Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Revolt by Douglas Bond

P&R Publishing, June 13th 2016, 197 Pages
Print and Ebook 
In his short career as a battle secretary, Hugh West’all has come close to death many times. But when he leaves the war behind to enter the hallowed halls of Oxford, he meets John of Wycliffe and soon embarks on a mission even more exciting—and perhaps just as dangerous.

Using his scribe’s quill to translate the Bible into English, the language of the common people, Hugh begins to understand the beauty of the gospel as never before. But he and his friends are up against the corrupt monolith of the medieval church, and it will stop at nothing to crush Wycliffe’s work.


 It's an unfortunate fact that there is not a single novel about Wycliffe in the Christian Fiction genre written by a British author (unless you count G.A.Henty). It's high time that there was one because this novel was in some sense, everything I feared it would be (but hoped it would not). I fear that Americans are, sometimes, inclined to interpret every event in European history through the lens of American History.
I understand, it's natural, but it's also fraught with problems. Distinct comparisons to the American Revolutionary War. Readers might say 'what's wrong with that, it’s about the Peasant's Revolt?'. The problem is that Peasant's Revolt was not like that. Many of the people involved in it were not, in fact, peasants, or at least not villeins. Certainly not the poorest of the poor, but those of some wealth who had something to lose from taxation. Nor were they anti-monarchist republicans. They professed loyalty to the King.

That’s my main problem, it’s that fundamental misunderstanding of late Medieval English history and society that underpins books like this. Admittedly, many of the details about Wycliffe and his fictional clerk, Hugh Westall interesting, but it would have been better if this story was just about him and Wycliffe. A lot of the content involving the peasant protagonist Willard was, I felt, largely unnecessary.
As another reviewer mentioned, much of this book is just about Will and his family being subjected to 'social injustice' of various kinds, so that he became a cardboard cut-out. Always angry, always the victim, only exists to create conflict or make a point.

There were also various historical errors or inaccuracies in the story. Probably the worst one was when Oxford was described as a ‘village’. Oxford is not a village, it is a city, it has been since the 12th century. Medieval English people did not eat or grow corn (what Americans would call maize) because it had not been introduced to Europe yet, and pottage was not always made from peas. It could be made from anything, the word just referred to any dish made in a single pot. The reference towards the beginning about Willard and his family eating disgusting mush several days old from is taken from a children’s rhyme ‘Pease pottage hot, pease pottage cold, pease pottage in the pot, nine days old’.

I doubt it. No sensible peasant woman cooked so much pottage that it would last nine days. It would mean she taken more than her fair share of fresh ingredients, and was wasting them. I suspect the detail was added just to show how horrible and unfair the lives of peasants were. As was the mention of peasants being forbidden from bearing arms, which made no sense at all, as there was a law that young boys had to train with a longbow every weekend.

Towards the end of the story, I felt the violence of the Peasant’s Revolt is underplayed, and the supposed ‘justice’ of the cause overstated. No mention was made of the killings or the fact that after the ‘heroic’ peasant mob stormed the Tower of London (which peasants were not locked up in), they dragged the Archbishop of Canterbury Simon Sudbury, out into the street and hacked his head off, and he was only one of many who were killed. Most of the figures of the established church are vilified as evil and corrupt (because there had to be bad guys), especially friars, who apparently loved nothing more than to go around raping women. All very stereotypical.

By all means, authors should write about Wycliffe and his furthering the Gospel, but I think they need to be more faithful to the historical facts and more careful about the moral lessons they seek to convey. One of the potentially worrying messages in this was that violent political insurrection could be ‘in the will of God’, and consistent with the Gospel- provided of course that it was against perceived ‘oppressors’.

I requested a PDF of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review and all opinions expressed are my own.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

High as the Heavens by Kate Breslin: New Release

Bethany House, June 6th 2017, 400 Pages
Print, ebook and audio

In 1917, Evelyn Marche is just one of many women who has been widowed by the war. A British nurse trapped in German-occupied Brussels, she spends her days working at a hospital and her nights as a waitress in her aunt and uncle's café. Eve also has a carefully guarded secret keeping her in constant danger: She's a spy working for a Belgian resistance group in league with the British Secret Service.

When a British plane crashes in Brussels Park, Eve is the first to reach the downed plane and is shocked to discover she recognizes the badly injured pilot. British RFC Captain Simon Forrester is now a prisoner of war, and Eve knows he could be shot as a spy at any time. She risks her own life to hide him from the Germans, but as the danger mounts and the secrets between them grow, their chance of survival looks grim. And even if they do make it out alive, the truth of what lies between them may be more than any love can overcome

I read Kate Breslin’s last book set during the First World War Not by Sight, and though it was good on some level I just wasn’t keen on it. I think this latest one was a considerable improvement, with stronger characters and just a better plot. The other one was about spying, and this one about espionage and an Underground resistance movement, but it was just more credible and not so predictable. I didn’t guess who the double agent was at all, which is always a good thing.

It was also great that this was a non-traditional Romance, with flawed but sympathetic characters who had a genuine connection and motive behind their actions. I also liked the way this novel ‘wore’ the historical details well. They didn’t overtake the story on the one side or seem contrived on the other. Rather, it evoked the period and world in which the characters were operating, a harsh and war-torn one which changed people forever. The world in which they had to bend the normal rules to survive. In that context, it would be easy to vilify all Germans, but I appreciated the more nuanced depiction of some of them

My only complaints were that towards the Middle it did drag a bit, and some parts became a little repetitive, with Eve constantly going over something that had happened to her before and its impact. I don’t feel the reader needs to be constantly reminded of event manner mentioned above, they’ll usually get it quite quickly. The characterization and climax were strong enough to make up for that, however. Except for one part, which although typical in Christian Fiction might come over as a little corny and contrived to those who are not used to the genre.
Also, there were the inevitable Americanisms used by the supposedly Belgian and British characters ‘closet’ (Brits would say cupboard), ‘apartment’ instead of flat, ‘fall’ instead of Autumn, and Eve talking about what she wanted to do after ‘College’, which is what Brits call University. This did make some passages rather jarring, and one towards the beginning annoyingly vague, where the characters referred to ‘Oxford High School’ and Eve training as a nurse at ‘The London Hospital. Yeah, which London Hospital? I mean, there are quite a lot of Hospitals in London, and there are a lot of girl’s schools in Oxford. The names were so obviously made up, which was a shame when other such details were much more precise. I don’t feel there were as many Americanisms as there were in the author’s last book, and the attention to detail was greater, but there was still some room for improvement.

Overall though, this was a wonderful book, full of excitement, action, and high emotion (it even jerked a tear from me a couple of times) but interwoven with a satisfying message about finding grace and peace.

I requested an e-book edition of this title for review and purchased the audiobook of my own volition. I was not required to write a positive review, and all opinions expressed are my own.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Hardest Thing to Do by Penelope Wilcock

The Hawk and the Dove Series #4 
Lion Fiction, Sept 27th 2015, 256 Pages 
(First Published 2011, Crossway Books) 

The first of three sequels to the celebrated The Hawk and the Dove trilogy takes place one year after the end of the third book, in the early fourteenth century. A peaceful monastery is enjoying its new abbot, who is taking the place of Father Peregrine, when an old enemy arrives seeking refuge. Reluctantly taking in Prior William, the upended community must address old fears and bitterness while warily seeking reconciliation. But can they really trust Prior William?

In her fourth book in the series, Penelope Wilcock wrestles with the difficulties of forgiveness and the cautions of building trust. Taking the form of journal entries, her story will delight the imaginations of readers captivated by a time and place far distant from our current world. Her timeless themes, however, will challenge our prejudices today as we, along with her characters, are forced to ask ourselves, “What is the hardest thing to do?”

It's been over two years since I finished the original Hawk and Dove Trilogy, three short books set in and around a Monastery in 14th century Yorkshire, exploring the lives of its inhabitants, and the spiritual resonances of their choices, actions, and behaviour. This picks up a couple of years after the Trilogy ended, with the death of the much loved Abbot Columba. A new Abbot had been appointed, formerly one of the brothers of the Abbey named John, who had to trek halfway across England to St Alcuin's from Cambridge.

The brothers were going about their lives, preparing for his arrival when they hear the news that a nearby Augustinian Monastery (an order based largely in England named after Augustine of Canterbury) has been burned to the ground, and all its members reportedly killed. The Abbot was William de Bulmer, a man noted for his arrogance and an almost pharisaical obsession with order and rules. Those who had read the former series may remember that the second book involved a confrontation between the two men, in which William showed contempt for the disabled Abbot Columba. It is a slight that many of the brothers of St Alcuin's had not forgotten or forgiven.
So when William de Bulmer arrives on their doorstep, shortly after their new Abbot, tensions are running high.

This is the central conflict of the story and the reason for the title 'The Hardest Thing to Do'- reaching out and accepting a man deservedly despised and hated. However, it also applies to the resentment, hardships and inner demons which all the monks have to is wrestling with. Could Brother Thomas, the close friend, and confidante of Abbot Columba overcome his hatred and bitterness to accept a man in need, instead of stirring up dissent amongst his brothers?
What of William be Bulmer himself? Would his presence bring indelible divisions to St Alcuin's, and what made him so closed to love and compassion for his fellow men. Could he overcome his pride and arrogance to embrace the refuge he so urgently needed?

I did not agree with everything in the book or all the interpretations of scripture that were presented, but this book proved to be a moving and thought- provoking study of moral and spiritual matters, in which many of the characters were forced to examine themselves and change their own lives. Through ordinary men and women, they are relatable to our own lives.
This book and the series it is part of have been described as a modern-day parable, which won't be according to everyone's taste, but I rather liked this method and style. The author has also provided a useful Glossary and chart of the canonical Hours which were observed in Medieval Monasteries.

I don't think everything in it was Historically accurate, a lot of the language was too modern, but the details about life in a Monastery, and how each of the brothers had a role and purpose were well written. I understand the next one deals with some very hard and controversial issues, but I do look forward to reading the next few books.

I requested a copy of this book from the Publisher, Lion Fiction. I was not required to write a positive review, and I did not receive any financial compensation. All opinions expressed are my own.
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