Monday, April 14, 2014

Pieces Of Someday

Pieces Of Someday

By Jan Vallone

Published by Gemelli Press, November 2013

How does a Catholic lawyer of Italian-American descent end up teaching in a small Yeshiva?

Jan Vallone's father was a highly ambitious lawyer who wanted her to become a professional, which to his mind was either a doctor or a lawyer. He certainly did not want her to be a teacher like her mother! Pushed and prodded, she ended up eventually becoming a lawyer, but then she was the wrong sort of lawyer for her father's taste.

 When her adopted daughter Cristin struggled to make progress at school, Jan investigated becoming a teacher, but was deemed not qualified enough to undertake teacher training; nevertheless, by a series of chances, she ended up becoming a substitute teacher at a Jewish Yeshiva and a whole new life began for her.

As she poured out everything she knew and loved about writing, she learnt an enormous amount about Judaism and life from her students as well as gaining insight into her own Catholic faith, her life and marriage. She learnt, as well, just what it means to be a true writer and a true teacher, no matter how difficult things might become - and they became very difficult indeed.

This was a very pleasant read indeed; part autobiographical and part travelogue about her family's roots in Italy. I particularly loved the literary, Christian and Jewish quotations  scattered in the text to mark the themes of different parts, as well as the "discovering your vocation workshop" at the end.

The author has an excellent website at

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Thursday, April 10, 2014



By Chris Ryan

Published by Random House, April 10th, 2014

Chris Ryan is well known for his adult SAS fiction and his remarkable autobiographical account of his mission in the Gulf War from which he barely escaped with his life; he is also a prolific writer of great young teenage fiction.

Raphael and Gabriella are expert agents, charged with teaching and training the orphaned fifteen year old Zak Darke for a classified government agency represented by the mysterious "Michael".

Zak has survived several perilous missions for which his cover as a teenager was necessary. Once more he is on a mission, this time to South Africa to see if his one-time friend turned enemy, Cruz Martinez - who had been presumed dead - is actually still alive and involved in drug smuggling.

What looks like a simple and straightforward reconnaissance of a toy shop goes badly wrong and Zak is captured by Cruz's gang, forcing Gabriella and Raphael to find Zak's computer hacker genius friend Malcolm in order to track down Zak and join in the chase for Martinez across the African rain-forests, encountering deadly hostile wildlife and confronting a dangerous gang of child soldiers as they do so.....

 Action-packed, exciting and a compelling read from start to finish, I thoroughly enjoyed this as much as I enjoy Chris Ryan's adult fiction.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Harry's War

 Harry's War:

The Great War Diary of Harry Drinkwater

Edited by Jon Cooksey & David Griffiths

Published by Ebury/Random House UK, October 2013

August 4th of 2014 will mark the centenary of the start of the Great War, the war that was believed would be the war to end all wars,  and which almost destroyed an entire generation of men who fought in the four years of bitter armed conflict.

We are far enough removed from that time for it to be almost impossible to truly comprehend just how terrible it was, and it is perhaps only when we are able to catch glimpses of how it appeared to those who actually experienced it that it becomes real for us in our own generation.

Harry Drinkwater was rejected when he first applied to join the army. He was all of half an inch too short to meet the criteria, but he persevered until he found a battalion that was prepared to overlook that half an inch; he left his home in Stratford upon Avon to become a soldier with the 2nd Birmingham City Battalion in October of 1914. After basic training, he was set to France in November 1915, to the Somme, where he had a baptism of fire. It was to be fourteen long months before he slept in a bed again.

For Harry and his companions, the war meant that  barns, rough billets, tents and the vile, muddy trenches were to be their home and rats and vermin their uncomfortably near neighbours as they saw their friends and colleagues die around them. Exhaustion, privation, lack of food and clean water, harsh military discipline which saw infractions punishable by execution added to the horror of being surrounded by rotting corpses and the ever present danger of death from incoming sniper fire and mortar shells.

 Harry broke the rules and secretly kept a diary of what his war was like; this was in itself an offence for which he could have been court-martialled.  The delights of actually being able to have a proper wash and a shave after a week pale into insignificance as the war progresses and he has to scrape the trench mud off his hands and clothes with a knife and ends up wearing the same clothes for over a month before the bliss of finally being able to get clean ones and bathe properly. Cold rations and heavy rain are frequent companions, making tots of rum both a welcome treat and a morale-booster.

  Harry saw active service in Arras, the Somme, Passchendaele, French Flanders and even Italy before the war ended and although he was wounded twice, he was one of the fortunate few who survived. He was awarded the Military Cross for bravery (he had completed a trench raid although badly wounded) and was an officer by the time the war ended; he remained in the army, being sent to Italy and then to Egypt before being finally discharged on medical grounds with a pension in May of 1920.

This is the remarkable story of a remarkable man, who willingly did what he felt was his duty to his King and Country, like so many of his compatriots. Major Harry Drinkwater's spellbinding diary speaks for the many equally brave souls who did not survive that terrible war and is a tribute to all who served.

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Monday, April 07, 2014

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Making and Remaking Horror in the 1970s and 2000s

Making and Remaking Horror in the 1970s and 2000s:

Why Don’t They Do It Like They Used To?

By David Roche

Published by University Press of Mississippi / Jackson

January 22nd, 2014

This is outside my normal remit of book reviews, I must admit, but one of my daughters is doing a course on Media Studies and as she is learning things, she is sharing them with me and I too am becoming fascinated with how and why films/TV shows are made they way they are.

It is popularly assumed, particularly in the tabloid press, that our culture is becoming more and more disturbed and disturbing with each successive year, with violence and mayhem infecting the general populace to the detriment of society as a whole. This may not be the case; David Roche carefully examines the types of films made in the 1970s to those being made more recently to ascertain what has changed in the media industries and why.  It would not have occurred to me to investigate the political and economical milieu of the era in which films were made to see what effect that would have, and I found this a particularly absorbing aspect of the book. The differences between types of remakes was particularly enlightening to me.

This is a scholarly book, naturally based heavily on media studies theories and encompassing sociology, psychology and anthropological underpinnings, but it is surprisingly accessible to a general audience too. Amongst the topics covered are text, subtext and context, the functional/dysfunctional American nuclear family, race, ethnicity and class, gender and sexual stereotyping and just what really constitutes horror and terror, whether it be masks or monsters.

I found it an absorbing read, even though I have only seen a fairly small number of the films and remakes it studies and references. I have very vivid memories of being truly scared by some films I watched in my late teens/early twenties, and it is fascinating to discover just why they had the impact on me that they did.

 This remarkable and compellingly readable book  will be an important addition to the library of Media Studies students and would be a source of unending interest to anyone who has an interest in sociology and/or anthropology, and as well as those who enjoy horror films as a genre.

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An Amish Garden

An Amish Garden

Four Amish Novellas

By Beth Wiseman, Kathleen Fuller, Tricia Goyer & Vannetta Chapman.

All four of the novellas in this collection are connected by gardens and gardening, and this tried and tested format succeeds once more.

Rooted in Love by Beth Wiseman tells the story of Rosemary and Saul, who had been a courting couple for a brief period when Rosemary was sixteen. She is now 21 and like her, Saul is still single, although he shows his continuing interest in her as well as his regard, by his regular requests that she would consider going out with him again.

When Saul and her father have an unfortunate accident which leaves her father unable to work for a while, Saul decides to make amends by overhauling the family's long neglected vegetable garden. As the story unfolds and her widowed father seems to be developing a love interest of his own, we gradually find out exactly why Rosie broke off her courtship with Saul. Can she overcome her anxieties and give her relationship with Saul another chance, and can she come to terms with her father developing a new life for himself?

Flowers for Rachael by Kathleen Fuller introduces us to Rachael Bontrager, currently helping her grandfather and lovingly tending her garden. Her neighbour Gideon is handsome, shy and eager to court her, but unsure of how to start, until he takes advice from his sister, Hannah Lynn. Soon, Rachael is intrigued and baffled by the mysterious admirer who leaves beautiful flowers and attached short messages of regard at various places on her grandfather's land, but will these tokens of esteem be enough to make their friendship develop into something more?

Seeds of Love by Tricia Goyer
Eli Plank is an adventurer at heart. As a young lad living in Florida, he loved to read the stories in the Amish newspaper, The Budget, about those brave souls who set out to build an Amish community at West Kootenai in Montana and at long last, he was there, working and also writing the stories of his newly adopted community for The Budget for others to read and enjoy. Excited children and a bear cub lead him to meet Sadie Chupp, who has recently moved to the area after a family tragedy and she is determined to successfully raise tomatoes from her late mother's precious heirloom seeds. She has to decide if she should accept Eli's help and advice, or may there be an ulterior motive behind his kindness...

Where Healing Blooms by Vannetta Chapman

This was an interesting one to read. Emma Hochstetter is widowed, and lives with her beloved but frail mother-in-law. Her neighbour Danny is someone she has known since her childhood and it once looked as if they might one day get married, but Danny had left to travel and explore, only to return not too long before the death of Emma's husband. Their friendship endured, and when it turns out that a young runaway Amish lad is living secretly in Emma's barn, she and Danny confront him together.  Other problems occur in the community and when secrets from her mother-in-law's past come to light, it seems that there is a definite direction developing for the rest of Emma's life which will involve both gardening and healing, and maybe also love.

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Thursday, April 03, 2014

Stone Soup With Matzoh Balls

 Stone Soup with Matzoh Balls:

A Passover Tale in Chelm

By Linda Glaser

Published by Open Road Media/Albert Whitman

& Company, 18th March 2014

The fictional Eastern European village of Chelm is well-known in folklore as being a village of somewhat foolish people. This is the story of what happens when a mysterious stranger arrives in Chelm, just before the Passover Seder.

The villagers say they cannot offer him hospitality as they are all struggling to feed themselves and their families, but the stranger will not leave and says he can feed them all with soup made from the stone he has in his pocket.......but can he?

This is a well-known story, nicely re-told for young children and beautifully illustrated by Maryam  Tabatabaei, about the blessings of hospitality, communal action, care and consideration for others - as well as what happens when you utilise that sometimes rare commodity, common-sense! A truly lovely story for children and very appropriate indeed to read at Passover.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2014

The Rev Diaries

The Rev. Diaries

By The Reverend Adam Smallbone

Published by Penguin/Michael Joseph, March 27, 2014

I had never seen a single episode of the cult series "Rev.", before picking up this book, but that did not matter at all. Within a very few pages I was in hysterics,  and I alternated between laughing and crying  as I devoured the book.

Our supposed diarist is the Reverend Adam Smallbone, an Anglican priest who moves from rural Suffolk to the rather less salubrious surroundings of a London inner-city parish. Valiantly supported by his non-believing, talented lawyer wife, Alex, he is thrown head-first into what initially seems like Bedlam.

His new church of St Saviour's in Hackney has a small, very mixed congregation and he throws himself heart and soul into winning souls for Christ and improving the church's attendance. We meet Adoha, the lady who rather fancies him, Lisa, the potty-mouthed girl who serves in the local shop, Colin - who attends every service, often sleeps in the church building and is always in trouble of some sort - and Nigel, the erudite and earnest young pastoral assistant who yearns to be a priest himself.

Adam's remit includes the local C of E school and he quickly discovers the lengths some parents are prepared to go to  in order to secure a school place for their children.  Added to this  is the disastrous damage to one of the stained glass windows in the church and all the fund-raising to secure money for its repairs and Adam soon ends up spending far more time with his parishioners than he does with the long-suffering Alex, whose longing for a child seems unlikely to be fulfilled any time soon.....

Unsupportive (okay, frankly back-stabbing) clergy "friends" and superiors  play ultimately quite mind-boggling roles and it is hardly surprising that eventually Adam's world falls apart at the seams and he has a mammoth Dark Night of the Soul during which anything which can go wrong, does go wrong. Catastrophically so, in fact.

I have several friends who are Anglican  and Orthodox clergy, and I can see echoes of what they have told me about broadly similar episodes in this clever, thought-provoking, funny, touching and sometimes heart-rendingly sad book.  Candid and sometimes crude, these diaries open up what Adam really thinks and feels about his London life and what others think of him too.

This definitely, definitely will have a permanent home on my bookshelves, and I am looking forward to catching up with the TV series!

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

50 Body Questions

 50 Body Questions: A Book That Spills Its Guts

By Tanya Lloyd Kyi

Illustrated by Ross Kinnaird

Published by Annick Press, February 2014

There s nothing about this book *not* to love, whether you are a child or an adult.

Although aimed at children, the facts are fascinating for adults too, and presented in exciting and unusual ways; I am used to seeing that the lengthy of the unravelled small intestine equals so many football pitches, which is of no real use to me as I have no idea how long a football pitch is anyway! Being told that that the straightened out small intestine is the same height as a two-storey building makes it much easier for me to visualise.

Snot, spit, poop and digestion start the book off, including a page on how to make your own synthetic snot, should you feel so inclined. Circulation and respiration are well-covered, as are bones, muscles, how the body fights off infection, how the senses work and exactly how the nervous system functions.

All in glorious colour and well-illustrated, this is a super, simply-written book for children interested in how the body works.

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First Steps Through Insomnia

First Steps Through Insomnia

By Dr Simon Atkins

Published by Lion Books, March 2014

This is a very short book (only 96 pages long), but one which contains a lot of information relating to insomnia resulting from a variety of causes including jetlag, shift-work, menopause, restless legs and cramps.

Written by a GP who regularly sees and treats patients suffering from insomnia, and whose own wife suffers from the problem, this is a clear, concise and simply written book outlining how much we need to sleep (highly variable), what can happen if we do not get enough sleep (a heightened risk of developing high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, depression and heart disease), how sleep works, what might be causing our insomnia and what to expect when we visit the doctor to request help and treatment.

He discusses the pros and cons of medication, alternative remedies and cognitive behaviour therapy as well as outlining a series of simple yet effective measures for training the body and mind back into sleeping better.

I found it very helpful indeed, especially as I have suffered with the problem and so has one of my teenage daughters; we have implemented lots of the sleep hygiene routines he suggests and we have found them to be of benefit. The section about teenagers' increased need for sleep is particularly interesting.

 It is an excellent  and very useful book indeed!

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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Admin Notes

Dear Readers,

Just a gentle reminder that *all* comments are viewed by me before they appear on the blog.

 I very much enjoy receiving comments from all over the world, but if I am unable to translate the comments, I do not publish them on the blog.

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Sunday, March 09, 2014

Falling In Honey

Falling In Honey:

How a Tiny Greek Island Stole My Heart

By Jennifer Barclay

Published by Sourcebooks, March 4th, 2014

Jennifer Barclay studied classics at school and her love of Ancient Greek inspired several trips to Greece. When her life imploded after a particularly traumatic end to a relationship,  she swore off men and managed to finagle a working sabbatical in Greece. When she found the tiny island of Tilos, she had found a place where she could "be", and she slowly pulled herself and her life together while exploring the island and making friends. She found healing and peace on the island, and when she returned home again, her life was showing signs of settling down on an even keel once more.

 When she met a promising man named Matt who, as their relationship developed, was happy to relocate and set up business and home with her on her beloved Tilos, her happiness seemed almost complete. Sadly, her life once more reached crisis point when Matt was not what he seemed and her hope to settle down and start a family was dashed to the ground in the most unexpected way imaginable....but she picked herself up, dusted herself down and set off to make her home in Tilos just as she had planned anyway.

The descriptions of Tilos are lovely, and her experiences there are generally fun. How many people have stroked a living octopus, I wonder?   She swims, goes dancing, enjoys the food, the warmth, the flowers and the scenery, and paints an idyllic picture of life on the island. It is a pleasant and easy read and would be ideal for taking away on a holiday, but during parts of it I found myself wanting to give her a stern talking to.  She seems to be particularly unlucky in love and the lengthy introspections about her failed marriage and then two failed relationships did stretch my patience somewhat.

I do hope that a sequel will be able to describe her having a more settled and successful romantic life than hitherto!

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Thursday, March 06, 2014

Me And Murder, She Wrote

Me and Murder, She Wrote:
My Adventures in Television with Angela Lansbury,
Peter Falk and Jerry Orbach...among others

By Peter S. Fischer
Published by Grove Point Press, September 2013

Peter Fischer is probably not a terribly familiar name, yet his work has provided a substantial number of well-known TV  series. Have you ever seen an episode of Murder, She Wrote, Columbo, Ellery Queen, Marcus Welby, M.D. , Kojak, Blacke's Magic or Black Beauty? Then you have been watching shows which he has either created, produced and/or for which he has written scripts for episodes.

This is a delightful and entertaining autobiography by a man who has always loved to write, and who  finally, at the age of 35, took a massive leap of faith and became a professional writer. A prolific writer, and blessed with a wicked sense of humour and of the dramatic, in his working career he has created or breathed new life into some truly memorably characters. I must confess to loving the character of Jessica Fletcher and could not pass on the chance to read about how she came into being and how Angela Lansbury, a massive star of stage and the big screen was interested in  playing her character in what turned out to be a phenomenally successful and long-running TV show.

Angela Lansbury and Murder, She Wrote  inevitably occupies a significant part of this fascinating book,  and it was an absorbing look into the world of television and how shows are created and produced. The effective and professional working relationship between Angela and Peter Fischer quickly became an enduring friendship between Miss Lansbury and the Fischer family.

 Murder, She Wrote is just one of the many shows discussed in detail. Having read about the truly Byzantine intrigues and power plays which go on behind the scenes between different departments and people, and the power the "men in suits" have to make or break a potentially brilliant show, it's amazing that any ideas ever actually make it to a completed show, and even then it can all go disastrously wrong very quickly. The wrong producer, budgetary constraints, a wrongly cast part, an overly simplistic or overly complex script or a temperamental actor can cause utter havoc and wreak death to a promising show. Peter Fischer is able to describe this all too well from his insider knowledge as the man who himself has a wealth of experience of pitching ideas, writing the scripts and producing programmes.

Working with stars has its ups and downs, and it was immense fun to read how differently people handle disputes over story-lines, casting and scripts. Peter Falk comes across as a very likable and thoughtful chap and Fischer's respect and admiration for Angela Lansbury are self-evident, but there are some who are much less likable and end up being the stars of very different scenes!

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Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Catching Up.....

Sorry for the lack of posts - it was my younger daughters' school half-term break last week, and on top of that, I have had a dental abscess which meant a week's worth of antibiotics and generally feeling under the weather.

Reading has resumed in earnest and more book reviews will follow in the next few days :-)
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Friday, February 21, 2014

Groundbreaking Food Gardens

Groundbreaking Food Gardens:

73 Plans That Will Change the Way You Grow Your Garden

By Niki Jabbour

To be published by Storey Publishing, March 5th, 2014.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this is the most versatile, user-friendly, practical and absolutely gorgeous food growing manual I have ever seen!

Niki Jabbour has worked in close collaboration  with gardeners, all expert in their own fields, from all over America, Canada and even the UK and Germany, and this delightful volume is the result.  

No matter how big or small your garden, even if you only have access to a patio or a windowbox, you CAN grow some of your own food.  Whether your garden is shady, cold, windswept, shared with livestock or chickens, subject to extremes of temperature or short growing seasons, this is the book you need. Are you a chili aficionado? There is a garden plan which will enable you to grow no fewer than 24 different varieties!

Culinary herbs, bee and butterfly gardens, raised bed gardens, balcony gardens, "square foot" gardening, using patios and greenhouses, combining a food-producing garden successfully with raising chickens in the same space (I especially loved this one), growing figs in Canada, keeping wildlife critters out of your crops, growing from your grocery store leftovers, growing your own fruits and using wall space for espaliered fruit trees, wildlife and children-friendly gardens and growing heirloom varieties and saving your own seeds are all covered in detail, and so very much more. 

Whether you want to try growing Asian vegetables, recreate a World War Two "Dig For victory!" garden, make magical gardens to encourage children to learn to grow food, recycle metal, wood and blocks to make raised beds, make a drought-resistant garden, use your rooftop, grow food for Italian cuisine, terrace a hillside, devote your whole garden to garlic or create an edible hedge,  this is the book you need.

Absorbing, comprehensive, delightfully illustrated, the only problem I now have is deciding which plan to try out first from this wonderful book......

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Friday, February 14, 2014

Noble Conflict

Noble Conflict

By Malorie Blackman

Published by Random House, June 2013

Malorie Blackman is an incredibly popular author of teen fiction and writes consistently high-calibre books, always about thought-provoking topics.

This book does not disappoint; set in a world torn apart and virtually destroyed by nuclear war, young Kaspar Wilding is delighted to have completed his training to be a peace-keeping Guardian instead of spending his life working on his uncle's farm.

Sworn to protect the Capital City and its inhabitants from the violent rebels in The Badlands, he is convinced of the rightness of the civilised enclave in which he lives and works - after all, the Guardians do not kill the insurgent rebels, only stun them, no matter how violent the rebel attacks may have been -  until one day, he meets one of the despised rebels in the person of a girl named Rhea and his outlook on life changes completely.

Discovering that he has only ever been  made aware of part of the truth about the rebels and their cause, he is determined to find out the whole truth,  but even with a trusted group of friends to back him up, the talented young Guardian may well have bitten off far more than even he can chew.....

Gritty, fast-paced and action-packed, this certainly kept my attention!

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The Gift Of Love

The Gift Of Love

By Amy Clipston

To be published by Zondervan on March 4th, 2014

Amy Clipston is a popular writer of Amish-themed fiction (including my favourite series, the Kauffman Amish Bakery series) and I was delighted to see that she has now written an autobiographical account of her momentous decision to undergo major surgery and become a kidney donor to someone else so that her husband Joe could himself receive a desperately needed kidney transplant .This was not the first hardship to hit her family; her beloved father had a massive and life-changing stroke, becoming a changed personality and whose physical problems and outbursts of anger caused much heartache and anxiety as they all worked together to deal with each difficulty as it arose.

Amy pulls no punches about how hard it is to see your young and fit husband's health deteriorate terrifyingly quickly to the point that he needs not just a first kidney transplant, but then a second.  It would be so easy to portray oneself as almost Mary Poppins-like, trusting, pious and always caring and understanding, but she is very quick to be brutally honest and point out just how hard she and her family found it to deal with Joe's illness and how badly it affected them all, coming very close to pushing their marriage on the rocks and massively testing her faith.   Amy was working full-time, caring for Joe and her boys with the help of her mother and writing her novels to try to make ends meet and cover their never-ending medical bills and expenses; against all the odds, a match for Joe was found and their lives were transformed once more.

 It really is an inspirational story of how faith, perseverance and courage allowed them to overcome hurdle after hurdle as a couple and as a family, and a delight to read that things turned out well for them in the end.

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Romance Of Religion

The Romance of Religion:

Fighting For Goodness, Truth, And Beauty

By Dwight Longenecker

Published by Thomas Nelson, February 4th 2014

This is NOT a ghastly romance in the sense of "Jesus is my boyfriend", let me reassure you! It is a book about the romance of Christianity in the purest sense of the historical and romantic tradition of storytelling, where:

 "A fine romance is a good story—a story, like all good stories everywhere and at every time, that reveals eternal truth within a gripping tale. We are entranced by a good story because the plot is slick and the storyteller skilled. We are captivated by a good story because it incarnates the truth. A good storyteller locks the truth so tightly into the story that you cannot get at the truth without telling the story. The romantic believes the truth in the story, but he also believes that he can make that story come true in his own life."

Christians and Christianity get a generally bad press in the modern world - seen as boring, outdated, out of touch with the modern world, irrelevant, judgmental - you name it, it's been applied to Christianity. But is this what Christianity is all about? Not at all, says Fr Longenecker, who sees Christianity as the biggest, boldest, most awesome and outrageous adventure quest that has ever existed.

Using examples from Cyrano de Bergerac, C S Lewis' Reepicheep, Darth Vader, Neo Anderson from "The Matrix", from Greek philosophers and metaphysical poets right through to Hollywood movies and material science, the subject of "reality" is explored, along with the concepts of good and evil, war and the dangers of political ideologies, truth, beauty, love and heroic self-sacrifice.

Christianity calls us to leave behind our old lives, to take on a quest for salvation which will require all our strength, determination, ingenuity, integrity and commitment, yet we will only accomplish our quest by having faith in God and trust in His abundant grace and love for us all, and by being prepared to sacrifice absolutely everything for Him.  I cannot think of anything more compelling, exciting, terrifying and demanding than being called to be a Christian - can you ?

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Sunday, February 09, 2014

An Amish Miracle

An Amish Miracle

Three Amish Novellas 

By Beth Wiseman, Ruth Reid and Mary Ellis

Published by Thomas Nelson, December 2013

I really do enjoy these collections of Amish themed novellas by different authors, and this is one of the best I have read. Each story has a problem or situation which causes heartache and worry, and in each, a miracle  occurs to put things right.

Always In My Heart by Mary Ellis

Hope Bowman has three lovely daughters and is expecting a fourth child. When this baby is also a girl, she begins to wonder if God will ever bless her and her husband Stephen with a son.  Stephen has no idea that she was raped and became pregnant when only sixteen, and that her stern and unbending father Silas forced her to move away and give her infant son up for adoption so that no shame would be brought on their family.
When she tells Stephen the truth, she has no idea that soon her son James would turn up at their farm, looking for his birth-mother...but can James come to terms with the Amish way of life, or will Hope's heart be broken a second time when her son goes back to the Englisch world? And how will their community react to the truth about what happened all those years ago?

PS: Stephen has to win a prize for the best fictional Amish husband!

Always His Provision by Ruth Reid

Rosa Hostetler is a young widow, struggling to manage financially but fiercely independent and determined not to be a burden on her family or her community. She keeps her straightened circumstances hidden even from her best friend Hope Bowman, but finds her faith being tested when overdue back taxes on her farm bring her to the point of losing her home.  

When a series of dog attacks on her hen flock mean she is struggling to earn money from egg sales, disaster seems inevitable, especially when her attempts to protect her flock produce a huge vet's bill from the Englisch neighbour whose dog is responsible. It seems only a miracle can help her now, but is that miracle going to be in the  form of her neighbour, Adam Bontrager, who was a good friend of her husband's and is keen to help her too...?

Always Beautiful by Beth Wiseman

Becky Byler has a serious weight problem, even though she is only eighteen. She is mentioned in the two previous novellas, but this story is about her struggles with being seriously obese and how much it affects her life, her happiness and her relationships with her family, friends and neighbours. At the start of the story, she feels isolated and is in serious despair, begging God to grant her a miracle and help her to lose weight so that she can be pretty and slim like the other teenaged girls in her community.

When the miracle happens and she loses huge amounts of weight, her relationships with those around her change too. Her best friend Elam (who has eye problems and is awaiting corrective surgery) loves her dearly and hopes to marry her one day, regardless of her weight, because he loves the person she is. However,  Becky has another potential suitor, the popular, handsome and kind Matt King, and as her weight continues to drop off, her life and attitudes change and not necessarily for the better, the miracle the blessing she had hoped for, or was she happier before it happened?

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Monday, February 03, 2014

The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyne-Sheyndl & Motl, the Cantor's Son

The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl and Sheyne-

Sheyndl and Motl, the Cantor's Son

By Sholem Aleichem

Published by  Open Road Integrated Media / Yale 

University Press, October 2013

Sholem Aleichem was a Jewish author and playwright from the Ukraine and lived from 1859 - 1916; the most well-known of his works in English is undoubtedly the story of Tevye the Dairyman, which ultimately became immortalised as the musical "Fiddler on the Roof."  This translation of his two works " The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl & Sheye-Sheyndl" and "Motl, the Cantor's Son" is by Hillel Halkin, who also wrote the introduction to the volume.

What can one say about Menakhem-Mendl and his wife, Sheyne-Sheyndl? He is utterly convinced that he has the ability to make a huge success of what he believes to be his financial acumen in speculative trading as he travels the cities of Russia in his attempts to make a fortune with which to support his family, but his business schemes regularly go awry, much to his wife's consternation and distress;  she often berates and scolds him for his reckless gambles and is increasingly puzzled and disturbed by him, especially when he heads over to the New World to seek a fortune there too. The dialogue between them ranges from loving, sweet and actually very charming, to outright fury, often making me laugh out loud at their interchanges in this intimate glimpse into pre-Revolutionary Jewish life. 

Motl, the son of Peysi the Cantor, who dies at the beginning of the story, is able to make the journey over to America and make a new life for himself, his mother and brother. Motl's talent and passion is for art, and he seems to be able to quickly assimilate into American culture and life; his learning to speak American English in a variety of accents is wonderfully described. Eventually the family launches into business with a newspaper and soda stand and things just keep on looking up for them after that.

Both stories were enjoyable and it has been a delight to have been able to finally read them in English.

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Amish Cooks Across America

Amish Cooks Across America:
Recipes and Traditions from Maine to Montana

By Kevin Williams & Lovina Eicher

Published by Andrews McMeel Publishing, May 2013

From reading Amish-focused fiction, one could be forgiven for thinking that there are some very traditional foods which are common to all Amish; this is simply not the case, and this excellent book sets out to show the huge range of foods utilised by Amish communities across America to make meals for their families. No recipes for shoofly pie  in this book, according to the index!

Many Amish communities are vividly described and  very beautifully photographed; some of their most notable recipes are given, ranging from maple syrup based recipes made in the syrup producing area of Conewango Valley, Cherry Creek, New York, to rhubarb bread and cookies made in Fredonia, Pennsylvania. Amish in Dover, Delaware like to use seafood and the Amish settlement at Flat Rock, Illinois, loves its venison; in Beeville, Texas, the Amish make okra gumbo; in Ethridge, Tennessee, they cook cornbread and pork 'n beans as well as making their own molasses from sorghum.
Montana Amish make their own elk bologna, moose steaks and huckleberry pancakes and in the San Luis Valley, Colorado, burritos and tortillas are often to be found on the menu.

I particularly liked that the Amish reticence about courting publicity is honoured and so is their reference not to pose for photographs; the Amish who are photographed are done so very carefully, with the focus firmly on their clothing, items they are carrying or their homesteads and scenery rather than their faces. This is a lovely book indeed!

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Friday, January 31, 2014

And Then There were Nuns

And Ten There were Nuns:

Adventures in a Cloistered Life

By Jane Christmas

To be published by Lion Books, February 21st 2014

Jane is a fifty-something Candian woman from a mixed Anglican/RC family who has been twice divorced and is in a long-distance relationship with her boyfriend who is living in the UK. Before she makes her final decision to marry him, she decides that she finally has to listen to the small, nagging voice which has been encouraging her since her teenage years to explore the monastic life - so she sets out to visit the Anglican Sisterhood of St. John the Divine in Toronto to test her vocation. 

 From there she heads to the UK, to stay at the Roman Catholic Quarr Abbey and St Cecilia's Abbey, both on the Isle of Wight before heading north to Whitby and the Anglican Order of the Holy Paraclete's St Hilda's Priory, which is based at Sneaton Castle. She has a variety of experiences, some religious, some very secular, some good and some very unpleasant indeed and she discovers that not everyone is welcoming of a wannabee nun of her age and life background. Gradually, she comes to realise that before she can tackle the idea of becoming a nun, she needs to properly deal with the emotional and psychological aftermath of a sexual attack she suffered many years previously.......

The book is well-written, with some passages that were poetically arresting in their imagery:  "On the surface, praying seems easy. Knit your eyebrows in concentration, mutter a few words, and then get on with your day. It’s not like that in a convent. Think of the hardest job you could do—mining comes to my mind—and then imagine doing that in silence and in a dress.

Every day the sisters descended into the Pit of the Soul, picked at the seam of despair, sadness, tragedy, death, sickness, grief, destruction, and poverty, loaded it all onto a cart marked “For God,” and hauled it up from the depths of concern to the surface of mercy, where they cleaned it and polished it. It was heavy, laborious work."

but then I would find myself harumphing furiously over her very passionate proclamation that the Anglican communion's "discrimination" against women was akin to racism, and later in the book, she states that:
"The way women are treated by the church reminds me of
my rape. Like rape, exclusion and bullying are emotional violations
intended to punish, to subdue, to “teach a lesson,” and
to assert the oppressor’s domination."

- which is a very blanket condemnation of a Church in which I grew up and spent my early adult life, and never, ever encountered anything even remotely akin to the behaviour she describes.

I won't spoil the ending, but it is a very interesting book and one I will definitely read again, even though she and I are diametrically opposed in our viewpoints on the ordination of women :-)

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Thursday, January 23, 2014



By Ronald Frame

Published by Picador, November 2013

The unwritten back-story of Great Expectations has always fascinated me. Charles Dickens tells us that Miss Havisham was jilted, but the finer details are never given and we are left to wonder at her life prior to her much-anticipated but ultimately disastrous wedding day.

Ronald Frame has bravely chosen to pick up Miss Catherine Havisham's story and he fleshes it out well. We learn of her guilt at causing the death of her mother in childbirth and her lonely and rather sad life as an only child in the large Satis House so closely attached to her family's brewery.

With her rich yet emotionally distant father, she grew up with everything money could buy, yet was so vulnerable on many levels; she was too "trade" for the children of upper-class families to play with but the local town children  were "beneath" her, according to her father's estimation.

Although the books starts off slowly, it gradually gathers pace and complexity as we meet a half-brother of whom she had been completely unaware and who tries to usurp her place in their father's affections. When her father arranges for her to stay with the wealthy and influential Lady Charlotte Chadwyck's family, she eventually meets the man who would, in her own words, ruin her life -  the charismatic, manipulative and utterly self-serving Charles Compeyson....

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Interpreting The English Village

Interpreting The English Village:

Landscape and Community at Shapwick, Somerset

By Mick Aston & Chris Gerrard

Published by Windgather Press, March 2013

The small Somerset village of Shapwick lies close to - and was for a long period under the ownership of - the influential monastic settlement at Glastonbury.

The Shapwick project, which began in 1998, was initially intended to last for ten years and was designed to involve as many disciplines and experts as possible to trace the history of this settlement over its ten thousand year existence, the project has finally been wrapped up with the publication of this remarkable book.

Until the 1960s, it was widely believed that the village only "began" in the 5th century AD, but the village has its origins far back in pre-history and the Project has uncovered a huge amount of it.  I particularly liked the fact that Shapwick's identity as a living, working community has been respected and the inhabitants both involved and kept fully informed of what was being found there; the photographs of the villagers and schoolchildren taking part in the excavations are a delight!

From historical records, illustrations, maps and documents, an initial picture of the village and its environs was created and the book contains a nice selection of these to provide the reader with a feel for the village. Just about everything about the village is described in absorbing detail: topography, geology, the soil, the buildings, how the area was mapped in preparation for the archaeology and even what plant and insect species are in the hedgerows.  The actual archaeology is given in detail - boreholes, test pits, shovel pits, trenches, and most fascinating of all, what they found - artifacts dating right back to the Mesolithic period - and how they were treated, assessed, tested and preserved. It really does make the story of the village and its inhabitants vividly alive for the reader. I thoroughly enjoyed every single page of this fascinating book and anyone who is interested in history or archaeology would find it an interesting and absorbing read.

Mick Aston was one of the presenters of the British "Time Team" archaeology programme, who died in 2013; this book is a great tribute to his knowledge, expertise and enthusiasm about all things archaeological.

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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

An Author Interview With Ken West

I am delighted to be able to host a Q & A interview with Ken West, author of  "R.I.P. OFF!: Or The British Way Of Death".

 Based on questions sent to me via social media, Ken has very kindly answered many people's queries about matters relating to funerals, and so without further ado, here is the interview:

1/ What drew you into becoming involved in the funeral industry?

Ken: At age 15 years I wanted to be a gardener and there was a vacancy at the cemetery
nursery. Later, the Superintendent offered me other posts so I moved internally, firstly
as a cemetery sexton, which meant meeting and supervising each burial and checking
grave excavations. I then moved to the crematorium to meet and supervise services and
subsequently cremate the bodies, then into the office and later into management. This is
how many people progress, starting perhaps as gravediggers, mowing operatives or office
staff. You do not progress if you do not enjoy funerals or the feedback from helping the
bereaved. The Institute of Cemetery & Crematoria Management (ICCM) have a diploma
course, and are well organised nationally. For anybody interested, my detailed CV is
available on my website at

2/ Is it a particularly stressful occupation, do you think? Dealing with the raw 
emotions of people who are newly-bereaved must be very difficult sometimes……

Ken: I don’t think of it as stressful, in general. The raw emotions, as such, are quite rare and
probably expressed within the bereaved’s home situation. Some people lose their cool
occasionally, but most bereaved people have little experience of funerals and so defer to
the staff in the industry on most issues.

Obviously some people find it stressful, and they quickly leave the work. I have known
a number of people start work, and finish, within the first week. Often, they say that
this is because their partners or family are uncomfortable when they explain what the
job entails, but this may be an excuse. The stress is, I think, more a matter of reflection.
For instance, operating a cremator, with so many bodies passing through, seems to
have this effect. Once in the work, people clearly slot themselves into arenas in which
they are most comfortable. For instance, some people dislike the atmosphere of the
crematorium so stay on the cemetery side. Yet cremators are sophisticated and expensive
boys (and girls) toys and appear to fascinate some people. Gravediggers often do the
more gruesome work, not least exhumations, and this is pretty onerous in wet weather.
I have known cemetery managers who dislike exhumations and so ignore the fact that
they should supervise, and leave it entirely to their gravedigging staff. Many excellent
gardeners enjoy the horticultural excellence of crematorium gardens, but rarely, if ever,
go into the building. Cemetery grounds staff, even cemetery managers, can be enraptured
by trees and make that their focus, in a sense ignoring the fact that burials are taking
place in their beloved wooded cemetery grounds. But it is not an industry that embraces
change, consequently, it is change that really causes the stress. For instance, reducing
mowing to create wildflower areas, introducing new types of memorials, changing the
design of the Garden of Remembrance, introducing natural burial or re-usable coffins, all
this upsets somebody and they complain to you, or to councillors.

I recall that in the 1970’s, as a new manager at Wolverhampton, I met a woman whose
stillborn had been interred some years earlier. The child was in an adult sized common
grave, sometimes called a pauper grave. There were nearly 200 stillborns in that grave,
added periodically over some years, one on top of another. She asked me to agree
to remove the child’s body, something she had asked previously and been refused.
I explained to her that it was not possible because the position of the child’s coffin
was not known, neither were permanent names placed on the coffins. Consequently, a
Home Office Licence to disinter would not be approved. I left the graveside vowing
that I would never be guilty of perpetuating such practice. I devised a new scheme to
inter stillbirths in small, individual graves, which the parents could visit and tend as
they wished. The plot was to be called The Babies Memorial Garden. I was shocked to
find that even though this was to be done at no extra cost to New Cross Hospital, they
would not agree, neither were some of my staff supportive; they all preferred the status
quo. Ignoring them, I told the hospital they had no choice and gave a start date. They
wrote a dismissive letter to me, stating formally that I was changing “a time honoured
arrangement.” They were correct, and as far as I could tell, it had started in 1855! This
approach is now general in the UK, although not universal. A similar situation occurred
in the 1990’s over fetal remains and these are still poorly handled in many parts of the

3/ Do you ever have nightmares about work?

Ken: This is a challenging question. I wish I could say no but that is not true. Firstly, bad
dreams would occasionally arise, perhaps at times of stress. Most typically, I would
dream that I was supervising a funeral and running late, as holding up a funeral is an
heinous crime. Then the coffin would jam as it was lowered into the grave, because of
an error over the coffin size, my error. I would typically be looking on, unable to cope.

The nightmare, or is it just a really bad dream, was to do with operating a cremator. In the
1970’s, cremators were designed to cremate typical body sizes, to a maximum weight,
then, of perhaps fifteen stone. The very rare heavier bodies, say twenty stone, always
worried the cremator operator. They would be left to the last cremation of the day, and
sometimes proved too much for the cremator. A scenario developed in which the body
fat, something akin to petrol in incendiary value, burned at such a rate that, progressively,
the operator realised that all the various cremator controls were overwhelmed and the
cremation was out of control. Black smoke would pour out of the chimney and then
the smoke would ignite, with a blast, inside the trunking that linked the cremator to the
chimney. The smoke stopped instantly and the building literally drummed as the fire
raged in the trunking; this was called a runaway. On rare occasions, the clear body fat
ran out of the cremator and over the floor. It was the cremators version of a chimney fire,
when the soot used to ignite. The crematorium supervisor I worked with simply ran out
of the building and into the back yard and would not return until the fat burned itself out,
perhaps thirty minutes later. I used to relive this experience and occasionally wake up in
a sweat. Cremators improved greatly in subsequent decades but I am lead to believe that
the weight of current bodies has again overcome cremator capacity, and runaways are on
the increase. Where crematoria have older, and therefore, smaller cremators, they have to
refuse to cremate current large bodies.

4/ Do you think the American practice of having viewings of the deceased is one 
which would ever become common-place in Britain?

Ken: It is already commonplace, and the majority of the bereaved now view bodies. In part
this is because hygienic treatment (embalming) and viewing are included in the funeral
package. This is a commercial assumption that both are essential as part of the good send
off, a fact which is not proven by any research. The implication of all this ‘care’ suggests
that viewing the deceased is routine and expected. It takes a strong person to say no, the
more so when other family or relatives and friends ask to view the body and feel it is
a slight not to do this. Few will mention the fact that nobody recognises the embalmed

Some Americans have, albeit rarely, moved beyond casket (coffin in US) viewing to
couching. This is where the body is out of the casket, placed on a chaise-longue, in a
relaxed and animate position. The intention is that the bereaved enter the chapel, by
appointment, suitable music is played and they are confronted by the deceased looking
hale and hearty, and very, very relaxed. The intention is to create a good ‘memory
picture’ and perhaps the bereaved leave the room with the belief that death is not so bad.

I might mock all this in R.I.P. Off!, as it offends me, but it may have great value for some
people. This type of service is expensive and I tend to oppose anything that pushes up
funeral costs. I also think that this denial of death is unhealthy. Whether I am fair in this
approach is a valid question.

5/ Can a person be cremated or buried without having a service or any family/
friends present?

Ken: Yes, the person ordering the funeral has complete control, and can arrange this. But
at a crematorium the coffin is always taken through the chapel so given an appointed
time, and no discount on the cremation fee is given just because a service is not held.
No coffins are ever taken through the back door. With a burial, the coffin can be
taken ‘straight to grave’ so any chapel fee will not apply. One might assume that as these
direct funerals are much easier to arrange and manage, that the funeral director would
charge less. This must not be assumed, as many will still charge a package funeral price,
and would not reduce this. Such a funeral would qualify as a ‘basic’ funeral and at least
prove to be the least expensive of a number of options. Some funeral directors, often
the smaller independents, will quote for what we might term alternative funerals, so it is
necessary to contact them all and ask the pertinent questions.

As I mention in the R.I.P. Off! postscript, ‘direct cremations’ are now arranged over the
internet, and at about 50% (£1500 - £1800) of typical funeral package prices. Some of
these companies, I believe, are owned by mainstream funeral directors, hiding behind
subsiduary companies. This is because they fear that this kind of funeral is going to
increase, so want to penetrate the market at this early stage. Typically, they collect the
body, take it to a crematorium for cremation with no ceremony, and place the cremated
remains in the Garden of Remembrance at the crematorium. An additional fee can be paid
to have the cremated remains returned to the bereaved in a casket. This is ideal if it is
intended to hold a funeral service over the cremated remains, perhaps at home or at a
favourite beauty spot, where the remains are to be strewn. Where people are comfortable
with this approach then they might find that their local funeral director will quote for
such a service, so it is worth asking.

The internet firms can be assumed to own the crematorium or have a contract with
the owners, which also assumes they negotiate a reduced cremation fee because of the
numbers involved. Some of these companies will use a local crematorium of your choice,
but a higher charge can then be anticipated. A number of natural burial sites also collect
the body, inter it, with or without attendance. The bereaved will still buy a lease for the
grave and be free to visit subsequently.

This direct approach also avoids a clergy or celebrant fee, typically about £150.00. Any
family member(s) or friends can act as the celebrant at any funeral, of course, and avoid
this fee.

6/ Is there any particular funeral you will always remember?

Ken: Funerals are remembered for often bizarre reasons. Where somebody shouts out
profanities, or there is a lot of laughing, then these are always remembered, as are
funerals of murdered or abused infants or children, and drug deaths. It is not unusual
for one mourner, usually a male, to attend such funerals, manacled to a prison warder.
Because I started natural burial in the early 1990’s, and the bereaved decided that they
did not need to conform to old stereotypes, I shall always remember those funerals. The
first use of cardboard coffins, or coffins painted with flowers and suchlike, a grandchild
reading his book on oak trees over the open grave of his dead grandad, a family pouring
malt whisky over the coffin; all these things were revolutionary in the early 1990’s.

7/ What is the longest funeral service you have known?

Ken: Cremation times have always been programmed, and up to 1990, thirty minutes was
the norm and just a few authorities restricted services to twenty minutes. Thirty minutes
just about allows a routine religious service with two hymns. This was not enough time
if a high number of mourners attended, as it takes more time to enter and exit the chapel.
There were increasing complaints about this conveyor belt process which lead to myself
and others suggesting that 40 – 45 minutes should be the norm. This is generally the case
now, and some crematoria offer one hour. Even where time is restricted to thirty minutes,
it has always been usual to allow a double time upon request, often for an additional
charge, so a large funeral can be managed.

Burial, being just 30% of total funerals, has much higher capacity because it is often
spread over a number of cemeteries, so they were rarely restricted on time. That said,
funeral directors and the clergy often have other funerals to attend so would still work
closely to the thirty minutes. More time would be anticipated for funerals where we
expected a large congregation, which in the past would include deceased auctioneers,
hotel or garage owners. Now, the large congregations attend tragic deaths, such as those
of a young person. West Indian and traveller funerals are well attended, and have long
graveside services. They often want their own mourners to back-fill the grave, or they start
this and then watch the cemetery staff complete the work. Most cemeteries would make
this the final funeral of the day, and anticipate several hours before everybody leaves.

Many chapels have pews in wood, which are usually hard seats and often with poor back
support. Consequently, I found that elderly people could find long services very tiring
and uncomfortable, so seating needs considering. Services outside are also challenging,
especially for the old and in inclement weather. The majority of services are now secular
(63%) and often more than one family member will give a homily. These tend to be
longer services but are often entertaining, emotional and sometimes funny, and nobody
seems to mind the extra time taken.

8/ With the problem of obtaining enough land for burials, how feasible would it be 
for woodland burials to become more popular? Is each “plot” rented for a set period 
of time and can it then be reused? What would happen to any skeletal remains in a 
plot if it was re-sold to someone else to use? What do you think about the re-use of 
grave plots generally after a period of time?

Ken: Land used for woodland burials becomes an ecological resource benefiting clean air
and wildlife diversity. The sites are often surrounded by farmed soils, which are rapidly
declining in quality due to the use of artificial, oil derived, fertilisers. Woodland or
natural burial is open space in its purest form, and an ideal way of ‘resting’ the land and
allowing it to recover its natural balance. The real problem is that the available land is not
where the people reside, so people in urban areas are denied woodland burial. In theory, a
body can be moved from the city and interred in the countryside, but if people then drive
to visit the site every week, then any environmental benefit is lost.

Each grave is leased, usually for a period of up to 100 years, whether natural burial or
conventional grave. This is called an ‘Exclusive Right of Burial’ and is granted to the
person arranging the funeral, who is then required to authorise each burial, except his or
her own, which is a given. Graves vary in depth and one burial (4’6”deep) or two burials
(6’ 0”deep) is usual, with some cemeteries doing three or four burials, usually those
which started as Victorian cemeteries.

The graves cannot be re-used, unlike in Europe. Even where the lease has run out, we are
not allowed to disturb human remains without a Home Office Licence and/or a Faculty
from the Church of England. A colleague of mine, Ian Hussein, proposed a new re-use
technique called ‘lift & deepen’ but although it has broad support, the government will
not draft the legislation to permit it. The idea is to excavate the grave after, say, 75 years,
place the remains in a small box, and inter these deeper in the same grave. That would
allow two new burials in the grave and it could be repeated ad infinitum. It is anticipated
that some existing grave owners would be keen on this, as it would avoid the cost of a
new grave, and keep family members together. Where existing grave owners do not want
to maintain ownership, the plot would be sold to new owners. This will ensure that burial
space is always available for the use of the local community. I am in total support for this
process, not least because the Parish churchyard operated this way for perhaps a thousand
years. This was because, unlike in cemeteries, no lease was (or is) sold in churchyards
and the vicar has total control. In the past they buried over a churchyard, tipping the spare
soil over old graves. Then, as graves were not marked by memorials, they simply carried
out further burials over the previous ones. It kept the churchyard relatively small, so was
efficient and low cost.

With natural burial, the situation is more complex. At sites where trees are planted on
the grave, re-use will not be anticipated or feasible. But many natural burial sites, those
on farmland and interring in meadows or glades, would have the opportunity to re-use,
assuming the legislation is introduced. In my first book ‘A Guide to Natural Burial’,
a process to use natural burial in old urban cemeteries is described, but it has yet to be
implemented. It reduces grave maintenance costs by 80% and greatly increases wildlife
diversity and air quality. Incidentally, it costs about £4.00 per year for a council to
decently maintain a grave. If you inflate this over, say, a 75 year lease, it costs the council
well over £2,000 per grave. Many councils only charge £300 - £500 for a lease, which is
why cemeteries operate at a massive deficit, which is charged to council tax.

In London only, special powers exist to allow unused space in old graves to
be ‘reclaimed’, a process I managed at Croydon. The grave must be over 75 years old,
and a list of grave numbers to be reclaimed must be published in local newspapers and
in the absence of any interest from families, the unused grave space is re-leased. The
existing burials cannot be disturbed and only the space over them is used. Any memorial
on the grave can also be reused, with the new lessee required to put this into a safe and
decent order. This all helps to tidy up neglected grave plots. Overall, because no new land
is used, and the grave is already under grounds maintenance, this is a low cost option and
is well used, in Croydon at least. The problem is that only about four London Boroughs,
of 33, have actually introduced it. Whether this is due to lack of skill, or the avoidance of
stress, has yet to be explained. The press usually have a field day when such proposals
are made, and councillors lose their nerve.

9/ Could councils provide general funeral services as part of their current remit in 
providing crematoria/cemeteries? Could it be made cost-effective to provide such a 
service but also more affordable for those families who might otherwise struggle to 
pay the normal cost a funeral but are not eligible to receive state help with the cost 
of a funeral?

Ken: Firstly, an average cremation funeral costs £3,500. A burial based funeral is about the
same but as a memorial is assumed, this will cost a further £1500. In London, expect to
pay a few hundred pounds more for cremation, but as graves often cost £3,000 alone, a
burial might reach £5,000 - £6,000 plus the memorial.
Councils can provide a funeral service but do not have the powers to act as a funeral
director, which is legally defined as ‘the conveyance of a body and coffin’. Consequently,
if councils want to do this, which is rare, they are legally required to contract the service
out, usually to a local funeral director. He or she must advertise the service as, say,
the ‘Cardiff City Funeral Service’. In Cardiff, where I re-tendered the pre-existing service,
a cremation funeral was available at around £1500. As a ‘basic’ funeral, it requires the
family to use a standard coffin, restrict viewing to convenient times in the day, and
not expect the funeral director to order flowers or do things they could do themselves.
When the funeral cortege arrives at the crematorium, I would challenge anybody to see
any difference between this and a non council funeral. As it explains in R.I.P. Off!, the
expensive coffins people often choose with a funeral director are still chipboard, and the
appearance is purely superficial.

The problem for councils is twofold. Firstly, they need a skilled Bereavement Services
Manager to prepare a funeral specification and manage the process. Secondly, they
need to locate a funeral director willing to break ranks with their profession and submit
a tender. Even where this happens, there is the suggestion that on occasion the funeral
directors have agreed amongst themselves only to submit high tenders. As I mention
in the postscript to the novel, the Direct Cremations now offered by some internet firms
holds cremation funerals down to £1500 or thereabouts, so this may influence the funeral
market. No internet direct burial options are available.

10/ Would you advise people to seriously consider documenting what their wishes 
are for their own funerals, and making their immediate family aware of their 

Ken: Yes, and this is one of the reasons why I wrote R.I.P. Off! Many of the problems
with bereavement arise purely because people will not talk about or prepare for their
death, which creates the crisis scenario when it happens. Death is not an illness but it
is inevitable, and often abrupt. It is important to know what kind of death is wanted,
where it should occur, such as at home, and what kind of funeral is desired. This clears
away much of the dissonance which occurs after death, and it is then therapeutic, and
involving, to follow those wishes. There are two considerations here, a will and an
advance funeral directive. If ones death can be discussed, the making of a will is more
likely, which is the only certain way to protect partners and children, and ensure they
can control any estate as well as the funeral. It also means the survivors know the more
practicable stuff, such as whether the deceased’s pension died with them, and what their
financial future looks like.

Detailed funeral wishes are rare in a will, and the will may be read after the funeral has
occurred. The solution is an advance funeral directive, in which funeral details are clearly
expressed. This completed document must be known and available to the person who will
be arranging the funeral. There are significant, psychological benefits with this process.
For instance, if the deceased left precise instructions that the funeral should be basic
and low cost, it empowers the survivors to hold out against commercial exploitation.
Otherwise, they will be made to feel guilty if they do not spend, spend, spend. For me,
and many I suspect, I prefer donations to the hospice instead of flowers, no embalming
and no viewing. If you visit my website then one of the
downloads is a free advance funeral directive.

Elizabeth @ The Garden Window: Ken, very many thanks indeed for taking the time to answer our questions in such detail. It's a subject which every family needs to discuss and plan for, and both your book and the information you have provided in this interview will be used by our family members. Thank you once again!

My review of Ken's brilliant novel can be found here.

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