Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Good, The Bad and The Dumped – Jenny Colgan

This book surprised me, and in a good way.

A few minor quibbles first. The blurb on the back I found a bit misleading, because the implication is that she goes off tracking down her exes after her current bf breaks off the engagement, but in reality the order of events and causality is rather different. Secondly, I don’t like books where the main conflict is basically caused by the MC (who is invariably female – helpful gender stereotyping be damned) is TDTL (Too Dumb To Live). And finally, relationship problems that stem only from the characters not communicating and thinking the worst of each other by default don’t make a good story (how ever realistic that might be).

The good news is that none of those three things come close to spoiling this book. Yes, FMC Posy does have the odd TDTL tendency (with a name like that, how could she not?) But she also has bigger and more credible problems. When her boyfriend proposes to her, she is struck by a sudden uncertainty – is this really the man she wants to marry, or just the person in whom she’s taken refuge after a previous disastrous relationship? This causes her to undertake a mission to seek out her three significant exes (there’s always three, aren’t there? Not counting Jacob Marley, of course).

This I found both believable and interesting. Likewise the furtive manner in which she goes about it, which ultimately leads to catastrophic misunderstanding with her fiancé. At which point the book touches on the other major pitfall, where I was willing her to just try to explain to him what she’s doing. To be fair, with hindsight, maybe it’s understandable that she can’t, but I didn’t feel that when I was reading it.

The three exes are for me the best bit of the book, as she goes through a process of coming to terms with who she is and where she is that finally takes her to the wedding of a man whose name she has not even been able to pronounce since their break-up. Once we get on to exes two and three the book’s structure beds down too, and the way we learn about each in turn makes sense. (I felt towards the start there were slabs of backstory I wasn’t quite ready for).

It’s only after Posy has confronted ex number three that the book veers off course, as having realized that her (by now ex-) fiancé is after all the man for her, Posy is put off telling him this by another stupid misunderstanding until a somewhat overdone romantic meeting with champagne in the rain. A few chapters here I think could have been cut, but given what preceded it I was willing to plod through them. And finally we get a happy ending.

Another staple in chic lit (a term which, as I’ve commented before, I do not use in a derogatory way) is Posy’s pair of bizarre friends Leah and (her sister) Fleur. Although very funny, they both turn out to have a little more depth when needed, and I liked in particular the touch of Leah, forever wearing insane extreme fashion clothing, designing for Posy a tasteful, simple, and brilliant wedding dress.

Then there’s the story of Posy’s parents, which is key to her character but feels a little stereotyped (parents divorced, dad remarried and estranged, but turns out not to be such a bad guy after all – could be a lot worse). I guess for the author this is a key theme of the book, but for me the most interesting bit was the way Posy has been affected by her own relationships and how she needs to somehow put each of them, and the expectations they have left her with, behind her in order to accept the man who has proposed to her.

And that is why I liked this book.

Monday, November 28, 2011

How To Train Your Dragon – Cressida Cowell

It’s good to have a vague idea what your children are reading.

I quite liked this. It’s funny, but it does vaguely show some good examples about friendship and the value of sticking up for people when it isn’t convenient to do so. And obviously I respond to the fact that Hiccup (the main character) is regarded as "useless" but in the end saves the day by being sensitive and intelligent - pretty much the opposite of everything I disliked about Forrest Gump.

It does make me wonder though to what extent even at this age range books are already being squeezed into moulds aimed at a male or female market. Yes, it’s good to have books that boys might want to read, but it’s good too for boys to realize that being a man means more than just fighting stuff.

Mind you, what would I know about that?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Fall Girl – Toni Jordan

Toni Jordan’s first novel, Addition, was nothing but brilliant and remains one of my favourite books. So obviously when I saw this in the library I was going to get it out. This book is not Addition, and so it was inevitable that I would find it disappointing.

I also struggled with the subject matter. The story is about Ella, a girl who is brought up in a family of con-artists (I was going to say con-men, but since several of them are women I needed a more inclusive term). That it’s their family background, that they see themselves as artists is interesting, as is the fact that Ella’s dad, the patriarch of the extended family very much sees their work as wealth redistribution in the style of Robin Hood. But while that may not particularly leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth, I still didn’t find it particularly interesting or attractive.

It’s well-written though and the characters are interesting at least, particularly Daniel, the proposed “mark”. And then suddenly, on page 112, with one little throw-away sentence in the middle of a paragraph, the story gets interesting.

This was never going to live up to Addition, and given the subject it’s not what I would have read if it were written by another author. I felt there were more than a few loose ends that could have been tightened up too (I suspect this is because I’m obsessive about such things, not because the story really needs it). If I’m going to be picky, too, I found the motivation behind Daniel’s interest in Ella a little underdeveloped / underexplained, although that’s an inevitable struggle in the poor-girl-wows-rich-guy thread of romantic fiction and at least Daniel feels like a real person in other respects.

But I did like the ending, which actually has a lot of parallels with the last book I read, Signs and Wonders. This isn’t a Christian book, Ella finds love rather than God, but still there is an element of penitence and redemption.

Looking forwards to her next book.

Addendum: I just spotted this great line in the acknowledgements: ‘My own zoological studies … were so long ago that we studied dinosaurs with live examples.’

Signs and Wonders – Alex Adana

This is a great idea, and well executed. The main character, Annie Grace, is a faith healer, the centre of a huge business and daughter of an even more famous faith healer – and both of them are a con. Except … for some reason no-one can quite understand, least of all herself, that’s not entirely true.

I really liked the main character, Annie Grace, who starts off broken and cynical but still with a hint of conscience. I also loved her chauffeur / dogsbody / friend Ernesto – loyal and good-hearted. In fact all the characters were interesting and believable. I have this impression in my mind that a lot of “Christian Fiction” is anodyne, unrealistic, bland and escapist. This book is absolutely none of those things. The world you see in this book feels like the world I live in (even if I’m no Annie Grace). The people feel human, the good ones and the bad ones.

At a theological level too, it works for me – yes, god does heal people, really heal people, and he doesn’t necessarily restrict himself to using the holiest and most devout to do it either. The healing experiences described in the book sounded credible too, at least in that they tie in with real-life stores I’ve heard about healing. The only bit where I lost credibility just for a moment was in the scene where a blind woman is healed – not because I find that unbelievable, I don’t; but because her reaction seemed a little tame. I heard a story recently about a Royal Marine who went to church not particularly believing in anything much and was prayed for and received healing to a knee ligament injury, and of course his reaction at the time was to swear like a trooper … but I digress.

There was part of me that might have asked for a different ending, but I think it’s a better book with the ending it has. At its heart this is a story of redemption. What more could you ask for?

Just as I Am – Virginia Smith

This could have been a great book. It’s about a “colourful” young woman (purple hair, facial piercings) who suddenly becomes a Christian. Mayla Strong is certainly a great character. When she becomes a Christian, she sets about trying to work out what it means in practice. This causes some interesting friction with the culture of the fairly conservative-sounding church in which she finds herself.

Up to there, this could have been a great book. But I felt there were several things that let it down. First, Mayla seemed to learn an awful lot about how Christians are and aren’t supposed to behave very quickly. She didn’t seem to have many issues with the parts of her previous life that she’d have left behind – relationships etc. The characters she came into conflict with in church seemed fairly easy (although perfectly valid) targets – the would-be matchmakers in particular (A single young person in possession of a faith is not universally also in want of a spouse, nor should they necessarily be - q.v. this excellent post).

It also felt a bit preachy in a lot of places. Perhaps it made some assumptions of its own (is it actually wrong for Christians merely to be at a party where people are using illegal drugs?) Perhaps I come from a Church background such that a lot of the things that others might find shocking in this book simply aren’t for me.

I also felt too many of the characters in the book were too perfect. Mayla herself, for example, her mum, and the pastor, all seem to do the right thing and say the right thing pretty much all the time (at least where it matters). Real Christians aren’t like that, or at least, the ones who are don’t make good novel characters because they’re not believable.

The final point of sadness I felt about the story was at the end where Mayla decides to remove her facial piercing (which she had earlier changed from a stud to a cross – a very good touch) and recolor her hair in a natural shade. Almost as if it’s saying that while yes you can be a Christian whatever you look like, to really be a good Christian and fit in you do need to look boring like everyone else.

All of which is not to say I didn’t like it. It is in turns funny, serious, and poignant, particularly Mayla’s anger after her gay friend dies of AIDS. And maybe if you’re at a church like the one in this book then this would be a good thing to read. But I’d have liked it even better if it had been a bit more edgy.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Veiled Freedom – Jeanette Windle

What does it mean to write Christian Fiction, or to write fiction as a Christian? That’s a question that I’ve been pondering ever since I read Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and possibly ever since I first did NaNoWriMo. One difficulty this question posed for me was that I’d never read any. It was that question that led me to browse the Christian Fiction category on Amazon to see what was available for free when I got a Kindle for my birthday (I am a cheapskate after all). I’d already decided that part of the answer had to be that writing fiction as a Christian had to mean engaging with the real world in some way, which seemed to rule out most of the titles on offer. Then I spotted this one. About a Christian aid worker and set in contemporary Afghanistan it seemed to have potential.

My first impression was that the book was portraying an Americanized perception of Afghanistan, the way you might imagine it if you’d watched CNN but never actually been there. This of course was disappointing. For about half the book, this continued, and the story looked set to be heading towards one of those “odd couple” romances with a private security contractor. But the longer the characters spend in Afghanistan, the more they come to understand the place, and the more realistic I felt the portrayal of Afghanistan and its people was. The more, too, I got gripped by the story and the people and wanting to know where it was going. It wasn’t until very late on that I realized it wasn’t going where I thought it was, and where it went instead was much better.

If I’d come at this book looking for a gooey romance with an interesting backdrop that would make me feel the world was a nice warm cuddly place, then the ending would have been disappointing. On the other hand, if I’d come at the book with a romanticised perception of Afghanistan I would probably have learned something from it. That wasn’t where I was coming from, but I learned a lot from it anyway.

So what is the purpose of Christian fiction? Or, what kind of fiction should a Christian write? And is anyone out there actually doing that? Well, it needs to engage with the real world, not ignore it. It should educate and broaden the mind, not allow the reader to escape into a world of their own prejudices. Indeed, it should probably look something like this.