Celebrating International Women’s Day 2018!

Thank you, Bronte’s Page Turners, for pin-pointing such wonderful source material for us hopeful historical novelists.

Brontë's Page Turners

Following our posts to celebrate International Women’s Day in 2016 and 2017, we’re back again for #IWD2018 with a bounty of books to explore woman’s place in the world.

Set in Rosenau, an isolated alpine farming community in Austria, Homestead by Rosina Lippi begins with a mysterious love letter – its intended recipient potentially being any one of a number of local ladies – and proceeds to recount the life of several village women, through short stories set between 1909 and 1977. These h(er)stories of ordinary women and their relationships, passions, conflicts, aspirations, frustrations et al, powerfully demonstrate how much women’s lives changed during the 20th century and how the darker side of its history crept into the most remote of their communities and lives, in particular through the impact of war (the story of a betrayal that brings the horror of the Nazi extermination camps to Rosenau broke…

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‘Regeneration’ by Pat Barker

World War 1 Poster. "Women Say Go".

Attrib Wikipedia

I am quite the wrong sort of reader for this book, and therefore the wrong person to be reviewing it.  War and soldiers are not my thing at all.  Poetry, I don’t get on with, either.   I read it because it was the St Andrew’s Book Club book.  Last month it was Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie, which I found charming and thought-provoking at the same time, but you join a book club to expand and develop your reading.  When I realised what Redemption was about, my face fell.  Maybe I was prejudiced against it before I started, although, taking this attitude, sometimes you can pleasantly surprise yourself.

Regeneration, the first book in the Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker, is based on a true story.  This must be one of my unfavourite expressions.  Over the last few years, every film and every television programme (as well as books) tends to be based on a true story.

Poet Siegfried Sassoon

attrib Wikimedia Commons

This particular true story concerns Siegfried Sassoon’s incarceration in Craiglockhart War Hospital, Scotland, in 1917, following his publication of Finished With the War, A Soldier’s Declaration, in which he called for World War 1 to be ended.  Sassoon was sent to army psychiatrist William Rivers at Craiglockhart, following intervention by his friend Robert Graves, as an alternative to a court martial.  The idea was that Sassoon must be suffering from a mental disorder to write such things, whereas the premise of the book is that Sassoon was sane and everyone else at that time deluded.

Sassoon himself is not portrayed as an attractive character: smug, self-satisfied and arrogant.  Wilfred Owen gushes.  Graves is indecisive and allows himself to be belittled by Sassoon.  We follow the fortunes of other patients – Burns, Prior, Willard, Anderson – but there is no feeling of moving forward which comes with a plot.  The only ‘good’ character is Dr William Rivers (who is called ‘Rivers’ throughout) but he has no story arc.  He carries on trying to do his best for his patients, using gentle techniques, as compared with the cruelty of Dr Yealland in London.  Rivers becomes ill.  He gets better.  He carries on.

I’m not criticising the literary quality.  Pat Barker’s depictions of civilian life during war time were well researched and understood and her civilian characters (Sarah and her mother, Ada) believable.  Her written style is excellent, her descriptions of scenes and how people moved and acted excellent, but this was a novel of unleavened grimness, without a glimmer of humour.  Not a very funny subject, you might think.  However, people in grim situations tend to develop their own black humour (but not here).

That the conduct of the First World War was reckless and caused needless carnage is something we’ve known for many decades.  Yes, Sassoon was right, and I appreciate that people in government, and many of the general public in 1917 didn’t see it that way, but a century later Regeneration is not telling us anything new.

‘The Diary of a (Trying to Be Holy) Mum by Fiona Lloyd

Cover art for Diary of a (Trying to Be Holy) Mum

Attrib Instant Apostle

You wanted to do something big for God since you became a Christian, but it’s difficult when you have three primary aged children.  Your life tends to be taken up with toddler group, Mum’s group at church, potties, creche, taking children to school and parties.  Becky is married to teacher Dave and has three children, Jennifer (aged nine and already anticipating teenager-dom), Adam (six) and Ellie (two).  When she tries to take a quiet time in the bathroom, she is interrupted after five minutes, because her six year old needs the loo.  She notes that this never happened when Jesus in the Bible when he went up a mountain to pray.

The story opens on Becky’s thirty-ninth birthday, feeling that she’s never going to have the opportunity to do anything significant.  For the first part of the book, which is written as a diary, there is an air of resignation in her entries, as household crisis follows household crisis.  She makes new year resolutions which fall flat.  Becky compares herself unfavourably with other members of her circle of friends, especially Helen, who is a perfect housewife and mother and a perfect Christian too.  When Becky looks after missionaries, Rupert and Liz, as a favour for the minister, she is impressed by their commitment to their project in Guatemala, and feels she herself could never do anything like that.  When she’s asked to stand at the front in church and talk about it, she nearly dies of fright.  As a reader, I’m starting to believe that Becky’s mission is to the world around her, to her family and friends, especially Annie with the non-sleeping baby, to whom Becky is extremely kind, but, suddenly, two-thirds into the story, we lurch forward.

The Diary of a (Trying to Be Holy) Mum concerns a largish group of ordinary people who attend one church, plus Becky’s unhelpful in-laws.  The same characters, well drawn and realistic, appear consistently, so we get to know them all well.  Fiona is, I know, drawing hugely from her own experience, of church and of motherhood.   Having been part of the toddler-group scene myself once, I know that there’s a whole soap opera going on there, but Fiona is the only writer I’m aware of who has written it.

The Diary of a (Trying to Be Holy) Mum is Fiona Lloyd’s first book.  I happen to know that its title was going to be ‘The Jesus on the Bus’.  If you want to know why, read it.  Instant Apostle is, of course, a Christian publishing group, and the Christian theme in this book is more overt than in any other Instant Apostle book I’ve read, but other people should be charmed by this honest attempt ‘to be a pilgrim’ (part-quote from John Donne).

The Diary of a (Trying to Be Holy) Mum is available from Instant Apostle.


‘Katharina Luther: Nun, Rebel, Wife’ by Anne Boileau

nun_300At nine years old, Katharina Von Bora was in the way.  A tomboy, and not prepared to flatter her new stepmother, she is sent away to the school attached to the Marienthron Convent at Nimbschen.  From that point onwards, she was being shoehorned into joining the order as a nun and, accordingly, she becomes a novice at the age of fifteen.  What a convenient way to get rid of a troublesome child.

However, by 1523, when she is in her early twenties, Katharina, and several other younger nuns, are restless.  They’ve heard about Martin Luther’s revolutionary preaching in Wittenberg and they’re fascinated by their – illegal – copy of the Bible in German.  More than anything else, though, they want out.  They can’t bear the thought of being stuck in the convent for the rest of their lives.  So, they write to Luther himself and he replies, concocting a plan for them to be smuggled from the Marienthron Convent in empty herring barrels.  They arrive in his house in Wittenberg and then they have to reconnect with the real world.  Luther doesn’t know what to do with them.  He expects the girls to return to their families, but for Katharina, and her friend, Ave, there’s no chance of that.  Eventually, Luther and Katharina marry.. and I’m not giving away a spoiler as the book starts with Katharina married and pregnant.

The book is written as Katharina’s diary during the last weeks of her pregnancy.   It’s not just ‘based on a true story’.  It’s a biography, faultlessly researched .  Anne truly got into the hearts and minds of the people living in that part of Germany during the first part of the sixteenth century, their fears of disorder and chaos, that sometimes only Latin prayers would do and the very real social disorder caused by Luther’s preaching.

Katharina herself was an interesting main character, plucky, resourceful, resilient, yet consistent with her time.  Luther himself is also well-drawn, earthy, a man who makes jokes about farts and bowel movements, yet whose thunderous voice can fill a church and the hearts of those waiting outside.

Anne Boileau lives in Essex.  I know her under her real name, although I haven’t met her recently and she has no idea that I’m reviewing her book.  The last time I saw her she was delivering staff development on lesson planning.  A month ago, however, Anne came to talk to the St Andrew’s Church Book Club about Katharina Luther, although unfortunately I was too snowed under with work to attend.  Really sorry to have missed her.  An unputdownable book, about one of my favourite periods in history.

Rating:  4/5

Buy Katharine Luther:  Nun. Rebel. Wife. here.


‘American Notes For General Circulation’ by Charles Dickens

Dickens wrote fifteen novels over the course of thirty-four years and double the number of ‘other works’ (see Charles Dickens Info). I wanted to read the American Notes because I was aware that Martin Chuzzlewit was based upon his trip to the North American continent in 1842 and I managed to identify Martin’s swamp, where he bought land – an area outside the town of Cairo, Illinois, near the river Mississippi.

Dickens didn’t like the United States or Americans.  He found most of them to be bombastic, shifty and lacking in the personal hygiene department, or, in the case of the Shakers, dull as ditch-water.  Through writing American Notes, Dickens lost most of his American readership.  (What nation enjoys being roundly criticised by one of the most celebrated writers of the day (except the Brits)? )  No author can allow that to happen, so he returned to the United States  a couple of years later and – what do you know? – he found things much improved the other side of the pond.

What Dickens most disliked about the United States was slavery.  In fact, I believe that knowing slavery was being carried on in the southern states probably prejudiced him against the country before he arrived.  He dreaded arriving in Maryland and Baltimore because he was aware that these were slave states, and was embarrassed at being served in a hotel by black waiters whom, he suspected, were slaves.  In a way no other writers were doing at that time, he described slaves and their condition in great detail;  he conjured up pictures of misery, for instance, of a mother and daughter travelling in the train after having been sold, and expecting never to see their husband/father again.  Much of his last chapter (Chapter XVIII Concluding Remarks) concerned the evils of slavery and the dichotomy with the American founding fathers’ concepts of liberty.  He held all white Americans responsible, from the President downwards.

Dickens, of course, cared passionately about injustice of all kinds.  Whilst in America, he visited prisons, hospitals and mental health institutions in every town he visited, and reported on them in detail.  He disapproved of the conditions in most of them, in many cases, vehemently, especially where men and women were kept in solitary confinement.  He travelled huge distances by rail and by river steamer, and described them as squalid and not quite so squalid.

Another remarkable point about Dickens’ trip to the US was that he was accompanied by his wife, Catherine.  They did very little together, except create ten children.

American Notes is your best possible Lonely Planet/ Rough Guide the United States in 1842, detailed, descriptive and insightful, but I didn’t enjoy as much as Dickens’ novels.  Maybe, it’s because I’m such a fiction person.

Get your copy of American Notes here (not an Amazon link).


‘Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death’ by James Runcie

Attrib Wikimedia Commons

After the funeral of a Cambridge solicitor. who has, apparently, committed suicide, his mistress claims he was murdered.  An engagement ring, worth £350, goes missing and the intended bride, having been reminded of its cost too many times, goes off the groom.  The daughter of a ex-con, turned jazz club owner, is murdered.  An aristocrat, reluctant to share his art collection with the National Trust, is murdered during a stage production of Julius Caesar.  These are just some of the six longish short stories, set in 1953 and 1954, featuring Canon Sidney Chambers,  vicar of Grantchester, and reluctant detective.

Serious, mild-mannered, self-effacing, in every way ‘vicarious’, Sidney rides a bicycle and enjoys cricket.  When his friend, Amanda, arranges for him to be given a Labrador puppy, he is concerned about never having looked after a dog before, that it will needs walks, inconvenience his cleaner and upset the precarious equilibrium between his clerical calling and the outside world.  He worries that his crime-solving is getting in the way of his proper job.  He won’t do it anymore… but then his friend, Inspector Geordie Keating, whom he meets weekly to play backgammon in the pub finds him another case.  A reluctant detective, he considers himself to be a poor priest, despite being very conscientious in his parish and giving a lot of thought to he will preach about next.

Sidney Chambers believes it is his duty always to think the best of people.   People will talk to him, because he is so gentle and non-judgmental.   This is what makes him so useful in crime-solving.  Eminently likable.  His love-interest is the wealthy socialite and art historian, Amanda, but he doesn’t wish to impose upon her because, really, when he thinks about it, being a clergy wife probably wouldn’t suit her.  He has a sort of posh(ish) family in London, a sensible sister, Jennifer, and a brother, Matt, who is a jazz musician.  Sidney is also passionately fond of jazz, and, when asked, can’t explain why, the sign of a real aficionado.

The setting is comfortable, enjoyable and beguiling.  I want to be there in Grantchester in 1953 with him.  The only flaw in the scenario, to my mind, is that Geordie Keating uses Sidney’s skills and time too freely, ordering him about as if he were a paid employee of the police force.   Sidney is not a pushover, and certainly believes in putting his God and his church first, so, for me, that aspect doesn’t work too well.

Read  Sidney Chambers and The Shadow of Death (non-Amazon link).  This book, which was published by Bloomsbury in 2012, and is the first in the Grantchester Mysteries series.  James Runcie, the son of Robert Runcie, former Archbishop of Canterbury, has also written many other works, including Canvey Island and the Discovery of Chocolate.  The Shadow of Death is the first one I’ve read.  Will I read more in this series?  Oh yes, Dear Reader.

Rating:  4/5.


‘A Better Kind of Intimacy’ by Jack Skett

In the introduction, the author, Jack Skett, tells us that “This is a book about porn.  Of course, porn is about sex, so in essence this is a book about sex…  Christians are not generally accustomed to talking about sex”.   This is the Christian take on porn.

Skett became addicted to internet pornography as a teenager for a short time in the Noughties.   He describes how porn changed the way he viewed women, objectifying them and leading him to understand that they existed only for his (male) gratification.  It also made him secretive and dishonest, even with his own brother.  At this time in his life he was attending church with his family, and exploring his Christian faith.  At a Christian youth camp in 2006, he attended an evening talk on addition.  The speaker shouted, ‘There’s something on you.  God can see it, and I can see it’.  Terrified that this man could see into his porn problem, he stood up and presented himself for healing… but let his friends think he was seeking help in quitting smoking.  Jack Skett is now a pastor and, according to what people in his church have said to him, pastors are ‘different’ (apparently).  What enormous courage he shows in ‘coming out’ on this issue now by writing this book.

The author asserts that we all of us dabble in porn, men and women.   Fifty Shades of Grey is porn for women, he tells us – and he’s probably right,  But I haven’t read Fifty Shades and I don’t really want to read erotica for either sex, and I hate writing anything approaching steamy bits.  In my opinion, to say that everybody does porn is taking it a little far.

His personal experiences are summed up in the Introduction and Chapter 1.  The remainder of the book moves on quickly from the personal and into Christian ethics, with particular reference to St Paul’s Epistles.  He draws our attention to pornographic statuary

Erotic Statue of Venus

Attrib Wikimedia

in the ancient world, in Pompeii, and, particularly, in Corinth, where having sex with a temple prostitute was somehow part of the Graeco-Roman religion.  He writes, quite reasonably, that you cannot expect a Biblical verse to cover every eventuality, and every sin.  Nowhere in the Bible does it say, “Thou shalt not do pornography.”  Skett’s central plank is that sex exists for two reasons – pregnancy and our pleasure – but that it should be enjoyed only by married couples.  After exploring some quite harsh Pauline teaching, in 1 Corinthians he justifies this position by stating that Paul didn’t discuss appropriate sexual relationships between unmarried couples, so therefore unmarried sex was not something Christians should do.  To my mind, this is stretching things too far.

Skett argues his case at length.  I cannot help but feel that he could have covered the ground in fewer words.  However, if you wish to explore and develop your understanding of Christian ethics, Jack Skett provides much food for thought.

The full title of this work is ‘A Better Kind of Intimacy: The Price of Porn and How to Overcome It’ by Jack Skett.  A copy for review was provided by the Instant Apostle Facebook group, free of charge.

This book has just been released on Instant Apostle.  You can watch the author un-boxing his copies on the Instant Apostle website and thereby find the Amazon link.