23/05/2016

Ruey Richardson - Chaletian (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)

In my sporadic re-reading of the lengthy Chalet School series by Elinor M Brent-Dyer, I had reached the one which was 44th in the original publication list, 48th in the Armada variations. It immediately follows ‘Joey and co in Tirol’, which I read and enjoyed a couple of months ago.

‘Ruey Richardson - Chaletian’ continues directly from the previous book, starting at the beginning of the Autumn term at the Chalet School. Last time I read it, about six-and-a-half years ago, I only had the much-abridged Armada version, and thought it rather run-of-the mill and a bit disappointing. In the intervening years I managed to acquire the ‘Girls Gone By’ full edition, and hoped it might be more interesting...

Ruey starts her first term at the Chalet School with a bit of apprehension, having been in charge of her own life and schedule until recently. She’s now a ward of the Maynard family and very friendly with the triplets, and is regarded with disfavour by Francie Wilford who had wanted to become Margot Maynard’s special friend this term.

The blurb on the back of the book mentions this problem; combined with Ruey’s own dislike of early bedtimes and fixed prep periods, it could have led to some relational conflict of the kind that Brent-Dyer does quite well in some of the other books. However these two threads don’t take up much of the book at all. Francie sulks but nothing much happens. There’s a brief section where Ruey asks the triplets what it is that makes the Chalet School so special, with each person caring about everyone else, but that’s more about her personal character development than any real plot.

Unfortunately, it remains rather a dull book. Lacrosse is introduced as an alternative game to hockey, and there are quite lengthy explanations about the game, the way the sticks are held, and then a blow-by-blow account of one of the matches. I imagine that most of this was cut out of the Armada paperback, and I can see why. I would have cut these sections too. New uniforms are also discussed and chosen in this book, again with rather more detail than I cared about.

In addition there are prefects meetings, class incidents, various walks, and staff meetings - perhaps more of the latter than usual; I quite like the chance to get to know some of the staff a little better - and minor incidents involving Joey Maynard who, with her large family, lives next door. The first Bettany family wedding, which takes place over half-term, is only briefly mentioned despite a brief detour for close family and friends to attend it.

So, despite having the new edition, my opinion isn’t changed: it’s a run-of-the-mill Chalet School book, which is a pity as Ruey is a nicely developed and interesting character in the previous book which introduces her.

Still, I’m glad I have the new and full version. All the ‘Girls Gone By’ books have bonus essays or short stories included; this one begins with a fascinating introductory chapter about girls’ school uniforms, and how they changed in the early part of the 20th century. Then, at the end, is a story written by someone other than the main author, outlining a midnight feast that’s mentioned in the book, and its consequences. It’s nicely done, in best Brent-Dyer style, and makes a good add-on.

I’m glad I read it from the sake of continuity, and reminding me how Ruey settled into the school, but it’s not one I’ll be picking up at random to peruse again. Nor is it a good enough story to suggest it as a starting point for anyone intrigued by the Chalet School series. So I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’ve read most of the others, particularly ‘Joey and co in Tirol’.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

19/05/2016

The Second Husband (by Louise Candlish)

I’ve very much liked the books I’ve read by Louise Candlish in the last few years, so although there were rather mixed reviews on this one, I decided to add it to my wishlist, and was given it earlier in the year.

‘The Second Husband’ is told in the first person by Kate, a divorced woman in her late thirties who has a teenage daughter, Roxy, and a younger son Matthew. Her former husband Alistair has a new wife, and they are expecting a baby. Kate’s job pays almost nothing, and Alistair may have to reduce his support to his first family. So he suggests that Kate take in a lodger to help make ends meet.

This is the back story which we learn in the first few chapters. We meet Kate as she’s considering which of the applicants to accept as a lodger, while also becoming rather frustrated at Roxy, whose best friend Marianne seems to be encouraging her to sunbathe while wearing very little…

The overall theme of the book is about the strength of parental relationships. Kate is far from perfect and gets into power struggles with both Alistair and Roxy which seem unnecessary and frustrating. She loses her temper easily and isn't at all good at relating to teenagers. She adores both her children and would do anything to see them happy. She’s not, however, at all intuitive and I found her quite annoying at times since she misses obvious signs that are evident to the reader, and gets herself into an unimaginably appalling situation, apparently with no idea that it was coming.

It’s hard not to give any spoilers, since the strapline on the front of the book essentially gives away the basic plot. I did wonder if it really meant what it implies, but that alerted me to many clues as to where the plot was going in the first part of the book. Perhaps it was meant to; it’s hard to know whether it was a publisher error, or whether in fact the author was employing the ‘unreliable narrator’ technique so that readers are well aware of what is going on despite her ignorance. Either way, the characterisation is excellent; I was rooting for Kate, and cared what happened to her, while still finding her naive and annoying. She got right under my skin!

I haven’t even mentioned the person who becomes a second husband in this novel. Even if the strapline wasn’t intentional, the title must have been. So we know that Kate is going to get married to someone, and it’s clear from the start who that will be. I did find myself a little confused at first; he seems to be an appealing person, almost too good to be true. Gradually that turns into sliminess, and in the second half of the book it delves into something approaching sordidity, although the writing is good enough, with a great deal going on behind closed doors, that it never entirely reaches those depths.

At the midway point when Kate finally realises what has been happening, I wasn’t much liking the book. I wished I had been wrong; the plot is unpleasant, and - I hope - not very realistic. But I kept reading, and felt that Kate’s character develops as she has to give up her own dreams despite being treated appallingly by two of the people she cares about most in the world. Her priorities become clearer, and despite everything her loyalty and love as a mother trump everything.

The ending is a bit abrupt after a lengthy climax where nothing is resolved. Perhaps it’s inevitable that everything comes full circle; yet Kate has moved on, finding out that Alistair is not as bad as she had felt, her sister Tash is much nicer and more reliable than she had thought, and Roxy is an adult who has to make her own decisions.

Really quite thought-provoking, and I shall probably remember the main plot for some time.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

18/05/2016

Cranky, Beautiful Faith (by Nadia Bolz-Weber)

I don’t remember when I first heard of Nadia Bolz-Weber. It was probably on a blog or forum related to unconventional or progressive Christianity. I was, at first, a little dubious about reading a book by a heavily tattooed American pastor who minces no words… but was sufficiently intrigued to add it to my wishlist, and was very pleased to be given it by a relative for a recent birthday.

‘Cranky, Beautiful Faith’ is, as the front cover states, ‘for irregular (and regular) people’. I count myself somewhere in the middle of the two, although having now read the book, I realise that I’m much nearer the ‘regular’ end of the spectrum than I thought, if only because of being a white European home-owner, happily married with two adult sons. Many of the people in the book are homeless, with strings of broken relationships behind them; a significant number are from the LGBT community.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The book is rather different from the majority of Christian books I have read. It’s not about theology; it’s certainly not full of devotional insights. It doesn’t look at Christian lifestyle, nor does it look at popular psychology as it relates to spirituality. These are all, I realise, luxuries of the ‘regular’ folk, those who have the time and education to read and ponder deep questions rather than struggling to make it through the day.

If I must pick a genre, it’s closest to an autobiography. Nadia talks openly about her strictly religious (though loving) childhood, her descent into alcoholism and promiscuity in her teens, and her eventual redemption, in every sense of the word, surrounded by others who were even more wounded and confused than she was. In an unexpected turn-around, she found that she was called to be a pastor to ‘irregular’ folk, to speak God’s love to gay and transgender people, to accept everyone for who they are, and find ways to minister to them.

Even more surprisingly, she became a Lutheran pastor, and her ‘irregular’ services include traditional liturgy and weekly Eucharist/communion. Yet they attract a wide variety of people from all kinds of backgrounds, most of them looking for a place to be cared for, and where they themselves can offer service to others.

The writing is good, the stories unexpected, often moving. The author is honest about her failings and doubts, and manages to present Jesus in a way that feels very realistic, more so than many of our modern Western clean-cut images. I’m not surprised that so many people find her style and teaching so oddly attractive.

Each chapter tells a different story. It’s not a chronological biography, but a book of incidents and anecdotes that were significant in the author’s life, of ways in which she discovered God despite doubts, of how she learned to love even those whom her instincts told her to keep away from.

It’s peppered with down-to-earth language and some obscenities, which I could have done without; yet I understand her need to be transparent, and to write the kinds of words she uses. Perhaps, for the ‘irregular’ parts of her congregation, strong language is a bridge to communication.

I can’t begin to do this book justice. I would recommend it for Christians who are open to unusual styles of writing, for those who want something a bit different in their churches, for those on the fringe who long for acceptance and have not yet found it, and perhaps most of all for people who are inclined to write the church off as feeble and irrelevant.

Well worth reading. Just be warned that there is seriously strong language used throughout.

Note that in the US, the book is known as 'Pastrix', which is apparently a derogatory term used there for female pastors.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

16/05/2016

Siblings Without Rivalry (by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish)

Looking in my bookshelves for something entirely different, I spotted this book. It’s one I read many years ago; I thought it very helpful, and used some of the methods described with my sons. In more recent years I read and thoroughly appreciated other books by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, which are of more general use in communication with people, even though they are intended primarily for parents.

However, since I had a few hours to myself and wanted something a little different, I decided to start re-reading ‘Siblings without rivalry’, which is subtitled, ‘How to help your children live together so you can live too.’ I wondered if I would abandon it after a few chapters; my own sons are now in their late 20s so it’s no longer nearly as relevant as it was.

But I do spend time with other children and have sometimes been caught up in sibling arguments, usually when two children want the same thing at the same time. And this is a very readable book, with an approach I agree with philosophically: that of finding good solutions to problems and helping children learn to get along without parental interference, wherever possible.

The first chapter is introductory, giving examples of the kinds of problems many parents experience: children fighting, putting each other down, arguing over issues that seem petty to parents, and so on. Even though I’m long out of this phase of life, I found myself nodding and recalling incidents, either with my own children or those of friends. Children naturally squabble, and to some degree it’s useful in learning to get along with other people.

But there are boundaries that most parents feel the need to draw, and times when a child might be in danger, physically or emotionally. This book helps parents to see when it’s appropriate to get involved in sibling battles, and - most importantly, in my view - how to see them from the children’s point of view.

So there are chapters on the dangers of comparisons, on the need to express negative emotions before the child can move on, and on physical fighting. The authors recommend parents staying calm, listening to each child, and not taking sides. They don’t recommend ‘punishment’ of any kind, and only suggest a form of constructive time-out when children’s tempers are so high that they are unable to think straight, and potentially dangerous to each other.

While none of the material was new to me, it was a useful reminder about the parents’ roles in helping children learn to deal with problems that arise in the family. Even if they don’t get along with each other, the authors assert, children and teens can learn to cooperate and find compromises or solutions of some kind to most problems, so long as they’re given the right kind of listening, and so long as the parents have a great deal of patience!

The book is so readable, and so interesting that I read the whole thing, including the supplementary chapters to the 10th anniversary edition, in just a few hours. The style is deliberately relaxed, based on several workshops the authors ran, with anecdotes and individuals combined for simplicity, and some useful diagrams to make points quickly.

Of course parenting is never easy, and the tidy scenarios painted in the book are not always appropriate, nor will they always work - at least, not first time. But I’ve seen enough of them being effective that I believe strongly in the theory and would recommend this book highly to any parent - or relative or teacher - dealing with siblings who can’t get along at all, or who are worn down with children fighting.

Still in print on both sides of the Atlantic.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

12/05/2016

A Wind in the Door (by Madeleine L'Engle)

It’s a long time since I read Madeleine L’Engle’s ‘Time Quintet’ - indeed, I haven’t read all five; I certainly read ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ as a teenager, and I think I also read this one in my teens, but the others were published a little later and I seem to have missed them at the time.

We acquired four of the five when my sons were around nine and eleven, and I read the first two aloud to them, but my husband was so intrigued by what he heard that he went on to read the later ones… and, again, although I half listened, and read bits of one of them to myself, they mostly passed me by.

I was determined to rectify this situation, so I recently re-read ‘A Wrinkle in Time’, which I always liked very much, and have just finished re-reading ‘A Wind in the Door’. Although some of the same characters are involved, in particular the teenage Meg Murry and her small brother Charles Wallace, this book stands alone and makes very little reference to the earlier one.

Charles, who is remarkably intuitive and bright, has been bullied at school. He’s also getting out of breath, and Meg knows that her mother is worried about him. The Murry parents are eminent - and at times absent-minded - scientists, and Mrs Murry seems to be spending all her time looking down her microscope, trying to find something related to mitochondria (which are real) and their farandolae (which are not)....

In the first half of the story, Meg tries to find out what is going on, both at Charles’ school and with his health. It’s character-based fantasy, mostly set in the real world, albeit populated with highly intelligent animals such as the dog Fortinbras and the snake Louise. The Murry family have everyday discussions and arguments, but clearly care for each other very much. The twins Sandy and Denys are down-to-earth and practical, and make a nice foil for the more mystically inclined Meg and Charles.

In the second part of the story, Meg has to solve some difficult problems, and venture into a very unlikely place, although by the time she gets there, along with her good friend Calvin and a disliked teacher, Mr Jenkins, it all feels quite believable. L’Engle neatly mixes science, fantasy and spirituality in a novel that’s sometimes confusing but which moves at quite a pace, despite a fair amount of conversation and introspection.

I have a few niggles: the way Charles is expected to adapt to school rather than being educated at home (or having the bullies dealt with); the way Mr Jenkins is portrayed so very negatively at first, and yet joins in the adventure with surprisingly little resistance. Still, I liked the way he gradually changes and is shown to have his own positive side.

Underneath the fantasy it’s a story about the battle of good and evil, about the power of love and friendship, and about doing what’s right, even if it seems pointless, never knowing when one small mistake might cause disasters on a cosmic scale. There are clear Christian values if one looks for them, including the importance of being known by name; but the book can be read from an entirely secular point of view too.

Ideal for any fluently reading child of about eight and upwards, or a good read-aloud for any age.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

09/05/2016

Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good (by Jan Karon)

I was introduced to Jan Karon’s books about fifteen years ago, and read my way with delight through the Mitford series featuring the delightful Father Tim and his neighbour - later his wife - Cynthia. After the ninth book, the author wrote a couple of books that delved into Tim’s past, taking him on travels within the US and elsewhere, and I liked them too although I found myself missing the little village of Mitford and its quirky inhabitants.

To my delight, ‘Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good’ sees Tim and Cynthia back in Mitford after their trip to Ireland. Tim is retired and trying to find ways of occupying his time constructively; Cynthia is still writing and illustrating her series of children’s books featuring her cat Violet. Their adopted son Dooley is training as a vet, and clearly very fond of their friends’ adopted daughter Lace, but they’re not making any commitment just yet.

We get to know Sammy, one of Dooley’s brothers, who struggles with any kind of authority and doesn’t really think before taking risks. We meet Coot, too, an uneducated but warm-hearted man who is caring for his very elderly mother. There are scenes in the ‘Happy Endings’ bookshop, and in the various eating places around town; there’s new blood with Shirlene, who has bought an artificial tan machine, and a great deal of stress in Tim’s former church, where the minister is going through a difficult time…

As with the earlier books, this novel is character-based rather than having any single plot. We follow Tim’s life as he volunteers his time in many different ways, tries to meet the needs of those around him, and gently shares God’s love with his former flock. But it’s not preachy or even overly religious; Tim’s faith is part of who he is, his prayers from the heart, his love genuine. He’s flawed and often tired, he sometimes feels low, and he has to limit what he eats due to diabetes.

I think my favourite parts were Coot’s reading lessons and progress, with more than a nod to one of my favourite children’s authors; yet amidst the smiles there’s sadness too, and some very moving moments which the author writes with great sensitivity. Some storylines interested me more than others, and that’s probably inevitable: there’s something in here for anyone who likes this kind of gentle, rambling story.

There were places where I didn’t have the faintest idea what was going on; evidently in my European ignorance I had missed some subtlety of small-town America, but it didn’t matter; I just shrugged and moved on. Sometimes I forgot which Esther was which, or who wanted to make the Orange Marmalade cakes; occasionally I had to flip back and remind myself of some incident, or character, as there’s quite a large cast. But, again, it wasn’t a problem.

It’s quite a long book, and I mostly read it before falling asleep at night, although I found myself dipping into it during the daytime too. It’s not that anything very exciting happens, but once again I felt as if I were part of this realistic and friendly community. It’s been some time since I read the earlier books and I’d planned to re-read them before embarking on this, but then couldn’t resist it: and although I’d forgotten some names and details, I found myself easily caught up again in the lives of the Mitford residents.

While the book stands alone, I think it would be quite confusing to anyone who had not read the earlier books, so I’d recommend strongly reading at least the first few, and ideally all of them. If you like the earlier books in the series, then I recommend this very highly.

It's a wonderful book.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

05/05/2016

God Moments (by the writers on Encouraging.com)

Any time I go away, I spend an hour or so browsing Amazon’s current selection of free books for the Kindle. I tend to look in a few genres, including Christian lifestyle and spirituality, and that’s how I came across this book nearly two years ago. It sat on my Kindle unopened until I was due to fly to the UK in August 2014,, at which point I looked for something that offered short Bible readings and ‘devotional’ thoughts, as I didn’t want to carry the rather heavy book I was using at home.

‘God Moments: A Year in the Word’ seemed to fulfil my requirements. Written by various women who are apparently on a website called ‘Encouraging.com’ it offers a short reading from the Bible for each day, and then some personal commentary or thoughts from different people, related to the reading and also related to the overall theme for the month concerned. In January, for instance, the theme was ‘Be still and know that I am God’.

I didn’t take any notice of the dates, since I was starting in the middle of August rather than at the beginning of the year, and on some days I read a couple of the entries rather than just one. Inevitably the quality and relevance were variable; sometimes I found myself nodding and agreeing, other times shaking my head in bewilderment at some cultural or other reference that meant nothing to me. The book is American, after all, and I am not.

After three weeks away, I returned home and resumed reading the rather more in-depth devotional commentary that occupied me for most of that year, and read no more of ‘God Moments’ until my next UK trip in February of last year. Then in January this year, I decided that I would continue with ‘God Moments’, usually reading the book over breakfast as it’s so convenient to do so on my Kindle. Sometimes I read just one of the mini sections, sometimes two or even three, depending on the content. Each devotion ends with a prayer, some of which I found both helpful and relevant.

I don’t think I learned anything new from this book, or had any tremendous insights, but I was reminded more than once of something important: perhaps a person or event I was thankful for, perhaps something to pray for. I appreciated the time given by the women - I don’t know how many - to put this book together, and I liked having little insights into their very different homes and lives.

I finally finished it recently, taking three or four of the December devotions together most mornings as they tended to refer to Christmas, and of course it’s only just past Easter. I liked the flexibility to read as much or as little as I wanted to, without being tied to dates; but it would probably work more effectively as a once-a-day reading starting in January.

I'm delighted to note that this e-book is still available free in Kindle form.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

29/04/2016

All Questions Great and Small (by Adrian Plass and Jeff Lucas)

I’ve been a huge fan of Adrian Plass’s writing for nearly thirty years now, and started to enjoy Jeff Lucas’s books about six years ago. I’m gradually collecting them, and was very pleased when the two collaborated with the ‘Seriously Funny’ books. So when I spotted another jointly written book by these two excellent writers, it went straight on my wishlist, and I was delighted to be given it last Christmas.

‘All Questions Great and Small’ is a series of questions and answers that were given on the authors’ ‘Seriously Funny’ tour; they felt that this particular selection deserved a wider audience, and I’m very glad that they and their publishers put this book together.

It’s divided into eight sections - after the introduction - which loosely group the questions together by theme. The first one, for instance, is entitled, ‘Now that reminds me of a time when…’. It includes questions about funny stories, embarrassing anecdotes and so on, encouraging Plass and Lucas to reminisce about events in their lives.

The second section is headed, ‘Where’s my soapbox?’ and includes questions where the two might be expected to have strong opinions - on American evangelists, for instance, or some irritating Christian jargon phases. I didn’t really distinguish this from the third section, ‘Telling it like it is’, and by this stage I wasn’t really noticing these loose chapter headings, but reading each question and answer for its own merit.

As ever, there’s self-deprecating humour in many of the responses, some of which made me smile or nod appreciatively. But this isn’t just light-hearted quips; the book contains much that’s profound, and thought-provoking, and some questions where I heaved a wonderful sigh of relief to know that even such well-known speakers feel the same as I do, despite evidence that many in the church would disagree.

I was going to read just a few pages each morning, but found it so enjoyable that I finished it in a couple of weeks. I feel reassured, enlightened, and encouraged and would recommend it to anyone with any interest in the Christian life, or church in general, whether or not you’re feeling positive about them.

Available for the Kindle as well as in paperback form.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews