15/09/2019

A Price for Everything (by Mary Sheepshanks)

In the past eighteen months I have started re-reading, in a mostly organised fashion, the books by some of my favourite authors. I decided it was time to re-read my books by Mary Sheepshanks (confusingly also known as Mary Nickson). It had been quite a long time since I read any of them, so I decided to start with ‘A Price for Everything’, which I first read in 2006.

I had totally forgotten what this book was about, and the characters in it. So that was a good start - it felt like a new book, but I knew I was going to like it. It’s basically about a home - a family mansion which, as happened so often towards the end of the 20th century, is becoming far too expensive to maintain. Archie, Lord Dunton, is the owner. It passed to him after the death of his grandmother just six months before the story starts.

Archie is a realist. He wants to make the farmland pay for itself, but has proposed moving his family to a much smaller home on the estate, one which they could improve and live in without too much extra expense. But his wife Sonia adores the house, and is determined to stay. This has caused considerable friction in their marriage.

Archie and Sonia have four children. Polly is a teenager, Tom must be about twelve and is at boarding school most of the time. Then there are two younger ones: Birdie must be about six or seven, and Cassie is probably three or four. These two young children are possibly the most believable people in the book. Cassie has a strong sense of her own importance, a bossy nature, and an expectation that people will do whatever she wants. Birdie is much more sensitive, mostly willing to go along with her sister’s wishes, and very aware of tension or lack of harmony in the home. So much so that she has nightmares, and upset stomachs. I liked Birdie very much.

They also have several friends - mostly upper or upper-middle class folk like themselves, and there are various picnics, tennis parties and gatherings for lunches or dinners. I didn’t find any of the friends particularly memorable or distinguishable; they were mostly somewhat two-dimensional, playing their parts in the background. Other than the voluptuous Rosie, married to someone who mostly ignores her. Sonia is pretty sure that Archie is having an affair with her…

Archie’s mother is important in the story, although I never entirely believed in her. She’s opinionated and vain, although fond of her family in a general kind of way. She travels the world, often dragging her 16-year-old daughter Martha with her, and she likes men. When we meet her, she’s embroiled with a dubious monk, who is part of a bizarre sect.

It’s a light-hearted story, on the whole; I don’t suppose it’s all supposed to be taken seriously, as there are highly caricatured people and some mildly amusing interchanges here and there. There’s an over-pious and enthusiastic vicar who tends to be a bit of a figure of fun in the parish, although church-going and church involvement are seen as important. His very middle-class family also manages, in a slightly pointed way, to demonstrate some of the differences between the values and practices of traditional British classes.

But the underlying theme is a serious one - of finding what we value, and (as the title implies) deciding how important our families and homes are. It also gently examines what price we might be willing to pay to maintain them. Of course the situations in the book are only relevant to a tiny number of people; but the principles are still relevant, and possibly all the more palatable for being seen in families far removed from the majority.

The writing is good, with just the right amount of description and introspection for my tastes. It didn’t particularly grip me; despite having entirely forgotten the content of the book, I assumed the home would eventually be saved, but had no idea whether Archie and Sonia’s marriage would be. The final chapters of the book are perhaps a tad dramatic and cliched, forcing Sonia to make a difficult decision; everything then sorts itself out - bar some nostalgia and regrets - rather quickly.

Overall I enjoyed the book a lot, and am glad I re-read it.  'A Price for Everything' is long out of print in paperback, but can now be bought in Kindle form. 

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

13/09/2019

The Forever House (by Veronica Henry)


I had not heard of Veronica Henry when Amazon started recommending one of her books to me, a couple of years ago, based on what I had previously liked. I like to try new authors, and the reviews of her books seemed mostly positive, so I added ‘The Forever House’ to my wishlist. I was given it for my birthday nearly eighteen months ago, and it sat on my to-be-read shelf for all that time.

I finally started it on Sunday, and finished it this morning. What a wonderful book! It’s well-written, with some three-dimensional characters, a very low-key romance, and an entirely satisfying conclusion.

Brenda is the first person we meet; she’s a young estate agent who runs her own business, and is clearly very successful in what she does. She’s saving up for the deposit on a house of her own - a ‘forever house’ - but in the meantime lives in a flat above her office.

We meet her as she’s about to do a valuation on a large, well-maintained house called Hunter’s Moon. Sally and Alex are the owners, but Brenda just meets Sally to start with. This is appropriate, as these two women are the main protagonists of the novel. Sally is in her late sixties now, and it quickly becomes apparent that she and her husband really don’t want to sell their family home. But Alex has recently been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, and they want to move somewhere cheaper and easier to maintain.

Brenda and Sally like each other immediately; and although they play very different roles, and have different skills, I found their personalities a bit too similar to distinguish them easily. They are both good organisers, both have an eye for design, both are extremely kind and intuitively empathic. That doesn’t matter when we’re involved in the contemporary part of the book, as Brenda organises an open day and attempts to sell the house.

But a significant part of the book takes place in 1967 when Sally had just left home, and when she first meets Alex and his family. It’s nicely done; the forays into the past work almost seamlessly, as Sally remembers events from her youth. Sally came from a working-class family who didn’t travel much, and who were quite close. Brenda came from a military family who moved constantly; hence her deep desire for a home of her own. However, both have traumas from their past, which are hinted at and eventually revealed; and despite the very difficult circumstances and names, I more than once forgot which one I was reading about.

It was my only slight problem with the book; one which probably wouldn’t have arisen if I had not kept reading when I needed to sleep. There’s a wide cast of minor characters, some of them a tad stereotyped, but I didn’t have any problem distinguishing those. A lot of the story involves Alex’s family, when he is a young man and his younger sister Annie is about sixteen. Their mother Margot was a well-known novelist at the time. She was bohemian in the extreme, and suffered mood-swings as well as some writers’ block.

I didn’t much like Margot; I felt quite sorry for her husband at times. And I never entirely believed in their oldest daughter Phoebe, who is a clothes designer - but that didn’t matter. Alex and Annie felt well-rounded and believable, and Sally - who works for them - likeable, well-organised, and good humoured.

There’s not a whole lot of plot. The storyline switches between the present and the past, gradually building up a picture of how Sally and Alex met and fell in love, and also gradually revealing more about Brenda’s past, including her former connection with someone who betrayed her. Perhaps more could have been made of her rivalry with another estate agent company, whom she used to work for; but I was glad there wasn’t any direct conflict or tension.

By the time I was just a few chapters in I could hardly put this book down. I found the last couple of chapters extremely moving, and when I had finished, I immediately put a few more Veronica Henry novels on my wishlist.

Definitely recommended to anyone who likes gentle character-based women’s fiction.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

12/09/2019

Madam, Will You Talk? (by Mary Stewart)


I have been enjoying re-reading my Mary Stewart novels. I first discovered this author when I was a teenager, and borrowed several of her books from my school library. I started acquiring them an adult years later, and was delighted when many of them were re-published in the past ten years. I was given ‘Madam, Will you Talk?’ just over eight years ago, and read it almost immediately. So it was more than time for a re-read.

The story is about a young woman called Charity, who is on holiday in France with her friend Louise. Charity, we quickly discover, was briefly married and then widowed during the war. As with most of Mary Stewart’s novels, this was written as a contemporary novel during the 1950s, when World War II was still vivid in many people’s memories.

We get hints right from the start that Charity is going to become embroiled in a drama - a tragedy, even - although she has no idea of it when she and Louise sit down for drinks on the terrace of their hotel. Louise is a relaxed, laid-back kind of person who wants to sunbathe, read, and draw. Charity is keen on sight-seeing, and is more a person of action.

Her role in the drama starts when she sees a boy called David, who is staying at the hotel with his dog Rommel and his step-mother. There are several other guests, briefly described, but Charity finds herself drawn to David in particular. He’s polite, and friendly, but clearly has suffered and has some secrets which he’s not willing to talk about.

Charity over-hears some worrying discussions, and when she takes David out for the day to do some sight-seeing, he becomes very frightened when he spots his father, Richard Byron. Charity is nervous about him too because by this time she’s learned that David’s father was a suspected murderer, although there wasn’t enough evidence to convict him. And it appear that he’s suffering some kind of breakdown… the word ‘mad’ is used, although it’s no longer politically correct or even helpful as a description of someone behaving in irrational and potentially dangerous ways.

Although it’s only eight years since I had read the book, I had entirely forgotten the people and the story-line. I had my suspicions from the start about who to trust, some of which were correct. But I had no memory at all of the back-story - the motive for the crime that David’s father was accused of - nor of the resolution. Nor did I remember that the middle of the book is taken up with a long and tense car chase.

The writing is excellent, as I expect with Mary Stewart, and the characters mostly well-developed. I didn’t empathise particularly with Charity - I’m more like her laid-back and essentially lazy friend Louise. But I liked her, and admired her. Unusually for a 1950s heroine she’s feisty, courageous, and an excellent driver. These traits stand her in good stead in what turns out to be a very dangerous situation.

It’s not an over-tense thriller, however. I don’t like books that pile on the tension; Mary Stewart, in my view, gets exactly the right amount. It helps that it’s interwoven with some light-hearted banter, and even a rather low-key (and very rapidly resolved) love story.

It took me about a third of the book to begin to feel any tension and to be involved in the storyline, but for the last two-thirds it was difficult to put it down. There is more violence than I like, and a very nasty end for a few people; but the ending is conclusive and satisfactory.

Recommended if you enjoy light romantic thrillers from the middle of the 20th century.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

10/09/2019

A Long Walk in Wintertime (by Libby Purves)

I am very much enjoying re-reading my Libby Purves novels, interspersed with others of my favourite writers, and some new (to me) books. In the last couple of days I have re-read ‘A Long Walk in Wintertime’, a book which I have only previously read once, back in 2004. I knew I liked it very much but had totally forgotten the story and the characters.

It was perhaps a mistake to read it immediately after finishing Rosie Thomas’s ‘If my father loved me’ as there are a lot of similarities. Alice is the main protagonist in this book; she is married to Daniel who has thrown her a surprise party for her 37th birthday. Her friends are all treated to an evening at the opera, followed by a meal at Alice and Daniel’s relaxed London home. It’s a good way to introduce her closest friends, and the evening ends - as is foreshadowed almost from the start - by a dramatic confession from Daniel which changes the course of their lives.

Alice and Daniel have two children: fourteen-year-old Clemmie, and twelve-year-old Jamie. Clemmie is an organised kind of person who knows what she wants, although she cares very deeply for her family too. She has managed to win a scholarship to a prestigious new sports academy secondary school, and as we meet her she is finishing her packing, looking forward to her new life as a boarder.

Jamie, however, does not enjoy school at all. It’s not that he’s being bullied; he tends to keep away from unpleasant children, and tends to be something of a loner. He’s reasonably bright but not brilliant, and his main talent is art. Unfortunately his art teacher is very disparaging about his gift for design and patterns, and he often feels despair.

Jamie is passionate about playing ‘laserquest’ and other similar games that were so popular in the 1990s when this book was published. This becomes something of an addiction, and he gradually starts skipping school in order to play more games. He has a simple computer too and is interested in technology, but nobody can help him very much.

Daniel’s confession leads to a separation which both he and Alice hope is temporary, and while Clemmie - away at boarding school - seems to deal with it, Jamie does not. And when he’s on a train going to see his father, he decides, on the spur of the moment, to do something unexpected…

It’s not a long book but there’s a lot in it. The characterisation of the main protagonists is excellent, and the last couple of chapters extremely moving. I don’t know that I ever really identified with Alice; she’s rather a hippy in her dress sense, mostly laid-back in her attitudes, and adores opera - to the extent that she works in a low-paying job at the opera house, just so that she can be part of the scene, and hear rehearsals.

