Book Reviews and More

Watch this space for news about my first children’s novel, ‘The Race,’ which will be published by Cranachan in early 2021.

In this blog I look at both old and new books, at fiction and non-fiction, at literature written for adults and for children. I write about my books and the ideas that inspired them; I write about the books of others and the ideas that inspired them; I have a reading list to work through but often get sidetracked by new discoveries.

Milly-Molly-Mandy meets What Katy Did

Today I’ll share a couple of short passages from books I’ve been reading recently with my children. Both made me laugh, though I guess the context also helps.

The first is from Susan M. Coolidge’s What Katy Did:

“Imogen was a bright girl naturally, but she had so read so many novels that her brain was completely turned.”

I love that.

And the second is from one of Joyce Lancaster Brisley’s Milly-Molly-Mandy books. In this passage Milly-Molly-Mandy and her friends are trying to think of ways to celebrate her grandparents’ golden wedding anniversary:

“Let’s write a poem,” said little-friend-Susan.

So they thought awhile. And then Milly-Molly-Mandy said:

“Dear Grandpa and Grandma, we want to say

We wish you a happy Golden Wedding Day!”

“Bit long,” said Billy Blunt.

St Elisabeth of the Trinity


The reason I haven’t posted for a while is because I have been reading the work of St Elisabeth of the Trinity and it has had a profound impact on me. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know where to start in writing about this remarkable Carmelite who was a near contemporary of St Therese of Lisieux and who died at the age of 26. Her life was fascinating and her theology and spirituality are quite remarkable. Anything I write cannot do her justice at all, so I’m going to content myself with giving the occasional quotation in future posts and, above all, to recommending her work wholeheartedly. Discover her for yourself – you won’t regret it!

St Elisabeth of the Trinity, pray for us.

Messiaen’s ‘Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum’


I’m on a bit of a roll at the moment with wandering into the room to hear the second half of great pieces of music. Yesterday evening it was Simon Rattle and the CBSO at Aldeburgh in 2011, playing Messiaen’s ‘Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum’.Continue reading “Messiaen’s ‘Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum’”

The Story of the Trapp Family Singers


I am currently reading and hugely enjoying Maria Augusta Trapp’s The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. It is difficult to read some of the early sections in particular without thinking about (or humming) The Sound of Music but, as the story progresses, we get a lot that isn’t in the movie. It comes as something of a shock, for example, when the family loses all its money when their bank goes bankrupt. A shock but an inspiration too because of the way that Maria responds to the disaster.Continue reading “The Story of the Trapp Family Singers”

The Jesuits in China


The first Jesuit missionaries to China were a really fascinating group and Liam Matthew Brockey’s Journey to the East provides many new insights into their mission. Whereas previous accounts tended to emphasise the Jesuit mission to the imperial court, Brockey conclusively shows that they also made a big impact in the countryside among ordinary folk too.


In his book, Singing of the Source, Jonathan Chaves concentrates on just one of the Jesuit’s converts, the remarkable artist and poet, Wu Li. Here is what I wrote about him in 50 Books for Life: a concise guide to Catholic Literature:

Continue reading “The Jesuits in China”

Catechism of the Seven Sacraments


It doesn’t look much like a traditional catechism, does it? But don’t be fooled. The Sacrament of the Seven Sacraments is a deeply orthodox book that draws on Pope Benedict XVI’s covenant theology and is a direct response to Pope St John Paul II’s call for a New Evangelization. The characters may be made out of Lego but the teaching is really solid. Take this page on Adoration, for example: Continue reading “Catechism of the Seven Sacraments”

Audrey Donnithorne RIP


Audrey Donnithorne, one of the true greats, died today at the age of 97. When she was two years old, she was kidnapped by bandits along with her parents in Sichuan and promptly disarmed her captors (but, sadly, only metaphorically) by chatting away to them in Chinese. This incident (which ended happily when all the hostages were released) set the pattern for the rest of Audrey’s extraordinary life. Continue reading “Audrey Donnithorne RIP”

Simone Lia’s ‘Please God, find me a husband’

Simone Lia’s Please God, find me a husband is a wonderful graphic novel which contains some very funny scenes as Simone seeks God’s will for her life. There are a great couple of pages which describe her not altogether successful attempts to meditate while on retreat, for instance, and a very funny section which describes her attempts to pray with the Bible. Funny but poignant too, as Jesus reaches back into her childhood. In fact, it is this combination of humour and profundity that sets the book apart.Continue reading “Simone Lia’s ‘Please God, find me a husband’”

Maud Jepson’s Biological Drawings

The trouble with new books is that they prevent us from us from reading the old ones. That is what Joseph Joubert argued at the turn of the 19th century, and he’s surely right (though you might want to make an exception for my books!). We now need to go out of our way to read old books, though it’s certainly worth the effort.

Take this great book, which I stumbled upon the other day, for instance: Maud Jepson’s Biological Drawings first published in 1938. It is a real delight to the eyes (reminding me of Wainwright’s guides to the Lake District) and a feast for the mind as well. It’s also sobering to discover that it was written in part, as far as I can tell, for School Certificate pupils (an early equivalent of GCSEs).

Here’s a sample page:

PollinationContinue reading “Maud Jepson’s Biological Drawings”

St Thérèse of Lisieux and Reception of the Eucharist


I won’t draw any conclusions from the passage that follows but will leave the words of the saint to speak for themselves:

“The day after my first Communion was still one of happiness, but overcast with melancholy. Marie had given me such a lovely dress, and I had lots of other presents, but these things didn’t satisfy me; I couldn’t be content with anything less than our Lord’s presence. How I longed for the day when I should be able to receive him again! About a month later, when I went to get shriven for Ascension-tide, I took my courage in both hands and asked if I might go to Communion. To my surprise, the priest consented, and I found myself kneeling at the Holy Table between Papa and Marie. This second Communion, too, has left touching memories behind it; I was shedding tears still, but with an indescribable sense of consolation, and I kept on repeating to myself those words of St Paul: “I am alive; or rather, not I; it is Christ that lives in me.” From then on, my longing for our Lord’s presence continued to increase, and I got permission to communicate on all great feasts. On the eve of every such occasion, Marie would still take me on her knee and prepare me for it.” (p.84)

Deep Mapping the Curriculum


Mapping the curriculum, as I discussed in my last post, is a worthy aspiration, but it doesn’t take us far enough. What we really need is a deep map.

What is that? you ask.

A deep map works with a vertical as well as a horizontal axis. It describes geology as well as surface features. It features memories and values and stories as well as grid references. Deep maps look at all that has gone into making a space a place.

This isn’t a fanciful idea of my own. Far from it. The deep map has been called “the essential next step” for humanities study. (Bodenhamer, Corrigan and Harris, 2015, p.1) And the best known example of a deep map is William Least Heat-Moon’s PrairyErth, which is a deep map of Chase County, Kansas. (Sadly the author’s name is a pseudonym, but it’s still a great name.) Continue reading “Deep Mapping the Curriculum”

Mapping the Curriculum

In one of her blog posts, Christine Counsell argued that the curriculum “is at once a thing of beauty and of utility, and both matter. More like the waterways of Venice than a set of roads or paths, it needs specialist maintenance or it won’t take you where you want to go, nor make it a rewarding experience. Moreover, like Venice, its waters don’t stand alone. If you don’t understand the relationship of knowledge in the curriculum to the wider oceans and rains of knowledge that renew or trouble it, you’re liable to flood or drought.”Continue reading “Mapping the Curriculum”

Escape from the Tower of London


I wrote yesterday about Fr John Gerard’s plan to escape from the Tower of London in 1597, a story I must have read as a child, but had then completely forgotten, even though it has everything you could possibly want from a great escape story.

Having bribed his guard, so he could gain access to a fellow prisoner’s cell on the outer wall of the Tower, the incarcerated priest wrote to some friends, asking “whether they were prepared to take the risk, and, if they were, to come on a certain night to the far side of the moat, opposite the squat tower I had described, near the point where Master Page had been seized. They were to bring a rope with them and tie it to a stake; we would be on the roof of the tower and throw them an iron ball attached to a stout thread, the kind used in stitching up bales. They must listen in the darkness for the sound of the ball touching the ground, find the cord and tie it to the free end of the rope. This done, we would draw up the rope by pulling the other end of the cord which we held in our hands.”Continue reading “Escape from the Tower of London”

Pat Reid’s ‘My Favourite Escape Stories’


This was one of my favourite books when I was a child. I have vivid memories of Charles I’s attempted escape from Carisbrooke Castle, Oliver Philpot’s ‘Trojan Horse’ escape from Stalag Luft III and Pierre Mairesse Lebrun’s vaulting of the fence at Colditz. However, I had completely forgotten the first chapter, which is an extract from Fr John Gerard’s autobiographical account of his escape from the Tower of London. And what an escape it was too.Continue reading “Pat Reid’s ‘My Favourite Escape Stories’”

Heidi, the Prodigal Son, and Patience


The precious book that Heidi receives in Frankfurt contains a story which she returns to time and again: the story of the Prodigal Son. Why should this story, in particular, matter so much to her?

On the face of it, the prodigal son’s experience is utterly different from Heidi’s. He turns away from his father: she is utterly innocent. He spends his money recklessly: she lives in happy poverty. He returns home only when he is brought to his knees: she is desperate to get home as soon as she can. Continue reading “Heidi, the Prodigal Son, and Patience”

Long Live the Weeds


“Some people are flower lovers. / I’m a weed lover.” So said Norman Nicholson in his poem ‘Weeds’ and I’m with him:

Weeds don’t need planting in well-drained soil;
They don’t ask for fertilizer or bits of rag to scare away birds.
They come without invitation;
And they don’t take the hint when you want them to go.
Weeds are nobody’s guests;
More like squatters.Continue reading “Long Live the Weeds”



I deliberately don’t often include links on this site because I am very mindful of the fact that “the Net seizes our attention only to scatter it,” as Nicholas Carr puts it in his fascinating book, The Shallows. However, today I’m going to make an exception because I want to mention Treezilla, a project from the Open University and other organisations to map all the trees in the UK.

For some time, we have been trying to identify trees in our local area but Treezilla has given this work a new focus, as we now have an opportunity to add our discoveries to the national map. What a wonderful project for this time of semi-lockdown.

All we need is a tree book and a tape measure (to measure the trunk’s circumference). It’s a science lesson, of course, but arguably the real value of the project is that it forces us to look really closely at what we see everyday. And when we start to look we are always amazed by what we see.