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review 2015-09-11 19:18
An intelligent and engrossing novel
The Fifth Gospel: A Novel - Ian Caldwell

Father Alex Andreou is a Greek Catholic priest, which means that he is a subject of the Roman Catholic pope, but otherwise follows the traditions of the Greek Orthodox Church.  As a Greek Catholic priest, he was allowed to enter the priesthood as a married man.


The priesthood is Alex’s family business and the Vatican is his world.  His father was the seventh in a generational line of Greek Catholic priests. Alex lives in his childhood apartment in Vatican City, along with his five-year-old son, Peter.  Alex’s wife, Mona, suffered a breakdown from postpartum depression not long after Peter’s birth and left her family.


Alex’s adored older brother, Simon, is a charismatic Roman Catholic priest who is a Vatican diplomat.  Like his father and then Pope John Paul, his passionate ambition is to heal the centuries-long schism between the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches.  At the time this novel is set, the Pope is crippled with Parkinson’s disease and nearing his death, but still absorbed with this goal of rejoining the sects.


Alex and Peter are in their apartment, eagerly awaiting a visit from Simon when he calls, evidently distraught, and asks for Alex to meet him at Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer retreat, where Alex is shocked to find Simon with the corpse of Ugo Nogara, a museum curator. 


Ugo is an old friend of Simon’s whom Alex was tutoring in Gospel theology to help Ugo with an exhibit at the Vatican about the Shroud of Turin.  Years earlier, the Shroud had been claimed by scientists to be carbon-dated as being from medieval times and could not have been the burial shroud of Jesus.  Ugo promises his exhibit will shatter what the world thought it knew about the Shroud.  As if the murder isn’t enough of a shock, Alex and Simon return to Alex’s apartment to find that someone has come into the apartment and rifled Alex’s belongings, while Peter and his caretaker cowered in the bedroom closet.


With Simon reluctant to fill Alex in on what might have been behind these two crimes, Alex begins his own investigation, calling on the many old friends and acquaintances who work at the Vatican as Swiss Guards, drivers and clerics.  But the real solution may be the subject of Nogara’s exhibit and, for that, Alex’s expertise in the history of the Gospels is critical.


You wouldn’t think that a mystery that revolves around the intricacies of Gospel history and critical interpretation could make for a decent thriller plot, but it’s surprisingly compelling stuff.  Caldwell has that gift of taking a subject you might not have any interest in and making it fascinating.  It doesn’t hurt that he adds in lashings of intrigue, with different groups within the Vatican favoring or implacably opposing any reconciliation with the Greek Orthodox Church––a reconciliation that would have to overcome centuries of hatred and mistrust, due in large part to the violence and plundering visited by Catholic Crusaders on the Greek Orthodox Church in Constantinople.


If you’re looking for an action-heavy thriller, this isn’t it.  The plot plays out deliberately and works more cerebrally than physically.  This isn’t just a thriller, though.  Unlike so many thrillers, the focus is at least as much on the characters, and on history and ideas.  And, without a bit of romance, this is a novel that is overwhelmingly about love.  Love of family, of God, of friends.  The kind of love that changes lives and leads to bonds that can’t be broken and to sacrifice.


The novel is a bit of a slow starter, but as I read on it became completely engrossing.  I think it’s important to say you don’t have to be a believer to find the story and its characters compelling.  I’ve heard some people mention The DaVinci Code in connection with this book, but this is nothing like The DaVinci Code––and that’s a good thing, in my opinion.


A note about the audiobook:  The narrator is Jack Davenport.  If you watched the NBC series Smash, he played the libidinous English director.  He has a voice like Irish Coffee and, to be honest, he could read me an insurance contract and I’d keep listening.

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review 2015-04-12 00:00
The Fifth Gospel: A Novel
The Fifth Gospel: A Novel - Ian Caldwell From the “Historical Note” at the beginning of the book …

“Two Thousand Years ago, a pair of brothers set out from the Holy Land to spread the Christian gospel. Saint Peter traveled to Rome, becoming the symbolic founder of Western Christianity. His brother, Saint Andrew, traveled to Greece, becoming a symbolic founder of Eastern Christianity. For centuries, the church they helped create remained a single institution. But one thousand years ago, west and east divided. Western Christians became Catholics, led by the successor of Saint Peter, the pope. Eastern Christians became Orthodox, led by the successors of Saint Andrew and other apostles, known a patriarchs. Today these are the largest Christian denominations on earth. Between them exists a small group known as Eastern Catholics, who confound all distinctions by following Eastern tradition while obeying the pope.
This novel is set in 2004, when the dying wish of Pope John Paul II was to reunite Catholicism and Orthodoxy. It is the story of two brothers, both Catholic priests, one Western and one Eastern.”

Father Alex Andreou is a Greek Catholic priest teaching gospel studies to students inside the Vatican, where he lives with his son (Greek priests are allowed to be married if they do so before taking their vows). His brother Simon is a Roman Catholic priest working for the Vatican’s Secretariat of State. Both are acquainted with a man by the name of Ugolino Nogara who is currently curator of the newest Vatican Museum installation … an exhibit that both brothers are excited about and fear in equal measures. Nogara has found information that will refute the carbon testing conclusions ruling the Shroud of Turin fake, conclusions that greatly impacted the lives of the two priests when they were boys. One night Alex receives an urgent call from his brother asking for help. When he arrives at his brother’s location he finds that Ugo Nogara has been murdered and, impossible as it sounds, Simon may have had something to do with it. A break and enter into Alex’s apartment which terrorizes his son seems, strangely, to be related. When Alex attempts to get answers about what is going on he is stonewalled – the Pope’s office is unusually interested in the case, the Swiss guard is sworn to secrecy and the Vatican Police are less than forth coming with any information about the break in or the murder. With his son possibly in danger and his brother under house arrest Alex begins his own investigation.

This is the point where the book grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. I had been reading bits and pieces of the book here and there when I had time, but when Mr. Caldwell got to the nitty-gritty of exploring the history of the gospels and of the shroud interweaving it expertly with what was going on in the lives of the characters he got my full attention. I finished the last two thirds of the book on Sunday afternoon. Admittedly, I do have a soft spot for conspiracy theories.

In his author’s acknowledgments Mr. Caldwell gives thanks to all the “generous assistance” he received from all kinds of Catholic scholars and theologians, both Eastern and Western, so I am working on the assumption that what he writes about the gospels has a reasonable foundation in truth. That part of the book was fascinating to me. He explores the history of the bible and the evolution of the Catholic Church in it’s shining moments as well as some of its less pride-worthy actions. However, the appeal of the book did not end there. This book is also about the struggle of a family trying to put their family first while living the confines of a country (The Vatican) where there is only one “Papa” and religion dominates every aspect of life.

This is the type of book that makes me wish I belonged to some sort of book club because there are so many other themes and so much imagery that could be discussed but I am refraining because this is a book review.

(Okay sorry - but I have to go there)

Since its publication The DaVinci Code seems to be the standard to which all other books of this type are compared. Yes, I loved it too. I feel The Fifth Gospel holds it’s own and in some respects surpasses Dan Brown’s blockbuster. If you pick up this book looking for another Robert Langdon – be warned – you won’t find him in these pages. You will find a very readable, sometimes complicated and always intriguing story. I feel Mr. Caldwell considered any personal beliefs readers might have and treated the topic respectfully throughout the book but it is a book that just might make you think twice about what you know about Catholicism and organized religion in general. Just as Mr. Brown’s book had me grabbing for some art books and looking up famous works of art this book had me grabbing a bible off my bookshelf to check on Mr. Caldwell.

* Personal note *
Being familiar with the various Saints and traditions involved in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy the following quote made me laugh out loud. Father Andreou sharing his 5-year-old son’s opinion on how to decide which is the appropriate Saint for a particular prayer.

“He told me once that praying is like being a soccer coach and calling saints off the bench.”
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review 2015-02-18 00:00
The Fifth Gospel: A Novel
The Fifth Gospel: A Novel - Ian Caldwell Eh.

So not my sort of book...
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review 2014-12-21 00:00
The Fifth Gospel: A Novel
The Fifth Gospel: A Novel - Ian Caldwell You can find this, and other reviews, on my blog. I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I’m a sucker for anything that smacks of “history” and “crime”, and this one has plenty of both.

When the Vatican police are unable to find the person who broke into Father Alex’s house, or who murdered his friend, he decides to do a little investigating of his own, and falls headlong into a centuries old mystery relating to the fifth gospel, known as the Diatessaron.

I enjoyed this book a lot more once the initial set up was over with. Once it got into the meat of the story - following the history of the Diatessaron and the Shroud of Turin, it became much more interesting. My knowledge of church history is shaky at best, so I really couldn’t say how much is rooted in history and how much was created by the story, but I don’t think it really matters. Enough history is included for the story to make sense, making it accessible for everyone regardless of their background.

Despite all the different plots in the story - the murder and break in, the Diatessaron, marriage break down, brotherly love - there’s nothing overwhelming or difficult to follow. It’s simply a well paced, well written, churchy mystery. For those that want to compare it to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code: go wash your mouth out! Brown doesn’t come close to Ian Caldwell in any way, shape or form.
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review 2014-07-28 19:12
Review: The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason
The Rule of Four - Ian Caldwell,Dustin Thomason

This is gonna be easy: Bollocks.

Long-winded, convoluted, meandering, unnecessary, “me-too” bollocks at that. 

I can only surmise that the people quoted at length on the back cover, who really ought to know better, have been blinded by the dazzling array of ancient scholars poets and painters mentioned inside. As usual, they seem to be describing a book they may well have read, but that, with the best will in the world, isn’t this one. It certainly isn’t “one part The Da Vinci Code’, one part ’The Name of the Rose.” That’s up the top on the back there to say "you've heard of Da Vinci Code', but are too intellectual to read it? Well it's ok to read this, cause we've put The Name of the Rose' at the top as well!” !t isn’t. It wants to be, but isn’t in the same ball-park, however your opinion of the two other books is.

It is a very dull book about another very dull book. A 'real' book it seems, with a very nearly unpronounceable title. One I can’t be bothered going all the way over there to find. One that some Princeton students have decided they can decipher. Not that I could find any reference to anyone ever deciding it actually needed deciphering. Maybe I didn’t look hard enough. It’s perfectly possible. But what’s Wikipedia for, if not to save you the trouble of deciding if anyone has ever felt it needed deciphering and wasn’t actually just a load of dull old crepe?

Can I be bothered reciting the plot? Well, if there is one, it tries to maybe be about obsession. But I really got beyond caring. It really doesn't connect. Tries to, obsessively, but misses. The obsession caused by at least two of them going them very nearly going doo-lally trying to decipher the book, sliding around Princeton in the snow, missing deadlines, fumbling relationships, setting fire to the college library and all that student-type jazz. As with all American novels, of what ever genre, involving four students, each is a unique, borderline genius in his own way (of course). Though (of course) with troubled backgrounds. But they’re, navel-staring, indecisive characters that really aren’t all that interesting, no matter how many scarves they wear.

(And why can’t there be a normal, struggling through, only ever understanding their college years, years later, average intelligence, bloke, in any of these things? US authors always seem to think it’s more convincing if they have characters who are absolutely, exceptionally, brilliantly talented at something - or many things - and then try to suggest they are also ordinary, because they stay up all night researching, wear tatty clothes and forget to eat for days. I wore tatty clothes because I hadn’t two brass farthings (Hey, I remember Farthings!) to rub together. Mainly because I’d spent the rest on BEER, but that’s another story).

Back to the name of the book inside the book. What a mistake that was! There can’t be anyone who has read the ‘Da Vinci Code’ bit on the back and then ‘The Rule of Four’ who hasn’t tried to pronounce the ancient book’s title a couple of times, given up, then skipped over every mention thereafter. It means you at no time connect with their obsession. You should be able to understand their obsession, by connecting with it. But if you glaze over at the mention of the book’s name, how can you come past that to connect with their problems? Can’t be done. Nope.

In its early stages, it doesn’t know what it wants to be. Where it wants to go. Actually, I NEVER felt it came to a proper decision there. A quest to decipher a code becomes an in-depth look at rich kids’ student life at Princeton. Clearly, their editor nudged one of them and points to the supposed premise of the story and yells “get on with it!” No surprise it’s written by two of them. One must have gone on holiday at points during the writing, then couldn’t be bothered reading what the other had written when he got back and just carried on with his section where the other left off. And no, the Princeton stuff isn’t good background setting, it’s padding. It’s there to say to US readers: "Hey! We’ve got somewhere equally as snooty as Oxford and Cambridge!” That’s all. Then, towards the end, realising one of them has written too much about staying up late at Princeton, the other decides to finish it (and you) off with page after page (after page) of explanation of what the unpronounceable book supposedly leads to. And where. Always a bad sign, as I’ve noted elsewhere. Shows they haven't done their job well enough earlier on. And it does go on and on. A couple of pages would have been more than enough. Once it’s clear what it is the book leads to, whilst hiding it from ‘the unworthy’, I’ve lost interest. As, I suspect, the ending shows the authors had too.

A waste of time. Mostly mine. At least they got paid for it.

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