But I liked her, all the same. Rather better than I liked her husband. Her friends are a bit two-dimensional; she has one friend who is ambitious and single, and a married couple who are a bit fluffy. She also has a gay couple of friends one of whom is rather camp. Perhaps this would be seen as politically incorrect in today’s environment, but over twenty years ago when this was written, the treatment was probably seen as liberal and positive.

There’s a foray into the world of fairgrounds and the painting of roundabout horses which I gather was researched - it comes across as realistic, to me, and not too educational. I found it very interesting, along with the author’s recognition that sometimes a useful hobby can be of far more value than education in a classroom.

The book isn’t much about winter, and not particularly about walking, either, other than in the metaphorical sense. Even then, Alice and Daniel’s relationship - which is the main focus of the book - doesn’t actually take all that long to be resolved. Although I had entirely forgotten the story, I was hoping for a positive ending, and was not disappointed.

Definitely recommended if you like women’s fiction with quite a strong storyline.

While this book can often be found second-hand in charity shops or online, it's not currently in print other than in Kindle forum.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

08/09/2019

If My Father Loved Me (by Rosie Thomas)

I saw the book ‘If my father loved me’ on a church bookstall nearly a year ago. I vaguely remembered having read a couple of books by Rosie Thomas before, though I didn’t recall whether or not I liked them. But I was drawn to the cover, the byline (‘Is it ever too late to forgive?’) and the blurb on the back. So I paid my fifty pence and it has sat on my to-be-read shelf for many months.

I finally decided, at the end of last week, to read it. I am so glad I did. I was drawn into the storyline almost immediately. The book is narrated by Sadie, a woman in her fifties and we meet her having dinner with her best friend Mel. Sadie comments that her father was a perfumer, and also a con artist. She’s evidently rather guarded in what she says about her dad; it’s also clear that her childhood was nowhere near as happy as Mel’s was.

When Sadie arrives home, she is greeted by her student daughter Lola and twelve-year-old son Jack with the news that her father has been taken to hospital after a heart attack. This shocking event and its aftermath are the catalyst for Sadie digging into the past to learn more about what actually happened in her childhood, and whether or not her father had any affection for her at all.

Sadie is divorced, through her own fault, but she still has a reasonably good relationship with her former husband who has remarried himself. However she’s well aware that Jack needs his father, and feels somewhat pushed out by his father’s new wife and young family.

The writing is good, with a pace that exactly suited my tastes. There are flashback moments, as Sadie recalls incidents from her past, and they meld smoothly with the main narrative. There is quite a large cast of characters but they are distinct enough that I had few problems remembering who was whom.

While Sadie is caught up trying to come to terms with her childhood, her relationship with her son seems to be getting gradually worse. He’s not particularly happy in school, but takes a fancy to an elderly woman who appears briefly in their lives; I didn’t entirely understand why Sadie was so unhappy about this connection, but when the woman’s connection to her father is finally unravelled, it was no great surprise to me.

There’s a low-key romantic element to the book; Sadie gradually gets to know one of her son’s teachers, and while he’s not the kind of person she would normally be attracted to, a friendship gradually develops. Mel, too, finally meets someone she can love - someone who measures up to her own idea of perfection.

The book looks, through the explorations and discussions, at different parenting styles. Mel’s childhood was about as idyllic as possible, and this has left her comparing everyone unfavourably with her father. Sadie, by contrast, grew up with a series of ‘aunties’, and never felt as if her father cared for her at all. This has made her over-protective of her son in a way that he hates. However Sadie’s daughter, who went through a wildly rebellious stage in her teens, has turned into a very likeable young woman.

Twenty years ago I might have found this story slow-moving and too introspective. But reading it now, in my late fifties, I thought it a wonderful book and would recommend it highly to anyone who enjoys thoughtful character-based women's fiction.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews