10/02/2016

Trials for the Chalet School/Theodora and the Chalet School (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)

In my sporadic re-reading of the lengthy Chalet School series by Elinor M Brent-Dyer, I had reached the one numbered 41 in the original, or 45 in the abridged and somewhat re-arranged Armada paperback version. Looking on my shelves I realised that my edition is a ‘two-in-one school stories’ version published in 1994 by Parragon. Since the book contains two sequential Chalet School novels, I have never bothered to acquire them separately; not wanting to read just half a physical book I have read them both in the past few days.

The two books in question are ‘Trials for the Chalet School’ and ‘Theodora and the Chalet School’. I understand that in the Armada paperbacks both of these were quite significantly cut, but I have not been able to discover how significantly this edition was abridged. In a sense, it didn’t matter. It’s been a long time since I read either of them - perhaps twenty years or more - and I’d forgotten almost everything. Neither felt uncomfortably short, and I thought both were good stories, making a change from some of the more run-of-the-mill Chalet School books which appeared towards the middle and end of the series.

‘Trials for the Chalet School’ is mostly about Naomi Elton, a girl with some quite serious physical disabilities who feels embittered and angry, determined not to be friendly with anyone. The head girl, Mary-Lou, who hoped for an easy term, is asked to keep an eye out and befriend Naomi.

Unsurprisingly Naomi gradually thaws, particularly when danger strikes in various ways, but also when the school suffers various other ‘trials’ including a bout of serious illness, and a practical joke played on the sixth formers. The story-line is engaging, the problems a little different from those that appear time and again, and Naomi herself has the kind of disability which, as far as I recall, is not covered in any of the other books in the series.

Naturally there’s a lot that seems old-fashioned now; vague mentions of ‘operations’, lengthy isolation for infectious illnesses, and Matey’s infamous doses. But then the book was written in 1958, and for its time was quite radical as far as education went. But it’s a good story anyway, and I enjoyed reading it.
Some readers might have problems with the quite overt Christian themes that come through this book more than many others, since Naomi has no faith or belief at all when she joins the school.

‘Theodora and the Chalet School’ naturally pairs with ‘Trials’, featuring another girl starting the school rather older than is normal, and at an unusual time of the year. Theodora, who is quickly abbreviated to Ted, has a very bad record from her previous schools and an unsympathetic mother. But she’s given a chance to start afresh, and is quickly carried along with the friendliness and helpfulness of the Chalet School girls.

While this is a theme that appears in many of the books, one of the most interesting parts of this story concerns the triplets, Len, Con and Margot; Len is quite friendly to Ted, and then they’re thrown together unexpectedly (due to another quarantine problem) and Margot, despite having a close friend of her own, becomes jealous.

There’s a big blow-up, and while it’s eventually resolved, I thought it was handled well and sensitively. One of Brent-Dyer’s strongest points was her characterisation, particularly that of her ‘motherly’ types such as Jo Bettany (later Maynard), and Mary-Lou; perhaps it was deliberate that in Mary-Lou’s last term of school Jo’s oldest daughter Len begins to take on part of the mantle.

Overall I thought both of these books were interesting and also thought-provoking, handling tricky subjects that could still be relevant to some teenagers today.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

08/02/2016

The Language of Hoofbeats (by Catherine Ryan Hyde)

I’ve only read a couple of books by Catherine Ryan Hyde, but enjoyed them both, so when Amazon recommended this to me I checked a few of the reviews, and then put it on my wishlist. I was very pleased to be given it last Christmas.

‘The Language of Hoofbeats’, based in California, is told from two different viewpoints. The main one is Jackie, a foster-mother who, at the start of the book, is travelling with her family to a new home; alternative chapters are narrated by Clem, a cantankerous elderly woman, who lives over the road.

It’s an unusual set-up for a book, in that Jackie is married to another woman - a vet called Paula. They have an adopted eight-year-old son called Quinn, and two teenage foster-children, one of whom is full of anger and resentment, and inclined to be rude. Clem is married, but her husband is pretty fed up, and it’s clear from the start that there was a terrible tragedy in their lives a few years earlier.

The novel takes place over the summer, and consists of several sub-plots and character development rather than one simple main storyline. Star, the troubled teenager, falls in love with Clem’s horse Comet, which makes Clem very angry. Mando, the other teenager, needs a lot of space on his own and can’t quite trust anybody. Quinn is delightful, but very scared of being left without one of his mothers. Events pull them together in ways they would never have chosen….

The writing is excellent, the characters well-drawn and believable, and the story moves apace. I started reading a chapter or two at bedtime, but by the time I was half-way through I could barely put it down, and then finished the rest in one sitting.

There’s much to ponder in this book: issues of prejudice and stereotypes come up several times, and the point is made more than once that nobody should judge anyone by appearance. Even the less likeable people have their good points.

I was pleased that there was almost no bad language in the book, no violence to speak of - although there were horrors in the past, and nasty situations relevant to some of the foster children, but they were hinted at rather than spelled out. There are no scenes of intimacy beyond hugs and occasional kisses; this is not a love story, other the kind between a girl and a horse, and between parents and children, and the author set the scenes extremely well.

Highly recommended.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

04/02/2016

Murder is Easy (by Agatha Christie)

It’s been a while since I read an Agatha Christie book. I have quite a big collection of her novels, but rarely think of picking them up. However, in the mood for something a bit different, I decided to pick one I hadn’t previously read.

‘Murder is Easy’ stars a young man called Luke Fitzwilliam, a policeman who has returned to the UK after a spell abroad. He meets an elderly lady on the train, who spins what appears to be a bizarre story of crimes committed in her village, which she plans to report to Scotland Yard.

The next day, Luke learns something which makes him realise that perhaps there was something in her story… and goes, himself, to stay in the village. He passes himself off as a writer, and starts to make investigations…

While Luke isn’t a particularly strong character, nor subtle about his questioning, he’s quite likeable and good-hearted. That was just as well, because this was rather a dark story which didn’t turn out to be good bedtime reading at all. The village has an atmosphere, and some of the characters are decidedly creepy. I found myself concerned about Luke and one or two others, quite apart from wanting to know ‘whodunit’.

Purists might wish that Miss Marple had been involved; it was the kind of village she would have liked, but it worked well, I thought, to have a young and enthusiastic (if not always very intuitive) detective. I was a little surprised that there was quite a significant romantic thread, unusual in Christie’s novels; some of the relevant conversation was perhaps a bit cringeworthy, but then dialogue wasn’t one of the author’s strong points.

What Agatha Christie lacked in characterisation she more than made up for in her plotting. While this story does depend very much on a small number of people, most of whom are somewhat caricatured, she neatly lays her clues and red herrings, leading me exactly where, I assume, she intended her readers to go. I was pretty sure from early in the book that I had guessed the criminal; my hunch became more and more certain as the book progressed, and I was surprised that Luke had not come to the same conclusion.

And then it turned out that I was wrong. What should have been clear - and the clues were there - was obfuscated by the clever direction in which the story went. The last few chapters are even creepier than the rest, so I was glad that I had decided to finish the book in the daytime.

Recommended if you like this style of mid-20th century light crime fiction. Still in print on both sides of the Atlantic, and also widely available second-hand in many different editions.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

31/01/2016

The Things we Do for Love (by Alice Peterson)

I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Alice Peterson, so each time she publishes a new novel it goes straight on my wishlist. I was very pleased to be given this last Christmas, and have just finished reading it.

‘The Things we Do for Love’ is about a young woman called January. She works as PA to an estate agent, and is single mother to an eleven-year-old daughter, Isla. It’s clear almost from the start that Isla has some form of disability, but it’s not immediately obvious what form it takes. And that’s fine; most of this author’s books feature a child or teenager with some form of physical or mental problem, and the person concerned is introduced as an important character, with relationships established, before we discover what their specific difficulties are.

The chronology of the book seems a bit confusing at first; each chapter is dated, but whereas the majority is in the present (2014) there are forays into January’s past, including her discovery of being pregnant, and the growing concern she has about her daughter’s development. We see her, too, as a child; she and her brother were orphaned at a young age and grew up with loving grandparents, and both are deeply affected by their upbringing.

Alice Peterson is excellent at weaving together the different strands that make up the story, beginning as the obviously pregnant January tries to find a place to rent in her price range, and then gradually introducing the other key players in her life. Her former boss Jeremy is a delight, but evidently getting rather lax as he heads towards retirement. Her new boss Ward is much more of a challenge to Alice and her colleagues, and she’s not sure what to think of him at first.

It’s a story of love, of decisions, of friendship and loyalty. It’s primarily character-driven, so the romance that inevitably develops is a side-line, something that goes alongside January’s fierce love for her daughter, and commitment to her grandparents.

By the time I was about half way through it was difficult to put this down, and I finished the last third in almost one sitting. I didn’t laugh aloud or find myself in tears, but several of the characters got under my skin. The writing is excellent, the situations believable, and the whole is encouraging.

Definitely recommended.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

26/01/2016

The Painted Garden (by Noel Streatfeild)

I do like Noel Streatfeild’s books; she wrote primarily for girls of about 10-14, and I discovered her when I was about nine or ten; but she wrote what we now call ‘cross-over’ books that appeal to adults as well as children. I’ve collected most of her books, many of them second-hand, over the years, and re-read them regularly.

It’s over twelve years years since I last read ‘The Painted Garden’, which I believe is known as ‘Movie Shoes’ in an abridged version published in the United States. The story involves a typical Streatfeild family with three children: Rachel, who is twelve, is a promising ballet dancer who’s just been offered a place in a professional show; Jane, the grumpy middle child; Tim, aged eight, and a gifted pianist.

Their mother looks after the house and family, assisted by her highly organised friend known for some reason as Peaseblossom, and their father is a writer. However he has been ill and rather depressed and the doctor recommends six months away from the UK, somewhere sunny. He happens to have a sister in California, and an unexpected gift enables the entire family to travel there…

We meet the family around the crisis time, follow them on the boat, and get to know them quickly. Streatfeild had quite a gift of characterisation, and her children in particular always seem real to me. Jane in particular is an interesting child, who feels it unfair that she’s the plainest and least talented of the children, but she adores their dog… and is very unhappy when she realises that he won’t be able to join them.

Most of the story takes place in California, with some mildly amusing scenes as they try to adjust to American culture and language, and discover that children are expected to earn pocket money rather than being given it by parents. Rachel needs money to attend ballet classes, and Tim is rather disgusted that his aunt doesn’t have a piano. Jane meets a dog-owner, and is then offered a remarkable opportunity…

One of the things I particularly like about this book is a side story about Pauline and Posy Fossil, two of the sisters from Streatfield’s classic ‘Ballet Shoes’, who are now grown up and living in California. But I also enjoyed the children’s gradual changes in outlook and motivation, and the way they come to love their new environment and the people around them. There are, of course, plenty of caricatures amongst the minor characters, but I don’t see that as a problem; it enabled me to remember easily who was whom.

I very much enjoyed re-reading this, and would recommend it to anyone who likes children’s fiction of this kind. It helps to be familiar with the classic children’s book ‘The Secret Garden’ before reading this; I imagine that anyone who has not previously read it would want to do so immediately after finishing this one.

Recommended to fluent readers over the age of about nine or ten, or as a read-aloud for children who like this kind of story. Also recommended to adults who enjoyed Streatfeild books in their childhood. This isn't very often in print, but can sometimes be found inexpensively second-hand.


Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

24/01/2016

The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass (age 37 3/4) (by Adrian Plass)

It must have been 1987 when I first heard of Adrian Plass. My first son was around a year old, and I had little time for reading… but this book was highly recommended, and I was assured it was something I could read at odd moments. I felt at the time that it was one of the funniest books I had ever read, and also one of the truest.

I read ‘The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass’ again at least two or three times before I lent it to a friend who managed to lose it. Since my copies of its two immediate sequels were falling to pieces, I bought the trilogy version, and read that a couple of times. Then my son borrowed it… and, unwilling to be without the books in our house (and remembering that the trilogy format made rather an awkward book to read) I looked for second-hand individual editions, and was delighted to find them easily online.

It’s a little confusing that the fictional writer has the same name as the real author of the book, but a different family; however, it works well, and although Anne (the fictional wife) and Bridget (the real Adrian Plass’s wife) have rather merged into one in my mind, their college-age son Gerald is unique. He makes bad puns, and spends far too much time making anagrams out of the names of famous people.

I’ve just finished re-reading this book yet again, wondering if I would still find it as funny as I did previously. I remembered many of the one-liners, of course, and the general course of the story, which takes us on a five-month journey into the author’s fictional home. I don’t think I laughed out loud as many times as I did the first time I read this (or the second time…) but there were still a few places where I chuckled, one (the ode to his neighbour…) which had me in stitches.

The humour - mostly satirical - won’t appeal to everyone. It’s very British, as are the caricatured friends and colleagues. The church is a typical non-denominational one with an Elder in charge, and a very mixed bunch of people and speakers. Adrian is determined to do what God wants of him, even if he regularly misunderstands issues and people, and makes some mistakes that are amusing partly because he doesn’t always realise what’s going on.

I love this book and have recommended it to many people; most of them have also enjoyed it, but occasionally someone has handed it back to me, a little puzzled, wondering what the point was. As we used to tell our American friends, it’s not possible to explain Monty Python. I think the same is true of Adrian Plass. His writing has a serious vein running through the humour, and I find his books - including this one - extremely thought-provoking. But not everyone gets him, and that’s okay.

Still in print in both the UK and - a little to my surprise - the US, along with its several sequels.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

23/01/2016

Shopaholic to the Stars (by Sophie Kinsella)

It took me a long time to start reading Sophie Kinsella’s books, but once I’d started, I wanted to collect them all. Her genre is unashamedly ‘chick-lit’, her characters often materialistic and caricatured… and yet she writes so well, with delicious irony and the people inevitably get under my skin.

I wasn’t going to read any more of the ‘Shopaholic’ series, but then couldn’t resist picking up ‘Shopaholic to the Stars’ when I found it inexpensively second-hand. I thought it would make a good, light read for winter evenings, so started it just a few days ago. I found that as well as reading a few chapters at bedtime, I wanted to pick it up during the daytime to find out what was going to happen, and so finished it much more quickly than I had expected.

In this, the seventh in the series, Becky and her husband Luke are in Hollywood. They go on a brief visit at first, and we meet Becky in a fashionable sports shop trying on something that’s far too small for her, which she ends up buying. We quickly learn that she’s about to run in a charity race with a famous star, even though she’s done no training and has little idea what to expect. Then she spots a shop-lifter…

It’s all action, and Becky seems naively star-struck at first, determined to make friends with famous people, walk on red carpets and make a name for herself. However, when the opportunity comes up, she realises that the price of fame may be rather too steep, and she has to decide how much her friends and family matter to her.

As with the other books, there are places where I smiled, particularly when she takes classes to help her become centred. There are also places where I felt frustrated at Becky’s over-the-top addiction to shopping and inability to do things in moderation. But her character is what makes the books so readable; they’re all told in the first person, so we are only given her viewpoint, and it’s a testament to the writing that we see so much further than Becky’s specific focus.

What I like is that Becky is a kind and caring person at heart. She’s naive, and materialistic, and spends far too much time and money on her appearance - but she cares about people, and expects the best of them.

The book gives a good picture of life in Hollywood - I assume the author has some experience, as the first book in the series was made into a film - and there’s a surprisingly serious message about the shallowness of the movie industry, the selfishness and likes that are necessary to become famous.

What I didn’t like so much is that the novel finishes without a conclusion, leaving Becky on a quest, and several threads entirely unresolved. That meant I had to go to my current favourite online bookshop and find a second-hand edition of the sequel…

Recommended if you’ve enjoyed others in the Shopaholic series, but not if you prefer your heroines to be rather less shallow in outlook.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

20/01/2016

The Cactus Stabbers (by Jeff Lucas)


It’s some years now since a friend suggested - correctly! - that I might enjoy books by Jeff Lucas. He’s a British Christian writer who now lives and works in the United States; his books are down to earth, with self-deprecating anecdotes, some dry humour, and much to think about. So I’m gradually building up a collection.

I was given ‘The Cactus Stabbers’ for Christmas, and picked it up to read, intrigued as much as anything by the title. This fairly slim volume (a little over 130 pages in all) contains around twenty short chapters, most of them describing an encounter that the author had with a variety of different people around the world. In a few he recounts anecdotes that have taught him useful lessons, such as the time he went camping, or the build-up to the Christmas season.

I could relate to a lot of the book, realising that some of the people included were caricatured, and yet realistic. The ‘cactus stabbers’ turn out to be people utterly dedicated to a cause in a way that caused Lucas to consider how passionate he is about his own faith.

He writes, too, of an elderly lady who taught him about confidence in the future, of a control freak he came across, of someone who has decided to smile… and a host of other fascinating people and situations.

I read two or three chapters each day for about a week, first thing in the morning, and found much to think about. I don’t remember everything I read, but it was refreshing and thought-provoking and I look forward to reading it again in a few years.

Not everyone would appreciate the informality of the writing, or indeed the clear Christian focus - in all Jeff Lucas’s writing, he gently points us to Jesus - but I enjoyed it very much. Recommended.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews