The Witch of Blackbird Pond (by Elizabeth George Speare)

I had never heard of the author Elizabeth George Speare, although she was a popular American writer in the latter half of the 20th century. I would probably never have come across her book ‘The Witch of Blackbird Pond’ by myself, despite it having been a Newbery award winner.  It’s a book for older children set in the late 17th century in the United States, which isn’t a genre that generally appeals to me. However some young friends had just read it and thought I would enjoy it.  

It took me a few pages to get into the book, which begins on board a ship. Kit is the main protagonist; she is sixteen, though at times she feels a bit younger. She’s been living in Barbados, in an affluent household, but is on her way to the United States to stay with relatives. Her parents died some time before the story starts, and she’s just lost her beloved grandfather as well as her home, as he had considerable debts. 

Kit’s Aunt Rachel, who was her mother’s sister, was considered a beauty in her younger days so Kit is quite shocked to find her aunt poorly dressed, rather cowed by her outspoken husband. They have two daughters: Mercy and Judith. Judith, who is around Kit’s age, is quite condescending and arrogant at times, although she is very envious of her cousin’s fine-looking clothes. Mercy, who is a few years older, is lame and unable to do very much, but she’s kind and thoughtful, and quite a peacemaker.

Aunt Rachel and her family are Puritans, who don’t celebrate any feasts, and spend lengthy periods at ‘meetings’ which bore Kit immensely. They work very hard, something she is unused to doing, as her Barbados home had many servants and also slaves. But Kit gradually learns to card wool, to spin, to feed and clean animals, to work outside, and to cook and clean. She’s quite independent but realises she has no alternative but to live with her only relatives.  

Kit makes friends with a Quaker woman who is an outcast, considered by some to be a witch. She also befriends a small and neglected girl called Prudence, and starts to teach her to read. But there’s a lot of aggression and prejudice in the town, in addition to very strict ways of living, and more than once she finds herself in trouble…

Once I’d got into the story, I found it quite compelling. I know very little about this period in history, and had not realised how very strict and austere the Puritans were - nor that they considered Quakers to be evil, treating them with contempt at best, persecuting them if they caused any trouble. I also didn’t realise that there were so many British loyalists in the US who still saw the UK King as their monarch. 

The author writes authentically - as far as I can tell, anyway - and her main characters are quite believable, most of them three-dimensional, even if some of the minor characters are a bit caricatured. There’s a very low key romantic thread, too - actually more than one thread, which gets a bit tangled at times although (as it’s a book for children and younger teens) it’s all resolved appropriately towards the end. 

All in all I liked the book very much, and would recommend it to anyone - adult or older children/teens - who is interested in this period of history.

Review copyright 2021 Sue's Book Reviews


Shadow Doctor 2 (by Adrian Plass)

When I first read Adrian Plass’s book ‘The Shadow Doctor’ back in 2018, it felt unfinished, so I was pleased to know that he was writing a sequel. It’s taken this long to be out in paperback, but I finally acquired a copy of ‘Shadow Doctor 2: The Past Awaits’ recently. Since by that time I had almost entirely forgotten what happened in the first book, I re-read ‘The Shadow Doctor’ just a few days ago before embarking on ‘Shadow Doctor 2’.

This book continues directly on from the previous book. Jack is feeling more comfortable working with ‘Doc’, but he has a lot of unanswered questions. The two men are different in almost every respect, other than that they both like helping people. Jack’s attempts in the past have been fairly conventional and he’s realising that his friend’s more unusual approach is often considerably more helpful.

There aren’t all that many new incidents of helping people in this book, although the first chapters chart quite a dramatic encounter with a (fictional) popular church leader, followed by quite a poignant meeting with someone who wrote to Doc in the previous book, and which gives a moving contrast.

We learn more about the Shadow Doctor’s past in this book, too, including his first name, and rather more about his life when his wife was alive. He becomes quite vulnerable and admits to some bad behaviour in the past, leading to quite a bit of discussion about forgiveness, and what it means. 

Jack begins to learn to listen - to God, although the story skates around specifics - and to say what he believes is right, even if it appears to be quite bizarre at times. Doc calls this being ‘in the flow’, although more conventional Christians would call it something like being inspired by the Holy Spirit, or open to divine promptings, or perhaps listening to the still small voice. Not always easy, particularly when one hears something that seems ridiculous, and of course life isn’t always as straightforward as portrayed in this book. But Adrian Plass makes a lot of good points, and the principles are thought-provoking and ultimately encouraging.

While the first ‘Shadow Doctor’ book has a low-key Christian theme but could be read by anyone, this one is much more overtly faith-oriented. Doc preaches a sermon; quite short and unconventional, but still there’s a passage of Scripture included and some thoughts about it.  Jack asks a lot of questions, trying to blend his past rather rigid beliefs with what he’s learning, and begins to learn that many things are not cut-and-dried, and that sometimes there are no answers.

I’m not sure I’d call this a novel; most of it is dialogue, with the story - including a budding romance - almost secondary to the ideas and principles being discussed.  In that respect it reminded me a bit of Brian McLaren’s ‘creative non-fiction’ trilogy which started with ‘A New Kind of Christian’. However it’s a bit more light-hearted; food, crosswords and general banter feature in the Shadow Doctor books as well as important, serious conversations, and Adrian Plass’s enjoyable style shines through.

Although this book does briefly outline what happened in the previous one, in the course of the first chapters, it’s definitely better read after ‘The Shadow Doctor’.  Recommended if you have any interest in the church, or in digging down a little to find more about what it really means to be a follower of Jesus.

Review copyright 2021 Sue's Book Reviews


The Shadow Doctor (by Adrian Plass)

Adrian Plass is one of my favourite modern Christian writers, and I’m always eager to get hold of his new books, as soon as they are available in paperback. Three years ago I was given ‘The Shadow Doctor’ for my birthday, and liked it very much but felt that the ending was rather inconclusive. I hoped very much that there was going to be a sequel, and was delighted when I learned that the author was already writing one.

However it’s taken until a couple of months ago for the sequel to be available in paperback, and several weeks for the copy I ordered to arrive. And in the meantime I realised that I’d forgotten the majority of the first book, so I have just read it again, and am very much looking forward to the second one. 

The first time I read this book, I do recall being confused at first, wondering who the mysterious ‘Shadow Doctor’ was. We first learn of his existence through a long letter written to Jack by his grandmother, Alice, shortly before she died. It recounts her meeting with this unusual man, on a dark stormy night on a neglected beach. Alice recounts her nervousness at discovering someone else out and about, and I felt it too.  Not so on my second reading over the past couple of days, as I did remember that things worked out well. 

It’s a story of meetings, of practical and emotional help given to strangers who become friends, and of a growing friendship between two rather different people. The Shadow Doctor is described as someone in his sixties, with thick hair that’s greying, and sad eyes. I don’t recall how I imagined him the first time I read the book, but this time I could envisage Peter Capaldi, as he appeared in his Doctor Who role, as the Shadow Doctor. Possibly this idea was triggered by his insistence that everyone just call him ‘Doc’.  We don’t learn what his name is. 

I hope that the sequel will explain who exactly ‘Doc’ is, who his receptionist is who fields phone calls for him, and how he is funded. He lives on his own in a three-bedroomed cottage that exudes warmth and peace, and doesn’t really have any kind of structure to his days. He helps people, although he makes no charges, and his assistance is quite unconventional. He asks pointed questions - or apparently casual ones - and he usually sees through attempts to manipulate or deceive him. 

It’s a Christian book, in what appears to be a low-key kind of way; Jack, at the start of the book, is a somewhat confused but quite enthusiastic evangelical who hides his own insecurities and doubts by doing all he can to help other people with their problems. He’s a bit concerned that his solutions never seem to help long term, although people appreciate him, and he hasn’t quite got behind the reality - or otherwise - of his pat answers and clich├ęs.  

‘Doc’ has a deep faith, as becomes gradually clear, but he doesn’t like to limit anything by giving it a name, and he’s rather good at evading questions. He’s had some serious hurt in his life, some of which is revealed later in the book, and I liked the way that Jack starts to gain confidence as he listens to the Shadow Doctor venting or explaining how he’s feeling.

It’s a very thought-provoking story, and also encouraging as the theme seems to be about taking a day at a time, going with the ‘flow’ - or listening to the Holy Spirit, as more traditional Christians would say - and doing what seems right. There are many challenges and some quite significant speeches including one about why prayer doesn’t ‘work’, at least not in the way we expect it to. 

I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading this book, which - as I’ve come to expect with Adrian Plass - is very well-written, nicely paced, and with an interesting mixture of characters.  Definitely recommended if you’re a believer, or on the fringes of belief, and if you don’t mind several widely accepted ideas being turned upside down.

Review copyright 2021 Sue's Book Reviews


The Sea Garden (by Marcia Willett)

I am loving my re-read of Marcia Willett’s novels. They are warm, character-based stories featuring family life, mostly relaxed and gentle. Yet there are stresses and crises, and sometimes puzzles to be solved. I’ve just finished re-reading ‘The Sea Garden’ which I read in 2014. I didn’t recall it being one of my favourites, but I liked it very much this time. 

Jess is the main person in this novel; or, at least, the catalyst for the story. We meet her en route to stay with Kate, whom I recalled from earlier books. Jess has just won a prestigious art award which is named for Kate’s late husband David Porteous. The award includes significant funding which means that Jess has a breathing space before deciding on a job, or whether to pursue a career in art with all its risks. 

Jess is pretty much alone in the world. Her father has died some years earlier; her mother remarried and lives abroad. So she loves the warm welcome given by Kate, and quickly feels herself drawn into the lives of some of Kate’s friends. There’s an unusual coincidence in that Kate knew Jess’s grandmother Juliet some decades earlier, and the novel includes some flashbacks when Kate and her close friend Cass went to parties and met the groups of friends.

There are a lot of people in this book and I had a bit of a hard time recalling who was whom in some cases. Next time I read through Marcia Willett’s books, I think I will keep a list of people and their connections. I did remember the tragedy that befell Cass and her husband Tom many years earlier, which is referred to several times. 

I also remembered their daughter Gemma, who is married to Kate’s son Guy, and that there were some tensions due in part to Guy’s rather unemotional nature, and also to some of Gemma’s actions.  They have been abroad but Gemma and her sons move back, and that’s another important storyline that runs alongside Jess learning more about her grandparents and uncovering a surprising secret.

The author has an excellent way with words, painting descriptions of places that, on the whole, are not too long. Her conversations feel believable, and her characters distinct and well-rounded. It’s all set in the upper middle classes, with many naval connections, and boarding school seen as normal; sometimes I find this a bit jarring but mostly I accept it as part of the world of these novels. I love the connections with previous books, the sense of seeing another snapshot in the lives of people I had become fond of. And it was good to have Kate playing such an important part in the book; I always rather liked her.

While ‘The Sea Garden’ could stand alone, there are so many characters and references to the past that I think it’s much better to be read after some of the author’s other books; particularly ‘Those who Serve’, which is primarily about Cass and Kate as young married women.  

Recommended if you like gentle, character-based women's fiction.

Review copyright 2021 Sue's Book Reviews


Wings over Witchend (by Malcolm Saville)

Amongst other authors and some new books I’m re-reading Malcolm Saville’s ‘Lone Pine’ series of twenty books. I loved this series as a teenager, and bought most of them in Armada paperback form, not realising at the time that they were abridged. Not that it would have made much difference, as hardback originals were very difficult to come by. I’ve re-read the series around every ten years through my adult life, although last time I seem to have missed some of them out, including ‘Wings over Witchend’. 

In the meantime I’ve managed to acquire full ‘Girls Gone By’ editions of the books I had in paperback, and am very much enjoying reading the full versions, possibly for the first time. ‘Wings over Witchend’, ninth in the series, is a popular book: in a recent informal online poll on Facebook, it ranked as favourite for a significant number of people. So I was quite looking forward to reading it, particularly as I had entirely forgotten the plot.

It’s a winter story, set in the Shropshire setting around the Long Mynd, but with a snow covering and even some blizzards. The ten-year-old twins Dickie and Mary have had whooping cough, and are supposed to be getting fresh air and rest in the countryside. They are able to meet up with Peter (Petronella), their close friend who lives not far from Witchend, their Shropshire home, and right from the time they alight from the train, strange things start to happen…

There’s a rather strange lorry driver who gives them a ride, and is asking questions about a somewhat run-down inn not far away. When they arrive at Witchend, they can’t find Agnes, their housekeeper… and when they discover her, at last, she’s with an injured stranger. Snow means that Peter is unable to get home, and when her father is invited to stay with his brother over Christmas, she accepts an invitation to stay at Witchend with her friends. 

Much of the story involves a forest of growing conifers, some of which are sold as Christmas trees. They’re the target for some thieves, and inevitably the children get drawn in. There’s quite a cast of characters in this story, including rather more adults than are usually involved in the Lone Pine series. The twins’ older brother David, who is Peter’s special friend, arrives with his parents, and they have more of a role than I had expected: but perhaps those parts were cut out from the abridged versions, as they don’t add too much to the story.

It’s a well-written adventure, nicely paced and with plenty of interaction between the characters, something that is generally lacking in the Armada paperbacks. There are some light-hearted sections as the twins play their role in introducing themselves to others, there’s some tension with David and Peter’s friend Tom who can be quite abrupt with the twins, as he has a hard time understanding them.  And there’s a very poignant section towards the end involving the twins’ scottie dog Macbeth. 

All in all, I thought this an excellent story, one that would probably appeal to children or younger teens who like adventures, and of course great comfort reading for adults like me who recall this series fondly from our younger days.

‘Wings over Witchend’ stands alone, and there are always introductions to the books that explain who the Lone Pine club are, for anyone who has not read the earlier books in the series. But since they’re an ongoing series (even if the chronology is a bit strange, and the main characters don’t get much older as the years go by) I feel it’s best to have read at least some of the earlier books first, particularly ‘Mystery at Witchend’, first in the series, and its immediate sequel ‘Seven White Gates’. 

Unfortunately the 'Girls Gone By' edition of 'Wings over Witchend' is quite pricey at present, as it's not currently in print. But it can sometimes be found used or less expensively via online forums or groups. The Armada abridged version is sometimes found in charity shops, and is still worth having if you can't find a full edition.

Review copyright 2021 Sue's Book Reviews