22/01/2018

An Acceptable Time (by Madeleine L'Engle)

Interspersed with new books and those I am re-reading, I’m also picking up books which my sons read and liked in their teens, but which, for some reason, I have never previously read myself. Some of these are by Madeleine L’Engle, who is best known for her classic children’s novel ‘A Wrinkle in Time’. I have just finished reading the fifth book in her time quintet, ‘An Acceptable Time’.

The story is about Polly O’Keefe, the eldest child of Meg Murry and Calvin O’Keefe, who featured in the first book as teenagers themselves. They are now apparently married with a lengthy family of their own; Polly is in her late teens, probably sixteen or seventeen. She is spending some time staying with her grandparents, Meg’s parents, who are still working as scientists.

I realised when I reached the end, and found a family tree and list of books that I should perhaps have waited until I had read the other O’Keefe books, which might have introduced Polly at a younger age. However, it didn’t particularly matter; although some events from those books are referenced, this novel is complete in itself. As with some of the other books in the quintet, it features time travel, but not in a high-tech way.

Polly finds herself unexpectedly three thousand years in the past, after seeing two different young people whom she did not recognise, and who seemed to be dressed in skins rather than modern clothes. She is surprised that they speak a bit of English, but then learns that a friend of her grandparents (a bishop) has also been able to travel back in time, and has both learned some of their language, and taught them some English.

A young man called Zachary is quite keen on Polly - when she returns to the 20th century - and they go out a couple of times, but it’s clear that he’s quite ill. So when he, too, is able to travel back in time, they begin to wonder if it’s for his sake. The ancient peoples have druids and healers, and one of them thinks he might be able to help.

However, there are also fierce battles with another tribe who are suffering severe drought, and their ancient culture demands human sacrifice…

It’s quite a page-turning book, with a lot of action and some quite tense scenes. The science fiction aspects of time gates and tesseracts is not really explained, but that doesn’t matter too much. I’m not into science fiction, particularly, and the story is what mattered. There’s quite a bit of religious discussion, more so than in the author’s other books; however although the Christian message is explained fairly overtly, not pushed.

Moreover, it’s given in contrast to the ancient beliefs, or as something to remember when characters are afraid. The ancient beliefs in this book were mostly polytheistic and in some cases extremely unpleasant, contrasted with the modern people, and a handful of the ancient ones who believed in one ‘Presence’ rather than multiple gods and goddesses.

As with other books by Madeleine L’Engle, I found some of the conversations a bit stilted, and felt that there was a tad too much description in places. But overall it was a good read, one that I’d recommend to older children or teenagers who are interested in this kind of scenario, with modern characters interacting with ancient history.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

21/01/2018

The Naked Church (by Wayne Jacobsen)

I’ve only read a handful of books by Wayne Jacobsen, but have liked them all in different ways. So when I discovered a couple more, inexpensively, on the Amazon Marketplace (though no longer in print) I ordered them and have just finished reading ‘The Naked Church’.

The book is intended for people who are feeling somewhat dissatisfied or burned out by church experiences, or who feel that Christians are no different from anyone else. It doesn’t point fingers or criticise; the author acknowledges that the established church comes in many shapes and sizes, and in many cases is an excellent way of helping people becoming closer to God.

However, the theme of his book is that there’s a great deal wrong with the way that the church worldwide functions today. Christians are not generally known by their love for each other. Evangelistic crusades may result in hundreds of people making ‘decisions’ for God, but rarely have much long-term effect. In the west, we are caught up in materialism, in maintaining expensive buildings and following routines and structures which, in many cases, move people further away from God rather than helping them to develop intimacy with him.

The introduction mentions the classic fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes. The author suggests that it is all too easy for modern Christians to follow false teaching, or turn up week by week for church services because that’s what everyone else is doing. Yet, he believes, a large part of the church - at least in the United States, where he lives and works - is ‘poor, blind and naked’, like the church in Laodicea to whom one of the messages in the book of Revelation was addressed.

Most of the book is written in paired chapters. The first of each looks at ways in which 20th century Christians are (the author believes) deceived, and the second looks at what might change. For instance, he compares modern structured church programmes with the communities that developed in the early church. He is careful to acknowledge that much of what we do nowadays can be useful, and that lives can be changed. Yet we are not radiating the love, passion and authority that was so evident in the first century Christians.

I found some of the book a little heavy-going, and rarely read more than one chapter at a time. This was first published in 1987 and would have been extremely thought-provoking then, although so many other writers have written on a similar topic that I didn’t find anything new. Still, reminders are good, and there was much to think about. The presentation was nicely done, and the contrasting chapter style worked well.

It’s not particularly easy to get hold of this book, although if you see it at a reasonable price it’s worth reading, in my view. Most likely to be read by those who are already struggling somewhat with Christian traditions or styles, but I think it could be of value to those in leadership who would like to see positive suggestions for change, described in an organised way.

Recommended.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

15/01/2018

My Not So Perfect Life (by Sophie Kinsella)

Sophie Kinsella, best known for her ‘Shopaholic’ series of novels, has a great gift for creating likeable - though flawed - young women protagonists. So when I saw she had another book published last year, I put it straight on my wishlist, and was very pleased to receive it for Christmas recently.

‘My Not so Perfect Life’ is narrated by Katie - or Cat, as she prefers to be known at the start of the book. We meet her on her way to work; she lives in a tiny flat in London, and works for a ‘branding’ company. Her boss, Demeter, is brilliantly creative but absent-minded, and while most of her staff admire her, none of them much like her.

Katie’s home is in Somerset, but she has always hankered after London. And because she doesn’t want her father to know how difficult her life is - she can barely survive on her earnings, and has no social life at all - she takes photos of restaurants and other sights which she posts on Instagram. Katie has tried to become a smart London worker, straightening her hair and changing her abbreviated name, but the persona she portrays online is exaggerated at best, entirely fake at worst.

Katie is somewhat naive, trusting and kind; she’s also ambitious and, as we gradually learn, quite talented in her field. As the most junior person in the office she’s barely noticed, and spends her time filing rather than being creative. A chance encounter with an amusing young man changes the direction of her life, and she determines to be more confident.

The first part of the book takes place in London, and the second part in Somerset, where her father and stepmother are setting up a ‘glamping’(glamour camping) business on their farm. Katie finds herself able to be very useful, not just designing brochures and websites, but helping with guests.

The book is a study in family life, in work relationships, and in Katie’s desire to be accepted in London. It’s about the importance of being honest, too; including acknowledging one’s failings and struggles. There’s a love story too, tastefully done on the whole (albeit with more bad language than I’m comfortable with). And there’s a great deal of humour. I smiled several times at some of Katie’s parenthetical asides; once or twice I even laughed aloud, something I rarely do while reading.

I find Sophie Kinsella’s writing compelling. Last night I read long past the time when I really needed to be asleep, and then I finished the last hundred pages or so this morning, as I couldn't wait to find out how it would all end. The climax to the book is not unexpected; but I quite like guessing correctly how things would turn out, and the way it was done worked well.

It took me a few chapters to get into the book; at first I found Cat rather a sad person, pretending to be someone she wasn't. But I soon warmed to her, and while she reminded me forcibly of some of the author’s other main characters at times, it didn’t matter at all.

Highly recommended to anyone who likes light, well-written women’s fiction. Don’t read the blurb on the back beforehand, however; it gives away some important parts of the plot.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

11/01/2018

Partners in Crime (by Agatha Christie)

I wanted something reasonably light, but different from the contemporary women’s fiction novel I had just completed. An Agatha Christie seemed ideal. I have a large collection, some of which I have never previously read, and ‘Partners in Crime’ was the one sitting on my to-be-read shelf.

This turns out to be a series of short stories linked by what we would now call a ‘story arc’. In the first chapter we meet a young, fairly well-off couple called Tommy and Tuppence. Agatha Christie doesn’t usually go in for characterisation, focussing more on clever plotting. But in Tuppence she created a likeable, outgoing young woman with a great deal of both courage and ambition. In the first chapter we meet her expressing how much she enjoys her comfortable life; yet she finds herself bored.

A visitor from Scotland Yard soon changes that. He tells them about a detective agency which was an undercover rendez-vous for a nefarious gang; we don’t learn a great deal about what the gang did, but it doesn’t much matter. The person running the agency, we learn, has been arrested but the police would like to round up some of the other members of the gang. So they propose that Tommy and Tuppence take over, and give them some code words and phrases to look out for.

There are then a series of incidents, each one taking just one or two chapters. Various clients arrive at the offices with mysterious events or problems to solve. And, despite no experience in this field at all, Tommy and Tuppence manage to sort everything out. They read crime fiction avidly, and put themselves into the roles of famous detectives, from Sherlock Holmes through to Agatha Christie’s own most famous detective Hercule Poirot.

I very much enjoyed this book. Some of the crimes are quite light-weight, and there’s plenty of light-hearted badinage between Tommy and Tuppence, who are clearly devoted to each other. It’s easy to forget the reason they’re manning the agency; however in the last chapters, things become more serious and there’s quite an exciting finale to the book.

While Agatha Christie crime fiction doesn’t always make good bedtime reading, this one was ideal. Recommended to anyone who enjoys this genre. Some of the detective references went over my head - I was not familiar with them all - but it didn’t matter at all.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

10/01/2018

Wake up and Live! (by Dorothea Brande)

Last year I read an excellent book about writing by Dorothea Brande. I had not previously heard of her, although I saw her work recommended in several places. I was surprised to find that she wrote early in the 20th century; while a tad old-fashioned in places, and inevitably outdated as far as technology is concerned, much of her advice was excellent, as suited to contemporary writers as to those of the past.

So when I realised that she had written another book, I put it on my wishlist. ‘Wake up and live!’ has been re-published recently, and I was delighted to receive it for Christmas. I started to read it soon afterwards, and found that one chapter at a time was plenty.

As with the author’s other book, it’s a little formal by today’s standards. It’s also a little irritating at the beginning, in that she writes about having discovered a ‘formula for success’, but doesn’t give details until much later in the book. However by the time I reached the place where the ‘formula’ is revealed, it was no surprise, as the book had worked up to that point. ‘Act as if you cannot fail’, is the ‘secret’ - one which, had I not read the earlier part of the book, would have seemed trite.

The earlier chapters of the book, however, look at the way that most of us subconsciously look for failure. Procrastination is a way of putting off what we don’t want to do; much of the time, the author tells us, this is because we think our task is either going to be painful in some way, or because we expect to fail. I wasn’t sure about this when I read it, and still think it’s a bit simplistic; but it’s certainly true sometimes.

Case studies are given including someone who had the ‘will to fail’ and changed, and someone who was convinced that the only times he could succeed in anything was if it was a last resort: if he was down to his last pennies, with no way of making money, only then would he set to work to write material that was accepted for publication. The importance of self-discipline is stressed, along with a realistic attitude of success.

‘Failure’ does not just include writing rejections; it can include failing relationships, or the inability to finish (or even get started on) a piece of work. I don’t suppose everyone would find the recommendations or suggestions helpful, as we’re all different. The author rather assumes that all procrastinators are alike, and of course there was no Internet when she was writing, so one modern source of endless distraction and procrastination was not considered. Nor did she take into account the problem of chronic illness, either physical or mental, which dogs so many people and makes them unable to be productive in the sense she encourages.

The final chapter has a selection of widely varying ‘exercises’ designed to help readers develop more self-discipline in certain areas, or to overcome faults. I’m not planning to do as she suggests (to write them down and pull one randomly out of a drawer once a month), but the principle seems sound. To conquer an ongoing bad habit or distraction, one either has to find a way to avoid it completely, or to go overboard in indulging it so that it becomes a chore rather than a desirable pastime.

Overall, I thought this an excellent little book, one I’d recommend to anyone feeling ‘stuck’. It’s intended primarily for writers, but could be of interest to anyone feeling bogged down in procrastination, if there is no physical or other cause for it.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

08/01/2018

The Little Village Christmas (by Sue Moorcroft)

I have - on the whole - enjoyed all the books I’ve read by Sue Moorcroft. She has a great gift of characterisation, and while her books are mostly women’s fiction with a romance theme, she often introduces some other, interesting issues. When I saw that she had written a Christmas book, I put it straight on my wishlist and was given it as a present a couple of weeks ago.

With the title, ‘The Little Village Christmas’, I assumed that this would be a pleasant light read for the post-Christmas period. The front cover shows a Christmas tree in a village square, complete with snowmen and glittery rooftops. I feel this is a tad misleading, as it’s really not a light Christmas story; indeed, Christmas itself occupies just a few pages of the book, where the characters wind down for a couple of days, and not much happens from the plot point of view.

However, the novel has plenty going on and I found it a page-turning read, once I’d got into it. Alexia is the main protagonist. She’s an interior designer, who is giving up some of her free time to manage a village project. An old pub - The Angel - is being stripped down and refurbished to create a new community centre. The book opens - after a brief prologue - with the Middledip wrecking party. Anything worth keeping is being removed and stored, and vast amounts of rubbish have been removed.

The owner of the pub is an elderly man called Gabe, and his nephew Ben is staying nearby. He and Alexia get talking over the barbecue provided after the wrecking party, and afterwards she accepts an invitation to go and see a baby owl he has rescued. He is a bit dour, but clearly kind-hearted; the prologue hints at him having major family stresses.

So far so good, and by the generally understood rules of this kind of women’s fiction, Alexia and Ben are destined for a romantic relationship, sooner or later. Unfortunately, their ‘getting together’ begins with an incident that shocked me so much, given their very brief acquaintance, that I almost gave up on the book. The incident doesn’t just happen; too much information is given at the time, and it’s then referred to in passing several times.

I’m glad I kept reading, because the story really gets going the following morning. Disaster happens, and Alexia has to pull together something rather different from what was originally envisaged for the community centre. Much of the story revolves around new friendships in the village, gradual refurbishment of the centre with its slowly-acquired furniture, and there's even a TV show. Alexia is a strong and capable woman, one whom I’d probably find quite daunting if I met her, but she has a soft side too.

The writing is excellent, and the characters mostly three-dimensional. There's quite a large cast, but I had no problem remembering who was whom. There's just enough description to help me picture (vaguely) where people lived, but not so much as to make my eyes glaze over.

However, there’s another detailed intimate scene nearer the end of the book - I skipped it this time, after the first couple of sentences - which, combined with the earlier one, means I’m not likely to lend this to anyone. Certainly not to young teenage friends who might otherwise quite enjoy this book. I don’t see the point of putting steamy 18-rated scenes in what’s basically a PG or (at most) 12-rated book. They don’t fit the style of the rest, which is gentle, well-plotted and realistic, and they don’t add anything to the story.

Still, there are other important issues touched upon, which work well including serious illness, a prison sentence, and a marriage breakup. That makes it sound rather depressing, but overall it’s not: the owl is a delight, as are some kittens who appear in traumatic circumstances nearer the end of the book. Most importantly, the ending is as satisfyingly predictable as I could have hoped, and overall I enjoyed the book very much.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

31/12/2017

Quiet (by Susan Cain)

I had never heard of Susan Cain, but this book was highly recommended in a couple of places - I forget exactly where - so I put it on my wishlist a couple of years ago, and was given it for my birthday last year (2016, that is).

‘Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking’ is a little daunting at first glance. It’s over 300 pages in quite a small font, and flicking through I couldn’t see many page breaks or subheadings. However, I was intrigued as I saw it sitting on my to-read shelf, and finally picked it up early in October.

It took me a while to get into the book. The introduction describes the idea of extroversion and introversion as opposites, using the words more as the general populace understands them than according to any of the standard personality theories. They feel a tad stereotyped: we meet the gregarious, charming extravert who loves to talk, and the quiet, shy introvert who never knows what to say. As a strong introvert myself, I kept wanting to point out that it’s not exactly like that…

But I decided to accept the author’s more general use of the words - I fit into the introvert category no matter how it’s defined - and kept reading. The first couple of chapters were even more off-putting; they looked at extroversion as a ‘cultural ideal’ in the United States, both past and present, and the author interviewed potential leaders at an American university which, I gather, cultivates high-powered business people.

I put the book down, as I knew nothing about the places or companies mentioned, and forgot about it until about a week ago. Then I decided to finish reading it by the end of the year. I divided the remaining pages by the number of days remaining, and have read the bulk of the book since then. I’ve found most of it interesting; I liked it a lot better once it moved beyond the very American focus of the first couple of chapters. The author is an introvert herself, and she looks at ways introverts can become successful in business, in relationships, even in public speaking if they are passionate about the topic concerned.

There’s some biology - research has shown that introverts and extroverts have different brain patterns, and that these facets of temperament can be determined, with a high degree of accuracy, from their reactions to new situations as small babies. It’s not too technical, and I found it fascinating. There are comparisons between different cultures, showing how many quietly spoken and highly intelligent Asian students struggle in the extraverted, group culture of American universities.

I was a little confused by the assumption that Europeans also hold the ‘extrovert ideal’; I don’t think that’s true in the UK, nor in many of the northern European countries, although extroversion does seem to be prized more highly in the Mediterranean countries. I never had any problems of the kind described growing up as an introvert; I like small groups, and quite enjoyed collaborative projects at school; most of my time was still spent working alone. 

Still, stereotypes and generalisations are inevitable in a book of this sort. It looks at case studies, at extensive research, and the author spoke to and interviewed many individuals. It’s a positive book for people who hold the ‘extrovert ideal’, assuming they would ever take the time to sit down and read it. The saddest story was about a gregarious couple who insisted on ‘therapy’ for their quiet, introverted son, wanting him to be more ambitious, more outgoing and more aggressive. The author recommends small, flexible school options for introverted children though I was surprised that she didn't suggest home education. 

The book was recommended as eye-opening, and also as excellent validation for introverts. I didn’t see it that way; but it was encouraging to read that there are specific biological factors that make people like me averse to risks, uncomfortable in new situations, and easily overwhelmed by loud noises and bright lights. The importance of downtime is stressed, and it’s made clear that introversion is not at all the same thing as being anti-social.

I would recommend this to anyone who thinks that there’s something wrong with (or weird about) quiet, non-assertive people. It could also be useful for anyone who has been pushed outside their comfort zone into public speaking or heavy socialising.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

The Five-Minute Writer (by Margret Geraghty)

Margret Geraghty has written more than one book about writing as well as a number of other publications. I have two of her books, and have dipped into them both fairly often. But this year I was determined to read some of my writing books in full, so I embarked on ‘The Five-minute writer’ at the end of April…

It’s a series of fifty-eight writing exercises, each one designed to take about five minutes. I thought, when I started reading it, that I would manage a couple of the exercises every day (I even assigned a notebook specifically for it) and finish within a month. I finally finished it today after skimming the last few sections. It’s not that it’s uninteresting - far from it. But it’s really not the kind of book to read from cover to cover, and I found that I quickly became bogged down in the exercises, and the need to write something at times when I wanted to relax and read.

Each exercise is preceded by a page or two of explanation and examples, and I found many of these helpful reminders about writing styles, or triggers for short stories. The author covers such diverse topics as ‘turning points’ (looking at times when we changed direction in some way), using colours to help demonstrate emotional states, different ways of looking at characters, brainstorming names… something to suit almost anyone. I even picked a couple of the exercises that piqued my interest particularly, and adapted them to use in the local writing group that I belong to.

I thought the book was very well-written, and liked the informal but instructive style. Most of the exercises were thought-provoking and achievable, if not always in as little as five minutes. I expect I’ll dip into the book again when I need inspiration, or something to prompt me to write. But I’m not in that place right now.

Recommended to anyone wanting some ideas to get started with writing, and prompts to spend at least five minutes each day on something creative and, at times, unexpected.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews