Let me start by saying that the "Up Close" series of language guides that McGraw-Hill is releasing in their "Practice Makes Perfect" product line, of which this book is one of the first, seems like a brilliant idea.
Author Heminway, whose other French language titles for McGraw-Hill include Practice Makes Perfect: Complete French Grammar and Practice Makes Perfect French Pronouns and Prepositions, Second Edition as well as the two other newly-issued "Up Close" titles Practice Makes Perfect French Nouns and Their Genders Up Close and Practice Makes Perfect French Past-Tense Verbs Up Close, notes that for some students of French, "even hearing the word 'subjunctive' is enough to elicit an allergic reaction and to bring their study of French to a halt." She then bravely states that "it is not that difficult to master." I'm not sure I agree with this, but I do think this book can be helpful.
As Heminway notes, the subjunctive occurs in English, although many native English speakers may not be aware that they are using it. I have no recollection of being taught in school that expressions such as "be that as it may" or "as it were" or "it is important that we learn this material" employ the subjunctive mood.
But there is also the issue that in French, the subjunctive pops up far more often than in English. Indeed, while some uses in English may seem affected to today's ears ("the answer, if answer there be . . ."), in French it is an everyday staple. As a friend of mine in France recently wrote to me, "pour un enfant français c'est facile car dès que l'on dit je "un verbe" que vient le subjonctif naturellement sinon ça choque les oreilles. Mais pour toi c'est beaucoup moins naturel." In other words, when you grow up in a French-speaking environment hearing the subjunctive used where it us supposed to be used, you learn what sounds correct and what doesn't. Those of us who struggle to learn and/or improve French language skills from an English-speaking background must find other beacons to guide us.
Heminway states that the subjunctive "implies a relation of dependence and expresses psychological tension -- will, feeling -- and subjectivity -- doubt, belief, excitement, desire, inspiration, suspicion, exhortation, enthusiasm, amazement, indecision, ambivalence, despair, indignation, joy, anger, uncertainty, and potentiality." I have heard variations on this throughout my scholastic life, and still find it somewhat difficult to move from this level of abstraction to concrete application.
Luckily the remainder of the book addresses a number of specific situations involving the use of the subjunctive, and draws a number of boundary lines between the use of the indicative in some situations versus the subjunctive in others. For instance, a number of examples are given showing the indicative in affirmative statements ("Marie pense qu'il a raison") versus the subjunctive in a negative statement ("Je ne pense pas que ce roman soit son meilleur"). A similar contrast is drawn between impersonal expressions that call for the indicative ("il est certain," "il est évident") versus the subjunctive ("il vaut mieux," "il est improbable"). I have to admit that the rule of thumb concerning certainty versus uncertainty gets a little fuzzy with expressions such as "il parait" or "il est probable" which take the indicative while seeming to me less certain than, say, "il est certain." But perhaps that's just me.
As the book addresses other impersonal expressions and classifies them into those taking indicative ("aussitôt que," "chaque fois que") versus subjunctive ("afin que," "jusqu'à ce que") it is possible to see some logic to it, but in the end I believe it is a matter of studying them and committing the proper usage to memory. In other words, the rules of thumb are easier to apply in cases at the extreme ends of the continuum, and harder at the boundary.
Each chapter in the book has various exercises with answers given in the back of the book.
Rounding out the discussions, the book addresses literary forms (subjonctif imparfait and subjonctif plus-que-parfait), with the counsel that the reader is unlikely to need to be able to write using those forms but should recognize them and understand them in literary material. There is also a "comprehensive" test at the end of the book, as well as a series of excerpts from French journals and literature exemplifying the use of the subjunctive in actual source material.
My only quibble, which is more puzzlement than critique, is that the first chapter begins to lay out the conjugation of various French verbs in the subjunctive mood, then inexplicably stops after covering only modest ground. Obviously there are many conjugation guides available both online or in printed form, so this omission is not fatal, but it surprised me that this book wasn't more self-contained. The exercises quickly require the reader to supply conjugations in subjunctive mood that are not offered in the book, forcing the reader to go elsewhere for help. It would not have been burdensome, in my opinion, for the author or publisher to include more complete guidance on conjugation, including that of often-used irregular verbs, perhaps in a glossary section at the back.
Given its modest price, this seems like a useful item for a French student of intermediate level onward to have.