Top of the Pile

Reading is my escape.

Last year I finished reading more books than the previous year, and I wanted to share some of the highlights and a few recommendations.

Mornings include escape time to centre and regroup before work. This means reading a chapter of something positive and a devotional thought to challenge me. I was encouraged to learn of some black authors I had not already read and these two stood out for me:

More Than Enchanting by Jo Saxton is encouraging, thoughtful and relatable. It was written to empower women – most women in my experience – who face barriers which prevent them achieving their God-given potential.

Still Standing by Tola Doll Fisher, editor of Woman Alive magazine, is a series of 100 ‘thoughts for the day’ on matters as wide-ranging as ‘How to spend a pre-payday weekend’ to ‘Imposter syndrome’ and ‘Why I’m not here for religion’. Tola has a fascinating life-story and uses her experiences, both good and bad, to connect honestly and powerfully.

Other morning books that connected well with me were:

Cathy Madavan’s Irrepressible, which champions resilience and lays out some excellent and timely principles to grow in it and Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, which speaks truth and kindness to readers of all ages and is already a classic in its own right.

Afternoons for me are for working on teaching tasks. As well as writing, I teach Biblical Studies so I try to read a chapter of the Bible in an original language during the day if I can fit it in. I’m working through Old Testament narratives now and finding things I haven’t seen in the English versions. I have found biblehub.com to be a valuable resource here; using an interlinear version is much faster than parsing and remembering every word (especially now that my memory is not what it used to be). It still gives my brain a workout though and I can click on the words for more information on pronunciation, roots, meanings and cross-references.

Evenings are for fiction, beginning with reading to my son when I put him to bed. One of the highlights of last year reading to a 10-year-old was The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius.

This story pulls you in to an absurd journey of twists and adventures centred on the wonderful main character, Sally Jones. Gorillas may not always have fared well in fiction, but Sally Jones is a highly intelligent and gentle ship’s engineer and out to prove the innocence of Captain Koskela. Will she succeed? Written originally in Swedish but translated with real fluency and pace, this page-turner leaves the reader curious to explore Portuguese fada music, Indian palaces and even how ships work. Great for adventurers aged 7 and up.

Other books I would recommend to children from my own reading last year:

Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s fantastical The Girl of Ink and Stars has a female protagonist mapmaker searching for answers and evocative writing. The dystopian world comes alive a piece at a time, like a map being unfolded. You never know quite where the adventure will go next.

I love A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh for its wit and warmth. The photo is of the 1931 copy I inherited from my grandpa. A.A. Milne’s writing stands the test of time and the characters are so familiar you miss them when you finish the books. I think I am most like Rabbit myself. Milne has written other great stuff too, but Pooh is timeless and works for all ages. A great mood-lifter: innocent and silly but intelligent with it.

For young adults:

If you have not read anything by Stephen Davies, you are missing out. He has a knack for stories no one else is telling but which are gripping and gutsy. Chessboxer convinced me that a book about chess really could be interesting, with a flawed and feisty main character Leah Baxter, imaginative style and original plot.

Kwame Alexander’s Solo is told in free verse and engages the mind, heart and soul. The story of Blade, the son of a washed-up rock star, takes you in all kinds of directions and riffs on musical themes and ideas. Look out for other books by these authors too; you won’t be disappointed.

For older readers:

These all suit a slightly older readership for different reasons. Fran Hill’s Miss, What Does Incomprehensible Mean? connected with me on various levels but I especially recommend it to anyone who’s taught at secondary level. Built on her own life experiences, this fictional diary contains astute observations on life, literature and loss, told with practised humour and intrigue. I lent out my copy and might need to replace it!

Annie Try’s Red Cabbage Blue tells the story of Adelle Merchant, a girl who only eats blue food and who has an overprotective mother. Her psychologist Mike Lewis is trying to solve the puzzles this raises, but he is also dealing with his own issues and relationships. Annie’s background in clinical psychology means this reads very convincingly – there are other books which feature Mike Lewis but I found this one the most engaging so far. A great story with a satisfying ending.

Manacle by Chris Aslan is arresting and provocative. This is the second of three books of his which tell stories from the Bible from a very different angle. Unlike many biblical retellings, I found this well-researched and well-written and without sugar-coating or preaching. I am eagerly looking forward to his next publication and highly recommend both this and Alabaster which overlaps a few of the characters: the content may be tragic and bittersweet in places but the settings are powerful and create a compelling view of people’s lives in the times they are set.

There are other books I read which don’t fit into any of these categories. They might fit into any time of day and they are generally curious, theological or both, so I might read them whenever I get a moment.

Women’s Lives in Biblical Times by Jennie Ebeling is an academic book (around £20 at the moment), but it is a wonderful resource for anyone wanting to understand more about domestic life in the Old Testament – it is a perfect cross-over for me of my writing and teaching work. Jennie invents a character, Orah, who lives in ancient Israel in the Iron Age and describes her life using narrative, in addition to the non-fictional archaeological and biblical data she presents to make her case.

How Not to Write a Novel (the version by Newman and Mittelmark, not any others of the same title) is a superb read if you aspire to publish a book. By giving many examples of what not to send in to publishers, the authors hope to encourage people to give up their writing, or – failing that – to do a much better job at it. Very funny, frequently rude and full of brilliant parodies, this is one of the better works on how to write, quite possibly because it attacks the topic from an entirely different angle. No recommendations on what to do; just what not to do.

Beard Theology by The Church Mouse is the book you didn’t realise you needed. If you thought that the history of the church had no connection with facial hair, you have much to learn in this clever and very silly book. If there is one thing I’d add, it would be a chapter on the biblical stories on hairiness; but this would actually make an excellent sequel (think Absalom, Esau, Elisha, Samson, etc). Not having one’s own beard is no barrier to enjoying this and the illustrations by Dave Walker are hilarious.

Theology of Home, however, was a book I did not need. At least, not if I wanted a systematic and careful investigation of how faith and decorating a home intersect. I was curious about the concept and ordered a copy from America. The book is filled with large photos of happy and tidy rooms filled with beautiful things but not a lot of reasoning on the questions I actually had, which are along the lines of ‘how can we use our resources most wisely, and how much disposable income should we spend on our homes?’ – I still haven’t found good answers to these questions so am working it out as I go instead. This might lead to more thinking on this another time for me, so not an entirely wasted exercise.

One final book deserves a mention from those I completed last year. Another inherited title, Cornish Recipes Ancient and Modern by the Cornwall WI (1930).

Many of the recipes are not safe, several suggestions for cures are downright dangerous and the ingredients lists (where they exist) are as confusing as they are amusing: why give precise quantities? Written when powdered ammonia was still considered a rising agent and all parts of animals and plants seemed to have a domestic purpose, every page of this collection of concoctions made me smile. It may not be practical today, but it got me thinking and provided several jokes to share, so that counts as a great success.

Where will I escape in 2021? My To Be Read pile grows as fast as it shrinks and this year I am looking forward to some great releases as well as revisiting some classics. I’ve completed five so far, but have a number more on the go and this year I’m also recording when I finish books to see whether they always run in groups. I’m always on the lookout for interesting, amusing and well-written works so let me know in the comments if you have any good recommendations.

Oh, and please don’t try the pies.

Treasure in Dark Places, by Liz Carter: a review

Treasure in Dark Places book on a cosy wooden table with a hot drink.

Maybe, like me, you enjoy a fresh angle on a familiar story. A fresh perspective to help you find a good way forward in life. Maybe you yearn for a way to express your frustration at your pain and want assurance of hope.

Liz Carter has a gift in doing just that in short story and poetry form. Her latest book is called Treasure in Dark Places and I jumped at the chance to read an early copy ahead of its release this weekend. I had found Liz’s Catching Contentment powerfully written and worth spending time in when I read it last year, and she kindly agreed to be interviewed for my blog to talk about this new book and why she wrote it.

If you are not familiar with Liz’s work, take a look at this short clip, featuring one of the poems in the new book:

Lucy: Tell me a little about your health, what lockdown was like for you as a family and the impact shielding had on you.

Liz: I’ve suffered from a rare chronic lung disease all my life, with times of intense pain and infections that render me frequently housebound and in hospital. When I first received the shielding letter I felt the shock like a punch in the gut; the words ‘may become severely ill’ due to Covid-19 hit me hard. I went into shielding thinking I would be okay, used to isolation, but found being separated from my family incredibly challenging, my mental health took a hit I wasn’t expecting. Shielding has ‘paused’ for now, but this year has taken its toll, as it has on most of us.

Lucy: Your poems speak of a God who is powerful and good, relatable yet mysterious. What characteristic of God do you find most comforting at times of deepest darkness?

Liz: There are so many, but I think that one that ministers to me so much within pain is the Holy Spirit as the paraclete – literally the helper, counsellor, comforter. To know that God is within the depths of it all, by my side, the tangible yet intangible Spirit. God with us in the mystery of trinity; Jesus as Immanuel, incarnate and suffering for and with us, God as Father, loving and compassionate, all beautifully expressed in the helper God gave to each one of us. Sometimes I just like to think upon the Spirit as Ruach, the breath of God, the creative force and the rhythm of life, yet here with us, breathing upon us.

Lucy: There is something strangely sacred about the meeting of brokenness and divinity; would you say that the experience of pain and hardship is a necessary part of a close walk with God?

Liz: I love the way you phrase this truth. I have definitely discovered that it’s sometimes in the darkest places I have found the treasure, the depths of God, that suffering can somehow allow the heights of joy. I think that so often Christians have been led to believe that a walk with God should somehow be pain-free, as if God is merely there to bow to our needs and wants, and yet this prosperity story has not stood up against the ravages of suffering – or, indeed, against the truths expressed in scripture. I love how the apostle Paul shared the enticing reality that God’s power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). Paul, of course, was hardly an example of someone living a life free of struggle – far from it. I think that when we learn to untether the idea of wholeness with getting all that we want, or even with healing, we stumble into God’s great spacious places even where our spaces seem caged. Maybe it’s not so much that we have to go through great hardship as a necessary part of our faith, as much that the raw experience of hurting can move us closer to the heart of a God who knows what it is to go through the starkest agony.

Lucy: Many of your poems weave in biblical phrases and you note these references at the end of the book. The Bible contains many forms of writing, including lament and praise. Many biblical characters experience crushing lows and disappointments – do you have any characters you identify with closely, or favourite parts of the Bible you turn to when you need God’s comfort?

Liz: So many. I find much resonance in Scripture when it comes to living with any kind of struggle, which gives us a real sense of permission to express our own. I love the lament and yet hope of Psalm 42, and the yearning for home of Psalm 84 always calls to the deep places of my spirit (two of the poems are based around these Psalms.) For me, the words of Paul are always places I go to when I am looking for hope, knowing that he spoke out of some of the greatest darkness. I love how he calls us to ‘overflow with hope’ in Romans 15, even though he has been persecuted and imprisoned and sick and shipwrecked.

Lucy: Two recurring images for me when reading this book are ‘water’ and ‘depth’. In the poem ‘The Skies Proclaim’, which I associate with Psalm 19, you’ve written the following beautiful lines:

Join me,
barefoot in the sand
tiptoe into edges of blue
and the untamed edges of a secret

Deep magic in deeper waters
deep mystery in great oceans
deep soul-rest in turquoise ripples of expansive grandeur.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Although depth might feel like a place of isolation, imprisonment and darkness, you remind us that the deep is a place of wildness, mystery, beauty and healing as well. Is there a particular resonance for you in the redemptive aspects of water and depth? And do you find yourself more in the role of Peter wanting to walk on the surface, the disabled crowds in John 5, or Jonah, terrified in the depths yet crying out to God?

Liz: I think it’s the concepts of the great heights and depths of God that call out to me so; a God who cannot be contained. Scripture is bursting with the deeps of God; Ephesians 3:18 speaks of the width, length, height and depth of God’s love, and Psalm 139 of how there is no depth too deep where God will not find you and hold you. In Psalm 42 the mysterious and alluring phrase ‘deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls’ always resounds somewhere in the depths of me. I want to run into those deeps, to dive into them, to be submerged in them until they close over my head, further down until this love that cannot be described is pressing in upon me. I want to walk on the water and yet plunge the depths all at the same time, much as Hillsong’s song ‘Oceans’ describes so beautifully.

Lucy: This is a book you cannot rush; it needs to be reflected on and is ideal for quiet time study. It also has sections which map out the year, so could be used at any time. How easy is it to get hold of a copy?

Treasure in Dark Places book shown against a background of a treasure map with a compass.

Liz: From this weekend you will be able to buy it on Amazon in paperback or kindle edition, and as an ebook on Kobo. A little later it will be available in other online bookstores such as Waterstones and Barnes & Noble.

Thank you Liz! I’ll be ordering my own paper copy to use in quiet times, and look forward to seeing Caroline Gwilliam’s illustrations. I pray this new book blesses many people, especially those struggling in the dark depths of difficult situations; that God uses your words to speak treasure and hope to people who need it.