23/08/2019

Jill the Reckless (by PG Wodehouse)


I have enjoyed reading PG Wodehouse’s humorous novels for over forty years, off and on . My favourites are the best-known ‘Jeeves and Wooster’ series, but I have liked most of the others that I have read too. A few years ago I was delighted to discover several of his out-of-copyright novels available free at Project Gutenberg. I downloaded quite a few, and have just finished reading ‘Jill the Reckless’.

Wodehouse has created an excellent heroine in the independent and wealthy Jill Mariner. When we first meet her, she is engaged to be married to Derek Underhill, who is a rather serious MP. It seems a somewhat unbalanced match; Jill tends to flippancy and spontaneity, while Derek likes structure, and predictability, and a peaceful life.

Derek is staying with their mutual friend Freddie and is a little concerned as his formidable mother is about to pay him a visit. She has not yet met Jill, and wants to get to know her. Lady Underhill is a snob and wants her son to marry someone from the upper echelon… and the first meeting does not go well.

Jill is resourceful and kind-hearted; she makes friends easily from all walks of life, and will chat with the servants as much as with her social equals. I liked Jill from the start; unlike many of Wodehouse’s characters, she is not a caricature or a stereotype. This is perhaps surprising because she was brought up by her uncle, who is a total stereotype of a high risk-taking salesman. He is clearly very fond of Jill, but that’s about his only redeeming feature.

The story encompasses New York as well as London, and much of it revolves around a show in which Jill is involved after disaster strikes. The way she deals with her difficulties is possibly a little too good to be true, but by this stage of the book I was rooting for her, and could believe her capable of anything.

We’re kept guessing until near the end of the book how Jill’s life is going to turn out. There are inevitable misunderstandings and complications until the entirely satisfactory resolution.

‘Jill the Reckless’ is a thoroughly enjoyable read - and having finished it, I feel the word ‘Reckless’ is a bit unfortunate. Perhaps the meaning has changed since the book was published almost 100 years ago. While Jill is undoubtedly impetuous and impulsive, she certainly isn’t thoughtless or careless.

It made an excellent book to read on my Kindle in odd moments while away from home. Highly recommended to fans of Wodehouse, or anyone who would like to try one of his lesser-known books.

There are many editions of this book available in print or Kindle form, or it can be downloaded free in various electronic versions from Project Gutenberg.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

16/08/2019

Happy and Glorious (by Hilary McKay)

I have thoroughly enjoyed everything I have read by Hilary McKay in the past few years. So when I was at the library with my five-year-old grandson, and spotted ‘Happy and Glorious’, one of her books intended for younger children, I persuaded him to check it out.

I have spent the past couple of days reading this book aloud to my grandson. I had no idea what to expect - Hilary McKay is a talented author who writes across several different genres of fiction. This one turns out to be gently humorous, featuring a ten-year-old queen. She does not appear to have any relatives, or even a name - she’s just referred to as ‘The Queen’.

The royal household consists of several ladies-in-waiting, a cook, a prime minister and his wife and a treasurer. They’re all rather bossy, and - as we discover through the book - tend to be irritable in different ways. However we first meet them on the Queen’s unofficial tenth birthday. She has been hinting that she would like a birthday present, and only had one thing on her list… but nobody has given her anything. She’s feeling lonely and neglected when she attracts the attention of the gardener’s boy Michael.

Michael is a likeable and generous boy, presumably not much older than the Queen. He is shocked that there was no gift from the general population so he decides to collect donations. All is going well and he has a large amount of money in a bag when he finds himself the victim of a conman…

It’s a book for younger children, so there’s nothing too disturbing, and of course everything turns out well. Each chapter continues the overall story, although they are all complete in themselves. There’s a chapter about some unlikely home improvements made to the palace, involving the entire household camping out while the building work is done. There’s another which my grandson found very amusing where the Queen and the cook agree to switch roles for a day.

The writing is nicely paced, and with just the right amount of surreal adventures and exaggeration which appeal to young children. It would make an excellent book for newly fluent readers or more confident readers up to the age of about nine or ten. But I very much liked reading it aloud and thought it worked particularly well as a read-aloud. There is some humour which went right over my grandson’s head (the reason for the Treasurer calling his dog Budget, for instance). I suspect older children would also miss it; but this kind of thing means that the book can appeal to all ages and is therefore excellent for sharing.

Unfortunately ‘Happy and Glorious’ is now out of print, or we would have ordered a new copy of this, and its sequel which is called ‘Practically Perfect’. Happily, I was able to find both of them inexpensively at the excellent AwesomeBooks site.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

07/08/2019

With This Hand (by Sally Quilford)


I wanted something to dip in and out of on my Kindle while travelling recently. A collection of short stories by Sally Quilford seemed to fit the bill nicely, so I started ‘With This Hand (and Other Stories of Romance)’. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect; this author writes in many different genres, from straightforward contemporary romances to historical romantic crime fiction.

There are notes at the front of most of the stories. Some merely state which magazine originally published them, if relevant, possibly under a different name. Others were not published before this collection. A few have longer notes, explaining where the ideas came from, or who inspired them. There are some interesting personal insights amongst them.

The opening story is a classic romance, ‘The Hungry Years’. It’s about a middle-aged couple who are going through a lot of stress. He has lost his job, and she is always angry. There are some flashbacks to their early, hard up years, and an entirely satisfactory resolution. It’s not always easy for short stories to hold the attention; in just a few thousand words characters and situations have to be developed and something has to change. This first story fulfils all the requirements, and I found it quite moving.

The second story is about a couple who have just had their divorce finalised when something drastic happens. It’s kind of a ghost story, rather surreal, and also, ultimately, quite satisfying albeit a tad disturbing. The third story is about a young woman who has no sense of direction and regularly gets things wrong - but is very kind-hearted and courageous.

There’s a Christmas story next, one involving two children and a couple of single parents, and then a decidedly surreal story where the world pauses as a bride decides to speak honestly to several people she is frustrated with. That’s followed by another rather different story about a ceremony with a difference. There are quite a few stories about uncertain people, and more than one story with a hint - or more - of something surreal.

However nothing really prepared me for the final, much longer story, which - so the initial note explains - was based on a classic legend. It’s not one I knew about, and I found it all rather disturbing. There’s more violence than I’m comfortable with; it’s not the kind of story that would make it into mainstream women’s fiction. As with the others, the writing and characterisation is good, and I kept reading, out of curiosity as to where the story was going. But I didn’t like it as much as any of the others - and was glad I read it while travelling in the daytime rather than before going to sleep.

Other than the last story, I liked all the others very much. I didn’t pay anything for this collection which I downloaded on special offer seven years ago. I see it’s still available inexpensively for the Kindle. I would recommend it to anyone who likes mixed short stories including some with a supernatural element. It made ideal reading while travelling.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

06/08/2019

Sourcery (by Terry Pratchett)

Having decided to re-read my Terry Pratchett books, including the Discworld books in order, I reached the fifth one, ‘Sourcery’. Since we’re travelling at present I wasn’t planning to read it until we got home; then I spotted a copy on my son’s shelves. I didn’t remember much about the book, other than that I didn’t particularly like it. But I thought it would be good to pick up at odd moments, and would make a break from reading on my Kindle.

It was a little surprising to find that I re-read ‘Sourcery’ as recently as 2015. Apparently I liked it a bit better than expected, but not that much. This time I found it a lot more interesting and enjoyable. Perhaps the mood has to be right.

The theme is quite a serious one - that of world domination and the Apocalypse. The plot revolves around a ten-year-old boy called Coin. He is the eighth son of a wizard - and his father was the eighth son of an eighth son. Wizards are supposed to be celibate, not run away and get married. It becomes clear in the book that this is primarily so as to avoid any risk of another ‘sourcerer’ being born.

For ‘sourcery’ is the Discworld term for raw magic and power - the stuff of fairy-tales when wizards hold out their hands and create, change or (more often) destroy things. The Discworld wizards had become somewhat lazy, pottering in their university, muttering strange incantations from time to time, and drinking a lot.

Some of them were able to do some spells, but the Unseen University has a lengthy training period. They reach different levels of ability, and then try to be promoted. This only happens when a wizard on a higher level dies… and wizards are quite unscrupulous, so they all watch out for their own backs, and none of them really trusts anyone else.

They are about to promote a new archchancellor when Coin arrives, armed with a large and rather disturbing staff. The reader knows, because it happens in the first chapter, that the spirit of his father is in the staff. And whereas his father, in life, seemed a fairly likeable old man, he has grabbed hold of the idea of power and is being channeled through his son - who isn’t entirely happy about it.

Into the story stumbles the incompetent wizard Rincewind, whose hat proclaims that he cannot spell (either with letters or with his wand). He is having a quiet drink when he is interrupted by the beautiful barbarian heroine Corina, who has stolen the Archchancellor’s hat. The hat has a personality of its own and knows that it must not be worn by Coin.

So the book has two main threads… that of Rincewind and Corina escaping as far away from Ankh Morpork as is possible, and that of what Coin is doing with and through the other wizards, who find themselves strangely unable to resist. Other than the Librarian, who was turned into an ape several books earlier.

While the theme is rather vast, there’s plenty of light humour, including one or two places where I almost chuckled. I particularly liked Creosote the poet, and Nijel the Destroyer who wants to be a barbarian hero but is too nice, and prefers to engage in discussion than to fight. They join forces with Rincewind and Corina and keep escaping, in unlikely ways, from various perils.

As with most of the Pratchett books there are many innuendoes, but even those tend to be amusing. I particularly enjoyed Creosote’s extravagant compliments to Corina (or any other girl he comes across) which clearly have their origin in the Biblical ‘Song of Solomon’.

The ending is a bit confusing, with several things happening at once. Rincewind, despite his general incompetence, manages to save the world twice, and although he then vanishes towards the end of the book, there are hints that he will return, if only to find his hat…

Enjoyable, on the whole. As with most of the Discworld books this stands alone, although as Rincewind came in some of the earlier books, it is all the better for reading them in chronological order.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

02/08/2019

Kilmeny of the Orchard (by LM Montgomery)


I wanted to read something light and not too long on a recent flight. I scrolled through my Kindle collection, and spotted LM Montgomery’s short novel ‘Kilmeny of the Orchard’. I read it in print form in 2006 but had entirely forgotten it. The book was first published in 1910 and is set in Canada.

The story, unusually for a woman writer of the era, has a man as its main protagonist. Eric is a young, likeable man who has just graduated from university. He comes from a wealthy family, and is planning to go into business with his father. But then he receives a letter from an old friend…

The friend has been teaching at a school on Prince Edward Island. He has been unwell, and has accepted that he must leave his job, at least for some months. But he has been unable to find a replacement. The only person he can think of who is well qualified and able to do the job is Eric - so he asks if he would consider it, just for a term.

Eric likes the idea of doing something different, and wants to oblige his friend. He doesn’t expect that he will particularly enjoy teaching in a school. But he’s told that the accommodation is good, and the scenery delightful - and he wants a bit of a break before going into the competitive world of business.

So he travels to Prince Edward Island and takes over the school. We don’t learn much about what he does there, or any of the children. But he likes his landlady, and he evidently does a good job. His quiet attitude and the way he handles the children seem to gain him respect locally. However he’s rather bored…

Then, on a walk, he sees a beautiful young woman in an orchard, playing the violin with passion and skill. She runs away in fear when she sees Eric, and this makes him determined to find out more about her. His landlady is happy to gossip, so he learns that she is mute - despite having good enough hearing to play the violin superbly, she has never spoken. She lives with some elderly relatives, and does not ever go into society, or even to church.

Most of the book is about Eric gently getting to know Kilmeny and wooing her. She had a lot of hangups from her childhood. She was born in circumstances considered highly dubious by many, and her mother - who died when she was quite young - was evidently mentally unstable.

When I first read this book, I compared it unfavourably to the author’s much better known ‘Anne of Green Gables’. But this time I read it for itself, and thought it a very enjoyable light novel. It was intended for teenagers, so the romance is all very low-key. There are inevitably some problems that arise, including a very jealous cousin, and Kilmeny’s own poor self-esteem coupled with extreme stubbornness on some issues.

The climax of the book is rather over-dramatic; even there I had entirely forgotten the outcome. But, perhaps inevitably for teenage books of over a hundred years ago, the ending is entirely satisfactory, if a little abrupt.

‘Kilmeny of the Orchard’ made ideal reading on a flight where I was extremely tired, and I would recommend it to anyone who likes gentle teenage fiction with an underlying psychological element.

Note that since this book is out of copyright, there are many editions available in print form, but it is also available free or inexpensively as an ebook, either on Amazon or Project Gutenberg.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews