Sunday, 17 August 2014

A Street Cat Named Bob (by James Bowen)

I had just been to a writing conference, and was spending a long weekend relaxing with relatives, so I wanted something light and undemanding to read. I spotted this book on my bedroom shelf; the story of James Bowen and his cat Bob is quite well known but I had never read the book, so it seemed like a good opportunity.

The opening pages of ‘A Street Cat Named Bob’ describe the first meeting between the author, who tries to eke out a living as a busker, and the ginger tom who adopts him back in 2007. Bob’s health isn’t great when they meet, and as a cat lover this is the motivation the author needs to start pulling himself out of the mires of drug addiction and depression that have dogged him for some years.

As Bob is an Internet star, there were no surprises for me in the story: Bob responds well to treatment, and his new friend earns lot more money busking when accompanied by a cat. Bob vanishes a few times but is always found; the author James Bowen is motivated to start improving his life and makes some positive changes. It’s a feel-good kind of story, and was an easy read that I dipped in and out of, occasionally skimming when it felt a bit dull or repetitive.

And there’s the nub: it’s not, actually, very well-written. My inner editor kept wishing it had been pared down (the two opening paragraphs, for instance, add nothing at all to the story) and that the writing was better. I understand that the book was commissioned as a result of Bob’s Internet fame, and I assume ghost-written as if James Bowen were chatting to someone - it has that kind of rambling feel to it.

Still, this is evidently what the general public likes. It’s an immensely popular book, which became a surprise bestseller shortly after it was released. And it’s a good story, with some obvious messages about the horrors of drug addition and the importance of family and friends. As an aside, I was interested to learn about ‘The Big Issue’ - a magazine I have occasionally been offered when in the UK, but never bought; I had no idea how or why it was sold.

It’s not that I don’t like cats: I very much enjoyed the book about Dewey the Library cat which I read a few years ago. I’m glad that Bob found such a good home. I’m also pleased that James Bowen not only got out of his addictions, but became financially independent after the publication of this book. But as a writer, I am disappointed that such a good story was written in a mediocre way.

It made a pleasant enough light holiday read - but I wouldn’t recommend buying it.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Sunday, 10 August 2014

The Steps of the Priory (by Sally Quilford)

I’ve known Sally Quilford online for some years now; she’s quite a prolific writer of short stories and pocket novellas, which she publishes on Kindle and sometimes makes available free to download on special occasions.

‘The Steps of the Priory’ is her longest work to date, a full-length novel and the first in a series (although she has not yet written the sequel). It’s a historical saga, set over about thirty years, beginning in 1917 and ending just after the second World War. I downloaded it for my Kindle a couple of years ago and read it recently, while visiting relatives.

The opening sequence to this book sees the teenage Becky running through the streets with her friend Jed, clutching a bundle which we quickly realise is a baby. She drops it on the steps of the Priory, owned by the Harcourt family, in the hope that they - or perhaps one of their servants - will take the baby in and look after him.

Charles Harcourt and his drug-addicted sister Patricia come across the baby, and Patricia decides to adopt him after losing her own baby. But they tell nobody, and she claims to have had her child elsewhere, so no connection is made by any of the characters until quite a way through the novel…

Becky’s home life is miserable, and it rapidly gets worse; however she has plenty of friends. And here’s where my only real problem with this novel lies: there are a lot of characters, and I found it difficult to keep track of who is whom. I read this book over just a few days (it was hard to put down at times) so it wasn’t as if I had forgotten the story. But although the names and circumstances were different, I simply couldn’t remember who was married (or in love with, or parents of) whom, other than the main protagonists. Sally Quilford has quite a gift of characterisation, and some of her people - Becky in particular - stood out as believable and memorable. But there are a lot of minor characters, mostly men, who were almost indistinguishable to me.

Still, the story moves at a great pace, with transitions in time handled well without jarring. It's a good story, and the plot lines all tie together nicely. I had guessed most of what was revealed in the final pages, but that didn’t matter; it was quite satisfying to find that I was right, and had spotted some subtle clues that others might have missed.

If I’m being picky, there’s one subplot (involving a most unpleasant doctor) which didn’t really seem to fit with the rest of the book. And there’s rather too much description of intimate details for my tastes. It’s mostly not too sordid and doesn’t go on for too long, but means I have to be a little careful about who I recommend it to.

However, these are minor gripes; on the whole I thought this a very good read, and look forward to a sequel.

Note that the link above is to the Kindle edition; no longer free but very reasonably priced. There is also a newly published large print version which is quite expensive but may be available in libraries.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Stories of Emergence (edited by Paul Yaconelli)

Staying at my son’s house, I picked this from his bookshelves to read in odd moments. I had never heard of the late Mike Yaconelli who edited it, but the word ‘emergence’ leapt out at me. The front cover lists several contributors to the book including Brian McLaren, whose writing I like very much.

‘Stories of Emergence’ is exactly as described: each chapter contains the story of one individual’s journey, mostly from some form of modernist/evangelical Christianity via a crisis of some kind through to a broader, more relationship-based faith. It could have been rather dull; the plot of each story is, essentially, the same albeit with different details. But this is not a book to read at one sitting. I dipped into it irregularly over the course of a few weeks, and found much to ponder.

The book is divided into three sections, grouping the writers by those who had a crisis in ministry, those who had a crisis in worldview, and those who simply had a crisis in faith. I can see the reason this was done, but am not sure I could easily have distinguished them. Each individual describes openly and honestly how he or she become disillusioned in some way with the church or other belief system of their youth, and how they eventually found a new and vibrant faith that embraced postmodernist culture while staying true to Jesus.

Some of the stories are fascinating, some of the childhood churches staggeringly rigid or oppressive. One writer describes his childhood as a committed Communist, and one as an ardent feminist. They are all careful not to condemn their earlier views or their upbringing, instead explaining how their eyes were opened at some point, usually due to some dramatic circumstances. The writing styles are quite different; I found some a bit heavy-going, others light and more personal. There were things to ponder in almost every chapter.

Brian McLaren’s chapter is an afterword rather than describing his own experiences as such, but still interesting. There is, unsurprisingly, a strong US bias to this book; most of the writers are from the US (or living there) and thus some of the assumptions are not relevant to everyone. But that's not really a problem.

I would like to have got hold of a copy of this book for myself, but it’s long out of print and not readily available at reasonable price to ship to Cyprus. Still, I will keep an eye out. I doubt if I would want to read it again in its entirety, but I’d like to dip into it from time to time, and would recommend it to others interested in the conversation between 20th century evangelicals and the 21st century modernist believers who are not always accepted as part of the church.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Deodorant Christianity (by JW Boggs)

I like to browse the Christian section of Kindle books and will download almost anything that’s free, if it looks interesting. ‘Deodorant Christianity’ had good ratings, and the title intrigued me; moreover, it was on special offer free a few months ago. I had never heard of JW Boggs, and can find nothing about him online, although it's evident from this book that he lives in the United States.

The author talks in his introduction about how most people apply deodorant to cover up the smell of their sweat, which is different in purpose from anti-perspirant, that actually stops the sweat from forming. He makes the analogy that too many Christians try to cover up their inner selves with a pleasant mask rather than tackling the root of the problem. Which is undoubtedly true, although I felt it was a bit of a dubious analogy, since sweat is a natural, healthy process and anti-perspirants are not generally recommended!

I started reading it in mid-June and liked the style, although it was a tad long-winded at first. Despite the strange analogy, the content is good, looking at different ways in which followers of Jesus can be selfish and unloving. The writing is fairly light-hearted with some anecdotes from the author’s experience, and there are several Scripture quotations, relevant to the theme.

The final chapter looks at the ‘fruits of the Spirit’ and unpacks the concepts a little to fit in with the idea of inner health.

Nothing radical or new, and I had to remind myself to keep reading... but overall it was interesting, and a book which I would recommend in a low-key way to Christian teens or indeed new believers of any age.

No longer free for the Kindle, but relatively inexpensive. Not available, as far as I can tell, in any other format.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Friday, 1 August 2014

The Vitamin D Miracle (by Vincent Miles)

I had high hopes for this book, which I downloaded (free) for my Kindle. I knew, of course, that lack of Vitamin D is a significant problem in most of the Western world in the 21st century, in part due to excessive use of sunscreen. I knew that Vitamin D is hard to find in natural foods and that many people rely on supplements. I also knew that lack of Vitamin D can contribute to various diseases.

So I assumed that this book would let me know more - it’s not a short book, and at first glance seemed quite academic. I knew nothing of the author, Vincent Miles; I can't find a website for him, but it appears that he's interested in natural health, and self-taught.

Unfortunately, I did not learn anything new from this book. There are many ‘facts’ and figures quoted, although there does not seem to be any real structure to the book; I use the word ‘facts’ advisedly, as there are no references cited anywhere, although the author claims to be using material from various studies. While I am sure that much of the information is true, none of it is explained in layman’s language, despite a somewhat condescending introduction which says that the book would simplify a complex subject. From my perspective - and I am not entirely ignorant on this subject - it did the reverse.

Indeed, the more I read, the more bewildered I became. There is repetition, there are contradictions, and there are places where it appears that the author does not actually understand what he is writing. In one place, for instance, it seems that he does not even know what a placebo is.

Moreover, the style is not consistent; it reads as if the author has taken entire swathes of text from elsewhere, altered a few words and added his own comments in places. This is the only way I can account for the lack of structure and conflicting information in the book.

While the motivation for writing the book was probably sound - the general public may well need to be educated about the importance of this vitamin - the information contained in it could have been reduced to perhaps a page. In a nutshell: Vitamin D deficiency is widespread and may contribute to many diseases and health conditions. Get out in the sunshine if you can, and take a supplement if necessary.

Without any citations there is no way of knowing which of the studies mentioned were serious ones, or who sponsored them - and thus I cannot recommend this book.

Only available in Kindle form, and no longer free.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Thursday, 31 July 2014

The Affectionate Adversary (by Catherine Palmer)

I’ve read a few books before by Catherine Palmer, and quite liked them; they usually include a romance of some kind, often in unusual settings, and there tends to be a low-key Christian theme running through them.

The Affectionate Adversary is no exception. I downloaded it (free) for my Kindle about three years ago and finally got around to reading it. It’s a historical novel which opens with high drama: Charles is on his way to China with a chest of gold when the ship is attacked by pirates. Meanwhile, Sarah is on her way back to the UK on a different ship. They come across the wreck of the first boat, and rescue the few survivors and a large number of bodies.

It’s rather gruesome, although written in a way that leaves much to the imagination rather than using gory details. Charles is discovered to be alive - just - and gradually nursed back to life by Sarah. They are both well-educated, and become friendly; at first he is delirious, but gradually recovers his sanity and the use of his limbs, by which time they have fallen in love with each other, although Sarah refuses to admit it. Moreover, Charles has no idea that the widowed Sarah is a very wealthy woman, whose former husband was a member of the aristocracy.

The rest of the book features their rather stormy growing relationship, fuelled by misunderstandings and Sarah’s various hangups due to an unhappy childhood. The characters aren’t really three-dimensional although Charles is quite likeable, and Sarah’s two caricatured sisters provide a bit of light relief.

The author had evidently done a great deal of research into Regency England, and drops in various historical references; unfortunately there are a few errors that stand out in an annoying way. I was particularly irritated that on several occasions someone said ‘how do you do’ and was not given the only correct response (ie ‘how do you do’ in return) but responded as if they had been asked (US style) how they were. The author also appeared confused about the class system; Sarah’s father was a merchant, as is Charles’ father. Both are well educated and well-read; class-wise they are on the same foot. Her marrying into the aristocracy would not have turned her into an aristocrat as far as society was concerned.

There’s an unlikely (albeit happy) coincidence towards the end of the book, and far too much introspecting on the behalf of both the main characters - still, it’s a likeable enough story. I would not recommend paying for it - even the Kindle edition is now quite expensive - but it could be worth borrowing to read on holiday as it has slightly more depth than others of this genre. The Christian element is not too strong, and it's unusual in that Sarah's irrational dislike of wealth comes from a misguided view of Scripture, made worse by her background.

This is apparently the first in a series, but I have no plans to read any of the others.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Monday, 28 July 2014

The Mysterious Affair at Styles (by Agatha Christie)

I was able to find a couple of Agatha Christie books, free for my Kindle, some time ago from Project Gutenberg. Wanting something different from the light romance I’d been reading lately, I decided to read this one. I had no memory of ever having read it before, although to my surprise I discovered later that I did first read 'The Mysterious Affair at Styles' back in 2001.

This is the first of Christie’s books with the well-known Hercule Poirot. The plot features - as so many of the author’s books do - a fairly well-to-do family living in a country home, with guests invited - including the narrator, Hastings, who is friendly with one of the inhabitants. The family is a little complicated - there’s an elderly woman who brought up two stepsons; however she recently re-married someone considerably younger than she is, who nobody really likes. There are various other people in the household - a companion, the wife of one of the sons, and various servants.

A murder happens, and nearly all the household come under suspicion for various good reasons. It’s really a very clever plot; even as the clues gradually unravelled I could not recall who the murderer was, and I was taken in by several red herrings, even while realising that the narrator must inevitably be on the wrong track, one way or another.

When the perpetrator was finally revealed, it all made sense, and the clues fell into place perfectly; Agatha Christie was brilliant at plotting, filling in all the details and leading her readers astray without ever making them feel cheated.

While the characterisation isn’t great - it’s my one slight problem this author - I did appreciate good writing and tight plotting after so many more modern chick-lit books that seem to suffer from lack of editing.

I should also add that my Gutenberg edition of this book was lacking the images included in the book form. While this would not matter for illustrations, these were supposedly snippets of paper with significant text, which were necessary to read to understand the plot fully. Happily I was able to find a paperback version of this book and read from that instead of on my Kindle; I hope that the official Kindle editions have the images included.

The link above is to a paperback edition; there are several available, and this can often be found second-hand. Some of the Kindle editions are inexpensive too.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Sunday, 27 July 2014

The Wedding Gift (by Lucy Kevin)

I had never heard of Lucy Kevin. But, always happy to come across an interesting looking free Kindle book, I downloaded this a couple of years ago, and finally got around to reading it.

The Wedding Gift is a typical light romance for women, with - as is common these days - a cookery theme. In this story, the heroine (Julie) has taken on a temporary job at the Rose Chalet after the closure of her own restaurant; she blames the failure on a negative review by a food critic called Andrew who - unsurprisingly - is the hero of the book. It’s not a new plot opening; I thought, immediately, of Debbie Macomber's ‘Angels at the Table’ which involves something similar, although the people and circumstances (and, indeed, the rest of the story) are very different.

Julie and Andrew meet when he visits the Rose Chalet to check what is planned for his brother’s wedding menu. His main criticism of Julie is that her cooking is bland and unadventurous. So - after he rejects her best efforts, she decides on a radically new menu for her next clients who - again, predictably - wanted something traditional.

It’s all rather cliched, and in real life I would assume that people booking a wedding meal would let the caterers know in advance what kind of food they wanted - or didn’t want - rather than leave it entirely up to the caterers to come up with something special that might be completely wrong for them.

The romance develops much against Julie’s better judgement, with some unlikely scenes at a TV studio and rather too much introspection on the part of both main characters. Still, I was interested to find out what would happen - or, rather, how the inevitable would happen - and it passed the time pleasantly enough.

However, I have no inclination to buy the other books in the series.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews