26/06/2016

Camilla (by Madeleine L'Engle)

It’s many years since I first read Madeleine L’Engle’s best-known children’s classic, ‘A Wrinkle in Time’. It was only in the past twenty years or so, however, that I realised how many other books she wrote. Many of them go in and out of print, but I’ve managed to acquire quite a few, mostly second-hand, and have been reading them with interest.

I just finished her teenage novel ‘Camilla’, which I had not previously read. It’s told in the first person from the point of view of a fifteen-year-old teenage girl who lives in New York. Camilla has been quite sheltered from adult problems, but we meet her when she starts to realise that there’s something very suspicious about her mother’s close friendship with a man called Jacques, who she doesn’t particularly like.

Camilla’s best friend Luisa has parents who fight a lot, and she talks about it regularly; but Camilla doesn’t like to talk about her worries, and the way her parents seem to be growing apart. Nor does she like the thought of growing up herself. However, everything changes when Camilla gets to know Frank, Luisa’s older brother, who has returned from a boarding school. Luisa doesn’t want them to be friends, but they find a strong connection, and friendship blossoms.

So essentially it’s a coming-of-age story. It’s about teenage worries, and first love, and the blossoming of a girl into a young woman. It’s also about finding that one’s parents are human and fallible, and about seeing the reality of different kinds of marriage difficulties from a teenage perspective. It feels quite modern in that sense, so it was a surprise to learn that the novel was written as long ago as 1965.

A subplot of the book, which I found thought-provoking and moving, involves a man who had been seriously disabled in a war. We see him struggling to come to terms with it, alongside his dislike of being pitied or treated as too fragile. Some readers might dislike the regular references to God; yet they’re from the point of view of two teenagers trying to decide what they believe, and why, with some unusual theories thrown in. There certainly wasn’t any preaching.

The descriptive and narrative writing is good, as I would expect from this author, and the insights into Camilla’s mind felt realistic on the whole. However I found the dialogue a bit stilted, and the story sometimes a little too slow-moving. I found the ending rather inconclusive too, and a little depressing.

This would probably appeal to young teenage girls  - perhaps older ones too - as well as adults who enjoy a bit of light reading from time to time.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

22/06/2016

That Girl from Nowhere (by Dorothy Koomson)

I’ve liked almost everything I’ve read by Dorothy Koomson. She writes thoughtful women’s fiction based in the UK, and her protagonists are often non-white, so issues of discrimination and feeling different often come into play. I regularly place another of her books on my wishlist, and was delighted to receive this one for a recent birthday.

‘That girl from nowhere’ is about Clemency Smittson, who is known to most of her friends as Smitty. She was adopted shortly after birth, and had a mostly happy childhood with loving parents, marred only by her bullying cousin Nancy. Smitty recalls the occasion when she realised that she did not look like her parents at all (they are white, she is black) and found out about her adoption. And although her parents evidently adored her, her cousin taunted her with being ‘not real’, not properly part of the family, not the same as anyone else.

We learn about this, and other aspects of her childhood and more recent years, in short sections interspersed with emails from Abi, someone who will later become important in the story. When we first meet Smitty, she’s about to move into a new apartment near Brighton, after ending a long-term relationship with Seth. We quickly learn that Seth betrayed her in a way that she doesn’t think she can forgive, although she evidently still cares for him.

We also discover that Smitty’s father recently died after a long drawn-out illness, and her mother - whom she finds quite stressful - has decided to move in with her. She promised a long time earlier not to try to get in touch with her birth family, but she’s in her late thirties and is curious, particularly about a box decorated with butterflies, which is the only thing she has from her earliest weeks.

There’s rather a big coincidence that leads to her finding her birth family… and the first half of the book is taken up with setting in place the various relationships and situations. There’s quite a large cast but the author is good with distinctive names and, to some extent, characters, so that I never found myself confused.

However, it took a while to get into the book. The writing is very good, but it seemed at first to be a somewhat gentle story of finding oneself; Smitty has been without any real feeling of who she is or where she’s from, made more complex by the issue of skin colour, and by her unpleasant relatives.

Then the second half of the book is full of unexpected revelations and plot directions that I didn’t see coming, yet were somehow believable. The plotting is meticulous, and the story unfolds perfectly with exactly the right amount of information at each stage. By the time I had reached the last hundred pages, I could barely put it down.

There are many contemporary issues that are examined, or at least touched upon: the difficulties that can be experienced by adoptive children; the ways people ‘shame’ each other, often accidentally; the unconditional love that can often be one-sided; the question of what circumstances might make someone commit a crime. The idea of levels of racism runs throughout, and yet is not as major an issue as it might be in the hands of a less-skilled writer.

This is not a book for those who prefer gentler women’s fiction. There's more bad language in this than I’m comfortable with, and rather too much detail about intimate encounters. I wouldn’t recommend this to younger teenagers. Nor are all the questions answered by the end of the book: the ending is positive, yet several things are left open to the readers’ imagination.

Perhaps some of the characters are a little stereotyped too; yet, all in all I found this a powerful and thought-provoking novel. It’s a story that will remain with me for some time.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

09/06/2016

Out of Love (by Victoria Clayton)

I have no idea where I heard of this book, or why it was, for at least a year, on my Amazon wishlist. I had not previously heard of Victoria Clayton and know nothing about her. I assume it was recommended to me at some point, or perhaps I read a review of it. I had almost forgotten it was there - the book is out of print, and was only available from the Marketplace - so was delighted to be given a good quality second-hand edition for my recent birthday.

‘Out of Love’ is about thirty-something Diana, known to most of her friends as Daisy. She’s an academic who lives a fairly solitary life by choice, with a few romantic excursions that are far from satisfactory. We first meet her at an Oxford University reunion, thus establishing her credentials instantly, talking to her friend Min. They have not seen each other for fifteen years, despite being best friends through their school years, and we quickly learn that this was due to a very unfortunate misunderstanding where Diana, without intending to, betrayed her friend.

Diana, it seems, has looks and elegance, while Min is casual and bohemian. Their meeting is followed by Diana promising to visit her friend, who is married with two school-age children. There’s a flashback sequence where we learn how they became friends, and what led to their parting, and then the story moves forward as Diana goes to stay for a long weekend with her friend.

The first hours are not auspicious: the phone lines are down so she has to make her own way there, and Min’s husband seems to take her in dislike almost from the start. The house is cold, the younger child unattractive, the bedroom uncomfortable, the dog smelly, the food unappetising… Diana tries to think of ways in which she could make her visit shorter.

Then an accident strikes and she ends up staying for considerably longer….

This is unashamedly a character-based book, and the people are very well drawn. The writing is excellent - in places it reminded me of Susan Howatch, one of my favourite authors. The pace is perfect for my tastes; it was an ideal book to read for ten or fifteen minutes at bedtime, and despite a relatively large cast, I usually remembered who was whom. As I got further into the book, I read more and more, during the daytime as well as at night as almost everyone started to get under my skin.

The book is nearly twenty years old, thus free of modern trappings such as mobile phones and wifi. On the other hand, the adults all seem to smoke. There’s a lot of drinking and more bad language than I’m comfortable with, and yet I absolutely loved it. The various subplots are cleverly crafted, the relationships nicely developed, and while everything feels believable, nothing is predictable. I didn’t know where the main romantic thread was going, and was pleasantly surprised at the outcome, and the gentle and entirely satisfactory ending.

It’s going to appeal a lot more to women than to men, and mostly to those who like character-based stories without fast action or suspense. But I have no hesitation in recommending it highly to anyone who likes women’s fiction, and have immediately put two more of the author’s books on my wishlist.

No longer in print in paperback, but fairly widely available second-hand; the book is also published in Kindle form on both sides of the Atlantic.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

03/06/2016

Christy (by Catherine Marshall)

Over the years I’ve read a few of Catherine Marshall’s books, mainly non-fiction. I’ve picked them up in charity shops, and for some reason I don’t think I’d ever read this one before. I read ‘Julie’, one of her historical novels a few months ago and enjoyed it very much, so although the book ‘Christy’ looked equally daunting, with small print and over 400 pages, I started it about ten days ago and enjoyed it very much.

This is, again, historical fiction; the author claimed that it’s about 75% biographical, 25% fiction. Christy, nineteen years old and idealistic, is based on Catherine Marshall’s mother and many of the anecdotes are based on her experiences as a young teacher. The location, however, and many of the adults concerned are fictional; the whole makes a moving and very well-written novel.

We meet Christy as she sets out for Cutters’ Gap, a remote village populated by people who originated from the Scottish Highlands. Christy has been inspired by a speaker at her church to become a teacher to deprived children, and her parents reluctantly support her in this, although she has very little idea what she is letting herself in for.

The journey is arduous, and Christy is thrown into a lifestyle that seems very basic and primitive to her. At first she can’t bear the smell of unwashed children, and has little idea how to handle them. Gradually she learns to love them for themselves, aided by the delightful Miss Alice, an older Quaker woman. Christy gradually gets to know David, the other teacher at the mission house, and also makes friends among the local women….

The novel is educational without being overtly so; it gives an excellent picture of the kind of life that some people were living and the scourges of poverty, lack of sanitation and illiteracy. It’s Christian in theme, yet without being preachy; Christy and David both have a great deal to learn about what their faith means to them, and what it means in practice amongst these often unlovable people.

There are parts which are shocking; Marshall does not hide some of the horrors of the past, and the present when disease strikes. Disasters and bereavements were common; yet still tragedies to the people concerned. They don’t complain about their lot, nor do they expect anything that they don’t already have; it’s quite a humbling story in that sense; people today have so much, yet continually want more.

The characters and situations will remain with me for a while, I’m sure; it was a shock to turn the last page and realise that the story had come to an end, and that there’s no sequel since the romance - and the young man concerned - are figments of the author’s imagination.

Highly recommended for older teens as well as adults.

(Note that as well as the original full-length novel, there are several shorter books about Christy, written more recently and intended for younger teens. The original novel is not currently in print but can often be found second-hand)


Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

23/05/2016

Ruey Richardson - Chaletian (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)

In my sporadic re-reading of the lengthy Chalet School series by Elinor M Brent-Dyer, I had reached the one which was 44th in the original publication list, 48th in the Armada variations. It immediately follows ‘Joey and co in Tirol’, which I read and enjoyed a couple of months ago.

‘Ruey Richardson - Chaletian’ continues directly from the previous book, starting at the beginning of the Autumn term at the Chalet School. Last time I read it, about six-and-a-half years ago, I only had the much-abridged Armada version, and thought it rather run-of-the mill and a bit disappointing. In the intervening years I managed to acquire the ‘Girls Gone By’ full edition, and hoped it might be more interesting...

Ruey starts her first term at the Chalet School with a bit of apprehension, having been in charge of her own life and schedule until recently. She’s now a ward of the Maynard family and very friendly with the triplets, and is regarded with disfavour by Francie Wilford who had wanted to become Margot Maynard’s special friend this term.

The blurb on the back of the book mentions this problem; combined with Ruey’s own dislike of early bedtimes and fixed prep periods, it could have led to some relational conflict of the kind that Brent-Dyer does quite well in some of the other books. However these two threads don’t take up much of the book at all. Francie sulks but nothing much happens. There’s a brief section where Ruey asks the triplets what it is that makes the Chalet School so special, with each person caring about everyone else, but that’s more about her personal character development than any real plot.

Unfortunately, it remains rather a dull book. Lacrosse is introduced as an alternative game to hockey, and there are quite lengthy explanations about the game, the way the sticks are held, and then a blow-by-blow account of one of the matches. I imagine that most of this was cut out of the Armada paperback, and I can see why. I would have cut these sections too. New uniforms are also discussed and chosen in this book, again with rather more detail than I cared about.

In addition there are prefects meetings, class incidents, various walks, and staff meetings - perhaps more of the latter than usual; I quite like the chance to get to know some of the staff a little better - and minor incidents involving Joey Maynard who, with her large family, lives next door. The first Bettany family wedding, which takes place over half-term, is only briefly mentioned despite a brief detour for close family and friends to attend it.

So, despite having the new edition, my opinion isn’t changed: it’s a run-of-the-mill Chalet School book, which is a pity as Ruey is a nicely developed and interesting character in the previous book which introduces her.

Still, I’m glad I have the new and full version. All the ‘Girls Gone By’ books have bonus essays or short stories included; this one begins with a fascinating introductory chapter about girls’ school uniforms, and how they changed in the early part of the 20th century. Then, at the end, is a story written by someone other than the main author, outlining a midnight feast that’s mentioned in the book, and its consequences. It’s nicely done, in best Brent-Dyer style, and makes a good add-on.

I’m glad I read it from the sake of continuity, and reminding me how Ruey settled into the school, but it’s not one I’ll be picking up at random to peruse again. Nor is it a good enough story to suggest it as a starting point for anyone intrigued by the Chalet School series. So I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’ve read most of the others, particularly ‘Joey and co in Tirol’.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

19/05/2016

The Second Husband (by Louise Candlish)

I’ve very much liked the books I’ve read by Louise Candlish in the last few years, so although there were rather mixed reviews on this one, I decided to add it to my wishlist, and was given it earlier in the year.

‘The Second Husband’ is told in the first person by Kate, a divorced woman in her late thirties who has a teenage daughter, Roxy, and a younger son Matthew. Her former husband Alistair has a new wife, and they are expecting a baby. Kate’s job pays almost nothing, and Alistair may have to reduce his support to his first family. So he suggests that Kate take in a lodger to help make ends meet.

This is the back story which we learn in the first few chapters. We meet Kate as she’s considering which of the applicants to accept as a lodger, while also becoming rather frustrated at Roxy, whose best friend Marianne seems to be encouraging her to sunbathe while wearing very little…

The overall theme of the book is about the strength of parental relationships. Kate is far from perfect and gets into power struggles with both Alistair and Roxy which seem unnecessary and frustrating. She loses her temper easily and isn't at all good at relating to teenagers. She adores both her children and would do anything to see them happy. She’s not, however, at all intuitive and I found her quite annoying at times since she misses obvious signs that are evident to the reader, and gets herself into an unimaginably appalling situation, apparently with no idea that it was coming.

It’s hard not to give any spoilers, since the strapline on the front of the book essentially gives away the basic plot. I did wonder if it really meant what it implies, but that alerted me to many clues as to where the plot was going in the first part of the book. Perhaps it was meant to; it’s hard to know whether it was a publisher error, or whether in fact the author was employing the ‘unreliable narrator’ technique so that readers are well aware of what is going on despite her ignorance. Either way, the characterisation is excellent; I was rooting for Kate, and cared what happened to her, while still finding her naive and annoying. She got right under my skin!

I haven’t even mentioned the person who becomes a second husband in this novel. Even if the strapline wasn’t intentional, the title must have been. So we know that Kate is going to get married to someone, and it’s clear from the start who that will be. I did find myself a little confused at first; he seems to be an appealing person, almost too good to be true. Gradually that turns into sliminess, and in the second half of the book it delves into something approaching sordidity, although the writing is good enough, with a great deal going on behind closed doors, that it never entirely reaches those depths.

At the midway point when Kate finally realises what has been happening, I wasn’t much liking the book. I wished I had been wrong; the plot is unpleasant, and - I hope - not very realistic. But I kept reading, and felt that Kate’s character develops as she has to give up her own dreams despite being treated appallingly by two of the people she cares about most in the world. Her priorities become clearer, and despite everything her loyalty and love as a mother trump everything.

The ending is a bit abrupt after a lengthy climax where nothing is resolved. Perhaps it’s inevitable that everything comes full circle; yet Kate has moved on, finding out that Alistair is not as bad as she had felt, her sister Tash is much nicer and more reliable than she had thought, and Roxy is an adult who has to make her own decisions.

Really quite thought-provoking, and I shall probably remember the main plot for some time.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

18/05/2016

Cranky, Beautiful Faith (by Nadia Bolz-Weber)

I don’t remember when I first heard of Nadia Bolz-Weber. It was probably on a blog or forum related to unconventional or progressive Christianity. I was, at first, a little dubious about reading a book by a heavily tattooed American pastor who minces no words… but was sufficiently intrigued to add it to my wishlist, and was very pleased to be given it by a relative for a recent birthday.

‘Cranky, Beautiful Faith’ is, as the front cover states, ‘for irregular (and regular) people’. I count myself somewhere in the middle of the two, although having now read the book, I realise that I’m much nearer the ‘regular’ end of the spectrum than I thought, if only because of being a white European home-owner, happily married with two adult sons. Many of the people in the book are homeless, with strings of broken relationships behind them; a significant number are from the LGBT community.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The book is rather different from the majority of Christian books I have read. It’s not about theology; it’s certainly not full of devotional insights. It doesn’t look at Christian lifestyle, nor does it look at popular psychology as it relates to spirituality. These are all, I realise, luxuries of the ‘regular’ folk, those who have the time and education to read and ponder deep questions rather than struggling to make it through the day.

If I must pick a genre, it’s closest to an autobiography. Nadia talks openly about her strictly religious (though loving) childhood, her descent into alcoholism and promiscuity in her teens, and her eventual redemption, in every sense of the word, surrounded by others who were even more wounded and confused than she was. In an unexpected turn-around, she found that she was called to be a pastor to ‘irregular’ folk, to speak God’s love to gay and transgender people, to accept everyone for who they are, and find ways to minister to them.

Even more surprisingly, she became a Lutheran pastor, and her ‘irregular’ services include traditional liturgy and weekly Eucharist/communion. Yet they attract a wide variety of people from all kinds of backgrounds, most of them looking for a place to be cared for, and where they themselves can offer service to others.

The writing is good, the stories unexpected, often moving. The author is honest about her failings and doubts, and manages to present Jesus in a way that feels very realistic, more so than many of our modern Western clean-cut images. I’m not surprised that so many people find her style and teaching so oddly attractive.

Each chapter tells a different story. It’s not a chronological biography, but a book of incidents and anecdotes that were significant in the author’s life, of ways in which she discovered God despite doubts, of how she learned to love even those whom her instincts told her to keep away from.

It’s peppered with down-to-earth language and some obscenities, which I could have done without; yet I understand her need to be transparent, and to write the kinds of words she uses. Perhaps, for the ‘irregular’ parts of her congregation, strong language is a bridge to communication.

I can’t begin to do this book justice. I would recommend it for Christians who are open to unusual styles of writing, for those who want something a bit different in their churches, for those on the fringe who long for acceptance and have not yet found it, and perhaps most of all for people who are inclined to write the church off as feeble and irrelevant.

Well worth reading. Just be warned that there is seriously strong language used throughout.

Note that in the US, the book is known as 'Pastrix', which is apparently a derogatory term used there for female pastors.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

16/05/2016

Siblings Without Rivalry (by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish)

Looking in my bookshelves for something entirely different, I spotted this book. It’s one I read many years ago; I thought it very helpful, and used some of the methods described with my sons. In more recent years I read and thoroughly appreciated other books by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, which are of more general use in communication with people, even though they are intended primarily for parents.

However, since I had a few hours to myself and wanted something a little different, I decided to start re-reading ‘Siblings without rivalry’, which is subtitled, ‘How to help your children live together so you can live too.’ I wondered if I would abandon it after a few chapters; my own sons are now in their late 20s so it’s no longer nearly as relevant as it was.

But I do spend time with other children and have sometimes been caught up in sibling arguments, usually when two children want the same thing at the same time. And this is a very readable book, with an approach I agree with philosophically: that of finding good solutions to problems and helping children learn to get along without parental interference, wherever possible.

The first chapter is introductory, giving examples of the kinds of problems many parents experience: children fighting, putting each other down, arguing over issues that seem petty to parents, and so on. Even though I’m long out of this phase of life, I found myself nodding and recalling incidents, either with my own children or those of friends. Children naturally squabble, and to some degree it’s useful in learning to get along with other people.

But there are boundaries that most parents feel the need to draw, and times when a child might be in danger, physically or emotionally. This book helps parents to see when it’s appropriate to get involved in sibling battles, and - most importantly, in my view - how to see them from the children’s point of view.

So there are chapters on the dangers of comparisons, on the need to express negative emotions before the child can move on, and on physical fighting. The authors recommend parents staying calm, listening to each child, and not taking sides. They don’t recommend ‘punishment’ of any kind, and only suggest a form of constructive time-out when children’s tempers are so high that they are unable to think straight, and potentially dangerous to each other.

While none of the material was new to me, it was a useful reminder about the parents’ roles in helping children learn to deal with problems that arise in the family. Even if they don’t get along with each other, the authors assert, children and teens can learn to cooperate and find compromises or solutions of some kind to most problems, so long as they’re given the right kind of listening, and so long as the parents have a great deal of patience!

The book is so readable, and so interesting that I read the whole thing, including the supplementary chapters to the 10th anniversary edition, in just a few hours. The style is deliberately relaxed, based on several workshops the authors ran, with anecdotes and individuals combined for simplicity, and some useful diagrams to make points quickly.

Of course parenting is never easy, and the tidy scenarios painted in the book are not always appropriate, nor will they always work - at least, not first time. But I’ve seen enough of them being effective that I believe strongly in the theory and would recommend this book highly to any parent - or relative or teacher - dealing with siblings who can’t get along at all, or who are worn down with children fighting.

Still in print on both sides of the Atlantic.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews