23/02/2017

Following Jesus Without Embarrassing God (by Tony Campolo)

Browsing around our shelves for Christian books I hadn’t read, I came across this one by Tony Campolo, an American pastor, sociologist, speaker and writer whose work I have found helpful and thought-provoking in the past. I have no idea where this book came from: perhaps it belongs to one of our sons.

I was particularly struck by the title: ‘Following Jesus without embarrassing God’. And indeed, as one inclined to cynicism from time to time, and fairly easily embarrassed, I thought the book encouraging and helpful.

It's divided into five sections: everyday life, spiritual growth, what you believe, social action and family life. Within each section are between three and five chapters, each focussing on different ways in which followers of Jesus can emulate his lifestyle and follow his principles without going overboard or putting people off.

So, for instance, the author talks about wise use of resources and technology, while avoiding extreme positions of (for instance) giving everything away and relying on welfare, or avoiding all use of mobile phones and computers. The book was written twenty years ago so is inevitably a bit dated, but the principles still hold good.

Other sections look at prayer without being pushy or over-wordy, finding guidance without expecting writing in the clouds, understanding basic theology without being an intellectual snob, and - in the family section - raising healthy children without guilt trips or getting too far into popular psychology.

I liked the structure of the book, each chapter being complete in itself, with some clear explanations of the author’s point of view interspersed with relevant anecdotes from his own experience, both in family life and as a pastor.

There are a good selection of relevant quotations from the Bible too, and therein lies my only slight problem with the book: every quotation is from the King James version. Perhaps that was the only version easily available in copyright-free form back in 1997 when the book was written, but despite my familiarity with the passages concerned, I find the KJV language awkward and stilted, meaning it was all too easy to skim over these verses.

That apart, I thought it a sound and positive read, nicely balancing the author’s passion for social justice and living the Christian life with his strong evangelical (in the best sense) beliefs. Tony Campolo was a voice of common sense at the end of the 20th century, and I would recommend this book, in a low-key way, to anyone interested in knowing more about being an ordinary person living as a follower of Jesus.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

20/02/2017

The Jesus Training Manual (by Richard Mull)


From time to time I browse the free Kindle books available on Amazon, and download anything that I think might be interesting. I had never heard of the author, Richard Mull, when I saw this one available back in the summer of 2013, but at the time I was collecting anything I could; if it was free, I didn’t mind too much whether it was good or not.

The title, ‘The Jesus Training Manual’ was a bit off-putting and I didn’t start reading it for over three years. However, I thought I’d begin it a few months ago when I was travelling, and have read from time to time since then, finally finishing it at the weekend. The book combines the author’s own journey in faith and some Biblical teaching.

The first part of the book is mainly biographical, giving the background to the author’s early adult life. He worked as a pastor in a large church in Florida, and was convinced that he was called to go overseas. However, various things happened, shaking his faith and showing him that God was active and listening, resulting in him staying in the same place for a while.

I found this part of the book interesting, and quite encouraging. I had to mentally put aside the American polarised viewpoints that were hinted at from time to time, and the strong divergence, even in the 1990s, between ‘evangelicals’ and ‘charismatics’ that the author experienced. I was a little surprised to realise that the turning point in his life was as recent as 1997, but evidently his life had been somewhat sheltered, and his church background rather tunnel-visioned.

By the end of the first chapter the narrative was becoming a bit repetitive, continually expressing the author’s surprise and expecting readers to be equally shocked at the idea of God speaking in the 21st century. I skimmed somewhat, and also didn’t do more than glance at the ‘study questions’ at the end of the chapter.

The rest of the book gradually tails down on the biographical information, and increases the Biblical teaching, not just about God speaking but about healing, casting out demons, and other ‘charismatic’ gifts which the author’s background had insisted were not relevant or even possible in modern times. Since my background is rather different, and I had both read and heard this kind of teaching many times, both in the US Vineyard church we attended in the early 1990s, and elsewhere, I don’t think I learned anything new. Had it just been direct teaching I would probably not even have finished it.

However, it’s always interesting to see a bit of someone else’s life, so I read the biographical parts and skimmed some of the rest, which became increasingly repetitive towards the end. Perhaps it was important to keep pushing the same points to others from the same background as the author: he writes persuasively, and uses Scripture in context and authoritatively. What I didn’t like was the regular expectations that readers would be surprised or startled by what was being written.

On the whole it seemed to me like a sound book, and anyone who believes that the ‘charismatic’ gifts died out when the Bible was canonised could well learn a lot from this book. It’s had some good reviews, and has evidently been useful to many. However the Kindle version is no longer available;  I don’t know that I would recommend it over any of the other books on similar topics.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

19/02/2017

Writing with Cold Feet (by Kathrin Lake)

I don’t remember where I saw this book recommended. I hadn’t heard of Kathrin Lake, who is an American writer, and am pretty sure I would never have come across it, but for a recommendation online. I added it to my wishlist a couple of years ago, and was given it for Christmas 2015, but have only got around to reading it in the past couple of weeks.

‘Writing with cold feet’ is short, but excellent. The subtitle, ‘Secrets of how to write when you are not writing’ is one that appeals to me strongly, as I often find myself ‘not writing’ when I had planned to write. Rather than just addressing procrastinating tendencies, Kathrin Lake understands that many people feel a sense of resistance, or reluctance to get started, even when circumstances are ideal and time is allocated to writing.

Chapter One examines the fears that sometimes lie behind resistance to writing: of judgement, of negative feedback, and so on. I can relate to these, although on the whole I have moved on from there. But they are very important concerns to address for those who want to write but are afraid even to start.

Chapter Two, however, looks at the idea of ‘resistance’ and the anxieties and fears that can lie behind it. I am relieved to learn that this is a common problem for writers; perhaps for others, too. This chapter is the key to the book, and gives ideas for overcoming resistance. The most obvious, that of sitting down and writing for three minutes even if it’s rubbish, is one I have come across before - but then forget. It’s worth doing regularly.

There are only five chapters in all, and the last three look at what the author terms ‘secrets’ - but not of style, or grammar, or plotting, or any of the things that so many other writing books focus on. Instead she explores what writing is NOT, despite what some may think, and encourages the readers to let go of some mistaken ideas about what writing ‘should’ be.

In one sense there’s nothing new in this book. I had come across most of the concepts before. However, it was very encouraging to have them all in one short book, written in a friendly style, addressing concerns which can strike any writer at any time. It’s the kind of book to re-read regularly, and at less than 100 pages it doesn’t take much time to do so.

The price is a bit high for such a short book, but if it works (and that remains to be seen, in my case) it’s more than worth it. Highly recommended to anyone feeling ‘stuck’ or ‘blocked’ in their writing.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

18/02/2017

Summer with my Sister (by Lucy Diamond)


Having read a few of Lucy Diamond’s novels, I like her style and last year decided to put a few more on my wishlist. I spotted that one of them was available very inexpensively in the Amazon Marketplace shortly before I was due to visit the UK, so I ordered it at the end of last Summer. It sat on my to-read shelf for a few months and I’ve read it in the past week.

‘Summer with my Sister’ is about two sisters called Polly and Clare, whose lives have gone in opposite directions since they left home. Polly is a high-flying business manager in London, with a luxury flat and high expenses. Clare lives in a small village in the countryside, where she is single mother to two children, and works as receptionist in a GP’s surgery.

We meet Polly first, racing through her days, with sharp orders and comments to those she sees as inferior. She doesn’t seem to care for anyone, including her relatives, and while she sometimes senses that she’s missing out on something, she’s so taken up with climbing the corporate ladder, looking good and making money, that she has no time or energy for anything else. Then disaster strikes…

Clare, meanwhile, has an equally busy life, fending off an ex-husband, dealing with the day-to-day stresses of strong-willed children, and struggling financially. The sisters only meet at Christmas and have nothing in common, other than a tragedy in their past, which is hinted at in the early chapters.

Unsurprisingly, given the title, the two find themselves in close quarters for a few months in the summer. Clare is a generous and warm-hearted person, more than willing to accommodate her prickly sister, but Polly pushes the boundaries too far. She is selfish, unobservant, and arrogant, and I really didn’t like her. But gradually - inevitably, for this kind of novel - her unpleasantness is worn down.

It’s a character-based story, so the plot isn’t all that important; the story takes place over one summer, although there are flashbacks to twenty years earlier, and the pace is just right for bedtime reading. I often read rather more than I had intended, as I liked Clare and was interested in the story, but it wasn’t hard to put down when I needed to sleep. I liked the way that, as well as Polly turning into a human being, Clare faces difficult challenges and has to make some important decisions.

It’s a story about the importance of communication, about family ties, about priorities and healing, and general family life. I wish there hadn’t been so much bad language; even Clare uses ‘strong’ words at times, which didn’t fit well with her otherwise gentle and caring nature. But, other than that, I enjoyed it very much. It’s not particularly profound, but the characters got under my skin.

It’s the kind of novel that would make great summer reading, for anyone who wants some light women’s fiction.

Recommended. It's not currently in print, but can be found fairly easily second-hand, online or in charity shops.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

16/02/2017

The Procrastination Equation (by Dr Piers Steel)

In browsing online, reading about procrastination at the end of last year, I came across recommendations for this book. I then looked on Amazon for reviews and further recommendations; I had never heard of Dr Piers Steel, and there were many different books on the topic. But eventually I decided to get hold of this one, and was delighted to find it inexpensively available on the AwesomeBooks site.

I started reading ‘The Procrastination Equation’ a few weeks ago, and found it extremely interesting. The author has done a great deal of research on the field, and acknowledges that he is as prone to putting things off as anyone is. The subtitle to the book is ‘How to stop putting things off and start getting things done’; I was somewhat cynical about this lofty claim, but also intrigued.

In the first chapter the author defines procrastination as voluntarily putting things off even though we know that it would be better to do them now. I thought this a helpful definition, and I also appreciated the point that sometimes we deliberately put things off for good reasons. This may be, for instance, because we know that something will change, or perhaps because we know that we’re unable to do a good job at the moment. However this is not procrastination and should not be confused with it.

In the second chapter there’s a useful questionnaire, reduced from a lengthy one on the author’s website, which calculates the tendency of each person to procrastinate for one of three main reasons: lack of value in what we know we should do, low expectations about it, or a tendency to act in the moment and put off things that we can probably do in future. I scored fairly highly in all, but was surprised to learn that my highest form of procrastination is the time-sensitive one. I have never thought of myself as impulsive, but the word is used in a somewhat different way in this book, and it made a lot of sense.

The rest of the book looks more deeply into what makes people procrastinate, using a somewhat contrived ‘equation’ relating to value, expectancy and time. It also looks briefly at the physical makeup of our brains, related to this issue, and why people (particularly children) are prone to putting off important things even when they know they may regret it. Most importantly, it gives suggestions and methods for helping people to overcome procrastinating tendencies.

I don’t know that I’ve become less of a procrastinator by reading this book (it’s a little ironic that it has taken me four days to get around to reviewing it….) but I’m a lot more aware of what procrastination is. I am also starting to question my motives and to distinguish putting things off for positive reasons from the anxiety that can arise when truly procrastinating.

The book is very readable, written for non-academics but without any hint of talking down, and there's some low-key humour in places. I would recommend it highly to anyone interested in the topic.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

11/02/2017

The Visitation (by Frank Peretti)

There are times when I find a book rather bland or slow on my first reading and then thoroughly enjoy it six or seven years later. It’s less often that I rate a book highly first time around and then find it disturbing when I re-read it. But perhaps that’s not surprising when the author in question is Frank Peretti, who writes Christian thrillers; some of them are very dark indeed.

We acquired ‘The Visitation’, in hardback form, around the turn of the century. I had read some of Peretti’s other books and found them a bit disturbing, but very readable. Thrillers are not my preferred genre, but his books ‘This Present Darkness’ and ‘Piercing the Darkness’ were popular in the circles we were mixing in, and I eventually read this book in 2001. According to my review of the time, I thought the conclusion exciting, the ending satisfactory, and overall I enjoyed it.

Sixteen years later I had entirely forgotten the story, other than recalling that a young man appears in a small town and started doing miracles. And, indeed, that’s a large part of what happens. Some of the novel is related in the third person from quite a mixture of viewpoints, but there are also first-person accounts narrated by Travis, a former pastor who has become seriously depressed after losing his wife.

Brandon, the visitor, stirs up strong emotions in the town and for many miles around. Some are desperate for a healing touch or words of wisdom, others are convinced he’s either a nutcase or demonic. The pastors - a mixed bunch of widely varying denominations - meet to try to decide what to do, and Travis gets more and more drawn into to investigations.

Much of what Brandon says makes Travis look into his past; he had problems with the ultra-charismatic beliefs of some of his former friends, and made several mistakes when he believed he was ‘called’ to a particular career or place. We learn a great deal about him: he was sincere but often wrong, and found stability with the love of his wife.

There are caricatures of some of the more extreme mega-churches, in what I hope is an ironic style, and the first part of the book, if a tad slow-moving at times, is very readable. However suspense starts to build up, and the last quarter has some extremely unpleasant scenes, which I had to skim rather than read in detail. The climax is undoubtedly exciting but I didn’t enjoy it at all, and the last couple of chapters were very disturbing.

There’s a gentler, more hopeful epilogue, which means that the book ended on a positive note, but I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it overall.

For those who like thrillers and don’t mind a bit of violence, it’s probably not a bad read; the Christian content is clear but not preachy at all. But I don’t feel inclined to re-read this again in future.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

02/02/2017

Tell Mrs Poole I'm Sorry (by Kathleen Rowntree)

It’s almost exactly sixteen years since I first borrowed a book by Kathleen Rowntree, and liked it sufficiently to start acquiring others that she had written. Eventually I also bought my own copy of the original book I had borrowed, inexpensively at a charity shop, and a week or two ago realised that it was more than time for a re-read.

I had entirely forgotten the plot and characters of ‘Tell Mrs Poole I’m Sorry’ when I started, although a few memories surfaced as I read. We meet Liz, first, worried about her teenage daughter. Rosie has become moody and Liz is worried that she’s becoming too friendly with an older, married man. She needs to get together with her closest friends Chrissie and Nell to talk about it, so they arrange a meeting.

The bulk of the book is the story of the close friendship that develops when these three women were eleven. None of them feel entirely comfortable in their families, although their backgrounds are very different. Liz is from a respectable, comfortably off family although she’s the only child. Chrissie’s mother ran away when she was small, and she lives with a disreputable father and aunt who mostly neglect her. Nell lives in a crowded house with several siblings, a downtrodden mother and an unpredictable father.

The three urge each other on to increasingly risky behaviour, starting by staying at each other’s houses unseen by the adults. As they grow up their interests inevitably diverge somewhat as they discover boys.

A bit confusingly, the ‘present day’ part of the story is told in the past tense, but the growing-up schoolgirl lengthy flashbacks are told in the present tense. It’s an unusual way round, but I quickly got used to it. The present day intersperses cleverly with the past as a picture is built up of what happened in their later teens, and why Liz - who is a psychologist - is so stressed about her daughter’s potential affair.

There are many hints about what happens to Liz in her later teens, and a great deal of tension as events gradually come together for the shocking thing that she does, which changes her life. I was worried that it was going to feel sordid, and indeed it’s quite an unpleasant storyline, albeit not unexpected. But it’s sensitively written, with implications and generalisations rather than too many details. It’s quite plain, too, from the start, that Liz very much regrets what she did.

There are plenty of other subplots woven in throughout, and I felt that the characters of the three friends were well-rounded and mostly believable, with distinctively different personalities. Liz’s mother is somewhat caricatured, as is Chrissie’s aunt, but other significant characters are mostly believable, in some cases rather unpleasantly so.

All in all, I enjoyed this book. If you like women’s fiction with a hard-hitting storyline, I would definitely recommend it. No longer in print, but often available second-hand. Can be bought in Kindle form on both sides of the Atlantic.


Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

31/01/2017

Back to Creative Writing School (by Bridget Whelan)

I hadn’t heard of Bridget Whelan; indeed, I’ve entirely forgotten where I first saw her book on creating writing recommended. Most likely it was another writing book, or perhaps a blog on the topic. I know it wasn’t simply a random choice for my kindle since her book is one of the three or four (out of over two hundred) ebooks that I actually paid for, back in 2014.

I dipped into ‘Back to Creative Writing School’ a few times but it took me nearly three years to determine to read it straight through. I wish I’d done so sooner. What an excellent guide it is: it’s friendly, and full of excellent advice.

The book is laid out as if it really were a creative writing school, with three ‘terms’, although I went through it in just a month. The suggestions in the first term start fairly with fairly straightforward tasks: writing short pieces based on particular names, or ways of looking at things; generating names or titles; writing alternatives to cliches and well-worn metaphors. I did do one or two of these exercises, and adapted a couple of them for my local writing group, but for the most part just read, noting some of the suggestions, and may well go back to them in future.

As the book progresses, the exercises become more complicated and thought-provoking. I’ve read many writing books, so inevitably there was much in this book that was familiar to me; but that didn’t matter, because the bulk of each section was the author’s ideas and suggestions. She gives advice for creating realistic characters, for getting stuck into simple poetic writing even for the most reluctant, for using alliteration and other literary devices.

The Term Two assignments are more specific, and I found some of them a bit bizarre; by this stage I had stopped doing any of the exercises, although I will take some of the ideas and suggestions into my writing in future. Topics covered include humour, dialogue, different kinds of poetry, suspense, and even synaesthesia in writing.

I didn’t even notice when Term Two turned into Term Three, but in looking back I can see that the final chapters are the most complex, for more advanced writers than the earlier ones. Similar topics are covered; I skimmed lightly over the horror one, but read the rest in full.

This would probably be an ideal book for a small writing group to work through together, if they want targetted and progressive exercises, and share the results. Doing this on my own I could have made the effort to do most of the assignments, but without any feedback I didn’t have much motivation. However for someone wanting to get to grips with the basics of writing, I would recommend spending perhaps a week or longer on each chapter. According to the front cover, there are thirty in all, so they could be done roughly in academic terms with breaks in between each one.

Even though I didn’t take full advantage of this, it’s a book I will certainly dip into again, and which I would recommend highly to anyone wanting some help with getting start in writing, or inspiration for making their writing better.

(Note that the UK Amazon link above is to the paperback version of this book)

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews