14/01/2017

The Shepherd's Crown (by Terry Pratchett)

It’s almost two years since Sir Terry Pratchett lost his battle against a debilitating form of Alzheimer’s Disease, but his writing lives on. This book was published posthumously, and I’ve been wanting to read it for a while although it’s a bittersweet thought that it’s the final Discworld book ever. It was on my wishlist for a while, and I was delighted to be given a copy for Christmas.

‘The Shepherd’s Crown’ made ideal reading in a busy period when I had only fifteen minutes or so to read each evening before collapsing into an exhausted sleep. It’s really a teenage novel, fifth in the Tiffany Aching series; yet it brings together several threads, and feels in some ways more like a ‘full’ Discworld book, albeit somewhat shorter. And, inevitably, not as polished as some of the earlier books.

Nonetheless, it was a very satisfying read, and an excellent finale to the series. Tiffany is now a young adult, working hard as a witch - which mainly seems to involve being a midwife, nurse and counsellor at all hours of day and night. She has a lot of talent, and this is recognised by Granny Weatherwax; to say more on this would be to give a spoiler for an unexpected storyline that could have been shocking, yet was so sensitively done that I found it almost uplifting.

Meanwhile the evil elves are planning to invade the Discworld again, sensing that the barriers are weak. The advent of the railways lines frightens them - elves cannot tolerate iron or steel - and they don’t understand why goblins are being treated as sentient beings by the people of the Disc. There’s a classic, somewhat brutal battle forming the climax of the book.

Alongside this we meet Geoffrey, a likeable young man with an overbearing father, is determined to become a witch. It’s a nice mirror to the first of the witches books, ‘Equal Rites’, in which a young woman is destined to become a wizard. Pratchett often wrote undercurrents about women’s rights as well as the importance of accepting and working alongside people of all shapes, sizes and races (literally so on the Disc) and it’s a nice touch that Geoffrey is happy to help, to take on some quite unpleasant tasks, and generally to weave peace.

There’s much more; the Nac Mac Feegle naturally play an important role, as does a highly intelligent goat. To those not familiar with Discworld, it would probably be best to try some of Pratchett’s earlier works before reading this, particularly the ones featuring Tiffany Aching. Still, as with all the books in the series it could stand alone, even if the number of people and places might seem rather overwhelming.

I would caution parents that it isn’t a book for younger children. Some quite sensitive topics are covered, and there’s a bit of violence as well as some bad language. Older children and teens who have read the previous Tiffany Aching books may enjoy it, although she is now a young woman rather than a child, and there's even a low-key love interest.

Critics have said that some threads are left rather hanging, and some scenes aren’t really thorough enough. Perhaps that’s so; had the author lived longer, he would no doubt have edited and added, as explained in the epilogue. Nevertheless, it works well and in my opinion it’s still a terrific story; I’m very pleased that I’ve finally read it. Recommended to all who have enjoyed the Discworld series.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

01/01/2017

Passing Shadows (by Della Galton)

I wanted something light and undemanding to read on my Kindle for an hour or so on a recent flight, which I could then dip into at odd moments while travelling. Skimming through the couple of hundred items I’ve downloaded (mostly free) in the past few years, I spotted a novel by Della Galton, who is one of my favourite short-story writers.

‘Passing Shadows’ is about a young woman called Maggie who runs an animal rescue centre. She has recently finished a difficult relationship, and trying to avoid the attentions of the local vet. She’s also struggling to keep her centre going, relying on donations; and she desperately needs a handyman to mend broken fences and keep the place well maintained.

Into her life comes Finn, an artist who can turn his hand to maintenance and repair work. Maggie first meets him in tricky circumstances where she’s not at her best, but eventually he takes on temporary work and a room in her cottage. By rather a huge circumstantial leap, Finn turns out to have known (briefly) Maggie’s best friend Sarah, who has a delightful five-year-old son called Ben….

The revelation of exactly what part Finn played in Sarah’s past takes quite a while to unravel, although it was obvious from the first mention of circumstances what it was going to be. That didn’t matter; it was nicely done, with growing tension until Maggie learns the truth. She then has to keep the truth from Finn, because Sarah is scared of her fiance’s reaction; this is central to the book, but I had a hard time with that storyline, since I could not see any reason for lies on such a big scale.

Maggie’s dilemma, however, is real: does she go along with what her friend has begged her to do, constantly feeling that she’s keeping something important from Finn, or does she betray her friend’s confidence to tell the truth? I was also surprised at Finn’s extremely negative reactions when he discovers the truth.

Still, overall I enjoyed the novel. The writing is good, and in most cases the conversation sparkles. I liked the unusual setting, and loved Maggie’s deep compassion and sense of integrity. I don’t mind a slight suspension of reality in fiction, and perhaps there are people like Sarah who can’t trust anyone. The ending is perhaps a bit too neat and tidy, and the epilogue a little fluffy, but I like stories where all the loose ends are tied up, and that certainly happens.

There’s a slight layout problem in my Kindle edition, in that the name of Maggie’s mother’s hotel appears to have been set as a subheading, but it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book (and may have been corrected in subsequent editions).

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

27/12/2016

Hooked (by Les Edgerton)

I don’t recall where I came across a review or recommendation of this book. I haven’t previously heard of Les Edgerton, although he’s quite a well-established writer. In any case, this went on my wish-list a while ago, and was given it for my birthday in 2015. I decided that I was going to read a book about writing every month this year, and began this one on June 1st…

I’ve finally finished ‘Hooked’, whose subtitle is a rather more lengthy, ‘Write fiction that grabs readers at page one and never lets them go’, which demonstrates that it’s not a book about either fishing or addictions. Indeed, it’s quite a clever title. It’s a good book, too, although it took me a while to get into it, and then I kept forgetting to pick it up.

The focus is on, unsurprisingly, the first paragraph, scene or chapter of a novel or short story, and how important it is to get it right. The author gives a bit of historical background, reminding us how short an attention span modern audiences have, and also how many submissions editors get each month. To grab the attention of an editor, or indeed a reader in a shop, the first page must hook their attention and make them want to keep turning pages.

It’s a book of over 200 pages which was interesting enough that I kept on turning them… but not so gripping that I couldn’t put it down and forget about it. The writing is clear and I could see the author’s point - many times - as he shows us both good and bad beginnings to works of fiction. He explains the importance of the ‘inciting incident’, too, and how there must be some kind of conflict to keep people’s interest.

He also establishes the difference between a ‘story-worthy’ problem and an opening problem, and there were some interesting points about plot development, and the importance of solving an initial difficulty only to find oneself in a new and perhaps more difficult one which also relates to the overall story.

None of what was in this book was new to me, but I liked the way the author expresses the different kinds of problem and the importance of seeing the big picture of theme or ‘story-worthy’ problem running alongside events or minor conflicts that make up the bulk of a book.

However, I found it a little frustrating that the books and stories cited as examples were mostly ones I’d never heard of, many of them in the thriller or men’s fiction genres. That’s not unreasonable when the writer is a man, of course; but the kind of books I enjoy writing, many of which seem to be reasonable sellers, very often don’t follow this kind of pattern at all.

Anyway, it made an interesting read. I finished the second half much more quickly than the first. It has made me see the tremendous importance not just of the first sentence of a story, but the first page, and indeed the whole of the first scene. I may well dip into it again, and would recommend it to anyone starting out on fiction writing.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

25/12/2016

Everybody's Normal Till You Get to Know Them (by John Ortberg)

I’ve very much enjoyed the boys I’ve read by John Ortberg. He’s an American Christian pastor who writes with honesty and some humour, including self-deprecating anecdotes and much that’s thought-provoking. So, as it was ten years since I last read this one, I thought it was time for a re-read.

‘Everybody’s Normal till you get to know them’ is typical of the author’s lengthy but memorable book titles. The overall theme is that we’re all damaged in some way; none of us is in full health, and that ‘normality’ is in fact almost impossible to attain. There’s a linguistic problem there which mildly annoyed me at times: ‘normality’ means ‘what people are like in general’, so if nobody is ‘normal’ then normality is in fact what the author describes as abnormality.

That’s a paradox which was never addressed. I prefer the word ‘healthy’ as used by other authors, acknowledging that few people are in good health (physically, emotionally or spiritually); the majority are in a state of semi-health, perhaps appearing to do the right things, but potentially with many problems on the inside.

Language details aside, the book is excellent. Ortberg unpacks Scriptural passages where relevant, mentions events in his family life where he has made mistakes, and gently demonstrates how so many of us - and he’s writing to Christian believers - are prickly, difficult to get to know, stressed, unable to share problems with anybody.

The first section of the book unpacks what he means by ‘normal’, and how far from this we all are; the second section is about getting closer to other people. What we need most is community: people we can trust, and enjoy being with, and with whom we can take of masks of pretence. There are chapters about empathy and acceptance, something that many in today’s church find difficult to do; Ortberg looks in detail at some of the Gospel stories to see how Jesus handled relationships.

The final section is about building stronger relationships in general, including an excellent chapter on forgiveness. There are some very thought-provoking comments about what forgiving really means as opposed to understanding or ignoring other people’s actions and behaviour. Again, Gospel accounts are unpacked, using modern language and analogies at times to get the message over.

The tone is generally light and friendly, which means that the book is easy to read, while giving a great deal to ponder. It’s written for Christians, assuming a general understanding of the Bible, and I would recommend this strongly to anyone with that background, particularly those who are feeling bruised or ignored by other believers.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

24/12/2016

Ballet Shoes for Anna (by Noel Streatfeild)

I have loved Noel Streatfeild’s books for teenage girls since I was about nine or ten. She is best known for her classic ‘Ballet Shoes’, but also wrote quite a number of other novels which often featured talented ballet dancers. I’m re-reading my way, gradually, through my extensive Streatfeild collection and have just finished another.

‘Ballet Shoes for Anna’ is short book, rather different from others by this author, in that it starts with a devastating tragedy, set in Turkey. Three children, aged eight to ten, end up living with a rather unpleasant uncle, who believes in duty and efficiency beyond anything else. His mouse-like wife is a nice creation, if a little caricatured, but I never really believed in the awful Uncle Cecil.

Francesco, Gussie and Anna are thrown into a totally new way of life; they have travelled around in a caravan and are unused to being in a house, let alone a pristine one where noise is not tolerated. They have never been to school, but now they must. Worst of all, Anna, who is a very promising young ballet dancer, has to find a teacher. Uncle Cecil believes that dancing is sinful, so won’t help in any way, and the boys have to find a way of raising money to pay for lessons.

First published in 1972, not long after the UK adopted decimal currency, the book has several references to ‘new pence’, which is how people used to speak of currency in those days. Fifty ‘new’ pence for a lesson is seen as a vast sum; nowadays it seems like almost nothing. Still, that’s all that really dates the book, along with the lack of technology.

The children are likeable, Francesco weighed down by the responsibility of being the eldest in his family, and Gussie a classic mischief-loving middle child. Anna, at eight, seems rather young to be so dedicated to her dancing in a way that, at times, borders on selfishness, but her brothers don’t find anything strange about this. There are some other interesting characters too such as a market boy and his mother who befriend them.

It’s a good story about the difficulties of adapting to a new lifestyle; the children’s grief and culture shock is rather played down, but still leads to one or two rather moving sections that left me quite choked up. I wasn’t sure I quite believed in the atrocious grammar used by the children at first; their mother was Polish but their father was British, and they read a lot of books. But it made some good subplots, including the necessity of their unpleasant uncle to attempt to improve the children’s English.

There’s some high drama towards the end, in a scene that could, in real life, have been very nasty. But it works well in showing that some parts of UK life, even forty-plus years ago, were decidedly unpleasant and potentially dangerous. The ending itself is quite abrupt, as it somewhat typical with Noel Streatfeild’s books: the problems are solved, and the reader is left to imagine the tying-up of loose ends.

While I had remembered the basic storyline from my last re-reading of this book, in 2005, I had forgotten most of the subplots and very much enjoyed it.

Recommended for older children - boys or girls - and for those of us who remember this author's books with nostalgia from our own childhoods.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

23/12/2016

The Final Boundary (by Adrian Plass)

In re-reading some of the books by Adrian Plass, one of my favourite Christian writers, I’ve just finished a collection of short stories which I first read back in 2000.

‘The Final Boundary’ is the title of one of the stories, a reflection on cricket and life with Jesus written from the perspective of someone terminally ill in hospital. It might sound like a rather morbid and strange setting for a story, but it works surprisingly well and is quite moving.

The introduction explains that these stories are all modern parables. They’re not necessarily easy to understand, and should not be picked to pieces, or taken as direct analogies of anything. Adrian Plass tells us that a parable is ‘a story that entertains at the front door while the truth slips in through a side window’. I thought that an excellent description, and it’s worth bearing in mind while reading the stories themselves.

Some of the early stories are decidedly strange, and they’re all very different from each other, although quite a few have somewhat depressing themes, at first glance. The first one is about a small boy who hasn’t really accepted that his beloved grandmother has died. The second, clearly satirical (and quite amusing in places), is a letter explaining a new way of being a Christian, involving mountain-climbing. As a parable, it works rather well.

The third story is perhaps the oddest of all. It’s the defendant in a murder case, providing documentary evidence, both video and written, that should excuse what he has done. To those of us with elements of misophonia, it’s rather a scary outline of something that might well inhabit our dreams, even though I profoundly hope I would never reach that stage. To those who do not find small noises and repetitive habits irritating, it probably seems like a morbid fantasy. I’m not entirely sure how it works as a parable, to either group of people, but perhaps the truth will come in at the window later on. It’s the only one I remembered clearly from my previous reading of the book all those years ago.

I read one or two stories per evening, over the past week, and found them all very readable and interesting, even if I didn’t necessarily get the point of them from the parable perspective. Adrian Plass’s writing is always thought-provoking, making me smile and think in turn.

The last story, ‘The Visit’ is a rather longer one; it’s the story of ‘The Founder’ making a visit to a small town in the form of a man, confounding expectations and showing people the way he wants them to live.

Overall I enjoyed re-reading this short story collection, and would recommend it in a low-key way. Not currently in print, but can sometimes be found inexpensively in charity shops or second-hand stores online.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

22/12/2016

Better than School (by Nancy Wallace)

Back in the early 1990s, when we lived for a couple of years in the United States, I borrowed a somewhat eclectic mixture of books from the local library. One of them had quite a profound influence on my understanding of education, and was my first real introduction to the idea of homeschooling. The author, Nancy Wallace, apparently died in 2008 but I have never forgotten her name, and was delighted when I found a copy of the book inexpensively in the Amazon Marketplace a few months ago.

‘Better than School’ was written in 1983 where, even in the US, home education was still in its infancy. It wasn’t allowed in every State, and in some it was remarkably difficult to get permission. The Wallace family were living in an area where homeschooling was legal, but families had to get permission; the law in their State at the time only allowed it when children were suffering undue hardship by being in school. Testing took place every year, and very few people were aware that it was possible (and in some cases desirable) to educate one’s children at home.

Rather than being strictly chronological, the book opens with a ‘day in the life’, where we meet nine-year-old Ishmael and five-year-old Vita, having a leisurely breakfast before embarking on a busy day which includes reading, studying, music, preparing food together, and a great deal more. They’re an ordinary kind of family, where the siblings squabble at times, and the mother gets stressed when they are running late. Home education is clearly working for them, and from my perspective now it seems a normal, natural kind of day.

The book then returns to the time when Ishmael started school, a somewhat nervous, intelligent child who struggled with the rules and boundaries that are essential in classroom education. His natural curiosity was dulled, and he became depressed and anxious, prompting his parents to start looking into alternatives. There are sections about the legal battles they had to fight, interesting from the historical point of view, but not really relevant now, when home education is better understood in so many places.

Other chapters cover reading, maths, music, and more. Both the children showed early talent in music; both playing and composing, and part of the reason that Vita was home educated too was to allow enough time for the children to play their instruments, and spend time jamming and generally doing musical and dramatic things with friends and family. Vita learned violin by the Suzuki method, starting at six, and there are some very interesting observations about the pros and cons of this, alongside a detailed description of a week on a Suzuki residential course.

Reading it now, over twenty years after I first discovered it, I wasn’t as gripped or intrigued as I was the first time. My sons are adults; home education in their teenage years worked well, but our situation was very different from that of the Wallaces. Nonetheless I recognise many of the patterns of learning, in particular the tendencies of parents to become frustrated about some particular topic, while the child resists… and then, unexpectedly, is ready to learn and does so. Whether reading, or composing, or even understanding the way society works, children have their own schedule and, given the opportunities and encouragement, will do so when the time is right.

As an aside, Ishmael and Vita went on to be part of a singing duo, who have led workshops and performed internationally and have received several grants and awards.

Inevitably much of this book seems quite dated now; there were no home computers or tablets, and the Wallace family didn’t have a television. Still, as one of the earliest books by a home educating family, it’s an important milestone, and it’s written so well, with plenty of admissions of getting things wrong, that it could make interesting reading to anyone with an interest in learning or children’s education.

'Better than School' is not in print, and hasn't been for some time, but there are quite a number available second-hand, mostly in the United States.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

15/12/2016

Crooked House (by Agatha Christie)

We have quite a collection of Agatha Christie novels. Some of them belonged to one of my sons, but were left here to add to my own; I only started reading her classic crime fiction about fifteen years ago, and find they make good light reading, rather different from the family sagas, contemporary fiction or historical novels which I most often read.

‘Crooked House’ is one that I had not previously read. It’s narrated by a young man called Charles who wants to marry a girl called Sophia. They met abroad, and she hasn’t spoken much about her family; but on arriving back in the UK, after an assignment elsewhere, he discovers her caught up in a murder enquiry.

I found the family involved to be rather interesting, as they’re supposed to be a typical Greek origin family. The patriarch is Aristide Leonides, who had lost several children but keeps his two living ones in his rather oddly designed spacious manor house. Sophie is the oldest of his grandchildren; she has a younger brother and sister who are both also living at home, educated by a live-in tutor for various reasons.

Charles’ father is a police officer, so he finds himself interested in the case from both perspectives: as an outsider, and also as someone wanting to become part of the family, yet unable to do so until the crime is solved. He’s a friendly person and soon gets to know the different family members.

Inevitably there are caricatures: Sophia’s mother Magda is an actress who spends most of her life imagining herself in some dramatic role. Sophia’s uncle Roger is a likeable, but rather clueless person who tries hard to please everyone, and ends up annoying them all. There’s a maiden aunt who mostly raised the grandchildren, a large and benevolent ‘nannie’, a morose teenage boy, and a talkative girl who wants to be a detective…

As with most of Christie’s novels, there are many people who could have committed the crime, yet at first none of them appear to have any motive. Red herrings are gently strewn around, putting suspicion first on one person and then on another. I had my own suspicions from fairly early in the book, and although I started to wonder, part way through, if I could possibly be right, I was pleased to discover that I was.

It’s not usual for me to spot ‘whodunit’ in Agatha Christie’s books; she usually focuses more on plot than character, and I get lost with the twists and turns. However in this book character turns out to be very important, and from that point of view it wasn’t at all difficult.

I thought the ending rather morbid, albeit mostly off-stage (as are the crimes themselves, most of the time) but this was first published in 1949 when the UK still had the death penalty, so perhaps it wasn’t unreasonable.

Inevitably this is very dated, but conversation and story move at a reasonable pace, and it’s a well-told tale.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews