Sunday, 13 April 2014

Snuff (by Terry Pratchett)

I've been reading and enjoying Terry Pratchett's books, particularly the Discworld series, for about eighteen years, now. Discworld is fantasy of a kind - but more like satire, a thought-provoking (and humorous) way of looking at the world. They are particularly good to read aloud to older children or teens.

'Snuff' is the 39th Discworld book, and since I'm no longer reading aloud I was in no great hurry to get it - but put it on my wishlist some time ago. I was delighted to receive it as a Christmas present and started reading it five weeks ago.

Yes, it took me five weeks to finish this, reading just a section or two each evening. Having said that, I was often very tired and read only a few pages. And it didn't really grab me at first... however, Pratchett is always readable, and I found myself getting more and more involved as the story progressed. This book is not as overtly humorous as some of the earlier Discworld books, but it's quite thought-provoking and makes some excellent points in a way that should remain with the reader for a long time afterwards.

Sam Vimes of the Ankh Morpork watch is the main character - a somewhat mellow Sam who has settled into being a married Duke, and very much enjoys fatherhood, although he also still loves his job and rarely takes a break. He's not at all sure about taking a holiday, but everyone insists. Happily for Vimes, he finds plenty of crime in the countryside and, with the help of his wife Lady Sybil, manages to get the goblins, previously treated as vermin, to be recognised as sapient beings.

Some of the plotting was a bit over-complex; there was some fast action involving boats and contraband, and in places it rather lost me, but it didn't really matter. Overall I thought this a great addition to the Discworld series. Recommended to fans, although it would be very confusing as an introduction to the series, so it would definitely be best to read some of the earlier 'Watch' books featuring Vimes before tackling this one.

Available in hardback, paperback, and Kindle formats.

Review by Sue F copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Thursday, 10 April 2014

A Lady of Quality (by Frances Hodgson Burnett)

For many years I had assumed that Frances Hodgson Burnett had only written three books - the classic children's novels 'The Secret Garden', 'Little Lord Fauntleroy', and 'A Little Princess'. So it was quite a surprise, when looking for free Kindle books, to discover several other books she had written, some of them for adults. I read one or two of the others and - on the whole - liked them.

So a couple of weeks ago, I started reading 'A Lady of Quality'.

There's a reason why some great writers produce books that are almost unknown. This novel features an eminently dislikeable heroine, Clorinda, whose mother died giving birth to her. Her father is appalling, drinking and hunting, and ignores his three daughters entirely, barely noticing his young wife's demise. However Clorinda is a strong-willed fighter who learns at a young age to tame horses - and when her father meets her, he is very taken with her.

So she spends her childhood with her father's depraved companions, learning to drink and to swear, uninterested in women, often dressing as a boy. Until she decides, one day, to become a society lady.. and her about-turn and transformation was very difficult to swallow.

I don't mind a slight excess of emotion, description or moralising in books of this era, but this one went on for pages, sometimes, without adding to the plot at all. I kept reading because I was interested in Clorinda's sister Anne, and because some of the plot developments caught my interest - but towards the end I skimmed several pages in order to finish it more quickly.

There really isn't anything to like about this book; the ending is theoretically positive, although rather depressing, but some of what happens made extremely unpleasant reading. It's not exactly a gothic novel, but there are elements of that genre.

I don't think I'll be reading this again, and really wouldn't recommend it - but if you're now intrigued, make sure to get the free ebook edition.

Review by Sue F copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Monday, 7 April 2014

Velvet Elvis (by Rob Bell)

Rob Bell is quite a controversial writer in evangelical Christian circles, mainly due to his recent book 'Love Wins'. He used to be the pastor of an American mega-church (which he founded) and is also the narrator on a series of videos known as 'Nooma'. I'm naturally suspicious of mega-churches in general, I wasn't particularly impressed with Nooma episodes that we saw in a house group, and I didn't much like the first book of Bell's that I read.

So I wasn't at all sure what to expect from 'Velvet Elvis', a book I had been thinking of buying for some time. I found it second-hand not long ago, and picked it up to read a couple of weeks ago - and found it remarkably appealing, right from the start.

The concept of God being concerned with all goodness and truth (not just that emanating from Christians) is one that I've been hearing and reading in many places recently. It's expanded upon in this book. I've always been keen on the idea of thinking about or 'testing' everything, going back to Scripture and (most importantly) to my relationship with God. I believe faith is a growing, moving concept that will inevitably embrace new ideas and - at times - throw away some outdated ones.

There's an excellent chapter in this book explaining some of the basics of Jewish thought, such as the meaning of a 'yoke' - nothing to do with oxen - or the method whereby rabbis took disciples, and what was meant by 'binding and loosing' in the first century. Jesus was, after all, thoroughly Jewish, as were his followers and biographers; yet it's rare to hear a sermon letting us know that even the best-read Orthodox Jewish rabbis believed that the Scriptures needed constant re-evaluation and interpretation.

The rest of the book encourages us to look for God where we are, to understand that the church is a community intended to bless those outside it, not a holy huddle to meet on Sundays. It describes eternal life in terms of where we are now, as a continuum, and how Jesus talked about a new earth rather than an abstract heaven.

I don't think I agreed with every word of the book, but that's not a problem: as the author said, we should test everything, including the words he writes. We're all on different paths, with our unique temperaments and gifts, and the Holy Spirit gives us different insights. If something does not apply to me, or if I think his interpretation is wrong, that's fine. There's room for variety. While love and harmony are important, there's nothing in the Bible to say that we should all agree on every fine point of doctrine or Scriptural interpretation.

Helpful, inspiring and thought-provoking. Definitely recommended.

Still in print on both sides of the Atlantic; available for the Kindle as well as in paperback.

Review by Sue F copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Enneagram II (by Richard Rohr)

It's over ten years since I first learned about the Enneagram, a fascinating tool for personality exploration and spiritual growth. Rather than the more traditional four (or sixteen) types, nine deep-rooted types of person are identified, based partly on defence mechanisms and 'besetting sin'.

While there's controversy in some circles about whether or not it's appropriate for Christians (having Sufi and possibly Pagan roots) there are many who believe that God can use it to help us understand each other better, and grow in our faith and maturity by seeing ourselves as we really are. Richard Rohr is a Catholic priest who uses it extensively in positive ways.

'Enneagram II' is a book intnded for readers who have explored and understood the basics of the theory, and are looking for a deeper understanding of how they - from the point of view of their Enneagram type - can relate better to God and to other people. It is based on a series of workshops.

The book mainly focuses on the nine perspectives for looking at oneself and other people. It encourages individuals to see that there are many paths along which we can grow and develop, and to avoid judgement or criticism of those whose paths are different. The main part of the book focuses on questions asked to panels of each of the nine types, asking how they deal with stress and betrayal; this section is written in transcript form, including questions from the floor.

There are also a few chapters at the end focusing on how to grow beyond and through our Enneagram 'box' while being true to ourselves. I was particularly interested in a chapter explaining how our innate view of God is inevitably too narrow, even false. Finally there is a very brief summary of how the nine types are identified, with some traits described.

I found it quite heavy going in places and only read a few pages at a time; I would have liked the 'panels' to have been asked a few more questions; however, the answers were quite revealing and undoubtedly revealed some broad patterns. I found the early and final chapters particularly thought-provoking, and will no doubt read this again in a few years.

Recommended to anyone wanting to know how this personality tool can better be used in the Christian life. Not currently in print but sometimes available second-hand.

Review by Sue F copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Finding You (by Giselle Green)

I read Giselle Green’s debut novel ‘Pandora’s Box’ almost six years ago, and loved it so much that I was determined to read any other books she might write - and have not been disappointed. A year later I read the very moving ‘Little Miracles’. It was about a young couple whose only child Hadyn - a young toddler - vanished one day, while playing on the beach in Spain. His parents, Charlie and Julia, discover a great deal about themselves and their past as they work through their grief and anger, and Julia never gives up hope. At the end of the book there’s an implication that they have found him, but it was left open, and I always hoped that there would be a sequel.

‘Finding You’ is exactly that, so I was delighted to be offered an advance review copy of the e-book which is to be released at the end of March. It picks up on the story a few months after Hadyn is back with Charlie and Julia, just before they return home to England. The novel stands alone, so I didn’t re-read ‘Little Miracles’ first; it’s not necessary, but I’m glad I did have at least a vague memory of the original as this gave a sense of closure to the story.

The narration, as with the first book, is split between Charlie and Julia, each writing in the first person and in the present tense. This is a good device as it enables the reader to see both points of view when, inevitably, they have disagreements or different experiences. And, as we quickly discover, life is decidedly stressful, despite their tremendous relief at having found their son again.

Julia’s perspective helped me to empathise strongly with her as a mother who slowly realises that all is not well with her son. I wanted to give her a hug: to remind her that he had been through a lot of experiences in his short life; that his difficulty communicating wasn’t surprising, given that he had been thrust into a year of hearing nothing but Spanish, and was now expected to understand English again.

Charlie, meanwhile, is torn between his professional life as a surgeon, with an unofficial offer of promotion, and trying to support Julia emotionally. As a medic he see his role as fixing problems; so when he realises that Hadyn isn’t adjusting as quickly as might be expected, he takes professional advice, which Julia disagrees with strongly. And I absolutely sided with Julia.

At the same time, Charlie’s father is becoming increasingly frail in his nursing home, and Charlie’s ex-fiancĂ©e Lourdes keeps impinging on Julia’s life...

It’s impossible to say much more without introducing spoilers; suffice it to say that this novel is very well put together, the various threads unfolding gradually, alongside some delving into Charlie’s past and his relationship with his father. The characterisation is excellent. There were times when I felt there was a tad too much introspection, as one or other of the protagonists pondered recent events, but that was partly because I was so eager to find out what was going to happen next.

I suspected the truth about Hadyn’s difficulties quite early on in the book, and wanted to take Julia on one side to make a gentle suggestion. But she has to follow her heart, to discover whether her fears about him are true, and there are some quite emotional scenes before the end. By the time I was about three-quarters of the way through this book, I couldn’t put it down and had to neglect everything else to finish it. In contrast to ‘Little Miracles’, it has an entirely satisfactory and conclusive ending, which might seem too neat and tidy to some readers, but which I approved of thoroughly.

All in all, I would recommend ‘Finding You’ highly to anyone who enjoys this kind of character-driven thoughtful novel, whether or not you have read the previous one.

Initially published in e-book format only, but it should be available in paperback later in the year.

Review by Sue F copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Sparrow (by Veronica Heley)

I had never heard of Veronica Heley. This is slightly surprising, since she seems to have been a prolific writer of children's and teenage fiction over about forty years; she is now in her 80s.

I happened to spot one her her early novels, 'Sparrow', at a friend's house. I picked it up out of mild curiosity, and skimmed the first couple of pages; I was completely hooked by the end of the first chapter. I assume that it was intended for older children or young teenagers: it features a 14-year-old girl called Vivien who is hit by a terrible tragedy on the first page. Her previously ordered and contented life falls apart and she finds herself having to adapt quickly to noisy siblings, a shared bedroom, a huge comprehensive school, and the potential for remedial classes... without any opportunity to continue with her beloved music.

The plot is perhaps over-simplistic and somewhat predictable. Vivien struggles enormously; these days she would have some kind of counselling, I imagine, but in this book she is thrown right into the fray, and expected to adjust rapidly. Her life at first becomes completely overwhelming, as she has to learn to deal with endless noise and demands at home, unpleasant teachers and jeering students at school. I thought this was dealt with realistically, and although it seemed to miss out on the depths of grief that would be expected, I found myself empathising quite strongly with Vivien.

Since this is - in a low-key way - a Christian book, Vivien finds that things start to get better when she thinks about God and starts praying. I thought that this was nicely done, without being twee or preachy. It also doesn't make the mistake of producing changed circumstances overnight, or any kind of miracle; instead, she starts to change inwardly and to see things from other people's perspectives. Perhaps there are slightly too many positive circumstances that come one after another, as she herself sees things differently, but then it's a very short book - less than 100 pages.

Vivien's siblings are somewhat caricatured, I suppose, although we get to know the twins, known as the Toads, towards the end. Some of her new teachers are depressingly awful, but they are over-worked and stressed, and there is one in particular who I liked very much. I couldn't really believe in the dreadful piano teacher, but she was so bad as to be quite amusing. And even in such a short book I built up quite a good picture in my mind of this frightened, stubborn and angry teenager who has to learn in a short space of time to overcome terrible sadness and adjust to new and difficult circumstances.

Discussion of O levels and CSEs dates this; but the issues are quite relevant to older children or young teens of any generation, the writing is good, the story fast-paced. Once I'd started, I could barely put it down.

Long out of print, but perhaps available second-hand.

Review by Sue F copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Friday, 21 March 2014

Cinderella with Amnesia (by Michael Griffiths)

I'm sure I knew of Michael Griffiths many years ago, but he doesn't seem to have any kind of online presence, although he's mentioned as the author of a few books. Apparently he was a minister, the General Director of a large mission agency, and then the Director of London Bible College.

'Cinderella with Amnesia' is one of those classic 1970s Christian books that we probably picked up from a church bookstall years ago. Our edition says '10p' in pencil on the inside. I'm sure I read it in the 1980s, and vaguely recall that I found it quite inspiring. Re-reading it in the last couple of weeks, it feels a bit ponderous, and inevitably somewhat dated; yet at the same time, much of it was surprisingly relevant to the 21st century.

The premise of the book is that the Church is like Cinderella, sitting sadly in the ashes, not remembering who she was and with little idea of who she might become. The author had noted that young people in their droves were getting fed up with organised church. As a teenager myself in the 1970s, I could see that happening, although equally there were very active youth groups, school and university Christian Unions, and various lively organisations for young Christians.

The book is an attempt to show that the Church is a lot more than Sunday morning services. Michael Griffiths explains the origin of the Greek word 'ekklesia', and the confusion that arises when, in English, we use the same word to refer to either a Sunday morning event, a building, a worldwide group of believers, a local body of believers, or an individual congregation. None of this was new to me, but it was clearly expressed.

Ignoring (at first) the building or Sunday service definitions, he then looks at the original purpose of the church, both universal and local. He sees it in terms of telling other people about Jesus, helping each other grow, building each other up, encouraging each others' gifts, and generally being an extended family. All of which I agree with whole-heartedly. Apparently these aspects of church life were somewhat neglected in the 1970s.

However, I am not sure that much has changed, other than the age of those for whom this is relevant. Many of us who were teenagers in the 1970s and 1980s are the ones who, decades later, still look for a broad understanding of church life, encompassing all these positive features, while being somewhat cynical about the importance of a structured Sunday gathering.

However, Michael Griffiths somehow makes the assumption that Sunday morning services are vital, and that everything else grows from them. He even criticises students who get involved in CUs and outreaches, but who neglect to attend a local congregation. He makes the point that many people in the '70s found the services irrelevant and boring, but seems to assume that without these gatherings, one cannot really live as a Christian. I didn't see any logic to this; nowadays many popular Christian writers would disagree with him. I tried to be open-minded and was willing to be convinced, but it didn't happen.

Still, it was an interesting book, if a bit heavy in places, and one which I think is worth reading by anyone wondering what the church is, what it might be, and what it theoretically could be. It makes an interesting contrast to more recent books such as 'Liquid Church' by Pete Ward, or 'When the Church leaves the Building' by David Fredrickson.

Long out of print, 'Cinderella with Amnesia' can often be found inexpensively second-hand. Sometimes for even less than 10p...

Review by Sue F copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Cranford (by Elizabeth Gaskell)

Although I had, of course, heard of Elizabeth Gaskell ("Mrs Gaskell") as a classic 19th century writer, I had not read any of her books. Possibly I would never have done so, but for the BBC television series Cranford based on the book, of which we saw some episodes. I was intrigued, so when I spotted this available free for my Kindle, I downloaded it.

'Cranford' is a character-based novel set in the fictional town of the same name. First published in the middle of the 19th century, this is inevitably rather dated and rambling - yet surprisingly readable. Having said that, I felt rather as if I waded through the first couple of chapters on my Kindle, wondering when it was going to get to the point, or at least begin the story.

It opens with a lengthy description of the fictional town of Cranford, ruled by middle-class and upper-middle class ladies. While there was gentle irony in much of the description, I found myself drifting off at times. The disadvantage of reading on the Kindle is that it's difficult to flick through to see whether the style changes!

However, I perservered, and gradually the story gets going. The narrator - Mary Smith - does not live in Cranford but makes regular and lengthy visits there, usually staying with the delightfully vague Miss Matty and her sister. When there, she takes part in the everyday life of her friends: paying calls, discussing local events, playing card games. In that sense, it's a lovely piece of social history, giving glimpses - albeit caricatured - into life in this era, in this kind of small town. I could quite see why it was made into a TV series and also why it was so popular in that format.

There isn't a huge amount of plot in the book; people come and go, and rather a large number die (not untypical of the time). I didn't find myself empathising with anyone in particular, or moved - but I did smile a few times, and after the first few chapters, looked forward to finding out what might happen next. I was pleased that there was an encouraging, if rather coincidental ending.

I'm not strongly inclined to get hold of the sequels, but I enjoyed this as a bit of gentle historical fiction and am glad I read it.

(Note that the above links are to paperback versions of 'Cranford', which is still in print on both sides of the Atlantic; the Kindle versions are either free or inexpensive as this is long out of copyright)

Review by Sue F copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews