view of the Christian life as one of abundance and joy as we live in the kingdom of God. Thus I was excited to see that he has another book out, called The Magnificent Story. In it he charts how we as Christians live by stories – and the Story – even if we’re not always aware of this propensity. What he hopes is to persuade people – not just in their minds but in their hearts – that the most magnificent story to live by is one that is beautiful, good and true. In short, the story of God’s love poured out for us as recounted in the Bible, history and as exhibited in people.
In exploring God’s – and as given by him, ours – magnificent story, Smith looks at the Trinity and how God invites us to participate in this mystery; the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus; and what we believe the Bible says about the end times. The lens through which he explores these themes are three ‘transcendentals’ which exist now and into eternity – beauty, goodness and truth. He shows how all things that are good are beautiful, and how truth is woven into reality. Beauty may stop us in our tracks – for instance, a stunning sunset that paints the sky with shades of reds, oranges and pinks can take our breath away. But we’re left wanting more, and in the end, only God will satisfy. For beauty points us to something greater – that is, God.
I benefitted from reading this book, and think it could be helpful for bolstering our Christian faith especially when read and discussed in a small-group context (there are exercises after each chapter and a small-group guide at the end). My two little quibbles were first, whether a critique about evangelicals applied more specifically to his context Stateside rather than in the UK (that is, those who emphasize salvation as praying a four-point prayer, and manage their goodness through how many wrongs they’ve done versus rights). And second, I felt he could have quoted others less, as the many quotations became distracting. But on the whole, one to pick up for encouragement and strengthening as we resume our more regular activities.
A Nearly Infallible History of the Reformation, Nick Page (Hodder, 2017)
As featured in the October Woman Alive book club.
Books celebrating or debunking Martin Luther and other reformers flooded into bookshops for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. But did Martin Luther really nail his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church against what he saw as excesses and wrongs of the Catholic Church on 31 October 1517? Nick Page, self-defined unlicensed historian, says no. Luther wrote the Ninety-Five Theses and they formed an important part of the societal and ecclesial change of the Reformation, but Luther nailing them to the church door is a story that Page reckons one of Luther’s follower’s created.
The way Page debunks myths such as this was one reason I thoroughly enjoyed his A Nearly Infallible History of the Reformation, filled as it is with asides and colourful accounts of this important time in history. While sharing the overall picture of the societal and church forces behind the reforms, he fills out the sometimes sketchy understanding we may have of the people behind the changes. For instance, did you know that Luther had quite the potty-mouth, even to the end of his life? Or that people so resented John Calvin that as he walked by underneath their windows they emptied their chamber pots on his head? The reformers ushered in massive changes, but they were everyday saints.
It’s an entertaining and informative read. Don’t miss it, not least for the Top Reformers cards (with scores for hat quality and abusiveness, among others) and gems such as this: ‘My name is Inigo Lopez de Loyola. Prepare to die (to yourself).’
31 Proverbs to Light Your Path, Liz Curtis Higgs (WaterBrook, 2017)
At the start of a new year, we might decide we’re going to make many changes through a raft of resolutions. But true change often happens by a small series of steps, applied faithfully. Spiritual growth, as Liz Curtis Higgs knows, can come slowly but surely. Which is why she’s put together this book of small but mighty words from God’s Scriptures to help us grow and flourish. Even 31 days of engaging with the book of Proverbs can help to shift our outlook from being inward-focused to fixing our gaze on Jesus, and on others.
I love how Liz looks to some thirty translations of the Bible to unpack the meaning of the Proverbs she selected, which she examines word by word, along with sharing engaging stories from her own life. Her love of the Bible shines through as she highlights God’s love and mercy.
At the beginning of the year, it’s appropriate to consider her chapter on Proverbs 19:21: “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.” I can relate to her story of having a 27-page document that outlines her plans for the next two years. Okay, so maybe I don’t have so many pages in mine, but I cringe when people observe, “Oh, you’re so busy!” Yes, I have been, and I don’t wear it as a badge of honour. As Liz says, a too-busy schedule says, “I can’t say no” or “My priorities are out of whack.” As I’ve mentioned, my hope and plan for 2018 is not to be so busy as I set aside time for resting and enjoying my family and friends – and God.
Part of learning to say no to requests and becoming less busy is learning to collaborate with God as we relinquish our plans and seek his purpose for our lives. He’s not a killjoy who doesn’t want us to pursue what we love; I’ve found that I’m most alive and fulfilled when I’m following my passions as I sense his loving lead. As Liz observes, “God isn’t capricious, pushing us around for His amusement. Everything He does is according to His will – His ‘good, pleasing and perfect will’ … We can say with the psalmist, ‘I trust in you, Lord’” (p. 109).
A great book if you’d like to kickstart your prayer life this year, through embarking on a month of engaging with God’s wisdom. Liz Curtis Higgs is funny and vulnerable, and her interweaving of stories will help you apply the truths of Scripture to your life.
Utmost Ongoing: Reflections on the Legacy of Oswald Chambers (Discovery House, 2017)
As featured in the November Woman Alive book club.
The most read devotional writer of all time seems to be overlooked in his own country but adored in others. I’m one of the many Americans who for years has read Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest regularly, soaking in his words that reveal God’s good character and love for his children – and his demand that they commit their all to him. I’ve often puzzled why Chambers’ works aren’t as much-loved here in Britain as they are in my country of birth. A case of a prophet being ignored in his own country? Or perhaps we Americans just have a special fondness for this Scotsman who so committed his life to God’s service.
Whatever the case, the centenary of Chambers’ death on 15 November 2017 was a time to remember this man (and his wife!) and his writing. I hope that his influence will continue. New print editions of Utmost are being released in addition to the online format that can be found at utmost.org. Also published is a book of essays that reveal the influence of this best-selling devotional in the lives of nearly thirty individuals – including me.
I write in Utmost Ongoing about how reading Chambers’ devotional helped me in my twenties to discern the still, small voice of God. I thought I had been hearing God’s call to move halfway across the country to marry a man and work with a wonderful Christian organization there. I even announced to my current place of employment my intention to move, but these plans fell spectacularly flat during one weekend visit to that city. I was crushed, not merely for the failed dreams, but mostly that I didn’t know who I was listening to. Was it God, or just me? How could I have got it so wrong?
I had to tune in my ear to “the tiniest whisper of the Spirit,” as Chambers says. For “God always educates us down to the scruple… He does not come with a voice like thunder; His voice is so gentle that is it easy to ignore it” (May 13, Utmost). And so began my journey to listening for and discerning God’s gentle and loving voice. My loving Father wasn’t bellowing out commands for how he wanted me to live, but nudging me lovingly into a journey of walking next to him, hand in hand. To this day, I continue to weigh up the “God impressions” I sense in my soul.
I warmly recommend both the devotional and Utmost Ongoing. The latter is filled with stories about how Chambers has affected the lives of prominent writers, artists and speakers. I enjoyed hearing how his words – complied by his wife after his unexpected death – have resonated with them as they speak of his call to be “broken bread and poured-out wine” for God.
Mrs. Oswald Chambers, Michelle Ule (Baker, 2017)
I’ve loved My Utmost for His Highest for many years, and recently was honored to join the Oswald Chambers Publications Association, so naturally I wanted to read up on not only this great man – but the great woman whose story hasn’t been strongly known. I’m grateful for Michelle Ule’s biography, which outlines Biddy Chambers’ contribution to the world through her editorial work.
After Oswald Chambers died at the early age of 43, his widow felt the commission by God to transcribe her careful shorthand notes from many of his talks. Throughout the rest of her life, she turned the talks into many books and articles – the most prized being My Utmost.
Ule’s biography tells the unknown story of Biddy and her work and life. I enjoyed it, but at times it felt like a list of all of the research the author had conducted. Still, worth reading for the encouragement we can find in a life lived for God’s glory, and one who didn’t seek the limelight (Biddy’s name doesn’t appear on any of Oswald’s books).
I’ll Push You: A Journey of 500 miles, Two Best Friends and One Wheelchair, Patrick Gray and Justin Skeesuck (Tyndale, 2017)
As featured in the June 2017 Woman Alive book club.
Books about walking the 500-mile Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain seem to be popular today – I interviewed in the Woman Alive book club Tony Collins, who chronicled his journey in Taking My God for a Walk.
There’s something intriguing about pushing oneself to the limit physically while seeking God and meeting fellow pilgrims on the way. Although I didn’t set out to read another book about the Camino, when I picked up I’ll Push You, I was captured by the audacity of the adventure. Two men travel the ancient paths together, but the twist is that one is confined to a wheelchair.
Justin Skeesuck and Patrick Gray have been best friends since they were kids. Over the years they have shared dreams and practical jokes, and when both got married and had families, their friendship continued to be an important part of their lives. Especially when Justin’s progressive neuromuscular disease started to render him immovable, with him first losing the feeling in his legs and then later in his arms and hands. But his can-do spirit leads him to embrace the good things in life instead of wallowing in what he can no longer do.
When Justin watched a television programme on pilgrims walking the Camino, he shared his dream to experience this with Patrick. His friend replied without hesitation, “I’ll push you.” And so began their crazy journey over mountains, through deserts and across fields in a specially designed wheelchair. Early on they encountered a Basque farmer who, when he learned of their journey, exclaimed, “The impossible is possible!” That utterance became their slogan.
I admire their courage and spirit, but as I read, I wondered about their wives and families left at home. Especially when we learned that Patrick was a bit of a workaholic, and how even when at home would be chained to his smartphone instead of being fully present.
As I read, I couldn’t shake off some questions: Was this an escape from the grind of daily life? Although they would be lauded as heroes if they completed the journey, what about the heroics of those staying at home and keeping the families going? Had they elevated their friendship above their marriage vows?
With those provisos, I did enjoy hearing the ways the friends grew and matured through the adversities they faced, and especially how both grew to receive help from others. As Patrick remarked, “Tears stream down my face as the journey finally forces me to fully embrace the help of others – just as Justin’s diseases has forced him to do in so much of his life.” Wisdom worth applying to our lives – especially if we tend to be self-sufficient.
One to share with the men in your life.
At Home in the World, Tsh Oxenreider (Nelson, 2016)
As featured in the May 2017 Woman Alive book club.
Home – it’s an evocative word. We search for home, long for it, and spend a lifetime making it. The theme pulses through my first book, Finding Myself in Britain – a subject I didn’t expect to emerge so strongly. I guess my need to make a home in a country other than the one I was familiar with pushed me to consider what it meant to have a home. And to ponder who is our ultimate Home.
Which is why I had probably higher hopes for this book than other readers might have. Although Tsh Oxenreider writes on the theme of home, she doesn’t quite hit the sweet spot for me. I also wanted to love Jen Pollock Michel’s new book, Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home (IVP), but its dense exploration of the theme didn’t hold my attention.
Tsh recounts her family’s year of adventure in travelling around the world. Not many families with three children aged four to ten sell their house and strap on backpacks while heading to a dizzying number of countries. They start in China, overwhelmed by sensory input and jetlag, and move steadily West, through countries including Thailand, Australia, Uganda, Croatia and Turkey, where they had lived for some years previously, then take their final stop in the author’s beloved England before returning home to America. That is, whatever home meant as they didn’t have a home to return to.
Although the author ponders what it means to long for home alongside a parallel wanderlust to explore the world, I wished for more of her thoughts on this subject. And I especially wanted to hear more of her spiritual background and her search for faith and our Homemaker; we hear snippets here and there about how she and her husband are between churches, considering a switch to Anglicanism, and how she sees a spiritual director in Thailand, but I felt she could have delved into this this theme more.
Where her narrative shines, however, is the evocative picture she creates of the sights, sounds and smells of the countries they visit. The reader can feel the warmth of the Ugandans who welcome them sacrificially or the drenching spray of the Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. I found especially moving her recounting of going back to the little town in Turkey where she met her fellow-American husband. Hers is a book to read if you’d like to engage in some armchair travels.
Books for the Liturgical Season: Advent and Lent
In Touch with God, Michael Green & Rosemary Green (SPCK, 2017)
Review appeared in the December Woman Alive book club.
Often today we seem to skip over the Old Testament stories in favour of the promises fulfilled in the New Testament. But we are poorer for that approach, not least because we miss out on the prayers of those in the Hebrew Bible. In Touch with God explores 25 of these prayers, including a handful from the story of Jesus’ incarnation. Starting with Abraham and moving through well-known heroes of the faith such as Moses, David, Elijah and King David, it also covers some lesser-known figures such as Hezekiah, Jehoshaphat and Habakkuk. Throughout the authors call us to gaze at our amazing God as we marvel at the scope and scale of his grand love story for his people. I think you’ll find it meaty while being easy to digest, and I warmly recommend it.
Keeping Advent & Christmas, Leigh Hatts (DLT, 2017)
Review appeared in the December Woman Alive book club.
I found this more of a reference book than one designed to increase personal devotion. It shares the cultural and church traditions from Stir Up Sunday before the start of Advent through to the official end of the Christmas season, Candlemas on 2 February. Although I was raised in the Roman Catholic church, I wasn’t familiar with many of the traditions or saints’ days the author highlights, such as the O Clavis David antiphon on 20 December (words from Isaiah and Common Worship about the key of David – how Jesus will free the captives from prison) or St Agnes’ Day on 21 January. It’s a book which gives the history behind the traditional ways to observe the church seasons, which we can incorporate into our observance of Advent and Christmas for a richer experience of the coming of Jesus into our world.
The Way of the Carmelites: A Prayer Journey through Lent, James McCaffrey, OCD (SPCK, 2017)
Lenten Healing: 40 Days to Set You Free from Sin, Ken Kniepmann (Ave Maria Press, 2018)
Two contrasting Lent books that I review in the February 2018 Woman Alive book club issue. My favorite was The Way of the Carmelites. Loved it!
40 Stories of Hope, Catherine Butcher, editor (CWR, 2017)
Full interview in the February 2018 issue of Woman Alive.
A book compiled by Catherine Butcher to allow prisoners, prison chaplains and ex-offenders to tell their stories as part of Prison Hope (prisonhope.org.uk) and HOPE’s year of mission in 2018 (hopetogether.org.uk). She compiled and edited the stories and added Bible readings from Mark’s Gospel, short thoughts, prayers, and inspirational quotations. As she says, “Lent books can be fairly highbrow. 40 Stories of Hope is very different.”
Christian Spirituality: Many Books and Articles Not Listed
In 2017 I had two modules (US: classes) for my MA at Heythrop College, one with the unwieldy title of “Patterns of Spiritual Growth and Personal Transformation” and the other “Spiritual Direction in the Tradition of Ignatius of Loyola,” which I suppose is equally unwieldy but it puts a firm picture in your mind of what I studied, whereas the former does not. Both modules I enjoyed, but I especially engaged with Ignatius and his approach to life with God. I wrote papers on Julian of Norwich, lectio divina, Ignatian gospel contemplation, and the Ignatian prayer of examen. My dissertation focused on participation with God through union with Christ from John Calvin’s point of view.
In the coming months, I’ll be writing about topics related to my MA. There’s so much to unpack and wonder over, and I’m excited to share what I’ve been learning with you.
Thank you for making it to the end of my books-in-2017! My own books follow, which of course I would love you to read in 2018 if you haven’t yet!
Finding Myself in Britain: Our Search for Faith, Home & True Identity, Amy Boucher Pye (Authentic Media, 2015)
My through-the-year look at life in the UK from an American’s point of view, from Harvest to Wimbledon, with themes of faith, identity, and home woven in. Won several awards!
The Living Cross: Exploring God’s Gift of Forgiveness and New Life, Amy Boucher Pye (BRF, 2016)
If you are on the lookout for a book for Lent, my daily guide is a biblical engagement equally from the Old Testament and the New on the theme of forgiveness, complete with spiritual activities and prayers.