Waiting for the Last Bus (2018): Richard Holloway

★★★★

Reflections on Life and Death

Until two years ago, no one close to me had died; not since I’d been old enough to understand it. But 2016 came with chill winds and ruthlessness, and the last two years have seen the loss of five close family members. It hasn’t been easy. But it has had one useful outcome. I used to be afraid of death. It was a terrifying transmutation that I didn’t understand and didn’t want to acknowledge. But necessity has changed that and now, in the light of my family’s losses, I’ve had to accept it as an unavoidable part of human life. This all explains why I was drawn to this book, in which Richard Holloway – former Bishop of Edinburgh; thinker; compassionate critic; agnostic – uses his own old age as a spur to think about how we can live well and, when it comes to it, die well. Open-hearted and generous, studded with poetry and his memories of friends, it’s rather beautiful: inspiring and, oddly enough, rather upbeat.

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In the Shadow of the Ark (2001): Anne Provoost

★★★

When I saw this novel tucked away in a local charity shop, I pounced immediately. How could I resist a story about the Ark so soon after ferreting deep into the history of its legend? Originally published in Dutch in 2001 (the author is Flemish), it has been translated into English by John Nieuwenhuizen and takes us into a strange and foreign world of fishermen and nomads, boat-builders and prophets. And, at the heart of the tale, is the rumour of a great boat being built in the middle of a desert by a crazy old man, and the young woman who travels with her family to answer the call for workers.

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The Ark Before Noah (2013): Irving Finkel

★★★★

Decoding the Story of the Flood

Deep within the British Museum is the Arched Room, a soaring vaulted hall lined with shelves of cubbyholes. This is where the cuneiform tablets are kept and it feels rather like the Holy of Holies. I’ve only been once, but that single visit impressed me mightily: not just the architecture, but the hushed air of industry as scholars and students sat hunched over at the central line of desks, working away at deciphering these ancient fragments. Tablets might be business letters, court records or poetry. It’s an ongoing detective story and my brilliant Assyriologist colleagues never know what they’re going to turn up. In this book, the irrepressible Irving Finkel tells the story of the most exciting recent discovery, when a member of the public brought in a cuneiform tablet which offered fascinating new evidence about the story of the Ark and the Great Flood.

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The Book of Strange New Things (2014): Michel Faber

★★★★

Peter Leigh believes in miracles. He has escaped a past of alcoholism and addiction, and rebuilt his life with his beloved wife Bea at his side. As a pastor, he hopes to inspire others with the love of God that eventually gave him the strength to break out of his own spiral of destruction. And yet even he is amazed by the marvellous thing that has just happened to him. The vast corporation USIC has selected him, from the hundreds they interviewed, to travel out to the newly-settled world of Oasis, where he will minister to the indigenous population. It’s the greatest missionary opportunity since the days of the early Church. Peter can’t wait to get started. And yet there is one bitterly sad thing about his new adventure. He will have to leave his darling Bea behind.

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How Far to Bethlehem? (1964): Norah Lofts

★★★½

I discovered this book during a pre-Christmas exploration of the Book Barn, a few miles from where I live, and decided it was perfect for the festive season. The plan was to finish it last night, on Christmas Day, but what with the Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special, and the satiety brought on by too much Christmas pudding, I didn’t quite get round to it. It’s a thoughtful, rich rendition of the Nativity story, in which the familiar events of the bible are set within their historical context at the turn of the 1st century AD. Most intriguing is Lofts’s vision of the three wise men, who between them span the three known continents of the ancient world.

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The Liars’ Gospel (2012): Naomi Alderman

★★★★

As a writer, Naomi Alderman is a veritable chameleon. First I read The Lessons, a tale of a fall from grace among the dreaming spires, in the manner of a modern Brideshead. Then it was The Power, a Margaret-Atwoodesque novel that veered between dystopia and sci-fi: a feminist, egalitarian cry of rage. And now, the third of her novels that I’ve read, The Liars’ Gospel is a raw and rugged historical novel. Brave, too, because it dares to confront one of the world’s seminal figures: in life, a controversial and provocative young preacher in 1st-century AD Judea; and, in death, the begetter of a cult that would become one of the dominant religions of the world. But who exactly was this teacher?

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Esther (1950): Norah Lofts

★★★½

My enduring mission to hunt down fiction set in Achaemenid Persia brought me to this book: a retelling of the story of Esther by Norah Lofts, who impressed me with her King’s Pleasure. Expressly aimed at teenage readers, it’s a charming little book which conveys both Esther’s intelligence and the king’s humanity in a far more effective and engaging way than the painful film One Night with the King. It was so enjoyable, in fact, that I was willing to accept a fairly major historical swerve.

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The Secret Chord (2015): Geraldine Brooks

★★★½

The men of Yudah still tell stories of how their ancestors followed the prophet Moshe out of captivity in Mitzrayim to found new cities of their own. But their recent history has been less glorious. Troubled by Plishtim raiders from the Levantine coast, the people come to the prophet Shmuel begging him to anoint a king which, unwillingly, he does. The choice falls on Shauel, tall, handsome and charismatic, but Shauel and Shmuel soon diverge in their ambitions.

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The Testament of Mary: Colm Tóibín

★★★★

A woman sits in an empty house, waiting for the men who come to interrogate her. They claim to be protecting her, but she knows that they are also dangerous in their own way. They’re gripped by the urgency of an idea that needs corroboration: a story that in their own minds has taken on a different reality which they now intend to present to the world. But the woman resists. For the story that these men are trying to change is the story of her son; and the more she hears them speak, the more she realises that her own past, as she remembers it, is bearing less and less resemblance to what will become ‘fact’.

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