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review 2018-09-29 06:32
Brothers of the Wild North Sea (Audiobook)
Brothers of the Wild North Sea - Harper Fox,Hamish Long

I first read this in February 2014, and I've been meaning to reread it ever since. Thankfully, I never did or I might not have been tempted to get this on audiobook when it was released. And that would've been a shame since that would've meant missing out on Hamish Long's brilliant narration. He has a storybook quality to his voice, a Neil Gaiman-esque style of reading, that really fits perfectly with this story. I can't imagine anyone else doing this narration, and I really hope he gets tons more work because he deserves it. 

 

(He does make one teeny, tiny error though. He pronounces Samhain "sam-hane" instead of "sow-in" with "sow" sounding like "cow", which would be the correct pronunciation.)

 

I loved this book the first time I read it, and I was happy to see it held up over time. Brother Caius and viking Fenrir are such an unlikely duo, but they work here. The story is woven into a rich tapestry of historical detail, fantasy elements, religious dogma versus spiritual knowledge, and includes a cast of characters who are fully realized and each get their own little arcs. This takes place during a time in the Christian church when the church started pulling away from science in favor of zeal, and it's on the cusp of this change that Caius and Fenrir meet and form an unlikely bond.

 

Cai is angry about the death of his lover, and Fen slowly realizes that he's been abandoned by his people. Cai has every reason to hate Fen, and Fen was raised to be prejudiced against Christians. Cai is struggling to be a good monk and a good man, despite often feeling like he's neither. He just wants to live in peace, but life is determined not to give it to him. 

 

Seeing these two men slowly learn to trust each other, and watching Fen ingrate himself into monastery life was a treat to savor all over again. I'd forgotten a lot about the story over the years, but as I listened, things would come back and become familiar again. I completely forgot about the ending, and got to experience that as if for the first time. :D

 

This is just one of those stories that hits all the right spots and doesn't waver in the telling. 

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review 2018-09-29 05:55
Mark of Cain
Mark of Cain - Kate Sherwood

It was just bad luck that I ended up reading this at the same time I was listening to Brothers of the Wild North Sea. The two books, despite being different genres and different time periods, deal with the same themes: enemies to lovers, a man of the cloth struggling with his faith and church, a wild man learning a new way to live his life. One of these books is successful at exploring these complex themes, the other...not so much. 

 

Brothers of the Wild North Sea is like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Mark of Cain is like a finger painting by a three-year old. Brothers of the Wild North Sea is like eating freshly ripe strawberries dipped in cream on a breezy, mild summer day. Mark of Cain is like an ice cream sandwich that's been out of the freezer too long. You know it'll still taste the same, but the texture's all wrong and the sandwich part sticks to your fingers and it's just not as satisfying as it could've been.

 

But anyway, enough with the unfair comparisons! Let's talk about the Mark of Cain!

 

 

A man struggling with his faith and church - There were good bones here. I did find most of Mark's storyline here to be superficial at best, but I did like how it highlighted the struggle that many fundamental churches have when trying to move forward with the times. They can talk the talk, but they trip and stumble when they try to walk the walk. Unfortunately, much of the meat of this was pushed to the back burner because of the Twu Wuv taking center stage halfway through. *sigh*

 

I mostly liked Mark. Except when he was being an ass. He loves his church but slowly comes to realize how much of himself he's given up for it and that it doesn't love him back. This could have been really intense, but in the end there wasn't all that much depth to these sections and they're breezed over for the Tru Wuv.

 

 

An excon trying to make amends and be better - I really liked Lucas. His story here is sad. Yes, he killed a guy, but he spent his stint in prison doing what he could to become a better person, one who doesn't drink too much and doesn't get into pointless bar fights because he's bored with his life. He was only 19 when this stupid thing happened, and it'll haunt him the rest of his life. When he's released, he tries to hold onto what the therapist taught him, but his friends are determined to pull him back into his old ways. And his friends are, for the most part, caricatures with no real nuance of their own, the exception of Sean.

 

Between Mark and Lucas, his actions made the most sense throughout the book and I was most interested to see where his story would go. 

 

So what happens when these two "enemies" get together?

 

 

Well...not much. First, Lucas is placed in the half-way house that Mark supervises because his parole officer is terrible at his job - and despite Lucas's case being very high profile, to the point that random strangers know who Lucas is and what he did, none of the other ex-cons in this place have any clue about the connection between Mark and Lucas. Or maybe they do, but we just don't get to see it because we never actually meet any of the other guys in the house except when they're needed to play bit parts. But since even Lucas is unaware of this connection, I can only assume the other guys in the house don't know either. Yeah. Suuuure they don't.

 

Anyway, that ridiculous coinkydink aside, Mark's a jerk to Lucas, and he's completely unprofessional with his job. Like, on so many levels. And Lucas just takes everything that's thrown at him - from Mark and every other random person - because he knows he deserves it.

 

And then this thing happens with Alex, a teen boy that Mark is counseling at the church. Alex starts off as a character in his own right, and he's a mirror to Mark. Mark is constrained, careful. Alex is bold and upfront. And of course he's got the big crush on Lucas. But turns out his character is mostly just a bridge to Mark and Lucas burying the hatchet and forming a friendship of sorts, because Alex needed help and they're both willing to help him. Which is all great! I was ready to see where this went!

 

But then it kind of fizzles out. Alex fades into the background for awhile and Mark pretty much ignores him because of Tru Wuv. *sigh*

 

 

In the end, I needed a lot more time spent with these two as hesitant acquaintances/quasi-friends before they jumped into bed together. Years worth. Not just months, which are really more like a couple of weeks once they really start spending time together. The moment they started lusting is the moment this book became just another M/M Romance (™) and stopped being anything interesting. I just couldn't buy it. I was pretty much yelling (in my head) at Mark "Dude, he killed your brother, what are you doing?!" every other page. And I like Lucas! But seriously. He killed your brother. WHAT ARE YOU DOING!

 

Random stuff:

 

We meet Will in chapter two when he takes Mark to a bar to unwind after the news that Lucas got released on early parole. Will and Mark seem like good friends, so he should have shown up again at any point in this story to help out Mark or be a sounding board for him when his life was falling apart, but it's like Sherwood forgot this character even existed.

 

I thought we'd see a lot more of Mark's parents, since such a big deal was made over how upset they were about Lucas's release, but they're barely mentioned at all in the first half of the book, and we never even actually meet his dad. And his mom...okay, I'm going to keep this rant super short, but I really resent that Mark's mom was made to look like a villain at the end. This poor woman has lost everything, and to try to make her the mustache-twirling bad guy just felt disingenuous. Was that there to allow the reader to feel better about Mark being with Lucas? If so, that is beyond the pale. She has every right to be upset and want nothing to do with Lucas, and I frankly have to agree with her that Mark wasn't making wise decisions at this point.

 

There's also this weird subplot with Lucas's friend Sean towards the end that doesn't really go anywhere. Was this supposed to be a series at one point and she changed her mind? That's the only reason it makes sense to include all this stuff that really just takes time away from other things that should be getting more focus.

 

Anyway, there's good stuff here, good bones, but a lot of it felt haphazard and didn't go as in depth with the material as I wanted it to. This could have been glorious

 

 

but ended up just being kind of frumpy.

 

 

(Sorry, Chuck.) :D

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review 2018-09-11 11:16
Gorgeous and Flavourful
Akata Witch - Nnedi Okorafor

This one was fast fun and a different flavour on the usual tropes of it's genre. Big on representation, and an interesting peak into a rich and varied culture and myth set that I confess I know nothing about.

 

The kids feel a bit older than they are (might be a cultural thing), and this thing of putting the end of the world responsibilities onto the children's shoulders is one that constantly sticks in my craw now that I'm older, but I happen to know it was the bomb when I was a kid (Harry Potter, I'm looking at you) so the one star demoted might be an "unintended audience" thing.

 

Wondering what else I can get my hands on from the area, which this book's popularity might make easier, so kudos too for broadening horizons and opening markets.

 

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review 2018-09-10 17:15
Pagans / James J. O'Donnell
Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity - James J. O'Donnell

A provocative and contrarian religious history that charts the rise of Christianity from the point of view of "traditional" religion from the religious scholar and critically acclaimed author of Augustine.

Pagans explores the rise of Christianity from a surprising and unique viewpoint: that of the people who witnessed their ways of life destroyed by what seemed then a powerful religious cult. These “pagans” were actually pious Greeks, Romans, Syrians, and Gauls who observed the traditions of their ancestors. To these devout polytheists, Christians who worshipped only one deity were immoral atheists who believed that a splash of water on the deathbed could erase a lifetime of sin.

 

This was a great history of the late Roman/early Christian time period. It wasn’t quite what I thought I was getting, but it was still very interesting and written in an easy-to-read style. I thought I was going to get more about the pagan religions of the time. Instead, I learned that the whole idea of being pagan, as opposed to being Christian, was a creation of the Christians once they found themselves in the position to be able to form public opinion. As the author puts it, “Outside Christian imaginations, there was no such thing as paganism, only people doing what they were in the habit of doing.” Like those of us now who don’t really espouse a religion, but still celebrate Easter and Christmas.

The main points to know about the traditional, pre-Christian religions? ①Their gods weren’t perfect. ②The gods weren’t very nice. ③The gods didn’t care whether or not human beings did the right thing. ④The gods hadn’t created the world, either. ⑤They could help you, if you were nice to them.

The relationship between gods and humanity was much more businesslike in traditional religions. If you wanted something badly, you made a sacrifice to the god/goddess of your choice and if they liked your offering, you might get some divine help. But there were no guarantees.

If I have learned nothing else from reading this book, I realize now how completely current European and North American societies are shaped by Christianity. It is the underlying assumption of all our societal structures. Even atheism is completely shaped by its reaction against Christianity.


Also, Christianity has changed greatly since its early days, but some things never change. It’s still split into numerous denominations because its followers are prone to outrage at discovering that someone else dares to have a different opinion. That judginess and tendency towards schisms/excommunication started early and continues on to present day.

The author doesn’t talk about Neo-Pagans (except in one footnote), but the Modern Pagan movement, just by using the word ‘pagan,’ is defining itself in relation to Christianity. Christians created the concept of paganism after all. These Modern Pagans are much more self-conscious about their ‘faith’ than the original worshippers of Zeus or Thor were. (The whole concept of having faith in a god being a Christian innovation).

Amusingly, one of the ‘pagan’ concepts that has hung on is the title of “Pontiff” for the Pope. It was originally the title of the Roman official in charge of all religious occasions, regardless of deity, held in Rome under the Emperors.

The author has also written a book on St. Augustine which might also be an interesting read, although there’s a good summary about him in the last half of this book.

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review 2018-09-03 23:46
An extraordinary satire with a narrator for the centuries and quite a twist
Scorn - Paul Hoffman

I am writing this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (authors, if you’re looking for reviews, I recommend you check her amazing site here) and I thank her and the publisher for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

When I was first approached about reviewing this novel I was beyond intrigued. It sounded like something utterly unique and out there. I wasn’t sure it would suit my reading taste, but I knew I had to read it because it sounded like nothing I had read before. And although it took me a while to get to it, I am happy to report my first impression was right. This book is… extraordinary.

Yes, this book is extraordinary because it is out of the ordinary, pretty much so. If we try to define its genre, we’ll have many difficulties. Is it a thriller? There is a pretty special serial killer (those of us who regularly read thrillers know that they are becoming more and more bizarre and extreme, but this one is beyond the usual, even by modern standards) and a series of murders and desecrations connected by a several cryptic clues (yes, crosswords also come into it), but it has too many other elements that do not fit in well with this genre. There are mystery and police-procedural elements to a point, and a couple of interesting and quirky detectives (Scrope and Lister, both from the upper crust with outstanding education, interesting connections, and an armed forces background), and a female PC, Molly Coates (a heroine of the working classes, from the North of England and from as different a background as possible to the dynamic duo but as clever).

There is a paranormal/fantasy element (well, there is a wolf/shifter involved, and there are references to other creatures that might fit into a number of different categories), but the plot takes place in the world we live in (scarily so at times) or a close version of it with ‘interesting touches’ (some fictional, some are a matter of interpretation). There is a scientific explanation for some of the events (involving the Large Hadron Collider) that could put one in mind of science fiction novels, but this is not the main focus of the plot.

There are plenty of references to religion (which is one of the main themes of the book, in particular, the Roman Catholic Religion) but a word of warning, I think truly devoted and orthodox followers of the Catholic faith or even convinced Christians might feel offended by some of the content. There are also plenty of references and a focus on current and recent events (like the sexual abuse of children by members of the RC priesthood, there are also comments about politics, media, and political figures, some international but many centred in the UK, and we have close encounters with preeminent figures like Tony Blair, the Queen of England, the Pope…) but although the references are accurate and there are plenty of quotations from books, newspapers, media, and the internet, these are weaved into the story and it is not non-fiction or a factual account. As I mentioned already, there are plenty of details about everyday British life peppered through the book, and although in my opinion it is not necessary to be British or an expert on the UK to fully understand or enjoy the book, I think people with a good knowledge of UK politics, society, and current affairs will find much to enjoy (and think about) when they read this book. There is also romance, a story of opposites attract that goes beyond the conventional, but it is only a subplot (and not typical of the romantic genre).

Oh, and there are some illustrations (like ink etchings) of characters and events in the book, but I wouldn’t call it a comic, or a picture book (although they add greatly to the overall effect).

The book has also an extraordinary narrator that from very early on challenges the readers, promising some things (a great twist at the end, that, let me tell you now, he delivers), coaxing them, warning them, and never letting them become too complacent or ‘safe’. The narrator, whose identity readers will wonder about for much of the book, is opinionated, has strong points of view and is not, and never pretends to be, a neutral observer. He is witty, well-informed, dismissive at times, rude and pushy, but never ever boring. Scorn, the title of the book, is the mode of much of his narration, and I loved his voice from the beginning, but if you don’t, you will have difficulties with the book. I always recommend readers to check a sample of the book before buying, and this is one of those cases when I feel that is a must. Although some of the narration, mostly to do with the investigation and the main characters (I am trying not to reveal too many details of the plot, but let’s say, things are not what they seem, as most readers will suspect from the beginning) is written in the third person, much of what makes the book special and gives it its structure and its distinctiveness is the narrator.

Do not get me wrong, though, there are plenty of other characters, like the investigators I have mentioned, whom we get to know quite well and whose personalities and adventures would provide sufficient material for gripping, if more conventional, novels in their own right. There is also Aaron Gall, the character at the centre of the plot, who is both the anti-hero and victim, and also acts as a catalyst for the action in the book. We get to know him, and the rest of the characters, quite well, and he is also a stand-in for the many people who have survived abuse (more or less extreme) at the hands of those who were supposed to be looking after their education and spiritual well-being. If I had to choose, my favourite would be Molly, perhaps because I have more in common with her than with the rest of the characters, and Lou, the therapist, but they are all interesting and likeable. Here I am referring to the main characters. Some of the other characters, many of whom we only get temporary glimpses of (including the victims) are not necessarily likeable, but they are far from caricatures or cut-out types, and we do get insights into their thoughts and motivations that make them, if not sympathetic, at least real and human. And, that includes the guest appearances by true historical figures.

I have tried very hard not to give away much of the plot, although I hope my mention of some of the themes would suffice to get prospective readers interested. I found it a compelling read, both due to the main storyline, and also to the detours, the narrator comments, and the fanciful asides. But this is not a book that zeroes on the action and dismisses anything that is not relevant to the plot (in that way it is perhaps more of a literary fiction novel, but not quite either). This is a long book that meanders on and off through tangents, which eventually we realise are relevant to the overall book but not always to the thriller part of it, so if you’re an impatient reader looking for a light and thrilling read or a who-done-it, this might not be for you. The style of writing is breath-taking, a tour-de-force, with detailed but clear explanations of scientific points, collections of facts and events that make for gripping reading, psychologically astute descriptions of characters and their motivations, philosophical and moral commentaries that will make readers think, and I highlighted so much of the book that I found it almost impossible to choose some fragments to share, but I will try (avoiding major plot points as well):

But that’s the thing about human beings. It’s not laughter or the ability to stand upright that distinguishes man from the animals, it’s the capacity for incompetence. When any other creature makes a mistake, it gets eaten.

It was a truth universally acknowledged in the police force that the middle classes were generally terrified of the police and would shop their grannies without a moment’s hesitation once a cop asked them a question.

Ever had a sudden moment of realisation, an epiphany of the truth that marked out a momentous line in the sands of self-knowledge between everything you thought was the case about the kind of creature you were and everything that was really true? Neither have I.

I have already warned readers about the religious aspects of the book that might not sit well with many readers (no, this is not a Christian book in the usual sense, probably a book that in certain circles and in eras past would have been called a ‘wicked’ book), and there is also violence and some sex scenes (the violence is far more graphic than the sex, in fact it is so extreme that the effect is somewhat cartoonish, but I am not squeamish, so don’t take my word for it). It also deals on a serious and difficult subject, and although it does so in a peculiar way, it does not shy away from the most horrific aspects of it. Having said all that, this is a book I thoroughly recommend. It is not a book for everybody, as you’ll have surmised if you’ve read the rest of the lengthy review (sorry. I got more carried away than usual), but if you like to challenge yourself, you love outlandish thrillers, cryptic crossword clues, unique scornful narrators, satire, and are looking for a new author to follow, do yourself a favour and check it out. It’s a ride on the wild side.

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