Mandy Baker Johnson

Living without Shadows

Category: Book Reviews (page 1 of 6)

Good Christian books I can recommend

Taking Off The Mask

We all have a tendency to wear a mask. There is a need to hide who we really are. Maybe we have been badly hurt by someone we trusted in the past. Or perhaps we’ve been told at some point we were no good. Whatever the reason, we put on a mask to try and fit in and make ourselves acceptable or protect ourselves from further hurt.

As we hide our innermost self from others, we can end up hiding even from our own self.

Taking off the Mask by Claire Musters is a helpful new book dealing with this whole area of hiding who we are from others and ourselves. Claire talks openly and honestly about serious problems in her marriage and church life that arose because of wearing a mask and were made worse by continuing to wear it. Only when she was prepared to let the mask drop and face who she really was could she experience freedom to be the beautiful woman God made her to be.

We need to realise that it is what God thinks of us and says about us that is important, not what others think and say, or even what we think about ourselves. Our own thought lives are often so damaging to us and are indicative of deep pain hidden inside, keeping us trapped behind a mask.

Claire opens the book with her own story before, in subsequent chapters, taking the reader gently step-by-step through a process of learning to see where and in front of whom we hide ourselves and how to work through that to freedom. At the end of each chapter are searching questions designed to help the reader gain insight and benefit from working through the book. It would be possible to read and work through this on your own, though probably better with a trusted friend or counsellor.

I found it helpful to journal my way through the book by making a note of particular points that spoke to me:

Spidergram of Taking off the Mask…too often we can act out a part that we believe is expected of us, rather than truly living in the freedom that God’s love brings.

He [God] delights in us and wants us to enjoy the experience of being ourselves, and yet so often we can be trapped in an unnecessary cycle of pretence.

Let go of the fig leaves of shame and guilt. Accept God’s covering of forgiveness and righteousness.

We need to learn to stop looking to others for validation, and spend more time gazing on our Father’s face.

…sometimes we …can look at the difficult circumstances we are in and allow them to colour our view of God and ourselves.

The adventure of embracing all that He [God] has called me to is really liberating.

I have given Taking off the Mask 4* on Amazon. I was provided with a free copy for the purpose of writing an unbiased review for the book’s launch today.

 

Undivided Heart

Undivided Heart by Lucy Mills is a thoughtful book based on a verse from Psalm 86 in which the psalmist prays: ‘… give me an undivided heart…’

In the first half of her book, Lucy explores what makes us who we are and what motivates our actions. She looks at the many different things that give us a divided heart: our drives and desires, issues, circumstances, boxes we squeeze ourselves into, social media, and labels we put on ourselves or allow others to give us. All of these things can limit us, create unnecessary burdens, and keep us from enjoying the abundant life God has planned for each one of us.

The second half of the book, Lucy considers what has motivated God’s people in the past (from the Bible) and looks ahead to our glorious future with God, and how abundant life is offered right now. Our incentive is to enjoy some of the benefits of knowing God now, not in a ‘health, wealth, prosperity’ way, but in going deeper in our relationship with God and seeing His kingdom come.

If kingdom is about the royal reign of God… then the ‘requirements’ of living under this reign emphasise how we live together under the kingship of God. … being generous… acting with fairness and justice, forgiveness and mercy.

In the kingdom, treasures are found in unexpected places, the poor are considered rich and the weak are made strong.

Somewhere, right now, two people with two different viewpoints are praying together in the name of Jesus, under the banner of love. Such is the kingdom.

Having an undivided heart results in God being so crucial to us that we are able to face suffering that has no answers here. Lucy looks at Job, and how God did not answer his ‘why?’ but gave him a vital encounter with Himself. God didn’t give Job answers, He gave Job Himself. Lucy also considers how Jesus – the Son of God – came to fully identify with us in our suffering. He became our sin so that we could have God’s righteousness. In our sufferings, God gives Himself.

In her final chapter, Lucy sums up what it means to ask God for a united or undivided heart.

An undivided heart is not soft, pink romantic snuggliness. It’s a fierce, focused, even suffering heart, which looks towards its one redeemer. A heart which longs and thirsts and waits.

Each of the twenty chapters is short. Included within most if not all of the chapters is a Bible verse or passage and a poem. Each chapter concludes with a few helpful questions to aid the reader in gaging where their own heart may be divided and how this can be changed.

I thought Lucy incredibly insightful in this book, which is uncomfortable at times and helpfully illuminating at others. I certainly had one or two light bulb moments in reading it.

I have given it 4* on Amazon. I was provided with a free copy for the purpose of writing an unbiased review for the book’s launch this week.

Out of Silence

I’d been looking forward to the second of Annie Try’s books in the Dr Mike Lewis series and I wasn’t disappointed. Out of Silence gripped me from the first page and kept me guessing right to the very end with its twists and turns. Absolutely brilliant.

Bearded Dr Mike Lewis is the central character, a clinical psychologist suffering from depression and struggling to keep on top of his busy and demanding job. He lives alone in a soulless flat following the death of his young son and subsequent break-up of his marriage. You get the impression he has lived in a vacuum for the past five years from which he is now beginning to emerge. It is almost funny watching this loveable bumbling man’s bachelor-type ineffectual attempts at everyday life. He comes across as caring but quite naïve at times, very human in fact and someone I could relate to.

Another key character is Mike’s young client Johnny Two, a teenage asylum seeker who is so traumatised he is unable to speak. Helping to unlock Johnny’s voice with pretty art therapy colleague Anita helps Mike to come to terms with his past and finally allow himself to grieve the loss of his son.

Working with Anita involves Mike in a bit of a love triangle featuring the two of them and his ex-wife Ella. Mike’s bewildered confusion and efforts to make things right is all rather endearing.

Add in a grumpy, stressed social worker who is extremely sceptical about Johnny Two’s alleged trauma, medical secretaries who don’t hesitate to let Mike know their approval (and disapproval) of his treatment of Anita, and a dangerous psychopathic patient stalking Mike’s colleague, and you have a fascinating read.

I loved this book and have given it 5* on Amazon. It’s a novel where you think, ‘Just one more page and then I’ll go to bed,’ and an hour later you’re still avidly reading. I’m looking forward to more in the Dr Mike Lewis series.

Instant Apostle provided me with a free Kindle copy for the purpose of writing an unbiased review.

 

Ordinary Miracles

Challenging, exhilarating, faith-raising, adventure-stirring, full of ouch moments.

Ordinary Miracles: Mess, Meals and Meeting Jesus in Unexpected Places by Chris Lane is about making friends and being church on an inner-city estate. The author is open, honest and real, telling it like it is. Sometimes you are blown away by what God does, other times there are no happy endings. It’s messy and complicated but heart-warming.

I was struck by God being at work in every place at all times. So often I pray asking him to be at work in this and that. This book opened my eyes to the fact that He is already at work and it’s we who need to tune in to what He is doing in any given situation. I find this really exciting: being able to show people where God is already at work in their lives (I’ve already been able to put this into practice with a lovely woman I met in the red light district). Chris writes:

I now get offended when I hear a place or a person being described as ‘godless’, because I think it is an offence to our God who is always reaching out, always seeking the lost, always bringing His light into the darkest places. He asks that we follow Him to those people and places.

I think this makes life more challenging (in a good way) because we can’t just write off people of whom we disapprove. If our God is already reaching out to them, we need to be big-hearted enough to follow Him. Challenging!

This book also raises my faith for miracles to happen. Chris is open and honest about how hard it is to step out of your comfort zone to offer to pray with strangers in the pub or in the street. Yet when he made the effort, things happened. People were healed physically and emotionally, and situations changed. God’s presence fell on the least likely people and they were astounded to discover He loved them.

Your church may run a food bank,
but who sits around your dinner table?

Finally, I was hugely challenged by the need to share life with people different to me. It’s not enough to do a few acts of charity, and retreat. Jesus didn’t work that way. He shared life with people. As Chris points out in the book, a lot of the Gospels is about Jesus eating and spending time with ‘sinners’. He didn’t have projects, He had friends. Chris’ church is based around a dinner table and everyone is welcome. Not just a nice ideal, but a messy reality. This particular passage has stayed with me:

When all our connections with those different to us are based on the modern idea of charity, we are able to hold people at arm’s length, while easing our consciences that we are making a difference in the world. Jesus goes much further than this, and challenges us to do the same. Your church may run a food bank, but who sits around your dinner table?

Ouch. That last sentence makes me deeply uncomfortable…. And it’s right that it does. But what are Adi and I going to do about it…?

Ordinary miracles should come with a health warning. If read thoughtfully, life may never be the same again….

Instant Apostle provided me with a free Kindle copy for the purpose of writing an unbiased review.

 

 

Lydia’s Song

This novel on child sex trafficking in Cambodia is written in three parts. The first section focuses on Lydia, an English woman in the year 2036. She reminisces about her expat life thirty years previously: fostering a homeless child called Song and falling in love with Radha, a local man. It was a life of contentment until tragedy struck.

The second section is all about Song, the young Vietnamese refugee child in Cambodia who was fostered by Lydia. The two met when Song had run away from an unhappy home life. Lydia took her in and the pair settled into a comfortable life together. Then Radha came on the scene. He worked as a receptionist at the English doctor’s practice. Charming, pleasant, full of fun: life seemed perfect.

But then Song was trafficked into the child sex industry. Bought and sold. Lydia tried frantically to find her but it was impossible.

The third and final section brings both Lydia’s and Song’s stories together to a satisfying conclusion.

The book is well-researched and highlights the plight of many young children in this part of the world. Song’s story is particularly well-written and gives enough information without being brutal with gruesome details.

Personally, I didn’t warm to Lydia as a character but liked Song who, despite a rocky start and horrific experiences as a girl, turns out as a lovely, balanced woman.

I think this book would be a useful place to start for anyone wanting to learn more about child sex trafficking.

Instant Apostle provided me with a free Kindle copy for the purpose of writing an unbiased review.

At Therapy’s End

What a powerful book. It drew me in from the first page. The storyline covers very difficult issues: domestic violence, loss of a child, mental illness. But the characters seem real and make you care about them. Susie gives tantalising clues throughout which keep you guessing before bringing it to a very satisfying conclusion.

This novel really made me think, similar to how Francine Rivers uses her novels to open up hard issues and challenge your thought processes and attitudes.

Domestic abuse has a huge impact on not only the perpetrator and survivor but on the children as well. They see and hear and sometimes physically experience the violence and mind-controlling abuse. It has a knock-on effect for life, and though there can be freedom and healing, it is a long and very painful process for the survivor and those affected.

The loss of a child is also a terrible thing that no parent should ever have to go through.

Susie explores these issues sensitively and realistically without them becoming too emotionally overwhelming for the reader. It made me cry at times. It made me think.

It’s a very good book, well-written, realistic, gritty at times, but heart-warming too; there is always hope.

I’d recommend it. Not necessarily an easy read because of the issues being dealt with, but very well worth it. I think it would be especially helpful for anyone who has friends or relatives in an abusive relationship or who are grieving the loss of a child.

Instant Apostle provided me with a free Kindle copy for the purpose of writing an unbiased review.

The Girl at the End of the Road

I loved The Girl at the End of the Road. I completely forgot I was reading, which is the type of book I like best. It’s a true page-turner and keeps you guessing.

The main character, Vince, has worked hard to forget his roots and make a successful life for himself in London. But the story opens as his career comes crashing down, taking his home and an intimate relationship with it.

We follow Vince’s story as he moves back in with his parents in the village where he grew up. It is fascinating to see his reactions in reconnecting with old school friends, one of whom – Sarah – appears quite eccentric.

The reader goes on a journey with Vince as he painfully rediscovers [read more]

 

Refugee Stories

This is seven real-life stories of people who became refugees and sought asylum in the UK. They are written in the individuals’ voices and edited by Dave Smith who brought the book together and adds facts at the end of each story.

I was struck by how normal – middle class even – these seven individuals are. Each one was educated, often very well off in their own country, but ended up having to flee their homes for various reasons. The first six stories are very similar though set in various countries. The seventh story is a little different.

It opens up the reality of the having to deal with the Home Office. After going through all sorts of major trauma in their own countries, often with their lives under threat, and difficult journeys to the UK, the last thing these people need is to deal with endless and – at times – seemingly badly organised bureaucracy.

This book brings the vagueness of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers down to the individual’s story I’m reading.

For anyone wanting to know what it’s really like to flee your country in fear of your life, this is a useful book.

It’s not easy reading. Partly because with the exception of one or two stories I could never forget I was reading and that made it hard work. I think this was because each chapter has a different ‘voice’ and so the writing doesn’t always flow easily.

Instant Apostle provided me with a free Kindle copy for the purpose of writing an unbiased review.

 

The Search for Home

The Search for Home is the true story of Beatrice Smith who was ten-years-old when the troubles between the Hutus and Tutsis broke out in Rwanda in the 1990s. She witnessed horrific events and saw scenes no human being should ever have to see.

From Rwanda, her family fled (literally) across the border into Zaire, then onward to Kenya, before enduring a lonely year in Swaziland. They spent four years as refugees, often homeless and hungry, trying to learn new languages and cultures, desperate to stay together against the odds.

At last Beatrice’s father sought asylum in the UK and, after much prayer and many problems along the way, the rest of the family were able to join him.

The family’s faith and prayer life shines out of this book. Their commitment to praying when all hope seemed lost challenges my prayer-life, and I had to remind myself that Beatrice and her siblings were children. But they also saw God answering their prayers in amazing and unexpected ways.

This book is so timely for today. It’s easy to get desensitised to seeing weary men, women and children walking along dusty roads clutching bundles and blankets or even seeing them crowded into flimsy dinghies trying to cross the Mediterranean.

Beatrice’s story makes refugees human again. I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose my home and be forced to flee England because of war. Beatrice makes it a little more real. When you lose everything and are simply trying to survive day to day, how easy it is to wander too far when collecting wood for fire and find yourself in danger. Or when you are desperate and have no options, you become a sitting target for human traffickers.

This book helps the reader to comprehend some of the suffering refugees endure. Even something as basic as having a working kitchen, a shower with running water and a toilet, and then being forced to do without. Not knowing where your next drink of water will come from, never mind anything else. And this on top of all the emotional and mental trauma.

When reading the final chapters, I held my breath as Beatrice shared her hopes for life in the UK. She longed to feel welcome, to be accepted, to feel safe and secure, to know she was home. Would she find that? Having read her story, I really wanted her hopes to be realised.

The Search for Home is a page-turner. It’s very readable. And as I wrote earlier, a timely message for today. It’s not enough to look at people from other cultures and say from the comfort of having known nothing but safety and security that they should be doing this or that. I just want to play my part in making them feel welcome without judging them. In their shoes, what would I do?

Instant Apostle provided me with a free Kindle copy for the purpose of writing an unbiased review.

Trying to Fly

I loved this new book by Annie Try. The first chapter reminded me of a cross between Emma Donoghue’s The Room and John Grisham’s A Time to Kill. A chilling event is seen through the eyes of six-year-old Jenny Drake, whose life is forever changed by what she witnessed and experienced.

From chapter two onwards, we follow fifty-six-year-old Jenny as she works with her psychologist to try and find healing and wholeness by facing her past. The tragedy she witnessed as a child left her with all sorts of problems, probably the most significant being agoraphobia. An important part of Jenny becoming free is to return to the beach where the event took place.

At the beach, Jenny meets Jim, who witnessed the same event as an eleven-year-old boy.

Jim becomes a solid friend for Jenny and he persuades her to join him in a spot of sleuthing to get to the bottom of the mystery. The police had closed the case but there are many loose ends. Together, they begin to search for the truth and to clear the reputation of a good man.

I loved this book and couldn’t put it down. As well as the mystery-factor, my eyes were also opened to the hidden issues people around me may have. As I followed Jenny’s progress in battling the fears that sometimes threatened to overwhelm her, it helped me to see that people act oddly for a reason. She evoked my sympathy, though at times I got frustrated: You’ve come so far, don’t give up now! I also wanted to scream at her not to be so trusting (no spoilers!).

Annie Try is a psychologist as well as an author and she really knows her stuff. Her expertise when revealing Jenny’s mental and emotional struggles shone through, and made this book all the more special.

It’s a gripping read and I heartily recommend it.

Instant Apostle provided me with a free Kindle copy for the purpose of writing a review, but I will also be purchasing a paperback copy that I can lend to friends.

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