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


A Bond of Blessing (by Jaime Farkas)

Every so often I browse Amazon for free books for my Kindle. I particularly do this before travelling, and always end up with way too many books to read. It’s apparently seven years since I downloaded ‘A Bond of Blessing’, by the American writer Jaime Farkas (whom I had not heard of). I came across it recently and decided to reach a few pages each day.

It’s not a long book. It’s basically a devotional or low-key study guide based on the Biblical book of Ruth. In particular it focuses on the relationship between the Jewish Naomi, who was widowed and lost both her sons, and her daughter-in-law, the Moabite woman Ruth.

The story is well known in Christian circles: it’s one of two books in the Bible (the other being Esther) named after women. Ruth could have gone back to her own people, as her sister-in-law decided to do when Naomi sets off to return to her family’s town. But Ruth has committed herself to her late husband’s family, and is willing to renounce her own roots to stay with Naomi.

The book has as its subtitle, ‘Insights from the book of Ruth for Mothers-in-law & Daughters-in-law.’ I’m not sure I realised that when I downloaded it. Seven years ago I had been a mother-in-law for just a year, and was enjoying the experience very much. I’m not someone caught up in the negative stereotypes which surface from time to time; I’ve always had good relationships with all my in-laws. I love seeing the family growing and extending.

Still, this is a thoughtful book, well-written and encouraging. It points to Ruth as an example of self-sacrifice and devotion, and to Naomi as an excellent mother-in-law, so much so that Ruth chooses to live with her. The book looks at some of their conversations, and how Naomi is willing to give her point of view, and then allow Ruth to make her own decisions.

I thought that much of the content was relevant to all relationships, really, not just that of in-laws. There are good reminders to treat family members with respect, as well as love. For those who struggle more with in-law relationships there is also a helpful section on forgiveness and moving forwards.

It’s not a particularly long book, and it's no longer free for the Kindle. The paperback version does not seem to be in print in the UK. But if you have the opportunity to read it free, or find it in a charity shop, I would recommend it.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews


The Secret Life of a Slummy Mummy (by Fiona Neill)

I had not heard of Fiona Neill, although apparently she’s journalist with reputable newspapers, and has written five popular novels. I spotted ‘The Secret Life of a Slummy Mummy’ on a church bookstall not long ago, and thought it looked light and fluffy, just the thing for a relaxing read. The blurb on the back told me that Lucy Sweeney was feeling the strain of motherhood, feeling rather inferior to the ‘yummy mummies’ she encountered in the school yard.

I picked it up to read a few days ago, and was quickly caught up in the story. It’s all written in the first person, mostly present tense, by Lucy who is basically a likeable, ordinary mother of three. She does not see enough of her husband, and she struggles to keep up with the laundry. She’s rather disorganised too, and has a tendency to lose her credit card, and leave random things in the car… but, as with most mothers of young children, she has virtually no time to herself.

I liked Lucy’s children very much, particularly Joe, the sensitive, worried middle child who picks up on adult worries, and snippets of conversations he’s heard, and often gets things wrong. I would like to have seen more of them. Lucy and Tom have a mostly relaxed parenting style which I found reassuring, in contrast to that of the ‘yummy mummies’ whose children take part in a catalogue of after-school activities and are left with au pairs while their parents travel.

Naturally there’s an outside problem, or there wouldn’t be a plot: Lucy finds herself attracted to the sole father who joins in the school run and the group in the playground. It’s clear that this man is attracted to her, too. So there’s an ongoing battle in her mind between enjoyable fantasy and the fear of repercussions, should anything actually happen. The less time she spends with her husband Tom - who is working on a prestigious project, and travels a lot - the more she indulges her imagination.

Had this been the main story, with characters primarily from the school playground, I would have enjoyed it very much. The writing is good, the characterisation of main characters believable, and the caricatured minor ones easily imaginable. There’s some light humour, and if Lucy’s continual forgetfulness and inability to deal with paperwork is exaggerated, it’s entirely understandable. Both Lucy’s and Tom’s parents were strongly caricatured, giving rise to someone of the mildly amusing scenes, and possibly also explaining why Tom is so obsessive, and Lucy so disorganised.

Unfortunately, Lucy’s two best friends are single and promiscuous. One of them (and I never could remember which was which) is having an affair with a married man, the other is living with two friends in a ‘threesome’. Both seem to expect a trail of affairs and one-night-stands, and their conversation is peppered with expletives and references to their experiences. Perhaps I’m sheltered, but I found it impossible to believe in or like either of these two women who apparently come from an entirely different world from the one I know.

So I found myself with very mixed feelings while reading the book. I wanted to know what would happen to Lucy and her family, but felt mostly repelled by her two friends, and could not understand why she would want to spend time with them. She is very much more intelligent and better informed about the world, and her family life is basically happy, if a tad chaotic. The ‘yummy mummy’ in the playground is shallow, but rather more likeable, and even the ‘alpha mum’ more realistic than Lucy’s single friends.

Then there’s a final climactic scene, almost reminiscent of one of Georgette Heyer’s, when most of the main characters end up at the same place, and everyone discovers what everyone else has been up to. Unlike Heyer’s stately mansion settings, however, Lucy and her friends end up at a somewhat seedy hotel. And it's not as neatly or humorously done. The waiter Diego plays the part of one of Heyer’s faithful retainers (usually a butler or housekeeper) and I liked him; but the situations were even more contrived than Heyer’s typical final scenes.

But… I was pleased with the way the story ended, and with the fact that despite a lot of strong hints the author never actually takes us into scenes of intimacy. I liked some of the principles that emerged as Lucy thought through her options at various points. And I appreciated the family-oriented background to the book.

So, on balance, I enjoyed the book. I would have appreciated it far more had it been free of ‘strong’ language on almost every page, and if the two friends (whose names I have forgotten already) were removed, or at least had lesser parts to play. But on the whole it’s a positive story.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews


The Rosamunde Pilcher Collection (by Rosamunde Pilcher)

In my slow progression through the late Rosamunde Pilcher’s wonderful books, I reached the volume called ‘The Rosamunde Pilcher Collection’. I bought this at a second-hand shop back in 1996 when I was trying to acquire as many of her books as possible; it contains three of her shorter works. If I were buying them now, I would prefer to have the three as separate books, but they weren’t in print at the time and I was delighted with my find.

The three books included in this omnibus are, ‘The Day of the Storm’, ‘Another View’, and ‘Sleeping Tiger’. They were originally published between 1967 and 1975, so inevitably they are all somewhat dated. I found the regular and extensive use of cigarettes rather disturbing, for instance. But they were undoubtedly commoner in that era, although at least one of the characters is well aware that they were dangerous to the health, even then.

When I last read this collection, in 2008, I reviewed each book separately. They can be found here:  The Day of the StormAnother View and Sleeping Tiger. They have links to the individual books, which are now easier to find than the collection.

‘The Day of the Storm’ is about a young woman called Rebecca Bayliss, who lives on her own and works in a bookshop. She was brought up by a bohemian mother, travelling around the world and living with various men; and she longs for some roots. She has no idea who her father was until she flies to visit her mother in Ibiza, after an urgent message from her mother’s current protector, Otto.

Most of the story, then, is Rebecca’s discovery that she has some relatives. She finds herself caught up in family feuds, isn’t really sure who to trust. I had entirely forgotten the book at first, but by the time I was half-way through I had some vague memories of it, and the eventual outcome. It didn’t spoil my enjoyment at all, and I liked the book very much.

‘Another View’ is about another young woman, called Emma. She has been living abroad, but has decided to return to live with her artist father in Cornwall. She, like Rebecca in the earlier book, had a somewhat unusual upbringing, mostly devoid of any structure, and without any known relatives, She had a step-brother for a short time, and was very fond of him, but they have lost touch.

The story follows Emma’s struggle to create some order in her father’s life. She has never felt as if she mattered to him at all; she, too, has to learn to let go and discover who is really important to her.

The final book, ‘Sleeping Tiger’, is about a girl who, as far as she knows, has no relatives at all. Selina was brought up by her rather rigid grandmother, and is engaged to the upright and rather controlling Rodney. We meet her when she is buying a wedding dress, in preparation for a very quiet wedding. She and Rodney do not seem particularly well-matched, but their grandmother wanted them to get married, and it all seems very suitable…

Then, prompted by a photo on the back of a book, Selina wonders if her father is in fact alive and living on a Spanish island, rather than (as she has always been told) killed in one of the wars. Selina is inclined to spontaneity, and since Rodney won’t go with her to investigate, she takes off on her own… and is doing well until disaster strikes at the Spanish airport after her arrival. I had remembered more about this book than either of the others, although not the final outcome.

Although this ‘Collection’ has nearly 600 pages, I finished it in just four days. As with all her books, Rosamunde Pilcher created memorable, likeable characters with personalities I could relate to, and flaws that made them all the more believable. Once I had started each of the three books, it became difficult to put them down as I was so drawn into the story.

Pilcher relies somewhat on coincidences, and also on the main characters turning out to be people of integrity on the whole. Her ‘bad’ guys are limited to people such as off-stage thieves or dubious car mechanics, but they’re only important in creating problems for the main characters. The situations are somewhat artificial, and the conversations a bit stilted. There’s a whole upper-class acceptance of boarding schools and housekeepers and extensive drinking which don’t fit into my world view at all…

And yet, I love Pilcher’s writing. She was a born storyteller, excelling in characterisation, and all her books have satisfactory endings, if a tad abrupt at times.

I would recommend any of these novels highly, as well as the whole collection, if you enjoy light women’s fiction that’s relationship-based, set in a mostly technology-free world where communications happen by telegrams or letters, or awkward phone calls. There are parts which are not remotely politically correct, and an underlying assumption that men go out to work while women cook and clean.

But it doesn’t matter. These books were written as contemporary novels in the 1960s and while society has changed in many ways in the past fifty years, people are still the same.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews