This is How it Always is (by Laurie Frankel)

Sometimes when I am given a book, I have no recollection of how it ended up on my wishlist. That’s the case with the book I have just finished reading, ‘This is how it always is’ by Laurie Frankel. I had never heard of her, and I don’t know anyone who has read and recommended this. I was given it for Christmas last year, and had entirely forgotten whatever I read about it that inspired me to request it. 

And what an incredible book it is! 

It’s about a family in the United States. Rosie and Penn are the parents; she’s an emergency room doctor, clearly very good at her job, and he’s a writer who works from home and does most of the domestic work around the house. The book opens with a chapter heading telling us that, once upon a time Claude was born. Then it goes on to explain that Claude had four older brothers: Roo, Ben, Oriel and Rigel (the latter two being twins). 

It then takes us to the prelude of Claude’s conception, followed by the actuality of it - with, thankfully, no gratuitous detail, although plenty is implied. And no, it’s not that kind of book - but it demonstrates Rosie and Penn’s relationship extremely well. 

And it’s a great partnership. They have a complex and busy life of parenting, much of which falls on Penn’s shoulders, but Rosie does as much as she can, juggling time and children to and from various places, sharing the shopping and the cooking and other chores in a remarkably amicable and surprisingly effective way. 

There’s a lot of humour in the book, too, partly in the choice of words to describe a familiar situation. I chuckled aloud a couple of times, and smiled in appreciation at the style in several other places. The author clearly knows about parenting; I was surprised to learn that she actually has only one child rather than several. Rosie and Penn live in a state of semi-organised chaos, and they’re very accepting and broad-minded, with a policy of saying ‘yes’ rather than ‘no’ wherever possible. 

It turns out that this is a very good thing, because Claude is different in a way that would be a spoiler to state (even though it’s in the blurb on the back). This is why there’s so much about his conception and early years - he’s bright and talkative, and it’s not until he’s five that his parents realise that he’s not just quirky and unusual, like at least two of his brothers - there’s something deeper which needs to be expressed, and accepted, and worked through. 

It’s an issue which I didn’t know a great deal about, and I learned quite a bit along the way. Not that it’s directly educational - or if it is, it’s so well done that I didn’t notice. Instead, much of the story is related through the telling of a fairy tale at bedtime, through snippets into the lives of the various family members, and - for a few months - through two of them spending time in Thailand.

I found the book extremely engaging, difficult to put down at times, and written with just the right balance of light-heartedness and poignancy. The characters all felt like real people with real problems. I did balk slightly at throwaway comments about ‘all’ women hating their bodies at some point, and ‘all’ guys being bullied (or worse) if they’re even slightly different from the perceived norm in any way. Neither of these has been my experience. 

However, that's about my only gripe, and maybe it's true in the United States. Far more importantly, I could totally empathise with the expressed problems related to parenting - of doing what seems best at the time, of wanting our children to be happy, and yet not wanting to make things so easy for them that they flounder when anything goes wrong.

The subject is controversial, but I hope even the most conservative of readers would approach it with an open mind, and accept it for what it is - a story that is both fictional and real about a loving family who seem to do everything right, other than keeping a secret for longer than it should be kept.

Very thought-provoking, a book I would recommend highly to anyone who likes women’s fiction that covers difficult or controversial issues. 

Review copyright 2020 Sue's Book Reviews


Walking on Water (by Madeleine L'Engle)

It was rather by chance that I acquired the book ‘Walking on Water’ by Madeleine L’Engle. She’s best known for her classic book ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ and its sequels, but she wrote some non-fiction as well, and this one - about writing, art and Christianity - is probably my favourite of all her works. I last read it in 2008 so it was more than time to re-read.

The style of the book isn’t going to appeal to everyone, but I found it warm, inviting and inspiring. The author has written lots of snippets, loosely arranged in separate chapters, on topics related to art, and writing in particular. She looks at the question of what it means to be a ‘Christian writer’ - or a ‘Christian artist’ - and rejects many possible descriptions of these phrases.

Instead, she talks about her passion for writing, about losing herself in her work. She clearly had a very deep faith, and saw God in all she did, in particular the inspiration of her writing. But she also acknowledged the need for discipline, for putting pen to paper, for finding time and space to do what one feels called to do. 

There are chapters about doing one’s work - whatever it is - to the glory of God, and about the way God, as creator, inspires all his creatures to create. She talks about the importance of getting on with one’s creation, whatever it might be, whether or not it’s ever going to be polished and presented to the public. A writer has to write, an artist has to paint, a singer has to sing… and in the doing of our calling, we find the work itself can take over. 

The style is unusual, in that each chapter is divided into little snippets, each of them complete in itself. Some take up less than half a page, others continue over two or three pages. They all make points, some of them expressing, in different words, what the author has already said. But it doesn’t feel repetitive, Instead, it feels almost like sitting and having a chat.

There are anecdotes from the author’s own life, giving an impression of a focussed, caring mother and grandmother, who travels the world but loves nothing more than her own home and family.  There are quotations from books, some of which she cites, others of which she acknowledges that she wrote down without any reference. She picks and chooses, and in places it all feels quite random - but there’s a thread running through that made me want to keep reading, although I had to stop every few pages, to think about what was written. 

The subtitle of the book is ‘personal reflections on faith and art’, and that’s exactly what this book is. It was published in 1980, but other than references to typewriters it doesn’t feel at all dated. I loved it the first time I read it, and I enjoyed it just as much this time around. I should read it far more often than once every twelve years, and am already looking forward to reading it again.

Very highly recommended if you are interested in the connection between faith and art, or a writer's personal thoughts about her life and craft.

Review copyright 2020 Sue's Book Reviews


Look the World in the Eye/Letters to my Sister (by Alice Peterson)

Twelve-and-a-half years ago, I was given the novel ‘Look the World in the Eye’ by Alice Peterson for my birthday. When I read it shortly afterwards, I liked it very much. I’ve gradually acquired the author’s other novels over the years, all of which I have enjoyed.  

So each year, as Christmas approaches, I check to see whether any of my favourite writers have published any more books, and (if so) add them to my wishlist. Towards the end of 2016, I saw that there was an Alice Peterson book called ‘Letters from my Sister’, which was not on my shelves. So I added that to my wishlist.

It wasn’t until I received the book, and picked it up to start reading that I realised it wasn’t a new book at all, but a re-issue of ‘Look the World in the Eye’.  Very irritating, but as I had liked the book so much I thought I might give the older one to a friend. Thankfully, I never got around to it...

I decided to read my newer edition over the past few days. It wasn’t until I got to the end of ‘Letters from my Sister’ that I realised something was missing - ten pages, in fact!  The story stopped abruptly, without any real conclusion.  I was able to find my original ‘Look the World in the Eye’, and so finished reading in that one. I was relieved to find that everything worked out as it should in the novel, albeit in a somewhat predictable way. 

I mention all this so that (1) potential readers will realise that these two entirely different titles are for the same book and (2) if ‘Letters from my Sister’ appears to end suddenly, you may also have an edition with ten missing pages. Indeed, glancing through both editions, I see that ‘Letters from my sister’ has some edits which make it seem more abrupt, less friendly. I like the earlier edition rather better and - obviously - will be keeping that one now.

As for the novel itself, I had forgotten the storyline and people, and enjoyed it all over again. Katie is the main protagonist, a young woman in her early twenties who runs a fashion shop. She cares a great deal about her appearance, and lives with a guy called Sam. They seem to have a good relationship, although he, too, is very taken up with appearances. And Katie has never admitted to him that she has a sister who was born with a cleft palate and who has learning difficulties.

Even when their parents persuade Katie to invite her sister Isabel - known as Bells - to stay, she doesn’t tell Sam anything about her. I found this all rather unlikely this time around; it’s hard to imagine how a relationship could have reached the stage Katie and Sam’s has without discussing their families. But perhaps it’s all meant to be part of the superficiality of both their lives.

So Bells comes to stay, causing gentle havoc in their household simply by being herself. She’s a delightful person, very good at some things (like cooking) but she struggles in others. And she speaks her mind, asking people their ages, or why they’re fat, or where their hair has gone, without any idea that personal questions are out of place. I don’t know if she’s meant to be autistic - it’s not specified - but I found her entirely believable, and very lovable. 

It’s a character-based book, in which Katie learns that some things are a lot more important than appearance. There are lots of kind, pleasant people in the book: Katie’s friend Emma, who used to be her next-door neighbour; her shop assistant Eve; a young man called Mark who is a somewhat scatty teacher, whom Katie keeps bumping into. Others are more superficial, but there are no 'bad' guys as such.

It’s clear from sections set in the past, from Katie’s childhood, that she felt neglected while growing up. She went through some rebellious behaviours, while her parents did their best to balance Bells’ needs with Katie’s. But during the book she realises gradually that they do love her. There are some good discussions after a crisis mid-way through the book, and I liked the way that their family life developed. 

It’s a thought-provoking book. I love the way that Alice Peterson explores different kinds of illness and disability in her novels, showing clearly the real, likeable people who are so often labelled by their medical conditions and not seen as valued individuals. I also found it poignant seeing, from Katie's point of view, the way that so many strangers would stare, or look away, or even move away rather than engaging with Bells directly.

However, I think the original title, ‘Look the World in the Eye’ was far better than ‘Letters to my Sister’ and if the ending was deliberately cut in the re-issue, that was a huge mistake, even if it made it less predictable and left people guessing. 

Definitely recommended, particularly if you can find the original edition.

Review copyright 2020 Sue's Book Reviews


At Home in Mitford (by Jan Karon)

As I was pondering which favourite author’s books to re-read over the next year or so, an image of Mitford came to my mind. This small-town village is filled with so many warm memories, and I knew it was time to pick up Jan Karon’s series yet again. Having just finished ‘At Home in Mitford’ for the third time, it’s very tempting to go straight on with the series, but I know from experience that I enjoy books all the more if I spread them out, reading others in between. 

I last read this wonderful book in 2006, so I’m well overdue for a re-read. It’s possible I would never have come across it, but for a gift from my father, Christmas 1999; he had read the book himself, and thought I would love it. He was right. I don’t know quite why it’s so very appealing; I’m not generally a fan of American Christian fiction. But the Mitford series are uplifting, encouraging, amusing in places, and leave me with a feeling of peace and warmth. 

Father Tim is the unlikely protagonist of this book, and indeed the entire series. He’s a 60-year-old Episcopalian priest who works hard, loves God, and deals extremely well with his often difficult congregation. Mitford is a small town from the author’s imagination but it comes alive in my mind every time I embark on this series. It feels old-fashioned, yet in a delightful way that makes me wish I could have lived somewhere like that.

At the start of the book, Timothy is feeling jaded. He doesn’t have as much energy as he used to, and he feels as if his sermons are falling flat. He’s not depressed, exactly, but low in spirit. Into his life comes a large, enthusiastic and rather messy dog. He doesn’t want a dog, but it’s rather hard to resist… and while the dog is a good companion, it’s symptomatic of his life. He can’t say ‘no’. He cares about all his parishioners and other folk in Mitford, and he wants to help as much as he can. 

So he visits the sick and the elderly, listening to their stories. He takes the time to chat to people who need to talk, and to pray for those who need help. He studies and prepares sermons, yet his calendar is always full. His phone rings regularly with more questions and needs… He loves what he does, but it’s wearing him out. 

It doesn’t sound like the premise for an interesting story, but the characterisation is so good that I find myself transported to to this small town, seeing into Timothy’s mind and heart, feeling his temptations and joys. He has a serious health issue, one of the few things I had remembered clearly from previous reading of the book, but he neglects himself, finding it hard to see how his physical state can have such an impact on his emotional and spiritual needs.

Other main characters in this saga - which is much longer now than it was when I first came across it - include Dooley, a boy of eleven who is often rude and regularly irresponsible - yet has brought up, almost single-handed, his four younger siblings as their mother is not able to look after them. Timothy has no idea how to deal with boys, particularly one from an entirely different stratum of society, but his gentle manner and thoughtful methods are often poignant in their efficacy. 

Then there’s Cynthia, a writer who moves in next-door to the Rectory, with her cat Violet.  Cynthia is a writer, a lovable, scatterbrained romantic, who needs a lot of affection. Timothy, a lifelong bachelor, realises that she means a great deal to him, but isn’t sure if he wants to take steps that might change their growing friendship. 

There are plenty of other subplots in the book - stolen food, hidden jewels, a couple of romances, a long-hidden love story, and much more. There are a lot of characters; this was evidently always meant to be the start of a long series rather than a one-off, yet it’s an enjoyable novel in its own right.

I am already looking forward to reading the next book in the series in a few weeks time.

Very highly recommended if you like gentle character-based novels, and don’t mind a fair amount of Christian input - most of it included in an entirely non-preachy way.

Review copyright 2020 Sue's Book Reviews


The Beekeeper of Aleppo (by Christy Lefteri)

There are some books I would never have come across if it hadn’t been for the reading/discussion group I joined earlier in the year. Christy Lefteri is the daughter of Cypriot refugees, but I had never heard of her until her novel ‘The Beekeeper of Aleppo’ was allocated for the November group meeting. I ordered it in plenty of time, but didn’t start reading it until a few days ago, and finished it earlier today.

It’s the story of a married couple from Aleppo in Syria, Nuri and Afra. We meet them initially at a centre for asylum seekers in London. Afra is blind and in pain; it’s evident from the start that this was caused by some terrible trauma. Nuri wants to take her to the doctor, but cannot do so until they have some approved papers. 

The book is told from Nuri’s perspective. He has to dress Afra each morning; it’s clear that he finds this tedious, that there’s something about her that is pushing him away. He’s having bad dreams, too, images that are not explained until much later in the book. It’s a confusing opening, yet it reflects the mindset of this young couple who have experienced horrendous hardship - and worse - in their escape from the terrible troubles of their homeland.

There are two time-lines of this book, told in alternating chapters. There’s the ‘current’ situation, waiting for an interview, getting to know other residents in the boarding house where they’re staying, learning a bit about their location. And there’s the story of their journey, beginning with a bit of background into their lives in Syria.

Nuri was a beekeeper who worked with his cousin Mustafa. There’s quite a bit of description about bees and their habitat and life-cycle in the book, but it doesn’t come across as educational or unnecessary. It’s an important facet of Nuri’s past, and also a kind of symbol of their life - the bees working in a system, then disaster strikes and nothing is ever the same. 

Some of the descriptions of what happens are stark: people die. Bombs are dropped, Lives are destroyed, and people do whatever they have to do to get out. Nuri and Afra are more fortunate than many in that he has quite a bit of money saved, enabling them to bypass some of the red tape and pay smugglers to get them more quickly to their destination. Yet even with money it’s not easy, or quick. Some of the places they stay in are decidedly unpleasant; some of the people they meet are even worse. 

It is a powerful, thought-provoking and - in places - harrowing read. Yet there’s nothing gratuitous. There’s very little bad language, and the worst unpleasantness is hinted at, touched upon briefly, rather than described. I’m thankful for that, as I would have skimmed or skipped any kind of detailed violence or assault, anything more than brief hints about how children ‘disappeared’ or were killed. 

But it was sufficient to shock me, to help me see a little of the reality of the journeys taken by asylum seekers. These folk aren’t trying to scrounge, or to ease their way into better lives - they are, in most cases, fleeing from their lives, hoping to find a place that will enable them to live in safety, to work and contribute to society. 

Although the book is fictional, the author worked in refugee centres in Athens, and heard many stories of horrors suffered by folk seeking asylum. She felt that the story should be told, and a novel is an excellent way of communicating something of the terrible struggle for survival. There’s much more than that - as the story progresses we realise that some of Nuri’s narration is confused, stress-related, perhaps in denial about some of the terrible things he has experienced.  

All in all, it’s very well written. I didn’t particularly empathise with Nuri, but it didn’t matter. I knew that he and Afra were going to survive their journey, since we meet them already in London. But that didn’t matter either - indeed, it made it all the more intriguing, wondering how they were going to embark on each step.  

'The Beekeeper of Aleppo' is quite a long book; it’s not difficult to read, but it’s not relaxing, nor something to read in one sitting. I think it would make an excellent film - I don’t often say that about a book, but there are so many visual images, so much going on in Nuri’s mind, that it would communicate extremely well in movie form to people who don’t read much.

I would recommend this highly to anyone, adult or teenager, wanting to know more about what it’s like to be an asylum seeker. I am looking forward to discussing it with others who have read it.

Review copyright 2020 Sue's Book Reviews