The Year I Finished 70 Books

There are always many reasons for not writing enough. Writing is hard. Writing involves sweating your soul out of your fingertips.

Reading is one way of enriching your soul and feeding those muses. Reading gets the fingertips buzzing again. Writers need to read widely to understand how to write well, to learn what is being read by others and to find their niche in a busy market. This past year I tackled my own reading by challenging myself to see how many books I could complete, noting each one down as I finished it. The rules were fairly simple. I could already have begun the book, but needed to have finished it completely within 2019. This rules out books I only read a portion of to my son, or ones which are still ‘live’, but rules in books I had almost finished at the end of last year. Magazines, articles, essays, chapters of books didn’t count, no matter how erudite or obscure. Only completed volumes could be added to the list.

As I went through the year I found more questions arising and various patterns emerging in my reading. I have been working through a number of books at any given time, but wanted to vary the genres, authors and lengths. I kept long books for trips and read short chapter books to my son or read them myself. I worked on books for my research in my morning quiet time and easy reads in bed at night. I challenged myself to complete the New Testament in Greek, which I had begun a year before (this only counted as one book, but might easily have been 23) and allowed myself to count Genesis and Exodus in Hebrew as a book each. I included Molesworth (a four-volume book) as one. I included poetry, autobiography, devotional, fiction and academic works. For the first time, I actually read the Harry Potter canon, and found that I really enjoyed the series. I’m now working through the spin-offs. I read books by friends and those I’ve met at events, and books by people with completely different world-views to mine.

Today I finished three books, taking the total for 2019 to 70 completed volumes.

Of these, half were fiction, 29 were children’s books and 6 were poetry. I read 14 autobiographies and a couple more biographies, 28 books by Christian writers and 6 which were definitely academic or theological. The number of ‘live’ current reads is, I think, another 6-10. In all this, I am not aware that my ‘to be read’ pile has shrunk in any way.

I rated each book out of 10 for how much it impressed me, and 26 of those I finished scored a 10. The others varied a lot, but generally did very well.

Here are my 12 recommended reading highlights from 2019. Links take you to Amazon, but there are many alternative and very worthy sellers: I recommend buying from independent sellers wherever possible. See these links for reviews and information on each.

For Children:

Eye Can Write, written against the odds, challenges the reader on a number of levels. Jonathan Bryan is a poet, deep thinker and baker of cakes. He also lives with severe cerebral palsy and was thought not to be able to communicate at all.

I am amazed that Jonathan wrote this while only 12 years old.

I want to be as good a writer as he is one day.

 

 

 

Rooftoppers is #1 in ‘Home Improvement Roofing’ on the Big A, but that’s not all.

This page-turner has rich characters, a clever plot and amazing writing.

Great for children and those reading to them.

 

 

 

 

Wonder is worth reading before you watch the film adaptation: it is told beautifully and is a great way to get children (and adults) thinking about how we act when we encounter difference.

 

 

 

 

For People Needing Purpose:

Liz Carter has managed a great feat in producing this book: Catching Contentment is readable and full of empowering truths. Satisfaction is hard to come by, and Liz knows a thing or two about that. She shares her story and challenges and encourages us to look at what contentment really means and how we can experience it ourselves.

 

 

 

Lysa TerKeurst is another woman with a powerful testimony of huge disappointment and how to find strength to rebuild a life. It’s Not Supposed to Be This Way may be a bestseller, but its popularity demonstrates how important this topic is for so many of us.

 

 

 

 

Disclaimer: I’ve not finished reading Image of the Invisible, but that is because the daily readings last until 6th January. So far it’s been excellent

I was drawn to Amy’s book because I like to be challenged when I have devotional readings and Amy has an intelligent, godly and articulate voice. She connects biblical truths intuitively with experiences many of us resonate with, and I highly recommend this book for future Advent readers.

 

 

For Those Who Love Wit:

Brian Bilston signed my copy of Diary of a Somebody when he came to Cambridge recently. I love his marvellous wit, original ideas and allusions to works of literature, films and music. His tweets made him famous through his clever poetry; this longer book is great fun and a super read whether or not you like poetry.

(But particularly if you do).

 

For Those Who Love a Well-Crafted Story:

 

Madeline Miller is both an academic and an astonishingly good writer. I felt drawn into her world of ancient Greek myth and I thoroughly enjoyed reading Circe. I would like to read her Song of Achilles before long. I aspire to be able to write as beautifully as Miller, and to be able to evoke the ancient mind and place so well.

 

 

 

 

Until this year I had only read the first in the Harry Potter series, but I wanted to read the set, especially now I have a child at high school.

I was spell-bound. The stories are full of adventure and the plotting is superb. The characters were mischievous and lovable and I enjoyed the names and the details. I found all of the books great in their own way, but Deathly Hallows brought everything together neatly and was the most satisfying for me, despite some scary moments.

 

For Theologians with too little time:

Peter Williams is the Principal of Tyndale House in Cambridge and a renowned New Testament scholar. This short and very readable book is a super look at the reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, looking at details such as undesigned coincidences, outside sources, local knowledge and textual variant questions.

Williams makes a strong case and references his points well. A good book for pastors and biblical teachers, as well as discerning seekers.

 

 

Technically, I don’t know whether I have finished reading The Marriage of Heaven and Earth: A Visual Guide to N.T. Wright so I’ve not included it in the book count, but I have read over 80% of it at various times in preparing for my most recent lectures.

If you have time, read N.T. Wright. If you have read some of Tom Wright, but don’t have much time, read this too.

Very clever. Punchy text and illustrated with diagrams to help the visual learner.

 

The Bible Project Book: Illustrated Summaries of Biblical Books

This is an amazing resource, and works best in conjunction with the free videos on Youtube. I’ve not read all of Read Scripture: Illustrated Summaries of Biblical Books but as a biblical scholar I love what the team have done. Each book of the Bible gets a large spread and there are lots of details as well as overviews. The book is actually quite big, but it comes with a cover to slot into; it needs to be big to fit some of the many details in.

 

If you have written a book which I haven’t reviewed here, I may not have read it (or finished it) yet – send me an email or drop a comment below and I will read and review it as soon as I am able.

In 2020 I intend to progress further with my own writing projects and will continue to note down all the books I read as I go. I wonder how many books I’ll be able to complete in the coming decade?

Well, ideally I will need to focus more time and attention on my own writing: all being well at least one of those ought to have my name on the cover.

A very happy new year to you, and happy reading!

Giving up giving up

Ooooh, it’s Lent.

And today it’s also the Feast of St Valentine, which conveniently has Lent right there in the middle of it.

Or, if you like, A loveseat tent sniff, which is a useful anagram for the day.

Not often that Lent starts on Valentine’s Day, and as Easter Sunday falls on 1st April, this year Lent is bookended with love and joy.

I like that.

Image result for psalm 90 14

A lot of people I know try and discipline themselves over the season of Lent by giving something up. While their efforts are laudable, sensible and often far too health-conscious for regular humans like me, I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of refraining from something I enjoy and feel nourished or sustained by, unless I feel convicted by God to do it (i.e. fasting, from food, drink, social media or the like). There are times when God asserts his place by insisting on our attentions. Food, drink, even facebook, are not to become more important than God. But neither are those other precious things in life: partners, children or oxygen. And while I put God ahead of my husband, my children and the air I breathe, I don’t honestly think he is asking me to forgo them for six weeks. The family may be a little confused and upset, for a start.

Fasting has its place. Giving something up for Lent often has its place when God convicts us, but if it is about a personal detox, it is not a spiritual endeavour. Perhaps some people, in their earnest desires to improve themselves, have made ‘giving up’ a bigger deal than ‘getting close to God’. They want to see whether they can manage to accomplish something valuable but difficult. Great. For me though, I want a closer relationship with God. Sometimes he will want me to give something up. Sometimes he will want me to take something up.

For me, Jesus took up human flesh and frailty. For me, he took up the cross. In my experience, God has been wonderfully generous through the many ups and downs of life; multiplying grace and love over and over. He has sometimes put barriers up, but these have been wise and reasonable, even when I did not like them. He has sometimes allowed times of pain, but his presence has been close and his promises have endured.

In Jewish thought, the idea of stopping on the Sabbath and not working is not viewed as negative, but positive. The Sabbath rest is a proactive feasting and renewing time. Our best celebrations do the same.

So I will give up giving up. This Lent I am going to try finishing a few tasks.

  • I want to finish sorting the children’s artwork from the past ten years.
  • I want to finish getting the garage in order.
  • I want to complete several books I am in the middle of. And get promised book reviews to Amazon.

I am a great starter of tasks. Now I am going to learn to be a great finisher of tasks too. God has shown me that he continues with me, though I am still a work in progress. He will complete the task and what he starts, he finishes.

What about you? Have you got any tasks you are hoping to complete over Lent? Or any interesting Lent activities or fasts you are taking part in? Do comment below!

 

New Life ACW Lent Book – Update

I am thrilled to announce that I am in print, and the books are out now!

The Association of Christian Writers have compiled a book of creative devotionals in the form of a Lent Book, and I am one of the contributors. This is a very exciting experience for a fledgling author.

As I was keen, naive and wanted to put all my profits toward a church link in Albania we have set up with our home church, I managed to get a large number of pre-orders, so am one of the very first to take delivery of my order. Responses have been fantastic and as my own stocks are now very low, if you are interested in a copy, do please order from Amazon, or support your local Christian bookshop and get it direct from them. 

 

Lent Book cover

 

 

International Poetry Day

I felt compelled today to edit and republish a poem I first put out three years ago on my personal blog jamandgiraffes, in honour of International Poetry Day and because Easter is coming. Spring is now here and while flowers smell of hope and joy, Easter tells a more humbling story and I had been looking back at the gospels and wondering what it all smelt like. Feel free to use this, although if you do, please do credit me.

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Smelly Week

It all started when the jar of nard parted
Jarred, barred, open-hearted, broken-hearted,
What a strange smell, filling the house from roof to foot,
Smell of treasure, smell of death (tarted up).

Then branches waving in the king, palms up, palms down
Crunching under simple hooves, hay, swaying fresh and fuzzy.

Smelly feet, incomplete, bread and the vineyard and olives and torches –
Feast or final meal, more blood, more fire and the plaintive crow crow crowing.

Unknowing. Smell of fear, of sweat, of thorns and wood,
Smell of your trade, made rough, tough nails rusty, musty dust.
Smell of pain, again, again, again, sweat, blood, vinegar and hyssop.
Hyssop? Cleanse me too – blood rolling like tears, metallic, organic to the ground.

Bound, in myrrh, in aloe, from head to toe, so so dead. No!

No.

And then you said ‘why are you crying?’

And my world of tears and mud and blood split open and I breathed a different air. It smelt of life.

And it smelt good.

Friday 500 – Christmas Pop Theology

Perhaps this is the year Chris Rea will make it all the way home in time for Christmas. We can only hope.

I like to listen in to the lyrics of songs. And, given that ‘Driving Home for Christmas’ is a popular non-religious Christmas song, I found it surprisingly full of hidden biblical references.

Consider the following extracts, and some interesting parallels:

I’m driving home for Christmas

The Israelites had to drive out the nations in the land before they could possess it. But perhaps that is the wrong sense. Think instead of Elisha, driving a pair of oxen as he ploughed a field. Was he driving homewards? Probably half the time. Events overtook him and he changed plans. Like Rea, we are left wondering if there was a satisfactory outcome to this slow march. Unlike Rea, Elisha stopped, killed his oxen, cooked them and feasted with his family, before heading off for a good long time. This seems as close to a portrayal of Christmas as I can find in the Old Testament. A biblical reference about the need for a good feast time with family.

I can’t wait to see those faces

This is clearly a reference to Joseph’s brothers travelling down to Egypt. The phrase ‘seeing’ a ‘face’ occurs five times in this story. The irony of course was that there was a lot of waiting to be done. Christmas always seems like a long wait. Until you reach adulthood in my experience. Then it comes round every twelve months, whether you’ve been naughty or nice. And twelve months come round a lot more quickly than they used to.

Well I’m moving down that line

David in 1 Samuel 17:48, running to fight Goliath. “As the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly towards the battle line to meet him.” A reference to the need for proactive Christmas preparations. David already had his ‘gift’ for Goliath and was ready to sling it over to him. Granted, the motive was not pleasant, but it was the thought that counted.

And it’s been so long

An invalid in John 5 had been a very long time waiting for his turn to be healed at the pool of Bethesda. This is clearly a reference to this passage. Jesus heals him anyway, despite it being a non-work day. Which goes to show that the wait is worth it, but you shouldn’t forget those who have to work over the holidays.

But I will be there

This reference is to the consecration of Solomon’s temple, where God tells him in 1 Kings 9:3: “I have heard the prayer and plea you have made before me; I have consecrated this temple, which you have built, by putting my Name there for ever. My eyes and my heart will always be there.” God’s presence is a rather significant part of Christmas.

I sing this song

There are many songs in the Bible, although I think the reference here is to Isaiah 44:23 where even the heavens, the earth, the mountains, forests and trees are all part of the choir. Choirs form a staple of Christmas and trees are now a prominent feature in many places to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Decorated and lit up, they too join in the great song of praise and glory.

It’s gonna take some time

This lyric refers to Nehemiah 2, where the length of his proposed journey from Persia to Jerusalem to shore up the city walls is discussed. Nehemiah is truthful. Partly because he does not have super-speed reindeer (he does have access to a donkey apparently) and partly because he needs an extended leave of absence.

Top to toe in tailbacks
Oh, I got red lights on the run

The levitical laws prescribed dabbing priests’ ear lobes and big toes with blood, which is bright red, just like tail lights. Clearly then, this is a reference to the priestly element of the Christmas story.

Get my feet on holy ground

Moses’ encounter with God at the non-burning bush is the obvious connection here. Rea sings about getting home in these terms, because he wants to be somewhere sacred and familiar. The message of Christmas is that the pitter-patter of little feet brings God nearer than ever before. We have the opportunity to really encounter God and his love ourselves.

And feel you near me

Immanuel, ‘God with us’, the classic Isaiah prophecy recalled at Christmas concerns God’s imminence and presence. Even when apart from loved ones, like Rea we sometimes feel the comfort of knowing they love us. Even when apart from God we sometimes recognise a piece of the divine Love, and when we are close to God we feel those pieces falling into place in our lives.

With a thousand memories

Psalm 105:8: “He remembers his covenant for ever / the promise he made, for a thousand generations”. Not just a thousand memories, but a thousand generations of memories. Which is figurative for ‘a very long time’, but nevertheless reassuring.

So, next time you find yourself stuck in a car, listening to this song on the radio about other drivers stuck in cars, have a think about the lyrics. Maybe there’s more I haven’t even spotted yet. Who knows? Or other Christmas pop songs?

In fact, I’ve gone way over my 500 words target for this week (I hadn’t posted so much lately so this one is longer), so it really is time I left this thought here.

Songwriters: REA, CHRISTOPHER ANTON

Driving Home For Christmas lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.