19/02/2018

The Foundling (by Georgette Heyer)

I have a large collection of Georgette Heyer’s historical novels, and re-read most of them periodically. The Regency era ones are my comfort reading of choice, so it was with the anticipation of a few relaxing hours that I picked up ‘The Foundling’ a few days ago. I last read it in 2007, and had very little recollection of the plot.

The main protagonist in this novel is the Duke of Sale, a young man of 24 known to his family and friends as Gilly. He was a sickly child, orphaned at birth, and has been brought up by his uncle. Gilly is the owner of many estates and vast wealth, but is a quiet, unassuming man who sometimes wonders what it would be like to be an ordinary person, unencumbered by his valet, and groom, and countless other well-wishers.

His cousin, a university student, confides in Gilly that he is in big trouble. Gilly sees this as a way to escape his life of luxury for a few days, and also to see if he can solve the problem….

The majority of the story then charts the often dramatic and exciting adventures that befall Gilly once he sets out on his own. He meets a runaway teenager and temporarily adopts him, not realising quite what mischief the boy will get involved in. He meets an extremely beautiful girl with nothing much in her mind other than the wish for a ring on her finger and a purple gown.

He meets some most unpleasant villains too… and yet, this is Heyer, so there’s a vein of humour running throughout. It’s not always obvious, and if I hadn’t been so sure it would all end well I might have found some of the book rather tense reading. But Gilly is resourceful, as well as diplomatic, with the air of a high-class gentleman even though he is travelling incognito.

I was struck, as I read, by the similarities with the novel ‘Charity Girl’, and also ‘The Corninthian’, both of which (if memory serves) also involve a young man running away from his family for a while. Gilly is betrothed to a childhood friend called Harriet, and that reminded me forcefully of a very similar relationship in ‘Charity Girl’. Not that it much matters; with so many novels Heyer was bound to re-use some of her plotting and characters. ‘The Foundling’ was in fact one of her earliest novels, so the others were based on this rather than the other way around.

There’s a tad too much slang for my tastes, particularly as used by the villains of the piece. I’ve been reading Heyer novels for long enough that I get the gist of what’s said in these exchanges, but they could be a bit daunting for new readers.

The characterisation is excellent, as with most of this author's books. I loved the quiet Gilly and the gradual development of his confidence. He becomes more assertive, yet in a way that is consistent with his gentle and generally diplomatic self.

The plotting of this book is superb, one incident following another in unexpected ways. Perhaps far-fetched at times, but no less enjoyable for being unrealistic in places. I recalled some of the story, as I read it, and the eventual resolution. But I had entirely forgotten most of the scenes along the way.

All in all, I enjoyed this book very much.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

16/02/2018

Ballet Shoes (by Noel Streatfeild)

Interspersed with new novels, and re-reading some of my favourite authors, I slip in some of my childhood comfort reading. There are some books which are just as enjoyable at fifty-something as they were when I was ten or eleven. So-called ‘crossover fiction’ did not begin with Harry Potter. Noel Streatfeild wrote character-based contemporary fiction in the early part of the 20th century, and her appeal is, as far as I’m concerned, ageless.

‘Ballet Shoes’ is Streatfeild’s best-known novel. First published in 1936, it has had some recent popularity due, in part, to the excellent adaptation by the BBC. It’s set initially in the 1920s, introducing the eccentric Great Uncle Matthew (known as GUM) whose niece Sylvia looks after his large house with its collection of fossils, collected from all over the world. When GUM manages to damage a leg, he starts travelling in ships, and instead of collecting fossils, he acquires - over a period of several years - three babies whom he brings to Sylvia to look after.

Pauline is the oldest; she’s attractive and bright, and overall a likeable child. Petrova, daughter of Russians, is the next; she’s thin and less obviously attractive, but extremely intelligent. Posy is the youngest, the daughter of a ballet dancer who cannot afford to keep her. Adoption was evidently quite straightforward in this era, or perhaps the author skated lightly over the procedures.

In any case, the story really gets going when Posy is nearly six, Petrova nearly eight, and Pauline approaching ten. They have been brought up by Nana, Sylvia’s old nurse, as respectable middle class children, with Pauline and Petrova attending a local private school. However, by this stage GUM has been gone for nearly six years, and the money he left for the children’s upkeep has just about gone.

So Sylvia decides to take in boarders. Two of them are, conveniently, retired lecturers: one specialising in literature and the other in maths. They offer to home educate the two older girls, while Sylvia teaches Posy. And another boarder, a ballet teacher, manages to get places for the three girls at a theatre/dance school nearby, in the hope that they can start earning some money when they are old enough for licenses.

Much of the novel is about the children’s varying experiences at the theatre school, where Pauline stands out as an excellent actress, and Posy as a potential ballet star. Petrova, a classic middle child, has no interest in either; she would prefer to get her hands greasy while helping to mend cars. The appeal of the story is in the relationships between the three very different children, and they way they tackle problems. Admittedly there’s some caricaturing, but there’s also a great deal of warmth and affection.

As a piece of social history, this - along with the author’s other books - is excellent. The background of London in the period between the wars is clearly shown, as is a typical impoverished household struggling to make ends meet. Nana has high standards for her charges, and expects them to be clean, polite and well-behaved, even if wearing threadbare clothes that have been mended many times, and in some cases are rather too small.

Steatfeild evidently had plenty of experience in theatre life; her scenes set on stages or auditoriums feel as natural as those in school or home. The pace of the book is excellent, covering the years until Pauline is in her mid-teens. I last read ‘Ballet Shoes’ in 2006, and while the overall story was familiar to me there were many conversations and other details which I had forgotten. All in all it made an ideal light read for a day when I wasn’t feeling well and needed something comforting and unthreatening.

Originally written for girls between the ages of about eight and fourteen, this would probably appeal to those of any age who read avidly and like this kind of gentle, but thoughtful story. It would make a great read-aloud, too, for children of any age. There are plenty of moral lessons imparted by Nana, but they’re not intrusive in my view. It’s a pleasantly nostalgic book which harks back to a simpler era - yet one where life for many was extremely difficult.

As with many of this author’s books, the ending chapter is somewhat abrupt. Several threads come together, and one problem is solved by a kind of deus ex machina appearance which isn’t entirely convincing in my view. But everything is neatly tied up, with plans for the future, and we don’t really need to know any more.

Highly recommended. Regularly in print in various editions, as well as widely available second-hand.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

15/02/2018

The Wedding Gift (by Alexandra Raife)


I am enjoying re-reading the novels written by Alexandra Raife. They are gentle, character-based stories, mostly set in Scotland. Since her characters often appear in minor roles in subsequent novels I’m trying not to leave it too long between each one, although I like to read a variety of fiction, interspersing new books with old favourites.

‘The Wedding Gift’ is the sixth novel by this author. I last read it in 2003, and had entirely forgotten the storyline. The main protagonist is a young professional woman called Cass. We meet her when she’s just got married to Guy, whom she’s been living with for a few years. It’s clear from the start that their marriage was primarily for practical and financial reasons, and that they don’t expect it to make any difference to their relationship.

As a wedding gift to each other, they have bought a weekend cottage in the highlands of Scotland. Cass has a Scottish background, and loves the location, although Guy seems less enamoured with it and she wonders for a while what made him agree to it. Gradually she realises that their expectations are very different. She wants a hideaway, a place to walk, and relax, and be part of a new community. Guy wants somewhere that he can invite business contacts. Cass wants to keep most of the original features, Guy insists on modern technology and order.

The story doesn’t have a great deal of plot; it focuses on Cass, as she gets to know the neighbours and forms some deep friendships. Some of these neighbours are the main characters from ‘Sun on Snow’ which I re-read a few months ago, so I was pleased to catch up, so to speak, with their lives. It’s not necessary to have read any of the earlier books: each one stands alone. But without knowing something about some of the families mentioned, the number of minor characters could seem a bit overwhelming, and some of the minor subplots a little irrelevant.

Both Cass and Guy are insecure people and the inevitable deterioration of their relationship is poignant in places, although I found myself wondering several times what she ever saw in him. I grew quite irritated with a couple of the women Cass gets to know, but that’s the mark of great characterisation when fictional people get under my skin, even if in a somewhat negative way.

There are some surprises, but nothing too dramatic. There’s very little action, and most of it is relaxed and gentle. It’s a book to read over a wet weekend, or (as I did) over a week or so before going to sleep at night. It’s interesting enough to want to keep reading, but not so gripping that I couldn’t put it down. There was much to think about too, about the expectations people have of marriage, and the potential problems that arise when a couple have entirely different aims and pleasures in life.

The writing is good, the story well planned and the conversations believable. Descriptions of places and insights into different workplaces and jobs all feel realistic, as if described from experience rather than research.

Recommended to anyone who likes warm-hearted and - in the end - uplifting women’s fiction.

(Note that 'The Wedding Gift' is not currently in print, although this book along with others by Alexandra Raife can often be found second-hand. The Amazon link above is to the Kindle version).

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

09/02/2018

When the Game is Over, it All Goes Back in the Box (by John Ortberg)

Over many years now, I have read and enjoyed books by John Ortberg, who is an American pastor (not, however, a fundamentalist). So now I’m gradually re-reading them. Ortberg is not known for his short snappy titles, although they’re mostly quite memorable. The one I’ve just finished is entitled, ‘When the game is over, it all goes back in the box’. I last read it nine years ago.

As a fan of board games, I very much like the premise of this book. The author grew up playing games with his grandmother, who was evidently a wise and loving lady. He has taken principles learned in these games, and applies them to life and spirituality, with a mixture of explanations, anecdotes and some low-key Bible references.

Although the cover of my book shows some Scrabble tiles, the opening chapter is about the game of Monopoly, not a game I like at all. But I played it as a child, so understand the rules and frustrations of the game. It’s a tad confusing in that ours was the British version, and the author’s, unsurprisingly, the American one which has different property names. But still, the concepts of keeping score, being a good sport, focussing on what matters, etc, are universally applicable.

In a sense, it’s a slightly morbid book. The point is made several times that no matter what we acquire or achieve in our lifetimes, in the end our bodies return to the dust. While the author holds out the hope of eternal life, as I do, we can’t take anything physical with us when we die. Ortberg refers to the parable of the ‘rich fool’ a couple of times, as the ultimate in missing the point. No matter how hard we work, or how much money we earn, we end up without it. So it makes more sense to focus on what lasts: on building the Kingdom of God, spending time with our loved ones, sharing what we have with others, giving to those in need.

It’s not a preachy book, however. The author has a light, friendly style and many of his anecdotes are against himself. He acknowledges problems of materialism and worldly ambition, along with a growing realisation, as he grows older, that everything is temporary.

My only real problem with the book is the many references to American places, universities and sports. I have no clue what baseball or American football jargon means, and while I usually got the point of the stories or points made using examples from sports, much of the detail was completely foreign to me. I’d have preferred more about board games, as those are more universally understood. Moreover, the pieces of board games do indeed go ‘back in the box’ after the end of the game. Victory is brief, and even the King and Queen are thrown in with the pawns.

There’s much to think about in this book; I read a chapter at a time, and found plenty to ponder. It’s written for Christians, or those interested in the Christian life. I would recommend it to anyone who feels a bit jaded, or caught up in the material world. It’s very readable, and on the whole I found it quite encouraging.

Note that as well as the actual book, this has also been published as a study with participants' guides, so if you're buying it online, make sure you have the correct edition. 

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

08/02/2018

Hot Water (by PG Wodehouse)

I have quite a collection of PG Wodehouse books, some of which I don’t think I have ever read. In an attempt to correct this omission, I’m gradually reading or re-reading my through them all, interspersed with novels by other authors. They are mostly set in the 1930s and 1940s, amongst the upper classes of the UK.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of ‘Hot Water’, which I have in an old-style Penguin paperback format, with the price of three shillings and sixpence on the front. Apparently I bought it at a second-hand bookshop, probably about fifteen years ago. I realised quickly that it was not about Jeeves and Wooster, nor related to Blandings Castle. Nor is it a collection of short stories.

Instead, this is set in a French town, in a chateau which is being rented out by the wealthy Mr and Mrs Gedge. Not that he wants to be there at all; he longs for his native California. But his wife clearly rules the roost. At the start of the book, she’s about to travel to the UK to sort out some tax problems, and in her absence various visitors are due to arrive.

Meanwhile in the UK, a wealthy American sportsman known as Packy is bidding a temporary farewell to his fiancée, an attractive woman with very strong opinions, most of which she wants to foist on her beloved. Packy is a likeable young man who hates to say ‘no’ to people. He finds himself cutting the hair of a senator, even though he has no clue what he’s doing, and as a result becomes embroiled with the senator’s daughter Jane, who is engaged to a writer whom Packy’s fiancée very much admires…

If that all sounds confusing, it becomes more so as the book progresses. There’s a large cast of main characters in this book. I found it extremely difficult, at times, to keep track of who was whom. I read a chapter or two each evening, and by the time I was about three-quarters of the way through I had to re-read the first couple of chapters, as I’d completely forgotten some of what had happened.

The story is not meant to be taken seriously; it’s a complex farce, with several people masquerading as someone else. However that makes it even more confusing, when I had to remember not just who the characters were, but who they were pretending to be at any point. While Packy stood out as a likeable, diplomatic soul, and the Senator as a large and grumpy autocrat, I never quite worked out the differences between ‘Oily’ Carlisle and ‘Soup’ Slattery. Nor could I keep on top of who knew whom previously, and in what circumstances.

Still, there’s a great deal that’s amusing in this story, which is written in classic Wodehouse style. There are literary allusions, unexpected encounters, and some cleverly-written fast-paced action. I smiled several times, and by the last couple of chapters was eager to see how everything would resolve itself, and whether the romantic pairings would work out as I hoped.

Recommended if you like PG Wodehouse, but probably preferable to read in one or two sittings rather than over the course of a week or more. It's supposed to be one of his best books, but personally I prefer the Jeeves novels.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

29/01/2018

One Night in Italy (by Lucy Diamond)

I discovered Lucy Diamond’s novels a few years ago, and have read several now. I’ve enjoyed them all, so last Autumn I added a few more to my wishlist. I was given three of them for Christmas, and have just finished reading ‘One Night in Italy’.

The story is about three very different women. We meet Anna first. She’s a journalist in her twenties, who lives with a rather boorish and sexist man whom she finds increasingly irritating. She grew up with a single mother who would never talk about Anna’s father. Then her grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s Disease and is in a care home, lets slip some information that sets Anna off on a path of exploration, including joining a local Italian class.

Next we meet Sophie, who has been travelling around Europe and is working as a waitress somewhere in Italy. She left home after an angry incident at home, and has not seen her parents for some years, though she sends them occasional postcards, and keeps a travel blog. Then she gets a phone call and learns that her father is in hospital, seriously ill…

Finally there’s Catherine, who is rather older but less confident than either of the others. Catherine is married to a doctor called Mike, although they’ve grown somewhat apart recently. We meet her as she’s about to drive her eighteen-year-old twins to their universities for the first time. She is dreading the ‘empty nest’, but hopes that it might lead to the chance to reconnect with Mike. She’s clearly quite needy, and is devastated when both her offspring rush off with barely a backward glance… and that’s not the worst part of her day.

The novel follows these three women over the next few weeks. They live near each other, as we soon discover, and eventually meet at the Italian evening class which both Anna and Catherine have signed up for, and which Sophie is teaching.

It’s the kind of plot that could have been confusing, as there are so many minor characters and subplots. Indeed, I had trouble remembering who was who in the early parts. But the three main characters are different enough that I felt I got to know them all. I had the most empathy for Catherine, although most of my circumstances are very different from hers.

It wasn’t so easy remembering who other people were, though. Most confusing is that Sophie’s mum is called Trish, and her father is Jim. Anna’s mother, if I remember rightly, is Tracey, and one of her colleagues is Joe. I don’t ‘hear’ words when I’m reading, I see them… and the similarities (particularly with the two mothers, who had similar roles as well) meant I had to back-track a page or two more than once, to find out where I was.

However, that’s a minor problem in what was otherwise an enjoyable and well-written novel. Lucy Diamond’s style is informal, although I would have preferred a bit less bad language, and also fewer unexpected explicit (sometimes sordid) conversations. But she does, thankfully, avoid any details of bedroom scenes as they (inevitably) happen. Her women are more three dimensional than her men, who seem to be divided into the unpleasant, demeaning and bullying ones and the almost-too-nice-to-be-true ones. But that didn’t particularly matter as the story was focused on the women.

There are some surprises, one or two moving sections, and plenty of light-hearted banter and action. It was easy to keep reading each night long past the time when I needed to sleep, and I then finished the last hundred or so pages at one sitting. It’s a story of transformation, and discovery; it’s also an encouragement to women to get out of verbally abusive relationships. But most of all it’s a thoughtful novel with realistic main characters and satisfactory outcomes even if some of the threads are left open.

Definitely recommended to those who enjoy women’s fiction of this kind.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

22/01/2018

An Acceptable Time (by Madeleine L'Engle)

Interspersed with new books and those I am re-reading, I’m also picking up books which my sons read and liked in their teens, but which, for some reason, I have never previously read myself. Some of these are by Madeleine L’Engle, who is best known for her classic children’s novel ‘A Wrinkle in Time’. I have just finished reading the fifth book in her time quintet, ‘An Acceptable Time’.

The story is about Polly O’Keefe, the eldest child of Meg Murry and Calvin O’Keefe, who featured in the first book as teenagers themselves. They are now apparently married with a lengthy family of their own; Polly is in her late teens, probably sixteen or seventeen. She is spending some time staying with her grandparents, Meg’s parents, who are still working as scientists.

I realised when I reached the end, and found a family tree and list of books that I should perhaps have waited until I had read the other O’Keefe books, which might have introduced Polly at a younger age. However, it didn’t particularly matter; although some events from those books are referenced, this novel is complete in itself. As with some of the other books in the quintet, it features time travel, but not in a high-tech way.

Polly finds herself unexpectedly three thousand years in the past, after seeing two different young people whom she did not recognise, and who seemed to be dressed in skins rather than modern clothes. She is surprised that they speak a bit of English, but then learns that a friend of her grandparents (a bishop) has also been able to travel back in time, and has both learned some of their language, and taught them some English.

A young man called Zachary is quite keen on Polly - when she returns to the 20th century - and they go out a couple of times, but it’s clear that he’s quite ill. So when he, too, is able to travel back in time, they begin to wonder if it’s for his sake. The ancient peoples have druids and healers, and one of them thinks he might be able to help.

However, there are also fierce battles with another tribe who are suffering severe drought, and their ancient culture demands human sacrifice…

It’s quite a page-turning book, with a lot of action and some quite tense scenes. The science fiction aspects of time gates and tesseracts is not really explained, but that doesn’t matter too much. I’m not into science fiction, particularly, and the story is what mattered. There’s quite a bit of religious discussion, more so than in the author’s other books; however although the Christian message is explained fairly overtly, not pushed.

Moreover, it’s given in contrast to the ancient beliefs, or as something to remember when characters are afraid. The ancient beliefs in this book were mostly polytheistic and in some cases extremely unpleasant, contrasted with the modern people, and a handful of the ancient ones who believed in one ‘Presence’ rather than multiple gods and goddesses.

As with other books by Madeleine L’Engle, I found some of the conversations a bit stilted, and felt that there was a tad too much description in places. But overall it was a good read, one that I’d recommend to older children or teenagers who are interested in this kind of scenario, with modern characters interacting with ancient history.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

21/01/2018

The Naked Church (by Wayne Jacobsen)

I’ve only read a handful of books by Wayne Jacobsen, but have liked them all in different ways. So when I discovered a couple more, inexpensively, on the Amazon Marketplace (though no longer in print) I ordered them and have just finished reading ‘The Naked Church’.

The book is intended for people who are feeling somewhat dissatisfied or burned out by church experiences, or who feel that Christians are no different from anyone else. It doesn’t point fingers or criticise; the author acknowledges that the established church comes in many shapes and sizes, and in many cases is an excellent way of helping people becoming closer to God.

However, the theme of his book is that there’s a great deal wrong with the way that the church worldwide functions today. Christians are not generally known by their love for each other. Evangelistic crusades may result in hundreds of people making ‘decisions’ for God, but rarely have much long-term effect. In the west, we are caught up in materialism, in maintaining expensive buildings and following routines and structures which, in many cases, move people further away from God rather than helping them to develop intimacy with him.

The introduction mentions the classic fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes. The author suggests that it is all too easy for modern Christians to follow false teaching, or turn up week by week for church services because that’s what everyone else is doing. Yet, he believes, a large part of the church - at least in the United States, where he lives and works - is ‘poor, blind and naked’, like the church in Laodicea to whom one of the messages in the book of Revelation was addressed.

Most of the book is written in paired chapters. The first of each looks at ways in which 20th century Christians are (the author believes) deceived, and the second looks at what might change. For instance, he compares modern structured church programmes with the communities that developed in the early church. He is careful to acknowledge that much of what we do nowadays can be useful, and that lives can be changed. Yet we are not radiating the love, passion and authority that was so evident in the first century Christians.

I found some of the book a little heavy-going, and rarely read more than one chapter at a time. This was first published in 1987 and would have been extremely thought-provoking then, although so many other writers have written on a similar topic that I didn’t find anything new. Still, reminders are good, and there was much to think about. The presentation was nicely done, and the contrasting chapter style worked well.

It’s not particularly easy to get hold of this book, although if you see it at a reasonable price it’s worth reading, in my view. Most likely to be read by those who are already struggling somewhat with Christian traditions or styles, but I think it could be of value to those in leadership who would like to see positive suggestions for change, described in an organised way.

Recommended.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews