Monthly Archives: October 2017

Realms of Glory, by Catherine Fox

realmsofgloryA lot of what I might say about this book has already been said in my review/rave of the first volume in this trilogy, Acts and Omissions, and its sequel Unseen Things Aboveso you should check those out. Some of the things I mentioned in that first review — the intrusive omniscient narrator, the minutiae of life in a Church of England cathedral community — will put some readers off, but I love everything about these books (despite my extreme non-Anglicanness). Having read the first two volumes in 2015, I was following Catherine Fox’s blog as she posted the chapters of Realms of Glory week by week on her blog last year.

While the two earlier volumes were also self-published in this way before appearing as complete books, there was something uniquely appropriate about the fact that Realms of Glory  was the book I got to read in installations, in the much the same way nineteenth-century novelists serialized their stories in the papers of the time (Fox consciously casts herself as a modern-day Trollope). While the first two books did make occasional reference to events happening in the wider world that paralleled the fictional world of the story, Realms of Glory is the volume of the trilogy in which outside events seemed to have the most impact on the clergy and people of Lindchester. For people of certain ages, interests, and political affiliations, 2016 was a year of one body blow after another, and as the chapters of this novel unfolded on Fox’s blog, she addressed each celebrity death, each terrorist attack, the Brexit vote, the US election outcome, in real time as it happened, her characters reacting just as so many of us did to these events.

Having watched the story unfold week by week on the author’s blog, I looked forward to reading it all at once in book form, and was delighted when Fox’s publisher approached me to ask would I like a free copy of the book in return for an honest review. Needless to say I snapped up that offer, and took the opportunity to re-read the whole trilogy back to back.

As good as these books were reading them individually, reading all three together is a better, more complete experience. I originally felt that the first book, Acts and Omissions, had the tightest and most compelling plot of the three, but reading them all together I can see how the plot arcs and character development stretch over all three books and how beautifully many things are resolved (while some, as in real life, must be left without a satisfying resolution — yet even this is well handled). Yes, the reread of Realms of Glory did make me feel a bit like I was reliving the worst of 2016 over again — but coloured by Fox’s relentless insistence on mercy, grace, and redemption even in the darkest of times. “Love love love,” one character texts when he thinks the plane he’s on may crash, and the recipient of the text reflects that it would be hard to top that as a final message. Through the terrorist attacks and the horrible elections and the bigotry and the petty church politics and the dying celebrities of our youth: Love love love.  Divine and human love. What else do we have?

As I said in my original review of Acts and Omissions, you don’t have to understand the inner workings of an Anglican cathedral to appreciate these books (though I’m sure if you do, there are layers of nuance, especially of Fox’s wickedly funny humour, that you will appreciate better). If that’s not your world, you can regard these as the colourful details of setting that introduce you, as good books should, to a world outside your own. What is universal is the human condition, so richly detailed in these books. Especially if you are a person of faith who loves stories of grace and redemption yet finds most “Christian fiction” to be too squeaky-clean and insipid — you should try Catherine Fox’s books. And if you do, I hope you’ll love this trilogy as much as I do.

In my review of Unseen Things Above I expressed my fervent hope that Fox would not limit herself to a trilogy but would keep coming back to the rich world of Lindchester she has created in these novels, as I think there are enough great characters and plots here to sustain many, many books. However, Realms of Glory is quite clearly written as a final volume, with several characters’ storylines brought to a decisive point where the author wants to leave them. While I still think there’s more than enough material in Lindchester for, say, a follow-up trilogy in a few years, I’ll also be interested to read whatever she writes next.

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A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

gentlemaninmoscowImagine a book set against the backdrop of some of the most dramatic and exciting events in history — from the Russian Revolution, through the era of Stalin’s iron rule, the Second World War, and the power struggles that followed Stalin’s death — told from the perspective of a man who observes it all without ever being able to leave a single building. This is a fascinating point of view from which to explore several tumultuous decades in Russian history.

The titular gentleman in Moscow is Count Alexander Rostov, sentenced in 1922 not to death or exile but rather to house arrest in a grand hotel. As an aristocratic young man who had the world at his feet before the revolution, Alexander suddenly finds his world restricted to the (admittedly luxurious) walls of the hotel. For the next three decades he lives there, moving down the social scale from honoured guest, to prisoner, to hotel staff. Yet as his world becomes narrower, he immerses himself in relationships with those around him and becomes a keen observer of the changing world in which he can no longer move about freely. This book took me awhile to get into, but I found it rich and rewarding once I was drawn into Alexander Rostov’s life and the world of the hotel.

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The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry

essexserpentThis book reminded me a bit of The Lie Tree, which I read and liked last year — although this is a novel for adults and The Lie Tree was a YA novel. Both novels are set in Victorian England, in that era that Matthew Arnold describes so well in the poem “Dover Beach,” when

The Sea of Faith 
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore 
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. 
But now I only hear 
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, 
Retreating, to the breath 
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear 
And naked shingles of the world. 
With Darwin’s theories of evolution and other scientific discoveries shattering long-held beliefs and certainties, the Victorians lived in a world of uncertainty and doubt that seems more familiar than we might expect, out here on the teetering edge of this new century. Sarah Perry’s main characters are the recently widowed Cora Seaborne, a woman fascinated by scientific discovery and chafing at the restrictions her society places on a woman’s mind, and clergyman Will Ransome, a rational man who believes that his Anglican faith can blend seamlessly with the new science.
When word comes that a mysterious sea-serpent has been sighted in the waters near Will’s parish, he is angry at the superstitious response of the villagers. Cora, meanwhile, coming to the village from outside, is fascinated, sure she is about to be  present for the discovery of a new species, that she will finally have a role in advancing human knowledge and a make her own name as a woman scientist. (There’s a nice shout-out here to Newfoundland’s giant squid, which had been believed to be a mythical creature until clergyman Moses Harvey photographed one in 1874. I’ve often visited the preserved remains of a more recent giant squid at our provincial museum; the giant squid’s mention in this novel is a reminder that in the Victorian era, science was peeling back the layers of mystery and mythology — and, for some, removing religious faith as well).
Despite their differences, Will and Cora are drawn to each other – but this is no simple opposites-attract love story. Will is married to his adored Stella and they have a family; Cora is pursued by the doctor who attended her husband in his illness, and adored by her devoted servant Martha. The secondary characters, their passions and obsessions, their web of interrelationships, are as carefully and lovingly drawn as main characters Will and Cora. I found this an absorbing and fascinating novel.

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On Beauty, by Zadie Smith

onbeautyHaving read and really loved Zadie Smith’s Swing Time a few weeks ago, I had a harder time with On Beauty, although it is just as well written with as much wit and insight. The big struggle for me with On Beauty is that, while it’s told from an omniscient point of view with several major characters, one of the central characters, Howard, is a man I found so unpleasant I couldn’t bring myself to care what happened to him (or else I was actively hoping for the worst to happen to him).

I don’t mind flawed characters. I don’t even need characters to be “likable,” exactly, as long as there’s something there that’s interesting and that I can relate to, or that intrigues me. But Howard — a middle-aged white academic married to a black woman, raising three young adult children and locked in a professional feud with a fellow academic whose family life becomes entwined with Howard’s in myriad ways — is both awful and boring. And I really felt this was a flaw in the book, not in my appreciation of Howard. Several chapters in, Howard’s wife, Kiki, who has not decided whether or not to forgive him for a spot of infidelity, reflects that whatever else he did, he could always make her laugh. As the reader, I had to that point seen nothing in the story to indicate Howard had a sense of humour. He certainly never made me laugh. Kiki thinks of herself as having married her best friend, while I found it impossible to believe that a woman as interesting and vital as Kiki could ever have had this limp dishrag of a man as her best friend.

I did enjoy all the other characters and points of view, and the story itself was interesting, but Howard as the big soul-sucking cypher at the centre of the narrative was a major flaw I never got over. After I read it, I found out that it’s sort of a riff on the novel Howard’s End, which I’ve never read. Maybe I’d have appreciated it more if I had, but the end of this particular Howard couldn’t come quickly enough for me.

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