Lost for Words (by Stephanie Butland)

I had never heard of Stephanie Butland when Amazon recommended this book to me. The blurb for ‘Lost for Words’ sounded exactly like my kind of book, however. A young woman works in a bookshop… a pleasant change from the many books about cake or sweet shops. The cover was appealing, too. So I put it on my wishlist, and received it recently as a rather late Christmas present.

It’s a first person account by Loveday, a quiet (and somewhat prickly) character in her twenties. She doesn’t much like people, other than her jovial boss Archie. She very much likes books, however. So when she sees a book of poetry lying on the ground one day, on her way to work, she picks it up. She’s sure someone would miss it, so she puts a note in the window of the bookshop where she works…

The narrative mostly takes place in 2016, but there are flashback chapters set in 1999 when Loveday was ten, and also a few set in 2013 when she first started going out with a young man called Rob. The story unfolds gradually, with the past filling in the details; in particular we learn why she now avoids Rob, and also why she’s so very reticent about herself and her past.

Loveday’s first nine years were very happy. She was an only child, and although her father worked on oil rigs for three weeks at a time, she loved the times when he was home, and also the quieter, more predictable periods when she was alone with her mother. Early in the book it’s clear that something tragic happened, so that Loveday spends her teenage years with a foster carer. By the time it’s revealed exactly what went wrong, it’s not a surprise.

I found the style of writing a tad off-putting at first. It’s quite informal, written in somewhat jerky sentences. There are even odd asides to the reader. But I quickly got used to Loveday’s voice, which goes well with her confused, difficult personality. She’s very likeable despite being so prickly and (mostly) antisocial.

I felt the author understood well how something that happens in childhood can have a drastic effect on a person’s life and understanding. Loveday’s fears are mostly unfounded, but still very real to her.

Some of the story is quite dark, yet it doesn’t become sordid. There are some delightful characters as well as less pleasant ones. Perhaps the ending is a bit too happy-ever-after for realism, yet it has a shocking and bittersweet tinge before the final pages. I loved the final resolution, particularly the way that one important thread is neatly resolved in a notice on the last page.

This book took a while to get going, but by the time I was around halfway through I could hardly put it down. There’s more ‘strong’ language than I’m comfortable with, and a staggering tendency for people to leap into bed with each other even on first dates (without details, thankfully). Nevertheless, I would still recommend this highly for adults and older teenagers who enjoy character-based contemporary fiction for women.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews


The Forever Feast (by Paul Brand)

I was introduced to the works of the late Paul Brand by the popular American Christian writer Philip Yancey. Dr Brand was a pioneer in studying leprosy in the middle of last century. He had made many notes about his work, and the metaphors of the physical body when thinking about the spiritual life. It took Yancey to turn these ponderings into books, the best known of which are in the excellent volume ‘In his Image’.

So I was delighted when I discovered, in the Amazon marketplace, another book by Paul Brand, ‘The Forever Feast’. I’ve been reading it over the past couple of weeks and have found it educational, thought-provoking and inspiring.

The theme of the book, as with Brand’s other books, is analogies between our physical and spiritual bodies. But the main focus in this one is related to food, and our digestive system. The book begins with the description of a meal - not a gourmet or expensive one, but a special, memorable meal that the author counts as his favourite gastronomic memory.

He talks about the importance of thankfulness, and of taking time over meals. He explains the importance of hunger, and of tropical diseases where hunger disappears. He examines the ways that fruit grow, dropping their seeds to ensure the future of the species. He looks at the way our bodies digest food, from the intial ingestion by mouth through to the final selection of nutrients for our cells, and the elimination of waste.

But this is not a biology text book. It’s written in an almost chatty style, making it accessible to anyone with even a vague interest in the topics. Anecdotes are interspersed with the science, and everything is based firmly in the author’s medical and nutritional knowledge and his many years of experience in both Europe and Asia, working with a great variety of patients and medical technology. Yet it’s never condescending. The book feels almost like a genial discussion between friends after a good meal.

There’s also quite a spiritual punch in each chapter. Brand moves easily from talking about our physical bodies and needs to our spiritual ones. He talks more than once about the incredible, detailed ways in which our bodies were designed. And he looks at spiritual food, with an excellent discussion, in the last couple of chapters, on the origins of the Communion or Eucharist service.

There is so much to ponder in this book that I read it just a few pages at a time. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the Christian life, and/or the human digestive system. I was never remotely interested in biology at school, but have learned and absorbed a great deal from Paul Brand’s books, including this one.

The only faintly negative thing I can think of is that there are rather incongruous line drawings scattered throughout the book. They’re evidently intended to illustrate facets of the book, but are in the style of 1980s teenage fiction, and each one disrupted the flow of the book a little bit. But perhaps they’re not present in other editions of this book.

Very highly recommended. Not currently in print, unfortunately.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews


Moonshine (by Victoria Clayton)

I have thoroughly enjoyed the novels I have read so far by Victoria Clayton, after the recommendation of an online friend who shares a lot of my reading tastes. Most of them are out of print, but I’ve managed to obtain them from Amazon Marketplace, or the AwesomeBooks site. I’ve had ‘Moonshine’ on my to-read shelf for a while. At almost 700 pages it’s a long book, so I knew it wouldn't be a quick read. And, indeed, it took me nearly two weeks to finish it, mostly just reading before falling asleep at night.

It takes a while for this novel to get going. The main protagonist is a young woman called Bobbie. We meet her as she’s feeling somewhat unwell in a ferry crossing the Bristol Channel. She meets a charming young man called Kit who is also travelling to Ireland. He’s a book editor, and planning to visit several of his authors. He and Bobbie get chatting, and over the course of the next few days Bobbie tells him her recent story…

Bobbie has been having an affair with a somewhat eminent politician, we quickly discover. She knew all along that it was risky, but everything blew up when the papers got hold of the story. Her lover is married, and she doesn’t want him to have to give up his career. So she’s answered an advertisement for a housekeeper in a castle in a remote part of Ireland.

It takes about 160 pages of the book to explore the details of Bobbie’s affair, and while it certainly establishes her character, and (to some extent) that of Kit, I couldn’t see at first how it added to the story, which only really gets going once she arrives at her destination. The castle turns out to be in a terrible state, with kitchens in chaos and family relationships stressed. Bobbie is a born organiser who likes to put things right, so after a rather unpleasant beginning, she decides to stay…

The rest of the book is about her developing relationships with each of the diverse family members and friends who live in the castle. She turns their lives upside down, bringing sanity, good food and some great ideas. She becomes very friendly with Constance, sister of the castle owner, and the person mostly responsible for bringing up his children. I particularly liked the two younger children, Flavia - who is sensitive and soft-hearted, and spends all her time reading - and Flurry, who is on the autistic spectrum, and loves building railways.

It was an ideal book for bedtime reading, as I could dip into a chapter or two then put it aside without regret. Nothing was overly gripping, but it was mostly easy to remember who was whom, and I was interested in the way the different subplots developed. There are several romantic attachments which occur through the book; I realised that Bobbie would end up with somebody, but until about half-way through the book I was looking at the wrong person.

There’s quite a bit of social history and context; the Irish ‘troubles’ are not just mentioned in passing, but play quite a significant part in the storyline, interwoven amongst the growing friendships. One particular event places the novel firmly at the end of the 1970s. The author explores several points of view, portraying scared young men in the guise of protesters and soldiers. It wasn’t until quite late in the book that I started to see how everything fit together, and the significance of the early part of the story.

Many themes are lightly touched upon, such as the significance of the Catholic church in children’s upbringing, the difficulties of some marriages and the stresses that can occur between parents and children. I found myself often moved, and regularly appreciating the literary references and the brisk conversations. Whereas the previous book, 'Clouds among the stars', was almost sordid at times, this one was, I felt, much less so.

All in all, I liked 'Moonshine' very much. Recommended if you enjoy women’s fiction with a bit more punch - and length! - than many. Brief reference is made to one or two of Clayton’s characters from an earlier book, but it would not matter at all if you had not read it.

This book is still in print, unlike some of the author's other books, and also available in Kindle form. It can often be found second-hand, too (as I did).

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews


Adrienne at the Chalet School (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)

I wanted something light and reasonably quick to read, so it didn’t take me long to select another Chalet School book by Elinor M Brent-Dyer. I’ve re-read this lengthy series a few times over the decades since discovering them in my early teens. Interspersing with other books it’s taken me over eight years to re-read as far as the 53rd (57th in the Armada paperback series) ‘Adrienne at the Chalet School’. There are only five more in the series, so by the time I’ve finished I’ll be almost ready to start over again.

I couldn’t remember the plot of ‘Adrienne’ at all. Perhaps it’s a volume I missed out on previous re-reading, or perhaps it’s just that it’s not particularly memorable. Adrienne is a recently orphaned French teenager, currently living in a rather seedy rental apartment, soon to be destitute, or worse… her possible fate, if she cannot pay the rent, is only hinted at.

Happily for Adrienne, she is known to a Catholic priest, and he lets the local convent know about her situation. Sister Marie-Cecile (formerly known as Robin, in the earlier Chalet School series) is sent with a colleague to rescue her. After quite a serious stress-related breakdown, Adrienne is granted a scholarship and sent to the Chalet School.

She quickly makes friends, and despite limited educational opportunities, is quick to catch up and even overtake most of her classmates. This is only a problem to the girl who, up to that point, was well ahead of everyone. She becomes jealous and bitter, although this storyline doesn’t really go anywhere, and then peters out mostly of its own accord.

There’s a mystery surrounding Adrienne since a few people are convinced she reminds them of someone, but none can quite work out who it might be, or what the connection could be. She knows nothing of her family background, but it wasn’t difficult to work out what was being hinted at. Or perhaps I had a subconscious memory of the last time I read the book. In any case, what transpired was rather unlikely (albeit predictable by this stage). I was amused that the author actually has one of the characters put in a comment that reality was sometimes stranger than fiction.

Overall I thought it rather a run-of-the-mill Chalet School book, with a fair amount of in-school events. These include lots of heavy snow, the standard skiing for beginners with instructions about sunglasses to prevent snow-blindness, and not allowing skis to run together. There are half-term activities, described in some detail, and various entertainments. It was undemanding reading that filled a few gaps in a busy schedule, and a pleasant enough book but I didn’t find it page-turning.

Not recommended as an introduction to the series, nor even a required addition to a collection of significant Chalet School books. But to fans of the series, or compulsive collectors like myself, it’s worth reading. Joey Maynard and her triplets are always interesting to read about, and we get strong hints in this book of where Len’s future lies, romantically speaking, although nothing is actually said. She even manages to shed the last of her childhood twice...

I am fortunate enough to have a hardback edition of this, which is quite rare. There was an abridged Armada version which is also out of print, but can sometimes be found second-hand.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews


Chestnut Street (by Maeve Binchy)

I always enjoyed the late Maeve Binchy’s thoughtful fiction, although some of it was a bit depressing. However, I didn’t like her short stories (on the whole) as much as I liked her lengthy novels. So when I saw that a final collection of Binchy’s short stories had been published posthumously as ‘Chestnut Street’ in 2014, I didn’t immediately place it on my wishlist. But on a trip to the UK towards the end of last year, I spotted it in a charity shop and it was not a hard decision to spend a pound buying it.

It’s good that I knew it was a collection of short stories; apparently some readers thought it was a novel, and were disappointed. Moreover, it’s a collection put together from manuscripts found in the author’s desk, so it’s not surprising that some of them feel a tad unfinished. The links between the stories are tenuous; the one thread is that all the main characters either live (or grew up in) a thirty-house residential street in Binchy’s imagination, known as Chestnut Street.

There are a few people who recur - the blind Miss Mack, who is full of wisdom, for instance, and the taxi-driver Kevin who observes plenty, but is mostly considered invisible by those who book his services. But most of the stories are one-offs. The characters are lightly sketched, yet it’s a testament to the Maeve Binchy’s rich world that she peopled an entire street with folk who don’t appear in any of her novels. Each one has a story; many of them have secrets.

We meet, for instance, the young teenage Molly. She’s not particularly popular, but has a wonderful mother whom all her classmates love. It’s only as she grows up that she discovers the secrets her mother is carrying; and even then they’re only hinted at, in clever writing that reveals to the reader far more than the protagonist understands. Then there’s grumpy Jim O’Brian, who cut contact with his family years ago. But he’s in hospital, and needs a relative to vouch for him. So he contacts his niece, a strong-minded girl who manages to break down some of his defences.

All the stories are about relationships of one kind or another. People fall in love, fall out of love, have good - or bad - relationships with their children, or their aunts or uncles. Some of the stories are set away from Chestnut Street, some take place in the street itself. Each of the characters is different, and even with the limitations of a short story, I had a general feel for each one, whether likeable or not. It’s a gift to be able to write about unlikeable characters while making them realistic and interesting, but Maeve Binchy had that gift.

It’s not necessarily a book I would read again, nor one I’d recommend as a starting point to this author’s work. But if you have liked her novels, and would like a final glimpse into her fictional world, this is a pleasant and, in places, moving collection.

I suspect if Maeve Binchy had lived longer she might have tweaked some of the stories where the endings peter out rather than offering any real conclusion. But somehow it doesn’t matter too much. These short stories make easy light reading, shedding light on some of the foibles of humanity, and I’m glad I’ve finally read the book.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews


Who Switched the Price Tags? (by Tony Campolo)

Tony Campolo, now in his eighties, is a strong voice in the Evangelical Left in the United States. As such, I appreciate his writing and ideas a great deal more than I do those in the better-known Evangelical Right. However I have only read a couple of his books. I first read ‘Who Switched the Price Tags?’ back in 2006 when it was already twenty years old; I remembered liking it, so decided to re-read it.

The title of the book is based on a childhood prank that the author and a friend planned in their teens. It’s explained in the introduction (though it’s not clear whether they actually did it!). He uses the idea of switching price tags in a shop as a metaphor for the way that our values in society have become muddled, sometimes back-to-front. He attempts to put that right in the course of the book.

Early in the book Campolo mentions a study where fifty people in their nineties were asked what they would do differently, if they could have their lives over again. Amongst the multitude of specifics, three main answers emerged: they would reflect more, risk more, and do more things that would live on after them. He refers back to these throughout the book.

Much of his focus is on what he calls ‘fun’. It’s an odd concept to me, as I’m rather suspicious of the word - things other people describe as ‘fun’ often sound noisy, messy and exhausting. But Campolo uses it in the wider sense of enjoyment, contentment and fulfilment. He believes that too many people race through life making money or trying to gain bigger and better houses, cars and careers, while forgetting to enjoy the present.

There is a great deal in what he says. Spending time with family and friends is important. Relaxing over a meal or a shared family activity rather than grabbing food on the run is better for our health as well as for our emotional lives. We should take time to appreciate the beauties of nature, play with our children, talk to our teenagers, and unwind with our spouses and elderly relatives.

I was less convinced by the idea of taking more risks. But I’m a very risk-averse person. To me, a high-risk activity would be sending an email to someone I don’t know very well, or going into a shop I hadn’t previously visited. And yet, even for those of us who recoil from adrenaline-filled activities, there’s still a need, sometimes, to take a small step in a new direction rather than being endlessly stuck in a rut.

I was interested in the chapter on tradition: on the importance of liturgies in more formal churches, on rituals and structures that keep families together. Ten years ago I was dubious about these things, but as I grow older I see, more and more, the importance of these little things. Repeated activities become part of who we are. Regularly saying or singing words embed them in our minds. Annual festivities draw families together, and the anticipation and memories are as important as the occasions themselves.

There’s nothing particularly new in the book, in one sense, although perhaps it was groundbreaking at the time it was written. But much of what the author says is still relevant in today’s high-paced technology-driven society. The scenarios are different, but the principles still hold, and I found it a refreshing and sometimes inspiring read.

The book is intended for Christians, or those interested in the Christian faith. There are chapters about being in the church, and there’s an overtly evangelistic appendix. But most of the book could be of relevance to anyone feeling caught up in the rat race of 21st century life.

Definitely recommended.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews


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


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