20/05/2020

Sad Cypress (by Agatha Christie)


I felt like reading one of our large collection of Agatha Christie books, and found a few that I had not previously read. I have no idea how we acquired ‘Sad Cypress’ but as far as I know I had never read it. I picked it up last night, and found it so engrossing that I finished it this afternoon.

This book has an interesting construction, one which I don’t recall from previous novels by this author. It opens with a scene in a courtroom. Elinor, a young woman, is accused of murdering another woman called Mary. She pleads ‘not guilty’...

The story then moves back a month or two, and we meet Elinor chatting to her cousin-by-marriage and fiance Roderick. She loves him deeply but he’s a reserved kind of person so she tries to mask her emotions. Elinor has just received an anonymous hand-written note telling her that she needs to check up on her aunt, as someone else is trying to worm her way into her affections.

Elinor’s aunt has been ill for a while, so she and Roddy go to see her, and tell her of their engagement. It’s something she has always wanted - Roderick is her late husband’s nephew - so she’s very pleased. She is attended by two nurses and a cheerful doctor pops in and out - and he’s rather taken with Elinor.

Mary is someone Elinor and Roddy remember from their childhood, who lived in the lodge of Elinor’s aunt’s house. The aunt always took an interest in her, and paid for her education - which has left Mary in a bit of an awkward situation, back in the era when ‘class’ was determined by birth, and someone from the working classes was not supposed to be well-educated and charming. Mary has rejected a local young man who likes her, but when Roderick is captivated by her, she refuses to have anything to do with him while he’s engaged to Elinor. She wants, in any case, to train as a nurse or masseuse.

Although Agatha Christie was not great at characterisation, she could tell an excellent story, and this one is very well-written. The prologue had told me that Mary was going to be murdered, and that Elinor was going to be accused - and the story moves forward cleverly indicting Elinor at each point. I was fairly sure that there were a lot of red herrings, and that she would not in fact be guilty. But then I started to wonder; this author is good at double-bluffing; perhaps, I thought, Elinor really IS guilty.

Hercule Poirot gets involved, at the request of the doctor who suspects that Elinor might be guilty but wants anything that might demonstrate her innocence. And even if she is guilty, he wants Poirot to find out if any reasonable doubt can be cast over the case. It seems like an impossible situation: everything points to her being the only person who could possibly have done the deed. But is the evidence just too strong? Has someone ‘planted’ the clues…? And if she didn’t do it - and another crime, that becomes apparent part-way through the investigations - then who did?

Sometimes I get an inkling of ‘whodunit’ when I read Agatha Christie’s books. In this, I had no idea at all. When Poirot announced that all the people he had spoken to had lied to him, I guessed one or two of the incidents, but not all of them, and not those essential to the plot. And I still didn’t know whether or not Elinor was guilty…

As ever with this writer, the plot is clever, the clues and red herrings neatly in place, and an excellent story is told. I had no idea why the book is called ‘Sad Cypress’; apparently it’s a quotation from ‘Twelfth Night’.

Definitely recommended if you like light mid-century crime fiction with no gore, and don’t mind a fair amount of both legal and medical jargon.  As with most of Agatha Christie's novels, this one remains almost constantly in print and can also fairly easily be found second-hand.

Review copyright 2020 Sue's Book Reviews

19/05/2020

Seven Days in Summer (by Marcia Willett)

I have loved Marcia Willett’s writing for a long time now, ever since I first picked up one of her novels at a charity shop over twenty years ago. I keep an eye out for her new publications and put them on my wishlist as soon as they’re available in paperback. I was given ‘Seven Days in Summer’ for Christmas 2018 and for some reason it stayed on my to-be-read shelf all this time. Until a few days ago.

This novel - which takes place over the course of just a week - is set primarily in Devon with a few forays into Cornwall. These are areas of the country I don’t know at all, but the author clearly knows them well. The descriptions of countryside and beaches are realistic, helpful in painting a picture of the locations of the novel, but without being overdone or too poetic.

As with most of Marcia Willett’s novels, this is character-based, and it has quite a large cast of people. Baz is the central one - a man in his 60s who suffered a tragic bereavement many years earlier. He owns a large holiday home in Devon, and we meet him en route there for a holiday, travelling with his daughter-in-law Liv and her almost-five-year-old twins Freddie and Flora. Liv’s husband Matt, Baz’s son, has to work in their bistro as the manager has had an accident to his foot, but he hopes to join them for their second week.

Baz has a circle of friends near his holiday home, and they get together each year for barbecues, lunch parties and other social events. Janet and Dave are warm, caring people, and their goddaughter Sofia is staying with them after the break-up of a relationship. Miles and Annabel are a prickly kind of couple - or Annabel is; she is rather keen on Baz, and Miles treats her tolerantly, although they’re growing apart. Miles would love to be more friendly with someone else… but nothing is likely to happen.

Meanwhile a contemporary of Liv’s called Cat has appeared in Matt’s bistro. Liv cannot bear her, and Cat is clearly manipulative and selfish. She has always been envious of Liv’s laid-back and mostly contented family and this has turned into a spiteful jealousy that makes Cat determined to destroy them, if only she can find a way.

So there are several subplots alongside each other. Baz finds himself falling in love, and becomes rather disturbed by some mysterious text message he keeps receiving. Matt has been finding family life a bit stressful and Cat can be beguiling and attractive when she chooses. And there are many more interactions, including some delightful exchanges including the young twins.

There are many viewpoint changes: each chapter, and some sections within chapters move to a different person. Some authors create rather a muddle by doing this, but Marcia Willett manages it perfectly, without any jarring. The week slowly moves forward, outwardly calm with a happy family holiday, but with emotions rising high for many. The people are three-dimensional and easy to distinguish, and I found myself getting under their skins - particularly Liv’s.

It’s a gentle story, no fast action and not too much stress. I was so interested in the people and circumstances that I picked the book up every moment I could. Nothing that would make this unsuitable for teenagers - I don’t recall any bad language, and there are no intimate details. This is part of what lifts Marcia Willett’s novels above that of many authors who write in a similar genre.

Definitely recommended if you like warm, character-based women’s fiction.

Review copyright 2020 Sue's Book Reviews

16/05/2020

The Head Girl of the Chalet School (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)


In my slow re-reading of Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s ‘Chalet School’ series for teenagers, along with many other books, I have reached the fourth one she wrote: ‘The Head Girl of the Chalet School.’ It’s over ten years since I last read this book, and I had almost entirely forgotten what it was about.

It turns out that it’s not really a very memorable book at all. Grizel is the head girl of the title, and she’s quite an interesting character. She’s impetuous and strong-willed, and in the early chapters there’s quite an interesting episode when she becomes annoyed at something she is told she cannot do, and takes matters into her own hands.

At 17 I felt that Grizel ought to have known better, and certainly shouldn’t have done what she did. One member of staff feels that she ought not to be head girl, but Madge, now married to Jem Russell, wants to give her another chance. Madge understands Grizel’s unhappy background and the battles she’s had with her stepmother. She also knows how unhappy she is about having to study music when she would far rather be a PE teacher.

So Grizel is given one more chance. And whatever her faults, she is honest and usually willing to admit her faults. She’s also quite determined, and decides that she will do her very best. She wants to give something to the school where she has been so happy for the past four years, and - unsurprisingly - she mostly succeeds.

But Grizel never quite becomes the central character, although she’s involved in almost every scene in the book. There’s a snow fight where another impetuous, hot-tempered girl loses her temper, and there’s a slightly surreal kidnapping, where Grizel and Joey manage to rescue the small victim.

But even a day after finishing it, it’s hard to recall much of what happens in the book. I just glanced at the chapter headings to see if they would remind me, and one of them is entitled, ‘nothing much’. That rather sums up the book, in my view. Not that it’s a bad book, but it feels as if it was written because the author needed a sequel to her first three rather than for any sense of story.

Worth reading as part of the series, but this would not be a good one to introduce someone to Brent-Dyer’s work, and it could easily be missed out when reading through.

Having said that, I just checked the review I wrote when I last read this, in 2009. Apparently I thoroughly enjoyed it then.

Review copyright 2020 Sue's Book Reviews

10/05/2020

Reaper Man (by Terry Pratchett)

I am enjoying re-reading the Discworld books in order, interspersed with others of my favourite books and some new ones. I’ve just finished reading ‘Reaper Man’, 11th in Terry Pratchett’s brilliant and lengthy series. I recalled liking it very much the first time I read it. I had not remembered that I was less impressed last time I read it, which was in 2005.

Since I hadn’t read the book for nearly fifteen years, I didn’t remember much about it, other than the overall theme. Death, an important character in the Discworld narrative, goes missing, and an elderly wizard, due to die, finds himself in a kind of not-quite-undead situation. But that’s as far as my memory went.

It’s a dual narrative book, with the differences made extra clear in my paperback edition, as there are two slightly different fonts used. One story concerns Death: he is deemed to have developed too much of a personality to be suitable for his job. So his life is now limited - and he decides to make the most of it. He doesn’t exactly go on strike, but goes out into the world to discover what it’s like to live.

In the process, Death learns about getting drunk, about making friends, and about the satisfaction that comes with hard work. He takes on a poorly paid job with an elderly farmer called Miss Flitwick, and strikes up a rather unusual friendship with her. He also discovers that the best way to be liked by the locals is to be very bad at darts and other similar pursuits.

The other part of the book is set in Ankh Morpork, mostly featuring the wizards. Windle Poons is the very old wizard who knows that he is due to die. But Death doesn’t turn up, and he continues to exist in a way that he finds quite disturbing. And strange things start happening as the life force becomes increasingly unbalanced…

Pratchett was a master at creating the most unlikely plots that become almost believable (if one accepts the premise of the Discworld itself). So the story switches between Death (who calls himself Bill Door) and his pursuits in the world, and Windle Poons’ attempts to make sense of his own odd existence. He meets some genuinely (so to speak) undead people who want equal rights for vampires and werewolves and other similar beings. And he also finds himself surprisingly alert, his mind clearer than it’s ever been.

As with all the Discworld books there are many satirical references to situations or items in the world as we know it, and also some literary references. I’m sure I didn't get anywhere near all of them, but there are - for instance - subtle (or not-so-subtle) references to the Biblical book of Genesis, the game of monopoly, supermarket trolleys, snow globes, combine harvesters and a Monty Python sketch. It doesn’t matter when one misses references, and there are places where they can be looked up afterwards if curious about some of them.

Overall I enjoyed re-reading this very much, and would recommend it to anyone who likes the Discworld series, or slightly surreal light fantasy, a genre of which Pratchett was a master.

Review copyright 2020 Sue's Book Reviews

05/05/2020

Swallowtail Summer (by Erica James)

It’s probably twenty years since I started reading Erica James’ novels. I liked the first ones I read so much that I gradually acquired more of her work. She is still publishing new books fairly regularly, so I keep an eye on them, and as soon as they’re available in paperback I add them to my wishlist. ‘Swallowtail Summer’ was published last year, and I was given it for Christmas 2019.

I kept the book on my to-read shelf, savouring the idea of another Erica James - and finally read over the past few days. After the first few chapters it was difficult to put down, although equally I didn’t want it to end.

There’s quite a large cast of characters in this novel, but the author is so good at characterisation that I quickly recalled who was whom. Each chapter switches to a different viewpoint, but although there’s no indication at the start who is speaking, it isn’t difficult to distinguish. Each is told in the third person, so there’s no confusion.

Alastair is the central character, the catalyst for the whole story. He’s a wealthy man in his early sixties who inherited a large house, Linston End, on the Norfolk Broads. Over the years he has generously shared it with his closest friends and their families. Alastair has recently lost his wife Orla, and has been travelling abroad for some months. Now, in the first chapter, he’s returning home, although he’s come to a decision which he knows his friends are not going to like…

Simon and Danny were friends with Alastair from primary school years, inseparable as brothers, sharing - so they thought- everything. They maintained their friendship as they grew up, and Simon married Sorrel, one of Alastair’s former girlfriends. Danny, who isn’t in the best of health, is married to a delightful woman called Frankie who sees her role as peacemaker.

Simon and Sorrel have two children: Callum, who lives near Linston End and works in the boatyard, and Rachel, who’s somewhat self-centred and longs to get married. This is more for the occasion and glamour of a wedding than for wanting to spend the rest of her life with any particular individual. Rachel’s closest friend is Jenna, Danny and Frankie’s daughter, who is somewhat like her mother in character, and has recently determined never ever to have a relationship with someone she works with…

These people got under my skin to the extent that although I’m finally writing this review three days after finishing ‘Swallowtail Summer’, I still recall not just their personalities but their names. They’re a delightful mixture of people who care about each other, and spend their summer holidays together at Linston End. But, because of Alastair’s loss and the decision he’s come to, this is likely to be the last time.

Alastair’s late wife Orla is also an important part of the novel. We never meet her - other than in brief flashbacks - but her influence over each of the other characters becomes clear. The younger generation see her as a fun, creative and inspiring person. The older generation have more mixed opinions, particularly Sorrel, and it’s only towards the end that we discover exactly what her relationship with Alastair was like.

There are other people in the story, but it would be something of a spoiler to mention the significant ones. Suffice it to say that the book covers themes such as the pull of friendship, and what it really means; how it is contrasted with romantic relationships, and what love really means. It also gradually uncovers secrets that the characters keep from each other; even in Danny and Frankie’s marriage, which is loving and strong, Frankie worries more than she admits, and Danny has been visiting an old people’s home in secret…

The story takes place over the course of the summer, and while there are many interleaved storylines, it’s essentially a character-based novel. Each of the main characters learns something about themselves as well as about their loved ones. There are some shocks, one of which I didn’t see coming at all. But the other one, the climax to the book, was foreshadowed and didn’t surprise me; I didn’t particularly like it, but perhaps it was the only way forward.

As for the ending, tying threads up in a way that might be too neat and tidy for some, I thought it was beautifully done. There are resolutions, reconciliations, and encouragement for the future.

All in all, I thought this a wonderful book and would recommend it to anyone who likes thoughtful women’s fiction.

Review copyright 2020 Sue's Book Reviews