19/09/2017

Starting Over (by Robin Pilcher)

In my ongoing re-reading of books by favourite authors, I came to this one by Robin Pilcher. Son of the women’s novelist Rosamunde Pilcher, he has clearly inherited some of her gift for characterisation. I was delighted to discover his first novel, written around the time his mother retired from writing, and collected his subsequent books avidly. He only wrote five in all, but I enjoyed them all.

It’s fifteen years since I first read ‘Starting Over’, a title which has been used by other authors: I have at least two other different books by this title. It’s a useful generic title for stories about ends and beginnings, and that’s what this novel is focussed on.

It’s a bit confusing at first, with rather a large cast of characters. We first meet Liz, who has worked on a farm all her life. We quickly learn that her husband left her six months before the story starts, and that she and her student son Alex are now living with Liz’s father. It’s a bit awkward, because her husband lives on the neighbouring farm, and the two have been combined since their marriage. Worse than that, both farms are struggling to make ends meet. An offer has been made to purchase most of the land to turn it into a prestigious golf course, but Liz really doesn’t want any more change in her life…

The first few chapters introduce us to Liz, Alex, and some of their local community, then there’s a slight jar as we switch focus to one of Alex’s university lecturers, who is living with a very pernickety landlady and keeps breaking her rules. Then suddenly we leap across the world to Australia, where we meet Roberta, a single woman in her late fifties who has been living with her elderly parents. The only, rather tentative connection is that she and her father love to play golf… although her father, at ninety, is becoming increasingly frail.

Inevitably the different storylines are woven together, and the story features several different subplots: primarily the fate of the farms, and the various relationships that develop. The writing is good, and the conversations believable. However, there are rather too many detailed descriptions of places for my tastes. I didn’t need to know the names of streets, and what exactly a character could see as they looked from a hotel window. I mostly skimmed these parts, but felt a little irritated at what felt like an attempt either to educate the reader, or to demonstrate the author’s research skills.

It’s not Rosamunde Pilcher, and I was aware several times of the author being male. The women in the book are very well-drawn; the author clearly likes women. Liz is strong, intelligent and knowledgeable about both farming and machinery. She’s a great role model. But at times she seems to respond to other people in what felt like a rather masculine way. There’s a tad more bad language than I’m comfortable with, although I was pleased that intimate scenes are non-existent, relying on hints and memories rather than any detail.

All in all, I liked this book very much, particularly the ending. After fifteen years I had entirely forgotten the plot - it’s not particularly memorable, as there are so many different storylines - and I look forward to reading it again in another ten or more years.

No longer in print in paperback, but available in Kindle form. Sometimes found second-hand, either on its own or in an omnibus edition with one of the author's other novels.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

12/09/2017

Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit (by PG Wodehouse)

I have a large collection of PG Wodehouse books on my shelves. I was first introduced to this classic author by my father, when I was about twelve, and have collected new and second-hand editions ever since. Yet I don’t read them very often, and there are some which I don’t ever recall having read before…

One such volume is ‘Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit’. I have a paperback edition, and I have no idea where it came from. Probably a charity shop many years ago. The ‘Jeeves’ books are some of my favourites, so it was with great delight that I selected this for my bedtime reading for the past few days.

The story, as usual, involves a series of misunderstandings. The valet Jeeves is horrified to find that Bertie Wooster has grown a moustache, and makes his disapproval clear. Bertie, however, is determined to take a strong line. In some of the stories, Jeeves displays passive aggression, refusing to help his young master solve his unlikely problems, until the object of his dislike has been removed. But in this one, as the title suggests, Jeeves rises above such pettiness, and solves many potential problems.

Much of the action takes place at Brinkley Hall, the stately home belonging to Bertie’s favourite Aunt Dahlia and her somewhat pernickety husband Tom. Aunt Dahlia sends Bertie a telegram, requiring his presence to attempt to cheer up young Percy, who is in love with Florence, who is engaged to D’Arcy Cheesewright…

Yes, as ever with Wodehouse, there are many characters involved in a complex dance of relationship. Florence (step-daughter to Bertie’s least favourite aunt, Agatha) is convinced Bertie is in love with her. Percy has asked Bertie to lend him some money so that he can put on a play he has written, dramatising a novel published by Florence… oh, and there are two pearl necklaces involved, as well.

The humour is gentle satire rather than anything to make me laugh aloud. Literary references abound, and Bertie’s general ignorance would become irritating if it weren’t for his extreme generosity and kindness.

An enjoyable story which would make a good introduction to PG Wodehouse and the ‘Jeeves’ stories.

As well as being widely available second-hand in many editions, this is sometimes found as part of an 'omnibus' edition of Jeeves and Wooster books. It might also be found inexpensively or free as an ebook. 

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

11/09/2017

Freed to Serve (by Michael Green)

‘Freed to Serve’ is one of many similar books dating from the 1980s which I found in our bookcase of Christian books. I’d heard of Michael Green, an Anglican minister, theologian and writer who is now in his eighties. The blurb on the back says that this book is a radical call to assess Christian ministry. I have no idea how we acquired it, nor whether I had previously read it.

While written primarily for clergy (particularly those in the Anglican church) and others in Christian leadership, it’s a very readable, clearly written and interesting book. Nearly 35 years ago, Michael Green was clearly a forward thinker, perceiving problems with the ‘one-man’ leadership style of many churches, even then, and assessing what he saw as the way forward, if the church was to survive into the 21st century.

The first few chapters of the book look at what the author perceives as guidelines related to Christian ministry from within the New Testament. He begins with some stark contrasts between the early church and that of the 1980s. Much of what he states is still relevant today. He continues by looking at the ministry of Jesus, which was primarily that of service, not authoritarianism, and then the importance of equipping all believers, not just a few, to exercise their gifts for the benefit of others.

In the later chapters of the book, Michael Green takes an honest look at some of the controversial issues which were dividing the church at the time. Apostolic succession is a peculiarly Anglo-Catholic one that seems almost irrelevant to me, but it was clearly a stumbling block at the time, between Anglicans and other Protestants. He looks, too, at the debate about women in ministry. At the time of publication, women in the Anglican church could do almost anything other than preach sermons, serve Communion, or be ordained. That has clearly moved forward in the past few decades; for any detractors, there are some excellent, Scriptural arguments in favour of women being treated no differently from men, as far as church leadership goes.

I have to admit I didn’t read every word of the book. In some places, what the author said was so close to what I saw as obvious, that I skimmed somewhat. Some paragraphs were so full of Scriptural references in parentheses that they were awkward to read through. Footnotes or after notes would have made it easier. But really, those are my only slight quibbles with the book. It’s inevitably somewhat dated, yet the author, ahead of his time, perceived the importance of television and video in outreach to the community, and even imagined something approaching Internet video calls, with a prediction that counselling would be able to happen via television and satellite.

This isn’t a light book, despite its readable style and short length; it’s under 150 pages. New believers might find it too critical, and those outside of Christian circles and faith would probably roll their eyes after a couple of pages. It’s written for those who believe, who see problems in the way church congregations are run, and who would like to see a vision for something different.

'Freed to Serve' is long out of print, but often available second-hand. And it's the kind of book that turns up randomly on people's Christian bookshelves, too...

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

08/09/2017

Laurie and Claire (by Kathleen Rowntree)

Having decided to re-read books by some of my favourite authors, I wanted something that I was going to enjoy, to read at bedtimes. So I picked up ‘Laurie and Claire’ by Kathleen Rowntree, a book I remembered enjoying very much when I first read it just over sixteen years ago.

I vaguely remembered the start of the book. Two young children grow up in a musical community, almost as brother and sister. Their parents founded and run a huge house called Foscote, although it’s mainly Laurie’s mother whom the children turn to for support and understanding. Claire feels inferior, as she’s very unmusical, and her French mother (a well-known singer) rather despises her.

We see insights into the world of music conferences, and gradually realise that there’s plenty going on under the surface. I found it a bit sordid, though there aren’t too many details given. Claire realises, in her teens, that her love for Laurie is more than that for a friend or brother, but he doesn’t seem to respond to the overtures she makes; and she is not willing to risk their strong bond by saying anything direct.

The plot moves forwards to their adult lives, sometimes sharing a home, sometimes separately. The characters are well-drawn, and Kathleen Rowntree introduces some people who, back in 1995 when this was first published, would have raised quite a few eyebrows. Lydia, in particular, is a complex and controversial character who comes into Laurie and Claire’s lives and creates a great deal of anger and confusion.

I liked Laurie very much. He’s flamboyant and a little manipulative, needing to be in control of every situation; but he’s also gentle, empathic, and extremely generous. The reason why he doesn’t become more than close friends with Claire is not revealed until a good way through the book; I had remembered, but it didn’t matter that it came as no surprise.

However, I found myself liking Claire less and less. She’s highly intelligent, and does some important botanical research in her adult life. She flourishes in academic circles. But she’s quite cold emotionally, taking advantage of other people’s good nature, jumping into bed - often in adulterous liaisons - in what seems to be a totally cold-blooded way. Her first encounter of this type is sordid in the extreme, and the climax of the book, though understandable in some ways, and not out of character, is horrendous.

The book is character-driven, following Laurie and Claire through their lives, into their forties, and briefly, at the end, into their fifties. The writing is excellent; the fact that I responded so negatively to Claire suggests that the author created a very well-rounded and believable person. I found it quite difficult to put the book down, at times, even though there’s not a great deal of plot.

But although I’m glad I re-read it, I would no longer count it as one of my favourites.

No longer in print, but can often be found in charity shops.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

27/08/2017

Jane and the Chalet School

I was tired, brain-fogged, and needed something light and undemanding to read. I decided that the next Chalet School book in Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s lengthy series would be ideal. So I selected the next one even though it was only about a month since I finished reading ‘The Chalet School Reunion’.

‘Jane and the Chalet School’ is 51st in the original series, although my copy is a paperback one from my late mother’s collection, and is numbered 55; the Armada abridged versions re-numbered the series somewhat, turning a few books into two volumes. Happily, though, the later books in the series were not cut, at least according to this useful page about the Chalet School books, comparing the originals to the Armada versions.

I must have read this book in my teens, and perhaps re-read it at some point, but I have no memory of the story at all, so that made it even more enjoyable. Jane, who starts school (unusually) in the summer term, has been educated by a governess up to this point. Her parents are touring actors, so she’s travelled widely and is friendly - perhaps over-friendly, at times - to all.

However, she makes an immediate enemy out of Jack Lambert, who is told to move to a different dormitory at the start of term. Jack is a likeable girl in many respects but she is also hot tempered, and apparently holds grudges. Nor is she very rational, deciding that she loathes Jane, although it’s clearly not her fault that Jack has to move.

Most of the book is then fairly standard Chalet School fare; we see Jane in some lessons, we overhear staffroom conversations, and we get insights into Jack’s personality as well as that of Jane. Unlike some new girls Jane adapts easily to life at the school, despite her over-enthusiastic way of addressing everyone, adults and peers.

Inevitably there are dramas - literally as well as metaphorically, in this book! - and Jane has the opportunity to do something courageous for Jack. Jack herself begins to mature somewhat, aided by her favourite mentor Len Maynard.

While some of the Chalet School books are a bit ‘samey’, I liked this one very much and thought it covered new ground. I don’t recall any other girls being the daughters of actors before, and while there have been many examples of irrational dislikes or enmities, they haven’t previously involved otherwise straightforward and pleasant girls.

Definitely recommended to anyone who likes the series, or who enjoys this kind of mid-20th century teenage school story. It stands alone, as all Brent-Dyer’s books do, although most of the characters were introduced in earlier books, and there are many references to earlier incidents in the life of the Chalet School.

'Jane and the Chalet School' is not an easy book to find second-hand, even in the Armada version. However, there's a 'Girls Gone By' edition produced fairly recently, which may be more widely available.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

23/08/2017

The Theatrical Tapes of Leonard Thynn (by Adrian Plass)


Having said goodbye, for now, to our extended family, and having just completed quite a heavy, thought-provoking book, I wanted something light and, if possible, amusing. I keep books on my to-read shelf which I haven’t read for many years, by authors I like, and this one by Adrian Plass seemed to be an ideal choice.

‘The Theatrical Tapes of Leonard Thynn’ is third in the series that begins with ‘The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass, age 37 ¾’. It was published at the end of the 1980s, and I remember thinking, when I first read it, that it had one of the funniest scenes I had ever come across. Part of the humour was in the unexpected, and since I’d remembered what happened, I resigned myself to a smile rather than almost crying with laughter, as I did back in 1989.

While the book stands alone, it’s better read after the ‘Sacred Diary’, as that’s where all the main characters are introduced. This is in the form of transcribed tapes (supposedly), recorded by the enthusiastic Leonard Thynn as a group in their church decide to enter a drama competition.

The book isn’t particularly long - about 140 pages in my paperback edition - but the dialogue style, complete with stops and starts, coughs and splutters, means it’s not quite as quick to read as might be expected. It’s well worth it, though. I found myself smiling several times, even chuckling aloud, before the story was anywhere near the scene I recalled so well.

Then, when I reached it, I still laughed aloud; not at the revelation, but at the reactions of the people concerned. It’s ridiculous, of course; but as with all Adrian Plass’s books, the humour, and satire, and the parts where he pokes fun at himself all mask something much deeper. We see how a group of very diverse adults pull together to create and perform something. We see, too, how even quite unpleasant people, when treated well and given roles as ‘nice’ people can start to see the world differently.

Highly recommended.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

22/08/2017

Esio Trot (by Roald Dahl)

Over the years since my sons were small, we collected most of Roald Dahl’s books for children. They’re all rather bizarre, some of them including very unpleasant adults; but the writing is good and the humour often appeals to children.

When I realised that my three-year-old grandson liked books rather longer than those expected for his age, I scoured my shelves (and our local thrift store) for those intended for early readers. Knowing he would want a whole book read aloud in one sitting, unless each chapter was complete in itself, I wanted to find books that would interest him, but which were no more than about 100 pages. After reading a couple of other Roald Dahl books, more than once, I tried him with ‘Esio Trot’.

I don’t remember if I’d read this book before. I suspect not, although I was aware that the title is the word ‘tortoise’ backwards. I was a little surprised, in the first pages, to learn that it’s a story of undeclared love: that of the elderly Mr Hoppy, who lives in a flat right above that of a lady called Mrs Silver. The two of them speak to each other when they’re out on their balconies, but he’s never plucked up the courage even to invite her for a cup of tea.

Mrs Silver’s first love is her tortoise Alfie, and much of their conversation revolves around him. Dahl doesn’t mention what she does when Alfie is hibernating. But the plot starts to move when she bemoans the fact that he isn’t growing, and Mr Hoppy has a brilliant idea…

At least, the book presents it as a brilliant idea. The first time I read it, I became more and more dubious, since Mr Hoppy’s plan involves serious deception. It’s ridiculous, of course; the descriptions are quite amusing (and there are typical line drawings by Quentin Blake every few pages, to add to this). I don’t think my grandson considered the morality of the story. He liked the words, and the ideas, and, perhaps, the educational nature of the book as far as tortoises are concerned.

In other Dahl stories, there’s at least an element of morality. In - for instance - ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, Charlie wins due to his nice nature and his integrity. In ‘The Giraffe, the Pelly and Me’, which I liked very much, the strange window-cleaning team are rewarded for stopping a crime. Even in ‘George’s Marvellous Medicine’, George is badly bullied by his grandmother so his bizarre concoction is somewhat understandable, albeit not recommended. But in this book, deception, theft and lies are shown as the way to a woman’s heart.

Perhaps I’m over-thinking it, but I really didn’t like this story much, despite the humour, and wouldn’t recommend it.

Disappointing.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

20/08/2017

When I was Invisible (by Dorothy Koomson)

Dorothy Koomson is a powerful and thought-provoking writer. Since I first came across one of her books, about eight years ago, I have gradually acquired more of them. They’re often shocking, and in several I’ve had moments where I wanted to give up. But when I keep going, I’ve found them all well worth the effort.

I put ‘When I was Invisible’ on my wishlist a while ago, and was given it for my birthday a few months ago. I started reading it during a busy period, for twenty minutes or so at bedtime each day; I often read far more than I’d intended to in one sitting, and by the end I could scarcely put it down.

The two main protagonists, Nika and Roni, have been friends since they were eight years old. The prologue shows them at school in 1988, when Roni arrives as a new girl and learns that she has the same name (with a slight spelling difference) as Niki. They have an instant rapport, which develops into being ‘best friends’ when they start ballet lessons together, and are amongst the few who are determined to take it seriously, and succeed as dancers.

The storyline moves around through the decades, from 1988 to 2016, when they are both in their mid-thirties, and I found this quite confusing at first. Section One begins with Nika in Birmingham, reporting a crime. She is evidently known by a completely different name. We don’t learn what exactly the crime is until much later in the book. Just as the beginning story takes an unexpected slant, we’re whizzed back to 1999 where she meets a smooth-talking man who’s clearly attracted to her….

As well as being non-chronological, the story is told alternately from Nika’s and Roni’s points of view. I found it hard to distinguish them at first, even though it’s soon clear that they have had very different lives as adults. One has had a high-profile relationship with a wealthy man, the other has been a nun (oddly, in a monastery rather than a convent). The latter spends a lot of the book trying to find her former friend - it’s clear that something terrible happened that led to the parting of the ways - while the other is trying to start a new life, not for the first time.

Their very different adult lives made it gradually easier to tell who was whom, although I didn’t feel that either was entirely three-dimensional. That didn’t matter too much, as Dorothy Koomson’s strength is in her plotting, rather than characterisation. The story builds up with just the right amount of tension, revealing exactly what needs to be told at each point, until the dramatic climax which reveals not just untold secrets, but unexpected motivations that make sense of everything.

Some of the book is, as I’ve come to expect with this author, shocking. Not that the author uses either gory or intimate scenes. Instead, she excels in letting the reader know what’s happening without having to reveal gratuitous details. Even so, I found some sections very disturbing. There was a point, perhaps a quarter of the way through, where I almost wished I had never started it. For anyone who has been through the kinds of issues described, it could be too traumatic to read.

Underlying the entire story is the importance of truth, of standing up for one’s friends, of being open and honest with authority figures. I hope that older teenagers reading this will realise how vital it is to be truthful, even if they are afraid of the consequences. I hope that parents and teachers will become better at spotting signs of serious problems, of taking the time to listen to young people, of giving them safe places and times to talk.

I learned a lot that I would rather not have known about the desperate lengths some homeless people will go to, and about the manipulative nature of those who would exploit those in need. There’s more bad language than I’m comfortable with, but in many cases it adds to the unpleasantness of some of the people. I have no idea if the author herself went through any of the experiences described, or whether it was all researched: to me, it seemed all too real.

Primarily intended for women, this is not a light read. Despite being disturbing on more than one level, this is a powerful and page-turning book that I would recommend to any older teenager or adult who doesn’t mind sometimes shocking scenes.

Review by copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews