14/04/2017

The Good, the Bad and the Dumped (by Jenny Colgan)

I’ve read a few of Jenny Colgan’s novels, mostly involving cakes of some kind. They’re light-hearted fun, mostly well-written with engaging - if caricatured - people, and satisfying endings. So when I saw this book in a thrift shop a few months ago, it was an easy decision to buy it.

‘The Good, the Bad and the Dumped’ is about a young woman called Posy, whom we first meet at the top of a mountain. Her sporty boyfriend Matt has brought here there, and she’s pretty sure he’s going to propose. All goes well until she starts to get second thoughts, a few days later. She’s filled with insecurities, and decides that she needs to find out what happened to her three exes, who are in far-flung places around the UK.

It was hard to like Posy at first; her sister and best friend discourage her from doing this, and she doesn’t even tell Matt. Yes, she’s had a difficult life, as we learn through subsequent chapters, with flashbacks to her childhood, and conversations with her remarkably self-centred mother. But her sudden insistence on delving into the past leaves her open to all kinds of disasters.

It’s all rather too tidy, as well. Chris, the first boyfriend, was comfortable, needy and liked being looked after. Adam, the second, was exciting and taught her a great deal, but commitment phobic. And then there’s the one she never talked about; the one who broke her heart. Evidently he’s the one she still hankers after, in some way, and is keeping her from feeling certain about Matt.

The ongoing hints about the third boyfriend are a clever device to add a little mystery and to keep the reader interested. And, frankly, it needed something like that. There really wasn’t much story with the first half of the book; just lots of conversations, and flashbacks, and Posy’s memories. It’s not all told from Posy’s viewpoint, which is a bit confusing; we suddenly see snippets of thoughts from other people interspersed with Posy’s story, and that made it all feel less personal.

I kept reading, because the style is engaging, and I was interested to see how it all panned out. The ending of the story is nicely satisfying and the epilogue is quite clever, if a bit predictable. But none of the characters grabbed me at all. They’re all rather one-dimensional. Some of them (such as Posy’s step-brother) are so caricatured that they are annoying. I don’t know why he was included at all.

Even the eventual meeting with the third boyfriend is fraught with drama and then a ridiculous episode before Posy drives home. She’s come to a new revelation by then, and needs to see yet another person from her past… all of which is rather obvious, and I kept hoping the story would start….

Oh, and the chronology at the end is confusing, and the blurb on the back - which I didn’t read until after I’d finished the book - was apparently written by someone who hadn’t actually read the book.

I sound negative, but it’s not a bad book. Jenny Colgan has a very readable light-hearted style that I like. I kept reading, often several chapters at a time. It made a pleasant few evenings’ reading, and would be a good novel to take on holiday for someone who likes women’s fiction, and doesn’t want to have to think too much.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

09/04/2017

Becoming a Writer (by Dorothea Brande)

I don’t know where I first heard of this book. I knew nothing about Dorothea Brande; indeed, the title might have put me off, had I noticed it in a shop, as it sounds like something for beginners. However, I came across recommendations for this in other writing books, so when I spotted it inexpensively at the AwesomeBooks site, I ordered it and it arrived in December.

The cover on my edition of ‘Becoming a Writer’ looks old-fashioned, and the style is too; hardly surprising, as I discovered to my astonishment that it was first published in 1934. It has remained in print, in many different editions, for over eighty years. Partly this is because, as the author stresses, it’s not about the details of writing. It’s not about different genres, nor about writing styles, or proof-reading, or marketing.

Instead, this is a book about inspiration, and motivation, and finding ways to bypass the brain’s natural procrastinating tendencies. It’s not about biology, though; nor is it judgemental in any way. The author acknowledges that she, too, tended to put things off, and fill her life with non-essentials and busy-ness, avoiding, continually, the things she wanted, deep down, to do most. Those who are not natural procrastinators would probably find this hard to understand.

After an introduction, Dorothea Brande launches straight into her programme that encourages anyone who wants to write, or who feels they could be a writer but keep getting stuck. She gives no writing prompts or suggestions. Instead, she starts with something I’d read before: to spend time each morning hand-writing. She puts no time limit or minimum amount on this, just to start the day with the discipline of writing something - anything will do.

The next exercise is to set a specific time each day for writing, just for fifteen minutes, planned in advance. One therefore starts to look forward to that time, to treat it as a vitally important appointment, rather than something slotted into the day when there’s time or motivation. Indeed, the main point of the book is that we need to harness the will to write, to be disciplined in our use of time, and to work through the blocks and distractions that inevitably appear.

None of this is in fact new. I’ve read other books that make similar suggestions, but never in such a straightforward way. Admittedly the prose is long-winded in places, and the references to a typewriter are reminders that this is a very old book. But human nature doesn’t change; what the author describes as the fears and anxieties of a writer are current today, and probably always will be.

I haven’t done all the exercises, but just beginning on them has made a tremendous difference. Discipline sounds negative, but in a nice synchronicity I’m reading another book, on a totally different topic, which makes the point that any ‘discipline’ is intended to help us achieve a goal or state of some kind. They might be difficult at first, but eventually they become habits.

I would recommend this to anyone who struggles to get going with writing, or who starts different projects but gets nowhere. It won’t help with any of the details of HOW to write, or constructing plots, or anything else; it’s just about getting started, and finding the time and motivation to do the writing each day.

I hope to re-read this regularly. Very highly recommended.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

The Chalet School Triplets (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)

In my gradual re-reading of Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s lengthy Chalet School series, I’ve reached the final ten. I first read these later volumes in my early teens, borrowed from my school library, then over the next few decades dipped into a few, now and again, from my mother’s collection. My memory is of quite a mixed bunch: some good, some rather samey.

‘The Chalet School Triplets’, 49th in the original editions, is one of the better ones, in my view.  It follows on from 'The Feud in the Chalet School', with some of the girls from that mentioned in passing. I only have the Armada paperback edition, but I gather it’s not too drastically cut down from the original.

This book, unsurprisingly, features the Maynard triplets, Len, Con and Margot, who are now sixteen. Len, who is tall and responsible, is now a prefect, planning to be a teacher when she leaves school. Con is still inclined to be dreamy and to get lost in her writing, but she’s learned to work hard and is also planning to become a teacher. Margot, the red-headed triplet who used to get up to a lot of mischief, is now determined to keep up with her sisters, and isn’t yet sure what she wants to do in the future.

In this book, Len is accidentally responsible for a very worrying incident when some girls go missing; Con is a reluctant last-minute performer on stage; Margot receives an exciting invitation from her best friend, who now lives in Australia. There’s also a dramatic blizzard scene, and - of all things - an attempted kidnapping.

Each incident makes interesting reading, and I liked seeing the different characters of the three. While Brent-Dyer caricatured some of her creations, she must have been fond of the Maynard family. They’re realistically flawed; but all, in their different ways, are very likeable. The growth we’ve seen in each of the triplets over the years is believable, and Margot’s sudden flashes of temper, albeit far fewer than when she was younger, remind us of the difficult child she used to be.

Perhaps there is too much drama for one term; chapter after chapter gives more excitement, far more so than in books whose titles sound more dramatic than this one. There’s very little about ordinary school life; it’s a background to the triplets’ lives, and I like the change of pace. However, those who are not fans of the Maynards might find this a bit dull or heavy-going.

Brent-Dyer never hid the tragedies that beset people; TB was still a terrible scourge even in the early 1960s when this book was first published, and there’s a great deal of sadness amongst those affected. As a piece of mid-century social history I think this series has tremendous value, even if it focuses on the upper middle classes, primarily, and an idealised school system, with most problems easily solved.

This book is best read as part of the series rather than a one-off. It could stand alone, but the large cast of characters would be confusing without the background of previous books in the series. It probably appeals most to voracious readers aged around 12-14, and of course their parents and grandparents who remember the series with fondness from their youth.

I'm delighted to learn that 'Girls Gone By' have republished the original version of this, along with various other titles in the series. Original hardbacks are rare and usually highly priced. However the slightly abridged Armada paperbacks are quite often found inexpensively second hand, and in charity shops.

Recommended.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

07/04/2017

Jeeves Omnibus 2 (by PG Wodehouse)

I have very much liked everything I have read by PG Wodehouse, since my father introduced me to his writing when I was about twelve. My favourites, though, are those about the hapless upper class Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves. Popularised in an excellent TV series, I still find myself returning to the books from time to time, and enjoying them again.

‘Jeeves Omnibus 2’ is a volume we acquired shortly after moving to Cyprus. I had acquired several Jeeves and Wooster books second-hand, but this edition contains three of them which were harder to find at the time. The three books are: ‘Right Ho, Jeeves’, ‘Joy in the Morning’, and ‘Carry On, Jeeves’.

The first of these takes place at Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia’s country home. As ever there are complex relationships and quite a few people, but I’ve read so many of the books now that they feel like old friends. In this story, Bertie’s good friend Gussie Fink-Nottle - the nerd with a passion for newts - has fallen in love with the fluffy Madeleine Bassett, a girl who thinks that stars are born when fairies cry.

At the same time, another of Bertie’s friends, Tuppy Glossop, has just broken up with Bertie’s cousin Angela, after an argument. So Bertie decides to solve the problem. Normally he would have asked Jeeves to be involved, but they are in the middle of a disagreement over the suitability of a white mess jacket for dining in…

All familiar stuff to those brought up on these stories, though perhaps bewildering to anyone unfamiliar with them. The humour is dry, and much of it is in the style of writing, something that cannot be transferred in full to television, no matter how good the adaptation. Naturally all works out well in the end, by convoluted methods.

‘Joy in the Morning’ mostly takes place in Steeple Bumpleigh, where Bertie’s least favourite aunt Agatha lives. This daunting lady doesn’t come into the story, but her second husband Percy does, as does his ward, whose nickname is Nobby. She is engaged to another of Bertie’s friends, Boko, but needs her guardian’s permission. This is extremely hard to come by. Percy’s daughter Florence, meanwhile is engaged to yet another friend….using the term loosely. Into the mix comes Florence’s young teenage brother Edwin, who is in the Boy Scouts and determined to do ‘acts of kindness’ every day, whether or not the recipient wants him to…

Essentially the plot is much the same: misunderstandings arise, Bertie tries to sort everything out and fails, Jeeves sails quietly into the picture and sorts everything out. The situations are different - there’s a fancy-dress ball in this one, and a house that burns down, among other subplots - and the enjoyment is in the writing.

The final book in this omnibus, ‘Carry On, Jeeves’, is a collection of short stories. I assume it was packaged together with the other two because most of them involve incidents which were referred to in passing in one of the others. We discover, for instance, just how Bertie managed to be giving a speech (of sorts) at a girls’ school, how his Aunt Dahlia acquired the gifted cook Anatole, and how Bertie came to write an article for his aunt’s magazine.

I wondered if I would get a bit tired of the Wodehouse style reading three books in a row, but it didn’t happen at all. They make excellent bedtime reading, taking me back to a society that no longer exists; that of the entitled few in the early part of the 20th century. The plots featuring Jeeves’ mind work are all clever, if tending towards the ridiculous at times, and the balance of the two very different men is excellent.

It’s not politically correct, of course. There’s rampant sexism, some racism, and a great deal of ageism. In context, I don’t have any problem with it, but it might offend some coming across Wodehouse for the first time.

Highly recommended to anyone who likes this kind of satire.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

01/04/2017

Spiritual Warfare (by Michael Harper)


Michael Harper was quite an outspoken minister in the Anglican church. He became a charismatic in the 1960s and was then at odds with the church where he was a curate; later, disagreeing with some of the Anglican church’s policies, he turned to the Orthodox church. I’ve found some of his writing quite interesting, so when I was idly glancing at our bookcase of Christian books and spotted this little volume, I decided to read it.

The title ‘Spiritual Warfare’ is straight and to the point. And, indeed, Harper addresses the issue right from the start. He reminds Christians that their battles are with the world, flesh and devil, and that it’s important to be aware of the spiritual realm in day-to-day life. He explains his own beliefs related to supernatural beings, including the demonic ‘fallen angels’, but manages to do so in a fairly balance way.

He reminds readers, as CS Lewis did, that it’s easy to ignore this altogether, and that’s one danger. But it’s also imperative not to see demons under every bush. There are plenty of ordinary temptations that we’re subject to, many of which are because of our humanity, and the world around us.

The writing style is somewhat terse but fairly easy to read, with plenty of reference to Scripture. If I hadn’t heard this kind of teaching before, I would probably have found it rather disturbing, perhaps scary; however we were part of a Vineyard church in the US about twenty-five years ago, and I’ve read other books on the topic, both fiction and non-fiction. So there was nothing new to me. I felt that it was a useful summary of the topic, with sound teaching (and some warnings) that could be of benefit to people starting to explore this area.

Recommended to Christian believers wanting to know more about the subject.

Now out of print, but often found on second-hand church bookstalls.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

23/03/2017

Don't Let Me Go (by Catherine Ryan Hyde)

I’ve very much enjoyed the handful of novels I’ve read by Catherine Ryan Hyde; they’re character-driven thoughtful women’s fiction with plots a little different from the norm. I’ve put a few others on my wishlist and was given this one for my birthday nearly a year ago. I decided to read it a few days ago, and then could barely put it down!

‘Don’t Let me Go’ is mainly about ten-year-old Grace, with alternate chapters are written from her viewpoint. She’s a likeable, determined little girl, but seriously neglected. Her father is not in the picture, her mother an addict. It could be a sordid story, but it’s not. Grace and her mother live on the ground floor of a block of flats, where the residents are all suspicious of each other; it takes a child’s needs to help them pull together.

The other main character is Billy, an agoraphobic ex-dancer who hasn’t been outside his apartment for a long time. Nobody else in the block has seen him. But he spots Grace sitting outside on her own, and despite himself he knows he has to do something to help. So he plucks up courage and starts to speak to her…

The blurb on the novel says that it’s about helping Grace’s mother return to normality by taking Grace away from her, but I felt it was just as much about the importance of people learning to trust and look out for each other. Billy’s neighbour in the apartment building is Rayleen, a young woman who is determined to keep Grace away from social services. Gradually we learn some of her story, but it’s in hints and implications rather than too much detail.

Billy, too, has an interesting past; we learn about him gradually through the chapters narrated from his viewpoint. The other residents of the flat are an elderly widowed lady, with some health problems, a young man who’s willing to help wherever possible, and another who is brusque, even rude on the surface; yet he has a generous side, although he too has some dark secrets.

There are some quite heavy issues covered; perhaps too little is made of the horrors of Grace’s mother’s abuse, and her recovery too easy. In a sense the plot is somewhat idealised and unrealistic but I don’t have a problem with that; I like escapism, and seeing the best side of human nature in fictional form. It’s not as if any of the characters is flawless; they’re impatient, irritable, often tired. Grace, too, is somewhat oblivious to other people’s needs, although she’s sensitive and surprisingly mature.

I’m writing this a couple of days after I finished it, yet the characters, their stories and most of their names are still with me. The writing is excellent, in my opinion; the pace just right, the different viewpoints enabling the story to be told from both a child’s and an adult’s perspective.

All in all, I thought this an excellent read and would recommend it highly to anyone who likes thoughtful character-based women's fiction.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

20/03/2017

Linnets and Valerians (by Elizabeth Gouge)


I am very much enjoying re-reading the books by some of my favourite authors, and looked forward very much to re-reading this one by Elizabeth Goudge. Although she wrote several thoughtful novels for adults, she’s perhaps best known for her children’s book ‘The Little White Horse’. However I always preferred ‘Linnets and Valerians’ , which I came across in my teens, and last read eighteen years ago.

I remembered liking it so much that when I couldn’t find it on any of our shelves, I assumed someone must have borrowed it without returning it, and promptly ordered a second-hand edition from the AwesomeBooks site. I started reading it a week ago and was surprised to find that I had forgotten most of the plot, other than the main outline - that four children in the early part of the 20th century run away from their rather strict grandmother, and find themselves at their Uncle Ambrose’s house instead.

Uncle Ambrose, who was once a teacher (now a Vicar) decides to educate the children in a classical way, insisting that he doesn’t like children at all, but growing fond of them fairly quickly. He is looked after by Ezra, an intriguing and delightful character who functions as butler, cook, chauffeur and more. The children explore their neighbourhood, and as with many of Goudge’s books there’s an interesting mixture of Paganism and Christianity, of practical real-life adventures and mysticism.

Not that this is a fantasy story: it’s set very much in the real world, and the obvious theme is that of family relationships, of loss and reunion, of friendship and loyalty and hard work. But there’s also a strong good vs evil thread winding throughout, with gradual healing and forgiveness and restoration, in a way I enjoyed very much.

The four children are nicely drawn: Nan, the oldest at twelve, is responsible and kind, but also gifted with a special kind of insight. Robert, at ten, is an adventurer, forever imagining himself in heroic roles; he has a good imagination in a dramatic sense, yet is not very observant, nor does he have any real intuition. Timothy is eight, and the frailest of the children; he’s also extremely observant and highly intelligent, and his imagination is of a very different kind to his brother’s. The youngest, Betsy, is a delightful six-year-old who tags along with the family and has a great sense of her own importance.

Inevitably some of the storyline reflects upper-middle-class culture of a hundred years ago. Children are expected to obey their elders, particularly when given plenty of freedom to go out and about, and there are unpleasant threats made, some of which become realities, should they fail to meet their obligations.

In places the story is a little slow-moving, with a tad more description than I would have liked as a child, but I think it would appeal to avid readers from the age of about nine or ten, and of course adults who remember it fondly from their own childhoods.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

(Note that in the United States, it's published as 'The Runaways')

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

The Secret Message of Jesus (by Brian McLaren)

I’ve very much appreciated the books by Brian McLaren, one of my favourite modern Christian writers. He has challenged labels, including that of evangelicalism, and stirred up a great deal of controversy, yet still manages to write in an intelligent, thought-provoking style.

I was intrigued, therefore, to find ‘The Secret Message of Jesus’ on our shelves; I think it’s something my husband was given. The title gave an air of mystery, as did the subtitle ('uncovering the truth that could change everything') and the introduction. And, like McLaren’s other works, this book is well-structured, clearly written with good Scriptural backing, and gives plenty to think about.

The theme is essentially related to the Kingdom of God (or Kingdom of Heaven) as understood in the first century, and today. The first section of the book looks at the historical and Jewish cultural background in which Jesus lived as a man, and how his message would have been seen by his followers and the different sects of religious leaders of the time.

Those who follow Christ are described as ‘agents’ of the Kingdom, our job being to spread the message of Jesus - of peace, reconciliation, healing, and so on. The book looks into parts of the ‘sermon on the mount’, and reminds readers about the meanings of the ‘parables of the Kingdom’, which can be lost, sometimes, in strict or reformed evangelical theologies.

However, I’m a bit puzzled about the idea of this being a ‘secret’ message. Despite having read the book from cover to cover, some sections twice, I still haven’t really grasped what it is that the author considers ‘hidden’. What he describes is how I understood the Christian message as a child growing up in somewhat ‘broad’ Anglican Church in the UK. At senior school, doing ‘Scripture’ O-level exams, we looked in some depth at the Kingdom parables, among other things. It has always seemed clear to me that the Kingdom of Heaven is ‘at hand’, something which grows at a tremendous rate if the right seeds are planted.

Indeed, reading books set in the early and mid-20th century, it would appear that this message - of Christ and his Kingdom being with us, offering grace, healing and forgiveness to all - was the standard theology of the time, only challenged by the ‘neo-orthodox’ (what we might call ‘reformed’ or even ‘fundamentalist’) viewpoint which emerged after the first world war. Evangelical churches in the US - and indeed the UK - often stress the latter, but even in the most reformed of churches, there is encouragement to do the work of the Kingdom, even if the main emphasis is on being ‘saved’.

Still, this book is one of the best about the Kingdom of God in a large number of aspects, and gave me a great deal to think about. Critics complain that the author has missed out significant parts of the message of Jesus, but I don't have a problem with that; they are well covered in many other books, after all.

My only real complaint, then, is the insistence throughout the book that Jesus' message has been 'hidden' for two thousand years, and is only just being uncovered in the 21st century.

Recommended to followers of Jesus who want to know more about the Kingdom of God, and indeed anyone interested to know what the message of Jesus was, rather than how it's sometimes interpreted in extremist groups.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews