Sunday, 31 December 2017

Top Twenty 2017 Books

I have completed the reading challenge that I have been following for the year, just finishing before 2018. These are the books that I have read: here, here, here, and here.

The Final List - All Completed!

Although it has been a bit of a stretch to keep up the pace at times, I have really enjoyed reading more varied material across the year. I've been pleasantly surprised by how much I have enjoyed some of the non-fiction choices that I made, and I have certainly benefited from reading more Christian books over the last months.

Here are my top twenty books from the year (listed in the order I read them):

1) The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert  by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield

I loved this brilliant, beautifully written book about the experiences of the author as she turned to Christ. I've written about it more hereOpenness Unhindered by the same author is also well worth reading.

2) Germany: Memories of a Nation by Neil MacGregor

This book examines the history, culture, and stories of Germany through the lens of a number of key objects. I found it a fascinating read.

3) Respectable Sins by Jerry Bridges

A challenging and thoughtful book, this was a helpful read for me, and I can recommend it. I've written here about this book, as well as about:

4) The Good News We Almost Forgot by Kevin DeYoung

This was one of the books that was an unexpected delight - full of heart-warming, soul- enriching gospel truth as Kevin DeYoung unpacks the Heidelberg catechism.

I've written more about the next four books (numbers 5-8) here.

5)  A Better Story by Glynn Harrison

Glynn Harrison discusses the narrative that our culture tells about sex and sexuality, and how we as Christians need to tell a better story - a story shaped by the gospel.

6) The Unquenchable Flame by Michael Reeves

This book looks at key figures of the reformation, and some of the central issues in a refreshing and encouraging way.

7) The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson

As it pointed me again and again to the wonderful grace of God in Christ, this was another book that turned out to be a real delight to read.

8) Invest Your Suffering by Paul Mallard

This is a really helpful, thoughtful book about suffering. It is full of stories and experiences, but centred on scripture and on the truths that we find their about our sovereign, loving God.

9) Luther in Love by Douglas Bond

Douglas Bond tells the story of Martin Luther from the perspective of his wife, Katie Luther. This was a very engaging and enjoyable read.

10) A New Day by Emma Scrivener

A New Day is an excellent book which looks at mental health struggles through the lens of the gospel. It is grounded in scripture, and given substance and grace by the personal experiences of the author.

11) Age of Opportunity, A Biblical Guide to Parenting Teens by Paul David Tripp

I'm on the cusp of having teenagers, so it seemed like a good idea to read this book. It was genuinely encouraging, and I expect I will reread this at least once in the years ahead!

12) J.C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone by Iain H. Murray

I've read some of J.C. Ryle's writing, so this biography was very interesting. In many ways, it was quite sad, though good to see God's work through Ryle's life and teaching.

13) Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis by Michael Ward

I've grown up loving the Narnia books, and read a lot of Lewis's other books as a teenager, so this book was tremendous fun to read. It's a bit pretentious in places, I think, but the theory is totally convincing and has been great fun to discuss with our children.

14) All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

I think this is a really beautiful book, set during the second world war. The two threads of story are about a blind girl from Paris, and an orphan from Germany who works as a technician for the German army.

15) Margaret Thatcher: The Authorised Biography: Volume One by Charles Moore

I realise that this wouldn't appeal to everyone, but I am interested in politics and I thoroughly enjoyed this fascinating and meticulous biography.

16) Honest Evangelism by Rico Tice with Carl Laferton

This is a challenging, heart-warming, encouraging book, full of gospel truth and practical help.

17) Great Britain’s Great War by Jeremy Paxman

Crisp, engaging, and thought provoking, this was a fascinating and compelling read.

18) Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis

This book is written by a doctor, and is an excellent and beautiful book about the human body, and how it has been seen or written about in history and literature.

19) What does the Bible Really Teach About Homosexuality by Kevin DeYoung

I found this a helpful and clear book, which plainly set out the Biblical teaching about homosexuality. It was particularly good at deconstructing arguments which try to claim that modern views about about homosexuality can be consistent with what the Bible says.

20) The Doctrine of God by John M. Frame

This is a huge book, and something of a challenging read - but well worth it. For a detailed and thorough tome on systematic theology, it was very readable and engaging. I appreciated how clearly Frame is motivated to understand and describe what the Bible says about the character and work of God, and to explain this carefully and thoroughly. 

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Christian Reading Challenge 2017 & 2018 Reading Plans

The whole family have been enjoying the 2017 Christian Reading Challenge, all working towards different levels. Michael and I are both hoping to finish our last couple of books this week, Michael finishing the Committed level while I am planning to read the last on my list for the Obsessive level. All three boys have also read most of the books that they chose, and have all generally enjoyed the experience, and have certainly read a wide range of books as a result.

One of the highlights for me was having a certain level of structure as I chose what to read. This meant that I considered books that I would never have picked up otherwise, many of which were highlights of my reading this year. I usually read a fair amount of fiction and Christian books anyway, but I found that the non-fiction reading, especially some of the history books, very rewarding.

I've been up and down over the last few weeks about whether or not to try the 2018 version of the challenge in the new year (here). In the end, I have decided not to this year, but I may try something similar another time. I like the structure, but I think trying to fill lots of similar categories again straight away will be less fun without a break - and I want reading to continue to be something I look forward to! Furthermore, I am considering training for a marathon next year, which will probably mean I should plan to read slightly fewer books.

With this in mind, I am giving myself nine loose categories to shape my reading next year. I'm hoping that this will keep me from just re-reading Jane Austen, but make sure that I don't overly burden myself.

My rough outline for the year will be something like this:

5 Books recommended by friends/family
5 Biographies/Autobiographies
5 Non-fiction books
5 Christian books (theology)
5 Christian books (any)
5 Books I need to read
5 Books I want to read
5 Children's books
10 Fiction books

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Science Activities

This last term, our home education group has had a science theme. Each week we've focused on a different topic, and had a number of activities for the children to do to help them to understand more about it.

Here are some of the particularly successful activities that I prepared for my group, which has 4 to 8 year olds in it.

1) Play-dough Blood Model

This was a fun group activity. First, I explained about the different parts of blood using the Usborne First Encyclopedia of the Human Body. Then we spread out yellow paper as plasma, made red blood shells by rolling balls of red play-dough and making an impression in the balls, then made a few large white blood cells from white play-dough, and finally used blue play-dough to make platelets. As we we went along, I reminded the children of what each blood cell type was for.

2) Cake Model of the Heart and Lungs

 I made cakes the right shape ready - 2 lungs and a heart, and had a rough sketch of what the final design of each piece should look like. I divided the group into 3, so I had a small group working on each cake. Each group was given fondant to in the right colour to roll out (or beat flat in the case of one enthusiastic group of 8 year old boys!) and cover their cake with, sticking it on with jam. They then used tubes of icing and strawberry laces to draw on the blood vessels (following the design I gave them). It worked even better than I hoped!

3) Red Cabbage Indicator

This was surprisingly simple to do, and very effective. I got the children to make their own indicator, as this seemed like more fun. The children tore up red cabbage leaves into a large plastic cup, then I added hot water for them. We left it a minute or two before sieving the liquid into a fresh cup to remove the leaves, then used a pipette to transfer small amounts of the liquid into small plastic cups so that different substances could be tested (I bought disposable shot glasses). The children then tested vinegar, cream of tartar, lemon juice, water, bicarbonate of soda, soap, and cif cleaner.

4) Light-Up Battery Bugs

The idea is that you tape a light bulb to the top of a battery, then tape wires to make antennae so that they complete the circuit if they are connected by a conductor. I took the idea from a (generally excellent) Usborne book, 100 Science Experiments:

It turned out much more fiddly to get working than I expected, which involved quite a lot of work the night before getting the bugs half made so that they would work most of the time. Nonetheless, they were very popular, and did help the children learn more about electricity.

5) Models of Plant and Animal  Cells

The children made 3D animal cell models out of jelly and sweets (after learning about what the different parts do).

They also made models of plant cells out of paper plates.

When we did this at the group, I gave them the paper plate activity first; if we began with sweets and jelly, it's unlikely that the next activity would be sufficiently enthralling!

6) Is it Magnetic?

This was a simple activity to prepare and to execute, but which went down well with the children - which was good as this was for our last session of term when I was feeling pretty tired!

First, I scattered a selection of household objects round the room, each with written label beside it to help the children match the objects to their list.

I gave the children a chart to fill in with a list of the objects, and two separate columns to fill in. First, I asked them to predict whether an object was magnetic or not. Once they had completed that column, I gave each child a magnet to use for testing. 

Although this was simple, it was still fun and hands-on, so it went down well.

Now we are preparing new topics for next term, so I will be looking for further inspiration!

Friday, 22 December 2017

Friday Reflections - 83

Particularly when life has been more hectic than average, I find myself anticipating the end of term with some eagerness. I look forward to a bit of extra sleep, quieter days, and the chance to sort out some of the less urgent household jobs that need my attention.

This week was the first of our Christmas break, but, as is perhaps inevitable, it hasn't lived up to my expectations. This is probably largely my own fault. I may have not had the normal work to get through, but I have still had a number of key events in the diary for the week that have taken time.  I have also had unrealistic expectations of how much I can get done! For example, I am nearing the end of my reading challenge, and Don Quixote is quite a long book to try to finish this week, which was my original plan; I'm still hoping to finish by the end of the year, though.

A long read...

The children are also tired, and have taken a few days to relax. They are all doing a bit better after some rest, and I am hopeful that we will have a better time next week. I'm also hoping to be able to get a few earlier nights, rather than having to stay up late doing chores.

In spite of all this, there have been bright spots to the week. I have nearly finished reading The Monster in the Hollows to the children, and this has been a genuine daily delight for us all. Getting out of the house has also been helpful when we have done so, both taking the time to run myself, and also taking the children to the park.

Fun times trying out walking "three-legged".

I've also taken the children Christmas shopping in pairs, so that they could spend their own money on immediate family. They have also made presents for others, but we thought they'd enjoy shopping for each other. It was genuinely fun to see them spotting gifts for each other, and looking forward to giving out their presents.

The children are very much looking forward to Christmas now, and I do enjoy this time of year with them. I feel like I'm dragging myself through the preparations a bit, but the real beauty of God becoming man and living amongst his people is undiminished, and what I hold on to when other stuff feels a bit bleak.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Friday Reflections - 82

Today we met for our final home education group for the term. Our topic was magnets, and the children had fun testing various things to see if they were magnetic, as well as seeing in action magnets repelling by pushing along a small car with a magnet taped to it using another magnet.

It's fair to say that our science theme has been popular this term, and we are planning to cover new science topics after Christmas.

With Christmas fast approaching, we bought and decorated our tree this week. As is our tradition, we made gingerbread decorations.

Gingerbread Decorations

Our Tree

Last Sunday, we also had a children's carol service at church, with craft activities for all ages beforehand. My younger two managed to take the roles of Mary and Joseph yet again in our scratch nativity; my 8 year old was the only boy taking part, and none of the other girls wanted to be Mary! In addition, my 6 year old daughter volunteered to do one of the short readings, and did really well.

We also had just about enough snow for a snowball fight - which the children made the most of before we headed off to church for the carol service.

Just about enough snow for a snowball fight.

We've not had a heavy workload this last week, as the children are pretty tired. We've made it through another term, and are very much looking forward to a couple of weeks recover a bit, rest for a while, and get ready to begin again in the new year.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Friday Reflections - 81

Last Saturday, Michael and I both completed a half-marathon - and were both pleased to have made it!

Exhausted - but happy!

Michael came in under 2 hours (1:53:12), which he was pleased about, and I finished (2:06:53), which was my aim! Actually, I underestimated how much I needed to eat in advance, so my last 3 miles were pretty horrible - much worse than any of my training runs - so I will need to prepare differently for the next one.

We also moved the guinea pigs inside last weekend - and the younger two are enjoying extra cuddles.

Guinea Pig Snuggles

The rest of the week has been a bit mixed, as I and my 8 year old both went down with an unpleasant bug earlier in the week. This messed up some of our work plans, and also meant he had to miss his special theatre trip which we booked to celebrate his finishing of the Bible. His sister went in his stead as we couldn't change the tickets, and we will book some more for him.

After that, we've had a quiet week as we are all pretty tired, keeping up with the basics of our work and doing various crafts in readiness for Christmas.

My 12 year old bought some baubles to decorate in a Doctor Who theme:

Tardis Bauble

His younger brother has now purchased some for himself so that he can decorate some baubles as the planets from Star Wars. Nothing says Christmas like a "Death Star" on your tree...

Death Star Bauble

The children have also been making various gifts to share with family - mostly edible ones, so the kitchen has been in use a lot over the last couple of days.

Turkish delight, made by my 12 year old.

Our morning Bible readings as we open up our calendar have been helping us to focus on the true story of Christmas, as we trace the story of the Bible leading up to the birth of Jesus. It's a hectic time of year anyway, and this has been a week of ups and downs, but listening to God's Word together each day, remembering our Saviour present with us in every situation is a daily encouragement and blessing.

Our Advent Tree 

Friday, 1 December 2017

Friday Reflections - 80

We've had a fairly quiet week as the children have all been a bit full of cold. Not ill enough to be let off  their work - but not well enough to do quite as much as usual, or to be out and about quite so often.

Nonetheless, we did manage a few short walks to get a bit of fresh air and some gentle exercise. We've had some lovely clear, crisp, wintry days, and getting outdoors has been refreshing when we have been for our walks.

Beautiful Wintry Day

As advent had begun today, we have started the first of our Christmas traditions with our Jesse Tree. As a change from chocolate coins, Michael and I have tried to choose treats to fit the theme of the Bible story for the day. Some of the links will be tenuous, but we hope it will be fun. Today we had yellow flying saucers to reflect God creating light in the darkness.

Jesse Tree Day 1

And the treats...

We also had our home education group today, and electricity was the topic for the afternoon. My younger two enjoyed making and giving a presentation. We made simple circuits with my younger group, then all the children had a go at making "bugs" using batteries and torch bulbs. The idea is that you can use the bugs to test the conductivity of different materials. The children enjoyed it - which was good as it was a lot more fiddly to prepare than I had anticipated!

Writing Notes for the Presentation

Showing off a Battery Bug

Next week is looking very full from here; full of good things, but it will be busy! Michael and I are starting by running (or attempting, at least!) a half-marathon tomorrow morning - so hopefully we won't be too exhausted to do the other stuff in the diary!