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on 15 April 2013
How refreshing to read an intelligent, thought provoking novel with such a humane theme. Following the different time threads was intriguing and stimulating. It had pace but without losing very strong characterisation. Loved Appleby. Highly recommended as an entertaining, funny and relevant read
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on 21 April 2013
Entertaining from start to finish, Paul Hoggart's novel raises many thought-provoking questions about the history of religion -- and the history of doubt. A Man Against a Background of Flames combines fine historical scene-setting with the pace of the comedy thriller, as it highlights the paradoxes and absurdities of our supposedly 'post-secular' age.
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on 1 September 2013
A satisfying, ironic and multi-layered novel, bringing together the past (16th century Elizabethan England) and the present, merging campus novel, thriller, the comic and serious.

The hero, James Appleby, is an engaging, accident prone academic historian, who stumbles on evidence of a sixteenth century sect of humanists, who under their leader, Nicholas Harker, try to formulate a religion without god, The discovery has consequences: the spread of groups imitating the "Harkerites" in the present and a furious reaction to this from religious fundamentalists of all kinds.

The novel involves satirical treatment of backstabbing academic politics, Fox TV, religious cults and practices (Oprah Winfrey style confession sessions). It is sometimes laugh out loud funny and also works as a thriller-it's a page-turner.

It reminds one in some ways of Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, but it is actually much better, more coherent and all of a piece.
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on 10 June 2013
This is a hugely enjoyable read as an action packed, page turning historical thriller. But, at the same time it shows the folly of religious extremism, affirming my belief in the authority and power of a moral code without the need for a God or religion per se.
Demonstrating the very best of human nature by the use of warm, fallible, consistently believable characters, Paul Hoggart draws you into the interplay between intensely human situations, backstabbing academic politics and the madness of fundamentalism with a warm wit. It is thought provoking, humorously irreverent and completely relevant for an increasingly secular society which can feel battered and patronised by the religious right.
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on 19 October 2013
James Appleby is a history lecturer at York University, he has a career of mediocrity mapped out in front of him. Then, as part of his research, he uncovers the story of a massacre of a religious sect in the 16th Century. Further research leads to him uncovering the story of the Harkerites, a humanistic group whose teachings have remained hidden for centuries. Harkerism becomes a worldwide movement through Appleby's research and this triggers terrorist activity.

The story of the Harkerites and their teachings is a good one, juxtaposing beliefs alongside the actions of Appleby and how he changes over time. My problem with the book is the whole terrorist plot device, it reads like a comedy whereas the rest of the book is gentle philosophy.
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on 3 February 2014
I loved this book. There is so much in it: love, infidelity, betrayal, religious fervour, humanist ideals, violence, tragedy, excitement, action and so many surprises. The structure of the book is incredibly complicated, and I should think if Mr Hoggart used Post-it notes to keep track of his story-lines, his office wall would have been covered in a colourful patchwork.

There are three story-lines that are told in consecutive chapters - the present day Appleby dealing with the monsters leashed by his discovery, the young Appleby trying to establish his career, meeting his future wife and dealing with tragedy, and finally the Elizabethan story of Harker and his disillusion with religion and religious authorities. The threads come together to form a stunning climax at the end. The sheer skill needed to pull it off is incredibly impressive.

This is a book that will grip you. I found it hard to put down. It was just so interesting. The details about Harkerism were fascinating, and the author has gone to amazing trouble with details down to writing Elizabethan poetry and Harker's kind, thoughtful, human "contemplations". A real tour de force and so much better than Da Vinci.

Fantastic stuff!
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on 11 December 2013
I loved the historical background in this novel and the way the different strands of the story were woven together. It may be compared to The Da Vinci Code but I found it vastly superior to that.
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on 9 December 2013
It is well written, fast, witty, and well researched. I learnt a lot along the way. Very pertinent to the times we live in, around religious beliefs, art, culture, prejudice, control, irrationality and violence. The academic rivalries and personal relationships add to the suspense. I would highly recommend this book.
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on 21 January 2014
'A Man against a Background of Flames' tells the tale of James Appleby, a contemporary Oxbridge academic, and his dealing with the consequences of the discovery of a chest of 400-year-old documents in Holland. Appleby's field of research is the reign of Elizabeth the First, an era of religious intolerance and persecution (though not as appalling as that of her predecessor and half-sister, Mary Tudor), and particularly the lives of ordinary men and women in rural England at that time. Appleby discovers that an unspeakable massacre occurred at a manor house in Wiltshire in the late 16th century, and, in his quest for answers, the narrative leads us from England, Holland and the US as clues are dropped, documents are discovered, historical events are sifted through and the 'new' religion, Protestantism, is held up to unfavourable scrutiny.

Contemporary events start mirroring those of the past as Appleby's life becomes increasingly precarious (not helped by him being a incurable womaniser), and the shocking climax is as unpleasant as it is heart-stopping. But that's not all - just when you think you know how it will all end, the twists and turns occur right until the very last paragraph.

Paul Hoggart splices the timeframes of the action in-between each other to create a storyline which, while sometimes causing confusion as to which event occured before which, does create a sense of the panic enveloping Appleby as he nears the denouement. I did also feel that some of the loose ends were resolved a little too superficially, as if Hoggart realised that he'd written a bit too much and that the story needed finishing off quickly. Finally, as a small niggle, I noticed a number of proofreading errors in my paperback copy of the book which, while hardly catastrophic, did jar slightly.

However, I understand that Mr Hoggart is planning a sequel to this book, so I look forward immensely to its appearance.
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on 14 October 2013
I loved this novel which told the story of Appleby, a slightly bumbling historical scholar who stumbles upon the find of his career and inadvertantly creates a secular faith so compelling that it prompts extremists from across the established religions to attack him. By moving back and forth in time Hoggart creates suspense that kept me hooked throughout, whilst also having time to tell the more human story of Appleby's life and loves, and to explore more complex philosophical themes about the role of religion in society today. This novel contained elements I have loved in different novels but never found combined in one - it was part-thriller, part-philosophy; a page turner with depth and substance to it, with flawed characters you could believe in and empathise with and with both humour and tension. I loved it.
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