21/05/2017

The Children of Primrose Lane (by Noel Streatfeild)

I’ve loved Noel Streatfeild’s writing since I was about eight or nine, when I first discovered a collection of her books on my grandparents’ shelves. She’s best known for her children’s classic ‘Ballet Shoes’, and was quite a prolific author in the middle of the 20th century. I’ve gradually collected most of her books over the years, and enjoy re-reading them regularly.

‘The Children of Primrose Lane’, unlike most of Streatfeild’s books, does not feature anyone who is artistically talented. Set in wartime England, it’s about a group of children who live in a street with just four houses. They’re old, and should have been knocked down; indeed, the occupants of number four have moved on. But the three red-headed Brown children, the Smith twins and Millie Evans, aged between 14 and 9, see each other as extended family. They’ve unofficially adopted number four as their place to escape.

One day they discover someone hiding. He claims to be someone on his way to meet his brother, but his story doesn’t ring true and the children soon realise he’s an ‘enemy’ spy of some kind. However they can’t report him because it might get someone else into serious trouble… so they do what they can to outwit him.

I don’t remember reading this book as a child; I acquired it in 2006 and read it then, so re-reading it recently I could remember very little of the storyline. It’s an exciting story, one which made me feel quite tense in places, despite knowing that it was inevitably going to end well. Streatfeild had a gift of writing about realistic, three-dimensional children, and she achieves that very well in this book. Her only caricature is the rather spoiled Millie. Sally, the oldest Brown, is responsible and a good leader, and good at keeping the peace.

Quite apart from being a well-told and interesting story, the book gives a good picture of what it would have been like in the 1940s, where children had a lot of freedom, at least during daylight hours. There are one or two places where dialogue and description would not be considered politically correct these days, and one rather shocking use of a word that’s now considered very offensive. My edition was slightly revised in 1965 and apparently this word was considered acceptable even then.

Other than that, it’s an ideal book for children who like to read about the war years, and who enjoy exciting adventure stories. Perhaps the climax to the book is somewhat unlikely, but it makes a most dramatic ending. As ever the concluding pages are quite short; once Noel Streatfeild resolves her main plot problems she usually finishes very quickly, almost abruptly at times. But this time the balance feels about right.

Definitely recommended to fluent readers over the age of about eight or nine; just be warned about the casual use of a very bad word. Long out of print, and tends to be pricy, particularly in the US (where its alternate title is 'The Stranger of Primrose Lane').

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

18/05/2017

A Song for Tomorrow (by Alice Peterson)

Since I have enjoyed everything I have read so far by Alice Peterson, I keep watch for her new publications. I was delighted to see this one available recently and put it on my wish-list; I was given it for my recent birthday, and started reading it a few days ago.

‘A Song for Tomorrow’ begins with a journal-type prologue written by a young mother. She learns that her newborn baby, Alice, has the genetic condition called cystic fibrosis. This is a chronic lung disease which, at the time, meant that her daughter’s life expectancy was about ten years.

We then move forward twenty-six years to 1998, when the main part of the story begins. The two main characters are Alice, who has clearly outlived her initial prognosis, and Tom. Tom spots her as he’s walking past an art exhibition, and can’t get her out of his mind. The book mostly switches between their two viewpoints, told in the present tense, with occasional further journal entries by Alice’s mother.

Alice is an independently minded and determined young woman, aware that time is not on her side, but trying to make the most of every moment. We soon learn that she has to spend every day using nebulisers and taking drugs. She lives in a flat attached to her parents’ home because she’s unable to live by herself.

The descriptions are vivid without being overwhelming, but after a few chapters I found myself wondering how the author knew so much about cystic fibrosis. I knew that she had rheumatoid arthritis herself, and wondered if she had personal experience of this disease too. I skipped to the end of the book, expecting to read acknowledgements, and discovered that the novel is based on a true story: that of a young woman called Alice Martineau, who was passionate about music and wanted to be a singer, despite her illness.

Not wanting to know the entire story, I went back to the novel, with new interest in the storyline. Most of the names are changed, and some of the characters are entirely fictional. But the relationship with Tom, and with her parents, is, according to Alice’s real brother, pretty much true to reality.

The novel charts Alice’s determination not just to sing but to make an album of her music. She writes lyrics, many of which are given in the book. This plot runs alongside her deteriorating health, and some side stories involving her close friends, some of whom have the same illness.

Inevitably there are high points and low points; I soon realised what was going to happen in the end although I didn’t know how or why. It was written in a positive way, although it could be rather depressing for anyone suffering from cystic fibrosis, or with a family member with this condition.

The writing is excellent, the people realistic, including the fictional ones, and the conversations and events believable. All in all, I thought it a powerful and inspiring book and would recommend it highly.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

15/05/2017

Survival Games Personalities Play (by Eve Delunas)


I don’t remember where I first heard of Eve Delunas, or this book. Perhaps it was recommended in one of the many books I’ve read about temperament or personality type; perhaps it was on a forum I’m part of which discusses this issues. The book was quite expensive to buy new, so I kept it on my private wish-list for a while. When I spotted it inexpensively at the AwesomeBooks site, I ordered it.

I was at first a bit irritated when I started reading ‘Survival Games Personalities Play’, not because of anything wrong with the writing or the book itself, but because a previous owner had used a highlighter and a permanent pen to underline or emphasise large amounts of text in the book. As I struggled through the first chapters, I wondered if I’d be able to understand anything at all.

It’s a testament to how very good the book is that by the time I was around two-thirds of the way through I no longer noticed the highlights or underlinings!

The book starts with an overview and history of temperament theory, most of which was familiar to me already, but which provides a useful introduction. It then launches into what it calls the ‘survival games’ each temperament tends to ‘play’ when under extreme stress. I found the concept of ‘playing games’ quite a confusing one; to me, games are enjoyable ways of socialising with friends, which we choose. The ‘survival games’ described by the author are completely different: they’re ways of dealing with stress, and are entirely subconscious.

However, that terminology is my only minor complaint about the book. As the author describes each of these ‘games’ in outline, I could see some of them immediately as they relate to various people I know. Others were harder to understand, but it made a useful reference chapter which I glanced at from time to time as I progressed through the book.

After the introductory chapters, there’s a section devoted to each of the four temperaments (Artisans, Guardians, Rationals and Idealists, as David Keirsey first termed them, and as I still think of them). While any of the ‘games’ can apply to anyone of any temperament, it made a lot of sense that certain ones appeal more to particular personality types, and also ties in with my own experience.

The author looks at ways to help people who are stuck in these games, and describes some of the strategies she has used when dealing with problems in marriages, parenting, businesses, and more. She’s a qualified psychotherapist and mentions several different kinds of therapy that helped different people. Some of them sounded rather strange to me, but the point is made that each individual and each case is different. What helps one person might make things worse for another. Hence, she explains, it’s important to see what - if any - ‘games’ are being played, and what temperament most likely fits the people concerned.

The final section gives some actual case studies with a challenge to the reader to figure out the most likely temperaments of the people concerned, and what might help them move forward. The author certainly doesn’t imply that all her methods are successful. In at least one case, the results were very disappointing. But that doesn’t mean it was wrong to try.

The writing is clear, easy to read and full of wisdom. There are some areas where an interested amateur couldn’t begin to go; the author has helped sufferers of serious abuse in childhood or later relationships, where unravelling the ‘survival game’ is only the beginning of helping the person concerned to find healing. But for milder cases, where communication has dried up, or parents are struggling with difficult teenagers, there’s a great deal that could potentially be helpful.

Overall I enjoyed this very much, and expect I’ll dip into the book regularly.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

10/05/2017

How to be Here (by Rob Bell)

Rob Bell is something of a controversial writer in the Christian world, particularly amongst US evangelical Christians. This is because he doesn’t always follow accepted doctrine, and he challenges the status quo. Since I find that appealing, not being much of a conformist myself, I have found his books interesting and, in some cases, motivating and encouraging.

‘How to be Here’ is his latest book, published last year. I put the paperback edition on my wishlist and was given it for a recent birthday. The subtitle is, ‘a guide to creating a life worth living’, a theme which seems to be following me around at present.

As with most of Bell’s books, the layout seems a bit strange at first. The paragraphs are short, some of them containing just a few words, and the writing is almost simplistic in style. That can hide some quite profound thoughts, expressed in a personal way; the concepts are much deeper than is immediately obvious.

While some of the author’s books are overtly Christian, this one is less so. He refers to Scriptural stories and theology in a low-key way, but without any expectation that the readers are believers. References and explanations are left to the notes at the back, which made interesting reading after I’d finished the main text.

The book starts with a word picture of a computer cursor, the ‘blinking line’, as he puts it, at the top of a new document, or placed at the end of text. Bell tells us about the first book he thought about writing, and how he tried at first to dictate it, but eventually realised he had to type it himself. And this takes us neatly on to the cursors that, metaphorically, sit waiting for all of us as we think about things we might do, or places we might go, or the people we might be.

The book looks at creativity in a wide sweep of activities, from bringing up children through to sweeping floors. It looks at our expectations, and our anxieties at producing something new for fear of what others might think. It talks of something to inspire us to get out of bed each morning. It makes the point that every one of us is a unique individual, with a life and series of circumstances that has never before been experienced.

The theme is similar to John Ortberg’s classic ‘If you want to walk on water you’ve got to get out of the boat’, but the text is much simpler, and accessible to anyone. It’s divided into seven chapters, and each of those has short sections, just two or three pages long, making one main point. There are plenty of anecdotes from Rob Bell’s own life, including times when he got things wrong, or tried something which didn’t work; but they were still valuable learning experiences. These make the point well: it’s better to do something and fail than do nothing for fear of failure.

As a writer myself, much of this book struck home with me, and gave me plenty to ponder. But it’s relevant to anyone who tends to avoid confrontations, or trying anything new, or getting on with something because of all the problems that might arise. One step at a time, Bell tells us. Take that step, get on with what we can do, and if others don’t like it, that’s not our problem.

Nothing actually new, nothing I hadn’t heard before; but clearly written and just what I needed to read right now.

Recommended to anyone. The worldview is Christian, as are many of the references (Bell is, after all, a pastor) but the principles could apply to people of any faith, or none.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

09/05/2017

Death in the Stocks (by Georgette Heyer)


I very much enjoy re-reading my Georgette Heyer books every six or seven years. Most of them are light historical fiction of the Regency romance genre, but she also wrote twelve crime fiction novels set in the middle of the 20th century. I only discovered them about fifteen years ago, and have collected most of them second-hand since then.

I last read ‘Death in the Stocks’ in 2003, so had forgotten the story and, more importantly, the protagonist of the crime. The book starts with a bizarre murder, when the body is found in some old village stocks. As the story unfolds, we learn that Arnold Vereker was not much liked, and that several of his relatives and associates have motives for bumping him off, as well as the opportunity.

Superintendent Hannasyde of Scotland Yard is called in to investigate, and joins forces with the young lawyer Giles Carrington who is a cousin to the victim. He is called in to support his cousin-by-marriage Antonia and her brother Kenneth, who are half-sister and half-brother to Arnold. Antonia was angry with Arnold because he cast aspersions on her fiancĂ©, and Kenneth stands to inherit rather a large amount of money…

Antonia and Kenneth are bohemian in style, and there’s a great deal of silly banter and joking when asked questions by the police. This leads to a light-hearted investigation where it’s very difficult to know what to believe, and what they have invented. Naturally enough, everyone seems to prevaricate somewhat when asked direct questions, and suspicion falls on more than one person.

The story become less pleasant towards the end, when another unpleasant crime is committed. At this point I began to guess who the perpetrator was, and watched out for clues. Georgette Heyer doesn’t lay false trails and red herrings as expertly as Agatha Christie; on the other hand, her characterisation skills are vastly superior, and her dialogue is a lot more amusing.

All in all, I enjoyed re-reading it, and was pleased to be correct in my assumption. While the crimes themselves are, obviously, unpleasant there's no gore; everything happens in the background, and descriptions are kept to the minimum. Nothing to keep anyone awake at night - I'm not a fan of modern thrillers at all.

Recommended to fans of this kind of light crime fiction.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

08/05/2017

Chasing Windmills (by Catherine Ryan Hyde)


I’ve been enjoying the books I’ve read so far by Catherine Ryan Hyde, and - after reading some reviews - added a few more to my wish-list earlier in the year. I was given them for my birthday, and have just finished reading one of them.

‘Chasing Windmills’ is told from the perspective of two very different young people, both of whom are spending hours each evening travelling around on the underground in their city (in the United States). We meet Sebastian first. He’s seventeen, and has been brought up by a very controlling father. He was homeschooled in a formal and rigid way, and never allowed to make any friends.

He wasn’t even allowed out of their apartment, until a doctor prescribed fresh air and exercise after Sebastian kept getting ill. He’s never seen a film, never read a novel, never eaten fast food. Despite everything, he’s a likeable and intelligent young man. He’s made a friend, too: the middle-aged Delilah who lives in his apartment block and gives him sound and helpful advice.

Maria, who is a few years older, lives with an equally controlling (and abusive) boyfriend, Carl. She fell in love with him when she was fifteen, but her home life wasn’t happy. They now have two small children. Maria recently lost her job but she hasn’t told Carl yet; so when she’s supposed to be working a night shift, she, too, rides around on the city subway system.

Inevitably, Sebastian and Maria come in contact although neither is sure what to do about it. We realise, since they tell the story in alternating chapters, that both are feeling trapped and helpless, and are taking this step towards independence. There’s tension right from the start: will Sebastian’s father or Carl find out what’s going on?

The story is a bit slow-moving in the early chapters, as we get to know these two young people. Their backgrounds are gradually unfurled through their thoughts, and the discussions with those who care for them: Delilah for Sebastian, and Maria’s sister Stella. Catherine Ryan Hyde builds solid and believable characters; there was no danger of confusing any of the people concerned, or forgetting who was whom. By the time I was about a quarter of the way through, I was liking it very much, and by half-way through I could barely put it down.

There’s a theme running through the book of a doomed romance: there are many references to the film West Side Story and also the play Romeo and Juliet on which it was based. It’s a clue that Sebastian and Maria aren’t likely to have a long-term relationship; I hoped the novel wasn’t going to be a tragedy. There are also themes of deceit and honesty, and of the kind of pseudo love that attempts to control another person. It’s a powerful story, well crafted and very readable.

Without giving spoilers, the ending - with plenty of drama - was the right one, if not that one I’d have chosen myself. I felt it was overall a positive novel, even though I was at first a bit disturbed that homeschooling is portrayed in such a negative light.

The story was thought-provoking and, in places, moving. It's one that would, I think, give hope to anyone trapped in a bullying relationship of any kind, whether with a parent or a partner.

Recommended for those who like hard-hitting women’s fiction.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

04/05/2017

Running Wild (by Victoria Clayton)

I have thoroughly enjoyed all the books I’ve read so far by Victoria Clayton. She was recommended to me by a friend who shares many of my tastes in books, and I’m always pleased to discover a new author. Most of the books are out of print, but readily available second-hand. So I bought this one from the AwesomeBooks site back in December, and have been reading it for the past ten days or so.

‘Running Wild’ is narrated by a young woman called Freddie - short for Elfrida - who has decided to abandon her fiancĂ© Alex just a few days before their elaborate and expensive wedding. The book opens with a note from Freddie’s close friend Viola (who was the main protagonist of the author’s previous book ‘Dance with me’). Viola wants to know what has happened, and offers Freddie the use of her late godmother’s cottage in Dorset.

Freddie needs somewhere to get away from her family and friends, so she heads for Dorset and settles into a very dilapidated cottage, although it has some charm as she gradually discovers. She only plans to stay a night or two, but events and local acquaintances conspire and she begins to feel more at home…

It’s a character-based story, and Victoria Clayton has quite a gift of characterisation. Freddie is clearly run-down health-wise and exhausted; we quickly learn that she doesn’t get along with her stepmother Fay. Yet Fay was apparently organising a high society wedding, even though Freddie started having doubts some weeks earlier. Eventually her only option was to escape, though we don’t learn until much later in the book what triggered her decision.

There are some delightful, albeit caricatured people in the village where she finds herself. There’s a crusty old miller who’s bringing up his grandson alone; a teacher who is extremely keen on pagan rituals; a hen-pecked and harassed vicar who seems to be losing his faith. There are young men who take a shine to Freddie, including a stereotyped German, and there’s also a young and neglected family whom Freddie starts to take care of. However there are some delightful dogs and cats, and I thought that the children were well drawn.

There are some quite moving sections of the book, and incidents showing why some terrible cases of neglect are not reported to the authorities. There are some coincidences, and some changes of heart that seem a little too good to be true. It’s perhaps a tad slow in places, too, and the ending - with one twist - all rather predictable. I wish there wasn't quite so much bad language, nor the propensity for people to leap into bed with each other... but those seem to be required for most novels written this century.

On the whole, though, the writing is very good. This was first published in the year 2000, but set a few decades earlier. so mobile phones and email were unknown. Perhaps conditions were a bit too spartan for realism, yet I felt that there was a believable picture of village life in that period. The sensory detail is just right for my tastes.

Overall I liked this book very much.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

30/04/2017

Non-Fiction Books: A Writers' Guide (by Michael Legat)

I’ve been collecting books about writing for a long time now. Some of the earliest ones I acquired were by the late Michael Legat. I’ve had this one over twenty years, and have dipped into it several times. I’ve lent it to friends, too. Finally, a few weeks ago, I decided I would read it in its entirety.

‘Non-fiction books: a writers’ guide’ has a self-explanatory title. The book is divided into three main sections: What to write about, how to write a book, and how to sell a book. The focus is exclusively on non-fiction, but covers a wide variety of topics.

The first section has a good basic introduction about writing non-fiction in general, followed by a lengthy and exhaustive list of possible genres. The author is frank in his appraisal of each, and suggests which ones are more appropriate for beginners. Some subjects - such as health, or law - are only suited to professionals in the field. Autobiographies are only likely to sell if the author is well-known, but he adds that writing one’s own autobiographical accounts can be a good exercise to start non-fiction writing, even if the final product is just stapled together for the grandchildren.

I admit I skimmed over some of the entries. I’m never going to write on legal issues, or sports, or war. However there was plenty to interest me in other genres. As much as anything, this is a useful reference for anyone wanting to write in almost any topic.

The middle chapter begins with a useful guide to planning, something the author recommends for non-fiction. He explains both linear and what he calls the ‘sunburst’ method for coming up with a structure to a book, and gives advice on dividing it into chapters and sections. He explains about considering one’s audience - whether to write for beginners or experts in a given field - and about developing one’s style. None of this was new to me, but it was interesting nonetheless.

This section became less helpful when the actual writing process was discussed. The book is nearly twenty-five years old, so was written before most people had computers in the home. He mentions word processors, but assumes that most of his readers will be writing on a typewriter. Even when considering electronic equipment, there is no mention of email, and the only way to store documents was on floppy disks.

The final section is about approaching publishers and/or agents. Again, there is a mixture of useful advice and information that’s now out of date. Still, Michael Legat had a very readable style. He uses some low-key humour here and there, so I kept reading to the end.

Recommended in a low-key way to anyone thinking of writing a non-fiction book. Ignore the parts that are no longer relevant, and don’t expect anything that can’t be found elsewhere online, or in writing magazines. But as a general reference, with everything in one place, it could make a good addition to any writing bookshelf.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews