Sorry for the delay in publishing this roundup of books I read at the end of 2017. (In the next post, I’ll do a round-up of my favourite books of 2017.) It’s a long post, because I’m catching up after an unscheduled hiatus from blogging. I’m edging my way back into the writing zone again! It’s embarrassingly late, but what better way to avoid the bad weather than curl up with a good book! Here are 13 meaty book reviews:
Fiction Autumn/Winter 2017
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness – Arundhati Roy
Roy’s first novel, God of Small Things, received both popular and critical acclaim – could she equal its success with her second book, twenty years on? The short answer is: almost. Anjum is a ‘hijra’ (translated as hermaphodite, intersex, third gender or transgender); born with both male and female genitalia, she finally finds refuge in a graveyard, where she sets up a sanctuary among the dead. Tilo is a mysterious woman who fell in love with someone the ‘wrong side of the line’ in Kashmir. We follow their stories, and meet a grand cast of other traumatised misfits.
Primarily, however, this is a novel about India, and the brutal after-effects of the Partition, and what happens when you end up the ‘wrong side of the line’. When the British left India, they divided the country crudely, creating the (mainly Muslim) Pakistan and the (mainly Hindu) India, dividing families and communities, and exacerbating religious wars. In the intervening twenty years, Roy has been a political activist, so although the narrative simmers with rage, this is nuanced, rather than polemic. It ends with a note of hope and redemption in unexpected places. Though it is complex, meandering and, at times, hard work, there are pockets of prose that take your breath away, and the quality makes it worth persevering. Seventy years after Britain carved up India, this makes for powerful and timely reading.
The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry
Set in Victorian Britain, a mysterious serpent seems to be snatching children, and a female wannabe palaeontologist and male vicar try to find the cause: is it a coincidence, a dinosaur come to life, or is there something evil haunting the Essex shores? We read it as a book club, and had high hopes for this book because it has had such hype, but we were mainly disappointed. Although it’s set in Victorian Britain, it never feels like you have travelled back in time, and there are parts where it feels a little anachronistic. The main character never rang true for most of us, and quite a few other characters felt like constructs, rather than people. However, the liberal, logical, slightly cynical vicar character rang true in a way that the others didn’t, and I was interested to read of her religious upbringing. It made for a good book club debate, but I wouldn’t recommend it as a historical novel.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman
This book, like its protagonist, is a dark horse: you don’t expect much from it, but it really packs a punch. Eleanor Oliphant is boring: she lives her life, alone, in a regimented pattern of work and rest – but behind this seemingly straightforward character is a dark story to be unravelled. The reason this book has been a runaway hit is because the storytelling is superb: we are drawn in immediately to Eleanor’s world, and Honeyman makes even the mundane meaningful. Once I had started, I couldn’t put it down, and I loved the ironic wit, balanced with moments of poignancy and pathos. It reminded me of The Trouble with Goats and Sheep – brilliant character portrayal, brilliant storytelling, a perfect little novel.
The True History of the Kelly Gang – Peter Carey
This won the Booker Prize a while ago, and I wanted to see what the hype was about. It tells the Ned Kelly accounts from the point of view of Ned himself, with the context of his upbringing and background, with the aim of creating sympathy for him. It’s a book that screams ‘I’m worthy’ because it is written in the style of an unschooled person, with little punctuation. I’m guessing the Booker Prize winners loved that, but I just found it tiring to read. The beginning and end are riveting storytelling, and it raises interesting questions of who gets to define truth, and how far we can trust the narrator. As someone unaware of the Ned Kelly stories, I found it fascinating to hear of the abuse of power by the English settlers in Australia who oppressed the Irish. It also makes a magnificent character out of the land of Australia itself; a hostile environment that refuses to be tamed.
However, like Santa Claus, it had an interesting beginning and end, and a very flabby middle – if I hadn’t had to read it for a book club I would have abandoned it.
The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame, illustrated by Robert Ingpen.
This edition is just beautiful – the original writing with stunning illustrations – ideal for a gift. This was a joy to read with my son – a literary delight for both adults and children, it really has stood the test of time.
The Day the Angels Fell – Shawn Smucker.
In rural America, a young boy witnesses his beloved mother die, and goes in search of a mysterious totem that could bring her back. But – in the end – will he want to? This wonderful, dark and compelling fantasy for age 9 upwards poses the question, ‘Is it possible that death could be a gift?’ and interweaves Greek myths and the Biblical account of the Fall to explore grief and death. It’s not just for children; it’s as gripping as a Young Adult novel, and excellently and tautly written.
The dark themes and threats of violence make me hesitate to recommend to younger or sensitive children, but for older kids this is a superb book, and the sequel is coming out later this year. If you are a fan of Madeleine L’Engle, C S Lewis, or Lois Lowry, you’ll love this. Shawn Smucker is a writer of real quality, and this novel will have you spellbound.
Christian Books Autumn/Winter 2017
Act Normal – Kristy Burmeister.
This is a superb memoir, out early 2018, and I was honoured to write an endorsement for it. This is what I said:
“If the church accuses us of lying when we speak the truth, how can we trust the church to tell us the truth about God?
“With razor-sharp humour and compelling narrative, Act Normal is the most gripping memoir I’ve read in a long time. I meant to only read one chapter, but hours later I was still hooked, and I ssshed my family until it reached its poignant and inspiring conclusion.
“Not merely a thriller about being stalked, Act Normal raises important questions on the church, feminine sexuality—and most challengingly, how to be a peacemaker in a violent world when it comes at great cost.
“Read it immediately: you’ll devour it quickly, but it will stay with you for a long time.”
The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass, Christian Speaker, aged 45 3/4 – Adrian Plass.
The original bestselling Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass (Aged 37 ½) is a brilliant take on ordinary church members who wish their spiritual life was a little more evangelical-dramatic, and gently pokes humour at evangelical hang-ups whilst still very much loving the tribe he’s writing from. This volume continues the story – but now the fictionalised Adrian Plass is on a speaking tour. Whenever I’m feeling a little blue or out of sorts, I reach for Adrian Plass. He should be given out by vicars on prescription. His humour is a little dated now (this book was written a while ago), but it’s heart is good and there’s much wisdom behind the humour. This time, I was struck by the temptation to fame and what a contradiction it is for Christians. If you’ve never read Plass before, start with the Sacred Diary, otherwise get this and enjoy.
I Thought There Would Be Cake – Katharine Welby-Roberts.
I am a huge fan of Katharine and the excellent work she’s done in highlighting mental illness nationwide. If you read her memoir expecting her life story and looking for tasty titbits of gossip about her father, the Archiishop of Canterbury, you’ll be disappointed. This is more like sitting down with a friend who talks honestly and straightforwardly about what it’s like to have anxiety and depression. If feels like you pull up a chair and get a guided tour round her brain. It’s very relatable, and she has great nuggets of wisdom of how to handle a brain who won’t behave. I love the fact that this isn’t written from an ‘I used to be ill but now I’m all fixed’ standpoint – she lives through the struggle now. It’s sassy and upbeat, and because it’s such an easy read it’s the book I’d recommend for young people who are just coming to terms with the concept of mental illness – there aren’t really any other books like it out there. Highly recommended, especially for millennials.
Emma Scrivener – A New Day
I absolutely loved Emma’s first book – a memoir about perfectionism and anorexia. This similarly-titled book is quite different: a guide for those affected by eating disorders, with concise and insightful conservative evangelical exploration of Genesis 1-3. Emma’s approach has much in common with Alcoholics Anonymous. I had never considered anorexia as addiction, and I found this lens on anorexia helpful. Because of this, its emphasis is more on recognising your sin within the addiction and acknowledging it truthfully before God. I wasn’t sure of applying this method to other mental illness, however, which was my only quibble with this book. My favourite part was the pastoral letters, answering specific situations: like her blog-writing, Emma is adept at speaking wisely into people’s situations. Recommended for people battling addictions who need to take ownership for their actions. Also check out A New Name, her beautiful memoir, if you haven’t already read it.
Lead with Clarity – Jason Lane.
I loved this little encouraging FREE ebook for leaders, and this was my endorsement: “Jason Lane is an outstanding leadership consultant with a proven track record of revolutionising ministry for Christian leaders across the world. I’m delighted to see some of his expertise made available through this valuable, free resource, Lead with Clarity. It does what it says on the tin: provides much-needed clarity for weary leaders. In the ebook, Jason provides fresh insight, practical plans for leadership, and a contagious enthusiasm for ministry done excellently. Snap it up, while it’s still free.” You can download it here.
Comfort in the Darkness – Rachel Turner.
This is a children’s devotional with a difference – beautiful retellings of stories in the Bible that emphasise God’s presence in darkness, reclaiming darkness as a place where God works, rather than something to be feared. The retellings are excellent and the suggested questions and creative prayers are outstanding. I loved doing this with my boy, and the questions prompted good theological and spiritual discussions. Highly recommended. Excellent for children age 4-8.
Parenting for a Life of Faith – Rachel Turner.
I loved Rachel Turner’s beautiful devotional, Comfort in the Darkness, so I wanted to try her parenting book. Rather than a typical ‘do and don’t’ book for parenting in general, it’s about teaching your child to pray. Rachel’s philosophy is that it’s better to create an environment where a child can talk authentically to God, which means modelling that ourselves. She gives great practical guidance on how to do that whilst respecting the child’s own autonomy and spirituality. Recommended especially for people comfortable with charismatic spirituality.
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AND don’t forget my own book, out at the end of 2017, with now 70!! glowing Amazon.co.uk reviews, Those Who Wait – Finding God in Disappointment, Doubt and Delay. Perfect for anyone who feels like they’re living in the in-between.