18/02/2017

Summer with my Sister (by Lucy Diamond)


Having read a few of Lucy Diamond’s novels, I like her style and last year decided to put a few more on my wishlist. I spotted that one of them was available very inexpensively in the Amazon Marketplace shortly before I was due to visit the UK, so I ordered it at the end of last Summer. It sat on my to-read shelf for a few months and I’ve read it in the past week.

‘Summer with my Sister’ is about two sisters called Polly and Clare, whose lives have gone in opposite directions since they left home. Polly is a high-flying business manager in London, with a luxury flat and high expenses. Clare lives in a small village in the countryside, where she is single mother to two children, and works as receptionist in a GP’s surgery.

We meet Polly first, racing through her days, with sharp orders and comments to those she sees as inferior. She doesn’t seem to care for anyone, including her relatives, and while she sometimes senses that she’s missing out on something, she’s so taken up with climbing the corporate ladder, looking good and making money, that she has no time or energy for anything else. Then disaster strikes…

Clare, meanwhile, has an equally busy life, fending off an ex-husband, dealing with the day-to-day stresses of strong-willed children, and struggling financially. The sisters only meet at Christmas and have nothing in common, other than a tragedy in their past, which is hinted at in the early chapters.

Unsurprisingly, given the title, the two find themselves in close quarters for a few months in the summer. Clare is a generous and warm-hearted person, more than willing to accommodate her prickly sister, but Polly pushes the boundaries too far. She is selfish, unobservant, and arrogant, and I really didn’t like her. But gradually - inevitably, for this kind of novel - her unpleasantness is worn down.

It’s a character-based story, so the plot isn’t all that important; the story takes place over one summer, although there are flashbacks to twenty years earlier, and the pace is just right for bedtime reading. I often read rather more than I had intended, as I liked Clare and was interested in the story, but it wasn’t hard to put down when I needed to sleep. I liked the way that, as well as Polly turning into a human being, Clare faces difficult challenges and has to make some important decisions.

It’s a story about the importance of communication, about family ties, about priorities and healing, and general family life. I wish there hadn’t been so much bad language; even Clare uses ‘strong’ words at times, which didn’t fit well with her otherwise gentle and caring nature. But, other than that, I enjoyed it very much. It’s not particularly profound, but the characters got under my skin.

It’s the kind of novel that would make great summer reading, for anyone who wants some light women’s fiction.

Recommended. It's not currently in print, but can be found fairly easily second-hand, online or in charity shops.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

16/02/2017

The Procrastination Equation (by Dr Piers Steel)

In browsing online, reading about procrastination at the end of last year, I came across recommendations for this book. I then looked on Amazon for reviews and further recommendations; I had never heard of Dr Piers Steel, and there were many different books on the topic. But eventually I decided to get hold of this one, and was delighted to find it inexpensively available on the AwesomeBooks site.

I started reading ‘The Procrastination Equation’ a few weeks ago, and found it extremely interesting. The author has done a great deal of research on the field, and acknowledges that he is as prone to putting things off as anyone is. The subtitle to the book is ‘How to stop putting things off and start getting things done’; I was somewhat cynical about this lofty claim, but also intrigued.

In the first chapter the author defines procrastination as voluntarily putting things off even though we know that it would be better to do them now. I thought this a helpful definition, and I also appreciated the point that sometimes we deliberately put things off for good reasons. This may be, for instance, because we know that something will change, or perhaps because we know that we’re unable to do a good job at the moment. However this is not procrastination and should not be confused with it.

In the second chapter there’s a useful questionnaire, reduced from a lengthy one on the author’s website, which calculates the tendency of each person to procrastinate for one of three main reasons: lack of value in what we know we should do, low expectations about it, or a tendency to act in the moment and put off things that we can probably do in future. I scored fairly highly in all, but was surprised to learn that my highest form of procrastination is the time-sensitive one. I have never thought of myself as impulsive, but the word is used in a somewhat different way in this book, and it made a lot of sense.

The rest of the book looks more deeply into what makes people procrastinate, using a somewhat contrived ‘equation’ relating to value, expectancy and time. It also looks briefly at the physical makeup of our brains, related to this issue, and why people (particularly children) are prone to putting off important things even when they know they may regret it. Most importantly, it gives suggestions and methods for helping people to overcome procrastinating tendencies.

I don’t know that I’ve become less of a procrastinator by reading this book (it’s a little ironic that it has taken me four days to get around to reviewing it….) but I’m a lot more aware of what procrastination is. I am also starting to question my motives and to distinguish putting things off for positive reasons from the anxiety that can arise when truly procrastinating.

The book is very readable, written for non-academics but without any hint of talking down, and there's some low-key humour in places. I would recommend it highly to anyone interested in the topic.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

11/02/2017

The Visitation (by Frank Peretti)

There are times when I find a book rather bland or slow on my first reading and then thoroughly enjoy it six or seven years later. It’s less often that I rate a book highly first time around and then find it disturbing when I re-read it. But perhaps that’s not surprising when the author in question is Frank Peretti, who writes Christian thrillers; some of them are very dark indeed.

We acquired ‘The Visitation’, in hardback form, around the turn of the century. I had read some of Peretti’s other books and found them a bit disturbing, but very readable. Thrillers are not my preferred genre, but his books ‘This Present Darkness’ and ‘Piercing the Darkness’ were popular in the circles we were mixing in, and I eventually read this book in 2001. According to my review of the time, I thought the conclusion exciting, the ending satisfactory, and overall I enjoyed it.

Sixteen years later I had entirely forgotten the story, other than recalling that a young man appears in a small town and started doing miracles. And, indeed, that’s a large part of what happens. Some of the novel is related in the third person from quite a mixture of viewpoints, but there are also first-person accounts narrated by Travis, a former pastor who has become seriously depressed after losing his wife.

Brandon, the visitor, stirs up strong emotions in the town and for many miles around. Some are desperate for a healing touch or words of wisdom, others are convinced he’s either a nutcase or demonic. The pastors - a mixed bunch of widely varying denominations - meet to try to decide what to do, and Travis gets more and more drawn into to investigations.

Much of what Brandon says makes Travis look into his past; he had problems with the ultra-charismatic beliefs of some of his former friends, and made several mistakes when he believed he was ‘called’ to a particular career or place. We learn a great deal about him: he was sincere but often wrong, and found stability with the love of his wife.

There are caricatures of some of the more extreme mega-churches, in what I hope is an ironic style, and the first part of the book, if a tad slow-moving at times, is very readable. However suspense starts to build up, and the last quarter has some extremely unpleasant scenes, which I had to skim rather than read in detail. The climax is undoubtedly exciting but I didn’t enjoy it at all, and the last couple of chapters were very disturbing.

There’s a gentler, more hopeful epilogue, which means that the book ended on a positive note, but I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it overall.

For those who like thrillers and don’t mind a bit of violence, it’s probably not a bad read; the Christian content is clear but not preachy at all. But I don’t feel inclined to re-read this again in future.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

02/02/2017

Tell Mrs Poole I'm Sorry (by Kathleen Rowntree)

It’s almost exactly sixteen years since I first borrowed a book by Kathleen Rowntree, and liked it sufficiently to start acquiring others that she had written. Eventually I also bought my own copy of the original book I had borrowed, inexpensively at a charity shop, and a week or two ago realised that it was more than time for a re-read.

I had entirely forgotten the plot and characters of ‘Tell Mrs Poole I’m Sorry’ when I started, although a few memories surfaced as I read. We meet Liz, first, worried about her teenage daughter. Rosie has become moody and Liz is worried that she’s becoming too friendly with an older, married man. She needs to get together with her closest friends Chrissie and Nell to talk about it, so they arrange a meeting.

The bulk of the book is the story of the close friendship that develops when these three women were eleven. None of them feel entirely comfortable in their families, although their backgrounds are very different. Liz is from a respectable, comfortably off family although she’s the only child. Chrissie’s mother ran away when she was small, and she lives with a disreputable father and aunt who mostly neglect her. Nell lives in a crowded house with several siblings, a downtrodden mother and an unpredictable father.

The three urge each other on to increasingly risky behaviour, starting by staying at each other’s houses unseen by the adults. As they grow up their interests inevitably diverge somewhat as they discover boys.

A bit confusingly, the ‘present day’ part of the story is told in the past tense, but the growing-up schoolgirl lengthy flashbacks are told in the present tense. It’s an unusual way round, but I quickly got used to it. The present day intersperses cleverly with the past as a picture is built up of what happened in their later teens, and why Liz - who is a psychologist - is so stressed about her daughter’s potential affair.

There are many hints about what happens to Liz in her later teens, and a great deal of tension as events gradually come together for the shocking thing that she does, which changes her life. I was worried that it was going to feel sordid, and indeed it’s quite an unpleasant storyline, albeit not unexpected. But it’s sensitively written, with implications and generalisations rather than too many details. It’s quite plain, too, from the start, that Liz very much regrets what she did.

There are plenty of other subplots woven in throughout, and I felt that the characters of the three friends were well-rounded and mostly believable, with distinctively different personalities. Liz’s mother is somewhat caricatured, as is Chrissie’s aunt, but other significant characters are mostly believable, in some cases rather unpleasantly so.

All in all, I enjoyed this book. If you like women’s fiction with a hard-hitting storyline, I would definitely recommend it. No longer in print, but often available second-hand. Can be bought in Kindle form on both sides of the Atlantic.


Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

31/01/2017

Back to Creative Writing School (by Bridget Whelan)

I hadn’t heard of Bridget Whelan; indeed, I’ve entirely forgotten where I first saw her book on creating writing recommended. Most likely it was another writing book, or perhaps a blog on the topic. I know it wasn’t simply a random choice for my kindle since her book is one of the three or four (out of over two hundred) ebooks that I actually paid for, back in 2014.

I dipped into ‘Back to Creative Writing School’ a few times but it took me nearly three years to determine to read it straight through. I wish I’d done so sooner. What an excellent guide it is: it’s friendly, and full of excellent advice.

The book is laid out as if it really were a creative writing school, with three ‘terms’, although I went through it in just a month. The suggestions in the first term start fairly with fairly straightforward tasks: writing short pieces based on particular names, or ways of looking at things; generating names or titles; writing alternatives to cliches and well-worn metaphors. I did do one or two of these exercises, and adapted a couple of them for my local writing group, but for the most part just read, noting some of the suggestions, and may well go back to them in future.

As the book progresses, the exercises become more complicated and thought-provoking. I’ve read many writing books, so inevitably there was much in this book that was familiar to me; but that didn’t matter, because the bulk of each section was the author’s ideas and suggestions. She gives advice for creating realistic characters, for getting stuck into simple poetic writing even for the most reluctant, for using alliteration and other literary devices.

The Term Two assignments are more specific, and I found some of them a bit bizarre; by this stage I had stopped doing any of the exercises, although I will take some of the ideas and suggestions into my writing in future. Topics covered include humour, dialogue, different kinds of poetry, suspense, and even synaesthesia in writing.

I didn’t even notice when Term Two turned into Term Three, but in looking back I can see that the final chapters are the most complex, for more advanced writers than the earlier ones. Similar topics are covered; I skimmed lightly over the horror one, but read the rest in full.

This would probably be an ideal book for a small writing group to work through together, if they want targetted and progressive exercises, and share the results. Doing this on my own I could have made the effort to do most of the assignments, but without any feedback I didn’t have much motivation. However for someone wanting to get to grips with the basics of writing, I would recommend spending perhaps a week or longer on each chapter. According to the front cover, there are thirty in all, so they could be done roughly in academic terms with breaks in between each one.

Even though I didn’t take full advantage of this, it’s a book I will certainly dip into again, and which I would recommend highly to anyone wanting some help with getting start in writing, or inspiration for making their writing better.

(Note that the UK Amazon link above is to the paperback version of this book)

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

29/01/2017

Accidental Saints (by Nadia Bolz-Weber)

It took some months after I first heard of Nadia Bolz-Weber before I decided to get hold of her autobiographical book ‘Cranky, Beautiful Faith’; I was intrigued by many recommendations, but put off by the mention of crude and strong language. I am very thankful that I did eventually read the book, and almost immediately put this one on my wishlist. I was given it for Christmas, and have just finished reading it.

‘Accidental Saints’ is a very thought-provoking book, peppered, as the autobiography was, with decidedly ‘strong’ language. Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor who has somehow got to the heart of the Gospel, finding Jesus in the unlikely (and sometimes unlikeable) people she meets and ministers to. She makes plenty of mistakes, which she acknowledges freely, and finds different people around her to pray for her, and hear her confessions, and give her suggestions or advice.

Each chapter is a different story, some of them based around the church’s year, and the rituals and liturgies that can be used alongside the important dates. People of all cultures, nationalities and beliefs pass through the ‘Church for All Sinners and Saints’ that the author founded in Denver, Colorado, in the United States; some of them stick around, in some cases because it’s the only church that will accept and love them.

What I love is the lack of judgementalism that shines through the pages of this book. Occasionally there is a trace of racist feeling, despite the author’s best intent, or some kind of bias against a newcomer who is perhaps too talkative, or too demanding. Every time, as the text skilfully shows, Jesus is revealed in some way; sometimes in the most unlikely people with lifestyles that many evangelicals would reject entirely.

I come from a liturgical church background (Anglican rather than Lutheran, but as far as I can gather, they have a fair amount in common) but have spent much of my adult life attending non-liturgical church congregations - or none at all. As I get older I find myself hankering for a little more structure, sometimes, and this book was an encouraging reminder of the way a liturgical service can be uplifting and cleansing, encouraging participants to start each week afresh, bringing the Kingdom of God into their families and neighbourhoods.

‘Accidental Saints’ was the ideal book for me to read at the start of this year, and one I’m sure I’ll return to. I would recommend it to anyone, with the proviso that some may be shocked, even offended by the crude language.

It’s not on every page; the writing is mostly friendly, clear and intelligent. I’m aware that by mentioning this I’m in danger of being judgemental myself, although I don’t want to be.

Clearly, a heavily tattooed strong-speaking woman pastor is herself an ‘accidental saint’ in the minds of many, and this book is, in my view, an unexpected gem.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

28/01/2017

The Great Christmas Knit-Off (by Alexandra Brown)

I hadn’t heard of Alexandra Brown when Amazon recommended this book to me, based on my reading preferences. The blurb made it sound interesting, and I liked the idea of a book that focused on knitting; so I put it on my wishlist, and was given it for Christmas.

The cover of ‘The Great Christmas Knit-Off’ instantly told me that it was going to be light reading, both undemanding and probably mildly humorous in places. I had a vague hope that it might be somewhat like the large number of books about baking, and I was not disappointed.

The story is told from the point of view of Sybil, a woman in her early thirties whom we meet as she’s arriving home from work. We learn from the first pages that she was jilted at the altar, and is still very hurt and angry, but hasn’t really taken a break at all. She works for social services but has always loved knitting...

Sybil decides to go and spend the weekend with her close friend Cher in a place called Tindledale. Sybil is accompanied by her dog Basil, and things start to go wrong right from the start. Her car stops working, so she decides to go by train… and the weather is getting more and more wintry.

Most of the book takes place in Tindledale, a picturesque (albeit somewhat caricatured) village where everyone knows and cares about everyone else. It’s in stark contrast to Sybil’s normal mode of living, and gradually - imperceptibly - she finds herself relaxing. Not that her long weekend is free of stress: she’s heard something on the radio that makes her pretty sure she’ll be fired from her job.

Hettie, meanwhile, is an elderly but sprightly lady who runs the Tindledale haberdashery shop. However she doesn’t get many customers, and her shop is looking very run-down. Her nephew has persuaded her to help him financially, which has put her in debt, and she has a lot of secrets in her past which weigh on her heavily.

There are a lot of characters in the book despite it being such a small village, and I found myself getting confused at times between Molly and Marigold, Cooper and Clive, Leo and Lawrence; not that it mattered unduly. There’s a little map at the front of the book showing a plan of the village, though not everyone’s names. The main characters were nicely drawn, though; I could certainly believe in Sybil and also in the somewhat klutzy (but very handsome) doctor Ben.

I wasn’t entirely sure I believed in the ability of the group of women to do as much knitting as they had to towards the end of the book. Nor was I impressed with the single small pattern offered at the end, for a Christmas pudding; the simplistic instructions clearly didn’t match the picture that went with it.

As I expected, the story was light, with mildly amusing scenes and comments here and there, and one or two very moving places as well. I don’t think I’ll be looking out for books in other series by this writer, but if, as she states in the introduction, there are going to be further Tindledale novels, I will probably acquire them as the main characters rather got under my skin.

Recommended in a low-key way for those who enjoy undemanding women’s fiction. It would be ideal reading during the run-up to Christmas, which is when I hope to re-read it in a few years' time.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

23/01/2017

Come Rain or Come Shine (by Jan Karon)

It’s about sixteen years since I was first introduced to Jan Karon’s wonderful ‘Mitford’ series about a small town in America, and its elderly Episcopalian priest Father Tim Kavanagh. I started collecting the books, and was quite sad when the author stated that her ninth book was the last in the series; then delighted that she began a slightly different set of books featuring Father Tim himself, now retired.

After two of those books, however, the series reverted to Mitford, and I thoroughly enjoyed the twelfth book, ‘Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good’ which I read about six months ago. When the thirteenth book came out in paperback I put it on my wish-list and was delighted to be given it for Christmas.

‘Come Rain or Come Shine’, as I knew already, was focussed on the wedding of Father Tim’s adopted son Dooley and the doctor’s adopted daughter Lace. The two had rather a cat-and-dog relationship from their early teens, but it became increasingly clear that they were destined for each other, so I was looking forward very much to reading about their wedding.

This isn’t a book for anyone who hasn’t read at least a few of the earlier Mitford books, as it builds on characters and situations from previous books. There’s a large cast of people and I didn’t remember all of them; to someone new to the series it would be overwhelming. However for those who have long-standing affection for Tim and his wife Cynthia and there many friends and acquaintances, this is a wonderful book, pulling together many threads and re-uniting various folk, as is inevitable at a wedding.

The early part of the book focuses on preparations, with a growing sense of urgency as the date comes closer. Dooley and Lace thought they had opted for a simple, small wedding but the number of things to do seems to increase daily. Lace hasn’t yet found a dress, and each day becomes more worried. She’s creating something as a wedding present for Dooley; we don’t know what it is until it’s revealed right before the wedding, but it’s also creating stress.

Dooley, meanwhile, is settling in as the resident vet, after his recent qualification, and there’s a new and potentially dangerous bull called Choo-choo. There are secrets, and surprises, and unexpected guests… and then the ceremony itself, spelled out in a lot of detail, with its own stresses and complications.

I found it a little confusing at first that the story is narrated from several different viewpoints, not just that of Father Tim. We read some sections from Dooley’s point of view, some from Lace’s, and some from other characters; it’s not always obvious who is the viewpoint character, but eventually I realised that it didn’t matter. And I loved the layout of the book, which includes both the wedding invitation and the order of service in the relevant places.

I don’t know what it is about this series that prompts such a feeling of well-being; the scenarios and people are not like anyone or any place I’ve come across before, yet reading or re-reading one of the books feels like coming home myself. Perhaps Heaven is a little like Mitford.

A lot of threads are tied up (although a few are left open) and when I reached the end I wondered if this might be the last Mitford book; if so, I thought, it ended on a strong and positive note. So I was very pleased to read that Jan Karon has already started another book in the series, set a few months after this one.

Definitely recommended to fans of the series. Keep a tissue or two to hand...

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews