21/07/2018

Anne of Green Gables (by L M Montgomery)

I wanted something light and undemanding for a lengthy flight, and odd moments waiting at the airport. Scrolling through my Kindle, I realised I had several of the classic teenage fiction books by LM Montgomery, including most of the 'Anne' series. I downloaded most of them free from Project Gutenberg. It's many years since I read any of those, so I decided to read the first of them, which is probably the best known, 'Anne of Green Gables'. This was made into a film some years ago; more recently, I gather, a TV series was made based on the characters in the book.

I last read ‘Anne of Green Gables’ in 2003. While I recalled the general outline of the novel, I had forgotten most of the detail. So I very much appreciated getting to know the crusty, house-proud Marilla and her shy brother Matthew again. When we meet them, they are hoping to adopt an orphan boy of about eleven to help Matthew in his farm work. Matthew is sixty and beginning to feel his age; he's had some trouble with his heart, and is not supposed to do any heavy work.

We also meet the warm-hearted but strongly opinionated Rachel Lynde, their nearest neighbour, who likes to keep an eye on everyone she sees. The opening sentence of the book, which takes up almost an entire page, is a delight in its gentle wry humour, explaining that even the rambling brook has to straighten out when it goes near Mrs Lynde.

Matthew sets out in his horse and buggy to the station, to meet the orphan boy, but when he arrives he finds a girl: the red-headed Anne. He can't leave her alone, so he collects her but doesn't dare mention that he wanted a boy. Anne chats to him the entire way home, artlessly and cheerfully, appreciating everything she sees around her, exercising her imagination in myriad ways, and expressing utter delight that she is to be adopted, and to live in such a beautiful place....

It's no spoiler to say that despite Marilla's reservations, they decide to keep Anne, and that she brings sunshine and happiness to their lives over the next few years. Anne makes some close friends and also a sworn enemy when one of the boys in her class insults her hair. Each chapter is an incident in itself, demonstrating Anne's imagination and often careless ways, as she gets distracted, or forgets what she was supposed to be doing. She has quite a knack of getting into trouble, mostly through no real fault of her own.

I had, of course, recalled the dramatic climax to the book in the penultimate chapter. But I had forgotten the very moving sections that follow. It’s a book with a lot of emotion; as we see Anne’s maturing, and her effect on so many other people in the neighbourhood. Her careless, accident-prone nature and tendency to hold grudges ensure that she is not a ‘too good to be true’ heroine, but a sensitive, imaginative flesh-and-blood girl.

I loved the book as much as I did when I first read it. It was intended for young teenagers, but could be enjoyed by fluent readers of about eight or nine and older, as well as adults looking for a bit of nostalgia. It makes a great read-aloud too for those wanting to introduce their children to some of the classics.

Highly recommended. Though long out of copyright (and thus available free in e-book form) 'Anne of Green Gables' remains constantly in print in paperback, in many different versions. It's often found second-hand too.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

20/07/2018

White Feather (by PG Wodehouse)

I have long been a fan of PG Wodehouse, best known for his satirical novels about the upper-class Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves. It’s only since having a Kindle, however, that I have discovered that Wodehouse wrote many other books in addition to the Jeeves and Blandings Castle series with which I was familiar. I have downloaded several from Project Gutenberg, and tend to read one each time we travel.

On a recent flight, I decided to read ‘White Feather’. I had no clue what it was about; the advantage of an ebook is that there’s no ‘blurb on the back’ to encourage or discourage me from opening it. Had I known this was about a boy in a boarding school who decided to take up boxing, I would probably have moved on and never tried it. This would have been a pity, as it was, on the whole, an enjoyable book.

It opens with discussion of sports, in jargon which made little sense to me, but I got the general gist: sports used to be done well at the school but several talented students have left. The current sports captain is rather depressed as the school is losing its matches, and doesn’t seem to have more than a handful of good players.

We then switch to focussing on Sheen, a studious boy who is not particularly keen on sports, other than ‘fives’, a game I had not previously heard of. Quick research tells me it’s a game played in public schools with a hard ball being hit by a gloved hand. He’s not particularly popular, but is beginning to make one or two casual friends when an incident happens which brands him a coward by the rest of the school - and leads to his being ignored (‘cut’) by almost everyone.

Another chance incident leads to Sheen meeting a former boxing champion who agrees to give him some lessons. The eventual outcome of the book is then somewhat predictable, with a few Wodehouse style twists and turns along the way. It’s not a humorous book; in many ways it’s quite depressing, although I hope that today’s public schools are less unpleasant places than they were a hundred or so years ago. But Sheen is an interesting character, and his gradual development and determination made it worth reading, even though his lifestyle is so far removed from anything I have ever experienced.

Unlike the better-known Wodehouse works, this does not stay in print in paperback form, although there are a couple of Kindle editions. But since it can be downloaded free from Project Gutenberg, I would recommend that option.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

Big Girls Don't Cry (by Sally Quilford)


I have quite a few Sally Quilford books on my Kindle. I have downloaded them over the years, usually when she offers books free. They are not particularly long - more novella length than novel - and ideal reading for a flight. So, on a recent journey, I scrolled through my collection and found ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’, third in the Bobby Blandford series.

I had read the first two in the series, The Last Dance and The Runaway and liked them very much. I recalled the young, enthusiastic Bobby, a policewoman in the early 1960s when this profession was mainly dominated by men and when sexism was rife. This is Bobby’s third year in the Stoney End Force, and she has made some friends, but is still treated with suspicion and contempt by others in the force.

This story begins when Bobby and a colleague are called out to a minor break-in at the house of two middle-aged women. They’re a bit confused about what has happened, and nothing appears to have been stolen. So when they receive another call, to the scene of a bank robbery, they race off immediately. Great excitement ensues as this is a small village and crime is usually limited to the breaking of a window.

The bank staff describe what happened when four men wearing silly masks threatened them, gave the bank manager a nasty injury, and stole all the cash intended for the local factory payroll. Bobby decides to investigate some bank robberies of the past, convinced there is a connection.

This book is not just a crime story, however. Sally Quilford is skilled in characterisation, and relationships of varying kinds are as important as the plot. Bobby, who has been going out with the local doctor for two years, is having trouble with her love life. He keeps upsetting her, and their relationship doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Is he too busy, or becoming indifferent, or does he want their relationship to end? And what should she do about the attentions of a visiting Scotland Yard policeman?

Then there’s stress with Bobby’s older brother Tom, who also works for Scotland Yard. She has always idolised him, but he seems very stressed, and is behaving towards locals in ways that shock her. Has he changed, or was he always this way? Can she trust him…?

I was quickly caught up in the story, which has some shocks but nothing too gory; I had guessed part of the outcome and was already suspicious about one person who turned out to be a bad guy. But there were parts I didn’t expect too. The writing is crisp, the conversation believable, and I enjoyed spending a couple of hours with Bobby, who is a delightful creation - full of enthusiasm and integrity, but somewhat accident-prone and inclined to take everything personally.

Definitely recommended if you enjoy light crime fiction of this genre. Only available in Kindle form.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

19/07/2018

Beyond the Vicarage (by Noel Streatfeild)

Noel Streatfeild is best known for her children’s fiction, often featuring talented dancers or musicians. But she also wrote three fictionalised autobiographical books. I read ‘A Vicarage Family’ a few years ago, and liked it very much. I haven’t been able to find its first sequel, but have had the third in the series, ‘Beyond the Vicarage’ for some years. I must have picked it up at a charity shop at some point. So I decided, at last, to read it.

As with the first ‘Vicarage’ book, the author uses the third person rather than the first person. The main character is Victoria Strangeways, but Noel Streatfeild makes no secret of the fact that it is herself. However she states that her siblings are somewhat fictionalised, although all incidents are based on factual memories.

This volume begins at the point where Victoria is finishing her career as an actress, returning from a lengthy international tour. She is finding a strong urge to write, but first she takes a break, staying with her brother Dick in Thailand (or Siam, as it was known then).

The book is more a series of vignettes and observations rather than a chronological account of the author’s life. But it’s very readable, and I thought if flowed well. There are mildly humorous anecdotes here and there, and turns of phrase which I recognised from some of her children’s books.

There’s a lot of fascinating detail about the periods while Victoria is writing, too. I hadn’t realised that Noel Streatfeild began her writing career with three books for adults. She was persuaded, somewhat against her better judgement, to write a children’s book and was astonished when ‘Ballet Shoes’ was a runaway success. There are insights into the motivation and background of several of her books that I have enjoyed reading.

Much of the book takes place during the second World War, when Victoria works tirelessly in one of the women’s voluntary aid organisations. There are stark details about many of her experiences, demonstrating all too clearly the horrors and fears of ordinary people in London, going through the Blitz. Rationing is taken for granted, and everyone realises that their homes and possessions could be taken away from them at any point.

As a piece of social history, this is very readable, and I would recommend it to anyone wanting to know some personal background to the war. It’s also interesting to those of us who have loved Streatfeild’s children’s books since childhood. Yet taken as a whole, I didn’t feel it was all that special. It’s a tad too rambling, and ends somewhat abruptly with the author feeling that middle age has set in; she has lost family, friends and many years due to the war.

I don’t think I missed anything by not having read the second book, as this one stands alone. Recommended (if you can find it) if you’re interested in war-years biographical accounts, or if you’re a fan of Streatfield’s books. Not in print, but sometimes available second-hand.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

16/07/2018

Under Gemini (by Rosamunde Pilcher)

I’m very much enjoying re-reading my books by Rosamunde Pilcher (interspersed with others). Although I list 64 favourite authors at the side of this blog, with links to books I have read and reviewed by them, Rosamunde Pilcher would rank amongst my top ten. Before she retired she wrote short stories, medium length novels and lengthy sagas, and I have loved them all.

I last read ‘Under Gemini’ in 2004, but had almost entirely forgotten what it was about, other than identical twins who meet as adults, unaware until that point that the other existed. So I was slightly surprised that the first chapter was about a middle-aged woman called Isobel, who kept house for her wealthy but poorly mother, known to all as Tuppy. Tuppy has just got over a nasty bout of pneumonia, and although she seems to be recovering, she’s 77 and taking a while to get better. Hugh, the family doctor, seems to be concerned and Isobel assumes that the outlook is dire.

Tuppy’s greatest wish is to see her grandson Antony and his fiancĂ©e Rose. Tuppy and her household are in the highlands of Scotland, and Antony works in Edinburgh. But Rose - we gather - has been in the United States with her mother, and although Antony thinks she’s back in London, she’s remarkably difficult to contact.

The second chapter then switches to a beach in Cornwall. Flora has just been swimming with her father and is feeling sad that she is soon to move to London. He would love her to stay longer, but she needs to move on with her life, to find a job and to live independently. So she says her farewells and travels up to London; only then to we learn that the offer of temporary accommodation from a friend has fallen through. She has no idea what she will do…

The unexpected meeting, mentioned in the blurb on the back, happens soon afterwards with quick recognition, and rather mixed feelings. An unlikely coincidence, but I don't have a problem with that. And then one of the pair flies to Greece… leaving her twin to agree to what seems like an innocent (if somewhat outrageous) deception, for the sake of Tuppy, who is assumed to be dying.

Most of the book takes place in Tuppy’s home, with quite a cast of characters, both family and staff, as well as some local friends. Pilcher has such a gift of characterisation that I had no problem remember who was whom - indeed, any slight confusion might have been deliberate, as Flora herself is a tad bewildered, pretending to be someone she has only met once. As she soon learns, she and her twin are very different in character.

I may have recalled some of the events subconsciously; or it may have been clever writing that meant I was very wary on Flora’s behalf when she went on a supposedly innocent dinner date. Yet I had forgotten all the details and the outcome. I had an inkling of who she would end up falling for - but that may have been because it followed the classic romantic device of an initial clash. It really didn’t matter. I was drawn into the storyline and the people, and could scarcely put the book down.

First published in 1976, the novel feels like a product of that era, set firmly in the upper middle classes. All the main characters are friendly towards the staff, eating with them at times, helping them when asked. Yet there’s very much a sense of separation and entitlement. Tuppy can ‘organise’ a party by employing people to cook, and expecting her housekeeper and his husband to manage the rooms and furniture. Boarding school was the norm for children of about eight and upwards. It’s not a world I’m part of, but like Georgette Heyer’s regency romances, it transports me to a different way of life, in a different era, albeit only forty years ago.

I wish I knew how the author manages, with just a few words, to create such distinct and three-dimensional people. Even the minor ones, if a tad typecast, are not caricatured. The nurse, with a face like a horse, is nonetheless kind-hearted, excellent in the sick room, and shows an unexpected talent at sewing.

Seven-year-old Jason is a typically enthusiastic boy who loves outdoor activities and is devoted to his uncle Antony, but he’s also quite sensitive and quick on the uptake. Flora is a wonderful character, full of doubts and confusions, but basically extremely likeable. And Tuppy is autocratic and controlling - but also lovable and full of nostalgia.

There were places where I smiled, and felt warmed. There were more than a couple of scenes which brought a few tears to my eyes. And when I finally put the book down, after an all-too-short concluding chapter, I felt a tinge of regret that I had to say goodbye to these delightful people until - in another ten years or so - I pick it up to read again.

Very highly recommended to anyone who enjoys women’s fiction.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

15/07/2018

Eight Cousins (by Louisa M Alcott)

Having recently re-read Louisa M Alcott’s classic series that begins with ‘Little Women’, I decided to re-read some of her other books too. I last read ‘Eight Cousins’ shortly after I acquired it back in 2009, and that was the first time in probably thirty years. I vaguely remembered that it was about a girl called Rose who had seven male cousins, but nothing much else.

As with others by this author, the book was written as contemporary fiction in the late 19th century. It’s set in small town USA, somewhere near a beach but the exact location doesn’t much matter. We meet Rose, aged thirteen and recently orphaned, after an experimental period living with her two great aunts who have the unlikely sounding names of Peace and Plenty. She has been away at school but didn’t like it at all.

What’s slightly mystifying is that she has not yet met her seven cousins, and is convinced she doesn’t like boys at all. Yet once she has met them, and decided they’re not so bad after all, she spends almost all her time with one or more of them as they all live nearby. In addition to the great aunts, Rose has four aunts. Jessie is her favourite; her husband is at sea, and she has four sons: Archie, who is sixteen, and three younger boys.

Then there’s Aunt Jane, who is quite strict although married to the friendly Uncle Mac. They have two sons: the bookworm, another Mac, and the dandy Steve. Aunt Clara is keen on fashion, and has one son, Charlie. Then there’s Myra, who is convinced Rose (and everyone else) is fading away, and wants them to take pills and potions and lie indoors. Myra is widowed and lost her only daughter some years ago.

All the aunts have different ideas about what should happen to Rose, and how she should be brought up. But she has been left to the guardianship of Alec, her late father’s brother. Rose meets Alec for the first time shortly after the book begins, and he proposes a year’s ‘experiment’ whereby he encourages her towards outdoor pursuits, nourishing food (without any of Myra’s medications) and a low-key relaxed (if formal, at times) education at home. It’s clear that the author is on her hobby-horse with this book, which would have been quite radical in its day. Alec, who is a doctor, is very outspoken against some of the fads of the era, particularly corsets. And, naturally enough, Rose benefits strongly from his advice.

Each chapter outlines a different incident in Rose’s life, mostly involving her cousins, although she also befriends Phebe, the kitchen maid. The author is also quite outspoken against the injustices of poverty, and Phebe’s lack of education; while still seeing quite a distinct difference between the gentry and servant classes.
Even then a moral is drawn as Phebe is thankful for all she has, while Rose tends to get bored, and complains about what she doesn’t have.

There’s a great deal of inherent sexism too, alongside the author’s attempts to show that Rose is every bit as intelligent and courageous as the boys, if not more so at times. We see her making a big sacrifice in one chapter, and several small ones when her cousins fall into scrapes, or are sick in any way. We also see her gentle influence on her cousins and the households where she lives or stays. Rose is almost too good to be true, but is so full of genuine doubts and questions, and so loving that she is quite an endearing character.

Inevitably the style of writing is old-fashioned, along with some of the principles and values; yet it remains an enjoyable book, interesting from the social history point of view, and in better understanding the attitudes of the times. The aunts are all slightly charactured, other than Jessie, but that doesn’t matter; despite their foibles, each one has her endearing side, and they all genuinely care about Rose.

Originally written for teenagers, this would probably appeal to children (mostly girls) over the age of about eight or nine who are fluently reading. It would make a good bedtime read-aloud book too, as each chapter is complete in itself. Many teens would find it too date or moralistic, but there are some good principles involved, and I love the way that family ties and loyalties are seen as supreme. I skimmed a few descriptive sections here and there, but on the whole liked it very much. There were one or two places which I found very moving.

There’s not all that much story; it’s mostly incidents over the course of Alec’s experimental year, but Louisa M Alcott does that kind of thing well, and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes her style of writing, or books of this era.

Regularly republished in paperback, often found second-hand, and available in Kindle and other e-book form too.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

13/07/2018

The House of New Beginnings (by Lucy Diamond)

I have liked the books I’ve read by Lucy Diamond so far, and in a bid to acquire more modern women’s fiction, I put a couple more of her books on my wishlist last year. I was given ‘The House of New Beginnings’ last Christmas, and have just finished reading it.

The novel is about several diverse women who all happen to live in the same block of flats in Brighton. The first one we meet is Georgie, who has just arrived and is waiting for her boyfriend. They come from Yorkshire, but he has been given a six-month contract to work in Brighton, and she has decided to come too. She seems to take their relationship rather more seriously than he does, and is quite excited about the thought of getting to know a new town.

Next we meet Rosa, working as sous chef for a grumpy boss in a local hotel. It quickly becomes clear that she gave up a much more glamorous job due to relationship stresses, and her story unfolds gradually through the course of the book. Rosa is clearly a very good cook, and loves to bake cakes and other goodies for friends… but her current job involves chopping onions and being shouted at, so is not very inspiring. As Rosa returns to the flat one afternoon, she sees another resident, Jo, being taken out by ambulance. She agrees to keep an eye on Jo’s teenage daughter Bea.

Then there’s Charlotte, who we met briefly in a slightly cryptic prologue that didn’t really add much to the book. Charlotte is grieving the loss of her baby daughter; again, we don’t learn much about this until later in the book. Charlotte works in an estate agent’s office, where she tries to maintain a low profile. She’s not particularly enamoured with her work or her colleagues, but is evidently good at what she does.

Finally there’s Margot, an elegant and elderly Frenchwoman who lives on the top floor. Unlike the younger women, she has lived in this flat for a long time. She’s had quite a past, too, and is extremely sociable.

Gradually, through varying circumstances, these women get to know each other and to develop tentative friendships. There are some potential romances, mostly fairly low-key, which all develop in satisfactory ways, and I quite liked the scenes involving the teenage Bea. She’s extremely moody at first, worried about her mother and very angry with her absent father. But Rosa, helped by her baking, manages to break through some of her teenage angst.

So - overall, an interesting storyline, and a positive outcome. I wish there hadn’t been so much bad language and ‘adult’ activity mentioned (though the author does, at least, avoid any intimate details). But my biggest struggle with the book is that Rosa, Jo, Charlotte and Georgie all seem remarkably similar in personality. They have different backgrounds, and different abilities, but their conversational styles and general behaviours are difficult to distinguish.

Margot, being older and French, is more typecast, and rarely leaves her flat anyway. But if I picked up the book when I was tired, and started reading a chapter about one of the four younger women, I sometimes had to go back to an earlier chapter to remind me which one it was about. They laugh at the same things, have the same ethics and morals, and pretty much the same personalities, though Georgie is more extraverted than the others. I didn’t feel a strong attachment to any of them, so although I was interested in how the various subplots developed, I didn’t feel any particular interest in any of the characters, other than perhaps Bea.

Still, it was a pleasant light read, recommended in a low-key way to anyone who likes modern women’s fiction (sometimes called 'chick-lit'). It could be good to take on holiday or read at the beach.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

11/07/2018

Finding Church (by Wayne Jacobsen)

I have kept an eye out for books by Wayne Jacobsen since reading, many years ago, the book ‘So you don’t want to go to church anymore?’. That book, a fictionalised account of people becoming unhappy with their structured mega-church and discovering a more relational way of following Jesus, was quite a landmark in the lives of many.

I have appreciated a couple of other books by this author, and have just finished reading ‘Finding Church’, which has the subtitle ‘What if there really is something more?’ I haven’t been following Wayne Jacobens’s blog or Facebook page and wondered if it was going to be a book encouraging people to re-join established congregations. There are many books which do that, agreeing that the institutional church is far from perfect, but citing many advantages or benefits to belonging to a local congregation.

However, this book does not do that. Not that the author is anti-church in any way, and he acknowledges that in many cases a church congregation can provide a good environment for many people, either for short periods or long-term. New believers can be taught basics, and make some useful friendships through a local congregation. People can explore and use their gifts, and many Christians enjoy singing as a way of worshipping God, something which is easier to do in a group than on one’s own.

Nevertheless, there are thousands of people who have become dissatisfied with local congregations for a wide variety of reasons. Sometimes these reasons may be critical or negative, with or without validity. Many local church groups become rule-bound, requiring Sunday morning attendance in order to be ‘part’ of the local expression of the body. They usually follow a set format, whether formal liturgy or a ‘worship time’ and ‘teaching time’, with little room for individuality. This suits some people, but we are all different - and when a congregation is made up of all ages, many nationalities, and many educational and cultural levels, it’s impossible for any talk or style of music to be relevant to everyone.

In many cases, people leave their local church congregations because they feel that there should be something different. They long for ways of connecting with others that don’t rely on sitting in rows on a Sunday morning. This book is, in a nutshell, about finding the Church - by which the author means the Body of Christ worldwide - by following Jesus directly, being open to the leading of the Spirit, and forming friendships with those around us.

The author mentions that the house church movement, and home groups within larger congregations, can be useful ways of connecting and forming stronger relationships than is possible in a once-a-week congregational setting. But he notes with sadness that they, too, often become rule-bound and institutionalised, perhaps expecting too high a degree of accountability, or extensive funding, or formulating rules which are seen as more important than loving God and our neighbours.

The writing is well-organised, carefully structured, and refers regularly to Scripture in context. The author shares some of his own experiences, both positive and negative, and his gradual acceptance of the idea that it’s fine not to belong to any local congregation. He examines many objections, including a chapter with specific questions and some answers, and he also sets out what he proposes - and is beginning to find in his own life and ministry.

Jacobsen is very keen not to be prescriptive. To produce a set of strict guidelines or objectives would create yet another rule-bound movement that would miss the point entirely. So he lays out his arguments, in the early part of the book, focussing on what he calls the ‘new creation’, where we are not bound by the laws or structures which were in place before Jesus.

He also suggests some principles, or values, to encourage people to move forward. So, for instance, there is a chapter called ‘Order without Control’, and another on ‘Authority without Hierarchy’. They form very general guidelines explaining how these Biblical precepts can be kept, without deteriorating into man-made requirements.

Personally, I found this book extremely encouraging. Much of what the author said resonated strongly with me - perhaps because I’ve been asking questions of this nature for some years. I have to admit I found some sections of the book a tad dry, perhaps too obvious; yet he had to write in a lot of detail to cover as many possible objections as he could. Others might disagree strongly with the principles in the book, and that’s okay; we’re all at different stages.

I hope it will, at least, help others to understand how it’s possible to be a follower of Jesus without belonging to any specific congregation. I hope it might also help those within traditional or modern church settings, who want something more, to see ways of reaching out into the community, and of building loving relationships with other believers during the week.

I recommend this very highly to anyone interested in these issues. Available fairly inexpensively for the Kindle as well as in paperback form.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews