06/08/2020

Eustacia Goes to the Chalet School (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)

I have just finished the sixth book in Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s lengthy Chalet School series, which I’m re-reading at a rate of about one per month. ‘Eustacia Goes to the Chalet School’ takes place not long after ‘Rivals of the Chalet School’ which I re-read at the end of June. It’s the last term for Mary Burnett as Head Girl.


But the main protagonist of this book is Eustacia Benson, a supercilious and uptight girl of thirteen who has been brought up in experimental mode by quite elderly parents. Brent-Dyer clearly disapproved of any parenting methods other than her own, but she manages to make an intriguing character in this young teenager, orphaned and alone in the world other than an aunt with five lively sons. 


Eustacia has never mixed with other children - or many adults, it would appear - and considers herself rather a superior personage. She is introduced as a ‘prig’ and it takes almost the entire book before she starts to see the error of her ways. She doesn’t understand her cousins at all, nor why tale-bearing is considered a bad thing in all but extreme circumstances. 


And so her aunt, after much discussion and correspondence, decides to send Eustacia to the Chalet School in the Autrian Tyrol.  Eustacia is not impressed, and feels that everyone is against her; but she doesn’t see that her own attitude and behaviour tend to push people away from her. 


Unsurprisingly, Eustacia clashes immediately with girls she meets. She doesn’t understand how schools function, or why prefects have authority. She doesn’t see why rules need to apply to her, or why she must go to bed at a certain time, or have a warm duvet which she sees as unhygienic. She treats staff and girls alike with disrespect, and is quite rude about ‘foreigners’.


The book is basically a series of incidents where Eustacia shows herself increasingly unpleasant, more and more determined to have revenge on everyone who (in her opinion) has slighted her in any way. She particularly dislikes Joey Bettany who is outspoken and sometimes abrupt; in this book Joey’s personality develops somewhat as she starts to grow up, and to think about her own responsibilities in dealing with people who either look up to her, or who dislike her. 


I love the early Chalet School books; they are the ones I read from my grandmother’s shelves when I was a child, and which I now have in hardback editions, mostly from my mother’s collection. This was first published in 1930 but it doesn’t feel as if it were 90 years old; the situations are inevitably dated, but the people are realistic and mostly three dimensional. 


Sometimes the rules and regulations might seem petty to modern teenagers. But the Chalet School, with its respectful friendship between staff and pupils as well as between girls of all ages would have been quite revolutionary in its day. Girls were encouraged to study sciences, to go to university and take up careers (unless they were destined to get married at young ages, as many of the Austrian girls were). This in itself was quite unusual in that era. 


So once again I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I had remembered the basic outline, of course, but I last read ‘Eustacia Goes to the Chalet School’ in 2009, on my last - and very slow - re-read of the series, so I had forgotten almost all the details. I found it quite difficult to put down at times. Perhaps I should warn about a single instance of a phrase which is now considered shocking and derogatory, which appears towards the end of the book. It probably won’t be included in the abridged Armada books, however, and I don’t know if it made the cut in the Girls Gone By edition. 


Definitely recommended. It could make a good starter to the series, as it basically stands alone, although there are inevitable references to the earlier books. It’s the first of the books where someone arrives who doesn’t immediately ‘fit in’ to the Chalet School ethos, until some crisis makes them change their attitude, and it’s done well. The same general plot happens several times later in the series, but this is where it started.  Unfortunately it's quite difficult to find copies of the full editions of this book. The hardback originals tend to be expensive, the 'Girls Gone By' edition is out of print. However, Armada paperbacks are sometimes available in charity shops or online, and apparently although there are frequent cuts in these abridged paperbacks, there was nothing too drastic removed from 'Eustacia'.


Review copyright 2020 Sue's Book Reviews

04/08/2020

The Girl You Forgot (by Giselle Green)


I have very much enjoyed the books I’ve read by Giselle Green over the past twelve years. So when, once again, she invited me to read a pre-publication copy of her latest novel, ‘The Girl You Forgot’, I leapt at the chance. I received a version which I was able to read on my Kindle, and have just finished it.

It’s always slightly concerning when I’m sent a book for review. What happens if I don’t like it? That wasn’t a problem with this book, however. I was hooked from the first chapter. I don’t like to use cliches, but I can’t think of a better phrase to describe this book than ‘emotional rollercoaster’. Giselle Green has a talent for creating unusual situations and crafting moving stories around them, and this novel is no exception.

The main characters in this book are Ava and Will, a couple in their early thirties. We meet them when they’re having an argument right at the start of the book. This isn’t the kind of normal argument a couple might have; it’s about whether or not Will is going to have an operation to save his life. Without it, he doesn’t have long to live. It’s an operation on his brain which should be fairly straightforward… except that he is going to lose some of his memories.

Ava is desperate that Will should have this operation. However Will, who is a talented and successful musician, is very depressed due to something he has only recently discovered. Ava convinces him to go ahead with the surgery, after promising that she will keep secret the issue that he wishes he had never learned about. She promises to stick by him afterwards, no matter what happens.

So Will has the operation, and loses about seven years of his memory. That includes all knowledge of Ava, but they had recorded some video clips, and he accepts that she was his girlfriend; he also accepts that she is the one who is going to look after him as he starts his rehabilitation.

That’s what happens in the first few pages of the book. It’s a scenario I could not begin to imagine, yet it feels all too real. It’s hard for Will, having to re-learn many things which he has forgotten ; it’s also difficult for Ava, trying to help him without moving too fast or making any assumptions, and with the knowledge of her secret weighing her down. She’s torn because after the operation Will asks her to tell him everything, yet she is determined to keep the promise she made before he went into the hospital.

There are other characters in the book: Ava’s parents are a bit two-dimensional and over-protective, but she has a younger sister called Robyn who’s an interesting person, and very close to Ava. Will’s mother and stepfather also appear, but he isn’t particularly close to them. There are various friends and colleagues, and at times I couldn’t quite remember who was whom, but it didn’t matter too much.

My favourite minor character is Harry, an elderly man with dementia who works at a butterfly garden where Ava volunteers. He can never remember Ava, though she speaks to him almost every day. But he’s a sympathetic listener and quite capable of carrying on a conversation. So she confides in him, more than she does to anyone else. It’s a clever device, meaning we learn more of her thoughts without too much introspection.

The narrative alternates between Will’s point of view and Ava’s, and that works extremely well, showing their different perspectives as he gradually recovers from his operation. Of course things aren’t straightforward. There are misunderstandings and upsets, and some reconciliations, before the predictable but entirely satisfactory climax to the book, and its gentle epilogue.

The writing is excellent, the conversation realistic, and the pace exactly right for my tastes. All in all, I loved this book and would recommend it highly to anyone who likes women’s fiction with an unusual premise and a great deal of depth.

Review copyright 2020 Sue's Book Reviews

01/08/2020

An Island Christmas (by Jenny Colgan)

I have liked most of the books I’ve read by Jenny Colgan. They’re not my favourites, but they’re mostly good light reads, with satisfactory endings (and, in some cases, recipes at the back). I wasn’t going to put any more on my wishlist, but then last year I read ‘The Endless Beach’, and realised it had a sequel. So I put ‘An Island Christmas’ on my wishlist after all, and was given it last Christmas.

It would have been more appropriate to read it in the winter, of course, but I decided to pick it up a few days ago, in the heat of summer. I quickly remembered the people from the earlier book: Flora is the main character, although I found her rather featureless and immature. Her boyfriend Joel is a high-powered American lawyer, who comes from a seriously traumatic childhood and carries around a lot of negative self-esteem. I didn’t much like him.

Flora’s best friend Lorna is a teacher; she’s a little more likeable than Flora, but in this book she can’t stop thinking about Dr Saif, a Muslim refugee who lives in the Scottish island of Mure where these novels are set. Dr Saif has two sons who are slowly integrating into the community, but has no idea what happened to his wife. He fears the worst, but still loves her, and doesn’t want to get involved with anyone else while there is any hope at all.

There are many other characters, too, most of whom I vaguely recalled from ‘The Endless Beach’. Their stories interleave nicely as the novel progresses, some of them quite poignant. There’s an ongoing story about how Saif and his sons adapt to a very Western (and chilly) Christmas, something they have never previously celebrated. There’s a story about Flora, who discovers something early in the book that worries Joel immensely.

There are also much more serious storylines: the ongoing search for Saif’s wife, for instance, leads to a quite traumatic scene in Glasgow. And there’s Colton, the gay multi-millionaire who is dying, attended by his husband, Flora’s brother Fintan. Colton’s brother arrives, bringing some antagonism and politics, and a bit of conflict.

Although I couldn’t really relate strongly to any of the characters, and found many of them quite two-dimensional, I l found the book very readable. The plotting is good, and the pace just right (in my view).

Having said that, there were some irritations. I don't mind the informal style, but in at least two places I found lengthy sentences that didn’t make sense at all, no matter how many times I tried to unravel them. Some proofreading should have spotted those. One of them said, grammatically speaking, the opposite of what it was evidently supposed to say.

Then there’s a bedroom scene which doesn’t feel entirely realistic in the way it happens, out of the blue in unlikely circumstances when two people suddenly decide they need to ‘get together’. And then there’s considerably more detail than I could want.

My other gripe about the book is the child Agot, the four-year-old daughter of one of Flora’s other brothers. There’s clearly something very wrong with Agot: she doesn’t appear to have any conversation appropriate to a child her age, but every so often she yells, at full volume, with speech patterns like those of a child of around two. I wondered if she was supposed to have Down Syndrome; if not that, she must have some other learning disability: but it’s not mentioned at all. I had been puzzled about it in the earlier book and hoped that it might be addressed as another storyline from this book. But it wasn’t. Perhaps it’s covered in the book which I haven’t read, that takes place before ‘The Endless Beach’.

‘An Island Christmas’ ends in a bittersweet way, tying up some of the threads of the story, seeing some conflicts resolved. Yet there are still some open questions so I wasn’t surprised to learn that there’s a sequel to this, although not yet published. So I will probably have to get hold of that…

Review copyright 2020 Sue's Book Reviews

27/07/2020

Small Gods (by Terry Pratchett)


It’s fifteen years since I last read ‘Small Gods’, thirteenth in Terry Pratchett’s lengthy Discworld series. I didn’t remember it with any great enthusiasm, but am determined to reread my way through the series at a rate of about one per month. So I have read it again over the past few days.

The story is essentially that of an likeable, hard-working young man called Brutha. He lives in a community of priests in the land of Omnia, but has not been ordained. His thought-processes are quite straightforward, and it turns out that he is the only person who actually believes in the god Om, despite the many books and prophets and the huge hierarchy of related church structure.

I wondered more than once if Brutha was intended to be portrayed as autistic. He has a photographic memory, which proves extremely important at several points in the book, and also tends to take commands and prophecies literally. He knows the entire Omnian scriptures by heart, including their references, and was brought up by a rigid and rather cruel grandmother who (had she been a man) would probably have been considered a prophet.

The story really starts when the god Om appears to Brutha in a rather unexpected form. He is able to communicate with him, although nobody else can hear Om speaking at all. And gradually Brutha realises that the structures and traditions that grew up, along with the many books of prophecies, were nearly all man-made; Om denies ever having required most of the rules.

The Omnian religion has become extremely harsh, with violators and blasphemers tortured and killed. Yet that has not stopped an underground society who don’t believe in Om, but are promoting what the Omnian priests consider to be heresy, propounded by a philosopher in the country of Ephebe (the Discworld equivalent of Ancient Greece).

The anti-hero of this book is an extremely unpleasant man called Vorbis. He is the antithesis of Brutha in just about every respect. He is the head of the ‘Quisition’, and appears not to have any kind or generous impulses at all. However he quickly realises how vital it is to work with someone who has an excellent memory and a simple faith, but doesn’t question orders. So he and Brutha are together a great deal.

I had entirely forgotten the actual storyline, which I thought was well-written and cleverly done. As ever there’s plenty of satire, and some humour; much of it related to the Greek philosophers, who are a delightful caricature of those we know of in earthly history.

The caricatures of religious fundamentalism are also very well done but less amusing;sadly, too much of it reflects reality even today, where people are still martyred in some countries for their beliefs. Pratchett was poking fun at organised religion, particularly the rigid kind that bears little resemblance to the principles of the founder. But he also gives us Brutha, of the simple faith, who ends up as the unlikely hero of the book.

I thought it a very interesting book this time around, and am glad I re-read it. I don’t think I would suggest this as a starting point for Pratchett’s work, although it stands alone and there are no characters (other than Death) who appeared in earlier books. But the mix of depth and frivolity, of satirical references and sometimes cruel satire could seem confusing, even overwhelming to someone unused to Pratchett’s style.

But for someone who has read other Discworld books, particularly Pyramids (which also, to some extent, looks at religious practices) I would certainly recommend ‘Small Gods’.

Review copyright 2020 Sue's Book Reviews

26/07/2020

Building Bridges not Walls (by Peter Bold)

It’s always a bit tricky reviewing books by someone I know. Peter Bold is my brother, as well as the Rector of Dronfield Parish Church. I’ve known about his plans for writing an ‘engineer’s guide to theology’ for some years, and was delighted that his book, ‘Building Bridges not Walls’ was finally published a couple of months ago. He sent me a copy in the post, and although I had read an early draft, I decided to read it in its published form, and have just finished doing so.

The book is written from a scientific standpoint: Peter was a mechanical engineer before he started training as an Anglican minister. He recounts some of his struggles as he saw the way theology students approached their learning, in contrast to those he studied with in the field of engineering. The book outlines his own journey of faith, starting with its early tentative beginnings as a child.

Peter begins the book, after a general introduction, by laying his foundations, engineering style. He mentions the importance of revelation, whether from Scripture, or tradition, and also that of our God-given reason - the ability to think through issues logically, to see the Bible in context, to ask questions when we read something that doesn’t appear, initially, to make sense. He acknowledges that the Bible is not all straightforward, and that in many places there are apparent contradictions, as well as some mystifying passages that we find hard to understand.

He also recognises the validity of personal experience in our faith journeys, and the comments and experiences of other people. With these four ‘sources’, after explaining their background, he explains what and why he believes. He begins with the most essential foundation of the Christian faith: that of Jesus rising from the dead. This is probably the biggest stumbling block for many, but Peter’s explanations are clear, and his reasoning sound. On this, as he says more than once, he would stake his life.

He then goes on to examine other questions: how reliable are the Biblical accounts? Why did Jesus come? What do we mean by the Kingdom of God? In each step he gives the basis for his beliefs, often accompanied by personal anecdotes, and with appropriate Scripture. But he doesn’t write in a pushy way. He presents not just ‘proof texts’, but at times he also gives Bible verses that seem to disagree, or which offer an alternative viewpoint. He explains his reasoning, and states where his views have changed over the years.

Towards the end, Peter examines some quite divisive issues, where many might disagree with his logic. But he offers his opinions in the knowledge that he might be wrong. He also points out that what matters most is the foundation of our faith. In practice, and in some of these more subjective issues, it should be possible to disagree. He reminds us that the manner of our disagreeing is probably more important than some of the issues themselves.

The book then ends with some practical questions and suggestions: of dealing with money, with justice in the world, and (one of his own particular concerns) that of climate change.

What I particularly liked is that the engineer’s point of view underpins the entire book, yet it's written for ordinary people, in straightforward language. I’m no engineer, but I found the writing clear, engaging, and quite compelling. It reminded me, more than once, of CS Lewis’s ‘Mere Christianity’, yet Peter’s style offers far more scope to ‘agree to disagree’ than Lewis’s. He gives a regular reminder that Jesus’ most important command to his followers was to show love, not antagonism. Moreover, Peter is writing nearly 70 years after Lewis’s classic, so inevitably his concerns are those of the 21st century.

I don’t think there was anything in ‘Building Bridges not Walls’ where I disagreed, or felt that the reasoning was flawed. Perhaps this is because I am biased, or simply because I am inevitably from a similar background. Those of a more ‘Reformed’ theology would probably take issue with Peter’s thoughts in several places. However I found this book reassuring and encouraging, and hope that it’s widely read and discussed.

Highly recommended to believers, and nonbelievers too, so long as you’re prepared to put aside your preconceptions and consider the issues from a rational, thinking point of view.


Review copyright 2020 Sue's Book Reviews