Rosemary Sutcliff

I am enjoying reading The Eagle of the Ninth by  Rosemary Sutcliff. It was a gift from my dear friend Paul Hinderlie who has been reading history of every kind forever. Although written for older children, these wonderful stories of Roman Britain work for readers of all ages.

The Eagle of the Ninth tells the tale of an injured Roman and his now-freed Briton slave as they go in search of the Eagle emblem of the Ninth Legion that mysteriously disappeared into the north of England, into the realm of Caledonia. It is really fun to read through the geography outlined, especially as they enter the north side of Hadrian’s Wall at what is now Corbridge. We were just there last summer, and it adds to the drama and depth of this wonderful novel to have the scenes of the place in my mind’s eye.

The book was purchased through the inestimable Slightly Foxed. They resurrect and publish these treasures of old so we can enjoy and relish these amazing tales. The Eagle of the Ninth is the first of four. The second is The Silver Branch, then Frontier Wolf, and The Lantern Bearers. I’m looking forward to them all. You can check them out at

Here are pictures of Hadrian’s Wall from our visit there in August:

Rosemary Sutcliff, The Eagle of the Ninth

Bill Bryson: Notes from a Small Island and The Road to Little Dribbling

I’ve seen a few requests on Facebook for funny books. One of the funniest authors I know is Bill Bryson. An American from the Midwest, he has lived in England since 1977, with a brief sojourn back to the US in the early 2000’s. He is most noted for his very accessible books about science and the natural world, but it is his books about England that I find hugely entertaining.

When I first read Notes from a Small Island, the beginning was so funny I had to set the book down and do something else for a while before I could get myself together in order to read it. He is a really good writer, and his observations of his adopted country are, as the English would say, spot on.

A couple decades after he wrote Notes, he followed it up with a sequel: The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning, when he reflects on first arriving in England in his 20’s:

In a pub I asked what kind of sandwiches they had. ‘Ham and cheese,’ the man said. ‘Oh, yes please,’ I said. ‘Yes please what?’ he said. ‘Yes please, ham and cheese,’ I said, but with less confidence. ‘No, it’s ham or cheese,’ he explained. ‘You don’t do them both together?’ ‘No.’ ‘Oh,’ I said, surprised, then leaned towards him and in a low, confidential tone said: ‘Why not? Too flavourful?’ He stared at me. ‘I’ll have cheese then, please,’ I said contritely. When the sandwich came, the cheese was extravagantly shredded – I had never seen a dairy product distressed before serving – and accompanied by what I now know was Branston pickle, but what looked to me then like what you find when you stick your hand into a clogged sump. I nibbled it tentatively and was pleased to discover that it was delicious. Gradually it dawned on me that I had found a country that was wholly strange to me and yet somehow marvellous. It is a feeling that has never left me.

-Bill Bryson, The Road to Little Dribbling, Doubleday (Great Britain), 2015, pp. 19-20.

(His sandwich story reminds of me a 1972 experience in a bakery in London re: a Mandarin Torte.)

So if you want a good laugh and some wonderful insights about England, do check these out!





Julia Spencer-Fleming

The other novel digitally delivered on April 7 was the new book from Julia Spencer-Fleming. For years I’ve kept a list of novels about pastors. The novel always provides new perspectives about all of life, and I’ve found it entertaining and interesting to read about clergy of all varieties. Being one myself adds its own dimension to my reading enjoyment.

Spencer-Fleming’s novels are about a fairly new Episcopal priest named Clare Fergusson and her relationship not only with her parishioners in Upstate New York but also with the local chief of police, Russ Van Alstyne. The town has the ominous name of Millers Kill, and the two of them find plenty of murder to explore. Being a priest is a second career for Clare, her first being an army helicopter pilot.

I like these books a lot, and Spencer-Fleming’s own participation in the Episcopal church gives her a good view on the work of the priest. I think of all clergy everywhere in these days of COVID-19 and the new dimensions and patterns they’ve had to devise to work through this sad and uncertain time. But, like Clare, I trust them to be wise in their judgments, articulate in their speech, and grounded in their faith. I know I see that in my own pastors and colleagues. Reading these novels can help us all get a better handle on the work of the priest.

Most of her titles are lines from hymn. The latest, Hid from Our Eyes comes from the first line of Walter Chalmers Smith’s great hymn, Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise: “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.”

Here are the Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne novels in order:

  1. In the Bleak Midwinter 2002
  2. A Fountain Filled with Blood 2003
  3. Out of the Deep I Cry 2004
  4. To Darkness and to Death 2005
  5. All Mortal Flesh 2006
  6. I Shall Not Want 2008
  7. Letters to a Soldier 2011 (short novella)
  8. One Was a Soldier 2011
  9. Through the Evil Days 2013
  10. Hid From Our Eyes 2020

Susan Hill Simon Serrailler Novels

A couple weeks ago I wrote about being excited by the delivery of two novels (pre-ordered digitally) from two series I really like. One was the latest in Susan Hill’s series about police detective Simon Serrailler. Hill is a well-known and respected writer, most noted for her ghost story The Woman in Black. It is required reading for students in English schools, and the dramatic version has been on in the West End for a very long time.

Her Simon Serrailler books are excellent crime novels that include the fascinating and interesting dynamics of his family of origin. They keep you engaged on both levels, and I have enjoyed each iteration.

Until now. I was very disappointed in Benefits of Hindsight. I did not think it held together well, and it included one story in the plot that did not seem to fit at all. Although we learned more about Simon’s family and about his return to police work after a serious injury which included the amputation of his left arm, nothing seemed to work very well or make sense.

I would recommend the entire series – nothing is perfect, and it seems Susan Hill missed the boat this time. But do check these out – in order, please – and enjoy this excellent foray into contemporary English crime fiction and modern family turmoil.

Here are the books in order, followed by a photo of my own collection, minus the ebooks!

The Various Haunts of Men(2004)
The Pure in Heart(2005)
The Risk of Darkness(2006)
The Vows of Silence(2008)
The Shadows in the Street(2010)
The Betrayal of Trust(2011)
A Question of Identity(2012)
A Breach of Security(2014)
The Soul of Discretion(2015)
Old Haunts(2018)
The Comforts of Home(2018)
The Benefit of Hindsight(2019)

Easter Stories: Classic Tales for the Holy Season

Easter, like Christmas, has always been an inspiration for writers of every time. There are books and stories that either retell the Biblical narrative in a new way, or highlight the core themes of the season.

One lovely collection is Easter Stories: Classic Tales for the Holy Season, published by Plough Press. From Oscar Wilde and C. S. Lewis to Selma Lagerlof and Elizabeth Goudge, this collection will give a you a wide range of reading to inspire and encourage. The editors suggest these stories would be wonderful read aloud. I agree!

Plough also publishes a lovely collection of short readings for Lent and Easter titled Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter. Easter has 50 days, so it’s not too late to enter into the riches of that volume as well.

G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown

I’m sure many of you enjoy the now many seasons of the BBC’s adaptation of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was an interesting person who was also an articulate Christian apologist in the early 20th century. Two of his books about Christian theology, Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man are still regarded as significant in understanding the core principles of Christian faith. Chesterton himself, as he delved more deeply into it all, eventually moved from the Church of England to Roman Catholicism. It is thought that the parish priest the Rt Rev. Msgr. John O’Connor, who was significant in Chesterton’s shift in 1922, was the priest upon whom Father Brown was modeled.

Chesterton really enjoyed writing about this priest who could see clearly the good and evil in people and circumstance, and so sort out the situations. If you’ve watched the television series, you know how closely Father Brown observes everyone and everything. The humor in these stories, and the excellent mystery plots are all part of Chesterton’s broad view of life and the world.

He was the first president of The Detection Club, a group formed in 1930 that included Agatha Christie, Marjorie Allingham, and Dorothy L. Sayers, to name a few. Chesterton, who was a very large man, wore flowing robes and had new initiates place their hand on a skull and recite this oath: Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God? Despite the tomfoolery, these authors were deadly serious about their craft, and they did it very well.

Reading the Father Brown stories is a real treat, and would certainly be an anecdote to the current world crisis. There were five volumes and many stories. Penguin still publishes a collection of all the stories.

Anthony Trollope

Another well-remembered read from my bookshelves are the novels of Anthony Trollope (1815-1882). Besides being a prolific writer – novels, essays, letters – he was also a civil servant. His perspective on English manners allowed him to gently critique his society and at the same time keep them laughing.

The Barsetshire Chronicles are particularly enjoyable, focused on the created county of Barset and centered on its cathedral and clergy. The model is probably Salisbury and, if you have traveled to that wonderful cathedral, you’ll certainly see the parallels in Trollope’s descriptions.

The BBC did a wonderful television series, The Barchester Chronicles in 1982, which was also broadcast on PBS. I believe I started reading Trollope after watching this series. They are delightful books and great fun to read. The Barchester Chronicles is still available. You can buy the DVDs or rent them on Netflix. There also appear to be a few YouTube renditions. When I was looking for all these, I also saw that there are some more productions based on Trollope’s books, including some Barsetshire reprises.

Here is a New Yorker article from 2015 about what is clearly a Trollope trend:

These are the 6 Barsetshire Chronicles in order. Following is a photograph of my Trollope shelf.

  • The Warden (1855)
  • Barchester Towers (1857)
  • Doctor Thorne (1858)
  • Framley Parsonage (1861)
  • The Small House at Allington (1864)
  • The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867

Ongoing Series

Today’s I received two new ebooks I had ordered a few months ago when their publication dates were announced. One is the latest Simon Serrailler novel from Susan Hill, The Benefits of Hindsight. The other is the new Julia Spencer-Fleming book about the Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson, Hid from Our Eyes. Both of these are great serials set in England and New England. The estimable Susan Hill gives us a real life erudite and human detective, and Spencer-Fleming does a good job of describing the real daily life of of a priest. I love both of these series, and am happy to continue to get to know these wonderful characters, Reading novels that follow on one another with excellent character development is lots of fun, and you feel like you really get into the place and the people.

Iris Murdoch

I did manage to finish the book reorganization yesterday, so now I’m continuing to highlight old friends I encountered in the process.

Iris Murdoch (1919 – 1999) was an English philosopher and novelist. Her area of philosophy was ethics, with a particular emphasis on virtue. Her many novels focused on the power and effect of love and relationship. She once wrote: Love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality. [From “The Sublime and the Good”, in the Chicago Review, Vol. 13 Issue 3 (Autumn 1959) p. 51.]

One thing that has always impressed about Murdoch’s novels, which are complex but very enjoyable, is her amazing ability to write pages and pages of dialogue without any name reference, and you always know who is talking. My favorites among her novels are A Word Child, The Sea, the Sea (for which she won the Booker Prize), and The Black Prince. There are 26 novels, the last being Jackson’s Dilemma which she wrote when she was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. There is also a lovely film about her journey through that disease with her husband, John Bayley, called Iris.

Here is an excellent recent article about her fiction:

Iris Murdoch on my bookshelf.

Virginia Woolf

In 1972 I traveled to England for the first time. It was Spring, and we were there over an early Easter – April 2. I was with a couple different groups of friends, but I also spent a wonderful week on my own in Oxford. It was toward the end of the trip – April into May – and my meager funds were running low. I found a great B&B – Mrs. Lawfull’s in Pembroke St. – for £1 a night. The English Bach Festival was happening, and every day I had my breakfast, went to the Festival box office and bough very cheap tickets for two concerts, one in the afternoon, one in the evening. Then I went to Blackwell’s Bookshop and bought a Penguin edition of one of Virginia Woolf’s novels. I spent the rest of the day going to the concerts, reading my book, having tea (my other meal of the day) at The Nosebag and then going back to Mrs. Lawfull’s and starting all over again. It was a terrific week that I’ve never forgotten.

Virginia Woolf was just the right read for this 24 year-old on an adventure. Her famous A Room of One’s Own set the exact mood for me as I thought of my own future and how one can determine that on one’s own. All of us who became adults in the 1960′ and 1970’s were given a rich and inviting scope of ideas and opportunities. Reading Woolf every day for a week was a grand way to immerse myself in England, in ideas, in learning about life.

My favorite Woolf novels, after the long essay that is A Room of One’s Own are To the Lighthouse, The Voyage Out, and Mrs. Dalloway. Here are all the novels I read that week: