16/06/2019

Still Me (by JoJo Moyes)


I only started reading JoJo Moyes’ novels about nine years ago. I enjoyed some more than others, then in 2015 read the very powerful ‘Me Before You’, which I liked very much. I was delighted to learn that there was a sequel, and read ‘After You’ almost exactly a year ago. I was then surprised and even more pleased to discover that there was a third book about Louisa Clark, heroine of the first two books. ‘Still Me’ went on my wishlist as soon as it was out in paperback, and I was given it for my birthday in April.

I have just finished reading the book, and thought it excellent. It’s not necessary to have read the earlier books, but they certainly fill in a lot of the background. We meet Louisa at the start of chapter one as she is going through Immigration in an American airport. She’s rather tired, and a bit jet-lagged already, and finds herself talking to the official in uniform despite his lack of response. It’s a good ploy to give the bare bones of what we need to know from the previous books, and I thought it worked well.

Louisa is starting a new job, working as a personal assistant to a woman not much older than she is called Agnes. Agnes is Polish, and is the second wife of the extremely wealthy businessman Mr Gopnik. Louisa has this job due to the personal recommendation of Nathan, who was a friend of someone she used to work for, and who is Mr Gopnik’s personal trainer.

She is thrown right into a lifestyle she had barely dreamed of before. An army of ‘staff’ look after everything the Gopniks could possibly want. They own two floors of a very expensive apartment building, but barely know their neighbours. Mr Gopnik works long hours and expects his wife to be something of a ‘trophy’, appearing at charity balls and business dinners. She finds this stressful, because so many of the people she meets there were friends with his first wife.

Louisa seems to pick up what she’s supposed to do very quickly, although it’s far removed from what she is used to. Her natural style is bohemian, but suddenly she has to wear a uniform or other conventional outfits. The housekeeper doesn’t seem to like her much, and although Agnes offers a kind of friendship, their relationship is so unequal, with Louisa being a paid employee, that she feels quite lonely at times.

I vaguely recalled that Louisa started a relationship with the paramedic Sam towards the end of ‘After You’, and also got back in touch with her parents and her sister Treena. So part of the story involves her trying to maintain a long-distance relationship with someone who is very busy and doesn’t like writing letters or emails. She also tries to stay in touch with her family, so there are occasional pieces of correspondence given, when they add to the story.

I don’t think it’s as powerful a book as ‘After You’. Louisa has come to terms, mostly, with the anguish and pain she suffered at the end of ‘Me Before You’, but she’s still trying to work out who she is, what she wants out of life, and what matters to her. As such, it’s a very engaging book. I liked her very much; she has integrity and loyalty, and a deep sense of compassion. I liked some of the minor characters, too: her friend Nathan, in particular, and the doorman Ashok.

I liked Sam a lot too. Their relationship goes through rather a roller-coaster of emotions, as they manage to see each other, then some disaster happens. It’s something of a theme in the book, and would be clichéd if it weren’t a relatively minor thread, alongside Louisa’s job.

I really didn’t like either of the Gopniks, however, nor Mr Gopnik’s snooty daughter Tabitha. And I distrusted the young man Josh, whom Louisa meets at an event, from the start. He looks like someone she once loved, but it becomes apparent all too quickly that he is ultra-ambitious and too smooth, and rather a womaniser. The blurb on the back of the book implies that Josh turns Louisa's world upside-down; I didn't want that to happen, so was relieved that he turns out to be of much less importance than I feared.

My other slight problem with the books is that I didn't find the New York lifestyle and experiences entirely authentic. Perhaps they are: but there are a few places where the writing doesn’t feel quite right. Maybe I’m being picky; it doesn’t matter to the storyline that the shops show Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving (something that never happened in my experience, when we lived in the US) but it jarred just a little. The whole ultra-wealthy businessman caricature felt a bit too pat, as well. I liked Louisa’s forays into ordinary life much better, when she joins protests to save a local library, for instance, or helps a lonely old lady with her dog.

There’s a revelation from Louisa’s sister which I could see coming several chapters in advance, but I didn’t see most of the twists and turns of the story, which is quite emotive at times. I read the final 120 pages or so at one sitting as I could barely put it down. The conclusion is entirely satisfying, albeit featuring another clichéd situation - but one painted with Louisa’s typical last-minute panic and things going wrong, leaving everything quite tense up to the end.

Overall I enjoyed this book very much. Louisa herself is so likeable that I could see things through her eyes. I would recommend 'Still Me' to anyone who likes women’s fiction. Ideally it should be read after ‘Me Before You’ and ‘After You’, but it could stand alone too.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

12/06/2019

Seven Scamps (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)


In slowly reading through Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s ‘La Rochelle’ series, I reached ‘Seven Scamps’. This is the fourth book in the series, and one I have never read before, as far as I recall. I only managed to acquire the book last year; it was out of print for a long time, and I had not even heard of it until the Girls Gone By publishers produced a new edition in 2013.

I wasn’t sure what to expect; the word ‘scamps’ sounds like young children, so I was vaguely imagining seven young children getting up to mischief. It didn’t sound all that appealing, so I was pleased to discover that the ‘scamps’ are in fact seven siblings, the Willoughby family, ranging from Maidie who is seventeen, down to Tim, who is five. They have been running rather wild in their large home, looked after by a housekeeper and various other staff while their father travels abroad on business.

We quickly learn that their mother died when Tim was only a baby, and their father couldn’t handle staying in the house after losing his wife. But their escapades have been getting worse and worse. Dina, who is about seven or eight, and the second youngest, is ‘delicate’ and has problems with her spine.

Rex, the second oldest at sixteen, also has health problems. But they all decide to spend a night sleeping in hammocks outside, without telling any of the staff - and in order to prepare for this, Marjolane (the second oldest girl) takes Tim and Dina into town, purportedly to get their hair cut, and keeps them out for much longer than is good for them.

The staff all panic, the doctor is annoyed, and the curate - whom none of them like much, and who was supposedly tutoring the boys - takes a hand too, making himself even more unpopular. Several people write to the children’s father, asking him to come home; Dina needs urgent medical treatment, and the household staff are at their wits’ end.

So their father arrives, with a surprise which nobody expected and which his older children, at least, are very annoyed about.

Then the latter part of the book takes place in Guernsey, where they go for a long holiday. Here they meet the Atherton family, introduced in the early books, who are also there for a holiday, and the former Temple sisters, Elizabeth Ozanne, Anne Chester and Janie Temple (who is still a teenager).

I did find myself forgetting some of the Athertons, but it didn’t matter too much. By that stage I felt I knew the Willoughby siblings quite well. The author succeeded in making each of the children memorable, at least during the course of the book, with distinct characters; I particularly appreciated David (third youngest) who keeps saying things that are on his mind, without realising he has spoken aloud.

The children’s actions and activities are mostly interesting to read about, with quite a modern mindset, even while clearly set in the culture and societal attitudes of the late 1920s when the book was first written. I didn’t like comments about the boys being thrashed, nor the strong sense of class consciousness which pervaded their households, but they would have been considered normal for the era.

Indeed the only thing that jarred was Tim’s very immature language - he is supposed to be five, and given the era cannot have spent hours in front of any kind of screen. But his grammar and pronunciation are like that of a much younger child - he comes across as no more than three, at least in the early part of the book.

But other than that, I thought ‘Seven Scamps’ very well written and enjoyed it very much. A great addition to the ‘La Rochelle’ series, and I liked the insights into people whom I know will eventually be connected with the much longer ‘Chalet School’ series, also by Elinor M Brent-Dyer. Next time I read it through - probably starting next year - I will appreciate the latter part of ‘The Chalet School in Exile’ rather more, after getting to know some of the people whom the Chalet School folk meet when they move to Guernsey.

Other than the rather large cast, this book stands alone and I would recommend it to anyone who likes teenage fiction of the era. The ‘Girls Gone By’ edition has the bonus of a short story at the end, featuring a meeting between Maidie Willoughby and Gerry Challoner, the main character of the first book, who has become something of a celebrity in the musical world.

The earlier books in the ‘La Rochelle’ series are:


Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

10/06/2019

Equal Rites (by Terry Pratchett)


‘Equal Rites’ is the first of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books that I read, back in the early 1990s. My husband had started reading them, and thought I might like this one. I loved it, and was hooked… and remained so, long after he had become bored with the series.

I last read ‘Equal Rites’ in 2000, and am currently slowly re-reading through the Discworld series again, interspersed with other books. I finished ‘The Colour of Magic’ at the end of March, and ‘The Light Fantastic’ in the middle of May. So I was quite looking forward to reading ‘Equal Rites’ again. It’s the third in the series, the one that introduces the wonderful Granny Weatherwax, albeit not as developed as she becomes in later books.

But the star of this book is little Esk. She isn’t born at the opening of the book, although her mother is in labour. A very old wizard hears that Mr Smith, who was an eighth son, has seven sons already and is about to have an eighth. He doesn’t wait for the birth; he hands over his staff, and his magical powers to the new baby, who turns out to be a girl. Girls can’t be wizards. Esk’s parents, and the midwife are quite convinced of that. So they try to raise her normally, but odd things keep happening….

So Esk, aged eight, goes to Granny Weatherwax to start training in being a witch. She is a bright girl, and learns her lessons rapidly. She’s a bit frustrated that Granny’s magic mostly relates to ‘headology’ - convincing people that the witches know what they’re doing, and saying the right words - but she also learns about important herbs for various ailments, and other useful information.

But Esk’s abilities are different, and it becomes clear that she needs some training, to learn to harness her rather potent and often random bursts of power….

It’s a book about sexism, at its core. But it’s also a great satire on human life. The title is cleverly ambiguous, and there are some clever one-liners, as well as rather more innuendoes than I had remembered. It’s not as complex a story as some of Pratchett’s later Discworld books; instead of following many different threads, most of the plot concerns Esk. But that makes it a good book to start with, when introducing someone to the series.

Recommended.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

06/06/2019

The Keeper of Lost Things (by Ruth Hogan)

I had not heard of Ruth Hogan, and am not, in general, a fan of ‘literary fiction’. I’m not entirely sure what that even means, other than books which don’t fit neatly into any other genre. But the title ‘The Keeper of Lost Things’ had popped up several times in Amazon’s recommendations and elsewhere. So when I spotted a copy inexpensively in a church book sale, it wasn’t a difficult decision to buy it.

What a delight this book turned out to be!

It’s really two stories, taking place in different time frames, although they eventually converge. The main story involves, at first, the elderly Anthony Peardew. He is a retired writer, and a collector of items which he picked up in the street, or the park, or anywhere he spotted something that could have been lost. They are mostly small items: hair bobbles, gloves, an umbrella, a button, and thousands more items. He has labelled them all meticulously, and would love to return at least some of them to their owners. But he has no idea how to go about it.

Anthony’s work is taken up by Laura, whom we first meet working as his assistant. She befriends Sunshine, a delightful girl with Down Syndrome (or, as she calls it, ‘Dancing Drome’) who lives nearby, and Freddy, who is the gardener. Gradually Laura works out a strategy for letting people know about the lost items, aided by her friends. But there’s a disturbing presence in the house… a lost soul, searching for something. It takes Sunshine’s intuition to work out what that might be.

The other storyline starts in the 1970s, when a young woman called Eunice goes to work for a publisher called Bomber. He has a relaxed, somewhat bohemian style, and a dog; he and Eunice get along very well. The connection between their story and Anthony’s is made clear fairly early in the book, but it’s not until the end that everything is neatly resolved, after two of the people concerned finally meet.

The writing is beautifully done, the main characters three-dimensional and believable. There are some caricatures too - Bomber’s dreadful sister Portia, for instance, and Laura’s unpleasant ex-husband. But I became very fond of Sunshine; her misuse of some words and lack of understanding of some cliches made me smile several times. That was not in a derogatory way at all; instead, seeing how her way of looking at life was, in many ways, healthier and far more constructive than her more complex friends.

Interspersed with the main plots there are several short stories, written in italics, which refer to some of the ‘lost things’ with explanations about why they were lost. It’s not clear until much later in the book whether these are intended to be the ‘real’ reasons the items were lost, or some of Anthony’s short stories.

There are gentle love stories in this book: one tragically cut short, one that is entirely one-sided, and one which is eventually fulfilled. There are a couple of threads about growing old, and living with dementia. There is even a ghost, or at least a searching spirit, related to one of the love stories. But underlying everything there is friendship, warmth and encouragement.

This gentle kind of novel is not everyone’s ‘lovely cup of tea’ (as Sunshine would put it) but I enjoyed it very much. When I was about two-thirds of the way through I could barely put it down - and then was sorry when it ended. Perhaps the conclusion is a tad too well-organised for reality - but then the whole ghost story lifts it somewhat out of reality anyway, even though it’s very pragmatically done.

Highly recommended.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

04/06/2019

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (by JK Rowling)


This year, as well as many other books, I’m gradually reading my way through JK Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’ series of books. I’ve just finished the second one, ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’. It’s the fourth time I have read this book in less than twenty years, but I appreciate it every time.

The book opens, as the first one did, with Harry at home with his Dursley relatives. They are caricatures of unpleasant people: greedy, selfish, and vehemently against anything unusual or ‘abnormal’. They class Harry in this category, as he is part of the wizarding world.

But this year, Harry knows who he is. So rather than resignedly accepting his fate as an unwanted orphan, he is miserable because he has not heard from any of his friends from Hogwarts School. His horrible cousin Dudley is afraid of him and Harry has no friends other than those at school. Then a house elf arrives in Harry’s bedroom, and things get considerably worse…

There’s an exciting rescue, a dramatic and illegal car-ride, threats of expulsion if Harry and his friend Ron break any more rules, and the glorious start of term. Except that something is going on, something which Harry is more aware of than anyone else. And he has a talent which he takes for granted, but which is a shock to his friends when they learn about it, and a cause of fear to those who don’t know him so well.

The new teacher at Hogwarts is Professor Gilderoy Lockhart, a flamboyant, rather arrogant teacher who has written many books (all of which are required reading for his classes). Unfortunately, although it seems that he has rid the world of many of its worst enemies, and solved all kinds of problems, he doesn’t actually know very much about his subject. Another new character in the book is Ron’s sister Ginny. She had a very brief cameo appearance in the first book but comes into her own as a first year Hogwarts student in this one, and has an important role to play in the story.

It’s only four years since I last read ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’, and I thought I remembered the story fairly well. I did, of course, recall the opening to the book as well as the main conflict, the dramatic climax and the ending. But there were many details I had forgotten. Despite knowing what was coming, it made gripping reading.

As with the first book, ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’, the writing is excellent, with plenty of action and realistic conversation. Her characters are believable too. Perhaps Hermione is a tad too brainy and hard-working for realism; but she makes an excellent third in the trio with Harry and Ron. But she’s not perfect. I had remembered her plan to infiltrate the Slytherin ranks during the Christmas holidays, but had entirely forgotten why Hermione herself does not, in fact, join her friends.

Knowing the overall theme of the series, with its broadly Christian good vs evil parable that culminates in the seventh book, I was able to see some of the background and clues to the eventual outcome laid down in this book. Harry learns why he is in the Gryffindor house rather than Slytherin. He learns the importance of trust and loyalty, too, and more about the power of unconditional love.

There are some scary scenes in this book, including some violence and gore. So it would not be appropriate for sensitive children, and I wouldn’t advise reading it aloud to a child younger than about eight. But for anyone over that age, including teenagers and adults, I would recommend it very highly. Best if you have already read the first in the series, but it could stand alone too.

Note: The film version of 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets' is very well done, but even if you have seen it, I would recommend reading the book as there is so much more in it to appreciate. 

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews