15/01/2019

Life After Church (by Brian Sanders)

I had a US Amazon gift voucher to use, and was browsing my recommendations. One of the suggestions had the intriguing title of ‘Life after church’. I had not heard of the author, Brian Sanders, but the reviews were mostly positive, and the blurb made it sound as though it could be an interesting read.

I ordered it nearly a year ago but didn’t start reading it until December. It’s subtitled ‘God’s call to disillusioned Christians’, and in the first section examines some of the reasons why people are leaving churches, in the US (and elsewhere) in such large numbers. They are not people who have lost their faith, or become cynical about God. Instead, they are people who have strong beliefs, yet do not feel right or comfortable in standard church contexts.

As one who currently has only tenuous links with two local congregations currently, despite a strong faith, much of what was written in this book resonated with me. The author begins by suggesting that this mass exodus of church (in the sense of Sunday morning meetings in a building) may be something the Holy Spirit is calling people to.

He points out later in the book that each generation has its radicals - as far back as Luther at least - rejecting the church they grew up in, moving on to something new. The author sees this, in general, as right - meaning that we’re not stuck in the rut of tradition, but can build on the best of what went before while exploring new or alternative options.

There’s a chapter giving the three most important factors of what the author considers ‘church’ to be: worship, community and mission, in a nutshell. He points out that there are many great organisations, including some Christian meetings, which focus on one or two of these, and that there’s nothing wrong with them. But ‘church’, in the sense of the Body of Christ, must include all three. He also makes the point that worship does not just mean group singing, and that mission doesn’t just refer to travelling abroad to unreached people.

He then writes about the five broad reasons why so many Christians leave congregations, and this is not including those who move to a different town, or decide to join their friends elsewhere. This is about deliberate leaving, with at least a short period of not belonging to any recognised church. I thought this a particularly interesting chapter, which summed up the reasons well. Growing out of the message is something I have tried to explain myself; when a sermon is geared to new believers, or is evangelistic, week after week, there is nothing in it for those who have been believers or church members for decades.

This chapter also refers to being unable to ask questions - so common in Christian circles, sadly, unless one is prepared to accept standard, often cliched answers. It looks at irrelevance, or boredom; at use of money; and at not finding anywhere to serve or fit in. I found all these - which are discussed in some detail - to be interesting and thought-provoking too, neatly summarising reasons why many people I know have either left a church or would like to do so.

To provide some balance, there’s also a section about choosing to stay despite problems if called to, and the importance of doing so in a positive way. Staying in a church for the wrong reasons can lead to criticism and the undermining of leaders who are often trying to do their best in difficult circumstances. The author makes the point, more than once, that each individual should either stay and be involved, or leave and move on - that it’s not right or helpful to be on the boundary. And he gives some pointers for leaving well. So that gave me a lot to think about.

The last part of the book is about what people who have left can do - the author contents that it is important to be part of some kind of church, according to his three stated principles. He acknowledges that we are all part of the worldwide Body of Christ, and of the subset found in a particular town. But it’s harder to focus on God without a weekly or bi-weekly meeting, and while one can worship and do ‘mission’ in the basic sense outside of any kind of congregation, it’s also important to belong to a loving community of people.

I didn’t agree with everything in the book, but overall thought it was well-written and thoughtful, and would recommend it to anyone feeling frustrated by their church, wondering whether they should move on.

While there is a print edition available in the US, 'Life After Church' only seems to be available in Kindle form in the UK.

Review by Sue F copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

14/01/2019

The Murder on the Links (by Agatha Christie)

We have a large collection of Agatha Christie novels, and there are still some which I have not previously read. Gradually I’m working my way through them, and have just finished ‘The Murder on the Links’. This is one of the earlier novels involving not just the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, but his friend (and scribe) Arthur Hastings. This book is written from the point of view of the latter.

There is a prologue involving Hastings on the train, meeting a rather attractive girl who is worried about her sister. This short chapter is somewhat cryptic, and its significance is not clear until much later in the book.

The real story starts when Poirot, recently retired from the police force and hoping for some interesting private work, receives a letter from a French millionaire. The letter states that M Renauld is worried about some unknown threat, and has a secret which cannot be revealed in writing. So he asks that Poirot join him as soon as possible…

So Poirot and Hastings make their way to France, and quickly become embroiled in a complicated murder case which seems, at first, to baffle even the brilliant detective. They are slightly hampered by the French police force, and by various involved people who are clearly not telling the entire truth…

The front cover (and, indeed, the book title) are slightly misleading; the cover depicts legs in golfing socks with a golf club and ball lying at the side of what is evidently a body. While there is indeed mention of a golf course, it is not yet complete, and the person concerned has not been playing golf, nor is he dressed in clothes of this kind. Perhaps the illustrator did not read the book.

As with most of Christie’s books, the plot is cleverly developed, with clues and red herrings nicely scattered around to confuse both the local police and the reader of the book. I did in fact grasp the importance of some of the things that were evident to Poirot (though not to the sometimes clueless Hastings). I didn’t guess the outcome - and it came in several parts - and am not sure I could have done.

There’s an underlying low-key romance, too, which I was not expecting - it makes a pleasant extra thread to the story. The characterisation, as with most of this author’s books, are not all that great; she tended to work in caricatures or exaggeration rather than creating truly sympathetic people. It doesn’t particularly matter, as it’s the plot and investigation which are most important, but even a day after finishing it I find that I have forgotten almost all the names already.

Pleasant enough light crime fiction, with nothing gory - or even disturbing, if one accepts that there will be dead bodies at some point in a story of this nature. On the whole I thought it an enjoyable diversion.

Available in Kindle form as well as a variety of print editions, and regularly found second-hand.

Review by Sue F copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

10/01/2019

An Old-Fashioned Girl (by Louisa May Alcott)

In re-reading some of my Louisa M Alcott books, I finally came to my favourite of all, ‘An Old-Fashioned Girl’. It’s not nearly as well-known as ‘Little Women’ and its sequels, but I have loved this book since the first time I read it, many years ago. Written as a contemporary novel, it was published in 1869, and as well as being a good story, gives a nice picture of American life of the era.

The last time I read 'An Old-Fashioned Girl' was in 2011, and I remembered most of the storyline. Polly is the main character in this book; she’s thirteen when we first meet her, a shy girl from the country who still considers herself a ‘little’ girl, and dresses appropriately. Although not wealthy, she comes from a very loving family, with a mother who gives her excellent advice.

In the first chapter, we meet Polly’s friend Fanny Shaw.. She is only a year or two older, but already considers herself a young lady. Fanny does not like to run, or get in a mess, and sends her brother Tom to meet her friend from the railway. Tom and Fanny have a younger sister, Maud, who is six and rather a whiner.

Polly finds herself in awe of the Shaw family’s large house and evident wealth, but she quickly realises that they are discontented. Fanny’s father works hard but has little time for his children. Her mother is an invalid, and their only positive adult influence is Grandma, elderly at not quite seventy, who spends most of her time in her room, longing to see more of her grandchildren. Tom and Fanny squabble constantly, and Tom teases Polly too.

Into this rather unhappy household Polly brings love and light, although she’s by no means a perfect child. Polly likes to be independent, and goes on walks - or runs - by herself, without letting anyone know. She’s quite tempted to extravagance too though she only succumbs once - and although Fanny and her friends rather despite some of her old-fashioned ways, most of them can’t help liking her.

The first half of the book recounts Polly’s two-month visit, before she goes home for Christmas, promising to visit again the next year.

The action then skips forward six years. Polly evidently has continued to visit her friend regularly and has been considered part of the family, but now she is almost twenty, and has to earn her living in order to support her brother Will at university. Fanny is now a very elegant woman, who flirts with young men, and lives a life of leisure, although she’s often rather bored. Tom is at the same university as Will, but a year ahead - and rather than being determined to work hard, he wastes time and money, and regularly plays pranks.

While the Shaw family are still pleased to be friends with Polly, her status has changed. Now she is a working woman, many of Fanny's friends look down on her, some of them shunning her entirely. This is something quite hard to understand in today's society.

As with other books by Alcott, some of the chapters simply follow a day in Polly’s life, or a scene that demonstrates some aspect of her nature. It’s not a plot-driven novel as such, although there are romances which become more overt in the last part of the book. We see Polly learning to deal with her stresses, and the Shaw family having to pull together to overcome their own difficulties before the entirely satisfying resolution in the final chapters, part of which I still find very moving.

While the book is very readable, it’s inevitably full of author comment and moralising, rather more so than I had remembered. I don’t mind that, but it could be irritating to anyone reading the book for the first time. The author was very keen for women to be a force for good in society, to work hard in the homes or outside them, and as in her other novels makes the point that women can do most things that men do. This was quite radical in her era, but since she still expects men to be the main earners and women to cook and clean (if they don’t have servants to do so) she doesn’t seem so much of a feminist in today’s more egalitarian society.

I used to consider this one of my all-time favourite books, though I don’t any longer. I still like it very much, however, particularly the concluding chapters. Recommended to any teenagers or adults who have enjoyed others by this author, or who want to see a bit of social history from the late 19th century in context.

'An Old-Fashioned Girl' is regularly re-printed, both by well-known publishers and also in print-on-demand editions now that it is out of copyright. There are many Kindle versions too, some of them free; it's also available at no cost for various formats at Project Gutenberg.

Review by Sue F copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

07/01/2019

A Question of Trust (by Alexandra Raife)

I have re-read several of Alexandra Raife’s novels in the past year. I first came across her, at the recommendation of a relative, about eighteen years ago, and gradually acquired and read all her novels - twelve in all. They are all relationship-based, set in Scotland.

I last read ‘A Question of Trust’ in 2006, and it was probably my least favourite of Raife’s novels although I felt it was still a good story. The author writes fluently, with sufficient description to make her places feel familiar, and her people are three-dimensional, including the minor characters. Conversations flow well, and I like the way that many of the novels include people who have been introduced in earlier books; not that it’s necessary to have read them before, as they all stand alone.

Philippa is the main character in this story. She’s a very likeable person, mostly calm and kind, from a distinctly upper-middle class background but with no pretensions. It’s clear, when we meet her in the first chapter, that she’s been hurt in the past; but she’s building a life for herself in a cottage near the West coast of Scotland. She has plenty of friends, some of whom would love to see her married to one of their inner circle, but she keeps herself slightly aloof, working as many hours as she can at odd jobs: administration, babysitting, catering, and more.

Jon is the person who, inevitably, falls for Philippa despite her being very different from any of the women he has previously had relationships with. Jon is a rough, ex-army type, with something of a chip on his shoulder and a lot of hidden anger. He’s in hiding - or at least in a rest period - after an enterprise which we learn more about later in the book. He’s tired, drained, and quite nervous and when we first meet him he’s spending a lot of time drinking. He’s rented a small place for a year, not far from where Philippa lives, but knows he could be called back to dangerous work at any time.

The plot itself is perhaps clich├ęd: Jon and Philippa meet, are attracted to each other, clash, clear up misunderstandings, get closer, clash again… but although I often felt frustrated with them both, the writing is good, and there’s a fair amount of emotion involved, as well as plenty of interaction with other characters. There’s a tad too much introspection for my tastes, and by the final chapters I was wanting to bang their heads together: each of them is caught up in pride and fear of being hurt. But feeling anything for characters is a mark that they have got under my skin.

I also found it hard to like Jon. He is so angry, so driven by bias and jealousies that it’s hard to see how anyone, least of all gentle Philippa, could be happy with him long-term. Perhaps someone like her, who can turn insults to teasing, and accept him exactly as he is, is the only kind of person who could possibly help him become more balanced as a person. But in many cases it felt as if he were riding roughshod over her, and I didn’t like it.

My main frustration with the book is that the viewpoint switches far too frequently, sometimes to someone other than the two main characters. Even when it’s restricted to Jon and Philippa, it often alters from one to the other within a single scene: so rather than seeing everything from one point of view, we leap from one to the other, reading their thoughts alternately, and I found this quite confusing. It also made it harder to see either point of view in scenes of this.

Still, once I had got into the story, I found it difficult to put down. Events move at quite a pace, and while there are many misunderstandings and reunions, each is written in a different way, with a variety of circumstances. I’m glad I re-read it, and will probably read it again in another ten years or so.

'A Question of Trust' is not currently in print, although it's available (at least in the UK) in Kindle form. Paperback versions can often be found in second-hand or charity shops.

Review by Sue F copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

02/01/2019

Ribbon of Years (by Robin Lee Hatcher)

Some years ago, I read and liked some of the novels by Robin Lee Hatcher. She’s an American Christian writer, and I find many books in the US Christian fiction genre to be rather trite, but on the whole I thought this author’s books were well-written, covering some rather deeper topics than is typical.

So I was pleased when I saw ‘Ribbon of Years’ available to download free for my Kindle. I started reading it on a flight to the UK, and finished it on the return flight a week later. The story is mainly about a woman called Miriam; we meet her first as a headstrong teenager in 1936, and then follow her through her remarkably difficult life until she turns eighty.

The book begins well; it opens in 2001 and introduces us to Julianna, a woman in her forties who is looking for a house to buy. She acknowledges that she’s rather bored, and wishes things could be different. She starts looking over a house, and comes across a box of mementoes. Then she meets an elderly man, who evidently knows the former owner of the house. He talks about Miriam, and then the next section of the book takes us back to 1936 where we meet her as a restless teenager.

It’s a good device to begin the book, but unfortunately it doesn’t really work for the rest of it. Every so often we’re whizzed back to 2001, and another item is taken out of the box, then after a page or two the action returns (albeit with a leap forward in Miriam’s life) to the 20th century. Julianna isn’t developed as a person, and by the final section, I’d forgotten who the other people in her life were.

However, the vast majority of the story is about Miriam, her relationships and family and working life. Inevitably she’s caught up in the war, with friends and relatives going abroad to fight in Europe, not all of them returning. She falls in love and is happy, but dogged by a problem… she’s just about accepted it when something unexpected occurs, followed by a terrible tragedy.

As this is Christian fiction, I wasn’t surprised at the Scripture references, and discussions about finding Jesus - but I found the sheer number of them rather excessive. I don’t know who the intended audience is: for someone who is already a believer, these sections are somewhat superfluous. For someone who is not, they would probably put them off altogether.

At the start of the book, there are some people with a real faith and others whose beliefs are rather nominal, but as the story progresses there are more and more discussions about personal relationships to God and surviving the storms of life - and poor Miriam suffers considerably more than anyone I’ve known, despite her faithfulness.

The later part of the book covers some serious issues; it would be a spoiler to say what they are, but I felt that on the whole they were handled sensitively and in a positive way, although I suspect that some of what Miriam says would be criticised by many.

I didn’t find any of the characters particularly believable; the writing is good, but I found it all rather depressing, on the whole. I kept reading, but it’s not a novel I would want to read again.

Review by Sue F copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

26/12/2018

The Ghost of Christmas Past (by Sally Quilford)


I always take my Kindle with me when flying, and like to read something that will capture my interest without being too long. Very often I opt for one of Sally Quilford’s novellas, several of which I downloaded years ago when she offered the ebook versions free for a short period. Since I was flying to the UK on Boxing Day, I thought that it would be appropriate to read ‘The Ghost of the Christmas Past’, which is part of the ‘Midchester’ series.

It quickly becomes clear that, unlike others in this series which are set in the middle of the twentieth century, this takes place perhaps fifty years earlier; I don’t think a date is specified, but the setting is Victorian rather than post-war. The main character is Elizabeth Dearheart, a young woman who lives with her Vicar father, and her ten-year-old brother Samuel. We meet them as they are coming out of church, chatting with two elderly and impoverished sisters, whom they invite to lunch.

Discussions revolve around some rather shady characters; the sisters, who don’t get out much, like to hear about shocking and scandalous stories. They watch their neighbours, and are inclined to instant judgements of any newcomers.

There’s quite a cast of characters; Sally Quilford is skilled at making people real, and I found myself warming to Elizabeth and her gentle father, and also her somewhat impetuous brother who is always eager to be out and active with his friends. Unfortunately, despite reading this in one sitting, I became quite confused about some of the more minor people and relationships. One disadvantage of reading a book in Kindle form is that it’s quite difficult to go back and re-read or check on earlier chapters to refresh the memory. So it was a bit difficult to work out who was significant in the story, and who was not.

There are some shocks - this series is crime fiction, although I don’t think I could have worked out the details of the events that transpire. But, as usual with this author, I kept reading; the story flowed well despite my not always following who was whom or what had happened, and I was pleased to be able to finish it within about three hours. The ending is entirely satisfactory, even if the outcome was somewhat predictable from rather earlier in the book.

I didn’t like this book as much as I’ve liked some others by Sally Quilford, but it still made a good distraction on what would have been rather a dull five-hour flight.

All the 'Midchester Memories' books stand alone, so can be read in any order. This one is only, as far as I know, available in Kindle form.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

24/12/2018

A Christmas Cracker (by Trisha Ashley)


I’ve read about half a dozen of Trisha Ashley’s novels over the past few years. They are the kind of book that’s ideal to read in a holiday period - undemanding and lightweight, but with interesting characters and satisfactory (if predictable) endings. So when I saw ‘A Christmas Cracker’ in a charity shop in September, with a snow scene on the cover, I thought it would be a good one to read before Christmas.

As with most of Trisha Ashley’s books, it took a few chapters for me to get used to the informal style, although as this is in the first person it was quite appropriate. Tabby is the narrator, a young woman who is a little gullible but very good-hearted. I was a tad confused when there was suddenly a switch of viewpoint - a chapter told from the perspective of a young man - but it was clearly marked and not a problem.

We meet Tabby when she’s telling her friend Kate about a scam she has discovered at her workplace. She’s not all that close to Kate, but she seems like a good listener, and someone who can be trusted. Unfortunately, Kate passes the news on; legally speaking, she should probably do so anyway, as Kate has made the mistake of not reporting it to the police. But she’s pretty sure her word wouldn’t be believed over that of her boss…

It’s an unusual start to a novel, and we next meet Tabby in prison, although the unpleasanter parts of prison life are glossed over, and her main worry is what has happened to her cat Pye. Happily, Tabby is rescued by a philanthropic and very lively elderly lady called Mercy, who offers her a job, and accommodation.

The main part of the story then involves Tabby (who is a talented artist) helping Mercy rescue her ailing cracker factory. Not the kind of crackers one eats with cheese, but Christmas ones, with paper hats and bad jokes. Her staff are elderly, and Mercy herself has been abroad; so the factory is losing money. And Mercy’s nephew, who will eventually inherit her home and the factory, wants to close it down and re-design the factory entirely.

While the title of ‘A Christmas Cracker’ is undoubtedly relevant to the storyline, the Christmas after Tabby arrives is only briefly mentioned in the final chapter. There are a few snowflakes during the final resolution, but the front cover is very misleading, as is the tagline on the front, ‘As the first snowflakes fall, anything is possible…’, which implies a storyline set in a snowy village over Christmas.

It’s not a major problem - the plot, once I got into it, was interesting although it was easy enough to put down. I liked Tabby, and I became very fond of Mercy. She’s a Quaker, with strong principles, and I thought very well portrayed; it gave an unusual slant to the story.

My only real problem is the usual one I find with this author - there’s really too much detail. Much of the book reads like day-to-day notes on what Tabby did, to pass the time, rather than adding in any way to the story.

However, overall it was a pleasant, easy read which was good to pick up at random times in between Christmas preparation. It would be a good book to take on a summer holiday, too, despite the pretty snow scene on the cover.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

19/12/2018

Life and How to Survive It (by Robin Skynner and John Cleese)

It’s nearly twenty years since I last read ‘Life and How to Survive it’ by Robin Skynner and John Cleese. However I re-read their first book, ‘Families and how to survive them’ in 2010, and despite the slightly daunting length and format, decided that ‘Life..’ would be a good book to read in January this year. I had determined to read at least one book I categorise as ‘miscellaneous’ or ‘lifestyle’ per month...

It’s taken me eleven months to finish it. That’s partly because I kept forgetting to pick it up, and partly because the middle section is a bit heavy; involved with businesses and marketing, and I didn’t find it particularly relevant or interesting. It’s also quite a difficult style to read much of at a time, as it’s in dialogue form. This works very well from the point of view of the expert (the late Robin Skynner) explaining his theories and expounding on research to his former client (John Cleese), peppered with some Pythonesque humour here and there. But it’s hard to read more than a few pages at a time. It doesn’t lend itself to skimming.

The book takes the ideas discussed in ‘Families…’ - that of the mental health of an individual or family, and what makes for healthy communication - and applies it to the wider world. There are sections on religion, on life and death and aging, and quite a bit about helping companies become more productive, at least as far as employee relations go. Examples are given, and both the authors digress regularly, but summaries are given and there’s much to think about.

Skynner talks, as he did in the first book, about individuals becoming more healthy in the mental and emotional sense. This happens by (among other things) observing, listening, and being willing to admit their faults or failings. Most people, he claims, will automatically widen their perspectives and become more healthy simply by interacting with a wider group of people as they grow up, and in meeting new situations.

Those who are less healthy, however, will tend to cling to rigid viewpoints, often learned in childhood, or developed as a result of suppressing some emotions that aren’t considered appropriate in their childhood. When someone becomes defensive about new ideas, or is unwilling to consider alternative viewpoints, the authors count them as less healthy. However they point out that everyone’s mental health varies, due to many factors, and everyone can have both blind spots and also subjects or situations when they display better than average health.

There’s a lot about politics later in the book. Some of it is rather dated now, twenty-five years after it was written, and some of the people mentioned would mean little to younger people embarking on this book. But the principles still hold: that politicians, even more than the general populace, tend to hold fast to their party line and official opinions without any room for negotiation. Skynner does mention that some public schools in the UK had started emotional health training in the 1980s, and he hoped that would lead to some of the future country’s leaders being more open to discussion, and consideration of other points of view. His hope, alas, does not appear to have been realised.

My interest is far more along the lines of family and individual communications, so although I did like this book, and thought it had plenty of sage advice, I didn’t find it as helpful as ‘Families…’. Still, it was good to revisit the theories, recalling again the general principles of freedom, co-operation, discussion, and agreement amongst all parties concerned - but with the management (of a company) or parents (in a family) being able to pull the reins and take action in a positive way if chaos ensues, or if there’s a crisis requiring decisive action that might not have time for full consultation.

I thought the section on religion was fair and open-minded, giving an excellent example of how to discuss a potentially controversial issue in a constructive way. While neither of the authors subscribe to Christianity or any other system of belief, Skynner acknowledges that he has become quite a spiritual person and both point to Jesus as an example of someone with supreme mental health.

The cartoon images, as with the first book, are somewhat bizarre, probably incomprehensible to anyone outside the UK. I didn't find them amusing, for the most part; but it was easy enough to ignore them.

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in understanding mental health issues better from a layman point of view. Psychological jargon is minimal - the informal conversational style enables this easily - so although the ideas are quite deep, they’re not difficult to understand.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews