Saturday, April 26, 2008

Book Review: I Dared to Call Him Father by Bilquis Sheikh

A modern classic in Christian biography, this title was originally published in 1978, and has been continuously reprinted since then. I am reviewing a UK edition from my personal home library (that I mooched from a UK bookmoocher!) dated 2005. The version you will commonly find in bookstores today is the 25th Anniversary Edition. For a book to go through so many re-printings and to be continuously in print for over 25 years you can tell that there is something special about such a book, some stirring within the human spirit that continues to draw us to it.

93247: I Dared to Call Him Father, 25th Anniversary Edition: The Miraculous Story of a Muslim Woman"s Encounter with GodI Dared to Call Him Father, 25th Anniversary Edition: The Miraculous Story of a Muslim Woman's Encounter with God By Bilquis Lohse / Baker
At a time when new questions about Islam arise daily, the miraculous story of Bilquis Sheikh will help you understand and reach out to Muslims---with compassion and the gospel. A wealthy Pakistani woman, the outspoken Sheikh came to know God through a dream, turning her world upside down---and putting her life in danger. 192 pages, softcover from Baker.
*Start of Review*

At first glance I thought that perhaps this book would better enable Christians to understand the mind of a Muslim, their point of view, helping them to better witness to Muslims. I can tell you that this book is definitely not focused upon apologetics, nor is it full of ‘how-to’s’ on reaching out to the Muslim community. Rather it is the intimate story of one woman coming to know Jesus as her Lord and Saviour, and her resulting walk in obedience with Him, and His faithfulness to her. It just happens that she was a wealthy Muslim in Pakistan, but truly, this story could be the testimony of any person that the Lord has drawn to Him, out of any circumstances.

I was so moved to read of how God reached into the life of Bilquis and drew her to him.
John 6:44 - No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day.
And indeed, my own testimony, and that of others bears witness to the truth of that verse as well. Without any overt evangelism God can still speak to us through the circumstances in our lives and draw us to His son. The author experiences a rather dramatic and prophetic conversion, the story of her coming to the Lord is quite striking, unique and moving. Her resulting early walk in faith with Jesus and of striving to live in the presence and power of the Holy Ghost every waking moment is so inspiring. Would that I, myself, had such a clear witness of the Spirit in my life on such an ongoing basis rather than in glimpses here and there.

For our family we do have one doctrinal disagreement with the book. The matter of her baptism is one that we will have to discuss further in terms of doctrine when we re-read this book together; I'm not about to argue with the validity of her baptism, because she was in trying circumstances, and felt she had a word from the Lord, but our family does hold to believers baptism by immersion performed by a believing man. I obtained this book to add to our growing homeschooling and personal home library, as I intend to acquaint my growing children with notable Christian biographies throughout their years in our home. Since our children are only 5 and 2 it will be a few years before we read this book together (sorry, I won't be re-listing) due to some of the complex social themes presented, those of ostracism namely, though this is definitely a social phenomenon that we as Christians, and our children should be prepared to face as we follow Jesus.
Jhn 15:18 - If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before [it hated] you.
1Jo 3:13 - Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you.
A moving and true personal testimony of one womans desire to obey the Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in His Spirit, and by His power, every waking hour, to be obedient in even the smallest details of her life, is one that we can use as an example in our own walk in faith with Jesus Christ, our saviour. The book also includes a very touching after-word (which brought me to tears) by a missionary wife who was used of the Lord in Bilquis' quest for the truth, and her later discipleship. The author is now with the Lord, and continues to serve as a shining example of a personal relationship with Jesus for us today.

Jennifer Bogart blogs about christian parenting, family living, homeschooling and more! She loves writing Christian book reviews. This review may be republished in its entirety.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Jasmine’s Tortoise by Corinne Souza

Jasmine’s Tortoise is the first novel of Corinne who has written non fiction books about her family’s involvement in spying and her experiences as a lobbyist during the Major-Blair years. It is clear that much of Corinne Souza life is woven into the novel’s mix of fictional and historical events that unfolds from1965 to 2002. Souza’s father is clearly used as a source for Jasmine’s father and she like Jasmine owes her British passport to the spy trade.

The book covers 40 turbulent years from the ellipse of the Puppet Hashemite monarchy by secular Arab nationalism to its eventual challenge by Islamic militancy and Kurdish nationalism. These local changes are shaped if not controlled by the ebb and flow of the big three imperial powers: Britain, America, and Russia, who gradually became the big two and then finally in the 90’s just the big one. These complex social and political changes are explored through the fates of three families: the Palameries- Roman Catholic Indian traders, the Solomon’s, the last of Bagdad’s old Jewish families and the El-Tareks- a well heeled Muslim family with a presence in the old and emerging social-political elites.

The story starts in Bagdad when the British niceties of Masonic lodges, Horse Racing, dances and formal parties, are in the final throes of death with a family party. Tragedy is triggered when Jasmine is given by her grandfather. Peter Ligne, the local MI6 bureau spymaster claims it from him. This hurts her grandfather’s feelings so his friend Nico Stollen, the KGB spymaster, is pulled into a rivalry to protect Jasmine. Thus starts a struggle for her “soul” that will see betrayal and death rip the families apart mirroring the wider betrayal of Iraq. Forty years later the younger generation and older family survivors fight for Jasmine’s redemption as Nico Stollen and Peter Ligne pull the strings to the final moments.

The book is structured with a prologue setting out all the main characters and their relationship in 2002 before diving back to Bagdad in 1965. It then jumps in linear stages to 2002 and we follow the twists and turns of the characters as they die, marry, betray and manipulate with bitter and unintended consequences. Expect lots of twists and unexpected turns as the plot sets a good pace as you keep a track on who is who. If in doubt dip back to the prologue as the characters and their relationships are set out as if a route map.

Clearly an ambitious and multi-layer story so does it work? Only partly has to be the honest answer. The flaw is that the writing does not match the ambition of the story. The characters are often two-dimensional, and clich├ęs with barely distinguishable voices but they do serve as effective pegs to move the plot on at a quick pace. And who complains when Fleming and Agatha Christies characters serve the same purpose?

We also have a POV that switches character within the same page as well as an irritating habit of the writer as untended narrator explaining words and actions. This would have been fine in a historical account but not in a novel as it all adds to effect of the reader being distant and observing rather then participating in the story. Again fine as long as the reader is interested in plot rather then character driven stories.

So is the plot credible? The opening prologue is over complex and slows the introduction to the story; this could have perhaps been better handled perhaps as a press interview of Jasmine so become a narrative that intrigues us. Nor do we have the back story of why key central characters are so loyal to each other. The importance given to British Intelligence, Masons and Employer associations stretches credibility. But Lodges were in the British Middle East until closed down in the mid 60’s, and until the 90’s employees with a radical past were black-listed and British intelligence did play dirty tricks with the Labour Party. And as for the corruption of the Government sponsored arms trade just read the latest news headlines! So the story is an exaggeration and simplification of the truth which will irate some readers but not all.

In the end, the potential fatal flaw of the novel is who is the intended readership? In wanting to explore the ambivalent moral and political issues of the modern world, it suffers in comparison with Graham Greene who managed to combine serious literary acclaim with wide popularity. Yet it lacks the technically detailed espionage and military science storylines of say a Tom Clancy or the focus on one heroic man, or a small group of crusading individuals, in a struggle against powerful adversaries of say a Robert Ludlum. Despite these reservations and limitations it is still a good holiday read but given a good cast, and screenplay it would really work as a mini commercial TV series.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

Which do you think will be read and savoured in 100 years time, the fairy stories of the Grimm Brothers with their roots in the old darkness of firelight nights or the latest Jodi Picoult about a life that the children of parents yet to be born will have no knowledge or interest in. Yet the same children when meeting the stories of world long faded even when written down by the Grimm Brothers will still be amazed and scared. Don’t believe me? Well I do story telling in pubs to adults and have known an entire bar go quiet and listen intently as a story of woods, princes and monsters enfolds in their mind.

It is from this deep well that John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things draws on as he tells the story of 12 year old David’s losing fight to keep his mother and family he knows a alive. His anger and grief causes him blackouts and a wish for revenge as his father deals with grief by marriage and work. David discovers the presence of the Crooked Man who can move between the world of living and story. Books start talking to him and boundaries blur so that when his anger and that of his struggling step-mother collide it sets into train his explosive entry into land of story.

Once there we meet traditional fairyland characters but from an adult and darker angle… Red riding Hood hunts out the wolf for sex and worse! It becomes clear that the adventures reflect David’s fears and the choices he must make as he struggles to deal with his grief and anger. To make the wrong choices will leave worlds destroyed but so will the right ones as he learns that happy endings are for fairy stories. But as heaven is what we make it, his death when it comes is not the end of the story.

This is not a children’s story but an adult story about when childhood ends and what life is made as we grow up. Its portrait of David trying to keep his mother alive and his feelings made me cry in the first 10 pages such was the lyrical nature of the writing. The stories within stories are not distractions as some reviewers suggest but insights into the characters that David meets and his own feelings and choices that he has to make. It has lots of comic moments as well as the Snow White and communist dwarfs’ episode shows. However, ultimately it’s a story about growing up and letting go of illusions, which makes it very sad and poignant. So if it gets to be a film think David Lynch or Tim Burton rather then Disney and you are on the right track about the tone of the book. Recommend for an easy enjoyable and moving read.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes

The book has its roots in stream punk or gothic horror with a dark brooding picture of late Victorian London full of grotesques, human monsters, corruption, dystopian nightmares and sharp contrasts of poverty and wealth. It draws on Dickens and Wilkie Collins with character names drawn. Another clear homage is Arthur Conan Doyle as the set up of Private Investigator (Edward Moon with loyal assistant (The Somnambulist) and long suffering housekeeper (Mrs Grossmith clearly draws on Sherlock Homes. A clear nod to 19th century literature is a narrator who judges and questions the actions of the characters and your motives as the reader.

It has three major plot lines: first is a murder-mystery in which Moon tries to discover how a rich wastrel died at the foot of a strange tower which leads him deeper into a vast cultish plot to remake London; the second is a political thriller in which the English secret service( The Directory) is locked in a deadly struggle with the Russian Secret Service and for its own survival and the third is an historical fancy with London itself as a character as well as a key character who is living back into time from the future. Each of the stories interacts and shapes the other until the climatic struggle for the soul and future of London of the final chapters.

The characters in The Somnambulist are just as much fun as the story. Obviously, Edward Moon the magician detective, the Somnambulist a milk drinking giant, the creepy Human Fly, the cold but cunning Albino, the curdling supernatural Prefects, the 100 year old Chairman of love, Mr Cribb, the embodiment of London, Barrabas, the bearded-lady whore... the list goes on and on. Each has a part to play in the story from beginning to end, and each person's story is, for the most part, tidied up by the end of the story.

But many of these characters are broad-brush stroke and as the plot lurches in all direction without given time to settle they often fail to engage. The novel could have been done best as a three book series or one 800 page book. The relative shortness of the story leads to lots of issues not being explained or to sudden resolutions. One of the approaches of suggesting a back story of some 20 years of work and fame now fading especially since the failures of the Clapham case (hint Jack the Ripper) is one of the few area of depth in the story. As you can see, it’s not a conventional story by any means and you do have to read carefully in parts. But to the relief of many I must make it clear that this is not in any way literature but rather pure escapism or “eye candy for the brain”. So want to switch off and dive into over the top escapist fun then this is the book for you!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Looking for Carroll Beckwith by Robert L. Snow

The non-fiction book is about a Captain in the Indianapolis Police Department called Bob Snow, a very down to earth, no-silly type of person, for whom anything 'spiritual' is something not to spend or waste time on.

Due to some strange circumstances, he ended up one day making an appointment with a past live regression therapist. Highly skeptical, he kept putting off this appointment until eventually he went for it.

Once the regression was over, he was shocked to realise that he had indeed experienced past lives. But still, not convinced that the memories weren't really pieces of good old imagination, he went ahead to find proof that the lifetimes (particularly one lifetime as a painter) he recalled were just memories of some paintings he has seen somewhere before, and his mind simply put a story together of him painting them.

Next we go along with him on his journey to find the proof that past lives do NOT exist.
And much to his total surprise, what he found was exactly the opposite: not just clues, but proof that he was, indeed that not so famous, actually quite obscure painter, that hardly anyone knew in his time or after.

Not to give away any further storyline, all I can say is the book is worth reading, as much for the strong proof of reincarnation, as for his style of humorous writing, which left me chuckling several times.

The link to the bookmooch book (when available) is here.

Fresh by Mark McNay

This is Mark McNay’s first novel and clearly draws on first hand knowledge of the day to day grind of a certain working class life where a full belly, a warm fire and a good woman is perfection. It fits within a British tradition of “kitchen sink realism” kicked of by John Osbourne’s “Look back in Anger” in the 50’s that looks at the dreams and anger of the working class man and woman. Think of Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday night and Sunday morning or the film work to the current day of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, both of whom continue to create powerful films unafraid of tackling head on current social problems.

The story follows a day in the life of Sean working in a chicken packing factory**, who discovers that his Brother Archie has come out of jail early ( in for violence and drugs related crime). This sets up a chain of events with tragic consequences as Sean has spent most of a money clip he was banking for his brother. He desperately struggles during the course of the day to borrow the money from family and from the firm. The novel also by flashbacks reveals Sean’s and Archie’s childhood and life up to the events of the day. Sean is no angel; he gambles, takes a more or less willing part as a pick up in his brother’s drug’s network and will use his fists. But unlike his brother does with his family needs in mind- his own and that of his uncle and aunt who gave him a home when his father left and mother died. And it’s for his family that he has to fight for as the day develops.

The story unfolds through a lot of dialogue and switches between first and third person perspectives rather then description although we get’s Sean’s flights of imagination for colour. The dialogue is written in Glaswegian but it doesn’t jar and often it’s in the silences between characters that speak more. The speech patterns (expect sentences where F**k can be a noun, verb, adjective and have several meanings from love to hate! and the mundane events of the day convey tenderness, violence and humour in scene after scene with warm believable characters.

It’s remarkable that the author started a creative writing course in his late forties in 1999 which lead to this award winning (Arts Foundation New Fiction 2007) novel. Hope for all us yet! It is by no means perfect, as the ending is a little flat and the characterisation of Archie teeters on the edge of caricature but it’s an easy page turner and I can’t wait for the Ken Loach channel four adaptation that surely must be in pre production talks as you read this!

** and you may want to rethink eating cheap value chicken after reading the book!

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Tidewater Tales by John Barth

Peter is a working class successful writer who has become blocked and so begs his well heeled wife (Katherine) who is 8 ½ months pregnant to set him a task. She does which is to tell stories as they sail around the Chesapeake Bay (a 200 mile long estuary on the Virginia and Maryland coastlines) in their boat called Story. During of which we discover how they fell in love in the 60’s but not met up until the 70’s and why they are having babies now as they hit 40. But this is only one of three other love stories in the novel. One is the love of landscape and the other is of sailing. Both of which are powerfully evoked throughout the novel. Their love story, landscape and sailing are then effectively linked to their families. Hers being local old money who have shaped the land since before the USA was founded and his being boat builders who have shaped access to the water since coming over in the 19th century.

Katherine’s family are open, generous friendly and sophisticated so accept and support the whims of Peter and Katherine to sail around the Bay. Likewise Peter shy and intense and Katherine open and bright are deep friends and in love so we like the characters and join in the physicality evoked by the writing. However these are but three of several strands in the novel, two others are a political thriller and an eco-mystery. The first explores the CIA-KGB spy games as the SALT talks dirty tricks play out in the local area. The second looks at the environmental damage being done by illegal dumping. Both story lines are linked firmly with Katharine’s ex husband and her charming but wastrel brother but not as you expect.

But all this are themes for the real focus of the novel which is about the art and mystery of writing and story telling. So over the 14 days of sailing we move in and out of the stories of Don Quixote, Huckleberry Finn, 1001 nights of Arabian Tales, Odyssey as they shape and are shaped by the love story landscape and sailing. We meet the narrators as characters finishing their own stories and shaping the novel as we do as reader-characters. This means that the narrative moves through a whole range of formats (plays, short essays, monologues, puns, wordplay etc) and genres (love story, social comedy, thriller, family saga, etc) with us and the unborn babies as narrator commentators along with the characters who know they are in a story. And we know their fates outside the story itself.

Don’t expect a quick read as its 655 pages and small print but do expect an intellectual tour de force and a page turner for what is mediation on writing that races along driven by the reader’s identification with Peter’s writers block, and their immediate parenthood while the multi-layer story entertains and stretches. Clearly a banquet that lingers in the memory when many beans on toast novels have been long forgotten so highly recommended.

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

My first thought upon opening the book and seeing the author picture was, "Her parents named her Lionel? No wonder she writes about dysfunctional families." And an interview with Shriver confirms that the book stems from her own fears of motherhood.

For anyone who has been hiding in a cave for the past couple of years, this is the story a mother trying to come to grips with the reality of her son, who has killed seven of his classmates along with a teacher and a cafeteria worker. The story is told through a series of letters from Eva to her "estranged" husband.

Unlike many people, I didn't find Eva an unsympathetic character. She is brutally honest with herself and Franklin, and exhibits the not necessarily balanced faults and virtues of a real person. In her letters, reviewing her life with husband and son, she reflects on their familial history in minute detail (the paperback edition I read is 468 pages long), trying to understand why she and her family have been struck by lightening and how she might have made things different.

Although I found Eva an interesting character, her husband is portrayed is someone so unobservant, so emotionally blind, so deaf to reality, his wife's needs and his son's peculiarities, that it is hard to believe he can live outside an institution. In the end, there is no answer for Kevin and much as I might like to have made Eva's journey with her, I couldn't do it in her husband's company.

As for the "twist" to come, promised in the reviews, I'd pretty much figured that out by the second or third letter, so there wasn't much point in waiting around for it.

This is another DNF for me; I read half of it.