Tuesday, 10 February 2015

The Church in the Market Place (by George Carey)

There are a lot of books in our ‘Christian’ shelves which we apparently picked up at church bookstalls, or perhaps bargain bins at bookshops. This is one of them; marked 20p on the inside, and in good condition, it’s the kind of book that looks interesting but which, as far as I recall, I had not read until just recently. The author is the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey - perhaps the name is what drew me to the book - but it was written back in 1984 when he had just left a post as Vicar of St Nicholas’ Church in Durham.

‘The Church in the Market Place’ is an account of a major project of renewal and growth for this church, St Nic’s as it was affectionately known. At the start of the book, the author explains how he and his wife decided to go there, outlining some of his own spiritual journey.

When he arrived he found a staunchly evangelical Anglican congregation of the traditional kind, which was not attracting young people or new believers. He struggled with the old-fashioned style, the uncomfortable seating, the general inward focus - and the way the ancient building needed ongoing and expensive repairs to keep the roof in shape.

Gradually a vision emerged of a project that would make the church far more appealing to the local community. Set in the middle of the town, there were probably thousands of people who passed it each day - and it was felt that it should be open all week, with a welcome to anyone who wanted to come inside. Naturally such a project was expensive, and the proposal was rejected at first… leading to a year of renewal and rebuilding of the people, who are, after all, the real church.

The book is written in a clear and interesting style, recounting the author’s worries and his own growth in faith. He doesn’t over-spiritualise anything, nor does he preach - instead he lets the story stand for itself as a testimony to God’s leading and the astounding things that can be done if people are willing to pray and to listen.

It's not a long book, but it won’t appeal to everyone; there’s no high drama or any serious conflict, and I imagine that it’s unlikely to be of interest to anyone who is not a Christian believer, other than those who live in the locality or who have visited Durham and are interested in the story of St Nic’s transformation.

But if you like this kind of book, then I’d definitely recommend it. It's not in print but second-hand editions are widely available at a low price.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Tea by the Nursery Fire (by Noel Streatfeild)

I love the way that so many previously out-of-print books by well-known writers are being republished these days. One of my favourite children’s authors is Noel Streatfeild (best known for the classic ‘Ballet Shoes’), and I’m delighted to discover more and more of her books becoming available again. I’ve bought one or two and added others to my wishlist, gradually adding to my collection.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from ‘Tea by the Nursery Fire’, which was previously published under the title ‘Gran-Nannie’. I realised that it was a biographical rather than fictional account, but looked forward to reading it nonetheless. The byline on the front describes it as being about a children’s nanny at the turn of the century - meaning the turn of the 20th century, when Noel Streatfeild was a child.

The book features Emily, born into an impoverished home with a large number of siblings. She knew that her destiny was to work as a maid of some kind in an upper-class home; her mother, when younger had worked at a castle. So at the age of eleven, barely literate, Emily leaves home and begins in service as assistant to the nursery. Her one skill is in sewing; when she mends something for a visitor, she is offered a different post where she gradually progresses to become ‘Nannie’ - the chief of the nursery - in her teens.

The narrative charts Emily’s experiences as she learns to deal with very different children, and the sadness she feels that they spend so little time with their parents. She grieves as the boys are sent to boarding school at the age of seven or eight, and instils what seem now like old-fashioned ideals into her charges, peppered with cliches and odd sayings that she learned from the nanny she first worked for.

It’s written for children, although some of the content - albeit skated over - might need explanation by parents. The character of Emily is nicely done, with the majority of the book from her viewpoint, although there are a few departures from that which feel a bit odd. I was also a little disappointed that the writing doesn’t flow as Noel Streatfeild’s other books do; the sentence structure feels stilted in places, with some of the punctuation lacking entirely.

I also realised that the chronology can’t be correct; according to the book Emily was born in the 1870s, but one of the children she looked after - John, her secret favourite - was supposed to have been Noel Streatfeild’s father. Comparing with her childhood biography ('A Vicarage Child') and other biographical information, it appears that Emily must have been born at least a decade earlier.

The latter sections of the book are a bit depressing, as Emily loses the opportunity of marriage, and then young men around her go off to war and don’t return. The ending is then very abrupt. However, I’m sure it’s realistic and assume that the majority of the narrative is at least based on factual reminiscences so perhaps the chronological gaps are where little or nothing was recalled.

Notwithstanding these issues, the book paints a pleasant picture of life in the late 19th century and is good from the social history point of view. Neither Emily nor her mother saw anything wrong with the class system; going into service wasn’t easy at first, but life was a great deal better for working class teenagers in a home where there was warmth and plenty of good food. With society so very different in the 21st century, it’s good to have books of this kind.

Recommended in a low key way. Available in Kindle form as well as paperback.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Monday, 2 February 2015

Sophie's World (by Jostein Gaarder)

Jostein Gaarder is a Norwegian writer; his background is in teaching, languages and theology but he has evidently studied the history of philosophy too. I would probably never have started to read his best-known book (translated into sixty different languages with worldwide sales in the millions) had it not been for a very strong recommendation from one of my sons.

As it was, ‘Sophie’s World’ sat on my bookshelves untouched for some years. I decided to read it in April last year, so it’s taken me nine months to complete it. It’s not that I’m a slow reader; but I found it quite heavy-going, despite being originally published as a teenage book.

For this book is a thinly disguised manual on the history of philosophy. I knew that much before I started. It’s written in a style that reminded me, somewhat, of the far more recently written ‘A new kind of Christian’ (and sequels) by Brian McLaren, which outlined the history of modernism and introduced post-modernism within a Christian context, from the point of view of fictional characters and an ongoing story.

Sophie’s World doesn’t even have such an interesting story surrounding the factual conversations. At least, it doesn’t seem so interesting at first. The story involves Sophie, who is an ordinary schoolgirl, and almost fifteen. She’s an only child whose father is in the army. She starts getting mysterious notes asking her difficult questions: ‘Who are you?’; ‘Where does the world come from?’ - and more. She also receives long letters which start to examine questions of this kind from the perspective of the best known philosophers through the ages starting with the Ancient Greeks.

It’s heavy-going even in the first few chapters, with names and styles of thinking being introduced in rapid succession. I knew about many of them, and it was interesting to see how they fit together, and the progression of thought as the centuries passed. But it didn’t make an easy or relaxing read. To add to the confusion, there are extra mysterious notes and postcards addressed to someone called Hilde, who has the same birthday as Sophie - but Sophie has no idea who she is.

Sophie eventually meets Alberto, the philosopher who has been writing the letters, and they embark on a series of conversations, progressing further through the philosophers of history. However, the dialogue did not ring true, most of the time. I knew it was a device to pass on information, but it became tedious, at times, reading a paragraph of information (spoken by Alberto) followed by a brief ‘I see’ or ‘That makes sense’ (or similar) from Sophie.

At over 400 pages this is not a short book, and by the time I’d reached about quarter of the way through I found myself skimming the information - which was the majority - and reading properly only when there was actual discussion between Sophie and Alberto, or when there was yet another mysterious reference to Hilde and her father.

It took me over eight months, off and on, to get to half way through the book, but by that stage it was becoming both intriguing and bewildering - and, at times, somewhat surreal.

Then, suddenly, Hilde is introduced and the entire thing so far makes sense - more-or-less, anyway. A clever idea, done extremely well, the ramifications of which were even more thought-provoking than some of the initial questions.

So I finished the second half of the book in just a couple of weeks, now understanding the principle better, and also quite interested in some of the philosophical developments that were discussed. I liked the way that much of the conversation focused on God and different attitudes towards Christianity, without ever telling anybody what to believe.

Towards the end there’s more story - although it becomes more and more surreal, even silly at times - and less philosophy; I thought it ended in a satisfactory way, certainly in keeping with the rest of the book.

I don’t suppose I’ll want to re-read this, but I might dip into it in future to refer to some of the history of philosophical thought. I’m glad I read it, and would recommend it to anyone wanting an overview of philosophy through the ages, so long as the pseudo conversations and sometimes bizarre storyline doesn’t put you off.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Friday, 30 January 2015

He Cares, He Comforts (by Corrie ten Boom)

Browsing through our ‘Christian’ bookshelves, I came across this little book by Corrie ten Boom, the Dutch writer from the 20th century who became well-known due to her autobiographical account of imprisonment during World War II, ‘The Hiding Place’.

‘He cares, he comforts’ consists of over twenty little vignettes, each one just two or three pages long. They are intended to offer comfort and reassurance to people going through intensely stressful times, often including bereavement or terminal illness. Most of them are personal anecdotes recounting occasions when the author herself was able to offer suitable advice, comfort or help: not to overcome the situation itself, but to help the person gain the strength to go on.

I have mixed feelings about this book. I read it in just a couple of days; there are less than a hundred pages in all. Perhaps the translation from Dutch has lost something in the process, but it seemed to me that quite a few of these accounts were simplistic, even patronising at times. I’m sure they weren’t intended that way, and that they did help the people concerned in the ways that were described. But each situation is different; each person has different needs. A story that might bring immense hope to one person might bring another almost to despair.

Still, there were a handful of the stories that I found thought-provoking, and I can see that for some people this book might provide a lifeline; particularly if they are asking questions about the Christian faith and want some reassurance and guidance.

No longer in print, but this is the kind of book often found in charity shops or church bookstalls; I'd say it's worth dipping into if you can find it inexpensively.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

I was Just Wandering (by Jeff Lucas)

I like Jeff Lucas’s books. He’s a Christian writer and speaker who comes from the UK but lives in the US, and who describes himself (if the blurb on the back of this book is to be believed) as a Mr Bean of the Christian faith. He writes with self-deprecating and refreshing honesty sprinkled with a little humour. I was introduced to his books by a friend a few years ago, and have gradually been collecting them ever since.

‘I was just wandering’ is one of my most recent acquisitions, given to me for my birthday last year. I’ve been reading it for the past ten days or so, first thing in the morning, as a kind of ‘thought for the day’. It’s not really a book to read straight through; each chapter is short, just three or four pages long, and each stands alone. On most days I read two chapters, sometimes more.

The subjects covered are quite a mixed bunch, on the general theme of feeling awkward or out of place in churches or with other groups of Christians. In the preface, Jeff Lucas explains that his walk of faith is more like that of John Cleese doing a ‘silly walk’ than John the Apostle; that any time he feels he’s taken a step forward, it’s usually followed by a couple of steps in the other direction.

It resonated strongly. As did most of the rest of the book. Each short chapter starts with an anecdote from the author’s life, told in his usual ironic way that often puts him in a poor light; I could relate to him in many ways, and often felt a great deal of sympathy. He rants (very gently) against those who use Scripture to justify bad decisions, those who are convinced they hear from God about every facet of their day, those who use jargon, those who refuse to acknowledge that they’re having a bad day… yet he’s never unfair.

He doesn’t blame other Christians for being better (or apparently so) than he is; he admires their dedication and commitment. But at the same time he finds himself backing away, feeling out of place.

Jeff Lucas loves the church and his fellow believers, and I suspect he’s a great deal more ‘normal’ than he suggests, and I don’t intend that in a derogatory way. It’s refreshing to read of someone who remains honest about his feelings and temptations, and I found it very thought-provoking. There’s no deep theology here, and nothing particularly new; just different ways of looking at the world and at fellow Christians.

Highly recommended. Available in Kindle form as well as paperback.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

A Week in Winter (by Maeve Binchy)

When Maeve Binchy sadly died in 2012, I assumed that I had a complete collection of all her books. So I was pleasantly surprised to spot a posthumous novel in hardback for a very good price at the AwesomeBooks site. I ordered it nearly a year ago but have only just read it.

It’s the story of Chicky, who is an Irish teenager at the start of the book. She falls in love, then shocks her family by running to America with her young man. She is convinced their relationship will last forever, so when it falls apart she feels unable to tell her family. So, taking odd jobs to make ends meet, she spins a growing story of a happy marriage which only comes to an end when her niece and a friend plan to visit her.

Eventually she decides to settle back in her home town, where she renovates an old house and turns it into a hotel. The book charts her story, and that of the people who come to stay during the opening week.

That’s about it as far as the plot goes; there are no real surprises, no serious conflicts, no mysteries to solve. It’s entirely character-based, as so many of Maeve Binchy’s books are, and weaves together a series of cameos featuring a group of loosely connected people. It’s a device she used before to good effect; each chapter is almost a short story in itself, yet each one relies on prior knowledge from previous chapters which the reader knows but the person concerned is unaware of.

It’s a cosy world; supposedly set in the 21st century, it’s a much gentler environment than would be found in most parts of the world, more reminiscent of the middle of last century. However I don’t mind suspending reality during the course of a book, and I enjoyed the slow-moving dialogue, the friendly interactions and the general trust in human nature. Perhaps Maeve Binchy truly lived in this kind of world - or perhaps, as she grew older, she wrote more from her younger memories. It doesn’t matter; this is a special book, the last one she wrote. There are occasional references to people from previous novels but only in passing, as owner of a restaurant or perhaps a next-door neighbour.

In one sense I liked the first half of the book best, as it charted Chicky’s life of deception and struggle and her eventual return to her own country. But the second half, introducing each of the guests with their stories, made good bedtime reading. I liked the way the author looked at each person or pair, at the varied reasons for them being in Chicky’s hotel, and the circumstances of their lives which were so important to them, yet almost invisible to those around them.

The writing is good, as I expect from Maeve Binchy, and while it wasn’t the most exciting book, it was warm and relaxing. Not one to choose if you haven’t read any of her books before, or if you prefer books with a good plot; but for fans of this author, I would certainly recommend it to read at least once. Ideal for holiday or bedtime reading.

Available in hardback, paperback and Kindle form on both sides of the Atlantic.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

A Chalet Girl from Kenya (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)

In gradually re-reading my way through Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s lengthy Chalet School series, I’ve reached the ones set in the Swiss Oberland, written in the 1950s. The earliest books were set in Austria in the 1930s and are still my favourites. The later ones feel more ‘samey’, written for fans of the series who were clamouring for more, and to make money for the publishers - but I still like to dip into them when I want something easy to read.

I last read ‘A Chalet Girl from Kenya’ in 2001. This book features Jo Scott, a likeable, sensible girl who has been living in Kenya. It’s at an era when life was becoming dangerous with unrest, so her mother decides to send Jo to the Chalet School, remembering it from her own childhood. Jo is the unofficial goddaughter of Joey Maynard, who was the school’s first pupil and who, by this stage, lives next door and has had eight children of her own.

There’s a lot of day-to-day description of life at the school, with rambles and picnics, lessons and leisure time. I found myself skimming here and there; Brent-Dyer tended to go over the same ground at times, and while I’d forgotten the plot of the book, I found much of the educational and healthy living theories to be very familiar. The author was quite forward-thinking in her day, seeing the value of fresh air, exercise, and minimal supervision; but having grown up with the books, it’s hard to remember, sometimes, how radical they were.

I did, however, find myself warming to Jo Scott. Many of the author’s characters have big problems in their development, or tremendous gifts in some area, which make them stand out. Jo is remarkable for being very ordinary. She works hard but is not academic; she likes sports but is not greatly talented. She’s not unmusical and she does her best at art and needlework, but she shows no great skill at anything. She could seem mediocre and dull, but somehow she shines as a kind, courageous and sensible child who is liked by almost everybody.

There’s some high drama in the book, although not so different from similar escapades in other books of this sequence; there’s potential tragedy and some events that set the book firmly in context. It’s nothing special - and yet I very much enjoyed re-reading it.

This is one of the series that was barely cut at all in the Armada paperback version. It's not currently in print, but can often be found second-hand in the UK (and sometimes, at great price, in the US).

The previous book in the series is ‘The Chalet School Does it Again’.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Monday, 19 January 2015

Helter Skelter (by Della Galton)

Della Galton is one of my favourite short-story writers. She regularly features in women’s magazines and has published some collections too. Her plotting is excellent, she creates believable characters, and she often uses humour. She has also written some excellent books about writing, which I have found extremely helpful, and I was privileged to attend one of her workshops last year.

However, although she has published a few novels I had not previously read any of them. So I was pleased to be given ‘Helter Skelter’ for my birthday last year, and finally picked it up to read about ten days ago. The story is about Vanessa, a young woman who used to work in a fairground. We learn right at the beginning that she gave birth to a stillborn baby six years previously, and is still grieving; however she split up with the baby’s father, and is married to a wealthy, if rather dull businessman.

Conflict begins when Vanessa receives a letter; she argues with her husband, and then, hoping to reach some kind of amicable agreement, sees something that shocks her - and triggers her to get in touch with her old fairground friends whom she has not seen since she left her former boyfriend Garrin.

The plot is well crafted. Although the inevitable outcome is fairly predictable, there are developments that I was not expecting and it makes a good read. I found Vanessa quite believable, if absurdly naive at times; her husband turns out to be a manipulative control freak, and while this is hinted at in the early chapters, she seems entirely unaware of his dark side, and far too trusting. I would have expected somebody raised in a fairground to be rather more streetwise.

Garrin is believable too; his main passion is horses, and he’s quite abrupt, even rude at times when his impatience is triggered. Yet he has a softer side that few people are aware of. He’s not the kind of person who appeals to me but he has a deep friendship with Vanessa, going back to their childhood. I liked Izzy as well, the older woman who brought Vanessa up; she’s now quite frail, but still has a lot of wisdom. There are some other likeable minor characters who helped to flesh out the novel, and who worked well.

On the other hand, I found it very difficult to believe in Vanessa’s husband, and the other ‘villain’ of the piece. They didn’t seem to have any redeeming features, but there was no indication as to what motivated them to their unpleasantness. I found it hard to be emotionally involved in most of the conflict.

Also on the less positive side, I found some of the conversation a bit stilted, which surprised me. I also felt at times as if I were being ‘educated’ rather too much about horses and show jumping, topics in which I have no interest whatsoever. I’m sure the research was thorough and the writing realistic, but most of the time this information wasn’t relevant to the story. The other thing that bugged me was the detailed ‘intimate’ scene - something that happens in so many women’s fiction books these days, but which then makes them unsuitable to recommend to young teenage friends (and some of my adult friends) who might otherwise enjoy them.

Still, it’s a good story overall and the ending was entirely satisfactory.

Currently available in paperback, and also, inexpensively, for the Kindle.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews