Saturday, 18 October 2014

Goodnight, Beautiful (by Dorothy Koomson)

I’ve been reading Dorothy Koomson’s books for a few years now. I find her style very readable; she has an excellent way with words and a good ear for conversation. Her plots can be rather hard-hitting, certainly thought-provoking. But nothing prepared me for this particular book.

‘Goodnight, beautiful’ is about a seven-year-old boy called Leo. However we never really meet Leo; as we quickly learn, he’s in hospital on life support after a head injury. His mother, Nova, has a vivid and moving dream at the beginning, one which clearly reflects her thoughts although we don’t know until near the end of the book what’s going to happen to Leo.

The rest of the book is told in a mixture of past and present, skipping backwards and forwards in time as we learn about Leo’s background, his unusual conception, and who his various relatives are. It’s partly narrated by Nova, and partly by a woman of similar age called Stephanie. Their link is that Stephanie is married to Mal, who was Nova’s best friend right the way through childhood.

There’s another important connection between Nova and Stephanie which is hinted at early in the book, although it’s not spelled out until the middle. Unfortunately, the blurb on the back basically summarises the first two-thirds of the book and I made the mistake of reading it after I found myself getting more and more confused about who was whom, and where Leo fit into the picture.

Still, even knowing this ‘secret’, and some of what was coming, it was quite a gripping book.. at least, to start with. Each scene is carefully crafted and I was quickly immersed in the story each time I picked the book up. Evidently the plotting and chronology were meticulously organised; it all hung together, and the various revelations (albeit with spoilers in the blurb) came at just the right moments.

However, none of the characters (well, other than Leo) really grabbed me. I felt the most sympathy for Nova although some of the things she does are beyond comprehension. Even then it was often difficult to distinguish her voice from Stephanie’s - and I really didn’t like Stephanie at all. The two husbands were even more shadowy; Keith perhaps deliberately so, although he seems to get rather a raw deal, one way and another. But Mal is a very confusing person; he’s supposed to be a good guy but I couldn’t make sense of his personality or some of the things he does.

I also found it a bit annoying that there were no headings to indicate who was narrating, or what year it was referring to; with the time leaping forwards and backwards and random switches between Nova and Stephanie, I often had to read a page or more before I knew who was speaking and what timeframe it referred to. I even forgot which one was married to whom, when I was tired, and the other minor characters were so vague as to be shadows.

This is billed as a tear-jerker and I can see why. It’s the kind of topic which should have had me in floods of tears; yet I remained dry-eyed. Perhaps this is because I couldn’t relate fully to any of the main characters - or perhaps it's because the parent/child relationship just didn't ring true. I have no idea if Dorothy Koomson has children of her own, but I suspect not.

There are certainly some thought-provoking issues covered in this book, but it was rather unremittingly negative and I thought the ending was unnecessarily unpleasant in several ways. Still, the writing is excellent, and I am in awe at the complexity of the plotting.

Recommended if you want something much heavier than the usual women's fiction, and can deal with the various issues above.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Far to Go (by Noel Streatfeild)

Having just finished reading my newly-acquired Noel Streatfeild book ‘Thursday’s Child’, it was an easy decision to pick up the sequel - one that I’ve had on my shelves for many years, but have not read in a long time.

‘Far to go’ continues to feature the determined Margaret Thursday, and starts at the place where ‘Thursday’s Child’ left off. Her close friends have gone to live in Ireland, but Margaret want to make a name for herself. Having discovered a talent for acting, she wants to use it to become famous.

Aided by one of the staff at the tent theatre where she has been playing ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’, Margaret auditions for a play in London. She loses her temper when she thinks the manager is looking down on her, and this gains her the part - and entry into a very different lifestyle. Margaret make new friends, and learns a great deal about acting.

However also learns that she has an enemy: the Matron of the horrible orphanage where she was sent at the start of the previous book. It’s not necessary to have read ‘Thursday’s Child’ before embarking on this one - explanations are given when needed, and are not over-long; but I think I enjoyed it more reading it as a sequel, knowing all that had gone before.

Set at the start of the 20th century, there’s a realistic backdrop to the story with horse-drawn carriages, pea-souper smogs, and a strongly demarcated class system. It’s all taken for granted, as are the slums - which undoubtedly existed - and the terrible treatment given to some unfortunate orphans. Matron is a caricatured villainess, and her appearance is mercifully brief; but there were, no doubt, people of this kind in an era where children were not all valued as they are today and no protection was given to those without relatives or money.

I often find that Streatfeild’s books end a bit abruptly after the resolution of a dramatic climax, and this is no exception. Indeed, it’s not a long book at all; just over 125 page in paperback, I read it in a little over an hour. I would have loved another sequel, but there isn’t one. Margaret is an appealing child with a great deal of character, and I’d like to have known more about what happens to her various friends.

Unusually, too, some threads are left entirely unresolved. No mention is made of what happens when Margaret’s ‘tent theatre’ employees finally catch up with her, for instance. Nor do we ever learn about Margaret's ancestry, or why the funding ran out at the start of the first book. Noel Streatfeild is usually good at tying up loose ends, even if she leaves the future open for her main characters, and this makes me wonder if she had planned to write another book about these characters.

I would certainly recommend this if you’ve read ‘Thursday’s Child’, or are a fan of Noel Streatfeild in general, although 'Far to Go' is not one of my favourites. The writing is good and the social history aspect - as well as the insights into the theatre of the era - adds some general interest that might make it appeal to boys as well as girls. Fluent readers of about eight or nine would be most likely to enjoy this, although it was originally intended for children of about ten to fourteen.

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

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Saturday, 4 October 2014

The Twins at St Clare's (by Enid Blyton)

I wasn’t planning to read this book. But a nine-year-old friend has been reading her way through Enid Blyton’s ‘Mallory Towers’ series, and I suggested she might try the ‘St Clare’s’ series next. I couldn’t remember which one came first, so I pulled a couple of them from my shelves, and then started reading this one...

‘The Twins at St Clare’s’ is, indeed, the first in this series about a boarding school. However the twins in the title - Pat and Isabel - have no wish to go there. They have been to quite an exclusive boarding school which take girls up to fourteen, and hope to go to the same one as their best friends. But their parents consider that they are getting conceited and arrogant, and are determined that they should go to St Clare’s instead.

They go with great reluctance, determined to defy the system and make nuisances of themselves. Naturally - this being an Enid Blyton school story - they come across somewhat caricatured classmates: helpful Hilary, outspoken Janet, mousy Kathleen and more. The teachers, too, are rather larger than life, but it doesn’t matter; each chapter has anecdotes in the life of the school, as Pat and Isabel slowly discover that they can make friends, work hard, and join in with fun and games.

And I kept reading. Abandoning other pursuits, I finished the book in an hour or so, surprised at how much I liked it. The writing isn’t brilliant, but it’s nowhere near as bad as some might suggest. This undoubtedly comes across as dated and unrealistic, but it doesn’t matter; for the duration of the book, I could almost feel myself at St Clare’s, observing the classes, sympathising with the staff, egging on the girls to loyalty and enthusiasm and good health.

For these books come with plenty of moral lessons, not spelt out too overtly, but clear to see. Mischief is acceptable within moderation, but playing tricks on nervous teachers leads to serious consequences: not so much for the girls, but for the teacher concerned. Defying the rules may sometimes feel like the right thing, but consciences prick and it’s seen as far better to own up to wrongdoing, or put it right. Even bigger issues - lying, boasting or theft - are shown to be a result of some unfortunate circumstance, and forgiveness is offered for anyone willing to own to her faults and change her attitude.

Overall, I was impressed - more so than I had expected, having not read the book for decades. I have no hesitation in recommending it to my nine-year-old friend, or to anyone else of this age or a little older who reads fluently and enjoys girls’ school stories.

Reprinted in 2014, this is available in paperback or Kindle form, at least in the UK, either alone or in a volume with two other books in the series. Older editions can often be found second-hand.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Thursday's Child (by Noel Streatfeild)

I remembered this book, vaguely, from my childhood. Always on the lookout for more to add to my Noel Streatfeild collection, I was delighted to find a good quality hardback edition (formerly a library book) for sale inexpensively online.

‘Thursday’s Child’, set shortly after the start of the 20th century, is the story of Margaret, who was left on a vicarage doorstep as a baby. She had high quality clothing, and a promise that fifty-two sovereigns would be left for her keep every year. She is placed with two elderly ladies who bring her up well for her first ten years or so, aided by their housemaid Hannah. But the ladies are getting frailer, and then one year a note arrives saying that there will be no more money for Margaret.

So she’s sent to an orphanage. Supposedly a good one, it turns out to be a Dickensian-style hotbed of physical abuse and neglect. Margaret befriends a girl called Lavinia who is employed nearby, and agrees to keep an eye on her two younger brothers, Peter and Horatio. Margaret is a determined and strong-minded child, and finds herself in trouble with the dreadful Matron of the home right from the start.

The orphanage phase of the book doesn’t last too long, thankfully; it gives a heart-rending picture of what life probably was like for some children, when their homes were not regulated or inspected. But Margaret and her friends run away, and we see a much happier life - albeit hard - as they work for a while as ‘leggers’ on a canal boat.

This isn’t a typical Streatfeild book; there are no highly gifted children, at least not until Margaret discovers an unexpected talent towards the end. There’s a somewhat unlikely coincidence - although it seems happily believable while immersed in the book - and, being a children’s book, a satisfactory conclusion although it happens rather quickly and leaves the story open. I knew I had to read the sequel soon afterwards!

I had forgotten the story entirely; I realised that Margaret would get out of the clutches of the orphanage but had no recollection of what happened. Noel Streatfeild has a very readable style, and quite a gift of characterisation for the children in her novels, even if the adults are rather caricatured. It was written in 1970 so is a historical rather than contemporary novel, and a good picture is painted of life in various contexts from the point of view of a child.

This wouldn’t be the best introduction to Noel Streatfeild’s books although it’s a good story that might appeal to boys as much as to girls; I doubt if anyone younger than about eight or nine would find it very interesting, but a good reader of that age or older might well enjoy it. This kind of book is good as a read-aloud, too, for children of about eight or older who still enjoy a bedtime chapter.

I’m delighted to have ‘Thursday’s Child’ in my collection. It's not currently in print but can sometimes be found second-hand at reasonable price.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Glittering Images (by Susan Howatch)

I love this book! It’s many years, now, since a friend recommended Susan Howatch’s work to me, commenting that her novels - and particularly the ‘Starbridge’ series - were essentially Christian psychological thrillers. That didn’t sound like a particularly appealing genre, but I trusted my friend’s judgement - and am so glad I did.

It took me a while to get into ‘Glittering Images’ the first time I read it. The second time, just a year later, I read a lot more quickly. I enjoyed it again in 2007, but that’s some time ago now. I picked it up again recently as I had come across a few quotations from it in a non-fiction book I was reading. I thought I might skim it - but was soon hooked again.

The story features 37-year old Charles Ashworth, an ordained minister who works in academic circles, and is a friend of the Archbishop. It’s set in the early part of the 20th century using some real people (or characters based on real individuals) but Charles is entirely fictional. He is given a mission by the Archbishop, to visit the Bishop of Starbridge and check whether he is or has done anything indiscreet, which might be pounced upon by the media.

Charles really doesn’t want to do this, but feels he can’t refuse this assignment. He is, in any case, quite interested to learn how the Bishop’s household functions: his wife Carrie is considered attractive but fluffy, while the Bishop is a strong-minded academic. Carrie has a companion, Lyle, who is known to be ultra-efficient.. and Charles is surprised at how attractive he finds her....

While the book is somewhat rambling in places, with a great deal of conversation, I found, once again, that it was remarkably difficult to put down. I could remember the broad outline of the plot, of course, and the eventual resolution - but much of the detail intrigued me all over again.

Perhaps Charles’ problems, which eventually surface in dramatic events, are caricatured and exaggerated. Perhaps the psychological investigation that follows - and helps him uncover them - is a bit too neat and tidy. But it makes very exciting reading, and Charles’ advisor - the mystical monk Jon Darrow - is a most intriguing character.

The writing is powerful, often quite terse (other than in the conversations) and dramatic, with very clever plotting as events and memories unfold. It didn’t grip me quite as much as it did that first time, and I didn’t feel as drawn to Charles as I did years ago - but still, it was a very enjoyable read, with some great insights into possible reasons for some behaviours.

The book has been criticised as suggesting that Anglican ministers are naturally as described in the book, but I don’t really think that’s fair: Charles and the Bishop of Starbridge are unusual, in contrast to the majority of other hard-working and ethical vicars around the country. My one reservation at recommending it widely is that there’s one somewhat explicit - and shocking - scene, and quite a lot of frank discussion about intimacies throughout the book. Perhaps it’s low-key compared to the majority of modern novels, but I would hesitate to recommend this to anyone under the age of about 16.

Still, it’s a book I will no doubt return to in future, yet again, and one that I recommend highly to friends.

Still in print, and now available inexpensively for the Kindle too.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Thursday, 18 September 2014

The Ship of Brides (by JoJo Moyes)

I have enjoyed books by JoJo Moyes, a writer whom I only discovered about five years ago. Her novels encompass a variety of topics, often with a historical dimension, and are very well written so I’ve started adding more of them to my wishlist. I received this one for my last birthday.

‘The Ship of Brides’ starts with an ambiguous and intriguing prologue, which didn’t make sense (indeed, I had quite forgotten about it) until nearer the end. This is followed by a scene full of action, set in 2002. A young British woman and her elderly grandmother are in India, doing some sight-seeing. The young woman is flouts convention and goes to visit a ship-yard full of discarded vessels; the old woman eventually follows her, and has an immense shock as she spots one of the rusting old ships...

The main part of the novel takes place in 1946, when a boatload of Australian brides are en route to the UK to be reunited with the husbands they married during the war. Although the characters are fictional, they are based on real people and the book is set around some actual historical events. At the start of each chapter is a brief quotation from letters or journals written by some of the people involved at the time. The author evidently did a great deal of research, and the general feel was of an authentic account.

At the start of the historical section we meet four of the Australian brides before they set out: the rather snobby Avice, of wealthy family; the nurse Frances, who has seen some terrible injuries; the cheerful (and very pregnant) Margaret, and sixteen-year-old Jean.

These four very different women find themselves sharing a cabin on their voyage, which is not on a liner but on a converted warship. The captain really isn’t happy about having hundreds of women on board, and some of his staff are not entirely sure how to deal with lively young brides.

Different chapters are written from the different perspectives of some of the main characters, giving a good picture of what life would have been like for these courageous women who crossed the world to be with their husbands, some of them uncertain whether they would ever see their home and families again. Worse still, some of the husbands were still on active duty - and some didn’t want their Australian wives. So there was constant stress there, quite apart from the unusual circumstances of crossing the ocean in cramped quarters.

I found the book interesting - it’s a part of history I knew nothing about - but as a novel, this didn’t really work for me. It felt more like a series of anecdotes than a real plot, and I didn’t warm to any of the main characters other than, perhaps, Margaret. I had forgotten all about the opening scene - perhaps I was supposed to guess what the relevance of the main part of the book was, but in the event it was quite a surprise to return to 2002 at the end. It was a satisfying ending which made sense, but didn’t feel like part of the book.

I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys historical fiction that’s more anecdotal than having a strong storyline. The writing is good, as I have come to expect from JoJo Moyes, and at times I could almost imagine the situations. But somehow this book didn’t grip me. Still, perhaps I'll feel differently if I re-read it in another ten years or so...

Available in both paperback and Kindle form.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Real Relationships (by Les and Leslie Parrott)

This is a book that had been recommended to me several times. So, eventually, I bought it on special offer. I hadn’t previously heard of Les and Leslie Parrott, both of whom are apparently doctors of some variety, but reviews made it sound like an interesting book, well worth reading.

‘Real Relationships’ is written from a Christian perspective. However it can still be of use to those of other (or no) faith, since the Christian aspect is quite low-key until the final chapter, which is about relating to God. Earlier chapters deal in constructive and practical with human relationships of different kinds.

The book begins with a useful and thought-provoking introduction about the needs we all have for connection to other people. It demonstrates the importance of looking at our background and childhood - particularly if relationships have proved difficult - to see if there are unhelpful patterns that may translate into relationship difficulties later on.

The first relationships to be considered are those in the family, since that’s where we all begin. Later in th book romantic relationships are described, with some interesting - and, I thought, realistic - comments about built-in differences between men and women. There are also chapters about friendship in general, and some thought-provoking points about the contrast between life-long friends and those who are important to us for a period or place in our lives, but who then move on.

In my opinion, the book was well-written and very interesting, on the whole. However it was rather annoying to discover that, to make the best use of it, I should also have bought a related workbook - costing almost as much as the book itself - with exercises to help me determine how ready I was for various relationships, and how my emotional health was in general.

I like filling in questionnaires so I was quite tempted by the Kindle version of the ‘Real Relationships Workbook’; however the ‘look inside’ feature was so limited that there was no way to find out whether it would actually be helpful. I didn’t buy it - and doubt if I missed out on anything important - but the frequent directions to do another exercise became irritating.

Still, other than that, I thought it a helpful book which I would recommend to anyone having difficulties in either friendships or romance; or, indeed, anyone who is interested in learning more about the ways in which relationships of many kinds can work.

Available both in paperback and Kindle form on both sides of the Atlantic.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Dogger (by Shirley Hughes)

I happened to notice that the last book review I wrote was my 1499th on this blog. I don't usually notice numbers of that kind, but I started wondering if something extra special could be my 1500th review, since I started writing them back in 1999.

It just so happened that I saw a Facebook 'challenge' to choose ten books that had stayed with me over the years - that had, perhaps, affected my worldview. I jotted notes and eventually turned it into a review on another blog. In doing so, I checked to see how many of my 'top ten' had been reviewed here - in other words, which of them had I re-read in the past fifteen years? I was pleased to find that eight of them had reviews on this blog: evidently they were, indeed, books that had truly stayed with me.

One of the books is long out of print and I haven't been able to get hold of it. But the tenth in the list is one that I have read many times in the past few years. I haven't reviewed it because it's a picture book for children, and I read so many of those that it's hard to keep track.

But then it occurred to me that it would make an excellent subject for my 1500th review.

If I had to choose just one children’s picture book, from all those I have ever come across, I would opt for ‘Dogger’ by Shirley Hughes. She is a writer and illustrator, probably best known for her series about Alfie and Annie Rose, which I also like very much.

I first came across 'Dogger' when my sons were little. I bought a hardback edition as part of a set which I have kept, even when moving abroad with no small children. The story is about a small boy called Dave who is, I suppose, about three. Dogger is his greatly-loved toy.  Dave also has a big sister, who likes teddies and a baby brother. And they live in a very English home which, like most of Shirley Hughes' illustrations, is nicely cluttered.

The plot gets going when Dogger gets lost - sharp-eyed children may spot what happens to him, though probably not the first time they hear the story. Naturally there's a happy ending, but it comes after a dramatic and very moving climax.

The pictures look somewhat dated, by today's standards, but they are part of what makes this book (and others by this author) so very special. They match perfectly with the text, and provide inspiration for a great deal of discussion from children listening to the story.  Even now, when I re-read it for the umpteenth time to some small friends, we have to stop on the page illustrating a fancy-dress parade so they can decide which costumes they like best, and which will suit various relatives and friends.

I particularly like this book because, rather than being overtly educational, there’s a powerful theme of family love. In a gentle way, showing rather than telling, this book emphasises how important it is to listen to a child's concerns, however trivial they might seem to the rest of his family. As for the ending - it's a wonderful example of sacrificial love that even a small child can understand. When I haven't read the book for a while, I get choked up as I read it, despite knowing the story almost word for word.

Dogger' is still in print, available in paperback for under £3 at Amazon UK, or rather more in the US; it can often be found second-hand, too, or on offer in children's book shops.

I highly recommend this as a read-aloud book for any child from the age of about three; older children enjoy the story too, and it makes an excellent early reading book for a child of around five or six who is just beginning to read on their own.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews