Book Review: “The Dog who was There” by Ron Marasco

As a dog lover, I was intrigued to read a story about a dog who experienced first hand the life of Jesus. I didn’t really know what to expect and now having read it I have a mix of thoughts as regards reviewing it.

I appreciated the grittiness of the story. We see the times of Jesus from the ground level so we get a taste of the dirt and squalor of certain areas of Jerusalem and other nearby locales. We get a view of the violence of the period, in particular, the ruthless and callous disregard the Romans had for life, both human and canine. For some readers this may be a bit confronting.

Barley is a rescue dog in the true sense of the description (we have 2 at home) and has a delightful spirit even though for much of his life he is poorly treated. But we do get to see him being loved by a married couple and later by a petty criminal, Samid, which Barley responds well too.

Jesus, or the Kind Man as Barley describes Him, doesn’t really enter the story until about halfway and then it’s not until the last 30% of the book when Barley gets up close to Him in His last days. And the crucifixion scene is tremendously portrayed from the eyes of Barley.

What I found challenging about the novel is that not a lot happens in the first half and I struggled to get through to it. I kept wondering when Jesus was going to become more prominent as that’s what the title alluded to. I was confused by the POV quite a lot. The author jumped between Barley and 3rd person narrator frequently to the extent they almost meshed. I felt Barley often saw things through a human and not, a dog perspective.

The last third of the novel was very good to read with a couple of very clever twists which amped up the emotional connection I had to the story. However, there is so much quality reading material available I’m not sure I’m able to recommend this one.

Note: A special thank you to Thomas Nelson and NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

You can discover more about “The Dog who was There” on the Litfuse Blog Tour site.

Book Review: “Waiting for Wonder” by Marlo Schalesky

waiting-for-wonder-pkWe’re all familiar with the story of Abraham and Sarah … how they were blessed by God to be the blessing for future nations and generations. Of how Abraham, the great man of faith, on hearing God’s instruction to leave home, grabbed his family and did just that, not knowing where the Lord was leading them. But in Marlo Schalesky’s marvellous book we hear from Sarah, we gain insight into her perspective, on being Abraham’s wife and being wholly favoured by God not because she was a wife but because she too was the Lord’s beloved.

I liked how Ms Schalesky set out each chapter: we start with a Scripture from Genesis which sets it up, then a short introduction before we “hear” from Sarah herself, well, the author’s thoughts on what may have been going through Sarah’s mind at the time, then a section “Waiting for Wonder” where the author explores what’s to be discovered in the waiting and then finally “Who is this God?”, a short section bringing back to the greatness and goodness of God.

Yes, there is some repetition across 14 chapters of exploring “waiting”, however, there are some outstanding insights to be gleaned from the author’s interpretation of Sarah’s story that makes this book such a worthy resource on the subject. As Sarah and Abraham journeyed through many years of waiting the Lord drew them increasingly towards Himself, to a deeper intimacy and new devotion. This is what He calls each of us too. And that’s the wonder of “waiting”: our Creator woos us. To Himself in order that we discover our Lord in ways we could never have imagined and in so doing fresh perspectives on ourselves and His beloved.

I also appreciated the point that even when they received the blessing (yes, Sarah received it specifically too) from God of a child in a year’s time, they were again tested. And again they initially struggled because of their inherent fears that had always inhibited them. “Sometimes we must go back in order to go forward. We must face the sin, the lies we live, those in ourselves and in the people close to us.We cannot receive the fulfilment of promises to bless the world when we are stepped in old fear, old deceptions, old sins.”(loc 1357)

This so spoke to me. The Lord has something more for us but first of all we need to let go of the past and all its muck, whatever form it may take.

If you’re presently in a season of waiting then buy this book. Ms Schalesky wrestles with Scripture and overlays aspects of waiting in her own life to provide an excellent insight into the wonders that can be gained from waiting.

Note: A special thank you to Abingdon Press and NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

You can discover more about “Waiting from Wonder” on the Litfuse Blog Tour site.

“A.D.30,” Ted Dekker

934503This is the first novel of Ted Dekker’s that could be classified as Biblical fiction. It is breathtaking in its portrayal of the times, the brutality of humans and in Maviah, the central character, someone all readers can relate to. And then we meet Yeshua, the Hebrew for Jesus. It’s hard to put into words the experience the reader has seeing Jesus through Maviah’s eyes. Sitting near Him as he shares many of the parables we’ve come to know through the Bible. I didn’t want Him to leave. I expect that was how the disciples felt as they journeyed with Him.

Maviah is a Bedouin slave who at the request of her dethroned father to seek out King Herod and secure his assistance to free her people from the Thamud. This takes her on a wild journey through the desert with her valiant aids Saba and Judah. Their journey will take them past Jerusalem. Judah who knows of Jesus, being a descendant of the kings who visited Jesus at his birth, and is desperate to meet him. Circumstances outside their control unexpectedly lead them to the house of Nicodemus where Jesus is happening to supper.

Maviah is a wonderful character. We see her courage in undertaking the journey and the many fears she will fail. It is in meeting Jesus she is able to begin to realise her destiny as Queen of the desert. The final scenes are simply extraordinary storytelling as Dekker demonstrates the power of faith when the odds appear insurmountable.

There are many other notable well developed characters; Judah and Saba in particular. It was fascinating to see Dekker present his interpretations of such people as Herod, Herodias, Aretas as well as Stephen and some of the disciples.

This is Dekker at his absolute best. In fact, he’s stepped up a level as he combines the truth and power of the gospel with a breathtaking tale of good and evil that makes me want more and more.

“Fight Back with Joy,” Margaret Feinberg

book2“Joy is one of those words that has been overused, distorted into a cliche.”

I nodded in agreement as I read that statement in the first few pages of this book. I confess I’m one of those people who doesn’t really understand it and too often relates it to happiness and/or my circumstances. Besides Margaret’s brilliant Biblical teaching, I was drawn to read her latest book to better understand “joy.”

Margaret drew me into her 18 month battle with cancer. We visit her doctors, the wards at the hospital, her standing in front of the mirror to inspect the surgeon’s handiwork and the downtime spent with her husband and puppy, Hershey. My eyes were never far from tears as my heart cried out for her but always awestruck at her bravery at sharing such details of the battle.

As I read this inspirational book I was constantly reminded of Brene Brown’s words, “Numbing the pain numbs the joy” as I believe that is how I’ve lived much of my life. Margaret stepped into her battle mindful of this and sought to discover joy. “No one is immune to sorrow, and only those who learn to grieve well can recapture the healing it brings.” and “Running from sorrow will only take you to scary places.”

Embracing our pain and sorrows enables us to experience joy. The sense of being intentional about experiencing joy was a key point I took from the book. Whether it’s in choosing to be alert to how we numb our pain, to loving intentionally with simple gestures as “thank you” and “I’m sorry,” or something grander like giving everyone in the hospital ward a red balloon as Margaret did, grabbing a hold of joy is a choice we make.

Often a challenging read, this is one of the books that lingers long after you’ve read it. As you’d expect, it’s full of relevant Biblical illustrations, Margaret’s sense of whimsy and brave storytelling. It also comes with some added extras at the end including tips on what to say to people going through a battle when you don’t know what to say and from Leif, her husband, on how a caregiver should care for themselves.

“Kept,” by Sally Bradley

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Photo courtesy of SallyBradley.com

I don’t read much romantic fiction but I was drawn to “Kept” by the comments of some reviewers whom I respect dearly. What grabbed my attention in their reviews was the notion that this novel wasn’t your typical Christian romance as it grappled with some tough issues.

It didn’t take long to get absorbed in the story. It’s powerful storytelling with wonderfully believable characters (well maybe the good looks are a little exaggerated but my wife tells me that’s essential to most romance novels). I expect Miska, the drop-dead gorgeous freelance editor who has an arrangement with a married pro baseballer (whom she loves) whenever he comes to town, may create some tension amongst readers.

Next door are two brothers: Garrett, the cool soon-to-be-married lawyer and Dillan, the clumsy giant who happens to be a youth pastor. Christian men who befriend Miska and soon become aware of her arrangement.

There’s a wonderful supporting cast of characters any of whom you can meet on the street. My favourite was Tracy who demonstrated how to love someone without any judgment or preconceived notions of who or what they should be. Even when grappling with her own heartbreak she takes Miska on and simply loves her.

But what stirred me most about this story is how Bradley demonstrates the power of Christ’s pursuit of individuals and how His love transforms. Miska reflects all of us; her life is complicated and messy. Sure her particular situation may be extreme compared to the “stuff” we grapple with but it all reflects our fallen natures.

Oh, and there’s a very sweet love story.

We need more Sally Bradley’s to write such novels that portray the rawness of life and the transformative power of Christ’s love.

“Motherless,” Erin Healy

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Photo courtesy of Erin Healy

“This is truth: we all tell the stories that we want to believe. We tell them for so long that we forget what we really know. Occasionally we convince others to believe them too.”

Motherless is the story of brother and sister, Marina and Dylan, who are coming to terms with the anticipated death of their father (he’s in an induced coma) having lost their mother many years earlier from an apparent suicide.

Marina, even though only a few years older than 16-year-old Dylan, has taken on many of the responsibilities of being a mother. She is especially protective of him as he suffers from agoraphobia, which can be tremendously debilitating.

Their story is told through the eyes of a first person narrator who has a particular interest in their welfare. This individual takes on a far greater role in their story and especially the key themes as it unfolds.

Healy uses vivid imagery in describing her characters, the Californian coast and the delicacies created by Sara, another key character. At any moment Healy is able to transport the reader into being a cocktail party guest, harvesting grapes in a vineyard or sitting on a surfboard waiting for the next set to roll in.

I particularly appreciated how Healy took me into Dylan’s mind, the young poet who was at his happiest surfing the break outside his home even though stepping out the front door to pop down to the shops crippled him with fear. I know what that feels like.

Lies, deception, grace and forgiveness. Key themes at the heart of most families as they reflect the darkness and light we all must navigate through life.

This is what makes this story so compelling: it could be any of our families that Healy has captured on the page.

Highly recommended.

“The Legend of Sheba,” Tosca Lee

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Photo courtesy of Tosca Lee

There is little mention of the Queen of Sheba in the Bible other than that she paid King Solomon a visit having heard of his great wisdom and he worshipped an unseen God. (1 Kings 10:1-13)

This novel greatly expands on the little we know and introduces us to an enchanting, complex Queen who is powerful, fiercely independent, intelligent and very beautiful. We meet her as a child and then retrace her period of exile before becoming Queen. She soon asserts her authority by utilising Saba’s natural wealth to build a greater kingdom. Her council continually badger her to marry and produce an heir, however, she only wants to marry for love.

One of Saba’s trader’s shares his meetings with the King of the northern tribes of Israel who is becoming increasingly powerful in the region. She is soon intrigued and infatuated as the two begin corresponding by letter. He with his songs and proverbs, she in riddles. But a greater need arises as Solomon begins to build a fleet of ships and ports that will negate Saba’s trading capabilities. Sheba takes it into her own hands and sets off on the 6 month journey to pay the King a visit to negotiate access to his ships and ports.

It is on arriving in Jerusalem that this novel takes off as we get to witness a most passionate love affair between the two. The tension simmers for many pages as they seek to understand and be understood by the other. Solomon, tired of his wealth and his huge number of wives, meets his equal. A woman who can inspire, motivate and lift him from his boredom. He is captivated by her.

Sheba resists her feelings for him not wanting to be another conquest. But the more time they spend together the more she sees of the heart of this man. Having grown up worshipping Almaqah, a god of the sun and moon, she begins to realise it’s folly. It is in seeing Solomon’s struggle between his faith and his riches she comes to realise the unseen one is the one true God.

Lee writes beautifully as she always does taking us back in time as observant bystanders to the sounds, smells, and sights of the era. Her authorial skill makes this a most charming and fascinating read. Frankly, I was so disappointed when it ended.

There is an informative appendix that outlines some of the key findings from Lee’s exhaustive research which helped answer many of the questions I had as I read the novel. But one must always remember this is a piece of fiction.

“Killing Lions,” John Eldredge & Sam Eldredge

killing-lionsIt was very special to be able to ‘participate’ in a conversation between a son and a father as they chatted about the key matters that impact a man’s heart.

Sam, the 25 year old, recently married and wanting some everyday wisdom on how to approach marriage, his vocation, his faith, friendships, and how to cherish his wife provides the context. His dad, John, asks as many questions as he ‘listens’ to Sam and provides his views based on his experience as a 53 year old. Being a trained counsellor and coaching men in life provides John with greater depth as he is able to relate other mens experiences in addition to his own.

If you’ve read John’s other books much of the content will not be new but being a witness to their conversation provides greater clarity and practical insight.

Particular highlights for me were Chapters 8 (A Few Questions about God) and 10 (Racing Toward the Unknown). Reading John share how he came to realise Jesus really is the way, the truth and the life is a very powerful witness. Then in the final chapter he raises a core question for all men: will I remain open to fathering?

The book also includes three of the Eldredge prayers: The Daily Prayer, Prayer of Guidance and Sexual Healing. All very useful to add to one’s prayer arsenal.

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I also bought the accompanying journal which enables the reader to explore each chapter on their own terms plus provides practical tips on additional reading, movies to watch, and questions to ask other men. It’s a fabulous resource and I’d encourage everyone to buy it and work through it as you read the book.

“God took me by the Hand,” Jerry Bridges

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Photo courtesy of NavPress

This was a delightful read of a very humble man who is able to look back at his 80+ years and see how God has His hand on so many small and large happenings during those years.

I haven’t read any of Jerry’s books and felt led to read this for some reason and am so glad for it.

There are so many takeaways from this short memoir of sorts, a few of which I’ll mention in this review. Jerry is an example of a person the world would least expect to make such an impact; he was born with a number of physical shortcomings and grew up in a very unassuming home. It reminds me how God loves taking the unassuming and use them to do great things for His Kingdom.

Jerry is a disciple of the Navigator Scripture Memory System and throughout this book he demonstrates how important the memorisation of Scripture has been in his life. As he says, if there are no verses hidden in your heart, what words can the Spirit nudge you with when He wishes to make a point? I love that.

Jerry’s idea of “dependent responsibility” which I believe is a theme through many of his works is a great concept. As he writes:

“We are responsible for sanctifying our lives but we cannot make one inch of progress in the Christian life apart from the enabling power of the Holy Spirit.” (p 75)

And finally, Jerry attributes his greatest period of fruitfulness to the last 20 years of his life. That gives me great hope that there is still much I can do that can bear fruit for the Lord.

I’m so appreciative of having read Jerry’s memoir and I will be sure to start working through some of his other books in due course.

“A Beautiful Defeat,” Kevin Malarkey

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Image courtesy of HarperCollins Australia

My pastor said recently: “the Kingdom of God only prospers through an atmosphere of warfare and violence.” It reminded me of this book that I’ve just finished for the second time in quick succession.

This is an excellent practical and Scripture-based guide on how to ‘take up our cross everyday.’

Malarkey starts out exploring why it is so difficult to live a surrendered life and in so doing has a good look at the nature of sin concluding there are three key influencers to why we sin: the world, the flesh and Satan. He provides useful illustrations clarifying the three.

The rest of the book provides guidance of how to practically surrender on a daily basis. He gives a good airing to acknowledging we are in a battle and how to appropriately prepare to survive and in fact prosper through it. There is a great chapter when he compares the preparation to what a Navy SEAL has to do in their line of work having interviewed one as part of his research for the book.

Each chapter ends with an action to take an honest assessment of yourself and a prayer to commit the key learnings to the Lord.

I took many notes as I read through it and am sure I’ll be referring back to those in the days to come.

If you’re grappling with the state of your walk with the Lord, you may find some super insights in this book that will help give you some sound perspective.

Highly recommended.