Little Men (by Louisa M Alcott)

I wanted something reasonably easy to read, on my Kindle, for an early morning flight. Scrolling through the books I had downloaded, I spotted a complete works of Louisa M Alcott, and decided to re-read ‘Little Men’. This is the third in her series about the American March family, following on from her well-known classic ‘Little Women’ and its sequel ‘Good Wives’.

This book is about the school for boys established by the former Jo March and her German husband Professor Bhaer. The opening chapter sees the homeless Nat introduced to the school, captivated by the friendliness of the other boys, and by the love of ‘Mother Bhaer’. Jo must be only about twenty-eight in this book, which takes place ten years after ‘Good Wives’, but she thinks of herself as middle-aged, and takes a variety of stray boys under her wing.

The Professor’s two orphaned nephews are the oldest boys in the school, and there are about half a dozen others, including the obese, gluttonous George, and the sharp, sometimes mean Jack. Nat soon makes friends with Tommy, who is full of mischief, and also the creative, story-loving Demi, son of Meg and John Brooke. The only girl in the school at the start of the book is Daisy, Demi’s twin, but her influence is seen to be so good that another girl, Nan - who is rather wild - comes to join them part-way through the book.

The author says in one of the chapters that, rather than having any real plot, the book is a series of vignettes of life at Plumfield. Some chapters just recount the happenings of the day, giving a glimpse into everyone’s lives. But there are also some extremely moving sections. I had tears in my eyes in the first couple of chapters, seeing the homeless, friendless Nat welcomed and given a new home, and hope. Later on, too, are some extremely poignant chapters alongside the more relaxed ones.

I had recalled only the vaguest outline of the story-lines, including some of the most significant ones involving Nat and Demi. But it was a delight to read it again; it felt as if I were among old friends. I was a tad shocked at Mr and Mrs March being considered old - I doubt if they were much over fifty - but then when I last read it, I probably considered that age to be quite old myself.

Inevitably old-fashioned, and perhaps a tad moralistic in places, but thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless. Definitely recommended, for teens who like this kind of historical character-based fiction, and nostalgic adults. However I would recommend reading 'Little Women’ and ‘Good Wives’ first.

(Note that since this book is out of copyright, there are many editions, both paperback and electronic. Ensure that you buy a full/non-abridged version if you want the original text, and check Project Gutenberg for various free electronic formats).

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews


Just for the Holidays (by Sue Moorcroft)

I like Sue Moorcroft’s writing, on the whole. She has a gift of characterisation and tends to write novels based around family situations, with relationship-based storylines. I very much enjoyed her first novel, so each time she brings out a new one I add it to my wishlist. I did that with ‘Just for the Holidays’ last year, and was pleased to be given it last Christmas.

Once again, Sue Moorcroft has created some likeable, interesting people. This story is primarily about Leah, a thirty-something chocolate tester, who has deliberately remained single and child-free. She lives near her sister Michelle, and loves being an aunt to the teenagers Jordan and Natasha. Michelle is recently separated from her husband Alister, but all five go on holiday to a gite in France. Leah doesn’t really want to go, but Michelle wants her there to ease the tension.

Soon after they arrive, they meet their neighbours: Ronan, a helicopter pilot who is on sick leave after an accident, and his teenage son Curtis who is going through a goth stage. There are misunderstandings at first, and it took me a little while to sort out who was whom: Ronan has an ex-wife who lives with someone else, and as is clear from early in the book, Leah’s sister Michelle also has a boyfriend. Leah has a male best friend, too, who she keeps in touch with via phone.

I loved the teenage interactions, most of which feel realistic and natural. Jordan and Natasha bicker, and Natasha quickly gets a crush on Curtis. They all struggle with their parents’ separations, and turn to Leah for comfort which mostly takes the form of food. Leah is a whizz at throwing together delicious meals, including desserts, at a moment’s notice despite her wish for independence and insistence that she doesn’t want the responsibility of children. And as one disaster after another occurs, she finds herself more and more in the role of stand-in parent…

There’s a somewhat inevitable romance which develops between Leah and Ronan. Both are determined to stay unattached and just have a holiday fling. Their desires are thwarted time after time by one or other of the teenagers, in a way that built up the tension nicely while also adding a touch of humour. I could almost feel their frustration.

But then finally they get together, and as so often happens, the author decided to put in a detailed intimate scene, which took up a couple of pages. After the first couple of sentences I skipped forward as I find that kind of thing so unnecessary and irritating. There’s another similar incident later in the book. They’re the only parts that mar what is an otherwise very enjoyable and sometimes moving story.

There’s also a bit more bad language than I’m comfortable with, including far too many mentions (in my view) of an offensive internet acronym. It jarred, because it didn’t fit with the otherwise typical conversation of the teenagers. Curtis is only thirteen, and generally a likeable boy.

Still, although these things mean I can’t recommend or lend this book as widely as I would like to, it was overall a very well-written book. The style is informal, switching viewpoints regularly, but Sue Moorcroft makes that work in a way that’s non-intrusive. The family relationships, and issues related to trust, and the breakdown of marriages, are handled sensitively. There’s quite a bit about Ronan’s helicopter career, including more detail than I wanted to know about how helicopters are flown, but that was something I was comfortable skimming over lightly.

If you like character-based women’s fiction and don’t object to step-by-step detail of bedroom scenes, then this would make an excellent light read. By the time I was halfway through it was difficult to put down. The broad direction of the ending was predictable from the start, but there were one or two surprises to make it more interesting, and the final chapter encouraging and positive.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews


The Arm of the Starfish (by Madeleine L'Engle)

In amongst enjoying new books, and re-reading some of my favourite authors, I’m finding books that we’ve had on our shelves for years, but which I have never read. Several of them are by Madeleine L’Engle, best known for her ‘Wrinkle in Time’ trilogy (the first of which has recently been made into a film). I read one or two of them to my sons when they were teenagers, but the science fiction element didn’t really appeal to me at the time.

One of my sons loved the ‘Wrinkle’ books, however, so we gradually collected many more by L’Engle, most from charity shops or the Amazon marketplace. It’s only in the past couple of years that I’ve started reading them, and on the whole am liking them very much. Most are not science fiction at all.

A few days ago I picked up ‘The Arm of the Starfish’, which claims on the back to be a ‘mystery thriller’. It was written for older teenagers - the genre we would now call ‘young adult’ - so I vaguely expected something along the lines of Agatha Christie with teenage protagonists.

I was correct about the latter. Adam is the viewpoint character of the book. He’s sixteen, and very intelligent. He has been studying marine biology, working with an eminent scientists in the United States. We first meet him in the airport on his way to a small (fictitious) island off the coast of Portugal, to work for the summer with the celebrated Dr O’Keefe. His flight has been delayed several times due to fog. Out of the blue, he is approached by a very attractive girl around his age, who introduces herself as Kali Cutter. She says that she has important information about Dr O’Keefe, and that Adam needs to be warned…

Right from the first chapter, I could feel the tension. L’Engle had quite a gift of characterisation, and the confusion in Adam’s mind was easy to feel. I was pretty sure that Dr O’Keefe was Calvin from the ‘Wrinkle’ series, and that he was full of integrity… but so strong was the writing that I did wonder, for a while, whether Cali had a point. The action moves along solidly; not so rapidly that I lost track of what was going on, but with detours into sightseeing and conversation that kept the tension, and made it quite difficult to put the book down.

The biology project is perhaps unrealistic; Dr O’Keefe is studying the ways that starfish arms regenerate, wondering whether this can also apply to humans. I don’t know much about biology, or if starfish are indeed as closely related to humans as is stated. But that doesn’t matter. If it’s science fiction, it’s very well done, and the detail is minimal. The danger of such research getting into the wrong hands, however, feels all too real. The book was written over fifty years ago, yet the evils of ruthless greed are all too familiar.

Many of L’Engle’s books have a Christian theme, usually fairly low key. In this, there are two priests who have important roles; one sound and caring, the other not. The overall story has a clear good vs evil plot which could appeal to secular humanitarians or those of other religions.

There’s also an unexpected Christ figure, something I didn’t spot until it became clear in one of the last chapters. L’Engle doesn’t make the mistake of spelling out her beliefs, or writing forced conversations about Christianity. But the power of love is strong, and the importance of caring for everyone, no matter what their background or significance.

I wasn’t sure I liked this when I was about half-way through, and the climax to the book includes a shocking scene which I should perhaps have foreseen, but didn’t. But having finished it, I would rate it very highly. Not for young children, but teenagers who have read the later ‘Harry Potter’ books, or ‘Lord of the Rings’ might well enjoy this. And as an adult, I very much appreciated it too.

Definitely recommended.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews


Lucas Unleashed (by Jeff Lucas)

I first came across Jeff Lucas’s writings many years ago, when a friend recommended one of his books to me. I had not previously heard of him, but loved the style, the honesty and the self-deprecating humour. I immediately put a handful of his books on my wishlist and was delighted to be given some of them. I acquired more over the years.

I’m currently re-reading books by several of my favourite authors, so picked up ‘Lucas Unleashed’ about a week ago, as I had not read it since 2011. I couldn’t remember what was in it; I quickly realised that this is a book of short chapters, each one no more than three or four pages long. Each one focuses on some aspect of life, with relevance to the Christian faith.

My first reading was long enough ago that I didn’t recall any of the anecdotes in the book, so it felt as if I were reading it for the first time. In the introduction, Jeff Lucas explains that the word ‘unleashed’ in the title doesn’t mean that he’s about to unleash a torrent of insults, nor that he’s unhinged. It means that he writes without worrying about conventions, protocols or blandness.

The book is written for people who love God but often struggle with what goes on in the church, or in the name of Christianity. By looking at incidents in his own life, or those of other people, Lucas gently draws out parallels with his faith. He doesn’t push his points; indeed, sometimes he leaves chapters a bit open, so much so that I would have liked another paragraph or two to round them off. I’m sure it’s deliberate, as he intends to provoke people to think outside the box, to ask questions, and to draw their own conclusions.

Each chapter introduces a different person or situation. We meet, for instance, an elderly person in the sunset of his life, and a minister serenaded by three friendly drunks. There are poignant accounts of children who are sick, or living in extreme poverty, and there are pictures of Jeff Lucas himself in potentially embarrassing situations.

One comment I have kept thinking about, from early in the book, is that Christians are told to be salt in the world, not sugar. Had he spent a couple of paragraphs expounding on this, I would have skimmed and rolled my eyes. As a passing thought in the middle of an anecdote, the word picture was powerful and memorable.

I read a few chapters each day, and while I don’t recall the details of most of them, I hope some of the principles and ideas will have sunk into my subconscious and helped me in my sporadic and often confused journey as a follower of Jesus.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews


The Songbird (by Marcia Willett)

I have enjoyed all the novels I’ve read by Marcia Willett over the years since I first discovered one of her books at a local thrift store. I’ve gradually acquired each new book she’s written, mostly via gifts from relatives. I was given ‘The Songbird’ last Christmas, after placing it on my wish list, and have just finished reading it.

Marcia Willett writes character-based novels, where relationships are more important than a strong story-line. I found this one a bit confusing at first as there seemed to be such a large cast, and it was tricky keeping everyone in my mind. First we meet Mattie, a young woman who works in London, who has recommended that her colleague Tim spend his sabbatical in a family house in Devon.

We quickly learn that Mattie’s sister Charlotte lives in the same row of cottages, with her infant son Oliver; her husband Andy is in the navy, and mostly away. Andy’s father William lives next door with his cousin Kat, and the whole is owned by the elderly Francis, who has some relationship with William but that’s rather hazy until later in the book. Gradually each one became more real in my mind as I read; each is quite distinct, although it was hard to keep track in the earlier chapters.

I liked Mattie very much; she’s enthusiastic, and as we rapidly discover (and it’s mentioned in the blurb on the back) she’s been in love with Tim for some time, although she’s never said anything. Tim has a secret which he doesn’t want anyone to know, although that, too, is fairly quickly revealed to the reader. The elderly Francis is perceptive and is a devout Catholic; he, too, has his secrets which come out during the course of the book.

I never entirely believed in Kat, who’s a former ballet dancer with a string of affairs in her past; she likes to seduce men and is rather too cold-hearted and self-centred for my tastes. But I became quite fond of William, who is estranged from his wife Fiona. There are other characters too… mostly of lesser importance, other than the dog Wooster who plays an important part in everyone’s lives.

As for the story… there really isn’t all that much. The novel takes place over a few months, while Tim ponders his future. He and Mattie become closer, Kat meets the likeable Jerry and starts a new romance. Charlotte worries a lot about her son, and how she’ll relate to her husband when he comes home from leave, and everyone wonders what will happen when Francis is no longer around.

The writing is good, with some realistic conversations and some poignant moments. I was surprised how quickly I felt caught up in the lives of these diverse people; as Tim becomes more involved in their community, feeling like part of the family, I found myself feeling fond of them all, to varying degrees.

There’s a tad more of a Christian focus than there is in the author’s other books, although it’s done very well, in my view, without being pushy. There’s no bad language and no details of intimate scenes, although as with so many modern fiction books, characters seem to leap into bed with each other all too easily.

I’d recommend this to anyone who likes the gentle, character-based fiction of this nature. The ending is positive without being overdone, and the people will probably stay in my mind for some time.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews


Lost for Words (by Stephanie Butland)

I had never heard of Stephanie Butland when Amazon recommended this book to me. The blurb for ‘Lost for Words’ sounded exactly like my kind of book, however. A young woman works in a bookshop… a pleasant change from the many books about cake or sweet shops. The cover was appealing, too. So I put it on my wishlist, and received it recently as a rather late Christmas present.

It’s a first person account by Loveday, a quiet (and somewhat prickly) character in her twenties. She doesn’t much like people, other than her jovial boss Archie. She very much likes books, however. So when she sees a book of poetry lying on the ground one day, on her way to work, she picks it up. She’s sure someone would miss it, so she puts a note in the window of the bookshop where she works…

The narrative mostly takes place in 2016, but there are flashback chapters set in 1999 when Loveday was ten, and also a few set in 2013 when she first started going out with a young man called Rob. The story unfolds gradually, with the past filling in the details; in particular we learn why she now avoids Rob, and also why she’s so very reticent about herself and her past.

Loveday’s first nine years were very happy. She was an only child, and although her father worked on oil rigs for three weeks at a time, she loved the times when he was home, and also the quieter, more predictable periods when she was alone with her mother. Early in the book it’s clear that something tragic happened, so that Loveday spends her teenage years with a foster carer. By the time it’s revealed exactly what went wrong, it’s not a surprise.

I found the style of writing a tad off-putting at first. It’s quite informal, written in somewhat jerky sentences. There are even odd asides to the reader. But I quickly got used to Loveday’s voice, which goes well with her confused, difficult personality. She’s very likeable despite being so prickly and (mostly) antisocial.

I felt the author understood well how something that happens in childhood can have a drastic effect on a person’s life and understanding. Loveday’s fears are mostly unfounded, but still very real to her.

Some of the story is quite dark, yet it doesn’t become sordid. There are some delightful characters as well as less pleasant ones. Perhaps the ending is a bit too happy-ever-after for realism, yet it has a shocking and bittersweet tinge before the final pages. I loved the final resolution, particularly the way that one important thread is neatly resolved in a notice on the last page.

This book took a while to get going, but by the time I was around halfway through I could hardly put it down. There’s more ‘strong’ language than I’m comfortable with, and a staggering tendency for people to leap into bed with each other even on first dates (without details, thankfully). Nevertheless, I would still recommend this highly for adults and older teenagers who enjoy character-based contemporary fiction for women.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews


The Forever Feast (by Paul Brand)

I was introduced to the works of the late Paul Brand by the popular American Christian writer Philip Yancey. Dr Brand was a pioneer in studying leprosy in the middle of last century. He had made many notes about his work, and the metaphors of the physical body when thinking about the spiritual life. It took Yancey to turn these ponderings into books, the best known of which are in the excellent volume ‘In his Image’.

So I was delighted when I discovered, in the Amazon marketplace, another book by Paul Brand, ‘The Forever Feast’. I’ve been reading it over the past couple of weeks and have found it educational, thought-provoking and inspiring.

The theme of the book, as with Brand’s other books, is analogies between our physical and spiritual bodies. But the main focus in this one is related to food, and our digestive system. The book begins with the description of a meal - not a gourmet or expensive one, but a special, memorable meal that the author counts as his favourite gastronomic memory.

He talks about the importance of thankfulness, and of taking time over meals. He explains the importance of hunger, and of tropical diseases where hunger disappears. He examines the ways that fruit grow, dropping their seeds to ensure the future of the species. He looks at the way our bodies digest food, from the intial ingestion by mouth through to the final selection of nutrients for our cells, and the elimination of waste.

But this is not a biology text book. It’s written in an almost chatty style, making it accessible to anyone with even a vague interest in the topics. Anecdotes are interspersed with the science, and everything is based firmly in the author’s medical and nutritional knowledge and his many years of experience in both Europe and Asia, working with a great variety of patients and medical technology. Yet it’s never condescending. The book feels almost like a genial discussion between friends after a good meal.

There’s also quite a spiritual punch in each chapter. Brand moves easily from talking about our physical bodies and needs to our spiritual ones. He talks more than once about the incredible, detailed ways in which our bodies were designed. And he looks at spiritual food, with an excellent discussion, in the last couple of chapters, on the origins of the Communion or Eucharist service.

There is so much to ponder in this book that I read it just a few pages at a time. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the Christian life, and/or the human digestive system. I was never remotely interested in biology at school, but have learned and absorbed a great deal from Paul Brand’s books, including this one.

The only faintly negative thing I can think of is that there are rather incongruous line drawings scattered throughout the book. They’re evidently intended to illustrate facets of the book, but are in the style of 1980s teenage fiction, and each one disrupted the flow of the book a little bit. But perhaps they’re not present in other editions of this book.

Very highly recommended. Not currently in print, unfortunately.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews


Moonshine (by Victoria Clayton)

I have thoroughly enjoyed the novels I have read so far by Victoria Clayton, after the recommendation of an online friend who shares a lot of my reading tastes. Most of them are out of print, but I’ve managed to obtain them from Amazon Marketplace, or the AwesomeBooks site. I’ve had ‘Moonshine’ on my to-read shelf for a while. At almost 700 pages it’s a long book, so I knew it wouldn't be a quick read. And, indeed, it took me nearly two weeks to finish it, mostly just reading before falling asleep at night.

It takes a while for this novel to get going. The main protagonist is a young woman called Bobbie. We meet her as she’s feeling somewhat unwell in a ferry crossing the Bristol Channel. She meets a charming young man called Kit who is also travelling to Ireland. He’s a book editor, and planning to visit several of his authors. He and Bobbie get chatting, and over the course of the next few days Bobbie tells him her recent story…

Bobbie has been having an affair with a somewhat eminent politician, we quickly discover. She knew all along that it was risky, but everything blew up when the papers got hold of the story. Her lover is married, and she doesn’t want him to have to give up his career. So she’s answered an advertisement for a housekeeper in a castle in a remote part of Ireland.

It takes about 160 pages of the book to explore the details of Bobbie’s affair, and while it certainly establishes her character, and (to some extent) that of Kit, I couldn’t see at first how it added to the story, which only really gets going once she arrives at her destination. The castle turns out to be in a terrible state, with kitchens in chaos and family relationships stressed. Bobbie is a born organiser who likes to put things right, so after a rather unpleasant beginning, she decides to stay…

The rest of the book is about her developing relationships with each of the diverse family members and friends who live in the castle. She turns their lives upside down, bringing sanity, good food and some great ideas. She becomes very friendly with Constance, sister of the castle owner, and the person mostly responsible for bringing up his children. I particularly liked the two younger children, Flavia - who is sensitive and soft-hearted, and spends all her time reading - and Flurry, who is on the autistic spectrum, and loves building railways.

It was an ideal book for bedtime reading, as I could dip into a chapter or two then put it aside without regret. Nothing was overly gripping, but it was mostly easy to remember who was whom, and I was interested in the way the different subplots developed. There are several romantic attachments which occur through the book; I realised that Bobbie would end up with somebody, but until about half-way through the book I was looking at the wrong person.

There’s quite a bit of social history and context; the Irish ‘troubles’ are not just mentioned in passing, but play quite a significant part in the storyline, interwoven amongst the growing friendships. One particular event places the novel firmly at the end of the 1970s. The author explores several points of view, portraying scared young men in the guise of protesters and soldiers. It wasn’t until quite late in the book that I started to see how everything fit together, and the significance of the early part of the story.

Many themes are lightly touched upon, such as the significance of the Catholic church in children’s upbringing, the difficulties of some marriages and the stresses that can occur between parents and children. I found myself often moved, and regularly appreciating the literary references and the brisk conversations. Whereas the previous book, 'Clouds among the stars', was almost sordid at times, this one was, I felt, much less so.

All in all, I liked 'Moonshine' very much. Recommended if you enjoy women’s fiction with a bit more punch - and length! - than many. Brief reference is made to one or two of Clayton’s characters from an earlier book, but it would not matter at all if you had not read it.

This book is still in print, unlike some of the author's other books, and also available in Kindle form. It can often be found second-hand, too (as I did).

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews