Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Drops like Stars (by Rob Bell)

I’ve mostly enjoyed the books by Rob Bell; often controversial, he tends to paint the Christian life in different ways, and I find his writing often quite thought-provoking, masked in his unusual writing style with short sentences that seem almost too simple at first. So when I saw this book available inexpensively at the AwesomeBooks site, I hoped it would be worth reading.

In ‘Drops like stars’, the topic is how suffering can enhance creativity. Not that he puts it so directly. Instead he looks at scenarios of joy and grief, of life and death. He uses examples from the 20th century and examples from Scripture to demonstrate how God is with us in our suffering; not that he causes it, but that he cares, and loves us, and - if we allow him - can use our suffering to create something of beauty.

While this is true of our lives as a whole, Bell also talks about art in its many forms - music, sculpture, painting and so on - and shows how art is often refined, improved, able to speak more clearly to its audience when the composer has suffered and struggled, both in the production of the work concerned and perhaps in his or her personal life too.

It could be trite or formulaic, but somehow this book manages to be inspiring and encouraging. There are drawings and photos, including an amazing one of soap sculptures, and a lovely word picture at the end which explain where the title of the book originated.

It’s a very quick read; only about 130 pages, and with the author’s usual style of spaced out paragraphs and large margins, it could probably have been contained in half that number of pages. I might have been a bit peeved if I’d paid full price for it. Nonetheless, I liked it, and would recommend it if you can find it inexpensively. If you feel that you'd like it in new condition, it's available for the Kindle as well as in paperback.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Friday, 17 April 2015

Messy Spirituality (by Mike Yaconelli)

I’ve only read one other book by the late Mike Yaconelli, but I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to read more of his works. I found this particular volume at the AwesomeBooks site, on special offer, and ordered it a couple of months ago.

Messy Spirituality is a refreshingly honest look at how ordinary people can connect with God, without having to go through the hoops and trappings that are so often associated with ‘spirituality’. Yaconelli was a pastor, yet he struggled at times to pray. He made mistakes, he messed up - repeatedly. And finally he accepted that God loved him anyway. That God was there with him, all the time, and that the spiritual life does not have to be a neat progression of steps but is often untidy, disorganised, and messy.

Specific chapters look at hindrances to the spiritual life, including problems from the past. Even well-meaning adults can cause tremendous stress or confusion in a child’s life by forgetting to keep a promise, or explaining something in a way that’s misunderstood. Yaconelli encourages us to let go of the past, whether it’s traumatic and painful or mostly fine, and to move on with God into whatever our future holds.

He explodes some of the myths that some apparently super-spiritual people hold to; he encourages his readers to encounter Jesus rather than to listen to what others tell them about themselves, whether positive or negative. He looks, too, at the importance of love, of caring for others, of doing whatever we’re supposed to do, day by day, and gives examples of how little patches of grace occur when we least expect them.

Peppered with anecdotes, mostly self-deprecating, the book is very thought-provoking. It’s not a difficult read, but I found that a chapter each day was more than sufficient, as there was much to think about. I found it immensely encouraging, that someone was writing so many of the things I have thought, or at least felt.

All in all, I enjoyed this very much and would recommend it highly to anyone, whatever stage they are on the Christian path. Some might need to be prepared to put aside some pre-conceived ideas of what it means to be spiritual, and to be courageous enough to put aside the masks and be honest about their faith.

Not currently in print in the UK, but can sometimes be found as a used book, either hardback or paperback, relatively inexpensively. A newer edition has been published in the US, however.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Monday, 13 April 2015

Summer at the Lake (by Erica James)

I’ve read and enjoyed all of Erica James’ novels, so am always pleased when I hear that a new one has been published. I put this on my wishlist as soon as I discovered that it was available, and was delighted to be given it last Christmas.

‘Summer at the Lake’ is about three very different people. Floriana is a young woman who’s a bit of an eccentric. She lives in Oxford and earns her living by giving tours, some of them quite specialist. Adam is a wealthy property developer who’s just broken up from his long-term girlfriend. Esme is an elderly lady who likes to be alone with her cat, but is sometimes quite lonely.

They meet by chance, when Floriana is involved in a road accident, which she blames on an unexpected wedding invitation she’s just received in the post, from her best friend and the love of her life.

It’s a character-based book, so the plot moves quite slowly as we get to know these three delightful people, who are themselves getting to know each other. I like it when a book is about an unusual, quirky person, and there are two of them; Esme, in her way, is as independent and unusual as Floriana. Adam is a predictably nice hero although, it being a modern novel, I didn’t guess until near the end whether or not he and Floriana were going to get together romantically.

Gradually we learn about Esme’s past, as her new friends talk to her about the paintings on her wall. Her father was an artist, and they spent a summer in Italy which she reminisces about. Then they discover that the wedding which Floriana is invited to is going to be in the same place in Italy…

By the time I was about half way through, I was completely hooked. It’s not that there’s any great excitement or tension, but all three of the main characters had got under my skin; Erica James has quite a gift of bringing people to life, and I felt as if these were my friends. There were other people in the book too, of course, but they were all more two-dimensional, and none of them were particularly memorable.

Some of Esme’s eventual revelations were poignant and moving, and there are some wonderful scenes towards the end of the book, as she finds a new lease of life in an unexpected way.

There were a few minor proofing errors that I felt should have been caught before publication, but I tend to find that kind of thing mildly amusing rather than irritating, and they didn't detract at all from the story.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Available in hardback, paperback or Kindle form.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Sunday, 12 April 2015

A Husband for Margaret (by Ruth Ann Nordin)

I’d read something by Ruth Ann Nordin a while ago, so when I saw this book free for the Kindle, a couple of years ago, I downloaded it and promptly forgot about it. Scrolling through my unread e-books I came across it recently, and decided to read it.

I imagine it’s set towards the end of the 19th century; trains exist, but cars do not. People mostly travel by horse and carriage, although the language is not that of the 19th century. The main character, Margaret, is a forthright and sensible young woman who has decided to advertise for a husband. We meet her when she’s preparing to meet the young man she’s been corresponding with, but quickly discover that his older brother Joseph has come instead… along with his four young children: all boys.

Margaret is horrified at first; her friend Jessica is good with little ones, and immediately remembers their names, while Margaret knows nothing about children, and feels that Joseph simply wants a mother for his lively sons. However, she quickly discovers that he’s a thoughtful and intelligent man, and agrees to go ahead with the ceremony.

So far so good, although even by this stage I was getting a little irritated by the number of times people were described as rolling their eyes, a phrase which meant something rather different (and crude) until the middle of the 20th century. However it went downhill even further when we were treated to a several page detailed description of what happened on Margaret and Joseph’s wedding night; not something I expect to read in a book labelled ‘Christian’, and there were no indications that it was going to be that kind of book.

Then it started to get a bit silly; the wedding had been interrupted, and that leads to another thread for the second half of the book, and a bit of matchmaking that seems to work but is so unbelievable that I found myself doing a bit of eye-rolling in the modern sense of the phrase.

I did like Margaret, and the books stands alone although I later learned that it’s a sequel to the story of Jessica and her husband. I liked the small boys, too, and Joseph makes an interesting hero. But a lot of the writing was trite, the bedroom scene was unnecessary, and the ending decidedly strange.

Still available free for the Kindle, so worth downloading if you want something light and undemanding for a flight, or a holiday afternoon. More a novella than a novel, I read it in a couple of hours.

As far as I know, it's only available in Kindle form.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Whisper (by Chrissie Keighery)

I had never heard of Chrissie Keighery. Apparently she’s an English teacher in Australia, and has written a large number of children’s and young adult books, also using her married name Chrissie Perry. I hadn’t heard of this book until I happened to read a review that sparked my interest. Then I spotted it in the ‘bargain bin’ at the AwesomeBooks site.

The protagonist of ‘Whisper’ is 16-year-old Demi. Two years before the story began, she became profoundly deaf. She has a supportive family and some good friends, but she has been struggling in her school, finding it very difficult to lip read and to keep up. So, rather to her mother’s dismay, she has decided to move to a college for the Deaf.

When we meet Demi on the bus, terrified about starting at her new school, she’s a normal teenager struggling to deal with her disability. She comes across as very human and likeable, and seeing the world from her eyes helped me understand just how difficult an ordinary bus journey would be for someone with no hearing. People - mostly - don’t intend to be rude or discriminatory, they just don’t think.

Demi finds her new school very strange at first, and doesn’t feel as if she can fit in. Her signing isn’t as fluent as that of her new classmates, and she doesn’t know much about Deaf culture. She finds some of her fellow students a bit odd at first, but they’re friendly and welcoming, and gradually she starts to feel accepted.

Then Stella, who has been away, returns to the school. Stella’s parents are both profoundly deaf, and she has grown up to be angry about the way that deaf people are sometimes treated. She doesn’t realise that in her determination to stand up for her rights and to support those around her, she has become discriminatory towards the hearing majority…

It’s not a long book, but the characters feel three-dimensional and real, and the message is a powerful one. There are some thought-provoking scenes, some which moved me to anger on behalf of those with no hearing, and some which were moving in a different way. Demi’s three-year-old nephew is an utter delight, and Demi’s growth in maturity is believable, as she begins to find a balance between the two communities in which she now belongs.

Highly recommended for older children or teens, or indeed adults. There’s nothing inappropriate for a thoughtful child of eight or nine who reads fluently and doesn’t mind some low-key romance. It would make an excellent discussion starter for any group wanting to think about the ways disabled people are sometimes treated.

I shall be looking out for other books by this author in future. 'Whisper' is available in Kindle form as well as paperback, on both sides of the Atlantic as well as in Australia where it was first published.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Thursday, 9 April 2015

The Colonel and his Daughter (by Teresa Ashby)

A couple of years ago, I read a short book by Teresa Ashby after a recommendation online. It was free for my Kindle, and I liked it, so when I saw another of the same author’s books, also available free, I downloaded it. However it’s taken me a couple of years to get around to reading it.

The Colonel in this story is known as Potts; he’s a widower, with a slightly depressed daughter called Diana. However, the main protagonist is Trudy Benson, who is a slightly eccentric woman living in a village, who cleans for the Colonel, and also organises most of the local events. We meet her when she’s on her way to visit the Colonel to discuss - as she thinks - a cake for a party.

It turns out that the Colonel has a different request of Trudy, and as they’re talking about it, his daughter appears unexpectedly, and sees something which she misunderstands. Her mistake is compounded when an annoying visitor tries to accost Trudy… and suddenly she and the Colonel are at the centre of a confusing web of deceit.

It’s a light-hearted book, with some caricatured people, and one or two bizarre scenes that entirely suspend reality for a while. That doesn’t matter; it’s not intended to be taken seriously. It’s a book about love, and finding the right person, and I enjoyed reading it.

This is a short novella, originally published as a serial in a women’s magazine, and I could have read it in one sitting if I’d chosen to. It’s the ideal kind of book for a flight.

No longer free for the Kindle, but fairly inexpensive; not available in any other form, as far as I know.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Raising Steam (by Terry Pratchett)

I’ve been reading Discworld books by the late Terry Pratchett for over twenty years now. When my sons lived at home, we would buy the hardback versions as soon as they were released so that we could read them aloud together. Recently I’ve waited for paperback editions - so although this was first published at the end of 2013, I didn’t have this on my shelves until one of my sons gave me the paperback for Christmas last year.

When I started reading ‘Raising Steam’, Terry Pratchett was still alive, albeit suffering from a form of early dementia. It took me several weeks to complete, as I went away for a fortnight in the middle of reading it, and only read a few pages each night. As usual, with Pratchett’s works, there are no chapters; this means that there are no obvious stopping places - but it also meant that, sometimes, I read only a page or two before falling asleep at night.

The book is about the invention of railways on the Discworld. As ever, the culture is a kind of pre-industrial revolution society with a wonderful mixture of fantasy and realism. It's a world emerging, sometimes kicking and screaming, into a technological era without any idea of what it will mean long-term.

In this particular story, Dick Simnel, a young and geeky engineer, has managed to harness the power of steam, and has produced an engine which he calls ‘Iron Girder’. He is convinced that this is something big: an invention that will make a phenomenal difference to daily life, even only that fresh fish from the coast can more quickly be delivered inland, to Ankh Morpork.

The story, like the railway lines which are gradually built around the Disc, takes several twists and turns. I was pleased that it includes several favourite characters from previous books such as Moist von Lipwig, Sam Vimes, and the Patrician, Lord Vetinari. The book stands alone, so it’s not strictly necessary to have read anything else in the series, but I would recommend doing so. There are many references to other characters and storylines, and a lot would be lost if this was your first foray into Pratchett's writing.

While this book is not as laugh-aloud amusing as, say, ‘Moving Pictures’, and not quite such a confusing mixture of plots as some of the earlier books, it was still classic Discworld, with much to think about as well as a great deal that was entertaining.

There is, as ever, a wonderful mixture of cultures, and plot-lines including wars amongst the Dwarfs, who are in revolution against their current King. There’s also ongoing argument about the acceptance of the Goblins; a subject covered more extensively in 'Snuff', the previous book in the series.  Alongside the topic of racism, and geekiness, and the clash between capitalism and ingenuity, there’s a strong feminist thread running through the book.

I don’t know how Pratchett managed to keep coming up with new ideas for forty Discworld books, each complete in itself; but once again, he managed it. 

Highly recommended to fans of the series, or to anyone who’s read and enjoyed some of the earlier books.

In print in both hardback and paperback form, and also available for the Kindle.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Saturday, 4 April 2015

The Meeting Place (by Janette Oke and T Davis Bunn)

I’ve quite enjoyed books by Janette Oke, over the years. She writes historical fiction from a Christian perspective, and while some of her writing is perhaps a bit trite, she has a good sense of history and creates some believable characters. I’ve learned a great deal about American history from her novels. So when I saw that one of her co-written novels was available free for my Kindle, I downloaded it at once, although I knew nothing about her co-author T Davis Bunn.

‘The meeting place’ is the first in the five-book series known as ' The Song of Acadia’. It’s set in the 17th century, in a place I knew nothing about: it’s about French and English people, and it took me a while to realise that ‘Acadia’ was on the Canadian coast. Apparently England was at war with France, although there was an uneasy peace in the Acadian region.

The novel features two women: Catherine, who is English, married to a Captain in the army, and Louise, who is French and married to a young man called Henri. We meet these women before they are married, and although they don’t realise it until later, they are married on the same day. Louise comes from a large and loving family, while Catherine was brought up by a single father, in a far stricter way. Nonetheless, both women are lonely, and when - by chance - they meet in a meadow, something clicks and they start to become friends.

It was difficult for me to appreciate just how dangerous such a friendship would have been, but I liked the way that the story was told, from alternate points of view, showing their daily lives and adjustments to marriage; without a great deal of plot, at first, a good picture was painted of these two women whose hearts were so similar, yet their cultures and backgrounds were so very different. There’s some clear Christian content as they decide to read their Bibles together, and then with their husbands; but I didn’t find it too preachy, and it was mostly relevant to the story.

As the book progresses, the tension rises and there is some high drama towards the end which - to my disappointment - leaves the story unfinished, hanging in the air. I don’t like it when that happens; clearly this book was available free as a taster for the series, to tempt me to pay full price for the others. I’m not inclined to do that - yet I’m interested enough that I plan to look out for second-hand editions of the paperback versions both of this and its sequels.

If you like historical fiction with a fairly slow-moving plot, I’d definitely recommend this - but be prepared to buy at least one sequel too.

It's no longer free for the Kindle, but reasonable value still, and often found second-hand.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews