One Song to the Tune of Another Mother

This post first appeared on ‘More Than Writers’, the blog of the Association of Christian Writers.

A lad from the tribe of Sheeran was recently brought before the city elders. The sons of Marvin claimed he had stolen parts of a psalm attributed to their forefather. Believing that he had earned much gold, the sons of Marvin were angered and wanted retribution.

The Sheeranite – a ruddy lad with a particular gifting in stringed instruments and a probable descendant of Jubal1 made his case with all the townsfolk watching and listening closely. Much music sounds like other music. There are only a certain number of ways things can be done.

The sons of Marvin, however, maintained that he knew what he was doing, and was therefore a liar. Some in the crowd needed fine details explaining, such as the difference between a lyre and a liar. Truth be told, it would not be clever to harp on about it.

The elders considered the facts and decided in favour of the Sheeranite. You could not subtract the facts. He composed his own psalms, even when they occasionally sounded similar to other psalms.

A red haired lad playing an ancient stringed instrument

It put me in mind of a separate case, where the clan of Samuel were offended when they discovered that lyrics from a song their ancestor Hannah had written had been stolen. The tune could not be verified, but the case was strong for the words. The original song had been composed to mark a poignant moment in the life of a mother who had finally had a son and had given him to serve God.2 The plagiarised version involved an unmarried girl from an inconsequential region who had fallen pregnant and written a song about her excitement, despite her circumstances.3

The parallels between the two versions are extraordinary, and the family of the clan of Samuel made the following case to the authorities:

* Both songs begin with the singer glorifying the Lord;

* Both explain that the Lord is unusually holy;

* Both relate examples of retributive justice from God toward the proud and self-reliant;

* Both describe how the Lord lifts up the humble and the hungry;

* Both talk about the extraordinary scale of God’s justice.

When this case went before the elders, the young woman who stole the lyrics was represented by a distant family member, a priest called Zechariah. He raised his voice repeatedly in court until he was heard. When the crowds fell silent, he explained that Hannah may not have composed the song entirely herself either. Referencing Psalm 113, he pointed out many similarities there too. I’m just thinking out loud, he said, but women have been singing in this style for centuriesThey often sing when they go about their daily tasks, such as repetitive flour grinding, weaving, spinning and working in the fields. They love to copy tunes they have heard.

Mary singing into a microphone, many fingers showing (AI)

Perhaps his young relative was not wrong to copy the style or to reference such a poignant and powerful moment in cultural history. Although she did not earn gold or silver for her song, her story bears consideration and the parallels between the women’s lives and their sons may also warrant closer inspection.

Zechariah went on to sing a similar song himself, but by this point many of the crowd had made their own minds up and left. Maybe creative inspiration was about to run wild… 

1. Genesis 4:21
2. 1 Samuel 2 
3. Luke 1

Images created with Bing Image Creator 

Working at it…

This post first appeared on ‘More Than Writers’, the blog of the Association of Christian Writers.

A young woman at a laptop bites into a pencil

Take a breath.
Hold it.
Let it out.

Remarkable thing, breathing, isn’t it?

God breathed life into Adam in Genesis 2:7.
On the cross, Jesus breathed a final breath. Something was finished.
But something else was just beginning.

I love how Jesus brings everything together. After his resurrection, Jesus breathed his Spirit over his close followers in John 20:22.

Followers of Jesus have his breath in us…

Breathing 24/7 usually doesn’t require paying much attention. Work, however, involves intention, focus and effort.

I’ve been thinking lately about how to do my best in my work. I blame this on Colossians 3:23:

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.

When I write, I aim high. I check and recheck. I research, rewrite, edit and proof. It takes a lot of time. I want to do the best I can, and I want the best I can do to be excellent. Blame Colossians. Or my genes. Or society at large. I am getting rather good at being a failed perfectionist (although I know I’m not quite there yet). To me, this Colossians verse seems to say ‘you can never do a good enough job,’ and ‘give everything you’ve got to everything you do.’ Imagine being tasked with preparing part of the King’s Coronation. You’d do the best you possibly could. You’d work at it with all your heart.

But does the verse say this?

The Greek doesn’t say heart. Work at it with all your psychēs (ψυχῆς) it says. Psychēs is usually translated soul, but originates from a word meaning breath. Ancient Greeks didn’t think of the soul in this way at all, but consider how this might come together.

If I work at anything with all my best efforts, heart and soul, the task consumes me so much that other important things are compromised and my mind plays off peace for anxiety. This anxiety about high expectations on myself has caused me to stall or fail in the past. I was talking with a friend from church about how I need my current manuscript to meet a minimum standard of excellence before I release it to the Scary Next Level, whether that is a friendly publisher, agent, editor, beta reader, writers’ groups or unsuspecting audience.

Zara works in publishing. She edits things.

‘Ah, Lucy,’ she said, looking at me sternly, ‘you realise you are being an idiot?’

Zara is a very caring person and so I was not offended.

‘If you do such an excellent job, you will put us editors out of work,’ she grinned.

I gave this some thought. I don’t want Zara out of a job.

‘Ah, but Colossians 3,’ I mumbled. Or something along those lines. ‘I want to deliver ten out of ten quality. Any less is not good enough for me. What do other writers do?’

And that is when she let me into a secret from the publishing world. Spoiler alert: other writers never deliver ten out of ten. In the large publishing house Zara works at, some deliver less than five out of ten and it is the editors who do much of the hard work themselves. Writers submit manuscripts but a lot happens after that.


I looked at Colossians 3 again more closely. ‘Whatever you do,’ Paul says, and he is talking to slaves but the words can be interpreted for anyone at a task. ‘Whatever you do,’ it intones, raising an eyebrow. ‘Whatever you do’ – and I had to pause.

I looked it up. Not you singular but you plural.

And this took my breath away.

Because God loves us to work in groups. In communities. Families. Teams. Churches.

It is a team effort

Whether we write, run a home, volunteer or do paid work our efforts are rarely done in complete isolation. When are part of a team we make a better job of it. This means doing our bit well and allowing it not to be perfect yet. It means trusting others to do their bit too, supporting each other as we go. And we are not called to give our every heartbeat and every breath to the project – just to do what we can with what we’ve got, in the time we actually can commit. Doing it in the power God gave us when he breathed his Spirit into us.

Self-published authors demonstrate that it is possible to do much of the process alone, but none does every single part. They employ editors, source images, take advice from those who’ve been there before. The wisest self-published authors network and learn and improve all the time.

My current project has required me to step out of my comfort zone and engage with others at every single stage. I am sure God is having lots of fun watching me learn this. I cannot deliver ten out of ten. Zara and I chatted it over. She and I compromised on me stopping at eight and a half. This may still feel sloppy for me, but I get it. That last little bit is time-consuming and sometimes even unnecessary – others are also on the journey and bring skills and experience too. God didn’t just breathe on me. He made me to need others.

Zara went a stage further and kindly planned some wise targets for my writing progress. Incredibly, she has been checking in with me every day to see how it is going, cheering me along as the sections get ticked off.

Now I no longer panic about meeting unrealistic personal expectations but have manageable targets with real accountability. I can start, working hard, knowing the task is doable and finite. I can stop, knowing I kept going, did my bit and can trust God to keep the whole thing moving along. Not every day’s work will be my best work. Some will be re-written over and over. That’s ok. Over time, the work I do does improve, my heart learning to beat in time to God’s, my soul secure knowing he’s got me, and my breathing – essential and quiet and organic and repetitive – a true metaphor for how Jesus is working in me and through me.

Do you set yourself impossibly high standards? Do you have an accountability buddy? Have you committed your tasks – big or small – to God and asked for his breath in you as you work? Do you allow yourself not to have to produce perfection?

In the coming days, I pray you will feel comfortable committing all your work to God and experience God’s Spirit doing wonderful things with it. Breathe freely in your creativity!

Flash Jabez

This post first appeared on ‘More Than Writers’, the blog of the Association of Christian Writers.

Barbed wire silhouetted against a sunset

I had not heard of the term flash fiction before I joined ACW, although I had consumed many short stories. It has been encouraging to read about members who enter competitions and have these short pieces published. There is a real poetic craft in communicating depth while keeping the word count short.

How short?

As short as you like. According to legend, Ernest Hemingway wrote the following famous six-word short story:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Tight and poignant indeed, whoever composed it.  

You might also want to try your own minimalistic six-word story, or perhaps aim for a little more information with a 50-word mini sagaTwitterature is a great portmanteau term for a 280-character story fit for Twitter. If you have a good one, post it in the comments.

Flash fiction refers to stories of only 1000 words; short, but sufficient space for structure, emotion and key elements and to allude to a rich narrative and possible twists. It is an art. I often mark 1500-word essays. Students struggle to eliminate words when they want to make a good case or to demonstrate the range of their reading and thinking. Exercising restraint is hard.

But there is a real pedigree in tight writing. Hebrew narrative is wonderfully minimalistic, for example. While David, Moses and Noah get lots of column inches, the people with a tight little tale fascinate me just as much. And they leave more questions.

Have you heard of Jabez? His tiny story is found in 1 Chronicles 4:9-10. In the space of these two verses (35 words in Hebrew) we learn that he was named after his painful birth, prays to God for blessing, for enlarged territory, for God’s hand to be with him and to be kept from harm and free from pain. And in an abrupt denouement, we learn that God does just that.

But hang on… who exactly was Jabez, and why is this strange story not also in the Samuel-Kings history? What blessings did God give him and where exactly was his territory? In what ways was God with him? Are we to emulate him? How far?

The story does tell us all it needs to, but it also begs something from the reader or listener; how might this apply to me? Am I supposed to react a certain way, or learn a lesson here?

There was a frenzy of interest and slick marketing in Jabez in the year 2000. It’s not hard to see why: the prayer invites unpacking, and some people started used the words as a mantra, along prosperity gospel lines. This is how a good story turns sour. God loves us and we should ask and seek for good things from him (Matthew 7:7-8, Luke 11:9-10), but life has taught me that my personal and material desires are not more important than my relationship with God and how I serve and love others. If Jabez was praying for blessing for himself and for release from pain, we don’t hear about what he did for others, how those around him were impacted by his prayers and the consequences or whether he left any other kind of legacy.

Like other remarkable short stories, the little we know about Jabez hints and teases. It leaves us pondering. Like much Old Testament narrative, extra information is not revealed, and yet we do have enough to work with. God blessed this guy, who was bold enough to ask him for blessing. His pain was turned to power. In a brilliant literary irony, his territory is enlarged with very few words.

What about you?

Do you stop and think about the short stories you read? What biblical examples have you come across that leave you asking more questions? And have you tried composing flash fiction?If you write, I pray that as you work on your craft, you discover your writing territory enlarged. May God remove those boundaries which prevent you from serving him. In all your writing – long or short – may you be a true blessing to others. 

Gideon’s Motif

This post first appeared on ‘More Than Writers’, the blog of the Association of Christian Writers.

There’s something odd in the biblical story of Gideon. Every time something important happens, a certain motif emerges.

It’s almost as if it is deliberate.

We meet Gideon as he is hiding under an oak tree in a narrow winepress, furtively and no doubt uncomfortably trying to thresh wheat out of sight of the invading forces. It is rather important to him that he isn’t found. Chaff is getting between his toes and the stalks are tickling his ankles.

This is the moment an angel appears and tells him that despite appearances, Gideon is a mighty warrior and God intends to use him to save Israel from the enemy.

Gideon is a little doubtful. He wants a sign and brings the visitor an offering: a goat and some hastily made bread.

A little later, having torn down his father’s false altar and received God’s Spirit, he summons some warriors and considers how he will know for sure that God is committed to saving Israel through him. He comes up with a plan and lays out the fleece of wool. Where? On the available threshing floor: the place wheat is usually smashed up to release the ears of grain. Twice he does this – once he asks that the fleece will be wet with dew in the morning while the rest of the area is dry. A second time he asks that the fleece will be dry and the threshing floor wet. Both nights God delivers.

Later, having laid off most of the volunteer army before the battle has even started, Gideon again fears how events will play out. By night he and a servant creep to the edges of the enemy camp and overhear a Midianite retelling his strange dream – a round barley loaf had tumbled into the camp and destroyed it. The enemy soldiers themselves interpret this as meaning that God has given Gideon victory. Cheered enormously, Gideon readies his men. They gather their trumpets, jars and torches and in one co-ordinated move wake the Midianites and cause no small panic.

In the ensuing chase from the camp, Gideon’s men are joined by others and he wins a massive victory. His men have worked hard, but now they are exhausted and hungry. Gideon asks for bread from the people of Succoth and Peniel. The detail matters as the locals are not inclined to help and there are nasty consequences.

This is not the entirety of the story of Gideon. For the rest, read Judges 6-8. There are some delicious details in there and some wonderful irony in the telling.

But it’s this motif that really gets me. This recurring idea of bread in various forms. Bread as life, as sacrifice, even as weapon. Gideon is associated with bread. It’s a clever little story-telling device, perhaps initially subconscious, later integrated into the story, tying parts together and drawing out other connections.

Sandwiched into the story (do humour me), using a motif is not as overt or overarching as a theme, but usually points towards it to help the reader see the purpose of the tale or its central message. The theme in Gideon’s tale could be: ‘God will save his people’. Looking at the detail of the barley loaf, ancient listeners might well have made the connection with Passover, which happens around the barley harvest. A feast of rescue, by God’s hand. Barley is also the cheaper grain, used by the common people and for animals. Did you know, barley flour does not contain much gluten and therefore is more likely to crumble than wheat? The tumbling round loaf in the dream would have crumbled as it hit the camp. This too would have gone through the ancient mind. It was cheap bread, not the noble wheat used for special occasions or people. Even tiny little Gideon could be used by God.

Another connection also makes a fascinating link. The only other times barley loaves are mentioned in the Bible are when Elisha feeds a hundred men with twenty barley loaves (2 Kings 4) and Jesus feeds five thousand plus with five small barley loaves and two small fish (John 6). Unexpected rescue, unexpected provision multiplied from something insignificant, unexpected saviour.

Is this motif idea something we can use in our own writing?

Finding motifs and symbols to lead to larger story themes is a great way of enriching a passage. In more recent literature you might consider how light and dark are used, or weather conditions or even colours. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby uses the colour green to great effect andChinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart plays on a motif of sacrifice. What motifs have you used or could you use?

We see the device elsewhere in Old Testament narratives too, and this enriches how we read.

Consider stones within the story of Jacob. If you just read his story, you’ll see the motif recurring. Stones are a powerful metaphor for God, so what is going on there?

What about spears? Which king of Israel do you associate with spears, and are they mentioned in ways which elevate him or reveal his true colours? *

Another motif you might spot in the book of Judges is fire. Which judge was associated with stories containing fire? *
(A clue for the original listeners to tie these together is in his name, which sounded like the word for the sun.)

The more you look, the more you see. And then you may start seeing connections with other passages, which sometimes throw a whole new light on how you read things.

The Bible truly is rich in narrative details. If you are interested in reading more on this fascinating topic I do recommend Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative, but if you are stuck for time, watch BibleProject’s Design Patterns in Biblical Narrative (6 minutes) for how word motifs carry across different texts.

And happy motif writing!

* The answers are King Saul and Samson. Do explore these characters in relation to the motifs and see whether you agree.

Bread and barley images from Pixabay

The Prodigal Coda

This post first appeared on ‘More Than Writers’, the blog of the Association of Christian Writers.

Let’s start at the end

I’ve recently become fascinated by story endings and epilogues, conclusions and codas, post-scripts and denouements. A good storyteller knows how to end a story well. We may gasp in shock or sigh with satisfaction, but we know intuitively that a well-crafted ending is a powerful thing.

How did the narrator or their story survive?
Moby Dick and The Handmaid’s Tale give some interesting options.

What eventually happened to the protagonists?
Animal Farm tells us how low the pigs really go.

Did she marry him?
Readers of Jane Eyre will understand.

Is there going to be a sequel?
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince ends on a cliff-hanger, with the death of a beloved character.

Is there a reveal or twist?
Max’s supper is still hot in Where the Wild Things Are – why is that?

What about Jesus as storyteller?

The purpose of the stories Jesus told was not in entertaining his listeners, although parables could certainly do that. On the surface level, these short tales work to amuse and stir up the imagination. On a deeper level though, they act to challenge people about God’s kingdom and their own actions, communicating truths gently and memorably. The parables of Jesus are great models for connecting with people. 

Biblical narratives can be considered in terms of two dramatic structure shapes according to literary theorist Northrop Frye. There is the U shape of comedy and the inverted U shape of tragedy. A tragedy begins with a protagonist’s rise from rags to riches, but ends with a descent into disaster or adversity. Think Romeo and Juliet: sad… happy… sad.

A comedy, on the other hand, begins with a positive state which is disrupted by the narrative events until a point at which the protagonist awakes or is delivered. Things take an upward turn, finishing with equilibrium again: happy… sad… happy.

The resolution may be brief, but if the story ties up the plot lines with a happy ending, we feel satisfied. Despite all the adventures along the way, there is a comfortable or just conclusion. The Bible as a whole can even be shown to follow this broad arc:  Eden… sin… sacrifice… Heaven.

Frye uses Luke 15:11-24 to illustrate the comedy structure. The story is a familiar one. A younger son asks for his share of his father’s wealth, but squanders his money in a distant country. When famine comes, he is reduced to eating with pigs. He recognises his need of his father and returns home, where he is reconciled. Wonderful.

Except that this is not a whole parable.

The prodigal coda

The parable is not about one son, but two. Kenneth E. Bailey wrote about the literary style in the story, which he called ‘The Father and the Two Lost Sons’. Bailey was an astute and knowledgeable writer on Middle Eastern settings and customs and how they help us understand the Bible. Some of his cultural insights are eye-opening to a Western reader (see especially Poet and Peasant).  

Bailey reasons that this is a double story, following a parabolic ballad shape for each brother. The first story tells of the younger brother and the literary structure shows the U shape as the boy leaves and comes home.

A    A son is lost

    B    Money wasted extravagantly

        C    Everything lost

            D    Sin – feeding pigs for Gentiles

                E    Total rejection

                    F    A change of mind – he came to himself

                    F’    Initial repentance – make me a servant

                E’    Total acceptance

            D’    Repentance – no longer worthy

        C’    Everything (sonship) gained

    B’    Extravagant celebration

A’    A son is found – was dead and is alive

This not only fits a beautiful chiasmus pattern but resolves the story of the younger son. Much like the wandering sheep, the God figure rejoices at finding what was lost.

The second coda however is a little different.

A    A son comes near
    B    Feast for a brother now safely home
        C    Father comes to reconcile
            D    Complaint (how he is treated)
            D’    Complaint (how his brother is treated)
        C’    Father tries to reconcile
    B’    Brother is safe – come to the feast
A’    ?

There is no A’. 

It is a missing coda. 

The audience, including Pharisees who were complaining about Jesus socialising with tax collectors and other ne’er-do-wells, are left with half a tale. Fill in the missing gap, Jesus is hinting. You are the older brother. What do you do next?

The expected story resolution is missing, but this is no mistake. The master storyteller is deliberately giving his listeners a challenge. It is possible to choose either direction. The characters are handed a stylus and to told write their own conclusion. Will they accept grace and be willing to reconcile, or resist God’s love in all its shocking manifestations?

Jesus had not read literary theory. He didn’t study Chekhov’s gun or feel the need to tie up all the strands – he already knew good storytelling gives the listener something to do. His ambiguity here is genius.

Genius storytelling

Much more can be said about Jesus’ genius in telling stories. Peter Williams has done an excellent job explaining this with reference to this parable elsewhere. Not unlike Pixar films today, ‘The Father and the Two Lost Sons’ works at more than one level for different audiences. The surface story is compelling enough for the wider crowd. The details in the precise words and phrases mean more to the listening scribes however, triggering specific stories in Genesis. They cannot have missed the moral challenges Jesus was quietly setting them while they judged him and his choice of friends.

The echoes of Old Testament stories are extraordinary – all the more so when you see how tightly written the parable is.

The coda did not go missing. The whole story is an invitation. A well resolved comedy-arc for a younger son and an invitation for the son who was lost while he remained at home which only the listener can complete.

Image taken from Pixabay. 

The ‘Actually Read’ Pile

As arbitrary as a year-end can be, having a project and a date to work towards always motivates me. One ongoing project I have is writing down all the books I finish reading; a task which gets progressively more satisfying as the year passes. Rather than counting down to Christmas, I measure the month by the number of books I believe I can read. I’ve learned that my wellbeing is enriched with a ‘done’ list, and writing it all down helps me to see where I may go next.

Is there another book in the series? What else has the author written? And what am I not reading?

I can tell you a little about what I have read. 2022 included a range of fiction, non-fiction, autobiography, poetry and children’s titles. Perhaps my range has not been as wide as usual, but this year was one for exploring more languages.

Alongside English (I must admit, quite literally alongside), I have tentatively explored books written in Welsh, German, the Shetland dialect, Hebrew (lots) and Aramaic (a little).

So, did my dog learn Welsh this year?

Or did I?

Read on to find out…

'Teach Your Dog Welsh'

Many of the books this year were mood-lifters, and although some were long, most were shorter than average. Most books I finished scored highly for me out of ten; perhaps this is because I am getting older. Or more discriminating. Or less concerned when a book isn’t what I’m in the mood for. If I feel stronger in 2023 I’ll go back and complete some of the books I’ve left halfway this year.

I love well-written or evocative prose, cleverly rounded characters and a plot thick enough to rest a spoon on. (Briefly, I mean). I also thrive on originality and wit (in either order).

Some of my reading highlights from 2022 follow. Do you agree with these recommendations?

If you’ve not already read my offerings from 2021, 2020 or 2019, do check those out too.


'The Song of Achilles'

The Song of Achilles had been on my ‘must read’ list since I read Madeline Miller’s Circe a few years back and it did not disappoint.

Miller knows Greek mythology and she knows how to spin a story.

Whether you are familiar or not with the originals, there is much drama, spice and inspired evocative writing here.


I have read a number of Rachel Joyce’s works and love her writing. She takes people so ordinary you think you know them and puts them in progressively extraordinary situations. In Miss Benson’s Beetle, two unlikely companions take a quest to New Caledonia to look for an elusive gold beetle.

I had to look up New Caledonia. It’s a French overseas territory east of Australia. Joyce must have had a lot of fun writing this and I hope she got to visit the place.

(Author aspirations… must write about somewhere exotic myself, hmm…)

I do recommend this, particularly as my plot-predictor radar must have been off and I didn’t see all the clever twists coming.


'Miss Benson's Beetle'
'Blood Water Paint'

Joy McCullough’s Blood Water Paint is written in free verse, one of my favourite forms.

The seventeenth century painter Artemisia Gentileschi may have been used and forgotten, but her paintings of Susanna and Judith still challenge the violent unfair patriarchal system she lived in.

In McCullough’s artful retelling, Artemisia’s father is passing her work off as his own, but the young girl has bigger worries to deal with. Stories of injustice and pain are not new, but this tale of stories within stories deserves to be retold; this book does it exquisitely.


I picked up The Lion and The Saint by Laura E. Wolfe as I was intrigued by the concept and reviews. It was a stunning read.

This is a novella, so relatively quick to get through; it is told in first person by a lion, a hamadryas baboon and St Gerasim. Compelling and powerful, a well-crafted parable for all ages.


'The Lion and The Saint'
'Louisa Freya, Dragon Slayer'

Amy Scott Robinson has chosen and retold a number of international folk tales in Louisa Freya, Dragon Slayer, all with female heroes, for this book. It is perfect for children and certainly shouldn’t be limited to a female readership. I loved the artwork as well as the writing and recommend it as a great gift option for young readers. Incidentally, if you can stretch to the sister-book, Queen Esther, Nation Saver, I highly recommend that too.


Ruth Leigh is ridiculously witty and her poor heroine, the influencer Issy Smugge, is now established both in her Suffolk manor house and in the hearts of readers around the world. This is the third book in the series and the best so far in my opinion.

Smugge (it rhymes with Brugge) is unaware of how she really appears to regular folk, some of whom hate her, but life has been very difficult despite appearances. Underneath the glamour there are deeper issues lurking. And upstairs Mummy has come to stay.

Leigh’s clever observational humour made me chuckle frequently. If you’ve not yet discovered Issy Smugge you’re missing out.


'The Continued Times of Isabella M Smugge'

I met Ruth through our connections with the Association of Christian Writers and we had wonderful chats in her car when we travelled together to a conference in May. We bonded over Frasier quotes, families and comedy writing and recommended books to each other. Ruth was astonished that I had not heard of the Australian writer, Graeme Simsion. She told me to get hold of The Rose Project without delay and, as fate would have it, I saw it on sale second-hand at a village fete shortly afterwards. She was right, of course.

Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Project is the first in a trilogy about Don Tillman, a genetics scientist who decides to find himself a wife using science. Don’s attempts are truly laughable but the story resolves beautifully, works through various adventures and creates a memorable, if utterly naive, protagonist.

Simsion’s strength is his assiduous planning. The books in this series are each poignant, funny and captivating, but it is the thoroughly prepared characters and plot that really work for me.

In The Rosie Effect we see Don and Rosie move to New York, and in The Rosie Result Don has to confront various truths about himself and his family, including questioning whether he is autistic.


'Don Tillman's Standardized Meal System'

The character Don Tillman operates a cyclical meal system which sounds simple enough, but has seasonal variations, a number of more advanced recipes and allowances for visitors on certain nights.

A spin-off from the Rosie series, I have to say this is the funniest recipe book I have ever read.


As a confirmed ‘Plotter’ (as against a ‘Pantser’), Simsion’s writing methods are fascinating. He and his wife write together at times, but both like to plan out the details in advance to such a degree that writing a first draft of a book takes a remarkably short time within the larger plan.

Check out Simsion on Youtube if you don’t get the chance to read this but want to know how he does it. He uses details and plots from The Rosie Result and another excellent book of his, The Best of Adam Sharp to explain how he writes, so it is well worth reading those first.


'The Novel Project'


'Universal Principles of Design'

I love this little book, filled with all kinds of principles of design. Some are intuitive, some give you ‘aha!’ moments and some explain why buildings, or fonts, or items, look or behave the way they do.


Paul Kerensa is not only a comedian and comedy writer, but he really does his homework when it comes to research. He’s done a great job of researching the history of the BBC (now conveniently 100 years old) elsewhere. However, Hark! The Biography of Christmas, which I recommend for December reading, is packed with so much information on the history of Christmas you’ll be amazing at how much you didn’t know.

Yes, even you.

I finished it on Christmas Day, aptly. Altogether funny, fascinating and festive. Get a copy, for yourself or someone else. As Miranda Hart points out, it does make a great present.


'Hark! The Biography of Christmas'
'If God is Love, Don't be a Jerk'

Talking of presents, this one was given to me during the year.

John Pavlovitz’ If God is Love, Don’t be a Jerk was an inspired gift – I loved it. Like many Christians who don’t want to be lumped with those who carry the name but not the loving actions, I needed to hear these words.

There is hope for us – even those of us who are hypocritical messes. Pavlovitz is provocative at times and the content is US-centric, but there is still plenty to make us sit up and chew on elsewhere.


I bought Joanna Watson’s book Light through the Cracks in May at the writers’ conference and found her book compelling and arresting.

There are few books which detail people’s experiences of miracles and how God works directly in their lives. I believe we should all be open to listening to these, and Joanna retells the stories of people she has met with sensitivity and intelligence.


'Light through the Cracks'
'Wild Maps'

During the year I read a couple of infographic maps books, but Wild Maps stood out for me as one to recommend more widely, with dozens of diagrams showing where animals are, the impact of humans and positive as well as negative sides to the current state of the world.



Did my dog learn Welsh?

Well, as she doesn’t yet speak English, that was always going to be a tall order. I’m not even sure she understands much English to be fair. She doesn’t even know ‘walkies’ yet and she’s nearly nine. She may be a muppet, but we love her anyway.

All of which I cannot say in Welsh.



'Teach Your Dog Welsh'
'The Shetland Bible'

Over to Scotland for the final recommendation this year.

I was introduced to this book by Onesimus at the Bible Society Reading Room at Cambridge University Library. As a visitor I was asked if I wanted to request any obscure language Bibles. Onesimus found me a Cornish one for one part of my heritage, but nothing in Orcadian (see my post on Scottish Roots).

However, this book, written in Shetland dialect, was both difficult and ridiculously fascinating. It is a selection of familiar Bible passages and stories told in dialect.

‘Dunna be in a trachle’ (John 14:1)


In 2018 I challenged myself to read the entire Bible in the original languages. I started with the New Testament in Greek, and progressed to the Old Testament in Hebrew (and some Aramaic, which I have not studied).

As of today, I only have a few minor prophets to go to finish the lot. It will have taken over five years, but I have learned lots in the process.

I’ll then have to decide what to do next, of course. An in-depth look at one part may be the solution.

Pages and years turn. We start books and (hopefully) finish books. Who knows how the next chapter unfolds?


Wishing you every peace and joy for 2023. God bless you and your reading in the year ahead.
Oh, and let me know if you have recommendations for books you think I might like!

Scottish Roots

My granny was evacuated during World War II and stayed with relatives in North Ayrshire for some of that time. I learnt this as a child, but didn’t understand then that it meant Granny must have had Scottish blood in her. It feels obvious now, but back then our family connections with Scotland had lapsed as there were no close living relatives to visit.

The last generation to actually have been born in Scotland were Granny’s great-grandparents, Annie and James, who moved from Edinburgh to Manchester and Liverpool. James was a bookseller in Edinburgh and a Bible canvasser in Manchester. I learnt these things as an adult when I started looking into family histories, scouring websites for clues and verifiable family facts. Was the family rumour of a connection with George Meikle Kemp, architect of Edinburgh’s Scott Monument, based on any truth?

Scott Monument, Edinburgh, and George Meikle Kemp

Kemp was proving illusive; he had died by falling in a canal one night aged 48. We are not connected with his four children but there is little by way of verifiable ancestry further back.

Victoria Dock, Singapore, 1890s,_Tanjong_Pagar,_in_the_1890s.jpg

The story got more complicated; James and Annie did not settle in England. For a time, in fact, the family lived in Singapore, where Annie died in 1900 in the Straits hotel. The Singapore she knew is long gone, but her children and grandchildren went on to live and work around the world.

Although this Singapore link was not permanent, it was certainly colourful. Annie’s son, my great-great-grandfather James, spent time growing up there with the Sultan of Johor. He later worked as an electrical engineer with trams in Brazil and lit the Mersey tunnel.

The more I looked for answers, the more questions formed. Who were these people? How would they have regarded themselves? Where did they consider home to be?

I did stumble across an Australian newspaper source from 1928 which included an extra detail I did not know about Annie. Something I did not expect.

Orkney Islands Satellite photograph

She was born in Orkney!

This was a lovely surprise. It means that I am a wee bit Orcadian (one sixteenth Scottish if you include Annie’s husband James). This certainly justifies celebrating Scottish holidays in my experience, when considering the degree of Irish heritage much of America claims in mid March.

Annie’s maiden name Baikie was common in Orkney, but also leads to a suspicion there might be a link with famous Scottish explorer, linguist and Bible translator William Balfour Baikie. That would be another fascinating connection to make, if it can be proven. He was also surgeon, naturalist (he had a genus of beans named after him), planner and sometime commander. There is even a memorial to him at the Cathedral of St Magnus in Kirkwall. The research on Baikie can wait for now, but is certainly a line to consider.

I may not live in Scotland today but these links and histories have piqued my interest in learning more. The BBC made an interesting programme about Orkney as the Ancient Capital of Britain (for British viewers currently available here). The innovation, spirituality and wanderlust that runs in my blood may go back a lot further than I ever could have realised.

Skara Brae, Orkney

Orkney Satellite Map image: Copernicus Sentinel-2, ESA –,
CC BY-SA 3.0 igo,

Life, Death and ..?

There is a strange bias in the news toward reporting death. I suppose if we knew what lives were going to be led every time a child was born, perhaps we would be reporting births with the same degree of importance. The non-celebrities. The ones who would create beautiful things. The people who would overturn injustices. The little people who quietly get on with life and bless so many others in the process.

Dramatic and unexpected deaths hit headlines however, and we find ourselves chasing particular grisly stories for days, eager to learn more and get some degree of distant closure. Reflecting on mortality is to be avoided, but the details are often tantalising.

When we learn that a celebrity has died, we may gasp or feel the numbness of a missed beat; a little bit of our own history just died too. The death of Queen Elizabeth II recently winded a great many of us. Deaths of people we knew personally hit us the hardest of course, particularly those we loved. They will not see us again, and we will not see them. Our story must continue but the trajectory is changed now.

Arching long exposure star trajectories over an Indonesian lagoon 

Stories are a huge part of how we make sense of the world, especially when death visits our world and alters our planned course. Some stories distil trauma so readers or listeners can relive the pain and fright. For many people, chasing these thrills and shocks enables them to feel more alive. For others, this too is senseless and harmful. What about light, and life, and hope?

We bring our cultural stories to our own understandings of death. I’ve become aware of more interest in popular culture in creating a fictional post-death world which is less unpalatable and grim.

I love watching the BBC series Ghosts, written by and starring the madly funny original cast of Horrible Histories. The premise is that ghosts from different eras linger for a period of time in the place where they died. It is made all the odder when a living person – after surviving a near death experience – discovers she can see and hear the ghosts who live in her historic home. Very witty writing and clever characterisation, although the plot is based more on very silly moments than a particular arc and resolution or philosophy. Death can be a great comedic device, but this doesn’t resolve anything – it just softens it.

Disney released the imaginative Pixar film Coco in 2017 about a boy who meets his dead relatives during the Day of the Dead and needs their help to return to the land of the living. Ultimately the message of this film is that being remembered is as important, if not more important than being alive. Death is not the end. But this implies that being forgotten is the end, which is a little unsettling. Not everyone will have a grand legacy.

Similarly, the 2020 Pixar film Soul explores the situation of a jazz pianist who dies suddenly and finds himself in a strange limbo setting. He tries to escape the tally and happens upon the place where new souls are born. It is all rather contrived, although the soundtrack is amazing. The main character has to undergo a personal transformation (in various ways, in fact) before he can make peace with what happens at the end of the film. Along the way his actions bring benefits to others. Death here explores redemption, both for the protagonist and those he meets. The details vary, but the pattern is recognisable as a story arc seen in many stories throughout history.

Maybe Disney and Pixar have an obsession with death. Apart from having characters die early in order to set the scene (Finding Nemo, Up, Frozen), there are films where characters need to connect with those who have died (Onward, Raya, The Lion King). Death is a useful gate, but also something universal; something we all need to talk about obliquely, to try and lessen its force.

Can we, though? However well we tell stories or compose soundtracks, death still has the power to kill and to separate.

A graveyard with sunlight reaching around a central tree 

Recently a lady at church died. Audrey used to keep ferrets and had a wonderful twinkle. I don’t believe she is in limbo, or a ghost. I do have reason to believe that I will meet her again one day, however.

On my social media I’ve learned of well-known Christians who have died recently. Brother Andrew, a man known for being extraordinarily ordinary and using this to smuggle many Bibles past the Iron Curtain. Jennifer Rees Larcome, who experienced real trauma and pain in her life, experienced a miraculous healing and had a powerful ministry encouraging others. Gordon Fee, who co-wrote the highly readable How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth and influenced so many in interpreting the Bible wisely and well. I have recommended his books to many students. I haven’t met any of these people myself.


My story for understanding death is not based on unsubstantiated spooky or weird fantasies. I have a reason to have hope. My experiences of death have certainly involved loss and grief, but there is reason for real and genuine hope when someone with solid authority tells you about it.

Empty tomb, stone rolled away, Israel

For me, and for many others around the world, that authority rests with the author of life. The one who overcame death. One whose birth was announced (despite not being born to celebrity parents), and is still celebrated every year. Jesus, who came to overturn injustice one situation at a time, inviting others to follow him and meet hatred with love. Jesus, whose love breaks the power of fear. Jesus, who understands how difficult it is to be cut off from those we love, and chose the painful path to ensure that death is not the end; that redemption and reconciliation matter.

We don’t hear of every death in the news. We hardly hear any births, unless the circumstances are particularly unusual. But life is really all the stuff in between. At least, for now.

What stories do we tell ourselves when we consider the bigger picture, and what weight do these stories hold?

He has set a day when the entire human race will be judged and everything set right. And he has already appointed the judge, confirming him before everyone by raising him from the dead.

Acts 17:31
(The Message)

If you’ve not previously considered the message of hope and life that Jesus offers, I do urge you to look into it seriously. Read the gospel of Luke, and then Acts (the story of what happened next). Ask God to reveal himself to you if he’s real and to take away your fears. The author of life has a story for you to live, and I can promise you it won’t be boring!

imperfect storms

Image of clouds with the words 'In the perfect storm you are the perfect refuge'

there are months
out of phase

when imperfect storms
collect on my mind’s horizon

griefs and glazed nights
grow clouds

whip my heart

and starts
and all the ups
and all the dreadful downs
unbalance my soul

whole trees

and the waters come

and I must bend
if I am not to break

and I must hold fast

but my grip



– shaking –

and then


I find that
I am found
and carried

I was not alone
I was protected
in your embrace

I watch you watch the storm

though the waters scream and rage
their song
does not frighten me

though griefs travel with me
you listen
you grieve with me
you travel too

you heal
you restore
you empower
you enable
you smile
you speak

the storms will all pass
but your love is forever

after Psalm 46
and the craziest September

Semi-skimmed Books

Are you getting your recommended daily allowance of reading?

A funny thing happened recently when I went away for a few days with my family. I took quite a few books which I wanted to finish, left several long reads at home and bought a handful more while away. One was written to teach dogs Welsh, and while it scores points for not being entirely in English, I don’t think the dog – or I – have learned a great deal from it.

Notably, I found reading for pleasure while trying to relax with others who had not brought books almost impossible. We played games. We celebrated the rain. We marvelled at the colours of nature. We wondered how to pronounce Welsh words. We ate well (and decided not to worry about holiday calories, working on the hazy theology that ‘all the fat is the LORD’s’ – Leviticus 3:16).

Perhaps I took the wrong books with me. The newer ones had greater immediate appeal, of course. They had hooked me in and were lighter on the old neurons.

A boy looking at books for sale on a table - a large industrial hook hangs just above the centre of the table.
Every book needs a good hook

New books, outside the genres I write in, do not feel like work. I love reading, but the more I write, the more I want to read, consciously learning how other writers write. Some writers I return to frequently, thirsty for comic refreshment or astute observational prose. Then there are books which are heavier or drier: some I make myself finish, but not all.

In our local reading group we are working through a book which is deeper and longer than many. It is an Olympic swimming pool of a book. Sadly, this summer, while I can manage paddling pool volumes or even the occasional lido, I do not have the strokes to complete the thing. It will not be read in full, and therefore will not make it to my annual list of ‘All The Books I Finished Reading Completely’. Part of me is angry with myself for these reading shortcomings, but another part of me – the part that loves to find new metaphors – wants to celebrate the authenticity of doing well enough without overdoing it.

I bring you the art of semi-skimmed reading.

Must we consume the introduction, acknowledgements and blurb? No!

Try semi-skimmed. This tried and tested method is best suited to non-fiction and means reading enough but not overdoing it. Semi-skimmed reading looks through the contents page, the main points at the beginning and ends of chapters and the various headers throughout the work. It notes conclusions and references and gets the gist, but is also honest enough to admit that it hasn’t read the whole thing. If every academic had read every page of every work on their own shelves, none would ever have time to mark, eat or sleep. Balance is required. Semi-skimmed reading teaches you where to find what you need in future and gives you a greater respect for the topic.

There are books suitable for reading to children at bedtime, which can be semi-skimmed with a little practice. The metaphor can be extended, I am pleased to say. Some books are suited to reading on holiday, when you need something light or fast-paced (pasteurised). There are books suitable for deep thinking, in smaller doses (condensed). There will always be people who are lectose-intolerant and insist that they cannot possibly manage a book. I am cynical about these claims for the most part. We should all be on a well-balanced reading diet.

And the occasional read of something a bit fluffy because that’s all we fancy that day doesn’t mean we failed.

Bonne lecture!