15/07/2020

Mystery at Witchend (by Malcolm Saville)


I have been reading Malcolm Saville’s ‘Lone Pine’ series for around fifty years, re-reading them all, even as an adult, every ten years or so. Some of my Armada paperbacks were starting to fall to pieces, and I had the opportunity of buying some of the Girls Gone By Publisher full reprints second-hand, inexpensively.

I’ve started on my latest re-read of the series, and have just finished the GGBP edition of “Mystery at Witchend’. I have been astounded at how much more content there is than in the abridged Armada version, which I last read in 2008.

The book, set in the 1940s in Shropshire, first introduces David Morton and his younger twin siblings. David is around fourteen, and the twins, Dicke and Mary, are nine. Their father is away in the war, and they have come with their mother to a house called Witchend for their summer holidays. They don’t really expect much to happen, but are looking forward to exploring the area and meeting some of the locals.

Tom Ingles is about David’s age, and works at a farm with his aunt and uncle not far away from Witchend. He doesn’t much like the countryside; he’s lived in London all his life, and isn’t too keen on the idea of being a farmer. But he learns fast and works hard, and is pleased when he discovers someone of his own age nearby.

Then there’s Peter - Petronella, to give her full name - who lives with her widowed father in a place called Hatchholt. He is the keeper of a reservoir, and quite a pernickety man, who seems rather elderly to be the father of a teenager. He adores his daughter and is kind and hospitable, so long as people are prepared to be clean and tidy.

The five young people start a club, the ‘Lone Pine’ club, with the aim of exploring, watching birds and tracking strangers. The last of those is because there have been a surprising number of people who are new to the area. There’s the friendly John Smith, an air force officer whose parachute has become tangled, and Mr Evans, who has hurt his foot. They all seem to be connected with another house, called Appledore, which is owned by Mrs Thurston and her manservant Jacob. None of the children much like Jacob but Mrs Thurston seems to be likeable, if a tad inquisitive, although the Morton’s dog Mackie dislikes her intensely.

It’s quite an exciting adventure, and having read it so many times I mostly remembered the storyline. I also remembered the Lone Piners, who all reappear regularly in the later books in the series. But in this unabridged edition, there is a great deal more conversation, sometimes entire pages which were cut out of the Armada version. It was well abridged; nothing is lost as far as the story goes. But there’s a lot more characterisation, so we get to know the adults as well as the children, and see into Dickie and Mary’s imagination far more than in the version I had previously read.

I didn’t quite trust my memory at first. So I found my Armada edition of ‘Mystery at Witchend’ in order to compare the two. But I was right. There are so many extra asides and sections that it was, in places, almost like reading a new book. The descriptions come alive much more, and the people are so believable that I could hardly put the book down.

I’m glad Armada made the abridged books in the 1970s; they were affordable for young teenagers, as I was then, and readily available. I know there are many people other my age who recall them fondly, and still re-read them regularly. But I’m even more pleased that GGBP have reprinted them in the full editions, and am looking forward greatly to reading the rest of the series over the next year or two.

Highly recommended for older children or teenagers who like a good adventure story in a historical setting, and also for people like me who love re-reading children’s fiction. As CS Lewis once said, “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty.”  I just wish the new editions were more widely available; unfortunately they tend to go out of print quickly, and second-hand editions can be quite highly priced.

Review copyright 2020 Sue's Book Reviews

11/07/2020

The Talisman Ring (by Georgette Heyer)


Georgette Heyer is my favourite historical romance writer, by a long way. Her characterisation is always excellent, her plots, if a tad far-fetched at times, are very well crafted, and her research was meticulous. I have a large collection of her novels, and re-read them regularly. ‘The Talisman Ring’ was one I bought from a street market back in 1987, and thoroughly enjoyed. I re-read it in 1995, again in 2004, and last time almost ten years ago, in 2010. It was more than time for a re-read.

Surprisingly, for a book I enjoyed so much, I couldn’t remember much about it when I picked it up again a few days ago. We’re introduced fairly quickly to the old Lord Lavenham, Sylvester, who is in his 80s, not at all well, and not likely to live much longer. His granddaughter Eustacie, who is half French, is quite pragmatic about this, as is her cousin Sir Tristram. Sylvester wants the two of them to marry, even though they have not previously met, and they agree to this. However Sylvester dies before he is able to organise a wedding.

Eustacie is excitable and romantic, and quickly realises that Sir Tristram is rather prosaic and practical; he finds himself disapproving of her levity more and more, but wants to fulfil his great-uncle’s last wishes. However Eustacie decides to escape from the house in the middle of the night. She intends to travel to London in the hope of becoming a governess.

Her hopes are not realised; instead she falls in with smugglers - free traders - and most of the story takes place in an inn, where she finds herself, with an injured young man who was working with the free traders. I found that I remembered bits of the story as it got going - and it’s certainly quite exciting, full of twists and turns. Unlike many of Heyer’s novels, it’s not set in the world of balls and card parties. Instead it’s about a young man, accused of a terrible crime, who wants to vindicate himself. But to do so, he has to find who has a valuable ring….

The main cast members of this story all feel believable, and if some of the secondary ones are a little caricatured, it’s not a big problem. Probably my favourite of the people in the book is Sarah Thane, a well-born, respectable young woman in her mid-twenties, who has never found anyone that she wanted to marry. She lives and travels with her brother Sir Hugh, and they happen to be staying at the inn where Eustacie ends up. Sarah is a wonderful creation, full of ingenuity and wit, who has always longed for adventure…

Sir Hugh is excellent too, stuck at the inn because of a cold, and then determined to stay because the brandy is so good. He is a Justice of the Peace, but doesn’t have any problem with free traders. He finds the complex plot rather confusing, and his sister worries that he will say something inappropriate, or give away secrets. But Hugh stays true to himself, and ends up with quite a big role in the final unmasking of the true villain of the piece.

It’s quite violent in place; not gratuitously, but shots are fired several times, and there are at least a couple of quite serious fights. There are two low-key romances in the story, one of which only becomes apparent to the rest of the cast in the final pages, although I had recalled that it would take place. And it’s a very complex, cleverly written story.

However…. Although I enjoyed re-reading this, I don’t know that I would class it any more as one of my top favourites. I prefer books that are a little less tense and action-filled. I am still glad I re-read it, and delighted to have re-acquainted myself with Sarah Thane. And if anyone would like to try Heyer but prefers fast-paced stories to the gentler Regency Romances, I would recommend it.

Review copyright 2020 Sue's Book Reviews

08/07/2020

Shadow Child (by Libby Purves)


I have very much enjoyed re-reading the novels by Libby Purves, and have just finished re-reading the last one she wrote, ‘Shadow Child’. I read this first in September 2011, not quite nine years ago, but had entirely forgotten the story.

It’s told in the first person by Marion, who lives in a village with her husband Tom. They’ve been happy enough together, although they were only able to have one child, Sam. And we quickly learn that Sam died in a tragic accident the night before his 21st birthday.

Marion and Tom are both trying to move on, grieving inwardly but not wanting to drag each other down. Marion relies on her close friend Sarah to be calm and incisive in giving advice or offering a shoulder. Sarah was bereaved too, many years earlier, so she is one of the few people who can truly empathise.

The story gets going almost immediately - Marion returns home from the funeral of an elderly man she knows, to find Tom in a bad temper. He’s been trying to work on accounts and getting stressed about tax inspections, but he’s particularly angry now because he had an unexpected visitor. It was, he says, a hippy who asked for their late son, and became annoyed when Tom said she couldn’t speak to him. She left before he was able to explain why.

This incident is the catalyst for Marion to try to discover who this woman is, and what she wanted from Sam. Tom has no interest in following it up, however, and is thinking that they need to emigrate somewhere as far away as possible. He and Marion have an argument, and most of the rest of the story is about Marion’s search, and what she discovers…

It’s a thoughtful, moving story, one I liked very much when I first read it, and which I appreciated probably even more this time around. It involves prejudices of many sorts - of the middle-class suburbia, of grass-roots man-hating women, of unusual gifts between friends… and itt demonstrates, above all, the importance of friendship, loyalty and love.

Marion copes tremendously well when taken a long way out of her usual situation; Tom takes longer to adjust to some ideas and philosophies that are far removed from his conventional lifestyle. But they are not the only ones who change: Libby Purves creates immensely likeable characters with reasons for their hangups and prejudices, and allows them to move beyond them when they meet exceptions to their preconceived notions.

It’s impossible to say much more without giving spoilers. It’s a very well-written book, with three-dimensional characters and a hopeful, positive outcome.

Very highly recommended to anyone who likes women’s fiction that touches on several contemporary issues, and which has a great deal of depth. 'Shadow Child' is still in print, often found second-hand, or available inexpensively in Kindle form.

Review copyright 2020 Sue's Book Reviews

04/07/2020

Convenience Store Woman (by Sayaka Murata)


I had never heard of Sayaka Murata, a Japanese novelist. I very much doubt if I would ever have come across her novel ‘Convenience Store Woman’ under normal circumstances. But it was this month’s chosen novel for the reading group I recently joined, so I ordered it from ‘AwesomeBooks’, and have just finished reading it.

It’s described on the front as ‘Haunting, dark and often hilarious’, which almost makes me wonder if I read the same book as this reviewer. It was a little dark in places, perhaps; but I didn’t find it at all haunting, and I certainly didn’t think it was hilarious.

The story is told in the first person by a woman in her thirties called Keiko. She works in a convenience shop in Japan, a place that sounds very much like an American 7-11 shop, or possibly a Cyprus ‘periptero’, although it’s clearly much better arranged and organised. At least, it is if Keiko is involved.

Although it’s not stated overtly, it seemed clear to me that Keiko is on the autistic spectrum. She grew up not knowing how to behave, and made some rather serious errors of judgement in handling situations in ways which - to her - were logical and obvious. She didn’t want to upset her family, so she listened when they told her what she had done wrong, and didn’t repeat her mistakes.

And then, at 18, she applied for and was given a job at a convenience store. She liked the training very much; for the first time it told her how to smile, how to put on particular facial expressions, and exactly how to behave. She felt that she had been acting all her life anyway, and now, finally, she’s been given not just the script but some clear directions.

The story takes place when she has been working at the same store for eighteen years. She’s a model employee; she always knows what needs to be done, she mimics other people’s intonations and phrases, and she has her life well-ordered. She earns enough to rent a flat, to eat, and to travel to visit a friend or her sister on her days off. She’s very content and has no ambition to do anything else. She’s never had a boyfriend, but has little interest in a romantic relationship.

But society, and in particular her family and friends, want her to be ‘normal’. The whole book is very cleverly written, showing the unrealistic expectations of society, at odds with Keiko’s self-supporting problem-free way of life.

There’s a kind of anti-hero, a most unpleasant young man who works at the store for a short time, stalks some of the customers, doesn’t do the job well, and is very sexist in his attitudes. He’s full of anger and bitterness… and Keiko feels a connection because he, too, is a misfit.

I loved the way that Keiko thinks, the way she is entirely logical, showing - without being overt - the ridiculous expectations of so many people. I didn’t really understand why she was considered a ‘loser’ for working in the same job for 18 years, or why ambition was supposed to be a good thing. But perhaps that’s how life is in Japan. I certainly didn’t understand why the unpleasant young man insisted she was a parasite on society when she was earning her living, not asking for anything from anyone. Perhaps it was intended ironically; he is the true parasite in this story.

It’s light-hearted, a quick and easy read with considerable depth and a great deal to think about. I hope this book has opened people’s eyes to the way some autistic folk think, and why they feel as if it’s the rest of the world that is off-balance.

Definitely recommended.

Review copyright 2020 Sue's Book Reviews

03/07/2020

Murder in the Mews (by Agatha Christie)


I am still discovering, on our shelves, books by Agatha Christie which I had never previously read. Possibly they were acquired by - or for - one of our sons when he was a teenager. Our copy of ‘Murder in the Mews’ evidently came from a second-hand shop or church bookstall. I had not realised until I started reading it that it’s not a novel, but four short stories involving Hercule Poirot.

The first one, with the same title as the collection, starts with Poirot walking home with his friend Chief Inspector Japp on bonfire night. They discuss how easy it would be for a shot to be made, unnoticed, amongst the bangs and cracks of fireworks.

Unsurprisingly, Poirot is summoned the following morning to help investigate a case in the Mews where they had been walking. A young woman is dead, and it looks at first glance as if she took her own life. But the evidence suggests that this might not be the case. So interviews are set up, and various possible perpetrators or witnesses are questioned.

As happens in so many of Agatha Christie’s stories, I swallowed the many red herrings in this cleverly-written story. Only as Poirot starts to reveal what really happened did things start to click, and I could see that it was an ingenious plot, and I should indeed have spotted the outcome.

The second story, ‘The Incredible Theft’ is more of a political story. Several people are having dinner together, and afterwards two men discuss some important documents. They take a brief walk in the evening air while the secretary finds all the paperwork, only to discover, on returning, that one vital document has vanished. Various theories are proposed, and Poirot is called in; nobody wants to make this loss public knowledge.

Again, it’s a cleverly-thought-out story, but I found it a tad too convoluted. I don’t think I would ever have guessed how the paper disappeared; when it was explained by Poirot, I could see that it made sense, but I didn’t feel there were sufficient clues - or maybe they were too bound up in politics and business discussions.

The third story, ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’, begins with a rather autocratic letter to Poirot, telling him to be ready to visit a somewhat eccentric peer, at a moment’s notice. Naturally Poirot doesn’t want to do this, but he does make some inquiries to find out more about the person concerned. And then when the summons comes, he decides to go anyway…

Poirot arrives to discover that the person who wrote to him is dead, apparently by his own hand. Once again there are many questions asked, and it’s a good story, although - yet again - I doubt if I could ever have guessed the outcome.

The final story, ‘Triangle at Rhodes’, is the shortest of the four - only twenty pages, whereas each of the others was around fifty - and it was my least favourite. Poirot is on holiday in Rhodes, staying at a hotel where there are just a handful of guests who get to know each other quite well. One of the wives is supposedly a siren, on her fourth husband; the other wife seems overlooked when her husband is attracted to the siren.

But, as I should have expected with an Agatha Christie story, nothing is as it seems. It was too short a story for much characterisation, and I found the outcome and explanation of what happened a bit dubious… it didn’t feel up to the author’s usual brilliance, although it’s rather a different scenario from her usual style.

Overall I liked this book, and would recommend it to anyone who likes light crime fiction from 1930s.  Despite being around 90 years since this book was first published, it's still regularly re-printed as well as being widely available second-hand.

Review copyright 2020 Sue's Book Reviews