Friday, April 29, 2016

From the Dark to the Dawn, by Alicia Willis

I thought about reviewing this book on the blog last summer, but I'm so glad I waited. For one thing, it had to be a secret that I had even read it until Carrie-Grace (also known as Junior B. around here) got it for a gift from a friend. For another, she loved it so much that I thought it would be cool to host her own words about the book on the blog. 

Today I'm handing over the blog to Carrie-Grace. Hope you all enjoy! 

Rome has always fascinated me. Once when I was a tiny thing, I wrote a story about a Roman soldier at Jesus’ crucifixion. I still love that story, and someday in the future I hope to pull it out again. As far as reading books go, I think my fascination with Rome first started in the form of Pearl Maiden by H. Rider. Haggard. It continued this year through two other books, the first one being the lovely Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff.

That was a cool read, yes. But the second book. *inserts drumroll*

From the Dark to the Dawn totally edged out all the previous books on my favorites list. *sends them off to Lady B for comfort* A classic tale combined with copious research and tight plotting make this one of the best books I’ve seen by a modern author.

The Book
In the final battle between Queen Boudicca’s Iceni warriors and the Roman soldiers, the Romans capture a boy and his chieftain father in the aftermath of the battle, forcing them to take the long trek to Rome as slaves. Only Philip is the wrong sort of boy to enslave, and his poor Roman captors would have done well to leave him alone. In his anger at their cruelty, Philip vows that his slavery will not last forever and that one day he will destroy Rome’s tyranny. When he and his father arrive in Rome, a Roman lord, Marcus, decides to buy Philip as his personal attendant. The tension between the two quickly escalates as Marcus determines to break Philip, and Philip determines that he won’t be broken. But when Philip beats up Thallus, the brother of Marcus’s fiancĂ©e, his master surprises him by his leniency. Thallus retaliates by challenging Marcus to pit Philip against one of his Goth slaves in a wrestling match. Philip’s indulgence from Marcus depends only on his ability to win, and soon he rises quickly in the favor of his master and of his master’s friends.

But his prosperity is not to last. His enemy, Thallus, dares Marcus that his slave will not kneel before him, and immediately Marcus commands Philip to do so. When Philip refuses, Marcus administers a harsh whipping with his own hands. Determined now more than ever to free himself, Philip runs away, stealing his master’s purse and cape as he leaves. But he cannot allude Marcus forever, and in his desperation, he seeks refuge with a Jewish bread maker—a follower of the Christ God. At first Philip scoffs at the man’s beliefs, but when Marcus finds him and sentences him to a life of disgrace, he visits the Jew again and surrenders to his God.

His life of Christianity will not be easy. Even as he seeks to witness to his master, Marcus increasingly hardens himself against the message of the Gospel. And he is determined to crush Philip’s newfound faith no matter what it takes.

Will the darkness in Rome ever give way to light?

My Thoughts
First of all, the amount of research behind this book was incredible. All the little details from the togas to the culinas *pins Gold Star on you if you recognize those* pull the reader into the setting and make the book come alive. These must have taken years to find, because Alicia effortlessly weaves the setting into the plot, making it a part of the story. You can tell how much she loves her time period and her characters. Everything is well thought out, and the plotting is very tight.

And then her character arcs. *happiness* My personal favorite was Marcus’s. I have an unfortunate weakness for villains, and his story arc satisfied me completely. My favorite part was [Scene Near the Middle of the Book]. Mmm, yes. You must read that bit. I think Alicia did well in not portraying Marcus simply as a heartless villain—she made him sympathetic to the reader, especially in his family relationships.

One of the things I loved about Philip was his passion for Christ after his conversion. He served the Lord tirelessly in sharing the gospel and in serving in the Roman church. His courage in the face of persecution always amazes me every time I read it. Even his weaknesses before his conversion became his greatest strengths after his conversion.

Beric was a wonderful father. A gentle man, yet strong in his leadership. He helped Philip in his transition from a chieftain’s son to a slave and supported and rebuked him whenever necessary. And Daniel was nice too, along with Cleotas and Moriah. *hugs all the charries*

But Thallus. A villain in the truest sense of the word. Do not like him, peoples. He is not at all worth your time. *shudders and hands you dark chocolate instead*

One of my favorite parts about these characters is how they were true to life. After their conversions, they didn’t act perfectly—they still struggled with purity and courage for Christ under Roman persecution. Sometimes they’d misunderstand each other or lose their tempers during stressful moments. They provided an accurate portrayal of the sanctification process which I loved.

In conclusion, peoples, three profound, thought-out words. Ready?

Read This Book.

That’s it.

And I hope you’re blessed by the reading of it. ^_^

Carrie-Grace McConkey is a homeschooled teen living in Michigan. Memorizing Scripture is one of her passions, and she also enjoys inductive Bible study, using many of the tools she's learned from participating in the National Bible Bee. Her interests include sketching, writing, scrapbooking, and Cinderella.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Book Community Resource List
Hello, book-loving friends!
If you're anything like me, the world of internet reading can be wonderful and scary at the same time. Wonderful because you're sure to find someone who likes reading books. Scary because it takes a while to jump in and get to know people. It's a big world out there, and sometimes those of us who are used to it forget that there are newcomers in the corner wondering exactly how this thing works. Maybe you're a bookworm who would love some good community, but your Twitter is a never-ending stream of advertisements. Maybe you've been part of the book community for a long time, and you're looking for a way to refresh and revitalize your reading experience.

This post is a a run-down of my favorite platforms in the online book community, and who you might enjoy following. At the end, there's opportunity for you to chime in too, so stick around! I hope this post inspires you with ways you can incorporate your love of books on the internet, as well as giving you a few new online friends to follow who share your love of all things reading.

Blogger is one of my favorite ways to talk about books. Blog reviews have gifs, funny asides, deep thoughts, content warnings, and sometimes a long essay of careful thought on the book it's currently featuring. Book reviews help me think--sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing, but always being benefited. It's wonderful to have my mind expanded by seeing a book through someone else's eyes.

Some fantastic reading-related blogs are:

Vintage Novels
Book Geeks Anonymous
Curious Wren

Twitter is extremely limited as to word count, but I've still found an amazing amount of readers who are active on it. You can take selfies with books you're reading. You can tweet your blog reviews and tag the book's author. (You might even get them to look at it! I have.) You can post emotional feels as you read along ("ACK. I JUST COLLAPSED IN A PUDDLE OF TEARS." Ahem.) And you can find plenty of helpful suggestions when you're wondering which book to read next.

Some of my favorite Twitter accounts are:

Instagram offers a place for you to capture your reading environment with a camera. If you love photography and books, this is the place for you. Unfortunately, you have to have a smartphone, tablet, or iPod to post pictures, but you can still create an account to like and comment with a regular PC computer. I'm new to Instagram, so I'm still navigating the world of hashtags and photos, but I love seeing what other people have done. Some cool Instagram bookworms are:

Nadine Brandes
Zac Tyson 
H.M. (Hannah)

I don't even have to read the books to appreciate the cover eye candy.

Goodreads is by far my favorite reading platform. Every morning I get email updates of the books my friends have shelved and reviewed. I can go on Goodreads to save books I want to read someday. I can label shelves with "didn't finish" or "summer reading list" and break up the stacks of books by category. I can also update statuses of books I'm currently reading and record my thoughts and impressions for friends to see as I go along. I'm constantly inspired by what friends are reading, and refer to reviews on Goodreads when I'm checking out new books. I like them better than Amazon in that respect. I've even found favorite books (Fierce Convictions for example) just through Goodreads friends. Goodreads is fairly safe--you'll have advertisements, but not too many, and it's not run by algorithms so you get to see everything your friends post. I had an account for a while and never used it. Now I use it almost daily.

Some of reviewers on Goodreads who I would highly recommend are:
Christina Baehr
Joy C 
Emily H
K.M. Weiland

Pro Tip: For all of these platforms, the best way to get to know people is to pick a friend you particularly appreciate and scroll through a list of people they enjoy following. That's the best way I've found for meeting new people and trying new things as safely as possible.

I've given an overview with some suggestions on how you can use these websites to enjoy the books you're reading with other people. But I would love to see this become a hub of suggestions: platforms you enjoy (anyone have suggestions on Facebook?) people you enjoy following, and your own social media accounts (please keep it primarily book related) so people reading the comments can find more new friends. Join us, and let's expand the book loving community!

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Inheritance, by Michael Phillips

When I was a little girl, I liked sitting in front of my mom's bookshelves looking at the books I would read when I grew up. Most of them were Montgomery novels, but on the very end was a series that I eyed with some distrust. It must be one my mom didn't approve of anymore, I reasoned in my childish mind, because it had a picture of a man and a woman on the front cover.

Why I thought that I'll never know, but I'm glad little me grew up into a more sensible me, because those books, The Stonewycke Legacy series, turned into my favorite modern historical novels to date. I've had a soft spot for Michael Phillips' works ever since.

Michael Phillips edited George MacDonald novels for modern readers and has a pretty spectacular array of his own novels to his credit. I've read a lot of his MacDonald works and a few of his other ones. I hadn't seen anything from him for a while, though, so when I stumbled across The Inheritance on Goodreads, I welcomed it as an old friend.

I was curious to give it a try. Phillips and I have been parting ways in different years, and I wanted to see if The Inheritance would prove to have the same contention points.

The Book [From Goodreads]
The death of the clan patriarch has thrown the tiny Shetland Islands community of Whale's Reef into turmoil. Everyone assumed MacGregor Tulloch's heir to be his grand-nephew David, a local favorite, but when it is discovered that MacGregor left no will, David's grasping cousin Hardy submits his own claim to the inheritance, an estate that controls most of the island's land. And while Hardy doesn't enjoy much popular support, he has the backing of a shadowy group of North Sea oil investors. The courts have frozen the estate's assets while the competing claims are investigated, leaving many of the residents in financial limbo. The future of the island--and its traditional way of life--hangs in the balance.

Loni Ford is enjoying her rising career in a large investment firm in Washington, DC. Yet in spite of her outward success, she is privately plagued by questions of identity. Orphaned as a young child, she was raised by her paternal grandparents, and while she loves them dearly, she feels completely detached from her roots. That is until a mysterious letter arrives from a Scottish solicitor. . . .

Past and present collide in master storyteller Phillips's dramatic new saga of loss and discovery, of grasping and grace, and of the dreams of men and women everywhere.

My Thoughts
Most book covers give a peek into the book, leaving you at a cliffhanger that the characters will spend the rest of the book grappling with. When I read The Inheritance back cover copy, I thought it did the same thing. I found when I read the book that instead of being a teaser, it was pretty much a summary of the entire plot. That was a problem. For the majority of the book, the characters spend a lot of time thinking. Thinking about backstories, personal thoughts, and where they want to go in life. The amount of narrative as opposed to dialogue is strongly out of whack. What little dialogue there is is mostly trivial interaction with characters that may or may not have anything to do with the main conflict. It read like story notes, in a way, instead of an actual story, and kept the pace of real life's trivial interactions with frightening accuracy. I think Phillips stretched out a plot that should have been the first act into all three acts.

It's easy to tell that Phillips loves his setting. The Shetlands Islands are beautiful, and he takes great care detailing the scenery, the shops, a couple of supporting settings in Aberdeen, and the overall culture of laird and chief. It's also easy to tell that the themes of belonging and inheritance are ones he's thought a lot about. Setting and theme are often underdeveloped, so I love that aspect of his work. However, I think it would be ten times more powerful if he made the plot and characters equally vivid. The villain is a cookie cutter bad guy. I didn't enjoy the chapters with him and hope that changes in future installments. Loni and David spend so much time thinking and telling us all their feelings, doubts, and childhood scars, that I find it hard to care, because I rarely see them in meaningful present action beyond sitting in front of the fire and sitting on planes. In real life those actions can be meaningful; in fiction, we need a little more dramatic pace. While the side characters are often colorful, Phillips again falls into the trap of including way too much backstory. If anything, it gave me an example of how the more backstory you tell, the more your story weakens. Plot and characters felt like a vehicle for the things that really mattered to him, like it shouldn't have been a fiction book at all, but a travel guide with personal religious reflections attached.

Michael Phillips and I parted ways in theology a while ago. While this book doesn't discuss it as openly as some of his others, there are tremors of what I'm sure will come in the series. As far as I can tell, Phillips believes in the possibility of repentance after death. I don't. Or at least, he likes to bring attention to that idea based on his studies of Lewis and MacDonald. It's a strong agenda in his fiction, one which, after studying Revelation this year, I find saddening. I think Phillips' views on the afterlife are going to crop up in David's view of the church and God's character, and probably influence Loni's views as well.

In spite of my heavy criticisms of this book, I truly enjoyed bringing it to breakfast every day. The chapters were a nice, short length, which made it an easy book to get through, and while I disagreed with a majority of the writing choices, I thought a lot about the story and enjoyed wrestling through questions of writing style.

I'm still going to stick with the Stonewycke Legacy series, though. 

I received a free copy of The Inheritance by Michael Phillips from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.   

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Why Reading Boundaries Are a Good Thing

I've been thinking about boundaries for a couple of weeks. Facing some that might be tested, some I honestly don't really want to hold. Because let's face it, a boundary is just fine until something we want is on the other side.

I don't like that idea. I like collecting the people and books and objects I love around me and holding them tight. I don't like staring over a fence at something I love on forbidden ground, wrestling with why it would really hurt anything to climb over and get it.

Have you ever been there? In that scary middle place between faithfulness and compromise? It's not a fun place to be.

Today's article I'm writing to myself, to remind myself of some things. Some of that soul preaching I have to go through now and then, to keep myself in line. I hope it blesses you, too.

Why We Should Have Reading Boundaries

1. God Set Them First.
Ultimately we're not the ones who set boundaries at all. We choose to stay within God's boundaries or go outside them. That's the way free will works. His boundaries are set within the ten commandments and the great command to love God and love our neighbor. But knowing God's boundaries doesn't stop with knowing a couple of verses. The best way we can know his boundaries is to know the Word of God inside out. The less we know what God says, the easier it is to twist right and wrong to our own desires and wisdom. To read human books correctly, we must read God's Book first of all. There are books outside that boundary zone: books that fill our minds with sin, warp us to embracing evil mindsets, set lustful passions on fire, or simply waste our time. Books have great power to shape our lives and minds. We need to know God's boundaries so we can make sure we're following them in our entertainment choices.

2. They Help Us Stand Firm in Temptation.
Our life is a constant war between flesh and spirit. It doesn't matter if we're tired, on vacation, or raised in the most fortunate of conservative homes. The flesh is always there, ready to seize a foothold. It comes in the guise of things we love. I've even had it come in the guise of characters I adore and have to say goodbye to. Sometimes it's a temptation to act a certain way, but often enough it's a temptation to adopt a faulty mindset.
If we go out without weapons or mental preparation into a war, we're going to get taken out pretty quickly. But knowing our boundaries from God's Word before we are tested help us to stand firm before that fun series comes up, or the gay relationship, or the rebellious main character. If we don't set boundaries, we'll be trying to figure them out right when the shiny temptation is dangling in front of us. That's never a good time to figure out right and wrong.

3. They Train Our Minds to Discern Right From Wrong.
Boundaries send signals to our mind. "This is right. This is wrong. This pleases God. This doesn't please God." The mind is the center of action, and when we constantly send it subtle reminders of truth, we're much more likely to act on the principle we're grounded in. Just as a small child is given boundaries by its parents to keep it from harming itself, so we should look at our vulnerabilities and blind spots and do the same. Boundaries train us to stay within the safe and good way. There are some books with a few things I disagree with that I choose to stay away from simply because I want my mind to remember "I don't agree with this." Other people read them fine, but I want that sharpened memory of the struggle with sin it leads to in my own heart.

4. They Keep Us From Getting Complacent With Sin.
A constant mindset of no boundaries leads us to a perspective of tolerance and self-indulgence. The Christian life requires crucifying the flesh and dying to self. If we refuse to place ourselves in the way for crucifixion of flesh to happen, then we will grow more and more occupied with making the flesh comfortable. It starts in little ways, turns into a mindset, and then slips into bigger things. If we never say no to one book, pretty soon we'll wonder why we're saying no to any book. The things we think we would never agree with are always possible for us to fall into, and they start with just a little push here and a little push there beyond what we know is right.

How We Should Hold Boundaries

1. With Graciousness for Other Convictions.
That being said, I have seen (and set) boundaries that leave those who do not keep them judged and condemned. If the Word of God judges a book as wrong for everyone to read, then I should uphold that judgment when I talk to others. If my preference or personal weakness judges a book as wrong, then that's for me and not for everyone. Boundaries should be held with firm confidence, but gracious humility. Just because I use whiteout doesn't mean everyone has to. Just because I'm comfortable with romance doesn't mean it would be beneficial for everyone.

2. Changing Them With Increased Understanding.
We should also understand, especially as young readers (twenties is relatively young) that boundaries change with age, and that's fine. Something I allow now might not be something I can allow later. On the other hand, something that would have been damaging to me younger might be perfectly acceptable now that I'm old enough to handle it. While I was young, my parents wouldn't have sat me down in front of The Scarlet Pimpernel to navigate the guillotine, Armand's girlfriend (yuck) and Sir Percy's language. Now that I'm older, they give it to me to preview for the family, so I can help everyone else navigate it. What would have crushed me younger I'm able to handle now. Set your fence with God's boundaries. Anything within your own particular struggles and weaknesses should always be considered adjustable.

Here's what I repeat over and over to myself when I'm tempted to go beyond wise boundaries: Jesus is better than any temporary satisfaction. Jesus is more satisfying than this thing I want. Jesus gets the worship over my own flesh.

No book, no character you love, no plot line that sounds fun, no scenes that satisfy those carnal lusts, no peer pressure for a popular series, is worth climbing over that fence for. All you'll get is dirty and lost and have to come crying back home.

Sometimes your feelings will be yearning to climb over that fence. But when you preach to your soul the truth, and walk by the truth, and believe in the truth--then your feelings will come in line with the truth.

And that's the whole truth, as I've learned it so far.

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Reading Habits Tag

It's Spring. Our beloved chipmunk has come out of hibernation and is sitting on our back steps again. I went outside without a jacket yesterday to get a picture of a book that came in the mail. Instagram+books gets me outside. Or gardening. I love tending gardens for the lady I work for.

Today I'm helping out at a writer's conference. Let's relax and talk about book reading habits, shall we? I have a deep article in the works, but I felt like something lighter after a busy week.

Credit for questions: (A blog I'm not familiar with, but the questions looked cool, so I decided to borrow them.)

1. Do you have a certain place at home for reading?
We have a cozy blue recliner in the corner of our living room. I do most of my writing, thinking, reading, and whatnot in that. Otherwise I lay horizontal on my bed and turn the pages. This winter I got a heated mattress pad, which makes it very nice and luxurious.

2. Bookmark or random piece of paper?
Bookmarks! I did a post on my collection here. I love matching the themes of my bookmarks to the book I'm reading, or some surrounding event that I've experienced while I'm reading it.

3. Can you just stop reading or do you have to stop after a chapter/ a certain amount of pages?
It's frightening how fast I can stop. I'll stop at random places: at the end of a chapter, at the end of a scene, sometimes (if I've lost interest) in the middle of a sentence. It could be in the middle of an exciting scene, and I'll still stop mid-sentence just because my attention span is gone. 'Tis sad, but there it is.

4. Do you eat or drink while reading?
Nooo, I do not. Really big on that. Occasionally I'll keep a glass of water by me, and if it's getting near mealtime and I can't wait any longer, I'll scrounge around for crackers. I have brought a book to breakfast lately, and I enjoy that a lot. Sometimes I'll brew a cup of tea, but I eye it with wary reserve when reading a book. In general our family eats meals together (thus no book) and I don't eat unless I'm hungry (thus no snacks). So the whole chocolate and book thing never worked for me.

5. Multitasking: Music or TV while reading?
Believe me, I have tried. It doesn't work. I can have the TV going if I'm not interested in it, but music is way too distracting. Also, the idea of texting and reading, while making my multitasking heart happy, is impossible. I can't jump back and forth that rapidly.

6. One book at a time or several at once?
The joys of several are so nice, I never stick to one. I have one primary book, but several side ones I pick up leisurely. Generally a nonfiction, a couple of fiction, and sometimes a book on the computer as well. It's so fun to start new books and finish several in a row, so I like having a stack of them.

7. Reading at home or everywhere? 
Everywhere. At home. In the car. At people's houses (when polite). I've read on a plane. I've read at the beach (reading at the beach is a real treat). I've read in the middle of the night in our recliner while I'm sick. In short, there is no time or place that would be impossible for me to read in. (Well, probably something, but I can't think of anything.) 

8. Reading out loud or silently in your head?
I enjoy both. I love reading out loud to people, and always enjoy reading aloud when it's my turn in the family rotation. I once recorded all of Laddie by Gene Stratton Porter onto the computer, because I loved reading so much. But when it's a book I'm reading to myself, then of course, just in my head.

9. Do you read ahead or even skip pages?
Yesss. All the time. It is my one weakness. I used to get books from the library, skim through the chapter titles, and read the most interesting ones before reading the rest of the book. Sometimes I'll skip ahead a bit on my Kindle app. Most times skipping ahead is a guilty pleasure and I feel awful for having done it, but if a book is so intense it's too much for me to handle, I let myself look ahead to relieve the pressure. That's better than suffering for a fictional story.

10. Breaking the spine or keeping it like new?
I never even thought about that. There are some books where I curl the spine, but for the majority I hold them like a normal book, so they stay pretty newish.

11. Do you write in your books?
Rarely. Generally only if it's a book I disagree strongly with, and need to note my thoughts, or a book I'm beta reading for someone and thus need to keep track of likes/dislikes for feedback. Otherwise I prefer to leave it unmarked and write up a general review of what impressions I can remember when I'm done.

What are your reading habits? Do you like to read ahead in books too? :) 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Second Impressions of Return of the King

Last year I wrote an article, 11 Things I Didn't Remember About the Two Towers. It's fascinating to read through a book for a second time and glean more than you did from the first reading. It's also fascinating, since I see the LOTR movies more than I read the books, to compare the differences and discover portions that the scriptwriters didn't fit in.

The Return of the King this February was no less a delight. After the somewhat dark experience of reading The Two Towers, I was surprised by how bright and shining and easy it was to whip through ROTK. This time I also read through the appendices to get an expanded glimpse into Tolkien's world. I read all of them. A-F. Because if you want to do something, you might as well do it big.

Here are some things I learned from Return of the King. If you haven't read Tolkien, this article will probably be confusing, so I direct you to the library to pick up a copy for yourself.

Ghan Buri Ghan
Did not remember he even existed. Had no clue, and when he showed up I was like O.o. He's a fierce little fellow in charge of a secretive people who helps King Theoden's troops find a safe route on their way to rescuing Rohan. I loved the drums, but I'm still not sure that Ghan Buri Ghan really fits into Tolkien's world.

Prince Imrahil
I didn't remember him, either. He's sort of in charge of Gondor in the midst of all the traumatic happenings (playing it safe and avoiding spoilers here). He seems like the nicest, bravest chap ever, and I was pleased to make his acquaintance.

Counsel before the last battle. 
I could almost weep with the parts filmmakers cut from this section. I'm not a purist and I love the films, but there are a couple of parts I mourn the loss of. Gandalf, Aragorn, Imrahil, etc. are all gathered to discuss "What shall we do about Sauron." It's an incredible portion of counsel and comfort before the climax of the book. That our responsibility is to battle the evil of our generation. Their evil will be for them to battle, and is not ours to control--but we must remain faithful and engaged in the fray for the sake of bettering their world. Inspiring words.

Aragorn's white cloak. 
It's a tiny detail, but it struck me every time it was mentioned. A white cloak, clasped with a great gem of green. Can you imagine how striking that outfit must have been? Also, the Field of Cormallen sounded like a haven for the soul. I didn't remember they spent a whole month there. It's a paradise in Middle Earth, and I dearly wish I could go there for vacation.

Please be warned that this next one is a major spoiler, and if you haven't read the book, you should not, SHOULD NOT read it. 

Frodo seeing his destination. 
As I approached the last chapter of ROTK, it was brutally exhausting to anticipate. It brings you to tears anyway, and after some hard goodbyes, I wasn't looking forward to more trauma at the hands of a fictional story. But one section of it I found extremely comforting. First of all, that Gandalf sent for Merry and Pippin to travel home with Samwise, and second, that we see a glimpse, albeit brief, of Frodo arriving at his destination. After watching the movie I thought we just saw him sailing off into the sunset. But the white shores and far green country made me feel in a way that I didn't have to say goodbye. And that was beautiful consolation.

End of major spoiler.

And now for my favorite parts of the Appendices:

Appendix A: Southern Line/Kin Strife and Castamir the Usurper 
When you're reading long lists of names (similar to 1st Chronicles) keep going. Tolkien tucks in fascinating little references to history amongst the names. It reminded me of Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories when he refers to past cases. In Tolkien's case, one wants to know: "what was the kin strife?" "what happened during the ten years of Castamir the Usurper?"--and the good thing his, he proceeds to tell you, so you're not left with maddening curiosity.

Appendix A: The History of the Dwarves 
A couple of years ago I had the great privilege of a personal history tutorial in Tolkien's dwarves from a friend. It was an epic season of learning and left me incredibly moved and interested in their culture. They have such a savage, broken kind of beauty, an iron strength, and a history just as glorious as elves and men. In Appendix A, I was able to revisit the dwarves' struggle of trying to win back their homeland. I highly recommend reading this portion, if nothing else. It makes me wish Tolkien had written an entire lengthy book about the dwarves, similar to the Silmarillion for the elves.

Appendix C: The Genealogy of Samwise 
The Hobbit genealogies are adorable with their funny names (Chica Chubb, anyone?). In each different chart, Tolkien goes through the lines of the Baggins, Tooks, Brandybucks, and Samwise. The line of Samwise had such sweet names and nicknames, coupled with so many good memories, that I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Appendices D-F left me scratching my head in despair and concern. Tolkien goes to great length explaining how calendar disputes among men and elves were resolved. I'm sorry, I love Tolkien, but calendar disputes in a fictional world are going further than I can follow. Also, Appendix E is only for the most die-hard fan, and your life can be complete without reading it. It's about diphthongs and spellings and stress marks. Studying Greek last year helped, but it was pretty dry wading.

There you have it! I now have two readings of the Tolkien trilogy under my belt. Next in the Tolkien lineup is finishing the Book of Lost Tales Part 2, so keep your eye out for that this year. :)

Did you forget any of these things in ROTK? What are your favorite parts of this book?

Friday, April 8, 2016

Miracles, by Eric Metaxas

Probably a lot of people who read this blog believe in the biblical miracles, though I'm sure not all my readers do.

But what about modern day miracles? Still exist? Thing of the past, only for Bible times? And do some people still have miracle gifts from the Holy Spirit, or is the idea that miracle gifts ended with the apostles correct?

These questions have been floating around in my mind for years. I knew what I thought, but I wanted a more objective view of what I thought, so when I saw Eric Metaxas' new title Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life last year, I was excited.

I just finished it this week. Unfortunately, it's the first Metaxas book that I've been ideologically disappointed with.

The Book [from Goodreads]
What are miracles, and why do so many people believe in them? What do they tell us about ourselves? And what do we do with experiences that we cannot explain?

In Miracles, Eric Metaxas offers compelling -- sometimes electrifying -- evidence that there’s something real to be reckoned with, whatever one has thought of the topic before. Miracles is also a timely, thoughtful, and civil answer to the books of the "New Atheists" -- Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris -- who have passionately asserted not just the impossibility of miracles and the supernatural, but the outright harmfulness of belief in them.

Metaxas -- whom ABC News has called a "witty ambassador for faith" -- provides the measured and wide-ranging treatment the subject deserves, from serious discussion of the compatibility between faith and science to astonishing but well-documented stories of actual miracles from people he knows.

A more current, anecdotal, and personal version of C. S. Lewis’s 1947 book on the subject, Miracles is a powerfully winsome challenge that miracles are not only possible but are far more widespread than most of us ever might have imagined.

My Thoughts 
Last year tarnished a bit of Eric Metaxas' flawless position in my mind. 7 Women, while excellent, seemed rushed, under-researched, and distracted in sections, almost as if he let a research assistant do the bulk of the work while he focused on other things. When I read Miracles, I understood why. Miracles was his passion point, and this book is lovingly and thoughtfully crafted. 7 Women may have suffered because of that, though with book contracts it's hard to say if he was working on them at the same time.

Miracles are an important subject in the modern world, and I was excited to learn what he thought. However, as I got in, warning bells started going off in my mind. Metaxas' book is divided into two halves: one the discussion and proof of miracles in science and in the Bible. The other, a collection of modern-day miracles he's learned about from people he knows.

In the first half of the book, Metaxas starts with scientific miracles to get people to question their "no miracles, only science" slant and then brings the Bible miracles into play after he's chipped away at closed minds. Unfortunately, in reconciling science with the miraculous, he uses the main premise that if God was powerful enough to overcome the challenges of a big bang to create the earth, he's more than able to bring about Jesus' resurrection and feeding the five thousand.  It took a while for Metaxas to actually come out and state his belief in evolution clearly (maybe because he believed it and took it as a given) but I kept wondering if evolution was a theory or a fact to him. Later in the book, he makes it pretty clear that he considers it a fact.

Because evolution is a significant idea in his proof that God can do miracles, the theory section of the book is pretty disappointing. Needless to say, I'm of a young earth mindset, and while I certainly believe you can know God and think old earth, that's not the correct way to interpret the creation account in Genesis. Because Metaxas' foundation is skewed, the rest of the book doesn't have solid ground to stand on, and it was harder to take the modern day miracles quite as seriously when the scientific proof was so flawed.

All the evolution aside, he makes some excellent and encouraging points on God's willingness to reach out and communicate with us, the importance of not believing a miracle is a result of our faith, and most of all, an emphasis on how God cares for even the smallest details of our lives. Also, his sections on the Bible miracles and the resurrection were for the most part spot on.

Another strength Metaxas brings to the book is his ability to spark conversation with people of different beliefs. Miracles is a book written straight to nonbelievers, without all the Christianese. It's respectful, rational, and if it had a better creation theory, would be a really beautiful ambassador for the sensibleness of the Christian faith.

So much for the first half of the book. Now for the second--the personal miracle stories.

At this point in my life, I don't fall completely into one camp on miracles. That's subject to change since I'm still quite young and need to research things, but for the present I believe for fact that God did miracles in Bible times and still does miracles today in extraordinary ways. I also believe that God gave certain people the ability to minister miracles in Bible times. Beyond that point, I need to do some more research and wrestling through Scripture. But that's the premise from which I approached Metaxas' miracle stories at the date of this reading.

While I can't prove the veracity of the stories, most of them are fairly believable and quite conservative--dreams that later had important meanings, seeing angels (quite powerful beings), being saved from death, etc. It was God working individually according to the need in these people's lives, sometimes using unexplainable phenomena, sometimes using people to accomplish his purposes. Metaxas divides this part into different miracle subjects: conversion (which I appreciated him pointing out, is itself a miracle) physical healing, inner healing, angelic miracles, and even a heaven visitation. Even for the healing miracles, though, it seemed to me that healing took place not because a specific person touched the ill person, but because a person known for having a vibrant prayer life touched the sick person and prayed. The only miracle I'm not accepting on face value is the man who was healed and prophesied over by Benny Hinn. I know God can use any means he chooses to accomplish his purposes, but that one I'll admit had me scratching my head, along with the follow up story. But all in all, they're fascinating stories to read through and consider.

In conclusion, while I highly respect Metaxas' thoughtfulness and logic, I strongly disagree with the foundation on which he bases his premise. This leaves me not much farther than I was before I started. I might try C.S. Lewis's Miracles sometime to see if it's any more informative.

Do you believe in miracles? What's your favorite Metaxas book?

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Spring TBR Stack

Hey Folkies! I have an exciting review coming up this Friday, but today I thought I'd make a list and show my Spring TBR pile. Might not finish all of them, but the dreaming is half the fun, after all, and I'm very excited to dig into these. :) 

Ben Hur, by Lew Wallace 
I am starting it this week. I AM STARTING IT THIS WEEK. I'm so excited. Even if it's got the worst case of backstory info-dump ever in the first 100 pages. 

100 pages of backstory on side characters. Now that's a dedicated author for you. 

When We Were Very Young, by A.A. Milne 
I was downright enchanted by my first foray into A.A. Milne's poetry and how it brought back so many perspectives I had in my childhood. I intend to read the second one and couple it with Now We Are Six in a blog review. If you haven't read A.A. Milne's poetry, it truly is worth your attention, not to mention enjoyable. 

The Inheritance, by Michael Phillips 
The theology in Michael Phillips more recent books hasn't been up to par, but I decided to get this one and give it an honest shot, simply because I enjoyed his earlier books a lot. If this one has the same deep flaws, I may not finish the series, but we shall see. 

What is the Gospel? by Greg Gilbert 
A nifty little book on Gospel gifted to our family by my brother. There are also two other books in the series, but I'd like to start with this one because it intrigues me the most. (Just my luck, I'm probably reading them out of order.) 

Freckles, by Gene Stratton-Porter 
I haven't read Freckles in--three years maybe? At least two. This simply inexcusable for being one of my favorite books. Springtime seems like the perfect time to curl up with his adventures. 

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas  
One of my Big Books on the list for this year. I'd like to start soon, because I believe Bonhoeffer died in May, and it would be nice to coincide the reading of this book with the anniversary of his death. Plus, more Metaxas writing, which is always a treat. 

The Sparrow Stories, by Jason McIntyre
Jason contacted me and asked me to take a look at these and review them. I'm already partway through and enjoying his writing style, so I'd like to finish these up and talk about them on the blog! 

Visual Theology: Seeing and Understanding the Truth About God, by Tim Challies and Josh Byers
I am madly excited about this book--a new book illustrating the truths of God's Word in graphics and visuals and charts. It will be an amazing book to sit down with and look over. It's coming in the mail, and as soon as it arrives, I will pounce on it. 

I own all the stories in this stack, but I've only read three of them: I think that makes for a nice, balanced variety coming up this Spring! I also have a couple of beta reading projects coming up, and a Secret Book to read, so that finishes the stack off nicely. 

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of them? What do you want to read this Spring? 

Friday, April 1, 2016

5 Reasons Why I Love J.R.R. Tolkien

A while back I did a post on Why I Love Charles Dickens. While reading Return of the King (interestingly, concurrently with studying Revelation) I've been in another geeky Tolkien phase. Try drawing similarities between the Millenium and the land of the Valar, and it's really cool.

But not everyone feels comfortable with Tolkien. For some he's weird...unbiblical...magical...and I very much respect and understand.  You might wonder why I approve of reading him. While this topic has been handled so much better than I'm about to do here, I wanted to share some simple and easy-to-grasp reasons today on why I think he's an author worth reading. So if you're wary of Tolkien, or just love him too, this article is for you.

He draws inspiration from old masters. 
This sounds kind of weird, and it's not the best way to word it, but the real point is this: Tolkien didn't write primarily based off inspiration from his contemporaries. I think that's a good thing. Vintage literature is a bit like vintage wine: it's been tested, improved, and proven over time. (Or so I hear.) And while you can follow your contemporaries and should keep in touch with them, they, like you, are stuck in the 2000s mindset and the 2000s trends. If you look at famous musicians or artists, they often looked to an older musician or artist for the "master standard"--not someone who's figuring it out just like them. Some people gather inspiration from classic authors, but there's even more ancient inspiration than that. Tolkien gathered inspiration from old, old myths and legends and languages and many other things. These legends are not "safe literature". They are big, bold things that must be grappled with and mulled over. They are the fifty pound plates instead of the ten pound dumbbells. They bring his writing to a richer style of character and plot, and also, which brings me to my next point, his wording itself.

His writing style is rich.
Tolkien is a good writer. And not just a good writer. He's a fine writer, with every sense of the word fineness that we've lost in modern word usage. He grasps that higher quality of putting words together and striking the right emotion. I read a lot of excellent writing, but fine writing is a step above--something greater, like Sutcliff and A.A. Milne, who were able to choose words in the best way to evoke the right imagery. If you want your palate to appreciate good quality cuisine, you eat fine food, not processed junk. The same is true with words--if you want your mental palate tuned to a high-quality pitch, read fine writing. Tolkien is one of these wonderful authors who can accomplish that for you.

He's actually pretty straightforward.
It's easy to look at Tolkien and get overwhelmed by the size and scope of his books. In spite of his legendary style, I was actually pretty shocked in reading Return of the King a second time to find how bluntly and simply he writes. True, he has a lot of long names, but his storytelling style is to stick with the facts. He doesn't string it out or linger in nostalgia. He simply gets 'er done and moves on to the next thing. There's deep nostalgia and pain and glory in the story itself, but not because he's forcing it in his prose. It's at the heart of the story, and it can't help but come out. He has a beautiful economy of words.

He'll give you an appetite for real history.
Real history is not the stuff of historical romances. They include real history, but they're not real history, and you need to be able to read history. It's a skill and an acquired taste. While several of Tolkien's books are straight story (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Children of Hurin) as you delve into more of his works, they read a lot like a historical text of Middle Earth. The appendices at the back of Return of the King contain genealogies and brief historical accounts of people groups. The Silmarillion reads like a good history book. So do Lost Tales. I think honestly, Tolkien's history which many people read for the sake of the characters can pique your interest in moving on to the real stuff. As you go on, you can delve into the real historical texts and events which inspired him and become interested in them for their own sake. We need to get our history not just from historical fiction, but from big, fat biographies and nonfiction. So much of it is engagingly and beautifully written, and Tolkien can help to open up that world.

He makes you appreciate the Bible more.
I was reading the defeat of Satan in our Revelation Bible study last week, and chills ran down my spine. I've read that lots of times before--but somehow reading it after having been on a long dose of Tolkien's writing made it come that much more alive. Here's the thing: Tolkien isn't greater or more impressive than the Bible. However, pulling apart legends like Tolkien and Finn Mac Cool helped me see a much more epic level of the Bible than I had found on my own. You see reflections from God's story in these stories. You think about how Morgoth and Sauron hold such an evil grip over Middle Earth, and they're breaking hearts and killing, and someday Morgoth is going to get conquered. Then you think wait a minute, there's a real force of evil bringing real heartbreak on millions of people for thousands of years, and one day it's going to culminate in this epic battle and Christ will conquer it for good. Studying Tolkien and saying "This is so cool" and then flipping over to the Bible and seeing "Wait, this cool is real, and it's even more serious and epic and possible than Tolkien and Finn Mac Cool" leaves you stunned at the majesty of God. Tolkien helps me get the Bible out of my white girl box into the grand scale of true legend, and that's a good thing. Because there's a lot of big, bold, divine events in the Bible that we shouldn't try to put in a box we feel safe with.

Again, I respect and highly encourage readers to stay faithful to individual conscience on reading Tolkien. There are many good authors to be enjoyed, and he doesn't have to be one of them. But these are some reasons that have given me food for thought and opened up just a tiny bit of Tolkien's fantastic novels in a new way.

What you think? Do you like Tolkien? Disagree with him? I'd love to discuss with you in the comments.

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