Category Archives: Fiction — inspirational

Love for the Lost, by Catherine Fox

loveforthelostThe third and final book in Fox’s earlier “trilogy” of loosely connected novels introduces us to Isobel, who was a minor character in The Benefits of Passion. Isobel was a fellow student of Annie Brown’s in that book, also studying for the ministry, and often mocked by Annie for her straitlaced, humourless approach to life. In Love for the Lost we are immersed in Isobel’s world as she serves in her first pastoral role, where she is the curate under a gentle, kindly and tolerant priest named Harry. Isobel is, indeed, strait-laced and overly sincere, though we learn a good deal in this story about her early life and what made her the person she is. A person who genuinely tries to be good and thinks she’s doing a pretty good job of it is a difficult character to write sympathetically, but Fox manages to make us feel for Isobel even as the reader sometimes wants to wring her neck.

Isobel believes it’s better to ignore emotional pain and get on with the job, and of course that policy of dealing with problems is always going to bite back at you in the end — most likely in real life, but definitely in fiction. When Isobel falls in love with one entirely unsuitable man and then sleeps with another (who might actually be suitable except for the fact that she doesn’t love him), her carefully constructed world falls apart. Meanwhile, the reader gradually becomes aware of what Isobel is completely oblivious to: a third man, waiting patiently in the wings, who may truly be able to offer her the kind of companionship and acceptance she can only dream of.

Once again, characters from the earlier two novels reappear here, some peripherally and at least one very central to the story. We find out what has become of Mara, John, Annie and Will, but we don’t find out, entirely, what becomes of Isobel. Catherine Fox shows again her fondness for the open-ended ending, leaving Isobel in a place where it’s possible for the reader to hope for a bright future for her, but also leaving many things unresolved, including the romance plot. In fact, if you had read this novel when it first came out, you would have had to wait nearly 20 years for a passing reference in one of the Lindchester novels to find out where the romance plot of Isobel’s storyline was heading. When I finished Love for the Lost I had to go back and skim through the middle Lindchester novel to see if my vague half-memory of some of those passing references was correct (obviously I didn’t pay much attention to them the first time, because not having read the original series I didn’t know the characters to which they were referring).

Now that I’ve read all six of these novels by Catherine Fox I am eager for her to write more (though apparently she’s going to back to writing YA sci-fi for the moment, which, while I’m sure she’s good at it, is not exactly what I’m in the mood to read). It was odd reading her work “in reverse,” as it were, because you can definitely see that she grew and matured as a writer in between the two trilogies. She remains a master at creating believable, real characters, and incorporating their spiritual struggles into stories just as naturally as sexual desire, career choices, and all the other things that characters deal with in the course of a story. I can’t think of anyone who writes better and more naturally about faith and spirituality in the context of the modern novel.

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The Benefits of Passion, by Catherine Fox

benefitsThe Benefits of Passion is the follow-up novel to Fox’s Angels and Men, which I reviewed in my last post. After spending 300 or so pages with the prickly, discontented main character Mara in the previous novel, The Benefits of Passion offers the reader a much lighter mood and a much funnier main character. Annie Brown is a young woman studying for the Anglican priesthood while also, on the side, pursuing a career as a writer (sections of the novel Annie is writing are interspersed here with her own story). Annie is a thirty-one-year-old, single, former teacher, a witty observer of the foibles of others, especially her fellow students. Though she feels she had a genuine call to the ministry, she is now wrestling not only with her vocation but with her faith in God. She’s also wrestling with her own sexual desires, which she personifies as a large, unruly dog called Libby (after a former student’s mispronunciation of “libido” as “Libby-do”). Libby must constantly be called to heel, especially after Annie meets an attractive but irascible young doctor who she finds abrasive and insulting yet somehow endlessly fascinating.

That’s the set-up for the classic romance novel, of course, but this being a Catherine Fox book, the story goes in some very un-romance-like directions, including into some very deep and thoughtful reflections on the nature of ministry and faith. This story takes place some ten years after Angels and Men and at first appears to have little to do with the earlier book except for being set at the same university. But as the novel progresses, Annie encounters both Johnny Whittaker and Mara Johns from the first book, and the reader gets updated on how their story turned out. There’ll be further updates in the last novel of the series, which I’m getting to … but this book focuses on Annie and her need to make a life for herself that is true to all aspects of who she is. It’s not an easily resolved struggle, and in Fox’s novels there are no simple answers. But there is a rewarding story about a character I found very easy to identify with.

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Angels and Men, by Catherine Fox

angels-and-menHaving loved Catherine Fox’s recent trilogy of Lindchester novels to a ridiculous degree, I decided to travel back in time to read her three earlier novels, written in the late 90s. These three books form not exactly a trilogy, but they are linked, with recurring characters carrying over from one book to another. 

The first novel, Angels and Men, tells the story of Mara Johns, a graduate student who is trying to pick up the threads of her “normal” life after both she and her sister got involved with a cult-like religious sect, with tragic results. While Mara is obviously scarred by what happened to her sister, I often felt like the impact of the tragedy, particularly the family’s reaction to it, was not as fully explored or developed as it needed to be. Much more time was spend on Mara’s inner turmoil and her relationships with three young men: Rupert Anderson, Johnny Whittaker, and Andrew Jacks. Andrew, who is her neighbour in college residence, goes from being the thorn in her side to being, at least some of the time, a true friend. He’s also not a contender for her romantic affections, but both Rupert and Johnny, who are both studying for Anglican ministry, are. Mara is, to some degree, attracted to both of them, though far more deeply attracted to the charismatic Johnny, who is just as brilliant and just as tormented as she is.

Overall, I found this to be an intriguing novel, though unsatisfying in many ways — appropriately, I think, for a first novel by someone whose later work I already know is going to turn out to be brilliant. As I said, there are threads undeveloped here that I thought deserved more attention, and there were other things that troubled me — acts of violence within all of Mara’s relationships with the men in the novel that seemed to be just taken for granted as the sort of thing people with a passionate, intense nature are likely to do, but which seemed seriously unhealthy to me (and weren’t dealt with seriously enough to account for that, if you see what I mean). Mara herself is an often unlikeable and difficult character, but I liked that — I like to be inside the head of young female characters who are angry and intractable and don’t fit well into romance-style plots.

The book ends on a very open-ended cliffhanger, but we’ll be meeting some of these characters again in later books, so the lack of resolution wasn’t, in the long run, a big problem for me.

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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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Life & Death, by Celeste Perrino-Walker

lifeanddeathLife and Death is a gentle and sweet romance; it’s also a novel about overcoming grief and moving on with your life. It’s the first in a series of novels about a fictional small town named Toussaint, Vermont. While the town and its inhabitants are imaginary, the region, its culture and people are all very real, and author Perrino-Walker is at her strongest here, re-creating on paper a world she obviously knows very well.

The main character in the novel is a woman named Emerson Giroux, single mother of a teenaged daughter. Emerson is still grieving the loss of her husband in an accident four years ago and despite the strength she draws from a loving community of family and friends, she hasn’t really moved forward in her life since then. The tall, dark and handsome stranger (except he’s not really a stranger) who moves to town piques her interest, but he turns out to come with some baggage of his own that may be impossible to carry for a woman who’s suffered the kind of loss Emerson has.

The real strength of Life & Death, and the thing that makes me happy it’s the first of a series, is the novel’s strong sense of place. The largely French-speaking area of Vermont snuggled right under the Canadian border is a place rich with traditional music (which plays a huge part in this novel), lively spoken Franglais, and small-town values. There’s  a rich tapestry of minor characters in this novel, enough that it’s easy to see how the author will have a wide range of possible stories to tell about the people in this small town. 

If I have one quibble with this novel it’s that a large part of the romantic plot turns on the tried-and-true “a misunderstanding keeps them apart” trope that could so easily be dispelled with a good, honest conversation. Now it’s true that far too often we avoid those honest conversations, but after you’ve read enough novels where this is a key plot element, it becomes hard to believe that so many people, so much of the time, avoid sharing simple, basic pieces of information with each other! However, this is a minor complaint (and one I have with nearly every novel where romance is a major part of the storyline, so obviously most readers don’t have a problem with it!).

Perrino-Walker is a Christian novelist, and there’s definitely an inspirational element to the book — as Emerson struggles to move on with her life after loss, a more devout friend shows her that going to church to play the organ isn’t enough — she needs to read the Bible and pray for herself so she can develop her own relationship with God. The novel is light and lively enough that it manages to resist being preachy, and Emerson’s spiritual journey feels like a natural part of her overall journey away from despair and into hope.

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Unseen Things Above, by Catherine Fox

unseenthingsaboveReally, all I need to say about Catherine Fox’s Unseen Things Above is that it picks up the story from her earlier book, Acts and Omissions, which was my completely unexpected favourite-book-of-the-summer, and that the sequel is just as good as the original. Once again we are in the fictional diocese of Lindchester, where an omniscient (and sometimes intrusive, but amusingly so) narrator gives us glimpses into the lives of the clergy and others who live and work around Lindchester Cathedral. Fox is quite consciously modelling this series about a Church of England diocese in the 21st century after Anthony Trollope’s 19th-century fictional Barchester novels, and my greatest hope is that with the upcoming next book, she does not conclude a trilogy but rather follows in Trollope’s footsteps and gives us at least half a dozen Lindchester novels. These rich, vividly realized characters and their inner and outer struggles inhabit a world I would happily revisit over and over again.

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The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho

thealchemistI’ve been hearing about this book for years and finally read it because a student of mine chose it for a independent study. While the book certainly has its charm, I think I was expecting something different. It’s a simple parable of a young shepherd boy who meets a mysterious stranger and sets off on a quest to find a treasure buried near the Egyptian pyramids — clearly intended as an allegory for each person’s search for his own destiny. I found two things off-putting: the recurring references to the shepherd boy’s, and everyone’s, Personal Legend. The capitalized phrase was too suggestive to me of one of those allegorical self-help books where everything is pretty explicitly laid out, and somehow I was expecting a bit more subtlety. Also, I found a troubling vein of sexism in the shepherd boy’s relationship with the beautiful desert maiden Fatima: the book pretty much states that while every man must pursue his Personal Legend, women just get to wait around for men to come back from the adventure.

So I’d have to say I wasn’t as impressed or moved by this book as many have been — while I do believe it’s a worthy message that you should follow your dreams (within reason!), I didn’t find anything strikingly new or enlightening here. It’s a charming little allegory, but I guess I’d been led to expect something more. People who’ve read and loved the book, tell me: am I missing something?

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