George's Marvellous Medicine (by Roald Dahl)

While I think Roald Dahl was a very clever (and often amusing) writer, I’ve always felt that his books were more suited to older children and teenagers, rather than younger ones. My sons read one or two of his books when they were about six or seven, and I read the classic ‘Willy Wonka’ book to them at some point, but they appreciated them more when they were nearer ten or eleven.

However I knew that there were some intended for younger children, and my three-year-old grandson seems to have an endless appetite for books. So, having read ‘The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me’ to him at least three times, I started, at his request, on Dahl’s ‘George’s Marvellous Medicine’. I didn’t think it would appeal too much, and on the first reading I skimmed or abbreviated much of the description.

But apparently he liked it very much, and the following day asked me to read it again. This time I read the whole thing, and he wanted it again a day later…

The story is about eight-year-old George, who is left at home with his old, cantankerous and unpleasant grandmother while his mother goes shopping. Dahl acknowledges that most Grandmas are nice people, but this one is one of his classic nasty creations, who bullies George, ordering him about, accusing him of growing too much, and turning his stomach by recommending that he eat, among other things, caterpillar-laden cabbage three times a day.

Grandma has to take some unspecified medicine several times a day, and George has been told that she must have a dose at eleven o’clock. With an hour to spare, he decides to make a different kind of medicine which, he hopes, will have some interesting results…

The book quickly becomes silly, as George fills a large pan with the contents of every bottle and can that he can find in the bathroom, the hottest spices from the kitchen, random items from the garage, and a great deal more. Each item is listed in some detail - much of which I skipped on my first reading aloud - and George then manages to boil and cool the mixture in time for the eleven o’clock dose.

The book is only just over 100 pages, and the first forty of them are taken up with the concocting of the ‘marvellous medicine’. Grandma is then given a dose, with dramatic results…

Dahl had a gift for engaging children’s interest, often with grotesque content, and the nastiest of people; I thought my somewhat sensitive grandson might find parts of it upsetting, but he seemed to think it was an amusing book, realising that it was all extremely silly, in a fun kind of way, and that the nasty grandma wasn’t (I’m relieved to know) anything like his grandmas.

Recommended as a read-aloud to any child who likes chapter books of this length, with line drawings every two or three pages, and who appreciates the bizarre and absurd. Also good for fluently reading children; the language isn’t dumbed down in any way; my edition (bought second-hand) was at one point owned by a child who must have been about eight or nine; that’s probably the intended readership, as George himself is eight. George’s father is excitable and ambitious but quite likeable, and his mother tries to keep the peace… they are not the usual unpleasant Dahl creations, but (compared to Grandma) quite ordinary.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews


The Incomplete Amorist (by E Nesbit)

I very much enjoyed, both as a child and an adult, E Nesbit’s classic children’s books such as ‘The Railway Children’ and ‘Five Children and It’. On acquiring a Kindle some years ago I was delighted to learn that she (along with various other authors) had written some lesser-known works for adults. I downloaded a lot of free out-of-copyright books and on a recent trip to the UK, decided to read this one.

‘The Incomplete Amorist’ was first published in 1906, so it’s inevitably steeped in Victorian morality and culture. So I had no problem realising how shocking it is for 18-year-old Betty, the respectable step-daughter of a Vicar, to meet Vernon, an artist, ten years her senior, without a chaperone. She justifies the meetings in her own mind, as educational; Vernon offers to teach her, and it’s fairly clear that he is a serial womaniser who hopes to seduce a young girl.

But Betty is really very innocent; her shyness and honesty, which he takes as coquetry, keeps him somewhat at arm’s length. Unsurprisingly her stepfather finds out and is horrified, banning her to her room and refusing to allow her to see him again. It could have been melodramatic; it could have been dull. But there’s a lot of irony in the writing, and some wry observations that lift this out of the mundane. The relationship between Betty and her stepfather is full of misunderstandings, and I found myself hoping that they would eventually learn to understand each other.

Much of the story is set in Paris, where Betty goes to study art with a respectable lady after the intervention of one of her aunts. Vernon is in the same city, and two new characters appear who befriend Betty and gradually the four develop a rather complex love quadrangle (if that’s the phrase).

In places the story was rather slow-moving, and the conversation a bit stilted, but given that it was written well over a hundred years ago, it’s quite lively and even risqué in places. Nothing is ever stated outright, but there are implications and innuendoes, and a fair amount of tension when Betty decides to try and live independently for a while.

‘The Incomplete Amorist’ was a good book to read when on holiday; it wasn’t so gripping that I couldn’t put it down at any point but the characters and situations were distinct enough that I never forgot who was whom, or got lost in the story when picking it up to read a bit more at bedtime.

I didn’t think it anywhere near as good as the author’s children’s books, but on the whole I liked this book and am glad I read it. The link above is to a print copy of the book, but it's easy enough to find free or inexpensively for the Kindle or other ebook readers, or as part of an E Nesbit collection.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews


Waking Up (by Ted Dekker)

I haven’t read any of Ted Dekker’s fiction, as my family have told me that they’re very tense and, in places, too violent and scary for my tastes. However we knew him vaguely, twenty-five or so years ago, before he became a writer, and I was interested to spot a free electronic download offering a short biographical booklet he had written.

The title when I downloaded it was, 'Waking up: how I found my faith by losing it, but it's now entitled, ‘Waking up: to who you really are’. That's a more accurate title, since the author doesn't really lose his faith as such - just starts to ask a lot of questions.

The booklet is an honest reflection on the author’s life, delving into his past when he was sent to boarding school at the age of six - something I have read or heard about many times. He felt abandoned by his parents, though he doesn’t blame them in any way, and his experiences were, at times, horrendous.

Most of the booklet looks at his struggles with his faith as an adult, even after he had become a well-known writer. He explores reasons why he often uses dark themes, and mentions some of the books that he’s written which relate to his more recent journey, from skepticism and confusion through to a new and more positive life following Jesus, no matter what happens around him.

The teaching, such as it is, isn’t new, but the writing is excellent, and many of the anecdotes or ideas were quite thought-provoking. Definitely worth reading by anyone who has enjoyed Dekker’s books, or who is interested in the background to some of his books; those without faith, or with a different kind of faith, may find the Christian element a bit too strong, but I didn’t think it was pushy at all - and it’s one person’s experiences, with a positive outcome.

If nothing else, it’s inspired me to think about reading one or two of the author’s more recent books, including the ones he mentions in this booklet.

Only available in Kindle form, as far as I know.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews


The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me (by Roald Dahl)

When my sons were around six to eight, I read several Roald Dahl books to them, including the classic ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’. But I don’t think I ever read the simpler Dahl books, intended for younger children. However, my three-year-old grandson is staying, and he has a voracious appetite for books. So I’m reading aloud for at least an hour every day (often longer), including some short chapter books.

Our copy of ‘The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me’ is in the format of a large style picture book, wonderfully illustrated by Quentin Blake. It doesn’t contain any chapters, but it’s a short children’s novel rather than a typical picture book. There are a lot of words on every page, and it took me well over half an hour to read it aloud this morning. It’s the second time I’ve read it since we acquired it a couple of weeks ago, and it’s an enjoyable story that’s quite fun to read.

It’s told in the first person by a boy called Billy, whose ambition is to own a sweet shop. He meets a strange trio who have set up a window-cleaning business: a giraffe, a pelican and a monkey. They’re invited to clean the windows of a Duke’s mansion, and in doing so they manage to avert a serious crime…

Unlike Dahl books for older children, there are no gruesomely awful people. Billy’s parents are not described, and the Duke speaks in an upper-class style; he’s rather angry when we first meet him, but it’s not unreasonable in the circumstances. His threats of violence are humorous rather than of any concern even to a young and sensitive child.

The story is ridiculous, of course, and gradually becomes more so; quite apart from speaking and setting up a business, the giraffe and the pelican both have unexpected and unique special features. Inevitably there’s a happy ending that suits everyone. There’s a lot of ironic and other mild humour in the writing as well as in the pictures, and it makes an excellent book to read and talk about.

The language is reasonably simple without being condescending or unrealistic. My only mild problem with the book is two or three instances of mild bad language used by the Duke. I prefer not to use this kind of thing when reading to young children. It wasn’t a problem to change or omit the words when reading, but it could be disturbing to some.

Other than that - and it’s only on one page - I would definitely recommend this as a read-aloud for children of three and upwards, and for fluent readers of any age.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews


The Chalet School Reunion (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)

In my gradual re-reading of the Chalet School series by Elinor M Brent-Dyer, I reached the fiftieth book (as originally written), ‘The Chalet School Reunion’. It’s not one that I remembered at all; perhaps, when I was a teenager, I found it less interesting than some of the others. It doesn’t take place during term-time, so the school is barely featured. Instead, it’s another volume about Joey Maynard and some of her family and friends. My copy is a hardback published in the early 1960s, which was one of my mother’s collection.

The main character in the book is Grizel Cochrane, one-time difficult student, then a somewhat cranky music teacher who never wanted to teach at all. At the start of the novel she’s tired, emotionally drained, under a great deal of stress, and possibly heading towards a breakdown of some kind. Her business in New Zealand has folded up, her best friend has got married, and her stepmother in the UK has died, meaning that Grizel now inherits her father’s money.

She decides to take a break in Switzerland to stay with her close friend Joey, and have a rest before having to deal with legal issues and finances. As the title of the book suggests, there is a reunion involved, and it’s not just Grizel and the Chalet School staff. Joey contacts everyone she can find who was a pupil at the Chalet School in its first year of existence. Quite a few of them are able to travel to stay with her, or nearby, and she arranges various local outings, aided by her triplet daughters who are now sixteen…

I very much liked reading the sections about Grizel, and the way she is finally able to let go of some of the past, and realise that it’s acceptable to look forward to the future and even to be happy. Brent-Dyer created a complex and three-dimensional character in Grizel, although for the previous several volumes she was relegated to New Zealand, with barely a mention. She shows herself courageous and, essentially, very likeable in this book and the ending, while somewhat predictable, is very satisfying.

The digressions about the various outings led by the triplets Len, Con and Margot are less interesting on the whole. Brent-Dyer loved to educate her readers into the delights of mountain hikes and beauty spots, and more than once I found myself skimming. However she weaves character-building into them, and one of the outings has a near tragedy, with long-lasting consequences for all involved.

Not an essential book to read if someone is more interested in the Chalet School and its current students; equally it would be an odd one to read if not familiar with the earlier books. Many incidents are referred to, as the ‘old girls’ meet and chat; but without at least some idea of who they all were in previous books, it would be rather confusing as there are so many people involved.

However, I enjoyed it very much. It was quite a difficult book to find second-hand for some years, but has been re-printed in recent years by the excellent 'Girls Gone By' publishers.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews


The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side (by Agatha Christie)

We have quite a large collection of books by Agatha Christie, probably the best-known writer of light crime fiction in the middle of the twentieth century. We picked up most of them second-hand, initially for my sons who liked reading them in their teens. Now I’m slowly working through them myself.

‘The mirror crack’d from side to side’ is set in the fictional small village of St Mary Mead, home of Miss Marple. She is becoming quite elderly; Miss Marple now has a live-in helper who drives her wild, and finds it difficult to get about. But she and her friends take a lively interest in everything that goes on around them, and like to gossip about the modern housing estate, complete with supermarkets, which has grown up around the village.

Most of the story, however, is related to Gossington Hall, a large stately home in St Mary Mead. I particularly loved the description of the East Lodge, ‘a charming porticoed little building replete with inconvenience…’. The Hall has been bought by a film star and her fifth husband, and within a few chapters of the book most of the cast gather at a large garden fete given at the Hall, which attracts most of the locals.

The initial chapters introduce us to several of the important characters of the book, seen in context. Agatha Christie was very skilled in her plotting of books, and this is no exception. I’ve always felt that her characterisation, by contrast, was less well developed. Some of her people seem very two-dimensional. However, in this book I was quite drawn to Miss Marple, and a few other characters too.

Unsurprisingly there’s a murder that takes place at the fete, one that apparently happens in full view of several people. As ever, red herrings abound. I thought I was doing quite well with spotting things before the police did, or before they were spelled out, only to learn, as I continued to read, that I had fallen nicely into the intended misdirection. I hadn’t guessed the actual perpetrator or the motive until about a paragraph before all was revealed, and felt quite tense when reading the last fifty pages or so, as Miss Marple works out what has happened.

My one gripe about this book is the rather unpleasant language used to describe a child who was born with a serious mental handicap. We don’t know much about the child, but the attitudes of the times are rather shocking. The very non-PC words used could be considered seriously disturbing.

The attitude towards prescribed drugs also seems rather bizarre over fifty years later; but could be considered part of the social history of the era.

All in all, I thought it a very good example of Agatha Christie’s work. As with all this author's novels, it remains almost continually in print, but is also widely available second-hand.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews


Out of the Saltshaker (by Rebecca Manley Pippert)

I don’t know how long we’ve had the book ‘Out of the Saltshaker’. I don’t know anything about the author, Rebecca Manley Pippert, either, other than what’s mentioned in the pages of the book. But in browsing through my shelves of Christian books, I realised that it’s been quite some time - over ten years - since I last read this, and also that I liked it very much.

So over the past couple of weeks I’ve been re-reading this, a chapter - or less - at a time, and not every day. It’s been a very busy time of year with family visiting. I quickly remembered that the author was mostly writing about students, and that she was based on the United States. Neither aspect makes the content culturally relevant - yet there’s plenty in this to inspire and encourage.

The book is about evangelism - spreading the good news of Jesus - as a lifestyle. The first part of the book is about Jesus himself, and what it means to follow him. And despite not finding anything new in the text, I found the writing engaging and well expressed. There are anecdotes about the author’s experiences in trying to live out her beliefs, including times when she made mistakes. The style is relaxed and informal, and the advice given is, in my view, excellent.

The second part of the book is more overtly directed to the student community, with suggestions for becoming involved in other people’s lives, and gently exploring issues of faith. But again, what she says could be relevant to anyone. She encourages believers to make friends, not for the purpose of ‘winning souls’, as some might put it, but because they’re lovable people made in God’s image. She reminds readers not to try and ram the Gospel down anyone’s throat, nor to try and use techniques that make them feel uncomfortable.

This book was first published in 1979, and of course the world has changed in many ways since then, particularly regarding technology. Inevitably it’s dated; a revised version might explore use of mobile phones or social media to reach out to others. Apparently, there have been some updates; there are still versions in print, on both sides of the Atlantic, and some related resources available too.

But everything that was written even in my version nearly forty years ago is still relevant today. I would recommend this highly to any students, or indeed anyone else who would like to introduce their friends and acquaintances to Jesus, but has not the slightest idea how to go about it.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews


Meet the Austins (by Madeleine L'Engle)

In my quest to re-read books by some of my favourite fiction writers, and discover some I’d missed, I decided to read another Madeleine L’Engle teenage book. It’s a busy period and I’m not reading much, so a shorter novel than usual was easy to finish in just a few evenings. I’ve been realising that although we’ve had several of this author’s books on our shelves since my sons discovered them close to twenty years ago, I had never (as far as I recall) read this one before.

‘Meet the Austins’ is a family story, introducing characters who, I assume, will feature in others in the series. Unlike the better known ‘Wrinkle in Time’ and its sequels, there’s nothing magical or mysterious in this book which features an ordinary American family. It was published in 1960, so I assume it was intended to be contemporary, and as such is an interesting snapshot into US life in that era.

Vicky is the narrator of this book. She’s twelve, and the second of four children. She and her older brother John have something of a love-hate relationship, although during the course of the book they realise that they are important to each other. Suzy is three years younger than Vicky, and Rob is about five. Their father is a doctor, their mother (as was typical of the era) stays at home and looks after the children and the household.

The story opens on a dramatic note as a phone call heralds a family bereavement. It shocks Vicky and makes her ask questions about life and God. Not long afterwards, a rather spoilt (and unhappy) girl called Maggy comes to join the family, temporarily at first, and the dynamics inevitably change.

There’s not much plot to this novel. Instead it’s a series of incidents showing family life, each chapter being complete in itself. The chapters are quite long; there are only five in around 150 pages. One of them is about a day that went wrong, with Vicky doing something she later regretted profoundly. One of the chapters is about a visit their uncle makes to their house, accompanied by a woman whom they all assume is a girlfriend. The final chapter describes a holiday to their grandfather’s home, by the sea, and a near tragedy.

There are some ongoing threads to the story, in particular that of Maggy’s gradual adaption to family life, and the decision as to what her future will hold. But since the book is an introduction to several people, it’s character-based. L’Engle had a gift for characterisation; perhaps some of her people are caricatured, but I very much liked the geeky John, the slightly rebellious Vicky, and the independent, determined Rob. Suzy was the least developed of the children; she’s rather over-shadowed by Maggy.

It’s not a great literary work but I’m glad I’ve read it at last. It would be suitable for any child from the age of about seven or eight who’s reading fluently, or as a read-aloud for the whole family. There’s a very low-key Christian theme - graces are said, Grandfather is a retired minister, and some theological questions are addressed without any preaching or even firm answers.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews