27/08/2015

A Problem for the Chalet School (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)

After reading several books that were new to me, I felt the need of a bit of comfort reading, so I pulled out the next volume in the lengthy Chalet School series by Elinor M Brent-Dyer, which I read in my childhood and teens and have re-read from time to time since. I’m slowly working my way through the series again, in order; the last one I read was ‘Chalet School Fete’, a couple of months ago.

I hadn’t read ‘A Problem for the Chalet School’ for at least eighteen years, so had mostly forgotten what it was about. The early chapters introduce Rosamund Lilley, who has just been offered a scholarship to the Chalet School in Switzerland, but really isn’t very keen on the idea of going, particularly when she realises that she’ll have to become fluent in both French and German rather rapidly. However, her ambition is to be an air hostess, and she’s persuaded by her benefactress to take up the scholarship with a good grace.

Rosamund is befriended by some of the Chalet School girls, and as she’s a likeable girl at heart, she plunges into her new life, and makes an effort to learn the languages. She worries that people might drop her if they knew her origins - her father is a market gardener and her mother was a maid - but gradually realises that what matters is who she is, not what her origins were; and that, moreover, being a servant or gardener are professions to take pride in, not to feel shame.

The ‘problem’ of the title is in Joan Baker, a girl from Rosamund’s old school whose father has won some money, and decides his daughters should have a ‘posh’ education. But while Joan considers herself superior to Rosamund - and to most of the girls in the Chalet School - her ideas are tacky, her attitudes aggressive, and she thinks nothing of gossip, trying to make weaker girls admire her. Rosamund quickly realises that she no longer finds Joan amusing or clever, and Joan is in for some serious clashes with the authorities….

Some of the books in this series are samey, with too much detail about lessons, or walks, or end-of-term plays or fetes. But this one has a story that I found quite gripping; I didn’t remember what happened to Joan at all, and was full of admiration for the way that the author made it clear that Joan’s mindset was inferior without ever being condescending. It’s idealistic, of course; but then the Chalet School is a place where many and varied girls eventually knuckle down and become good citizens, hard workers and interesting people without losing their personalities or individuality.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. It’s not great literature, and of course there are phrases here and there that jarred; inevitably it’s a little dated, and some ideas about education and parenting have changed since the middle of the 20th century.

Nonetheless, Brent-Dyer created believable people and I found myself strongly drawn into this book; definitely recommended to fans of the series, or even as an introduction, although the sheer number of characters might be daunting to anyone who was not already familiar with the most significant ones.

Not currently in print, but the Armada version, abridged slightly from the original, is fairly widely available second-hand.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

26/08/2015

A Day at the Races (by Frances Paige)

I’ve never heard of Frances Paige, although I gather she’s quite a prolific novelist. This book has been sitting on my to-be-read shelf for some years now; a friend, who shares some of my taste in books, thought I might like it and passed it on to me. But while the cover is attractive in its way, it struck me as a mid-20th century book of the kind that I probably wouldn’t find all that interesting.

I know I shouldn’t judge books by their covers, but in the case of this one, I should have trusted my judgement. ‘A Day at the Races’ is about a young woman called Nora. She’s recently lost her father (whom she refers to as Paddy) who was an enthusiastic horse trainer in Ireland, and we meet her when she’s on her way to France to watch a horse race; something which her father had asked her to do before he died.

The journey there is a bit disjointed, with Nora’s thoughts and reflections interspersed with descriptions of the scenery; I found it a bit hard to follow at times, but it gives quite a good idea of her background and where she’s going, although I wasn’t quite sure what the point of the horsey parts were.

Nora briefly chats with some of the people on her coach, and then becomes better acquainted with a young man called Richard, who is interested in history, as she is, but whose eyes she doesn’t like…

I kept wondering when the story would start, and when the characters would get interesting. Unfortunately Nora is eminently forgettable; despite most of it being told from her perspective, we never really get to know her. Conversations are stilted and dull, and her thoughts are convoluted and reveal very little about her. Perhaps realistic, but not relevant to the novel, as far as I could see.

Nora has a potentially very unpleasant experience in France, from which she is rescued; but then, bizarrely, refuses to report it to the police. She keeps changing her mind about what she likes to do and where she wants to live, and while I think the novel was meant to be a kind of coming-of-age story, it didn’t work for me at all. There are no surprises, no believable relationships, and the predictable ending was rather a long time in coming.

I read the book in a day, not because I was enjoying it but because I wanted to finish it and get it out of the way. It’s only just over a couple of hundred pages in fairly large type, so it’s a quick read in any case. Sometimes the first couple of chapters in a novel are hard going, but by the end I can hardly put it down… in this one, the first couple of chapters were hard going, and then it deteriorated.

It felt as if it were written in the 1970s, which I knew was impossible as the main part of the story takes place in 1989; it turns out that it was written as recently as 2002.

I hate to be so negative about a book; evidently the publisher approved of it, and no doubt it appeals to many. The author has won prizes for historical fiction, so is evidently highly regarded. Nevertheless, this is not a novel that I enjoyed, nor would I recommend it.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

Balancing Act (by Joanna Trollope)

I’ve enjoyed Joanna Trollope’s books since I first came across one of them about fifteen years ago. I’ve gradually collected most of them; some second-hand, some as gifts. So I was pleased to be given her most recent novel (published in 2014) for my birthday a few months ago.

‘Balancing Act’ is a novel about a family of strong-minded women. Susie, the matriarch, was brought up by her grandparents after being abandoned as a baby, and started her own company when she was young. Gifted artistically and with a good eye for business, she built up her company from a small local craft centre to an internationally known factory of British designed products. We learn this in the early chapters, along with - I felt - unnecessary descriptions of the factories and offices and where they were.

Susie has three grown up daughters: Cara, who has inherited her mother’s good business acumen; Ashley, who is more into publicity, and Grace, who is another artist. They all work for the family business, as does Cara’s husband Dan. But there are tensions evident from the start of the book. Dan and Cara want to expand faster than Susie is prepared for. Ashley, who is struggling with the tension between her job (which she loves) and her home and family (two small children, whom she also loves) wants to see more catalogues and more of a say in the running of the company. And Grace isn’t entirely sure what she wants other than a great deal of time and space to herself.

Then there’s Jasper, Susie’s husband, who looked after the home and raised his daughters with lots of affection and encouragement, while keeping up the facade of being part of a band. And Leo, perhaps my favourite character in the book, who is married to Ashley and works as a teacher, until he decides that they need to fire their eminently unsuitable nanny.

Each relationship is evidently simmering under low-key tension, and it doesn’t take much of a catalyst to lead to some outspoken confrontations. The catalyst is a delightful elderly hippy who invades Grace’s space, and makes cracks in Susie’s need for control over her life and family.

There isn’t much plot. It’s a character-based novel, and flits from person to person, home to home, without too much explanation, and with plenty left up to the reader’s imagination. While I felt that far too much background was given in the early chapters, some of it was important in seeing how the family dynamics worked, and why the various tensions happened as they did.

My biggest problem with the book is that most of the characters seem rather flat, perhaps because none of them has a sole viewpoint and we rarely see inside anybody’s mind. I did like Leo; he seems to have more humanity than most of the others in the book, and I liked that this role was given to a man, with four women being the most focussed on business and earning money. But most of the men felt rather caricatured.

The other person I liked was three-year-old Maisie, Leo and Ashley’s daughter, who is going through a defiant stage but needs a great deal of love and understanding. She is perhaps the most realistic character in the book, and I enjoyed her scenes.

The writing, as always with Joanna Trollope, is very good. My only irritation was in one oft-repeated phrase. The first time somebody ‘let a beat fall’ before responding to some comment or question, I thought it a clever device. The second time I shook my head slightly, thinking that perhaps the author had forgotten that she had already used this phrase. By the eighth or ninth time, I was feeling annoyed that someone hadn’t proof-read it and removed the repeated phrase.

Still, that’s a minor quibble. On the whole I thought it a relaxing read; it’s undemanding, there’s nothing unpleasant that happens. Only one person uses bad language and he wasn’t supposed to be a nice person. There’s no real emotional depth to the novel, but nothing unpleasant about it either. The ending is encouraging.

Not recommended if you want a good plot, or indeed a story which reflects high drama, but if you enjoy light women’s reading, I think this would make good holiday reading.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

24/08/2015

Rococo (by Adriana Trigiani)

I first came across the name of Adriana Trigiani when Amazon recommended some of her books to me. So when I spotted a few of them inexpensively on a church bookstall nearly three years ago, it was an easy decision to buy them. I read one of them - Lucia, Lucia - soon afterwards, but the others have sat on my to-be-read shelf considerably longer than I had realised.

However, I finally picked up ‘Rococo’ a few days ago, and have read it in a couple of days. It’s rather a different story, set in 1970. It’s told in the first person by an almost-40-year-old Italian American called Bartolomeo, known as B to his friends and family. B is an interior designer, and he’s good. He has an eye for colour, and for matching homes with their owners, and he’s much in demand.

His dream for many years has been to redesign the Catholic church which he has belonged to, and loved, since he was a small child. So when the priest decides to employ an outside company, B is devastated, and deeply hurt. However, nobody really appreciates the power of the village, and the people who want one of their own to renovate their church. So eventually he gets the job…

The interesting part of the story, to me, was B’s relationship with his extended family. I found him a likeable person, dedicated to his job, happy to be a bachelor with occasional women for company. I’m not sure how well the author got inside the male psyche, but that didn’t matter too much; B tells the story well, with a light touch, and I liked seeing his role as father-figure to his nephews, particularly the one named after him, and best friend to his emotional sister Toot.

I wondered where the story was going at first, but soon realised that there isn’t one; the novel is a work of art, painting a picture of family and church life in a small village, with people coming and going, with their different personalities and dreams and heartbreaks. I found it almost impossible to keep track of who was whom, and didn’t feel particularly attached to anyone, but then I know almost nothing about Italians living in the US. From that point of view, it was an interesting read.

The blurb on the back calls this book a ‘comic masterpiece’, so I tried to read it as a light-hearted book. The only parts that seemed amusing were Toot’s regular malapropisms, but as B keeps correcting her, they didn’t have the humour value that they might otherwise have done so. Most of the cast are caricatured, I assume - but maybe not. I was mildly amused, too, at some recipes with vast quantities of ingredients, listed as serving 48; I very much doubt if they are realistic.

The least appealing part of the book is the regular descriptions of people’s houses which B has decorated; he goes into great deal about colour schemes and designs, most of which went right over my head and didn’t interest me in the slightest.

B travels to various European cities in the course of the novel, including London, but none of them felt particularly real or relevant. It’s a minor irritation, but a Brit would not have used the word ‘momentarily’ in the American sense of ‘in a moment’. I doubt if even an American would have done so in 1970.

Still, it makes pleasant enough reading; no violence or horror, no bad language, and while there are a great many intimate liaisons, thankfully they take place off stage or without any detailed descriptions.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

23/08/2015

Beyond Our Selves (by Catherine Marshall)

Catherine Marshall is best known for her biographical Christian book, ‘A Man Called Peter’, which tells the story of her marriage to the deep thinking minister, Peter Marshall, and his unexpected death in his forties. I found it very moving when I read it, many years ago, and was thinking I might read it again; in my vain search for this book on our shelves, I came across another by the same author. I have no idea if I’ve read it before. It has my father’s name in it so presumably I acquired (or possibly borrowed…) it from him at some point.

‘Beyond our selves’ is semi-biographical, charting the author’s own spiritual journey. However, that makes it sound very dry, and it’s nothing of the sort. It’s one of the most inspiring and encouraging books I’ve ever read. In the first chapter, she asks if her readers are satisfied with who they are and what they have. She recounts anecdotes from her own life and that of several people she has met or corresponded with, who realised that their lives were somewhat empty but did not know how to change anything.

The rest of the book charts her own discoveries, and - very gently - suggests ways in which people can involve God in their lives in new and often exciting ways. The second chapter looks at the nature of God, in a way that might seem challenging to those brought up with the idea of God as judgemental or demanding. The author talks of the time when her first husband Peter died, and the knowledge that God had his arms around her, upholding her even amidst her terrible grief. She describes experiences of others, and mentions her own upbringing with a father who she knew, absolutely, loved her.

Subsequent chapters deal with ways of being committed to God: of surrendering the ego, looking for guidance, finding strength when circumstances feel helpless, forgiving others, and seeking prayer for healing, both for oneself and for others. Catherine Marshall herself was diagnosed with TB as a young woman before modern treatments were available. She spent long years in bed which helped to form some of her spiritual insights; eventually she experienced a form of divine healing, but it was slow and gentle, nowhere near as dramatic as she had hoped.

Inevitably the book feels a little dated in places; it was written in 1961 when the author was middle-aged, and makes references to earlier parts of the 20th century. But that doesn’t matter. The writing is clear and encouraging, without false promises or exaggeration. I found it inspiring and thought-provoking, and hope I can find some of Marshall’s other books to read soon.

It’s not a book for the cynical, or for determined atheists; but for Christians - jaded or otherwise - or for those who are looking for something more, or indeed for agnostics or fringe Christians wondering what it’s all about, I would recommend this book highly.

'Beyond our selves' is not always in print, but widely available second-hand in various editions.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

22/08/2015

The Boy in Red (by Violet Needham)

My mother was a huge fan of Violet Needham when she was a teenager. She bought some of the books when they were newly published, and then as an adult found others in charity shops or, later on, re-published new editions. I hadn’t read most of them; my taste for historical fiction didn’t develop until I was an adult, and for some reason they never appealed.

When my mother passed away a couple of years ago, I decided to adopt her collection of Needham books, and am - very slowly, interspersed by other books - reading them. I think I appreciate them more as an adult than I would have done when I was younger.

‘The Boy in Red’ stands alone rather than being part of a series. It’s set in Holland in the 16th century. It features a 12-year-old boy called Maurice, in the period when there were violent battles between the Roman Catholics and the Calvinists in Europe. Maurice’s father is Catholic but his mother is Protestant. Life is dangerous, but they are an upper-class family, friendly with the Prince of Orange, a historical character also known as William the Silent. Maurice is devoted to the Prince, and his parents agree to let him become a page in the royal service.

William’s introduction into life as a page is fraught with difficulties and uncertainties, but he’s a likeable boy and soon makes friends. His loyalty and courage ensure that he is entrusted with some dangerous missions; he suffers a great deal at one point, although the author skates very lightly over the details.

I found it quite hard to get into this story at first. I didn’t know anything much about this period in European history, and was quite shocked at the extent of the bloodshed between two factions of what we now recognise as branches of the same faith. Much of this is hearsay; this is, after all, a book intended for older children and the details given are vague, although it’s clear that many people lose their lives, sometimes in highly unpleasant ways.

By the time I was half way through it became difficult to put this book down; it’s well-written, as are the author’s other books that I’ve read. There’s plenty of excitement and tension, and Violet Needham is clever in weaving her story of this fictional page into the real life historical scenarios.

However, it’s not really my kind of book. I liked Maurice as a character, but found most of the others a little two-dimensional; there were rather too many people for me to relate to them all, and I sometimes got a bit lost, trying to remember who was whom, and - in particular - who was on which side. It might have helped if I had been familiar with the historical context.

‘The Boy in Red’ has recently been re-published in full by Girls Gone By, with an introduction that introduces William the Silent and may make it easier to understand the historical references. This could be of interest to older children or teens who are interested in 16th century European history, but is most likely to appeal to adults who remember the author from their childhood.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

19/08/2015

Father to the Man and other stories (by Adrian Plass)

I have enjoyed Adrian Plass’s writing ever since I first came across one of his books in the 1980s. Gradually we’ve collected them all, and I like to re-read my way through them from time to time.

We only acquired ‘Father to the Man’ fifteen or so years ago, and in that time I only seem to have read it once. It’s a series of short stories rather than a novel, and as such makes good bedtime reading. There are seven stories in all, mostly about family relationships (particularly fathers and sons) and problems of some kind, with a clear Christian theme coming through. However they are not remotely ‘preachy’.

Moreover, since I hadn’t read them for fifteen years, I’d totally forgotten what they were about. The first story, ‘Nothing but the Truth’, is about a man who dies suddenly in a road accident. However, the story doesn’t lead up to this unpleasant incident; it begins with it, and follows the middle-aged Mister Porter as he enters the afterlife, and finds it nothing like he imagined.

He meets various administrative staff, as he is evaluated and questioned, and discovers to his horror that he can no longer skate around the truth, or answer evasively. There’s some delving into his past, and in particular some incidents relating to his childhood. I found it a moving story, and quite thought-provoking.

The second one, ‘Friends coming round’, was rather more depressing. An English teacher overhears a conversation between two of the other staff at his school, one of whom he thought was a close friend. We then see this supposed friend and his wife coming to dinner at Edward’s house, and follow his thoughts as he tries to decide what to do about their tenuous relationship. However the ending is rather too open for my liking.

The first two stories are the longest, taking up almost half the book. The others are shorter; I particularly liked ‘posthumous cake’, where a family discuss a recently deceased relative who had made them a cake. There was a story by one of the author’s sons towards the end, too, which I enjoyed.

None of the stories is the greatest of literature, and some of them have rather a surreal feeling to them, but overall they were quite thought-provoking. Adrian Plass is particularly good at communicating spiritual issues coated in light humour or satire, often tinged with poignancy, and that comes across in this little book. The final story, ‘Small World’, is particularly moving in the last couple of paragraphs, and makes an excellent ending.

Not currently in print, but usually inexpensive second-hand.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

17/08/2015

The Shell Seekers (by Rosamunde Pilcher)

I discovered Rosamunde Pilcher’s novels nearly thirty years ago, and fell in love with them almost immediately. I’ve collected them all, over the years, and have read most of them at least twice. It was nearly ten years since I last read some of them, so it was more than time for a re-read.

‘The Shell Seekers’ is the novel that brought the author into the public eye. Until she produced this, she had written many short stories for magazines, and some shorter novels. But at last she produced an epic family saga, spanning the years from before World War II up to the year 1984 in which it’s mainly set.

However it doesn’t open in the 1930s and move gradually forward. Instead, the novel opens with Penelope Keeling returning from hospital after discharging herself, after a minor heart attack. She’s only in her mid-sixties, and insists that the doctors got it wrong. She is determined to return to her much-loved home in Gloucestershire, and we meet her in a taxi, enjoying afresh the beauties of the village where she lives.

Penelope thinks about her three very different adult children as she decides which one to phone. It’s a good way of introducing them: Nancy, who is convention bound and married to someone Penelope dislikes, with two spoiled children; Noel, her youngest (and only son) who is a materialistic entrepreneur without a lot of business sense; or Olivia, the elegant businesswoman, the only one who seems to be on Penelope’s wavelength.

The second chapter is then written from Olivia’s point of view, so we see her in the context of her work, and then are taken back, in her mind, to 1979, a wonderful year when she fell in love and took a sabbatical in Ibiza. The next chapter lets us know about Cosmo, the man she lived with, and we also meet his daughter Antonia, who at the time is thirteen…

It sounds like a large cast, but they are introduced so naturally that it never becomes confusing. Each chapter focuses on a different person, some expected and some less so. Penelope’s children worry about her living alone, and Antonia, now 18, has to come to the UK. We also gradually learn about Penelope’s father, who was a great deal older than his wife, and who was a painter prior to the war years. Penelope has one of his paintings - the Shell Seekers of the title - hanging in her living room, and it’s her dearest possession. But her father’s style of painting has suddenly become fashionable, and her children realise that she could potentially sell it for a large sum of money…

The first time I read this, I kept thinking some disaster would occur: that Penelope would be robbed, or that one of the many people she trusted would turn out to be a crook. But it’s a warm and wonderful novel, and the characters are so three-dimensional that it’s easy to learn to love the right ones, and to feel rather sorry for those who are self-centred and greedy.

There are some caricatures - Nancy’s spoiled children don’t come directly into the book, although they are mentioned many times - and there’s some inevitable class-consciousness that goes along with most of this author’s writing. Boarding schools and lots of alcohol in the home seem to be considered entirely normal; those of the working classes are much loved, and considered invaluable, and treated as friends… but still are seen as inherently different to the upper middle classes who form the main characters of the books.

But still, that’s part of social history, even as recently as the 1980s, apparently. Moreover, as is evident from her other books too, it’s what came naturally to Rosamunde Pilcher. The likable people are generous and friendly and open-hearted, and often love to do some of their own housework and cooking. But they still employ housekeepers and gardeners, and are surprised if they are highly educated or from professional families.

None of that detracts from the wonderful depth of this novel, and the people who get under my skin each time I read. There’s one incident towards the end which shocked me to the core the first time I read it. It’s foreshadowed, and should not have been unexpected, but it breaks the unwritten rules of fiction writing. And it upset me, although it’s realistic, and turns out to be necessary for the sake of the last couple of chapters of the book, and the eventual resolution of several questions.

Even re-reading for at least the third time, knowing what was coming, I felt tense as I approached the final chapters, and quite emotional at the ending which leads to a delightfully positive resolution.

This lengthy novel is not for people who prefer books with fast action, or excitement, or the kind of plot that only moves forward chronologically. But if you enjoy family sagas, and a gentle story where the past gradually impinges on the present, cleverly crafted and beautifully written, I recommend ‘The Shell Seekers’ wholeheartedly.

Still in print in paperback, and now available in Kindle form too.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews