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Readers’ books of the year

30 November 2018

Keen readers told the Church Times about their favourites

Diarmaid MacCulloch

Oscar: A life by Matthew Sturgis (Head of Zeus, £25 (£22.50); 978-1-78854-597-6)

Sturgis stylishly memorialises Oscar Wilde, the Church of Ireland’s greatest gift to Roman Catholicism, as he feasts unsparingly with panthers and countless other exotica. This superb, original, and balanced study portrays a man whose anarchic genius never fades, whose excesses make one gasp, and whose kindness was as reckless as his expenditure and his love-life. It is too late to warn Oscar against the despicable Lord Alfred Douglas, let alone all the other panthers; be darkly entertained, nevertheless.

Oscar: A life is reviewed here.

The Revd Diarmaid MacCulloch is Professor of the History of the Church at the University of Oxford.



Isabelle Hamley

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris (Zaffre, £8.99 (£8.10); 978-1-78576-367-0)

This book took me by surprise with its sheer beauty and raw honesty. It traces the journey of a man caught in impossible choices, trying to do his best in the midst of radical evil, sometimes doing right, sometimes failing. It is a true human journey — neither heroic nor completely tragic. It is real, it is moving, and you cannot read without feeling awe at the resilience and determination of the human spirit, and relief at the presence of love even in the unlikeliest places.

The Revd Isabelle Hamley is Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury.


Paul Kerensa

Eye Can Write: A memoir of a child’s silent soul emerging by Jonathan Bryan (Lagom, £12.99 (£11.70); 978-1-911600-78-7)

On a panel at the Christian Resources Exhibition, I sat between million-selling Dr Gary Chapman (The Five Love Languages) and 12-year-old Jonathan Bryan (Feature, 13 April), who deserves to match that acclaim. Jonathan’s severe cerebral palsy means that movements are restricted to his eyes. That is how he communicates, and how he wrote this inspiring memoir, Eye Can Write. Your heart may break, but swiftly mend, stronger for it, through Jonathan’s resilience, poeticism, and passion for education. His “voice for the voiceless” makes my favourite book of recent years.

Paul Kerensa is a stand-up comic, comedy writer, and author. His latest book is What Are They Doing Down There? (BRF, 2018).


Jane Williams

Aftershocks by A. N. Wilson (Atlantic Books, £16.99 (£15.30); 978-1-78649-603-4)

Wilson’s novel is “about” death, life, and love, as most good novels are, since that is what readers are “about”, too. Here, a powerful earthquake literally and metaphorically shakes up the fictional island, rearranging buildings, landscapes, and lives, and forcing people to rebuild themselves and their relationships, with each other and with God.

The quirky narrative voice quickly becomes a friend: idiosyncratic, perceptive, funny, profound, searching for love and not willing to make do with substitutes. Does it end well? Read it and find out.

Aftershocks is reviewed here.

Jane Williams is Assistant Dean and Tutor in Theology at St Mellitus College.


Elizabeth Oldfield

Mere Civility: Disagreement and the limits of toleration by Teresa M. Bejan (Harvard University Press, £32.95 (£29.66); 978-0-6745-4549-6)

This scholarly but readable book by an up-and-coming political philosopher examines the part played by civility and disagreement today through the lens of 17th-century debates about toleration. Through bringing alive the deeply diverse, boisterous, and zealous colonies of early America, Bejan reminds us that disagreement on fundamentals is disagreeable, and also a fact of life that we must navigate. It is timely, challenging, and illuminating in this tribal and divided moment.

Elizabeth Oldfield is the director of Theos.


Rachel Mann

Mothers: An essay in love and cruelty by Jacqueline Rose (Faber & Faber, £12.99 (£11.70); 978-0-571-33143-7)

After an early career as one of Freud’s most brilliant critics, Jacqueline Rose has become a cultural critic manqué. Her latest study — of the complex cultural status of mothers — is among her most readable works. Tracing the status of the word “mother” in Greek, Christian, and European iconography, she examines how we too readily ask mothers to bear the world’s cruelties. Her meditation on adoption — she is an adoptive mother — is as moving as it is challenging. This is a book that may change the way you read the world.

Canon Rachel Mann is Rector of St Nicholas’s, Burnage, and Visiting Fellow of Manchester Metropolitan University.


Neil MacGregor

The Seabird’s Cry: The lives and loves of puffins, gannets and other ocean voyagers by Adam Nicolson (William Collins, £9.99 (£9); 978-0-008-16570-3)

As science advances, wonder increases. There has always been something miraculous about the sea-birds of the Atlantic: the screaming density of their nesting colonies, which make the busiest human city look serene, or the vast and lonely distances that adult birds cover to return to their breeding ground or to find food for their young. Thanks to close field research, and miniaturised global positioning systems (GPS) that can track ringed birds over thousands of miles, we now know more than ever before about these astonishing creatures. Nicolson presents the biographies — brutal and eccentric, adulterous and obsessive — of ten species, from the familiar gull to the ineffable albatross. It is as exhilarating and poignant a read as watching the birds in flight.

Neil MacGregor is the former director of the British Museum. His latest book, Living With the Gods, is reviewed here.



Eve Poole

Waiting for the Last Bus: Reflections on life and death by Richard Holloway (Canongate, £14.99 (£13.50); 978-1-78689-021-4)

Richard Holloway was my grandparents’ parish priest in Oxford. As a child in the 1980s, I remember being awestruck by his sermons, which seemed to me to be both terribly risqué and terribly human. His latest book is also both of these things. In it, he tackles death head on, in a genuinely consoling way. Clergy are experts on death, and Holloway’s pastoral pedigree shines through the pages of this book. Read it before you need it.

Dr Eve Poole is the Third Church Estates Commissioner.


Peter Stanford

Of Men and Angels by Michael Arditti (Arcadia, £16.99 (£15.30); (978-1-911350-26-2)

Michael Arditti’s piece of fiction is an ambitious work by an outstanding novelist. Five linked stories span the Jews in exile in Babylon to 1990s Los Angeles, and explore why religion and homophobia are so entangled.

Peter Stanford is a writer, journalist, and broadcaster.


Paula Gooder

The Gift by John M. G. Barclay (Eerdmans, £45.99 (£41.40); 978-0-8028-7532-7)

Every now and then, you come across a book and, as you read it, realise that it will change the way you view things for ever. This beautifully and carefully written book is, for me, one of those books. In it, Barclay unpacks how gifts were understood in the ancient world, and, therefore, why the apostle Paul talked so passionately about the Christ-event as gift. This book alters not only how we understand Paul’s theology, but also the concept of grace. It is well worth a read.

Dr Paula Gooder is a freelance New Testament lecturer and writer.


Chine McDonald

Brit(ish): On race, identity and belonging by Afua Hirsch (Jonathan Cape, £16.99 (£15.30); 978-1-911-21428-1)

In the past few years, there has been a reawakening of black culture and identity in the United States and the UK. Against this backdrop, the journalist Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish): On race, identity and belonging paints a compelling picture of what it is to be a black woman in Britain today. This book opened my eyes to things I didn’t know I didn’t know: around the construction of race in the UK, selective history, and the long and continued struggle of ethnic minorities in the UK. It is a life-shaping read.

Chine McDonald leads Media, PR, and Content at Christian Aid.

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