Bookshelf: Our recommendations for a good holiday read

CS Lewis: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet
 Alister McGrath
 Hodder and Stoughton
CS Lewis may be best known for penning the much loved Chronicles of Narnia children's stories, but a story every bit as enjoyable to read is that of his own unconventional life. Alister McGrath has done a first rate job of putting that life to paper in his superb biography, CS Lewis: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. The Lewis we are most familiar with is the "Oxford don", the literary genius, the captivating speaker and engaging writer, the famous apologist who was able to articulate the Christian faith in a way that could speak to the clergyman and academic as much as to the "common man" and – as with Narnia – even to the child. Yet McGrath takes us well beyond the familiar labels into Lewis's personal world, not to judge, he stresses, but to understand the man: who he was, where he came from, and the contexts out of which his great written works were arose. This is far from a simple re-write of existing scholarly material on Lewis. His proposed new date for Lewis's conversion is tantalising and reveals the extent of his own considerable research. This is a book to relish.

Potholes and Belly-flops: Thoughts from a woman who knows!
 Susie Flashman Jarvis
 Instant Apostle
Some books just keep you turning the page and this is one of them. It's not a thriller or a suspense novel. Nor is it full of invented character plots and machinations. This is the real life story of a former Page Three model and her descent into a debauched world of drug addiction and promiscuity before being well and truly saved by God and given a second chance to be the woman, mother, wife, daughter and friend He had always intended her to be. Susie tells her story with touching honesty but also plenty of humour and optimism. Despite the horridness and tragedy of some aspects of her life, she sees everything through the lens of forgiveness and you will find yourself smiling, and even laughing, often as you read her story. If you are tempted to feel that God does not love you, she writes that her life is proof that God chooses to bless the most unlikely people. If you ever needed a lesson in the art of moving on, buy this book. And if not, then just enjoy it for what it is: a humble and engaging lesson in life that brims with infectious hope.

Laughter is Sacred Space: The Not-So-Typical Journey of a Mennonite Actor
 Ted Swartz
 Herald Press
The name Ted Swartz may not register with many people over this side of the pond but in US church circles he is well known as one half of the Ted & Lee comedy act that brought laughter and food for the soul to countless Christians at conferences, camps and other performances. That is, until the untimely and tragic suicide of the other half of the act, his partner Lee Eshleman in 2007. The book is not an exercise in philosophy but a surprisingly personal look back over a life lived out in answer to the less conventional calling of being a Christian comedic actor – a calling he felt so strongly about that he gave up training to become a pastor in the Mennonite church for. As most of his acting life was with Eshleman, their close relationship as friends and partners is the thread that binds this book together. There are lots of humorous anecdotes throughout, but Lee's suicide creates an unavoidable tension and an inevitable climax, the point where it has to be confronted and, as Swartz puts it, "the comedy dies". What is amazing about this book is the extent to which Swartz opens up about his experiences and his feelings – the funny in the everyday stuff of real life, the joys of living out God's calling, the times of reward after hard work and sacrifice, the intense pain and anger following the loss of an irreplaceable partner. It is far more intimate than we, the anonymous readers, deserve it to be, and so refreshing for it.

Columba's Iona: A New History
 Rosalind K Marshall
 Sandstone Press
This year marks the 1450th anniversary of St Columba's arrival on Iona and to mark the occasion, the Iona Cathedral Trust has commissioned this new book on the tiny island's unique place in the history of Scottish Christianity. St Columba and the early monastic community he established there are as mysterious as ever given the scant original sources we have about them but the little we do know presents us with a man of formidable conviction and courage who inspired others with his faith and piety enough to remain in their consciences and on their tongues long after he himself was gone. The account of Columba's own life covers the familiar stories of the man and his miracles handed down through generations, but what makes for especially interesting reading is the subsequent history of the monastery, how it fell into ruin as a result of neglect and almost didn't survive at all. Marshall painstakingly charts the journey of restoration, the conflicts of interest and opinion, the struggles to raise the huge sums of money needed to preserve it for future generations, and the moving generosity of people who had no reason to give than their personal faith and deep-rooted appreciation of Iona as the symbolic centre of Scottish Christianity.  This book certainly enhances appreciation of the many nameless or forgotten Christians who have invested down through the ages to preserve the heritage we take for granted today.