18/06/2017

Belonging (by Alexandra Raife)


A relative recommended Alexandra Raife’s novels to me many years ago, and over the years I gradually collected them. She hasn’t published anything since 2004, however, so in recent years I’ve started re-reading them.

A few weeks ago I decided to start ‘Belonging’, which I last read in 2002. With family commitments I’ve only read a chapter - sometimes less! - each evening, and it’s been an ideal novel in that sense. It’s character-driven, warm and mostly gentle, but also absorbing, enabling me to wind down after a busy day.

Rebecca is the main viewpoint character, a young and determined woman who, as the story starts, is leaving her high powered job, her flat and her nearby mother. She has recently had an encounter which has disturbed her so greatly that she needs to move away; we don’t discover what happened until much later in the book, but it leaves a trail of mystery that hooked my interest immediately.

Rebecca has decided to visit her cousin Tony’s large family hotel on the other side of Scotland. She doesn’t particularly like him, but she’s fond of his wife Una and looks forward to a break. When she arrives she discovers Una in distress, about to cancel all the bookings for the summer… and Rebecca finds herself drawn into hotel management and troubleshooting and generally making things happen.

There are many side storylines, and in part it’s a story of growth and development for Una, as well as something to take Rebecca’s mind away from her recent shock. There are many insights into the world of running a hotel and ‘survival’ courses alongside it, which feel realistic and interesting rather than over-detailed or ‘researched’.

There are brief appearances from people and places that featured in earlier novels by this author, although I don’t remember exactly who, nor was it necessary to have read any of the earlier books. But I like the sense of continuity, of feeling myself returning to a familiar place.

All in all, I liked this novel very much. I’d recommend it to anyone who likes thoughtful women’s fiction with realistic, warm characters and interesting locations.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

31/05/2017

The Beloved Disciple (by Beth Moore)

I downloaded a few of Beth Moore’s devotional books for the Kindle a while ago when they were offered free for a short period. I read through the one about the apostle Paul earlier in the year, and thought, on the whole, that it was well written and interesting. So when I’d finished it, I started on the one about the apostle and gospel-writer John.

‘The Beloved Disciple’ is about one of my favourite Bible characters, and, as with the previous book, began by giving some background into his life, with some speculation based on what we know about young men of his culture and era, as well as close attention to what’s found in Scripture.

I had not previously realised that John was most likely the youngest of the twelve specially called disciples of Jesus, but what Beth Moore writes makes a lot of sense. We certainly know that John was the longest lived, exiled in late middle age to the island of Patmos, where he wrote Revelation, the final book of the Bible.

However, I didn’t find the main part of the book as helpful or inspiring as the one about Paul. That surprised me, and slightly disappointed me, as John wrote some of the most thought-provoking passages in the New Testament. But perhaps I’ve read them - and read about them - so many times previously that there wasn’t much that I hadn’t thought of before.

That’s not a problem with the book as such, but I did find the style of writing a bit irritating too. There seemed to be a lot of cliches and informal slang, which jarred. Parts of the book read as if they were transcripts of a talk rather than being intended for reading, and some of the phrases made no sense at all to someone not brought up in the same culture.

I also found it annoying that the author kept referring to the reader as ‘Beloved’. Not that she’s wrong - we’re all beloved in God’s eyes - but it felt deliberately over-familiar. Again, it’s something that might have worked in a talk, but not in a book.

However, I kept reading, one chapter per day over nearly two months, and it was good to spend that time focussing on the Apostle John. It’s not a bad book, and contains much that’s useful about John, his life, and many insights into his writing. But when I’d finished I didn’t feel inclined to find another of Beth Moore’s books, at least for a while.

Recommended if you want to know more about John the Apostle and the books he wrote, in a structured way, if you don’t mind the informal and familiar style.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

29/05/2017

Little Women (by Louisa M Alcott)


In between reading new books, I’m re-reading some of my favourites. This time I decided to indulge myself with a much-loved book from my childhood. ‘Little Women’ is probably Louisa M Alcott’s best-known book; it’s been made into various films, and has three sequels. First published in 1868, it’s more rambling (with typical author asides) than today’s literature, but still a good story, with delightful characters.

I first read this classic as a child, and re-read several times in my teens. I read it aloud to my sons nearly seventeen years ago, when they were fourteen and twelve. Despite the old-fashioned writing, and the mostly female viewpoints, they enjoyed it very much. However, I had not re-read it since then, so while I remembered the story and most of the subplots well, I’d forgotten much of the detail, and some of the minor events and conversations.

‘Little Women’ was intended for teenagers, but is the kind of book that can be read by anyone from the age of about eight or nine upwards. The four March girls, when the story opens, range in age between sixteen and twelve. They are described in the first pages, and their characters are quite diverse. Meg, the oldest, dreams of dances and fashionable clothes. Jo, close in age to Meg, is tomboyish, considering herself the ‘man’ of the household in their father’s absence. Not that this is a broken family; Father is a chaplain in the American civil war.

Beth and Amy are the younger girls, and are very different from their sisters. Beth is sweet and loving, but also quite frail and shy. Amy is a classic youngest child, long before psychologists identified the idea of a ‘spoilt princess’. She is pretty, and popular, but also very hot-tempered and independent.

We first meet the family when they’re discussing how difficult it is to be without money at Christmas. It’s clear, though, that theirs is a genteel kind of poverty. The March family still has enough to eat, and employs Hannah, who cooks for them and does some of the household management. Meg and Jo are both out at work, and there’s no spare money, but they’re not in nearly such dire straits as other families who are mentioned in the book, without food or warmth of any kind.

As a different contrast, the March’s closest neighbours are the wealthy Laurence family. Mr Laurence is considered bad-tempered, and his grandson, known as Laurie, is lonely and shy. But Laurie - who is sixteen - gets to know the girls, and is accepted into their family circles as an adopted brother.

The author acknowledged that there was a strongly autobiographical slant to ‘Little Women’, and this is perhaps what makes the people seem so real. It’s a character-based novel that takes place over the course of a year; it ends with Christmas a year later. There’s a fair amount of moralising, as the girls all decide to be ‘pilgrims’, working harder and trying to overcome their faults. But along the way there’s some humour, some very moving scenes, and many glimpses into life in the United States in this era.

I enjoyed re-reading this very much, and recommend it highly. It has been continually in print in many different versions, both printed and ebooks. Make sure that you have a full edition; the abridged ones miss out some of the author viewpoint comments, but also miss out many of the girls' own thoughts and feelings.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

27/05/2017

The Exiles (by Hilary McKay)

It’s nearly six years since I was introduced to Hilary McKay’s excellent books for older children and teenagers. My favourite series is still the one starting with ‘Saffy’s Angel’, but I also like her ‘Exiles’ trilogy, about a somewhat bohemian family with four independent and very different daughters.

I look after a friend’s three daughters for a few hours each week, and since they’re the ages that three of the girls in the first book are, I suggested reading it aloud to them, a chapter or two at a time, over the course of a couple of months. None of them had read the books, and I very much like reading aloud to older children.

The Exiles’ are Naomi (13), Ruth (11), Rachel (8) and Phoebe (6). My friends’ daughters are 11, 8 and 6, and readily identified with their counterparts. Naomi tries to be responsible, but - like her sisters - spends much of her time reading, in other worlds. Ruth is keen on natural history, Rachel is something of a peacemaker, and likes food a lot; Phoebe is very determined and never goes along with the crowd.

The story starts with news of an inheritance from a little-known relatives. The girls all assume they’ll get their share, and start to make plans for their anticipated wealth. However, their parents have other ideas and decide to make some necessary repairs and upgrades to their house. These will take place over the school summer holidays, so the girls are sent to their grandmother who lives in Cumbria.

‘Big Grandma’, as they call her, believes that her granddaughters need to learn to be more responsible, and to learn some useful life skills. Her house is rather sparsely furnished, and she expects them to help with daily chores. They are deeply suspicious of her at first, and shocked to find that the only books in her house are recipe books and a large volume of Shakespeare.

But they’re resourceful girls, and after the first few days, they find things to do, and places to go, and start to make friends locally. There’s not a huge amount of action, but the writing is good with some irony, and it was very enjoyable to read aloud. Sometimes my young friends’ attention lagged a bit, and some weeks we forgot about it, but by the time we were half-way through they kept asking for more.

I had forgotten most of the storyline - I last read it in 2012 - other than the dramatic climax in the final chapters, which my small friends didn’t entirely approve of. But they liked the book very much, and hope I’ll start to read the sequel some time soon.

Definitely recommended for fluent readers, or as a pleasant, and often amusing read-aloud for children of about six and upwards.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

24/05/2017

The Christmas Promise (by Sue Moorcroft)

I’ve very much liked the characters and writing style in all the novels I’ve read by Sue Moorcroft, so when I saw that she had published another one recently, I put it on my wishlist and was delighted to be given it for a recent birthday.

Perhaps I should have kept ‘The Christmas Promise’ to read in December, but I couldn’t resist the sparkly, shiny cover. I expected a light read, with some romance involved, and some realistic people who would get under my skin. I was not disappointed.

The main character is Ava, an independent young woman in her twenties, who works as a specialist hat-maker. Unfortunately business has not been great recently, and she struggles financially. She shares a home with her best friend Izz, who works for a communications company. We meet them both struggling through crowded London streets, in drizzling rain, on their way to a work Christmas gathering, on December 1st. Ava meets Izz’s colleagues, and also their boss Sam. Izz is rather keen on Sam, although he seems to be more interested in Ava…

Ava doesn’t like Christmas, and is stressed because her ex-boyfriend Harvey has started to stalk her, and is becoming rather a nuisance. Things take a turn for the worse when he arrives drunk, and starts to threaten her with the exposure of some rather intimate photos he took when they were together…

It took me a little while to get into the book, as there seemed to be a lot of characters in the first chapter. A party is a great place to introduce several people, but I found myself a little overwhelmed at first, and had to keep checking back. However, Sue Moorcroft does a good job with characterisation, and while I never quite distinguished some of Sam’s colleagues, Sam himself stood out as a very likeable person - I could see the potential for romance almost immediately.

It’s not a fluffy story, however; there are many issues involved, some of them highly relevant to the 21st century and use of technology. As well as the threats from Harvey, and Ava’s dire financial straits, there’s a character about to undergo chemotherapy, and a minor celebrity who needs a new image. Specialist hat-making is involved in several of the sub-plots, and there was rather more information about millinery than I wanted to know, but it was easy enough to skim. For those who are interested in the topic, there’s an appendix at the back with what purports to be an article (one mentioned in the book) explaining in much more detail how hats are made.

The story moves at a good pace, with plenty of drama, misunderstandings, and an ingenious plot resolution towards the end. There’s a lot of warmth in Sam’s family interactions, and we learn gradually why Ava dislikes Christmas so much; this makes another poignant side story, and raises the issue of how important it is to get a balance between a growing child’s independence and their need to be looked after and loved.

My main gripe, as with several of this author’s books, is the detail she uses in the leadup to the inevitable bedroom scenes. It feels unnecessary, and cheapens the otherwise excellent storyline. It means I won’t be lending it to teenagers, or anyone uncomfortable with that amount of intimate detail. However, the publishers presumably wanted it, so no doubt there are readers who relish this kind of thing.

My other minor problem was that I had no idea what the word or acronym WAG meant; it came up several times, both singular and plural, without (as far as I could tell) any explanation. Eventually I looked it up online, and discovered it’s a recently adopted word meaning ‘wives and girlfriends’, initially of sports players. In the singular, it apparently means the wife or girlfriend of a celebrity.

Definitely recommended, so long as you don’t mind the suggestive implications. It would make a good holiday read, or indeed a post-Christmas one.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

21/05/2017

The Children of Primrose Lane (by Noel Streatfeild)

I’ve loved Noel Streatfeild’s writing since I was about eight or nine, when I first discovered a collection of her books on my grandparents’ shelves. She’s best known for her children’s classic ‘Ballet Shoes’, and was quite a prolific author in the middle of the 20th century. I’ve gradually collected most of her books over the years, and enjoy re-reading them regularly.

‘The Children of Primrose Lane’, unlike most of Streatfeild’s books, does not feature anyone who is artistically talented. Set in wartime England, it’s about a group of children who live in a street with just four houses. They’re old, and should have been knocked down; indeed, the occupants of number four have moved on. But the three red-headed Brown children, the Smith twins and Millie Evans, aged between 14 and 9, see each other as extended family. They’ve unofficially adopted number four as their place to escape.

One day they discover someone hiding. He claims to be someone on his way to meet his brother, but his story doesn’t ring true and the children soon realise he’s an ‘enemy’ spy of some kind. However they can’t report him because it might get someone else into serious trouble… so they do what they can to outwit him.

I don’t remember reading this book as a child; I acquired it in 2006 and read it then, so re-reading it recently I could remember very little of the storyline. It’s an exciting story, one which made me feel quite tense in places, despite knowing that it was inevitably going to end well. Streatfeild had a gift of writing about realistic, three-dimensional children, and she achieves that very well in this book. Her only caricature is the rather spoiled Millie. Sally, the oldest Brown, is responsible and a good leader, and good at keeping the peace.

Quite apart from being a well-told and interesting story, the book gives a good picture of what it would have been like in the 1940s, where children had a lot of freedom, at least during daylight hours. There are one or two places where dialogue and description would not be considered politically correct these days, and one rather shocking use of a word that’s now considered very offensive. My edition was slightly revised in 1965 and apparently this word was considered acceptable even then.

Other than that, it’s an ideal book for children who like to read about the war years, and who enjoy exciting adventure stories. Perhaps the climax to the book is somewhat unlikely, but it makes a most dramatic ending. As ever the concluding pages are quite short; once Noel Streatfeild resolves her main plot problems she usually finishes very quickly, almost abruptly at times. But this time the balance feels about right.

Definitely recommended to fluent readers over the age of about eight or nine; just be warned about the casual use of a very bad word. Long out of print, and tends to be pricy, particularly in the US (where its alternate title is 'The Stranger of Primrose Lane').

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

18/05/2017

A Song for Tomorrow (by Alice Peterson)

Since I have enjoyed everything I have read so far by Alice Peterson, I keep watch for her new publications. I was delighted to see this one available recently and put it on my wish-list; I was given it for my recent birthday, and started reading it a few days ago.

‘A Song for Tomorrow’ begins with a journal-type prologue written by a young mother. She learns that her newborn baby, Alice, has the genetic condition called cystic fibrosis. This is a chronic lung disease which, at the time, meant that her daughter’s life expectancy was about ten years.

We then move forward twenty-six years to 1998, when the main part of the story begins. The two main characters are Alice, who has clearly outlived her initial prognosis, and Tom. Tom spots her as he’s walking past an art exhibition, and can’t get her out of his mind. The book mostly switches between their two viewpoints, told in the present tense, with occasional further journal entries by Alice’s mother.

Alice is an independently minded and determined young woman, aware that time is not on her side, but trying to make the most of every moment. We soon learn that she has to spend every day using nebulisers and taking drugs. She lives in a flat attached to her parents’ home because she’s unable to live by herself.

The descriptions are vivid without being overwhelming, but after a few chapters I found myself wondering how the author knew so much about cystic fibrosis. I knew that she had rheumatoid arthritis herself, and wondered if she had personal experience of this disease too. I skipped to the end of the book, expecting to read acknowledgements, and discovered that the novel is based on a true story: that of a young woman called Alice Martineau, who was passionate about music and wanted to be a singer, despite her illness.

Not wanting to know the entire story, I went back to the novel, with new interest in the storyline. Most of the names are changed, and some of the characters are entirely fictional. But the relationship with Tom, and with her parents, is, according to Alice’s real brother, pretty much true to reality.

The novel charts Alice’s determination not just to sing but to make an album of her music. She writes lyrics, many of which are given in the book. This plot runs alongside her deteriorating health, and some side stories involving her close friends, some of whom have the same illness.

Inevitably there are high points and low points; I soon realised what was going to happen in the end although I didn’t know how or why. It was written in a positive way, although it could be rather depressing for anyone suffering from cystic fibrosis, or with a family member with this condition.

The writing is excellent, the people realistic, including the fictional ones, and the conversations and events believable. All in all, I thought it a powerful and inspiring book and would recommend it highly.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

15/05/2017

Survival Games Personalities Play (by Eve Delunas)


I don’t remember where I first heard of Eve Delunas, or this book. Perhaps it was recommended in one of the many books I’ve read about temperament or personality type; perhaps it was on a forum I’m part of which discusses this issues. The book was quite expensive to buy new, so I kept it on my private wish-list for a while. When I spotted it inexpensively at the AwesomeBooks site, I ordered it.

I was at first a bit irritated when I started reading ‘Survival Games Personalities Play’, not because of anything wrong with the writing or the book itself, but because a previous owner had used a highlighter and a permanent pen to underline or emphasise large amounts of text in the book. As I struggled through the first chapters, I wondered if I’d be able to understand anything at all.

It’s a testament to how very good the book is that by the time I was around two-thirds of the way through I no longer noticed the highlights or underlinings!

The book starts with an overview and history of temperament theory, most of which was familiar to me already, but which provides a useful introduction. It then launches into what it calls the ‘survival games’ each temperament tends to ‘play’ when under extreme stress. I found the concept of ‘playing games’ quite a confusing one; to me, games are enjoyable ways of socialising with friends, which we choose. The ‘survival games’ described by the author are completely different: they’re ways of dealing with stress, and are entirely subconscious.

However, that terminology is my only minor complaint about the book. As the author describes each of these ‘games’ in outline, I could see some of them immediately as they relate to various people I know. Others were harder to understand, but it made a useful reference chapter which I glanced at from time to time as I progressed through the book.

After the introductory chapters, there’s a section devoted to each of the four temperaments (Artisans, Guardians, Rationals and Idealists, as David Keirsey first termed them, and as I still think of them). While any of the ‘games’ can apply to anyone of any temperament, it made a lot of sense that certain ones appeal more to particular personality types, and also ties in with my own experience.

The author looks at ways to help people who are stuck in these games, and describes some of the strategies she has used when dealing with problems in marriages, parenting, businesses, and more. She’s a qualified psychotherapist and mentions several different kinds of therapy that helped different people. Some of them sounded rather strange to me, but the point is made that each individual and each case is different. What helps one person might make things worse for another. Hence, she explains, it’s important to see what - if any - ‘games’ are being played, and what temperament most likely fits the people concerned.

The final section gives some actual case studies with a challenge to the reader to figure out the most likely temperaments of the people concerned, and what might help them move forward. The author certainly doesn’t imply that all her methods are successful. In at least one case, the results were very disappointing. But that doesn’t mean it was wrong to try.

The writing is clear, easy to read and full of wisdom. There are some areas where an interested amateur couldn’t begin to go; the author has helped sufferers of serious abuse in childhood or later relationships, where unravelling the ‘survival game’ is only the beginning of helping the person concerned to find healing. But for milder cases, where communication has dried up, or parents are struggling with difficult teenagers, there’s a great deal that could potentially be helpful.

Overall I enjoyed this very much, and expect I’ll dip into the book regularly.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews