26/11/2017

Detection Unlimited (by Georgette Heyer)

Despite enjoying (and regularly re-reading) Georgette Heyer’s historical novels since I was a teenager, I only discovered her crime fiction about fifteen years ago. I gradually managed to acquire all twelve of these novels, many of which have recently been reprinted. I hadn’t read ‘Detection Unlimited’ since 2003, so it was more than time for a re-read.

Apparently I read this aloud to my teenage sons fourteen years ago, but I had entirely forgotten the plot. It features a small community of diverse people, most of whom are spending the afternoon at a tennis party. Gradually they disperse to their various homes, and the early chapters follow several individuals in a way that I found a bit confusing as there are so many characters involved.

However, high drama happens when the somewhat saintly Mavis rushes into her neighbour’s house, to say that she’s found her uncle dead, shot by a bullet, in the garden. She is distraught, despite him being (as we quickly learn) not a particularly nice person. He treated her like an unpaid housekeeper, and was generally rather disliked.

Chief Inspector Hemmingway of Scotland Yard, who features in several of Heyer’s crime novels, is called in to investigate. It becomes apparent that several of the local residents had the opportunity to have committed the terrible deed, and many of them (including the niece) have some kind of motivation, too. The Inspector relies on his intuition alongside a likeable way of getting alongside people, and encouraging them to chatter. His sidekick, Inspector Harbottle, disapproves of some his methods, and their interchanges provide some light relief and even mild humour in quite a tense book.

Heyer’s gift was that of characterisation. Her plots wre not as elaborately constructed as Agatha Christie’s, the best-known author of this mid-20th century genre of light crime fiction. There are a few red herrings in this novel - pretty much everyone in the village developed their own theories about who did the evil deed, and they all present their ideas to the Chief Inspector. 'Detection Unlimited' is exactly what happens.

But I didn’t have much idea ‘whodunit’ until the point at which Hemingway starts to back-track and look again at some of the evidence or conversations he had not taken very seriously. When the perpetrator is discovered, and everything falls into place, I could see it clearly, but I didn’t feel any strong sense that in fact this was the only possible solution.

Still, I enjoyed reading it. There’s very little gore or unpleasantness, and we don’t get to know the victim before the crime is committed, so it’s not emotionally draining. I would recommend it to anyone who likes character-driven crime fiction of this kind. But don’t expect the twists and turns that occur in a Christie novel.

Not always in print, but available in Kindle form.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

25/11/2017

Prayer (by Philip Yancey)

I’ve very much appreciated all the books I’ve read by Philip Yancey over the past decade or more. In the absence of new books by this author, I’m gradually re-reading the ones I acquired in the past. The one I have just finished is called, ‘Prayer: Does it make any difference?’ I first read it nearly ten years ago.

It’s a surprisingly long book, given the rather specific topic, and one with a great deal to think about. While the book is written in Yancey’s usual clear and readable style, with anecdotes here and there, it’s not a book to skim through. I found that ten or twelve pages each morning were as much as I could manage at one sitting, and each morning I found something in those pages to inspire or encourage me, or cause me to ponder.

The first section of the book is about keeping in touch with God, stressing the importance of prayer as communication, something which benefits the person praying as much as those for whom prayers are offered. The next section moves on to asking why we pray, looking at arguments against prayer, exploding some myths and misunderstandings. It concludes with the importance of prayer whether or not we understand the reasons. There are some interesting statistics, the result of some research done into the efficacy of prayer, which suggest that it does have some effect overall, whether or not anyone understands how or why.

Another section examines the language of prayer, pointing out that it’s not important to use specific words, and giving the analogy of a father enjoying his child’s talking even if it’s far from fluent, full of mistakes. Unanswered prayer is the topic for a further section; a very important one, where the author acknowledges that it’s often both difficult and frustrating when God appears to be silent, or contradictory. Some suggestions are made, looking at the global picture, but Yancy doesn’t make the mistake of offering pat answers or telling people to pretend that they’re not angry or upset when prayers seem to yield nothing but silence.

It’s a book primarily intended for Christians, but could be of interest to anyone with a belief in God who is interested in reasons for praying, ways of praying, and whether or not it makes any difference at all. It’s not always an easy read, but I found it thought-provoking and would recommend it to anyone wanting to know more about the importance of prayer.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

18/11/2017

Sun on Snow (by Alexandra Raife)

I've enjoyed all the books I've read by Alexandra Raife, who was recommended to me many years ago by a relative. After twelve novels, the last one in 2004, she apparently stopped writing so I'm now gradually re-reading them, interspersed with other favourite authors.  The one I've just finished is 'Sun on Snow.

Allt Farr in Scotland is the location of the novel, with most of the action taking place in or around a large, dilapidated and decidedly chilly mansion belonging to the Munro family. The matriarch, known to all her family as ‘Grannie’ is slowing down, suffering aches and pains; yet decidedly acerbic and opinionated. She can’t be more than about sixty-five, and she works hard around the house and farm; yet at times she seems decidedly older.

Grannie has three adult offspring. Harriet, in her early forties, is single, hard-working, always trying to do the best for everybody, and driving them to distraction in the process. Joanna, a few years younger, is a widow with a daughter, Laura, who is about eleven. And their younger brother Max is grumpy and outspoken, yet very loyal, extremely hard-working, and determined to shoulder full responsibility for everyone and everything.

Into their lives comes Kate: the cast-off girlfriend of Jeremy, a close family friend. Kate is fragile, gentle, and newly pregnant. She has been thrown out by her parents and has nowhere else to go. The Munro family are not expecting her to be educated and intelligent; nor is it easy for them to accept someone who is willing to do anything, but has little strength. Kate arrives in the middle of a snowstorm, and everything seems like an utter nightmare…

The novel (which is called ‘Until the Spring’ in the US) is, essentially, about what happens as Kate’s gentleness gradually infiltrates the lives and hearts of the family, and many of those around them. The bohemian and very busy life she discovers in Allt Farr is a stark contrast to her former life, warm and cosy with plenty to eat, but no honest discussion, no way of making mistakes without being berated, and no emotional support. Nobody expects to like her much, nor for her to stay beyond a few weeks; but, gradually, she becomes the catalyst for a great many changes.

Alexandra Raife has drawn some realistic characters, with a light touch here and there to soften the picture she draws of a hard life for the whole family, all pooling time and resources to keep the farm and guesthouses going. There are social events regularly, surprising Kate with their spontaneity and warmth; there is a welcome from all the neighbours and friends, a few of whom were main characters in earlier novels by this author. It’s a character-drawn novel, covering the space of less than a year; yet a lot happens in that time.

I’m not sure why I liked it so much; the romantic outcome was fairly obvious from the start, but it’s very low-key and there are many other storylines interwoven, with unexpected turns here and there. I first read this book nearly fourteen years ago, and had forgotten everything except that I had enjoyed it.

There’s a dramatic climax, believable in that it’s rather obvious foreshadowed and predicted, but since it forces everyone to re-think their priorities and re-examine their desires, I’m not sure anything else would have worked. The author doesn’t make the mistake of tidying up every single loose end in the final chapters; some plans are left open. But she doesn’t stop too suddenly, either; important storylines are resolved, and it’s a hopeful, encouraging ending.

The cast is quite large, although I mostly remembered who was whom. There are some poignant, even shocking moments here and there, and discussion of some difficult issues. But it’s all very well done, and I would recommend this novel highly to anyone who enjoys character-driven women’s fiction that isn’t just a simple romance.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

05/11/2017

Where We Belong (by Catherine Ryan Hyde)

I’ve liked all the books I’ve read by Catherine Ryan Hyde, so I’m gradually acquiring more, mostly via my wish-list and generous relatives. I was given this one earlier in the year for my birthday.

The blurb on the back of ‘Where We Belong’ mentions that it’s about 14-year-old Angie and her mum, who are regularly homeless. The problem is Angie’s younger sister Sophie, who is on the autistic spectrum, and prone to loud shrieking. I thought it an interesting premise for a book.

It is narrated by Angie, in the first person, starting when she is fourteen. The book is divided into different sections, ending when she is seventeen. We first meet her family staying with a great aunt who clearly finds it difficult having them in the house. Then Sophie develops a passion for a neighbour’s dog, and although the neighbour is quite abrupt and unfriendly at first, he learns to respect Angie and they slowly become friendly.

Angie’s a dreamer, old for her years; partly this is because she’s had to take so much responsibility for her sister, and partly her inherent personality. Her mother works at any job she can find to earn a basic income, but she has to be with Sophie when Angie is at school.

Disaster strikes when the dog and her owner move away, and it’s not long afterwards that Angie’s family are asked to leave, and set off with no real destination in sight...

The plot is character-driven, very well written from the realistic point of view of a mature, thoughtful teenager. Angie struggles with her own wishes which are often at odds with the duties of a big sister whose sibling has serious learning difficulties. She finds it very hard to make friends of her own age, partly because she has to move schools, and partly because she can never invite anyone home.

There’s a theme that recurs in this author’s books, that of honesty and integrity, and indeed generosity, being their own reward in unexpected ways. Catherine Ryan Hyde popularised the idea of ‘paying forward’ good deeds, in one of her earlier books, ‘Pay it Forward’, that was made into the film of the same name. Angie is sometimes angry, sometimes confused, but she doesn’t hesitate to admit when she has done something wrong, and she always keeps her promises. Nor will she take advantage of others, and despite the family’s economic struggles, she is reluctant to take payment for tasks she enjoys doing for others.

I liked Angie very much, and enjoyed the mixture of other characters, including Sophie herself, who is unable to communicate anything much other than anger. And although it took a couple of chapters to get into it, I enjoyed the book very much indeed. It’s often poignant, quite sad in places, and highlights some of the issues of homelessness and poverty, as well as the difficulties besetting children on the autistic spectrum.

Very highly recommended.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

01/11/2017

Scarlet Feather (by Maeve Binchy)

While I found some of Maeve Binchy’s earlier novels a tad hard-going and somewhat bleak, I very much enjoyed the ones she wrote later in life. So I’ve counted them as some of my favourites, to be re-read regularly. I had ‘Scarlet Feather’ on my to-read-soon shelf for a while; my edition is a large hardback, which I was given for Christmas 2000. I prefer to read paperbacks in bed, but eventually decided that it was well overdue for a re-read; I have only previously read it once, in January 2001.

It’s a bit of a confusing novel at first, with quite a large cast of characters. I knew I needed to keep track of who was whom, as they would recur later in the book. More significantly, I remembered that a lot of the characters introduced in this novel would re-appear in later ones. So I determined to keep track. The main protagonists are Cathy Scarlet and Tom Feather, good friends who met in catering college, and who have started a business providing meals for people in their own homes. Cathy is married to a lawyer called Neil, whose parents never approved of Cathy, and Tom is living with the glamorous Marcella, who hankers to be a model.

We also meet Cathy’s parents, Muttie and Lizzie, and Lizzie’s younger sister Geraldine, who has a string of male friends (all with wives of their own) and is quite close to Cathy. Then there’s Neil’s irresponsible uncle and aunt, who have a lazy and dishonest son Walter, and also some utterly delightful eight-year-old twins, Maud and Simon. And let’s not forget Shona, who evidently has secrets in her life, and who lives in the same block of flats as Geraldine, and James, a quiet, elderly man who lives on his own, and asks to take cookery lessons from Cathy and Tom.

It’s not often that I remember so many names and people; Maeve Binchy didn’t have quite the gift of characterisation that - for instance - Rosamunde Pilcher did, but she created some memorable and mostly likeable people in this book. Caricatured in some respects: Muttie spends his time at a betting shop, for instance, Neil is so driven that he can’t understand those who don’t support him in all he does; his mother Hannah is remarkably snooty and disdainful. But their quirks and the way they relate to people make them stand out so that it didn’t take me long to remember who is whom, and where the various connections take place.

The main plot involves the Scarlet Feather business, in new premises, determined to be successful. They don’t have much business, and then when things start to pick up, there’s a new set of problems. It’s so long since I read the book that, although I recalled one or two incidents as they occurred, and could see others coming, I couldn’t remember at all whether or not the business is able to stay afloat. And there are other subplots too - mostly various difficult relationships, and their outworkings, or otherwise.

The twins Maud and Simon provide some light relief, as they have a tendency to take everything literally and to ask very pointed questions at inappropriate times. But theirs is also a poignant story; with seriously neglectful parents, they are considered at risk, and feel themselves to be unwanted. Questions arise from this, and another subplot, as to whether it’s always best for children to be with their birth parents if at all possible. The issues of career vs home arise too, and the importance of real honesty - as opposed to limited truthfulness - within any intimate relationship.

By the time I was about halfway through I wanted to keep reading even when it wasn’t bedtime, and towards the end I could barely put it down. I’m now very much looking forward to re-reading Maeve Binchy’s other books that include the same characters, particularly the twins.

Highly recommended to anyone who likes Maeve Binchy’s novels, based as usual in Ireland, featuring a mixed bag of characters whose lives gradually intertwine and who, on the whole, care very much about each other.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

25/10/2017

The Ivy Tree (by Mary Stewart)

In re-reading books by some of my favourite authors, I’m trying to vary the genres somewhat. So after some modern light romances, I decided to re-read one of the books I previously enjoyed by Mary Stewart. She was a writer who helped to develop the ‘romantic mystery’ style in the mid-20th century, and her books usually contain some low-key tension, enough to label them as thrillers, but without overt unpleasantness.

‘The Ivy Tree’ is narrated by a woman in her late twenties whom we meet wandering around an estate near Newcastle. She is accosted by an angry young man who thinks he recognises her, although she insists that he is mistaken.

To say anything more about the plot would be to give spoilers. It’s a very cleverly written book, and although I have read it at least once before (fourteen years ago) I could not remember the outcome at all. There’s deception, and low-key blackmail, and threats to safety… and there’s also some great characterisation. The main story revolves around the potential inheritance of a house and some money, to be left by an elderly man who is in poor health after a stroke.

While there’s a tad more descriptive detail than I like, it’s very well-written, in a way that kept me guessing and even changing my mind several times until the last few chapters. Inevitably it feels somewhat old-fashioned; first published in 1961, it’s long before the era of computers and mobile phones. But there’s much that feels modern in terms of people’s emotions, and some surprisingly open discussions about intimacies and infidelities, given the era of writing.

I found it quite tense in places, so was glad that I spent much of Sunday reading it, rather than keeping it for bedtime reading. The climax is exciting and somewhat unpleasant, but there aren’t too many gory details.

All in all, I liked the book very much. Recommended if you like mild thrillers from the 1960s about strong-minded women who don’t object to a bit of deception.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

22/10/2017

Grace Choices (by Jeff Lucas)

I’ve very much liked the books I’ve read by the Christian writer Jeff Lucas, over the past few years. He writes in a self-deprecating way, combining low-key humour with some thought-provoking wisdom. So when I spotted one I hadn’t read, inexpensively available from the AwesomeBooks site, it wasn’t a difficult decision to order it.

‘Grace choices’, subtitled ‘Walking in step with the God of grace’ is rather different from other books I’ve read by this author. It feels a little heavier, for one thing. Not that it’s a particularly long book - under 200 pages in paperback - but it took me a while to get into it. The introductory chapter takes us to a book signing, demonstrating the startling contrast between two women in the queue. One was knowledgeable - even passionate - about Christianity, but scared: afraid to laugh, worried that God was going to strike her at any moment. She believed in the doctrine of grace, but seemed not to experience it in her life. The other, wheelchair-bound and with a long history of abuse, was full of laughter and life.

So, the author proposes, we make our choices - not to suffer or not, but in how we respond to them. It’s not always easy to respond gracefully, or even to notice God’s grace. Believing in grace poses more questions than it answers. But still, he believes that we can find and experience grace in everyday life, sometimes in the midst of horrendous suffering, if we are willing to watch and listen.

It took a while to get going. In the first couple of chapters it felt as if the author was rather labouring the point. It wasn’t turgid, exactly, although that word occurred to me. But rather slow and wordy. Perhaps, though, it’s impossible to introduce the topic in a way that even begins to express the amazing, outrageous nature of what God’s grace really means.

Subsequent chapters introduce different ways to look for grace: in beauty, in other people, in the church, in the world. I don’t think I read anything that was new to me, but there were some useful reminders. Lucas writes about accepting and giving forgiveness, being open to touches of unexpected grace, about being the means of grace to those around us. He shares personal anecdotes, and by the time I was about halfway through I was finding it interesting, and - in places - thought-provoking.

It’s well-written, and there’s plenty to think about. But I didn’t find it as moving or indeed as relevant as Philip Yancey’s classic ‘What’s so Amazing about Grace?’ which covers similar ground. Still, well worth reading for anyone who struggles with the concept of grace, or (perhaps more importantly) who finds it difficult to experience grace in day-to-day living.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

20/10/2017

The Secrets of Happiness (by Lucy Diamond)


It’s a couple of years now since I first read one of Lucy Diamond’s novels. I liked her characters and the way the plot worked, and have gradually acquired a few more since then. I was given ‘The Secrets of Happiness’ last Christmas, and have just finished reading it. I thought it would take me a week or more, as it’s not a short novel at about 460 pages. But I liked it so much that I kept reading, and completed it in just three days.

The story, like everything else I’ve read by this author, revolves around family relationships. The main protagonists in this book are Rachel and Becca, who are step-sisters, about eight years apart in age, and not particularly close. Rachel was always well-behaved and did what she was expected to do: a good job, a successful marriage, three children, a large and nicely kept house. At least, that’s how Becca saw her. Becca was more of a rebel, but also looked up to her sister when they were growing up.

We meet Rachel first, on her way to Manchester on a secret mission which we don’t learn about until much later in the book. Unfortunately she doesn’t get to her destination; disaster happens just after she leaves the railway station, and she’s then out of the picture for a while. Her neighbour, who was looking after her children for an hour or so after school, phones Becca in a panic when Rachel does not appear…

The plot covers just a few weeks, as Becca becomes involved in her sister’s family, and realises that her life was nowhere near as perfect as she had thought. Mabel is thirteen, blue-haired, with badly bitten nails, and decidedly hormonal. Scarlett is ten, and miserable without the family dog, who no longer lives with them. Luke is just five, a likeable little boy who is starting to discover just how mean some children can be… and Rachel herself has had many stresses in the past year, which Becca knew nothing about.

What I liked best about this book was the characterisation. The contrast between Rachel and Becca is nicely drawn; they grew up in the same household (Becca was only a year old when her mother married Rachel’s father) but have very different values. Both have been grieving the loss of Rachel’s father - the only father-figure Becca ever knew - who died about a year before the story starts. Becca used to enjoy art and crafts, but has drifted, working in a bar, while flat-sharing; she is thirty, but has no idea what she wants to do, or how to get out of her rut.

Inevitably there are romantic pairings - predictable from the first meetings, one with an unlikely coincidence near the end of the book - but they’re quite low-key. The focus is on the family, and the gradual thawing of the relationship between Rachel and Becca. I’m not sure why I found it so gripping, as there isn’t a great deal of plot; but I could barely put it down. The writing is somewhat informal, switching viewpoint with sometimes confusing rapidity, but, as with other books I have read by this author, I soon got used to it.

The one thing I did not appreciate was the amount of bad language. Even Scarlett uses words she should barely have been aware of, and the adults’ conversations and thoughts regularly degenerate into four-letter words that, in my view, were both unnecessary and unrealistic. I was particularly shocked by the way Becca’s new romantic partner used one of the worst words as a supposed compliment after a date. It ruined the moment, as far as I was concerned.

The excess of bad language means I’m reluctant to lend the book to friends who would otherwise have enjoyed it, and makes my recommendation somewhat guarded. If you don’t mind swearing on almost every page, and enjoy character-based women’s fiction, then this would be an excellent holiday read. But if four-letter-words disturb you, give it a miss.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews