25/07/2016

Summer at Shell Cottage (by Lucy Diamond)

The first novel I read by Lucy Diamond was about a year ago, and I liked it so much that I put a few more of her books on my wishlist. The style was a bit informal but the characterisation was good; the broad theme was of family relationships, a genre that I usually like very much. I was delighted to be given this one last Christmas, and despite it being quite long - not far off 500 pages in paperback - I devoured it in just a couple of days.

‘Summer at Shell Cottage’ features an extended family: Olivia and Alec had a son, Robert and daughter Freya. By the time the main part of the story opens, Freya, who works as a doctor, is married to Victor, who works for the police and they have three children. Robert, who left his job to write a novel, is married to Harriet - a teacher - who has a teenage daughter, Molly. They all congregate each summer for a couple of weeks in Devon, in the family’s ‘Shell Cottage’.

The first chapter rushes us through the decades, beginning with Olivia and Alec first seeing the cottage at the start of their honeymoon, and ending, a few pages later, with their children and grandchildren briefly introduced. Olivia is contented and all seems to be going well, but as this summer approaches, things start to go wrong.

We then meet other members of the family, and quickly realise that the ‘happy families’ image is a mask for a great many stresses. Harriet thinks herself rather dumpy and old-fashioned. Freya is struggling to cope with life in general and is aware that she’s drinking too much. Robert evidently has a secret which he’s ashamed to tell Harriet, and Molly is in the first throes of a love affair which her mother knows nothing about…

Olivia, slowly recovering from one shock, receives another which throws her entire world out of kilter. And the scene is set for a fast-paced character-driven story with several sub-plots that intertwine well, and which kept me turning pages long after I really needed to be doing other things. I found Robert and Victor a little two-dimensional and had easily guessed Robert’s secret, but I liked both Freya and Harriet very much and could sympathise with both.

As with the first book I read by this author, the style is quite informal at times, almost stream-of-consciousness in places. Different chapters take different viewpoints, so we see the family dynamics well. Nine-year-old Libby hero-worships her step-cousin Molly; six-year-old Teddy is an absolute delight. Victor loves to rescue people and is immensely brave, but he’s totally unaware how stressed his wife is. They felt like real people, and I cared about them all.

Towards the end it was even more difficult to put the book down, as revelations and explanations begin. While some are predictable, as are people’s reactions, there was one shock which I had not seen coming - though perhaps I should have done.

Overall I liked it very much.

Essentially it’s about ordinary people going through a difficult summer, but they care about each other and are all, at heart, likeable people. Perhaps some would find it slow-moving or caricatured, but I thought it an enjoyable and quite uplifting read. If you like character-driven women’s fiction, and are looking for something light and undemanding as a summer read, I would definitely recommend it.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

23/07/2016

Natural Curiosity (by Lisa Carne)

I was delighted to be contacted by a publisher, a few weeks ago, and asked if I would like to read and review this book. I’m always eager to read new books by home educators, and although I had not previously heard of Lisa Carne, I liked the sound of this book. So I agreed, and the book arrived in my mailbox about ten days ago.

‘Natural Curiosity’ tells the story of a family’s adventures with learning primarily through the natural world. It begins by introducing the family’s philosophy of education, for which they use the acronym EPIC, standing for: explore, ponder, imagine, create. We learn a little about the author and her husband’s background, and the ways they ensured their children spent a lot of time outdoors and related well to nature in their earliest years.

It’s quite refreshing in that it’s not at all negative about schools; the author’s children (a boy and a girl) went to a local pre-school and, since they liked playing with their friends every day, decided that they would go to primary school. They knew that home education was an option, but it wasn’t until a few years later that, one at a time, they determined that they would prefer to continue their main education outside the school. The author stresses that there were none of the usual problems: simply a growing realisation that their needs were better met when they could learn in their own ways, at their own speeds, without the structure of a classroom.

They proceeded fairly naturally into a form of unschooling, based around the children’s interests in nature and the natural world. The son was particularly keen on dinosaurs and studying history through nature; the daughter was keener on birds and butterflies. By spending a lot of time outside, watching nature and asking questions, the author found that they were learning across the curriculum. They read books about natural history, both factual and fiction; they used technology to research questions about history and the animal world, they planned gardens and went for nature walks, and used their own natural curiosity.

The book is nicely structured, showing the children’s progress and looking at questions home educators are often asked. I like the way that school learning is seen as a positive thing for many, with benefits as well as disadvantages, and that the children retain friendships with school friends, nurtured both in playing together outside of school and in some online interactions with games such as Minecraft. I had no idea that this could be used to build historic structures or realistic areas, but these children, while not spending all their time shut up indoors, nonetheless use available technology in constructive ways as part of their education.

This style of learning would not work for everyone, of course. Not every child is interested in natural history or geology, and while there have to be benefits to all to work and explore outside, it’s important for any home educator, whether full-time or educating in addition to school, follow the children’s leads and interests rather than trying to impose their own. Nevertheless, this is a great picture of a family of motivated learners, aided and encouraged by parents who share similar interests.

My slight concern about the book is that the children have only been fully home educated for about a couple of years. While the author talks about their home education before ever going to school, and continuing at evenings, weekends and holiday times while they were registered at schools, they haven’t yet reached the teenage years, nor have they become in any way disillusioned by home education. Either that, or the author is very quiet about the bad days. For some, struggling with day-to-day home education, this could be quite discouraging as everything is presented so neatly, as an ideal solution for these children. I would love to know more about the times when things don't go so well.

The style of the book is a bit jumpy, too. There are random ‘notes’ and ‘interruptions’ throughout, presumably actual interruptions to the writing as a child points out something in nature or asks a question. But although interesting, I found it a bit distracting to have these interspersed in the text itself. I’d have preferred them at the end of chapters. However that’s a personal thing; for those dipping into the book rather than reading it straight through, they provide breaks in the text, and look quite appealing.

Towards the end the author writes about their general parenting style, which - like ours - tries to offer respect, good examples, low-key structure, and a listening ear at any point. Lots of good advice is offered, but it sounds as if these children are naturally motivated and inclined to want to please; not all children are as easy to unschool and parent, and, again, I’d have liked a bit more about times when things went wrong or were more stressful.

Still, these are minor gripes about what is, overall, an excellent introduction to the principles of unschooling, demonstrating how child-led learning can cover an entire curriculum - and more - and how children can flourish when encouraged to follow their passions and spend as much time as they wish on any project or interest.

Definitely recommended.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

Being Elizabeth (by Barbara Taylor Bradford)

Many years ago I read a few books by Barbara Taylor Bradford, and quite enjoyed them. They mostly involve high-powered businesswomen, which isn’t a topic that interests me much, but some of the stories were well thought-out, and the endings mostly encouraging. However I then read a couple that I found rather tedious and over-detailed, and had not read any of her books for over ten years.

Recently a friend read ‘Being Elizabeth’, and suggested I might borrow it. She told me that the idea behind the book was a modern equivalent of the first Queen Elizabeth, and the idea intrigued me. I picked it up to read this week, and quickly discovered that this was not merely loosely based on the former monarch, but mimicked her life in many ways. The novel opens with news of her older sister Mary’s passing on, so that Elizabeth, aged 25, is now head of the family company, Deravenels.

We learn that Mary was not a good boss, and that their father Harry had six wives and treated his daughters abysmally when they were young. Elizabeth’s advisors have the same or similar names to the historical advisers of Queen Elizabeth I, and much of the plot mirrors her life, albeit set in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

I like the idea very much. In the hands of a writer such as Susan Howatch, books of this kind can be very powerful, with characters inspired by historic figures. Unfortunately, Taylor Bradford chose to stick much too closely to the original storyline, and as such this book is a series of events in someone’s life rather than having any plot as such. There are minor stresses here and there - plots to take over the company, or disagreements between Elizabeth and her lover Robert - but all are resolved quickly and easily.

There’s an ongoing subplot involving her cousin Marie - evidently the modern equivalent of Mary Queen of Scots, again with similar storyline to the original - but nothing much comes of it. And since I know the history, at least roughly, there were no surprises. I was, however, mystified that Elizabeth and several of the other characters refer to Marie as ‘the kilt’; it’s not an expression I’ve heard before, referring to a person, and while I can imagine it might be used in a derogatory way of a Scotsman (though it’s not standard slang, as far as I know) it seemed a very bizarre word to use of a Scotswoman.

My biggest gripe with this novel was the overall writing style which, for such a prolific and best-selling novelist, is a poor imitation of what might be expected. Indeed, it reads like a first draft rather than a published novel. While I didn’t notice spelling or grammar errors, there are so many writing mistakes that I’m shocked that the editor didn’t spot them. Clich├ęs abound, dialogue is stilted, thoughts and discussions are repeated, and far too many adverbs are used. We’re told what people look like or how they are feeling - skipping around viewpoints within the same page - but rarely shown anything.

There is a huge cast of characters, none of them particularly well-drawn, and it didn’t seem to matter if I forgot who was whom. Elizabeth is the main character, and there are some diary-style thoughts of hers given now and again, in italics, although they don’t add much to the plot, merely repeating much of what comes before, in most cases. She has several advisors whom she trusts, who all seem remarkably similar and two-dimensional.

Apparently this book is the third of a trilogy, but I didn’t feel as if I were missing out on anything, nor do I have even the slightest inclination to get hold of either of them.

Really not recommended - however my friend evidently liked it, and some of the reviews online are good, so if you like this style of writing, you might enjoy the novel more than I did.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

22/07/2016

Searching for Sunday (by Rachel Held Evans)

I don’t remember when I first came across the thought-provoking blog by Rachel Held Evans; perhaps a friend pointed me in her direction, or maybe I came across it after following a link from elsewhere. She is an American Christian believer who would be considered progressive - even liberal - by many; she struggled at times with the church of her younger days, and writes movingly about much of her journey through questioning and faith, and eventually back to a community of other believers.

Since I like her writing so much, it seemed like a good idea to put one of her books on my wishlist. I was very pleased to be given ‘Searching for Sunday’ for my birthday earlier in the year, and have been reading it, a few chapters at a time, over the past couple of weeks.

Subtitled, ‘Loving, leaving and finding the church’, the book is partly biographical. It charts the author’s journey from the passionate evangelical faith of a child through disillusionment, anger, sadness, and eventually leaving behind Sunday services for some years. It tells us of her college days, of some of her friends, of her marriage, of an experiment with a new and truly progressive church, and the eventual discovery of a very different kind of congregation from the one she grew up in.

It’s structured in seven main sections, each one entitled by one of the sacraments recognised by many liturgical churches: not just baptism and holy communion, but confession, ordination, confirmation, marriage, and anointing the sick. That might sound very formal, but more than anything these are used as structures on which to spread the story in a way that makes the path easy to follow. In the first section, ‘baptism’, for instance, we read of the author’s childhood faith, her actual baptism as a believer, and - among other things - her intense dislike of youth group games, something which, as a fellow Introvert, I could strongly relate to.

Within each section there are several short chapters, some of them only a few pages long, charting another part of the journey, or taking a brief aside to look at what can be meant by the sacrament concerned. It flows beautifully, and the writing style was exactly right: expressing, very often, things I have thought or felt, but have somehow not been able to put into words.

Having finished the book, I feel encouraged, and inspired, and a great deal more relaxed and positive about my own journey, and my many struggles with some forms of organised church. While I’m not as proactive as Rachel Held Evans and would hate being in the limelight, giving talks as she has done and taking on leadership roles, I suspect there’s a place for each of us in some form of community, even if it takes years to find it.

It doesn’t preach or prescribe; it shares thoughts, and offers ideas, and new ways of considering our relationship with Jesus and with each other. The author is honest about her own failings and acknowledges many who have held her hand and helped her along the rocky road. I would recommend this book to anyone who questions fundamentalist style evangelicalism, or rigidity of doctrine, or indeed who has difficulties with the upbeat nature of so many churches.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

20/07/2016

Why Shoot a Butler? (by Georgette Heyer)

I’ve read, collected, re-read and mostly loved Georgette Heyer’s historical novels over nearly forty years now; so it was quite a shock to me to learn, only about twelve years ago, that she had also written a dozen detective novels set in the middle of the 20th century. I was pleased to be able to find several of them second-hand and was given others as presents. So now it’s time to start re-reading some of them.

I first read ‘Why Shoot a Butler’ in 2003; I actually read it aloud to my sons who were teenagers at the time, and it worked very well. While Heyer’s settings and situations are reminiscent of some of Agatha Christie's prolific crime novels, her characters are rather better developed.

This one features Frank Amberley, a barrister who is also a very good amateur detective. We first meet him driving along a lonely road, trying to follow convoluted instructions from his cousin. He sees a parked car with someone standing nearby and stops to ask directions; the meeting is rather stressful, all the more so when he realises that the passenger in the car is looking very peculiar…

As with this genre, the unpleasant details are left to the imagination; Amberley draws his own conclusions despite apparent evidence to the contrary, speaks to local police, and eventually reaches his cousin’s home. He’s quickly drawn into the society of local friends, and also caught up in the ongoing saga that starts with the crime he discovered in the first chapter.

Heyer doesn’t leave such good clues and false trails as Christie; I had entirely forgotten the story, and didn’t have much idea where the plot was going. I wasn’t particularly surprised when the unveiling takes place towards the end, but the accompanying motivation and underlying plot was a bit surprising, and not something that I think a reader could possibly have guessed.

Still, it doesn’t matter because this is as much a character-based novel and low-key thriller as a classic logical whodunit. There’s a very exciting and tense scene towards the end, where I could hardly put the book down. Amberley’s character is complex, with a dry sense of humour and abrupt manner which hides a compassionate man with a good sense of intuition and a brilliant mind.

Recommended to anyone who likes the light crime fiction genre.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

18/07/2016

Apple Bough (by Noel Streatfeild)

I have loved Noel Streatfeild’s books for close to fifty years now. I don’t know which one I read first, but there were several on my grandparents’ shelves which I read as a child, and more which I collected or borrowed from libraries in my teens. They’re the kind of books that tell good stories with believable (if a little caricatured) people; they usually feature reasonably happy families, are eminently re-readable. If I want an undemanding and, peaceful read for an afternoon on my own, they make a good choice.

It’s many years since I last read ‘Apple Bough’, which is sometimes known in the US as ‘Traveling [sic] Shoes’. It’s about the Forum family: Myra, Sebastian, Wolfgang and Ettie. Their parents are both musicians, somewhat impoverished, and delightfully vague. Sebastian is discovered to have a significant talent as a violinist when he’s only eight, and is invited on a six-month tour. Their mother refuses to split the family, and thinks that travel would be a great opportunity for the whole family, so she engages a governess, Miss Popple, and they set off…

Six months turns into a year, and by the time the story really gets going, the Forum family have been travelling around the world for four years. The father, a talented pianist, accompanies Sebastian, and they have been earning plenty of money as well as living in hotels and other upmarket accommodation. But the other three children feel increasingly homesick, and Myra in particular wants to settle down somewhere and be reunited with her dog, whom she had to leave behind.

Naturally, this being a Streatfeild book, Sebastian is not the only talented child in the family. Ettie is a very promising ballet dancer, and Wolfgang wants to write pop music. He’s also rather good at reciting and showing off in general. Myra feels the odd one out; she has no artistic or musical gifts, and spends her time trying to look after her younger siblings.

I thought that Myra was very well drawn; she reminds me a bit of Ann Robinson in the ‘Gemma’ books, but without Ann’s fabulous voice. Ettie is another Posy Fossil, or Lydia Robinson, who cares for nothing but her ballet and is (naturally) outstanding. Sebastian is the one we get to know least, although I found myself feeling quite sorry for him, particularly towards the end when he becomes very stressed.

It’s a nice story about reaching one’s dreams, and about the way that talents are not always obvious ‘stage’ ones. While the children are similar to other Streatfeild children, the family dynamics are different in every book and that’s what makes me keep reading. The conversations feel quite realistic and there are one or two places that I found extremely moving.

Highly recommended to children from the age of about eight or nine, and any teens or adults who like reading this kind of older children’s fiction.

Not currently in print, but widely available second-hand.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

17/07/2016

September (by Rosamunde Pilcher)

I love Rosamunde Pilcher’s writing, and have collected all her books over the years. I think I’ve read them all at least twice, but like to re-read every nine or ten years. I was long overdue re-reading this book, a saga style novel of over 600 pages, but finally picked it from my shelves a week ago, and have just completed it.

The main story of ‘September’ is the planning and build-up to a dance, given for a young woman called Katy who is approaching twenty-one. However she doesn’t feature much in the book at all, and neither does her mother, who comes up with the idea several months before the event. Instead, the various storylines revolve around two families who live in the Scottish village nearby: the Airds and the Balmerinos.

I remember, when I read it before, that I found it a bit hard, sometimes, to remember exactly who was whom, so I made more of an effort with the names this time. Violet Aird is easy; she’s in her late seventies, a large and comfortable woman who lives on her own. Her son Edmund is married to Virginia, who is rather younger than he is, and it’s his second marriage. He has a grown-up daughter Alexa who lives in London, from his first marriage, and eight-year-old Henry.

Archie is Lord Balmerino, traumatised and disabled by being in the army in Northern Ireland during the ‘troubles’, and his wife, Isabel, works very hard to keep the finances afloat. They have two children too: Lucilla is backpacking around Europe at the start of the book, and Hamish, who is twelve, is mostly at boarding school. Archie has a sister, Pandora, who eloped twenty years previously with a married man, and has never returned, though they keep hoping she will…

We meet each of these people and other friends and neighbours in their homes, getting to know them gradually, entering into their lives. I particularly liked (though I had forgotten) that Alexa becomes friendly with Noel Keeling, who was an important part of Pilcher’s best-known book ‘The Shell Seekers’. Lucilla and her travelling companion Geoff go to stay with Pandora in Majorca, and everyone gradually starts to focus on the upcoming party.

The first few chapters take place in May, and the book gradually moves through the months, focussing in snippets on different characters, their storylines intertwining, and learning more about each of them. Pilcher has a great gift of characterisation, particularly for children and the elderly; I found myself liking Violet very much, and also Edie, who works as a home help for her, but is also one of her oldest friends.

Henry, too, is a delightful little boy, and one of the subplots involves growing tension between his parents; his father wants him to go to boarding school but his mother is convinced he is not yet ready. I remember finding this particular story very stressful when I first read it, particularly when Henry takes matters into his own hands… but liked it so much better this time around.

I was also aware of other things that are not revealed until the final chapters; I had forgotten those relating to Archie and an old friend of Virginia’s, but had remembered most of the Pandora storyline, shocking first time around, but movingly done.

There are many sensory details woven into the novel which I took the time to read and savour rather than skimming, and many conversations and events which I had completely forgotten. Overall, it’s a wonderful book; perhaps, since it takes place over just four months, it’s not technically a saga - yet in the course of those months we learn a great deal about not just the present but the previous generation of the families concerned.

I don't move in the kinds of circles Pilcher writes about - shooting parties and high class dinner parties are not my scene, and the thought of sending a small child to boarding school is an anathema, not something I would ever expect. The amount of drinking is foreign to me too, and the amount of smoking rather shocking, considering that the book was written as recently as 1990. It feels rather older, though, and it's a testament to the author's writing skill that even people so far removed from my own experience came to life and got under my skin.

Highly recommended. I am already looking forward to reading it again in another ten years or so.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

13/07/2016

A Leader in the Chalet School (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)

In my gradual re-reading of the entire Chalet School series by Elinor M Brent-Dyer, I feel as if I’m on the last stretch now; I’ve just finished the 45th (according to the hardback numbering) out of the original 58. That means they’re less familiar; as a child I re-read the first twenty or so, which were at my grandparents’ house, most summers. I then took the later ones out of my secondary school library, one or two at a time, in my teens. My mother then started collecting them, and I dipped into some of them now and again… eventually acquiring the entire set from her.

A Leader in the Chalet School follows directly after Ruey Richardson - Chaletian which I read a few months ago. My edition of this is the Armada paperback, but according to experts, although there are frequent cuts in the text, they are all minor. So there are no vast missing sections, and thus no real reason to look for a hardback; I don't think there is (yet?) a ‘Girls Gone By’ edition.

Jack Lambert is the new girl in this book; niece of Gay Lambert, of ‘Gay from China…’, and a tomboy who hates her full name of Jacynth, Jack has longed to come to the Chalet School for some years, but when finally there, aged 11, she finds herself rather hemmed in by rules and regulations. She’s a likeable, scrupulously honest girl but full of curiosity and mischief.

Len Maynard, oldest of Joey’s long family by a few minutes, takes Jack under her wing. We’re told rather too often in this book that Len is taking on the mantle of both her mother and Mary-Lou, something that can easily be seen, but Len does it in her own style and her character emerges quite nicely in this book. She’s quite mature for fifteen, taking on responsibility naturally, and accepting Jack’s questions with - for the most part - fortitude and humour.

The book follows the usual classroom anecdotes and entertainments, enlivened by Jack’s determination to play tricks on her classmates and even the staff, although she eventually learns that this kind of thing is not encouraged at the Chalet School. Jack is a good character and is quickly adopted as a friend by some of her classmates, much to the consternation of another girl who decides she doesn’t like Jack at all…

It’s a quick read, more so because of being the paperback, and I liked it rather more than some of the recent ones I’ve read. In a couple of places I almost laughed aloud at some of the things that happened, or the way somebody spoke. I was mildly frustrated by an odd continuity error: Len’s triplet Margot, in an early chapter, is said to be singing the part of the Fairy Queen in the St Mildred’s pantomime; but when the pantomime is performed (happily without a blow-by-blow account) and then discussed by the triplets afterwards, there is no mention of Margot’s having been in it.

But overall, I enjoyed it very much. It must be twenty years or more since I last read it, and I had entirely forgotten the storyline.

Not currently in print but sometimes available second-hand.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews