“Leaf by Niggle” by J.R.R. Tolkien

Tolkien 2014The Tolkien ReaderInformation

Goodreads: The Tolkien Reader
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: January 1945


Niggle is trying to finish painting his masterpiece before he has to embark on his journey, but he faces constant interruptions from his neighbor Parish, who always seems to need his help.  So when the date for Niggle’s journey finally arrives, he is unprepared and he has nothing with him but his creativity and the tally of his past deeds.


“Leaf by Niggle” has always struck me as a particularly difficult story to review.  In some ways, I struggle with reviewing all of Tolkien’s work, partly because it is always easier to say why something is bad than to explain why it is good, and partly because it is always so complex and so immense.  People have written books on The Lord of the Rings alone, so how can I try to fit my opinion of it in just a few paragraphs?

“Leaf by Niggle” does not have as much scope as The Lord of the Rings; it is a short story, not an epic novel.  Nonetheless, it is still complex.  On the surface level, “Niggle” seems a bit one-dimensional, a bit heavy-handed, and, ironically, exactly the thing Tolkien claimed to hate: allegory.  Readers follow Niggle through life as he puts off preparing for a “journey” (coughdeathcough) and then through the afterlife itself, where he clearly experiences Purgatory and then part of Heaven.  There are clear messages about what it means to do the right thing in life, and how God and the Son might judge one’s choices after death.

However, “Leaf by Niggle” has a second layer, and the story can as easily be about art, and its meaning and value, as it is about preparing properly for the afterlife.  Niggle spends much of his life painting, an occupation the majority of his neighbors consider a waste of time.  Some even have a debate about the worth of his art, and art in general, after Niggle’s death.

The “problem” of “Leaf by Niggle,” then, is whether these two themes—right living and art—are two distinct layers of the story, or whether they in some way comment on each other.  Trickily, the story implies that art does have intrinsic value, but the Voices (God and the Son) seem to think the times when Niggle abandoned his art to help his neighbors were some of his most important acts.  The temptation is to say that the story advocates balance, but that somehow seems reductive.

“Leaf by Niggle” continues to intrigue me because it evades classification.  Although it seems straightforwardly allegorical, it always reveals something new.  The characters, too, continue to be complex and surprising—to be ordinary people who do every day acts of extraordinary kindness (even if they grumble about it).  I admit, after multiple readings, I do not entirely understand “Leaf by Niggle;” I only understand parts and facets.  But I will continue to read it in hopes of getting an ever-clearer picture, of finally seeing the tree instead of just the leaves.

Cascade by Lisa T. Bergren

Goodreads: Cascade
Series: River of Time #2

Summary: Gabi and her sister Lia return to fourteenth century Italy, where Gabi feels she has left her heart.  But she must find a way to convince both Lia and their mother that staying in the past would be the right decision for them all.

Review: Cascade is a fun read following very much in the footsteps of Waterfall in both plot and style. Readers who enjoyed the fast-paced, somewhat episodic nature of Waterfall, in which Gabi repeatedly finds herself in danger and in need of rescuing by her attractive Italian suitor, will find a plethora of similar scenes here. On the bright side, Gabi is starting to show a little more sense and occasionally follows Marcello’s advice, thus keeping herself out of what would clearly be even more trouble.

Zita wrote the review for Waterfall and did not mention what I find to be very unrealistic “teen” dialogue. Gabi uses numerous idioms such as “the whole enchilada” in the first book, and continues to do so here, albeit to a slightly lesser degree. I have decided to find this amusing, and so will continue to read the series ready to chuckle at what are apparently Gabi’s attempts to sound cool. Interestingly, her thoughts are in this “teen lingo,” while her actual dialogue is pseudo-medieval, and she rarely gives a sign of what must certainly be a struggle to translate her modern thoughts to medieval words. She may have to change “breakfast” to “break my fast,” but she never lets slip any of the slang that frequents her head.

In terms of Christianity, the themes are also as light in Cascade as they are in Waterfall. Gabi prays a little more, but I think she still have a little way to go until her words become entirely sincere. She often gives the impression that she is talking to God because, hey, it’s the Middle Ages and everyone is doing it. Or she is just always facing the constant threat of death, so she might as well give asking an almighty God for help a try. It will be interesting to see how her faith progresses.

Overall, I think this series is enjoyable. It has lots of action, two attractive guys, and a great setting. A fun summer read.

Published: 2011

Waterfall by Lisa T. Bergren

Goodreads: Waterfall
Series: River of Time #1

Summary:  Gabriella Betarrini is used to spending her summers in Italy.  The daughters of archaeologists, Gabi and her sister equate vacation with hovering outside old Etruscan tombs, desperately waiting for something exciting to happen.  One day, while peeking into one of the tombs, they find more adventure than they bargain for.  Two handprints, which inexplicably match their own, are printed on the wall.  Touching them activates a mysterious time vortex, which transports Gabi to medieval Italy, on the fridge of a battle.  She immediately finds herself in the midst of territorial wars and political intrigue, fighting for her own life while trying to find Lia, who never appeared beside her in the 14th century.

Review: In Waterfall, Bergren tells an engaging story.  Perilous battles, unfolding romance, and the mysteries of the time tunnel keep the book interesting.  There are few dull moments in medieval Italy.  It is that excitement Gabi falls in love with as she decides that a life often in peril – from war or from the threat of disease and pre-modern medicine – is precious, and therefore well-lived.  The reasonably quick pace of the story, complete with a scattering of life-threatening battles and midnight journeys, keeps the reader feeling the fullness of life Gabi observes.

The reader is constantly reminded that this is not pure historical fiction, but rather a story of time travel.  Gabi, though she feels a certain belonging in the 14th century, is a product of her 21st century upbringing.  She appreciates the chivalrous protection of the knights who surround her, but is more outspoken and independent than any woman they have ever encountered.  And, of course, she wields a sword.  Though the story of a modern warrior maiden can be unrealistic, Bergren makes it work.  Gabi knew a little of swordplay from her father’s teaching her to fence.  And though her skills grow quickly during the course of the novel, she does, originally, find a real sword too heavy to hold, and initially relies on the element of surprise to give her an advantage.  There is a good balance of her saving and being saved, and an appreciable element of everyone’s needing to rely on each other.

Many of the characters fall into recognizable categories – the handsome warrior heir; his jealous, too-sweet fiancé; the best friend with an infallible sense of humor – but the good characters are convincingly lovable, and Bergren tells a story gripping enough for this reader to forgive any clichés.  And, for those who find themselves lost in this story and wanting more, Bergren has so far published two full-length sequels and a novella, that latter available just as an e-book at this time.

Published:  2011

Wonderland Creek by Lynn Austin

Goodreads: Wonderland Creek

Summary:  Alice Ripley loves books.  Detached from reality, she is content to live vicariously through her beloved novels.  But when the Great Depression means a layoff from her librarian position and her boyfriend Gordon ends their relationship, Alice suddenly finds herself without purpose or direction.  Wanting to get away from Blue Island, Illinois, and the mess her life there has become, Alice plans a short visit to the mountains of Kentucky to hand-deliver a pile of book donations she has been collecting for a poor rural library.  When that visit stretches out longer than intended – and turns out to include abandoned coal mines, hidden treasure, and librarians on horseback – Alice realizes that real life can prove far more exciting than any novel.

Review:  Wonderland Creek is the perfect novel for readers who have been teased about their love of books.  Though Alice Ripley’s obsession is a bit extreme – to the point where she distractedly sets fire to her mother’s kitchen and even begins reading at a funeral – readers might be able to smile and console themselves that they, at least, are not that bad.

In Kentucky, Alice has her first real-world adventure, and readers experience it with her as Austin includes enough action and mystery to keep things interesting.  The book has every cliché you would expect from a story set in early twentieth-century Appalachia – including feuds, stills, abandoned coal mines, and a local distrust of flatlanders.  When hidden treasure, midnight flights from the law, and other various escapades find their way into the plot, as well, the story becomes enthralling – but also a little unbelievable.  As this tale unfolds, Alice repeatedly notes how amazed she is that real life can be so exciting.  I had originally thought part of Austin’s goal with Wonderland Creek was to give devoted readers a reminder to live in the real world once in a while.  By the time I’d finished the work, I was not so sure.  If every book lover willing to set aside her novels for a few months had an adventure like Alice’s, we would have no need for fiction.  However, Alice’s story is an exciting one, and well-worth the time it takes to read.  Furthermore, though our own adventures in the real world may not prove as novel-worthy as Alice’s, the story is a bit of a challenge to give them a try.

This book has a Christian message.  Author Lynn Austin has received seven Christy awards for historical Christian fiction, and this reviewer predicts Wonderland Creek will be in the running next year.  Characters have conversations about God and faith, and there is a definite theme of a providential hand shaping events.  The book is not overly preachy, however, and faith is meaningfully woven into the story instead of detracting from it.

Published:  2011

Within My Heart by Tamera Alexander

Summary:  Still mourning the violent death of her late husband Thomas, Rachel Boyd struggles to support herself and her two sons on the Colorado cattle ranch that had been his dream.  Managing becomes more difficult, however, as harsh winters claim livestock, outstanding debts continue to grow, and Rachel’s youngest son Kurt becomes both distant and unmanageable.  Meanwhile, Rachel finds herself increasingly involved with the town’s doctor, Rand Brookston, as the two struggle to help a mutual friend who is facing a serious illness.

Review:  Within My Heart is the third installment in Tamera Alexander’s Timber Ridge series, which focuses on a 19th-century frontier town in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.  Largely inhabited by Italian laborers and disillusioned Southerners who emigrated West following the Civil War, Timber Ridge is a collection of ranches, small-town businesses, and a fancy new resort most locals can only gawk at.  Though characters from previous books have cameos in this third novel, readers need not be familiar with the other stories.  Alexander’s work has been repeatedly recognized by the Christy Awards for Christian fiction, and Within My Heart received a nomination for the historical romance category.

Within My Heart is, primarily, the love story of Mrs. Rachel Boyd and Dr. Rand Brookston.  However, Rachel and Rand are not the only substantial characters, nor is their plot the only one key to the novel.  It fact, the storyline involving Ben and Lyda Mullins – the town’s shopkeepers –  is even more poignant, and made this reader cry.

The plot moves at a reasonable pace, and while it is relatively predictable, it is not at all boring.  Just one chapter and one character stand out as being unnecessary to the work and lessen the overall appeal of the book.  The chapter – which appears early – shows Rachel discovering Dr. Brookston treating patients in a brothel.  The character is the overly flirtatious school teacher who has her eye on Rand.  Alexander might have been trying to create tension in the novel’s romantic plot, but these additions cheapened the work rather than strengthening it.

There is a clear Christian message in the book: Scripture passages occasionally appear while characters ponder questions of faith, God’s will for their lives, and the nature of heaven.  However, the novel is not preachy.  No specific theology is endorsed, and while characters do encourage each other to live in faith, they do not deliver lengthy sermons to one another.  Religion seems more a part of the cultural and spiritual life of the town than something the author is trying push on the readers.  However, as the author’s note reveals, Alexander does view her writing as a ministry and hopes her work inspires and strengthens the faith of her fans.

Published: 2010