New Read: The Pilgrim’s Progress

As a practicing Christian, I like to read Christian literature to help with the growth of my faith and I am very lucky that my church has it’s own book club to help me with this. Back in October we read and met to discuss The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri J.M. Nouwen. Next up was the classic, Christian allegorical novel, The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, which I put onto my new Classics Club list as soon as I found out we would be tackling it.

Part 1, published in 1678, follows Christian, an everyman, who leaves behind his home, wife and children in the City of Destruction to make the perilous journey to the Celestial City. Along the way he faces many trials, tribulations, monsters and spiritual terrors, as he travels through the Slough of Despond, Vanity Fair, the Valley of the Shadow of Death, Doubting Castle and the Delectable Mountains. His pilgrimage is hindered by characters such as Worldly Wiseman, Giant Despair, Talkative and Ignorance, but he is also supported by Evangelist and his travelling companions, Hopeful then Faithful.

All of which is surreally presented as a dream sequence narrated by Bunyan as an omniscient narrator: giving him the power to observe all, but powerless to help. There is no arguing with the content, characters and wisdom in this enormously influential classic – which has been translated into more than 200 languages and has never been out of print – but I did struggle with the style and flow. I found it a bit jerky and I often found I had to go back and re-read sections to fully understand what was being said.

However I found Part 2, published in 1684, a much easier and quicker read. In this second part, Bunyan follows the subsequent pilgrimage of Christian’s wife, Christiana, their sons and their maidenly neighbour, Mercy. They journey to all the stopping points Christian visited, but they take a longer time as the sons marry, have children and their party grows. They are also guided by the brave hero, Greatheart, who along the way slays four giants and a monster named Legion, that have been terrorising pilgrims.

This second part grabbed me instantly and flowed much better, especially as it has a more natural time frame for the journey – akin to a Christian’s life span. I was fascinated to see Bunyan express some very ‘modern’ thoughts and ideas through out this second pilgrimage too. First in his choice of a female pilgrim, but also in his portrayal and discussion of the important role women have in bringing people to and nurturing faith. I enjoyed it so much, that I actually finished this part in less than half the time the first part had taken me.

So, overall, I was left feeling a little confused about how I felt about this book, with the big difference I experienced between Part 1 and 2. It was not till after my church’s book club eventually met, last week, to discuss this, that I saw in hindsight how much more I enjoyed this than I initially thought. We discussed our struggles with Part 1; our preferment for Part 2 and our universal love of Bunyan’s emblematic characters – many of which are characters you can find in life today. And the general consensus was that the content was great, even if the style and language was problematic.

All in all then, I found The Pilgrim’s Progress to be a clever allegorical look at the journey Christians must take through life. I can’t say it was an easy read – in fact it was in parts hard work – however it was a rewarding read, and this is a book I feel with benefit from re-reading. Good read.

Have you read this? Can you recommend any other classic Christian books?

This is book 5/50 for my Classics Club II reading challenge.

Advertisements

New Read: A Gathering of Ghosts

Earlier this year, I read Karen Maitland’s The Plague Charmer. While it was still a bit darker than I usually prefer, I was impressed by the writing and enjoyed it more than, my only other Maitland read, The Raven’s Head. So I was pleased to have the chance to read her newest, dark historical fiction, A Gathering of Ghosts.

In this book, Maitland took me back to 1316 – a time of famine and unrest – to the isolated Priory of St Mary on the wilds of Dartmoor. Underneath which lies a sacred, ancient well, that people travel to, from far and wide, in search of healing. But now the Sisters of the Knights of St John find themselves and their home under threat. Not only from locals, who believe the well was theirs long before Christianity arrived, but also from the knights of their own order, who wish to control the well and its revenue for themselves. Then the well is hit by plagues of frogs, flies and blood soon after the arrival of young, blind boy. Is there witchcraft afoot? Or is the Old World fighting back at last?

Maitland shows the following trials and tribulations of the sisters, in the majority, through Prioress Johanne, the elected head of St Mary; Sister Fina, the young keeper of the well; Meggy, the lay gatekeeper and Knight Brother Nicholas, the agent sent to seek proof of corruption to bring the sisters down with. On the other hand, we have the gifted Morwen, the daughter of Kendra, the local cunning woman and former keeper of the well. As well as seeing the sad lot of the desperate, incoming tinners through Sorrell, a young disabled woman, who hears a voice calling her to the moors.

If that wasn’t enough, there is also a host of smaller part narrators and many other diverse characters for our narrators to interact with. I must admit it was hard keeping up and to make personal connections with so large a cast. However about half way through I think I had got a handle on the main characters and I did become fond of Prioress Johanne and Sorrell. And as with Maitland’s previous books, it is interesting to have a large range of people from the Medieval social spectrum. Although there is a distinct lack of people of wealth – emphasising this really is a tale of want on all sides.

Again I can’t fault Maitland for her eye for detail and her extensive research, which has gone into bringing this tale of suffering, superstition, fortitude and the supernatural vividly to life. On finishing the book, I was not surprised to discover in Maitland’s research notes that she took inspiration from real Medieval events, places, religious orders, superstitions, beliefs and weird natural phenomena. So while this was still darker and more depressing than I would prefer, I found myself absolutely gripped!

Overall, I thought A Gathering of Ghosts was another compelling, dark historical fiction, which I perhaps didn’t enjoy quite as much as The Plague Charmer, but did enjoy more than The Raven’s Head. I would definitely be up for reading more by this author – in particular, The Vanishing Witch, which I have heard very good things about. Good read.

Thank you to Headline Review for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

Have you read this? Or have you read anything else by Karen Maitland?

New Read: A Letter of Mary

Since reading The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, I have managed to collect much of Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Earlier this year, I read the second book, A Monstrous Regiment of Women and then with the cooler weather and darker nights in October, it seemed the perfect time to pick up the third book, A Letter of Mary.

It is 1923 and Mary Russell and her husband, the retired Sherlock Holmes, have settled into a comfortable, if slightly dull, routine on their Sussex estate. Mary with her books and translations, and Holmes with his newspaper, pipe and bees. When they are visited by an old friend, Miss Dorothy Rushkin, an archaeologist just returned from Palestine. Who leaves in Mary’s care an ancient manuscript that seems to suggest Mary Magdalene was an Apostle of Jesus…. which, if authentic, could whip up a storm of biblical proportions! Then, just days later, Mary and Holmes discover their friend has been tragically killed in a car accident, but was it really an accident?!

So much has changed since we first met lonely 15-year-old Mary, that sunny day in 1915. Now Mary is a strong, brave, intelligent grown woman, who is now an equal to the great Sherlock Holmes’ as she takes on a key role in their investigations. In this case, going undercover alone to gain the trust of a possibly dangerous suspect, Colonel Edwards: the last person known to have seen and spoken to Miss Rushkin. While Holmes goes on his own undercover mission to find out more about Miss Rushkin’s estranged sister.

Since the last book Mary and Holmes’ have married. I wouldn’t say they suddenly fell madly in love. Instead they both just finally admitted how much they need each other. The large age gap was not an issue at all for me this time, because it is so easy to see how well they suit each other. In fact, it was highly amusing to see them both going quietly stir-crazy in their comfortable, settled routine at home together; which culminates in Mary sending herself cross-eyed reading and Holmes disappearing to his office to blow things up!

Then in-steps Miss Rushkin to save their sanity, but sadly lose her life. We then witness their complicated emotions as they mourn the loss of a friend. Mary fainted at the sight of the blood splattered at the scene of this tragic death and Holmes’ anger bubbling under is cool exterior. However they can then barely hide their excitement at the thrill of picking up the scent of a crime and throwing themselves body and soul into finding justice for a good woman. What unfolds is another thrilling mystery full of secrets, danger and disguises, clues, red-herrings and theological arguments.

All in all, I thought A Letter of Mary was another nostalgic and thrilling adventure with Mary Russell and the famous Sherlock Holmes. I look forward to reading more from this series – I already have the next book, The Moor waiting on my TBR pile. Good read.

Have you read this? Or any of the other Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes books?

This was also my fourth and final read for the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril XIII reading event.

New Read: Kin

After reading Lynn’s wonderful thoughts on the new, Viking murder mystery, Kin by Snorri Kristjansson, I knew I needed to read it. So I immediately requested my own copy from Netgalley, but then patiently saved it for the perfect darker, cooler days of autumn to read it.

In the summer of 970, legendary Viking warlord, Unnthor Reginsson has reached the winter of his years, he’s sixty-two, and has long since retired from raiding. Now Unnthor lives quietly at his farm, Riverside, with his wife, Hildigunnur, their adoptive daughter, Helga and his sworn brother Jaki and his son, Einar. Both Unnthor and his wife are well-respected in the valley and surrounding area, but as much as he denies it, rumours and gossip persists of a large treasure horde secretly buried on his land. All of which is to bubble dangerously to the surface when Unnthor arranges a whole family reunion.

Through the eyes of the young, intelligent and insightful Helga, we witness the preparation and arrival of Unnthor and Hildigunnur’s grown children and their families. There are three sons: the dark, dangerous Karl; the giant Bjorn and the gentle, henpecked Aslak, and one daughter: the lithe, clever Jorunn. With the gathering of the siblings, bad blood simmers and old feuds resurface, as they all make their moves on the old man’s treasure. Then one morning Helga is awakened by screams. Blood has been shed… kin has been slain!

I daren’t go any further with the plot in case of spoilers! What I can say is what follows is a fast, gripping and twisting murder mystery, as Helga races against time to solve this terrible crime, before an innocent is blamed and there can be anymore bloodshed. As an adoptive daughter she has a more objective view and open mind than the others, and she has a wisdom that belies her young years. Also she puts all the cunning traits she has learnt from her wise adoptive mother, Hildigunnur, to work her way through this large cast, wheedling out all their resentments and secrets.

What was a very good murder mystery, which could perhaps be transposed to any time period, was taken to a whole new level by the fantastic, historical Viking setting. The picturesque, wooded Norwegian valley, with the Riverside farm and longhouse nestled within, where life is quiet, isolated and closely tied to the seasons. Then the reunion explodes this life apart with the busy, continuous slaughtering of animals, making beds, cooking food, bringing up the best wine and ale, and entertaining guests. We also have the chance to see traditional Norse games, sports and a blood sacrifice to the gods.

Overall I thought Kin was an excellent Viking murder mystery, which shows a different side to the raiding and pillaging Vikings. On finishing this book, I discovered that it is the first in a planned series, so I look forward to reading more of Helga Finnsdottir’s adventures. Great read.

Thank you to Quercus Books for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

Have you read this? Or any other Viking books?

This was also my third read for the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril XIII reading event.

New Read: Stop Press Murder

It may have taken me a while to get to it, but after really enjoying Headline Murder earlier this year, I didn’t wait long to pick up Stop Press Murder by Peter Bartram. Which is the second book in Bartram’s comforting, crime series, Crampton of The Chronicle.

We re-join Colin Crampton, ace crime reporter for the Brighton Evening Chronicle, in the summer of 1963, almost a year after solving the murder of crazy-golf owner, Arnold Trumper and having his Aussie girlfriend, Shirley walk out on him. But there is no time for heartache with two juicy crimes having been committed on Brighton s Palace Pier. First, the theft of a saucy film from a ‘What the Butler Saw’ machine. Second, the murder of Fred Snout, the pier s night-watchman, who is found bludgeoned in the coconut shy! And even though he is ridiculed, Crampton is convinced that these two crimes are some how linked.

We follow all the fast-paced action, as his investigation spirals out of control, through the eyes of our protagonist, Colin Crampton, a dedicated – if a little cocky – local reporter. Who again is willing to go the miles, even risking life and limb to finally solve this mystery, get his story and prove the scoffers wrong! I have definitely grown rather fond of our reporter, especially seeing him get up to all kinds of mischief and scrapes. His cheeky, chappy personality also lends a lighter tone to the darker, edgier elements of murder and crime.

So what we get is a very British murder mystery, with twists, turns, colourful characters and a good dash of humour too. But there is no gratuitous blood or gore, which makes this perfect for those, like me, who prefer lighter murder mysteries. Then we have the setting of Brighton in the swinging sixties, that Bartram has brilliant evoked with its classic cars, well-cut suits, pop music, food and smoky pubs! All of which reminded me of my two favourite crime dramas, Endeavour and Inspector George Gently.

What impressed me so much about both books is how Bartram has been able to realistically describe the world of 1960s crime reporting. With the smoky, bustling newsroom, ringing phones and clicking typewriters, and, in an age without computers or mobile phones, everything has to be done the good, old-fashioned way with leg work and trips down to the archive office. In this book, Bartram also introduced me to the seedy world of the adult film industry in the roaring twenties, through the theft of a saucy film, entitled ‘Milady’s Bath Night’! Which Crampton is convinced has led to the subsequent pier murder.

Overall, I thought Stop Press Murder was another good, page-turning murder mystery, with a likeable protagonist and great setting. I would very much like to read more from this series. Good read.

Thank you to the author for providing a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

Have you read this? Or any other mysteries set in the colourful Brighton?

This was also my second read towards the R.eaders I.mbibing Peril reading event.

New Read: Cauldstane

With September heralding the start of autumn and the R.I.P reading event, it seemed the perfect time to pick up the gothic romance, Cauldstane by Linda Gillard. The only thing I can’t believe is that it took me so long to read more by this great author! After loving her Emotional Geology, Untying the Knot and three of her other modern, women’s novels, with their wonderful mixture of mystery, romance, history and the paranormal.

Author Jenny Ryan has landed her dream job to ghost-write the memoirs of Sholto MacNab, the legendary adventurer and Laird of Cauldstane Castle. When Jenny arrives at the MacNabs’ ancestral seat in the stunning Scottish Highlands, she is prepared for thrilling tales of adventure and danger. Never imagining that danger awaits her! As members of the family confide in her their sins and secrets, slowly the castle’s violent and tragic history is revealed, with lust, betrayal, death and an ancient curse having blighted the family fortunes for generations.

I instantly liked Jenny, who is another realistic, independent but also fragile female heroine, which I have come to expect from Gillard. Jenny also has her own back story of heartache, mental illness and secrets, that she truly starts to explore and come to terms with as she begins to feel at home with the eccentric and eclectic MacNab family. Including, in particular, the handsome, brooding Alec MacNab, swordsmith, widower and heir to Cauldstane. As soon as Gillard introduced him, I knew we were to be treated to another mature, passionate romance, and I wasn’t disappointed!

However as Jenny and Alec become close she begins to find her work deleted, threatening messages and she even finds her life in danger. But Jenny refuses to be bullied into leaving the castle and family that she has come to love as her own. Instead she throws herself into discovering the truth. Is there really a curse? Is one of the family not all that they seem to be? Or crazily is there an evil presence residing within these ancient walls? Following Jenny as she risked her sanity and her life, I was gripped from page one and rapidly drawn into this sinister, family mystery.

Hats off to Gillard because Cauldstane is another beautiful written tale, with all the things I love in a book: mystery; romance; history; a big, old house and a touch of the paranormal. I can’t believe I waited so long to read this and I vow not to wait so long again, and I have no excuse as I already have Gillard’s The Trysting Tree lined up on my Kindle. Great read.

Have you read this? Or anything else by Linda Gillard?

This was also my first read towards the R.eaders I.mbibing Peril reading event, and what a cracking start to it too!

New Read: But is it Real?

As a practicing Christian, I like to read Christian literature to help with the growth of my faith and I am very lucky that my church has it’s own book club to help me with this. Back in June, we read and discussed Vanishing Grace by Philip Yancey. After a break over the summer, we kicked things off again in September with this, But is it Real? by Christian apologist, Amy Orr-Ewing.

Is God real? God is just a psychological crutch. Why does God allow bad things to happen? I used to believe, but I’ve given it all up now. What about the spiritual experiences of other faiths? Are just five of the ten common questions, accusations and objections to the Christian faith, all directly taken from real-life situations, which Orr-Ewing seeks to answer in this book. Hoping the thoughts offered will help people to see what the Christian faith has to say amid all the pain, confusion and complexity of this life.

And Orr-Ewing is really coming from a strong place of knowledge to answer these big and often hard-hitting questions and issues, being the Curriculum Director for the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics. As well as speaking and lecturing on Christian apologetics all over the world. If, like me, you’ve heard of this apologetics malarkey, but aren’t sure exactly what it is: well it is a branch of Christian theology which focuses specifically on defending Christianity against objections. Throughout this book, Orr-Ewing’s knowledge and experience was evident as she spoke in a clear and confident style.

Each of the ten common questions, accusations and objections, are given its own chapter, each of which are broken down into several parts themselves. With this lay out, very similar to The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri J.M. Nouwen, I found I was able to take my time and easily dip in and out of this book, which gave me plenty of time to think and reflect. While perhaps not the most in-depth book, I did think Orr-Ewing clearly described and discussed each objection and gave plenty of examples and other materials to support her arguments against it.

When my church’s book club group met to discuss this we agreed it didn’t really inspire or move us like previous reads have, however it is a very informative read which will be great to refer back to when faced with difficult questions of our own faith in the future. We also ended up going off on a tangent – due in-part to one member’s comment on Orr-Ewing’s reliance on scripture – to discussions on the validity of scripture and creationism vs evolution! Slightly random but very interesting all the same.

Overall, I thought But is it Real? was a short, concise and informative handbook on how to discuss and defend my Christian faith. It also made for an interesting starting point for our last book club meeting. Next we will be meeting up to discuss The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri J.M. Nouwen and I have already started reading The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan for November. Good read.

Have you read this? Or anything else about Christian apologetics?

This was also book 8/10 for my 10 Books of Summer 2018 reading challenge.