02/07/2015

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (by JK Rowling)

Having decided to re-read JK Rowling’s brilliant debut novel a few days ago, after a lengthy gap, it was inevitable I was going to pick up her second book, it’s immediate sequel before long.

Although I last read ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’ nearly ten years ago, I did see the film at the cinema, and the DVD in the meantime. They’ve inevitably coloured my imagination, but the characters in the movies were so well done that I’d say this has enhanced the experience rather than the reverse. Dumbledore, in particular, used to resemble Gandalf in my mind, but now I see the long-bearded Head of the film series, and this image is a lot closer to the book’s description.

The story opens with Harry back at his unpleasant relatives’ house for the summer preceding his second year at Hogwarts. He’s not treated well, and things get worse when a house elf called Dobby appears in his room, and proceeds to cause a great deal of trouble.

When Harry eventually reaches school by a highly unconventional (not to say illegal) method, he finds himself more unpopular than ever with certain of the students and one of the teachers, while the subject of admiration by others. Creepy things start happening, when Harry hears voices that nobody else seems able to hear, and suddenly, after a bit of wizard duelling, he’s an object of suspicion and fear even to many who had previously liked him.

It’s a darker book than the first, full of classical allusions and - as I now realise - pointers towards the seven book, and particularly the inevitable climax that occurs near the end of it. I’d remembered the basic storyline, but forgotten many of the details; I found it gripping, once again, particularly in the last few chapters.

Harry learns more about himself and his heritage in this book as, once again, he wages war against the enemy. It’s good vs evil once more, with Professor Dumbledore patiently advising, and Harry’s friends supporting him.

This book is recommended for age 9-11, and I think that’s probably correct as a minimum; fluently reading children younger than this might enjoy it, but could well find the ending scenes too frightening. However, these books have a wide appeal, and it’s by no means an easy read, so teens and adults who like the style will probably enjoy it too.

I’d suggest reading this book after ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’, and ideally as part of the entire septology, because the overall plan and plotting is so clever: each book builds on the one before and points to the one ahead. Nevertheless, it can be read as a stand-alone.

I have to admit that I don’t like this quite as much as the first (or the third, which I shall no doubt re-read soon) but it’s still an excellent read and one I would recommend highly.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

30/06/2015

A People of Power (by Trevor Dearing)

We have quite a collection of Christian books. Although we’ve specifically chosen some, usually based on the author, there are a lot which we’ve acquired from a variety of sources. I knew nothing about Trevor Dearing, but picked this little volume up on special offer (89p, according to the label on the front) some years ago. Or perhaps someone else bought it and passed it on to us.

In any case, I think I read ‘A People of Power’ many years ago, but found it lurking on the shelves recently and decided to read it. It was published in 1983 so it’s over thirty years old, although it doesn’t feel particularly dated. The topic is spiritual renewal, which was quite a controversial subject in Christian circles in the 1980s; by today’s standards it’s quite a tame book.

The author is from an Anglican background and evidently worked in both the US and UK; by the time he wrote this book (according to the blurb on the back) he and his wife had become itinerant evangelists with a healing ministry. Books such as this would be popular in churches and other groups where they ministered.

At under 100 pages it’s not a long read, but it’s quite heavy in places, with a lot of Bible references and information, and very little in the way of stories or anecdotes. It begins with introducing Christians as a ‘peculiar’ people, in the sense of being different from others, and then spends another twelve chapters explaining what the difference is - or should be - and how we’re to stand out from those around us.

Chapters include growth, love, healing, giving and more, and it all seems straightforward and sound, not saying anything particularly new although perhaps it was more revolutionary when first published. That’s not to say that all - or even most - churches have got it ‘right’ in these areas, but there has been plenty of teaching on these subjects.

I found that, despite the brevity of the book, I couldn’t read more than a chapter or two at a time as my mind started to wander. It wasn’t badly written (other than far too many uses of clauses such as ‘in fact’ which started to jar a little; the editor should have removed most of them) but it somehow didn’t grab my interest particularly, no matter how hard I tried to concentrate.

Worth reading, perhaps, for an overview of what church congregations should be like in some important respects, but not one I’ll be reading again in a hurry.

This book is long out of print - Amazon does not currently even have an image for its cover - but it can occasionally be found second hand or in church libraries.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

29/06/2015

Chalet School Fete (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)

Slowly, very slowly I’m reading my way through Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s series of over fifty books about the Chalet School. I’ve reached the ones written and set in the mid 1950s, when the school has moved back to Switzerland after some years in the UK and Channel Islands during the war.

‘Chalet School Fete’ is actually the second part of the original book entitled ‘A Genius at the Chalet School’, so if you have either the hardback version of that, or the more recently published ‘Girls Gone By’ edition, then you won’t need this slim addition to the series. But although I have many of the hardbacks, I’ve somehow acquired the pair of Armada paperbacks that make up this particular book, the first (confusingly) sharing its name with the original.

So the Armada paperback ‘A Genius at the Chalet School’ introduces us to Nina Rutherford, the brilliant piano-playing teenager who has to learn to be a little more thoughtful in her ambitions and behaviour. It works as a stand-alone, ending with Nina accompanying the orchestra in the school pantomime and enjoying it thoroughly.

In this second part, which works as a sequel, Nina learns that one of her cousins is very ill, and has to be brought out to Switzerland for her lungs; by an unlikely coincidence, on a school trip, one of her teachers meets someone who turns out to be yet another relative…

As a stand-alone book this is rather unsubstantial; the crisis in the early chapters involves Nina’s cousin, but that’s never really resolved. Nina herself has already become more friendly and likeable, and for the school it’s a fairly ordinary term leading up to yet another summer fete, which is described, as usual with this author, in too much detail.

Still, it’s not really fair to judge it on its own merits as it has to be read as part of the full story, and as such it works reasonably well. I don't consider this to be one of the best in the series, and it could be missed out when reading through without too much difficulty.

Still, for those of us who like the general ramblings and development of different characters, it’s a pleasant enough story to while away an hour or two.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

28/06/2015

A Genius at the Chalet School (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)

My reading of Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s lengthy Chalet School series was rather random until a few years ago. I would pick up one of her books when I needed to read something light and undemanding, preferably accompanied by a cat and some chocolate. I re-read some of my favourites fairly often, and managed to ignore some others for lengthy periods.

But six years ago I determined to read the books in order, beginning with ‘The School at the Chalet’, which I re-read for the umpteenth time in 2009. So it's taking me a while! I’m mostly reading them interspersed with a variety of other books, and sometimes forget about them entirely.

However, I recently read and enjoyed ‘Mary-Lou of the Chalet School’, and since I had a couple of hours on my own yesterday afternoon, I thought I’d pick up the next one. That was ‘A Genius at the Chalet School’, which for some reason was divided into two volumes when the series was re-published by Armada paperbacks in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The first volume of this is still called by its original title; the second part has become ‘Chalet School Fete’, which I proceeded to read immediately afterwards. I don’t think they have been much abridged at all from the originals, although it appears that I had not read either of them for at least sixteen years.

The story in this first part is about Nina Rutherford, who has been brought up by her widowed father, and who, at the age of 15, has become a highly talented pianist. She is determined to be a concert pianist and works at the piano for at least four hours each day.

Just before the story starts, she has lost her beloved father in an accident in Italy. Her guardian turns out to be her father’s cousin Guy, who travels to meet her and bring her to live with his family in England. He’s not prepared for an artistic temperament and single-minded determination to play the piano, in addition to her deep grief. But eventually she’s persuaded to go with him, as she has little choice.

A chance encounter with some of the Chalet School girls cheers Nina up a little, and Guy - who doesn’t really understand her passion for music, but is kind-hearted and wants to do what’s best - decides to send her there, to the branch in Switzerland.

Nina’s a likeable girl, perhaps a little caricatured in her selfishness; yet there are several references to her being a ‘genius’, and thus slightly unbalanced in pursuit of her aims. Those who understand her feel sympathy rather than envy at her astounding talent, but as she gets to know other Chalet School girls and settles down, she discovers that there are some other things are as important as music.

There’s a fair amount about the day-to-day life of the girls in the school, some of which I found interesting, and some a bit tedious. Descriptions of prefects’ meetings or meals often seem a bit long-winded, and I skimmed rapidly through the final chapter, which gives too much detail about a school pantomime. But there are some quite moving sections too, and Nina’s emotional development is nicely done.

Favourite characters re-appear and references are made to quite a few events from earlier books, so although each volume of the Chalet School series stands alone, I wouldn’t recommend reading this one unless you’ve read at least a few of the others beforehand.

In a sense, as is probably obvious from this review, this story follows the same pattern as so many others (potentially difficult pupil joins the school, runs into a few problems, meets some nice people, and eventually becomes a ‘real’ Chalet School girl…) but it’s a formula that’s quite effective, and this one, featuring a ‘genius’, is at least slightly different.

Still, I wouldn't particularly recommend this unless you're a serious fan of the series. There are other, better ones if you just want to read a couple.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (by JK Rowling)

I suppose it was fifteen years ago when I first picked up JK Rowling’s debut novel, before it was well known, with no idea that it would take the world by storm. I think one of my sons had been given it as a gift, or perhaps we bought it on offer before moving to Cyprus, thinking it looked interesting. I knew my sons had both liked it, and in an idle moment decided to try it for myself… and was quickly hooked!

‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ (unfortunately re-titled ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ in the US) starts by introducing us to the small, bespectacled, boy with untameable hair, who has been neglected and ill-treated by his aunt, uncle and cousin. The first chapter is full of mystery, as strange people are evidently celebrating something; it’s a great start to a book, whether or not the reader knows what it’s about.

Harry, as a baby, is left with his relatives after the demise of his parents, and has a fairly miserable existence although he seems, mostly, quite stoical about it. Then, as he approaches his 11th birthday, mysterious letters start arriving, addressed to him. His Uncle Vernon, a large and caricatured pomposity of a man, goes to increasingly ridiculous lengths to stop Harry reading any of the letters, finally taking his family to a shack on a tiny island in the middle of nowhere.

But, as Harry turns eleven years old, his life changes in the most remarkable and unexpected ways. He meets the enormous Hagrid, whose hair is even more untameable, and who was expelled from Hogwarts school, but now works there as gamekeeper. Hagrid takes Harry to London where he discovers the bank, guarded by goblins, and shops with wizarding supplies, hidden from the eyes of the ordinary people, who are known as Muggles…

Eighteen years after publication, this book is considered a classic of modern children’s literature. The entire series of seven books, as is now well-established, is full of both classical and Christian metaphors and themes. Several authors have produced books about finding God in the Harry Potter books, and it was while reading a new devotional series based around the books that I felt inspired to re-read them.

It’s the first time I’ve read this book from the perspective of having completed the entire series, so it’s particularly interesting to see how the author lays the groundwork, right from the start, for the powerful climax to the seventh book. I love, too, that Harry is such an ordinary boy when we first meet him. He’s not particularly academic, he’s not sporty, he’s not good-looking or particularly confident, and he’s far from popular. What Harry does have, in abundance, is courage and loyalty, and the ability to stand by right decisions. That’s not to say he’s a goody-goody; far from it, in fact. He breaks school rules regularly, but in the typical British ‘school story’ style, he does so (usually, anyway) for the sake of the higher good.

It’s nearly ten years since the last time I read ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’, although I did see the film in the meantime. I wondered what I’d think of it from the perspective of increased years, and it’s now being one of the world’s best-known books. I’m glad to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it, and found myself wondering why it had taken so long to pick it up again.

The writing is crisp, the characterisation effective, the conversations realistic. The good vs evil theme is clear, and the message of the power of love is still as moving now as it was when I first read this book.

Suitable for children of about seven or eight and older; there are some scenes which could disturb a younger or sensitive child, so I wouldn’t recommend reading it aloud to anyone younger. But as well as children, this is a great read for teens or adults who have a couple of hours to spare; it’s the kind of book that has so much in it that there’s plenty for everyone, whatever their age and no matter how many times they’ve read it before.

Very highly recommended.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

27/06/2015

The Jigsaw Maker (by Adrienne Dines)

I read a novel by Adrienne Dines about eight years ago, and liked it very much. I decided to put her first novel on my wishlist, but unfortunately it went out of print and I’d almost forgotten about it until I came across it recently on the Awesome Books site. My copy, when it arrived, was almost good as new.

I started reading ‘The Jigsaw Maker’ about ten days ago, and found it a bit slow-moving at first. Lizzie is the main character; she’s middle-aged, and seems rather uptight and defensive when we meet her. She runs a souvenir shop which is a bit dated, but ticks over. Then a younger man called Jim calls into her shop, explaining that he makes jigsaws. He takes local photos and asks people to write about them, not in a tourist guide way, but focussing on their memories, and the stories involved.

Lizzie is not prepared for the emotions that come to the surface when she starts to think back to her school days. The story switches between 2006, which is the present day of the novel, and 1969, when Lizzie was a somewhat innocent child of ten. She recounts stories of the nuns who taught her, and the day trip they took to the zoo. We also read, through the eyes of a child, of some of the adult happenings, and in particular of an older girl who was sent to Dublin, ostensibly to have her tonsils out and then recuperate, although it’s fairly obvious to the reader that this is a euphemism.

While I had guessed some of the turns of the plot, which were revealed towards the end, I certainly hadn’t expected some of the dramatic - and sometimes shocking - events that form the latter part of the book. By the time I learned why Lizzie was so uptight and unforgiving of herself, I was so engrossed I could hardly put the book down.

The writing is very good; clear, nicely-paced, and bringing out the different characters so that I could almost imagine them. There are quite a few different people involved but I didn’t have any difficulty remembering who was whom.

I thought the plotting and gradual revelation of the ‘jigsaw’ of Lizzie’s life was very cleverly done. It’s not quite Maeve Binchy, although set in a similar environment; it wasn’t a warm and uplifting story at all, but quite draining at times.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed it very much and would recommend it to anyone who likes powerful women’s fiction. The publisher Transita deliberately chose novels about middle-aged women, and I was sorry when they ceased publishing.

'The 'Jigsaw Maker' is not in print, but sometimes can be found second hand; it's also available on both sides of the Atlantic in Kindle form.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

22/06/2015

Cabbages for the King (by Adrian Plass)

I like to re-read books by Adrian Plass reasonably regularly; they’re sometimes deceptively simple, and easy to read, yet thought-provoking in ways that stay with me for some time after reading. I had a quick browse through my non-fiction Plass books a few days ago and picked this one up, convinced I had not read it for many years.

I discovered that I had, in fact, re-read ‘Cabbages for the King’ as recently as 2012, but that didn’t matter in the slightest. It’s a book that I could read every year, and still probably find something new. The overall idea of the book is a question that’s been covered by several writers over the years - that of what makes writing ‘Christian’, specifically. The point is made that when buying cabbages we look for quality, and the size we want, even when buying from a Christian greengrocer. Writers, then, should not necessarily have to make a ‘Christian’ point, but should aim for good writing in general…

The book then consists of loosely categorised topics with various random thoughts. Some are poems, some are dialogues. There’s humour in places; not hilarious roll-on-the-floor laughter, or even anything that makes me chuckle aloud, but I smiled a few times, and found myself reading for much longer periods than I intended.

What Adrian Plass brings to the Christian world, above all else, is his vulnerability. He was one of the first writers to admit to being deeply flawed, often struggling, and far from perfect. In this book he outlines the experience that first showed him how important this is, in helping him to connect with his audience and make his points in ways that are memorable. Perhaps this is hard for some cultures to understand, but we Brits admire and appreciate those who are honest enough to admit to their failings.

Perhaps some of the anecdotes are exaggerated; but it doesn’t matter. When someone’s willing to be open about his failings, it’s so much easier to relate, and to admit to one’s own. Only when we acknowledge our weaknesses can we hope to move beyond them.

There are sections about rituals, about family life, about honesty, and more. It’s a hodge-podge of writing, in a sense; it can be dipped into, or, as I did, read from start to finish. There’s nothing spectacular or mind-blowingly deep - but, nonetheless, it’s well worth having one one’s shelves and re-reading regularly.

Recommended. Not currently in print, but 'Cabbages for the King' can often be found lurking in second-hand bookstalls, particularly at church fetes.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

21/06/2015

The Lady of Bolton Hill (by Elizabeth Camden)

Three years ago, I downloaded a lot of free books for my Kindle. So long as they looked interesting and had some reasonable reviews, I was willing to try anything. I’d never heard of Elizabeth Camden, but her novel was listed as Christian historical fiction and - at the time - it was free. Since that time, I’ve read through several of the books I found. Some are mediocre, some are good, and occasionally I find a gem.

I thought, at first, that ‘The Lady of Bolton Hill’ was firmly in the last category. The prologue, set in 1867, is dramatic and very well-written. It introduces Daniel Tremain, a sixteen-year-old boy in the United States who has been working in a steel mill, but wants the chance of college. He’s taking an important exam when he’s called away to an emergency - a potential and disastrous explosion in the factory.

As Daniel’s dreams are destroyed, we meet his best friend, Clara. She comes from a clerical family, higher in class and also in income. She’s gentle, and loving; different from Daniel in almost every respect. What they have in common is a passion for music. They meet to play the classics together, and to experiment with writing new pieces. Their friendship has been entirely platonic for some years, but it’s evident that this might be about to change…

The rest of the story takes place twelve years later, after Clara has become a journalist. She’s a strong heroine for the late nineteenth century, determined to right some of society’s ills. She’s been in trouble for highlighting the way children were treated in the mines in the UK, and when she returns to her father’s home she decides to write about some of the problems besetting local workers.

In the meantime, Daniel has managed to patent several inventions and is head of his company… but refuses to do business with a man who, he believes, was responsible for the tragedy of his teenage years. Daniel and Clara find that sparks fly when they meet: both sparks of attraction, and of disagreement, as Clara wants Daniel to forgive the wrongs of his past.

The historical settings felt real to me - the author is, apparently, a historian - and although I’m no expert, the dialogue came across as authentic too. I liked Clara very much, and found Daniel believable too, if rather hard-headed and materialistic. I was less convinced by her brother Clyde, who appears in the prologue as rather annoying, but has turned into a missionary doctor by the time the rest of the book starts. Nor did I think much of their father; he doesn’t appear directly very much, but his character isn’t consistent when he does.

However my biggest problem with the book was the sudden development of a completely different sub-plot, part way through. It involves some opium dealers, and a particularly nasty teenage boy known as Bane. He appears to be entirely amoral, and has no qualms about destroying the lives of millions. Bane is given an assignment which evidently involves Daniel, but I couldn’t quite believe the motivation for this, nor why their story was relevant to the plot.

And, indeed, when the two story-lines combine, it descends into melodrama… oddly mixed with evangelism. To say more would give away too much… and yet, in my view, it simply didn’t work. It’s not that I think anyone is beyond salvation, or that God can’t keep people safe; nor did I have any problem with Clara wanting Daniel to share her faith.

But the resolution of the story’s climax feels bizarre, with no motivation for the sudden change that happens, and a feeling of being cheated. I say that from the perspective of Christian who certainly believes in God’s ability to change people’s hearts; for those approaching this as a historical fiction book without any faith, the ending would seem impossibly unrealistic, contrived in a ‘deus ex machina’ style.

So I can’t give this my whole-hearted recommendation, despite being very well-written and with a great sense of the historical context. Worth reading, certainly, and very interesting in places, but I’d have liked it a lot better (and believed in it more) if the story involving Bane had not been there at all.

This is available in paperback as well as electronic form, and the links reflect the printed version. The Kindle edition is no longer free, although it's relatively inexpensive.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews