25/07/2015

Millie's Fling (by Jill Mansell)

A friend introduced me to a book by Jill Mansell some years ago, and - rather to my surprise - I enjoyed it very much. I tried another of her books some months later, and liked that too. So when I saw this one for a euro in a charity shop, despite the rather unappealing front cover (showing a dog in sunglasses and some bare legs on a garish yellow rug against a turquoise background… modern editions are much nicer) I decided to buy it.

That was over four years ago. ‘Millie’s Fling’ has sat on my to-read shelf for all that time, and I’ve never felt inclined to pull it out. But finally I did so, about a week ago, and finished it today.

It starts quite dramatically. A young woman called Millie is in a car with her boyfriend, who thinks he’s making a romantic suggestion, when she notices another woman chain-smoking and walking up and down the edge of a cliff, looking as if she’s about to jump. So Millie, abandoning her boyfriend - who’s really rather dull - goes to talk to the woman and, unsurprisingly, convinces her to re-think.

Minus one affronted boyfriend, Millie goes out with her close friend Hester, only to find an abandoned wallet. She tries a prank call on the owner, although fully intending to return it intact, and realises she’s made a major faux pas…

This seems to be the story of Millie’s life. Idealistic and kind, she finds it difficult to be tactful. However, her two good deeds, added to a sudden job loss, catapult her into a completely new set of circumstances. Suddenly she finds herself friends with a well-known writer, falling in love with an apparently unobtainable young man, and taking on a job about as far removed from her previous role as an estate agent as can possibly be imagined.

It has the trappings of a good story, with some humour at the unlikely - almost surreal - events that seem to happen to Millie. But although I kept reading, and it certainly wasn’t boring, I didn’t particularly enjoy it. This is partly because the viewpoints changed so often - sometimes within a single scene - that I never felt that I really got to know any of the characters. Everyone’s thoughts are given, only distinguished from their spoken words by the lack of quotation marks. It made me feel like an omniscient fly on the wall not just hearing a conversation but knowing the inner thoughts of both participants - thus feeling connection with neither.

Alongside this, the style is very informal. A measure of informality suits the genre of ‘chick-lit’, and I don’t particularly have a problem with that, but it doesn’t feel entirely consistent and that also made it hard to be involved. There’s a lot of action but also a great deal of introspection; I felt that the book - which is quite long, at 566 pages - could have done with significant editing.

However, my biggest problem with this - as with many others in the genre to be fair - is the assumption that people who feel any kind of physical attraction for each other will leap into bed (or some other appropriate place) at the first opportunity. Perhaps this was meant to be humorous, but I didn’t find it amusing at all, and it doesn’t match at all with anybody I’ve ever met. After the first few chapters, it became irritating; it's almost impossible to relate to people who are so shallow.

It’s a pity, because the growing friendship between Millie and the wallet-owning Hugh is nicely done, with some instances of kinship and closeness that were so much more interesting than the ‘chemistry’ between them and others. But perhaps I'm simply not in the target age-group for this book; Jill Mansell is very popular as a writer, and other reviewers elsewhere found this book both enjoyable and humorous.

I was glad, at any rate, that the author closes the door firmly on all bedroom scenes; we see people rushing upstairs (or elsewhere) with astounding frequency, but our next view happens when they emerge, dishevelled. There’s little or no bad language, either, which is refreshing in this kind of book.

Despite myself, I kept reading - often several chapters at a time, as it was so lightweight - and was pleased that the ending was predictable and satisfying.

First published in 2001, 'Millie's Fling' has been reprinted more than once, and is available for the Kindle too.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Soul Survivor (by Philip Yancey)

I love to re-read books by my favourite authors, though I usually try to wait at least five or six years between re-readings. Philip Yancey is a Christian writer whom I first came across over fifteen years ago, at the recommendation of a friend. I find his writing to be honest and encouraging, sometimes almost a lone voice amongst American evangelicals, talking about grace and love in a way that’s a lot more appealing than much of the so-called ‘religious right’.

It had been ten years since I read Yancey’s ‘Soul Survivor’. My edition is subtitled, ‘How my faith survived the church’, although that’s perhaps a bit over-dramatic; others of his books describe his background and gradual rediscovery of a new and more authentic faith rather better. Still, this is a fascinating book, charting the lives and writings of thirteen other writers, all of whom affected Yancey in different ways, and helped his faith along the way.

It’s an interesting selection. All but one of the chosen writers are men; the exception is Annie Dillard, a poet who specialised in writing about nature. All but one of the chosen writers are - or were - Christians; the exception here is Mahatma Gandhi whose non-violent principles were, in many ways, more powerful than any other method of making governments listen.

There’s a mixture of nationalities amongst the chosen thirteen, a wide variety of writing styles, too. Yancey met most of them at some point, became friendly with some, worked alongside one of them for some years. What binds them together is that each one brought something new to his reconstruction of faith, and his understanding of who Jesus was and is.

I have to admit that ‘Soul Survivor’ is a bit heavy going. It’s not the kind of book to read in one sitting; I couldn’t even manage one chapter at a time, as I found my mind wandering after ten or twelve pages. I compromised by reading half a chapter per day, and that worked well. It wasn’t that the accounts were dull, or the writing repetitive; it’s more that I’m no history buff, nor am I particularly interested in many of the writers quoted amongst Yancey’s choice.

Since first reading this, I have in fact read (and very much appreciated) books by two of the selection: Henri Nouwen, the Catholic priest who did so much to reach out to others, and also Paul Brand, the brilliant doctor who first discovered why leprosy causes so much disfigurement. Philip Yancey worked alongside Paul Brand to produce one of my all-time favourite volumes, ‘In the Likeness of God’. I have also read some of GK Chesterton’s non-fiction writing; until I read the account in this book, I knew him only as the author of the ‘Father Brown’ detective series.

On the other hand, I have not the slightest interest in reading Tolstoy, Dostoevsky or Shusaku Endo. Nor do any of the others appeal. I had wondered if, on re-reading this book, I might be intrigued by some different writers and look up their works; that didn’t happen. My background is very different from Yancey’s, and my tastes are too. The first Christian writer who inspired and encouraged me was CS Lewis, whose work has shaped much of my own theology. The second was Adrian Plass, and the third was probably Philip Yancey himself.

If you’re interested by how different kinds of writing can affect someone’s faith profoundly, then this is a good book to read. If you like Yancey’s writing and are interested in some of the background to how he reached his current beliefs, then this fills in some of the picture well.

However, as a stand-alone book I didn't find it particularly inspiring; I’m glad I re-read it, but it didn’t do anything for me, and I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to his work.

'Soul Survivor', first published in 2001, has remained in print, with a new paperback edition in the US in 2003, and another in the UK in 2007. Unsurprisingly, it's now available in Kindle form too.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

21/07/2015

Plain Truth (by Jodi Picoult)


I’ve only read a few of Jodi Picoult’s novels. Each one has been very well-written, with a powerful plot, difficult to put down… and quite emotionally draining. I have enjoyed most of them, and added a few more to my wishlist a few years ago. But it’s taking me a while to get around to reading them, perhaps because I’ve been concentrating on more lightweight novels.

It was quite a surprise, however, to realise that I’ve had ‘Plain Truth’ sitting on my to-be-read shelf for over three years now. I picked it up about three days ago… and although it’s not a short book, I finished it today. As with Picoult’s other novels, it became more and more difficult to put down, the further I read.

It starts with a brief, tragic and slightly confusing scene when a baby is born, and then vanishes. It’s clear, very quickly, that the mother is a young Amish woman called Katie, and that the baby has died. However, Katie denies having had a baby despite medical evidence that she has. And then the police get involved, and Katie is accused of murder.

Ellie, meanwhile, is a lawyer who is taking a break with an aunt nearby after a stressful case which she won by convincing the jury that a guilty man was innocent. She justifies it to herself but feels bad for his victims. She doesn’t want to take on another case, but finds herself not just defending Katie, but offering to be her ‘keeper - to watch her, and ensure that she stays with her until the trial begins, so that Katie does not have to go to jail.

The bulk of the book is about Ellie and Katie as they get to know each other. Katie appears to have some form of amnesia, although as the book develops, and she ‘remembers’ more, it’s hard to know what’s going on. Is she telling deliberate lies? Is she schizophrenic? Is she a cold-blooded killer and also an actress? Why can’t she remember giving birth - or, apparently, conceiving the baby in the first place…?

Ellie, meanwhile, has to adapt to Amish culture which includes learning to milk cows, helping with chores in the kitchen, being taught to sew… and living without electricity. Which proves difficult when she needs to recharge her laptop in order to produce the necessary paperwork for her case.

The last third of the book deals with the court case itself, with the various witnesses (introduced earlier) being interviewed by both prosecution and defence. Although nothing new transpires, it makes fascinating reading, giving insights into the whole legal process.

I find it rather concerning that Ellie keeps insisting that truth, as such, isn’t relevant: what matters is to tell the most convincing story. Although Katie challenges this - as an Amish girl she is committed to truth - it appears that the entire justice system is far from just, if the most important thing is to have a convincing lawyer.

There are many twists and turns to the storyline as Katie gradually reveals more, and as Ellie begins to see at a deeper level just how the Amish community functions. There’s a positive and - I thought - balanced view of these people, as ordinary folk who simply want to get on with their lives without compromising their principles. While I would hate to do without electricity and modern transport, their non-violent forgiving ethos is very appealing.

While I had guessed some of what was to come, including what’s revealed in a kind of epilogue, I certainly hadn’t expected all that transpired. The plotting is meticulous, the people believable, and despite not much happening in terms of action, I was hooked by the time I was about a third of the way through.

The ending is perhaps rather abrupt, but overall I liked this book very much.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

18/07/2015

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (by JK Rowling)

This book is the third in JK Rowling’s best-selling series about the teenage wizard Harry Potter. I first read it soon after it was published in the late 1990s. I re-read it in 2003 and then again in 2005, before publication of the seventh and final book. At the time, it ranked as my favourite of the series.

Ten years later, after re-reading ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ a few weeks ago, and then ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’, it didn’t take me long to pull this one out of my shelves, wondering if I would enjoy it as much as I did the first few times.

‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’ takes a rather darker turn than the first two books, paving the way for the gradual return to power of the evil Lord Voldemort. The book starts with Harry, once again, spending the summer with his unpleasant relatives who won’t allow him to do his homework, and don’t even acknowledge his birthday. He’s determined not to get in trouble, because he wants his uncle to sign an important permission form.

However, Harry loses his temper, and disaster starts to ensure around him, meaning he is forced to leave home, where he’s picked up by the oddly surreal ‘Knight Bus’.

Meanwhile, the TV news has been reporting an escaped convict, Sirius Black. Once Harry is back in the wizarding world, we discover that Black has been in Azkaban, the wizarding prison; moreover, it seems that he’s after Harry. Security is high when he returns to Hogwarts, and he meets, for the first time, the appalling ‘dementors’, the guards who suck every bit of happiness from a person’s soul.

Life isn’t easy back at school, either. Hermione has a new cat, Crookshanks, who seems determined to catch and eat Ron’s rat Scabbers. Work is getting harder now they’re third years, and Hermione’s schedule, in particular, seems to be impossible. Harry’s the only person in his year who can’t go out to the local village of Hogsmeade at weekends, and he overhears more and more terrible things about his parents, and also about the escaped Sirius Black…

There are many threads in this book, some of which I had forgotten. JK Rowling weaves them together expertly, building character and tension while telling a very exciting story which, I can now see with the benefit of hindsight, foreshadows the eventual climax in the final book.

As with the first two, the context is that of a school story. So there’s plenty of insight into the third years’ school days, including some thrilling Quidditch matches, some unpleasant Potions lessons with the unpleasant Professor Snape, and the introduction of Professor Lupin, who teaches some excellent ‘Defence of the Dark Arts’ lessons, and gives Harry a bit of private coaching too.

Of course, I knew the outline of the plot: who would be revealed as the ‘bad guy’ and what the result of the complicated climactic scenes would be. That didn’t stop my heart from beating a little faster as I reached the denouement; I had to put the book down, a couple of times, to reduce the tension for a few minutes, before I read on.

The concluding scenes are thrilling, and also ingenious, leaving the way wide open for the next book, which I’m sure I will be re-reading soon.

Very highly recommended; this is a powerful book about the force of good over evil, about believing in oneself and the power of love; about nobility and courage… and about the need, sometimes, to break ‘rules’ for a much greater good.

We saw the related film of 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban' in 2012 and thought it well done but with rather too much action; the book has a lot more in it, and I like it considerably better.


Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

14/07/2015

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café (by Fannie Flagg)

This isn’t a book I would ever have chosen despite the intriguing title. I know nothing about Fannie Flagg, and I tend not to choose American books in general. It was given to me by a friend about five years ago, but it sat on our shelves unopened, almost forgotten, until one evening we watched - and very much enjoyed - the related film ‘Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café’.

So I moved the book to my ‘to be read’ shelves, and finally picked it up about ten days ago. I’d almost entirely forgotten the plot of the film, although, once I got started, I did recall the middle-aged Evelyn Couch becoming friendly with the elderly Ninny Threadgoode when her husband was visiting his mother at a nursing home. Ninny starts talking about the past - the family she learned to love, the café run by one of her sisters in law, and some of the strange people who passed through their lives.

It took a few days to get into the book; it flits between the 1930s and the 1980s and I had a hard time keeping track of all the people in the 1930s. But that didn’t matter too much; gradually the main characters emerged and I found myself, like Evelyn, eager to hear more, while also interested in her personal struggles with negative self-esteem and compulsive eating.

The story in the 1930s is shocking in places, dealing as it does with rampant racism (there are many instances of a word that is considered totally taboo these days), violence, infidelity, and at the same time the total acceptance of a lesbian couple. There’s a macabre mystery which is ongoing, too, in a low-key kind of way; Evelyn and Ninny never do discover ‘whodunit’, but it’s revealed in another flashback towards the end of the book; something I’d quite forgotten from the film, but recalled as I read it.

And yet, despite the alien culture of drop-outs, legal apartheid and paternalism, there’s a warmth that seeps into the pages and conversations from the past. There’s a sense of extended family, and of caring for strangers; this is long gone in the 1980s section, where Ninny is alone in the sterile nursing home, and Evelyn struggles in her marriage.

It’s cleverly written, intertwining past and present as it does, gradually building up the storylines, and closing them up towards the end. There’s a poignancy in the last pages which is perhaps inevitable, and a sense of hope for the future, too.

I won’t be rushing to re-read this, but I’m glad I made the effort. Recommended if you’re interested in American social history of the 1930s, or just want a good read that’s very different from most novels.

There are some traditional 'Southern' recipes in the back, but they sound decidedly unappealing to this Brit!

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

08/07/2015

Missing You (by Louise Douglas)

I think this book must have been recommended to my by Amazon based on my reading preferences and ratings. I had not previously come across anything by Louise Douglas, but the blurb sounded interesting, so it went on my wishlist, and I was given it for Christmas 2013. It sat on my crowded to-be-read shelf for rather a long time before I finally decided to start reading it on Sunday.

Three days later, I’ve finished ‘Missing You’, and it’s not a short book. I struggled to get going with it, at first, but by the time I was about a third of the way through I was hooked. Not that there’s a huge amount of plot, or any real surprises; but the characters felt real, and the situations intriguing.

Sean is the main male protagonist. He’s a likeable guy, if a bit lacking in empathy at times. He’s been married to Belle for eleven years, and they have a six-year-old daughter, Amy, whom he adores. We meet him when he’s being asked to leave the house, and we quickly learn that Belle has been having an affair with someone else.

Sean despairs for a few days, but eventually decides to stay in a bedsit recommended by one of his colleagues. Fen is his landlady, a single mother with a five-year-old son, and some unpleasant memories of her past which only gradually unfold. Fen feels unworthy and unattractive most of the time, but she starts to fall for Sean…and that’s just what he needs, to restore his confidence lift his spirits.

But Sean, who’s prone to drinking too much, still hankers for Belle, and is very worried about what’s happening to his daughter Amy as her family life disintegrates around her…

The story switches between Sean’s and Fen’s viewpoints, charting their growing friendship and more. There’s not a whole lot of plot; the mystery surrounding Fen’s past isn’t as terrible as she had imagined, when it’s finally revealed, but that was okay. The book is primarily about coming to terms with the past, and the need for honesty, while also making wise decisions and moving forward. The title of the book might refer to Sean’s feelings about Belle, or Fen’s feelings about her brother, or indeed their mutual feelings when, for a while, they are apart.

I liked Fen very much, and thought the scenes with the children worked well. Amy is very believable, and Connor is a likeable boy who stays cheerful despite some physical disabilities. It was harder to like Sean, who seems too like a stereotypical beer-swilling insensitive guy, not like men I know and care for at all… and yet he’s very attached to Amy, and gradually learns more about himself and those he cares for.

The ending was positive and hopeful, albeit predictable. I found it a bit abrupt, but perhaps there was no more to be said. Overall, I thought this a good read, though there was rather more bad language than I’m comfortable with.

Available in Kindle form as well as paperback, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

06/07/2015

Gemma and Sisters (by Noel Streatfeild)

Noel Streatfeild was one of my favourite children’s authors, and over the years I’ve collected most of her books. I still turn to them, from time to time, for nostalgia and comfort reading. They’re simplistic, in a sense, compared to today’s children’s fiction; yet her characters are sympathetic and believable, and her stories a reflection of positive themes and ordinary family life in the middle of the 20th century.

This particular series featuring the Robinson family is probably my favourite. It was published in the late 1960s and considered contemporary at the time, so it’s not as dated as classics such as ‘Ballet Shoes’. In the first book, ‘Gemma’, which I re-read about eighteen months ago for the first time in many years, we read about the struggles of the child film star Gemma Bow as she learns to integrate with her impoverished cousins, after being abandoned (in her eyes) by her rather selfish mother. Gemma discovers that her cousins are highly talented, in typical Streatfeild style: Ann is an excellent singer, Lydia is a brilliant ballet dancer, and Robin is a pianist and singer who already has a scholarship to a choir school. At the end of the book, their grandmother persuades Gemma to form a group so they can appear together in a fundraising concert - and so the idea of ‘Gemma and Sisters’ is born.

This book is a direct sequel, starting the morning after the concert, and follows them as the group develops through the next year. Ann is quiet and academic, and has to be persuaded to learn a bit of stage presence; Lydia has lots of confidence, but must learn to blend in, and think of others. Gemma is a good producer but nervous about her own singing; and she doesn’t want to spend too much time on their family group because she’s been given a very important role in a school play about Lady Jane Grey.

The story isn’t all about this group, however; it focuses on the Robinson family and their day to day life, as the parents struggle somewhat financially, while raising their three very different children and providing a home for Gemma. Lydia learns a difficult lesson in this book, and there are some quite moving sections when her future career hangs in the balance due to her own negative actions.

I like this book very much, but as I read it - in just a few hours - I found myself confused by the chronology; the first part of the book takes place in the Autumn, with mention of Christmas holidays and concerts, and then there’s a brief interlude when the family celebrate Christmas, and have a peaceful day. Shortly afterwards, however, it becomes apparent that the storyline has moved backwards we’re in early December once more, and there’s another day set aside for Christmas. It’s not a major problem, and I don’t think I ever noticed it before; I can easily understand how it might have happened while writing the book, but am surprised the editor didn’t pick up on it!

That apart, it’s a very pleasant book and makes an excellent sequel to ‘Gemma’. There are two more in the series, but this one ends in a way that could have been final. Ends are tied up perhaps a bit too neatly, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in a children’s book. What matters is the characterisation and development, and Noel Streatfeild manages those expertly.

Fluent readers of about eight or nine and upwards would probably like this; Lydia is nine in the book, and Robin a bit younger, though he doesn’t have much of a part to play, and the book would be likely to appeal more to girls than to boys. I don’t know that it’s particularly useful from the social history point of view as we don’t read much about current events, or anything much outside the lives of the people concerned; still, that means that it feels less dated than it could have done.

It’s not necessary to have read ‘Gemma’ before this one, but it helps with the continuity.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

05/07/2015

Me and Mr Jones (by Lucy Diamond)

I hadn’t heard of Lucy Diamond, but Amazon recommended this book to me based on my general reading preferences; after reading the reviews, I added it to my wishlist and was given it for my birthday last year. It’s taken me over a year to pluck it from my crowded to-be-read shelf, but I’m glad that I finally did so.

‘Me and Mr Jones’ is a decided ungrammatical title. I’m not obsessive about grammar, but I did feel a slight twinge of irritation every time I looked at it, which is perhaps why it took me so long to start reading. However, it’s a minor gripe. The book itself was very enjoyable, once I got into it.

It’s a bit confusing at first, as there are quite a few characters. Lilian and Eddie Jones are in their 60s and have been running the family home as a bed and breakfast for some years, now. But they’re getting tired, and have less energy, and - rather worryingly - Eddie seems to be losing his touch in a lot of ways. But they don’t just want to sell up. Ideally, they would like one of their three sons to take over.

So Lilian calls a family gathering over Sunday lunch. Hugh, their eldest son and his wife Alicia turn up, with their three children. They have good jobs and have no wish to move, nor to run a B&B; however, by this stage we’ve discovered that Alicia, who has been a model wife and mother, is going through a bit of a mid-life crisis as she approaches 40. So she’s determined to be a bit more forthright and to make some time for herself.

David, the middle son, also turns up with his wife Emma. Lilian would really like them to take over the B&B. David is currently unemployed and quite depressed about it, and Emma could probably run her business from anywhere in the country. But Emma has her own worries: she’s desperate to have a baby, and nothing seems to be happening.

Then there’s Charlie, the irresponsible youngest son, who doesn’t even remember the lunch until one of his brothers sends him a text. He then arrives with a new girlfriend, Izzy and her two daughters, informing his mother that they’ve already eaten... and sparks fly.

I thought the family lunch was a great way of seeing the family together and beginning to understand some of the dynamics. The story is told alternately from the viewpoints of the four women concerned, each of them married to (or, in Izzy’s case, getting to know) one of the Mr Joneses of the family, and I thought it worked very well. The characters and names were sufficiently different that I had no trouble remembering who was whom, or what their particular problems and worries were, and by the time I was a few chapters into the book, it was very difficult to put down.

It’s not that there’s much plot; there were one or two surprises, and one shock towards the middle of the book, but most of what happened was quite predictable. However, that didn’t matter at all; I enjoyed the glimpses into the lives of this diverse but nonetheless close family, and the way their relationships developed in the course of the novel.

The writing is perhaps a tad informal in places, but the pace is good and on the whole I enjoyed it very much. There are some quite difficult themes, both past and present from the point of view of the story, and they were handled sensitively. There’s some bad language, but I didn’t think it was too excessive; I was relieved that all bedroom doors are firmly closed.

Alicia’s children, particularly her sons, are a bit shadowy; I’d like to have got to know them better, but I very much liked the relationship between Izzy and her daughters. And in the last few chapters, I found myself deeply moved a couple of times.

I’d recommend this highly to anyone who enjoys character-based women’s fiction.  Available in Kindle form as well as paperback.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews