The Herring in the Library by L.C. Tyler – a locked room country house mystery – with added humour

The Herring in the Library (The Herring Mysteries): Amazon.co.uk ...

 

Anyone who has read a previous Ethelred and Elsie will know that a dinner invitation is likely to end  up involving a suspicious death. If you have not encountered them before, this is a standalone novel which imitates the familiar mystery novel themes of a manor house and a locked room. Not that this tale of potential revenge and secrets is a standard murder mystery; just as Ethelred and Elsie are not the most typical of amateur detectives. Ethelred is an author of three different genres of books, crime, romance and history. It is as a crime expert he is called in to ask more questions than the police, yet it is his historical character, Thomas, who features in the extracts of his book which provide some of the commentary on this story. Elsie is his agent, but also his companion in crime investigation who has some strange ideas, and a keen eye for some of those involved, especially the gardener.  This third novel in this sort of series is an light hearted overturning of many of the traditional points of a murder investigation, with many red herrings, ideas and bouncing around being barely contained by anyone. It is a comedy with some really interesting ideas, and some sharp observations on life and love.

 

Ethelred and Elsie are playing a peaceful game of Cluedo, with Elsie cheating shamelessly, when he points out that an old university friend has invited both of them to dinner in the local manor house. While Elsie continues in her usual unconvincing way about her appearance, Ethelred recalls how he recently met up with his friend after many years as the retired banker has bought the big house in the area. Not that Sir Robert Muntham is known to Ethelred as Robert; his nickname reflects his behaviour at college. There are several people at the house when the meal takes place, including an embittered friend, a couple of doctors and other people. The host makes a strange speech much to his wife’s discomfort before disappearing into his study. The discovery of a body in a locked room seems to suggest suicide, but the new widow asks Ethelred to investigate after the police withdraw baffled. Being flattered and inquisitive he is thrilled to be asked, but Elsie has more interest in clues that seem suspicious of themselves.

 

This is a funny and cheeky story of enquiries that are unusual into a mystery which, like Ethelred’s tale of Thomas, brings in poetic clues and beanie hats, excellent wine and high finance. As Sir Robert’s past is debated, his odious wife Annabelle makes suggestions that may lead to many possible solutions to the question of how he died. Elsie is dubious about Annabelle, Ethelred is the recipient of many theories, and witnesses find different ways of hinting about what they know. Ingenious and amusing, this book ticks many of the mystery fiction boxes and forms a commentary on the usual murder mystery. I recommend this book to those who are fans of the hapless twosome, and those who come to the series new as it does not take long to work out the relationship between the two main characters. An easy read for dull times. 

 

This series is a very cheeky reference to so many crime novels featuring country houses and locked rooms; to write this well about it necessitates an impressive knowledge of the original sort of stories. The comedy comes from the characters, the dialogue, and the innuendos. A lighter read than some on this site – but it adds to the variety!

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter – Downes – Laura’s single summer’s day in 1946

One Fine Day (Virago Modern Classics): Panter-Downes, Mollie ...

 

It is 1946, and the Second World War is over. The effects of it, however, are only now being felt by the village and family at the centre of this short and beautifully written novel. All of the action takes place in one idyllic summer’s day, mainly concerning the Marshall family. Laura and Stephen have lived in their house for years, but before there has been the bustle of servants and a house. This book shows how the family and the people around them are adapting to a whole new way of life in a new world. There are families who are continuing much as they have for generations, in language, expectations, even in the houses they live in have changed very little. Equally, there are those who must move on, change with the times, find a new way of life. In one day we follow Laura in her attempts to bear the entire burden of a challenging house, Stephen in his journey to and from work as he realises the difference between before and after the war, and Victoria, their daughter, as she sees life differently in another house. In addition, the reader is shown some of the other people in this distinctive time, the author gives many people a voice, especially Mrs Pout, the daily ‘help’, with her talk of “kewpongs” for ration coupons and her trenchant views on her fellow villagers in Wealding. Panter – Downes was known for her journalism, her writing for the “New Yorker”, and there is an element of reportage in this novel, but of the most lyrical, humorous and even loving kind.

 

Stephen was away for the war, not in danger necessarily, but absent. On his return he discovers a daughter grown from baby to girl, sensible but also a dreamer. The house gave shelter to friends displaced by the war, and there were women who could cope with the oven. Now only three people live there, where there is a no longer a cook for timing and organising food, maids to serve it, or a gardener who is “good with roses”. Now there is a daily, who combats the dust and shabbiness of a large house, and an ancient man who workers of an evening with agonising slowness. This is the servant problem in practice; not the preserve of large country houses, though we will learn of a shortage there too, but the absence of those willing to work locally in a middle class home. Laura, dreamy, reminiscent of easier days, must shop for rationed food in a small town, feed her chickens and ducks, pick gooseberries, organise meals as well as try to keep the dust and spiders at bay. Laura was not equipped to deal with practical housework, a fact that her mother points out whenever she visits; she was brought up to order a household.

 

 Stephen wants the male conversation of before the war, when roses cost “a bob”, when he did not have to worry about mowing lawns. Now Laura seems a grey haired shadow of the woman her married, that he still loves, that he never seems to talk to without her worrying about housekeeping. This is Laura’s book, as she considers her life and the lives of those around her. She appreciates the tender beauty of a young man holding his niece, the sadness of a large house being emptied, the almost historic language and lives of a numerous family. She knows that she is struggling to cope, this is a pale life. The struggle to communicate this to Stephen, the problem to even understanding it herself, is the background to this beautiful summer’s day. This is a book of a wistful sadness, yet of a new beginning. Regret for past lives, but also hope for a new beginning. This is a beautiful book, and a lovely experience to read.

 

My copy of this book is a Virago Modern Classics edition, which is a modern paperback. I actually picked it up in the Persephone shop in London, on their “Books we wish we had published” table. This book is very much of a type with many of Virago’s editions, suggestive of Thirkell and others. Persephone publishes other books by Mollie Panter Downes, including short stories of both war and peace, and a collection of her wartime New Yorker pieces. This is a lovely book in every way, and I found it an excellent read for a sunny afternoon in the garden, in different times. This is a book to read today.

Before I Say I Do by Vicki Bradley – a missing bridegroom, murder, memories, secrets and lies

 

A wedding is a difficult occasion for many involved, in this story it is the bride who feels the strain most of all. Julia Talbot prepares for the ceremony which has been prepared for extensively and expensively, with every detail perfect. The wedding is one of the main elements of this thriller and crime novel, which combines the stories of two women who are seeking the truth. Alana Loxton is a police officer who has been forced out of the Murder Squad under something of a cloud; she is trying to find her place in a CID unit which is not made easy by her past problems. This contemporary novel is a fast moving story of murder and more, financial dealings, drugs and fatal secrets. It features women who are determined to discover what has happened to a missing bridegroom, and the secret of a girl’s death many years before. This novel features questions that are difficult to answer and dramatic events carefully handled. The action is mainly centred on London, specifically the modern and expensive lifestyle of people who live on a dangerous edge of drugs and financial gambling. Secrets and lies, memories and motives all clash together in this story of assumptions and danger. I found it a fascinating read, and was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book. 

 

Julia tells her own story interspersed with chapters describing Alana’s progress through circumstances which baffle and confuse. Between the current story chapters there is the story of Jenny Hughes, a teenager who remembers a terrible afternoon when she ran into the woods with Jonny and her younger sister Rachel, which had life changing consequences for all of them. Julia tells of her nervous state as she prepares for her wedding ceremony with Lucy, her only bridesmaid and support. Everything has to be perfect as she marries the investment banker Mark, son of a newspaper editor. When he does not turn up to be married, Julia is totally bewildered. Mark’s father has contacts who put pressure on the CID to mount a search on the basis of kidnap or other crime, and Alana is sent to investigate with Kowalski unusually quickly. Owing to her experience with the murder squad, she makes a thorough search of his flat, and discovers an extra concealed mobile phone. While some assume that he has only had wedding nerves and will soon return, Alana is convinced there is more to be discovered. Julia meanwhile makes some unwise decisions, and there is some violence. Then a body is found.

 

This is a well written and cleverly constructed novel of red herrings and diversions as several people try to conceal what is really going on. Julia is struggling with a tragic past and a frightening present. Alana is already coping with a cloud over her career as she tries to work out what is going on with her new partner who has some surprises. There are many twists and turns to negotiate as painful truth is revealed and lives changed. The author’s research is evidently the result of firsthand experience of police work, the pressures of policies and finances and the dangers of certain courses of action. It is a book which is truly hard to put down and is extremely well written. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys a thriller set in the context of a police investigation, when strong female characters have to make a difference against the odds.    

The Bomb Girls’ Secrets by Daisy Styles – the stories of women munition workers, their lives and loves

The Bomb Girls' Secrets eBook: Daisy Styles: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle ...

 

This is a very readable book of drama and incident, and the lives of women during the Second World War. It is the second book in a series of “Bomb Girls” novels, but this one has a completely different set of girls from the first, so is very much a stand alone book. The Bomb Girls is the name for those conscripted women who were sent to a munitions factory where they would lodge locally and assemble bombs on an assembly line. It was dangerous work, using materials that would be explosive if mishandled or used without due care. It was also a dangerous work place because if the enemy bombers discovered the buildings, it would be a prime target. Women were sent there from various parts of the country as the war went on, as there were insufficient locally. At least one of the women in this novel was glad to move to the factory as it was unsafe to remain at home, and for female workers at the time it was well paid work. In this novel there is Kitty, over from Ireland, Gladys, a musician and Violet, with a secret past that still frightens her. They come together with more local  women and men to form a group. I found it a very good read of a group of women who become a cohesive unit, facing the challenges of their work and lives together.

 

Kitty is a young woman with a significant need for money and a home. She has entrusted her baby to her sister’s care back in Ireland, and must send a significant amount of money to her father to support him. After finding some work which was tough she was told of the opportunity to work at the munitions factory, and was eager to come, even though the accommodation was a converted cow shed which was preferable to the slums she had previously lived. As time goes on, she makes a discovery about her son which means she knows she must depend on another person’s help to rescue the situation. Gloria is a talented musician from a strong family, who is very close to her brother Les. His military service worries her. When she begins a group of musicians to entertain the workers at the factory, she encourages and enables those who felt that they had little to offer. Violet is also a musician, though it has been pushed to the back of her mind by experiences that have seriously endangered her well being. When she joins the group she discovers help and support that she never realised were possible.

 

This is a book with a lot to say about the dangerous work that was undertaken by women in wartime, that was a feature of both World Wars. There are some moments of tragedy and bravery when the volatile nature of the substances being handled was quickly brought home to everyone, including the reader. I really enjoyed the way the women not only came together to form a group themselves, but also drafted in some of the other workers and locals. This is a book of deep relationships, love and hope. I enjoyed the humour, the coming together of those with different skills, and the background of a war which would leave no one untouched. Although another saga with the word “Girls” in the title, this is the story of strong women whose efforts made a real difference, and whose lives and loves represent many truths of life at the time .

 

This is another book of women in the Second World War brought together by their war work and who formed a group to support each other in difficult times. Although similar in some respects, these books are usually well researched and present real insight into a world of uncertainty. I seem to have acquired quite a collection of them, so all I need to do is try and sort out the series!

Shipyard Girls at War by Nancy Revell – women working together in a tough environment

Shipyard Girls at War

There are many books with the word “Girls” in the title, most of which tell tales of a group of women who joined together to work on the Home Front during the Second World War. This particular saga or novel tells the stories of a group of women, and some of the families, who worked at the shipyards of Sunderland. With air raids on the town and some of the local men joining the army, there would be casualties at home and away. This is a book which takes a fictional look at the difficulties of the work at the yard, being heavy and exposed to the elements. While women did the work, not all of them could physically keep up with the heavy tools and processes. It is the second one in a series, but there is enough in the book to allow the reader to pick up what has occurred before. Rosie is the gang leader, and has a secret double life and a tragic past.  Gloria is a woman who has secrets and challenges that are not confined to wartime pressures. A particular family group is coping with a loss as a soldier is killed in action. The survival of his brother causes problems and at least one household must come to terms with the future. This is a well written book of people who are living in difficult times, and making a difference, not just girls, but determined women.  

 

Bel is a young women who was married to Teddy, one of the twin sons of Agnes, but she has heard that he has been killed, leaving her a widow with a small daughter. Joe, his surviving brother, is returning injured and will need tending. Bel grew up with Agnes and her family, and still lives in the family home. When Bel’s mother turns up memories are reawakened of her poor treatment of Bel as a child, how she was virtually abandoned and was brought in by Polly, Agnes’ daughter. Polly continues working at the Yard, worrying about her fiance Tommy away in the army. Her workmates are led by Rosie, who has secrets of her own, as she copes with her dubious job as well as the problems of progress at the Yard. She has a particular battle with Helen who is acting manager. She is especially concerned for Hannah, who is struggling to keep up with the work. Meanwhile, Gloria is worried by the problem of her estranged husband and his tendency to violence. Many problems present themselves to the characters, in addition to the dangers of air raids and the actual fighting of a war.

 

This book tackles head on some problems that were paramount at the time and continue to this day. Domestic violence and the lack of resolution from the law at the time is a significant issue. The question of love after bereavement is a difficulty in many ways. The whole book looks at the way that a community must continue when many men are away, and the need for ships to continue the fight. This is a very readable book which makes the most difficult subjects human, the extra difficulties of the times seen through the eyes of women who are determined to stick together. It has much to say about how physically demanding the work at the shipyards was, and how so many people were determined to fight in any way they could. Not all the characters act in a positive way, or have positive motives for their behaviour, and it is a realistic picture of family and community life. I will definitely look to read other books in this series, and recommend this wartime saga for its appreciation of place and people.   

 

Yes, I am continuing with the theme of women in mid twentieth century Britain, facing lots of problems with life with many men serving in the military forces and finding a way to keep society going, as they had during the First World War. Have you a favourite book set in the time? Do you enjoy these saga type books?

A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier – the story of a woman and a Cathedral in the 1930s

A Single Thread: The Sunday Times Bestseller: Amazon.co.uk ...

 

This is a superb book which deserves to be widely read. Set in 1932, this is historical fiction with a keen eye to issues still causing difficulties today. This is a book largely in the cathedral city of Winchester, and features a woman called Violet Speedwell who has sustained great losses. Her search for independence forms a large part of this book, on the surface from her oppressive widowed mother, but in addition from the expectations of a “surplus woman” who would struggle to find love and happiness in the wake of the death of so many young men at the front. It also celebrates the cathedral and the women who worked hard on the embroidery of kneelers and cushions to beautify part of the building, and the bell ringing undertaken by men in the bell tower. It is a book of the countryside, small cities and villages. Families and friendship, skills and characters are well captured in this narrative which keeps moving, all brought together by Violet. Like some of Chevalier’s other books, there is a real person mixed into the story, Louisa Pesel, whose beautiful work and designs are still in use in the Cathedral. I really enjoyed this book, was sorry to put it down, and relished every moment of Violet’s story.

 

The story begins with Violet wandering into the Cathedral on a whim, and discovering a special service for the dedication of kneelers becomes intrigued with the possibility of leaving her mark in the impressive building. Otherwise life is drab; she has lost her fiance; she works in an insurance company as a typist on minimal wages with two younger women. She has barely enough to cover her rent and food, but she prefers the struggle of a small room with no friends to life at home with her demanding mother who has never come to terms with her eldest son’s death in the War, or her husband’s subsequent death. Tom is the surviving brother, now married with a family. Violet discovers that she can attend a working meeting of the brodiers, and is soon involved in the stitching. She makes a friend, Gilda, who introduces her to Arthur and Keith. As the rest of her family makes alternative holiday arrangements, Violet feels able to go on a walking holiday alone. After a frightening experience, she meets an unexpected helper, and she discovers a whole new world of bell ringing. 

 

This is a vivid book of a community of women, which is shaped by their joint endeavours in a traditional skill. It is laced with some humour, especially in the demands of an older woman and her continual comments. It shows an excellent understanding of the cathedral community and running of the building, she likens it to a “machine”, needing the contributions of those who attend services. The women in the cathedral are jealous, supportive, loving and disruptive, enabling and challenging. Violet is a brilliantly drawn character, with flashes of self doubt but also inspiration, seeing beyond the situation and being loyal. It reveals attitudes to loss, different relationships, and the so called “surplus” women who had to find their own lives, looking after parents, scraping by on small wages way below mens’ wages, dealing with their own losses like Violet’s. This is a tremendous read, worth getting hold of a copy if at all possible. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction with an emphasis on the situation of women in the earlier part of the twentieth century.

 

I genuinely enjoyed this book, like several others of Chevalier’s,  and I particularly appreciated the female characters as representing an entire generation of women. This period in the twentieth century, the build up to the Second World War, is a fascinating one, and Chevalier handles it so well. I will be looking for any others that I have not read and reviewed. Have you read any of her books?

A Wedding at the Beach Hut by Veronica Henry – a tale of a family and friends in the sunshine

 

A family story with the emphasis on individuals’ secrets, this beautifully written novel of life and love on the south coast is full of the sunshine which makes it a memorable read. Of course the central focus is a wedding, uniquely celebrated at and around a hut christened the “Shedquarters” which belongs to the groom’s father. The event rapidly becomes the focus of secrets which may well change lives, and the exchange of them awakes emotions that will be deeply felt.  Henry uses her enormous skill and experience to construct a story that is engaging from the very beginning. I found it a truly difficult book to put down, as the situations made me think of the emotions involved. This is a book of parents and children of all types, relationships that meet severe challenges, all in the setting of a beautiful farm, beach and small town, and is a safe book to read of a family and friends. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book of the summer. 

 

The book opens with a description of the relationship between a young couple, Robyn and Jake, as they contemplate their present and future together. They are building a dream house on the edge of Robyn’s family farm, with the help of their family and friends. Jake is sleeping at the hut, which seems to be a tardis like building which contains very basic facilities. Robyn has a secret that is pressing on her especially at this time; she was adopted by her loving parents, Mick and Sheila, and now resolves to find out more about her birth mother. Not that she feels she lacks anything from them or indeed her younger sister Clover, but that she wants to know more about the woman who gave her up for adoption. Meanwhile Rocky, Jake’s father, is considering a new start after his divorce fifteen years before the novel’s beginning. His ex wife, Tina, hears of events on the south coast from her home in Enfield, and her story is also full of regrets and her secret occupation. Mick is in his turn coming to a momentous decision that will overturn a tradition that has lasted for generations. Beyond the present day there is the story of Emily who endures a severe trauma thirty years before, an experience that will have a significant impact on many people.

 

This is a most enjoyable book centred on the lives of various people in a contemporary setting. I found it very engaging and lively read, which actually kept me awake in a good way. The characters are very realistically drawn and have a valid existence in an interconnected way. The dialogue is well written and maintains the pace of a lovely story. The setting of old houses, flats and cottages are well described, the scenery which lends itself so well to the story is a detail which frames the story. My favourite character is probably Gwen, who is a rather bohemian friend of Robyn and who shows great compassion in dealing with a troubled young woman, as well as enormous skill in organising the great event. I recommend this book as a lovely read.   

 

This is a very new book which only came out yesterday, the 28th, in contrast to many of the older books which feature on this website. It is a very contemporary view of life, but with some of the humour and trauma common to much older books.