Category Archives: Book Reviews

Reviews of books I’ve read

The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson

I have held off from writing this review for a while, because I simply cannot find words that do justice to the deep impression this book series has left on my life. And the fourth and final book hasn’t even been written!

There is a power in ‘fairy tales’ that is seldom recognised by people today. Our society prides itself so much on pragmatism and science that it has neglected the importance of beauty and arts to the full flourishing of man. C.S. Lewis gives us a remarkable insight into the power of stories.

I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which paralyzed much of my own religion since childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But suppose casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past the watchful dragons? I thought one could.

There are two elements to a good story – truth and beauty. There are many beautiful stories that make falsehoods appealing, and truth-packed stories that are horribly written and do not engage the heart and imagination, but few that are full of truth and beauty. This series is one of the rare few, in the vein of a Narnia or Lord of the Rings. In fact, I would elevate this series above them. It avoids the complexity of Tolkien and the occasional artificiality of Lewis. At this point, Narnia fans would probably slam me, and I will not try to explain myself. Some of the plot points felt contrived in Narnia; you might think the same when you read the Wingfeather Saga – to each his own.

So in no particular order, here are some reasons why you should purchase these books:

1. The plot is engaging and well-paced. Peterson has a knack for spinning a good tale that draws you in and never leaves you feeling bored. I’ve read each of the books in one sitting till the wee hours of the morning, simply because I could not put them down for a moment.

2. While the story is set in a fantasy world, the characters are as real to life as you can get. Peterson has a gift for conveying the emotions and thoughts of his characters to the readers, and at many points in the story I could not help but identify with the joys and struggles of our protagonists.

3. His fantasy world is realistic, in that it captures the darkness of the fallen world we all live in. In his own words, “[the storyteller] has to acknowledge that sometimes when the hall light goes out and the bedroom goes dark, the world is a scary place. He has to nod his head to the presence of all the sadness in the world; children know it’s there from a very young age, and I wonder sometimes if that’s why babies cry. He has to admit that sometimes characters make bad choices, because every child has seen their parent angry or irritable or deceitful–even the best people in our lives are capable of evil.”

4. “But of course the storyteller can’t stop there. He has to show in the end there is a Great Good in the world (and beyond it). Sometimes it is necessary to paint the sky black in order to show how beautiful is the prick of light. Gather all the wickedness in the universe into its loudest shriek and God hears it as a squeak at best. And that is a comforting thought. When a child reads the last sentence of my stories, I hope he or she drifts to sleep with a glow in their hearts and a warmth in their bones, believing that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

Though I wouldn’t classify myself as a child, I definitely did drift to sleep with a glow in my heart and warmth in my bones.

5. It has been of great help to me in comprehending some Christian truths that I have been wrestling with for a while. In particular, how do you persevere in your fight against sin? The third book in the series has helped me more than any other book in dealing with sin on a daily basis. It stole past the watchful dragons in my heart, and taught me that remembering who we are in Christ is insufficient if we are to triumph over shame and guilt and sin. We must also have a real sense of his love towards us.

You know a book has left a substantial impression on you when you are still trying to dig down into the deeper, Christian layers of meaning weeks after you’ve finished reading them.

6. I’d always wanted to write a book series like this since I was 12. I’m afraid I’ll have to shelve that dream for a long while. Any book I write which will eventually see the light of day will need to live up to the standard of this book. The likelihood of that happening is practically zero.

7. You know that you love a book (series) when you’re trying to find a seventh reason for why other people should read it and this is the best you can come up with – I love these books! Enough said.

So go buy them  today. The names of the books themselves (in order) are On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, North! Or Be Eaten and The Monster in the Hollows. If you are in Malaysia, your best bet is to order it from The Book Depository. Elsewhere, Amazon might also be an option. The first two books are available on the Kindle. Finally, if you’re in the US, you can also order them directly from the author’s own publishing company, The Rabbit Room.

Let’s hope he starts working on that fourth book soon. Otherwise there might be people cursing me for starting them on this series too soon.

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Rescuing Ambition by Dave Harvey

Essays on Ambition 
When I was in primary school, I remember having to write essays on the topic of my ambition. As with most kids my age, I would have defined ambition in terms of my future vocation. Do I want to be a doctor, a lawyer, a policeman, a scientist or like my dad?

This way of understanding ambition lingers into adulthood. Our dreams tend to revolve around who we want the world to see us as. Rich, powerful, famous, successful, influential, intelligent, philanthropic. At some point, all of us have these dreams. We look at someone we admire and aspire to be like them. Then there is an Asian tendency to dream your children’s dreams. On top of our dreams, we have our parents’ dreams as well.

Some of us strive incessantly to carve out a name for ourselves, achieving our dreams by any and all means necessary. Some of us couldn’t care less about our direction in life, wandering aimlessly from pursuit to pursuit, non-committal and uninterested. Finally some of us have given up on our dreams, our failed ambitions leaving a bitter taste in our mouths.

In all this talk about ambition, Christians also tend to be confused over the validity of ambition. Should I dream of being successful? Should I want to be influential? Isn’t being a philanthropist and helping the needy a noble ambition? On one hand they know that they are called to excellence; on the other hand they have seen the dark side of ambition and know how it can destroy our heart and soul.

A Helpful Guide to Godly Ambition 
This book addresses the topic of ambition thoroughly from a biblical perspective. Harvey begins by building the case for the goodness of ambition. God designed us to be ambitious. But he shows how the Fall has corrupted our ambition, and how our ambitions have become self-centered. This is primarily responsible for all the dark manifestations of ambition we see in us and around us. The backstabbing colleague. The slanderous classmate. The corrupt politician. Only when we perceive how deeply corrupted our ambitious drive is can we see the need for rescuing.

But even here ambition can become ugly and drive us in a futile pursuit of God’s approval. This is why we must understand how the gospel changes everything. Harvey beautifully explains how Jesus’ work on the cross secures God’s approval for us and consequently inspires our ambitions, ambitions that have been rescued and realigned towards the agenda of God instead. This is a crucial point that many in the church need to hear today, especially those who profess to be of Christ, but continue living for their own dreams.

Harvey then goes on to unpack the nature of rescued ambition. He reveals how biblical faith sustains our ambitions. He explores the path that ambition takes, looking at the person of Jesus and seeing how the greatest man ever took the path of humility towards glory. This is followed by a helpful chapter on how contentment relates to ambition, crucially pointing out that it is Christ and not our ambitions that define us. This sets the ground for the chapter on dealing with failure, teaching us also to rest in the promise that God works all things for our good.

The book concludes with a few chapters looking at the daily exercise of our ambition. He begins by revealing that Christians should be ambitious for the church, because Jesus Himself is ambitious for the church. In an age where ambition is self-centered, and Christians seldom understand what it means for ambition to be God-centered, the call to center our ambitions on the church that Christ loved and died to establish is a needed one.

In an interesting twist, he goes on to argue that not only have our ambitions been rescued, but God is using our ambition to rescue us. This happens when we daily embrace the risks that come with our ambitious plans for Christ and the church and anchor our security in God. This truth is extremely liberating to those who are afraid to press forward with their dreams.

The final chapter was the best one of all, and is a clarion call to the church to be ambitious for the next generation. I mentioned earlier that Asian parents like to dream their children’s dreams, and not necessarily in a good way. But this too is redeemed. We are called to open our eyes and see that godly ambition is something that must be entrusted to the next generation. We must pass the baton to those who come after us. We must enable them to dream bigger, run faster and reach higher. And this is painful to our egos, because it requires us to move to the sidelines in support and allow them to take center stage in the spotlight. But it is necessary if we are truly ambitious for the glory of God.

Some Final Words
Harvey’s conversational, and sometimes witty, tone along with his judicious use of real-life stories combine to make this book an enjoyable read. I also appreciated his honest appraisal of his own ambitions and its tendency to curve in on himself. He writes as one who has struggled with selfish ambition, and has learnt through much difficulty what godly ambition looks like. This means he does not write as a dispassioned academic, but as a pastor who has been fighting in the trenches and wishes to help others in their fight to rescue their ambitions for the sake of Christ and the church.

I would recommend buying this book and setting aside time to read it carefully and thoughtfully. Its message is one we must take to heart:

“Ambition is about work – work we want to do for God. But the work we want to do is always built on a work done for us. Godly ambition is gospel ambition. We dream because God rescued our corrupted, selfish ambitions and gave us the capacity to desire, dream and work for his glory. 

So desire great things. Dream big dreams. Get out there and get to work. This world is in need of redeemed people ambitious for God’s glory and willing to do something about it.

Why shouldn’t that be you?”

A book you should read

Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God by John Piper

Piper does a wonderful job unpacking the importance of the mind in loving God, while keeping it firmly in its place as a servant of the heart in its pursuit of loving God (and man). He approaches the topic by means of bible exposition. This lends it an air of authority that other valid approaches lack in the anti-intellectualistic atmosphere that pervades many churches today.

I was particularly helped by the last few chapters. Here, Piper demonstrates that “pride is no respecter of persons”, and that both the thinker and the “non-thinker” can be proud in their own way. Being a natural thinker, that is, being the sort who finds delight in the work of thinking, the warning that thinking is dangerous and that a profound work of grace is required in my naturally proud heart is timely and necessary. I’ve learnt that I need to saturate my thinking in much more prayer.

Incidentally, for all those living in KL, it appears that a local publisher has worked out a publishing agreement with Crossway, allowing them to locally print the book. With no import costs, the book’s price was only RM22. So there really isn’t any excuse not to buy it. Discover what thinking really involves and why it is necessary. Learn the crucial lesson that “humble knowledge is the fuel of the fire of love for God and man”. And heed the warning that “if we turn away from serious thinking in our pursuit of God, that fire will eventually go out”.

Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan

How have I not found the time to read this book before?

Must be those 3 accursed daughters of Adam the First: the Lust of the Flesh, the Lust of the Eyes and the Pride of Life.

Flee people! And go buy this book. It is full of precious insights and timely warnings for every Christian in every walk of life who will but take a little time to read Bunyan’s illuminating tale. The pages are literally soaked with Scripture. In this post-modern age, with all the rage of emergent liberalism and making Jesus and the Bible relevant, I find Pilgrim’s Progress a refreshing reminder of the fact that the Word of God is the lasting standard by which all doctrine must be evaluated. Too many books and other media forms which attempt to teach theology are sorely lacking in this. Phrases such as “The Bible says this…”, “God wants this…” abound, but no where are the words of Scripture to be found. No such flaw with THIS book.

Warning: Buying an unabridged version might give you a terrible headache. Slightly abridged recommended for the reader who would like to preserve the prose of the original but would appreciate the much needed modernising touch of archaic language.

The Cross of Christ, John Stott

A masterpiece.

In picking up this book, seeing that the first few pages were filled with good reviews by rather prominent pastors and theologians (such as Carson, Wells and Packer), and having not read any John Stott before, I had a good expectation of the value of the content, but was not prepared for its nature.

Make no mistake. This is a highly theological work on the cross of Christ. Stott constantly examines the history of biblical thought and makes countless references to philosophical and other theological works. He is extremely thorough with his exegesis of the text. I think I actually learnt some classical Greek reading this book.

With my volume measuring in at 408 pages, I thought it would be a short read. But the material is heavy.

Yet it is not complicated. There is much to be mined from these pages. In fact, I would be bold enough to go as far in saying there is no junk in these pages. I would classify it a ‘must-read’ for every Christian who is able to get his hands on such a book. It costs a bit more than your average book, but it’s really worth every penny.

And I think it would be worthwhile to conduct a group study of it too. I didn’t really use the study guide at the back, but I think that was down to my indiscipline and lack of accountability.

I’ll be picking up this volume again soon. Stott certainly has a gift for vividly painting the glorious realities of the cross. He has certainly refreshed my heart and mind, and renewed my wonder at the cross. I figured that you would easily pick him out from among the heavenly congregation – he’s going to be one of those really loud ones singing:

 “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
   to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
   and honor and glory and praise!”

A Spiritual Classic?

Yes indeed.

I have just finished reading through Knowing God by J.I. Packer, and am still blown away by the book. The exposition he gives on key Biblical truths is at once simple yet undoubtably profound.

To be honest, I’ve always wondered at what the big fuss was over this book. But it’s just one of those books you have to read to comprehend why it has been lauded so much over the decades. I think I might just go through the book again sometime.

A personal extended review here.

There were four truths in the book that blew me away. Namely, the miracle of the Incarnation, propitiation as the heart of the gospel, our adoption as sons (and daughters) of God as the highest privilege God has graciously bestowed on us, and an amazingly simple exegesis of Paul’s epistle to the Romans that primarily caught my attention. It’s a bit hard narrowing down the profound content of this book to these four truths as there are many other eye-openers, both big and small, but for me these four stand out.

The book in general is really simply about ‘knowing God’ – the title does accurately capture the content. It’s a book about who He is and what He has done. And the way in which our lives should relate to Him. As shown to us in the Bible. All the good things you’ve heard about this book are probably on the mark. All the bad things you’ve heard about it are most likely false. I would truly regard it as a spiritual classic, and it’s a book that I believe every Christian would benefit from reading. It will likely challenge some, if not many, of your conceptions, and it will most certainly challenge the way you live right now. But some challenges are profitable, and this is one of them. If you don’t read it, I really think you’re missing out.

The literary style is very much targetted at the layman reader. But I think it would be a clear sign of how far reading standards have fallen if a book like this is classified as ‘heavy-reading’. Regardless, for those who somewhat comprehend my reading preferences, it is still a book I would recommend people to buy and to read diligently. If your reading skills aren’t great, then the only difference it’ll make is you’ll take longer to finish it. And if your reading skills are top-notch, don’t go too fast either! You might just miss that gold nugget in your mad dash through.