Saturday, 21 March 2015

Astonished (by Mike Erre)

I hadn’t heard of Mike Erre when I saw this book available as a special offer on Amazon, free for my Kindle, shortly after its release. Apparently he’s a conservative evangelical pastor in the US, but is open to thinking and questioning in a way that’s sometimes frowned upon in these circles.

I started reading this book about six weeks ago ago, and have read a few pages most mornings since then. It’s not particularly long, but there’s a lot to think about. I was pleased to find that it’s very well-written, one of the (sadly few) gems amongst free Kindle offers. It also raises some interesting ideas, expressed in ways I had not necessarily come across before.

The book is divided into three sections: the nature of God, the nature of faith, and the faith-filled life. I’m not sure I really distinguished between them all, but they work as a structure for the book, gradually developing the author’s theme. That theme is explained at length in the introduction, entitled ‘The God who gets bigger’. Not that the author suggests that God actually gets bigger, but that we see more of Him, feel as if He is bigger, the more we get to know about Him and, more significantly, the more we get to know Him.

Mike Erre is not afraid of difficult questions: why do people talk about God ‘hiding’ from us? Can we really figure out what faith means, or does it remain a mystery? What do we mean by trust and faith? Have we really missed the point of Jesus’ teaching, and made our preferred form of Christianity into our God?

It's written in an accessible style, assuming a basic Christian belief but not deep theological understanding. Scripture verses are referred to regularly (and sometimes quoted), and there are also some anecdotes and personal experiences interspersed, that make the rest seem more meaningful, giving more of a connection to the writer. I was particularly moved by the brief mentions of his son, born with Down Syndrome, and evidently one of the lights of his life.

It’s one of those books that made me stop and think, which gave me some encouragement that the post-modern openness and questioning was acceptable; that there’s so much more to faith and God than many would have us believe.

The subtitle of ‘Astonished’ is: ‘Recapturing the wonder, awe and mystery of life with God’. While that’s a tall order, I would say that this book could certainly help people on their way to doing exactly that, so long as they’re prepared to be open to the possibility that they might be wrong in some of their understanding about the nature of God and what it means to follow Jesus.

It’s not a book for those without Christian faith; it might also be hard-going for those new to belief, or who have not been in more structured Christian circles. A lot of the underlying criticism (and it’s mostly gentle) is against the materialist and rigidly modernist views held in many American mega-churches. I’m from a culture which has more grey areas, where views like Mike Erre’s are discussed, and accepted, and where we know that God loves us and can be found at all times, in all places, even if we sometimes conveniently forget it.

Definitely recommended to anyone open to thinking about questions of this kind. It’s no longer free for the Kindle; indeed, it's quite highly priced for an e-book now, so the links given are to paperback editions.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Tremendous Trifles (by GK Chesterton)

I’ve liked GK Chesterton’s writing for many years now, ever since I first discovered his ‘Father Brown’ detective stories when I was a teenager. He wrote with an ironic humour that was unusual at the end of the 19th century and early 20th. He also had a keen eye for observation, which often makes me see things in a new philosophical light.

Since his work is now out of copyright, I’ve been able to download several volumes onto my Kindle at no cost, either from Amazon or from Project Gutenberg. I am gradually reading my way through them. I began ‘Tremendous Trifles’ about six months ago, and quickly realised that it was a work to dip into at random rather than something to read straight through.

This volume consists of a collection of some of Chesterton’s journalistic essays, which were originally published as part of an ongoing newspaper column. As such, each chapter is complete in itself. Most are somewhat thought-provoking, some are whimsical, a few are decidedly bizarre.

The titles and contents of the essays are quite a mixture, with a theme of ordinariness tying them together. Chesterton claims, in the introduction, that he is trying to encourage his readers to look at everyday objects - such as ceilings, or pens, or fences - and ponder their significance for a while rather than taking them for granted. This is what he attempts to do in the essays which result. Some of them, I assume, are true anecdotes, while others are entirely imaginative.

I didn’t know quite what to make of this, at first. If I picked it up when I was tired, or if I happened to be reading an essay that required specific knowledge of places or politicians who were unknown to me, then I read the words and took in very little of what was there. However, others of the stories appealed strongly. From time to time I came across a sentence or two that struck quite a chord; not that I can recall any of them now.

I’m glad I read this book, but I can’t see myself picking it up again; nor would I really recommend it to anyone other than fans of Chesterton’s writing who are interested in seeing something rather different from his better-known works. As social history - this is the nearest the author got to journalling, he says - they certainly have some value, and there are nicely ironic touches that I appreciated when reading. But inevitably it’s very dated, and unlikely to appeal to those of a less reflective, faster-paced generation.

Note that the given links are to paperback editions of this book, which seems to have remained constantly in print over the decades. There are several different electronic versions too, some of them free and others not.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Friday, 20 February 2015

Hidden Treasures (by Fern Britton)

I had never heard of Fern Britton. Apparently I may be in the minority here, as it turns out that she used to be quite a well-known TV presenter. I downloaded this book as it was on special offer a few months ago, free for the Kindle; the blurb and cover looked intriguing. I read it in odd moments on a flight, and then while staying with relatives.

‘Hidden Treasures’ starts with an intriguing prologue featuring an elderly woman who is about to move into care. It seemed like there was potential for a great story here - and, indeed, the opening chapter is also good. The main part of the book is about a middle-aged woman called Helen who has just moved to a small village after leaving her philandering husband.

Helen meets the local Vicar, Simon, under slightly embarrassing circumstances; he’s clearly rather inexperienced with women, and a little clumsy. She also meets Tony, a young man who isn’t very bright but is good at gardening and other odd jobs, and is always willing to be helpful.

She also meets Piran, a local man who is good looking and also unbearably rude. Evidently, given the normal rules of this kind of fiction, they were probably going to end up together… but I hoped I was wrong. Simon is a much nicer person.

Then Helen’s best friend Penny comes for a visit. Penny is a TV producer hoping to make a film; and the village where Helen now lives turns out to be exactly right. Penny is outgoing and just a little pushy, and soon gets the permissions needed as well as many willing participants.

Oh, and there’s a mystery box which Tony discovers in Helen’s back garden….

All of which sounds like an excellent mixture of people with plenty of potential for a good story, particularly given the author’s experience in the media world.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work.

After the first chapter, which I enjoyed, the writing starts to meander, and the middle of the book is filled with dull day-to-day descriptions of Helen’s life, most of which are irrelevant to the plot. There’s a dull chapter about a talent night that could have been left out entirely, and then - worst of all - there’s a lengthy section about the TV production in the village, going into unnecessary and tedious detail about who said what, and how the days went. After a few pages I skimmed this and did not seem to miss anything.

By the time I was half-way through the book I was ready to give up - except that I wanted to know who Helen was going to end up with, and - if it was as I expected - what would happen to the nice Vicar. I didn’t like the outcome or the ending, but I did, at least, keep reading.

My overall feeling was that it was a pity that this was not thoroughly edited. I assumed at first that it was self-published, but apparently the paperback was taken by Harper and became a best-seller - presumably due to the author being a television personality. It could have been a great story; there are some interesting and memorable characters, and the hint in the prologue could have been so much more significant than in fact it was.

But, sadly, the writing deteriorates after the first chapter and I'm mystified as to why it was not edited. Clich├ęs abound, viewpoints switch almost at random making it hard to get inside anybody’s head, and so much of the book is irrelevant and unnecessary. Cut to about half its length and with some significant re-writing of the remainder, it could have been so much better.

Not recommended. However, as many will want to judge for themselves, the Amazon links are to paperback editions of this. The Kindle version is no longer free, and is (in my view) very over-priced for an ebook.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Saturday, 14 February 2015

A Place of Peace (by Sally Quilford)

Sally Quilford is a prolific writer of both short stories and novellas. Many of the latter are first published as supplements to women’s magazines, but sooner or later she releases them, inexpensively, for the Kindle. From time to time her books are offered on Amazon as free downloads; I took advantage of this last year to acquire a few more.

Novellas - rather shorter than standard novels - make ideal reading for a flight. So having finished one short ebook on a recent trip to the UK, I flicked through my Kindle unread books, and opted for ‘A Place of Peace’ which is described as a ‘romantic summer mystery'.

The story is about Nell Palmer, a young British woman who is taking part in a house-swap scheme over the summer. We meet her as she is being shown over a large and attractive house on an island off the coast of New England. Colm, brother of the house’s owner, is doing the showing. It’s pretty clear from the start that there’s going to be some kind of romantic attachment between the two.

I found the first pages of this book a little slow-moving, but other characters are quickly introduced: in particular a jealous neighbour, Julia, who appears to consider Colm her property despite the fact that she is married to someone else. Julia’s husband Mike is not in great health and she comes across as impatient and unfeeling, as well as a potential threat to Nell.

We also learn that there’s something of a mystery to Nell’s past: she hasn’t just come to New England for a holiday. Instead, she is apparently running away from a highly stressful situation back home, where it seems that she made a bad judgement and stirred up a great deal of unpleasantness....

As ever, Sally Quilford has created three-dimensional and distinctive characters whose personalities shine through what is, in places, a rather melodramatic plot. I had to suspend reality a little here and there, but it didn’t matter - by the time I was half-way through I was hooked. The pace is excellent and kept me reading this so that I finished it without a break, despite the discomfort of airline seats. There are surprises, high drama, and some unexpected twists and turns in the plot as well as the comfortably predictable ending.

I have to admit that I wasn’t expecting quite such a strong crime fiction plot with the romance taking second place; but once I'd realised that this was the genre, it wasn’t a problem. The writing is good, free from the bad language and explicit scenes that spoil so many books these days, and while some of the events are unpleasant, there’s no gore or gratuitous violence.

All in all, I would recommend this as a good, light read. Only available in Kindle form, inexpensively, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Shopaholic on Honeymoon (by Sophie Kinsella)

I’ve enjoyed several books by Sophie Kinsella over the years, slightly to my surprise as I’m not, in general, a fan of light ‘chick-lit’. But her writing style is excellent and she has a wonderfully ironic sense of humour which has occasionally made me laugh out loud. I even enjoy the ‘Shopaholic’ series about Becky Bloomfield who is addicted to shopping and unable to resist a bargain… yet somehow extremely likeable.

‘Shopaholic on Honeymoon’ is not much more than a short story, really, and I would not normally review short stories on this blog. However, as it's part of a series of books - a kind of addendum - I thought it relevant. It's available in Kindle form only, as a free download. It nicely fills in part of the gap between ‘Shopaholic ties the knot’, which is perhaps my favourite of the series, and ‘Shopaholic and Sister’, which opens with letters received by Becky during and after a year’s round-the-world honeymoon.

In this episode, we find Becky and her husband Luke in Venice. They are about a month into their honeymoon and Becky’s having a wonderful time. She has evidently bought - and shipped - a large number of souvenirs, and decides on new interests and hobbies, albeit short-lived. She’s a wonderful caricature of an ultra spontaneous person who revels in the moment and rarely thinks about the future. Undoubtedly she would be annoying in real life, but for a bit of escapism I love reading about her life, which is so different from mine!

Luke is more shadowy in this story; he’s starting to get a bit antsy about his business, and wants to get back to work. Inevitably there’s some conflict and a bit of compromise, and I was surprised at how moving it was.

I know this was written after the other books and only intended to be a short filler story, but I was disappointed when it ended. I’d have liked a bit more.

I downloaded it to my Kindle and it made ideal reading on a flight. It wasn’t at all demanding and was brief enough to read in one sitting without needing to stretch my legs. It’s some time since I read the other books in the series but that didn’t matter at all. The two main characters were memorable enough.

Recommended if you like the Shopaholic series, although it would probably work as a standalone story too. However, I suspect it’s only really of interest to anyone who’s read at least one or two of the others in the series. Only available in electronic form, as far as I know.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Friday, 13 February 2015

Paddington Goes to Town (by Michael Bond)

I loved the Paddington books, as a child. My imagination was captured by Michael Bond’s stories of the orphaned bear found in a London railways station, who makes his home with the Brown family and their housekeeper Mrs Bird. I collected quite a few of the series, over the years and they’ve been read by a variety of people. I was delighted to learn that a new film about Paddington was released last year; he's now considered a classic cultural icon, at least in the UK.

For some reason, I had not read any of the books about him for many years. But I recently picked up ‘Paddington Goes to Town’ after it was returned by a nine-year-old friend who had borrowed it. It is apparently the eighth book in the series, but it really doesn’t matter which order they’re read in. Each book is complete in itself, and, indeed, each chapter within the book stands alone, although sometimes reference is made to events in earlier chapters.

This book begins with Paddington being an usher at a friend’s wedding, rather to his family’s surprise. Inevitably the small bear has no idea what an usher is, and assumes it’s a person who asks people to be quiet; no sooner has that misunderstanding been ironed over than Paddington finds himself in big trouble when the ring goes missing.

Further chapters see Paddington trying to play golf, visiting someone in hospital and being mistaken for a foreign doctor, helping his best friend Mr Gruber to put a finishing touch on his patio, and going carol singing - with yet another case of mistaken identity. The stories are light but amusing; written for children of perhaps eight to ten years old, they’re not condescending and never use ‘simple’ language. Instead they offer insights into the everyday life of a typical family who just happen to have an unusual bear staying with them.

Paddington’s mistakes and misunderstandings often make me smile, and the resolution of the plots - which, naturally, always turn out well - are reassuring and hopeful. It took me about an hour to finish it, and I found it quite uplifting and enjoyable.

I don’t remember details about the others books well enough to compare them, but it certainly ranks as a good read which would make an ideal bedtime read-aloud for any child from the age of about five and upwards. It appeals to boys and girls, and if the conversation and events seem dated, they provide a good starting point for discussions about life in the 1960s for an upper-middle class English family.

Definitely recommended. I'm delighted to discover that this book - and others in the series - are still in print, both in paperback and very inexpensively for the Kindle.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

The Church in the Market Place (by George Carey)

There are a lot of books in our ‘Christian’ shelves which we apparently picked up at church bookstalls, or perhaps bargain bins at bookshops. This is one of them; marked 20p on the inside, and in good condition, it’s the kind of book that looks interesting but which, as far as I recall, I had not read until just recently. The author is the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey - perhaps the name is what drew me to the book - but it was written back in 1984 when he had just left a post as Vicar of St Nicholas’ Church in Durham.

‘The Church in the Market Place’ is an account of a major project of renewal and growth for this church, St Nic’s as it was affectionately known. At the start of the book, the author explains how he and his wife decided to go there, outlining some of his own spiritual journey.

When he arrived he found a staunchly evangelical Anglican congregation of the traditional kind, which was not attracting young people or new believers. He struggled with the old-fashioned style, the uncomfortable seating, the general inward focus - and the way the ancient building needed ongoing and expensive repairs to keep the roof in shape.

Gradually a vision emerged of a project that would make the church far more appealing to the local community. Set in the middle of the town, there were probably thousands of people who passed it each day - and it was felt that it should be open all week, with a welcome to anyone who wanted to come inside. Naturally such a project was expensive, and the proposal was rejected at first… leading to a year of renewal and rebuilding of the people, who are, after all, the real church.

The book is written in a clear and interesting style, recounting the author’s worries and his own growth in faith. He doesn’t over-spiritualise anything, nor does he preach - instead he lets the story stand for itself as a testimony to God’s leading and the astounding things that can be done if people are willing to pray and to listen.

It's not a long book, but it won’t appeal to everyone; there’s no high drama or any serious conflict, and I imagine that it’s unlikely to be of interest to anyone who is not a Christian believer, other than those who live in the locality or who have visited Durham and are interested in the story of St Nic’s transformation.

But if you like this kind of book, then I’d definitely recommend it. It's not in print but second-hand editions are widely available at a low price.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Tea by the Nursery Fire (by Noel Streatfeild)

I love the way that so many previously out-of-print books by well-known writers are being republished these days. One of my favourite children’s authors is Noel Streatfeild (best known for the classic ‘Ballet Shoes’), and I’m delighted to discover more and more of her books becoming available again. I’ve bought one or two and added others to my wishlist, gradually adding to my collection.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from ‘Tea by the Nursery Fire’, which was previously published under the title ‘Gran-Nannie’. I realised that it was a biographical rather than fictional account, but looked forward to reading it nonetheless. The byline on the front describes it as being about a children’s nanny at the turn of the century - meaning the turn of the 20th century, when Noel Streatfeild was a child.

The book features Emily, born into an impoverished home with a large number of siblings. She knew that her destiny was to work as a maid of some kind in an upper-class home; her mother, when younger had worked at a castle. So at the age of eleven, barely literate, Emily leaves home and begins in service as assistant to the nursery. Her one skill is in sewing; when she mends something for a visitor, she is offered a different post where she gradually progresses to become ‘Nannie’ - the chief of the nursery - in her teens.

The narrative charts Emily’s experiences as she learns to deal with very different children, and the sadness she feels that they spend so little time with their parents. She grieves as the boys are sent to boarding school at the age of seven or eight, and instils what seem now like old-fashioned ideals into her charges, peppered with cliches and odd sayings that she learned from the nanny she first worked for.

It’s written for children, although some of the content - albeit skated over - might need explanation by parents. The character of Emily is nicely done, with the majority of the book from her viewpoint, although there are a few departures from that which feel a bit odd. I was also a little disappointed that the writing doesn’t flow as Noel Streatfeild’s other books do; the sentence structure feels stilted in places, with some of the punctuation lacking entirely.

I also realised that the chronology can’t be correct; according to the book Emily was born in the 1870s, but one of the children she looked after - John, her secret favourite - was supposed to have been Noel Streatfeild’s father. Comparing with her childhood biography ('A Vicarage Child') and other biographical information, it appears that Emily must have been born at least a decade earlier.

The latter sections of the book are a bit depressing, as Emily loses the opportunity of marriage, and then young men around her go off to war and don’t return. The ending is then very abrupt. However, I’m sure it’s realistic and assume that the majority of the narrative is at least based on factual reminiscences so perhaps the chronological gaps are where little or nothing was recalled.

Notwithstanding these issues, the book paints a pleasant picture of life in the late 19th century and is good from the social history point of view. Neither Emily nor her mother saw anything wrong with the class system; going into service wasn’t easy at first, but life was a great deal better for working class teenagers in a home where there was warmth and plenty of good food. With society so very different in the 21st century, it’s good to have books of this kind.

Recommended in a low key way. Available in Kindle form as well as paperback.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews