Monday, 21 April 2014

Love's Tyranny (by Liz Newman)

I'm slightly puzzled to find that this e-book is listed as being written by Liz Newman, since I know the author by another first name, but perhaps there's a reason for the pseudonym. She doesn't have a web page (and is not the American writer with the same name) but lives in the UK, in quite frail health. I was privileged to read an early draft of this book some years ago, and delighted to learn that it was recently published in e-book form.

'Love's Tyranny' is set at the turn of the 20th century. It's a story revolving around the early Suffrage movement, when women began to realise that they could do as much as men, and deserved to be recognised for their skills. It paints a moving picture of life for many impoverished women, employed at a mill in Manchester, where their health is seriously at risk.

Josie, the heroine of the book, has been left a small shop and is determined to make it a success, while keeping an eye out for her troubled teenage niece Sarah. What Josie doesn't expect is that she will meet and fall in love... and, in this era, she must eventually decide whether she cares more for the cause she is working for, or the man who would like to marry her.

The characterisation is good, and the pace works well. There are descriptions, just enough to give me a general feeling of where each scene was set, but without becoming boring. This novel is based on a true story, and includes some real people by name (such as the Pankhurst family) but I could not tell where the line was between history and fiction. I found it very readable, and felt I had a much better understanding of an era I knew little about, as well as quite an affection for Josie.

My only problem with this e-book is that there are two places where the same section is repeated; I don't think anything is missing, but I had to page through a couple of chapters in one place to find where the story continued. There are also some minor formatting errors on my Kindle, and a few typing or punctuation errors in the early pages; happily there were very few of these as the book progressed, so it's worth persevering through them.

Recommended if you like light historical fiction and are interested in women's rights in the early 1900s.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Sunday, 20 April 2014

The Apple of His Eye (by Bridget Plass)

Bridget Plass (scroll down to find her brief bio) is married to the better-known Adrian Plass, but as this book shows she is also a talented and thoughtful writer. I first read this book in 2005, then - as it's designed to be a Lenten devotional book - re-read it in Lent of 2008.

Remembering that I found it helpful and inspiring, I decided to read it again over the past six weeks of Lent this year, one section per day starting on Ash Wednesday. Once again I enjoyed it very much and looked forward to each day.

The book looks at what it means to be loved by Jesus, in practical and ordinary ways. Starting with some Old Testament references, it then takes us gently through some events in Jesus' life, particularly in the final few months of his ministry. We look with fresh eyes at Mary and Martha, Jesus' close friends, and their brother Lazarus who was raised from the dead. Then there's a section about the most important Mary, Jesus' mother. Finally the weeks leading up to the Crucifixion and Resurrection, with an invitation to think more about what it meant to the early disciples, and what the relevance is for Christians in the 21st century.

I don't remember everything; but I know that I looked forward, each morning, to reading and pondering another brief section. Bridget's thoughts are appropriate for everyone, with a few anecdotes here and there and an overall sense of the immense and overwhelming love that God has for each of his children.

Highly recommended. Still in print in paperback, at least in the UK, and now also available in Kindle form.
Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Moving On From Short Story to Novel (by Della Galton)

I first came across Della Galton a little over five years ago, when I bought 'How to write and sell short stories' after several recommendations. I found it very readable and full of excellent advice, so when I subscribed, for a while, to a writing magazine I was pleased to find that Della Galton was a regular contributor.

In 2012 she published another writing book, 'Moving On from short story to novel', and I bought a copy almost as soon as it was available. I started reading it immediately, but for some reason it didn't grip me - or perhaps I had too many other books to read. But, being more organised this year and determined to read several writing books from cover to cover, I started it again a few weeks ago and have now finished.

I thought it a very useful book. It does what the title suggests: it explains the differences between short stories and novels, from the point of view of writing them. The author makes it clear that it's not simply the difference in length that distinguishes them. She looks at complexities of plotting, depth of characterisation, flashbacks, description and more, using her own personal experiences with plenty of examples that illustrate the differences well.

Each chapter is short, with a quick summary at the end. In later chapters, subjects such as editing, finding titles, writing synopses and blurbs are covered, followed by explanations about competitions, finding an agent and/or publisher, and more. The style is light and readable, and while there wasn't anything that gave me a lightbulb moment, it was a useful book which I may well refer to in future.

This is really intended for short story writers who are thinking about expanding into novels, and is aimed at the UK market primarily. However it could be used as a general guide for anyone who wants to write fiction and hopes to see it published.

Recommended. Available inexpensively in Kindle form (at least in the UK) as well as paperback.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Friday, 18 April 2014

Invincible Louisa (by Cornelia Meigs)

I have no idea how this little paperback ended up on our shelves. Maybe I picked it up in a charity shop, or perhaps someone moved and passed it on to me. In any case, I had not previously read it. I knew nothing about Cornelia Meigs, the author, but apparently she wrote quite a few books for children. In any case, I was interested to learn a bit more about Louisa M Alcott, who is best known for her classic novel for girls, 'Little Women' and its sequels. So I've been reading this over the past ten days or so.

Apparently 'Invincible Louisa' won a Newbery medal, so perhaps I'm a bit of a philistine.. but I didn't find this particularly engaging. Having said that, I did find it interesting to see how Louisa M Alcott's life was mirrored, in many ways, by her novels, particularly those featuring the March family. The research for this biography was evidently extensive, impressively so in a pre-internet era. But despite Alcott's lifeline and circumstances being portrayed thoroughly, I found the book dry - for my tastes it was too full of description and facts, with little characterisation, nothing much to engage my interest.

Perhaps there was too little source material available, or perhaps the author simply wanted to outline Alcott's life in this factual way; evidently it was considered an excellent work by those who award medals. But despite it being a relatively easy read, if a bit rambling, I found it hard going in places, and difficult to concentrate. I rapidly lost track of all the many locations where the family lived, and most of the family friends, too, meaning that I rather missed the point of many of the philosophical discussions.

It wasn't a bad book, just dry; I guess it's worth perusing by anyone interested in Louisa M Alcott's life. Still in print in the US; not in the UK, but fairly widely available second-hand.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Thursday, 17 April 2014

The Challenge of Missions (by Oswald J Smith)

Oswald J Smith was a Canadian pastor in the 20th century, who was passionate about world mission, albeit from a fundamentalist and decidedly pre-millennialist viewpoint. I doubt if I would have heard of him, but for this book which we apparently picked up at the reduced rate of 25p from a bookshop, probably twenty years ago.

I don't remember if I had read 'The challenge of missions' before the past week; if so, I didn't remember the style or indeed the exhortations. For, as might be surmised from the title, this book - written in 1959 - is an attempt to encourage Christians to evangelism, and particularly missionary work amongst the unreached countries of the world. The author is passionate about his calling to speak and write so as to enthuse people to go to the mission field, even though he himself was in poor health. This despite the fact that he lived well into his nineties.

Inevitably the book is very dated, with rather a lot of words we would consider politically incorrect these days, such as 'savages', 'natives', and so on, to describe people who had not yet been reached by missionaries. Moreover there's a lot of discussion about the importance of the 'mission board' - he insists that nobody should go without one - and, mystifyingly, the new missionary's 'outfit'. Perhaps this just referred to basic luggage, or clothes suitable for the relevant climate.

There's also quite an attitude of western superiority, at least it seemed so from my vantage point. I was also a bit disturbed that the author's stated motivation for evangelism seems to be less about caring for unreached people as individuals, and more about hastening the return of Jesus. But perhaps that's unfair; inevitably a writer uses the language of his contemporaries and will seem dated in many respects over fifty years later.

I wasn't particularly happy with some of the emphases on fundamentalist theology, or the insistence on people actually wanting - and asking - to suffer; perhaps the church today has gone too far in the other direction, but it felt unbalanced in places. I was also rather put off by his somewhat graphic descriptions of some atrocities in non-Christian environments; they were hardly typical of the societies he was writing about, and he avoided mentioning that, sadly, many horrors have been carried out under the banner of Christianity, and not just in the late Middle Ages.

Nevertheless, Oswald J Smith's fervour for evangelism and mission work is clear in many places, and at times inspiring. Written when it was, I can see why so many people's lives - or at least worldviews - changed, in the era prior to technology and widespread knowledge of the world.

I wouldn't particularly recommend this; there are better, more modern books on the topic. But it was interesting to read such strong viewpoints from this era.

No longer in print as a paperback, but available for the Kindle.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Snuff (by Terry Pratchett)

I've been reading and enjoying Terry Pratchett's books, particularly the Discworld series, for about eighteen years, now. Discworld is fantasy of a kind - but more like satire, a thought-provoking (and humorous) way of looking at the world. They are particularly good to read aloud to older children or teens.

'Snuff' is the 39th Discworld book, and since I'm no longer reading aloud I was in no great hurry to get it - but put it on my wishlist some time ago. I was delighted to receive it as a Christmas present and started reading it five weeks ago.

Yes, it took me five weeks to finish this, reading just a section or two each evening. Having said that, I was often very tired and read only a few pages. And it didn't really grab me at first... however, Pratchett is always readable, and I found myself getting more and more involved as the story progressed. This book is not as overtly humorous as some of the earlier Discworld books, but it's quite thought-provoking and makes some excellent points in a way that should remain with the reader for a long time afterwards.

Sam Vimes of the Ankh Morpork watch is the main character - a somewhat mellow Sam who has settled into being a married Duke, and very much enjoys fatherhood, although he also still loves his job and rarely takes a break. He's not at all sure about taking a holiday, but everyone insists. Happily for Vimes, he finds plenty of crime in the countryside and, with the help of his wife Lady Sybil, manages to get the goblins, previously treated as vermin, to be recognised as sapient beings.

Some of the plotting was a bit over-complex; there was some fast action involving boats and contraband, and in places it rather lost me, but it didn't really matter. Overall I thought this a great addition to the Discworld series. Recommended to fans, although it would be very confusing as an introduction to the series, so it would definitely be best to read some of the earlier 'Watch' books featuring Vimes before tackling this one.

Available in hardback, paperback, and Kindle formats.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Thursday, 10 April 2014

A Lady of Quality (by Frances Hodgson Burnett)

For many years I had assumed that Frances Hodgson Burnett had only written three books - the classic children's novels 'The Secret Garden', 'Little Lord Fauntleroy', and 'A Little Princess'. So it was quite a surprise, when looking for free Kindle books, to discover several other books she had written, some of them for adults. I read one or two of the others and - on the whole - liked them.

So a couple of weeks ago, I started reading 'A Lady of Quality'.

There's a reason why some great writers produce books that are almost unknown. This novel features an eminently dislikeable heroine, Clorinda, whose mother died giving birth to her. Her father is appalling, drinking and hunting, and ignores his three daughters entirely, barely noticing his young wife's demise. However Clorinda is a strong-willed fighter who learns at a young age to tame horses - and when her father meets her, he is very taken with her.

So she spends her childhood with her father's depraved companions, learning to drink and to swear, uninterested in women, often dressing as a boy. Until she decides, one day, to become a society lady.. and her about-turn and transformation was very difficult to swallow.

I don't mind a slight excess of emotion, description or moralising in books of this era, but this one went on for pages, sometimes, without adding to the plot at all. I kept reading because I was interested in Clorinda's sister Anne, and because some of the plot developments caught my interest - but towards the end I skimmed several pages in order to finish it more quickly.

There really isn't anything to like about this book; the ending is theoretically positive, although rather depressing, but some of what happens made extremely unpleasant reading. It's not exactly a gothic novel, but there are elements of that genre.

I don't think I'll be reading this again, and really wouldn't recommend it - but if you're now intrigued, make sure to get the free ebook edition.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Monday, 7 April 2014

Velvet Elvis (by Rob Bell)

Rob Bell is quite a controversial writer in evangelical Christian circles, mainly due to his recent book 'Love Wins'. He used to be the pastor of an American mega-church (which he founded) and is also the narrator on a series of videos known as 'Nooma'. I'm naturally suspicious of mega-churches in general, I wasn't particularly impressed with Nooma episodes that we saw in a house group, and I didn't much like the first book of Bell's that I read.

So I wasn't at all sure what to expect from 'Velvet Elvis', a book I had been thinking of buying for some time. I found it second-hand not long ago, and picked it up to read a couple of weeks ago - and found it remarkably appealing, right from the start.

The concept of God being concerned with all goodness and truth (not just that emanating from Christians) is one that I've been hearing and reading in many places recently. It's expanded upon in this book. I've always been keen on the idea of thinking about or 'testing' everything, going back to Scripture and (most importantly) to my relationship with God. I believe faith is a growing, moving concept that will inevitably embrace new ideas and - at times - throw away some outdated ones.

There's an excellent chapter in this book explaining some of the basics of Jewish thought, such as the meaning of a 'yoke' - nothing to do with oxen - or the method whereby rabbis took disciples, and what was meant by 'binding and loosing' in the first century. Jesus was, after all, thoroughly Jewish, as were his followers and biographers; yet it's rare to hear a sermon letting us know that even the best-read Orthodox Jewish rabbis believed that the Scriptures needed constant re-evaluation and interpretation.

The rest of the book encourages us to look for God where we are, to understand that the church is a community intended to bless those outside it, not a holy huddle to meet on Sundays. It describes eternal life in terms of where we are now, as a continuum, and how Jesus talked about a new earth rather than an abstract heaven.

I don't think I agreed with every word of the book, but that's not a problem: as the author said, we should test everything, including the words he writes. We're all on different paths, with our unique temperaments and gifts, and the Holy Spirit gives us different insights. If something does not apply to me, or if I think his interpretation is wrong, that's fine. There's room for variety. While love and harmony are important, there's nothing in the Bible to say that we should all agree on every fine point of doctrine or Scriptural interpretation.

Helpful, inspiring and thought-provoking. Definitely recommended.

Still in print on both sides of the Atlantic; available for the Kindle as well as in paperback.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews