The Feud in the Chalet School (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)

In slowly meandering my way through Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s long Chalet School series, over the past few years, I’ve reached the one originally numbered 48th, immediately following ‘A Future Chalet School Girl’ - although, oddly enough, the ‘future’ girl Melanie does not appear in this one.

Instead, ‘The Feud in the Chalet School’ introduces quite a number of new characters, in the form of a new English school called St Hilda’s that is about to start not far away from the Chalet School in Switzerland. Unfortunately, disaster ensues and St Hilda’s building is no longer usable, while their Head ends up in hospital. So, as the Chalet School has recently expanded its premises, they adopt the forty or so St Hilda’s girls and their three other staff, initially for a term.

It’s a tricky situation and rivalries inevitably begin, not helped at all by one of St Hilda’s staff who is rather self-important and resents being a mere junior mistress at the Chalet School. The story then follows school lessons and life, including some winter sports and - for a slight variation - a few incidents with cats.

The later books rather lose out without the strong and intuitive personalities of Jo Maynard and Mary-Lou. Jo does appear in this book, in passing, but doesn’t have much of a role, and her daughter Len - who is closest to following the same path - doesn’t feature heavily either. The focus is mainly on the younger girls and their feud, which makes for some interesting storylines, but none of the girls from either school stand out as any different from the others.

Each chapter is another incident, along typical Chalet School lines: prefects’ meetings, lessons, sports, boredom leading to mischief, and so on. There’s a sad loss of a former staff member which could have raised a tear or two, but it’s all off-stage and used mainly as a plot point for the ongoing feud.

I’m sure I must have read this book as a teenager, and probably at least once in the intervening years, but I have no memory of it at all. So while it wasn’t anything special, it made a pleasant enough light read for a few evenings.

Not currently in print, but fairly widely available in paperback second-hand. I have an early hardback edition, but it has a few errors (such as incorrect names) and over-much detail in places, which was most likely reduced in the Armada paperbacks.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews


The Christian Couple (by Larry and Nordis Christenson)

There are many books on our shelves that we seem to have had for decades, yet I have no idea where they came from. Having catalogued them, I’m trying to read some which I have no record of ever previously having read, and of which I have no memory at all. This one, by Larry and Nordis Christenson, is one of several books about marriage which we acquired - or were perhaps given - in the early years of our married life, so it’s possible that I did read it around thirty or more years ago.

Published in the US in 1977, ‘The Christian Couple’ is a solidly Christian approach to marriage and relationships, yet, for its era, quite refreshing in some respects. It was written with the intent of challenging the growing statistics of marriage breakdown and divorce, looking at the reasons for getting married and the importance of commitment and determination rather than relying entirely on romantic feelings for keeping a relationship going.

Inevitably there’s much that’s rather dated, and many would find the authors’ chapters on submission to be quite offensive; yet, reading them with an open mind, and remembering that the book is nearly forty years old, it’s quite enlightening. They discussion submission in general, including the important meaning of the word as relating to - for instance - submitting an essay to be marked, or an article to a magazine editor for consideration. They insist that there must be discussion both between parents and children, and between spouses, where each consider ideas that might not have occurred to them.

While they believe that the husband has, as it were, a casting vote in important decisions, they insist that he is responsible to Christ for this decision, and that sometimes he will believe it right to put aside his own concerns and do what his wife or children prefer. He gives examples in his own life where he saw his wife’s point of view and went along with it. Ideally, discussion would mean that a family or couple go forward in unity anyway; headship certainly doesn’t mean authoritarianism, or always getting one’s own way.

I’m not sure there’s anything in this that I found particularly useful, and much that wasn’t relevant to my situation anyway. But it made an interesting quick read, and certainly gives a positive viewpoint of marriage, while remaining realistic. Intended for those who are believers, and, unusually, with more advice for men than for women.

Perhaps worth picking up if you see it in a charity shop; in its day it was probably helpful and gave a somewhat different perspective. But in my view there are better books available now on the topic. I’d particularly recommend Gary Chapman’s ‘Four Seasons of Marriage’ for a contemporary look at the subject.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews


Dance with me (by Victoria Clayton)

I had not heard of Victoria Clayton until a friend recommended her books to me, knowing my tastes in general. None of her books seem to be in print now, but I put some on my wishlist and received a couple of them which I read earlier in the year, and very much enjoyed. So I decided to order a few more myself, from the Amazon Marketplace, and have just finished reading her third novel.

‘Dance with Me’ is narrated by a young woman called Viola Otway. She feels herself to be undereducated after quite a privileged upbringing, but wants to earn her own living. She’s taken a job with a charitable group in London that renovates old houses, and lives in shared accommodation with some rather caricatured but interesting people. The novel is set in the 1960s, although that’s not immediately obvious.

Viola has been romantically involved with her boss Pierce, but as the story opens he’s instructed her to travel with his colleague Giles to a stately home called Inksip Plark, in Nottinghamshire. She and Giles don’t really get along; he considers her rather flighty and prone to accidents; she finds him a bit too serious. Things don’t improve when they break down on their way to Inksip, and arrive to discover that the family are eccentric, and the food appalling, due to a series of terrible cooks.

It’s really a character-based novel, with a large cast of intriguing people, mostly rather exaggerated, and not all memorable; I sometimes forgot who the minor characters were, although it didn’t matter too much, and the main ones were easy enough to distinguish. There’s some mild humour in the interactions, and in Viola’s accident prone nature, but there are also some serious issues that are touched upon: unexpected pregnancies, class consciousness, post-natal depression, unrequited love, and more. There’s even a survivor from Auschwitz.

It’s light reading on the whole, despite these darker themes. Victoria Clayton has a very readable style, peppered with literary (and, in this book, artistic) allusions, and while I didn’t quite believe in several of the characters, I found myself liking Viola very much. She’s willing to learn, and she has a warm heart.

The 1960s are remembered for their permissiveness; I was too young to be aware of that kind of thing at the time, but it’s certainly reflected in this book, where discussion of intimacies and affairs seems commonplace, both amongst the younger people and several of the older ones. I found parts of that a bit sordid, even shocking in places; some of the pairings seemed unnecessary to the story-line. While I enjoyed the book, there were elements that made it start to feel like a soap rather than a novel.

More than one reference is made, in this novel, to characters who appeared in ‘Past Mischief’, the author’s second book. Viola knows some of them, and while it’s not necessary to have read the previous book, it helps to understand some of the comments in context.

The ending, as with the author’s earlier books, is a bit abrupt, albeit not unexpected, and entirely satisfying.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews


Live like you mean it (by TJ Addington)

From time to time I browse the free books available for the Kindle. I download anything that looks interesting, and although I’ve occasionally picked up some terrible books, there are others which turn out to be well worth reading. This particular one had an interesting title, although I had never heard of TJ Addington, and I downloaded the book at no cost around five years ago.

It took me until a few months ago to start reading ‘Live like you mean it’, and I’ve dipped into it on and off since then, in odd moments. In the past week I read rather more, skimming a couple of chapters towards the end, and then finding myself very interested in the final chapter.

The book is subtitled, rather lengthily, ‘The 10 crucial questions that will help you clarify your purpose / Live intentionally / Make the most of the rest of your life’. It sounded like something that could be very useful to me. The foreword and introduction make it clear that this is a Christian book, and that’s fine, although chapters 8 and 9 - the ones I skimmed - are about making a commitment to God and living purposefully for him, concepts which are familiar to me already. More significantly, I didn’t feel that they were particularly helpful as ‘questions… to clarify purpose’.

Indeed, I felt that the hook of ‘ten questions’ is actually a bit misleading. There is no list of those questions other than the chapter headings in the contents. The first couple of chapters cover reasons why each of us is here, and finding what the author calls our ‘sweet spot’ - the things we are gifted in, and enjoy, and find fulfilling. The next few chapters essentially ask the same things in different ways: how do we best recharge? What really matters in life? What legacy do we hope to leave behind?

While there are some good points in each section, and the author shares some thought-provoking incidents, including some in his own life, I didn’t feel that there was anything that would actually help to answer the question the book claimed to solve.

After skimming the directly evangelistic chapters, I wasn’t expecting too much of the final chapter - ‘What shall I do next?’ - but was then extremely interested in the way the author describes the structure of his life, and the idea of planning at two levels. He plans in a top-down approach, looking first at the ‘big picture’ of his main aims or passions (such as family life, vocation, creativity, marriage, health etc), then choosing general goals for each, and then for each goal finding specific things to do for each month, week or day. However he then checks up on his aims in a more detailed, bottom-up way, with a time for reflection and self assessment each week.

While this might sound obvious, it’s something that’s staying with me as a far more constructive idea than ‘resolutions’ that can fail all too quickly and then be abandoned. With this structure, the overall aims are unlikely to change in the course of a year, but the goals and specifics can change with circumstances, and any failure becomes a learning experience.

Each chapter is clearly laid out, with discussion questions at the end, although I didn’t find any of them particularly useful. Still, overall, I think this is a helpful book with some useful ideas. There are a lot of Bible quotations and it’s unlikely to be of interest to anyone who is not a Christian believer, or at least willing to see God as part of their life and purpose. However the Kindle edition wasn’t particularly well-formatted, and no longer seems to be available in the UK, and I’m not sure I’d want to pay for it.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews


Emotional Intelligence (by Daniel Goleman)

This is a book we were given by a friend when we moved from the UK towards the end of 1997. We had not heard of the author, Daniel Coleman, and I doubt if this would ever have come across my radar, so I was very glad that this friend, selecting books he felt would be appropriate for our family, picked this one. He said that the title appealed…

‘Emotional Intelligence’ is not a phrase I had come across back in 1997. Before the widespread use of the Internet, and discussion forums, I had no reason to have heard of it, although nowadays the term is bandied about fairly often, along with ‘multiple intelligence’ theories, and the acknowledgement that there is a great deal more than IQ to make a popular, successful or well-rounded person.

I read the book with this title a few months after moving, and found it quite heavy-going in places. However I was very much taken with the principles explained: that the ability to relate to or empathise with others is just as important as linguistic or mathematical ability, and that when children are given good social skills (quite different from ‘socialisation’) either at home or at school, they are far less likely to turn to dangerous or illegal behaviour in their teens.

In February of this year I decided that I would re-read the book, and it’s taken me ten months to complete it. That’s partly because I have been reading so many other books, and partly because a lot of it is scientific or technical, looking at ways in which the brain processes emotions: neural pathways and other medical terms tend to go rather above my head. I don’t think it’s necessary to understand how emotions happen, but the book is all-encompassing, and no doubt that information would be of great interest to more scientifically minded readers.

I was much more interested in the sections about family life, the art of listening, and of suggestions for spotting when someone is in the grip of strong emotion, and adjusting one’s own tone of voice and conversation accordingly. I was also interested again in the section towards the end, looking at ways in which children from ‘at-risk’ homes or neighbourhoods can be taught techniques of conflict resolution and other useful skills that will probably be of far more benefit to them than the study of geography or history.

As I read this, I wondered why the author felt that teachers needed to be trained to work with children in these areas which, on the whole, seem to me to be common sense. But there are families caught up in a cycle of neglect or worse, where parents themselves may lack the ability to empathise or listen actively to their children, and in those cases, the cycle will most likely continue unless the children are taught to think and behave differently.

It’s not a book to read in one sitting; there’s a great deal to take in, and much to think about. Perhaps there’s some repetition and over-technical parts, but as a handbook for a layperson wanting to know more about emotions and emotional intelligence, I would recommend it.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews


The Jesus I Never Knew (by Philip Yancey)

I have very much appreciated Philip Yancey’s books over the past fifteen years or so, and have most of them on our shelves. He is an American Christian journalist, who grew up in a fundamentalist environment but realised, as a teen, how unpleasant some of the teaching and practices were. He came to a new, relationship-based faith and in his writing explores many issues that believers struggle with. I’ve started re-reading Yancey’s books, some of which I have not picked up for a long time.

In ‘The Jesus I never knew’, which I last read in 2007, he decides to look at Jesus from the perspective of the first century, reading the Gospels as if for the first time, looking at different translations, and also different movie portrayals to try to build up a realistic picture of who it is that we follow, rather than the inaccurate images so often portrayed by the media, and even, for several centuries, by many Christian artists.

The first section of the book looks at the Jesus the author thought he knew, and then goes back to the Jewish background and roots, and the environment where Jesus grew up. We don’t know a great deal about his childhood from the Bible, other than one important incident when he was twelve; but from other historic documents a reasonable picture of the life of a carpenter can be built up. The author looks at the start of Jesus’ ministry, too, when he was thirty years old, including the temptations in the desert and what they would have meant.

The middle section examines the question of why Jesus came to earth at all. He points to the Beatitudes, how Jesus turned upside-down many of the precepts and sayings that the people of his time would have expected, and shows us just how offensive the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ would have been to his audience. We who have grown up hearing and reading the Scriptures cannot comprehend what much of his message would have meant to those around him.

The Crucifixion and Resurrection are covered in some depth, following discussion of Jesus’ miracles and what they would have meant. Inevitably some of what he writes is his own ideas and opinions, but even though I had read this before, I found much to think about, and gained some different insights about Jesus’ life and ministry.

The last section begins with the Ascension, when Jesus returned to heaven, and what he left behind. Looked at in the light of the rest of the book, there is, again, much to ponder. I don’t know that I will keep all this in mind, but may well refer to it again when discussing this topic. The style is straightforward, referencing other writers (such as CS Lewis) from time to time, and very readable.

The book is meant for Christians, or for those interested in finding out who Jesus was and is. A measure of faith is important; the author assumes the existence of God and the veracity of the Gospel accounts, while acknowledging that they were written by human observers and writers, who inevitably used their own perspectives on recent events.

Definitely recommended.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews


A Swiftly Tilting Planet (by Madeleine L'Engle)

I’m enjoying re-reading favourite books by authors I’ve enjoyed, interspersed with some new ones. So I delved into my Madeleine L’Engle collection, and in the past year I have re-read both her best-known classic for older children, ‘A Wrinkle in Time’, and its sequel, ‘A Wind in the Door.’.

I’ve just finished the third in the author’s Time Quintet, ‘A Swiftly Tilting Planet’. I would like to say I have re-read it, but after the first few chapters I realised that I have absolutely no recollection of ever having read it before. This makes sense, when I think about it: the novel wasn’t published until 1978, by which time I was eighteen, and had little time for reading fiction. We acquired our paperback edition of this book in the late 1990s when my sons were young teenagers; either they read this or my husband read it to them, but I never read it myself.

Until now. I emerged from the story feeling quite elated, although also a tad confused. Elated because it’s a powerful story, blending history, mythology and Christian faith, with an awareness of evil in the world that is very topical. Naturally there’s a positive ending - this series was written for older children and younger teens - but there’s an exciting path along the way.

At the same time I was somewhat confused because are a lot of characters, many of them with similar names, in several different time periods. This is deliberate: Charles Wallace, the fifteen-year-old hero of this book, has to travel through time (on the back of a unicorn) in order to make minor adjustments to history in order to ensure that a crazy dictator doesn’t start World War III.

The way it’s written is very clever. Charles’ older sister Meg, now married and expecting her first baby, is able to ‘kythe’ with him to keep him on track, and to know where and when he is at every point. Charles is under attack; the ‘echthroi’ - the enemies of humanity - don’t want him to change anything, and he’s armed only with a poem - a ‘rune’, as they call it - calling heaven’s powers to himself, in a paraphrase of part of the famous St Patrick’s Breastplate prayer. Each chapter title then focuses on a separate part of the rune, as Charles learns more about his task.

Perhaps if I’d read more slowly, or kept notes of the time periods and specific names, it would all have been clearer. Perhaps, if I’d known a bit more about American history, it would have made more sense. As it was, I got the general idea, and enjoyed each brief scenario in itself, but entirely lost track of several threads and missed the eventual significance of how Charles actually succeeds in his mission.

It doesn’t matter; a deeper theme of the book, which struck me powerfully, was that of waiting for ‘the wind’ to guide, rather than trying to work out what to do based on reason and logic. I liked the way Charles Wallace - and the unicorn Gaudior, his angelic guide and transport - was given the freedom to follow his own reason, even against advice, and gradually had to learn to listen and trust that he would be led in the right path.

Some have complained that there’s too much of Christianity in these books; some complain the Christian parts are too pagan or ‘liberal’. I found the blend exactly right; this is science fiction at its best, in my opinion, with an underlying Christian worldview and a message of good triumphing over evil. It can be read at several different levels, by children, teens or adults, and provides a great deal to think about.

Highly recommended. It stands alone, but is probably best to read after the preceding two books in the series.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews


Daily Devotions (by Brad Haven)

Before I travelled to the UK in the Spring, I downloaded this free ‘devotional’ ebook for my Kindle. I had never heard of the author, Brad Haven, but it was on offer, free, and claimed to be a different way of studying the Bible over the course of a few months.

‘Daily Devotions’ is subtitled, ‘walking daily in the New Testament and Proverbs’. The introduction explains that there are 89 chapters in the Gospels, and that by reading one chapter per day, plus two chapters from other New Testament books in order, one can complete reading the entire New Testament in under three months. The author decided to add a ‘twist’, a section of the book of Proverbs, divided into 89 short sections, so that one of those is read each day.

The first few pages are quite interesting, outlining the system, the reasons behind it, and even some historical background; this is apparently known as the Rule of Optima in some monastic orders. The author briefly explains how it works, and also some excellent reasons for making a daily habit of reading the Bible, while also insisting that one should not give up or feel like a failure if a day or two get missed.

I then discovered that this, plus the Biblical text, is all there is to the book: there are no extra ‘thoughts’ or commentary. The author has done nothing, after the introduction, but compile together the system for reading the New Testament and Proverbs in this way. That’s not to say that it’s a bad thing: it is a very convenient way to read them, as everything is laid out, a day at a time, with the sections intended for reading. So I didn’t have to find different places in a Bible, either on my Kindle or a print version, in order to read the different sections in this way.

The idea is a good one, albeit not original, and I was a little surprised to find, towards the end, that sometimes there was only one extra New Testament chapter attached to a Gospel chapter, rather than two. However a little research explained this: there are 260 chapters in all, in the New Testament; subtracting the 89 which are part of one of the gospels leaves only 171: not quite sufficient to enable two per day.

I wasn’t all that impressed with the particular Bible translation used. I’m not sure which one it is, and didn’t recognise it, but in places found it quite convoluted in its use of language, without the beauty of some of the older versions, nor the clarity of some more modern ones. Perhaps this was for copyright reasons; it wasn’t a problem as I had read all these passages before, many times, but for someone reading them for the first time, it tends to make it sound rather complex, even the Gospels which were originally written in quite straightforward Greek.

However, as a constructive way of reading set sections of the Bible while travelling - and it took me over six months to finish, interspersed with other things, and sometimes only reading half of the day’s assigned passages - I would rate the idea, and the layout quite highly.

For anyone interested in this way of reading the New Testament, it's certainly worth downloading if it’s still offered at no cost. Only available on Kindle, as far as I know.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews