Bookish Thoughts on 2020

January begins. I start the year by reading more from the “God’s Word for You” series (great if you want a manageable Bible-reading each day with lots of explanation). I also take my first, long overdue trip to Belfast to visit friends. My South African adventure in 2019 gave me the confidence to fly on my own, so I finally made it over – my last travel for some considerable time.

I need to thank James Corden. He unknowingly prepared me for the coming lockdown with “May I Have Your Attention Please?”. I had seen the odd episode of “Gavin and Stacey”, which he co-wrote with Ruth Jones, but thanks to his autobiography, I’ve now watched all three series more than once. Ruth shares my love of Welsh characters, and it comes across in their writing – a real pick-me-up in all the doom and gloom.

If there’s one thing I’ll remember from 2020, it’s the tremendous uncertainty. There were times you couldn’t plan even a week in advance, whether due to the ever-changing government rules or awaiting the result of someone’s COVID test. Friends of mine were supposed to be married in April and after two-and-a-half long months, the day finally arrived. Though I couldn’t celebrate with them in person, I watched the wedding on Facebook and shared a virtual afternoon tea. I wanted them to have a keepsake on their wedding day, so I read the beginnings of several marriage books. “The Mystery of Marriage” was beautifully-written. I hope they’ve enjoyed it as much as I did.

On the news this year, the death of George Floyd impacted me. I’ve never consciously undervalued someone based on the colour of their skin. It doesn’t matter to me how someone looks; it’s more important they’re treated fairly, and I like to learn from people’s experiences. Although it’s a fictional account, “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett was outstanding. I can’t remember who recommended it, but I’m glad they did, and the book is so much better than the film.

Talking of books, my own Advent devotional was published in October. It’s been fantastic to work with my publisher and all those who’ve helped me spread the word. Almost two hundred copies have been sold and I couldn’t have done it without you.

A line in a song says: “We made it through, I do believe, the longest year in history” and yes, we made it to Christmas. I’ve followed Jesus now for over twenty years, yet Liz Curtis Higgs’ “The Women of Christmas” taught me new things about the nativity story. I enjoy some festive fiction too, and “The Little Shop on Silver Linings Street” is worth a mention. I loved the story, which moved at a good pace. I hadn’t heard of the author, but I’d like to find more of her books.

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That brings us to the end of 2020. How was it for you? Are there any books you want to recommend?

Goodreads.com

If you’re reading this post on the website, rather than in an Email, you might have noticed the headings at the bottom of the page – specifically, “Books I’m Currently Reading”. This great website, www.goodreads.com, allows bloggers to share a selection of their books with readers. That’s the main reason I joined Goodreads: Connection. Not only can you let people know what you’re reading, you can also see friends’ choices and read their reviews. I usually try to review the books I read, even if it’s only a few sentences, because that’s what I want to see on my homepage; not just how many stars someone’s given, but why it got that rating in the first place.

If you like to be organised, there’s a choice of three ‘Shelves’ for all your books: Want-to-Read, Currently Reading, and Read. You can also create your own, E.G. I sometimes wonder about an Unfinished shelf (maybe something’s beautifully-written but the plot didn’t move fast enough, or I just didn’t gel with the authors).

It’s certainly helped me to be more intentional with my reading. At the start of every year, you can set yourself a reading goal. This might sound like a chore, but it doesn’t have to be. Don’t tell yourself you want to read a hundred books, then get stressed because you haven’t had the time. I just treat it as a bit of fun. The first year or two, I didn’t reach my goal, but now I find I surpass it.

Goodreads.com. Seems to me it could stand for Goodreads.connection, organisation, motivation.

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What are you reading at the moment? Do you stick to one book, or have several on the go at once? Could Goodreads help you with your reading goals?

Books 2019

This year has been amazing book-wise, with the most books I’ve ever read, so I’ll start with my three favourites. All of these left me wanting to read more by their authors.

“Participant” by Carmen Kemp: I was initially drawn to this because the heroine’s called Alexis. Coming out of a long-term relationship, she decides to confront who she is and who she’d like to be. The characters are so real and brilliantly described.

“Bonnie and Stan” by Anna Stuart: Personally, I was sorry to see a homosexual couple in this book. I think the characters in question would have worked equally well as a male and female. However I loved the main characters and, flitting between 1960s and present-day, the story was extremely well-crafted. It’s also set in Liverpool – one of my favourite places.

“The Little Vintage Carousel by the Sea” by Jaimie Admans: This was written by a Welshwoman and I love Wales. Perhaps that’s why I liked her style of writing, which sometimes made me laugh out-loud. As soon as I finished the first chapter, I wanted to see how this ended, and there’s more to it than the expected romance.

PS: With the Goodreads app on my phone, I can challenge myself to read so much in a year, so I don’t abandon books very often. There were only two I didn’t finish: “Surviving the Fatherland” and “When I was Yours”, which makes me think World War II novels aren’t my thing.

Nonfiction: I was happy to end the year by finishing “Ezekiel for You and Me”. It gave me a much better understanding of Ezekiel, which is a book in the Bible I’ve always struggled with. I still find all the measurements of the temple a bit baffling, so if there’s another helpful book on Ezekiel you can recommend, please tell me in the comments.

I read a very good autobiography by David Jason called simply “My Life”. He actually has two books. The second is supposed to be about the most famous characters he’s played on television, but it’s probably ninety per cent Del Boy and ten per cent all the others.

“Reforesting Faith: What Trees Teach us About the Nature of God and His Love for Us” is worth a look. One Sunday, we were told beforehand that our meeting at church would have a theme: Trees, and I read this in preparation. The author’s also written “24/6” (all about Sabbath), so I’m excited to read that now as well.

What about you? Any good books you’ve read in 2019?

Good Reads in 2018

While we’re still in 2018, I thought I’d do a book-related post. I had to revise my challenge on Goodreads when I realised I wouldn’t achieve 30 books this year, but I did get to 26.

So, here are my top 5, in no particular order:

“The Girl’s Still Got It: Take a Walk with Ruth and the God who Rocked her World” by Liz Curtis Higgs. This woman’s like me; she really loves her Bible. You could tell she put her heart and soul into this; it’s so well-researched. I was surprised at the amount of material just on these 4 chapters in the Bible, and Liz brings it together for us in her unique style. If you enjoy this book, her Word by Word podcast is also worth a listen.

“Mark: The Gospel of Passion” by Michael Card. These books on the gospels are expensive at their normal price, but you can sometimes find them on offer. Chapters are broken down into sections of roughly 20 verses each. The Bible-verses are written out first (so you don’t need a Bible with you in order to read it), and each part is studied in-depth. Having previously read his book on Luke, I preferred this one, and it made me look forward to the others in the series.

“Madeleine: Our Daughter’s Disappearance and the Continuing Search for Her” by Kate McCann. I chose to read this because I remembered the case being on the news when Madeleine went missing. I think it’s stayed with me because I felt for her parents, and it’s a reminder to keep praying for them. Just this year, there was talk that Madeleine may still be alive. My only criticism of the book would be that perhaps it needed a better editor. When the author’s so emotionally involved, I imagine it’s easy to include a little too much detail.

“Dance, Stand, Run: The God-Inspired Moves of a Woman on Holy Ground” by Jess Connolly. I’ll never understand why these books have such long titles! “Dance, Stand, Run” would have been fine. It’s a book about knowing God is pleased with us, living for Him, and showing that life to the world around us. Chapter 4 was particularly good. As I said in my Goodreads review, I wish this book had been around when I was first figuring out what it meant to live for God.

“The Christmas Sisters” by Sarah Morgan. Only a matter of days since I read this, but I really enjoyed it. Firstly, my sister and I remind me very much of two of the characters – Hannah and Posy. It’s also a great story. Usually with these Christmas books or films, the ending’s no surprise, but I couldn’t have predicted one of the twists in this one.

Those are my top 5, but what about you? Have you read anything good this year?

Are you Afraid to Read a Book on Fear?

The endorsements describe this book as gentle and personal, and I would agree with that. Although I thought it might be helpful, the idea of reading a book on fear did make me a little nervous. Would it be too confronting? Would it shame me? But it did neither of those things.

This book aims to help you cope with persistent anxious thoughts. Chapters 3, 7 and 10 were my personal favourites. I think the part I’m going to remember most is: “Stay in today.” I do sometimes go down the path of worrying about my future, but Maria encourages me to hold onto what’s true here and now. “Breaking the Fear Cycle” is definitely worth a read if you struggle with fear and anxiety.

February 6th – Save the Date!

Nothing to do with me; I’m not getting married or anything. No, February 6th is the day that “In Bloom” is released – a second book by Kayla Aimee. I would have bought this anyway, but because I’m on Kayla’s Email list, I was invited onto her launch team, so … a book for free, + I got to read it before its release, and (an unexpected bonus) a Facebook group where we all interacted with each other. The Facebook group really made it, as Kayla took the time to post videos for us, talking through the book in sections. It’s very special to hear directly from the author, E.G. did you know when you record books for Audible, they slow your voice down so it ends up sounding nothing like you? That’s something I learnt.

So, what can I say about “In Bloom”? I looked forward to it because I so enjoyed Kayla’s first book, “Anchored”, about the birth of her premature daughter Scarlette. One positive about “Anchored” – it was a story with a beginning, middle and end. This follow-up is more teaching than a storybook, but teaching on a relevant subject – our desire to be accepted, and the insecurities so many of us grapple with. “In Bloom” looks at several of these, from outside influences to the things that go on in our own heads. Kayla’s very funny and shares intimately about her life, all with the aim of helping us discover our self-worth. You’ll love the stories throughout about Scarlette, 5 years on from when she was born.

If I was writing this review on my own, I might have recommended “In Bloom” to readers under 40 because of her references to the 1990s, but older women on the launch team have said how much they’ve loved it. (Actually, it doesn’t matter if you’re like me and have never seen “Mean Girls” or read “The Babysitters’ Club”. If Kayla’s personality and sense of humour are what drew you into her first book, you should appreciate this one.) I also would have labelled it as Christian, but some on the team aren’t practising Christians and have still given positive feedback, so I’ve been proved wrong on both counts.

“In Bloom” releases on February 6th. If you preorder a print copy from Lifeway, they’ll send you another free to give to a friend, but that may only apply if you’re in the US. It’s also available on Amazon, so whoever you are, if you’re interested, why not give it a try?

November News

I like Emily Freeman’s idea of highlighting things we’ve discovered during the month, so these are some of mine for November.

Song: I’ve always loved “Joseph’s Song” by Michael Card, but haven’t found a similar one from Mary’s point-of-view that grabbed me emotionally … until this year. On a Christmas radio-station, I heard Francesca Battistelli’s “You’re Here”, and the words are lovely. If I took part in a musical nativity, I’d love to sing that.

Books: I’ve been getting into Song of Solomon lately – a book in the Bible about King Solomon’s marriage to a peasant woman, which makes me think of the church – the bride of King Jesus. Two books about the song have really helped my understanding of it. I heard about Dee Brestin’s “He Calls you Beautiful” in a Bible Gateway Email and knew straightaway I wanted to read it. It looks at the bride and takes her love in stages: The euphoric first-love; the wedding; the honeymoon … It’s excellent and well worth the money. In the book, Dee talks about James Hudson-Taylor – a man I had heard of at church, who founded a missionary organisation in China in the 1800s. She said Hudson-Taylor had only written one book – and yes, it’s a book on the Song of Solomon. “Intimacy with Jesus” is only short, with six sections and a study guide at the back, but it’s very good. I’ve read a section per day.

Podcast: This month one of my favourite authors, Annie Downs, interviewed Mark Lee – the guitarist from Third Day. You might remember I reviewed his book here awhile back. From reading the book I was impressed with his personality, and he came across just as well talking to Annie. This could also come under ‘Books’ because they discussed several. I’ve never read anything by Madeleine L’Engle, but their conversation made me want to read some of her memoirs, particularly the Genesis Trilogy, where she intersperses her own life-experiences with stories from the book of Genesis.

Films: You get Internet radio-stations now that play Christmas music all year round. I wish there was a TV-channel that did the same with Christmas movies, because I love them. I know; they’re very predictable. As someone said on Facebook, you get a love twist, some sort of misunderstanding and a happy ending, but they make me smile. My favourite of the modern films is still “The Twelve Trees of Christmas”, which from the title doesn’t sound at all like the kind of film I would enjoy, but it’s amazing. “Christmas in the City” is another sweet one I like to watch.

Quote: In my previous post, I mentioned a friend’s dad. Sadly, he had another setback with his health and is no longer on this earth. Jeff’s special and will be very much-missed. I’m glad for him that he’s with Jesus. I don’t understand why he had to go so soon, but a tweet from Lysa TerKeurst this last week has stuck with me. It said this: “We don’t have to have all the answers; we just have to stay connected to the One who does.”

As Advent and Christmas approach, let’s keep making that connection with Jesus, whose birth we’re remembering; who came into the world to show us what love looked like, and to give us hope of a future with Him.

More from James Stuart Bell: “Life-Changing Miracles” Book-Review

I’m grateful to Bethany House for giving me a review copy of this book – another offering from James Stuart Bell. His compilations of stories are always encouraging. I particularly liked this one because it isn’t a constant stream of health-problems and God coming in at the eleventh hour to heal people. Instead there are a great variety of modern-day miracles, from God directing a lifeguard to Him supernaturally stopping the rain.

“Life-Changing Miracles” is a book full of different people and their experiences with God. On the whole, I’d recommend it.

A Story of Two Cultures: “All Saints” Book-Review

When people have asked me: “What’s the book about?” I’ve said: “It’s about a struggling church who helped refugees from Burma”, except now that I’ve read it, I realise I got it completely upside-down. Imagine your church is on the point of closing, you’ve prayed for pews to be full and that you might have an impact in the community, and suddenly a group of refugees double the size of your congregation come looking for a church to call home. This is a story of two cultures coming together. There are some of the issues you might expect, and some adjustments that surprised me. So many times, God’s hand in the situation is obvious – His keen interest in everything, down to the smallest detail.

I think you’ll appreciate “All Saints” if you care about social justice and communities working together. You don’t have to be a Christian to enjoy it. In fact, a man who’d made no commitment to Christ read a news-article about them and was so impressed, he turned their story into a film while this book was being written. I wish it was in cinemas here in the UK. It sounds like it would be very inspiring.

Reviewing “Hurt Road”, by the Guitarist from Third Day

Apparently Third Day have 13 albums. I’ve really only heard a few of their songs, but I love the lead singer’s voice and that’s why I signed up to review “Hurt Road” by their guitarist, Mark Lee. In the book, he talks about the Behind the Music series he would watch, to see the stories behind various rock bands, and that’s what this book is – the story behind Mark Lee and how he got to where he is now.

“Hurt Road” is the best book I’ve read in months. It really gripped me. The chapters are short and it’s very personal. I loved the parts about his family, his faith, and the founding of Third Day. I feel very privileged to have already read it because I just looked on Amazon, and it’s not released here in the UK until September 5th.