Book Reviews Jan-Feb 2019

Here are six fiction and 2 non-fiction books for you to explore – enjoy! I read quite a lot because we went away for a retreat in Europe’s winter sun – I find it makes a big difference to my M.E. I am determined to update my book reviews more promptly this year – we’ll see how that goes! In January I also read a bunch of disability theology books which were fascinating. There’s a couple more I want to read before I review them as a group – look out for them later.  

Contemporary Fiction

1. The Amber Fury – Natalie Haynes.

A grieving woman relocates from drama production in London to teaching expelled and troubled kids in Scotland, and teaches them Greek tragedies. But the woman cannot escape violence, and the rest of the novel unfolds like – well, a Greek tragedy.

There were lots of things I liked: the descriptions of cold and hardy Edinburgh, explorations of grief and anger, a deaf character who was about more than her deafness (hurrah for three-dimensional disabled characters!), the fun analyses of Greek tragedies and the mounting tension. However, I found the ending flawed because it promised more conspiracy, ethical questions and nuance than it delivered, and the teacher character felt inconsistent. I really wanted to edit the ending so it would have been a really great book – but unless I’m missing some subtle twist this was just a good book rather than a great one. Recommended, but I’m not wild about it.

2. Birdcage Walk – Helen Dunmore.

A woman in 1790s Bristol finds herself torn between her mother’s radical ideas of rebelling against the state and her husband, practical and materialist, who seems to promise security but has secrets of his own.

I really enjoyed the level of authenticity of this historical fiction: the main characters are radicals so it feels modern in its discussion of rights, yet the world of Bristol in the 1790s is drawn so beautifully and accurately, that it feels utterly natural. It contrasts two visions of womanhood – both feminist in their way – a celebrated female writer who pens radical pamphlets, and her daughter’s form of radicalism which is to do servant’s work in her own home, despite her elevated class, and to protect herself from a husband who seems to hold her too tightly. There is a contemporary feel to the feminist issues it raises.

I had high expectations for this after reading Exposure, which has stuck with me as a superb literary thriller. Although the characterisation is excellent, it didn’t hold as much tension as Exposure, and a few times it lagged with the plot, though the excellent writing keeps you turning pages. Recommended as good, atmospheric and well-drawn historical fiction. 

A final note: I was sad to learn that this was Dunmore’s last book: she wrote this while seriously ill and died soon afterwards. A collection of her entire poetry has now been put together in her honour, and that has just come out, too.

3. Pursuit of Shadows – J A Andrews.

This Narnia-type sequel to A Threat of Shadows features Will, a Storykeeper who feels shame at his lack of magic, but has a secret power nevertheless: he can feel others’ emotions at will. When a creepy invader devastates his family as a boy, he vows to make things right, but his search for justice leads him to unexpected places, with unexpected inner transformation.

I couldn’t put this down – the plot has twists and turns and gasps, dragons and female warriors, magic and story. Additionally, there is both fascinating discussion on the power of emotion, the danger of a distorted story and what cost you have to pay for unity and safety. A Threat of Shadows, J A Andrews’ first fantasy book was one of my favourites of the year when it came out: this sequel doesn’t pack the emotional punch of the first, but the twists and turns of the plot make it highly enjoyable. Highly recommended for a complete escape. 

A note on the series by JA Andrews: These novels (and a wonderful spin-off tale that can be read on its own, A Keeper’s Tale: Tomkin and the Dragon) are in the ‘noblebright’ genre of fantasy, which means they focus on good and evil, and are clean and suitable for family enjoyment. I woudl add, however, that when they mention female slaves and male owners there is an unspoken question of what these slaves might be used for – this may raise questions for younger children. Though the two ‘Shadows books’ are more geared towards adults in the themes so might be worth keeping for teens/YA, my young son absolutely loved A Keeper’s Tale (Tomkin) and declared it his favourite book of the holiday). If you like CS Lewis type fantasy then you’ll love these.

Classic Literature

4. A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens. (Aka my literary guide to essential Dickens)

It is my opinion that Charles Dickens is most excellent when he is brief. Little Dorrit is interminable, Bleak House is full of boring obscure law rants that are repeated throughout the book, and after the first brilliant nine chapters of David Copperfield we are again in the wilderness of rambling, plotless prose. I blame serialisation: the longer he could spin it out in periodicals, the more money he’d get. This is the same phenomenon that ruined Friends, Lost and Heroes.

But – like Dickens, I digress. This shorter Dickens book is a fun allegory with plenty of witty banter and commentary on the time. Scrooge, the pantomime tightfisted villain is transformed by ghosts who take him to his past, present and future and point out his shortcomings so he changes his life utterly. When the ghost takes him to his past, we enter into a dreamlike state, seeing scenes that start to tell a story of a man – and there we see Dickens at his most masterful. It is a morality tale, which makes it simple but gives it longevity and relevance for today.

If you’ve never read the book, it’s a good Dickens to start with. Then read A Tale Of Two Cities, his greatest work, the first nine chapters of David Copperfield, and like that, you’ve got yourself a greatest hits album of Dickens, and BOSH – you can stop there.
For kids, the Robert Ingpen version is a treasury of traditional coloured illustrations, or Quentin Blake offers his fun and colourful edition – either of these have the full and original text and would make a great present (for Christmas, perhaps).

5. Romeo and Juliet – William Shakespeare.

I have been helping a younger friend with her GCSE homework over the past term, and this has given me the great privilege of re-reading Romeo and Juliet. They say you only learn something when you teach it, and I have been elated to discover that this time (with the help of spark notes and some excellent contextual essays) I really do know it.

With sharper feminist lenses than in my youth, I’ve rediscovered Juliet as a feminist icon who chooses action over passivity and walks the tightrope of respectability and rebellion with real subtlety. Romeo is well-meaning but a bit narcissistic and prone to violence… Do yourself a favour and read it with Spark Notes online – and you too can be an expert. It goes without saying that one of Shakespeare’s plays comes highly recommended. Cheapest is Wordsworth Classics (£2), but the No Fear Shakespeare has a ‘translation’ of plain English on the other side, making it easier to read.

Children’s Literature 

6. Treasures of the Snow – Patricia St John.

Set in Switzerland, this classic children’s Christian book tells the story of Lucien, who causes a tragic accident, and Annette, who is determined to punish him for his crimes forever. What I love is that although the story is ‘safe’ for children to read and ultimately has a happy ending, it is heart-wrenchingly real about the cost of forgiveness and repentance. It doesn’t patronise the reader by lessening the emotional journey, and all the characters feel utterly real. It’s more slow-moving than more contemporary novels, but once the accident has happened you just have to know how it turns out.

The Christian message of a God who welcomes sinner and sinned-against is there but it never feels preachy or twee because it fits the story, rather than twisting the story to fit an agenda. Because it was so close to my heart as a child, I read it together with my son, and it had us both crying, laughing and cheering, feeling like we were right there in the remote Swiss mountain village. A really special book, and one worth sharing with the children in your life. Highly recommended as an absolute classic.

On sale now on 3 for £12 deal


7. A Girl Behind Dark Glasses – Jessica Taylor-Bearman.

The first thing to say is: read it. Whoever you are – just read it. A fourteen year old girl, intelligent and happy is one day struck down by a very severe autoimmune illness and spends the next three years in hospital, close to death – but battling with every breath to choose life in all its fulness.

Her experience in hospital will shock you to the core, and her response will inspire and move you. It’s a stunning and unique story, and yet it really needs to be widely read because it exposes a larger problem in society of how we treat very ill young people if they have a mysterious illness.

It’s told in a gripping, fresh way, and I could not stop turning the pages. It’s the kind of book that makes you ‘shush’ other people around you. If you like memoir, you’re interested in M.E. or you’re in any way connected with caring for people’s health, this is a must read – if in doubt, read it. Highly recommended for all. 

8. Keep Calm and Carry On – The truth behind the poster – Bex Lewis.

This little hardback book is a fascinating historical exploration of the popularity of Keep Calm and Carry On posters. They’re so ubiquitous now that I was surprised to discover in this book that they were Second World War posters that weren’t even used at the time – reserved for a German invasion that never happened. The discussions on wartime propaganda and initial reception to the posters is interesting, as is the origin of its recent popularity, seemingly out of nowhere.

Dr Bex Lewis teaches at Manchester Met University on digital marketing, and it was fun to find out how her work was involved in the popularising of the poster. Its style is formal and informative rather than chatty, but there are some fascinating discoveries to be had here. Recommended for history or marketing enthusiasts; and if you know anyone interested in these posters, this is the perfect gift book for them. 

Want to make sure you don’t miss a book review? Follow me on Goodreads. 

For Treasures of the Snow: 

**There is a sale right now on for Patricia St John books (3 for £12) – I also recommend The Rainbow Garden, The Tanglewoods Secret and The Mystery of Pheasant Cottage. See further here.  **

Have you read and reviewed my book yet? Those Who Wait is perfect for people who feel in-between, stuck on pause while everyone else lives their perfect lives.

Christian books on my ‘to read’ pile:

  • Disability theology books galore,
  • Out of Control – Natalie Collins,
  • The Making of Us – Sheridan Voysey,
  • Flee, Be Silent, Pray – Ed Cyzewski,
  • Glorious Weakness – Alia Joy Hagenbach,
  • Learning to Breathe – Rachel Newham,
  • Silence and Honeycakes – Rowan Williams,
  • Living the Prayer – Trystan Owain Hughes.

Over to you:

  • What have you been reading these past two months?

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3 Responses to Book Reviews Jan-Feb 2019

  1. Penelope Wallace 26th April, 2019 at 11:33 am #

    “Little Dorrit is interminable!?? Oh, Tanya! Well, maybe a tad longer than it needs to be… I need to reread some Dickens.

  2. Rebecka 6th March, 2019 at 11:02 am #

    Oh dear, my TBR list just got longer. Again! 🙂

    I recently found Treasures of the Snow on my bookshelf. I LOVED this book as a child and figured I’d re-read it before passing it along to one of my nieces. I think it just got bumped up to my next read.

    “This is the same phenomenon that ruined Friends, Lost and Heroes.” This is so true, but I’ve never realised until now. Brilliant analysis. I do love how Dickens can turn a phrase though, you just have to read a lot of words to find the gold nuggets.

    Currently I’m reading Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. I haven’t gotten far yet but so far, I’m enjoying it. Other book I’ve read lately include Pride and Prejudice (in English for the first time), The Singer’s Gun by Emily St John Mandel, whose style of writing I enjoy though this was not my favourite book of hers, and Remember God by Annie F. Downs.

  3. JA Andrews 5th March, 2019 at 8:30 pm #

    I read a Christmas Carol over Christmas! I’d never read it before and I did it out loud with the kids and it was really fun!

    And so glad you enjoyed Pursuit!

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