Wednesday, 28 January 2015

I was Just Wandering (by Jeff Lucas)

I like Jeff Lucas’s books. He’s a Christian writer and speaker who comes from the UK but lives in the US, and who describes himself (if the blurb on the back of this book is to be believed) as a Mr Bean of the Christian faith. He writes with self-deprecating and refreshing honesty sprinkled with a little humour. I was introduced to his books by a friend a few years ago, and have gradually been collecting them ever since.

‘I was just wandering’ is one of my most recent acquisitions, given to me for my birthday last year. I’ve been reading it for the past ten days or so, first thing in the morning, as a kind of ‘thought for the day’. It’s not really a book to read straight through; each chapter is short, just three or four pages long, and each stands alone. On most days I read two chapters, sometimes more.

The subjects covered are quite a mixed bunch, on the general theme of feeling awkward or out of place in churches or with other groups of Christians. In the preface, Jeff Lucas explains that his walk of faith is more like that of John Cleese doing a ‘silly walk’ than John the Apostle; that any time he feels he’s taken a step forward, it’s usually followed by a couple of steps in the other direction.

It resonated strongly. As did most of the rest of the book. Each short chapter starts with an anecdote from the author’s life, told in his usual ironic way that often puts him in a poor light; I could relate to him in many ways, and often felt a great deal of sympathy. He rants (very gently) against those who use Scripture to justify bad decisions, those who are convinced they hear from God about every facet of their day, those who use jargon, those who refuse to acknowledge that they’re having a bad day… yet he’s never unfair.

He doesn’t blame other Christians for being better (or apparently so) than he is; he admires their dedication and commitment. But at the same time he finds himself backing away, feeling out of place.

Jeff Lucas loves the church and his fellow believers, and I suspect he’s a great deal more ‘normal’ than he suggests, and I don’t intend that in a derogatory way. It’s refreshing to read of someone who remains honest about his feelings and temptations, and I found it very thought-provoking. There’s no deep theology here, and nothing particularly new; just different ways of looking at the world and at fellow Christians.

Highly recommended. Available in Kindle form as well as paperback.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

A Week in Winter (by Maeve Binchy)

When Maeve Binchy sadly died in 2012, I assumed that I had a complete collection of all her books. So I was pleasantly surprised to spot a posthumous novel in hardback for a very good price at the AwesomeBooks site. I ordered it nearly a year ago but have only just read it.

It’s the story of Chicky, who is an Irish teenager at the start of the book. She falls in love, then shocks her family by running to America with her young man. She is convinced their relationship will last forever, so when it falls apart she feels unable to tell her family. So, taking odd jobs to make ends meet, she spins a growing story of a happy marriage which only comes to an end when her niece and a friend plan to visit her.

Eventually she decides to settle back in her home town, where she renovates an old house and turns it into a hotel. The book charts her story, and that of the people who come to stay during the opening week.

That’s about it as far as the plot goes; there are no real surprises, no serious conflicts, no mysteries to solve. It’s entirely character-based, as so many of Maeve Binchy’s books are, and weaves together a series of cameos featuring a group of loosely connected people. It’s a device she used before to good effect; each chapter is almost a short story in itself, yet each one relies on prior knowledge from previous chapters which the reader knows but the person concerned is unaware of.

It’s a cosy world; supposedly set in the 21st century, it’s a much gentler environment than would be found in most parts of the world, more reminiscent of the middle of last century. However I don’t mind suspending reality during the course of a book, and I enjoyed the slow-moving dialogue, the friendly interactions and the general trust in human nature. Perhaps Maeve Binchy truly lived in this kind of world - or perhaps, as she grew older, she wrote more from her younger memories. It doesn’t matter; this is a special book, the last one she wrote. There are occasional references to people from previous novels but only in passing, as owner of a restaurant or perhaps a next-door neighbour.

In one sense I liked the first half of the book best, as it charted Chicky’s life of deception and struggle and her eventual return to her own country. But the second half, introducing each of the guests with their stories, made good bedtime reading. I liked the way the author looked at each person or pair, at the varied reasons for them being in Chicky’s hotel, and the circumstances of their lives which were so important to them, yet almost invisible to those around them.

The writing is good, as I expect from Maeve Binchy, and while it wasn’t the most exciting book, it was warm and relaxing. Not one to choose if you haven’t read any of her books before, or if you prefer books with a good plot; but for fans of this author, I would certainly recommend it to read at least once. Ideal for holiday or bedtime reading.

Available in hardback, paperback and Kindle form on both sides of the Atlantic.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

A Chalet Girl from Kenya (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)

In gradually re-reading my way through Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s lengthy Chalet School series, I’ve reached the ones set in the Swiss Oberland, written in the 1950s. The earliest books were set in Austria in the 1930s and are still my favourites. The later ones feel more ‘samey’, written for fans of the series who were clamouring for more, and to make money for the publishers - but I still like to dip into them when I want something easy to read.

I last read ‘A Chalet Girl from Kenya’ in 2001. This book features Jo Scott, a likeable, sensible girl who has been living in Kenya. It’s at an era when life was becoming dangerous with unrest, so her mother decides to send Jo to the Chalet School, remembering it from her own childhood. Jo is the unofficial goddaughter of Joey Maynard, who was the school’s first pupil and who, by this stage, lives next door and has had eight children of her own.

There’s a lot of day-to-day description of life at the school, with rambles and picnics, lessons and leisure time. I found myself skimming here and there; Brent-Dyer tended to go over the same ground at times, and while I’d forgotten the plot of the book, I found much of the educational and healthy living theories to be very familiar. The author was quite forward-thinking in her day, seeing the value of fresh air, exercise, and minimal supervision; but having grown up with the books, it’s hard to remember, sometimes, how radical they were.

I did, however, find myself warming to Jo Scott. Many of the author’s characters have big problems in their development, or tremendous gifts in some area, which make them stand out. Jo is remarkable for being very ordinary. She works hard but is not academic; she likes sports but is not greatly talented. She’s not unmusical and she does her best at art and needlework, but she shows no great skill at anything. She could seem mediocre and dull, but somehow she shines as a kind, courageous and sensible child who is liked by almost everybody.

There’s some high drama in the book, although not so different from similar escapades in other books of this sequence; there’s potential tragedy and some events that set the book firmly in context. It’s nothing special - and yet I very much enjoyed re-reading it.

This is one of the series that was barely cut at all in the Armada paperback version. It's not currently in print, but can often be found second-hand in the UK (and sometimes, at great price, in the US).

The previous book in the series is ‘The Chalet School Does it Again’.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Monday, 19 January 2015

Helter Skelter (by Della Galton)

Della Galton is one of my favourite short-story writers. She regularly features in women’s magazines and has published some collections too. Her plotting is excellent, she creates believable characters, and she often uses humour. She has also written some excellent books about writing, which I have found extremely helpful, and I was privileged to attend one of her workshops last year.

However, although she has published a few novels I had not previously read any of them. So I was pleased to be given ‘Helter Skelter’ for my birthday last year, and finally picked it up to read about ten days ago. The story is about Vanessa, a young woman who used to work in a fairground. We learn right at the beginning that she gave birth to a stillborn baby six years previously, and is still grieving; however she split up with the baby’s father, and is married to a wealthy, if rather dull businessman.

Conflict begins when Vanessa receives a letter; she argues with her husband, and then, hoping to reach some kind of amicable agreement, sees something that shocks her - and triggers her to get in touch with her old fairground friends whom she has not seen since she left her former boyfriend Garrin.

The plot is well crafted. Although the inevitable outcome is fairly predictable, there are developments that I was not expecting and it makes a good read. I found Vanessa quite believable, if absurdly naive at times; her husband turns out to be a manipulative control freak, and while this is hinted at in the early chapters, she seems entirely unaware of his dark side, and far too trusting. I would have expected somebody raised in a fairground to be rather more streetwise.

Garrin is believable too; his main passion is horses, and he’s quite abrupt, even rude at times when his impatience is triggered. Yet he has a softer side that few people are aware of. He’s not the kind of person who appeals to me but he has a deep friendship with Vanessa, going back to their childhood. I liked Izzy as well, the older woman who brought Vanessa up; she’s now quite frail, but still has a lot of wisdom. There are some other likeable minor characters who helped to flesh out the novel, and who worked well.

On the other hand, I found it very difficult to believe in Vanessa’s husband, and the other ‘villain’ of the piece. They didn’t seem to have any redeeming features, but there was no indication as to what motivated them to their unpleasantness. I found it hard to be emotionally involved in most of the conflict.

Also on the less positive side, I found some of the conversation a bit stilted, which surprised me. I also felt at times as if I were being ‘educated’ rather too much about horses and show jumping, topics in which I have no interest whatsoever. I’m sure the research was thorough and the writing realistic, but most of the time this information wasn’t relevant to the story. The other thing that bugged me was the detailed ‘intimate’ scene - something that happens in so many women’s fiction books these days, but which then makes them unsuitable to recommend to young teenage friends (and some of my adult friends) who might otherwise enjoy them.

Still, it’s a good story overall and the ending was entirely satisfactory.

Currently available in paperback, and also, inexpensively, for the Kindle.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Being Jesus in Nashville (by Jim Palmer)

I very much enjoyed the two previous books I read by US writer Jim Palmer. In common with many current Christian writers I enjoy, his main topic has been about moving through and beyond the mire of religion and culture to find the truth of Jesus. In ‘Divine Nobodies’ he writes about a variety of different individuals who challenged and helped him in many ways. In ‘Wide Open Spaces’, he continues to tell stories, including plenty of personal anecdotes. He returns regularly to Scripture as he explains how he gradually succeeds in working through his hangups and false expectations, relinquishing some of the pain of a seriously neglectful childhood.

So I was delighted to be given Jim Palmer’s third book ‘Being Jesus in Nashville’, recently, after having it on my wishlist for a while. I noticed, before I started reading, that it had been rejected for publication by a well-known Christian publisher. I didn’t worry about that. Perhaps, I thought, his views became just a little too radical for the evangelical market.

The first few chapters recount some of Palmer’s background and also give hints about what happened to him during the year when he was writing the book. He describes an incident where he is trapped in an overturned car, convinced he cannot possibly escape alive. He talks about his great relationship with his daughter. And he also explains the idea behind the book, which was inspired by re-reading the classic Christian novel ‘In his steps’, from which the popular ‘What would Jesus do?’ slogan originated.

Palmer decides to write an up-to-date account of what it means to be like Jesus in Nashville in the 21st century. And as he ponders this, there’s the first hint of something that made me a bit uncomfortable: he ‘discovers’ that he’s not actually so different from Jesus. He makes the point that Jesus as a man was fully human - as we all are - and also fully divine; yet, in a human body was obviously not transcendent, nor did he know everything. He also points out that there’s more than one reference in Scripture to Christ living in us, and to his being our ‘brother’. All fine, and I couldn’t quite pin down my discomfort; perhaps it was the way it was written.

In any case, Palmer decides to live his life as if he were Jesus for a year. He then ponders what that means since he’s not living in 1st century Palestine and circumstances are very different. He tells his story in a self-deprecating and very readable way, as he tries some things which don’t work - and finds surprising hints of what it means to ‘be Jesus’ in other encounters.

I found the book quite compelling and inspiring, despite one or two reservations. I think the author has gone further than I’m comfortable with in casting off his religious shackles and renouncing anything to do with the church. He writes of ‘letting go’ of Jesus, but does so in the context of a child ‘letting go’ of her father while learning to ride a bike. And he makes the important point that God made us as unique individuals, with our own strengths and weaknesses, and that our call is to ‘be Jesus’ in whatever situation we’re in.

Much to ponder, and a book I shall probably return to in future. Definitely recommended, both to Christians and those who are fed up with the church - but that doesn’t mean I agree with every word.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Harvesting the Heart (by Jodi Picoult)

I’ve read only a few novels by Jodi Picoult though somehow I feel as if I’ve read more. I found two of them very thought-provoking and well-written although I didn’t much enjoy the third one I tried. Nevertheless I’ve gradually added a few more to my wishlist and have been pleased to be given them. I was given this particular one for Christmas 2012 but have only just recently read it.

‘Harvesting the Heart’ is one of Picoult’s earlier novels, first published in 1993 although it was then re-published about three years ago. It features a young couple from very different backgrounds. Nicholas grew up in a privileged home with two loving parents and all he could want materially. He is an excellent cardiac surgeon. Paige, by contrast, grew up with a father who loved her but never had any money; her mother, whom she adored, walked out when Paige was five, and never returned.

The prologue of the book gets right to the heart of the story: Paige has abandoned her husband and young baby Max, although we don’t know why. She now wants to return but Nicholas won’t let her in so she’s camping in the garden. The first two-thirds of the book then take us back in time, so we see how Paige and Nicholas met and how their romance blossomed despite parental opposition. There are many flashbacks, too, to their childhood and teens - particularly Paige’s as she grew up feeling the loss of her mother and going through several traumatic experiences.

The writing is powerful, the characterisation very good. I found the continual time change a little confusing at first; the viewpoint changes between Nicholas (in the third person) and Paige (in the first person) which is fine; the relevant name is at the heading of each section. The chronology isn’t too hard to figure out either, although sometimes it all flows so well that it’s difficult to remember what year we’re in, particularly when picking the book up at the end of the day.

There are many issues covered in this book, including post-natal depression, and I found it quite thought-provoking at times. By the time I was about two-thirds through it was almost impossible to put down. I hoped that there would be a happy ending but it seemed hard to imagine how it could happen. Paige is still insecure about herself; Nicholas so caught up in his work that it’s hard for him to consider anyone’s point of view but his own. Perhaps a top surgeon has to have this kind of focus and the inability to switch off.

I do have a few minor niggles with the book that stop me from giving it a five-star rating. I didn’t like the detailed medical information, particularly the descriptions of what happens when Nicholas performs or supervises heart surgery. I am sure Jodi Picoult did her research thoroughly and probably had her scenes checked by those who work in this field but it wasn’t necessary to the story and made me feel very squeamish. A hint here and there would have been sufficient.

I also found myself cringing at some of the very dated information about babies - I know that solids were recommended at three months back in the ‘90s, but don’t believe that, even then, a baby at less than six months would be ‘promoted’ to a front-facing car seat. Nor is it likely that a baby of this age would use even a couple of words as clearly as Max does. But what disturbed me most is that Paige runs away when she has been breastfeeding Max around the clock; yet there’s no mention at all of the painful engorgement (and, quite likely, infection) that she would have suffered as a result.

They’re minor details, but they jarred. This is, though, in a sense a a compliment to the author because the characters got under my skin so much that I felt they were real. But it bugged me that her medical research was (I assume) thorough and meticulous, yet some of her descriptions of a young baby were not really appropriate.

Nevertheless, overall I thought this an excellent book and would recommend it highly.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

The Grand Sophy (by Georgette Heyer)

It was with some surprise that I realised I had not read a single Georgette Heyer book in 2014. So, perhaps foolishly, I decided to remedy this a couple of days before the end of the year. I have just finished it, with a few hours to go!

I last read ‘The Grand Sophy’ in 2006, and enjoyed it very much. I remembered the outline of the story and some of the characters, as it’s a book I’ve read several times over the years. But it’s one that never fails to amuse me. Sophy is one of the best of Heyer’s strong historical heroines, a girl raised in an unconventional way by her military father, who comes to live for a while with her highly conventional cousins.

Sophy quickly learns that her cousin Cecilia is in love with an unsuitable poet, her cousin Charles is engaged to a tediously dull woman, and her cousin Hubert is in some difficulties which he will not reveal. Moreover, Charles has far too much influence over the family finances, and they all seem afraid of him.

Sophy sets to work to sort out everybody’s affairs, in a way that could be seen as pushy and manipulative, but she’s a very likeable young woman and has everybody’s best interests at heart. It’s ridiculous stuff, of course; set in Regency England amidst high fashion and shocking politics. Sophy is a very modern girl who flouts conventions when it seems reasonable to do so, while not at all wishing to upset anyone she cares about.

The ending is one of Heyer’s classic gatherings of the clans at an unlikely location with everything neatly sorted out… and despite reading as fast as I could I enjoyed it very much indeed.

Highly recommended. First published in 1950, this is regularly re-printed and available on both sides of the Atlantic.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Life with Lucas 2 (by Jeff Lucas)

Some time ago I read - over the course of a year - the first ‘Life with Lucas’ book. It contained daily thoughts on Bible passages on a variety of themes. I always enjoy Jeff Lucas's writing, and found it quite helpful and encouraging. So a little over a year ago I bought its sequel when I found it available inexpensively second-hand.

Like the first book, ‘Life with Lucas 2’ is divided into several sections. The first, covering about nine weeks of the year, looks at the life of the Old Testament prophet Samuel and his dealings with King Saul. The second section, ‘Friendly Fire’, is on the topic of conflict and features a wide variety of Bible passages. Similarly, the rest of the book switches from examination of Biblical stories and Christian themes, ending with a look at the ‘seven deadly sins’ from a Scriptural perspective.

As with the first, there are not in fact seven pages allocated per week, but six: the weekend is counted as one day, and often serves as the introduction to the following five days’ worth of readings. So there are not 365 sets of readings and thoughts, but 312, labelled by weeks. The days in 2014 didn’t quite match with the way the book was laid out: the year did not start with a weekend. But that didn’t matter; I didn’t always remember to read a section every day, so sometimes fell behind, and sometimes read two in one morning. During the summer I was away from home without the book so towards the end I made it my aim to read three every morning in order to finish at the end of the year.

I found the selection of passages helpful, the writing sometimes inspiring, sometimes informative, sometimes thought-provoking. There were, of course, days when I forgot what I had read as soon as I put the book down, but I like Jeff Lucas’s style of writing and thought he made some excellent points. I don’t think I learned much that was new, but it’s useful to have a reminder of important facets of faith, and on the whole I’d say it was a valuable tool to start the day.

Not something that would be of any interest to anyone who is not a believer, and not for anyone wanting to do serious Bible study or deep thought, but as a ‘thought for the day’ for Christians I would recommend this.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews