Thursday, 11 September 2014

Dogger (by Shirley Hughes)

I happened to notice that the last book review I wrote was my 1499th on this blog. I don't usually notice numbers of that kind, but I started wondering if something extra special could be my 1500th review, since I started writing them back in 1999.

It just so happened that I saw a Facebook 'challenge' to choose ten books that had stayed with me over the years - that had, perhaps, affected my worldview. I jotted notes and eventually turned it into a review on another blog. In doing so, I checked to see how many of my 'top ten' had been reviewed here - in other words, which of them had I re-read in the past fifteen years? I was pleased to find that eight of them had reviews on this blog: evidently they were, indeed, books that had truly stayed with me.

One of the books is long out of print and I haven't been able to get hold of it. But the tenth in the list is one that I have read many times in the past few years. I haven't reviewed it because it's a picture book for children, and I read so many of those that it's hard to keep track.

But then it occurred to me that it would make an excellent subject for my 1500th review.

If I had to choose just one children’s picture book, from all those I have ever come across, I would opt for ‘Dogger’ by Shirley Hughes. She is a writer and illustrator, probably best known for her series about Alfie and Annie Rose, which I also like very much.

I first came across 'Dogger' when my sons were little. I bought a hardback edition as part of a set which I have kept, even when moving abroad with no small children. The story is about a small boy called Dave who is, I suppose, about three. Dogger is his greatly-loved toy.  Dave also has a big sister, who likes teddies and a baby brother. And they live in a very English home which, like most of Shirley Hughes' illustrations, is nicely cluttered.

The plot gets going when Dogger gets lost - sharp-eyed children may spot what happens to him, though probably not the first time they hear the story. Naturally there's a happy ending, but it comes after a dramatic and very moving climax.

The pictures look somewhat dated, by today's standards, but they are part of what makes this book (and others by this author) so very special. They match perfectly with the text, and provide inspiration for a great deal of discussion from children listening to the story.  Even now, when I re-read it for the umpteenth time to some small friends, we have to stop on the page illustrating a fancy-dress parade so they can decide which costumes they like best, and which will suit various relatives and friends.

I particularly like this book because, rather than being overtly educational, there’s a powerful theme of family love. In a gentle way, showing rather than telling, this book emphasises how important it is to listen to a child's concerns, however trivial they might seem to the rest of his family. As for the ending - it's a wonderful example of sacrificial love that even a small child can understand. When I haven't read the book for a while, I get choked up as I read it, despite knowing the story almost word for word.

Dogger' is still in print, available in paperback for under £3 at Amazon UK, or rather more in the US; it can often be found second-hand, too, or on offer in children's book shops.

I highly recommend this as a read-aloud book for any child from the age of about three; older children enjoy the story too, and it makes an excellent early reading book for a child of around five or six who is just beginning to read on their own.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

One Hundred Names (by Cecelia Ahern)

I’ve enjoyed some of the books by Cecelia Ahern, but not all of them. Nonetheless, I like her writing style, and the fact that her novels are never run-of-the-mill or predictable. I was intrigued enough by the blurb for this one that I put it on my wishlist, and was given it for a recent birthday.

‘One hundred names’ is about Kitty, a journalist who has been fired from her TV job after an investigation and report that went badly wrong. She’s consumed with guilt, and worried about her other job as a reporter for a magazine. She is close friends with the owner, Constance, who is very sick; the opening scene shows Kitty reluctantly visiting her friend in hospital.

Kitty is given one last chance to write a great story - and it’s a mysterious one. A hundred names are listed, with - she assumes - a link of some kind. But she is given no clue what the link might be, and has around two weeks to come up with 5,000 words. She starts working through the list but is met with rejections and disappointments - several nbpeople have moved, or are not interested in speaking to her.

Gradually she finds a few people who are willing to meet her, but as she gets to know them, she becomes more and more puzzled about the assignment. There are some diverse stories, and she’s able to dig beneath the surface to some degree - but can’t figure out what they all have in common.

It’s a character-based story; in getting to know a few people from the list, Kitty overcomes some of her fears and inhibitions, and starts to think more about other people. She realises that she had lost her love of stories, and begins to regain it. She eventually figures out what her article is about - I suddenly realised it myself, a few pages before it’s revealed - and also discovers who her real friends are.

In a sense there’s not much plot; it’s a light read which I finished in just a few days despite being quite a long book. I did sometimes lose track, briefly, of who was whom; the characters aren’t particularly well-developed, other than Kitty, and some of the stories were a bit far-fetched. Still, it’s quite thought-provoking.

I'd recommend this for holiday reading if you enjoy lightweight women's fiction. It's available in Kindle form as well as paperback, but is almost as expensive electronically.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

The Question that Never Goes Away (by Philip Yancey)

I was quite surprised to find a free ebook by Philip Yancey, when browsing the Christian section at the end of last year. The title made me wonder if it was actually a re-vamped - or shorter - edition of his classic ‘Where is God when it hurts?’, so I downloaded it, and have read it over the last few weeks.

It turns out that ‘The question that never goes away’ is a new book, almost a sequel. The subtitle is the question:‘What is God up to in a world of such tragedy and pain?’ Yancey writes of his experiences when asked to talk to parents who have lost children in tragic school shooting incidents around the US, and also in war-zones. He continues to ask difficult questions, to attempt to speak to people going through appalling circumstances, without sounding trite.

Of course there are no easy answers - as the author has found for himself, increasingly. His is a refreshing voice amongst American evangelical writers; rather than taking a definite stance he is open to many ways of looking at events and problems; in them all he has an abiding faith in a God of love, but does not try to quote Scripture or to give false hope or pat answers.

Philip Yancey’s writing is always good; he has a talent for explaining complex concepts to lay people without ever being condescending. He acknowledges that each individual is different, that nobody can go through anybody else’s pain, and that we all deal with tragedies in different ways.

And yet, the book doesn’t really say a lot more than was explored in ‘Where is God when it hurts?’. I’m glad I read it; it was a good reminder that life isn’t easy, but that God is still with us, wanting to hold us close, to share in our pain. But I don’t think I would have paid full price for it.

Recommended nonetheless. It’s now available in print form as well as Kindle (no longer free).

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Discipline Without Shouting or Spanking (by Barbara C Unell and Jerry Wyckoff)

I had not heard of Jerry Wyckoff or Barbara C. Unell, the authors of this book, both American experts in rearing children. Nor am I one of the target readership, as I no longer have children at home. Still, it was available free for the Kindle, and the title is one I certainly agree with. So I downloaded it out of curiosity. It turns out that the free edition is only about a third of the full book, which is available in paperback form as well as electronic.

The assumption of ‘Discipline without shouting or spanking’ seems to be that most parents are inconsistent and harsh in the way they handle their children; if true, this is a sad indictment of Western society in the 21st century. As with other books on a similar theme, the authors advise staying calm, addressing issues directly, and letting the children know that they are unconditionally loved. They explain why corporal punishment is counter-productive and also show that shouting or yelling at children model impatience and disrespect. It lists, too, some of what can be expected of children at different ages, and why it’s wrong to make them accountable for things which are accidents.

I didn’t find anything new in this book; indeed, I found the emphasis on ‘rules’ (albeit flexible) to be a bit coercive, but if parents have been yelling at (or hitting) their children, this kind of clear structure would be a positive step forward. However, I thought it a pity that the book did not define the distinction between punishment (revenge), discipline (teaching) and consequences (the natural or logical result of some action), as some parents seem to confuse these three distinct concepts.

I found it a bit odd that routines such as tooth-brushing and bedtimes were given stronger priorities (with recommended ‘rules’ for each home) than more serious issues such as lying. However, the explanations about the latter were good; many children have fuzzy boundaries between fact and fiction and the suggestions for dealing with lies were, I thought, excellent. There's also a useful chapter on helping shy children relate to other people - something which is less likely to be considered a problem in the more reserved UK!

I only read the shortened free ebook edition of this book, but it’s nicely presented and edited in such a way that it feels complete in itself. I would recommend it in a low-key way to any parents feeling caught up in an angry battle with their children; if useful, it might be worth getting hold of the full edition (which I have linked). This is primarily aimed at parents of under-fives but may be of value to those with older children too.

For my personal favourite on this topic, I would recommend ‘How to talk so kids will listen...’ by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish; it’s illustrated with cartoons and many anecdotes, and is more light-hearted and general than this book, as well as dealing more with slightly older children; it could provide a useful complement to this one.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Sunday, 17 August 2014

A Street Cat Named Bob (by James Bowen)

I had just been to a writing conference, and was spending a long weekend relaxing with relatives, so I wanted something light and undemanding to read. I spotted this book on my bedroom shelf; the story of James Bowen and his cat Bob is quite well known but I had never read the book, so it seemed like a good opportunity.

The opening pages of ‘A Street Cat Named Bob’ describe the first meeting between the author, who tries to eke out a living as a busker, and the ginger tom who adopts him back in 2007. Bob’s health isn’t great when they meet, and as a cat lover this is the motivation the author needs to start pulling himself out of the mires of drug addiction and depression that have dogged him for some years.

As Bob is an Internet star, there were no surprises for me in the story: Bob responds well to treatment, and his new friend earns lot more money busking when accompanied by a cat. Bob vanishes a few times but is always found; the author James Bowen is motivated to start improving his life and makes some positive changes. It’s a feel-good kind of story, and was an easy read that I dipped in and out of, occasionally skimming when it felt a bit dull or repetitive.

And there’s the nub: it’s not, actually, very well-written. My inner editor kept wishing it had been pared down (the two opening paragraphs, for instance, add nothing at all to the story) and that the writing was better. I understand that the book was commissioned as a result of Bob’s Internet fame, and I assume ghost-written as if James Bowen were chatting to someone - it has that kind of rambling feel to it.

Still, this is evidently what the general public likes. It’s an immensely popular book, which became a surprise bestseller shortly after it was released. And it’s a good story, with some obvious messages about the horrors of drug addition and the importance of family and friends. As an aside, I was interested to learn about ‘The Big Issue’ - a magazine I have occasionally been offered when in the UK, but never bought; I had no idea how or why it was sold.

It’s not that I don’t like cats: I very much enjoyed the book about Dewey the Library cat which I read a few years ago. I’m glad that Bob found such a good home. I’m also pleased that James Bowen not only got out of his addictions, but became financially independent after the publication of this book. But as a writer, I am disappointed that such a good story was written in a mediocre way.

It made a pleasant enough light holiday read - but I wouldn’t recommend buying it.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Sunday, 10 August 2014

The Steps of the Priory (by Sally Quilford)

I’ve known Sally Quilford online for some years now; she’s quite a prolific writer of short stories and pocket novellas, which she publishes on Kindle and sometimes makes available free to download on special occasions.

‘The Steps of the Priory’ is her longest work to date, a full-length novel and the first in a series (although she has not yet written the sequel). It’s a historical saga, set over about thirty years, beginning in 1917 and ending just after the second World War. I downloaded it for my Kindle a couple of years ago and read it recently, while visiting relatives.

The opening sequence to this book sees the teenage Becky running through the streets with her friend Jed, clutching a bundle which we quickly realise is a baby. She drops it on the steps of the Priory, owned by the Harcourt family, in the hope that they - or perhaps one of their servants - will take the baby in and look after him.

Charles Harcourt and his drug-addicted sister Patricia come across the baby, and Patricia decides to adopt him after losing her own baby. But they tell nobody, and she claims to have had her child elsewhere, so no connection is made by any of the characters until quite a way through the novel…

Becky’s home life is miserable, and it rapidly gets worse; however she has plenty of friends. And here’s where my only real problem with this novel lies: there are a lot of characters, and I found it difficult to keep track of who is whom. I read this book over just a few days (it was hard to put down at times) so it wasn’t as if I had forgotten the story. But although the names and circumstances were different, I simply couldn’t remember who was married (or in love with, or parents of) whom, other than the main protagonists. Sally Quilford has quite a gift of characterisation, and some of her people - Becky in particular - stood out as believable and memorable. But there are a lot of minor characters, mostly men, who were almost indistinguishable to me.

Still, the story moves at a great pace, with transitions in time handled well without jarring. It's a good story, and the plot lines all tie together nicely. I had guessed most of what was revealed in the final pages, but that didn’t matter; it was quite satisfying to find that I was right, and had spotted some subtle clues that others might have missed.

If I’m being picky, there’s one subplot (involving a most unpleasant doctor) which didn’t really seem to fit with the rest of the book. And there’s rather too much description of intimate details for my tastes. It’s mostly not too sordid and doesn’t go on for too long, but means I have to be a little careful about who I recommend it to.

However, these are minor gripes; on the whole I thought this a very good read, and look forward to a sequel.

Note that the link above is to the Kindle edition; no longer free but very reasonably priced. There is also a newly published large print version which is quite expensive but may be available in libraries.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Stories of Emergence (edited by Paul Yaconelli)

Staying at my son’s house, I picked this from his bookshelves to read in odd moments. I had never heard of the late Mike Yaconelli who edited it, but the word ‘emergence’ leapt out at me. The front cover lists several contributors to the book including Brian McLaren, whose writing I like very much.

‘Stories of Emergence’ is exactly as described: each chapter contains the story of one individual’s journey, mostly from some form of modernist/evangelical Christianity via a crisis of some kind through to a broader, more relationship-based faith. It could have been rather dull; the plot of each story is, essentially, the same albeit with different details. But this is not a book to read at one sitting. I dipped into it irregularly over the course of a few weeks, and found much to ponder.

The book is divided into three sections, grouping the writers by those who had a crisis in ministry, those who had a crisis in worldview, and those who simply had a crisis in faith. I can see the reason this was done, but am not sure I could easily have distinguished them. Each individual describes openly and honestly how he or she become disillusioned in some way with the church or other belief system of their youth, and how they eventually found a new and vibrant faith that embraced postmodernist culture while staying true to Jesus.

Some of the stories are fascinating, some of the childhood churches staggeringly rigid or oppressive. One writer describes his childhood as a committed Communist, and one as an ardent feminist. They are all careful not to condemn their earlier views or their upbringing, instead explaining how their eyes were opened at some point, usually due to some dramatic circumstances. The writing styles are quite different; I found some a bit heavy-going, others light and more personal. There were things to ponder in almost every chapter.

Brian McLaren’s chapter is an afterword rather than describing his own experiences as such, but still interesting. There is, unsurprisingly, a strong US bias to this book; most of the writers are from the US (or living there) and thus some of the assumptions are not relevant to everyone. But that's not really a problem.

I would like to have got hold of a copy of this book for myself, but it’s long out of print and not readily available at reasonable price to ship to Cyprus. Still, I will keep an eye out. I doubt if I would want to read it again in its entirety, but I’d like to dip into it from time to time, and would recommend it to others interested in the conversation between 20th century evangelicals and the 21st century modernist believers who are not always accepted as part of the church.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Deodorant Christianity (by JW Boggs)

I like to browse the Christian section of Kindle books and will download almost anything that’s free, if it looks interesting. ‘Deodorant Christianity’ had good ratings, and the title intrigued me; moreover, it was on special offer free a few months ago. I had never heard of JW Boggs, and can find nothing about him online, although it's evident from this book that he lives in the United States.

The author talks in his introduction about how most people apply deodorant to cover up the smell of their sweat, which is different in purpose from anti-perspirant, that actually stops the sweat from forming. He makes the analogy that too many Christians try to cover up their inner selves with a pleasant mask rather than tackling the root of the problem. Which is undoubtedly true, although I felt it was a bit of a dubious analogy, since sweat is a natural, healthy process and anti-perspirants are not generally recommended!

I started reading it in mid-June and liked the style, although it was a tad long-winded at first. Despite the strange analogy, the content is good, looking at different ways in which followers of Jesus can be selfish and unloving. The writing is fairly light-hearted with some anecdotes from the author’s experience, and there are several Scripture quotations, relevant to the theme.

The final chapter looks at the ‘fruits of the Spirit’ and unpacks the concepts a little to fit in with the idea of inner health.

Nothing radical or new, and I had to remind myself to keep reading... but overall it was interesting, and a book which I would recommend in a low-key way to Christian teens or indeed new believers of any age.

No longer free for the Kindle, but relatively inexpensive. Not available, as far as I can tell, in any other format.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews