Thursday, 26 June 2014

The Twelve Days of Christmas (by Trisha Ashley)

I've had somewhat mixed reactions to books by Trisha Ashley, but usually find myself enjoying them by the time I’m about half way through. This one was quite highly recommended online, so it went on my wishlist and I was pleased to be given it for my birthday a year ago. It seemed like ideal reading for a flight, despite the theme being - clearly - a cold winter rather than a warm summer.

‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ is about Holly, who - as we quickly discover - has just lost her grandmother during the festive season. Worse, it’s only a few years since she lost her husband in a horrible accident during the winter. Holly works as a chef during the summer but prefers to house-sit in the winter, preferably on her own, away from all memories of Christmas. So when she’s asked, at the last moment, to take on an extra assignment she jumps at the chance of escaping from her well-meaning and loving family.

However she doesn't bargain for the friendliness of the people she meets, nor the way she feels oddly drawn to take on responsibilities that are nothing to do with her contract. A young and lonely teenager, and a frail elderly couple capture her heart and she finds herself preparing for Christmas - something she was determined never to do again. Then, when it seems as if she might be able to escape after all, the weather takes a turn for the worse and she’s holed up with a motley crowd of people…

It’s cliched, undoubtedly, and the eventual outcome is fairly obvious from the beginning, but I enjoyed the light irony of Holly’s principles being turned upside down, exposing her caring and generous nature which has been hidden amidst her grief over the years.

As with everything else I've read by Trisha Ashley there are places where the tenses are annoyingly inconsistent, but it’s a minor problem. I enjoyed this story very much and while some of the minor characters are very much caricatures, I found Holly getting right under my skin and could sympathise with her strongly. Perhaps there were rather too many people involved - I didn't always remember who was whom, but it didn't matter much. The most important people were very nicely done.

Pleasant, undemending women's fiction - ideal for holiday reading (albeit rather more suited to winter than summer!)

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Feeding the Ducks and Other Stories (by Della Galton)

Having read and enjoyed a couple of non-fiction books by Della Galton, and a handful of short stories published in women’s magazines, I was delighted to find a short story collection of hers available for free download on my Kindle nearly two years ago. I finally started reading them just recently. Short stories were exactly what I wanted to read in a busy period.

And, indeed, I enjoyed them very much. Each story features likable people in believable situations which generally turn out to be not quite as they first appear. They are officially classed as ‘twist in the tail’ stories, but whereas that genre can be quite spooky or unpleasant, these are all delightfully gentle stories where most of the endings made me smile.

My only problem with this book is that it’s so short. There are five short stories in all, including the title one (‘Feeding the Ducks’). I hadn’t noticed that when I started reading, although it turns out that there’s a useful index at the beginning. Thus it was a disappointment when I was only a little over 52% through to realise that I had come to the end: the rest of the book contained an introduction to Della Galton’s other work, with a short bio and advertising. I don’t mind this kind of thing at the end of a book in principle, but to take up almost half of it was annoying - and far too much to read on the Kindle.

Since I didn't pay anything for this book, I can hardly complain about its length from my personal point of view. But as it’s now 1.53 from Amazon, this seems a bit overpriced to me for just five short stories, and I can’t give it more than a guarded recommendation, despite the high quality of each of the stories individually. They are not, as far as I can tell, available in print form.

Still, they made excellent reading, and I may well re-read them at some point.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Where the Heart is (by Sue Moorcroft)

I’ve enjoyed Sue Moorcroft’s novels since I read ‘Uphill All the Way’ some years ago, so whenever I see something she’s written available on the Kindle, free or inexpensively, I tend to download it. ‘Where the heart is’ was a recent acquisition, a novella rather than a novel, and one which I read during a fairly busy period.

The story opens in 1968. It’s about Sylvana, a Maltese girl who has fallen in love with Rob, an English military man. Her family are typically Mediterranean and family-orientated, so they expect her to marry a nice Maltese boy and settle down in their neighbourhood. So although they like Rob, they’re not very happy when he and Sylvana decide that they want to be married.

Most of the rest of the book follows their relationship as Sylvana has to deal with the demands (sometimes rather unreasonable) of the army, and also to cope with the bitterly cold weather she finds when she moves to England for a while. Her bewilderment and culture shock are very believable, as is the contrast between Sylvana’s close Mediterranean family and Rob's more restrained British relatives.

Despite being quite a short book, the characterisation is excellent - as I’ve come to expect with Sue Moorcroft - and the settings so realistic I could almost see them.

This book is only currently available for the Kindle (or Kindle apps on computers) but I would recommend it, nonetheless, as a good light read for those who enjoy women's fiction.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Monday, 16 June 2014

Conflict (by Joyce Huggett)

Joyce Huggett is a Christian writer who used to live in Cyprus. I've enjoyed a couple of her books; she has a relaxed writing style and makes a lot of sense. I am not entirely sure how this one arrived on our shelves; possibly it was given to us by someone who was moving.

I know I read 'Conflict' many years ago, and found it both wise and helpful, but it was before I started reviewing books and I didn't remember anything about it. So I picked it up again recently, even though I'm not currently in a situation of conflict; perhaps that's the best time to read it!

Essentially this book is helpful for anyone wanting to understand what conflict is, from a Christian perspective. There are some thorough explorations of what causes conflict, including a whole chapter on anger in its various forms. There are also some helpful suggestions for resolution and moving forward.

The book begins with an overview of situations in the Bible where there was conflict, emphasising that it's not always wrong: that conflict WILL happen when people have opposing viewpoints or experiences, or perhaps when they're tired or hungry. What matters is how we react, and what we do with it. It can be used in a positive way, or it can be used destructively.

I slightly skimmed the first part of the book as none of it was new to me, but found the majority both interesting and readable. There are plenty of anecdotes and personal experiences scattered throughout the more direct teaching, and I found myself relating to a lot of them.

Some might, perhaps, find her suggestions - in the latter part of the book - too prescriptive. When tempers are raised most people aren't going to sit down with paper and pencil and work through their deepest emotions together, or even think logically about the root causes of the conflict. But there are, nonetheless, some useful ideas which are relevant to those without faith as much as those who are believers.

Recommended. No longer in print, but there seem to be updated versions of this which are sometimes available.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Thursday, 12 June 2014

The Bell Family (by Noel Streatfeild)

I've loved the books by Noel Streatfeild since I was a child; I have quite a collection, but from time to time I check to see if any of her lesser-known books are available. I was delighted to discover this one inexpensively at The Book Depository a couple of months ago.

This particular edition of 'The Bell Family', published by Vintage in 2014, is an attractive one which includes a brief biography and glossary in the back, clearly intended for modern children who don't know much about the 1950s when the book was originally written.

This particular novel is a little unusual in that it started out as a series of radio plays. It features the Bell family, who bear several striking resemblances to the author's own family, as portrayed in her autobiography 'The Vicarage Family'. The father is an impoverished but likeable Vicar, while his wife struggles to make ends meet and keep her children in clothes.

As ever, with this author's books, there are some highly talented children: Paul, the eldest, is highly academic and wants to be a doctor. Then there's Jane who loves ballet, although she doesn't think she has any chance of getting 'proper' ballet training. Angus, the youngest, sings well enough to have a place at a choir school but really doesn't want to sing. And then there's Ginnie, the third child, who is probably the one closest to Noel Streatfeild in character - kind-hearted but impulsive, bright but rebellious.

Mrs Gage, the cleaner and general confidante of the family is a delightful creation, and Esau the dog plays quite a role too. As well as Miss Briggs, who cycles through the parish and attempts to bestow good advice on everyone...

The book is a series of incidents through the year. It's character-based rather than having any major plot although there are several ongoing threads. It shows the family contrasted with their rich and materialistic relatives; it covers day-to-day problems and stresses; it touches lightly on the parents' ideas about discipline, which were probably quite radical in the 1950s, and it also shows the children making some important decisions.

It's far from the best of Noel Streatfeild's work; however I found it very readable, hard to put down at times. I'm pleased to have this in my collection at last and would recommend it to anyone - adult or child - who enjoys this authors writing, but not as an introduction to Noel Streatfeild.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Monday, 9 June 2014

Me and My Sisters (by Sinead Moriarty)

Sometimes when I'm browsing Amazon I get the same book recommended over and over again, based on what I look at. This was one of those books. I'd never heard of Sinead Moriarty, who is an Irish writer; perhaps she was recommended to me based on my high ratings of Maeve Binchy's books. I checked reviews and they seemed positive, on the whole, so I put this on my wishlist and was given it for Christmas a year and a half ago. It's sat on my lengthy to-read shelf for a while but finally I picked it up to read a few days ago.

'Me and my sisters' is an ungrammatical title that would irritate pedants, but I was determined to overlook it. It's really quite a readable book, about a caring Irish family. It particularly features three very different sisters, all around forty years old. They're rather caricatured: Louise is an ultra-successful highly intelligent lawyer who likes to be in control of everything. Julie is a harassed, overweight mother of triplets plus a toddler. Sophie, the youngest, is an ex-model who married a good-natured millionaire and spends her time shopping and getting beauty treatments, while farming her perfect four-year-old daughter out to child-minders.

Oh, and there's a token tree-hugging brother in his early twenties, who wants to save the world.

The early chapters establish the characters of the sisters and their families, each one written in the first person by one or other of the three sisters. This works pretty well, seeing life from each perspective separately, understanding a little of how their minds work from the inside. They're different enough that it was quite easy to tell who was whom. Well, other than the triplet boys, four years old, whose names all begin with L and who are some of the worst behaved children I have ever heard of.

Towards the middle of the book, unexpected crises hit all three of the sisters in different ways and they discover just how important their relationships with each other are. Again this is rather stereotyped; for instance, Louise (who likes to be in control) finds herself in a situation where she can no longer control her life.

All of which would be fine. It was, for the most part, well-written with the story developing naturally and the various subplots intertwining nicely. I found myself rooting for Julie, harrassed mother of four under five, and there are some quite likeable minor characters. In addition, the triplets are so dreadful that they provide a bit of comic relief here and there.

Unfortunately a lot of the conversations were unrealistic, peppered with 'she sighed' and 'he noted' and 'she grinned' and other annoying words that jarred. I was also mystified why, every few pages, people 'roared laughing'. I assume that this is an Irish phrase meaning 'roared with laughter', which wouldn't have been a problem had the situations warranted it. But the phrase cropped up almost every chapter when a slight smile at some irony would have been more appropriate.

This is, perhaps, as picky as finding fault with the title. Far more of a problem is that I found Sophie, the youngest sister, totally unbelievable when her crisis hit. Up to that point she had been shallow but likeable; suddenly she started behaving like a spoilt self-centred and very spiteful brat. This character change did not work - and nor did her eventual (and inevitable) acceptance of the situation.

I also found the level of bad language unpleasantly high. Julie has a neighbour, also with four children, whose life seems to be even more stressful and chaotic - but her use of f-words every other sentence was unnecessarily crude. There's a lot of open talk about 'adult' topics too, in a way that bears no relationship to any conversation I've ever heard; thankfully, however, there were no intimate scenes to skim over.

So my reaction is mixed: a good story with lots of potential, which was rather spoiled by some of the language and the conversation style. Still, it raises some interesting issues about single parenthood and the importance of having aims in life, and had an encouraging (if expected) ending. Despite everything I thought it a very readable book which I finished in just a few days.

Available in Kindle form as well as paperback.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Saturday, 7 June 2014

The Importance of Being Earnest (by Oscar Wilde)

Oscar Wilde was a well-known classic playwright from the 19th century, famous for one novel, several plays, and a somewhat sleazy lifestyle.

'The Importance of Being Earnest' is perhaps his best-known play, one which I've seen on screen but don't think I had previously read - although I may have done so in my teenage years. I spotted it available free for the Kindle, and decided to download it. I'm not usually very keen on books in dramatic format, full of stage directions, but was surprised at how easy it was to read.

The story features upper-class society snobs, and is a satirical jab at the silliness of society at the end of the 19th century. In particular it's about two men who invent quite serious fictitious lives, in order to escape from their families for a while. This is complicated by two girls who fall in love with them (or claim to do so), but insist that they can only ever love men called Ernest...

I found myself smiling a few times at the satire, though irritated at other places by the trivialities of upper-class society. However, that's the point of it, really. As with most plays it's better to see it than to read it, so it's one of the few books where the film version is an improvement.

Still, it's not a long play, and I read it in just a couple of days finding it surprisingly interesting. I'd say it's well worth reading, at least once.

The link above is to a paperback edition of this play, but there are inexpensive and free e-book editions available too.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Thursday, 5 June 2014

The Sea Garden (by Marcia Willett)

It's many years since I first started reading novels by Marcia Willett. And while I found some of her earlier ones a little fluffy, I enjoyed her characters and also the way she tells a good story. There were sufficient excellent novels amongst them that I have continued adding each new one to my wishlist as it's published, and was delighted to receive this one as a gift last Christmas.

'The Sea Garden' is primarily the story of Jess, who has just finished university, and has won a prestigious art prize which gives her the opportunity of a year off. In meeting Kate - the widow of the prize originator - she discovers a new friend; circumstances conspire and before long she herself staying in a village in Devon for a while, where she meets a large number of connected people, and feels herself oddly at home.

One of the people she meets is the elderly Rowena, who is surprisingly excited at the thought of meeting Jess. She who turns out to look remarkably like her grandmother Juliet did when she was young. It seems that there may be another connection, too. Meanwhile there are marriage problems for Kate's son Guy and his wife Gemma, who is the daughter of Kate' best friend Cass...

While I always enjoy books by Marcia Willett, I sometimes find her huge cast of characters to be rather confusing. Most of the ones in this book are old friends from previous novels; I certainly recognised Kate and Cass, Guy and Gemma, and various others who recur with a new set of problems. I was particularly taken with the wealthy but wise and caring Oliver, Gemma's brother. But it's been a long time since I last read some of the earlier novels, and there's no way I can keep them all in my head. I don't think there's any way it would make sense to someone who was new to this author.

Moreover, this book starts in a rather frustrating way. Other than Jess's story, a lot of it seems to be a re-hash of parts of several other books, as different people think about incidents - happy or sad - in their pasts. Some of this served as a useful reminder of who was whom, other parts seemed irrelevant. I never did entirely grasp the significance of the 'sea garden', but then I'm not very good at reading descriptions.

As ever, Marcia Willetts tells a good story, albeit somewhat slow to get going. Still, it wasn't long before I found myself caught up in Jess's narrative, and also rooting for Guy and Gemma. I skimmed parts about boats or the navy - these books are set in a world far removed from my own - and tried to ignore the assumptions about boarding schools which always annoy me slightly. Children always seem to be tucked out of the way, only appearing for 'exeats', always cheerful and likeable; decidedly two-dimensional.

I had planned to read this at bedtimes over a couple of weeks, but found myself reading for considerably longer than I had intended, and then finished it in just a few days. Towards the end it became much more interesting, and quite difficult to put down; I found the ending nicely satisfying.

Not recommended as an introduction to Marcia Willett, but a pleasant story for anyone who has read some of her earlier novels and recognises (at least) the names of Cass and Kate. Entirely suitable for anybody with no bad language, no violence, and only hints of intimacy and affairs.

Available in paperback or for the Kindle on both sides of the Atlantic.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews