Sunday, 7 December 2014

Impossible (by Michelle Magorian)

Many years ago I read and enjoyed Michelle Magorian’s best-known novel ‘Goodnight Mister Tom’; so when I saw her latest young adult novel on the Bookbag review shelves, it was the work of a moment to request it.

'Impossible' features twelve-year-old Josie who would rather be a boy. She attends a stage school, which we quickly realise is not teaching her anything useful although somehow its children manage to get parts in stage shows.

Set in 1959, this is almost reminiscent of Noel Streatfeild at first: a talented and determined child trying to make her way in the world while adults make things difficult. There are rather a lot of people introduced in the first few chapters of the book and I found myself a little bewildered at times. However, it didn’t matter much as the writing is crisp and fast-paced, and Josie is a believable and likeable child.

I knew from the blurb on the back that there would be an exciting thread concerning mistaken identity, although this doesn't occur until about a third of the way through. There’s tension and excitement, both on stage and in the events off-stage, and Josie proves herself courageous and loyal.

Josie and her family are seamlessly woven into the stage history of the era. She takes part in workshops and a production that actually happened, directed by someone who is now considered the founder of modern theatre techniques. I was a little disappointed that there was no epilogue explaining which parts of the book were based on reality, but perhaps it doesn’t matter.

If I have a niggle with the book, it’s that it seems to be overtly educational in places. Still, with a main character of twelve, I assume that it's intended for the 10-12 age group, the kind of children who have not been daunted by the length of JK Rowling’s books, and who might appreciate knowing factual details about theatre and filming.

By the time I was a few chapters in, I could barely put it down. I thought it would take me weeks to finish, as there are nearly 600 pages, but I managed it in three days.

All in all, this is an amazing book. Very highly recommended. Available in Kindle form as well as paperback.

My longer review of 'Impossible' can be found at the Bookbag site.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Thursday, 4 December 2014

The Christmas Surprise (by Jenny Colgan)

I like Jenny Colgan’s books, so I did not hesitate when asking if I could have this to review for the Bookbag site. This particular one is third in a series about a young woman called Rosie Hopkins. She lives in a small village in Derbyshire with Stephen, and runs a sweetshop.

While each book stands alone (this comes with a helpful summary at the start) 'The Christmas Surprise' picks up where ‘Christmas at Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop of Dreams’ finished, and takes us through another year.

Rosie and Stephen start the year on a high, then tragedy strikes, and the rest of the year includes an unexpected trip abroad and a new experience which is to change Rosie and Stephen’s lives forever.

There are depths to this book which I was not expecting, and some very moving scenes. While many of the minor characters are somewhat caricatured it means they’re easy to remember. Rosie and Stephen are more believable and I found myself relating well to them both.

The ending is perhaps rather too tidy, involving someone behaving rather out-of-character. I liked it a lot, but it did feel a bit forced, as if the author was tying up a lot of loose ends in a happy-ever-after fashion.
At the end there are a few Christmas recipes, which made a nice extra feature.

My one gripe with the book is the amount of bad language. The occasional expletive doesn’t worry me, but there was more than I’m comfortable with. This means I’m less likely to recommend this to some of my friends who would otherwise have enjoyed it.

The writing is informal, well-paced and with a good amount of conversation. I found it an easy read, ideal for the run-up to Christmas, and would recommend it to anyone looking for a light but thought-provoking novel.

Available in Kindle form as well as print.

You can also read my longer review of 'The Christmas Surprise' at the Bookbag site.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

The Problem of Pain (by CS Lewis)

I love CS Lewis’s fiction books, and I have also enjoyed some of his non-fiction works, particularly the autobiographical ones. Lewis did not claim to be a theologian, but had a clear analytical mind and an excellent way of presenting persuasive arguments; yet some of his books are (or seem to me) remarkably heavy-going.

Still, from time to time I re-read them - and recently picked up 'The Problem of Pain', which I last read almost seven years ago. It’s not a long book - just 145 pages in my Penguin paperback edition - but I didn’t find it any easier to read than I did in the past.

The first half of the book, after an introduction, deals with the theory of God’s omnipotence and goodness, contrasted with the fall of mankind and the evil inherent within humanity. It’s all standard theology, written with Lewis’s style which meant that almost everything made sense, but I had to read some of it three or four times to see what he was saying unless I was particularly wide awake. In this first part of the book he essentially argues that while God COULD have made a world free from pain, and could heal any - or all - pain at any point, it would logically go against God’s inherent nature to be so controlling.

The book then goes on to deal more specifically with human pain, and here I found myself not entirely agreeing with him in places. For instance, he argues that it’s vital to be submissive to God’s will (which I would agree with) but that if we’re doing God’s will in a way that we enjoy, we have no way of knowing what our motives are. He suggests, therefore, that we can only know for certain that we’re submitting to God if we are doing things that are unpleasant or painful, which we would prefer not to do. While I can see the logic behind the reasoning, this seems close to heretical, and ignores the idea that we are to live life in all its fullness, and that God wants us to enjoy him.

There’s a chapter, too, on animal pain; I found this very interesting although I’m not sure if I agree with it all. His chapters on heaven and hell are also somewhat speculative, but I did like his emphasis on separation from God in the latter, rather than eternal torment which seems to be a surprisingly common modernist viewpoint, still held by many Christians.

I reached the end of the book with a great deal to think about, yet I’m really not sure that Lewis actually answered the question about why pain is such a part of our lives. He gives examples of people brought to an awareness of their wickedness or frailty due to pain, which brought them closer to God; yet he also acknowledges that there are some whose pain - or that of their loved ones - turns them further away from God.

He doesn’t touch on the problem of pain in children, particularly those in developing countries, but nor does he present the practical point of view that, in many cases, physical pain is a warning system that keeps us safe from harming ourselves more seriously. The excellent book ‘The Gift of Pain’ by Paul Brand and Philip Yancey addresses this thoroughly.

Overall, I thought this worth reading, but a bit long-winded; and I had the sense that Lewis himself had a problem with the idea of pain, and was trying to convince himself as much as his readers.

First published in 1943, this has remained continually in print and can now be found in Kindle form as well as paperback.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Monday, 1 December 2014

How to Write for Children (by Louise Jordan)

I don’t remember where this book came from. I know nothing about Louise Jordan and she doesn't seem to have a website. Perhaps this was recommended to me by Amazon, or maybe it was a suggestion from a Facebook friend. Whatever the reason, when I’d started to write a children’s story, I acquired this book.

‘How to write for children’ is subtitled ‘- and get published’. A bold claim, but one that was quite appealing. I started reading it a couple of years ago; the introduction summarised what the book was about, and the importance of the children’s market for writers.

I then moved on to the important section ‘Know your market’. This is quite tight these days, I was told, with many commissioned books, and the majority of children’s fiction having to fit within predefined styles or lengths, to fit with series designed for specific age groups or reading levels.

Since none of these appeared to fit with what I had written, I felt quite discouraged and put the book (and my writing) aside for a while.

Some weeks ago I picked it up again and thought I’d read it through anyway. I re-read the opening chapters, did one or two of the writing exercises, and then continued through the book.

Most of it is general advice about writing, which wasn’t new to me, although it was interesting to read examples from published children’s books to illustrate points: the importance of the viewpoint character, for instance, and the kind of subject matter that can be used with children’s books, both fiction and non-fiction.

While I didn’t learn anything new, it’s a well-presented book, clearly written, with plenty of solid advice. The final section, on submitting a manuscript to a publisher or agent and discussing contracts is one that I skimmed but would certainly return to if, at some point, I reach this stage.

Definitely recommended to anyone considering writing a children’s book, whether a picture book for babies or a novel for teens, or anything in between.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Friday, 28 November 2014

Almost Perfect (by Delia Franklin)

Almost Perfect is the debut novel for Delia Franklin, a writer who is active in social networking but does not, as far as I can tell, have a site of her own. It was the delightfully quirky front cover which made me notice it on the Bookbag shelves and request it a couple of weeks ago.

'Almost Perfect' starts well. Gloria is happily surveying her vegetable patch. A tractor approaches and as her employer Will climbs down, his mobile phone alerts him to his granddaughter Lucy being in a serious state in hospital.

The scene is set, with a little info about Will's life and his daughter Holly. It appears to be a light-hearted book as Will sets off for the station in his tractor, still wearing his muddy wellies.

However, the next five chapters are rather long-winded and rambling flashbacks which didn't tell me much more than I had learned in the first chapter. Moreover, the viewpoint switches far too rapidly. Eventually we're back to Lucy but somehow there is no emotional connection.

I kept feeling that there was a lot of potential; unfortunately, although some of the minor characters are typecast and quite likeable, I could not relate to any of the main ones at all. This book is a good idea, a workable plot, a nice mixture of people. However it should have had significant rewriting to bring the characters to life, to organise the structure more logically, and to cut out the unnecessary parts.

I wanted to like this, I really did. It’s gentle women’s fiction (albeit with a couple of dramatic and unpleasant scenes) and the kind of story I usually enjoy. But sadly, it has almost no emotional impact.

Available in Kindle form as well as paperback.

You can read my longer review of Almost Perfect at the Bookbag site

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