17/09/2016

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

14/09/2016

The Bird in the Tree (by Elizabeth Goudge)

Although I read one or two books by Elizabeth Goudge as a child, it wasn’t until my teens that I discovered that she had also written novels for adults. Written in the 1930s and 1940s, they’re inevitably rather dated now, and her style tends towards the philosophical, even whimsical at times. She has a tremendous gift for characterisation, particularly of children, which makes them eminently re-readable. However, I have to be in the right mood; skimming simply doesn’t work with Goudge’s descriptive and thought-provoking books.

I first read ‘The Bird in the Tree’ in 1997, after finding it in a charity shop. I was delighted to do so, as I’d read its sequel, ‘The Herb of Grace’ many years earlier, and had been looking for this book for a long time. Each book stands alone, featuring different storylines; yet there’s a richness to the second which becomes deeper after reading and feeling part of the events of the first one. I re-read this in 2004 so I decided it was time to read it again.

The book starts with great excitement: David is coming to stay at Damerosehay! Its owner, Lucilla, is 78 and beginning to become frail, although she’s a determined lady who usually gets her own way. She’s created a haven for her family, and has the care of her three young grandchildren, Ben (who is 9) and his younger siblings Tommy and Caroline. Their parents are divorced; their father works in India, and their mother isn’t naturally maternal.

David is another of Lucilla’s grandsons, now grown-up and beloved by everyone. However it’s evident to all that he has a big problem, something he needs to talk about, but doesn’t know quite how to start. The book, at one level, is about his news, the reactions of those around him, and a difficult decision he has to make. But it’s also about the house itself: its history, the people who built it and lived there before Lucilla bought it. It’s about the children, too: one highly sensitive and intuitive; one impulsive, living for the moment; one insecure and worried.

At a deeper level the book is about the nature of truth: of the difference between factual accuracy and deeper insights or images that portray truths. It’s about being true to oneself and one’s family, of making difficult decisions, of faithfulness and tradition. It’s about generational differences in the way people see the world, and also about eternal truths which can transcend simple facts - of events that point to truth, and ways of behaving or acting that can bring about different truths.

This isn’t a book for those who want a quick read, nor for those who like fast plots and rapid action. It’s likely to appeal more to women than to men, despite David being one of the most important characters, but that’s perhaps because on the whole women are more likely to read thoughtful, philosophical books.

I think it could be of interest and perhaps benefit to anyone prepared to take the time to read it, however. Naturally the moral climate (and, indeed, the harsh ‘discipline’ used in some cases on the children) seem rather old-fashioned, but while some changes are undoubtedly for the better, there’s a lot to be said for Lucilla’s way of looking at the world.

Sometimes moving, often thought-provoking, and with an encouraging ending.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

10/09/2016

Pride and Prejudice (by Jane Austen)

Looking through my Kindle, while travelling, I discovered that I had downloaded free editions of some of Jane Austen’s novels, some years ago. When I checked, I realised that although I have seen both the BBC serial and the 2005 film of this particular book, I had not in fact read it for at least fifteen years, maybe longer.

I first discovered ‘Pride and Prejudice’, as so many do, at secondary school. I liked it then and have re-read it perhaps two or three times over the years; it was clearly due for a re-read. The opening sentence is one of those classics of irony, imputing the materialistic and shallow attitudes of Mrs Bennet to the author. Clearly not all young men possessed of a fortune are in want of a wife, but Mrs Bennet feels that they should be, and, moreover, that one of her girls would fit the bill nicely.

The general storyline is well-known due to the many filmed versions: Mr Bennet is well-meaning and intelligent, and has a sense of humour, but is basically lazy. His wife is materialistic and cares only what other people think; she has no original ideas of her own. They have produced five daughters, the youngest of whom - Lydia - is fifteen when the novel opens, turning sixteen during the course of the story. Jane, the eldest, is in her early twenties.

The five girls are all quite different in character. Jane is kind and beautiful, and cannot think ill of anyone. She’s quite close to Elizabeth, who is twenty at the start of the book, and is by far the most intelligent of the sisters. Lizzy has a sense of humour and a strong sense of honour. The middle daughter, Mary, is accomplished and hard-working, but tends to offer platitudes rather than producing any original thoughts of her own. Moreover, poor Mary lacks any true talent or ability to be charming.

Kitty, the fourth sister, is shallow and easily led; we don’t see much of her in the novel, and she seems somewhat extraneous to the plot, other than her closeness to Lydia, who is like her mother in many ways, but with few scruples and a great deal of envy and conceit.

Into the neighbourhood come Mr Bingley, owner of a large estate, and his friend Mr Darcy, who seems very stand-offish, even rude in his opinions of local society. Bingley is very taken with Jane, and Mrs Bennet is quite convinced that the two will make a match. We then meet Mr Collins, cousin to the Bennets and inheritor (by entail) of their home, since they have no male heirs. Mrs Bennet thinks he should marry Lizzy…

It’s a character-based novel, and the above is merely an initial idea of some of the main players. Austen had quite a gift of portraying personalities and while it’s not laugh-aloud humour, there’s a great deal of satire and places that made me smile; inevitably some of the people are caricatured (I really hope nobody like Mrs Bennet or Mr Collins actually exist!) but that doesn’t matter at all. Jane and Elizabeth are very nicely portrayed and contrasted; one only wonders how their parents managed to produce two such likeable and honourable daughters!

The plot is that of a romantic novel, with misunderstandings, initial prejudices, mistakes made, and a few traumas thrown in. It’s quite long-winded, typical of 19th century writings, and the main problem that occurs towards the end of the book, that shocks the entire neighbourhood, would probably seem unbelievable in today’s much more liberal society.

Nevertheless, much of what’s thought and felt seems quite modern, and since I had the time to ruminate and read in several brief periods, while travelling or at night, I read some of the descriptions which I might otherwise have skimmed or even skipped, and took the conversations slowly so as to hear the voices in my mind. I liked it very much; there’s a great deal more in the book than in any film version, and I’m very glad I had the opportunity to re-read it.

Note that Amazon links are given to paperback versions of this classic novel, but it can often be found inexpensively second-hand, and there are several editions available inexpensively or free for the Kindle.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

01/09/2016

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand (by Helen Simonson)

I hadn’t come across Helen Simonson before, although I think I had probably heard of the book. It’s not one that I would necessarily have picked up, but relatives had just finished reading it and highly recommended it, thinking I would like it, so I’ve just spent the past few days reading it.

'Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand' is the story of a late-middle-aged widower, Major Ernest Pettigrew, who lives in a small typically English village. He receives the shocking news that his brother has died and this is the catalyst for his starting to think about families, and the meaning of life, and what really matters.

The other main character is the delightful Mrs Ali, who works in the local shop. She keeps long hours, and many of the villagers barely notice her. Indeed, Major Pettigrew hadn’t taken much notice of her, until she offers to drive him to his brother’s funeral. She is very independent, shattering most of his preconceived ideas about people who own shops, and she has a delightful way of stating exactly what she’s thinking.

There are many subplots to this book, some involving racism of what is probably typical amongst many modern upper-middle class white Brits who really think they’re not racist at all.. Until someone of a different nationality attempts to infiltrate their families or, worse, their cherished clubs and Societies.

However Major Pettigrew’s main stresses come from his relatives: his widowed sister-in-law whom he never much liked, and his son Roger, who always seems to want money.

Overall, the book is a study in English village life with its petty arguments and biases. It’s a gentle satire; and there is also a low-key but beautifully done romance.

I found some of the villagers hard to distinguish; they’re inevitably somewhat caricatured, but the names seemed to morph into each other, and I often forgot who was whom. It didn’t much matter; the story is all told from Major Pettigrew’s point of view and thus the people who matter the most to him are the ones who come across most clearly.

All in all, I found it an enjoyable, light and undemanding novel which I’m glad I read. Not for those who like fast action or who are uncomfortable reading about white English village life, but for anyone who enjoys character-based lightly satirical fiction with surprising depth, I would recommend this highly.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

26/08/2016

The Adventures of Sally (by PG Wodehouse)

Searching through the 200 or so books on my Kindle, I came across one that I downloaded from Project Gutenberg at least two years ago, by PG Wodehouse. Best known for the Jeeves and Wooster books, this author produced many more lesser-known books which, as they are out of copyright, are often available free or inexpensively in a variety of editions. The 'mobi' version allowed me to put it on my Kindle.

‘The Adventures of Sally’ follow, unsurprisingly, the life of a young woman of that name. She’s living in a boarding house in the United States when we first meet her, but has just received her share of an inheritance, and is celebrating the fact that she can take a holiday and perhaps buy a home of her own and settle down. We also meet several of her friends in the first chapter and quickly learn that she’s a generous, open-hearted girl if perhaps a little naive.

Sally has a brother who’s rather pompous and whom she feels that she must look after. She’s also engaged to a writer, Gerald, who insists that their relationship must be kept secret. He’s not a particularly likeable person; Wodehouse is skilled at showing this kind of thing with the lightest of touches and some humour; I smiled several times and almost laughed aloud once or twice.

Sally takes her holiday, and meets some other people including the hapless and rather clumsy Ginger, whom she takes a motherly interest in. And the plot moves between Europe and the US with all travels made by ship and communication by post or telegram, as this is set in the early part of the 20th century.

The outcome of the story is somewhat inevitable with a few surprises along the way, and it’s not the exceptional quality of some of the Jeeves books. It's not a plot-driven novel, it's character-based and as such some people might find it slow-moving.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed it very much, and - as I had hoped - it made excellent reading material for a holiday, ideal to pull out of my bag for train journeys or odd moments.

Recommended to anyone who enjoys this author, or indeed light satirical novels set around a hundred years ago.

Note that I've linked to paperback editions of this book on both the UK and US Amazon sites; there are many other editions now available, but if you have a Kindle or other ebook reader, or would like to read the book online, I would recommend the free Gutenberg edition of 'The Adventures of Sally'.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

23/08/2016

The Night of the Mange Tout (and other stories) by Sally Quilford

I’ve downloaded a lot of books by Sally Quilford, since I first came across her writing several years ago now. She mainly writes for magazines but also produces a large number of ebooks, inexpensively, in a variety of genres. Better still, she regularly offers selections of them free for the Kindle.

‘Night of the mange tout’ is an intriguing title for what is in fact a collection of short stories in the light crime genre. Some, as the author notes where relevant, were previously published in magazines or elsewhere, but not all of them. Three or four feature a specific young police officer called Dandy McLean; a handful are set in a particular place involving the same characters; some are one-off stories. Each is complete in itself.

There’s quite a mixture of style within these short stories. The one giving the unusual title to the collection is light and satirical, featuring a young man who would like to be a mafia hit man but finds himself growing organic vegetables... Others are more traditional, with a body at the beginning and a bit of a mystery. And one features an apparent runaway with a thoughtful message about being a parent.

These made ideal reading while I was on holiday. I keep my Kindle in my bag, and can pull it out at any odd moment, with five or ten minutes being sufficient to read any of these stories. There’s nothing particularly gory, and each story is different enough that there was no feel of them being ‘samey’.

In some cases it was not difficult to predict the ending; in others, including one particularly surreal story, I don’t think it would have been possible. But that’s okay; I’m not one to worry obsessively over details and clues, and I enjoyed each story for what it was.

Recommended if you like light crime stories. Only available in Kindle format.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

22/08/2016

Ice and a Slice (by Della Galton)

I’ve very much liked the short stories and writing advice I’ve read by Della Galton, and I read one of her novels 18 months ago, which I also liked. I downloaded this one when it was available free for the Kindle, just over a year ago, and decided to start reading it on a recent flight.

‘Ice and a Slice’ is a story with a strong message, but it’s not written in an ‘educational’ style. And I found it compelling reading. It’s told in the first person by Sarah Jane, who is known to most of her friends as SJ. She’s in hospital when we first meet her and we learn that she’s fortunate to be alive, as she had drunk a litre of gin in a short period…

The rest of the story takes us back to different stages in her life, some in the previous few weeks, and some rather earlier. We see her when she first realises that she may be drinking rather too much, and makes a first nervous - and somewhat defensive - visit to a counsellor. We see her when she’s a teenager, and worried about her younger sister Alison. We learn that she and Alison aren’t speaking… and eventually discover why.

It’s a cleverly written book, gradually revealing SJ’s past, and exploring some of the reasons why she began drinking so heavily. Alongside this runs a subplot concerning her best friend Tanja, who has something else to deal with but won’t, at first, confide about it. We discover exactly why SJ refuses to speak to Alison; by the time it’s revealed it was fairly obvious what was going to be discovered… and then we meet Alison for ourselves.

The narration is clearly that of someone unreliable - SJ has increasing memory lapses, and is a stressed, anxious person who finds it hard to forgive. Yet she makes an excellent protagonist, whose story had me almost on the edge of my seat.

I see from reviews that this book has been immensely helpful to several people, both those struggling with drinking themselves, and those who are their families and friends. Perhaps some of it is unrealistic; I don’t know, but I would recommend it highly.

Amazon links are to printed paperback versions of this book, but it's also available in Kindle form on both sides of the Atlantic.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

17/08/2016

Wild Mountain Thyme (by Rosamunde Pilcher)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews