Monday 30 December 2019

A Trip to The Orkney Islands

The Orkney Islands is an archipelago off the northernmost coast of Scotland. We took a 40 minute ferry ride from John O'Groats across the Pentland Firth to get there.
I lived in the lowlands of Scotland as a child and the nearest I'd ever been to The Orkney Islands was when I went to the Edinburgh Tattoo with my parents and I was too young to remember that. I had a strong desire to visit the Orkney Islands and had to convince my husband who wasn't enamored about going to some remote area that experiences gale force winds and bleak weather for most of the year. (The Orkney Islands in latitude are only about 50 miles south of Greenland.) However, we went; the weather was better than expected - some wind and rain, but nothing exceptional and we thoroughly enjoyed it.
I was surprised to discover that there was no Gaelic influence here - no clan system or tartans. The predominant influence historically were the Vikings or Norse from Norway, who were only about a day's sailing trip away. They settled on Orkney in the late 700's displacing the Picts, and their influence is all over the place.

The Churchill Barriers - in 1939 a German submarine sank a British ship in the Scapa Flow. Winston Churchill, at that time the First Lord of the Admiralty, ordered a series of four causeways or barriers to be built to block the channels between the islands. These barriers were topped by roads which enabled better access to local communities for the Orkney residents.

St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall

This was one of highlights of the Orkney Islands for me. I felt like I'd stepped back into the world of Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter - it's such an atmospheric place that you really do feel like you're stepping back in time to medieval Norway.

A modern wooden statue of St Olaf that I think is a replica of the one found in the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, Norway. The Nidaros Cathedral was built over the remains of King Olav II, the patron saint of Norway. More information here.

The Cathedral here was named after Saint Magnus Erlendsson, Earl of Orkney, also known as Magnus the Martyr. There's some history here.



The Standing Stones of Stenness - Neolithic monuments

Skara Brae, a 5,000 year old Neolithic village, was uncovered by a storm that swept the area in 1850.

Sunset as we head back to John O'Groats

Friday 20 December 2019

A Chameleon, a Boy, and a Quest by J.A. Myhre

A Chameleon, a Boy, and a Quest is the story of Mu, a ten year old African boy, who has lived with his uncle after being orphaned as an infant. It is the tale of his search for identity, a search not of his own making, but one that was initiated by a very unlikely guide: a talking chameleon.
With echoes of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, a modern Pilgrim’s Progress, and Hinds Feet on High Places, Mu’s quest takes him on a journey into the unknown that is fraught with danger.
He encounters enemies in the form of his own insecurities and fears; men who know his true identity and want to keep that knowledge from him; a band of rebel soldiers who enlist him as a child soldier, and the shame that comes from his own act of betrayal.

'He had come to the moment of truth about himself, and the truth was not beautiful. But in the very act of committing the worst deed of his life, he also saw something deeper than that truth about his own soul. He saw forgiveness, forgiveness freely given when he least deserved it.'

A Chameleon, a Boy, and a Quest is a well-written book that has a very real sense of place. The author has captured the feel of Africa through the descriptions of the land and the characters. It’s a modern Africa that presents some of that country’s problems in an appropriate manner for children around about age ten and upwards.
The author handled the aspect of Mu's inner world very well. Mu didn’t know his true identity and measured his worth by the way he was treated. It would make an excellent family read aloud and I think it could generate some good discussions and help to address some of these issues that children sometimes struggle with.

'Again Mu thought of his cousins and home - though objectively he had not been treated as a son, it was the only home he had known. He had, over the years, come to believe that his state of affairs was the only one possible for him, that there was some inherent defect in his person that determined his lot as a servant, scapegoat, last in line, not-quite-member of the large household.'

This book is the first in the Rwendigo series of four books. My 14 year old daughter has read the first two books and enjoyed them so I think there’s a wide age range appeal especially for anyone who enjoys adventure with a bit of fantasy/allegory. The African setting is unique and adds another dimension to the story.

Many thanks to New Growth Press for providing me a free copy of this book for review.

#3 A Christian Allegory - see 2019 Christian Greats Challenge

Saturday 14 December 2019

Bookish Catch-up

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (1860)

The Mill on the Floss is the story of the imaginative, temperamental Maggie Tulliver and her practical and unsympathetic brother, Tom. Their father muddles through life, honest but also ignorant and belligerent. His poor judgement leads to destitution and great emotional pain for his wife and children.

‘Certain seeds which are required to find a nidus for themselves under unfavorable circumstances have been supplied by nature with an apparatus of hooks, so that they will get a hold on very unreceptive surfaces. The spiritual seed which had been scattered over Mr. Tulliver had apparently been destitute of any corresponding provision, and had slipped off to the winds again, from a total absence of hooks.’

‘Mrs. Tulliver was what is called a good-tempered person - never cried, when she was a baby, on any slighter ground than hunger and pins; and from the cradle upward had been healthy, fair, plump, and dull-witted; in short, the flower of her family for beauty and amiability. But milk and mildness are not the best things for keeping, and when they turn only a little sour, they may disagree with young stomachs seriously.’

I really appreciated Eliot’s evocative descriptions of the joys and pains of childhood, her detailed descriptions, and the deep Christian themes she wove into this story. Considering that the author rejected Christianity as a young woman, her writing suggests that some of the seeds that were sown when she was younger still clung to the hooks and she never quite got rid of them.
A tragic story with a tragic end.

The Dean’s Watch by Elizabeth Goudge (1960)

The Dean’s Watch is beautifully written and incorporates themes of service, sacrificial love and redemption in an interesting and poignant story.
The Dean is a misunderstood man. He is thought to be proud and unapproachable but in reality he is extremely shy. He is married to a beautiful woman who is selfish and distant. He loves her dearly but his love is not reciprocated.
When he encounters Isaac the watchmaker, a crusty old fellow, the two strike up an unusual friendship which changes both of them. There are various other characters in this multilayered book. One of my favourites was the elderly Miss Montague.
At one point she was reflecting on her adolescence and thought back to the moment when she realised she’d been living in a dream world. Crippled by an accident as a youngster and neglected emotionally by her parents who were vaguely ashamed at having produced so unattractive a child, she knew back then that she would never marry and being a gentlewoman, a career was not open to her. What should she do?

'She never knew what put it into her head that she, unloved, should love. Religion for her parents, and therefore for their children, was not much more than a formality and it had not occurred to her to pray about her problem, and yet from somewhere this idea came as though in answer to her question...Could mere living be a life’s work? Could it be a career like marriage or nursing the sick or going on the stage?...So she took a vow to love.'

This is a lovely book and my 14 year old daughter really enjoyed it too.

No Highway by Nevil Shute (1948)

Mr Honey, an overlooked but brilliant scientist, is working on fatigue in aircraft structures. The story is narrated by Dr Scott, Honey’s new boss. Scott initially judges the man by his ugly, dishevelled appearance, eccentric behaviour and bizarre interests, but finds that there’s much more to him than meets the eye.
Honey has a theory that the tail of the plane he’s been testing will crack from fatigue after a certain number of flying hours but he hasn’t proved anything yet. However, on a work flight over the Atlantic he discovers that the plane he is on is the same Reindeer model that he is performing his tests on. He is interested but not alarmed until he discovers that somehow the plane has been allowed to fly hours over his estimate where fatigue would be likely to occur.
He raises an alarm with the crew but they basically think he’s crazy so when the flight makes a short stopover he uses the opportunity to put a spanner in the works, so to speak.

As usual, Nevil Shute takes an unlikely person, fills in all their little details, and makes them the centre of the story. Shute is probably the only writer I know who is able to incorporate technical detail (he was an engineer) and not lose the non-technical reader who prefers a character-driven plot  (e.g. moi) in the process. His characterisations are so well done and people such as the unlikeable Honey become characters we sympathise and identify with in Shute’s hands. Unlike many of his other books, this one has a rather happy ending!

A little quote I liked was when Dr Scott was asked what he thought of Mr Honey after he threw the spanner in the works (metaphorically speaking). Scott’s reply was:

“I think exactly as I did...I think that there’s a very fair chance that he’s right about the Reindeer tail. I think he has a very logical mind. The fact that his interests spread very wide doesn’t mean he’s mad. It means that he’s sane.”

Shroud for a Nightingale by P.D. James (1971)

The title of this book is a clever little play on words. James has set this story in a teaching hospital and I think she captures the atmosphere of the hospital system really well, even if it differs in detail  from a more modern setting.
The plot is cleverly convoluted with twists and turns; multiple murders occur and suspicion changes from one person to another.
As I’ve said numerous times before, P.D. James has a wonderful literary style. Her life experience obviously contributed to her knowledge of human nature but I often get the sense that the only person she has genuine regard for is her Chief Inspector Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh. Everyone else in her novels degenerate into nasty specimens of humanity and the reader doesn’t get into sympathy with any of them, although there were one or two characters in this book who had some redeeming qualities.
There's a good amount of tension with some dramatic events and the ending was completely unexpected. A good read, especially for anyone who has worked in a hospital setting.

Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers (1937)

Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane are married at last and set off to a quiet country house for their honeymoon.
The story starts off with extracts from the diary of the Dowager Duchess of Denver (aka Lord Peter Wimsey’s mother) and they are just delightful. She goes over some of the details of the development of the relationship between the two lovers and puts in her own funny little interjections.
It continues with snippets of gossip about the wedding from a variety of sources such as a letter written by Lord Peter’s nasty sister-in-law, Helen, who in writing to her friend observed:

‘Peter was as white as a sheet; I thought he was going to be sick. Probably he was realising what he had let himself in for. Nobody can say that I did not do my best to open his eyes. They were married in the old, coarse Prayer-book form, and the bride said ‘Obey’ - I take this to be their idea of humour, for she looks as obstinate as a mule.’

Unsurprisingly, Lord Peter and Harriet’s married life is inaugurated with a murder. The cosy cottage that Peter bought for Harriet and where they went to spend their honeymoon turns out to be not so cosy after all when the body of the previous owner is found in the cellar.
Busman’s Honeymoon is a combination of a detective novel and a romance and is an enjoyable conclusion to the long-running and tumultuous relationship between the two protagonists.

Harriet said: ‘I have married England.’

Wimsey said: ‘We’ve got to laugh or break our hearts in this damnable world.’

The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers (1934)

This was a re-read for me but I’d read it so long ago that I’d forgotten many of the details.
Sayers wrote this novel after Strong Poison (where she introduces Harriet Vane) and Have His Carcase (where they work on solving a crime together) and it comes just before Gaudy Night which also features Vane. However, The Nine Tailors has no mention of Wimsey’s relationship with her.
I’ve really enjoyed the Wimsey & Vane novels and thought I might be disappointed going back to Wimsey on his own but I have to say, I found it quite refreshing. It gave Sayers the opportunity to delve into the personalities of the very engaging characters in this story and to concentrate her efforts on an intricate and baffling murder mystery.

The Nine Tailors
is set in the remote fen country of East Anglia. It is an original and very clever detective story centred around a church, its practice of the ancient craft of bell-ringing and a twenty-year old unsolved crime. ‘Nine Tailors' refers to the nine strokes which start the toll to announce to the villagers that a man has died.

‘The art of change ringing is peculiar to the English, and, like most English peculiarities, unintelligible to the rest of the world. To the musical Belgian, for example, it appears that the proper thing to do with a carefully tuned ring of bells is to play a tune upon it. By the English campanologist, the playing of tunes is considered to be a childish game, only fit for foreigners; the proper use of bells is to work out mathematical permutations and combinations.’

All Things Bright and Beautiful by James Herriot (1973 & 1974)

This is the second volume of memoirs written by James Herriot and contains Let Sleeping Vets Lie and Vet in Harness.
James is now married to Helen, a farmer’s daughter, and they live in the little Yorkshire village of Darrowby. Its the 1930’s, Britain is on the verge of World War 2, and veterinary science is still in the dark ages in many respects.
I’ve loved these memoirs which started with All Creatures Great and Small where Herriot begins his practice in Yorkshire after his training in Glasgow. By the end of the first memoir, James and Helen were married and spent an unorthodox honeymoon carrying out tuberculin-testing. In this second memoir, they have settled into life as a married couple and James is in partnership with his former boss, Siegfried Farnon, in the veterinary practice in Darrowby.
The author is so good at combing humour and pathos in his writing. I’d be laughing at something hilarious in one chapter and in the next I’d be close to tears.
These memoirs are a window into a way of life that has passed and are great books to read aloud.

'There's another lamb in here,' I said. 'It's laid wrong or it would have been born with its mate this afternoon.'
Even as I spoke my fingers had righted the presentation and I drew the little creature gently out and deposited him on the grass. I hadn't expected him to be alive after his delayed entry but as he made contact with the cold ground his limbs gave a convulsive twitch and almost immediately I felt his ribs heaving under my hand.
For a moment I forgot the knife-like wind in the thrill which I always found in new life, the thrill that was always fresh, always warm.

The Yorkshire Dales, 2019

Thursday 5 December 2019

The Moon is Always Round by Jonathon Gibson; illustrated by Joe Hox

This lovely picture book uses a natural occurrence, the phases of the moon, to illustrate the goodness of God. There are times when we can’t see the whole moon as it orbits the earth, but the moon is always round, regardless of whether we can see it in its entirety or not.
There are times in our lives when things happen to us that make us question or doubt God’s goodness, but although we may not see God’s goodness during hard times this doesn’t mean that God is not good in those times. God is always good, just like the moon is always round, even when we can’t see all of it.

Ben was about three years old when his Dad held him up to the window one evening and Ben pointed out the moon which was a crescent shape that night. His Dad explained that while the moon can appear in different shapes, it is always round.
From that little episode, his Dad developed a simple catechism for Ben which went like this:

Q. Ben, what shape is the moon tonight?

A. The moon is a crescent moon, or a half-moon, or a gibbous moon, or a full moon.

Q. What shape is the moon always?

A. The moon is always round.

Q. What does that mean?

A. God is always good.

One day Ben’s Dad told him that he was going to get a little sister. That night the moon looked like a banana, but his Dad reminded him that, ‘The moon is always round.’ Later on it looked like a slice of apple, then a shrivelled orange, and always his Dad would say, ‘The moon is always round.’ Even when Ben was told that his little sister wasn’t coming to live with them after all their waiting and Ben wanted to know why, his Dad said, ‘I don’t know, but the moon is always round.’

Ben’s little sister was stillborn at 39 weeks and his Dad’s simple liturgy opened up a way to talk to him about God’s goodness.
The author also points to the events of Good Friday as a concrete example for teaching children about God’s goodness in difficult times:

‘On Good Friday, when Jesus died on the cross, he experienced the most difficult of times. That day, the sun was blanked out and the whole world went dark - the darkest it has ever been. No stars twinkled. There was not even a sliver of the moon in the sky to give Jesus some light. And yet in the darkness, God showed the whole world that he was still good. Because in that moment, Jesus died for our sins, so that we could be forgiven. It’s why the day is called “Good Friday,” because even though Jesus died in the darkness, God was still good - just like the moon was still round, even though no one could see it.’

When I saw that this book had been released this year by New Growth Press, I approached the company and requested a review copy, which they kindly sent me.

I think there’s a real need of good books for children that address the grief and sense of loss that occurs when a baby is miscarried or stillborn. In my own experience, each child can be quite different in their reaction to loss. Some ask lots of questions while others don’t or aren’t able to articulate them.
I would have appreciated a resource like this to read to my children, the older ones and the younger ones. When you are dealing with your own pain it can be hard to initiate a conversation but I think that reading a book like this aloud would have helped me.

I appreciate the author’s use of a natural event with its certainty and regularity to reflect a spiritual reality, for addressing a difficult topic with clarity and tenderness, and for sharing his own story of loss in order to help others who are grieving.

Wednesday 4 December 2019

Back to the Classics 2019: Wrap-up Post

This year I'm stopping at 10 books for this challenge which was hosted by Karen @ books & chocolate. I skipped the 'Comic Classic' and 'Classic Play.' I did read All Things Bright & Beautiful by James Herriot book aloud to my daughter which was a great laugh in places but it didn't qualify for this challenge as it was written in the 1970's.

These were my original ideas and the books below are what I ended up reading:

19th century Classic:
Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell

20th Century Classic: In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden

Classic by a Woman: Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

Classic in Translation: On the Incarnation by Athanasius

Classic Tragic Novel: Requiem for a Wren by Nevil Shute

Very Long Classic: Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

Classic Novella: Chocky by John Wyndham

Classic From the Americas or Caribbean: The Homemaker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Classic From Asia, Africa, or Oceania: The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki

Classic From a Place You've Lived: Colour Scheme by Ngaio Marsh

I'd be hard put to try and choose a favourite but a few I'd highly recommend are The Homemaker, Requiem for a Wren, & Ruth. Followed closely by The Makioka Sisters & In This House of Brede.

The most difficult were On the Incarnation, not because of the author's style, which was lucid and inviting, but the subject matter; and Daniel Deronda, because George Eliot was a very intellectual & articulate woman and you almost need an art and history degree to get all her references.

Three books that had me in tears: The Homemaker, Requiem for a Wren, and Ruth.

New authors for me: Athanasius, Junichiro Tanizaki.