Three unusual books caught my attention this month. None are the usual popular genre fiction, but each has a compelling message.
The first is The Arthurian Omen, written by G.G. Vandagriff. The story of how the author came to write the book is almost as strange as the tale she wrote. She started the story a long time ago; she has no memory of when. After a terrible illness struck her, a procedure used to counteract her illness caused her to lose her memory.
A couple of years ago she experienced a miraculous healing, but her memory wasn’t restored. It was her husband who found the beginnings of the novel stored in a very old computer program. On reading it, she had no idea what she had planned to do with it, but decided to finish it anyway.
The story begins with an ancient keeper of the Arthurian legend, who hides a manuscript that details the life and origins of King Arthur beneath the floor of an unfinished monastery. The story then skips ahead to a modern day American woman, Maren, who is an attorney with a small daughter and who suspects she married too hastily following the death of her investigator husband at the hands of a vicious drug cartel. A call from her estranged sister in England has her leaving her child with her deceased husband’s brother and his wife, while she rushes off to meet with her sister.
It seems her sister has discovered the existence of an ancient manuscript that proves The Once and Future King actually existed. Stunned by the information, she continues to hold the phone after her sister hangs up and hears a telltale click that alerts her that her new husband, Ian, was eavesdropping on the call. She has already discovered evidence that Ian is a thief, and she is concerned about what he might do with knowledge of the valuable manuscript; therefore she takes the precaution of naming her former brother-in-law as her child’s legal guardian should anything happen to her.
Believing she must not pass up this opportunity to heal the breach with her sister, she leaves for England. She arrives to find her sister has been brutally murdered.
Maren is determined to discover who murdered her sister and soon becomes convinced that the only way to find the killer is to pursue her sister’s quest to obtain the manuscript. She soon attracts an entourage of not only a police inspector and his sergeant, but also several academics. Less visible are those with connections to the drug cartel her first husband was pursuing, Ian, and a mad man intent on killing Prince Charles and his sons in order to reestablish the glory days of the fabled King Arthur.
Whether King Arthur ever actually existed is debated by scholars, but the legends concerning his greatness and his commitment to right and justice prevail – not only in England and Wales, but throughout America as well. Vandagriff exhibits keen knowledge of the legend and its continuing impact on the people of Celtic descent. Detailed research has gone into the castles, monasteries, and the Welsh countryside as she provides a sense of authenticity to the setting for this novel.
Welsh is a difficult language, and pronunciation of Welsh proper nouns is more than most Americans can get their tongues around. The use of certain Welsh names and places is essential to the story, but may discourage some readers. This really isn’t a problem to understanding the story since the author does an excellent job of explaining Welsh terms and words and uses them sparingly enough that they aren’t overwhelming.
This is a multilayered story with complex characters and motives. However, the descriptions of characters don’t always match what the reader gleans from observing those characters’ actions. For example the heroine is described by several of the other characters as being brave, daring, and keenly intelligent. The reader sees her make stupid choices and decisions such as marrying a man she’s only known for a few weeks, running alone in strange places in the middle of the night, and being more impulsive than strong.
I don’t usually like poetry sprinkled through the pages of a novel, but in this story the gloomy romantic style poetry reminiscent of Dylan Thomas is apt, well done, and blessedly short. There’s a gothic edge to the novel combined with a British upper crust style that gives the novel a timeless feel; it could have been written fifty years ago or today.
The Arthurian Omen is more literary than genre mystery, but it will appeal to more readers than just those who enjoy language, character development, and style. For one thing, it is faster paced than most literary novels, and the mystery is intriguing and unusual. Though one portion of the mystery plot is easy to unravel almost from the start, another is more challenging.
Though not overtly LDS, The Arthurian Omen does highlight several spiritual insights that are easily recognizable as Latter-day Saint concepts. Readers who enjoy complex novels will enjoy this one on several levels. I recommend this book to anyone looking for an absorbing, change-of-pace novel.
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“My name will mean nothing to you, but my story is a retelling of the greatest story ever told and should mean everything to everyone .” So begins the story of the brief earthly mission of Jesus Christ as told by Almon, the orphaned son of a desert thief. He goes on to warn, “If you interpret my words as fiction and fiction only, you will miss out on truths that are both historical and spiritual.”
Over Easter weekend I read Master by Toni Sorenson. The timing may have colored my perspective of this retelling of the incredible events documented in the four gospels of the New Testament. To those who have read the New Testament and attended Sunday School classes, there is nothing new found in this story of Christ’s life and teachings.
If, like me, you have a preference for reading scriptural stories straight from the scriptures instead of receiving them filtered through the eyes of a novelist, you may feel hesitant to read this book, but let me assure you this one avoids the pitfalls so often associated with this kind of book. Sorenson does not attempt to get inside the mind of the Savior to make up thoughts or dialog. Jesus’ words are the words faithfully recorded in the scriptures. The fiction portion of the novel is confined to the viewpoint of Almon.
Almon’s story is one of a mute child, hurt and abandoned, who is rescued by a young family journeying from Egypt to Nazareth. He technically becomes a servant in the household of Mary and Joseph, but is treated more like an older brother to the children of the family. It details his fierce loyalty to Joseph and young Jesus. He longs to be educated and learn all he can about the Jewish faith.
At an early age he falls in love with a shy, badly disfigured young woman who hides behind a veil. A benefactor provides him with a temple education in Jerusalem and he becomes a scribe. Armed with the ability to earn a living and support a family, he returns to Nazareth to learn Joseph is dying.
On his deathbed Joseph extracts a promise from Almon to watch over Jesus. Thus putting his own life and dreams on hold, he follows the Master and embarks on both a physical and spiritual journey, taking the reader with him.
From the beautiful art on the dust jacket by Liz Lemon Swindle to the final words of this incredibly well-crafted story, “Jesus was … He is … and will always be … my Master, ” reading this book is a spiritually satisfying adventure. Almon is a well developed, complex character whose growth adds depth and insight to the story. The well known characters from the New Testament are fleshed out enough to feel real, but not so much as to make the reader feel they have become made up people.
Deborah is the one character I would have liked to see developed a little more fully. There are a small number of annoying typos or copy errors, but they are few and far between, certainly not an unusual amount for a book of this length. Though this book is clearly intended for an adult audience, it is written in a simple, straightforward style that will lend itself well to younger readers’ enjoyment as well. This is truly one reading experience not to be missed.
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I’m not sure The Holy Secret by James L. Ferrell should be classified as fiction, but since the real message of the book appears within a fictional framework, I shall treat it as such. To state the story briefly, it is that of a man, Michael Nowak, who is touched by statements made by an elderly sacrament meeting speaker. His wife and children are out of town, so he approaches the older man, seeking greater understanding of an issue that troubles him. He is an active member of the Church, pays his tithing, has a temple recommend, and believes he has a testimony, but he really doesn’t love the things the Lord defines as holy such as the Sabbath day, attending the temple, or reading his scriptures.
The old man becomes his mentor and sets him on a path of study that opens up new insights and prepares the way for him to truly love what matters most. In the process, the young man comes to terms with not only his Heavenly Father, but his earthly one as well.
Ferrell, who also wrote The Peacegiver , uses the simple story of a man who realizes that he’s reached a point where attending church, temple attendance, and scripture reading have been repeated so many times in his life they have become dull and repetitive. Ferrell teaches important concepts that include questioning, curiosity, self-examination, and discovery. He places these concepts in simple language and an easily understandable style that puts them within reach of all.
Portions of this book are intellectually stimulating and exciting. As I read, I discovered and rediscovered spiritual truths. Other parts were thought-provoking, while others were “the same old thing.” It’s an intriguing book, but whether it might be considered a great book or not, will be largely dependant on what the reader brings to its pages. Those looking for an exciting means of passing an hour or two will be disappointed; those looking to understand and more fully love holy things will find a treasure map.
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The Arthurian Omen by G.G. Vandagriff, published by Shadow Mountain, softcover, 322 pages, $16.95
Master by Toni Sorenson, published by Covenant Communications, hardback, 486 pages, $22.95
The Holy Secret by James L. Ferrell, published by Deseret Book, hardback, 214 pages, $23.95