14/06/2018

The Young Unicorns (by Madeleine L'Engle)

In my mixture of reading and re-reading authors whose books I’ve enjoyed, I’m working my way through the young adult fiction by Madeleine L’Engle, most of which is new to me. We collected several of her books when my sons were teenagers, and I’ve bought others at charity shops, but until recently had not read most of them. As far as I gather, there are three main series, with some overlapping characters. I’m not sure I’m reading in the best order, but since I intersperse with books by other authors, it’s not really a problem.

‘The Young Unicorns’ is third in the Austin series about a family with four children. John, the oldest, is away at university in this book so he doesn’t appear. Vicky is the oldest girl, in her teens, and her sister Suzy is about eleven. They have a younger brother, Rob. They live in a flat in New York, and have temporarily adopted Emily, who lives in the flat below, and whose father is travelling. Emily is a gifted pianist… to say more would be a spoiler.

The story is about gangs, and the potential problems that can accompany medical advances. It’s also about freedom, and asks some quite deep questions about what is meant by the word - whether anyone can truly be free. It also shows how apparent altruism can be a sign of a controlling personality… perhaps even mania. There’s a low-key religious element; much of the action takes place in or under a cathedral, and some of the clergy are important characters, as well as the visiting Canon Tallis. But there’s no preaching, or anything too overtly Christian.

It doesn’t have the fantasy/time travel elements that are present in ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ and its sequels. There are no unicorns at all, other than in a metaphorical/literary sense. But there’s a distinct element of medical science fiction. Having finished it, I’d class this book as a thriller, which isn’t my preferred genre. Yet, because it’s intended for older children/teens rather than adults, I found the tension gripping but not unpleasant. Nor is there any goriness, or serious violence.

Although, in retrospect, I realise that much of the book is a tad caricatured, I was so caught up in the story that it felt real. It did not make good bedtime reading, so I picked it up in the daytime instead, and could hardly put it down after the first few chapters.

L’Engle had quite a gift of characterisation, and I had no problem at all remembering who was whom despite a fairly large cast. The secretive Dave, who also spends a lot of time with the Austins and Emily, is a complex and fascinating character. Mr Theo, Emily’s music teacher, is elderly and insightful. Canon Tallis, who I met in one of the author’s books in a different series, is altogether delightful.

Some of the concepts are complicated, and some of the situations could be frightening to a younger child, so I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone under the age of about ten or eleven. Ideal for a fluent and keen reader who wants something with depth. I liked this book more than I expected to, once I had realised what genre it was in, and it’s left me with much to think about.

Recommended to anyone who wants a fairly quick read and doesn’t mind a bit of suspense.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

13/06/2018

A Girl's Guide to Kissing Frogs (by Victoria Clayton)

Although I have read and very much enjoyed most of Victoria Clayton’s novels in the past couple of years, I hadn’t realised at first that ‘A Girl’s Guide to Kissing Frogs’ was another novel. Her books are no longer in print, but I was able to find this reasonably inexpensively in the Amazon Marketplace, although it’s stayed on my to-be- read shelf for some time. I picked it up a few days, ago, thinking it would last me a while - it’s almost 600 pages - but once I’d got into the story, I could barely put it down.

Marigold is the main protagonist, and the story is told from her perspective, in the first person. She’s a ballet dancer - the principal dancer in a small company. She’s very talented, and also ambitious; so much so that she’s having a loveless affair with the director of the company. This is shown rather casually in the first few pages, and feels quite sordid; had I not been sure the book would improve, I might have given up at that point.

However we also learn in the first paragraph that Marigold has broken her foot, almost leading to the end of her career. We’re told this at the start, and then watch her, after falling awkwardly, dancing a demanding role in front of an important audience, in increasing agony as she does. The picture is clearly painted of someone whose entire life is ballet - she will suffer anything for her art. But then she faints, and ends up in hospital.

Most of the book then takes place in her home town of Northumberland. Her parents have a difficult marriage; her father is a doctor, but also a womaniser, and her mother, whom Margold adores, gets very depressed and sometimes drinks too much. We also meet Evelyn, an upper-crust friend who has always been fond of Marigold; her two adult children, Rafe and Isabel, are also at home. Marigold always had something of a crush on Rafe, although he was older and mostly ignored her. But now she’s an adult, and quite attractive, and he seems to be taking notice of her…

It’s a complex plot, with quite a large cast. However Victoria Clayton is talented at creating memorable characters. Some of them - such as Marigold’s mother - are rather caricatured but it doesn’t matter; the most significant members of the cast are mostly believable, and, on the whole, likeable. Even Marigold, driven to immoral extremes and deceit by ambition and talent, is a nice person on the inside. Rafe is almost too nice.

As with other books by this author, a main character from a previous book makes a cameo appearance in this one. In this case, it’s Bobbie, who starred in Moonshine. It was nice to see her, settled and happy, but it would be fine to read this book without having read any of the author’s others.

There are plenty of surprises in the book, some of which I could see coming, while others were totally unexpected. There are several storylines too; subplots involve a teenage mother, a Traveller craftsman, insights into the world of ballet, class snobbery, and several other themes, some of them a tad shocking although so well written that they worked remarkably well.

I appreciated several literary, musical and ballet references in this book, and found some parts of it quite moving. There’s some humour too, and I almost laughed aloud at the final line in the book, which occurs after a somewhat abrupt, somewhat predictable and yet altogether satisfactory conclusion.

Clayton’s books are touted as social comedy, but there are sufficient serious issues covered or touched upon in this novel that I would rate it much more highly than that. Definitely recommended, if you like light women’s fiction with some depth.

'A Girl's Guide to Kissing Frogs' is no longer in print, but is available inexpensively in Kindle form.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

09/06/2018

Sister of the Angels (by Elizabeth Goudge)

I’ve liked Elizabeth Goudge’s thoughtful novels since I was a teenager. A friend introduced me to her children’s classic, ‘The Little White Horse’ when I was about twelve or thirteen, and a few years later I fell in love with ‘The Herb of Grace’. I was delighted to discover that it was the middle novel of a trilogy, and even more pleased when I managed to acquire the other two books in the series at charity shops.

I’ve gradually bought other Goudge novels over the decades - they’re often found in second-hand shops, inexpensively. But I had drawn a blank with ‘Sister of the Angels’. I only learned of its existence within the last few years. It’s apparently related to ‘Henrietta’s House’, a children’s book which I liked very much but have not read in about twenty years.

Girls Gone By is a publisher who reprints a variety of hard-to-find children’s books from last century, using the original text as far as possible. A few years ago they published ‘Sister of the Angels’, but I was dubious about paying full price for it. I knew it was quite a slim volume, and felt that £13 was a bit of a high price. But eventually I found a better value edition in Amazon Marketplace, and bought it about eighteen months ago. It’s sat on my to-be-read shelf for all this time, and I finally read it over the past few days.

Henrietta is eleven in this book, and lives with her grandparents. Her grandfather is a minister, and mostly understands her well. Her grandmother is excellent at providing good meals and comfort, but expects punctuality and cleanliness. Henrietta is an artist - quite a talented one, already - and finds the spartan existence of the parsonage rather hard to take in the winter.

We meet her on the morning when her father - a very dreamy writer - is due to arrive in Torminister. It’s early December, and he’s coming back for Christmas. On her way to meet his train she takes a detour with Grandfather into the cathedral, and spends some time in her favourite chapel. It has some beautifully restored frescoes, and one wall that hasn’t yet been restored.

There’s some back story about the original artist who painted the frescoes, in the Middle Ages, and his namesake - a wandering artist - who was able to restore some of them, before running away and getting in trouble with the law. Henrietta knows exactly what pictures should appear on the last wall… she’s an intuitive, thoughtful child who sees visions and perhaps ghosts, but takes them as part of ordinary living.

The characters are classic Elizabeth Goudge style, rather caricatured as certain personality types, but no less lovable for all that. Henrietta is a caring, gentle person, old for her years, but made human by her frustrations, and her dislike of washing in cold weather.

It quickly became clear to me where the story was going; everyone has secrets, some of which are shared with the reader, others just hinted at. I don’t know if I was supposed to have guessed the biggest secret - but it didn’t spoil the story in any way. If anything, it added to the anticipation. It’s a short novel, even for a children’s book; it has 126 pages but the first thirty or so are various introductions. However the story is complete, moving in places despite its predictability, and I’m glad I’ve finally managed to read it.

The GGB publishers always give interesting introductions to their books and this is no exception. It begins with a detailed guide to the cathedral on which the Torminster one was based, and is followed by a brief biography of Elizabeth Goudge, and a few other notes.

Recommended if you like this style of novel, set I suppose in Victorian times. There’s quite a Christian emphasis, but that’s not really surprising when the entire story is based around a cathedral. The original readership would have been girls of around ten to twelve; today's children are less likely to enjoy this. But for those who enjoy historical fiction with plenty of description and complex language, it's definitely worth borrowing.

This seems to be the only edition of the book that seems to be available at all, and it's not currently in print. However it can sometimes be found in second-hand bookshops online. Due to its rarity, some of the prices asked seem extortionate to me, making the new price seem quite reasonable by comparison.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

06/06/2018

Mindfulness and Christian Spirituality (by Tim Stead)

I don’t remember where I saw the book ‘Mindfulness and Christian Spirituality’ recommended. I had never before heard of the author, Tim Stead, who was an engineer and is now an Anglican minister. Possibly I saw the recommendation in another book I read in the past few months. In any case, it looked like an interesting book on a topic I knew little about, so I put it on my wishlist. I was given it for a recent birthday, and have just finished reading it.

The subtitle of the book is ‘Making space for God’, which sounds a bit vague, but the book is full of practical and helpful suggestions. The author enthuses about his own experiences with ‘mindfulness’ courses, some of them specifically Christian, and others more secular, open to anyone.

He makes it clear from the start that mindfulness is simply a way of being. Some people might think it ‘new age’ or Buddhist, because followers of these beliefs often use mindfulness practises. But it can also be used as part of the long tradition of Christian meditation - or simply as a way of calming one’s mind and heart, slowing down a little, seeing the present moment rather than worrying about the future or the past.

The first chapters give a little history and background to the idea of mindfulness, with some sample exercises which encourage the reader to use observation skills to focus on small objects, or on one’s own breath, or some part of the body.

The author acknowledges that it’s remarkably difficult to do this for any length of time, that the mind will wander, and the concerns of the day will become distractions. So the next main part of this process is to be non-judgemental - to see the thoughts, ideas and worries in a neutral way, and then gently guide the mind back to the intended focus.

The Christian aspect is quite low key, but there’s an ongoing awareness that God is here, with us, in each present moment. By pausing in our busyness, and taking a moment - if only half a minute - to slow down, we give God some space to speak. I very much liked the idea that intercessory prayer, very often, doesn’t need words - but a sense of holding a situation or person up to God, and asking him to act in whatever way is right.

I read about a chapter each day, over a period of a couple of weeks, and found a lot to ponder on. The explanations are clear, and I could see even from brief attempts at the few exercises, that it can indeed be possible to develop more of an attitude of mindfulness.

The writing is mostly good - clear, sometimes self-deprecating, and easy to read, with plenty to think about. I felt in places that it could have done with a good proofreader, when some words are repeated too many times, or there are an abundance of exclamation marks, but these are minor and didn’t really detract from the overall value of the book.

I would recommend it highly to anyone who is interested in becoming more mindful, thoughtful or non-judgemental. It’s written from a Christian perspective, and would be particularly interesting to anyone suspicious about the idea of mindfulness. But so long as you don’t mind discussion of God and prayer, it could be of value to anyone as a thorough introduction to the topic.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

04/06/2018

I Won't be Home for Christmas (by Amanda Prowse)

I first read one of Amanda Prowse’s books early in 2016, and liked it very much. So I put another of her books on my wishlist, and was given it for a recent birthday. ‘I won’t be home for Christmas’ is, as the blurb told me, about a mother whose daughter is the other side of the world. As that resonates with my own experience of having sons living in other countries, and the reviews were mostly positive, I thought it could be a good read.

Viv is the main character; she was abandoned by her husband when her children were quite young, and brought them up by herself. Her son is married and lives nearby but Viv finds her daughter-in-law quite difficult. Her daughter Emma has been backpacking around the world for the past few years. When a letter arrives for Viv, in Emma’s handwriting, she hopes it might be to say that her daughter is coming home for Christmas. Instead it contains a surprise invitation to Emma’s wedding… to a man Viv had never even heard of.

Viv shares everything with her closest friend Ellen, so she rushes to their local cafe and they discuss the invitation over coffee. I didn’t really take to Ellen who is loud and sometimes crude… and as the book progressed, I liked her less and less. I could mostly empathise with Viv, and indeed with the fact that she and Ellen became friends at primary school when they happened to be seated next to each other. But I could never believe in her as a close adult friend, of the kind where there are no secrets. Ellen is clearly generous and kind-hearted underneath her rough exterior, but somehow the close friendship with Viv never feels real to me.

The two set off on the lengthy trip to New Zealand, with a day’s stopover in Hong Kong. At that point I started getting rather bored. They visit many places of interest in Hong Kong, and do some shopping, but the lengthy chapter describing everything they see adds nothing to the story. I found myself skimming more and more until the last sentence of the chapter which looked as if it might lead to high drama….then the start of the next chapter sees the problem resolved, and only ever mentioned in passing as a joke.

I felt there was too much description once they reached New Zealand, too. We’re told every detail about Emma’s fiancĂ© Michael’s father’s home, and the lovely views they can see. However, we finally meet Michael, who seems rather a cold, workaholic person, and his father Gil who clearly finds Viv rather attractive…

It’s not a bad story, and I liked Gil very much. I appreciate, in general, novels that have middle-aged characters as the main protagonists. Of the younger generation, Emma is a loving, friendly person although I never quite swallowed her evident naivety, or indeed why she fell in love with such a different kind of person. Despite her having travelled so much, and met so many people, she seems to have very little sense of what other people might like, and gets things wrong rather more often than was credible.

There’s a lot of dialogue, most of it believable and well written. But it quickly occurred to me that the author seems to have tried to avoid the word ‘said’ in this novel. When using actions to designate who said what, that’s mostly fine, although there is rather a lot of shrugging, lip-curling, nodding and other gestures that made most conversations seem quite tiring. Even more disturbing was that so many people kept yelling, whispering, conceding, protesting, sighing, cutting in… words and phrases that didn’t quite ring true, and jolted me almost every time.

My other problem with the book is that there’s a crude and (as far as I could tell) irrelevant prologue which set the scene in a negative way. It introduces Viv and Ellen as eight-year-olds. They are very different in background, and even then it was hard for me to understand what they see in each other. If I had been Viv, after the conversation at the end of the prologue, I would have cooled the friendship rapidly.

On the plus side, there’s very little bad language, no intimate bedroom scenes or descriptions of anything I didn’t want to know about, and no violence. Moreover, some of the characters got under my skin, Viv and Emma in particular. I kept reading, sometimes for an hour or more at a time.

I was intrigued to know whether the wedding would happen. I was curious whether Gil and Viv would get together, and whether any of them would ever return to the UK. In the second half of the book the story progresses at a good pace with less description, and the ending is, on the whole, satisfactory. It’s perhaps a tad too neat and tidy for reality, but I don’t have a problem with that.

I’m glad I read the book, on balance; it’s certainly one to borrow from the library, perhaps for a holiday period as it’s light reading that can easily be put down. If you enjoy light women’s fiction, and don’t object to detailed description and convoluted speech tags, then you may well like this book more than I did.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

30/05/2018

Summer Term at the Chalet School (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)


I fell in love with Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s ‘Chalet School’ series when I was about eight or nine, and found the first twenty or so books on shelves in my grandmother’s house in Scotland. As a teenager, I discovered the rest of the series - at least thirty more books! - in my school library, and borrowed them, one at a time, for my mother to read while I did my homework, and for me to read later.

My mother started collecting the books later on, and as a young adult I would delve into a few of them each time I visited. My intention was to re-read the whole series every ten years or so, but instead I tended to dip into my favourites time and again. I’m sure I must have re-read ‘Summer Term at the Chalet School’ at some point, but I don’t have any record of having done so. That means it’s at least twenty years since I read it, and quite possibly considerably longer.

It’s number 54 in the original series, 58 in the Armada paperback version. I have an Armada edition, but apparently this is one of the Chalet School books that was not abridged in any way. The title isn’t very appealing; it sounds more like a generic school story, or perhaps an Enid Blyton - so I was a little surprised to find that this is a very enjoyable story.

Erica Jane Standish is the ‘new girl’ in this book. We meet her when she recognises Joey Maynard in one of Brent-Dyer’s coincidences that have to be taken with a large grain of salt. However I didn’t have time to find it annoying, because Erica’s story is a sad one, and within a few pages, I had quite a lump in my throat and my eyes were a misty.

Erica’s main feature is that she is not just accident-prone, but unexpected things seem to happen around her. There’s a dramatic incident on the way to the school (where, naturally, she is accepted) and another even more tear-jerking episode where Joey’s motherly nature once again comes to the forefront.

Once in school, the story reverts to a run-of-the-mill Chalet School book for a while. We see the usual lessons through Erica’s eyes, and the struggle to learn French and German. She’s hardly distinguishable from other new girls, other than her tendency to attract problems, mostly through no fault of her own.

The ending, after a dramatic climax, is quite abrupt, but most of the subplots were tidied up by that point. On the whole, though I liked it - and had no memory at all of any of the story. Once I’d started, I could barely put it down. I look forward already to re-reading it when I next read through the whole series.

'Summer Term at the Chalet School' was republished by Girls Gone By a few years ago but is not currently in print. Armada paperback versions can sometimes be found in charity shops, however, and it's often possible to find either hardbacks (at great price) or the more recent reprints second-hand online.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

29/05/2018

Moving On (by Alexandra Raife)

Interspersed with new books I’m re-reading several of my favourite authors, one of whom is Alexandra Raife. She wrote twelve character-based novels, all based in Scotland, and I enjoyed them all very much, one at a time. After being given the first few, I acquired most of the rest shortly after they were published. Re-reading them ten or more years later., I’ve entirely forgotten the storylines, and am liking them all over again.

‘Moving On’ features two main characters. Helen is approaching sixty, and lives with her extremely demanding husband. She’s close friends with her near neighbour Catriona, a young and naive woman who is about to leave the village of Luig to start a business course. Catriona’s departure is the catalyst for Helen to decide that she cannot bear to stay married a moment longer…

The first part of the novel follows each of them as they embark on new lives. Catriona finds her course fairly easy, but student life in general a huge strain. Helen spends some time living with her son and his rather annoying wife but quickly realises that it’s not going to work out. And then, perhaps a year after the opening section of the book, both Helen and Catriona move back to Luig.

So the main part of the book sees the two of them re-connecting, and gradually settling into a more relaxed, fulfilling way of life. Most of the story involves different relationships; it’s a character-based book, seeing the two main characters become close once more, and also introducing a potential romantic interest - but until the final chapters, it’s not clear what’s going to happen.

There’s perhaps a bit too much introspection for my tastes. The viewpoint switches regularly, not just between Helen and Catriona, but sometimes seeing things through the eyes of other characters. It wasn’t really a problem, although it meant I didn’t feel particularly close to either of the women. I’m similar age to Helen, and found her a sympathetic character on the whole, but found it a bit annoying when she kept going over the same ground in her mind.

However, I enjoy this kind of book in general, and felt the setting and most of the people were quite believable. I’m not sure I quite swallowed Helen’s daughter-in-law’s appalling taste and total lack of empathy, but even she isn’t a deliberately bad person.

I liked Catriona, who had appeared in some of the author’s earlier books set in the same place. It’s a coming-of-age kind of story from her point of view, and also somewhat for Helen as she gradually settles into her niche and accepts who she is.

While this book stands alone, I like the way Alexandra Raife's stories often build on situations and people she has introduced in other novels. So for the sake of continuity, it's best read after - possibly -'The Larach' and perhaps more importantly, 'Belonging', the first two novels counted as part of the author's 'West Coast Trilogy'.

Definitely recommended if you like gentle women’s fiction of this kind. I shall probably re-read it again in another ten years or so.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

21/05/2018

No Wind of Blame (by Georgette Heyer)


I started acquiring Georgette Heyer’s historical romance books about forty years ago, and have re-read most of them several times. But it was only around twelve years ago when I realised that she had also written some light crime fiction set in the early and middle of the 20th century, somewhat in the Agatha Christie style. I have gradually acquired eleven of them at charity shops. About eight months ago, I discovered that there was just one missing from my collection, ‘No Wind of Blame’, so ordered it from Amazon’s second-hand marketplace.

The book has sat on my to-read shelf since then, but I picked it up a week or so back, and have been reading it at odd moments. Unlike most of Christie’s novels, the crime doesn’t actually take place until about a third of the way through; several chapters are taken up with establishing the people and their personalities. Heyer was very good at creating believable characters, and has quite a cast here, set in a rural area with the mansion known as Palings at the centre.

Ermyntrude is a wealthy lady, rather larger than life in every respect, married to the easily-led (and appropriately-named) Wally. The main viewpoint character is Wally’s cousin and ward, Mary; she’s a sensible, kind-hearted young woman who manages to be polite and caring to even the most foolish of people. Ermyntrude’s daughter Vicky is a little younger than Mary, and likes to play different dramatic roles…

The story opens as this rather unusual family are preparing to welcome a Georgian Prince as a house guest. Ermyntrude, who is not generally recognised by the upper classes, has used him as the bait for a dinner party which she is about to hold.

If this were an Agatha Christie, someone at the dinner party would no doubt be found lifeless at some point, but this book doesn’t follow that formula. Instead we see various characters relating to each other, giving insights into their personalities, and also some low-key ironical humour. I was not very impressed with one couple who have developed pseudo-evangelical ‘God-following’ zeal, and are generally considered annoying by everyone else; they feel fake and out of place, and indeed seem to vanish from the cast list as the book progresses.

However, in the young man Hugh (a barrister), the doctor Maurice Chester, and the irritating Harold White, among others, Heyer created memorable and interesting people whom I had no trouble telling apart. Vicky’s histrionics provide some light diversion; Vicky, on the whole, is a likeable person so the inevitable teasing is mostly in good taste.

Inspector Hemmingway, who features in other Heyer crime fiction novels, appears in this book once crime has happened and has bewildered the local constabulary. He’s always good value, with a dry sense of the ridiculous, and plenty of humility about his abilities.

The plot, too, is nicely done. There aren’t as many red herrings and other false trails as Agatha Christie generally employed, but Heyer manages to make almost all the characters seem potentially guilty, with motivation of some kind. When alibis prove false, I had worked out in advance that something dubious was going on… all but that of the eventually discovered perpetrator.

The eventual unravelling of the criminal deed is a tad more complex than I liked. The method is not something I could possibly have guessed, although there are some subtle clues, most of which I failed to notice. Character-wise, however, the ending is, in my view, entirely satisfactory.

‘No Wind of Blame’ was published in 1939, and written as a contemporary novel for that era. It went out of print for a while, but in recent years Heyer’s crime fiction novels, as well as her historical ones, have been re-printed regularly and can often be found second-hand.

Recommended if you enjoy light crime fiction set in the years between the world wars.  Don't, however, read the blurb on the back since - at least in my edition - it gives far too many spoilers.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews