12/12/2017

Winter's Fairytale (by Maxine Morrey)

I hadn’t heard of Maxine Morrey, but this book was available recently as a free download for my Kindle. Reviews were mostly positive, and it sounded like a pleasant, light and heart-warming read in the busy period before Christmas. I started reading ‘Winter’s Fairytale’ on a flight and finished it a week later, reading mostly at bedtime.

The main character is Izzy, who is a talented wedding dress designer and creator. We meet her in a dramatic opening chapter when she is jilted at the altar, and then punches Rob, the best man in the nose. Romantic fiction novels traditionally introduce the reader to the hero and heroine in a conflict situation, and that certainly happens in this book!

The main part of the book begins some months later. Izzy has picked up her life again, and while still hurt and angry, feels that perhaps it was for the best. Rob has been trying to contact her to find out how she is, and she avoids him until she bumps into him on a snowy evening…

Rob is a likeable hero, if at times almost too good to be true. His flat is spotless, he is a good cook, he is extremely generous, always chivalrous, and cares deeply for his family. He’s evidently quite keen on Izzy, but lets her know that he only wants friendship, at least for a while. The writing is clever enough that I could see this coming early on, despite Izzy being apparently unaware of Rob’s feelings for her; however, when this continues for several chapters, I began to feel that she was annoyingly obtuse.

The main plot involves their eventual getting together which was predictable from the start, and - in classic romance style - their journey is full of misunderstandings, miscommunications, and - when they’re almost getting close - interruptions from friends and family. There’s a nice sideline story involving Rob’s sister and her fiancĂ©. Most of the book takes place during a snowy December, culminating in a New Year party.

My main gripe with the book is that much of the dialogue is long-winded, full of greetings and irrelevancies, and repetition of things the reader already knows. It’s the kind of conversation that could actually have happened, but in fiction that doesn’t work: I found myself skimming several times as people asked each other how they were, and then told each other things which had already been described. There’s rather too much heart-searching, too, with internal monologues which, again, add nothing to the plot, or to Izzy’s character, other than making her seem less intelligent. Her insistence on wearing five-inch heels in snow only adds to this impression...

I also felt that there were rather too many thoroughly nice characters. I would love to know Rob’s family in real life; in fiction, they feel a bit one-sided. There are two unpleasant people - three, if we count Izzy’s ex-fiancĂ©, but then we don’t ever meet him. However they don’t appear to have any redeeming features at all. Perhaps that was intended, though; the novel calls itself a fairytale, and those tend to be full of nice people with a few thorough-going ‘baddies’.

Overall, this book made a pleasant interlude in a busy period. I didn’t at all mind the long-expected ending, and some of the scenes were quite heart-warming. If you like light ‘chick-lit’, and don’t object to bad language (there’s rather more than I’m comfortable with) and a predictable storyline with somewhat one-sided people, then this would make an ideal book to pick up in odd moments during the Christmas period.

No longer available free, but inexpensive on the Kindle. Not, as far as I can tell, published in any other form.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

08/12/2017

Dear Paul...Am I the Only One? (by Bridget Plass)

Although her husband Adrian’s work is much better-known, and she has almost no internet presence on her own, Bridget Plass is a talented and thought-provoking writer too. Many years ago I bought and very much appreciated ‘The Apple of His Eye’, a book I have read as a devotional study three times over the past decade or so.

It was only recently that I discovered that Bridget Plass has written two other books, though I can’t find them anywhere in print. However, ‘Dear Paul…am I the only one?’ was available in Amazon Marketplace, so I recently acquired a copy, and then read it over the next few days. It’s not a big volume - only about 125 pages of paperback - but one which I found quite inspiring, and extremely interesting.

It’s written in an unusual way: as a fictional correspondence between people of a church and the Apostle Paul. Different members of a church have been struggling with some of Paul’s writing, and want to ask him questions - exactly the kinds of questions that I’ve heard many people, over the years, say that they would like to ask him.

There’s Madge, for instance, a retired headmistress who gets angry about the way Paul ‘counts everything as loss’. Or Jill, a perfectionist whose life is so busy with family and friends that she feels she cannot accomplish anything. And there’s Jerry, who asks why Paul gave the apparent restrictions on women in leadership. Some of the letters are somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but others ask serious and important questions.

The replies are, I thought, very cleverly composed. Paul, presumed sitting a table in his heavenly residence, replies in terms which reflect much of what he wrote, yet placing it in cultural context. The point is made, several times, that some of his admonitions and advice were written to specific people, and not necessarily intended for the worldwide church. In some letters - as with the one about women in leadership - there’s some historical context and explanation, the kind of thing that is often ignored by those who assume Paul’s letters can be taken as literal divine commands.

Fundamentalists and Biblical literalists might look askance at the book, which offers a variety of interpretations of some of Paul’s more difficult writing. But for those willing to look a little more closely at what was written, and the time in which it was written, this book could offer much to think about. It’s not an academic tome; the fictional and often light-hearted style ensures that it could be read by anyone with an interest in the topics.

I’d recommend this to anyone who would like to understand the New Testament better, and Paul’s writing in particular.


Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

05/12/2017

Little Lord Fauntleroy (by Frances Hodgson Burnett)


Browsing through my Kindle, looking for something light but enjoyable to read on a flight, I spotted ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’, one of the children’s books by Frances Hodgson Burnett. She is probably best-known for her classic ‘The Secret Garden’ but I recalled reading and liking this (her first published book) many years ago.

The story is about a boy called Cedric, who lives with his mother in a fairly run-down New York neighbourhood in the late 1800s. His father, who was English, died some years earlier. Cedric is a lovable child, who has a knack of making friends with people of all ages: from the local grocer to a bootblack who struggles to make ends meet.

One day, a lawyer arrives from the UK, explaining that Cedric’s two uncles have also died, without any children, so he has inherited the title of Lord Fauntleroy; one day he will be an earl. The lawyer has been sent by Cedric’s grandfather, who disowned his youngest son when he married an American. He asks that Cedric and his mother move to England, so that Cedric can become accustomed to his title and duties. However, he refuses to see Cedric’s mother, and will install her in a house nearby.

The mother (we never learn her first name) is almost heartbroken, but she knows it’s the right thing to do. So without a word against the grandfather, they bid farewell to their many friends, and the only country Cedric has ever known, and embark on the long voyage to the UK.

The plot is probably well-known: the crusty old grandfather is pleasantly surprised by Cedric’s polite manners, and frank - but well-spoken - dialogue. He never liked his own sons much, but quickly becomes very fond of his young grandson. Much of the book describes their growing relationship, watched with astonishment by the Earl’s servants and the local Vicar.

Inevitably there’s a crisis - one which includes such an enormous coincidence that I found it a tad hard to swallow. But it’s a children’s book, initially serialised in a magazine, and extremely popular with its young readers. It paints a good picture of the contrast between aristocratic homes in England and the poorer parts of New York, but is not in any way anti-American despite the Earl’s sentiments. The author was clearly comfortable in both cultures, and shows well how different the two countries were, even 130 years ago.

Well worth reading for anyone - child or adult - who likes this era of fiction; it would make an excellent read-aloud too, with much to discuss and think about from a social history point of view.

Definitely recommended. I read it in about three hours, and it made an excellent distraction from an otherwise rather boring flight. Free versions are widely available from Amazon or Project Gutenberg, as well as paperback and other Kindle editions.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

04/12/2017

What Became of you, my Love? (by Maeve Haran)


Browsing on bookshelves in the relatives’ house where I was staying, I was attracted by the cover of this book by Maeve Haran. I had not heard of this author before, and am always interested to try something new. The blurb suggested lightweight women’s fiction, which is exactly what I wanted while taking a break in the UK.

‘What became of you, my love?’ opens with a prologue in 1969. Stella, dressed rather flamboyantly, is the girlfriend of Cameron, an up-and-coming rock star. He’s recording a new song, ‘Don’t leave me in the morning’, and Stella is pretty sure it’s going to be a hit…

The book then moves forward to 2016. Stella is now in her mid-sixties, married to the somewhat grumpy and pedantic Matthew. They have a married daughter, Emma, and three grandchildren: the youngest, Ruby, was a bit of a surprise to all concerned. Emma is eager to return to work and expects Stella to babysit, but Stella has her own career, as a portrait painter for pets (mostly dogs).

In the middle of preparing a family meal, while Stella is chatting to her best friend Suze, the radio starts to play the song ‘Don’t leave me in the morning’. It was so popular that it turned into a kind of romantic anthem. To their surprise, the DJ introduces Cameron, who has lived in the United States for the past few decades, but is about to do a UK tour. They are then astounded when Cameron says he’s looking for the girl who inspired his most famous song, whose name was Stella…

The book is then a tapestry of storylines, nicely woven together. Inevitably Cameron and Stella meet again, along with Cameron’s manager Duncan (with whom Stella has a guilty secret). There are preparations for concerts, and an ecological thread too, as Stella and Suze make plans to save a local shopping area. There are problems in Stella’s marriage, and also in Emma’s… and a flamboyant self-centred dancer who turns out to have hidden depths.

My favourite subplots, however, were those that involved Stella’s teenage grandson Jesse, a delightful young man who feels caught in the many tensions that his family are displaying. I loved the relationship she has with her older grandchildren, as well as with the baby. Jesse and his eleven-year-old sister Izzy are quite outspoken but very believable, perhaps more so than some of the adults.

I liked Stella’s character very much, although I couldn’t relate to her very well; she’s much more motivated and proactive than I am. I liked Jessie and Izzy too, and one or two other significant people. However I found Suze to be a bit too bohemian and unreliable, Emma irritating, Matthew incomprehensible after the first few chapters, and Cameron self-centred and obnoxious.

Reading for perhaps half an hour or so each day, it was easy to keep track of the main storylines, but I did sometimes lose sight of who some of the minor characters were. I also felt that there were perhaps too many threads going along; they work well together, but everything happens remarkably fast, and the ending of the story is a tad too neatly done, without much exploration of the issues that were causing stress between Matthew and Stella.

Overall, it made a good light read. I quite like books that focus on people in their fifties and sixties,  as that's my age-group. But with such a mixture of generations it would probably appeal to younger fans of women’s literature too.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

30/11/2017

The Runaway (by Sally Quilford)

After reading a children’s Kindle book that was much shorter than I had expected, I wanted something else to read while on a flight. I decided to try another book by Sally Quilford, a prolific author who has written quite a number of short stories and pocket novels for women’s magazines, over the past few years. I had previously enjoyed one about the young policewoman Bobbie Blandford, so decided to try the second in the series, ‘The Runaway’.

Bobbie is embarking on her second year in Stony End as this story opens, set in 1961. She’s taking part in a parade, when a cry of ‘Stop, thief!’ makes her break rank. It’s a light-hearted opening to a novella with some quite serious issues involved, including the struggle of women to be accepted as equals to men.

A body is discovered and Bobbie gets involved in the resultant enquiry, which she thinks may be linked to an unsolved mystery from the past. However this isn’t just crime fiction; alongside Bobbie’s work is her romantic involvement with Leo, the local doctor.

Sally Quilford has a gift of creating memorable and likeable characters, and I found myself involved in the story very quickly. It’s been over two years since I read ‘The Last Dance’, which introduces Bobbie, but her quirks and personality shine through and it quickly felt as if I were meeting an old friend once more. I vaguely recalled other members of the cast, but it’s not necessary to have read the earlier book as this one stands alone.

During the course of the story there are unexpected revelations, one of them causing Bobbie to take up an appointment at another town for a while, where she meets some sexism and a unpleasant household scenario. The settings feel real, set firmly around the working people of the 1960s, and the pace of the book is good. It kept me engrossed on my flight; once I’d reached my destination, despite being quite tired, I was eager to continue reading to find out what was going to happen.

It’s not a long book, and the mysteries aren’t full of red herrings and careful clues, as might be expected with mid-20th century crime fiction. But for people who like crime-related stories featuring a low-key romance, and some great characterisation (albeit with a few caricatures), I would recommend this.

Only available in Kindle form, as far as I know. I think it was on special offer when I downloaded it a few years ago, but it’s still, in my opinion, extremely good value.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

28/11/2017

Marjorie's Three Gifts (and Roses) by Louisa M Alcott


I was going away for a week, with rather an early morning flight. I wanted something light to read that wouldn’t tax my brain too much. Scrolling through my unread Kindle books, I found this one by Louisa M Alcott, best known for ‘Little Women’ and its sequels. I must have downloaded it some years ago, in a free edition.

I’ve had somewhat mixed feelings about Alcott’s lesser-known works that have only recently been published in ebook form, but guessed from the title, ‘Marjorie’s Three Gifts’, that it was most likely a children’s book.

I was correct in my assumption. The story, written at the end of the 19th century, is about a girl on her twelfth birthday, remembering a fairy story about three wishes. Marjorie lives with her grandmother, and we meet her sitting on her doorstep, shelling peas and daydreaming about wealth, happiness and a handsome prince.

She is distracted by an old man who asks for her help with his horse, and then, later, by a beautiful woman, drawing in a field. Is she dreaming or are they real…? It’s never made entirely clear. However the later part of the story, where Marjorie discovers what her friends think about her, is delightfully done.

Essentially this is a barely disguised morality tale about the importance of hard work, helping other people and being grateful. But Marjorie’s personality is nicely drawn, and it was easy to empathise with a little girl dreaming big dreams, and then realising that she has everything she could want, in her home and loved ones.

It was a very short book - more a short story - but to my surprise there was another story of similar length in the same Kindle book. The second one is simply called ‘Roses’. In this we meet someone in much direr poverty than Marjorie. Lizzie is an orphan who works as a delivery girl, out in all weathers. We meet her as she is taking an expensive and flamboyant bonnet to a spoilt rich girl called Belle.

Belle is shallow and extravagant, but she’s not hard-hearted. When she sees how Lizzie is shivering in soaking wet clothes, she talks to her, and invites her to get warm. She even gives her some old boots, and some roses. Then disaster strikes…

The plot then moves forward several years, and we meet both Belle and Lizzie again. This time, Lizzie is able to help Belle. This story, too, demonstrates the importance of hard work and thankfulness, contrasting the contentedness of Lizzie, despite some terrible life circumstances, with the discontent and self-centredness of Belle, even though she has never wanted for anything.

As a pair of short stories intended for girls of around 11-13, I thought these worked rather well. I know of some young people that age who would probably appreciate them, although the language is inevitably dated and the morals rather obviously put. Still, avid readers who like historical fiction of this kind would probably like these.

Recommended in a low-key way - if this interests you, look for the free Kindle editions at Amazon or Project Gutenberg.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

26/11/2017

Detection Unlimited (by Georgette Heyer)

Despite enjoying (and regularly re-reading) Georgette Heyer’s historical novels since I was a teenager, I only discovered her crime fiction about fifteen years ago. I gradually managed to acquire all twelve of these novels, many of which have recently been reprinted. I hadn’t read ‘Detection Unlimited’ since 2003, so it was more than time for a re-read.

Apparently I read this aloud to my teenage sons fourteen years ago, but I had entirely forgotten the plot. It features a small community of diverse people, most of whom are spending the afternoon at a tennis party. Gradually they disperse to their various homes, and the early chapters follow several individuals in a way that I found a bit confusing as there are so many characters involved.

However, high drama happens when the somewhat saintly Mavis rushes into her neighbour’s house, to say that she’s found her uncle dead, shot by a bullet, in the garden. She is distraught, despite him being (as we quickly learn) not a particularly nice person. He treated her like an unpaid housekeeper, and was generally rather disliked.

Chief Inspector Hemmingway of Scotland Yard, who features in several of Heyer’s crime novels, is called in to investigate. It becomes apparent that several of the local residents had the opportunity to have committed the terrible deed, and many of them (including the niece) have some kind of motivation, too. The Inspector relies on his intuition alongside a likeable way of getting alongside people, and encouraging them to chatter. His sidekick, Inspector Harbottle, disapproves of some his methods, and their interchanges provide some light relief and even mild humour in quite a tense book.

Heyer’s gift was that of characterisation. Her plots wre not as elaborately constructed as Agatha Christie’s, the best-known author of this mid-20th century genre of light crime fiction. There are a few red herrings in this novel - pretty much everyone in the village developed their own theories about who did the evil deed, and they all present their ideas to the Chief Inspector. 'Detection Unlimited' is exactly what happens.

But I didn’t have much idea ‘whodunit’ until the point at which Hemingway starts to back-track and look again at some of the evidence or conversations he had not taken very seriously. When the perpetrator is discovered, and everything falls into place, I could see it clearly, but I didn’t feel any strong sense that in fact this was the only possible solution.

Still, I enjoyed reading it. There’s very little gore or unpleasantness, and we don’t get to know the victim before the crime is committed, so it’s not emotionally draining. I would recommend it to anyone who likes character-driven crime fiction of this kind. But don’t expect the twists and turns that occur in a Christie novel.

Not always in print, but available in Kindle form.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

25/11/2017

Prayer (by Philip Yancey)

I’ve very much appreciated all the books I’ve read by Philip Yancey over the past decade or more. In the absence of new books by this author, I’m gradually re-reading the ones I acquired in the past. The one I have just finished is called, ‘Prayer: Does it make any difference?’ I first read it nearly ten years ago.

It’s a surprisingly long book, given the rather specific topic, and one with a great deal to think about. While the book is written in Yancey’s usual clear and readable style, with anecdotes here and there, it’s not a book to skim through. I found that ten or twelve pages each morning were as much as I could manage at one sitting, and each morning I found something in those pages to inspire or encourage me, or cause me to ponder.

The first section of the book is about keeping in touch with God, stressing the importance of prayer as communication, something which benefits the person praying as much as those for whom prayers are offered. The next section moves on to asking why we pray, looking at arguments against prayer, exploding some myths and misunderstandings. It concludes with the importance of prayer whether or not we understand the reasons. There are some interesting statistics, the result of some research done into the efficacy of prayer, which suggest that it does have some effect overall, whether or not anyone understands how or why.

Another section examines the language of prayer, pointing out that it’s not important to use specific words, and giving the analogy of a father enjoying his child’s talking even if it’s far from fluent, full of mistakes. Unanswered prayer is the topic for a further section; a very important one, where the author acknowledges that it’s often both difficult and frustrating when God appears to be silent, or contradictory. Some suggestions are made, looking at the global picture, but Yancy doesn’t make the mistake of offering pat answers or telling people to pretend that they’re not angry or upset when prayers seem to yield nothing but silence.

It’s a book primarily intended for Christians, but could be of interest to anyone with a belief in God who is interested in reasons for praying, ways of praying, and whether or not it makes any difference at all. It’s not always an easy read, but I found it thought-provoking and would recommend it to anyone wanting to know more about the importance of prayer.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews