The Dragon of Mith is an Australian kids book by Kate Walker. It’s the story of a vegetarian dragon, a ridiculous number of dragon-slayers, a community of hermits and a blood-thirsty butcher (amongst others). I have vague memories of the author visiting my school when I was in year 2 and I loved this story when I read it in year 6. It’s still very enjoyable to read as an adult and would be great to read out loud too. It’s out-of-print now but can be bought fairly affordably secondhand as well as being available very cheaply as an ebook (ePub).
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones is a YA fantasy book. I knew it was a winner as soon as I saw that it has chapter titles like “In which Howl expresses his feelings with Green Slime”. It follows the character of Sophie who is turned into an elderly woman by an evil witch. She finds work as a housekeeper in a floating castle that belongs to the notorious Wizard Howl. The sequels, The Castle in the Air and The House of Many Ways, are also enjoyable, although not quite as terrific as Howl. It’s been turned into a movie by Hayao Miyazaki which contains much of the delight of the book but with a slightly different type of weirdness to the weirdness of the original.
The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion follows on where The Rosie Project left off. Don and Rosie are now married and living and working in New York. They’ve adjusted to many of the challenges of married life and abandoned the Standardised Meal Plan. But when Rosie becomes pregnant, both Rosie and Don develop doubts about Don’s ability to be a good father, and Don’s unusual process to prepare only seems to escalate the situation. Another charming jaunt with Don and Rosie as two different ways of experiencing the world collide. Lives up to the joys of the first book.
While there are exceptions to the rule, I think I’ve decided that a typical Victorian novel consists of 100 pages of boring, followed by 500 pages of sedately interesting, before reaching a final 100 pages of completely riveting.
While the exact number of pages in each stage may vary, the same rough proportions can be seen in Crime and Punishment, almost anything by Dickens, all Trollope’s Palliser novels and all the later (and larger) Barchester Chronicles. Mary Barton and Wives and Daughters by Gaskell also fit the bill. There are also minor variations (Tolstoy likes to add 150 pages of anti-climax after the riveting bit).
I can see how the serialisation of novels made an 80-chapter, 700-page novel seem like a financially good idea for authors and publishers. But in our current era of binge-viewing TV shows and 10-minute attentions spans, you’ve got to admire a Victorian audience who would plug through approximately 10-15 regular installments of boring based on trust that it would get better in about three months time!
Fortunately for us, a more patient era permitted Thackeray, Dickens, Trollope and others, time to introduce vast casts of rich and complex characters and situations that would enable them to keep their audience engaged for another 600 pages, as well as a hundred and fifty years. They’ve also provided us with plenty of character-building (in two senses!), 100-page introductions with which to combat our constantly shortening attention spans.
They also have other uses. While at College I found 100/500/100 novels great in the lead up to exam time. I would often still want to read something enjoyable just before bed but couldn’t afford to get sucked in or read more than one chapter. A chunky Victorian novel will keep you mildly interested through three weeks of term time, a week of StuVac and a couple of weeks of exams and then thoughtfully provide some riveting, celebratory reading at the beginning of your holiday!
So if you’re looking to find yourself a slow-starting novel for a busy season of life, look no further than the 100/500/100 tag…
Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope has a name that is a bit off-putting. It suggests an obnoxious main character who will be hard to sympathise with. I didn’t find this to be the case. The main character, Alice Vavasor, is beset by too much choice and is struggling to make up her mind between marrying her reckless cousin George, or the steady John Grey. The very modern-ness of her problem, and her subsequent decision-paralysis, actually made it quite easy to sympathise. Her changes of mind would have been much more confronting to Victorian social norms. Meanwhile Alice’s indecision is contrasted with the situation of her friend Lady Glencora Palliser, who has been pressured into a sensible marriage by family members and finds herself struggling with regret. Can You Forgive Her? is the first of Trollope’s Palliser or political novels – the West Wing of the 1800s!
E.B. White is better known for Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, but my favourite of his books is The Trumpet of the Swan. It tells the story of Louis, a trumpeter swan who can’t trumpet, which has grave implications for future courtship! Louis’s concerned father sacrifices his honour by stealing a trumpet for Louis from a music store. In order to repay his father’s debt, Louis, with the help of a human friend, Sam Beaver, gets work as a camp bugler, followed by a series of other jobs. This book is full of delights – the pompous and florid speeches of Louis’ father, the down-to-earth common sense of his mother, the delightful diary entries of Sam Beaver, and various little reflections on life. I first experienced this book as a child listening to a recording, read by the author, while driving across parts of Canada (where some of the book is set). It definitely stands up to adult re-reading too.
Single-Minded by Kate Wharton is a biblical, readable and well-rounded book on singleness. As a general book on singleness, it is definitely my top recommendation, replacing Al Hsu’s The Single Issue, which is excellent but has become quite dated. It has a helpfully balanced portrayal of the joys and struggles of singleness. It clearly works through what the Bible has to say and uses this to challenge what the world tells us. It tackles sexual purity clearly and helpfully. And, unlike many books on singleness, this one is consistently aware that not all ‘singles’ have always been single: there is explicit acknowledgement of some of the ways that singleness is different following divorce, widowhood or parenthood and a specific chapter about being single again.
The Plausibility Problem: The Church and Same-Sex Attraction by Ed Shaw answers the uncertainty and embarrassment Christians can feel about the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality. In our sex- and relationship-obsessed world it can seem unreasonable to expect Christians with same-sex attraction to remain single and celibate. This book suggests that God’s people have stopped listening to the Bible in a bunch of other areas to do with relationships and the cost of following Jesus. It challenges all Christians to recognise where we are listening too much to the world and challenges us to think practically about how we make our churches places where it is good to be single and celibate.
Married for God by Christopher Ash is a book on marriage from a Christian perspective that is essential to read whether you are married or single. Rather than focussing on how to improve marriage or what marriage actually is, this book starts with what marriage is for. It challenges us, whether married or single, to align ourselves with God’s plan for marriage, rather than expecting him to work to our terms! It’s a very readable version of Ash’s hefty ethical tome, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God, and helpfully challenges lots of the ways that our culture has distorted our assumptions about relationships.
Sex and the iWorld by Dale S. Kuehne is an insightful and helpful book for understanding the rapid changes in how western society thinks about sex and sexuality since the sexual revolution in the 1970s. Tracing these changes back to the Enlightenment, Kuehne questions whether our unfettered individualism and emphasis on almost absolute freedom of choice actually delivers the fulfillment we hope for. He suggests that what we really long for is deep relationships, which require trust and security that are undermined by our modern iWorld. He writes as both an Anglican minister and professor or politics. This book is incredibly helpful for understanding what makes our society tick and for engaging more directly and helpfully about why God’s way might be better.