Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Book of the Month - April '14

Pick the best book I've read this month? Well that's easy. It has to be The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy. When I started it I had no idea that it would turn out to be the sort of book that would make me worry about the characters. This doesn't happen to me very often. I can read books without becoming emotionally involved with the characters, but not this one.

You can read my first thoughts about the novel when I finished it here.

The ending is good, not only because the pace picks up at an alarming rate, but because Hardy doesn't let you get so carried away with the change in direction that you forget about the consequences of the events. He doesn't let you forget that the something that is good for one person isn't always good for everyone else. Some people get left behind. I think that it is this sort of ending that gives the novel a greater depth.

Would I read it again? Without doubt.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Sofa Spotlight - The Woodlanders, Thomas Hardy

I have changed my mind about this book so many times. I started off liking it, it had a dramatic start, but then some of the main characters became annoying. However, by the end I couldn't put it down. Dan Brown eat your heart out, this is a true page turner.

The story is about the love life of Grace Melbury. Born in small village she is sent away to become educated and so rises above her village neighbours on the social ladder. Or so her family think. This education is what causes the most problems in the book. It puts her in the centre of a love triangle worthy of teenage angst novels like The Hunger Games. I can understand why this was Hardy's favourite story. There are twists and turns that I didn't see coming and that is what redeemed this book from its mediocre middle chapters.

Giles Winterborne and Edred Fitzpiers are the two lovers. Winterborne is the steady woodsman that has loved Grace all his life and would give up anything for her, but is deemed below her in station. Fitzpiers is the local doctor and lives a stereotypical bad boy lifestyle of Hardy's day. He is loved by many of the local women of varying social standings and Grace at some points wonders why they do so, when he has treated them all so badly.

If you read no other novel this year read this one. It ends so well, although towards the end there is an incident with a mantrap that made me feel a little sick. If you've read it let me know what you thought of it.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Sofa Spotlight - Matthew, J. C. Ryle

It took me just over two weeks to read this and it makes my recommended list. My edition is part of The Crossway Classic Commentaries Series, and the cover is much better than most that I have seen for this book. For a commentary it is an easy read. Ryle divides his chapters to follow each of the chapters in Matthew.

In the introduction it explains that Ryle intended his commentary to be used by families as they studied the Bible together. From reading it I think that could be doable. Most of the chapters you can read in about ten minutes. But there are some long ones, and I mean that they are looong. Maybe they should be left for the weekends! I didn't read this with my family and I got on ok with it, don't think there is any problem with working your way through it on your own. If you did a chapter a day in a February that isn't in a leap year you would finish it by the end of the month.

With any book you shouldn't accept everything that it says, and this is true of this book too. There were parts that I don't think that I agree with, but I need to think about them longer before I form my opinion of them. Like any other book you need to think about what you are reading. If you don't agree with something work out why you don't agree. Maybe you will have your mind changed.

What I am taking away from this book is a deeper sense of who Jesus is. It can be hard to shake the image of a gentle Jesus, but Ryle leaves us in no doubt that Jesus was not soft. From beginning to end Ryle explains how Jesus came to deal with the problem of sin. He doesn't soften the awful scene of the cross or the stance that Jesus took on the hypocrisy of his accusers. If Jesus is who He says that He is - the Son of God and the rightful King of this world - then I need to listen to what He has to say and make sure that He is my King.

If you are thinking about trying a commentary as part of your quiet time, this is a good one to start with.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

How rabbits stopped me getting a bigger piece of pie

The Easter weekend was meant to be when I got ahead on the book challenge. It didn't really happen. Rather than reading I spent time eating these cute little rabbits:

Cute rabbits
Cute rabbits about to be eaten

I know I should have eaten the rabbits at the same time as reading but there was a lot going on. Anyway this left me with a very small piece of pie as I have only read five. Out of sixty six. EG managed fifteen. I sense that time is slipping away...

Thursday, 24 April 2014

The Sofa Shelf - Formula

One new book on the shelf:

The Lost Symbol - Dan Brown

After my not so fun experience with The Da Vinci Code I have taken a deep breath and started the next in the Robert Langdon series. To be fair I did enjoy Angels and Demons so I have hope for this one. So far it is fitting the formula of the other books. There is a crazy assassin type character and it seems like there will be a race against time. One variation I have noticed is that there hasn't been a horrible murder, this time it is a kidnapping. Although I'm not sure there hasn't been a murder. Something I don't like, which is my own fault, is that the edition that I have is the big hardback version. But it was only £1 from a second hand bookshop so I can't complain too loudly. Just hope I don't have a train journey anytime soon.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Sofa Shelf Update

A very short update on the shelf:

A Book of Narrative Verse - compiled by V. H. Collins

Not had time to read any. My heart bleeds.

The Cuckoo's Calling - Robert Galbraith

I find myself reading this whenever I can, even if it's only for a few minutes. Once picked up it's hard to put down again. Haven't read much of it since last time. What I like is that the development of the characters is just as good as the mystery surrounding the crime.

Racing Through the Dark - The Fall and Rise of David Millar

No reading and not much cycling happening either.  

The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown

Finished it! What I thought is here.

The Woodlanders - Thomas Hardy

I have changed my mind about this book. When I started it I liked it and now I'm not sure that I do. It reminds me of The Return of the Native and I wasn't a big fan of that book. In my opinion the characters in these books would do better if they all minded their own business. Although I suppose there wouldn't be much story in it then. 

Matthew - J. C. Ryle

This is good. Some of the chapters are longer than I first thought and would take longer than ten minutes to read. Ryle is just as challenging as he was in Holiness and I think I will have a long list of applications at the end. So far an easier read than Holiness. 

Celebrated Crimes - Alexandre Dumas

No news on the Borgia family yet, haven't had chance to read much of it. I like books that help me learn and not just entertain and I think this is going to be one of them. 

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Sofa Spotlight - The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown

This is a book that doesn't improve on the second reading. If you have managed to get through life so far without reading this book my advice to you would be, don't bother. I'm sorry if this is your favourite book. I just don't like it. Maybe it's because I'm comparing it to Angels and Demons all the time.

So a quick spoiler free synopsis. Langdon, symbologist expert type person, in Paris scheduled to meet the curator of the Louvre. Louvre curator murdered and body left in a disturbing posture. Langdon and curator's granddaughter embark on a chase around Paris and later London on the trail of the Holy Grail. It all gets messy and the nature of the Holy Grail could have serious implications for Christianity.

I can understand the controversy that this book caused. I'm sure much ink has been spilt about this. I have two small things to say. One is that the book says that most Christians don't know where their faith has its origins. Every Christian should be sure of what the believe in, because if we are wrong then we are to be pitied above all people (1 Corinthians 15:19). There are a couple of books I would recommend if you want to look into the authenticity of the Bible and why Jesus is worth following.

The first is God's Big Picture by Vaughan Roberts. This book will give you an overview of the Bible, and show you how it all fits together.

The second is A Fresh Start by John Chapman. This one will explain what Christianity is about and why Jesus is important.

The second thing I want to say is that The Da Vinci Code is a work of fiction. I've recently read a blog post about films made by Hollywood. It suggests some ways to view films that offer an opinion or a take on Christianity, in a way other than slating the film from the start. Even though it's about films, and Noah in particular, I think it could be easy to apply it to books. If you're interested this is the link:

I don't think I want to read this book again. It felt like there was loads of build up but then it fizzled out at the end. If you've read it what did you think?

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Book Challenge - Pie but no Mash

With a couple of bank holidays on the horizon it looks like progress could be made with the book challenge. Currently I have four stars and EG has six. Someone has worked out that we would need to read four and half books a week to reach our targets. Maybe we should rethink the no picture book rule.
Ruth's Target

Hate to say it but it's not looking good. I'm looking around for the shortest books I can find, but I'm not sure that even that will help.

Will update you again on the other side of Easter. Hopefully my slice of pie will be bigger!

EG's Target 

Thursday, 17 April 2014

The Sofa Shelf - Crime and Commentaries

Two new books on the shelf this week:

Matthew - J. C. Ryle

 This is a commentary on the book of Matthew and may seem a bit of a strange choice to read. It's not a bad thing to work through a commentary from time to time. There are some commentaries that are more "reference book" than others, but this one is aimed for use during a family's time with the Bible. However, I will be reading this one on my own, to read it with my family would require a lot of skype calls. I've used this one before a few years ago and I'm looking forward to reading it again. The chapters look really short - I think Ryle's idea was that you could read them in around ten minutes.

Celebrated Crimes - Alexandre Dumas

This was part of my Christmas present from EG. It is a collection of notorious crimes - I suppose that's why the title works so well! I'm part way through the first crime and it is making me want to know more about European history. On the way to work this week I was explaining this to EG and I said that the first part was about a pope that was being portrayed as a villain and that I would probably enjoy the book more if I knew more history. EG said, "It's not the Borgia family is it?" Yes it was - I clearly know nothing about that period of history. So at present I am reading about the crimes of the Borgia family. Will let you know how that goes.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Sofa Shelf Update

This is how it is going so far.

A Book of Narrative Verse - edited bt V. H. Collins

Haven't read it for a while. Not sure I want to for a bit.

The Cuckoo's Calling - Robert Galbraith

Still liking this, although I'm not half way through yet. No idea who the murderer is, I'm trying to decide if the obvious culprit is a bluff and it is someone more obscure or it could be obvious and you're meant to think that it is too obvious. Round and round in circles I go!

Racing Through the Dark - The Fall and Rise of David Millar

Read a little more, but I haven't had a chance to properly sit down with it. What I have read is keeping me interested, probably because I love anything bike related. As my first experience of an autobiography it is going fairly well. Could just be because of the bikes though.

Holiness - J. C. Ryle

I've finished this one. Find out what I thought about it here. And it gets me another star on the chart.

The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown

Not far from finishing. I still don't think that it is as good as Angels and Demons but it's alright. I can't remember how it pans out in the end so that keeps my interest a little bit. I have found some of the comments on Christianity interesting but I will talk about them when I've finished.

The Woodlanders - Thomas Hardy 

Not how I thought this book was going to be. There is a great character (who has actually just fallen in my esteem) in the form of a mysterious doctor who works through the night. The people in the village think he has sold his soul to the devil so you can picture him for yourself. Looking forward to finding out what happens.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Sofa Spotlight - Holiness, J. C. Ryle

Books don't like diet coke. My copy of Holiness by J. C. Ryle had an encounter with some diet coke and now some of the pages are stained. :(

This book is very good, but it does need your full attention. J. C. Ryle was bishop of Liverpool in the 19th Century, and it is the language of that era that you are dealing with. Having said that Ryle is easy to engage with. It is clear from his writing that he has a passion to see those who read his work get to know Jesus. He is in no way an arrogant writer. At times he admits that he may be wrong, but he explains why he thinks the way he does. When he points out what he sees as errors in the church his motivation is concern for those involved. 

He takes twenty one chapters to talk about the different aspects of holiness. The first couple talk about sin and its seriousness. What struck me was how little I worry about the sin in my own life. This book was like taking a flash light to illuminate the parts of my life that I keep hidden. There was no hiding the fact that I have become complacent about sin and the price that Jesus paid to free me from its grip. It is this complacency that Ryle is urgently trying to warn his readers about. For me it was the first four or five chapters that hit home. I have a list of attitudes that I need to be working to change. Ryle doesn't leave out the grace of God, but it wouldn't hurt to start living like I believed that Jesus has died for me. 

In the middle of the book come a few chapters about different people in the Bible. I learnt most from the chapter about Lot. It had never occurred to me the danger that Lot put himself in by the lifestyle choices he made. The application I'm working on from this is to keep running from sin and not take my eyes off Jesus. 

The chapters on the church are interesting partly because I wonder what Ryle would say if he saw the church now. The consequences that he warns of in these chapters are visible in the church today. What I'm not sure he would be prepared for is the amount of people who don't attend church. In these chapters he assumes that his readers and most of the population would attend church. 

What stood out to me in this book was Ryle's love for Jesus and how he wants everyone to be trusting Jesus and not religion or their own efforts. As I was finishing this book I received news that some friends had been killed in a car crash. They loved Jesus and you could tell that from the moment that you met them. It was a joy for them to do what they could for Him, they really meant it. They were pursuing the holiness that Ryle talks about. That is what I want to be like. I'm sad that their lives ended like this but I'm glad that they are now with Jesus, receiving the reward that they worked for. I would also like to acknowledge the work the students who were on the scene did to try to save their lives. You can read about their efforts here: 

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Book Smuggling and Dumas Treasure

Last weekend we went to visit the Ironbridge Gorge. I was planning my usual suitcase of books. But apparently this wasn't allowed - something about being social...?  With a limit of just one book I came up with a cunning plan to take three unobserved.

In case of a spot check I installed a false bottom to my bag. I hid two books in there and talked loudly about the ONE book I was taking with me. I made sure that EG had seen the ONE book and then I tried to get my bag out the door. What I hadn't reckoned with was the intense scrutiny of the house border control. The two illegal books were discovered, much to my annoyance and then I really was limited to just ONE book.

 I think it is a breach of my human rights.

Despite my poor book smuggling skills my ability to spot a Dumas book at a distance was in no way diminished. On the way to the Ironbridge bridge thing I got distracted by a second hand bookshop. With culture on hold EG and I gave the shop a quick scan. I spotted an Alexandre Dumas book I'd never heard of, Acte.

I've since googled it and most of the results are in French. What I did find out is that it is set during the reign of Nero, but that is all I could find out. I suppose that saves me from plot spoilers!

The bridge looked nice too.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Classic Moments

Classic Books
If you were going to read a classic novel which one would you choose? I started to read them when I was twelve. My first one was A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, and it is still one of my favourite books. 
You can forget Mr Darcy, it is Sydney Carton that I am in love with. It was given me, or rather plucked from our bookshelves, as something to stretch my reading ability.

From there classics became birthday cards. Wordsworth editions are about the same price as a birthday card so on my birthday I could choose any classic and my parents would write in the cover of it for me. Because I knew nothing about literature I would pick the thickest book on the shelf and that is how I came to own a copy of War and Peace. It became my mission to consume these books as quickly as possible – I gave myself one week to read War and Peace. I failed. The birthday card book thing still happens, although I also get a real birthday card too! Bonus.

I don't know what constitutes a classic, I just accept what the publisher tells me about the book. Are there rules about what makes a classic? That shows my ignorance! If you know what makes a classic point me in the right direction, I would like to satisfy my curiosity.

If you have never read a classic, I really think that you should. They are worth the extra work that you have to put into reading them. A short one to start with is The Thirty Nine Steps by John Buchan. It weighs in at about a hundred pages. Ten pages a day you would have read it in ten days.  Jane Austen’s novels aren't that long either.

Classic Silliness
A less well known novel is The Women’s War by Alexandre Dumas which I think is very readable. My advice is experiment – who knows what you may find. I wouldn't recommend jumping in at an unabridged version of Les Miserables - you may lose the will to live or worse, never pick up a classic again! Maybe build up to it.

Are you a classic reader? What are you favourite classic moments? Which one would you recommend?

Monday, 7 April 2014

The Sofa Shelf

Just one new book on the shelf this week.

The Woodlanders - Thomas Hardy

This is the last Hardy that I'm planning to read on this visit to his works. I'm thinking that it probably won't be a happy ending, but then you never know. Apparently it was one of Hardy's favourite stories. I've only read the preface which is all about the location of the novel's setting. Not knowing the area it didn't mean that much to me, but maybe one day I might have a cycling adventure in that part of the country. Has anyone read it? What did you think?

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Three Reasons to Read Thomas Hardy

I started to read Thomas Hardy because I had seen a poor adaptation of The Mayor of Casterbridge. I picked it up in a second hand bookshop to see if the book was better than the version I had watched. It was. Since then I've picked up most of his novels and short stories in second hand bookshops and charity shops. I think they are well written and here are three reasons why I think you should read them:

1.       He is often overlooked
In 2012 the Daily Telegraph produced an article about how books by Thomas Hardy and other similar writers were falling out of fashion. Hardy’s books have a reputation of being depressing and it is true they don’t often end well. But that is no reason to miss out on good writing. Everyone has heard of Thomas Hardy but how many have read his books? How many people have read the Trumpet Major (or The Crumpet Major as we dubbed it when I was reading it earlier this year) or other lesser known works?  In my opinion his most famous works are not always his best, and those lesser known titles get missed. Who knows what gems are out there that you might be missing out on.

2.       He shows us how our world has changed
The world we live in now is very different to the world that Thomas Hardy knew when he was writing. It’s good to be reminded of the changes that have taken place and think about whether they were good changes or not.

3.       He shows us what hasn't changed in our world

Some things don’t change. Injustice and hardship are still a part of this world. All the advances in technology and philosophy haven’t been able to change that. Humankind is at the heart of the problem. No matter what we do we cannot rid our hearts of sin. So another reason to read Hardy is to make us look forward to the new world that Jesus will bring. 

A good place to start with Hardy is probably a selection of his short stories. That's my recommendation anyway.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Two Down Sixty Four To Go

EG and I have a book challenge. I have to read 66 books by the end of September and she has to read 64. You can find out why here. When we finish a book we can put a star on the chart. My line of stars is definitely tidier than EG's.

What I didn't mention in my previous post is that every book that we read over our target equates to one book we can buy in Hay-on-Wye. When we are reading the bonus books we get special stickers - My Little Pony stickers. What joy! EG wants me to take a picture of them to show you, but I think that should be saved for when (IF) we get to that point.

At the weekend the stars were coming out. EG finished a book first, but I wasn't far behind. Then a second one went up on EG's side and I worked hard on Sunday night to finish my second, only to find on Monday morning that EG had finished another. There was a little dispute over the validity of the third book as the pages had large margins, but I agree it does count as a book. Picture books however, DO NOT COUNT.

The books EG has read are:
Tender is the Night - F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - Jean-Dominique Bauby
Letters to a Debutante - Lady Jephson

I have read:
Compared to Her - Sophie de Witt
Wessex Tales - Thomas Hardy

The race is on. If enough of you comment I'll take a picture of the pony stickers.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Sofa Shelf Update

I've finished two of the books that were on the shelf. Here is how I'm getting on with the rest of them.

Compared to Her - Sophie de Witt

This is one that I've finished. Find out what I thought about it here

A Book of Narrative Verse - compiled by V. H. Collins

Over the weekend I fell asleep reading it! I've got past the Chaucer poems and Old Ballads, neither of which I understood. Tonight I read extracts from work by Edmund Spenser and John Milton. Milton was the best so far but even that I found hard work. Does anyone else have this problem or is there something that I am missing? 

The Cuckoo's Calling - Robert Galbraith

Love it. Not that far through but I'm enjoying the build up of the main characters. However, I am learning that I wouldn't make a very good detective. Looking forward to my next reading session of this.

Racing Through the Dark - The Fall and Rise of David Millar

Sadly not had a chance to read any of this recently. Did some actual cycling instead though. 

Holiness - J. C. Ryle

I'm not far from finishing this and it has been a challenge. Not only does it require a fair bit of concentration but it doesn't leave you feeling warm and cosy. So far I am beginning to realise that I don't come anywhere close to the standard of holiness that God requires. Makes me very glad that Jesus met that requirement on my behalf, but also it pushes me to think about how I am responding to God's mercy. Watch this space. 

Wessex Tales - Thomas Hardy

Finished this one at the weekend. Read about it here.

The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown

So far it's ok, not grabbing my attention yet though. I'm about a third of the way through so still time for me to get into it. 

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Book of the Month - March '14

There are only three books that I have managed to finish in March. They are The Well-Beloved by Thomas Hardy, Compared to Her by Sophie de Witt and Wessex Tales by Thomas Hardy. Thinking back on all three there isn't any I regret reading or wouldn't read again.

My problem is that I become attached to the characters in the books that I read. And not just in fiction. A few years ago I read a compilation of letters by Charlotte Bronte. By the end I felt that I had got to know her a little bit. So much so that when the last letter in the book was a letter from her husband to inform a friend of her death I cried. At that moment in walked my housemate and asked what was wrong. "Charlotte Bronte is dead!" was my response. I think she could be forgiven for thinking that I had gone mad.

So even though I finished the books by Hardy I'm still missing those characters. However, the book that I've been thinking about the most is Compared to Her. Not because I'm attached to it, but because I still feel challenged by what it had to say. In the week since I've read it, I've learnt that I cannot change the way I think by myself. Hopefully this will mean that I will rely on God to be transforming my mind, but knowing me I will still try to do it on my own. Maybe that's why the Christian life has been called a struggle.

Book of the month goes to Compared to Her by Sophie de Witt.