False Colours (by Georgette Heyer)

When I want a comforting read that has a little more substance than one of my favourite children’s books, I usually turn to Georgette Heyer. I was introduced to her historical fiction by a relative when I was in my late teens, and over the years have collected most of her works, re-reading them regularly.

It was ten years since I had last read ‘False Colours’, so it was well overdue for a re-read. I recalled the overall plot, of course: Kit and Evelyn are twins in their twenties; Evelyn has inherited a title from his father, and also his estate. Kit, as younger brother (albeit by a small margin) has had to find a career, and has been involved in the diplomatic service abroad.

The story opens when Kit arrives home late at night, to be greeted by his beautiful but somewhat fluffy mother, who at first mistakes him for his brother. And he quickly learns that Evelyn has an urgent appointment the next day, which will cause a great deal of stress if he misses it… but he’s been missing for over a week.

Events quickly spiral into what could be chaos in the hands of a less talented writer, but - while reading the book - feel entirely believable and, indeed, possible. Kit, using all his diplomatic skills, takes on a role he would really prefer not to.

The heroine, the honourable Cressy Stavely, is one of Heyer’s calmer young women, with a delightfully ironic sense of humour. She’s not feisty or even staggeringly beautiful, nor is she determined to right the wrongs of the poor. She has been keeping house for her father, and has turned down some offers or marriage, but now is struggling to cope with her new stepmother who is not much older than she is.

While I recalled the outline of the plot, there were many scenes I had forgotten, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book over the past week or so, dipping into it at odd moments as well as reading before going to sleep. There’s a sense in which re-reading a book like this feels like spending time with old friends; Heyer not only constructed clever plots, but created three-dimensional and extremely likeable characters.

There are undoubtedly caricatures amongst them: Kit and Evelyn’s mother is so clueless about finances that she’s quite amusing in places, and the enormously wealthy Sir Bonamy is a figure of fun - yet they’re not malicious caricatures. Both are kind-hearted and generous, and through the eyes of Kit (mostly) and Cressy, to some degree, we see their good points as well as their bad ones.

I particularly liked the fact that the romantic declaration takes place about two-thirds of the way through the book, rather than on the final pages, as is so common with Heyer’s books. But there’s plenty of plot left afterwards, confusions to iron out and problems to solve, which happen, as I knew already, with the author’s usual aplomb.

Definitely recommended to anyone who enjoys light-hearted regency romance novels. First published in 1963 and almost constantly in print, though widely available second-hand too.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews


Grianan (by Alexandra Raife)

I started re-reading my Alexandra Raife books a few years ago, but for some reason had not continued until just recently, when I picked up this one again. I had almost forgotten the way she writes, giving descriptions without being over-wordy, creating fallible but believable people.

‘Grianan’, which I last read read early in 2002, is about a young woman called Sally. She’s getting over a broken relationship, and escapes to Grianan, a large stately home in Scotland run as a bed-and-breakfast by her aunt Janey. Before going there she stays in another family home on her own for a while, and gets to know some of the local people.

Sally doesn’t know what she’s going to do in the future, but she’s happy to put that on hold for a while as she helps her aunt and her staff with the busy summer holiday season. She has to confront some of her own insecurities and figure out what she wants from life, and the author handles the transition well. I found the latter half of the book immensely moving.

If I have a criticism, it’s the way in which people in this book - as in so many other modern novels - seem quite happy to jump into bed with relative strangers, based on a mutual attraction or sense of need, without any expectation of a long-lasting relationship. Perhaps this is common in some circles, although not something I’ve come across, but I find it quite disturbing that so many writers treat it as normal. Worse is that, in this book, an apparently casual affair involves someone who’s married to someone else… and the otherwise likeable characters really don’t care.

The ‘redemption’ in the latter half of the book, and the laudable decision made in the end almost make up for the first part, and made me very glad I continued reading rather than giving up - as I was tempted to do - after a hundred or so pages. It’s a good story, gently paced on the whole, with the right amount of characters so that I didn’t lose track of who was whom.

As with others of this author’s novels, there are minor characters who featured in earlier books; it didn’t matter that I’d forgotten about most of them, as their backstories aren’t important, and this book stands entirely alone. But I’m deliberately reading them in order, and hope to read others of her books in the next few months - interspersed, as ever, with others - so as to keep in touch with this likeable cast of people.

Unashamedly women’s fiction, this would probably appeal to people who enjoy books such as those by Rosamunde Pilcher or Maeve Binchy. Not currently in print in paperback, but now available for the Kindle as well as being fairly easy to find second-hand.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews


In my Father's Vineyard (by Wayne Jacobsen)

I very much enjoyed the couple of books I read by Wayne Jacobsen, and - as I tend to do in such circumstances - searched Amazon for anything else he had written. There weren’t very many books, but I noticed one, now out of print, which had an attractive looking cover and some positive reviews. I decided, rather than putting it on my wishlist, I would buy a very inexpensive version advertised in the ‘Marketplace’, and have it delivered to relatives on a recent UK trip.

I knew that ‘In my Father’s Vineyard’ would be hardback, but had not taken note of the number of pages (just over 100), and had not realised that it was a larger size book than normal: the design made it feel like a gift book. My second-hand copy was in pristine condition, and I quickly realised that it’s written in the style of a devotional: short chapters, each one looking at a brief passage of Scripture, with some relevant thoughts.

While it wasn’t what I was expecting (I suppose I should have read the reviews more carefully!) I quickly found myself liking it very much. The main focus is John chapter 15, which starts, ‘I am the vine…’, using the analogy of a vineyard and vine-grower as one for Christian growth and increasing maturity. The author recounts his own childhood, where his earthly father was indeed a vineyard owner, so he writes from extensive experience about vines and vine-growing, something which would have been familiar to Jesus’ listeners in the 1st century, but about which most of us in the western world know very little.

Each chapter is two or three pages long, with a brief passage of Scripture (not all from John 15) at the side, and some thoughts about both vine-growing and the Christian life. The commentary is often thought-provoking, and the insights into the life of a vineyard owner very interesting too.

The book is divided into broad sections reflecting the four seasons, explaining how each period of the year has a specific purpose in the life of the vine, including the ‘rest’ period over the winter when there is no obvious growth, and where the vines have to be protected from winter storms.

I learned about pruning: why it must be done, and when it has to be done if it’s not to destroy the entire vine. I learned about the importance of waiting for the right time to harvest the fruit, too. And I was reminded that the ‘fruit’ we grow in our own lives is not so much our work, but those of love, joy, peace and so on, as outlined in Galatians 5.

I read a chapter - or sometimes two - over the course of a few weeks, and liked it very much. There are 29 chapters in all, so it’s ideal as a month’s devotional reading. I’m sure I’ll pick it up again some time, and in the meantime would recommend it to anyone who would like to know more about vine-growing, and also about how the analogy can be used in relation to the Christian life.

Recommended to any believers who would like to dig a bit further into this well-known passage, and perhaps gain a different perspective.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews


You say Tomato (by Adrian Plass and Paul McCusker)

As a great fan of Adrian Plass’s, ever since first reading his brilliant ‘Sacred Diary….’ and sequels, I have collected everything he has written, over the years. Mostly I have enjoyed his books, even if some are less amusing or thought-provoking than others, but my memory of this particular one, co-written with Paul McCusker, is of finding it rather average, not living up to expectations at all. It must be about twenty years since I read it, shortly after publication.

However, in my re-reading of many of my favourite authors’ works, I decided it was time to have another go at ‘You say tomato.’, subtitled ‘The transatlantic correspondence of George and Brad’. And this time, I liked it a great deal more. I suspect that my initial disappointment was due to false expectations: the title had suggested that this might be a sequence of misunderstandings based on US/UK language differences. In Plass’s hands, it could have been hilarious.

Instead this is a thoughtful discussion of cultural differences within Christian circles on both sides of the Atlantic. George and Brad are two fictional young men who met at a conference shortly before the book begins, and decided, after a convivial evening at a pub, to write to each other. Neither is currently married, but George has a six-year-old daughter called Cherry, and Brad is caring for his very ill mother.

It’s a cleverly written book, with George in particular starting out quite prickly and easily offended; cultural differences are touched upon several times, but we soon learn that George has been badly hurt and is not really on speaking terms with God. Brad, meanwhile, is trying to find a place for himself in the American Christian church and finding it difficult, as he keeps finding people who are either loud and judgemental, or shallow non-thinkers, albeit well-meaning.

There are caricatures, of course; both correspondents use humour and satire to cover embarrassment or hurt, and I felt that was perhaps the one problem with the book: the styles and characters came across, sometimes, as too similar. While they discuss different expectations, and correctly use UK or US words and phrases as appropriate, it wasn’t obvious from the style of letters which person was writing; more than once, if I were briefly distracted, I had to turn back to the letter’s greeting to see who was writing to whom.

In today’s instant communication world it must seem odd to think of the idea of airmail letters being sent in this way as recently as the mid-1990s. There’s no real plot to this book; it’s character-based entirely, charting a journey, over a year, of Brad coming to terms with losing his mother, and George with having lost his faith. There were a few places where I smiled, one where I chuckled slightly, and one where I was moved almost to tears.

All in all, I enjoyed it and am very glad I decided to re-read.

Not currently in print, but fairly widely available second-hand.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews


Touch not the Cat (by Mary Stewart)

I first came across one or two of the late Mary Stewart’s books when I was a teenager; I found them quite tense but very well-written with characters I cared about. Over the years I’ve collected quite a few more, mostly from charity shops or church bookstalls.

I first read ‘Touch not the Cat’ in 2003, so it was long overdue for a re-read. Happily I had entirely forgotten the story - at least, I thought I had. It’s written by a young woman called Bryony, who has been working abroad when she gets the news that her father has just died. She doesn’t get the news by normal means, however; it’s a kind of telepathic message from one of her male relatives. A little confusingly she refers to him as her ‘lover’, although she doesn’t know for sure who he is. And yes, this is totally bizarre but has to be accepted as a premise for the rest of the book.

The early chapters are somewhat mystifying in a different way, with several people briefly introduced. I felt a bit overwhelmed at first, and re-read paragraphs more than once when I lost track of where Bryony was, or who she was referring to. However, the story soon gets going, mostly based in the town where her family home, Ashley Court, is located. Due to an ancient entail, Bryony will not inherit it. Instead, her oldest cousin Emory will do so. She doesn’t much like Emory; she’s keener on his twin James, and rather hopes that he is going to be revealed as her secret lover…

The whole novel takes place over a very short period, as Bryony returns home, meets the family who have been renting the estate, spends time with local friends, and attempts to unravel the somewhat mysterious last words ascribed to her father. The pace is very good, keeping me reading well past my bedtime some nights, and becoming almost impossible to put down in the final chapters.

I guessed almost from the start who was going to turn out to be Bryony’s telepathic ‘lover’, so perhaps I subconsciously recalled this from my first reading. It seemed as if the clues were there, though, and she was being a bit tunnel-visioned. Yet I was never entirely certain who could be trusted. I also had a vague memory of the scene of the climax of the book, involving an old pavilion, which I found tense and thrilling the first time I read it, but this time I was pretty sure things would pan out in a positive way.

The phrase ‘Touch not the cat’ refers to a family motto, although cats appear now and again in the story in places that add to the tension. The practical details of the drama at the end of the book left me rather bewildered, but it didn’t matter that I could not picture the geography of the scene, nor exactly what happens. And as everything was told from Bryony’s perspective, perhaps it was deliberate.

