24/09/2018

Destination Unknown (by Agatha Christie)

Interspersed with reading new books and re-reading some of my favourites, I’m trying to read my way through the large number of Agatha Christie novels we have on our shelves. One of my sons was quite keen on her crime fiction in his teens, and I picked up quite a few at charity shops. One of the books I had never previously read is ‘Destination Unknown’, which I finished yesterday.

Unlike the majority of this author’s books, this is more a thriller than a mystery to be solved. There’s no Poirot or Miss Marple; no false clues or unexpected perpetrator. Indeed, there’s no real way for the reader to work out what’s going on; I had an inkling about one of the people who was revealed later in the story, but little idea of where the plot was going.

Set in the 1950s, which was when the book was written, the story begins with a missing scientist. Tom Betterton has been involved in splitting atoms - the author is unsurprisingly rather vague about the details. Two UK officials have been trying to trace him, concerned about his ‘left wing’ beliefs and the possibility of Tom’s having given or sold secrets to Communists.

They interview, among other people, Tom’s wife Olive. They’ve only been married for six months, and she seems tearful and very worried, but the two officials believe that she knows more than she is saying. And when she announces that her doctor has recommended she take a holiday abroad, they think this probably means that she’s going somewhere to find him. So they arrange to have her followed…

It’s hard to say more without giving spoilers. But as the blurb on the back states, Helen, a different woman entirely, someone bereaved and depressed, agrees to impersonate Olive. It’s thought that she must have received some kind of information about where to go to find Tom. Most of the story then follows Helen as she learns to play her role faultlessly, meets and talks to various people, receives signs and indications of where she should go… and worries about what will happen when she finally reaches her supposed husband at the 'unknown destination'.

There’s a fair amount of politics in the story, although all rather confusing; people seemed to see communism and fascism in far more stereotyped viewpoints, without understanding either, than we tend to today. The ‘Iron Curtain’ was firmly in place, and there was some deep-set racism apparent in some of the words used in the book (‘natives’, for instance) although Agatha Christie was a product of her era; I doubt if she actively believed that Europeans were inherently superior to other cultures.

But overall, the writing is very good, paced exactly right for my tastes, and with just enough tension to keep me turning the pages. Thrillers aren’t my preferred genre, and I wondered if I would like it, once I realised that it wasn’t a standard crime mystery. But I found myself more involved in the characters than I usually do with Agatha Christie’s books.

Although I had the right idea about who might be responsible, overall, for what turned out to be an elaborate and complex project, I had not guessed many of the other twists and turns that were revealed in the last chapters. All in all, I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected to, and would recommend it to anyone who likes mid-20th century mild thrillers.

Regularly re-printed despite the age of this book.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

22/09/2018

Rose in Bloom (by Louisa M Alcott)

Since I re-read ‘Eight Cousins’ by Louisa M Alcott a couple of months ago, it was time, I decided, to re-read its sequel, ‘Rose in Bloom’. I vaguely remembered the storyline, but it’s nine years since I last read it, and I had forgotten most of the detail.

Rose, in this book, has just returned to the ‘Aunt-hill’ after a couple of years of travelling with her guardian, Uncle Alec, and her best friend - and former housemade - Phebe. Phebe has received some training in singing, and hopes to earn her living that way. Rose has visited several places of interest in Europe, but has finally decided to go back home.

Four of her seven cousins are now presentable young men, and Rose doesn’t know quite how to relate to them any more. Archie, the eldest, is more interested in Phebe than he is in Rose, and Steve is keen on Kitty, one of Rose’s local friends. Mac, who has always been studious, is a classic ‘nerd’ long before the term was coined, with his nose always in a book, talking philosophy and poetry, and also studying medicine. But Charlie is a gentleman of leisure, determined to make Rose fall in love with him.

Unfortunately, Charlie has been brought up to be quite selfish, indulged by his mother Aunt Clara. Louisa M Alcott seemed to believe that nurture was more important than nature in the life of any young person; Charlie’s evidently a lover of life, and something of a risk-taker, as well as being very sociable and easily led. Rose disapproves of Charlie’s lifestyle, which she finds too shallow.

However Rose herself decides that it would be fun to spend a few months being frivolous, attending balls until late, and not doing anything useful. So she does this as an experiment, usually squired by Charlie who loves to party, and rumours start to spread…

As with the earlier book, ‘Rose in Bloom’ is a series of incidents rather than having any overall plot other than Rose deciding what to do with her life, and who to marry. The author was quite keen on education for women, and lives being useful, but even she seemed to feel that, after marriage, a woman’s place was in the home.

There’s a fair bit of moralising too, but given the age of the book (this was first published in 1876) some of her beliefs are quite radical. She evidently saw much that horrified her about the way some impoverished people and orphans were treated, and gives Rose the ability to help some of them. Phebe, too, is not considered good enough for Archie by some of the aunts, as nobody knows who her parents were; but it’s made clear that this is unpleasant snobbery.

I had forgotten one tragic incident and shocking in the middle of the book, which happened just as I had begun to wonder if I had mis-remembered the eventual outcome. I’m not sure I entirely believed the way Rose and others in the family recovered so quickly from the trauma, but perhaps in days when life expectancy was short, and medical knowledge scant, it wasn’t so unusual.

I’m glad I re-read the book, which has a satisfactory outcome, but some of it felt a bit too moralistic. Recommended to teenagers and adults if you have read and enjoyed ‘Eight Cousins’, and like gentle fiction of this era. But I don’t think this is as good as ‘Little Women’ and its sequels, nor my favourite of this author’s books, ‘An Old-Fashioned Girl’.

Long out of print, so re-printed in various editions, and also available free or inexpensively in Kindle form.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

19/09/2018

The Way Home (by Alexandra Raife)

In re-reading the novels by Alexandra Raife, I reached ‘The Way Home’, which is listed as sixth in her ‘Perthshire Cycle’. However it’s not necessary to have read any of the earlier books in this cycle; each one is complete in itself.

The story is about three sisters in their thirties, mainly focused on Jamie, the middle sister. We meet them as they arrive at their grandmother’s old house, after the funeral of their stepmother, whom none of them ever liked. They haven’t seen the house in years, but have just learned that they have jointly inherited it. Indeed, they should have had it some years previously when their father died.

Vanessa is the oldest sister, a classic - perhaps caricatured - home-maker. She worries about the little things: meals cooked in time, shirts that need ironing, defrosting the freezer. She runs an immaculate home which she shares with her rather too charming husband and their moody, grumpy teenage son. Vanessa is responsible, and caring, and has a secret which she is careful to hide….

Jamie has just flown in from the US, where she was working as a highly successful businesswoman. She’s always been the odd one out, a rebel in her childhood, and is considered the adventurous sister. She’s the only one who could possibly afford to buy out her sisters and own their home… or so her sisters assume. But Jamie also has a secret, something she’s reluctant to talk about to anyone, at least in her first few days back in the UK.

Phil is the youngest sister, and although she’s 34 they still see her as emotional, unable to deal with the realities of life. She works in a demanding job in a care home, and is overweight, scruffy, and cares little about appearances. She’s gentle, and intuitive, but Vanessa and Jamie rarely think to consult her, and want to protect her from what they see as the painful realities of life. Phil has a secret too, which isn’t revealed until near the end of the book.

While the viewpoint switches fairly often, we see most of the story from Jamie’s point of view as she discovers what her stepmother did to the house - removing much that made it beautiful, installing modern appliances and garish hangings. Jamies does a great deal of heart-searching, as we learn more about what happened in the US and why she’s not returning there, at least for a while.

The other important person in the book is Patrick, an old friend of the family, ten years older than Vanessa, and Jamie’s best friend. They both have to adjust to a more adult friendship, and each is aware that they feel more than friendship - but don’t want to destroy what they have by mentioning it.

The book has many intertwined subplots, as we learn more about each of the sisters, and as they learn more about each other. It took me a few chapters to get into it, as there are quite a few characters introduced early in the book. There’s perhaps a tad more introspection than I like later on, some of it a bit repetitive. But those are my only issues with the book. Once I was half-way through I could barely put it down. I have only read it once before, in 2003. While I’d vaguely remembered some of the storyline, in particular the essence of Phil’s secret, I had forgotten all the details.

The ending is perhaps a tad abrupt but mostly satisfactory. It leaves some questions open, but makes the point that each of these very different young women makes her own choices and decisions. These are based partly on circumstances, but also very much according to their own personalities and preferences.

Definitely recommended to anyone who likes thoughtful women’s fiction. Not currently in print, though it can often be found second-hand, but it's available in Kindle form.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

18/09/2018

Waiting on God (by Andrew Murray)

I don’t think I had heard of Andrew Murray, who was a South African pastor and missionary in the 19th century. But apparently he wrote quite a number of books. One of them, ‘Waiting on God’, was available free for the Kindle when I browsed Amazon a while ago, looking for more special offers.

I started reading it while we were travelling. I quickly realised that it was a 31-day devotional series, each chapter having about three or four Kindle pages of content. So I read one each day, most days, and finished it this morning.

The language, unsurprisingly, is somewhat dated in places, and all Scripture references are to the King James Bible. Apparently the book has been updated, so perhaps the original language was more difficult to understand. In any case, although it felt old-fashioned at times, much of the advice, and the author’s comments are very relevant to Christians today.

The theme of each chapter is a different aspect of waiting on God, using different Scriptural references each day. Each ends, however, with a reminder: ‘My soul, wait thou only on God’. I couldn’t think, at first, how the author could possibly find sufficient content to write thirty-one different chapters, even short ones, on this one topic. But although there’s inevitably some repetition, I felt that it progressed through various principles and ideals, and each day gave me lots to think about.

I don’t know that I’m any better at waiting on God since reading this book; I assume it takes a lifetime - and more - to become even slightly proficient at the kind of thing the author writes about. It’s too easy to get distracted, to rush through one’s days filling them with activity, or trivia. But I hope the principles will remain with me; it’s a book to re-read at regular intervals.

Recommended to Christians who don’t mind old-fashioned language, and who are interested not just in spending more time with God, but in understanding some of the Scriptural principles and references to this topic. It’s not judgemental, nor does it pretend it’s easy. But - so the author contends - it can lead to lasting satisfaction and contentment.

Thought-provoking and encouraging. Not always available free for the Kindle, but usually quite inexpensive. Also available in paperback, and the Amazon links given are to editions currently in print.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

13/09/2018

Two Sams at the Chalet School

I’m nearing the end of Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s lengthy Chalet School series, which I started re-reading several years ago. I’ve been delighted to learn, recently, that there are many adults like me who love this series despite some of the author’s quirks. I like to intersperse Brent-Dyer’s books with others I’m reading; they are light-weight, with some nostalgia from my childhood, and a sense of returning to families and places I’ve loved for years. I first came across the early Chalet School books when I was about nine or ten, on shelves in my grandmother’s house.

‘Two Sams at the Chalet School’ is number 56 in the original hardbacks, and #60 in the Armada paperback series. My edition is an Armada one, but by this stage of re-publishing in paperback, there were few (if any) cuts. It’s a long time since I read this book - at least twenty years, probably more. I didn’t recall the plot, which perhaps isn’t surprising, as it is essentially (in my view) a run-of-the-mill Chalet School book, covering much of the same ground as previous ones.

It’s the Winter/Spring term, and there are only two new girls in the school. Samantha is fifteen, and an American. She’s travelled a fair amount with her parents, but they want her to settle down to have a good education, and decide that the Chalet School, with its focus on languages, sounds like a good option. Samaris is thirteen, and her parents recently moved to Innsbruck. She went to an Austrian school but they want her to have a solid British education, so she, too, is sent to the Chalet School.

The two are feeling a bit nervous on their first day, and feel they have to stick together somewhat despite the difference in ages. There’s a spark of friendship too, which neither quite understand, and they remain friends despite being in different forms, with very different interests. Much is made of the similarity of their names… Samantha would have been quite an unusual name when the book was written, but the idea that they must be connected is pushed a bit too far, in my view. When a connection is eventually discovered, I rolled my eyes a little; Brent-Dyer likes coincidences and this one, though it has a good background, is rather too like others that have have occurred previously in the series.

The story focuses on the two Sams, as they’re known, and various escapades they get into. It’s not that either of them is particularly mischievous, but they both seem to act without thinking about the consequences. I didn’t find any of them all that interesting, nor the standard classroom/staffroom conversations. There are some jealousies and arguments, but they seem to get forgotten rather than resolved.

However, this book has its positive side. There are some quite moving scenes where we see Joey’s youngest daughter Phil, aged three, in her slow recovery from polio. Con Maynard gets a shock, and - hopefully - learns to be more responsible, not daydreaming when she’s supposed to be in charge of other girls. And in one scene where the juniors get stuck, temporarily in their common room due to a door latch problem, there’s what is probably the single reference in the entire series to the need to use toilets. Someone reports that ‘LĂ©onie was going to be excused’.

Worth reading as part of the series, and it probably stands alone quite well too. It’s not a bad story; as light bedtime or holiday reading, it serves its purpose. But I wouldn’t necessarily bother with it if I were just dipping in and out of my favourite Chalet School books.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

12/09/2018

Regency Buck (by Georgette Heyer)


I love Georgette Heyer’s Regency romance novels; I have them all, as far as I know, on my shelves and re-read them regularly. Her characterisation is good, and her writing always feels authentic, both in background and conversation. It had been eleven years since I last read ‘Regency Buck’, so it was time to pick it up again.

Judith Taverner is a wonderfully balanced heroine. She’s beautiful and wealthy. She’s determined, and confident, in classic Heyer style. But she’s also inclined to make impetuous decisions, and, at times, to sulk. We meet her as she and her brother Perry are on their way to London to meet their guardian, Lord Worth. Their late father named him as guardian because he didn’t like his brother; this was the era when young people didn’t ‘come of age’ until they were 21, and women weren’t supposed to be able to deal with money at all.

The early part of the book establishes the characters of the two Taverners nicely, but (to my tastes) there’s far too much detailed description. There are also some quite unpleasant scenes, such as a boxing match which Perry goes to see. Later in the book there are other incidents that made me squeamish - a cockerel fight, for instance, something that was evidently popular amongst young men of the era, but extremely cruel. The unfortunate horses, used in races and for pulling all kinds of conveyances, seem rather harshly treated, at times, too.

Lord Worth, when they meet him, turns out to be rather different from the person Judith and Perry were expecting. Most of the book charts the period in which they’re his wards, before Judith turns 21. While there’s a low-key romance going on, there’s a strong element of crime fiction in it too; this is the other genre in which Heyer wrote, and she combines the two masterfully in this book.

I remembered the broad outline of the story, once it got going, and could remember who was the villain and who the hero. But it wasn’t at all obvious, and the trail of false ‘clues’ is nicely laid. Once or twice I even wondered if I had remembered wrongly. Perry is clearly in danger, though it’s not clear at first exactly why.

This is not one of my favourite Heyer novels, perhaps because there’s so much description and long-winded conversation, and much of the action that takes place is doubtless authentic, but doesn’t much add to the story. However, overall the plot is clever, and nicely done. I found Perry a bit immature and annoying at times, but I liked Judith very much.

The ending is classic Heyer. There’s a dramatic and fast-paced scene, followed by a rescue and a nice, tidy denouement where everything is explained, all ends neatly tied.

Worth having as part of a collection of this author’s books if you’re a fan, but I wouldn’t necessarily suggest it as a starting point for reading her work. As with most Heyer novels, it's regularly in print, but if you prefer a second-hand edition, it can often be found inexpensively in charity shops.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

10/09/2018

When Godly People do Ungodly Things (by Beth Moore)

A while ago I downloaded a few books that were offered free for the Kindle, written by Beth Moore. She’s an American Christian writer/teacher, and while I don’t always appreciate her casual and familiar style, I’ve liked the essence of what I’ve read from her before. So, while I was away and wanting a Christian book to read for a few minutes each day, I decided to try ‘When Godly people do ungodly things’.

This book has the rather daunting subtitle: ‘Finding authentic restoration in the age of seduction’. That’s exactly what it’s about. It’s quite long - it took me over a month to finish it, reading in small portions. Sometimes I had to stop reading mid-page as there was a lot to take in. Not that anything was particularly new, but there were some quite important reminders to be on guard and alert, and plenty more to think about. It’s written from a context of spiritual warfare, taking very seriously the dangers we can fall into.

This isn’t about the problems of everyday sinning - occasional bursts of temper, perhaps, or idle gossip, or laziness. Instead it’s about longer-term and more serious, often deliberate wrongdoing. Sometimes it can be relational, such as adultery or even abuse; but it could equally be related, for instance, to shady business practice.

The first part of the book is, in my mind, rather long-winded. Essentially it outlines why godly or holy people sometimes do terrible things. David in the Bible is an obvious example, but in recent years there have been any number of priests or evangelists, apparently devout people, who have committed crimes or immoral actions, some of them very damaging to others. Why does this happen? Is it just that we notice them because we expect more of them? Are they terrible hypocrites? Or is there direct spiritual attack on those who are closest to God?

While those are all possibilities, the author looks at situations for whom the third option is true. Not that less holy people are exempt, but those who are the most spiritual may sometimes be least on their guard against the dangers that surround them. The author refers to her own past, both recovering from terrible experiences, and doing things she knew were wrong herself. And she refers obliquely to others in similar or worse circumstances. There aren’t many actual examples given. Perhaps it wouldn’t be helpful to do so, but it means that it’s quite a theoretical book.

Having made it clear that anyone is vulnerable - and it’s quite a chilling thought - Beth Moore goes on to explain how to be protected against attack. She concludes the book with advice about how to be restored if one is in the throes of this kind of thing. There’s plenty of Scriptural backing in the book, and some exposition, alongside her personal opinions and experiences.

I found the last section somewhat repetitive and a bit difficult to get into. The author refers to people who’ve been ‘seduced’ in this way as ‘hads’, a word which I found rather confusing, although I gathered it was a US slang term.

I skimmed some of the later chapters, as most of the content didn’t really apply to me, but I thought it could probably helpful to those in these situations. I particularly liked the advice about healing one’s conscience - and how false guilt can cause someone to feel bad even if they have been forgiven and moved on.

I would recommend this book to Christians who are - or have been - concerned about falling into significant sin. It’s unlikely to be read by those who are currently being deceived and dragged down, but would possibly be useful to those around them. However it’s American, with some examples that make little sense outside of US culture. It’s also quite casual in style, and takes a while to get into.

I can no longer find it available for download as an ebook; if you buy a print edition, make sure it’s the full book not the short ‘leaders’ guide’.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

06/09/2018

Mistletoe Mystery (by Sally Quilford)

I finished the book I was reading on my Kindle within the first few minutes of a flight home after a lengthy trip away. I wanted something fairly lightweight that I hoped to finish in two or three hours, as I prefer to read print editions of books when I’m not travelling. Scrolling through my unread fiction, I saw that I still have several novels by Sally Quilford, whose work makes ideal reading for flights.

‘Mistletoe Mystery’ is part of the Midchester series, but as far as I can tell each book is complete in itself, the only links being the town in which the story takes place. And in this one, almost all the action takes place in a large mansion, owned by a young woman called Philly. It was left to her by her godmother, who was insistent that she keep it rather than sell it, but this is proving rather difficult.

Philly is a small-time actress, and has some good friends. We meet her apparently planning to poison somebody… but it quickly becomes apparent that this isn’t in fact a crime, but her latest attempt to earn some money. It’s not particularly successful, and she’s almost in despair when she discovers some paintings in the attic and wonders if any of them are worth anything significant.

So she travels to see an art expert, and bumps into a rather gorgeous young man called Matt. He seems to know something about art, and shows considerable interest in Philly, rather to her surprise. She is even more surprised when he gets in touch with her afterwards, and comes to visit her.

However something isn’t quite right about Matt, and Philly feels edgy. Meanwhile she’s been finding out about her house, which used to be a school. She learns about a young French girl who went missing, and whose ghost is said to haunt the building. She also gets to know a few locals, some of whom have connections with her house. And then there’s the puzzle of where the paintings in the attic have come from, and whether they’re genuine..

I found some of the threads of the story a bit confusing. This isn't clear crime fiction of the Agatha Christie style, with logical investigations and deductions. Instead it's a character-based novel where there is more than one mystery ongoing. I don't think I could have guessed the outcomes, but that didn't matter at all.

I thought it well-written with an excellent pace that made me want to keep reading. As ever, Sally Quilford created believable and well-rounded characters. I could empathise with Philly’s uncertainty regarding Matt; I also felt her frustration as she tried to make ends meet, feeling the house a burden at times, but wanting to honour her godmother’s last request.

About half an hour before my flight landed, I was just over half-way through the book when my Kindle froze. I re-set it the following day, but when I tried to read the rest of the book, the Kindle froze again at exactly the same place.

Evidently there was some problem with the downloaded file - which was a relief, as it meant the Kindle itself wasn’t faulty! - so as I was eager to find out what happened, I read the rest in the Kindle app on my computer. I don’t like reading fiction on my computer screen, so it’s a testament to the writing and the plot that I didn’t feel I could abandon the book half-way through. I read all the rest in one sitting.

The book was originally published as a pocket novel; it’s free of bad language or anything explicit, and has a satisfying and positive ending.

Definitely recommended. As far as I know, 'Mistletoe Mystery' is only currently available in Kindle form.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews