19/11/2018

It Started with a Tweet (by Anna Bell)


Every so often I like to try reading an author I haven’t previously come across. Browsing in a UK charity shop a few months ago, I spotted a book with the clever title, ‘It started with a tweet’. I had not heard of the author, Anna Bell, but the blurb on the back sounded interesting, so I bought it.

The story is firmly in the chick-lit category, as was evident from the white cover with bright lettering and swirls. It’s told in the present tense, in the first person by a thirty-one year old single woman called Daisy. I was never entirely clear what her job involved, despite her explaining it to more than one person; suffice it to say that she spends a great deal of time online. This isn’t just for work: she has a very active Twitter account too, and compulsively checks her other social media accounts almost continually.

We meet her first at a friend’s hen party, where everyone has to dress in poor taste, and there are embarrassing games, and plenty to post about on Instagram and Twitter, for the sake of a friend who was unable to be there. I wasn’t very impressed with the first chapter, which was full of innuendos, and I almost gave up, but I’m glad I decided to persevere.

We next meet Daisy towards the end of a day at work, about to go on a date with someone she found through a dating app. When she sees him, she’s pleased to find that he looks every bit as good as his profile picture, and sends out a somewhat salacious tweet before meeting him. Alas, he turns out to be a tedious bore, and by the time she gets home she’s exhausted. Her phone is out of battery and she forgets to charge it… then she oversleeps and when she finally arrives at work, discovers she has made a horrendous mistake, bad enough that she loses her job.

Coincidentally, she’s arranged to meet her sister Rosie for lunch that day. They don’t get along particularly well and see very little of each other. But Daisy is distraught by what has happened, and her flatmate Erica is quite concerned. Rosie insists that Daisy needs a few days away, and then persuades her on a ‘digital detox’ in a remote and crumbling cottage in Cumbria…

By the time I’d reached this stage in the book (and it’s not very far in) I was enjoying it very much. The light, casual style took a little getting used to, but it works. I was reminded more than once of Sophie Kinsella’s writing; there’s not quite so much humour, and I didn't laugh aloud despite the front cover telling me I would. But several times a turn of phrase made me smile. And there’s a serious overall theme: not so much the danger of making a mistake on social media, but the way phones and other gadgets can take over people’s lives.

It’s also a book about relationships - family relationships, and friendship, and also romantic ones, although these stay quite low-key. There’s much talk about intimacy and bed-leaping, but the author does not make the mistake of describing any of these incidents; instead they are implied or referred to in passing. Promiscuity is worryingly rife, even accepted as normal; but Daisy does gradually realise that she wants something more out of a relationship.

This kind of book wouldn’t suit everyone; but on the whole I liked it very much. Once I’d started it was quite difficult to put down, and I found myself caught up in the various interactions between the characters. Some of the minor ones are undoubtedly caricatured, as is the French visitor who joins Rosie and Daisy for a while, leading to some mildly amusing misunderstandings.

But I liked the sisters, and some of their friends. I also appreciated Daisy’s gradual awareness of the way social media can destroy real life friendships and communications.

This would make a good holiday read if you like this genre of light contemporary women’s fiction.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

17/11/2018

The Secret Adversary (by Agatha Christie)

While most of my favourite novels are character-based family sagas, I like reading light crime fiction from time to time. Agatha Christie was one of the originators of this genre, and wrote an astonishing number of clever books. We have a large collection but I still haven’t read them all. A week ago I embarked on ‘The Secret Adversary’, which, I later learned, was Christie’s second published book.

Rather than being a standard crime story, this one is more of a thriller, although there is still something of a mystery to solve. But we first meet two young people: Tommy, who was a soldier in the first world war, and his old friend Prudence, usually called Tuppence. Both are struggling to make ends meet in post-war London, and decide to embark on a business together, solving problems or going on adventures.

Tuppence is approached on her way home by someone who wants to employ her, but when she meets him, she mentions a name which she has heard, almost at random, and clearly startles him. She is given some money and told to come back the following day…

This starts a train of events which leads both Tommy and Tuppence into very serious danger. They become entangled with a gang, mostly political, who want to undermine the country. Their leader, known as ‘Mr Brown’, is apparently ruthless. A young American woman called Jane Finn is known to have had some important documents prior to the loss of a big passenger ship; these documents, if found, would cause immense problems for the current government.

Much of the political intrigue went over my head; almost 100 years ago political leanings weren’t quite the same as they are now anyway. But the search for Jane, and the documents, and the mystery of Mr Brown’s identity made for a very exciting storyline. Various other characters are introduced gradually, some obviously unpleasant, others presumed to be on Tommy and Tuppence’s side.

I had guessed who Mr Brown was by the time I was about half-way through the book, although for a while I assumed I was probably wrong; Agatha Christie was, after all, brilliant at laying false trails. But my hunch didn’t spoil the story at all - indeed, it made it all the more tense.

Having finished, I have to acknowledge that the story is somewhat unrealistic; the young pair and their friends are remarkably lucky. Both are able to talk or bluff their way out of what would have been quite terrifying situations. The gang members and their leader show no mercy; yet at times they are easily fooled.

Unusually for Agatha Christie, there’s a low-key romance running through the book (indeed, there are two of them by the end). I’m not sure that all the relevant conversations are entirely believable, but perhaps the upper middle class people of a hundred or so years ago did speak like that. There’s some light repartee which is quite amusing, and some ironic asides here and there, which were welcome light touches in an otherwise quite heavy storyline.

A book like this doesn’t make the best bedtime reading, and by the time I was half way through, I could barely put it down.

Definitely recommended if you enjoy this genre of gore-free early 20th century crime fiction.

This book is still in print in the UK, widely available at second-hand or charity shops, and also free to download in various formats from Project Gutenberg.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

12/11/2018

Under the Lilacs (by Louisa May Alcott)

In re-reading novels by some of my favourite authors, I picked up ‘Under the Lilacs’ by Louisa M Alcott. I last read this book in 2005 and had mostly forgotten it. This is partly because it’s not particularly memorable, and partly because I haven’t read it many times; it’s nowhere near as well-known as some of the author’s other books.

‘Under the Lilacs’ opens with a sweet scene portraying two small girls, Bab and Betty, about to have a dolls’ tea party. They are sisters, respectively nine and eight years old, and clearly of very different character. There’s much description of the dolls, a hotch-potch muddle of loved toys, written in an gently ironic style that might appeal to children, but is certainly enjoyable to me as an adult.

Into this idyllic scene comes a thief… accusations abound until the dog Sancho is revealed, along with his master Ben. Ben is twelve, and has run away from the circus where he was ill-treated. He’s very hungry and tired, and can’t quite believe it when the girls’ mother offers him food and a bed. She even persuades a neighbour to offer him some work.

It’s a character-based children’s book, but there are some grown ups too; in particular Miss Celia, owner of the big house in whose gardens the girls have been playing. She is a gentle young woman who cares for her fourteen-year-old invalid brother Thornton.

There’s not a great deal of plot; instead, each chapter recounts another incident in the lives of the girls or Ben, as he gradually adjusts to everyday family life. He’s nicely drawn and quite three-dimensional, full of doubts and suspicions, worried about his father, whom he hasn’t seen for months, and passionately devoted to his dog.

Inevitably there are authorial asides, and insights into the education system, much of which seems very dated by today’s standards. But this book was written in 1878; for a book that’s 140 years old, some of the themes are surprisingly modern. Betty is compliant and loving, Bab mischievous, determined to do everything that boys can do. The sexist attitudes portrayed by Ben and some of his contemporaries were probably normal; Alcott was unusual in her insistence, in this book as well as others, that women were as good as men, and could do many of the same things.

I don’t know many children nowadays who would enjoy this book, but a fluent reader around nine or ten who doesn’t mind old-fashioned language might like it. It could also make a pleasant read-aloud for younger children. With each chapter complete in itself, it would be a good bedtime book, or could be the springboard for discussions about the differences between children nowadays and at the end of the 19th century.

All in all, I enjoyed 'Under the Lilacs' more than I expected to. I would recommend it to Louisa May Alcott fans, or anyone who likes children’s fiction of this era. Since it is long out of copyright, there are many editions available - if you buy it online, check that it's a full edition.  It can also be found as a free download in various formats on Project Gutenberg.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

09/11/2018

Return to Drumveyn (by Alexandra Raife)

I’ve been enjoying re-reading Alexandra Raife’s novels, interspersed with others. I just wish I hadn’t left such a long gap in the middle. I re-read the first of her books, ‘Drumveyn’, in 2007. But it’s taken me until now to reach the tenth of her books - seventh in the ‘Perthshire Cycle’ - ‘Return to Drumveyn’. It includes most of the people who were introduced in the first book, albeit rather older, but my memory of them was a little hazy.

Not that it particularly mattered. This book is about Cristi, who is 23 when this novel opens. She lives with Archie and his rather younger wife Pauly in Scotland. But she has a Brazilian mother who abandoned her when she was nine. There has been no contact at all with her biological family until, out of the blue, she receives a shocking letter from a lawyer.

Cristi, who has just finished a degree in fine arts, flies to Brazil to find out more about her family and a ranch which she has inherited. She leaves behind not just her foster parents, but her adopted brother and sisters, and - most importantly - Dougal, one of the workers on the Drumveyn estate. He has begun to feel that there’s too big a gulf between himself and Cristi to continue their childhood friendship, and she doesn’t understand his pride and the envy of her circumstances and education.

Much of the book happens in Brazil, where Cristi is at first overwhelmed with colour and sunshine, and the apparent welcome from her cousins and other relatives. She feels as if she belongs - no longer does she look ‘different’, and she fits effortlessly into their luxurious, materialistic lifestyle. At first, anyway. But she becomes uncomfortable with the delay in sorting out her affairs, and starts to push for resolution. Her handsome cousin Luis is very attentive and she finds herself drawn to him in a way she doesn’t fully understand.

We also see cameos of her loved ones back in Scotland, receiving news via letters, and worrying, increasingly, that she might never return. Or, if she does, only as a visitor. And, indeed, it seems for a time as if Cristi may be drawn into her new environment; she is delighted with the ranch, rather to her cousin’s surprise, and even starts to learn some important skills, such as roping cattle.

The pace is gentle, the story character-based primarily, contrasting the openness of the Scottish family, and the prevarication of the Brazilian one. Cristi sees a great deal of her country - poverty as well as wealth, and matures in many ways before making a decision about where her future is to be.

There’s plenty of cultural ‘educational’ value to this book, both in Brazil and in Scotland. It’s presented through Cristi’s eyes, in such a way as to be interesting. It makes a nice background, a good contrast to the primarily character-based nature of the novel. Every so often the viewpoint changes, sometimes mid-scene, but somehow Alexandra Raife manages this without it feeling awkward or annoying.

It’s the kind of book that’s easy to put down at first; it’s not a book to hurry through. I wanted to savour the atmosphere, and take it slowly, reading the descriptive passages, seeing the people in my mind’s eye. But once I was over half-way through, I found myself rooting for various characters, hoping Cristi would follow a particular path, but really not remembering how the book ended.

Overall I thought it a lovely book, an excellent ending to the ‘Perthshire’ series, but one that stands alone: it certainly isn’t necessary to have read any of the earlier books in the series, although having read ‘Drumveyn’ before, albeit over ten years ago, gave me the feeling of returning to people I had known and liked in the past.

Definitely recommended. Not currently in print, and rather pricey second-hand; but it can be found in Kindle form at reasonable cost.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

07/11/2018

Vanishing Grace (by Philip Yancey)

Philip Yancey is one of my favourite Christian authors, so I try to acquire and read his books as soon as they are out in paperback. However it took a year or two for me to put ‘Vanishing Grace’ on my wishlist. I was given it for my birthday over six months ago, and have just finished reading it.

Overall, I thought it a helpful book. It’s realistic about the state of the church, and the way that evangelical Christians (at least in the United States) are often seen negatively. In surveys, respondents mention things that evangelicals are ‘against’, such as alcohol or abortion, rather than seeing them as offering or celebrating any kind of good news.

Yancey, with Scriptural backing, proposes reclaiming the word ‘evangelical’ to refer to the great news of God’s grace. He is quite frank in places about what Christians have done wrong, and the ways in which we have often stuck in our own cliques rather than going out into the world, as Jesus did, and meeting with those who need the Good News. He suggests that we need to show love and grace, not condemnation and rejection.

I have to admit, I didn’t find this book as compulsively readable as some of Yancey’s earlier books. In places it feels a bit heavy-going, and I found my mind wandering, sometimes, after just a few pages. But the points he makes are excellent. People are thirsty for recognition, for loving acceptance, for friends to be with them in all circumstances. We in the Body of Christ need to reach out in the ways Jesus did, meeting people where they are, showing them a positive way forward rather than condemning their current lifestyles.

The book is divided into four sections, which the author states are almost like four separate booklets in his mind. The first section, ‘A World Athirst’, looks at where we are, how we are perceived, and what the needs of the majority of people are. The second section, ‘Grace Dispensers’, takes as its premise that people who don’t follow Jesus are unlikely to listen to preachers or evangelists. However, they very often take notice of ordinary Christians, whom the author divides into three broad categories: pilgrims, travelling alongside others; activists, who work to make changes in the world; and artists, in the broadest sense (including writers), who offer metaphors and anecdotes that help people open up to spiritual issues.

The third section of the book is called, ‘Is it really good news?’, looking at why faith matters, and why we are here - looking at typical questions which post-modern people are starting to ask, and the ways we can address these issues with grace. And the final, shortest section, is called ‘Faith and Culture’. This looks partly at faith as related to politics - and is inevitably somewhat US-centric. However the author proposes that instead of trying to get ‘Christian’ laws passed, it is better for us to be subversive, a ‘voice in the wilderness’, perhaps, pointing people in the right direction when appropriate.

It’s a positive book, I thought, on the whole, and contains a lot to think about. Yancey expresses eloquently many things I had pondered, or which had vaguely occurred to me. However, we in European countries are far less inclined than those in the US to see issues in absolute terms, and thus are less likely to find the world quite so antagonistic. Instead, we’re more likely to be apathetic; accepting other viewpoints, certainly, but not taking any action at all.

I hope this book will act as a wake-up call to some who call themselves evangelical but are more critical than grace-filled. But also to some of us who, even if we avoid criticising, also avoid anything much that is positive.

Recommended. But note that it’s a book written for Christian believers, or at least those on the fringes of the church, and probably not relevant to those without faith.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

30/10/2018

Althea Joins the Chalet School (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)

My gradual re-read of Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s lengthy Chalet School series is coming to an end. Today I finished re-reading the penultimate book, Althea Joins the Chalet School. It’s number 57 in the original hardback series, and I’m fortunate enough to have a hardback edition, albeit without a dust jacket. I think it was one of my late mother’s collection. As it happens, though, the last few books were not abridged in the Armada paperback versions.

The story, unfortunately, is rather run-of-the-mill. Althea’s parents have to go abroad for her mother’s health, and her aunt is about to get married, although bizarrely she has kept this a secret even from her brother - and the wedding is just a couple of weeks away as the story opens. Happily, the aunt’s fiancĂ© turns up and recommends that Althea be sent to the Chalet School in Switzerland. Althea is delighted because she ‘just happened’ to have met a couple of the school’s students a few months earlier.

So Althea arrives at the school, and (as with so many new girls) is surprised to learn that she must speak three different languages, even in lessons, and has no idea how she will pick up any German. The prospectus apparently doesn’t mention this important fact. Moreover, Val Pertwee, set to be Althea’s ‘sheepdog’ omits to explain it to her, so Val is removed from sheepdog duty and decides, rather unfairly, that Althea is to blame.

It’s the same plot as others in the series, and while the characters are different, and Althea is likeable enough, she’s rather bland and has no difficulty becoming a ‘real Chalet School girl’. Much of the story involves the supposed feud between Val and Althea, but all the aggression is on Val’s side; Althea doesn’t understand it, and is generally friendly to everyone. This part of the story feels forced, rather than realistic, in my view.

However there isn’t really any other story. There are meetings to discuss the annual Sale, and how to replace the drama costumes that were lost in a fire in one of the previous books. There are staff meetings, and lessons, and since this book, unusually, only covers half a term, the book ends with a half-term break trip for some of the girls, which (inevitably) is fraught with stressful incidents.

It’s not a bad book, exactly. However, I didn’t feel as if all the storylines flowed very well, and it’s missing the excitement and characterisation of some of the earlier books. Perhaps the author was getting quite tired of the series by this stage, but kept writing for the sake of her fans.

On the plus side, it keeps us updated on Samaris, who was introduced in the previous book (‘Two Sams at the Chalet School’), and also mentions more about Erica and Clare, who were adopted by the Maynard family in 'Summer Term at the Chalet School' (number 54) but then not referred to again for a while.

'Althea joins the Chalet School' is, of course, worth having for the many people of my generation who collect and regularly re-read the series. But I would not really recommend it for a casual reader dipping into the series, nor as an introduction to it. There are far better ones.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

29/10/2018

Cotillion (by Georgette Heyer)

I love re-reading Georgette Heyer’s historical romances. I intersperse them with others of my favourite authors, and a handful of new books too. But Heyer, above all other authors, is my ‘comfort reading’. I last read ‘Cotillion’ in 2007, so it was definitely time for a re-read…

Kitty Charing is the heroine in this novel. She’s an orphan who has been brought up by her father’s close friend, Matthew Penicuik. It appears to have been his only unselfish action. He’s bad-tempered, and seems to care very little for anyone other than himself. He is quite wealthy but begrudges every penny spent.

Mr Penicuik has been suffering more than usual with gout and other ailments, and is convinced he hasn’t long to live. So he decides to leave his fortune to Kitty… so long as she marries one of his six great-nephews. He has summoned them all to Arnside House, the mansion where he and Kitty live, but only three of them turn up. George is already married, so nobody’s quite sure why he is there, unless it’s to badger his brother Hugh (a rather uptight clergyman) to make Kitty an offer.

The other great-nephew who has arrived is Dolph (Lord Dolphinton), who is considered to be lacking in intelligence. He is severely dominated by his controlling, autocratic mother, but Mr Penicuik loathes her, and refuses to let her into his house. Poor Dolph has no wish to marry Kitty, but makes a proposal, and is relieved when she turns him down.

The other three great-nephews are Claud, who is at sea; Jack, who was Kitty’s childhood hero, and Freddy, a likeable dandy with excellent taste, but (according to his cousins) few brains. Freddy is himself quite wealthy, and has no idea what his great-uncle wants him for - so when he eventually arrives, Kitty persuades him into a fake temporary engagement, so that she can spend some time in London, purportedly buying her ‘bride-clothes’, and seeing some of the sights which her guardian has never allowed her to experience.

Most of the book takes place in London, where Kitty stays with Freddy’s sister Meg, and learns a great deal about society. I love the way that Heyer takes unlikely people as her heroes and heroines; Freddy has no wish to marry anyone, but is extremely generous and kind-hearted, and cannot quite work out how Kitty managed to manipulate him into their fake engagement. Freddy’s father is delightfully astute, and his sister Meg blessed with terrible taste in clothes.

Several storylines develop alongside each other; we learn just why Dolph didn’t want to marry Kitty, despite being fond of her, and wishing to escape from the clutches of his mother. We discover why Jack, handsome though he is, would make a terrible husband for Kitty. We meet the innocent Olivia, with a grasping mother, and Kitty’s French cousin Camille who is utterly charming, but possibly dangerous…

There are balls, and shopping expeditions, and a nice picture of what life would have been like for a young upper-class woman in this era; through Kitty’s eyes we learn a great deal about life in London, with its stupidities as well as its sights. There’s a wonderful scene when Freddy reluctantly takes Kitty to see some famous landmarks and buildings, following the advice from a guidebook which she has bought.

Heyer was gifted in her characterisation, never commenting on her creations, but showing what they are like in their conversation and behaviours. I remembered some of the plot including its eventual resolution, but had quite forgotten most of the detail about Kitty’s foray into city life. Class consciousness comes to the fore several times, but not in a negative way; hard-working honest people are shown as being as good as (in some cases better) than the idle rich, although there are also one or two caricatured encroaching ‘nouveau riche’ types whose values are very different from Kitty’s.

As Kitty matures, and becomes more streetwise, Freddy starts to show unexpected depths. Nobody is more surprised than his father that his somewhat hapless dandy son begins to solve problems in creative ways. And Kitty starts to rely on him more and more…

It takes a few chapters to get into the story, but I like the start of the book as it shows the characters of some of Kitty’s suitors and contrasts them beautifully with Freddy. The ending is classic Heyer, as several members of the cast gather in one place - arriving one or two at a time, for different reasons - and all the threads are beautifully tied up, with a highly satisfactory, if brief, conclusion.

Definitely recommended to anyone who enjoys historical fiction of this era. I started reading Georgette Heyer’s novels when I was about fifteen or sixteen, and expect to be re-reading them still when I’m in my nineties.

'Cotillion', like Heyer's other books, is regularly re-published and also widely available second-hand. It is now also published in Kindle form.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

26/10/2018

The Circus is Coming (by Noel Streatfeild)

In between reading new books, and women’s fiction I have previously enjoyed, I like to re-read some of my favourite children’s books. Noel Streatfeild was someone I discovered when I was about seven or eight; she’s best-known for the classic ‘Ballet Shoes’, but wrote quite a number of other books which I have managed to collect, over the years. One of them, which I acquired in 1996 (though I’m fairly sure I had read it as a child) is ‘The Circus is Coming’.

I last read this book in 2009, and didn’t have particularly good memories of it. I recalled it as somewhat disappointing; not a bad book, but a bit dull. However, Streatfeild’s books aren’t particularly long and I knew it would make pleasant enough light reading for a couple of evenings.

The story, set in the 1930s (when it was first published) is about the orphaned Peter and Santa, who have been brought up by a rather snooty aunt. They have been educated at home, rather badly, by various tutors, and taught all kinds of maxims by their aunt. They don’t have any friends as they’re not allowed to mix with other children, so they’re quite close to each other.

When their aunt dies, several somewhat twittery family friends try to establish what to happen, and the only option seems to be an orphanage. Or, rather, two orphanages, as they were apparently single-sex only in those days. Peter and Santa are devastated at the thought of being separated. However, they remember their aunt having received Christmas cards from her brother Gus, although she won’t talk about him. Rather than asking their local friends to get in touch, the two decide to run away…

Gus, it turns out, is a trapeze artiste and clown, working at Cob’s circus. He seems remarkably unfazed when the two eventually turn up, and takes them into his caravan. Most of the book is taken up with their gradual adjustment to ‘tenting’, and their growing relationships with other children and some of the adults in the circus. Peter is quite self-centred and snobbish at first, and they are both surprised and ashamed to learn that they are very ignorant academically.

However, they are accepted on the whole, and learn a lot about the circus, and also about themselves. The book covers about six months when the children travel with the circus to many different towns around the UK. It’s character-based; there’s a fair amount of description of circus procedures, practices and performances, but seen from the eyes of one or other of the children.

As with many circuses of the era, there are many animals on show, including some lions; they are all treated well, but even then it was somewhat controversial. Dogs and horses, it was felt, thoroughly enjoyed what they did in the ring, and liked to be applauded. I felt sorriest for the elephants, kept in small quarters when not in the ring, although they, too, are shown as liking what they do.

As with many of Noel Streatfeild’s books, the final chapter is quite abrupt. The end of the tenting period approaches, and Gus has made a decision about what will happen to the children in future. Then something dramatic happens, and everything changes. It’s quite a satisfying ending, on the whole, and while i’d have liked another few pages, most of the ends are tied up neatly.

Overall I liked it better than I had expected. My edition is falling to pieces, but it has been reprinted several times; recent editions have been re-named 'Circus Shoes'. Recommended to children who like Streatfeild’s writing, or adults collecting her works; or to anyone interested in the circus of the 1930s. While it's clearly dated in the lack of technology, and some of the animals in the circus, it doesn't come across as old-fashioned in style or conversation.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews