The Other Bennet Sister

If you are a Pride and Prejudice fan, you might remember middle sister Mary Bennet as being bookish and quiet. In fact, the only significant scene of hers I can recall is when she’s playing the piano at the Bingley ball (the one where all the Bennet family comes across as ridiculous in front of Mr. Darcy) to the point that her father has to pull her away with “You’ve entertained us enough for now.”

Janice Hadlow has crafted a novel from Mary’s point of view: The Other Bennet Sister. Hadlow delves more deeply into Mary’s character and what might have been after P&P ended.

The Bennets had five daughters. Mr. Bennets property is entailed, meaning it will go to a male cousin upon Mr. Bennet’s death rather than a Bennet daughter.

Even though the Bennets are landed gentry, there’s not enough money for any of the girls to have large enough dowries to attract the “right” kind of husband. But most of the girls are pretty enough to attract attention, and their ambitious mother is determined to place them where they can be seen and admired.

Mary, however, is plain. In Mrs. Bennet’s book, that’s almost a sin. At the very least, Mary’s plainness is a great disappointment to her mother. Mrs. Bennet is one of the most annoying characters in literature, and one of my least favorite. Mary’s mother not only has little use for Mary, she constantly berates her daughter. “She had learned from Mrs. Bennet that without beauty, no real and lasting happiness was attainable. It never occurred to her to question what she had been taught.” Mrs. Bennet didn’t even want Mary to get needed glasses because they would further hamper her ability to get a husband.

Since Mary doesn’t have the looks or personality to be “pleasing,” and she loves to learn, she sets herself to study in her father’s library. Perhaps at some point she can discuss books with him. But he demands absolute silence in the library—except when Lizzie, his favorite, is there.

Mary tries other venues, like music, in which to stake her significance, with poor results.

Mary is also in the very middle of the five sisters. The older two are close, as are the younger two, leaving Mary with no one. Lizzie and Jane are not unkind, but they don’t draw Mary in, either.

Since Mary feels invisible, she looks invisible as well, wearing very plain dresses with no color or frill.

The first part of the book covers the events of P&P, but from Mary’s point of view.

Then the book jumps ahead a couple of years. Mr. Bennet had died, and all the Bennet daughters are married except Mary. Mary and her mother go to live with Jane and Mr. Bingley. But the days there are dreary for Mary, with her mother’s constant harping and Caroline Bingley’s sniping remarks. Mary goes to visit Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy for a while, then Charlotte (Elizabeth’s close friend) and Mr. Collins, the obsequious cousin who inherited the Bennet family home. Charlotte and Mary have several talks about life as a plain woman.

Single women did not have many options in those days. Spinsters were pitied and often poor, earning money as governesses or music teachers. Mary is not interested in either profession, but living with one of her sisters is not ideal, either.

Finally Mary goes to London to stay with her aunt and uncle, the Gardiners—the same aunt and uncle Lizzie stayed with in P&P. Things start to turn a corner as Mrs. Gardiner gently draws Mary out and convinces her that it is not drawing undue attention to herself to dress nicely. And the Gardiner’s friend, Mr. Hayward, convinces Mary’s very rational mind that poetry and feeling are valuable.

I loved a lot of Mrs. Gardiner’s advice, some of which had a double meaning.

Sometimes the very best stuff can seem quite plain, until one examines it closely. It is only then that one sees its true quality.

I see plainly enough that you don’t like to make a fuss about dress—that you dislike having attention drawn to you. But there are times when the best way to ensure you are not remarkable is to conform to the expectations of those around you.

There is a middle way between an obsession with one’s appearance and an absolute denial of its importance.

It’s hard to persuade anyone, especially a man, that your regard is worth having if you have none for yourself.

In our house, no-one is obliged to sparkle. Which, I find, makes it far more likely that they might.

There were several things I liked about this novel. One is Mary’s slow “blossoming,” often with one step forward and two back as she makes mistakes.

I thought the author did an admirable job keeping the personality of each of Austen’s main characters close to what they were in P&P. Even though Hadlow’s style is different from Austen’s, the book still had a cozy Regency feel to it.

I had two minor complaints, though. One is that, especially in the beginning of the book, there was a lot more “telling” than “showing.” That improved after the story got into new material after the P&P timeline.

The other complaint is that sometimes there was too much explanation. The narrative would belabor a point long after the reader understood.

Those two aspects made the story drag just a little in places, but not enough to ruin the book.

Overall, I really enjoyed this story. I wanted to speed ahead to see how things worked out for Mary, but then I didn’t want it to end. Some parts of the book had me in tears.

I listened to the audiobook wonderfully narrated by Carla Mendonca.

Thanks to Lois for putting this book on my radar.

Be Wise (1 Corinthians)

If there was ever a church full of problems, it was the one in Corinthians in the NT era. The church was divided over their favorite preachers. Blatant immorally was tolerated. They turned the Lord’s Supper into a feast which showed up who had plenty and who did not. They were proud of their gifts.

But Paul didn’t wash his hands of them, at least not without trying to help them first. He wrote them in one letter that we don’t have. They responded with questions, and 1 Corinthians is his answer to them

In Be Wise (1 Corinthians): Discern the Difference Between Man’s Knowledge and God’s Wisdom, Warren W. Wiersbe gives us some insights into Paul’s letter.

Wiersbe points out that “when you have proud people depending on human wisdom, adopting the lifestyle of the world, you are going to have problems. In order to help them solve their problems, Paul opened his letter by reminding them of their calling in Christ” (p. 20, Kindle version). Everything Paul would say to the Corinthians would be couched in and would spring from that truth.

Then Paul thanked God for them and commended them. This was not just a softening in preparation for the hard things he would have to say to them, but a recognition that God was at work in them. That’s a good reminder for us when we tend to have “all or nothing” views about people’s standing with the Lord. The Corinthians had some severe problems and some stern truths which needed to be pointed out, yet there was evidence God was at work in them.

Then Paul addresses the Corinthians issues while also answering questions they had sent him. He discusses their divisions, sexual immorality in the church, their ungodly way of handling disputes with each other, marriage, how to handle differences of opinion concerning food offered to idols, the Lord’s Supper (communion), spiritual gifts, and the resurrection.

All of these issues are vital for us today. Most of the world doesn’t have to deal with food offered to idols, but the principles Paul discusses are helpful with differences of opinions believers face over other issues today.

1 Corinthians also contains classic passages like chapter 13 on godly love (placed, interesting, in the middle of discussion about spiritual gifts) and chapter 15 about the resurrection (which we tend to hear a lot from during funerals, but we need its truths daily.

Paul wraps up his letter, as he often does, with personal greetings, news, travel plans. It’s easy just to breeze past this section, but Wiersbe points out good food for thought here as well. For instance, Paul mentions Apollos, one of the preachers that a “fan club” had developed around. The fact that Paul urged Apollos to go to the Corinthians showed that there was no animosity or competition between the men themselves.

Then Wiersbe gives a brief history of Timothy and Priscilla and Aquilla, who are also mentioned in this section, and how their ministries intertwined with Paul’s.

Here are a few of the quotes in the book that stood out to me:

Paul depended on the power of the Holy Spirit. It was not his experience or ability that gave his ministry its power; it was the work of the Spirit of God. His preaching was a “demonstration,” not a “performance” (p. 35).

To “have the mind of Christ” does not mean we are infallible and start playing God in the lives of other people. Nobody instructs God! (Paul quoted Isa. 40: 13. Also see Rom. 11: 33–36.) To “have the mind of Christ” means to look at life from the Savior’s point of view, having His values and desires in mind. It means to think God’s thoughts and not think as the world thinks (p. 43).

A mature Christian uses his gifts as tools to build with, while an immature believer uses gifts as toys to play with or trophies to boast about. Many of the members of the Corinthian church enjoyed “showing off” their gifts, but they were not interested in serving one another and edifying the church (p. 50).

Perhaps we cannot help but have our personal preferences when it comes to the way different men minister the Word. But we must not permit our personal preferences to become divisive prejudices. In fact, the preacher I may enjoy the least may be the one I need the most! (p. 57).

There can be a fine line between a clear conscience and a self-righteous attitude, so we must beware (p. 63).

Church discipline is not a group of “pious policemen” out to catch a criminal. Rather, it is a group of brokenhearted brothers and sisters seeking to restore an erring member of the family (p. 73).

Knowledge can be a weapon to fight with or a tool to build with, depending on how it is used. If it “puffs up” then it cannot “build up [edify]” (p. 99).

“A know-it-all attitude is only an evidence of ignorance. The person who really knows truth is only too conscious of how much he does not know. Furthermore, it is one thing to know doctrine and quite something else to know God. It is possible to grow in Bible knowledge and yet not grow in grace or in one’s personal relationship with God. The test is love, which is the second factor Paul discussed (p. 99).

It is interesting that Paul mentioned the offering just after his discussion about the resurrection. There were no “chapter breaks” in the original manuscripts, so the readers would go right from Paul’s hymn of victory into his discussion about money. Doctrine and duty go together; so do worship and works. Our giving is “not in vain” because our Lord is alive. It is His resurrection power that motivates us to give and to serve (p. 178).

As always, Wiersbe’s knowledge and insights were very helpful in navigating the important truths in this book of the Bible.

Treasures of Encouragement

Although Treasures of Encouragement: Women Helping Women is not primarily about author Sharon W. Betters, the book grew out of her situation. Her teenage son and his friend were killed in a car accident within minutes of leaving the Betters’ home in 1993.

The book’s theme verse comes from Isaiah 45:3, where Sharon found hope in her deep grief: “I will give you the treasures of darkness and the hoards in secret places, that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.” Though God sometimes leads through dark valleys, treasures are there that can’t be found anywhere else.

Sharon writes:

The healing balm of encouragement eventually stopped the spread of despair’s infection and began replacing it with hope’s healthy glow. God’s Word was the healing balm, and God’s people applied it lavishly to sooth the searing pain in my soul. Biblical encouragement is soul work. God unleashes its mysterious power every time a child of God follows the Holy Spirit’s direction and steps into the suffering of another person (pp. 9-10).

Each chapter starts with one or two women’s testimonies about being either on the receiving or giving end of encouragement.

Throughout the book. two points are repeatedly emphasized. First, encouraging someone else spiritually is the outgrowth of our own walk with the Lord and time spent in His Word. Second, because we have those resources–God’s Word to inform and guide us and His Spirit within us—we have what we need to encourage others.

Part 1 of the book explores thinking Biblically: defining and exploring what encouragement involves and what our responsibilities are as believers to each other.

To ease the guilt of noninvolvement, we charge the church with the job of meeting needs. We forget that we are the church! (p. 18)

Biblical encouragers know that their role is part of a process; it is seldom, if ever, the solution. They understand God is doing soul work through the interaction of members of His body. They recognize that He uses circumstances to strip people of obstacles that keep them from knowing Him, and so they ask themselves, How can I help this person through the peeling process of sanctification without hindering what the Holy Spirit is doing?

Often we want to rush into a difficult situation and make everything better. But that is not God’s method. He uses the rough spots of life to sand away the rough spots in character so that the reflection of “Christ in us” becomes increasingly clear (p. 73).

Because of who our Father is, and because of the riches of our inheritance, we always have something to offer to others (p. 37).

Part 2 covers living Biblically: the necessity of prayer, listening well, helpful vs. non-helpful words, spiritual mothering, pursuing restoration rather than judgment, Biblical exhortation, letting God use your spiritual gifts in large or small ways, offering practical help.

The church, like a home, is not a place where perfect people enjoy each other’s company. It’s a place where spiritual nurture, training, and discipline help imperfect people take on the image of their perfect heavenly Father. The church is not a place for hibernation; it’s a place where we learn, grow, take risks, make mistakes, and get up and try again (p. 99).

Will it be easy? No. Initially, obedience is hard, but in the long run, disobedience is harder (p. 131).

When we have a clear picture of our own sinfulness and inadequacies, we may conclude that we are unfit to carry the great gospel message. But our wrong conclusions will not thwart God’s purposes. For reasons we do not understand, God has chosen us to spread His message of hope and redemption (p. 198).

Spiritual mothering often happens more around a kitchen table that in a structured study (p. 213).

Though the book can be read by individuals, it’s designed for a twelve-week group study. Each chapter ends with six day’s work of questions or exercises. On one hand, I didn’t want to take twelve weeks to read the book. But on the other, I didn’t want to skip over the “homework” between chapters. I felt the time exploring further or meditating on each chapter’s truths would help the ideas take firmer root. I did sometimes combine some of the individual days’ exercises, though.

One appendix shares 50 very practical ideas for extending encouragement to others. All 50 won’t appeal to or be possible for everyone, but they give a rich variety to choose from.

I appreciated the address to older and younger women in the church with encouragement to settle the differences that can sometimes arise between the two groups (pp. 137-138).

This book was originally published twenty-five years ago. It was updated and reprinted in 2021.

Just occasionally, I found the tone in the book got a little more authoritarian than encouraging. One example from the exercise questions after the first chapter: “Who will you encourage today? Write a brief statement about how Christ, through you, can encourage that person. Now do it!” (p. 26).

But overall, I found much good food for thought on both the necessity to be an encourager and the ways God can work in and through us. This is a book I am sure I will return to in the future.

(I often link up with some of these bloggers.)

Books Shape Our Thinking

A couple of times in our lives, my husband and I attended churches where we didn’t quite agree with everything, but we felt these churches were the closest we could find to our own understanding of Scripture. The differences weren’t a matter of false teaching or heresy: they were areas where good people could differ and should be able to give each other grace. We felt as long as the Bible was preached and taught rather than a particular system, then everything would be okay.

In one church, over time, we began to notice that everyone from the pastor to Sunday School teachers to lay leaders began quoting the same authors. Then their vocabulary began changing to match the authors they revered. Concepts that used to be alluded to were now main points. Sermons and lessons changed emphasis to feature points from these authors, and Bible passages were viewed through their lens. When one man spoke about this belief system as being “in the club,” it almost seemed a little cultish.

In another church, the issue wasn’t a particular belief system. But every Christian bestseller that came along was eventually taught in our church. When we moved, I found sermon notes from our first year there which were rich and meaty and directly from the Bible. Later sermons were second- or third-hand thoughts from popular books.

One of my favorite writers reads and quotes authors that I am uncomfortable with because their view of Scriptural truth seems a little skewed to me. Instead of following standard hermeneutics, principles for interpreting Scripture, they twist things a little to get a different outcome more in line with popular culture. They are not quite heretical yet, but this subtle shift will lead that way if continued. This lovely author, with so much talent and potential, is getting more entrenched in this kind of thinking every year. It grieves me to see it.

We’ve seen a couple of young men we’ve known get caught up in belief systems that, again, I don’t think are heretical, but I don’t agree with. It wouldn’t be a problem except that these belief systems now dominate their conversation and online presence. They like to bait and argue over their points of belief. Even though they are not being heretical, their ministry and outreach has been hijacked into debating rather than gently persuading people of God’s truth.

We observed over the course of years a definite shift in thinking and beliefs in each of these cases. The speaker or writer didn’t come to their new views from their Bible reading, but from the books they read. Those books then colored their view of Scripture.

One of our former pastors used to frequently quote Charlie “Tremendous” Jones as saying, “You will be the same person in five years as you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read.

If that’s true, and I think it may be, we need to be watchful about what we read. Of course, these days many people read online articles and listen to podcasts as well.

Does this mean we should only read books where we know we’ll agree with everything? Not necessarily. It’s good to exercise discernment. Sometimes when we are entrenched in our own tenets and lingo, we can get a little myopic.

But we should filter everything we read through the Scriptures. The Bible tells us to “test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Early Christians were called noble because they checked everything even the apostle Paul said against the Scriptures.

We need to be careful not to swallow everything an author says just because they use Scripture or religious talk. The devil does that. “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds” (2 Corinthians 11:14-15). With Eve, Satan questioned what God said and then skewed His meaning. He quoted and misapplied Scripture when tempting Jesus. Peter said of Paul’s writing:

There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.(2 Peter 3:16-18).

Some writers don’t go that far–they are not exactly heretical. But a subtle shift in emphasis can skew their teaching, and therefore our thinking. Then a particular facet of their understanding becomes a hobbyhorse. So we need to be discerning not just with writing we might be prepared to be on guard with, but also with popular writing.

We need to make sure we are spending more time with the Bible itself than even books about the Bible. If we’re spending thirty minutes a day in a theological book and ten minutes in the Bible, we’re off balance. One former pastor used to say that bank tellers were instructed in discerning counterfeit money not by studying counterfeits, but by studying the real thing. The more familiar they were with legal money, the more easily they could tell when something was a little off with money they were handling. “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). As we read and study, we need to pray with the psalmist, “I am your servant; give me understanding, that I may know your testimonies!” (Psalm 119:125). Then our “powers of discernment” will be “trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14).

We need to ask God to search our hearts, show us our blind spots, and “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18).

I love good books. I’ve had my thinking shaped in good ways by authors who faithfully studied and represented God’s truth shared in His Word. I especially love writers and teachers who, like the Levites in Nehemiah’s time, “read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Nehemiah 8:8).

But we need discernment to know when a teacher is giving the sense of the Word itself or twisting it a bit for their own purposes or from their own mistaken understanding.

And we need to be careful that our thoughts, understanding, and resulting actions are shaped by the Bible itself.

(I often link up with some of these bloggers.)

Reading Plans for 2022

One of my favorite activities is setting my reading plans for the year.

For many years I just read whatever came to hand, whatever I was in the mood for. I like to allow for that and for reading new books and unplanned discoveries. But making plans for the year helps me be more intentional, work in the books I plan to “get to someday,” and broaden my horizons.

Reading challenges also help with those purposes, plus they are fun. And some offer prizes!

The reading challenges I plan to participate in this year are:

The Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate. This is one of my favorites. Through this challenge, I’ve been introduced to classics I never knew about before and authors I had never tried. My usual classics taste tend toward 19th century Britain: Dickins, Wilkie Collins, Anthony Trollope, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Elliot. These are the cozy classics to me, and I try to read from them every year. But it’s good to branch out, and Karen’s categories help me do that. The categories this year are:

  • A 19th century classic.
  • A 20th century classic.
  • A classic by a woman author.
  • A classic in translation.  Any book first published in a language that is not your primary language.
  • A classic by BIPOC author. Any book published by a non-white author.
  • Mystery/Detective/Crime Classic. It can be fiction or non-fiction.
  • A Classic Short Story Collection.
  • Pre-1800 Classic.
  • A Nonfiction Classic.
  • Classic That’s Been on Your TBR List the Longest.
  • Classic Set in a Place You’d Like to Visit.
  • Wild Card Classic. Any classic you like, any category, as long as it’s at least 50 years old!

Since the categories were just posted, I haven’t had time to think about them and decide what to read. But I’ll enjoy contemplating them! I’m sure I’ll continue with the next in Trollope’s Barsetshire series for the 19th century classic. I might delve into The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis for the nonfiction: I’ve been wanting to read that for a while.

Shelly Rae at Book’d Out hosts the Nonfiction Reader Challenge. She provided 12 categories of nonfiction, and participants choose which level they want to aim for. Thankfully, this year she has included a Nonfiction Grazer category where we set our own goals for how many and what kind of nonfiction to read. That will work best for me this year.

I’m going to plan on at least 12 nonfiction books. I usually read more than that, but many are in the same categories. This year I want to read:

  • At least one biography, autobiography, or memoir.
  • One writing book
  • One book of humor
  • One Bible study book
  • One Christian living book
  • One book of letters or journals
  • One book by C. S. Lewis that I have not read yet
  • One book on organization or productivity (I have 13 on my shelf! Some read, some dipped into, some unread.)
  • One book pertaining to a holiday (probably Christmas)
  • One book related to midlife or aging

Bev at My Reader’s Block hosts the Mount TBR Reading Challenge. The idea is to read books you already owned before the start of this year. Bev has made levels in increments of twelve, each named after a mountain, and we’re to choose a level to shoot for. Even though I’ve reached Mt. Ararat (48 books) the last couple of years, I think I will play it safe and stick with Mt. Vancouver (36 books).

There are a couple of other TBR challenges I have participated in for previous years, but the rules of each are slightly different. So, to keep it simple, I think I’ll just stick with this one. It’s such a feeling of accomplishment to get to those books!

These next to are new to me. They focus on books I usually read anyway, so they won’t require extra effort except for the record keeping.

The Audiobook Challenge is hosted by Caffeinated Reader. Last year I listened to 25 audiobooks, so I’ll aim for that again with the Binge Listener level at 20-30.

The Historical Fiction Reading Challenge is hosted by The Intrepid Reader. I read 15 in this genre last year, so I will aim for that again with the Medieval level.

I’ve seen some other interesting-looking challenges with various categories, like this one. But I don’t want to get involved in too many to keep up with. I may have already! We’ll see how it goes.

Do you participate in reading challenges? Which ones?

Reading Challenge Wrap-Ups

It’s that time of year–time to close and report the results of the different reading challenges I participated in this year.

I finished the the Back to the Classics Challenge early this year! I completed all twelve categories, and I posted what I read for each here.

The Nonfiction Reading Challenge hosted by Shelly Rae at Book’d Out encourages us to read nonfiction in particular categories. The categories and the books I read for them:

1.Biography: Becoming Elisabeth Elliot by Ellen Vaughn
2. Travel: EPIC: An Around-the-World Journey Through Christian History by Tim Challies
3. Self-help: Don’t Overthink It by Anne Bogel
4. Essay Collection: Christian Reflections by C. S. Lewis
5. Disease
6. Oceanography: Gift From the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
7. Hobbies: How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren
8. Indigenous Cultures
9. Food
10. Wartime Experiences: Woman Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue by Kathryn J. Atwood
11.Inventions: The Secret War of Charles Fraser-Smith, the “Q” Gadget Wizard of World War II by Charles Fraser-Smith.
12. Published in 2021: Ten Words to Live By: Delighting In and Doing What God Commands by Jen Wilkin.

My post listing all the book I read this year shows I competed 38 nonfiction books. But they didn’t all fit these categories, so I only reached “Nonfiction nibbler” status as far as this challenge goes.

Bev at My Reader’s Block hosts the Mount TBR Challenge to encourage us to read the books we already own.. Every 12 books read is another level or “mountain” climbed.

The Backlist Reader Challenge hosted by The Bookwyrm’s Hoard has the same idea as Mt. TBR.

I used to list all of the previously-owned books I read for this challenge, but that’s not a requirement, and seems redundant after listing all the titles I read this year. But I completed 48 books from my own shelves and Kindle app, reaching Mt. Ararat for the Mount TBR challenge. That feels like an accomplishment!

I enjoy reading Christmas books after Thanksgiving through the end of the year. Tarissa at In the Bookcase hosts a Literary Christmas Reading Challenge for that purpose each year. This year, my Christmas reading included:

  • Expecting Christmas, a 40-day devotional by multiple authors
  • A Quilt for Christmas by Sandra Dallas, a Civil war-era novel. A woman makes a quilt for her soldier husband. When he dies, she assumes the quilt was buried with him. But the quilt shows up again in a surprising way. Meanwhile, she has to determine how far her beliefs go when she is asked to shelter a runaway slave wanted for murder.
  • Last Christmas in Paris: A Novel of World War I by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb. An epistolary novel set during WWI. Four friends plan to meet in Paris for Christmas the year WWI starts, thinking it will be over by then. Obviously, it wasn’t, and they don’t make that date. The last of them goes to Paris for Christmas in the 1960s to read the last unopened letter. So good.
  • A Christmas by the Sea by Melody Carlson. A woman and her son travel to the beach house she has inherited. She plans to fix it up and sell it to replenish their resources after her husband’s long illness. But her son thrives in the new town and wants to stay.
  • The Yuletide Angel by Sandra Ardoin. A Victorian-era novel in which an anonymous donor, dubbed the Yuletide Angel, gifts needy families with supplies in the middle of the night. Only one person knows the benefactor’s identity is female, and he follows her unseen to insure her safety. But soon someone else stalks her in the darkness.
  • The Ornament Keeper by Eva Marie Everson. A woman unpacks the special ornaments her husband has given her each of their twenty years together. But now they have separated due to festering anger and unforgiveness. Can they find their way back to each other before it’s too late?
  • Letters from Father Christmas by J. R. R. Tolkien. Tolkien wrote letters to his children as Father Christmas for several years, complete with disasters set off by the kind but bumbling North Polar Bear. Delightful.

Letters from Father Christmas and Last Christmas in Paris weren’t on my radar when I started the challenge, but I am so glad I found them. Otherwise, I did read all I set out to read for the challenge this year.

I also listened to a Christmas story laid out as a podcast series by Audible, The Cinnamon Bear: A Holiday Adventure. It was styled like a modern version of old radio serials. It was a little bizarre in places, kind of a conflation of Candy Land and Oz. But it had some clever writing here and there.

We watched a couple of Christmas movies, but not our usual White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life. We saw A Castle for Christmas, in which an author running from her problems visits a castle in Scotland where her father worked as a child. She learns the castle is for sale, but the curmudgeonly owner doesn’t really want to let go of it. It’s a pretty cute movie. One not-good part, but nothing explicit is shown. And we also watched Elf, which was a lot of fun.

And that wraps up for reading challenges for this year! I’ll hammer out my reading plans for next year next week. I’ll probably participate in each of these again. They all enhance my reading and broaden my horizons.

Three Christmas Reads

I thought I’d group together short reviews of three books I enjoyed this December.

Expecting Christmas is a 40-day devotional book by multiple authors. I didn’t know any of the author names except one (Jennifer Dukes Lee). It’s put out by New Hope Publishers.

The selections are short, which is appreciated in a month like December. Each began with a verse or two of Scripture, a page and a half to two pages (at least in the Kindle version) of text, then three questions for refection.

The readings cover a variety of Christmas topics, though several deal with light.

A couple of samples: Day 15 talks about how horses in past years were seen as “labor animals, forms of transportation, and even weapons of war” (p. 44). After describing war horses, the writer points out Zechariah 9:9-10: Jesus did not come as an overthrowing conqueror, at least as the kind of conqueror society expected. His second coming will be more like that. But this time, He came humbly on a donkey. The author concludes, “Take time now to thank the Lord for being both just and humble, for bringing salvation instead of condemnation, for riding peacefully on a colt rather than on a warhorse. Ask Him to help you trust Him, especially when you don’t understand His ways. When you find yourself confused by His methods, remember the salvation He brought and the joys of that great gift” (p. 46).

In mediating on Jesus being given “the tongue of the learned” (Isaiah 40:4-5), another writer says, “Jesus didn’t use His deep knowledge and gift for oratory to make a name for Himself or climb social ladders. Rather, as seen in the Gospel accounts of His ministry, Jesus used His words to unburden people, free minds from the lies they had learned from false religions, and draw weary hearts closer to the Living God” (p. 54).

Another points out that people responded differently in praise and worship of the Savior, and that’s okay. “Mary’s response was one of quiet introspection as she treasured the good news of the gospel in her heart. The shepherds, on the other hand, left young Jesus, glorifying God and praising Him with outward enthusiasm and passion. People celebrate the gospel in different ways” (p. 77).

I only wish this book was 25 or 31 days so it would fit within the month of December. I didn’t get started 40 days ahead, so I have a bit yet to finish up. But I wanted to mention it before the month was over. Overall, I enjoyed it.

The second book I mentioned in my top twelve post yesterday. I had never heard of Letters From Father Christmas by J. R. R. Tolkien. I discovered it while looking for a short Christmas audiobook to finish out the year. This fit the bill nicely.

Tolkien sent letters and drawings as if from Father Christmas to his children from 1920 to 1943. He wrote with a shaky script because he was so old, he said (probably also to disguise his handwriting). The letters would comment on happenings in the children’s lives as well as at the North Pole. The North Polar Bear was Father Christmas’s helper and companion, a cheerful but bumbling fellow who unwittingly caused a lot of accidents. Polar Bear adds his own commentaries with a thick script because of his paws. Later an elf named Ilbereth acts as Father Christmas’s secretary. The last few letters mention “this horrible war” (WWII) and the people displaced, the shortage of supplies even at the North Pole, etc.

I got the audiobook superbly narrated by Derek Jacobi as Father Christmas and a couple of others for the infrequent voices of the bear and elf. But when I realized the book had photos of the letters and drawings, I had to get the Kindle version, too.

I thought in passing of Tolkien’s penchant for languages but figured that wouldn’t have a place in this book. But he did come up with a made-up language called Arktic that is spoken at the North Pole, and Polar Bear shares a few lines of it.

He also included some battles with goblins, who at times liked to raid Father Christmas’s supplies.

These letters are wonderfully imaginative. I especially loved the banter between Father Christmas, Polar Bear, and Ilbereth.

My last Christmas book this year is The Ornament Keeper, a contemporary fiction novella by Eva Marie Everson.

It’s Felicia Morgan’s custom to begin decorating the Christmas tree with the special, customized ornaments her husband has given her, one each year except for the last year. Each represented something special about their year: their first Christmas together, their children, her job advancement, etc.

This year, though, Felicia is dragging her feet. She and Jackson have separated after twenty years of marriage. Her daughter convinces Felicia to put up decorations as usual, but the memories are painful.

As Felicia hangs each ornament, we see a flashback to the circumstances surrounding each of them. Felicia’s marriage began with a mistake which has haunted the couple’s twenty years. Though God has redeemed and worked together for good their indiscretion, seeds of resentment and unforgiveness threaten to destroy what they have. Can they find their way back to each other before it’s too late?

I enjoyed the story and the truths brought out. I appreciated that the book wasn’t superficial or treacly.

Have you read any of these? Did you read any Christmas books this year?

My Top 12 Favorite Books Read in 2021

I posted all the books I read this year, but I also like to share my top ten or so favorites. (Forgive me for doubling posts today—I’m trying to fit a few things in before year’s end. Plus I don’t know how many people are interested in the list of every book read this year. 🙂 )

It’s hard to narrow the list down, but I came up with twelve favorites. A few were published this year, but most were just discovered this year. I had an even list of fiction and nonfiction this year. The titles link to my reviews.

Favorite Nonfiction Read in 2021:

  1. Ten Words to Live By: Delighting In and Doing What God Commands by Jen Wilkin. This is my overall top favorite this year. Jen deals with the Ten Commandments overall and individually, what they meant to the original audience, and how they apply today.

2. The Good Portion: Scripture: The Doctrine of Scripture for Every Woman by Keri Folmar. As I said in my review, most of us don’t get excited about doctrine. But right doctrine is our bedrock. Knowing what we believe and why comforts us and keeps us on course. This book was written “to shed light on the treasure and sweetness of the sacred Scriptures. The book attempts to summarize the doctrine of the Word of God in a way that keeps the relational nature of the Bible at the forefront. After all, the Bible is God speaking to us. It is God revealing Himself with words and calling us into relationship with Him.”

3. Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers by Dane Ortlund.

I wasn’t familiar with Dane Ortlund before reading this, and I was a little wary. Some who emphasize the gentleness and meekness of Christ de-emphasize His other qualities, such as righteousness and holiness and purity.

Yes, he is the fulfillment of the Old Testament hopes and longings (Matt. 5: 17). Yes, he is one whose holiness causes even his friends to fall down in fear, aware of their sinfulness (Luke 5: 8). Yes, he is a mighty teacher, one whose authority outstripped even that of the religious PhDs of the day (Mark 1: 22). To diminish any of these is to step outside of vital historic orthodoxy. But the dominant note left ringing in our ears after reading the Gospels, the most vivid and arresting element of the portrait, is the way the Holy Son of God moves toward, touches, heals, embraces, and forgives those who least deserve it yet truly desire it (p. 27).

.4. The Devil in Pew Number Seven by Rebecca Nichols Alonzo. This is a true story that reads like a novel. A man in Rebecca’s father’s congregation disagreed with him and began terrorizing the pastor’s family in unbelievable ways, leading to tragedy. Though that makes the book sound depressing, Rebecca’s journey to forgiveness and the aftermath are quite inspiring.

true story of reigious persecution and forgiveness

5. The Secret War of Charles Fraser-Smith, the “Q” Gadget Wizard of World War II by Charles Fraser-Smith. A missionary with a penchant for thinking outside the box and rigging up what he needed was tapped to design or find items soldiers and spies needed during WWII. He needed not only to provide gadgets, tools, and maps, but he had to come up with ingenious ways to conceal them from enemy searches. This was a thoroughly fascinating book.

6. Write Better: A Lifelong Editor on Craft, Art, and Spirituality by Andrew T. Le Peau. I try to read at least one book on writing each year, and this was my choice this year. It catapulted to my top favorite writing book, one I need to reread regularly.

Favorite Fiction Books Read in 2021:

1. Catching the Wind by Melanie Dobson. In this time-slip novel, two children escape Nazi Germany but then get separated. The one has spent his life trying to find the other. He enlists the help of a reporter because of the heart revealed in her stories.

2. Memories of Glass by Melanie Dobson. Another WWII time-slip novel, but with different characters and settings. Four friends in Amsterdam face different fates as the war escalates. Some fight secretly for the resistance. One, a Jewess, is caught in an impossible situation, but rises above her fears to help as much as she can. In modern times, a woman who was reunited with family she didn’t know she had after her mother died looks into history the family tries to keep hidden. One thread of the storyline was based on true events.

3. Sons of Blackbird Mountain by Joanne Bischof. This post-Civil War story involves a widow who goes to help her husband’s cousins thinking they were children. But they are grown men. One is deaf. Two are attracted to her, causing strife, but she had not planned to remarry. The men strive to keep the farm going, protect escaped slaves, and battle the Klan. There were a lot of interesting layers to this book. I had not read this author before, but I look forward to reading more from her.

4. The Orchard House by Heidi Chiavaroli. Another time-slip novel, this one involves Louisa May Alcott and her home along with two modern women who work there and investigate a packet of letters they found there.

5. Last Christmas in Paris: A Novel of World War I by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb. This story is made up of letters, mainly between two childhood friends. Two brothers and a sister and her friend make plans to meet in Paris for Christmas, thinking the war will be done by then. Of course, that doesn’t happen because the war wears on for years. The book opens and closes with one of the men at the end of his life going to Paris for Christmas to read the last letter from his friend’s sister. This was so poignant and beautifully written.

6. Letters From Father Christmas by J. R. R. Tolkien (not reviewed yet). Tolkien wrote letters to his children as Father Christmas for several years. He wrote in a wobbly script because Father Christmas was so old (and probably to disguise his handwriting. Sometimes he would include drawings of happenings at the North Pole. North Polar Bear would add a few lines sometimes. The poor bear was the accidental cause of a lot of mischief. Of course, this being Tolkien, there are battles with goblins and a little dabbling in made-up languages. I loved the delightful imagination in these letters. Plus it was interesting learning differences between a British Father Christmas in that time and our modern American version (fourteen reindeer, two white ones for when he was in a special hurry). The audiobook narrated by Derek Jacobi is delightful, but the Kindle or paper version is a must-have for copies of the letters and pictures themselves.

It’s been fun reminiscing over my reading year. What were some of your favorite books read this year?

(I often link up with some of these bloggers.)

Books Read in 2021

This was another good reading year. I’ll finish with 85 books, if I counted right–one more than last year. I included a few that I will complete by the end of the year. I had a good mix of old and hot off the press, fiction and nonfiction, historical and contemporary.

I’ll publish my top twelve of the year shortly, and I have a couple of reading challenge wrap-ups to post which will overlap with this. But I wanted to have a record of everything read this year. The titles link back to my reviews.

Nonfiction:

  1. Anne Morrow Lindbergh: Her Story by Susan Hertog
  2. Be Available: Accepting the Challenge to Confront the Enemy by Warren W. Wiersbe
  3. Be Confident (Hebrews): Live by Faith, Not by Sight by Warren W. Wiersbe
  4. Be Counted (Numbers): Living a Life That Counts for God by Warren W. Wiersbe
  5. Be Daring (Acts 13-28): Put Your Faith Where the Action Is by Warren Wiersbe
  6. Be Delivered (Exodus): Finding Freedom by Following God by Warren Wiersbe
  7. Be Diligent (Mark): Serving Others as you Walk with the Master Servant by Warren Wiersbe
  8. Be Dynamic (Acts 1-12): Experience the Power of God’s People by Warren Wiersbe
  9. Be Equipped (Deuteronomy): Acquiring the Tools for Spiritual Success by Warren Wiersbe
  10. Be Holy (Leviticus): Becoming “Set Apart” for God by Warren W. Wiersbe
  11. Be Loyal (Matthew): Following the King of Kings by Warren W. Wiersbe
  12. Be Right (Romans): How to Be Right with God, Yourself, and Others by Warren W. Wiersbe
  13. Be Strong (Joshua): Putting God’s Power to Work in Your Life by Warren W. Wiersbe
  14. Becoming Elisabeth Elliot by Ellen Vaughn
  15. Call of a Coward: The God of Moses and the Middle-Class Housewife by Marcia Moston
  16. Christian Reflections by C. S. Lewis
  17. The Devil in Pew Number Seven by Rebecca Nichols Alonzo
  18. Devotedly, the Personal Letters and Love Story of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot by Valerie Elliot Shephard
  19. Do More Better by Tim Challies
  20. Don’t Overthink It: Make Easier Decisions, Stop Second-Guessing, and Bring More Joy to Your Life by Anne Bogel.
  21. EPIC: An Around-the-World Journey Through Christian History by Tim Challies
  22. Expecting Christmas by multiple authors
  23. Fear and Faith: Finding the Peace Your Heart Craves by Trillia J. Newbell
  24. Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers by Dane Ortlund
  25. Gift From the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
  26. The Good Portion: Scripture: The Doctrine of Scripture for Every Woman by Keri Folmar
  27. How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren
  28. Hudson Taylor and Maria by John Pollock
  29. Hungry for God, Starving for Time by Lori Hatcher
  30. Influence: Building a Platform that Elevates Jesus (Not Me) by Kate Motaung and Shannon Popkin.
  31. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Companion by Annette Whipple
  32. The Man Who Was Q: the True Story of Charles Fraser-Smith, the ‘Q’ Wizard of World War II by David Porter
  33. The Narrative of Sojourner Truth by Sojourner Truth and Olive Gilbert
  34. Preparing for Easter with C. S. Lewis.
  35. The Secret War of Charles Fraser-Smith, the “Q” Gadget Wizard of World War II by Charles Fraser-Smith
  36. Woman Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue by Kathryn J. Atwood
  37. Ten Words to Live By: Delighting In and Doing What God Commands by Jen Wilkin
  38. Write Better: A Lifelong Editor on Craft, Art, and Spirituality by Andrew T. Le Peau

Classics:

  1. The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi
  2. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  3. Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope
  4. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  5. Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster
  6. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
  7. Our Town by Thornton Wilder
  8. Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie
  9. A Room with a View by E. M. Forster
  10. Silas Marner by George Elliot
  11. The Warden by Anthony Trollope

Christian Fiction:

  1. Catching the Wind by Melanie Dobson
  2. Chapel Springs Revival by Ane Mulligan
  3. A Christmas by the Sea by Melody Carlson
  4. Daughters of Northern Shores by Joanne Bischof
  5. Dogwood by Chris Fabry
  6. The First Gardener by Denise Hildreth Jones
  7. Heaven Sent Rain by Lauraine Snelling
  8. Hidden Among the Stars by Melanie Dobson
  9. The House at the End of the Moor by Michelle Griep
  10. In Between by Jenny B. Jones
  11. The Invitation by Nancy Moser
  12. The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner
  13. Memories of Glass by Melanie Dobson
  14. Mistletoe and Murder, a collection of ten novellas by Christian mystery and suspense writers
  15. The Nature of a Lady by Roseanna M. White
  16. Of Literature and Lattes by Katherine Reay
  17. The Old Lace Shop by Michelle Griep, the last in the Once Upon a Dickens Christmas trilogy of novellas.
  18. Only Glory Awaits: The Story of Anne Askew, Reformation Martyr by Leslie S. Nuernberg
  19. The Ornament Keeper by Eva Marie Everson (not reviewed yet)
  20. Out of the Shadows by Sigmund Brouwer
  21. Rosemary Cottage (Hope Beach Book 2) by Colleen Coble
  22. Saving Alice by David Lewis
  23. Seagrass Pier (Hope Beach Book 3) by Colleen Coble
  24. The Sign Painter by Davis Bunn
  25. Sons of Blackbird Mountain by Joanne Bischof
  26. A Southern Season: Stories from a Front Porch Swing, four stories set in the South by Eva Marie Everson, Linda W. Yezak, Claire Fullerton, and Ane Mulligan
  27. The Summer Kitchen by Lisa Wingate
  28. Tidewater Inn (Hope Beach Book 1) by Collen Coble
  29. Three Shall Be One by Francena Arnold
  30. Unconditional by Eva Marie Everson
  31. The Yuletide Angel by Sandra Ardoin

Other Fiction:

  1. The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson
  2. Last Christmas in Paris: A Novel of World War I by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb
  3. Letters from Father Christmas by J. R. R. Tolkien (not reviewed yet)
  4. The Orchard House by Heidi Chiavaroli
  5. A Quilt for Christmas by Sandra Dallas

How was your reading this year?

The Yuletide Angel

In The Yuletide Angel by Sandra Ardoin, someone mysteriously leaves gifts at the homes of the needy during Christmas season nights in the 1890s. The town dubs the mysterious visitor the Yuletide Angel.

No one knows that the Yuletide Angel is shy, timid Violet Madison.

No one except her neighbor, Hugh Barnes. Hugh had seen Violet on her mission one night, and ever since he has followed her at a discreet distance to protect her.

When Violet learns her brother is planning to marry soon, she begins to worry. Her brother inherited the family home and plans to bring his bride there. They plan for Violet to live with them, but she would feel like she’s intruding on their lives. Her father did not leave her much because he assumed she would marry. But she is plain and not well-spoken, and no one has shown an interest. What could she do to make her own way that would be socially acceptable? She has some ideas of things she could sell in the Hugh the grocer’s shop.

Hugh has been fond of Violet for a long time. He speaks cheerfully to her and tries to gently draw her out. He enthusiastically endorses her plan for selling her baked goods in his store.

Just when it seems their relationship is unfolding well, Hugh’s ne’er-do-well brother, Kit, shows up. When Hugh sees Violet and Kit together, he feels betrayed.

And on top of everything else, an unseen stalker is following Violet on her nightly rounds and stealing her gifts.

This was an enjoyable story. I appreciate that as a Christian author, Sandra is not afraid to deal with Christian issues outright rather than just hinting at them. Yet her style is not heavy or preachy.

As a novella, this was a quick read. But the characters and story arc were well-developed. All in all, a good quick read.