03/08/2021

The Chalet School in Exile (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)

I love reaching this point when I am rereading my way through Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s lengthy ‘Chalet School’ series. I last read ‘The Chalet School in Exile’ at the end of 2010, and recalled that it was moving and surprisingly powerful. But inevitably I had forgotten most of the details. 


This book was published in 1940, set (I assume) a year earlier, as the thread of World War II is looming.  The Chalet School owners and Head are very worried, particularly about their German and Austrian students. Numbers are down already as parents no longer want to risk sending their daughters to what is likely to become a Nazi hotspot - and the decision is made that the school must close, possibly re-opening somewhere safer. 


It’s a dramatic start to the book, and the first half is not a school story at all - no classroom anecdotes, but an astonishingly authentic contemporary account of what it would have been like for teenagers of all nationalities at the start of the war.  The author does not gloss over some of the horrors and atrocities; she doesn’t give any gratuitous details, but she doesn’t ensure everyone is rescued or safe either. There are people who die in this book; there’s a violent riot, and there’s a traumatic and thrilling escape when it’s realised that some girls are in extreme danger.  


‘The Chalet School in Exile’ was divided into two books when it was published in Armada;  I’ve had a hardback (full) edition for a long time, and I can see that there’s a natural dividing place about half way through.  The first half describes what happens as the school and various of its members attempt to leave Austria and reach safer countries. The second half is set in Guernsey with the attempt to start a new, smaller Chalet School.  But apparently even with two entire paperbacks, there were significant cuts, including one entire chapter being removed. So this book is well worth acquiring in an older hardback or more recent ‘Girls Gone By’ version rather than the Armadas. 


There’s a lot more in the book, of course.  Joey, in her early twenties, discovers what really matters to her, and matures in unexpected ways. She gives the school some surprises, too. Several of her friends mature also, some of them through loss of loved ones, or through the enormous stress of not knowing what happened to their husbands or fathers. It’s kept from being an ultra-heavy book by the second half - another reason for having the full edition - which does have some school events, including attempts by the Middles to stir things up. 


I particularly liked  the way that three families from the ‘La Rochelle’ series (which I read a couple of years ago) reappear in this book, and become friendly with Joey and Madge. Their offspring are not much older than they were in the last ‘La Rochelle’ book, ‘Janie Steps In’, so it was very good to read about them too, and how some of them adjust to the Chalet School. It’s not essential to have read that book or any of the others in the series before ‘The Chalet School in Exile’, but it adds to the story to have done so. Reading earlier books in the Chalet School series helps too, as there's quite a large cast, but is perhaps less significant in this important book which stands alone in many ways.


There were several sections of this book where my eyes misted over - the writing is powerful, inspiring, and educational too - I learned more about the realities of WWII from having read this book as a teenager than I ever did from history lessons at school. 


Very highly recommended indeed if you like teenage fiction and school-related stories. This is, to my mind, the very best of the ‘Chalet School’ series. The full editions tend to be pricey, but can sometimes be found at reasonable prices on social media 'marketplaces', or at second-hand shops.


Review copyright 2021 Sue's Book Reviews

The Hot Line (by Peter Lawrence)

Peter Lawrence was an Anglican clergyman in Birmingham (UK) in the 1980s, when the events of this book took place. Hoping for a bit more enthusiasm, and some answers to prayer, he started reading more, talking to people who had experienced dramatic healings, and experimenting in a small way in his own congregation. His book ‘The Hot Line’, which I last read in 2006,  is biographical. It charts much of what he learned, with many anecdotes as well as Scriptural references and explanations. 


It could have been quite heavy-going, or - alternatively - the kind of book that makes people roll their eyes and either disbelieve it, or feel inadequate. But it’s not like that at all. It’s self-deprecating in places, with more accounts of failure than success. Towards the end he writes about meeting David Watson, who believed strongly in the power of prayer but who also didn’t believe he was going to be healed. And there are many other such incidents.


The prologue explains that it’s a book for beginners, written by a beginner. Rather than waiting until he had a decade or more of experience behind him, the author believed it was right to embark on the book while he still had vivid memories of his early experiences. And it works well. He doesn’t come across as a wild charismatic, or someone super-spiritual in any way, but a very ordinary, likeable man who cares for his congregation and doesn’t like to appear foolish. 


Moreover, each time he reads or hears about something new to him, he goes to the Bible, discusses the issues with people older and wiser than he is, and spends much time in prayer. He conducts ordinary Anglian services and offers ‘ministry’ at the end, rather than doing anything too dramatic. At least to start with. 


The book covers several different aspects of learning to trust and hear from God, well organised and with plenty of Scriptural backing. So there’s a chapter about healing the sick, including many questions about why God does not always heal people.  There are chapters about dealing with demons - written in a practical, non-dramatic way - and about hearing and giving ‘words’ from God - specific messages to individuals, which might or might not be claimed.


To someone outside the church, or who has never come across this kind of direct ‘hotline’ to God, it might seem surreal, disturbing, possibly even heretical. The first time I read it, I was quite cynical beforehand - and I had already read some of the better-known books about supernatural healing and similar topics. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe it was possible, just that I found it all so very uncomfortable. I suspect I wouldn’t have done so in Peter Lawrence’s church, as he makes it clear that it was essential to be sensitive to each individual and to the mood of the congregation.  As far as I can tell from this book, he avoided any kind of manipulation.  


I would recommend this highly for anyone wanting an introduction to these topics that’s clear, well-written, non-threatening and soundly based on Scripture. Unfortunately this, and the author's other books are out of print, but they can sometimes be found second-hand, or in church libraries.


Review copyright 2021 Sue's Book Reviews

02/08/2021

The Salt Path (by Raynor Winn)

I hadn’t heard of Raynor Winn, and don’t often buy biographical books, so I might never have come across ‘The Salt Path’. But it was the book allocated for this month’s reading group, so I acquired it some months ago, and finished reading it yesterday.  What an amazing story it is!


The first chapter - after a hopeful prologue - is harrowing. Raynor and her husband Moth (I have no idea if that’s his real name) are on their final appeal in a court case against a former friend. Due to an administrative issues, their latest evidence is not accepted, and they lose. Not just their life savings, but their home, their land, their possessions, and their business.  They have just a few days to get out, and no idea what they might do.


To add to this nightmare, Moth is diagnosed with an auto-immune disease which, the doctors assure them, is going to progress and take his life within a few years. He must take it easy, avoid anything strenuous, and use a drug - one I had not heard of - to ease the pain. Unfortunately the side effects of the drug include tiredness, brain fog, and many other unpleasant symptoms. 


They stay, at first, with a friend - they have two young adult children, away at university, who are unable to accommodate them. But they’re anxious not to overstay their welcome, and want to do something different - albeit crazy, given Moth’s state of health. They determine to walk the South West coast path, including the whole of Devon and Cornwall. 


This coastal trail is over 600 miles from start to finish, and they have under fifty pounds a week (in tax credits) to survive on. But Raynor is full of enthusiasm, and Moth wants to do something before his health deteriorates further. So they spend the small amount of money they have left on large backpacks, and some basic camping equipment, and set out.  


The middle of the book charts their walk, and I admit I skimmed some of the details of the scenery and coastline - some of it was interesting, but I find descriptive passages mostly leave me cold. I could appreciate the writing style, however; it borders on poetic at times, and there was only ever a paragraph or two at a time that caused my eyes to glaze over. Mostly there’s action - a surprising amount going on, despite the inevitable sameness of much of the path.


I knew, from the prologue, that Moth’s health was going to improve, but there are many setbacks along the way.  There are aches and pains, blisters and worse, but the mood is mostly upbeat; the problems described without complaint. What came through most powerfully was the committed, close relationship between Moth and Ray. They’re best friends as well as a married couple of over thirty years.  And there’s a surprising amount of gentle, low-key humour. 


As well as physical changes, and much discomfort, Moth and Ray find their priorities changing, too. They meet some delightful people, and some who distance themselves as soon as they mention being homeless. There are side comments - and one chapter - outlining the problem of homelessness in the UK, and the way it’s either marginalised, or caricatured. Yet every homeless person is different, many of them in this state through no fault of their own.


Overall, I thought the writing excellent, and the ending extremely encouraging. The events of the book took place in 2013 and from what I gather online, Moth is still alive. The success of this book must have helped their finances considerably - and apparently there’s a sequel - but they didn’t know that was coming when they finished the path and moved on to the next stage of their life. 


Very highly recommended. 


Review copyright 2021 Sue's Book Reviews

29/07/2021

The Masqueraders (by Georgette Heyer)

I started reading Georgette Heyer’s novels in my late teens, after being given some by a relative. At the time, I appreciated most the overtly romantic novels, those set in the upper-class homes where young debutantes attended balls and soirĂ©es, albeit with some humour and clever dialogue. I then started acquiring others, mostly second-hand, as an adult and first read ‘The Masqueraders’ in 1988. I noted at the time that I found it rather slow to start, and awarded it just three stars in my mind. 


I’ve read this book several times now - once or twice per decade - the last time being in 2012.  So although I recalled the general outline of the story, I had entirely forgotten most of the detail.  The first time I read it, I remember being quite confused when the ‘masquerade’ was revealed, a few chapters into the book. I had to re-read the first part again, to make sense of it. That’s not something I’ve forgotten, of course, but it doesn’t much matter. Indeed, the blurb on the back of my edition gives away this part of the story. 


But I hadn’t really remembered just how much excitement there is in the story. A brother and sister have escaped from France, where they were known as Jacobites, and could theoretically be hanged for treason. Now they’re on the run, making their way towards London and an old friend of their father’s. And it’s clear that they’re following instructions given to them by their father, who is evidently a man of tremendous imagination, and clever with his planning - so much so that he regularly gets his son and daughter into seriously risky situations.


The first event of the book involves a young woman called Letty who has eloped with a young man, Markham, only to discover that he’s not as romantic as she thought. He’s started drinking, and she has become scared… but she doesn’t want to go home to be married to Sir Anthony, a large man rather older than she is.  The main protagonists of the book manage to rescue Letty, although Sir Anthony is not far behind. And it’s quickly clear that he doesn’t in fact want to marry her at all. He moves slowly and seems rather placid, but it’s evident that there’s rather more going on inside his head than is apparent to most. 


Much of the book takes place in London, with some dancing and card playing, with a great deal of intrigue and some aggression.  The father appears unexpectedly, claiming to be the lost heir of a title - but nobody, including his children, have any idea if his claim is true. He’s a delightfully brazen character, full of his own importance and cleverness, always a step ahead of everyone who tries to discredit him. 


There are incidents with highway robberies, a planned duel and an actual one; some violence, and some rapid escapes. Not usually my preferred reading, as it’s quite tense in places, and yet I found it a most engaging story. I knew how it ended, of course, but still found it difficult to put the book down while I was reading.


The language is, as far as I can tell, authentic for the period which makes some of it difficult to understand - but that never seems to matter with Heyer. Occasionally I have paused to check the meaning of a word or phrase, or even read about a historical incident - but it’s not necessary. The broad meaning is clear, and after a chapter or two the style of speaking starts to feel realistic.  


Heyer was gifted at characterisation, and also at plotting. This novel reaches its climax in a legal meeting where many of the cast are gathered to learn whether the eccentric father is the person he is now claiming to be. Several of the author’s other novels culminate in a gathering that draws together several threads, and it’s a device that works well. 


There are romantic threads, of course - more confused than usual due to the masquerade that takes place for most of the book - and they’re nicely done, with a resolution that doesn’t stop as abruptly as some of Heyer’s novels to.


All in all, I’d now rank this novel as one of my favourites.


Review copyright 2021 Sue's Book Reviews

27/07/2021

Postcards from the Past (by Marcia Willett)

I am thoroughly enjoying re-reading my large collection of novels by Marcia Willett.  It’s only six years since I read ‘Postcards from the Past’, but I had entirely forgotten the story. When I picked it up to re-read a couple of days ago, and realised that there was something of a mystery, I wondered if I would recall the outcome: but I didn’t. I found the the book difficult to put down, and finished it rather later last night than I was planning to be awake.


The novel opens in quite a dramatic way. Billa - who lives with her brother Ed - finds a postcard in the mail. It’s from Tris, a stepbrother whom she had not seen or heard of in fifty years - and she never liked him. The picture on the front reminds her of an unpleasant incident with Tris as a child, and she feels very disturbed. It takes her a day or two to show Ed, and he too feels almost threatened by the casual message, saying that Tris was on his way to see them. 


Just down the street lives their older half-brother Dom, someone they have always loved and respected, who also had a bad experience with Tris as a child. Dom, too, receives a nasty postcard that gives him a jolt. And a third one arrives, one that targets one of Billa’s worst memories. They start to worry that, even after all this time, Tris can cause chaos or worse…


But there’s never just one story in Marcia Willett’s novels. Another significant character is Tilly, Dom’s goddaughter, who’s staying with him while she’s between jobs. She’s doing some part-time work at the local pub, and she’s also helping a school friend with a start-up business, helping older people with IT. She’s a sociable person who prefers being part of a team to working alone, but she likes spending time with the clients she meets. One of them is the recently widowed Sir Alec, whom she likes enormously. 


Another client is a retreat house, and I was very pleased to realise - as happened the first time I read it - that this novel has a connection with ‘The Christmas Angel’, which I re-read just a couple of months ago.  The delightful nuns, including the enthusiastic Sister Emily, make an appearance, as Tilly is asked to set up and maintain a website for them. And Clem, newly ordained, with his son Jakey now seven years old, plays an important part in the story. Jakey is one of my favourite of all Marcia Willett’s creations; I knew he reappeared, aged ten, in the novel ‘Homecomings’, but had quite forgotten that he has an important part to play in this book too. 


So it’s a character-based story, with mostly very likeable, believable people interacting in a variety of ways - but there was also the threat of Tris reappearing, hovering at the back of my consciousness, and impinging on Billa and her brothers increasingly.  With a multi-viewpoint narrative, we get to see hints of Tris, spying out the scene, getting to know some of the younger folk before he actually makes his appearance. It’s not obvious at all how much he can be trusted, although he’s clearly doing things in an underhand way. It causes just the right amount of tension without (at least from the reader point of view) too much stress. 


There’s quite a dramatic climax - Tris, it turns out, does have some extenuating circumstances for his nastiness as a child, and I felt some sympathy for him, as did Billa and Ed. But even though the reader also gets to see him when he’s plotting and laughing at how easy it is to fool them, I still didn’t recall the events of the final chapters. 


I thought it an excellent novell, and would recommend it to anyone who likes character-based women’s fiction with a bit of a bite - particularly anyone who has read and enjoyed ‘The Christmas Angel’.


Review copyright 2021 Sue's Book Reviews