19/07/2017

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

17/07/2017

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

14/07/2017

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

13/07/2017

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

06/07/2017

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

03/07/2017

Lollipop Days (by Margaret Nash)

This is another book I picked up at the Thrift Store to read aloud to my grandson. The blurb on the back sounded interesting, the picture on the front - of two children and some stick insects - looked fairly appealing, and it was published by Young Puffin.

I’d never heard of Margaret Nash, and the book ‘Lollipop Days’ is supposedly a ‘read alone’ book, but many young children like to listen to books that are considerably more advanced than their reading level, and at just three my grandson has not started reading beyond recognising his name. However, as I’m learning, these books are often well written and make interesting read-alouds, even when the child requests them for the third or fourth time in a week…

I don’t know why the title refers to lollipops; it’s the story of two young schoolchildren who meet by chance in a large furniture warehouse. Sam and his family have just moved to the area, so his parents are looking for some new furniture; he is supposed to be choosing a cupboard for his room. He wanders off and meets Robyn-with-a-y who is a girl, although quite a tomboy - and very mischievous. She’s hiding in a roll of carpet when she startles Sam by saying ‘hey’.

Robyn lives just around the corner from Sam’s new house, and they become close friends. In the second chapter they spend some time discussing what to do for Sam’s cat’s birthday, and end up making a special cat-edible cake… forgetting about a game they had been playing.

In the third chapter, the children are in school, towards the end of the autumn term. I don’t know if they’re supposed to be in Reception or Year One, but they’re certainly quite young. Sam has been given the opportunity of looking after the class stick insects over the Christmas holidays. We’re introduced to Gemma, a rather unpleasant girl who tells tales and wants everything for herself, and some drama in the classroom as the stick insect gets lost.

The next chapter is slightly strange, in that Sam and Robyn have been told that the world is going to end. Sam’s parents take them on a picnic, and they realise eventually that the rumour was wrong. In the final chapter they have to make cakes or other goodies for a school concert, and Robyn volunteers Sam to make peppermint mice…

It’s nicely written with some low-key humour that should appeal to most young children. It’s evidently intended for those aged about five or six who have started school; some of the classroom antics went over my grandson’s head. But he liked the book although he didn’t want it all read at one sitting, and asked for the first few chapters to be re-read the next day before we read the later ones.


Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

02/07/2017

The Holiday (by Erica James)

I’ve been reading and gradually collecting Erica James’ books for nearly twenty years now. In recent years I’ve started re-reading them, interspersed with other books, and the time had finally come to re-read ‘The Holiday’. I first read this novel in 2001, and didn’t like it at all. I felt that it compared unfavourably to the author’s earlier books, and was almost put off her writing entirely.

I’m glad I decided to continue reading her books, as I enjoyed her next few very much indeed. But I’ve been somewhat reluctant to re-read ‘The Holiday’. However I finally picked it up a couple of weeks ago, in a very busy period, thinking I would read a chapter or two per evening. I knew it wouldn’t require too much thought, and I determined to give it a fair try. Sometimes I’m simply in the wrong mood for a novel and like it much better on re-reading.

I had entirely forgotten the characters, although I recalled the general idea: that of several diverse characters in a holiday resort on a Greek island. Max and Laura are a happily married forty-something couple who spend a fair bit of time in Corfu. They’ve invited their close friend Izzy, who is a teacher, and getting over an unpleasant relationship break-up. They’ve also invited their daughter Francesca and her friend Sally, although Sally has something of a reputation as a serious flirt. Max’s parents pay a visit too.

A few houses away lives Theo, a wealthy and charming Greek businessman, and he is being joined by his close friend Mark, a writer who has a very difficult past. Other visitors include a nouveau riche and rather brash couple, and a tense, warring family whose only nice member is the nerdy Harry.

Clearly Erica James has something of a gift of characterisation; I’m writing this a couple of days after finishing the book and I still recall all the names and most of the situations. It’s not a plot-driven book. The novel - and it’s over 500 pages long - just spans the summer months, gradually building on the different people, revealing their pasts, and revolving around the different relationships as they evolve.

There’s undoubtedly a lot of sand and sun in the story, and (in my view) rather too much factual information about Corfu. I skipped the sections where outings or restaurants were described in detail as they didn’t add anything to the story. I had no interest in the itinerary which Max and Laura followed with his parents. However, the novel itself seemed quite tame as far as intimacies and bedroom scenes go. I’m surprised that I gave it such a harsh rating sixteen years ago.

It’s possible that, last time, I was frustrated that there was no ‘real’ story; but this time I enjoyed the interactions of the various cast, and was quite moved by some of the unravelling of past stresses and (in one case) addictions. The main characters are all sympathetic, and while one or two of the minor ones were caricatured and unpleasant, they were mostly given mitigating circumstances or allowed some development that made them more believable.

There was nothing that shocked me, nothing that left a bad taste in my mouth - and a satisfying ending, even if one or two of the final scenes and events were somewhat unlikely.

Nothing too heavy, yet some deep issues are covered, and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes character-driven women’s fiction. Great holiday reading as it’s easy enough to put down, and the main characters are clearly distinguished, so little chance of forgetting who’s who.

All in all, I liked this very much and am very pleased that I decided to re-read it.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

TJ's Sunflower Race (by Rose Impey)

In glancing through the shelves in our local Thirft Store, looking for more books to read aloud to my book-loving young grandson, I spotted one by Rose Impey, a writer whose name I remembered from twenty-five or so years ago when she spoke at my sons’ primary school. One of my sons bought one of her books, something rather scary about fireballs… it didn’t appeal to me, and I had never thought about buying any more of her books.

It turns out that she’s a very prolific children’s author, and most of her books for young readers are mildly amusing or heart-warming, with cute illustrations. The one I bought is called ‘TJ’s Sunflower Race’, and is apparently in a series of four books about TJ, a practical and friendly girl who’s probably about seven, if the pictures are to be trusted, and has a small sister of around two called Josie.

When the book opens, TJ and her friend Abi are feeling bored when their neighbour offers Josie some sunflower seeds. TJ rather rudely grabs them from her little sister; she and Abi take two seeds each, and Josie gets the smallest one. TJ and Abi decide to plant their seeds side by side, and have a race to see which one reaches the roof of the house first.

The story traces the gradual germination and growth of the sunflowers, so in a low-key way it’s educational, but it also has a lovely subplot involving Josie’s single seed. It hasn’t (as her sister suspects) been eaten. Instead, Josie plants it under the roses, and it grows in secret, watered mostly by washing-up water, and without anybody suspecting.

It was obvious to me that Josie’s seed was going to be the tallest, but it’s so well written that, despite a simple storyline and fairly simple language, it made a lovely read-aloud. It’s illustrated by Anna Currey, whose line drawings match the text brilliantly, and the characters of the two older girls (and, indeed, Josie) come out very well.

The story is intended for early readers, but was also a great success as a read-aloud to my grandson, who’s just three. Definitely recommended.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews