15/05/2018

City of Friends (by Joanna Trollope)

I’ve liked most of Joanna Trollope’s books over the years, and thought I’d acquired and read all of them. But browsing Amazon a year or so ago, I realised I was lacking ‘City of Friends’. I was going to put it on my wishlist, but oddly enough it wasn’t in print, despite being quite a recent publication. However, I was going to the UK for a couple of weeks, so ordered an inexpensive copy, along with a couple of other books, from the Marketplace.

It’s taken me a while to pick the book up, but I’ve finally read it over the past few days. The story is about four women who have been close friends since university days. The novel switches viewpoint each chapter, focussing on them in turn, over the course of a few months. They all have problems, some of which are resolved during the book.

We first meet Stacey, as she is being made redundant from the prestigious company she has worked for over many years. She had hoped to work more flexible hours, as she and her husband are about to have her elderly mother, a victim of dementia, to live with them. She is devastated and also bewildered, and refuses to get in touch with her friends for some time.

Melissa is a single mother with a sixteen-year-old son, Tom. They’re quite close, and she works in an advisory role to big companies. Then Tom admits that he’s been in touch with his father - who is married to someone else - and wants to meet his half-brothers.

Gaby is small but determined, and is a managing director of a large company. Her husband runs some successful shops, and they have three children: two teenage daughters and a son of about ten. They’re going through the normal stresses of having teenage hormones in the house, and Gaby has a secret which means that she has to be very careful who she employs.

Beth is the most academic of the four; she has written books and gives lectures. She’s gay, and lives with a younger woman called Claire. They’ve bought and done up a lovely house, but when we meet them, they’re quite tense with each other, and clearly have different priorities.

It took me a little while to remember who was whom; I never quite kept track of their parents, who were mostly shadowy figures, other than Stacey’s mother. Some of the business language went over my head, too, and I didn’t particularly enjoy the rather obviously feminist agenda, and the insistence - by more than one character - that work is more important than family, that work keeps people going, that it’s more important to have a paid job than almost anything.

However, I liked most of the people; Joanna Trollope created interesting and three-dimensional characters in these four women, and I very much liked the teenage Tom, too, although I wasn’t entirely sure I believed in him. I thought it interesting that Stacey’s husband Steve is one of the nicest people in the book and Quin, too, is an excellent husband and also a good father. In trying to push women’s rights, the author doesn’t make the mistake of turning men into unpleasant characters.

The story is a bit complex in places, and I found that if I read just a chapter or two at night and then put it down for 24 hours, I would lose some of the threads and have to backtrack. But when I read it in larger chunks, it was an interesting insight into people’s lives, on the whole. I’m not sure I’d want to read it again, but if you like this author’s books, it’s worth acquiring and reading at least once.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

10/05/2018

All Change at Cuckly Place (by Noel Streatfeild)

Having finally acquired and read Noel Streatfeild’s short novel ‘Meet the Maitlands’ just over four years ago, I looked out for its sequel, ‘The Maitlands: All Change at Cuckly Place’ at second-hand bookshops online. Neither book is in print, despite many of this author’s children’s books having been republished many times.

I finally managed to track down a reasonably priced edition a few months ago. To my surprise, like the first book, it’s a hardback with a dust cover in almost perfect condition. When I realised I had almost entirely forgotten the characters and plot of ‘Meet the Maitlands’, I re-read it yesterday, then finally picked up ‘All Change at Cuckly Place’ last night. It’s not a long read, and I finished it today.

This is the last book Streatfeild published; she was 84 at the time of writing, and was evidently attempting something a little different with this pair of books. They’re set at the turn of the 20th century; this one starts about five years after the first book ends. The twins Selina and John are sixteen. John is reasonably happy at his boarding school, and Selina has been educated at home, with her siblings, by their governess Laura Dinage.

The first major event in the book is that their rather shadowy grandfather, The Squire, dies. His house, known as The Place, is inherited by his oldest son Tom, who comes to live there with his family. His next brother, Timothy, also returns to the UK with his wife and three young daughters and they also come to live at The Place. Miss Dinage is hoping to leave to get married to a local farmer. But there are now nine Maitland children to be taught at home, so she’s persuaded to keep teaching them after getting married.

There are too many characters in this book for any of them to stand out; John is still sensitive, but is mostly away at school. Selina is almost grown up, and her younger brothers play very little part. Chloe, Selina’s sister (who is about thirteen) is keen on dancing; this is typical for a Noel Streatfeild book, but as her father is a rector, any dancing other than social ballroom dancing is rather frowned upon. There are some quite dramatic scenes related to this, although no real resolution.

Running alongside the Maitlands’ day-to-day lives as they settle in together is the story of Violet, the bright girl from a working-class background who went on to grammar school. She’s now an adult and involved in the Suffragette movement in London. The attitudes of the era are shown in various ways, with several of the women being quite keen for women to get the vote, and more of a place in society. It’s a book for older children so while violence and imprisonment are mentioned, there are no details.

Streatfeild’s books often end somewhat abruptly, with a sudden resolution and brief ending tying things up in the last chapter. This book ends during a family holiday in July 1914…. I’m not good with dates, but even I was aware that this is the month when World War I was declared. And then after a final comment implying great stress and pain for John and Selina, the book ends.

I assume the author was intending to write a further book about the Maitlands, but never managed it; she died a few years later after suffering from a series of strokes. So the fate of the Maitlands is left open.

Overall, I found it disappointing. All the characters, other than Laura Dinage, seem rather flat, and there’s no real storyline at all. However it's a quick read. As a piece of social history, I think it’s worth reading by anyone (child or adult) interested in life in the UK in the early 1900s.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

09/05/2018

Meet the Maitlands (by Noel Streatfeild)

Noel Streatfeild was one of my favourite authors as a child, and through my teenage years - and I still return to her books, from time to time, for comfort reading. She’s best known for her classic ‘Ballet Shoes’, and many of her novels have been reprinted in recent years. Others are harder to find. A few years ago I managed to buy a copy of ‘Meet the Maitlands’, a book I had not previously read.

More recently I was able to find its sequel, but when I was about to pick it up I realised I had no recollection of the characters or storyline in ‘Meet the Maitlands’, even though it was only a little over four years since I read it. So I have just re-read it.

It was first published in 1978, and - unusually for Streatfeild - written as a historical novel set around the turn of the 20th century. The main protagonists are a family of five children who live in a rectory; their mother is an invalid, and their father, though pleasant enough, doesn’t much get involved with his children. The twins Selina and John are the oldest at ten. Selina is responsible and organised, and also quite academic. John is much more introspective and sensitive, and one thread running throughout the book is his terror of being sent to boarding school.

Chloe is seven, and there are two younger boys in the family, but they don’t play very much part in the book. The other main character is Violet, a fourteen-year-old girl from the village, who is desperate to get a grammar school education. Her parents don’t believe in education for girls beyond the primary level, so she’s been ‘in service’ working in the sick-room of a school for a couple of years. Then she finds out that the Rector and his wife are looking for a governess, so she fakes a reference and lies about her age… and, unlikely though it seems, is engaged.

There’s not a great deal of plot, and it’s not a long book, but Streatfeild had quite a gift of characterisation, and I quickly grew very fond of Selina and John. Violet is precocious and determined, and I liked her spirit. The point is made clearly that girls in this era were looking beyond traditional marriages or ‘service’, and could be quite as intelligent as boys; moreover not every middle-class boy was suited to the rigours of boarding school at ten.

The differences between the professional and village people become apparent too; as a piece of social history for older children and teens, I think this works extremely well. The author was born in 1895 so although she wrote the book much later, the attitudes and ways of speaking probably reflected those of her memory. It’s rather different from her usual stories of brilliantly gifted creative children, set in the 1960s and 70s.

The ending is rather abrupt, as is common with Streatfeild’s books; but as it’s character-based rather than having a strong plot, it doesn’t really matter.

All in all, I enjoyed it and look forward to reading the sequel.

Not in print, but can sometimes be found reasonably inexpensively second-hand.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

08/05/2018

The Year of Taking Chances (by Lucy Diamond)

It’s nearly three years since I first read one of Lucy Diamond’s books, after a recommendation from Amazon. I liked it sufficiently to add a couple more of her books to my wishlist… and enjoyed them too. Gradually I’ve acquired more, and was delighted to be given ‘The Year of Taking Chances’ last Christmas. I have quite a lengthy to-be-read shelf, and I intersperse old favourites with new books, so it’s taken me a few months to reach it.

This book takes place over the first six months or so of a year, following the lives of three women who meet almost by chance at a New Year’s Eve party. Gemma is the hostess; she’s happily married to Spencer, and they have two children: Will is thirteen, Darcy nine. They’ve recently bought a lovely house which somewhat stretched their finances, and it’s ideal for entertaining. Will is becoming a tad hormonal, and Darcy’s a typical bright pre-teen, but basically they’re contented together, with Gemma a full-time homemaker and mother.

The other two women are Caitlin and Saffron. I kept having to backtrack to remember which was which as I could not distinguish them in my mind. One of them (I think Caitlin) has moved to the area following the death of her mother, and the break-up of a relationship. The other (probably Saffron) has rented the house next-door to Gemma’s while she thinks over something unexpected that has happened, that affects another relationship. One of them works for a PR company and the other is a web designer… but the two seem to have very similar personalities.

These three women open fortune cookies and decide that this new year is a time for branching out and taking chances. Gemma has no idea that her family situation is about to take a potentially tragic downturn in a few weeks (although the prologue has warned us of a pending disaster). Caitlin is about to discover something that will shock her deeply. And Saffron has to deal not only with her recent discovery, but with an over-demanding client and an increasingly suspicious boss.

The book switches viewpoint each chapter, giving insights into each of their lives, leading up to the inevitable point when they meet in other circumstances and find themselves increasingly drawn together. I found it hard to keep track of their various family members and friends, most of whom seemed either shadowy or caricatured. I liked Gemma’s father, however, and was quite fond of her children, too. I could identify most with Gemma, and thought her a believable, three dimensional person, even if her change in circumstances, later in the book, happens with startling rapidity.

That sounds a bit negative, but overall I liked this book very much. There are some serious issues touched upon including forms of depression, infertility, possibly dangerous pregnancy tests, and how to deal with feeling that one’s life has been built on a lie. There’s a tad more bad language than I’m comfortable with, but thankfully Lucy Diamond avoids descriptions of intimate scenes.

Overall, notwithstanding the sometimes complex problems encountered, it’s a light read, written somewhat informally. It has a satisfying ending that ties up most of the threads in positive ways, if perhaps a little too neatly, and I found it enjoyable and encouraging.

Recommended, if you like relationship-based modern women’s fiction.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

04/05/2018

The Shadow Doctor (by Adrian Plass)

Adrian Plass is my favourite contemporary British Christian writer. I’ve loved his work ever since reading ‘The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass aged 37 ¾’ back in the 1980s, and have acquired all his books over the years, usually within a year or so of publication. He uses a lot of humour, but also writes in a poignant, honest and often very thought-provoking way.

When I saw that he had a new book out last year, ‘The Shadow Doctor’, I realised from the cover and blurb that it was one of Plass’s more serious offerings. I waited until it was out in paperback, then put it on my wishlist and was delighted to be given it for my recent birthday.

There’s a brief prologue to the book, involving someone in quite a distressed state, full of fear… I felt quite tense after reading it, so was relieved that the first chapter, following immediately afterwards, is rather more prosaic. We don’t learn what the prologue was about, or even who is involved in the scene, until much later.

Jack is the main character of the book and we see events unfolding through his eyes. We meet him first wandering round a cathedral, and learn that his father inspired him to love the warmth and antiquity of British cathedrals. Jack is miserable about something, and in lighting a candle he’s evidently doing something contrary to his usual practice.

A lengthy letter from his grandmother follows, letting Jack know some things about her which she had never told him. She also invites him to get in touch with someone whose card she encloses in the letter… and, eventually, this leads to Jack getting to know an older man calling himself The Shadow Doctor.

There’s a lot of dialogue in the book, some of it perhaps a tad lengthy or forced. But Adrian Plass always tells a good story and I found myself growing quite fond of Jack. He’s a bit confused about life in general, but likes to listen to friends’ problems and help them out, as far as he can. The Shadow Doctor leads him down paths he had never considered, inviting him to think about difficult questions, and not to hide behind platitudes or half-truths.

It’s not a fast-action book, it’s not particularly great on characterisation (the Shadow Doctor remains a tad shadowy throughout, and other characters only have brief roles). There’s no humour as such, although there are a few light-hearted moments to contrast with some very serious and important conversations. I wasn’t sure what to think at first; it took me a few chapters to get into the story.

But by the time I was half-way through, I could barely put it down. I wanted to know what was going on, and to find some answers to Jack’s questions. In that sense, the conclusion was not entirely satisfactory. Some questions are answered, but several threads are left wide open. I don’t know if this is because there’s going to be a sequel, or if it’s meant to reflect the way that life leaves many questions unanswered.

There’s a lot in the book that’s cynical about how modern Christians appear, and the pat answers that are all too easy to give. There are discussions - about whether or not God exists, for instance - that might make some believers shudder and cry ‘heresy’.

There is a strong nod to Narnia, and many oblique references to the Bible, in particular the life of Jesus. It’s primarily a book for those who have a Christian background of some kind, but could be read by anyone interested in problem-solving and bridge-building.

The overall theme is of compassion, of standing up for what’s right, and true, of following the Master. And of standing with Puddleglum.

I really can’t do it justice in a review. I shall probably keep thinking about parts of this book for weeks to come. Definitely recommended if you like this author, or if you're interested in some thoughtful, encouraging Christian fiction.

PS when I checked the link (above) for Adrian Plass's website, I was delighted to read that he's working on a sequel to this book.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

29/04/2018

After the Funeral (by Agatha Christie)

We have quite a large collection of crime fiction novels by Agatha Christie. Some belonged to my older son when he lived at home, but he left them here, as he could easily find replacements inexpensively in UK charity shops. Crime fiction isn’t my favourite genre, but I quite like the occasional foray into Christie’s works - they’re usually non-gory, with crimes committed off-page, and the focus on the solution of some complex puzzles.

‘After the Funeral’ is a book I hadn’t previously read, so I picked it up a week or so back, feeling like a change from modern women’s fiction. As with all this author’s books, it’s set in the middle of the 20th century. As with many, it features an upper middle class family whom we meet as they gather after the funeral of the family head, Richard Abernethie.

Richard’s younger sister Cora is known to be outspoken, and not considered particularly intelligent. Yet she has a certain astuteness that her contemporaries take seriously, although the younger generation write her off as weird. So when Cora makes a passing comment about her brother having been murdered, nobody believes her… and yet a seed is planted in their minds.

Everyone goes home, after the reading of a not particularly inspiring will, and the book follows several of them as they return to their daily lives. The younger generation include a lawyer, an actor and his wife, and a potential businesswoman who is married to rather a weird young man.

Then another dramatic and unexpected event happens, which brings to mind Cora’s comments, and is the catalyst for an ongoing investigation. The family lawyer - who was an old friend of Richard Abernethie - eventually calls in Hercule Poirot…

Agatha Christie isn’t known for her characterisation, but she creates a believable selection of people in this novel, any of whom could potentially have committed either or both of the crimes. Her skill was always in the gentle trail of red herrings and clues, leading the reader to being quite certain that the wrong person was the perpetrator. She does that brilliantly in this book. At some point in the story, I was almost certain that each of the main characters must be guilty… all except for the one who is eventually revealed.

There’s no cheating in Christie’s books. All the evidence is there to see, if only I had added everything up correctly. When Poirot makes his denouement in the final chapters, I was nodding and agreeing that this is, in fact, the only satisfactory solution.

The book is quite long, with a tad too much detail and rambling conversation for my tastes. Yet it’s in the details that the clues are planted, and the crime, eventually, solved. This one was particularly well plotted, in my opinion, and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes this kind of mid-century light crime novel,

First published in 1953, 'After the Funeral' has been almost continually in print in many versions. It can also be found fairly easily in second-hand and charity shops.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

28/04/2018

Encounters with Jesus (by Philip Janvier)

I regularly look out for free Kindle books, when planning to travel. I discovered ‘Encounters with Jesus’ on one such search. I’d never heard of the author, Philip Janvier, but the blurb sounded interesting, so I downloaded it.

This book, with subtitle, ‘Writing in the Sand’ is a collection of twelve re-written accounts from the life of Jesus with notes and questions at the end of each one. Apparently it started as a series of talks. It’s intended for those who want to imagine or meditate on some of the incidents that stand out in Jesus’ life, and also for small group study.

The first chapter recounts the calling of the disciples. We are taken straight into the scene, with Andrew and John debating who Jesus might be, and whether or not it would be a good idea to follow him. It’s a tad confusing in that they talk about another John (though I quickly realised this was John the Baptist). For someone who did not know the story, it would not make a great deal of sense initially.

What I particularly like is the way the author brings Jesus alive: showing his compassion, and understanding, in clear contrast to the attitudes of everyone around him. Even those who follow him are full of doubts at times, displaying selfish or ignorant characteristics; but Jesus loves them anyway, and continues to lead them forward.

Further chapters look at different encounters Jesus has with other people, always demonstrating his perfect humanity. The final one covers the time when Peter and some of his friends go fishing, ending up having breakfast by the side of the lake with the risen Jesus. I very much appreciated the accounts which include much of the Scriptural descriptions and conversations, but enlarge on them. They show in some detail what the surroundings would have been like, adding extra fictional conversations that could well have happened.

The notes at the end of each chapter were, I thought, well thought out, not necessarily stating the obvious. After each story, the reader is encouraged to go to the Bible and read the passage on which the story is based, and then to consider a few points about it. After that comes a set of questions for individuals or groups. I didn’t go through these, but skimmed them and could see that there might well be plenty to think about or discuss.

My one gripe with the book (at least in my Kindle version) is that it has proofing errors on almost every page. Dialogue, in particular, is often lacking punctuation, and there are run-on sentences which are sometimes hard to deconstruct. Commas are missing in many places, and there are a few word errors too. It wasn’t sufficient to make it impossible to understand, but was disturbing enough that I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who cares about grammar and punctuation.

It’s a pity, because the content is good and on the whole I enjoyed read this book. It’s still free in Kindle edition, at the time of writing this post, so Amazon links are to the electronic versions. However this book is also published in paperback.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

19/04/2018

Wickham Hall (by Cathy Bramley)

On a recent trip to the UK, I was browsing a charity shop when I saw a carousel with women’s fiction novels at a pound each. I picked up four that looked interesting, based both on the blurb and the cover, although I had not previously read anything by three of the authors. One of the books was ‘Wickham Hall’ by Cathy Bramley, an author I had not previously come across. I started reading it on my flight back to Cyprus a few days ago.

I was immediately drawn into the story. Holly narrates the book; she’s a highly organised young woman who applies for a job as assistant event manager at a stately home. She’s visited it several times with her mother, and it’s her dream job… so it’s no surprise (given the title) when she’s offered the job. She’s rather thrown in at the deep end, as her boss Pippa isn’t there on her first morning, but she gets on remarkably well and is clearly competent in her new role.

Holly’s mother is a hoarder - of all kinds of things, much to Holly’s dismay. She likes a clutter-free, streamlined life, but can barely get into their shared house due to piles of random things that her mother cannot possibly get rid of. This is an ongoing source of conflict which takes a significant part in the plot as it progresses.

It’s very much a character-driven novel, covering about six months of Holly’s new job, and involving quite a number of different people. She gets along well with most of her colleagues, other than the gift shop manager Andy, who had hoped to be offered the post as assistant event manager, and treats her with hostility from the start. However it never really escalates into anything too serious; when it comes to a head, after a near tragedy, Andy turns out to be quite a reasonable, likeable guy after all.

Writing books say that there must be ongoing and significant conflict in a novel, and it’s something I struggle to create, so it was very reassuring and encouraging to read this book. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and it’s highly rated in reviews elsewhere - yet the conflict, such as it is, is pretty low-key. Holly has to learn to let go of some of her insistence on structure and organisation, but it turns out to be easier than she expected. The conflict with her mother evaporates as her mother gets help with her obsession and meets a new man. Holly has questions and worries about her unknown father, but that all gets resolved in a satisfactory way.

There’s a love interest for Holly, but despite an initial misunderstanding and some embarrassment, and notwithstanding a miscommunication in the middle, and a snooty parent, everything progresses happily without too much stress. Indeed, it’s a very readable book partly because the tension levels are so low. Yet it was sufficiently interesting that I wanted to know what was happening, and found it difficult to put down.

‘Wickham Hall’ was apparently published initially as a four-part serial, and I can see that it would have worked well. The book I read is complete but divided into four sections; each of the first three ends with a question and something of a cliff-hanger. However I’m very glad that I had the whole thing, so I could finish it in a few days. I was quite sorry when it ended; several of the characters had got under my skin, and I felt as if I were saying goodbye to friends.

I particularly appreciated the lack of bad language and the absence of any ‘intimate’ scenes. There is nothing stronger than kissing, and most of that is fairly quick, with interruptions. At the end of the book we see a glimpse of a ‘morning after’ but there is no unnecessary detail. I found this family-friendly level of writing refreshing and look forward to lending the book to friends.

At the end, as with several other books I’ve read in recent years, there is a selection of recipes relevant to the story. They all look good…

I would recommend this highly to anyone who likes light women’s fiction with a strong main character. It’s a ‘feel-good’ encouraging story of human relationships which appealed on many levels.

As soon as I’d finished the book, I went immediately to Amazon to put more of Cathy Bramley’s books on my wishlist.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews