New Read: The Death of Western Christianity

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. In February, we met to discuss The Story of Reality by Gregory Koukl. Next up was non-fiction The Death of Western Christianity by Patrick Sookdheo, which the group met to discuss at the beginning of the month. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend as I was away on a school residential trip.

As the title suggests, The Death of Western Christianity is quite a stark look into how the Church in the West has gone from being the backbone of Western society, morals and laws, and being a vast missionary movement that once went out across the world, to now being in a state of terminal decline. Ironically abroad, where once Western missionaries worked, there is still a living, thriving Christian faith, but other than pockets overall the fire of Western faith is sadly growing dim. Not only that but in Western society, Christianity is increasingly despised, marginalised and coming under attack.

Fortunately, for me, I am in a warm, welcoming, multi-aged church that is growing. However in my wider community, I am in the minority with my faith and I have witnessed the deploring lack of knowledge of Christianity, with a depressingly, growing number of children that do not even know that Christmas and Easter are Christian festivals. And while I know that the church is increasingly being ignored, marginalised and mocked, thankfully my friends and myself have never been targeted or persecuted for our faith. Unlike some of the terribly sad cases that Sookhdeo shares from across Europe and the USA.

Matter-of-factly and succinctly Sookhdeo surveys in-depth the current state of Christianity in the West, looking in particular at how Western culture has influenced and weakened the Church, with the growth in materialism, different faiths and worldviews, and a change in morality. He also discusses the loss of Christian identity, which he sees as the heart of the problem. You may be thinking this sounds a depressing read and in many respects it is. On the other hand, Sookhdeo does advise and offer means to how Christians should go forward. And if the Church in the West could start to fix itself, then maybe it could be a force for good in society again in the future.

Overall The Death of Western Christianity is not the sort of book you enjoy reading, instead I think for a practising Christian in the West it is an important book to read. Sadly I wasn’t able to attend the meeting of my church’s book club to discuss this. Nevertheless this was a very relevant read for me, as my church is currently undertaking a year of exploration into what our vision should be for the next five years – There are nuggets of advice from this that will be of value for me with this in mind. Our club’s next read is Love Wins by Rob Bell. Good read.

Have you read this? Or any other books on the decline of Christianity?

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New Read: Little Men

After quite a heavy first year (2018) into my new Classics Club list, with some long and/or difficult classics tackled, I thought I needed to go easier on myself this year by reading some more of the children’s classics I have on my list. And, first up, I decided to read Little Men by Louisa May Alcott, the 1869 sequel to Alcott’s utterly charming Little Women.

Set several, unspecified years after the original, Little Men begins with the arrival of ‘Nat’ Blake – an orphaned street musician discovered by Mr Laurence in a cellar – to Jo and her husband’s school, which they have set up at Plumfield after inheriting the estate off Jo’s Aunt March. As one would imagine of Jo, it is an unconventional school, where children have their own gardens and pets; are encouraged to start their own businesses and follow their passions; and pillow fights are permitted on Saturdays, subject to a time limit, of course.

Through Nat’s eyes we are introduced to the other boys at the school, which includes: Jo’s sweet, innocent nephew ‘Demi’ Brooke; the well-meaning but troublesome ‘Tommy’ Bangs; the over-indulged ‘Stuffy’ Cole; the mentally challenged Billy Ward; and Mr Bhaer’s strapping nephews, Emil and Franz Hoffman. Later they are joined by ‘Nan’ Harding, a wild tomboy, brought in as a companion for Demi’s twin sister Daisy and Nat’s troubled, free-spirited friend ‘Dan’ Kean, who struggles to settle in.

Each and every one of them is welcomed to Plumfield with warmth and affection, and is treated as an individual. However boys (and girls) have a habit of getting into scrapes, and so what follows is a charming series of troubles and adventures that the children get themselves into. I particularly enjoyed their berry picking trip, which ends with two children missing into the night; Daisy and Nan’s rather disastrous dinner party; the creation of their own natural history museum; and Dan’s terrible struggles and redemption. There is also the surprising and poignant death of a beloved character from Little Women.

If you weren’t a fan of the slow, steady pace or the moralistic tone of Little Women, then you won’t be a big fan of this either, as they are just replicated here. However if you loved the original and in particular loved the wilful tomboy Jo March in it, then you may still not love this because Jo has now grown-up into a sensible, caring mother of two small boys. There is no remnant of her former self really, except for the almost imperceptible twinkle in her eye when she deals with young Nan’s antics. This wasn’t really an issue for me though, as Jo wasn’t my favourite March sister, especially after she broke lovely Laurie’s heart.

So overall, I thought Little Men was a lovely, easy-going read, with a delightful collection of characters and adventures. Its only downfall – which is probably why it is unfairly overlooked – is that, well, it’s just not Little Women! I look forward to reading its sequel Jo’s Boys in the near future. Good read.

Have you read this? Have you read Little Women or Jo’s Boys?

This is book 7/50 for my Classics Club II reading challenge.

New Read: Lives of Notorious Cooks

At the start of March, having tackled some big and/or challenging books in the previous two months, I decided that I needed to treat myself to some shorter, lighter reads. With that in mind, I finally picked up the Lives of Notorious Cooks by Brendan Connell, a fictionalised collection of biographies of famous cooks. Which was published back in 2012 and embarrassingly not long after that, I realise now, I must have received a copy from the author.

Making up for lost time, I went into this not really knowing what to expect and the blurb wasn’t much help either, as it simply told me I would ‘Learn of the outrageous and sometimes dubious lives of Peng Zu and fifty other notorious cooks from the pages of history and legend, in a picaresque dictionary of delicious and playful story-telling’. Well it certainly sounded interesting, if a little mysterious too. On reading the book, what I discovered was a collection of very short biographies of fifty cooks, known of whom I can claim to have heard of before, which were written in a surreal prose style.

These cooks included: Peng Zu, a legendary Chinese figure known for cooking excellent soup; Marie-Antione Carême, an early exponent of the elaborate French grande cuisine; Joseph Cooper, a cook to Charles 1, in 1654; Coroebus (Koroibos) of Elis, an Ancient Greek baker and athlete; Lala Sukh Lal Jain, founder of the Ghantewala sweet shop in Delhi, India in 1790; Robert May, author of The Accomplisht Cook (1660); Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces – a Roman baker, whose tomb can still be seen today in Rome; and Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq, compiler of the earliest known Arabic cookbook, in the tenth century.

As you can see, Connell’s has included a wide range of interesting figures, from across history and the world in his collection: spanning the cultures of Ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt, China, Japan, Europe and the Middle East. Having not heard of any of them before it meant I learnt a fair bit, even with most of the biographies being very brief. The unusual style in which they were written reminded me of poetry, and so the collection did have a nice flow to it, but at the same time it wasn’t always clear if the cooks were legendary or real. I did find myself looking up the figures on the internet to find out more and to better understand what I was reading.

Overall, I found the Lives of Notorious Cooks to be an interesting collection of  surreal, succinct biographies of cooks from across the globe and throughout history. Not the type of book I would usually go for, however it made a nice change and I was able to dip in and out whenever I liked, thus making it the lighter, shorter read I was looking for. Okay read.

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

Have you read this? Have you read any biographies of famous chefs, past or present?

New Read: Origin

Knowing how much I had loved Angels & Demons, The Da Vinci Code and Inferno, my dad bought me a paperback copy of Origin by Dan Brown for Christmas. So excited was I to find out what Robert Langdon would possibly get up to next, I bumped this straight to the top of my to-be-read pile.

This new, thrilling adventure starts as Robert Langdon, Harvard professor of symbology and religious iconology, arrives at the ultramodern Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain to attend the unveiling of a controversial scientific discovery. The evening’s host is one of Langdon’s former students, Edmond Kirsch, who is now a dazzling high-tech billionaire and futurist. But before Kirsch’s precious discovery can be revealed, the meticulously orchestrated evening erupts into chaos. Reeling with shock and fearing imminent danger, Langdon flees with Ambra Vidal, the elegant museum director, to Barcelona on a perilous quest to locate a cryptic password that will unlock Kirsch’s secret.

Gripped, I was borne along the dark corridors of hidden history and extreme religion, as Langdon and Vidal follow a trail of modern art and enigmatic symbols, which will take them from the Guggenheim Museum, to Gaudí’s Casa Milà and Sagrada Família, and Barcelona’s Supercomputing Center. All the whilst trying to evade an eerily, all-knowing enemy, who seems to emanate from Spain’s Royal Palace and who will stop at nothing to silence Kirsch’s discovery forever. Racing around fascinating locations is one of my favourite, quintessential elements of Langdon’s adventures, and this one was no exception, although the locations were of a more modern nature than I usually prefer.

Another quintessential element of these books is controversy! After uncovering all the clues, Langdon and Vidal are able to reveal Kirsch’s shocking discovery and the breath-taking truth that has long eluded us: Where did we come from? Where are we going? A truth that Brown builds us up, throughout the novel, to believe will shake the major religions to their core… However for me, who is happy to have science and God, it wasn’t really that Earth-shattering, although I did find it very interesting. There was also an absolutely spine-chilling twist at the end – Unfortunately I had already guessed at it about half way through, but had put it to the back of my mind!

So while Origin was another thrilling adventure, that gripped and fascinated me in parts, it is sadly not to become one of my favourites of the Langdon series. Although it was very good, escapist fun and I did enjoy it more than The Lost Symbol. Good read.

Have you read this? Or other books from the Langdon series?

New Read: The Story of Reality

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. In January, we met to discuss the classic, Christian allegorical novel, The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Next up was non-fiction The Story of Reality by speaker and bestselling author Gregory Koukl, which the group met to discuss last week.

In this book, Koukl makes the big claim that he will tell us how the world began, how the world will end and everything important that happens in between! Starting with creation and moving through to Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and finally, judgement day; Koukl takes the reader step by step – in concise, bite-size chapters – through how Biblical Christianity is more than just another private religious view. More than just a personal relationship with God. More than just a source of moral teaching. But how instead Christianity is a picture of reality.

Initially, I found Koukl’s style a little patronising and dismissive, however I was soon pulled into his interesting discourse on different world views, including: Matter-ism, Mind-ism (officially known as Monism) and Nihilism, as well as Creationism, of course. While I am not one for taking the stories of God making the world in seven days, and Adam and Eve being the first humans completely literally (although I got the feeling Koukl might), I do find myself most definitely falling into the Creationism camp and I feel Koukl made some very interesting points and comparisons of the different views.

Then Koukl went on to chapters discussing the role of man, who Jesus was, and what happened at the cross – All of which were interesting and I continued to make many notes, but it wasn’t till I got to part about the resurrection that I really found myself grabbed again. I thought Koukl made some very persuasive arguments for the resurrection, based on the great sacrifice and suffering endured by those who attested to Jesus rising from the dead. Plus the miraculous U-turns of the sceptic James and the infamous enemy of Christ’s followers, Saul. However sadly Koukl did lose me again when discussing the burning fires of Hell a little too literally for me again.

So I went into my book club meeting, last week, with mixed feelings and many, many pages of notes. I certainly wasn’t the only one who had some misgivings about the literal view on the creation story and Hell, and it fuelled a great discussion on how you can believe in the Big Bang, evolution and God! A discussion which proves the Atheist view of Christians  being ignorant and backwards, presented in this book, wrong straight away. Except for this issue though, everyone else really enjoyed and felt it had been a worthwhile read, and I did thoroughly enjoy sharing mine and hearing others’ favourite parts, quotes and ideas.

All in all, I found The Story of Reality to be an interesting, thought-provoking and challenging read, that I had to take my time with – Generally only reading one or two chapters at a time to give myself chance to reflect. It did however generate a great discussion in our meeting and I definitely think it is good to be challenged once in a while, especially about one’s belief. Our next read is The Death of Western Christianity by Patrick Sookhdeo. Good read.

Have you read this? Or any other books on religious and world views?

Re-Read: Emma

Back in November, last year, I took part in The Classics Club’s 19th Spin event, which chose Emma by Jane Austen for me. Having loved all of Austen’s finished novels, I took the opportunity, when creating my new list for the club, to include them all for a re-read.

I was thrilled with my result, as Emma, the final novel published during Austen’s lifetime, was the second Austen novel I read, many years ago. Often said to be Austen’s most perfect read about a very imperfect – albeit lovable – heroine… The beautiful, rich and intelligent, Emma Woodhouse, who, having been cosseted by her affectionate father and faithful governess, Miss Taylor, believes it is her duty to help others arrange things just as she thinks they should be. Oh I understand Emma annoys some readers, however I can’t help but love her! While she is spoilt, she is naïve and so, makes some disastrous decisions, through it all her heart is in the right place.

The real trouble starts when – ignoring the advice of good family friend Mr Knightley – Emma sets out to play cupid for her new, favourite companion: the lovely, shy Harriet Smith. In addition, Emma makes a hasty, close intimacy with newcomer Frank Churchill, the estranged son of their convivial neighbour Mr Weston, whose arrival into small, quiet Highbury causes quite the stir. And these two decisions are to lead Emma into schemes and actions that are to fail miserably, and inadvertently hurt people she cares about. If only she could hear us saying stop! Or if only she would listen to the stalwart Mr Knightley!

However through all the trouble and strife, Emma is resilient, makes amends for the hurt she has caused and learns from it all too. In particular, she learns a lot about others and more importantly about herself. Actually if it hadn’t been for her foolish mistakes some important secrets may not have come to light and she may never have discovered a very important thing about herself: where her heart truly lay and always had! Naww, it all ends happily! However some readers do wonder if Emma has really learnt her lesson, I can’t answer that for definite, but I think she has and she now has someone beside her to help her stick to the path.

All in all, I think Emma is an utterly charming, witty and slightly farcical classic, about the coming-of-age pains of a young woman in Regency England. It just makes me smile and it made for a wonderfully comforting re-read – getting re-acquainted with its colourful collection of characters was like meeting up with old friends. I can’t wait to re-read more! Great read.

Have you read this? Or any of Austen’s other novels?

This is book 6/50 for my Classics Club II reading challenge.

New Read: Bellewether

Back in January, I escaped the busyness of life and the dreary weather with Bellewether, the latest dual-narrative novel from, one of my favourite authors, Susanna Kearsley. Having previously read, and loved, six of her previous novels, I eagerly ripped through this anticipating a good dose of mystery, romance and history, and I wasn’t to be disappointed!

It all begins with a house: the Wilde House, which dates back to 1682, when Jacob Wilde came across from England and picked a spot above a small cove in Messaquamik Bay, Long Island to build his family a home. In the present day, it is a museum to Jacob’s famous descendent: the dashing, adventurer Benjamin Wilde, who captained the fair Bellewether. Sadly the house has been neglected over recent years, so the board decide to appoint a new curator: Charley Van Hoek, who has recently moved to the area after the sudden death of her brother to take care of her teenage niece.

I instantly liked Charley because she is a smart, practical and down-to-earth woman, with her head well and truly screwed on. Not the type for flights of fancy, and yet, one night, in the woods behind the house, Charley would swear she saw a ghostly, swinging lamp; which is linked to the legend of Benjamin Wilde’s sister, Lydia and her doomed romance with a French officer. As Charley starts to delve deeper into the history of the Wilde House, she discovers it holds many secrets and that Lydia’s legend may be based on some truth… but not quite the whole truth.

The second narrative of the novel follows Lydia Wilde in 1759, where the North American colonies are being torn apart by the continuing war between Britain and France. Whilst Lydia is already struggling to keep her fractured family together – following her mother’s death – she little needs the added trouble of two captured French officers, brought to them for their parole of honour. Neither does the French-Canadian lieutenant Jean-Philippe de Sabran have any desire to be there, but by the war’s end they’ll both learn love, honour, and duty can form tangled bonds that are not broken easily.

Again Kearsley has weaved together two immersive, believable narratives, with two strong, compelling heroines. All delivered in her comforting and familiar writing style, which I have come to love so much; like a favourite jumper. I must admit I wasn’t initially thrilled when I learnt that this was set in America – I do have a biased preference for her previous settings of the British Isles and Italy – however I was proven very wrong. This was a really interesting setting and time period, that Kearsley brought to life beautifully, which made for a refreshing change and taught me quite a bit too. Although it does all wrap up a little abruptly at the end.

All in all, I thought Bellewether was a wonderful escapist read, with a lovely blend of history, war, romance and mystery. It isn’t about to topple my old favourites The Rose Garden and Mariana, but it is a nice edition to Kearsley’s burgeoning canon of work. Great read.

Thank you to the publisher Sourcebooks Landmark for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

Have you read this? Have you read any of Susanna Kearsley’s other novels?