Keep the Home Fires Burning by S. Block – a TV series continues into a novel to great effect

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It is sad when a television programme is cancelled, especially when it is left on a terrific cliffhanger. Fans of “Home Fires” the series which featured the village of Great Paxford during the darkest days of the Second World War. Based round the Women’s Institute members who between them are involved in every aspect of the village’s life, the television series depicted the lives and loves of many women, older and young, and their immediate families. This book picks up from where the second series ends, as a huge crisis occurs in the final episode affecting most of the village. The series was cancelled, but this book picks up the story at that exact point. Simon Block wrote the scripts for the television, and has now continued the saga in book form. This has the undoubted advantage that the author knows the characters well and can develop them logically and sensitively. It also depicts the village very well, and the way that the characters depend on each other. As befits the action of the television programme, this is a very dramatic book with plenty of emotion which also fits with the conditions of wartime. It provides an interesting and vivid picture of the time for anyone interested in life on the Home Front.

 

Frances, leader of the WI, has had much to come to terms with in discovering the truth about her late husband. She takes on responsibility for a small boy, which she finds quite challenging as she discovers that even sending him to school is fraught with difficulties. Pat’s abusive husband Bob has not been improved by the events in the village, and he has found that the discovery of Pat’s friendship with Marek, a Czech soldier has fuelled his continuous anger with his wife. Erica Campbell has her family worries, as both of her daughters have had their struggles in the past and are not finding the present any easier. With her husband ill she must make important arrangements, and one option has a profound effect on many people. The farmer, Steph, has surmounted many challenges with the hard work necessary for running a farm  in wartime, but must now face her sternest test yet.

 

This is a fascinating book for anyone who has seen the television series, and the first section of the novel has enough catchup detail for those new to the saga. Obviously it is not the same as watching the television, but the nature of the writing is fast moving and emotionally sensitive. The descriptions are well written and the dialogue keeps the story going. The inclusion of such timely aspects of life as the appeal for Mass Observation as a potential outlet for Pat shows a good depth of research which is not overly pushed. I found this book offered a really good read and an excellent fictional extension of a saga with solid characters who deserved continued exploration. I am looking forward to reading the next book in the series, “A Woman’s War”.

Hitler’s Secret by Rory Clements – an historical novel of danger and revelations

 

In 1941 there were plenty of secrets as Hitler’s forces were in the ascendant. As even the vast Russian territory seems under threat, France has fallen, and America is on the edge of becoming involved in a war which is affecting all of Europe. Tom Wilde, historian and American, is asked to attempt the impossible, to retrieve a package from Berlin. This is the story of a man who must go deep into enemy territory, take on security services both official and unofficial, and move around an area already on high alert. As he tries to find a way through, he must try to determine who will help, and who is willing to kill to stop his progress. 

 

This is a grim tale, with little holding back on the brutality of a country at war and an individual taking huge risks. The unsettling theme of not knowing who can be trusted and who is playing a double game pervades the book, as every seeming advance is questionable. The book shows real audacity in its development of characters who have their own agendas which are not always obvious. As surprises occur, dangers mount up and the vivid picture of immenses risks occur, nothing is straightforward in a novel about a secret which could rock the German hierarchy. I found this a gripping and exciting book, in which nothing is predictable, and I was grateful for the opportunity to read and review it.

 

The book opens with Martin Bormann, Hitler’s closest personal fixer, having to deal with a situation which seems potentially difficult to sort out. He summons his useful and loyal unofficial agent, Otto Kalt. Bormann tells Kalt that his task is crucial and must be carried out correctly, as he realises that everything depends on it. Meanwhile, Tom Wilde is an academic in Cambridge, a historian and American. At this point he has been working on his German language skills, conscious that sooner or later he may well be called on to help in the war effort on Britain’s side. When he is approached he is shocked that he must go to Nazi Germany, as he does not have that much confidence in his ability to pass as a German. As an arrangement is made, he puts to his partner Lydia and the mother of his small son that he must leave Cambridge for training and preparation. He enters Germany with a weak cover story, and he is unaware of where the trail of the package will take him. 

 

This is not a restful, and occasionally brutal book. Clements’ eye for detail is impressive, as his research is incredible but not obviously written up. The reader discovers much about characters and situations in Nazi Germany alongside Wilde. Although the novel is in the third person rather than through Wilde’s eyes, the reader feels something of his confusion, fear and suspicion of those around him, just as he experiences some understanding of those he meets. This is an extremely well written book, full of tension, surprises and atmosphere. Just as Clements’ Tudor spy series creates a whole world of historical fiction, this is a terrific read that I found totally absorbing. I recommend this to all historical fiction fans, especially those who have an interest in the Second World War period.  

The 24 – Hour Cafe by Libby Page – a story of two women and a cafe for all people at all times

 

This book essentially takes place over a short length of time. Twenty four hours in Stella’s 24 Hour cafe. A time when two waitresses, Mona and Hannah overlap, argue with each other and crucially are made to think about their own lives. In flashbacks the reader is told about how they came to be working there, their backgrounds and something about how their lives have reached this particular point. This book is about more than just two women’s stories, however. The cafe represents a viable community point which is open day and night to anyone. Its alternative decor, the informal set up, the fact that anyone can and does walk in for hours or minutes, all mean that it provides a sanctuary and a potential meeting point. If you have ever watched people in a public space and wondered what their story is, this book is for you. Lots of short stories, quick portraits, glimpses of lives combine against a background of a non judgemental background to make up a fascinating narrative. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.

 

Stella’s cafe is not huge, and can be managed with one chef and one or two waitresses. It offers a choice of seating, and welcomes the well off, the office worker, and the Big Issue seller from outside. Its position opposite a main line station in a busy part of London means that it can have regulars who know that they can find food,  drink and a warm dry place both day and night. It can also welcome those who discover it by accident, waiting for a train, sheltering from the elements, simply looking for a place to be. 

 

London is a multicultural place, full of those in transit, seeking something or someone special. Both Mona and Hannah are working there on a part time, flexible basis to allow them to attend auditions and perform in a variety of settings. Both having reached the age of thirty, they are wondering if their moment has passed. Mona is a dancer, having come to London from Argentina where her parents not only split up, but moved to separate continents. Hannah is a trained singer from Wales, her parents being very much together and concerned about their only child. Both have grown up with their ambition to succeed on stage in London, but time and experience have made them acknowledge the strength of the challenges against them. The significance of their overlapping at work and their relationship outside the cafe is a main theme of this novel.

 

Other characters come and go. One of the most touching is a young student, struggling financially and emotionally, who attracts the sympathetic notice of others. Couples with backstories discover things about their relationships in the cafe, as the decorations and atmosphere offer time and space to revelate their lives. 

 

This is a delicious book with much to offer in terms of characters and setting. It is timely in terms of running several stories at once like a contemporary television story, yet the unifying characters of Mona and Hannah are strong and carry the narrative’s momentum.

Payback by R.C. Bridgestock – Introducing DI Charley Mann, returning to her home town

 

Charley Mann has just arrived back in Yorkshire after a few years in London. The difference is that she has come back to be in charge – as a Detective Inspector in her home town. She knows that she must conquer her memories and any prejudice against a woman running major crime investigation, especially as on her first day back there is the discovery of a body in highly suspicious circumstances. In this highly charged novel Charley knows that she must rely on herself to survive and run a police operation that would be daunting in any circumstances. Throughout this well balanced novel the reader learns so much about Charley’s past and her family’s place in the district. Her love of the horses that she rides reminds her of a past loss; she proves knowledgeable about the local area which is a decided advantage in the circumstances of her first investigation. 

 

This novel, as with Bridgestock’s other books, shows a deep and experienced knowledge of police procedure. No object, sample, photograph is ignored or brushed aside, there is an explanation for the meticulous keeping of records in terms of future defence of any the suspects. This methodical book never gets bogged down in procedure however, as the character of Charley burns throughout. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this latest book by the extremely talented R.C. Bridgestock. 

 

Charley was transferred to London for her training after her initial work in her hometown. After a brief time of rediscovering her past territory and some friends, she goes into her new office only to be greeted by news of a body hanging from a tree in a distant graveyard. As she takes a young constable to the scene, she knows that she is prepared for walking through the rough country, but no one could be prepared for what is found. It is immediately obvious that this was no suicide, but other factors about the scene seem deliberately confusing. As Charley issues instructions to preserve the scene and any other potential pieces of evidence, she rapidly assesses the officers working for her and deals with some of their issues. As more discoveries are made about the victim, different aspects of their lives become apparent. 

 

The maintenance of the suspense throughout this book is masterly, as not only suspects are revealed but also aspects of Charley’s previous life.Her reactions to developments show much about her life, her essential strength, her family background and much more. The rest of the people around also show many unsuspected depths, as well as the gradual revelations as the case is built up. It is far from a cosy mystery, as some of the details of the bodies are quite brutal and very detailed. Having said that, it is always respectfully handled, and carefully written. This is the sort of gripping book which is very hard to put down and it is very well constructed, with many loose ends tied up satisfactorily. I really hope that this is the first in a series of books which features DI Charley Mann, and that a second book appears soon. 

 

I have discovered that Amazon has not got any paperback copies of this book at the moment. So if you would like a copy, the publisher, Dome Books, have a website you can buy it from. See https://www.thedomepress.com/product-page/payback-by-r-c-bridgestock for details.

It Walks by Night by John Dickson Carr – a locked room mystery reprinted by the British Library

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In 1930 this book appeared written by a young American set in Paris. It was an early effort by a man who was to go on to specialise in “locked room” mysteries, and adopt Britain as his chosen place to live and write. This book sets up the typical locked room, where the body was found with no apparent way for a murderer to enter or exit. Carr was an expert in this form, and even in this early experiment went beyond a straightforward intellectual puzzle into a rich piece of writing, with details of setting and characterisation, a point well made by Martin Edwards in his informative and appreciative introduction. This novel, together with an early short story “The Shadow of the Goat” features Inspector Henri Bencolin, a thoughtful detective who takes time to thoroughly consider all the angles of the case , all possible culprits, and this is mainly based on the mystery of just how the room had been accessed. Thus it defies straightforward explanation, by defying expectations and questioning everything. 

 

In order that the reader has opportunity to appreciate all the circumstances of the case, the novel is narrated by one Jeff Marle, a young man set to observe and learn. Thus Parisian night life emerges, in all its delights and dangerous possibilities. In a plot which evolves over days and nights of romance, wealth and dubious pleasures, this novel features at the start a brutal murder which effects many people, and attracts many suspects. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this recent reprint in the British Library Crime Classics series. 

 

The peculiarities of this case are explained by Bencolin to his colleagues, experts in their respective fields which compliment his detective skills. Alexandre Laurent was a wealthy man, who for obscure reasons one day tried to murder his wife Louise. While she escaped, he was confined to an asylum, from which he managed to abscond. She had in the meantime decided to remarry, a famous sportsman Monsieur le Duc de Saligny, whose wealth and fame meant that the ceremony was to be noticed by many in society. When it became known that Laurent meant to kill this proposed bridegroom, Bencolin set out to not only keep watch but also gather these experts on the case in the place where the wedding was to be celebrated, a club or salon in fashionable Paris. Carr even provides a plan of the building, indicating the room in which a body is found, despite the best efforts of the detective and his associates. 

 

Carr not only sets up the puzzle, made even more obscure by the proposition that Laurent has changed his appearance by surgery so noone could predict what he truly looked like, but also adds in characters as diverse as women with strong views and men of various nationalities. Red herrings of motives, opportunities and alibis emerge, as do a full supporting cast of servants, police and other minor characters. As Carr throws in all sorts of behaviour for the principals, the narrator and the reader could be left confused. However, even in this early story Carr is able to draw everything together and leave both satisfied by this promising and elegant novel.   

 

I did enjoy this recent reprint; I have two more in the Crime Classics series from last year, so watch this space for more!

The Princess Plan by Julia London, a romantic novel set in Victorian London with murder and comedycomedy

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A handsome, wealthy young prince is in search of a wife in London 1845. His attention is taken by an unusual woman, and everyone else is shocked. A standard romantic theme but added to greatly by the personalities and setting chosen by the author Julia London, as the heroine is an argumentative and down to earth young woman with a mind of her own. Eliza is not rich, not young by the standards of the day, and a woman who was publicly humiliated in her past. Prince Sebastian is the heir to the kingdom of Alucia, a small but resource rich country in Europe, who has been brought up with every attention, guarded obsessively and who must find a wife. It is an unlikely meeting at a masked ball that brings these two unique people together, but it is a murder which means their relationship continues. This is a well written novel with characters who have quite a modern dialogue, but which works well in the context of this novel. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this imaginative and enjoyable novel.

 

Eliza is a young woman who lives with and keeps an eye on her father who is an active judge and is also blind. Polly is officially a servant, but in the small household she is regarded as a friend. Eliza was badly let down by her first love, and now enjoys the limited and active society provided by her widowed sister Hollis, and their friend Caroline. Hollis and Eliza produce a gazette or magazine for ladies  which is filled with gossip, fashion and household tips. It is partly to gather material for their publication that leads to their attendance at a masked ball at Kensington Palace, given in honour of a Prince. Prince Sebastian and his younger brother Leopold are visiting with their entourage as trade links are needed, and it is understood that Sebastian must find a wealthy and well connected English wife during his visit. It is an accidental meeting with the tipsy Eliza that makes Sebastian begin to regret the parade of suitable potential brides that he must navigate, and she resolves to remember the evening into her future.

 

When a good friend of Sebastian is found murdered, the gentle romance becomes somewhat darker. As the British authorities seem ineffectual , Sebastian decides to take a hand in investigating the crime. Eliza gets involved when she receives a note that highlights a potential suspect, and soon Sebastian does things that stretch his expectations, fascinated by Eliza whose different behaviour confuses and attracts him.

 

This is a funny, intriguing and thoroughly entertaining book. There are small quibbles, as the pavement in a London street becomes a “sidewalk”, and Eliza does push the boundaries a lot further than Victorian social networks would accept. The second point is part of its charm, as Sebastian is attracted by the first woman who questions him and his actions, even makes fun of what he does. I really enjoyed their budding relationship, as they seem to be intrigued by each other despite their perceived roles and limitations. This is a book of dances at fine balls, but also the home that Eliza runs, characters who surround the Prince and the young woman who he finds so interesting. A lovely romantic novel which pushes the boundaries, but is enjoyable and unusual, engaging and exciting. I recommend this to all fans of historical romance, especially those who enjoy something a little different.

A Degree of Uncertainly by Nicola K Smith – a small town, a university and an uneasy relationship

 

A man fights for the future of a small Cornish town. A woman pursues an ambition that even she doesn’t understand. It could be seen as a simple story, but this contemporary tale is full of characters who are funny, endearing, petulant, aggressive and so much more. This is a book that explores depression, talent and determination and so much else. There is a tremendous sense of the absurd as long term residents of the town come into conflict with those who want to expand student numbers. I really enjoyed this imaginative and detailed book, and was very happy to have the opportunity to read and review it.

 

 As the main character, Harry Manchester, tries to keep his estranged wife and his younger girlfriend content, he realises that he is vulnerable. Dawn Goldberg is a powerful force in the university, and has ambitions to be even more powerful and to be paid even more. There are students with their own agendas, as they discover the realities of living in overcrowded accommodation and trying to study in wholly inadequate facilities. Ludo, a young man with many ideas, is trying to make a difference in the area, while the wonderfully named Roskstr demonstrates amazing talents. This is the story of a community in turmoil, a story of contemporary pressures and obsessions, written with a keen eye for human frailties and the contrast between small town gossip and the power of social media.

 

The author has created two main characters with real depth. Harry is a man of contradictions but so likable. He can be inspiring and attractive, giving people a real sense of purpose, while trying to be fair and kind to everyone. He does get himself into tricky situations, however, and knows real panic at times. Dawn is certainly a piece of work. Her interest in the large male statue is perhaps telling, as well as her attraction for luxury and fast cars. She is harsh to her employees, self obsessed and is developing some bad habits. The effects of Harry and Dawn’s behaviour on those around them is fascinating. I felt for Nell, whose story is challenging, and an illustration of what is happening in the town as a whole.

 

This book asks real questions and combines pathos and humour to provide a entertaining and fascinating picture of a small society. It looks at how students faced with high fees and reducing facilities on the one hand, cause trouble for the town in which they live. The problems of small businesses in the twenty first century are exposed, as well as the problems of morality in the face of business necessity.

 

I found this to be a well constructed and meaningful book, with memorable characters and gentle situational humour. There is so much in it, giving depth as Harry loves the music of Queen, while Dawn is fascinated by cars. The tensions expressed in the town are well balanced and generally well handled. I genuinely enjoyed this novel, and recommend it as a gentle but strangely powerful contemporary read.