Passing Go (by Libby Purves)

It’s over sixteen years since I was given and read ‘Passing Go’ by Libby Purves. I had entirely forgotten what it was about when I picked it up to re-read a few days ago. The title did not trigger my memory at all.

However, I did recall the basic circumstances of the story once I had started reading. It’s about the Keaney family, whom we gradually get to know over the course of the book. Roy, the father, is the first one to make his appearance. He works as a book publisher, and quite likes what he does, on the whole. His company was taken over by a huge enterprise a few months earlier, and he doesn’t particularly like that, but so far they have left him alone to do his job.

Then he discovers that his rather obnoxious high-flying twenty-four-year-old son Marcus is also working for the company. And Marcus knows his dad has to go. Roy is offered a very generous redundancy package - even Marcus doesn’t want his parents to starve. But it all happens quickly and unexpectedly, on Roy’s 50th birthday, and something flips in his mind. He decides to stage a protest… so instead of going home, he sits down in the doorway of the office building, and starts protesting loudly.

His wife Helen, meanwhile, has been a stay-at-home mother for the past eleven years since their unplanned fourth child, Zack, was born. She likes to spend the money that Roy makes, and has become something of an expert at home decor, but she does sometimes wonder what it’s all about. She’s quite conventional, on the whole, but not particularly maternal.

And there’s a family secret, one that Zack is determined to discover. He has twin siblings, Danny and Shona, who are twelve years older than he is. He used to be quite fond of Shona, but she is an artist, and has been creating and displaying some grotesque artwork, using, among other things, bodily fluids and excretions. Her face is covered in piercings, and she rarely comes home. When she does, he finds her somewhat disturbing.

But nobody will talk about Danny. Danny left home at sixteen, and Roy and Helen refuse to answer any questions, or refer to him in any way. It didn’t take me long to remember what it was that Danny had done which upset their parents so much, and I realised, re-reading, that there are one or two hints in the text, although nothing too obvious. I seem to recall the eventual revelation as quite shocking when I first read the book. This time, knowing what was coming (at least in outline) I found it quite moving, and I thought it was very sensitively handled.

Indeed, the issues explored are surprisingly current, more so - at least, more widely discussed - than back in 2000 when this book was published, and when the story is set. Some of the terminology has changed; but I hope nobody would find it offensive for that reason. Indeed, I think this book goes a long way towards normalising something which many people find strange and upsetting, even now. But Libby Purves’ novels tend to do that; her writing can be hard-hitting, her knowledge and research based in part on her years as a journalist.

There are some caricatures, of course. And some unlikely parts of the story - Marcus’s falling in love with the most unlikely person, for one thing, and his subsequent actions. I hope Shona’s lifestyle and artistic creations were meant to be a caricature too. It manages to be light-hearted, despite the heaviness of some of the topics, and I appreciated the ongoing themes of board games: Helen, mostly rather remote from her family and from the story, loves playing board games with elderly folk at a nearby care home.

Indeed, the title of the book, I assume, is from ‘Monopoly’. The family, when we first meet them, are divided: Roy and Helen are attempting to live a suburban and respectful life with Zack while trying to forget about their three eldest, controversial offspring. It takes Roy’s redundancy and Zack’s curiosity to trigger a series of events which lead to considerable healing, and new directions for everyone concerned.

I would have liked a tad more that was conclusive at the end. It’s mostly quite positive, but some threads were left open. It’s a minor gripe, though. All in all, I thought this book was extremely well-written, very thought-provoking, and overall encouraging.

Definitely recommended.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews


These Old Shades (by Georgette Heyer)

In gradually reading through my large collection of Georgette Heyer novels, interspersed with other books, I reached ‘These Old Shades’. For some reason I did not remember it with any great enthusiasm. I vaguely remembered the plot, and was a tad surprised to find that I have previously read it at least four times, starting in 1987 which is possibly when I acquired it.

The last time I read this book was in 2007, so perhaps it’s not surprising that I had only the outline of the plot in my mind. The story is set in the 18th century. I recalled the opening: the somewhat arrogant Duke of Avon is walking down a side street in Paris when an urchin runs into him. He thinks he is being assaulted at first, but quickly discovers that the child is running away from an unpleasant situation.

On what seems to be a random impulse, the Duke offers to buy the urchin - who introduces himself as Leon, and says he is nineteen years old - from his brother. He then kits Leon out in a page’s uniform, and starts to take him with him, into society, to carry his coat and generally do his bidding.

Leon is a likeable character, unexpected in many ways. Since I had not forgotten the main storyline (and the blurb on the back gives it away) I was not surprised when I learned part of Leon’s story. It would be a spoiler to say much more about that; suffice it to say that the Duke’s impulsive purchase was not made for altruistic reasons, or with any thought of being a rescuer. Yet Leon forms an instant admiration for the Duke, and will see no fault in him. This despite the Duke having a very poor reputation, and being cordially disliked by a large number of people.

‘These Old Shades’ was one of Heyer’s earliest novels, first published in 1926. She was only 24 at the time, yet her writing already shows considerable maturity, and demonstrates her incredible gift for both characterisation, and a cleverly involved plot. Her research was impeccable: she used some real historical figures where appropriate, and the conversation flows realistically, if a tad incomprehensibly at times.

The Duke of Avon is an unlikely hero in almost every respect. He is profligate, selfish, cold-hearted, and materialistic. Yet Heyer endues him with quick intuition, a quirky sense of humour, and also some very likeable friends to whom he is loyal. We see him with Hugh Davenport in the early chapters; Hugh is full of good qualities and it is never explained quite why the two are so close. Their conversations are revealing, showing their contrasting characters; yet Leon’s admiration and devotion are all offered to Avon.

There are other significant characters in the book; rather more than I could keep in my mind, although I very much liked the Duke’s younger brother Rupert, and also his sister Fanny. There’s a delightful curé too. And large numbers of other friends and acquaintances, some of whom may have been based on real people, but I could not keep most of them in my mind.

There’s great excitement in the plot - an abduction, a chase across the English Channel, and a very clever (but unpleasant) exposé at the end. I had forgotten most of the middle of the story, but recalled the climax, though not every detail of the outcome.

It’s not one of my favourite books. I find it a bit too full of vengeance, with some decidedly unpleasant scenes. And yet I found it difficult to put down once I had started. I almost chuckled a couple of times at some of the dialogue, and was surprised to find a little tear in my eye at the poignancy of a letter that is written shortly before the dramatic climax to the book.

I am glad I re-read ‘These Old Shades’, and expect to do so again in another ten years or so.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews


Coming Home to Island House (by Erica James)

I’ve been reading books by Erica James for nearly twenty years. Each time she publishes a new one, I add it to my wishlist as soon as it’s out in paperback. I did that with ‘Coming Home to Island House’ last year, and was delighted to be given it for Christmas. I have a lot of books on my to-read shelf, in addition to those I’m re-reading, but finally I started this novel a few days ago - and finished it this morning.

Erica James has a great gift of characterisation, and that’s immediately evident in ‘Coming Home to Island House’. Romily is the first person we meet, but we see her first from the perspective of three elderly gossips in the village. Romily is ‘fast’, and living a life of sin, according to these women. We also learn that she’s a novelist.

The year is 1939, and the whole book is set within the next couple of years, so the threat of war is already real. However, the village where Romily lives in a large house is still idyllic countryside, mostly peaceful, where everyone knows everyone else. Romily, we quickly discover, is secretly married to Jack Devereux; he’s considerably older than she is, and they were living together before that, despite the era. She’s on her way home after a European tour, and looking forward to seeing her husband again.

But a crisis happens, and Romily finds herself having to entertain Jack’s three adult children, and his niece Allegra. Arthur, the oldest, is not much younger than Romily. He is unimpressed to learn that he has a stepmother. He is a most unpleasant person who takes delight in tormenting his siblings, even as an adult. But we gradually learn why he’s so bitter and revengeful: it started when his mother died giving birth to her third child. Jack was not much of a father; he did what he could to support his children, but never showed any affection.

Hope, Jack’s middle child, has somewhat cut herself off from the family. She married Dieter, a German, and her father was very annoyed about it. Hope is now widowed, and caught up in grief. She’s been visiting her in-laws, and has been asked to do something which will change her life forever if she agrees. But she doesn’t see any way to refuse.

Then there’s Kit, a likeable young man who doesn’t have much ambition, and never felt good enough for his father. And Allegra, whose early childhood was miserable. She was then teased and tormented by her cousins, and treated rather badly by some of the household staff. She has not had a happy adult life recently, and has a secret which is beginning to scare her.

Within a few chapters I felt as if I knew all these very different folk, and was rooting for them to try to understand each other better. There are other people in the story: Florence, Romily’s maid, is important, as is Mrs Partridge, her housekeeper. Jack’s close friend and solicitor Roddy is significant, too. But perhaps my favourite character of all is Stanley, a young evacuee from London. He has had a neglectful and somewhat abusive past, but really doesn’t want to be in the countryside… his gentle blossoming under the caring treatment of the household is very moving.

I suppose there’s not a main plot as such, now I look back on the novel. It is composed of a series of subplots, nicely intertwining. There are some romantic threads, mostly quite low-key, as befits the era. The war becomes increasingly important as young men start to sign up or train for active service. But most significant is the way that Hope, Kit and Allegra start to understand each other a little better, and are able to become friends. None of them like Arthur, and he doesn’t seem able to be pleasant. He has some sordid secrets, and his marriage is not particularly happy. And yet I felt sorry for him, increasingly so as the story progressed.

There are some light-hearted moments, some shocking scenes (though none of them unexpected - there’s some good foreshadowing) and some moments of sheer pleasure. I found myself caught up in the family dramas, hoping for good outcomes, wanting to hug some of them, and tell others to stop being so dim. They all got under my skin one way or another, and while I could hardly put the book down by the time I was half-way through, I was sorry when it ended.

Definitely recommended to anyone who enjoys character-based women’s fiction which covers some quite serious issues.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews


The Maids of La Rochelle (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)

Having finally finished my gradual read-through of Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s ‘Chalet School’ series last year, I’m now reading her ‘La Rochelle’ books. There are only seven books in this series, and it’s only in the past year that I’ve acquired the last few.

I’ve just finished the third in the series, ‘The Maids of La Rochelle’. This is a book I recall with great fondness from my teenage years. There was an old hardback edition on my grandmother’s shelves, and at fourteen or fifteen I thought it a very romantic story. I was able to buy a new ‘Girls Gone By’ paperback edition in 2011, and re-read it for the first time in many years.

The introduction to the book explains the publishing history, and gives a great deal of information about Guernsey and the culture and attitudes of the time. I didn’t read all of it; some of it read a bit like a travel guide. But I skimmed parts, and found some of it very interesting.

I had almost entirely forgotten the various subplots of the story when I re-read it again in the last couple of days. I had also been wondering how the earlier books were considered part of the ‘La Rochelle’ series. The first, ‘Gerry Goes to School’ was set in mainland UK, as was the second, ‘A Head Girl’s Difficulties’. I enjoyed both books as 1920s school stories; they were apparently the first two works Brent-Dyer had published. But I knew ‘La Rochelle’ was somewhere in Guernsey.

‘The Maids of La Rochelle’ introduces the sisters Elizabeth and Anne Temple, who are in their twenties, and their teenage half-sister Janie. They and their families appear later in some books of the Chalet School series, so I vaguely remembered them. The first chapter gives a potted history of their upbringing, farmed out in various different places, including living for some years in France. Now their father has died, and although they seem barely to have seen him when growing up, they’re all grieving. They’re also rather worried about money, but circumstances work in their favour, and they move to a cottage in Guernsey.

The book is about their attempts to make friends, their clashes with the ‘white witch’ who was still an important personage on the island in the 1920s, and the very low key romances that develop when two young men come into Elizabeth and Anne’s lives. It’s inevitably dated - attitudes are still rather snobbish, though as ‘educated’ women the Temples are all experts in household chores, including exquisite needlework and darning (learned in their French years). They are fluent in French too - Janie has rather a strange pattern of speaking in English at first - and drop into the language when they want to express anything emotional.

I liked the three girls, and appreciated their different personalities. Brent-Dyer was good at building up believable people, and I grew quite fond of all the sisters, as well as young Pauline Ozanne, who comes into their lives in a rather dramatic way. I did find it a tad odd that the older girls still call Janie ‘baby’ at times - she’s fifteen! - and see her as very immature; but at the same time she has a lot of freedom to go out and explore.

In the last chapters I discovered the link with the earlier books; the Atherton family, who were minor characters in both the other books, have a holiday home and become friendly with the Temple trio.

All in all, I enjoyed re-reading this book and am looking forward to reading or re-reading the rest of the series over the next few months.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews


The Light Fantastic (by Terry Pratchett)

I started my current re-read of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series with ‘The Colour of Magic’, at the end of March. So I was looking forward to reading ‘The Light Fantastic’, which I last read back in 2007. It’s a direct sequel - ‘The Colour of Magic’ ends with the somewhat incompetent wizard Rincewind falling off the edge of the world, and this book sees what happens, and why this is not in fact the end of Rincewind.

The Discworld is a flat world which balances on the backs of four enormous elephants. They in turn are on a giant turtle. In most of the books, this is mere background information, but in this book it’s quite significant. Great A’Tuin the turtle is mentioned several times, and we even get a glimpse or two into his thought processes.

But the main story in 'The Light Fantastic' involves Rincewind, and his friend - if that’s the word - Twoflower, the cheerful tourist, who finds disasters exciting, and sees the best in everyone. Twoflower is accompanied by his loyal luggage, which follows him around on hundreds of little legs, and produces such useful items as clean laundry, or gold, as needed.

It’s basically a story of adventures - lots of them, accompanied by various people - and a good introduction to some of the people and species who inhabit the Disc. The wizards, mostly very elderly, have parts to play; we also meet trolls, although they’re a lot more rock-like than those who are important characters in later books. Death, too, gets a few scenes, and already is more of an interesting ‘person’ than he was in ‘The Colour of Magic’. Twoflower attempts to teach him a card game...

I smiled in several places, amused by the late Sir Terry’s use of language. Literary and classical references abound, and while there isn’t a great deal of story, it’s an enjoyable book. Essentially it’s the tale of a quest - Rincewind wants to find his way home, and get rid of the spell which is caught in his mind. The wizards in their turn want to find Rincewind, because they think his spell may be necessary.

Oh, and there’s a large red star looming, getting closer all the time. It inspires new religions, a fair amount of violence, and a great deal of panic.

Recommended, but read ‘The Colour of Magic’ first.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews