Monday, 25 May 2015

Dolphin Luck (by Hilary McKay)

I’m so pleased that I discovered Hilary McKay, one of the best modern writers of children’s fiction, in my view. Her characters are wonderful - just a little over the top, yet recognisable. Her storylines amusing: not quite believable, yet full of astute observations.

‘Dolphin Luck’ is a sequel to ‘Dog Friday’ which I read a few weeks ago, and recently found at the Awesome Books site - a hardback version, very inexpensively. I read it in just a few hours. It’s the story of two families who live next door to each other and are close friends. Mrs Robinson has been very ill, which rather casts a blight over the family Christmas, and then their elderly dog becomes ill and dies.

Mrs Robinson is taken away for a holiday in the sun, to help her recover, and their neighbour Mrs Broghan offers to look after the two younger Robinson children, Sun Dance and Beany. However the twins Perry and Ant are sent by train to stay with their great-aunt Mabel, who is also their godmother. However they don’t know anything about her, and get off at the wrong stop. Twice….

It’s an amusing romp, cleverly written with a great deal of insight into the different children. Ant is very soft-hearted; Perry is evidently starting puberty and becoming quite moody. Beany, the youngest, is an independent and determined child who believes in magic; and then there’s Sun Dance, whose mind works rather differently from everyone else’s. Nothing is spelled out; perhaps he has Asperger Syndrome, perhaps something else. It doesn’t matter. He needs to know what’s happening, and he’s not very good at imagining consequences of his actions.

The writing is fast-paced and enjoyable; I would have liked reading this aloud to my sons when they were perhaps six or seven, although once they were reading fluently I think they’d have wanted to read this for themselves. It reminded me in many ways of the Bagthorpe Saga, without the extreme giftedness or the hapless father.

Definitely recommended, for fluently reading children of about eight and older.

'Dolphin Luck' is not currently in print, but can be found in Kindle form in the UK (the link, above, is to the electronic version) and can sometimes be found second-hand or in libraries.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Sunday, 24 May 2015

The Disappearance of Emily Marr (by Louise Candlish)

I have very much enjoyed all the novels I have read by Louise Candlish, so I added more to my wishlist and will continue to do so as she publishes more.

I was very pleased to be given ‘The Disappearance of Emily Marr’ last Christmas, and have been reading it over the past week. It’s a story written from the perspective of two women who are living on a small island off the coast of France.

We meet Tabby when she’s almost penniless, having been abandoned by her long-term boyfriend. She’s spent the night with someone who picked her up and gave her the money to return to Paris, but she decides to stop before she gets there and look for work.

Emmie lives in a small house with a spare bedroom. She offers Tabby a room for a low rent, and also helps her to find a job. Tabby and Emmie are both around thirty, and both recovering from broken romances. However, they are very different in personality. Tabby is chatty and happy to talk about everything that’s happened to her, while Emmie is very reserved.

The book alternates between the viewpoints of Tabby and Emily. Tabby’s is told in the third person, taking the story forward, while Emily is writing the story of her past (including her love affair) on her computer. So Emily’s chapters are more thoughtful, well-composed and quite moving, while Tabby’s have rather more action. I found the style slightly confusing at first, but Tabby with her open heartedness, living in the moment, quickly got under my skin. Emily took a bit longer to warm to, but her writing style was almost reminiscent of one of my other favourite authors, Susan Howatch, and I became gradually more and more intrigued.

The two storylines interweave perfectly - Tabby gradually realises that her new friend has a shocking secret, one that has sent her into exile and makes her reluctant to be seen in public. Although it felt a tad slow in places to start with, by the time I was half way through, a dramatic shock occurred and from that point I could scarcely put the book down.

It’s a thoroughly modern book, with insight into how modern media works, and the way social networking can turn something relatively insignificant into a nationwide phenomenon in a very short period. It touches on other issues too, such as the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease on relatives and the divide that still exists in the UK between cliques and those who don’t quite fit in. There’s much more, too. I was particularly impressed that, even though the book was about infidelities and affairs, the bedroom doors were kept firmly shut. If there was bad language, it was appropriate and not excessive.

I didn’t foresee the dramatic turn in the middle of the book, and I didn’t begin to see a change in the storyline that happens towards the end, one which made several things fall into place, and which was so cleverly planned and written that I could hardly believe in it at first.

I would have given the book my unqualified praise, but for one thing: it finishes very abruptly, leaving (in my view) too many threads open. I turned the last page only to find discussion notes (a feature in many books these days, presumably for reading groups) followed by a few questions and answers. One of them asked if the author was going to write a sequel, given the open-ended nature of the book, and she said that she wasn’t, although she said she would be happy to correspond individually with anyone wanting to know how she saw the story continuing.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Friday, 22 May 2015

Faith in the Fog (by Jeff Lucas)

I do like Jeff Lucas’s books. He writes with honesty and self-deprecating humour, on issues that many shy away from. Years ago a friend introduced me to one of his books; since then, I’ve started collecting them wherever possible.

I put ‘Faith in the Fog’ on my wishlist last year, and was very pleased to receive it for Christmas last year. It’s partly anecdotal, charting the author’s journey to Christian faith, which was often punctuated by difficult questions and serious doubts. It also encourages people to keep hold of what faith we have, to look to Jesus, and to remember that God is with us, no matter what.

The book is - in essence - a study on the passage of the Bible where the resurrected Jesus sees some of the disciples after a fruitless night of fishing. He suggests they throw their nets one more time, which results in a good catch, and that prompts them to recognise him. He cooks breakfast for them, and then has an important chat with Peter. (John chapter 21).

Jeff Lucas says that this is his favourite passage of Scripture, one he ponders often. He starts with an anecdote, the time he wanted to visit the Sea of Galilee with great anticipation, only to be stopped by the guard: a priest, who would not allow him to go any further, because he was wearing shorts. The story takes a chapter to tell, charting Lucas’s disillusionment with other Biblical places he had visited, and the image that the priest was giving to tourists: that God was angry with people who wear shorts.

It’s a great introductory chapter, told in the author’s highly readable style, with detours and asides, weaving a story and making his points with gentle thoroughness. In further chapters, he goes on to think about the disciples themselves: what made them go out fishing? Was it wrong of them to do so? Why didn’t they recognise Jesus? Why was this episode so significant for Peter?

There are no definitive answers given - as Lucas says, at the end of his foreward, he’s neither analysing the Biblical text nor is he trying to push any agenda by looking at them. Instead, he invites the reader to think through these and many other questions. He gives some of the historical and cultural contexts, to aid in the discussion, but manages to do so in a friendly way, neither condescending nor directly educational.

I’ve been reading it in the past couple of weeks, around a chapter per day. It’s not the kind of book to read straight through, as there’s a great deal to think about; I could only process so much at a time. The Bible passage on which the book is based is one I’ve read many times; I’ve heard sermons about it too, although I don’t remember the content of them. But never have I thought so deeply about it, or gained so much insight into what might have been going on in the minds of these weary disciples whose worlds had been turned upside down by recent events.

At the same time, Jeff Lucas talks about some of his own insecurities and worries, many of which resonated strongly. He describes the times when he wondered what he was missing, when everyone else in a church service was apparently lost in worship, and he felt nothing. He talks, too, about his frustration with some sermons - including his own - and the encouragement he’s received, sometimes at unexpected moments.

I thought it an excellent book, and was sorry to reach the end. I would recommend it highly to anyone, particularly those who might feel as if they’re ploughing through the Christian life rather than coasting; where God is sometimes hard to find amidst the fog of confusion and the mire of everyday life.

Highly recommended.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Monday, 18 May 2015

Sourcery (by Terry Pratchett)

I’ve read most of the early Discworld books by the late Terry Pratchett at least a couple of times. But on my first read-through - which was about twenty years ago - I wasn’t particularly keen on the fifth in the series. So I never re-read it.

However, I recently came across an excellent review of Sourcery, which lauded it highly and made me think that perhaps I’d missed something. So I pulled it out, and have read it over the past week.

It begins with introducing a wizard, the eighth son of an eighth son, who did the unthinkable: he ran away from the celibate life of the Discworld wizards, and got married. Then he had eight sons, and according to Discworld lore, that made his youngest a Sourcerer, a powerful and potentially dangerous wizard who could do real magic, not just the minor academic stuff of the regular wizards, or the helpful herbalism and headology of the witches.

We then meet the Sourcerer as a young lad of, probably, about ten. He’s guided - or, rather, coerced - by the soul of his father who is implanted in his staff. He begins by insisting that he should be Archchancellor, although the official hat decides to make a run for it, and then by reforming the old city of Ankh Morpork to make a shining, glistening home for wizards - and these elderly, mostly harmless men find themselves doing magic too.

There are lots of viewpoints, lots of people; Rincewind the incompetent wizard finds himself in the midst of another adventure, with a barbarian girl who wants to be a hairdresser, and a young geeky guy who wants to be a barbarian. The four horsemen of the apocralypse (no typo: it’s an apocryphal end of the world) call into a pub for a drink and their horses are stolen. We meet a genie with an answering machine. And the librarian, who is an ape, seems to be the only person around with any idea of what’s going on…

It’s classic Pratchett, and I’m glad I re-read it, of only to appreciate the cleverness of his convoluted plots, and the brilliance of his original similes and metaphors that appear when least expected. But it didn’t really do anything for me; the classical and other allusions were minimal, the satire on humanity almost nill. I got the message that ‘real’ magic is dangerous, and to be avoided, but that was pretty clear right from the start.

And the end of the story was a bit of a let-down.

Certainly worth reading as part of the series, but not, in my view, one of the best Discworld books. There's no need to have read any of the earlier books, although it might make the number of characters slightly less confusing if you do.

'Sourcery' is constantly in print, despite having been published originally in 1988, and readily available second-hand.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Monday, 11 May 2015

Meet me at the Cupcake Café (by Jenny Colgan)

I’ve read three books by Jenny Colgan in the last few years, and enjoyed them all; they’re light chick-lit with culinary themes and I quite like the style; so I added a couple more of her books to my wishlist a while ago, and received this particular one for my birthday - I’m surprised to find that it was two years ago; it’s taken me that long to pick it up to read!

‘Meet me at the Cupcake Cafe’ is the story of a young woman called Issy who works as an administrative assistant, but her passion is baking. She shares cupcakes with her colleagues at work, and the people she meets on the bus. She learned to bake from her grandfather, who, as the book starts, is suffering the early stages of dementia and is in a nursing home. However, on good days he can recall some of his special recipes, and he sends copies of them, with personal instructions, to Issy in the post.

Issy loses her job and also her boyfriend. After much soul-searching and research she decides to invest her redundancy money in a small shop, which she renovates, and turns into a café that specialises in cupcakes. The main part of the book is about the way she gradually builds up her business, and also includes a low-key romance, as well as tension when her boyfriend tries to ease his way back into her life.

I found myself disappointed at first. I don’t mind light and fluffy writing, and I enjoyed the cupcake recipes, which appear at the start of each chapter. But the viewpoint keeps switching from person to person; and there are quite a few people in the book, some of whom are more interesting than others. I don’t mind multiple viewpoints, but when - sometimes - it changed almost every paragraph, telling me what people were thinking and why they were doing certain actions, I felt myself frustrated as I couldn’t relate to anybody. I don’t know why the book’s editor didn’t correct this.

I also got a bit bored with the lengthy details about how Issy and her new friend Pearl went about renovating the cafe, and the various equipment and ingredients needed. Perhaps it was necessary to include these, but I skimmed quite a bit in the hope of getting to the story. It was very slow to start. As was the café...

However, around half-way through, a sudden potentially tragic incident turns out to be a tremendous boost for Issy and her shop, and things start to turn around. At that point, the book become more interesting, and various sub-plots started to come to life too: Pearl, who lives in a council estate, has been having a hard time with her little boy Louis, who is not making friends at his nursery. Helena, Issy’s flat-mate, is rather shadowy but starts to come to life, and a somewhat snooty woman called Caroline helps Issy and Pearl solve a difficult problem…

The characters are a bit stereotyped, but that has the advantage of making them more memorable. I liked Issy’s grandfather very much, and his gradual slide into dementia is poignant. Two-year-old Louis, too, is rather cute, although it’s a bit odd that his language and grammar do not seem to improve even when he turns three. Pearl and Caroline are very much caricatures of their type, and I didn’t find either of them particularly appealing, but Issy is likeable enough, if naive and rather a contradiction of confidence and despair.

I’m surprised to learn that this is considered an amusing book; I thought it light-hearted but found the digs at healthy eating rather unnecessary, and while I love cakes, the focus on high sugar eating was a bit depressing. Still, the writing - other than the viewpoint changes - is good, and in the second half, the book is very readable and difficult to put down at times, even though the outcome, both in terms of the shop’s success and Issy’s love life, are rather predictable.

Not too much bad language, and no details of bedroom scenes, so that’s good; however I was a bit irritated by the epilogue, which seemed to assume that readers would not already know how to make cupcakes. I found that rather condescending; then again, I’m not really the target audience for this kind of book.

This would be okay for holiday reading, and it’s evidently very popular; but I didn’t think this as good at the other books I’ve read by Jenny Colgan.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Friday, 8 May 2015

Intelligent Church (by Steve Chalke)

Steve Chalke is the leader of a Baptist church in the UK. He is outspoken in his insistence that God’s love is offered to all, and that faith must be accompanied by social or community action. He’s made some controversial statements in recent years, but this particular book is one he wrote nearly ten years ago, and which was recommended to me some time ago - probably because I enjoyed one of his other books, The Lost Message of Jesus, a few years ago.

‘Intelligent Church’, which I was given for a recent birthday, looks at ways in which the author believes the Christian church should be functioning in the 21st century. Rather than merely following tradition, or taking everything we hear from church leaders as absolute, he recommends that we think for ourselves, and ask questions about how the church can be effective in discipling believers and reaching out to those who do not yet know God.

As such, he focuses on several different aspects of church as he sees it. Some of them are ideals rather than actualities, although in his church he aims to meet all these criteria. He begins by insisting that church must be inclusive - not just of people of all ages and nations, but of all cultures, and (more controversially) all lifestyles. He points out that Jesus mixed regularly with those of his society who were considered outcasts, often sinners of the worst kind, by the priests of the time. We’re called to follow Jesus, and that means reaching out in love rather than condemning those who are different.

The book continues with chapters on church as a messy place without strict boundaries; an honest place where it’s okay to ask questions and be ourselves without masks; a generous church where people give of their time and material resources; a political church, in involving ourselves with the social needs and political agendas of those around us.

Each chapter ends with some practical suggestions as he asks: ‘Yes, but how?’ and then poses some thought-provoking questions to be considered by small groups and church leaders.

The book is clearly written, each point made with Biblical and practical considerations. There are some anecdotes relating to the author’s own experiences - both positive and negative - although at times I found the style a little dry. I had to concentrate, sometimes, to take in what was being said, and re-read paragraphs when my mind drifted. I found that one chapter per day was about as much as I could take in.

Still, it made some excellent points, and painted an encouraging picture of how the church could be: a mixture of ordinary people, making mistakes and getting things wrong regularly, but pulling together to build each other up and make positive changes, however small, in their communities. Indeed, I’m not sure there’s any other way that a modern church could be if it’s to appeal to the diversity of people in the world around.

I particularly appreciated the clear difference made between proselytism and conversion, one I hadn’t really spelled out in my mind before, and which made a great deal of sense.

I would recommend this highly to church leaders and home group leaders everywhere.

'Intelligent Church' was first published in 2006 but is still available in paperback form and can also be bought for the Kindle.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Monday, 4 May 2015

The Doctor's Daughter (by Sally Quilford)

I’ve read several of Sally Quilford’s novellas and have very much enjoyed her articles about writing, both on and offline. Any time she offers one of her books free for Kindle download, I snap it up immediately.

One such book is ‘The Doctor’s Daughter’, which introduces Peg Bradbourne, an independent young woman in 1917. Unlike many of the young ladies of her time - including her sisters - Peg likes to do things by herself, and speak her mind; as the story starts, she is considering moving out of her step-mother’s home and into a cottage in the village.

Peg is, as the title suggests, a doctor’s daughter. Her father was somewhat unconventional and she saw many things that girls of her era would not normally be aware of. So when she learns that a dead man has been discovered, she goes to take a look.

The police don’t see any mystery in his circumstances but Peg notices his lack of boots, and determines to find out who he was, and who might have removed his footwear… then, just as things are calming down a little, someone else is found dead, in far more suspicious circumstances.

This is a light crime fiction novella, giving some background into Peg’s life as a young woman. She appears as a minor character in the 'Midchester Memories' series of books, set in the middle of the 20th century, and always rather intrigued me, so I enjoyed getting to know her a little. She comes across as a believable and likeable person, as do her more conventional (if shadowy) sisters.

Most of Sally Quilford’s light crime novellas have a low-key romance, and I rather like the resultant mixture; however in this one, despite discussions of infidelities and potential suitors, Peg is single and remains so.

My biggest problem with this book is the sheer number of characters. There are villagers, and visitors; shop-keepers and elderly gossipping women. I read the book over just three days; it’s not long, and I found it quite engaging. But other than two or three significant people, I lost track almost entirely of who was whom. That wouldn’t matter so much in a different genre, but in crime fiction I like to be able to work out at least a potential candidate for ‘whodunit’.

In this book, however, I didn’t really have much idea of what was going on. There's no obvious motive for the crimes committed, no trail of false clues, and not many real clues either, other than a few references to similarities - or otherwise - between family members. When the perpetrator is revealed, it made sense to me, but I didn’t have any gradual feeling of revelation. There’s another twist too, which I thought was clever but also a bit disappointing.

Still, I’m glad I read this; it makes a good background to the ‘Midchester Memories’ series. I gather there will be other novellas specifically about Peg, and look forward to reading them.

'The Doctor's Daughter' is available inexpensively in Kindle form on both sides of the Atlantic, and should also now be available in large print hardback.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Dog Friday (by Hilary McKay)

I’ve been a huge fan of Hilary McKay’s books for children ever since I came across ‘Saffy’s Angel’, nearly four years ago, on the recommendation of another blogger. I’ve gradually collected quite a few of McKay's books, mostly second-hand, and was delighted to see this one, in a series I had not heard of, at the Awesome Books site not long ago.

‘Dog Friday’ is about a boy called Robin who had a bad experience with a dog. After a nasty period in hospital he lives in fear of dogs, and is quite lonely, too, until a new family move in next-door. There are twins around his age, a small and independent sister called Beany, and a brother called Sun Dance who evidently has some kind of learning problem, but it’s not spelled out what it is. He often seems to miss what’s said, and lives his own life; yet he’s not typically autistic.

The family’s mother runs a bed and breakfast business although she finds it quite frustrating. And they have a dog. Robin gradually learns to accept him… and then comes across a dog on the beach who has apparently been abandoned…

It’s not a long story, and is mainly character-based, so there’s not any single plot, or mystery, or indeed anything much going on other than Robin’s increasing hope that he will be able to adopt the dog, and his gradual loss of fear. The family are, as so many of this author’s are, quite chaotic and very active, yet very loyal to each other, deep down. Sun Dance causes them all kinds of problems, although the twins manage their fair share, too. As Robin observes them and slowly makes friends, his loneliness begins to dissipate.

I didn’t find myself caught up with these people as I did in the series about the Casson family, but it made enjoyable reading over a couple of days, and could be a good read for anyone feeling nervous about dogs. The writing is, as always with this author, very good and nicely paced, and there are mildly humorous moments. It’s light rather than heavy, slightly surreal in places, but overall I liked it very much.

Recommended for anyone over the age of about eight; there’s a tense and potentially scary scene towards the end which might frighten a younger child, and discussion of one or two sensitive issues in passing.

Originally published in 1994, this is not currently in print in the UK - although it can often be found second-hand - but it can be bought in Kindle form. There are apparently two sequels, though I'm in no particular hurry to get hold of them.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews