17/08/2016

Wild Mountain Thyme (by Rosamunde Pilcher)

I love Rosamunde Pilcher’s books. Although she wrote some under a pseudonym (now long out of print and unavailable) the fourteen novels she wrote under her own name, plus two short-story collections, are widely available and re-printed regularly. I started reading her books in the 1990s and try to re-read them all regularly.

It’s about twelve years since I last read ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’, a character-based story that mostly takes place in Scotland. The main protagonist is Victoria, a young woman who works in a fashion shop although she’s not particularly dedicated to her job. She lives on her own in London and is still slightly pining for a former boyfriend called Oliver who left her three years previously.

Oliver, meanwhile, is a writer experiencing increasing success. We meet him in the first chapter, calling on spec on his former in-laws in the hope of seeing the son he has never met. With a combination of manipulation, chance and an impulse based on irritation, he finds himself with a two-year-old on his hands… and lands himself on Victoria, persuading her to take a holiday in Scotland with him.

In the first chapters we also meet John, a Scottish-American businessman who flies around the world although he’s theoretically based in London. And we meet Jock and Roddy, brothers in their sixties who live on a farming estate in Scotland. It takes a few chapters before the connections between these people become clear, and it’s perhaps slightly confusing to be introduced to so many individuals right at the start. But the story quickly gets going, following Oliver and Victoria in their journey north, and also seeing the slower way of life that the small Scottish village enjoys.

While I sometimes find Pilcher’s conversations a bit stilted, her characterisation is excellent. I warmed to Victoria despite her being very different from me; I found Oliver rather selfish, despite Victoria being devoted to him. I remembered major plot points shortly before they occurred: a sad event that precedes Oliver and Victoria’s arrival in Scotland, and a highly dramatic event, foreshadowed a few times, that forms part of the climax.

It didn’t matter at all that I knew the rough outline of the story. I’d forgotten almost entirely what happens to the main characters, and even if I hadn’t, they’re so well drawn and so believable that, for a few hours, I felt as if I were amongst old friends, reminiscing and enjoying their company.

Inevitably Pilcher’s books seem dated nowadays. This one was first published in 1978, before computers and mobile phones were in use, and when class consciousness was still ingrained even in the nicest of people, albeit mostly benign. What always slightly jars is the number of people who smoke in these books, and mention of smoke-filled restaurants. Even forty years ago I didn’t know more than a handful of people who smoked, and it was known to be a health hazard even then.

None of this detracts from my enjoyment of the book, which I recommend highly to anyone who likes thoughtful character-based gentle women’s fiction.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

16/08/2016

White Boots (by Noel Streatfeild)

I have loved Noel Streatfeild’s books for older children since I was about eight or nine, though it too, me many years to realise just how many she had written and to acquire the majority for myself. They’re relaxing, gentle reads that focus on family life (albeit with unusually talented children, in most cases) and I re-read them every ten years or so.

I last read ‘White Boots’ in 2004 and vaguely remembered the plot. Harriet, who is nine and from an impoverished but generally happy family, has been very ill. We never learn what the illness was, but it’s left her unable to go to school, very thin, and with weak legs that feel like cotton wool.

Harriet is sent out for dreary walks every day until her doctor comes up with the idea of starting ice skating. He can get free entry for her to the rink as the owner is one of his patients, and one of her older brothers starts a paper route in order to earn enough money to pay for the hire of her ice skates.

Harriet meets Lalla, a wealthy only child who has been somewhat spoiled by her ambitious aunt, but underneath is quite lonely. They become friends and gradually their lives meld more closely, so that Harriet can share in some of Lalla’s lessons and clothes, and Lalla gets a chance of spending time as part of a large and outspoken family.

While skating - and Lalla’s tests and performances and general brilliance - are inevitably part of the story, there’s a great deal about family life and interactions. Written in 1951, there’s rather more class snobbery than I like even though Streatfeild repeatedly makes it clear that money has nothing to do with class. Lalla’s aunt is seen as an unpleasant snob because she looks down on people who work in shops, or who can’t afford new clothes; yet even to the nicer characters, Harriet’s family are seen as poor but the ‘right kind of people’: the boys are polite and well brought up, and they all speak nicely.

There are gentle moral lessons about pride, and taking things for granted, and the importance of loyalty and friendship. Indeed, there’s a lot in this book, which I very much enjoyed re-reading. My only problem with this - as with so many of Streatfeild’s novels - is that the ending is rather abrupt. I’d have preferred a little glimpse into the future, a few more tidying up of loose ends. But it’s a minor gripe.

I think ‘White Boots’ (also published as ‘Skating Shoes’) would appeal to any fluently reading girl - and some boys - of about eight or over. It could make a good read-aloud too, and for those of my generation and older, it’s a bit of pleasant nostalgia.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

15/08/2016

The Beach Café (by Lucy Diamond)

I’ve read a couple of Lucy Diamond’s books and liked them, so I was pleased when a friend, who bought this second-hand, passed it on to me with the comment that she thought I might enjoy it. It’s sat on my to-be-read shelf for a while and I finally picked it up a few days ago.

‘The Beach Café’ is told in the first person by a young woman called Evie. She’s always felt as if she were the black sheep of the family; indeed the opening scene tells us how one of her older sisters suggested she should be called ‘black sheep’, after her favourite nursery rhyme, when she was born.

Both Evie’s sisters are respectably married with children, and have - or have had - successful careers. But Evie has drifted about, currently temping as a secretary in a very depressing job, and thinking about teacher training. Not that she wants to teach, but she’s been living with the highly organised and very structured Matthew for the past seven years, and he tries to make her take life more seriously.

Then a family tragedy happens and Evie finds herself unexpectedly the owner of a beach café in Cornwall. It’s a long way from Oxford, where she and Matthew live, and everyone in the family assume she will sell it. But Evie decides to see for herself, and gradually gets caught up in the life of the village, clashing initially with several people but gradually being accepted….

It’s not just a story about a change of circumstances, though. Inevitably there’s a romance, mostly low-key, and Evie herself matures as she makes decisions that others disapprove of, spreads her wings as she tries new things, takes risks with people she employs and fires…

It took me a while to get into the book, which - as seems to be typical with this author - is quite informal in style. It doesn’t have a lot of twists and turns or surprises, nor different perspectives, as it’s all told in the first person. But gradually the characters got under my skin; the teenagers and a small boy are very well portrayed, and one or two sections quite moving.

All in all I enjoyed it; it’s not a particularly short book but I found it hard to put down towards the end, and finished it in just a couple of days. I’d recommend it to anyone who likes this kind of lightweight women’s fiction, and look forward to reading more by this author in future.


Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

14/08/2016

Glamorous Powers (by Susan Howatch)

It’s many years now since I first read Susan Howatch’s ‘Starbridge’ series, on the recommendation of a friend. I was hooked almost immediately and re-read them only a year or two later. A couple of years I decided it was time for a re-read, and did read and thoroughly enjoyed, again, the first, ‘Glittering Images’. But it’s only in the past few days that I decided to re-read the second in the series.

'Glamorous Powers' is told from the point of view of Jonathan Darrow, the middle-aged and brilliant Abbot who counsels (and sorts out) Charles in the first book. Susan Howatch is very gifted at showing different points of view, getting inside people’s heads and showing the contrast between their outward appearance and their inner thoughts and struggles. While Jon’s life is not as fragmented or deliberately ‘glittering’ as Charles’, he has a great deal in his past which is still unresolved…

We meet him as he’s experiencing a dramatic vision, one which he thinks is leading him to leave the monastery and resume some kind of life in ‘the world’. He has to discuss with with Francis Ingram, the cheif Abbot in the order, and rather an old nemesis of Jon’s; the two have known each other since university days, when they had some quite serious clashes, and their paths haven’t crossed all that much as their churchmanship and theology are very different. Jon doesn’t in the least want to submit to Francis’ non-mystical style of leadership, but has no alternative.

So the first quarter of the book is taken up with discussions between the two, and a gradual unfolding of the past, with Jon gradually becoming less arrogant and more willing to listen. Part two sees him beginning on his new journey; part three sees his arrogance come to the fore, and some terrible things happening before things finally come together.

It’s hard to say much about the plot without giving things away; sufficie it to say that the writing is excellent, the dialogue crisp, the psychology believable, at least to this layperson, and even knowing most of the plot in advance, the storyline still very gripping indeed. I had tears in my eyes at one particularly moving scene at the end of part three, and a thrill as I came to the final pages, remembering what was to come, yet wanting to read it slowly, to savour every word.

This style of writing is not for everyone; it’s steeped in mid-century churchmanship, with assumptions made that the reader understands ‘high church’ and ‘broad church’, liturgy, hierarchies and so on. It also assumes benignity towards Christianity, and an acceptance that God exists and is interested in individuals. Those without faith - or of other faiths - could certainly read this, but would have to put aside some of their preconceived ideas first.

Indeed, many who Christians may need to put aside some of their ideas about the church, or at least about those who run it. The priests and monks are quite frank about their failings and temptations, constantly fighting battles for self-control and discipline, while often giving in to their human nature.

There’s nothing particularly sordid about this; yet there is undoubtedly ‘adult’ content and ideas. Some might find the contents shocking; others may find it eye-opening; some may see it as exaggeration. For me, this book provides insights into humanity and frailty, and is, overall, full of hope.

Highly recommended to those who like a good story, who understand mysticism and temptation, or who are interested in good stories about churchmen, set in the middle of the 20th century.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

10/08/2016

The Boomerang Clue or Why Didn't They Ask Evans? (by Agatha Christie)

We seem to have acquired rather a large collection of Agatha Christie books; I didn’t start reading them until about ten years ago, but they’re widely available second hand and various members of the family have picked them up for us. I haven’t read all of them; I have to be in the right mood for a bit of crime fiction.

I decided to read ‘The Boomerang Clue’ a few days ago. This is an alternative title for the novel also known as, ‘Why didn’t they ask Evans?’ This phrase is uttered by a dying man, and triggers a long and convoluted investigation by two young people: Bobby, the Vicar’s son, and Frankie, a close friend of his otherwise known as Lady Frances.

Both are convinced that there’s something suspicious about an apparent accident when someone falls over a cliff, and soon realise that things are not what they seem. They evolve a complex scenario where Frankie pretends to crash her car - an old one, bought from Bobby and his hapless friend Badger, who are trying to run a second-hand car dealership. This throws them into the heart of a somewhat troubled household; an unpredictable man, a worried wife, an accident-prone small son, and the charmingly friendly brother of the household head.

As with most of Christie’s novels there are false clues everywhere, although rather than leaving it to the reader to figure out, Bobby and Frankie themselves set out on many trails, some of them more useful than others. They ask questions, leap to conclusions, aren’t entirely sure who to trust or who to suspect… and only after an exciting finale do they gradually figure out the truth.

I’m not sure I could have guessed exactly what happened, as the plot is complex, involving wills, forgery, impersonation, drugs and more… but I liked the friendship between Bobby and Frankie and was content to go along with their reasoning, albeit with one or two of my own suspicions. Christie isn’t known for making the greatest characters, but I thought the two main protagonists were better drawn than typical for her books, and I got quite a feel for some of the others in the cast too.

The dialogue is perhaps stilted, but not untypical of the mid-20th century upper class scenario, and I found myself quite caught up in the storyline. By the time I was half-way through I wasn’t too keen on reading it at bedtime; by the last third, I could barely put it down.

Definitely recommended to anyone who likes crime fiction.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

07/08/2016

Dodger (by Terry Pratchett)

I’ve read and liked all of the late Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, although I first came across his writing in the excellent ‘Bromeliad’ series intended for children. I wasn’t quite so keen on some of his others, but relatives recommended this one, so I put it on my wishlist and was given it a few months ago.

‘Dodger’ is set in Victorian London, although the author freely admits that it’s a kind of fantasy version; it’s not dissimilar from Ankh-Morpork, although the sentient inhabitants are mainly human, plus a few dogs and horses, and large numbers of rats. The star of this book is a young man called Dodger who works as a ‘tosher’. I didn’t know the word, but apparently it was a profession, of sorts, in the era. It refers to someone who scavenges in sewers for coins and other lost valuables.

However the story opens with a young woman escaping in terror from a coach, and being rescued by Dodger who pops up conveniently from a nearby sewer. He’s not a run-of-the-mill tosher; he is intelligent, and quick, and generous, and lives with an elderly Jewish man called Solomon. Dodger rescues the girl and finds himself thrown into a rather different world inhabited by ‘nobs’ such as Charlie Dickens, the well-known journalist. T through the book there are humorous asides as Dickens notes down phrases or ideas that would later be used in his novels.

The style is that of an adventure story for children, as Dodger finds himself repeatedly in danger, vanquishing villains without intending to, donning disguises, coming up with a master plan… and moving up in the world in many ways. He meets famous - and infamous - people of the era, all of whom seem to like him despite his outspokenness and lack of polish.

The author admits that he took some liberties with the time frames, and that wasn’t a problem although more serious historians might object. As a piece of social history it works well; I now know considerably more about Victorian England, and its sewer system in particular, than I ever did before.

However, some of the subject matter is not at all suitable for children. While they might laugh at some of the ‘bathroom’ humour and mention of unmentionables, there are unpleasant descriptions of violence and a decaying corpse that could be very disturbing to a sensitive child. Moreover, although there’s nothing explicit, there are several overt references to ‘adult’ topics that should give it at least a ‘12’ rating, in my opinion.

It’s not a long book and I did enjoy it, despite the somewhat sordid themes; Dodger is a likeable rogue, and I found myself entirely caught up in his plot towards the end, with little idea where it was going.

Recommended to adults and teenagers who don’t mind a few liberties taken with historical fiction.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

06/08/2016

There are No Strong People (by Jeff Lucas)

I’ve enjoyed almost everything I have read previously by Jeff Lucas, a Christian speaker and writer who grew up in the UK but now works as a pastor in the US. He has a self-deprecating mildly ironic style that I find helpful and encouraging. So over the years I’ve gradually been collecting his books.

I acquired ‘There are no strong people’ about six months ago, and have spent the past couple of weeks reading it, a chapter or two at a time. As is immediately clear, this is a book about the biblical judge Samson. Each section looks at part of his life and the author makes observations about what went wrong. The theme is that even someone as strong and anointed as Samson, best known for his super-human strength, can make serious mistakes and end up destroying their lives.

The typical Sunday School anecdotes of Samson are totally sanitised; most of his life story is 15-rated at least, perhaps 18. From the Scriptural account it’s clear that he found some women irresistible, had a violent temper, and liked to take revenge on perceived hurts. He’s not the kind of leader anyone would naturally follow or like.

However the book starts at the beginning, when Samson’s mother was visited by an angel and told that her son was to be a Nazarite: someone who did not shave his head, took a vow of abstinence from alcohol, and avoided various other things that would make him ‘unclean’. What I had not previously realised was that a Nazarite vow was usually a temporary thing; more significantly, it was his mother who was told about it: not his father, and not Samson himself.

Jeff Lucas writes a great deal about what are essentially quite short passages, suggesting for instance that Samson was quite spoiled as a child, and that he had his parents entirely under his thumb. This could be taken from the Scripture passages, although it’s not stated overtly; he certainly paints a possible picture of this strange man who evidently had a calling of some kind, yet made so many mistakes.

Once I had realised that this was not a devotional book or even a study as such, I was able to build up a picture of Samson in my mind that was clearer than I had previously. It’s not a particularly pleasant image; he comes across as boorish, greedy, immoral and violent. It doesn’t even seem as if he were particularly intelligent, as he was taken in so easily by women.

There are ‘lessons’ throughout the text, outlined in some of the chapter headings: secrets can make us sick; dissatisfaction is likely to lead us into temptation; anger can be inflammable; even the strongest can fail. They make good points although my personality is so far from Samson’s that few of them were relevant to my own situation.

While it’s not a bad book, I found the style a bit annoying; the sentences are quite short, and the layout is strange with some enormous text that looked as if it should be section headings, but was so big that it was disturbing. Moreover, the book lacked Lucas’s usual dry humour and is almost devoid of personal anecdotes. Yet it wasn't a Bible study as such, as much of the commentary was speculation on behalf of the author.

Overall, while it could be useful for some, I thought this was not up to Jeff Lucas's usual standard.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

01/08/2016

The Sudden Departure of the Frasers (by Louise Candlish)

I’ve liked all the books I’ve read by Louise Candlish, and have gradually been adding more to my wishlist over the past few years. I was given this one last Christmas and it’s sat on my to-read shelf, looking a little daunting as it’s over 500 pages long.

But I decided I would begin ‘The Sudden Departure of the Frasers’ on Saturday evening… and finished it less than two days later. I hardly got anything else done on the Sunday, as I could barely put the book down!

There are two different - but related - storylines which alternate in this novel, as the author skillfully builds up the picture of the two women concerned, Christy and Amber. We meet Christie first, in April 2013. She and her husband Joe have just bought a house in Lime Park Road, an up-and-coming street in London. They can’t quite believe their luck; the price was excellent for a sale without a chain, and they had already sold their previous house.

However they quickly realise that something is wrong. The neighbours won’t speak to them, the downstairs flat next door is also being sold, and there’s a hermit-like man living upstairs, who is abrupt and rude. Moreover, it becomes increasingly obvious that the previous owners, Amber and Jeremy Fraser, spent a vast amount on turning the house into a luxury showhome and then left in a hurry, with no explanation. Nobody seems to know where they have gone, and when Christy tries to find an address for forwarding mail, she doesn’t succeed.

Then we meet Amber, a year earlier, when she and Jeremy have just bought the house and are planning extensive renovations. Jeremy is fifteen years older than she is, and quite wealthy. So she’s taking time off work to supervise the builders and to get to know the neighbours. Her experience is very different from Christy’s, as the others in the street, mostly parents with young families, welcome her with enthusiasm.

Amber’s story is told in the first person which makes it feel more personal, and that’s quite a good device since Amber is not, as it turns out, a particularly nice person. She’s generous, and likes to help people make the best of their appearances, but she thinks nothing of deceiving those she loves. She makes it clear that she had a very wild past, in her late teens and early twenties, but thought she had settled down with Jeremy… until something happens which she believes inevitable.

It’s very cleverly written, I thought. Christy is likeable, if a bit obsessed with the people in the street, and her husband Joe is hard-working and caring. Jeremy is perhaps a bit distant, seeing Amber as something of a trophy wife, but he trusts and loves her and begrudges her nothing. Amber is so dissolute that I never entirely believed in her or her storyline, but somehow that doesn’t matter. The women in the street are somewhat two-dimensional, stereotypical ‘yummy mummies’, and I never really distinguished who was whom; I’d have liked a bit more of Felicity, the elderly woman living next door, who is a much more interesting character than Caroline or Joanna or Liz.

The blurb on the back hints about dark and shocking secrets, and suggests that this is something of a thriller; I think that’s a mistake since it’s essentially a relationship-driven story about uncovering a secret. But by the time the revelation comes, and Christy begins to understand what went on, it’s fairly obviously how the plot is going, and there are really no surprises. Still, I was glad that the final chapters were included to bring closure.

There’s slightly more bad language than I’m comfortable with, and the plot itself is decidedly ‘adult’; yet the author wisely skips almost all the detail in the scenes of intimacy. The writing is excellent, the dialogue believable, on the whole, and the storyline so well crafted that I read long past the time I should have been asleep yesterday, and instead of doing more important things this morning.

Definitely recommended.


Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews