Jesus - Safe, Tender, Extreme (by Adrian Plass)

Of all the modern Christian writers, nobody has affected me as strongly as Adrian Plass. I first heard of him back in the late 1980s when his brilliantly funny ‘Sacred Diary’ book, based on a column he had written for a magazine, was a surprise best-seller in Christian circles. Since then I have collected all his books and re-read some of them more than once.

The most recent one I re-read is entitled, ‘Jesus - safe, tender, extreme’. I first read it back in 2006 and loved it then. I’ve just spend a couple of weeks reading a few pages each morning, and found it extremely thought-provoking.

Adrian Plass writes from a position of genuine humility and profound honesty. He writes about his beloved mother-in-law who, as he started the book, lay in his dining room in the final stages of a terminal illness. He writes about his family, whom he clearly loves deeply, and the many mistakes he makes. He never tries to make himself look good, or gloss over his failings, and I find this extremely refreshing, and so reassuring.

The book is, as the title suggests, about Jesus. But not in a typical pulpit style, or even from a position of deep theology. Instead the author looks at the man Jesus, at who he was, how he reacted with his close friends and family, and what we can expect from our lives in relationship with him today.

It’s divided into three sections, so the first part looks about being safe in Jesus. Something I’d read elsewhere just a few weeks ago (perhaps in another Plass book) particularly struck me: that of Jesus being our home, a place of safety and security, meaning that we can visit other places while knowing we can return to safety any time; moreover that we really don’t need to defend ourselves, or our beliefs, but relax into them.

I could relate even more strongly to the second section of the book, about the tenderness of Jesus: the compassion with which he dealt with everyone, both friends and questioners, and even his enemies. Jesus understands our brokenness, our wounds, joins us in our tears.

The final section was perhaps the most thought-provoking: that of Jesus as an extreme person, never afraid to do what was right or to speak out when it was time to do so. Adrian Plass mentions times when he managed to do that, and times when he didn’t, reminding us that God loves us anyway. But he also gives a hint of how exciting life can be when listening and then ‘doing what the Father is doing’, whatever that might be.

Each section has a few chapters outlining the themes, followed by various personal anecdotes illustrating what these facets of Jesus mean in the author’s own life and those around him. Then at the end of the book are a series of prayers, again divided into three sections. My only slight niggle with the book is that I’d have preferred these prayers to be with the main parts of the book; I’d forgotten they were there until I reached the end, otherwise I’d have skipped forward and read/prayed them with or after reading each of the individual sections.

But it’s a small niggle. It’s not a book to read in one sitting, or necessarily even chronologically. It’s one that I should probably dip into more often than I have done, as there’s a great deal to absorb and much to think about.

Very highly recommended.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews


Julie (by Catherine Marshall)

I recently re-read one of Catherine Marshall’s non-fiction books, and found it interesting and thought-provoking. I remembered that we had one of her fiction books, so put that in my pile of books to re-read and have just finished it. This was the author’s final publication; she died while it was in the final editing stage, and her husband completed it.

‘Julie’ is the story of 17-year-old Julie Wallace and her family who live in the United States during the depression era, in the late 1920s. We first meet them as they’re in their elderly car on their way to a small town called Alderton, where Julie’s father Ken is about to take up the post of editor on a small newspaper, The Sentinel. Ken is an ordained minister but due to highly stressful circumstances has decided to take up a secular job. He’s invested almost all his savings in the paper, and the family struggle to make ends meet.

Julie is a free-thinking and confident young woman in her last year at high school. She has ambitions to be a writer, in both fiction and journalism, and agrees to be the paper’s proof-reader as well as doing some research and writing for minor articles. She comes into some conflict with Emily Cruley, who has been working on the paper for years but eventually proves herself capable.

There are a great many characters in the book and I found it a bit confusing at times, trying to remember who was whom. Randolph Wilkinson is an Englishman whom the family meet early in the book, and who captures Julie’s interest right from the start. Spencer, the young pastor at the family’s church, is also an interesting character as is Dean, an older middle-aged man who offers to service the printing press regularly without pay, and who helps the family in a lot of ways.

The character of Julie, who narrates the story, is very believable and three-dimensional, perhaps because her personality and some of her experiences were apparently taken from the author’s own background, although the story is entirely fictional. The political upheaval of the Depression years is shown well in the different attitudes of the people around Julie, particularly those who want to see an end to corruption, and workers’ unions to fight unfairness.

It’s a Christian book but without being preachy or mushy. The importance of helping those in need is stressed, as is the importance of the Holy Spirit, although it seems odd in these more enlightened times that even a former pastor would be unaware of the third person of the Trinity. There’s a a good vs evil theme, which shows as a clash of morality vs ambitious greed; some of the wealthy ambitious people are really very unpleasant in a way that seems scarcely credible.

The whole book foreshadows a terrible tragedy that takes place in the final chapters, which provides high drama and heartbreak before Julie’s family and neighbours begin yet again to build a new life. I found it quite difficult to put down toward the end, although in the early pages the writing was a bit long-winded and could have done with some editing.

The book is topped and tailed by a visit to the area by Julie, fifty years on, now a mother and grandmother; the prologue doesn’t say much but the epilogue is a nice way of seeing what happened in the intervening years, and who married whom.

All in all, I enjoyed it. It's still in print on both sides of the Atlantic, despite being published over thirty years ago.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews


The Coming of Age of the Chalet School (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)

In my gradual re-reading of the entire lengthy Chalet School series by Elinor M Brent-Dyer, I’ve reached the one which was thirty-ninth in the original series, first published in 1958. I had an abridged Armada edition but was pleased to be able to find a ‘Girls Gone By’ version which reproduces the full original text, with an introduction and a couple of other additions too. I don’t think I had previously read the entire book; at least, not since my teenage years when I borrowed the hardbacks from my school library.

‘The Coming of Age of the Chalet School’ is a bit of an indulgent book, really. For some reason the author decided, in the voice of Joey Maynard, that the school needed to celebrate twenty-one years since it was founded. The previous book - Excitements at the Chalet School - is mostly about suggestions made to celebrate this milestone; in this one, the celebrations happen.

So there are quite a few ‘old’ characters who return, in particular Joey’s closest friends Simone, Freda and Marie. Probably the most interesting part of the book describes the weekend when this quartette and the sixteen prefects visit the original site of the Chalet School in Austria. Other classes have gone with their staff earlier in the term, but we only read about those in passing.

Ordinary school life continues, of course. The school is rather over-crowded since the St Mildred’s ‘finishing’ branch are also staying at the school while the visitors use their building, and there’s an influx of girls arriving from the Welsh branch. These include the twins Priscilla and Prudence who were quite badly behaved when younger; the way they start to grow up, and Prudence in particular fights against growing maturity, is quite nicely done.

On the other hand, I found parts of it rather overtly educational. I really wasn’t very interested in the hydro-electric company that had taken over some of the original Chalet School site, so skimmed that part.

I’m glad I read it as part of the series, but it’s not one of the best books. It feels a bit like a few scenes loosely tied together with conversation, some of it repetitive. There are a few almost irrelevant parts such as the return and ill health of Miss Bubb, who was a terrible temporary head many years earlier. And there’s the inevitable Sale, which is described in detail along with the names of all the prize-winners….

I don’t think this would be a good book for anyone new to the series. It has a huge cast, many of them only mentioned briefly. Even as a fan of the books for over forty years, I didn’t recall every person who was mentioned. Someone new to the series would find the sheer number of names overwhelming.

Still, I’m delighted to have the Girls Gone By edition, not just for the full text but for the introductory sections, about the Chalet School in general, and its locations, and timescale, and other interesting articles. At the end is a specially commissioned short story which outlines an event mentioned in the main text, but never actually described by Brent-Dyer herself.

Originally written as teenage fiction, this is far more likely to appeal to those of us who grew up around them (and similar style school stories) and who recall them with nostalgia. The GGB edition is no longer in print, and second-hand editions are very highly priced, but you might still find used Armada versions in charity shops.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews


Me Before You (by JoJo Moyes)

JoJo Moyes is quite a versatile writer. So much so that I never quite know what to expect when picking up one of her novels. I’ve enjoyed some of them very much; others less so, although the writing is consistently good, and the characters usually well-developed and interesting.

I was given ‘Me Before You’ for my birthday eighteen months ago but only picked it up to read a couple of days ago. It’s not a short novel - almost 500 pages - but I finished it in just a couple of days. One I’d read a few chapters it became difficult to put down; it’s a storyline that will stay with me for some time.

The main narrator is Lou (Louisa), who is twenty-six, and has just lost her comfortable job working at a cafĂ©. She’s part of a close-knit family from what we used to call the working classes; her father struggles to make ends meet, and her mother is a full-time carer for Louisa’s grandfather as well as being a good cook, and extremely house-proud. Lou’s sister Katrina has a part-time job but also has a small son who needs to be cared for, so Lou’s income is vital for the family’s survival.

Then Lou is offered the job as carer/companion to a young man called Will in his early thirties who is confined to a wheelchair due to a serious accident which was described in the prologue to the book. Will is quadriplegic and someone else deals with his medical issues and intimate care; Lou is to keep an eye on him and try to take him out. She is unqualified and entirely inexperienced in working with the disabled, so I had to suspend reality slightly when she was offered a great salary and asked to start work a day after a rather unsatisfactory interview.

Most of the book is then about the relationship between the grumpy and rather depressed Will, and the unconventional Lou who dresses weirdly and is prone to speaking her mind. Will’s family is the other end of the social and financial spectrum; his parents are firmly in the upper classes; he used to be a wealthy businessman who enjoyed extreme sports and a series of attractive sloane type girlfriends. I’m not sure why quite such a contrast had to be drawn; nor why, since money is clearly no object, it takes Lou’s hesitant online research at the library to find a way for Will to use a computer.

However, dubious plot devices aside, it’s a well-written and highly thought-provoking story, that reminded me more than once of Jodi Picoult. It deals, in the latter half, with a very controversial subject in what seemed to me to be a realistic and sensitive way. I was disappointed in the ending; I would have preferred it to go differently, although there was an encouraging epilogue. But it certainly made me think through an issue that clearly isn’t as straightforward as it might seem.

Lou is a likeable young woman who adjusts well to her new and often difficult role. She gets over-emotional sometimes, and is reluctant to try anything beyond the confines of her home town; we fairly quickly learn about an unpleasant incident in her teens which made her fearful, yet I’m not sure I quite believed the ease with which she seemed to get over it once she had talked about it. She has a very annoying boyfriend called Patrick who seems to worship triathlons and running under extreme conditions; I didn’t entirely believe in him and am not sure why he was included, other than to provide a bit of conflict.

As for Will, he is in my view the most complex and well-drawn character. Other people are quite caricatured, although it doesn’t much matter and made it easy enough to remember who was whom. I was sorry that Will didn’t narrate anything; the only section of the book seen from his point of view is the prologue. There are two or three places where minor characters suddenly narrate a chapter; that was confusing and I didn’t really see why, since the majority is told by Lou.

But still, despite these niggles, it’s a very good read. I finished the last couple of hundred pages almost in one sitting, eager to find out what would happen, and whether - as I suspected - Lou and Will would become good friends (and possibly more) after their initial antipathy.

Available in Kindle form as well as paperback - and I understand that a sequel has just been published. I look forward to reading it!

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews


The Little White Horse (by Elizabeth Goudge)

Over the years I’ve read many of Elizabeth Goudge’s books. While I wouldn’t class her as one of my favourite authors, I keep coming back to her books, and finding more in them. I’m currently - slowly - re-reading them, and my recent selection fell on the children’s book ‘The Little White Horse’, the one for which she is perhaps best-known.

I was given this book for a birthday present when I was about eleven or twelve, and remember finding it a bit dull at first; it took a while to get into it. However I eventually read and enjoyed it. It’s historical fiction, set in 1842, but is also of the genre known as ‘low fantasy’ - in other words, set in the real world, with real people (if caricatured at times) with some uncanny or unusual mystical features pervading reality.

The heroine of this story is thirteen-year-old Maria Merryweather. Recently orphaned, she and her beloved governess Miss Heliotrope are travelling to the West Country to live with Maria’s only living relative, Sir Benjamin, who lives in a manor house with some rather unusual and highly intelligent animals.

Maria soon learns that the countryside around her guardian’s manor house is under siege by some evil men who trap rabbits and steal food from the ordinary folk. Gradually she learns about her history, and something of Sir Benjamin’s past, and realises that she has an important and dangerous mission…

The story is a classic triumph of good over evil, but - unusually - set in the 19th century. Elizabeth Goudge has an excellent grasp of language; her descriptions are perhaps a tad long-winded in places, but quite evocative. The scene is nicely set, and Maria is a delightfully confident - and sometimes argumentative - protagonist, who quickly wins the hearts of Sir Benjamin, the local Parson, and the unusual people (perhaps gnomes) who work as servants in the manor house.

The nature of the intelligent animals - such Zachariah the cat, who draws pictures in the dust to communicate, and Wrolf the large ‘dog’ who knows exactly what to do - seems quite realistic in context, and contrasts nicely with Maria’s own dog, the beautiful but not very bright Wiggins. The mystical white horse of the title is seen only rarely, but has a part to play in Maria’s eventual resolution of the problem.

Modern readers might balk at the political incorrectness of the bad guys, who live in the forest and dress only in black, so are given the unfortunate appellation of ‘Black Men’. However it’s clear what’s meant; and even the wickedest of them turns out to have some good traits.

It’s a children’s book, intended for confident readers of about ten and upwards, so inevitably things are going to be resolved in the end; perhaps things are too tidily organised, including one remarkable coincidence that Maria discovers fairly early in the book. But it makes pleasant reading, and I’m glad I delved into it again.

Apparently this book was one of JK Rowling's childhood favourites. I'm not surprised; she was inspired by many great classics. While I read it, Maria's sightings of the 'Little White Horse' reminded me forcibly of the stag patronus of the Harry Potter books.

First printed in 1963, this is still in print, both in paperback and Kindle form as well as being widely available second-hand. Recommended for anyone over the age of about eight or nine who likes low fantasy or historical fiction.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews


Tara Road (by Maeve Binchy)

I’m very much enjoying re-reading books by my favourite authors. I always liked the late Maeve Binchy’s novels; mostly set in Ireland, they revolve around lively family situations, full of interesting characters and mixed emotions.

It’s over fifteen years since I read ‘Tara Road’, so it was well over-due for a re-read. I felt a little daunted when I picked it up a few days ago, noticing that it has over 600 pages. But once I’d got into it, I could hardly put it down.

The book focuses on people who live in an up-and-coming street in an Irish town. The main protagonist is Ria, a home-loving, caring girl when we first meet her, who is quite sure that nobody could ever fancy her, particularly when she’s with her more assured and glamorous colleague Rosemary. When Danny Lynch joins the company, nobody’s more surprised than Ria when he falls in love with her…

Ria has a delightfully outspoken mother, a rather dull sister, and a large number of friends and acquaintances whom we get to know through the course of the book. While Maeve Binchy doesn’t give the depth of characterisation of some other writers (such as Rosamunde Pilcher, for instance), she gives delightful character sketches and quirks that easily distinguish them. There’s a large cast, but I had no trouble at all remembering who was whom. Caricatures undoubtedly, in some cases, but it didn't matter.

A picture is painted of a warm and loving family home, where Ria is convinced everything is perfect, even if her teenage daughter Annie has started to be abrupt and her pre-teen son Brian keeps putting his foot in it, almost any time he opens his mouth. But her well-wishers are convinced that Danny’s just too good to be true. He takes risks in his business, and surely someone so charming and good-looking can’t possibly be faithful to his safe, comfortable wife who’s approaching middle-age…

The crisis comes suddenly, and leads on to the second part of the book where Ria and an American woman called Marilyn embark on a house exchange for two months in the summer. Both are struggling to come to terms with difficult situations, and as they learn to adjust to the new cultures and homes, we learn a great deal about them both and those they meet.

The novel consists of a series of intertwined subplots and situations rather than being a linear story, although it moves forward chronologically for the most part. In Binchy’s warm and clear story-telling, we empathise with Gertie, feel irritated with Rosemary, root for both Ria and Marilyn. There are likeable people who have plenty of flaws, and there are inevitably some surprises and shocks which characters have to deal with.

The flow is just right, the description minimal. The story flits from person to person, sometimes after just one paragraph, but it works perfectly. I gradually built up an impression of each of the people concerned; I’d forgotten the story entirely, but it was written in a way that allows the reader to understand what’s going on before the characters in the story do, and I found that satisfying.

Bad language is minimal, and while there is quite a bit of discussion of people sleeping together, there are no bedroom scenes that tell us anything more than a brief overview.

All in all, I’d recommend ‘Tara Road’ highly to anyone who likes character-driven women’s fiction.  Still in print on both sides of the Atlantic.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews


Ninepins (by Rosy Thornton)

I discovered Rosy Thornton several years ago, and have read and enjoyed several of her books. I was given this one for my birthday a year ago, and finally sat down to read it.

‘Ninepins’ is the name of an old house in the Cambridgeshire fens. It’s near a dyke, and has a pump-house which works as a guest flat, and has been let out to a series of students. We meet Laura, the owner, as she hurries home from work to meet a new potential tenant: 17-year-old Willow, along with her social worker Vince.

Despite initial reservations, Laura decides to accept Willow. Laura has an eleven-year-old daughter, Beth, and is amicably divorced from Beth’s father who has a new family and pops in and out of their lives through the book. Laura lives in reasonable comfort, but evidently needs the money from the lodger, and the extra bonus from social services is useful.

But Willow is a troubled young person; her childhood was bohemian, but not in a good sense. We gradually build up a picture of a hippy-style somewhat neglectful mother, and a little girl forced to grow up before she was ready to. Willow is a nice contrast to Beth, whose mother takes rather too much care of her and struggles to let Beth grow up and be more independent.

The blurb describes this as having the tension of a thriller, but (thankfully) I didn’t feel that way at all. I don’t like books with a lot of tension. It’s more of a character-based domestic book; much revolves around the kitchen and Laura’s need to look after her daughter and, gradually, Willow too. Vince, the social worker, continues to make regular appearances and is a likeable man.

Willow stays rather shadowy and inward looking, very different from Beth but drawn to her too. Beth makes some poor decisions about her friends and struggles through her school days, developing rather young teenage angst; but her upbringing stands her in good stead, at least most of the time. Laura is kind and caring but can be a bit too pushy; I wanted to nudge her arm sometimes, to tell her to hold back, to listen more to Beth’s point of view, to allow her to make her own decisions. It’s a sign of a highly believable character.

Rosy Thornton writes very well; some of the descriptions left me a bit cold, but then I’m not a visual person. I was none the wiser as to what dykes or fens looked like even after finishing the book, but it didn’t particularly matter. I could vaguely imagine the pump house and the kitchen; I suspect a good picture was painted, however, for those who are more drawn to sensory detail.

I think I'd have preferred the ending to be a bit more conclusive, but perhaps it was better left somewhat open.

It took me a little while to get into the story, and nearly ten days to finish it; but all in all, I enjoyed this book very much. Recommended to anyone who enjoys women's fiction that's character-based.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews


Open Windows (by Philip Yancey)

I’ve enjoyed just about everything I’ve read by the American Christian writer Philip Yancey, over the years, and I’ve gradually started re-reading those of his books which I haven’t read for some time. I didn’t remember much about this particular one, other than that it was a series of vignettes of people or situations, through which the author found new ways to meet with and discover God.

I previously read ‘Open Windows’ in 2005. Re-reading over the past couple of weeks, I found there were parts I recalled, but much that felt fresh. In the first section, the author looks at the Arts in general; he covers music in the first chapter, looking not just at ‘religious’ music (ancient and modern) but secular as well, including that inspired by Christian topics.

He then looks at nature, particularly through the eyes of one of Yancey’s favourite writers on the subject, and then eventually spends a couple of chapters on Francis Schaeffer who was quite an outspoken communicator and prolific writer, although I would not have called him an artist.

The second section focuses more on communicating in general - the ways that Christians try to pass on the message of Jesus, and the importance of being a good writer. I was struck by his insistence that readers (or listeners) need to be led slowly into new ideas, to form their own conclusions, rather than told what the writer believes, followed by his or her own logical arguments. This is something that, I feel, many preachers should take note of!

The final section is more political, and took me rather longer to get through as I found that just a few pages were enough. There’s a lot in these sections, much to think about and ponder, but after three or four pages I found my mind wandering.

The writing is good, as with everything Philip Yancey produces, with plenty of thought-provoking comments and vividly recounted experiences. I found the book rather ‘bitty’; the three broad themes seem a bit forced, and each chapter is complete in itself. There isn’t a great deal that was directly about God; I should think the book could be read by anyone interested in Yancey’s views, whether or not they are believers.

The style is a little long-winded in places, and there are some sections which seem to be repeated in others of the author’s books; he has a great admiration for some writers and other famous people (Annie Dillard, Paul Brand and Mahatma Ghandi in particular) and his comments about them crop up regularly in his books.

But still, overall I enjoyed it and am glad to have it on my shelves. It's out of print on both sides of the Atlantic but can sometimes be found inexpensively second-hand.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews