Monday, 19 February 2018

Sofa Spotlight - A Call to Spiritual Reformation, D A Carson

This was a book that I never wanted to read because the cover was so naff and I didn’t understand the title. I know that you shouldn’t judge a book by a cover, but we all do it. Particularly now when there are so many good covers out there for books. So there really is no excuse for bad covers. But once I looked into it and worked out what it was about I discovered that it was a book well worth reading.

First of all it is about prayer. Which was on the cover – I just didn’t look hard enough to see it when I glanced at it, so me missing out on this book for so long was my own fault. Carson goes through some of Paul’s prayers in his letters to see what how Paul prayed and the kind of things that he prayed for and about. Each chapter is about a different one of the prayers or a different aspect of them and how we can use them to shape our own prayer lives.

This quickly became one of the few books that I’ve underlined parts of. I have a strong aversion to writing in books so it’s rare that I do, but in this case I did because I want to revisit it in the future and build on what I’ve learnt this time around. I didn’t break the rule enough to write notes though – I’m not a big note taker.

I would recommend this book if prayer is something that you struggle with. It’s one of the things I hate the most and part of the reason for that is not knowing where to start. This book not only helps you find that start but it also helps you to build the framework for building a prayer life. Even if you do know what you’re doing when it comes to prayer I would still recommend it because there’s always something you can learn from Paul’s letters.

Having never read anything by Don Carson before I think I’ve found another writer that I like. He’s very readable and in no way do you end up feeling like he’s setting the bar too high when it comes to prayer.

So my advice is don’t be put off by the cover and give it a read. Take your time with it and get the most out of it. And if you don’t write in books either, be brave, take up a pen (or a pencil if the permanency of ink is too much for you) and underline something. Or just make notes in a notebook – that works too. Either make sure you read this. And if you find a version with a  better cover let me know.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Sofa Spotlight - Eldorado, Baroness Orczy

Chronologically there are four books between this one and I Will Repay. I don’t intend to read them anytime soon but I have managed to find one of them, Lord Tony’s Wife. It’s finding them that is the problem because there are only a few of them that seem to be available. The rest I’ve been searching for in second hand bookshops.

This one was written in 1913 and features the Scarlet Pimpernel launch an attempt to rescue the Dauphin who is still a child and being brought up to hate his parents. Along with him to Paris he brings Marguerite’s brother Armand, and gives him strict instructions not to talk to anyone he knows. Not only does Armand not listen to this he also falls in love with someone and is so infatuated that he betrays the Pimpernel.

I don’t know that I’ve ever met a more infuriating character than Armand. Not only do you end up marvelling at how the Pimpernel will extract himself from what seems to be an inescapable situation, but also that he doesn’t murder Armand at the first opportunity. But the Scarlet Pimpernel is a noble chap.

There’s a couple of characters in this that I hadn’t met previously, Heron and De Batz. De Batz is half good, half bad. He too wants to rescue the Dauphin but he doesn’t like the Scarlet Pimpernel and is really the one behind the betrayal. Chauvelin is in this though and you have to love Chauvelin. He is an awful villain – suffering a bit because of how many times the Scarlet Pimpernel has outwitted him and in need of capturing him in order to get back into favour. As always the Scarlet Pimpernel makes the most of mocking him in his true English style.

Marguerite is also back, and you get to see how her relationship with Sir Percy has developed, which I felt was missing in I Will Repay. There’s so much stuff going on with the characters though that the rescue of the Dauphin takes a back seat in terms of narrative and by the end of the book I’m not sure I was invested in whether or not he was rescued. I was completely absorbed in working out if the Scarlet Pimpernel would make it out alive.

You could happily read this as a standalone novel. But I would recommend venturing into the whole series. Like I say that will involve tracking down some second hand copies here and there but I think that can only add to the reading experience. These are not hard to read stories. The plot drives them on at a fast pace so it’s not something you will get bogged down in.  

Monday, 5 February 2018

Sofa Spotlight - 23 Days in July, John Wilcockson

I wanted to read this book for a couple of reasons. The shortest is that it is about the 2004 Tour de France and, as I didn’t really start watching the Tour until 2010, I thought it would be fun to read about one of the races that I didn’t see.

My second reason is that it was the year that Lance Armstrong won his sixth Tour de France and so it was written before all the hype around when he admitted to doping so he didn’t actually win those races. If you check out the Wikipedia articles for the Tour de France races that Armstrong won you see his name scratched out.

Even though it’s been nearly six years since Armstrong confessed to cheating there’s still a lot of stuff in the news surrounding the sport about doping. I’m not sure what I believe when it comes to what is reported. Last year it was Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome. Cyclists I both like, so there is a big part of me that is hoping that it was all innocent. But I think the problem is no one knows what to believe anymore. When I watch it I want to believe that what I am seeing is real but I don’t think there’s any way of knowing and I hope that one day that gets cleared up.

But in this book none of that is being talked about because it just hadn’t happened yet. The Festina affair had happened but that was in 1998. And there is some mention of the allegations being made against Armstrong. On the whole though there wasn’t as much talk about it as there is now.

Each chapter of the book takes you through a different stage of the Tour and its events and post- race analysis. For me it was as exciting as watching the race on TV. The pace of the book was just as fast and dramatic. I think even if you don’t know the cycling world you would enjoy this book because there’s enough information given to give you the picture but not so much that it becomes dull. And if you love the sport and reading then this is the perfect combination.

Up against Armstrong are Jan Ullrich from Germany and also Tyler Hamilton from the USA, who sadly crashes out. Neither of them are names that I recognise but it was fun trying to spot riders that are still in the sport, or were in it when I started following it.

What comes across is how tough a race it is. I don’t think you have to be a cyclist to feel a bit of the agony that the riders go through climbing the mountains. Wilcockson makes this a brilliant read and I think it’s worth reading to see what the sport was like in the Armstrong years. But if reading isn’t your thing and you don’t really know what happened with Lance Armstrong then The Programe or The Armstrong Lie are worth a watch.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Sofa Spotlight - Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis

I took my time reading this. It’s worth taking it slow and letting the truths sink in. To give you some background, this book didn’t start out as a book. C. S. Lewis gave a series of talks on the BBC during the Second World War and after being turned into pamphlets or shorter books, the talks became this book in 1952.

It’s called Mere Christianity because Lewis was trying to give the basics, or common ground, of what Christianity is all about. It wasn’t his intention to describe the details of every aspect or what each denomination believes. He has an excellent way of describing it in the book, which reminds you that this is the man who wrote The Chronicles of Narnia.

Maybe it’s because I loved Narnia so much that I was curious to read some of Lewis’ non-fiction. All I can say is I wasn’t disappointed.

My recommendation is that you do what I did and read it with someone. What I found is that you find things of value that the other missed and so, in a sense, you get to enjoy this book twice.

For me it was towards the end of the book that I enjoyed the most. He talks about sin and why even when we ask God to help us not sin in a particular way He doesn’t seem to answer that prayer. The reason Lewis gives for this is that by not answering that prayer straight away God is teaching us to come back to Him and be dependent on Him rather than doing things in our own strength. Lewis writes it better than me but that’s roughly what he is saying. It was good for me to hear as I like to do things by myself and last year was a year of learning that I cannot be self-sufficient no matter how much I may want to be.

This is also the book of the famous mad, bad or God quote. Which I didn’t realise until I fell over it. But I was very excited to see it in its original context.

If you’ve never read C. S. Lewis I would say this is a good place to start to get to know his books. His tone is very similar to what I imagine a grandfather would sound like, I never knew either of my grandfathers so I am just guessing. But his style is engaging and gentle. One of those writers who cares for his readers and wants them to take to heart the message of Christianity.

For me I will be looking at reading more of his non-fiction, but I also want to attempt to read his sci-fi novels and maybe revisit The Chronicles of Narnia, not to mention The Screwtape Letters, which I heard he didn’t enjoy writing all that much. I love C. S. Lewis and I’m glad that I found this book, even though I did sort of need someone else to convince me to read it. 

Monday, 22 January 2018

Sofa Spotlight - 206 Bones, Kathy Reichs

Writing this it has dawned on me that I read a lot of crime fiction. Probably that was already obvious to you. I was going to say that this one was less creepy than last week’s 13 Minutes but I think it is equally creepy just in a different way.

This time the creepiness comes in a more passive aggressive, stalkerish kind of way. The novel opens with Dr Temperance Brennen finding herself imprisoned in a dark, very enclosed space. And no memory of how she got there. The rest of the book switches between the present with Brennen trying to work out how to escape and her memories of what has happened before she got into her present predicament.

Those flashbacks are about a case involving the murders of two elderly women that are potentially linked to another murder Brennen had been working on. The team she has been working with had their own troubles, the head of department is off sick, and there’s a newbie who seems to cause trouble. And someone has made an anonymous phone call questioning her competency. There are plenty of suspects for the attack on Brennen, including her neighbour who isn’t overly keen on her cat.

For me this is the second time I’ve read this book and it will be one that I keep because of what it started. It was given to me by someone who had read it and it was planning to give it to a charity shop. I read it, liked it and passed it to a friend. Who got addicted to the series and started reading more. We then discovered the TV series and that has brought a lot of laughs and happiness into our lives. All because someone decided to give me a book rather than take it to a charity shop. Moral of the story – offer your friends your books first, you don’t know what you might start. (Just in case you're worried for the charity shops - I then spent quite some time scouring them to find the whole series so I feel like I made up for their initial loss.)

If you’re unfamiliar with the Bones series and you like crime drama then you are missing out. This book is the twelfth in the series, but I read it as a standalone and it was great. If you are coming to book series from the TV show there are differences that you will pick up straight away. The characters are not the same, there’s no Booth, and in this one, I’m not sure about the others, there’s a fair bit of dialogue in French. Not having a great knowledge of French I just skipped over those bits and I don’t feel like I lost anything for it. I had the same issue with War and Peace. Maybe I should work on improving my French this year. Some of the description can also get quite technical, which having watched the show I feel like I handled better this time round.

All in all it’s a good read. One of those where you need to keep reading to find out what happens and it doesn’t matter if you don’t eat or sleep for a few days while you do that. 

Monday, 15 January 2018

Sofa Spotlight - 13 Minutes, Sarah Pinborough

This one is so good you feel like you need to be able to read it in 13 minutes just because you need to know what happened. It was one of the best YA books of 2016 and it’s not hard to see why.

The story follows 17 year old Tasha as she is pulled out of the river by a man walking his dog. She’s been dead for 13 minutes and she has no memory of what happened to her before she ended up in the river. Into the mix are Tasha’s best friends, Hayley and Jenny, who seem to have become secretive since the incident, and also Becca, Tasha’s best friend from year 7, who Tasha and Hayley ditched for Jenny.

If you remember anything from high school then this book will definitely resonate. It’s so true to life, well a more sinister side to life, but the characters live in a world that we know is real. Painfully real. Teenage girls are intense and this takes it to a whole new level.

You get different points of view along the way, sometimes it’s Tasha’s sometimes Becca’s. There’s text conversations or diary entries along with the narrative and the blend works so well. Neither medium is overdone – it’s that perfect balance between not giving too much away and making the reader want more. You see the relationship between Hayley and Jenny through their texts, but you only get enough information to make you wonder what happened all the more.

Becca takes on the task of trying to work out what happened, but there are so many twists that you have to stop trying to work it out and just enjoy the story. Or at least I did. It’s rare that a book can make me feel sick, but Pinborough ramps up the tension so much that you can almost feel what is going to happen next. It’s like watching a train wreck whilst being glad that you’re just the reader and safely disconnected.

Even though this is an extreme outcome of high school politics – not many teenagers resort to murder to sort things out, it is scarily believable. It’s not a huge step away from what actually goes on. There’s something intensely creepy about children that murder though. This book is talking about the upper end of childhood, but at 17 you’re not properly an adult yet and you shouldn’t be working out and then carrying through a murder. I know that happens in real life but it just seems more horrible than adult murder. Maybe because often it’s more psychopathic? In my exploration of crime fiction the stories that have spooked me the most are the ones that involved a child murderer. I remember watching an episode of Midsomer Murders where that happened and I couldn’t watch any more episodes for a while afterwards.

If you’re planning to read this maybe clear your diary for a while. You will want to read it quickly. It only took me a couple of sittings to get through it. It’s unbelievably compelling. 

Monday, 8 January 2018

Sofa Spotlight - I will Repay, Baroness Orczy

So this is the second Scarlet Pimpernel story that Baroness Orczy wrote, although I think she later wrote another novel that fits in the time between this and the first novel. This one follows the story of Paul Deroulede who, before the French Revolution, gets into a duel with a young Vicomte de Marny and ends up killing the Vicomte. It’s obvious that the Vicomte really only has himself to blame for his death. Nevertheless the Vicomte’s father demands revenge and makes his teenage daughter, Juliette, take an oath to spend her life finding a way to ruin Deroulede.

Oaths like that never end well and the rest of the novel follows Juliette as it takes her on various twists and turns trying to accomplish it. It’s predictable and melodramatic but a lot of fun. The Scarlet Pimpernel doesn’t feature as much, but he is of course there at the end to mop up the mess that Juliette and Deroulede get themselves into.

In fact as I’ve been reading through these novels the fun thing to do is work out what elaborate way the Scarlet Pimpernel will come up with to get his friends and himself out of danger. Because they are always dramatic and nearly always involve some elaborate disguise!

But as tense as the story gets there is a comfort in the predictability. You can enjoy the drama safe in the knowledge that the Scarlet Pimpernel is out there and will save the day.

As sequels go this is a good one. My only issue is that in the first novel you got to know the character of the Scarlet Pimpernel and Marguerite and their dynamic but in this you hardly see that at all. Which left me feeling a bit short changed because their characters had been so well developed. But on the other hand it gives the characters of Deroulede and Juliette space to be developed in their own right.

In these novels the issues of the French Revolution are not really touched on. The Republic is cast as a stereotypical tyrant to be defeated by a gallant hero. Dickens did much better at describing the plight of the French peasants before the revolution in A Tale of Two Cities. But unlike Dickens, Baroness Orczy’s purpose isn’t to comment on the social history of the time but to provide good fast moving drama. Which Dickens also achieves but in a different way. (A Tale of Two Cities is one of my favourite novels of all time and if you haven’t read it before you should make this the year that you do).

My advice if you need a bit of fun escapism this January is to pick this book up (and read it – just picking it up isn’t going to do much for you). Its eye-rolling predictableness embedded in good adventure might just be what you need on a dark winters night. It’s very visual – much better than a film and you can tell that she first wrote The Scarlet Pimpernel for the stage.