A Free Woman (by Libby Purves)

I’m so glad I decided to re-read my Libby Purves novels. I am thoroughly enjoying them. It’s such a long time since I first read most of them that it’s almost like having new books to read - with the advantage that I know in advance that I am going to enjoy them.

I have just finished ‘A Free Woman’, which I read in 2003. I did not recall anything about any of the characters or the storyline when I started. It’s about two adult sisters, Sarah and Maggie, who are in their thirties. Sarah is a contented, domesticated mother of three. She works part time at the local vets, but is happiest at home, cooking and looking after the house and children.

Sarah is happily married to Leo, and they have three children. Samantha is fifteen, and has been rather moody recently. But Sarah is broad-minded and encouraging, and tries to keep communication lines open. She doesn’t approve at all of Samantha’s boyfriend Duane, but is trying to make the best of things and has even invited him to meals a couple of times. Jamie is her middle child; he’s twelve, and going through an awkward stage. We don’t actually get to know Jamie very well, but he’s a nice enough child. Teddy, the youngest, is still affectionate and tends to speak out whatever is on his mind.

Into this happy domestication arrives Maggie, after travelling around the world, and spending some time working as an assistant cook on a yacht. She loves the sea, and hates the thought of putting down roots. But every so often she reappears for a short period; she’s very fond of her relatives, and they like her stories and sense of adventure, despite finding her a bit bizarre at times. Maggie is planning a trip to China, and discovers that she can take an intensive course in Chinese language at a local college. So her visit extends.

Then she discovers something that has the potential to change her life forever. And there are hints that she has dark secrets from her past, which are forcing themselves into her conscious mind. By the time she reveals what exactly happened, in a shocking shouting match at the end of a chapter, it had become obvious what had happened in the past. I assume the author intended the readers to pick up on this before Maggie lets it out; it’s cleverly done.

The latter part of the book then sees the family divided, fragmented by various events. We see the potential for disaster as communication grows more difficult, and Sarah becomes intransigent. Maggie is convinced that she should throw off the shackles of family life; she makes plans for her future, determined to remain free….

It’s an excellent book. The writing is fast-paced, the characters are three-dimensional and all so believable. The worries of teenage life are as important to Samantha as more ‘adult’ concerns in her mother and aunt; family life is well portrayed, with its often precarious balance of different people trying to live together. Some significant controversial issues are discussed, but since opinions are clearly those of the characters, it would be possible to read the book while disagreeing with what the characters believe and do.

I did not see the eventual resolution of the book coming; that, too, is cleverly done, throwing more confusion into Sarah’s life, yet somehow helping her to see more clearly. It ends a tad too abruptly for my taste; the conclusion is hopeful and positive, but I’d have liked to see one or two ends tied up a little more satisfactorily. But perhaps that would have dragged. Ending where it does leaves the direction clear, but the details up to the reader.

By the time I was half-way through this book I could hardly put it down. I would recommend ‘A Free Woman’ highly to anyone who likes women’s fiction with some important issues raised.

I hope it won’t be as long as sixteen years before I next re-read this book.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews


Sold to the Man with the Tin Leg (by Philip Serrell)

I was idly browsing a church book stall a few months ago when I spotted a book with the intriguing title, ‘Sold to the Man with the Tin Leg’. I had not come across the author, Philip Serrell, before; apparently he is a popular TV presenter nowadays. A quick glance at the back of the book suggested that it was in the style popularised by James Herriot. The author of this book was an auctioneer, and the book contained some of his amusing memories as a trainee.

So I paid fifty cents for it, and the book sat on my to-be-read shelf for a while. But I finally picked it up to read this week, and have just finished reading it. It does indeed contain accounts of the author’s early forays into the world of an auctioneer. He learns to collect and value items, to visit outlying farms and negotiate with the owners, and - on occasion - actually to sell things.

This book is, as it turns out, a sequel to ‘An Auctioneer’s Lot’, but there is no need to have read that first. I assume that book covers his initial decision to give up his job as a sports teacher and learn a new trade, and I have to admit to mild curiosity as to why anyone would do that. But not sufficient to get hold of the book. In this one, set in 1977, Philip is twenty-two. He has been working with a somewhat disorganised (but quite successful) auctioneer called Mr Rayer for about a year.

Inevitably Philip makes some mistakes: over-valuing, under-valuing, mistaking signs in an auction, being taken in by fraud, and more. He has to climb through mud, drive long distances, and sometimes deal with folk with various afflictions, some of them rather smelly. There is the material for a very amusing book here.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work. There’s too much detail in places that don’t need it, and rather a lot of introspection rather than action. Most of the outcomes of the chapters could be foreseen from a few pages earlier, meaning that the punch-line or ‘twist’ was entirely expected. People’s idiosyncrasies are mostly explained rather than shown, and I found myself increasingly mystified as to why anyone could possibly enjoy this kind of work.

Still, it was quite interesting to see what the job of country auctioneer was like forty years ago. And while some of the people in the accounts seem highly caricatured, Philip himself comes across as a likeable, enthusiastic and gentle person. There’s also a very low-key budding romantic thread, although it’s left rather open at the end - and I don’t think there’s a sequel to this book.

I kept reading, and didn’t dislike it. It's gentle, and it shows a form of life which has probably long ceased. It's a good book to dip into, as each chapter is complete in itself. Indeed, it's evidently quite popular and is still in print, thirteen years after publication.

But it didn't really grab me, and I doubt if I’ll read it again.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews


Why I Follow Jesus (by Adrian Plass)

I have liked everything I have read by Adrian Plass. He is one of my all-time favourite writers, and has produced quite an array of different kinds of book. He is best known, probably, for his humorous ‘Sacred Diary’ series, but he has written some more serious books as well. So when I saw ‘Why I Follow Jesus’ at a church book sale, I had no hesitation in acquiring it.

It’s not a long book - only 130 pages - so thought it might be an evangelistic work. Indeed, that's probably why I had not bought or asked for this book years earlier. It sat on my to-be-read shelf for a few months, but finally I decided to read it a couple of weeks ago. It turned out to be a very enjoyable read. There was much that was thought-provoking, and although it’s quite light-weight, I didn’t read more than about ten pages per day.

It’s divided into about 35 little sections, each no more than four or five pages long. The first one is simply entitled, ‘Why I follow Jesus’, and is an overview, and the second one talks about being with his friends forever, so could perhaps be mistaken for an evangelistic message. But there’s no preaching. Plass talks not about his friends, those he cares for the most, and those he doesn’t care for so much. He makes the point that, if we want to spend eternity with people of every shape, size and tendency, it would be a good idea to be friends with them now.

Some of the other headings are ones I might have come up with myself, but each time the content includes something unexpected. Adrian Plass has a gift for making people think, often through self-deprecating humour, or acknowledgement of his own mistakes or frailties. He is honest about himself and shares relevant anecdotes about friends and family, to make his excellent points.

Other headings are less predictable. I was a tad surprised, for instance, to read ‘I follow Jesus because he’s so good at judo’. The point being not that Jesus is into martial arts in a literal sense, but that he uses people’s strengths and weaknesses. I think my favourite heading, however, was ‘I follow Jesus because he doesn’t ask me to adapt as much as Saint John of the Cross would have had to if he’d been booked to address the West Fittlewick Over-Sixties Interdenominational Ladies’ Afternoon Club at three o’clock on a wet Thursday afternoon in November.’ The section below enlarged on this somewhat, and was quite amusing, but the title really said it all.

I found myself agreeing with almost everything in this book, and appreciated the way it was all written. There were places that made me smile, although this isn’t Plass at his most humorous. There are places that are quite moving, too, as he opens his heart and shares incidents from his life to make a point. The writing - as I expect - is excellent, and I’m glad I read it.

Definitely recommended.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews


Sylvester (by Georgette Heyer)

I do like Georgette Heyer’s historical romance novels. They feel authentic, the characterisation is excellent, and the stories very well crafted. I last read ‘Sylvester’ back in 2008, so it was definitely time for a re-read. I had entirely forgotten the story before I started, although I soon recalled the gist of it.

Sylvester, the Duke of Salford, is a complex and three-dimensional character whom we meet in the first chapter. He was born to wealth and aristocracy, and knew from babyhood that he would one day be a Duke. He is courteous, and very kind to those he cares for.

Sylvester is also always scrupulously polite to people who serve him as well, but we quickly learn that this civility is from a sense of duty rather than genuine philanthropy. He expects his servants to do his bidding, and is grateful; but he hardly seems aware that they have lives, and possibly problems of their own.

He feels that the time has come for him to get married. So he has selected five possible young women of his acquaintance. He presents their names to his mother… and asks her which one he should marry. Sylvester’s mother, who is an invalid, is a wonderfully warm character and I was sorry she didn’t appear more than she does. She would like him to fall in love, and mentions that she and a late friend jokingly betrothed him to the friend’s daughter almost two decades earlier….

Phoebe is the girl in question. She is no beauty, and thinks little of consequence or appearance. She’s prone to say what she thinks, she has a quirky sense of the ridiculous… and she is also a writer. She is no longer a debutante; brought up by a fair but unloving and often critical stepmother she has not developed any sense of style or confidence. She has decided to remain a spinster. She hopes to get a book published, and then live quietly with her beloved governess as a writer.

The initial meeting between Phoebe and Sylvester does not go well. And it goes downhill from there. Sylvester is bored; Phoebe terrified that he might offer for her- and she can think of nothing worse. So she takes matters into her own hands.

It’s a complex book with several different storylines running alongside each other. Clearly Phoebe and Sylvester will eventually decide they like each other, but it takes a crisis for them even to begin to get to know each other. Meanwhile Sylvester is also clashing with his sister-in-law about the guardianship of his young nephew, as the sister-in-law wants to get married to the wonderfully arrogant Sir Nugent. He is a caricatured upper-class dandy, not unkind or cruel, but self-centred and materialistic in the extreme.

There’s also an ongoing thread about the book Phoebe has written, and its ramifications. I don’t remember any of Heyer’s other books including a young author; that’s the part of the story I remembered. It wouldn’t have mattered if I had recalled the entire plot. It’s an excellent book, with a couple of passages where I chuckled aloud, and several that made me smile. Sir Nugent is a source of comedy but has no idea that he is ridiculous.

The writing is fast-paced for this genre, and I could barely put the book down once I had got into it. It was very enjoyable and I look forward to reading it again in another five or six years.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews


Mort (by Terry Pratchett)

Although I have read all the Discworld books by Terry Pratchett, some of them soon after publication, I have not re-read most of them. So I decided to read through the entire series, in order, this year. Not all at once, but interspersed with other authors whose works I am re-reading, and new books I have been given or have acquired second-hand.

So I came to ‘Mort’, the fourth Discworld book. This is one of the few of the series which I had read twice; the last time was in 2009. This is the first book in which Death has any real characterisation, and the one in which he takes on an apprentice. He chooses the aptly named Mort (short for Mortimer) who is tall and gangly, and has no interest at all in following in his father’s footsteps as a horticulturist.

Mort has no idea what to expect, but quickly learns ‘the duty’ - that of cutting the soul of a dying person away from their physical body, so that the soul can go on to whatever future the person believed in. It’s an interesting philosophy, one which is expounded on more in later books. In this one, it’s merely expressed as something factual.

Death’s domain is mostly black, larger on the inside than it would appear. Mort is fed by the elderly Albert, and clothed (albeit in black). He starts by learning to muck out the stables, and getting to know Death’s horse who has the wonderfully inappropriate name of Binky. Mort also comes across Ysabelle, Death’s adopted daughter, who has lived there for many years but has not grown any older.

As Mort becomes more competent, he is allowed to do the ‘Duty’ by himself. Death appears to be having something of a personality crisis; he tries various human pursuits, such as drinking or fishing, with the hope of learning what is meant by the word ‘fun’. And eventually finds a new (albeit temporary) career at which he is an expert…

Meanwhile Mort is becoming more like his master, but retains his human emotions, and is horrified at the thought that an attractive princess might die. So he changes history as it’s being made, so to speak, affecting the local reality and potentially the entire life on the Disc…

Unlike some of Pratchett’s later books, the story is fairly straightforwardly told. We see Mort’s viewpoint primarily, and sometimes Death’s, but there are not dozens of different storylines to follow. There are no chapters, as is the norm with this series, but plenty of section breaks where the action moves elsewhere.

There’s some ironic humour, some quite thought-provoking sections, and some tension towards the end as Mort tries to unravel the disaster he has triggered.

I found it an enjoyable story overall, with a positive ending. It stands alone; Mort is a new character, and while we briefly meet the wizard Rincewind, who featured heavily in ‘The Colour of Magic’ and ‘The Light Fantastic’, it wouldn’t matter at all if someone read this book with no idea who he was. I didn’t notice any overlap at all with characters from the third book, ‘Equal Rites’, although perhaps some of the other wizards mentioned (in passing) in this book also featured in that.

Recommended to anyone, adults or teenagers who like this style of satirical fantasy. There are innuendos scattered throughout the book, but if a younger child read this, I should think they would mostly go over their heads.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews