Friday, February 12, 2021

Lenten Reading: The Big List of Fiction

This is a huge list to be sure. But it has some of the most thought provoking books I know which can both entertain and inspire. It ranges from science fiction to mystery to Uncle Tom's Cabin. I've run the list before but have updated it.

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

In the late 1800s two French priests are assigned to the New Mexico territory to minister to the neglected Catholic churches there. One is intellectual, the other is the salt of the earth. Both are friends and both are good Catholic priests. This is what one might call an episodic telling, much as are the Gospels. We see the lives of the priests, those they minister to, and the country itself which is as much of a character as any of the people. Cather wasn't Catholic but you'd never know it simply by reading this account which gets everything right — and gives a lot of food for thought along the way.

Black Bottle Man by Craig Russell

Rembrandt, his father, and uncle are trying to undo a deal with the devil made by their loved ones. As they seek a champion, they must cope with a tricky requirement that they not stay in any place longer than 12 days.

Considerations of faith are handled both honestly and delicately in this book. The insights and observations throughout the book underlie the main story in a way that lends itself to considerations of gratitude, mercy, selfishness, sacrifice, and much more — all without being heavy handed.

My full review is here. It is is marketed to teens but I'm not the first reviewer to mention that label is too limiting because it is also a great read for adults.

Mockingbird by Walter Tevis
Only the mockingbird sings at the edge of the woods.
I've been jaded by the plethora of recent apocalyptic novels but this one is different. Perhaps the highest tribute I can give this novel is that when I finished I didn't want to read another book. To do so would sully what I'd just read before I'd finished thinking about it, as well as be unfair to anything that followed because it wouldn't be able to compare.

My full review is here. We also discussed this book in Episode 110 of A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast. And also on SFFaudio where a lot of interesting fruitful topics came up.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Or, since Lent is only 40 days, at least the first book, The Fellowship of the Ring. I was was blown away by how much the audio experience added to my understanding of the richness and depth of the story. Admittedly, it was also greatly helped by The Tolkien Professor's class sessions on this book. You will be hard put to find a better primer on sacrifice, redemption, and many other key lessons for Christian life. I think this may be the best book ever written. And you could do worse than to read The Hobbit for starters.

Joseph R's review is the best I've read if you'd like a more complete look at the novel.

Scott and I were joined by Seth Wilson in a two-part discussion of this novel at A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast: part 1, part 2.

Christy by Catherine Marshall
I read this several times when I was in high school and college but hadn't encountered it for decades. It came to mind again when talking with my mother about books set in hardscrabble backgrounds.

I remembered it being really interesting about people in the Smoky Mountains in 1912 cut off from any outside civilization except for a few people who came in to try to help their poverty stricken situation. Including the 19-year-old young woman, Christy, who comes to teach the children. She is naive and from a well-to-do background so she's completely unprepared for what she finds.

I didn't recall it being so inspirational throughout. I wound up loving it so much that I could hardly bear to put it down.

The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
A bedraggled, galley ship survivor, despite his best efforts to the contrary, finds himself in the middle of royal intrigue. If that weren't enough, he is also pulled into the the affairs of the divine as a result and this complicates his life as one might imagine. This is a land of various gods and strong, dark magic. It is, however, also a land where free will matters in the outcome of events.

Will Duquette calls this "theological science fiction" and I agree. The way that free will is intertwined with what the gods desire, as well as what is "right," is fascinating and a good way to examine our own motives the next time we turn away from what God may be asking of us. My full review is here. A Good Story discussion is at Episode 198.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Harry is an incredible Christ-figure as I discovered when I reread the series recently. Of course, this only works for those who have read the series before.

For more depth and as accompanying materials, readers may want to listen to Episode 26 of A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast where Scott Danielson and I discuss the book and the entire series from a Catholic point of view.

In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden
This extraordinarily sensitive and insightful portrait of religious life centers on Philippa Talbot, a highly successful professional woman who leaves her life among the London elite to join a cloistered Benedictine community. That's the official description but it doesn't begin to cover the richly woven tapestry Godden weaves with nuanced personalities, mysteries to solve so that the order may continue, Philippa's internal struggles, and much more.

Again, Joseph R. has a wonderful review of the book. We also discussed  episode 97 at A Good Story is Hard to Find

Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger
This beautifully written historical fiction tells of Andrea Orsini, who is one of Cesare Borgia's most trusted political manipulators during the Italian Renaissance. This is a swashbuckler that simultaneously shows Andrea's transition of a human heart from greed to love, selfishness to sacrifice, and power grubbing to nobility.

Discussed in episode 13 of A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast.

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
A real page-turner which many think they know because the cultural references are so embedded in our society. However, if you haven't read this book then you don't know it at all. First and foremost, Uncle Tom actually is a Christ-figure, a living saint. No wonder he is misunderstood by so many.

Stowe does a good job showing many different attitudes toward slavery and how people excused themselves under the flimsiest of excuses. What is unexpected is how well she examines the varying levels of Christianity proclaimed and threaded solidly throughout the story.

Discussed in episode 114 of A Good Story is Hard to Find.

I read this aloud on my Forgotten Classics podcast with commentary. Yes, that's how much I love it.

Dracula by Bram Stoker
We all think of this as a classic horror story but there is much more to it. Look below the surface and you find a classic tale of unselfishness and doing God's will in order to rid the world of a monster who is a perversion of Christ.

Discussed in episode 168 of A Good Story is Hard to Find. Mythgard Institute (founded by Corey Olsen, The Tolkien Professor) has a superb series of classes on Dracula.

The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis
These books seem an interesting blend of fiction and nonfiction to me. Lewis's imagination is vivid and fascinating. His tendency to have characters speechify leans to the nonfiction side. Taken as a meditative read, they would be very good for Lent, I'd think.

Out of the Silent Planet: Dr. Ransom is kidnapped by two men who take him to Mars as a sacrifice to the natives. Lewis was fantastically inventive about what the planet and living beings were like. I didn't know he had it in him.

Perelandra: Very different from Out of the Silent Planet while still showing C.S. Lewis's vivid and inspiring imagination. I am simply blown away by his vision of creation on Venus. Amazing insights as to battling evil, the dance of God's creation and plan, and our part in it.

That Hideous Strength: It is a testament to Lewis's imagination and writing skill as to how different all three of the books are in this trilogy, while simultaneously all carrying out the same basic theme. No wonder J.R.R. Tolkien loved them. This book left me striving to be a better person, to be truer to myself, as did the other two. Not many other books really leave one feeling that way.

Discussed in episodes 202204, and 206 of A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast.


  1. I'm putting "Mockingbird" on my wishlist. Too bad I'm on a book moratorium at the moment.

    I loved This House of Brede and read it on your recommendation. But I admit I don't know what you saw in The Angels Are the Reapers. It was sort of Southern Gothic at times (the mutant family and the family's hidden zombie patriarch) but then parts are of it were so stinking stupid, gas pumps working and putting a tracking device on someone's car. And don't even get me started on the under-aged girl seducing the fellow with "I can't get pregnant." Last year I enjoyed a better story about a girl dealing with zombies and people trying to kill her (and for better reasons than revenge). "The Last of Us" - a video game that I ended up watching when someone else played it - it was just that good. Sam Raimi is making a movie adaptation.

    Which leads me to the ending of Major Pettigrew's Last Stand. A fun book except for couple of flaws, and one of those was towards the end when the female character did EXACTLY what her in-laws thought she'd do if left alone as a widow: sleep with Pettigrew. Perhaps the author decided her character should be "normal" (because no one waits until after the wedding), but boy! did that strike me as forced.

    1. All I can say is read my Free Mind review or listen to the episode at A Good Story is Hard to Find. Those both give my reason ... which don't have to do with story logic but with other issues. Both are linked in my comments on the book above. :-)