“My name is Henrietta S. Robertson. That’s my English name… My Chinese name is Ming-Mei.”
As the child of members of the Interior Alliance Mission, Henrietta has grown up between two cultures: English and Chinese. From the age of six she was sent to boarding school on a mountain in the Jiangxi Province, where four years later she remains as a small, pale, lonely girl.
For a girl as young as ten, Etta has a big imagination. She decides that God has called her to be a prophetess, and encourages the other girls in Dormitory A to join her in a Prophetess Club. This results is Etta getting into all sorts of trouble as she naively goes about inventing prophecies; all the while the Second Sino-Japanese War gets closer and closer to their mountain sanctuary.
Told mostly from Etta’s point of view, In a Land of Paper Gods is a hilarious historical novel about a young girl’s innocence. A large part of the story is about the missionary school rather than the ongoing war, therefore the focus is on Etta’s interpretation of the bible and her understanding of the differences between Western Christian and Chinese culture. However, once America joins the war effort, it is shockingly quick how the tale can go from humorous to heartbreaking.
The other character who plays a large part in this novel is Muriel, a dorm aunty, whom Etta regards highly. Muriel wanted to be a missionary but instead has found herself working at the Lushan school, keeping an eye on the ten and eleven year old girls. Although most of the book is written in Etta’s first person narrative, Rebecca Mackenzie has also included the occasional diary entry from Aunty Muriel. Since these are so few, it is not clear what their purpose is, as the story could easily continue without them.
Despite being an historical novel, In a Land of Paper Gods focuses less on fact and more on the impact the times had on a young girl. It is interesting to see the character development of Etta as she goes from a naughty, attention-seeking schoolgirl, to a young woman who must fend for herself. All the while she has her belief in God to resort to for explanations about the world she is living in. The reader also witnesses the growth of a relationship between Aunty Muriel and Etta. To begin with it is that of an adult and child, however it ends with them being equals in their suffering.
In a Land of Paper Gods is a pleasure to read. It is comically entertaining to begin with as the reader grows to love the characters, particularly mischievous Etta. It is hard to put the book down due to pure delight of the storyline, yet when the story turns darker it is just as difficult to put down, as we want to find out if the characters are going to be okay.
For some people, the Christian content will not mean anything, however it is possible to enjoy the novel without a religious background. For those, like myself, who do have a Christian upbringing, this aspect makes the story even better. Readers may recognize themselves or of their childhood in Etta, particularly her understanding of the bible.
Overall I loved this book. I was not sure what to expect, and have often found historical novels set in China to be rather dull. Therefore I was pleasantly surprised to discover how good this book was. I encourage others to read In a Land of Paper Gods, and I look forward to reading what Mackenzie writes next.
In the Shadow of David is Martin Baggen’s attempt at reimagining “the greatest story ever told,” i.e. the life of Jesus Christ. Beginning on the banks of the river Jordan where John the Baptist is washing away the sins of his followers, the story continues before concluding with the resurrection. Told through the eyes of supporting characters, the details of Jesus’ life, or in this instance Yeshua’s, are reinvented in fairly accurate historical settings.
Unfortunately, Braggen’s attempt at originality is going to upset 2.2 billion people. Instead of telling the story of Jesus in the manner he is portrayed in the Bible, the author pens the character Yeshua and claims that there was no “Son of God.” The names, settings and historical facts all remain the same or similar in this version of events, however the miracles: Lazarus’ death, water into wine, the resurrection of Christ/Yeshua, were all shown to be a charade. According to In the Shadow of David, the “Son of God” was a charlatan attempting to reunite the Jews and overthrow the ruling Romans.
By mocking Christianity, Martin Braggen has wasted his writing talent with this blasphemous novel. Granted there are many people who try to prove the inexistence of a god, however in these instances there are always counter arguments. By containing this controversial opinion in a story, it prevents any other theories or beliefs from contributing.
Many may purchase this book with the mistaken idea that it will convey an in-depth narrative of the life of Jesus. What they will find instead is a disappointing atheist version instead. It is doubtful that readers will get to the end of the book, despite it not being overly long, after slamming it shut in anger and frustration.
In the early hours, as many people’s alarm clocks prepare to go off, BBC Radio 4 broadcasts a daily prayer and reflection. Prayer for the Day Vol. II is the second book published by the radio team encompassing more reflections for daily inspiration. With over half a million devoted listeners tuning in to the station everyday, this second volume promises to be as popular as the first.
After a brief foreword by Bishop James Jones, who explains that prayer should be a daily part of life – not just for times of tragedy - an individual reading is provided for each calendar month. There are 365 (leap years have evidently ceased to exist) meditations or reflections lasting only a couple of paragraphs, followed by a short, one line prayer. Each entry has at some point featured on the radio programme within the past decade, and offers thoughts and perspectives about current challenges, opportunities, gratitude, hope and joy.
The idea of the Prayer for the Day radio broadcast is to equip the listener with the positive attitude to commence the day. Unfortunately this is only beneficial for the early risers, meaning that those who enjoy a lie-in or live an alternative lifestyle miss out on these words of wisdom. With this book, no one misses out on the opportunity to pray; it can be read whenever and wherever one pleases.
Although largely targeted at British Christians (of all denominations), contributors include Jews, Sikhs, Muslims and Buddhists. Admittedly, Christianity is the most predominate, however other religious insights give people the chance to view ideas from an alternative perspective. None of the daily entries attempt to convert readers to a different religion; instead they reveal how similar the ethics and moral codes are. If religious labels and prejudices were removed, the world would be a much more peaceful planet.
There are already books, diaries, magazines and so forth offering a similar day-to-day reading, however some delve too deeply into the bible (or indeed the Qur’an etc) that the message gets lost in profound ideas and complicated language. Prayer for the Day is compiled by dozens of different people; some are bishops, ministers, imams, and authors - essentially the average religious person. Knowing their target audience, each contributor talks to the reader or listener, rather than at them. These are not sermons; they are a short, often personal, message the writers/speakers wish to share with the world. From both a religious and educational point of view, readers are more likely to gain something from this volume – and previous volume – than they would reading essays, documents and books on the subject.
As mentioned above, each daily reflection has previously been broadcast on the radio within the last decade. This, however, causes a few problems. The book is not intended for a specific year (hence why the missing 29th February will at some point be an issue), therefore religious occasions – specifically Easter and Ramadan – will not fall on the same date every year. In this volume, Ramadan occurs several times, and there is at least a week between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Mentions of specific events such as the Syrian refugee crisis or earthquakes will become, or already are, outdated.
Nevertheless, regardless of the time of year, there is something worth learning or considering every day. As the entries (except for having been broadcast on that exact day in the past) are not in chronological order, there is no need to feel compelled to read everyday. If circumstances hinder the opportunity to pick up the book, you do not need to worry about trying to catch up at a later date. As it is impossible to remember word-for-word everything written, Prayer for the Day can be read year on year, offering insights you may have missed or glossed over previously.
For those looking for a prayer book for the coming new year, BBC Radio 4’s Prayer for the Day is definitely worth considering. Not only is it easy to read and understand, the book itself (hardback) is beautiful to look at. Designed by Francesca Corsini, this book will not look out of place next to your bible (or other religious text).
Are you the kind of person that struggles with networking? Do you have to strain to come up with satisfactory conversation starters? Is making business deals with other people something you find challenging? Then Networking Thoughtfully is exactly what you need. This short book by Martin Wheadon is a guide for people who need to build relationships but do not know where to start. With simple points, Wheadon takes readers through a step-by-step process to help achieve positive results.
With over thirty thoughts, the reader is taken through clever ideas to boost their confidence and communication skills. The advice is written clearly, accompanied with examples to help get the most of the author's guidance. The tone of the writing is almost conversational, resulting in the sense that the author understands your anxieties and is talking from personal experience.
Although written with business gain at the forefront, Networking Thoughtfully can also be used to aid personal development. Learning how to start conversations and come up with ways to introduce yourself is beneficial when meeting new people regardless of the circumstances.
The book itself is set out neatly making it easy to follow. It is also easy to dip in and out, reading only the parts relevant to yourself, though if you wish to read it cover to cover it will only take half an hour.
Whether you are new to networking or want to improve your skills, Networking Thoughtfully is an excellent book to read. You are guaranteed to learn something new and develop techniques that benefit both your business and yourself.
"Just because the men have gone to war, why do we have to close the choir? And precisely when we need it most!"
Set in the fictional village of Chilbury, Kent during the Second World War, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir explores the lives of the women left behind whilst the men go off to fight. The remaining villagers are disappointed at the closing of the church choir, which, according to the vicar, cannot go on without any men to sing the tenor and bass parts. However, the arrival of bold, forthright Primrose Trent brings the birth of a new choir, a choir for women only.
Although a war is going on, the ladies of Chilbury have so many other things on their minds. Told through a conflation letters and diary entries, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir reveals the everyday lives of a handful of characters. Mrs Tilling’s journal provides an overview of the general events, whilst 18-year-old Venetia’s letters divulge the wiles and charms she uses in the name of romance. Other characters, particularly the young teenager, Kitty, offer other insights to the goings on in the village.
From falling in love, to having babies, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is full of secrets, schemes and misunderstandings that almost let the villagers forget there is a war on. However, the effects of war do reach the little village, bringing with it terror and grief.
The individual stories that make up the book provide the reader with a number of scenarios that are full of emotion, but equally entertain. One moment the horror of war could leave readers in flood of tears, the next, Mrs B.’s pretentious personality and vaunting comments bring amusement and laughter.
All the while these events are playing out, the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir pulls the women together, providing them with a source of comfort to get them through the terrible times. No matter what disasters befall them, whether caused by war or their own actions, joining together in song gives them a purpose and opportunity to have a break from their fears and grief. War may destroy, but they will carry on singing.
Written in the manner of private letters and journals gives the novel a personal touch. The story is not merely narrated, it is expressed through the emotion and feelings of individual characters, making the scenarios seem more authentic. The downside to this method is the lack of distinction between each character’s voices. With no detectable dialect, the musings of a 13-year-old are composed in much the same manner as the much older Mrs Tilling.
The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is an enjoyable piece of historical literature, which is bound to appeal to many people. Although set during World War II, its primary focus is on the people in the village, making it more attractive to readers who are fed up of reading about bombs and fighting. A mix of family issues, bribery and romance provide considerably more entertainment than a generic wartime novel. Being Jennifer Ryan’s debut novel, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is of a quality that suggests the author has so much more to deliver in the not-so-distant future.
Subtitled How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings, film critic and committed Christian, Josh Larsen, writes Movies Are Prayers to explain his perspective that films are one of our ways of communicating with God. Films, or movies as they are oftentimes referred to in this book, can be many things from a form of escapism to historical information and artistic expression, but as Larsen maintains, they can also be prayers.
“Movies are our way of telling God what we think about this world and our place in it.” Apart from those based on Biblical characters or Christian messages, films are not usually a deliberate attempt at speaking to God. What Larsen is suggesting is that God can be found in places you would not expect – the cinema, for instance. Prayer is a human instinct, even for those who have no religious ties. We are forever asking “why am I here?” or “why me?” alongside feelings of gratitude and love for our positive experiences in life.
Josh Larsen explores several expressions of prayer, including the tenets of the Lord’s Prayer, to examine numerous films from popular classics to contemporary Disney. Beginning with wonder at the natural world (Avatar, Into The Wild), positive forms of prayer are identified in well-known cinematography, such as reconciliation (Where the Wild Things Are), meditation (Bambi), joy (Top Hat, and most musicals) and confession (Toy Story, Trainwreck). But Larsen does not stop there, he goes on to use examples of emotions that many may not consider forms of prayer: anger (Fight Club, The Piano) and lament (12 Years a Slave, Godzilla).
To back up his theory, Josh Larsen relates film sequences with Bible passages, for example, the prayers of David and Job. He likens the ending of Children of Men with the Christmas story and identifies the worshipping of false gods with Wizard of Oz. Larsen also suggests the obedience of the main character in It’s a Wonderful Life reflects the experiences of Jonah.
As well as Biblical theory, Larsen refers to citations from other respected Christian writers on the matter of prayer, challenging preconceived notions of both the religious and the atheist. Despite the fact Movies Are Prayers is heavily steeped in religious connotations, it may appeal to film buffs who wish to delve deeper into the hidden meanings of films.
Although the examples in this book are mostly well-known titles, it is unlikely that readers will have watched all the films. Helpfully, Josh Larsen provides details and descriptions of the scenes he has chosen to focus on so that even if you are not familiar with the story, it is possible to understand the author’s perspective. Having said that, Movies Are Prayers contains a lot of spoilers.
Everyone has their own personal view on Christian theory and prayer, so Movies Are Prayers can only be treated as an idea rather than gospel. However, Josh Larsen has developed an interesting theory that makes you think more about the ways we can communicate with God, even when we may not have deliberately chosen to. Being easy to read and not overly long (200 pages), Movies Are Prayers is the ideal book for film-loving Christians.
Where Are You Hiding, God? is a children’s picture book by the Austrian illustrator Elisabeth Zartl. Originally published in 2013 under the German title Wo versteckst du dich, lieber Gott? it has been translated into English in order to reach a wider audience. Primarily targeted at children of Christian families, the book attempts to explain the concept of God.
The short story begins with an anonymous little girl searching for God in a manner that resembles a game of Hide and Seek. She looks in her bedroom, the bathroom and the garden before giving up in defeat. As she sits desolately alone, a gust of wind and a falling leaf prompt her to realise that God does not have a corporeal body, but is, in fact, everywhere. Exhilarated by her newfound understanding, she exclaims that God was in all the places she looked and that he is inside her, too. God is everywhere.
Aimed at children ages three and over, Where Are You Hiding, God? explores the confusion a child may have in comprehending the idea of God. For a child, knowing something or someone is there but not being able to see them is a difficult idea to grasp. This book, through the demonstration of someone their own age, helps to explain their questions and uncertainties.
Elizabeth Zartl’s illustrations capture the attention of those reading or looking at the pages. Filling each page with a full-colour palette, the drawings are child-friendly but realistic, making it easy to process, and accurately creates a visual narrative of the written words. The language is also suitable for the intended demographic and, although three-year-olds may not be able to read it themselves, they will certainly understand the story.
From a design point of view, the text and illustrations do not quite match up. The full-page artworks make it difficult to place the short sentences in a way that both elements can work together. This, however, is not the fault of the author/illustrator who would have originally been working with a German text.
Overall, Where Are You Hiding, God? is a sweet, short story that can be read to children or grandchildren over and over again. As well as being a source of entertainment, it introduces them to the beliefs they will encounter during their Christian upbringing and prepares them to develop a greater understanding of God.
In 2014, ITV broadcasted the first episode of Grantchester, a drama series based on books by British novelist, James Runcie. Although written during the twenty-first century, the story is set in the 1950s in a village on the outskirts of Cambridge. Sidney Chambers, a young Canon in charge of the Church of St Andrew and Mary, is a polite and friendly character who, despite his reluctance, ends up acting as a detective in a variety of crimes.
Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death is the first book of six in The Grantchester Mysteries. Split into six individual baffling cases, the background story of Sidney’s private life continues to develop throughout. Each crime is committed and swiftly solved by the Canon and his friend, Inspector Geordie Keating, although it is Sidney who ultimately resolves the case.
Murder, jewellery theft and art forgery and just some of the felonies Sidney grudgingly gets involved with. In fact, unresolved crimes tend to land in his lap rather than offering his assistance willingly. Up at dawn to work on sermons before rushing off to capture criminals, Sidney is never off duty.
A vicar may seem like an unlikely candidate for a detective, however, people tend to open up to him and unintentionally reveal delitescent information. Listening to suspects and witnesses without pre-judgement allows Sidney to think things through carefully rather than jumping to conclusions. From the moment the crime is committed right up until the story’s denouement, Sidney passionately does everything he can to make sure the correct culprit is discovered.
What makes this series different from other crime novels is the focus on Sidney Chambers’ own life. James Runcie emphasises the loneliness of a bachelor living in a vicarage with only a curate and crotchety housekeeper for company. Readers are drawn into Sidney’s stories and hold onto the hope that his dalliances with the beautiful Amanda turn out to be something more concrete.
Those who have watched the ITV series will be familiar with the stories in this book because the producer has stuck to the exact storyline, not missing a single thing out or adding anything extra. The fact that there were only two years between publishing and screen production goes to show how well written and thought out these stories are. Unlike famous detective novels such as Sherlock Holmes or those by Agatha Christie, The Grantchester Mysteries are not set at the time of writing, so, although they are historically accurate, the prose is suitable for present day readers.
Each story is quick to read and is easy going, making it a relaxing and enjoyable book. It is not a thriller or horror, although some of the crimes are quite terrible. Instead, it is entertaining and often humorous. It is suitable for crime fiction fans as well as those new to the genre.
Regardless of whether you have watched the television series or not, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death is a delight to read. Of course, ITV has given away all the endings, but it is a different experience to read it in print rather than seeing it acted out on screen. Featuring the face of James Norton on the cover so as to work as a TV tie-in, the series will be easy to spot in prime position on bookshelves both in shops and personal collections.
“Effortless inspiration for a happier life.” It has been scientifically proven that gratitude can be beneficial to both mental and physical wellbeing. It is also acknowledged that being thankful is difficult for many people due to negative circumstances or pessimistic personalities. Gratitude is a little, hardback book by writer and graphic designer, Dani DiPirro, whose purpose is to encourage the reader to show and feel more gratitude in their lives. In a way, this is a self-help book.
Using quotes, written insights and activity suggestions, DiPirro guides the reader through a number of situations in which one can be grateful. The author’s insights are sensitive but to the point, suggesting that everyone faces these problems, and does not isolate individuals. The quotes help to emphasise the points she makes and the activities are simple and relevant.
The activities themselves are nothing to be afraid of; they are not strenuous or difficult, they merely require you to think or complete a task that does not require you to go out of your way: “ Reflect on the last time you experienced compassion or forgiveness.”
The book itself is simply yet beautifully designed. The red colour theme makes it feel bright and positive; however will be more attractive to women than it would be to men. The print is large, clear and easy to read; suitable for all ages and backgrounds.
Although roughly 130 pages, it only takes ten minutes to read from cover to cover. However, this is not the intention of the author. To get the most out of the book, each section/task should be tackled individually in order to experience the outcome you are hoping for: feeling a sense of gratitude. This is a book that you can return to time and time again, whether you feel motivated or need a little pick me up.
At the back of the book DiPirro has provided lists of top ten ways to be grateful in different environments. These are useful for when you are experiencing problems in the home, or at work, and need help stepping back and seeing the bigger picture.
Overall, Gratitude is a lovely, inexpensive guide to help people gain a more positive outlook on life. There are also other books in this series that focus on different areas of life that people struggle with; e.g. forgiveness and living in the moment. Gratitude is the ideal book to give as a gift to a loved one, or even to keep on your own bookshelf or bedside table, accessible when needed.
Where did religion come from? This is the question Reza Aslan, a scholar of religions, attempts to answer in his latest publication, God: A Human History. To date, Aslan has tackled subjects such as the life of Jesus of Nazareth, and the origins, evolution and future of Islam. In this book, the author journeys back to the earliest evidence of human existence and, using a mix of resources, theories and investigations, tries to determine how our ancestors conceived the idea of gods and souls. Maintaining the idea that the majority of humans think of God as a divine version of ourselves, Aslan also looks at the way our perception of life after death has altered due to the changes in our governments and cultures.
Reza Aslan claims that he, a Muslim-devout-Christian-convert-turned-Sufi, is neither trying to prove or disprove the existence of God or gods. Instead, he is providing readers with a thorough history of religion with a strong suggestion that we, as believers, have fashioned God in our image, and not the other way around.
Insisting that belief systems are inherited from each previous generation, Aslan takes a look at ancient cave drawings where he, and many other theorists, surmise that a form of religion was already well underway. Lack of written word results in a lot of speculation and hypothesis as to what these, usually animal-like, drawings represent, however, many have come to the conclusion that early humans had some form of animistic belief system.
Although not a dig at religion, after all, the author is religious himself, the following chapters bring in to question the authenticity of past and present beliefs. With reference to various psychologists, Aslan poses the theory that ancient humans may have misinterpreted dreams as evidence of a spirit realm. With no one qualified to clarify the things they did not understand, anything without a clear explanation may have been attributed to a god or gods.
As the author describes how religious ideas may have developed from these primitive beliefs to the fully detailed faiths of today, he labels the human race as anthropocentric creatures that have based their religions on human traits and emotions. By reporting in this way, it comes across that the past ideas of the soul, spiritual realms, gods and so forth could not possibly be true, yet, as the final chapters suggest, Aslan is still adamant about the existence of God.
Aslan’s narrative speeds up, finally reaching the recognizable religions of today. Beginning with the Israelites, enslaved by the Egyptians, the author explains, using biblical references, how the first successful monotheistic religion came about. However, researchers have studied the early Bible texts and are inconclusive as to whether the God worshipped by the Jews was the only divine being or whether there were others of a similar standing.
Next, Aslan explores Christianity, posing more questions than he solves, for example, is God one or is God three (i.e. the Holy Trinity)? He defines and compares the definitions of monotheism and pantheism, eventually bringing in Islam and the development of Sufism, which he is not afraid of admitting he agrees with.
God: A Human History is disappointingly short, ending with the feeble conclusion that humans are born with the ability to be convinced of the existence of a divine being and the soul, but it is our own choice to decide whether or not to believe in them. The remaining third of the book is an abundance of notes on the texts, bibliographical references, and Reza Aslan’s personal opinions about the ideas and theories mentioned in his history of religion.
Although an extensive history on the origins of religion, God: A Human History leaves readers none the wiser as to whether their belief is founded in truth or whether it is something that has evolved over time due to lack of understanding about the world. Granted, it was not the aim of the book to prove or disprove the existence of God, however, it may unintentionally sow seeds of doubt or, potentially, anger devout believers. However, there is no attempt at persuading readers to believe one thing or another, thus making it suitable for people of all religion and none.
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon