09/11/2019

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


Having read - and very much enjoyed - the La Rochelle series by Elinor M Brent-Dyer over the past seven months or so, I decided it was time to reread, yet again, her better known (and much longer) Chalet School series.

I have just finished the first book, ‘The School at the Chalet’, which I last read ten years ago. It was first published in 1925, so is almost a hundred years old now, yet the characters seem timeless. The story is primarily about Madge Bettany, a teacher in her mid-twenties.

Madge and her twin brother Dick are the sole guardians of their much younger sister Joey, who is quite frail healthwise. Dick works in India, and the climate is not considered suitable for children; however England is no good for Joey either, as she suffers continual colds and other infections. So Madge comes up with the idea of starting a boarding school for girls in the Austrian alps.

I don’t think it previously occurred to me that this was an extraordinarily radical idea for a single woman in the 1920s. There wasn’t the bureaucracy of today, but travelling and communication were a great deal more complicated. However, it was apparently considerably less expensive to live in Austria than in the UK at the time, and Madge is a determined, assertive and positive person.

We meet the unhappy teenage Grizel Cochrane in the early part of the book, too. Her mother died when she was young, and her grandmother brought her up for a few years. Then her father remarried, but Grizel and her stepmother dislike each other heartily. A boarding school in Austria is an ideal solution to many problems, and there’s a very moving scene when Grizel says goodbye to the one person who cares about her, the family cook.

Madge, Joey and Grizel have an interesting (if a tad too overtly educational) trip as they travel across Europe by train. They visit places of interest, try ‘foreign’ foods and comment on the customs and cultures they encounter. There’s a bit of stereotyping, but given the era it’s remarkably free of negativity; indeed the entire Chalet School series helped me, as a teenager, develop a positive attitude towards Europeans and those of other nationalities, most of whom are presented in a good light, albeit with quirks that the very English Grizel finds strange.

The latter part of the book is about the development of the school, which starts with nine pupils and has almost twenty by the end of the term. Some are day pupils who live nearby, but there are boarders too, including the lachrymose French Simone Lecoutier, who wants to be Joey’s exclusive best friend, and some Austrian teenagers whose parents are delighted at the opportunity for them to belong to an English language school.

There’s not a great deal about lesson time; instead we go on walks with the girls from the school, and meet local folk, and learn about some of the dangers of mountainous regions. Although intended for young teenage girls, there’s a great deal in this (and other books) about the adults, particularly the teachers, who are seen as important characters with their own individual personalities. That’s quite unusual in books intended for children and perhaps helps to explain why this series is still so popular with adults; probably more so, nowadays, than with teenagers.

Overall it is an excellent introduction to the series, and an interesting book which stands alone. Inevitably it’s somewhat dated, but less so, in my view, than many other books written later in the 20th century.

My edition of ‘The School at the Chalet’ is a hardback one acquired by my mother many years ago; it was reprinted several times and can sometimes be found second-hand. In the 1970s the series was re-published in Armada Paperback form, which helped it become popular. It’s quite easy to find Armada editions of this book, but unfortunately many of the series, including this one, were quite severely abridged. Girls Gone By publications reprint the original text of books like these in paperback form, but the print runs are not enormous and they don’t stay constantly in print.

Definitely recommended, particularly if you can find a Chambers hardback or Girls Gone By paperback edition at a reasonable price. 

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

03/11/2019

Past Secrets (by Cathy Kelly)

I very much liked the books I read by Cathy Kelly in the past year. So when I saw a couple of her books inexpensively at a church sale, it was an easy decision to buy them. I’ve just finished reading ‘Past Secrets’, quite a tome at over 600 pages. And whereas I can sometimes finish a book of that length in just two or three days, it’s taken me over a week to finish this one.

It starts well. Cathy Kelly’s novels sometimes remind me, in their settings (and sometimes their storylines) of Maeve Binchy’s books. This one is set mainly in Ireland too, in a street called Summer Street. The first few chapters introduce us to the viewpoint characters, and although it didn’t grab me at first, and took me a little while to get into it, I thought there was the potential for an excellent story.

Cathy is probably the most interesting character in the novel. She’s an art teacher, mostly quite laid-back. She’s wise and intuitive, sometimes ‘seeing’ things about people, or having a strong sense of disquiet that usually turns out to be justified. She’s happily married to the likeable (though rather two-dimensional) James, and they have two married sons. But she has a bad feeling, and clearly has something in her past which she has been trying to forget.

Faye is a bit of an oddity; it’s clear from the start that she’s created a persona that does everything very precisely, keeping herself to herself. Her whole life revolves around her 17-year-old daughter Amber, who is a talented art student (in a class that Cathy teaches). But Faye has kept something from Amber, believing that if she protects and shelters her, Amber won’t make any bad mistakes. However, Amber has fallen in love… and we first meet her when she’s bunking off school to meet her boyfriend.

Then there’s Maggie, a librarian who has been living away from her home town with a lecturer called Grey. She doesn’t have much self-esteem but he’s been a good influence on her… until she catches him with another woman. Conveniently her mother Una, who lives in Summer Street, has broken a leg, and her parents ask Maggie if she’s willing to return home for a few days.

So it starts well, and while I didn’t find any of the characters very three-dimensional, it didn’t take me long to remember who was whom. It seemed a bit odd that none of them really knew each other until Una’s accident, at which point they all become friendly. But nothing much happens after that. We already know the gist of all three secrets: Cathy did something she regrets with a Polish artist, decades earlier; Maggie was bullied in school; Faye has a wilder past than her daughter could imagine, and wasn’t widowed (as she had pretended). They each have something that they’re ashamed of, something we learn later in the book - but by the time they’re revealed, they no longer seem surprising.

There’s a lot of repetitive introspection in the novel - yes, Maggie has poor self-esteem, and Christie is worried about her past catching up with her, and Faye wishes she had been more honest with her daughter. But I didn’t need quite so many reminders of these things. And, worse, they all seem to change character without any real reason. Amber and Faye’s interactions never feel realistic, and while Christie is mostly likeable and mature, the way she lets her husband know about her ‘secret’ is so awful I had to suspend reality for a while. Then, although it’s a minor issue, the extensive use of over-dramatic speech tags became irritating after awhile. It felt in many places as if the book had missed out on the editing process.

Still, it’s not a bad story. There are some interesting subplots, such as a campaign to keep a local park open. I kept reading, even if I didn’t pick it up every spare moment to find out what was happening. The ending was all a bit predictable but satisfactory.

Worth reading if you find it inexpensively, as I did; but I wouldn't particularly recommend it. Cathy Kelly has written some much better books.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

23/10/2019

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (by JK Rowling)

I re-read the first six of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books earlier this year, about one per month, alongside many other books; both new (to me) novels, and some I have previously liked by other authors. However when I finished ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’, I didn’t want to wait before embarking on the final episode in the saga.

I had only previously read ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ once, back in 2007 when it was first published. I recalled it as having an entirely satisfactory ending, albeit with casualties along the way; but I also remembered being a little disappointed that, other than the final battle, there is nothing set in Hogwarts, and no ‘school story’ section at all.

This time, I read it slowly, knowing in general terms what was coming, but having forgotten almost all the detail. There’s a great deal of tension right from the start. The book opens as two of Lord Voldemort’s supporters head for a meeting, and discuss their strategy to attack Harry and his friends. The ‘dark lord’ hopes that by destroying his nemesis, his rise to power will be uninterrupted.

The scene then moves to Harry’s relatives’ home in Privet Drive. Harry is preparing to leave forever, and has to persuade his Dursley aunt, uncle and cousin to leave too, as they will be in danger once Harry comes of age. Until his 17th birthday he and his home have been under powerful protection, but that is due to be lifted a few days later.

Harry is surprised when quite a number of his friends arrive to escort him, several of whom take polyjuice potion to provide decoys. Their flight sets the theme of the book - fast action, battle against the evil death-eaters, and some tragic casualties.

There’s a brief light interlude when Ron’s brother Bill gets married to Fleur, but the festivities are interrupted…. Harry, Ron and Hermione have to vanish, and do so in a way that was almost reminiscent of Bilbo Baggins disappearing from his birthday party. Their quest is to find and destroy several ‘horcruxes’ - depositories for Voldemort’s fragmented soul - but they have little idea where to start.

It’s a classic quest/adventure story, with little of the humour that lightly peppers some of the earlier books. It’s also much more overtly laced with Christian symbolism: from Christmas carols and church bells to Bible verses on tombstones and discussion of life after death. Not in a preaching way, of course; but this epic good vs evil septology is shown clearly, in this book, as being a kind of parable, or allegory perhaps, from a Christian point of view. (For anyone wanting to explore this further, I would recommend this article).

There are a couple of very moving scenes which brought tears to my eyes, contrasting with the high-action fast-paced escapes or battles that take place in other chapters. More back story is gradually explored, and the author brings together many of the events and symbols from earlier books leading towards the inevitable, dramatic and superb conclusion.

I love the way the author elevates unconditional love, loyalty, courage and friendship in the series, and most of all this book. Harry is by no means a perfect person: he’s quite inclined to break rules, he’s hot tempered, and he makes mistakes. But he is intensely loyal to his friends, determined to continue his quest even if it leads to his destruction. He finds it upsetting when he learns that one of his heroes was flawed too, but Harry has no desire for power, and is even willing to extend mercy to some of his enemies.

It’s definitely better to have read the earlier books before embarking on this one, which makes a fitting conclusion to the series. I would recommend reading this before watching the film versions; despite making this book into a two-part film series (Deathly Hallows part 1 and Deathly Hallows part 2) there is much that’s missing from the films; I don’t think I would have understood them if I had not read the book first.

It's taken me five days to finish this book, despite it being rather shorter than a couple of the earlier volumes (a little over 600 pages in all). That's partly because it has been a busy few days, partly because I deliberately didn't read this book at bedtime, not wanting to trigger bad dreams, and partly because I wanted to savour the language, and the story, and frequently re-read whole sections immediately after finishing them.

Very, very highly recommended to anyone over the age of about twelve.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

18/10/2019

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (by JK Rowling)


I’m so glad I decided to re-read JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series this year, at a rate of around one book per month. I have read others of my favourite authors too, and some books that were new to me. It was with a little trepidation that I embarked on the sixth volume, ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’, a few days ago, as I could recall the dramatic - and traumatic - climax.

But now I’ve finished it, I am once again awed at the quality of the writing, and the way the author pulled together so many subplots and strands. The first time I read this, in 2005, it was shortly after publication. I read it aloud to my teenage sons, and had no idea what was coming. We were all shocked by the ending, after much discussion about the starting chapters. The second time I read it was in 2007, immediately prior to the publication of the final volume in the series.

But I had not read ‘Half-Blood Prince’ for twelve years, nor since reading ‘Deathly Hallows’. So I had the benefit, this time, of knowing a few of the secrets that were revealed, and was able to read this in the light of future knowledge, so to speak. I could see more clues, and some deliberate ambiguities.

The story opens with a light-hearted scene as the Muggle prime minister has a meeting with the Minister for Magic. It’s no longer the somewhat bumbling Cornelius Fudge, but the rather more organised Rufus Scrimgeour. However Fudge arrives first and makes the introduction, and it’s a very cleverly written scene, with the clear implication that all the British prime ministers have known about the magical world.

Scrimgeour passes on some dire warnings, and they take us neatly into the second chapter, one which takes us into the dark wizarding world. Professor Snape meets some of the Malfoy family, and makes an unbreakable vow… although we don’t actually know what it refers to until later in the book. We don’t learn why he is willing to make it until the final book.

Harry doesn’t appear until the third chapter; once again he has spent the summer with his caricatured non-magical relatives. He has heard nothing from anyone, and is depressed anyway after the events at the end of the fifth book. Then Professor Dumbledore appears, and meets his aunt an uncle in another scene which is light-hearted, in contrast to chapter two.

Dumbledore takes Harry to meet an elderly wizard who is possibly going to teach at Hogwarts, and then to the Weasley home, where he spends the last few days of his holiday. And then - amidst much high security - to Diagon Alley to buy more text books, and eventually on to Hogwarts for his sixth year.

Harry and his friends are sixteen now, and there’s rather more discussion of romantic interests, with a large amount of kissing and cuddling - although only as sidelines to the story. Hermione and Ron don’t speak to each other for a while, each pursuing other people, although it’s clear from the text that they’re rather keen on each other. And Harry realises that the person he cares about most is someone who has had several boyfriends…

There are private lessons with Dumbledore, gradually piecing together some past history that sheds light on the rise of the dark Lord Voldemort. There are potions lessons with a new master, in which Harry suddenly shines; this is due to a borrowed text book which has notes in the margins, and which originally belong to someone calling himself the ‘half-blood prince’. Another sideline story is the ongoing quest to discover who this might have been.

Harry is also very concerned about Draco Malfoy, suspicious that he is involved in a terrible plot, determined to find out what it might be…

The book has many twists and turns, with close escapes by two people, some Quidditch - Harry is now the captain of the Gryffindor team - and some discoveries. It wouldn’t work well as a standalone story; it’s far better read after the earlier ones, as there are so many characters and important history that would make little sense if this was read alone.

But it’s an excellent read. The film of ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’ is good too, but the movie versions inevitably miss a great deal of what happens in the books. This volume isn’t as long as the previous two, although it’s still just over 600 pages, but that’s far too much to fit into a two-and-a-half hour film.

Despite knowing what was coming, I found the final chapters tense, and the ending extremely poignant. So much so that instead of reading another nine or so different books before the finale, I’m going to re-read the last volume immediately.

This book is more for teenagers than young children - while the romantic interludes are extremely tame, and there is only the mildest of bad language, there's some violence and extreme tension - and the traumatic ending - which could be disturbing to younger or sensitive children.

Highly recommended, but I would strongly suggest that you read the earlier books first. They are:



Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

14/10/2019

Facing the Music (by Mary Sheepshanks)

I discovered Mary Sheepshanks (now known as Mary Nickson) nearly twenty years ago. I liked the novel I read by her and then gradually acquired all her others. I enjoyed them very much. But I’m only re-reading them for the first time now, at a rate of about one per month.

I first read ‘Facing the Music’ in June 2002, and have re-read it in the last few days. Although I had forgotten most of the storyline, I did recall a strong feeling that one main character was treated quite badly by the author (albeit in the hands of another character). I was pretty sure this was near the end of the book, when a relationship ends through no fault at all of one person.

So it was with somewhat mixed feelings that I started re-reading the book. I was soon drawn into the storyline; it primarily features a young woman called Flavia. She is a top class flautist who is being brought to the public's attention by a conductor called Antoine. She is in love with him although he’s clearly using her, and is unpopular with most of his orchestra. But he is also respected as an excellent conductor.

Disaster strikes when Flavia suddenly becomes very ill during an important concert. She pulls through, but has a long convalescence, and Antoine drops her. She’s not sure if she wants to continue as a solo musician, although her mother pushes her to practice and get back on stage. So when she’s offered a temporary part-time job teaching music at a boys’ prep school, she accepts - and finds it rewarding and enjoyable.

Much of the story takes place in the school, and we get to know several of the staff members. Gervaise, the Head, who is friendly with Flavia’s father (Head of the connected secondary school), is kind-hearted and gentle, albeit somewhat naive. I liked him enormously. One or two of the staff are caricatured, including an unpleasant and rather lecherous man, but others are believable and well-drawn. I particularly liked Meg, the matron, who is secretly keen on Gervaise…

There are other supporting characters who are also caricatured. There’s Gervaise’s eccentric sister, for one, and Flavia’s flatmate in London, Trish. And there are several of Flavia’s relatives, most of whom are warm and caring - and who haven’t really let her grow up. She’s used to being admired and looked after, and although she is not at all selfish or spoilt, and is quite independent, she does like the feeling of being protected.

Various people make mistakes, but I found myself more in sympathy with several characters this time. While the final chapter is still somewhat poignant, I knew what was coming and realised that the ending does leave someone else with hope for the future.

The writing is excellent, the conversation believable, and the conversations between adults and children (mostly boys at the school) works well. The pace is good, and I found it quite difficult to put down by the time I was around half-way through. There’s some bad language but it’s not excessive, and mostly used for effect. The romantic threads are fairly low-key, and the bedroom doors firmly closed behind the few mentioned scenes of intimacy.

Definitely recommended if you like women’s fiction with rather more plot than many.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews