28/09/2016

Past Mischief (by Victoria Clayton)

It’s a while now since an email friend suggested that I might like the novels by Victoria Clayton. I was told that it’s best to read them in the published order, as characters from earlier novels sometimes appear in later ones in ways that would become spoilers if read in the wrong order. I read and very much enjoyed ‘Out of Love’ a few months ago so decided to acquire a few more. Unfortunately they’re out of print now, but on a recent trip to the UK I used the Amazon Marketplace to buy a couple more at a very low price.

I’ve just finished reading ‘Past Mischief’, which is told from the point of view of a woman called Miranda whose husband Jack has just died in what appears to be a tragic accident. However it quickly transpires that Jack was something of a philanderer, and while Miranda is very shocked, she had fallen out of love with him some time previously.

Her task now is to help their three teenage children come to terms with what has happened, and also to find a way of continuing to live in their rather expensive manor house…

Miranda has a wide circle of acquaintances including the devoted Ivor, her old nanny Rose, and a couple of close friends in the village. Some of these are decidedly caricatured, but it doesn’t matter; that makes them easier to remember. The suggestion is made to take paying guests, and although a little nervous, Miranda loves having visitors and is an excellent cook.

The novel then revolves around the various people concerned. It’s character-based rather than having any particular plot, other than seeing how Miranda and her children move on with their lives. There are inevitably some romances, mostly quite low-key, and a few shocks along the way; towards the end a couple of revelations felt a tad unlikely; I’m not over-enamoured with coincidences. However, they were explained in a way that made sense, and I don’t have a problem with loose ends of a novel being tied up neatly.

The writing is good, peppered with quotations from Shakespeare, and Miranda’s gradual self-awareness and discoveries about herself are quite thought-provoking. I liked her friends Patience and Lissy, and really didn’t like her friend Maeve at all; however, it’s a mark of a good novel that people got under my skin in this way. I very much liked Miranda’s three very different teenage children.

I didn’t find this as enjoyable as ‘Out of Love’. Parts of it seem a little over-sordid, even though most events take place off-stage. There were some scenes that didn’t really add anything to the plot - such as the rather appalling honeymoon couple who were Miranda’s first guests - and there was a sense of the novel being a sequence of events, rather than a story. There’s an unexpected subplot involving the teenage Elizabeth, for instance, which helps Miranda see her priorities, yet it’s almost forgotten in subsequent chapters.

But still, it made a good read and I expect some of the characters will remain in my mind for some time to come. Fairly widely available second-hand.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

27/09/2016

How to be a Christian without going to Church (by Kelly Bean)

I had not heard of Kelly Bean, but this book was recommended on one of the blogs I read occasionally, and when I checked the blurb on Amazon, it sounded very interesting. As someone whose attachment to church services has waned considerably over the past few years, I thought it could be a useful and perhaps thought-provoking book.

‘How to be a Christian without going to church’ is subtitled ‘The unofficial guide to alternative forms of Christian community’. I should perhaps have taken note of that, since this book is not so much a philosophical or theological treatise on ‘non-going’, as the author puts it, but a practical guide to living life as a Christian without, necessarily, belonging to any recognised church or attending Sunday services.

Part one is perhaps the most useful part from my perspective, with the title ‘The big shifft - from Going to Being’. The point is made early in the book that as believers we are the church, and Kelly Bean charts her own former commitment to traditional church life as well as her later and current non-church-attending life.

She also notes that increasing numbers of people in the 21st century are leaving established churches, not - as in the past - because of lack of faith, but because traditional - and even modern - church services seem irrelevant to many, who see their faith as part of their lives rather than something to top up on a Sunday morning.

The rest of the book looks at different expressions of faith as seen in a variety of communities and groups around the United States, with many examples of how faith plays out in practice. The author looks at what people feel that they miss if they don’t attend church services, and gives suggestions of teaching, music, ‘worship’ (in many forms) and community, relevant to those raised in the faith, and those who were not.

It was useful to have examples of ‘non-going’ groups, although I would have liked to see some from other continents, but by the last few chapters I felt that the book was becoming little more than a list of church alternatives, and found myself skimming. Reading about how other people do ‘non-church’ is not necessarily encouraging when one isn’t in a position either to be part of one of these groups, or to emulate something similar.

Having said that, many of the examples given are undoubtedly useful, reaching out into their local communities in constructive and positive ways. I’m delighted to know that there are so many ‘non-goers’ who are still living life to the full as Christians, creatively finding what they and others need, and showing the love of God to those who would probably never go near a traditional church.

So overall I think this well worth reading, particularly for those who are concerned that ‘non-goers’ may have lost their faith. The book does an excellent job of dispelling that myth. It’s well-written and has a good pace, and I don’t think there was anything I disagreed with. But it’s probably more useful for people who live in the United States, and who might have the opportunity of visiting some of the many non-going communities that are explored.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

17/09/2016

A Future Chalet School Girl (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)

In my slow meandering through Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s lengthy Chalet School series, I’ve reached one that I don’t remember ever having read before, although at some point I’m sure I must have done so. This one is numbered 47 in the original hardback series, 51 in the Armada paperback reprints. My edition is one of the latter, but I gather that by this stage in the series Armada were making very few abridgements.

‘A Future Chalet School Girl’ is one of the handful that doesn’t feature life in the Chalet School at all; instead it’s mostly set in Austria, where the Maynard family regularly take their summer holidays after buying the old ‘St Scholastika’ building. I quite like the family-oriented books, perhaps more so than I did when I was younger.

Mélanie Lucas is the new addition to the series who appears in this book. Her parents work abroad and she lives with her aunt and uncle in the UK. She’s just learned that they are moving to Switzerland imminently and that she will have to go to. She hates the thought of leaving her friends and her beloved school, and then, to make matters worse, she becomes ill and can’t even finish her last term.

Mélanie is quite frail after her illness, and the climate of Geneva doesn’t suit her. But her uncle’s new boss turns out to be married to an old Chalet School girl, who in turn puts them in touch with the Maynards. And in typical open-handed style, they invite her to stay in their cooler location in the mountains…

The entire family are on holiday, and I quite liked reading about Jo and Jack’s ‘singleton’ sons, Steve, Mike and Charles, who don’t appear at all in the school-based stories. They’re perhaps a bit caricatured as schoolboys of the era who attend public boarding schools from a young age, but are likeable enough, and with quite distinct characters. We get to know a little about the older twins, Felix and Felicity (irritatingly referred to as ‘The two Fs’ rather too often) and also see further development of the personalities of the triplets, who are now almost fifteen.

Mélanie is quite a good creation, I thought; she’s quite touchy and easily angered, and the interactions between her and the Maynards’ ward Ruey makes an interesting subplot, resolved in a constructive way.

On the not-so-good side, there are several expeditions which the older members of the family take, with a great deal of overtly educational content about history, geography and myths pertaining to the places. This happens in the school-based stories too, but I wasn’t expecting it in this one. Still, for those interested in this kind of thing, this could be counted as a positive point.

Inevitably there are sections which could quite easily have been omitted in the revised edition: explanations, as happen in many of the books, about what the children call their parents; comments about the Maynards’ insistence on chores and obedience; Joey’s golden singing voice. I was a little surprised by almost Blytonish details about what was packed or eaten for various picnics. I also felt that there were rather too many coincidences in this book!

But still, it made a good story, an easy read ideal for evenings when I was tired, and I’m glad to have read it. I look forward to seeing Mélanie again when she joins the school in subsequent books, although I don’t suppose she’ll have such a major role again.


Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

14/09/2016

The Bird in the Tree (by Elizabeth Goudge)

Although I read one or two books by Elizabeth Goudge as a child, it wasn’t until my teens that I discovered that she had also written novels for adults. Written in the 1930s and 1940s, they’re inevitably rather dated now, and her style tends towards the philosophical, even whimsical at times. She has a tremendous gift for characterisation, particularly of children, which makes them eminently re-readable. However, I have to be in the right mood; skimming simply doesn’t work with Goudge’s descriptive and thought-provoking books.

I first read ‘The Bird in the Tree’ in 1997, after finding it in a charity shop. I was delighted to do so, as I’d read its sequel, ‘The Herb of Grace’ many years earlier, and had been looking for this book for a long time. Each book stands alone, featuring different storylines; yet there’s a richness to the second which becomes deeper after reading and feeling part of the events of the first one. I re-read this in 2004 so I decided it was time to read it again.

The book starts with great excitement: David is coming to stay at Damerosehay! Its owner, Lucilla, is 78 and beginning to become frail, although she’s a determined lady who usually gets her own way. She’s created a haven for her family, and has the care of her three young grandchildren, Ben (who is 9) and his younger siblings Tommy and Caroline. Their parents are divorced; their father works in India, and their mother isn’t naturally maternal.

David is another of Lucilla’s grandsons, now grown-up and beloved by everyone. However it’s evident to all that he has a big problem, something he needs to talk about, but doesn’t know quite how to start. The book, at one level, is about his news, the reactions of those around him, and a difficult decision he has to make. But it’s also about the house itself: its history, the people who built it and lived there before Lucilla bought it. It’s about the children, too: one highly sensitive and intuitive; one impulsive, living for the moment; one insecure and worried.

At a deeper level the book is about the nature of truth: of the difference between factual accuracy and deeper insights or images that portray truths. It’s about being true to oneself and one’s family, of making difficult decisions, of faithfulness and tradition. It’s about generational differences in the way people see the world, and also about eternal truths which can transcend simple facts - of events that point to truth, and ways of behaving or acting that can bring about different truths.

This isn’t a book for those who want a quick read, nor for those who like fast plots and rapid action. It’s likely to appeal more to women than to men, despite David being one of the most important characters, but that’s perhaps because on the whole women are more likely to read thoughtful, philosophical books.

I think it could be of interest and perhaps benefit to anyone prepared to take the time to read it, however. Naturally the moral climate (and, indeed, the harsh ‘discipline’ used in some cases on the children) seem rather old-fashioned, but while some changes are undoubtedly for the better, there’s a lot to be said for Lucilla’s way of looking at the world.

Sometimes moving, often thought-provoking, and with an encouraging ending.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

10/09/2016

Pride and Prejudice (by Jane Austen)

Looking through my Kindle, while travelling, I discovered that I had downloaded free editions of some of Jane Austen’s novels, some years ago. When I checked, I realised that although I have seen both the BBC serial and the 2005 film of this particular book, I had not in fact read it for at least fifteen years, maybe longer.

I first discovered ‘Pride and Prejudice’, as so many do, at secondary school. I liked it then and have re-read it perhaps two or three times over the years; it was clearly due for a re-read. The opening sentence is one of those classics of irony, imputing the materialistic and shallow attitudes of Mrs Bennet to the author. Clearly not all young men possessed of a fortune are in want of a wife, but Mrs Bennet feels that they should be, and, moreover, that one of her girls would fit the bill nicely.

The general storyline is well-known due to the many filmed versions: Mr Bennet is well-meaning and intelligent, and has a sense of humour, but is basically lazy. His wife is materialistic and cares only what other people think; she has no original ideas of her own. They have produced five daughters, the youngest of whom - Lydia - is fifteen when the novel opens, turning sixteen during the course of the story. Jane, the eldest, is in her early twenties.

The five girls are all quite different in character. Jane is kind and beautiful, and cannot think ill of anyone. She’s quite close to Elizabeth, who is twenty at the start of the book, and is by far the most intelligent of the sisters. Lizzy has a sense of humour and a strong sense of honour. The middle daughter, Mary, is accomplished and hard-working, but tends to offer platitudes rather than producing any original thoughts of her own. Moreover, poor Mary lacks any true talent or ability to be charming.

Kitty, the fourth sister, is shallow and easily led; we don’t see much of her in the novel, and she seems somewhat extraneous to the plot, other than her closeness to Lydia, who is like her mother in many ways, but with few scruples and a great deal of envy and conceit.

Into the neighbourhood come Mr Bingley, owner of a large estate, and his friend Mr Darcy, who seems very stand-offish, even rude in his opinions of local society. Bingley is very taken with Jane, and Mrs Bennet is quite convinced that the two will make a match. We then meet Mr Collins, cousin to the Bennets and inheritor (by entail) of their home, since they have no male heirs. Mrs Bennet thinks he should marry Lizzy…

It’s a character-based novel, and the above is merely an initial idea of some of the main players. Austen had quite a gift of portraying personalities and while it’s not laugh-aloud humour, there’s a great deal of satire and places that made me smile; inevitably some of the people are caricatured (I really hope nobody like Mrs Bennet or Mr Collins actually exist!) but that doesn’t matter at all. Jane and Elizabeth are very nicely portrayed and contrasted; one only wonders how their parents managed to produce two such likeable and honourable daughters!

The plot is that of a romantic novel, with misunderstandings, initial prejudices, mistakes made, and a few traumas thrown in. It’s quite long-winded, typical of 19th century writings, and the main problem that occurs towards the end of the book, that shocks the entire neighbourhood, would probably seem unbelievable in today’s much more liberal society.

Nevertheless, much of what’s thought and felt seems quite modern, and since I had the time to ruminate and read in several brief periods, while travelling or at night, I read some of the descriptions which I might otherwise have skimmed or even skipped, and took the conversations slowly so as to hear the voices in my mind. I liked it very much; there’s a great deal more in the book than in any film version, and I’m very glad I had the opportunity to re-read it.

Note that Amazon links are given to paperback versions of this classic novel, but it can often be found inexpensively second-hand, and there are several editions available inexpensively or free for the Kindle.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

01/09/2016

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand (by Helen Simonson)

I hadn’t come across Helen Simonson before, although I think I had probably heard of the book. It’s not one that I would necessarily have picked up, but relatives had just finished reading it and highly recommended it, thinking I would like it, so I’ve just spent the past few days reading it.

'Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand' is the story of a late-middle-aged widower, Major Ernest Pettigrew, who lives in a small typically English village. He receives the shocking news that his brother has died and this is the catalyst for his starting to think about families, and the meaning of life, and what really matters.

The other main character is the delightful Mrs Ali, who works in the local shop. She keeps long hours, and many of the villagers barely notice her. Indeed, Major Pettigrew hadn’t taken much notice of her, until she offers to drive him to his brother’s funeral. She is very independent, shattering most of his preconceived ideas about people who own shops, and she has a delightful way of stating exactly what she’s thinking.

There are many subplots to this book, some involving racism of what is probably typical amongst many modern upper-middle class white Brits who really think they’re not racist at all.. Until someone of a different nationality attempts to infiltrate their families or, worse, their cherished clubs and Societies.

However Major Pettigrew’s main stresses come from his relatives: his widowed sister-in-law whom he never much liked, and his son Roger, who always seems to want money.

Overall, the book is a study in English village life with its petty arguments and biases. It’s a gentle satire; and there is also a low-key but beautifully done romance.

I found some of the villagers hard to distinguish; they’re inevitably somewhat caricatured, but the names seemed to morph into each other, and I often forgot who was whom. It didn’t much matter; the story is all told from Major Pettigrew’s point of view and thus the people who matter the most to him are the ones who come across most clearly.

All in all, I found it an enjoyable, light and undemanding novel which I’m glad I read. Not for those who like fast action or who are uncomfortable reading about white English village life, but for anyone who enjoys character-based lightly satirical fiction with surprising depth, I would recommend this highly.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

26/08/2016

The Adventures of Sally (by PG Wodehouse)

Searching through the 200 or so books on my Kindle, I came across one that I downloaded from Project Gutenberg at least two years ago, by PG Wodehouse. Best known for the Jeeves and Wooster books, this author produced many more lesser-known books which, as they are out of copyright, are often available free or inexpensively in a variety of editions. The 'mobi' version allowed me to put it on my Kindle.

‘The Adventures of Sally’ follow, unsurprisingly, the life of a young woman of that name. She’s living in a boarding house in the United States when we first meet her, but has just received her share of an inheritance, and is celebrating the fact that she can take a holiday and perhaps buy a home of her own and settle down. We also meet several of her friends in the first chapter and quickly learn that she’s a generous, open-hearted girl if perhaps a little naive.

Sally has a brother who’s rather pompous and whom she feels that she must look after. She’s also engaged to a writer, Gerald, who insists that their relationship must be kept secret. He’s not a particularly likeable person; Wodehouse is skilled at showing this kind of thing with the lightest of touches and some humour; I smiled several times and almost laughed aloud once or twice.

Sally takes her holiday, and meets some other people including the hapless and rather clumsy Ginger, whom she takes a motherly interest in. And the plot moves between Europe and the US with all travels made by ship and communication by post or telegram, as this is set in the early part of the 20th century.

The outcome of the story is somewhat inevitable with a few surprises along the way, and it’s not the exceptional quality of some of the Jeeves books. It's not a plot-driven novel, it's character-based and as such some people might find it slow-moving.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed it very much, and - as I had hoped - it made excellent reading material for a holiday, ideal to pull out of my bag for train journeys or odd moments.

Recommended to anyone who enjoys this author, or indeed light satirical novels set around a hundred years ago.

Note that I've linked to paperback editions of this book on both the UK and US Amazon sites; there are many other editions now available, but if you have a Kindle or other ebook reader, or would like to read the book online, I would recommend the free Gutenberg edition of 'The Adventures of Sally'.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

23/08/2016

The Night of the Mange Tout (and other stories) by Sally Quilford

I’ve downloaded a lot of books by Sally Quilford, since I first came across her writing several years ago now. She mainly writes for magazines but also produces a large number of ebooks, inexpensively, in a variety of genres. Better still, she regularly offers selections of them free for the Kindle.

‘Night of the mange tout’ is an intriguing title for what is in fact a collection of short stories in the light crime genre. Some, as the author notes where relevant, were previously published in magazines or elsewhere, but not all of them. Three or four feature a specific young police officer called Dandy McLean; a handful are set in a particular place involving the same characters; some are one-off stories. Each is complete in itself.

There’s quite a mixture of style within these short stories. The one giving the unusual title to the collection is light and satirical, featuring a young man who would like to be a mafia hit man but finds himself growing organic vegetables... Others are more traditional, with a body at the beginning and a bit of a mystery. And one features an apparent runaway with a thoughtful message about being a parent.

These made ideal reading while I was on holiday. I keep my Kindle in my bag, and can pull it out at any odd moment, with five or ten minutes being sufficient to read any of these stories. There’s nothing particularly gory, and each story is different enough that there was no feel of them being ‘samey’.

In some cases it was not difficult to predict the ending; in others, including one particularly surreal story, I don’t think it would have been possible. But that’s okay; I’m not one to worry obsessively over details and clues, and I enjoyed each story for what it was.

Recommended if you like light crime stories. Only available in Kindle format.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews