Book Reviews – Fiction and Christian Autumn/Winter 2019

I’ve saved them all up for a Christmas bonanza – if you’re looking for last-minute book gifts, this really is your last chance saloon. (Procrastinators of the world, unite). There are some absolute stunners in this list, though, so do read on.

Literary Fiction

1. The Man Who Saw Everything – Deborah Levy.

An anti-communist Jewish man is hit by a car while crossing the road just before he goes to East Germany to research communism. Not knowing who to trust, the story evolves like a dream sequence, as gradually we come to know the man and the stories behind the crash. This is unlike anything I’ve read before. I absolutely loved Levy’s first novel, Hot Milk, and her writing is an absolute delight for fans of good literature. I would have had this as a Booker Prize finalist, for sure. This book has a Paul Auster feel about it and is fascinating and poignant in equal measure. Highly recommended.

2. Circe – Madeline Miller.

I almost didn’t read this, as I had just read one excellent feminist retelling of a Greek myth (the very good Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker) and wasn’t convinced it would be worth it. But it was utterly worth the hype. Whereas Pat Barker turns the myth into history, Circe keeps the magical element, while drawing an emotionally compelling portrait of an ill-fated woman whose outspokenness causes her to be mistreated and neglected. Superb writing, and thought-provoking themes of the aftermath of abuse. Highly Recommended

Great book club books

3. Light from Distant Stars – Shawn Smucker
A man who hates his father discovers his father’s dead body on the floor, covered in blood, assumed murdered. He should call the police, but doesn’t. Is he somehow responsible for his father’s death, or is there another reason for his guilt? This is a superb story, with elements that feel like magical realism. Smucker writes the kind of stories that leave you exhaling after them, not realising you’ve been holding your breath throughout. The characters feel utterly real and the whole story is beautifully cinematic. As we uncover the secrets of his past, we also get a beautiful portrayal of what guilt does and how we hanker to be absolved. Extra points for complex characters who are church ministers – so many authors resort to two-dimensional portrayals, but Smucker’s thoughtfulness is consistent throughout. As with everything else he’s written, this novel is excellent. One that gets under your skin – highly recommended.

4. Little Fires Everywhere – Celeste Ng
A middle-class, Democrat-voting, moral woman is the landlord for a Chinese-American single mother and her daughter. The two families intermingle into one happy community. Then an adoption tribunal to decide whether a Chinese-American baby would be better off with her natural mother or her would-be adopter white parents threatens to disturb the peace and unravel secrets in their own families. This is a well-drawn, interesting novel about race and ethics. What is particularly good is the nuance: this doesn’t take aim at a red-neck outright racist family, but the subtle racism from white privilege, and is very thought-provoking. This made for impassioned discussion in our book club, and if you are looking for a book to make your think about the subtleties of racism, as well as exploring the complexities of what makes a mother, it’s a great and pleasurable read. Highly recommended.

5. The Clockmaker’s Daughter – Kate Morton.
One woman is alone in an empty house, abandoned by her love and her family. Over one hundred years later, another woman stumbles upon a rare drawing during her work as an archivist. Why is it that the drawing so perfectly matches the description of the house in her grandfather’s favourite fairy tale? And why does she feel compelled to keep it secret? This book is all about the plot and the intersecting histories. It’s a little slow and feels very long, but it’s worth sticking with because the observations about the nature of time and art are really thought-provoking, and the stories dovetail beautifully. I really enjoyed this – worth the effort. Highly recommended.

6. Nightingale Point – Luan Goldie
The set-up is eerily similar to the Grenfell tragedy, although it was based on a similar fire in Europe rather than Grenfell. We wander through the viewpoints of characters who live in the tower block and see the aftermath of the fire: who collapses under the tragedy and who is resilient. A couple of the characters felt a little flat, but others jumped off the page and have stayed with me. It has a ‘White Teeth’ feel, though more earnest. It’s well-written, easy to read, great as a book club book. Good for thinking through the issues of poverty and the fall-out from tragedy. Recommended.

7. Normal People – Sally Rooney
This is a slow love story, following the lives of two intelligent people who fall in love: he is popular yet poor, she is rich but a loner. People have been raving about this book, and what makes it good is the writing voice that sweeps you into a story and emotion so you feel a real intimacy with the characters. However, the plot felt like it lost energy towards the end, and I wasn’t sure about the resolution. I loved it at the time, but it hasn’t really stayed with me. Recommended.

Books in a popular series

8. The Saltwater Murder (Posie Parker Mysteries) – LB Hathaway.

The opening scene of this cosy murder mystery is absolutely electrifying, and the plot is no less intriguing. This is another cracker from LB Hathaway, set in London and the North Coast of England this time. I absolutely love this series of books – if you’re new to them, start with Murder Offstage, but the whole series is good. Highly recommended for lovers of Agatha Christie. 

9. Siege of Shadows – J A Andrews
This is the final instalment of the Keepers Trilogy, and Andrews finishes it well. This one follows Siri, whose magical power is in summoning light as energy. It’s another classic good versus evil fantasy, in the line of CS Lewis more than Tolkien, and the story is resolved in a very satisfying way. What makes Andrews’ fantasy series interesting is the intersection of morality and ideas from physics in order to make beautiful art and thoughtful observations on the choices we make. A beautiful end to a gripping series. The first in the series is my favourite, and it’s A Threat of Shadows, so if you know someone who likes classic cosy, moral fantasy, treat them to this series. Highly recommended for lovers of fantasy.

Children’s Fiction (that adults will also love)

10. Holes – Louis Sachar.
A child found guilty of theft is sent to an experimental camp in the desert of America, where they each must spend their days digging holes. But all is not as it seems, and by interweaving it with stories of the past, we begin to uncover the sins of the previous generations – and the reason for all the holes. I hadn’t heard of this book before, though it won several awards in 1998. By the time I finished it, I had goosebumps. Every single sentence is perfectly honed, and a poignant story is woven told with wry humour. It felt like a perfectly woven, transcendent fairy tale. As near to magic as you can get – both my son and I were spellbound by it. If you haven’t already read it, and you could do with some hope and magic in your life, get this book. Highly Recommended.

11. Rooftoppers – Katherine Rundell
This is another example of a superbly-written children’s book that’s well-written for adults also to enjoy. When a ship sinks, no survivors are found, save a baby floating in a cello case. A wonderfully absurd, bookish man from London becomes her guardian, but they flee to Paris to try to track down her mother. The girl’s guardian reasons that ‘It is very unlikely, but it is not impossible, and one should never ignore a possible.’ Absolutely charming and full of wit and gentle humour, this is another treasure from Katherine Rundell. Highly Recommended.

12. The Gladstone Tales Trilogy – Amy Scott Robinson
In addition to the Advent book for adults, Amy Scott Robinson also has a wonderful imaginative trilogy of short novels for children aged 6-9, narrated by three children who encounter an alive and lively gargoyle (called Gladstone) at church who needs to find his way back home again. I have read all three, and they are delightful. They’re suitable for first chapter books, much like the length of ‘Haffertee Hamster’, if you remember those. The characters are well-drawn and the Christian elements are natural and not forced. If you want your kid to read books that makes you feel you’ve hugged a cosy hot water bottle by the end, get these delightful books. Perfect presents. Highly recommended for younger kids.

Christian Books

13. Image of the Invisible – Amy Scott Robinson

I was honoured to endorse this book, and as I’ve been reading it through Advent I’ve been recommending it to everyone I’ve seen. Although it’s designed perfectly for an Advent devotional, it would also work at any time of the year. Here was my endorsement:

“Sometimes we need a poet’s eye to see the God of the Bible afresh. Poet, storyteller and theologian Amy Scott Robinson uses the Bible’s own metaphors of God as artisan, metalworker, consuming fire and others to lead us more deeply into our understanding of God. If you like CS Lewis, Malcolm Guite or Lauren Winner, you will love this outstanding book of thought-provoking, gasp-inducing, beautiful devotions to enrich your vision of God.”

14. The View From Rock Bottom – Stephanie Tait

I was honoured to endorse this – this is what I wrote:

“The church sorely needs books that are truthful about the reality of suffering, borne out of walking through pain – and this one’s a gem. Through sound biblical exegesis and fresh insight, Tait offers confused Christians the chance to find intimacy with God through suffering. Warm and clear in style, this book will be a great help and hope for all who struggle and feel like they’ve missed the promises of God.”

15. Invited: The power of hospitality in an age of loneliness – Leslie Verner.

This is an absolutely superb book for anyone who wants to be thoughtful about the Christian value of hospitality. Verner has lived abroad for many years and changed cities multiple times, and I really appreciated her cross-cultural insights. But where this book excels is in combining both insight and motivation. It’s very easy to turn hospitality books into a ‘here’s how to make your house beautiful and always be serene no matter how many people are round’ instruction manual, or a condemnatory, ‘Jesus was hospitable and traditional cultures don’t moan when random people stay forever, so you don’t deserve boundaries.’ Verner addresses these issues yet avoids these pitfalls, and what emerges is a nuanced, yet wonderfully motivational and practical book on how to offer hospitality in a way that fits with the person God made you to be, in the situation you’re in. This is really very good – and very accessible too – highly recommended.

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3 Responses to Book Reviews – Fiction and Christian Autumn/Winter 2019

  1. Rebecka 22nd December, 2019 at 4:01 pm #

    I enjoyed Little Fires Everywhere very much! Did you know they’re turning it into a television series? (I’m both excited and a little worried…)

  2. Stephanie 22nd December, 2019 at 1:51 am #

    I always appreciate your recommendations, Tanya. Thanks.

  3. Andrea Stoeckel 21st December, 2019 at 7:04 pm #

    Looks like we have a few in common…Circe, Light from Distant Stars

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