Written as contemporary fiction in the mid 1970s it inevitably feels dated, yet some of the discussions and ethical beliefs are entirely current. As the 21st century progresses, books like this will probably be seen as valuable sources of social history.

All in all, I enjoyed this very much. Recommended to anyone, adult or teen, who enjoys light thrillers with a gentle romantic theme and a touch of mysticism.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews


Past Mischief (by Victoria Clayton)

It’s a while now since an email friend suggested that I might like the novels by Victoria Clayton. I was told that it’s best to read them in the published order, as characters from earlier novels sometimes appear in later ones in ways that would become spoilers if read in the wrong order. I read and very much enjoyed ‘Out of Love’ a few months ago so decided to acquire a few more. Unfortunately they’re out of print now, but on a recent trip to the UK I used the Amazon Marketplace to buy a couple more at a very low price.

I’ve just finished reading ‘Past Mischief’, which is told from the point of view of a woman called Miranda whose husband Jack has just died in what appears to be a tragic accident. However it quickly transpires that Jack was something of a philanderer, and while Miranda is very shocked, she had fallen out of love with him some time previously.

Her task now is to help their three teenage children come to terms with what has happened, and also to find a way of continuing to live in their rather expensive manor house…

Miranda has a wide circle of acquaintances including the devoted Ivor, her old nanny Rose, and a couple of close friends in the village. Some of these are decidedly caricatured, but it doesn’t matter; that makes them easier to remember. The suggestion is made to take paying guests, and although a little nervous, Miranda loves having visitors and is an excellent cook.

The novel then revolves around the various people concerned. It’s character-based rather than having any particular plot, other than seeing how Miranda and her children move on with their lives. There are inevitably some romances, mostly quite low-key, and a few shocks along the way; towards the end a couple of revelations felt a tad unlikely; I’m not over-enamoured with coincidences. However, they were explained in a way that made sense, and I don’t have a problem with loose ends of a novel being tied up neatly.

The writing is good, peppered with quotations from Shakespeare, and Miranda’s gradual self-awareness and discoveries about herself are quite thought-provoking. I liked her friends Patience and Lissy, and really didn’t like her friend Maeve at all; however, it’s a mark of a good novel that people got under my skin in this way. I very much liked Miranda’s three very different teenage children.

I didn’t find this as enjoyable as ‘Out of Love’. Parts of it seem a little over-sordid, even though most events take place off-stage. There were some scenes that didn’t really add anything to the plot - such as the rather appalling honeymoon couple who were Miranda’s first guests - and there was a sense of the novel being a sequence of events, rather than a story. There’s an unexpected subplot involving the teenage Elizabeth, for instance, which helps Miranda see her priorities, yet it’s almost forgotten in subsequent chapters.

But still, it made a good read and I expect some of the characters will remain in my mind for some time to come. Fairly widely available second-hand.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews


How to be a Christian without going to Church (by Kelly Bean)

I had not heard of Kelly Bean, but this book was recommended on one of the blogs I read occasionally, and when I checked the blurb on Amazon, it sounded very interesting. As someone whose attachment to church services has waned considerably over the past few years, I thought it could be a useful and perhaps thought-provoking book.

‘How to be a Christian without going to church’ is subtitled ‘The unofficial guide to alternative forms of Christian community’. I should perhaps have taken note of that, since this book is not so much a philosophical or theological treatise on ‘non-going’, as the author puts it, but a practical guide to living life as a Christian without, necessarily, belonging to any recognised church or attending Sunday services.

Part one is perhaps the most useful part from my perspective, with the title ‘The big shifft - from Going to Being’. The point is made early in the book that as believers we are the church, and Kelly Bean charts her own former commitment to traditional church life as well as her later and current non-church-attending life.

She also notes that increasing numbers of people in the 21st century are leaving established churches, not - as in the past - because of lack of faith, but because traditional - and even modern - church services seem irrelevant to many, who see their faith as part of their lives rather than something to top up on a Sunday morning.

The rest of the book looks at different expressions of faith as seen in a variety of communities and groups around the United States, with many examples of how faith plays out in practice. The author looks at what people feel that they miss if they don’t attend church services, and gives suggestions of teaching, music, ‘worship’ (in many forms) and community, relevant to those raised in the faith, and those who were not.

It was useful to have examples of ‘non-going’ groups, although I would have liked to see some from other continents, but by the last few chapters I felt that the book was becoming little more than a list of church alternatives, and found myself skimming. Reading about how other people do ‘non-church’ is not necessarily encouraging when one isn’t in a position either to be part of one of these groups, or to emulate something similar.

Having said that, many of the examples given are undoubtedly useful, reaching out into their local communities in constructive and positive ways. I’m delighted to know that there are so many ‘non-goers’ who are still living life to the full as Christians, creatively finding what they and others need, and showing the love of God to those who would probably never go near a traditional church.

So overall I think this well worth reading, particularly for those who are concerned that ‘non-goers’ may have lost their faith. The book does an excellent job of dispelling that myth. It’s well-written and has a good pace, and I don’t think there was anything I disagreed with. But it’s probably more useful for people who live in the United States, and who might have the opportunity of visiting some of the many non-going communities that are explored.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews


A Future Chalet School Girl (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)

In my slow meandering through Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s lengthy Chalet School series, I’ve reached one that I don’t remember ever having read before, although at some point I’m sure I must have done so. This one is numbered 47 in the original hardback series, 51 in the Armada paperback reprints. My edition is one of the latter, but I gather that by this stage in the series Armada were making very few abridgements.

‘A Future Chalet School Girl’ is one of the handful that doesn’t feature life in the Chalet School at all; instead it’s mostly set in Austria, where the Maynard family regularly take their summer holidays after buying the old ‘St Scholastika’ building. I quite like the family-oriented books, perhaps more so than I did when I was younger.

Mélanie Lucas is the new addition to the series who appears in this book. Her parents work abroad and she lives with her aunt and uncle in the UK. She’s just learned that they are moving to Switzerland imminently and that she will have to go to. She hates the thought of leaving her friends and her beloved school, and then, to make matters worse, she becomes ill and can’t even finish her last term.

Mélanie is quite frail after her illness, and the climate of Geneva doesn’t suit her. But her uncle’s new boss turns out to be married to an old Chalet School girl, who in turn puts them in touch with the Maynards. And in typical open-handed style, they invite her to stay in their cooler location in the mountains…

The entire family are on holiday, and I quite liked reading about Jo and Jack’s ‘singleton’ sons, Steve, Mike and Charles, who don’t appear at all in the school-based stories. They’re perhaps a bit caricatured as schoolboys of the era who attend public boarding schools from a young age, but are likeable enough, and with quite distinct characters. We get to know a little about the older twins, Felix and Felicity (irritatingly referred to as ‘The two Fs’ rather too often) and also see further development of the personalities of the triplets, who are now almost fifteen.

Mélanie is quite a good creation, I thought; she’s quite touchy and easily angered, and the interactions between her and the Maynards’ ward Ruey makes an interesting subplot, resolved in a constructive way.

On the not-so-good side, there are several expeditions which the older members of the family take, with a great deal of overtly educational content about history, geography and myths pertaining to the places. This happens in the school-based stories too, but I wasn’t expecting it in this one. Still, for those interested in this kind of thing, this could be counted as a positive point.

Inevitably there are sections which could quite easily have been omitted in the revised edition: explanations, as happen in many of the books, about what the children call their parents; comments about the Maynards’ insistence on chores and obedience; Joey’s golden singing voice. I was a little surprised by almost Blytonish details about what was packed or eaten for various picnics. I also felt that there were rather too many coincidences in this book!

But still, it made a good story, an easy read ideal for evenings when I was tired, and I’m glad to have read it. I look forward to seeing Mélanie again when she joins the school in subsequent books, although I don’t suppose she’ll have such a major role again.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews