Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Joni (by Joni Eareckson Tada)

It’s many years since I last read the original autobiography of Joni Eareckson (now Joni Eareckson Tada). She is an amazing person, now in her sixties, who was paralysed from the neck downwards in an accident in her late teens. She has written a large number of books and is still a popular speaker.

The book ‘Joni’ is subtitled, ‘The unforgettable story of a young woman’s struggle against quadriplegia and depression.’ I knew the outline of her story even when I first read it, probably some time in the 1980s. Reading it again in the past few days, there were no surprises in store, even though I had forgotten many of the details. But it’s a powerful story.

In a sense this isn’t a direct autobiography. It’s told more like a novel, at first. We meet Joni at the start of the book when she feels as if she is drowning after bumping her head, until she is rescued by one of her sisters. Joni, we learn, was full of energy and daring, living life to the full, at least in a physical sense. So it’s a huge shock to her system to find herself in hospital, unable to move anything other than her head - unable even to feel anything below neck level. From dreams of college and independence, she is entirely dependent on the hospital staff, and not at all sure whether she will survive.

The rest of the book charts her progress, including two operations, and a great deal of pain. The emotional pain is even worse; she feels useless, deeply depressed, and determined not to survive. She becomes angry with God, then unsure whether or not He exists - when she is able to read (with assistance) she studies agnostic and atheist philosophers and gets into debate with folk around her.

Eventually she accepts that she will not walk again - the details of this are explained, along with her gradual acceptance of the situation and renewed faith in God. We also see her tentative forays into the world of art and her first - unexpected - public speaking. it’s a dramatic story and she is fortunate to have been surrounded by loving family and friends who encourage her and never allow her to despair entirely.

It’s a powerful story, and Joni’s battles with depression and other problems are clearly documented from her point of view, openly and honestly. This book has been of immense help to others in similar situations, seeing light where it appeared that there was nothing ahead but a void.

My only slight reservation with the book is the amount of ‘preaching’. It’s not that I disagree with the principles; as a Christian believer myself, I fully understand how Joni’s faith was challenged, and the importance of her dedicating her life again to Jesus. Certain of the Scripture verses quoted are significant in her journey, and the discussions are rarely trite: she has to learn that God does not always heal in a physical sense, at least not in this world.

But at times it seemed there was too much direct exposition, written in rather stilted conversational form, that did not feel realistic or particularly helpful. Perhaps it’s more valuable to those who are not already aware of these principles, and yet my suspicion is that many would find them offputting, and would have preferred a bit more subtlety.

With that proviso, I found this book well-written and well-paced, and enjoyed it very much. It was republished in the early 2000s and is still in print in the US. Various other editions can often be found inexpensively second-hand.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Monday, 17 November 2014

Claudine at St Clare's (by Enid Blyton)

A young friend of mine, currently aged nine, regularly borrows some of my children’s books. She has read her way through Enid Blyton’s ‘Mallory Towers’ and ‘St Clare’s’ books in order, and re-reads them apparently randomly. I don’t know what the appeal is about books set in boarding schools, but I used to enjoy these myself and it’s lovely to see someone else reading them.

Her most recent re-read was ‘Claudine at St Clare’s’, which was returned last night. I picked it up idly this morning and started reading the first chapter. It’s many years since I’ve dipped into these stories and I vaguely remembered this as one of my favourites in the series. I wondered what I would think of it now, probably around forty years after I last read it.

There are four new girls in the form, including Claudine of the title, who is the niece of Mam’zelle, the French teacher. Claudine is mischievous and likeable, brilliant at needlework but with a strong dislike of sports and swimming. Horribly caricatured of course; her lack of appreciation of the British ‘sense of honour’ could be seen as racist - and yet Claudine is an appealing character with her own strong sense of right and wrong.

Claudine is certainly the nicest of the new girls. The others are Eileen, daughter of the new and unpleasant Matron; Angela, who is beautiful, wealthy and snobby; and Pauline, who is also snobby and decidedly boastful. The book mainly focuses on these girls, with only cameo roles by the O’Sullivan twins, and their various classmates.

It’s old-fashioned, of course. The dialogue seems stilted, full of ‘I say!’ and ‘Look here!’ and contains some of the irritating style of discussion where one girl informs another girl of something which both would evidently know, for the sake of the reader. The situations are typecast (a stinkbomb ‘trick’, a midnight feast, a bit of tale-bearing, a half-term…) and most of the characters are excessively caricatured.

But I enjoyed reading it, with a hint of nostalgia, and the realisation that a good many moral issues are covered without preaching. Many of my values were formed in part thanks to Enid Blyton; I have a deep-rooted dislike of snobbery and cliquishness, and a horror of cheating. The shallow but good-natured Alison learns something valuable in this book, and it’s a lesson which I hope would still translate to 21st century readers.

This book was originally intended for girls of about 11-15; the main characters in the series are around eleven or twelve in the first book, ‘The Twins of St Clare’s’ (which I also re-read recently) and they are about fifteen in this one, going into the fourth form - what we would now call Year Ten. They seem a lot younger than today’s fifteen-year-olds, and decidedly naive in some ways. I don’t think that’s a bad thing in itself, but it means the book is more likely to appeal to younger children such as my nine-year-old friend.

Re-published in 2005, and often found as part of a bigger collection of St Clare's books, this is regularly available second-hand, and now even has a Kindle edition.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Friday, 14 November 2014

From this day forward (by Connie Monk)

A friend of mine passed this book on to me when she'd finished it, thinking I might liked it and not wanting to re-read it herself. I’m not usually particularly keen on historical fiction set around the turn of the 20th century, but liked the cover, so thought I'd pick it up to read recently. The author, Connie Monk, is apparently quite a prolific writer of historical fiction.

‘From This Day Forward’ opens with high drama. Jane Bradley is having an argument with her father. He is the owner of a brewery and she, unusually for the period, has been working there with him for some years in a management role. They have had a close relationship, but now Jane has fallen for the handsome Ian, one of the workers. She wants to get married to him; her father is furious that she would even consider such a thing.

So Jane decides to elope, certain that her father will come round to her point of view. She comes across as a very spoilt young lady, not just privileged in her upbringing, but unwilling to listen to her father’s wisdom. He seems very hot-tempered too, using quite the wrong psychology, and it made me wonder how they could ever have had the close ties that Jane recalls.

Unsurprisingly, marriage to Ian is not what Jane expected, and once he realises that her father is not going to give her an allowance or dowry, the relationship starts to go very wrong. Jane does not fit in with her neighbours, she has no idea how to prepare a meal, and she’s hurt that her father does not respond to her letters…

There’s quite a lot of potential for this book, even if the opening scene is at odds with Jane’s memories. Unfortunately it starts to get a bit sordid when the author tells us about the first night Jane spends with Ian. Not in as much detail as some modern books, thankfully, but still more than I wished to read about. And whereas I could see that it was significant to the plot, it’s not an isolated incident.

There are two other couples who are important in the book: the rector Marcos and his saintly wife Alayne, as well as the doctor Matthew and his flirtatious wife Yvette. There is plenty of mention of their marital intimacies - or lack thereof - and, inevitably, several adulterous liaisons featuring various of the cast.

Worse, I didn’t really find many of the characters sympathetic or really believable. I could sympathise with Jane to some extent; Ian turns out to be a distinctly unpleasant person at times. But she makes little effort to make things better despite huge amounts of introspection. Alayne is simply too good to be true, and Elsie, a buxom good-natured barmaid who features later in the book, is also - in her very different way - apparently without fault.

I did like Alice, an older woman who befriends Jane; yet her situation and back story seemed unrealistic. Perhaps the nicest people are the stationmaster and his wife, Mr and Mrs Philpott - the way Jane treats them in the end made me dislike her all the more.

All of which sounds rather negative, and yet it’s not a bad book. It paints a good picture of life at the turn of the last century in the working classes in the UK; the settings felt authentic, as did the language. From a social history point of view, it’s quite interesting. Other than the odd, stream-of-consciousness introspection, it’s mostly well written too, although towards the end it feels more stilted. The ending is predictable, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it all happens rather too rapidly.

For people who enjoy novels written in this era (1905-1907 to be precise) it could make good holiday reading: easy to put down, easy to pick up again. Despite disliking most of the cast, they are memorable enough that I never forgot who was whom.

Not currently in print but sometimes available second-hand.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

How Not to Pray (by Jeff Lucas)

I have enjoyed Jeff Lucas’s books ever since a friend introduced me to one of them several years ago. He is pastor who has lived in both the UK and US, and writes with a gently satirical style that makes some excellent points in the guise of light comment.

I couldn’t resist a title like ‘How not to pray’ when I spotted it at one of the online bookshops. So much so that I bought it myself rather than putting it on a wishlist. I’ve just been reading it over the past week, and have found it as thought-provoking and helpful as I hoped.

As the author states, there are many books about prayer written by saints or prayer warriors who think nothing of getting up in the early hours for a couple of hours of quiet time with God. However those who are called to this lifestyle probably don’t need a book about prayer; for those of us for whom a couple of minutes sometimes seems to drag, where words disappear and concentration is all over the place, this is the ideal book to read - and, I expect, to read again. And again.

Rather than giving pointers for praying, Jeff Lucas gives us misconceptions - myths that are all too common - which will make it more difficult to pray. There's one per chapter. So for those who really don’t want a prayerful relationship with God, you could follow such principles as: ‘Tell yourself that the only good prayers are long ones...’, ‘Believe that God is a long way off….’, or ‘Forget that you’re a sinner and that you’re surrounded by the same’.

Treading lightly through the ‘Lord’s Prayer’, and with plenty of self-deprecating anecdotes, this book manages to be a powerful aid to anyone who would really like to pray a bit more effectively. Chatting to God at random times is fine, we’re assured. Even a brief ‘Help!’ prayer is okay. God cares about us more than a father for his child, and while he doesn’t want us to be selfish, he’d still prefer us to ask for stuff for ourselves than not to spend time with him at all.

It’s not that there’s anything new in this, or ideas that I hadn’t heard previously at some point. But it’s all tied together so well, expressed so clearly, that I found myself both challenged and encouraged. It even got me thinking, again, about the importance of church services, even if they do seem over-long, trite and tedious at times.

All in all, I thought this book an absolute gem and would recommend it highly.

First published in 2003, this book is still in print in the UK, and can be found inexpensively second-hand on both sides of the Atlantic.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The Chalet School and Barbara (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)

Slowly - oh so slowly - re-reading my way through the lengthy Chalet School series by Elinor M Brent-Dyer, I discovered that I had somehow skipped directly from ‘Joey goes to the Oberland’ to ‘The Chalet School does it again’. I only noticed because the latter had mention of Barbara Chester, who joined the school when it moved to Switzerland and, I knew, had a book of her own.

So I’ve just read ‘The Chalet School and Barbara’ over the past couple of days; I last read it fourteen years ago. Previously I had a paperback edition which was slightly abridged, but I now own a hardback copy and that’s what I read. I had forgotten almost everything about it, other than the fact that the previously frail Barbara finally goes to the school, travelling with her older sister Beth. Her cousin Vi had agreed, reluctantly, to look after Barbara, but she turns out to be friendly and likeable and the two become quite close.

There’s a bit of jealousy from another girl but after one unpleasant incident it seems to die down entirely. There’s the adjustment of the school to starting in the Oberland for the first time, learning about the dangers of blizzards and the fun of snow sports. There are various expeditions with bits of history thrown in, courtesy of the accompanying staff, and there’s the inevitable staff party and Christmas play, described in detail.

It all sounds tedious, but of course it isn’t. To those of us who grew up with the Chalet School, it’s like getting together with old friends. Who could dislike the outspoken (but never rude) Mary-Lou of the clarion tones, or the friendly, if brash Clem who is a new games prefect? Seeing the school through the eyes of a series of new girls is the way it works, and Barbara is a likeable character, though perhaps a little too perfect; there’s no hint of the spoiled mummy’s girl that her cousins appear to remember.

My only problem with this book is that there’s very little involving Joey Maynard, despite the fact that she’s living next-door to the school. Her children have inconveniently gone down with German Measles, and in those days there were lengthy periods of quarantine for even this relatively mild illness.

Oh, and there is one instance of a word that shocked me, reading it this time, although as a teenager I would barely have noticed it (and I’m quite sure it’s removed from the Armada version). It’s said in passing and certainly wasn’t meant to be offensive; I find it a little ironic that Elinor M Brent-Dyer is so down on slang, yet used casually some words and phrases that are considered worse than politically incorrect these days.

An important book for fans of the series, introducing the new branch of the school, but not particularly good as a stand-alone or as introduction to the series. Clichés abound, as ever.

‘The Chalet School and Barbara’ has been reprinted recently by Girls Gone By as a facsimile paperback, with a new introduction. It can also often be found second-hand in the somewhat abridged Armada version.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Sunday, 9 November 2014

The Year I Met You (by Cecelia Ahern)

Cecelia Ahern’s books are all different. Some are quirky, some emotional, and some are decidedly strange. I've read several and like the style of writing, so I was pleased when I saw this one available for review at the Bookbag site.

Jasmine is the main protagonist of 'The year I met you', and also the narrator. She has just lost her job, an is on a year’s ‘gardening leave’: she is still salaried and not allowed to start another job.

The only quirk to this book is that it's written in the second person. Jasmine addresses the book to her neighbour Matt - the ‘you’ of the title - and works, on the whole, although it seems a bit odd at first. However, that's about all that marks it out. There isn’t much emotion, the characters are rather flat, and it’s almost entirely predictable throughout. There’s minor conflict but it’s all happily resolved; even a couple of mildly creepy people turn out to be reasonable enough underneath.

I’m making it sound dreary, but somehow it isn’t. The author has a good writing style, with realistic dialogue; there are, despite the lack of plot, some interesting scenes. I particularly liked the ones involving her sister Heather, who has Down Syndrome. I suppose it made a pleasant way of seeing into the lives of some everyday people who were learning about themselves - and there's an inevitable romance (though not with Matt).

The novel made ideal bedtime reading, one or two chapters at a time. There were no cliffhangers, no real tensions, so it was easy to put down, and pleasant to pick up again the following evening. There's some bad language (though not unreasonable in context) but the intimate scenes take place off stage.

Read it by all means if you like this author, or if you want something easy to read to take on holiday. But don’t expect too much. Then again, the blurb on the back calls this a ‘dazzling gem’, ‘heartbreaking and uplifting’ - so perhaps I’m missing the point.

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

You can also read my longer review of 'The Year I Met You' on the Bookbag site.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Friday, 31 October 2014

Abba's Child (by Brennan Manning)

I’ve loved all Brennan Manning’s books since first being introduced (by my son) to the ‘Ragamuffin Gospel’ some years ago. When I first read ‘Abba’s Child’, I liked it very much - that was about eight years ago, so I thought it time for a re-read.

At the end of the book, right before a short study guide for groups, is the comment that the author has two modes of reading non-fiction. The first mode is to read ‘externally’ - for information which he might want to use in a discussion, or a sermon, or perhaps even a book. The second mode is internally, taking it in short chunks, perhaps re-reading passages, and spending time pondering them.

Although I had quite forgotten about this distinction until I reached the end of the book, the latter mode is exactly how I read it - just a few pages each morning over about six weeks. That’s a very long time for me to take over a book which I loved - and it’s not even long; there are fewer than 170 pages in the actual book itself. Some days I re-read a section which I had read the previous day; some days I managed only a couple of sides of text.

It’s not that it’s heavy going or requires extensive digestion; far from it. This is a very well-written book intended for the general populace, without academic language. The theme is the love of God as father - something which, the author believes, most of us barely grasp in its real sense.

He begins with looking at what he calls ‘The Imposter’ - the image we portray to our friends and family, even sometimes to ourselves. He make several references to Susan Howatch’s brilliant novel ‘Glittering Images’, which prompted me to re-read that too, a few weeks ago. But rather than throwing out the imposter, Manning suggests we need to embrace him (or her), accept the imposter as part of who we are, offering our whole selves to our Father who loves us more than we can possibly imagine.

The rest of the book enlarges on the way we are loved, examining some common prejudices and misconceptions. The author describes many of his own mistakes and ways he missed God over the years; he is honest and open about his failings, and I found this very encouraging.

It’s a book to be taken slowly, savouring each paragraph, absorbing the wisdom and letting go of the false images and ideas we so often cling to. It’s written from a strongly Christian perspective, of course; but I would recommend this to anyone exploring the faith as well as those who have been committed to God for years. Too often Christians portray themselves as judgemental or angry - this book demonstrates a much gentler and yet also more powerful faith, one that grows and changes, and one which is very, very appealing.

Very highly recommended. Now available in Kindle form as well as being still in print in paperback.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Friday, 24 October 2014

Indian Summer (by Marcia Willett)

Marcia Willett has become one of my favourite writers in recent years. So when I saw her latest novel on TheBookbag shelves, I had no hesitation in requesting it to review! Her novels tend to be character-based with quite large casts, yet each person is memorable, with his or her quirks and endearing characteristics.

Indian Summer starts by introducing us to Mungo, a retired actor and director. In one sense this is his book; yet the plot, to start with, seems to feature two women on the brink of possible romances. Kit - an old friend from the Chadwick trilogy - has been contacted by an old boyfriend. Emma, a young army wife, might be embarking on an affair...

This novel is set entirely in a small neighbourhood in Devon, with a few forays to a nearby café. As ever, Marcia Willett gives warm descriptions of places without becoming tedious, realistic conversation that stays entirely 'PG' rated, and no intrusions into her characters' bedrooms. The result is a thoughtful story, packed with interesting people. Perhaps a little slow-moving in places, it quickly drew me in.

There's much to think about, including the possible ramifications of an affair, and there are some quite shocking revelations at the end of the novel. But the serious side is nicely tempered with the innocence of a delightful four-year-old and the pomposity of a would-be author who has not the slightest idea what's going on around him.

All in all, I enjoyed this book very much. Currently available only in hardback or Kindle form.

You can also read my longer review of 'Indian Summer' at the Bookbag site.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews