BOOK REVIEWS

I seem to just about guzzle books and have long considered doing a book review but I have never got around to it. So I thought I would do a multiple review, looking back at a selection of the books that I have read recently, giving each a few sentences. I am no literary critic, just an ordinary reader. The following are just my opinion. If you disagree, that’s fine. Thank God he didn’t make us all the same; the world would have been rather dull. In no particular order:

 

The Siege by Helen Dunmore *****

This novel is set during the now-legendary siege of Leningrad in 1941 Russia, and more specifically it is about one family during the siege of Leningrad. As a writer, Helen Dunmore manages to demonstrate her deep understanding of what it is to be human, and the extremes of human behaviour in desperate circumstances. With a penetrating yet never sentimental prose Dunmore immerses the reader in the all-permeating cold, hunger and weakness. I found myself so absorbed by the writing that even on a hot summer’s day I had to stop myself shivering. I can only highly recommend this novel.

 

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress byDai Sijie ****

A sweet little tale of youth and idealism and of the inevitable end of both. The voice of the storyteller is charming, delightful even; the characterisation vivid and well-displayed. Unfortunately the book is too short to ever really do justice to the plot, the characters, or any deeper message, which is a real shame. However, I’d love to read more from this author.

 

What Katy Did and What Katy Did at School by Susan Coolidge ****

What Katy Did is just as good as I remember it from thirty several years ago. Perhaps a little too saccharine in places for a 21st century audience but overall a good, robust and well-told story of childhood, which appealed to my girls aged 11 and 8 (who don’t care about stories being over sweet), as well as to their out-of-the-woods-but-not-over-the-hill mummy.

 

What Katy Did at School I enjoyed just as much as ever.  The first couple of chapters dealing with Elsie and Johnnie’s holiday with their cousin are a little odd, but after that the story is highly entertaining and thought-provoking for young minds. How strange it is to consider the changing standards regarding ‘modest’ or ‘appropriate’ behaviour. One understands that, in 19th century America, certain types of behaviour were considered ‘wrong’ because the author tells us through the characters, but they are things a 21st century audience wouldn’t even notice! This is interesting because it relates to ongoing debates and made my girls ask lots of questions.

 

The White Queen by Philippa Gregory **

A fluffy bit of nonsense vaguely based on the downfall of the Plantagenets. It was ok. I stayed with it to the end so it can’t have been too bad.

 

Dr. Wortle’s School by Anthony Trollope ***

This was a well written novel. Despite my being an avid reader I had never before read any Anthony Trollope, though I think I’ve listened to a dramatisation on BBC Radio 4. How do I love thee, BBC Radio 4? Let me count the ways… As with What Katy Did at School, the ‘scandalous’ behaviour within the book is such that a modern audience would barely notice. However, this creates a conflict in a modern reader’s mind and the writing is good enough to draw you in and make you want to know what happens next. I imagine that when it was written this novel was considered rather avant garde. It was not the best book I have ever read, but the sheer skill of the author kept me reading and wanting to know what would happen next.

 

Where Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forster ***

E.M. Forster is one of my all-time favourite authors, although he is often overlooked in favour of (in my opinion) lesser writers. A Passage to India and A Room with a View are paragons of literary achievement. A Passage to India is exquisite. A Room with a View is a beautiful display of the tender, genteel, yet hypocritical and often downright funny world of upper-middle class Edwardian England. Where Angels Fear to Tread could never live up to those two I suppose but, as with Anthony Trollope, the sheer skill of the writer kept my attention to the end, despite my distinct dislike of all the characters. Perhaps, to give Forster his due, maybe in the ‘flaws’ of the characters (which are what causes them all to be rather unlikable), the writer touches something uncomfortable, and sometimes painful, about the human condition. Perhaps the characters are all too real; perhaps a little too close to home.

 

Helen’s Babies by John Habberton *****

I have read this novel several times now and love it more and more. It is both funny and tender in a way which mixes some real guffaws with some genuine ‘awww’ moments. This is a real gem and always cheers me up. It is lovely.

 

The Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila *****

This book I am still reading. It strikes me with awe and leaves me speechless. I read it slowly so that I can consider the author’s words. The translation is a little odd in places, but if you work at it you can understand the meaning. No wonder St. Teresa is considered a ‘Doctor of the Church’ in Catholicism. Highly recommended. Very challenging, in the best of ways.

 

The Blue Parakeet by Scot McKnight *****

This too, I read little by little, wanting to carefully weigh up and consider what the author has to say. It is very different in approach and in subject matter from The Interior Castle (after all, one was a Spanish 16th century nun and the other an American 21st century pastor) yet I get the sense they might have agreed more than they would have disagreed. This is something I will have to give some thought to. Again, highly recommended and very challenging.

 

Pied Piper by Nevil Shute *****

For some reason I seem to have been drawn to books about war over these past few months. It is maybe because of the WWI centenary. Pied Piper is a thrilling story set in Nazi occupied France in 1940. An English man holidaying in rural France sets out to return to England, avoiding the Nazis, and ends up as the guardian/caregiver for a growing raggle-taggle bunch of children. I shan’t say too much as I don’t want to spoil it, but it was both a thrilling story (a real can’t-put-downer) and also gently touched on what it means to have love, to have integrity and to have courage. I really, really enjoyed this book. It was the perfect mix of entertainment with challenge and often heart-warming moments of genuine humanity. A great read.

 

Contented Dementia by Oliver James ****

Although the title is ‘Contented Dementia’, it is actually far more aimed at those with Alzheimer’s and their families. It is well-considered and well-written. Oliver James is a thoughtful writer. I read this book to try to gain more of an insight into how I can help my dear mother-in-law, but she does not have Alzheimer’s, she has a different kind of dementia. Unfortunately this meant the vast majority of the book held little relevance. I would imagine that this would be a very good book to read if you are in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, or if you are caring for an elderly relative with the disease.

 

A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute ***

Another war story. The first third of the book was brilliant, so touching, so full of courage and a ‘ripping yarn’ as they might have said back in the 40s. Unfortunately the story began to dwindle after this and when it reached the final third, in the Australian outback, I was actually bored.

 

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe *

I believe this book was written as an attempt to convince those who were pro-slavery in 19th century America to become aware of the plight of their fellow humans who were suffering under slavery and thus persuade them to agree to abolish slavery. In this I can say that I understand and applaud what the writer was trying to do. However, there were, in my opinion, two major flaws: 1) the overly-sentimental language used on occasion and 2) despite this being an abolitionist novel, the writing was so racist it made me cringe. A third of the way through I couldn’t stand it any longer and gave up on the book. If I was in a generous frame of mind I would surmise the writer knew her audience which was why she used stereotypes so blatantly. But I’m not in a generous frame of mind. I gave up after the first half.

 

A History of Britain Volume 1 by Simon Schama *****

Brilliant. Just brilliant. The man’s a genius. The writing is so smooth and seamless that it reads like a novel. Simon Schama is both knowledgeable and a gifted communicator. If you read but one history book in your life, read this! I can’t wait to read the other books in the series.

 

Bleak House by Charles Dickens ***

This is the first Charles Dickens novel I have actually read to the end. The plot was good, but I did find, as with many of Dickens’ contemporaries, that some passages wander around aimlessly for thirty-odd pages before settling back to the plot and the characters. This may be to do with the fact that when Bleak House was first published it was serialised in a magazine. The Eastenders of yesteryear, perhaps? Television and film adaptations are rarely better than the book, but the BBC TV version of Bleak House from 2007(?) is brilliant. I almost wonder how they got such brilliance from this novel, but que sera sera.

 

Pearl of China by Anchee Minh ****

I enjoyed this novel very much. It is based loosely on the life of the daughter of Christian missionaries in rural China who grew up to become a Nobel Prize winner for literature as well as a devout Christian. I thoroughly enjoyed the writing, the characterisation and the scope of the book. Anchee Minh is an excellent storyteller. The book begins in early 20th century China and ends with life under Mao, after the titular Pearl has left for the US. I liked the balanced way that Christianity and Christian missionaries were portrayed, neither as saints nor unrepentant sinners but that curious mixture somewhere in between, with the desire for good, and the desire for God and blessings and hardships along the way.

 

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot ***

I enjoyed this book. It is rather dated, and very much a novel of its time (it wanders around and spouts its self-righteousness but I skipped those parts). The characters, particularly the evolving, intriguing character of Gwendolen Harleth/Grandcourt, are what made me want to continue to the end. I wish there had been a sequel about Gwendolen’s later life.

 

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins ****

I listened to this as a free, unabridged, audio dramatisation by volunteers  on Librivox. It is brilliant. As with Daniel Deronda, there are passages here and there which do the Victorian meandering thing, which prevents this from developing into what could have been a great thriller, had the genre existed at the time! Nonetheless the plot is well weaved and the characters well portrayed. A highly recommended book.

 

Every Living Thing by James Herriot ****

I would have liked to have known James Herriot. He comes across as such a decent, kind man, and although his writing will never rank him among the literary greats, his gentle, honest humour is a breath of fresh, farm-scented, Yorkshire air.

 

Kisses from Katie by Katie Davis *****

This is an autobiographical account of a young woman’s life as she learns, and puts into practice, what it means to love God and to serve ‘the least of these’ in Uganda. Wow. Just buy a copy!

 

Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang ****

Very interesting. I have read reviews saying it is factually incorrect but who am I to say? I found it an absorbing and fascinating look into one of the world’s oldest civilizations and a woman who was once one of the most powerful in the world.

 

A Wayne in a Manger by Gervase Phinn ***

A Christmas present, this book chronicling the life of a school inspector in the wilds of Yorkshire had me laughing out loud. Highly recommended for a light-hearted look at the British tradition of Christmas in school and the forthright honesty of small children.

 

Slave by Mende Nazer and Damien Lewis *****

I laughed and I cried with this book. This is a true story of a Sudanese woman’s escape from slavery. Mende lost everything she had ever known, even herself, her identity. With help, she escaped. She demonstrated so much dignity, so much courage, so much insight into the motives of human beings, good, bad and indifferent. There were so many things I could relate to. I shan’t say more because I think this book deserves a post of its own. I can’t wait to read the sequel.

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