Janet Jackson’s Yorkshire B&B by Becky Papworth – an honest and funny novel of life

Janet Jackson’s Yorkshire B&B by Becky Papworth

This is a truly honest and funny novel! Janet Jackson – yes, that is the name of the main character’s name – has decided to open a B&B on a small basis. She has spent all her money on converting her garage into a tiny cottage and embarks on letting it out. After all, she lives in beautiful Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire, a small town which is a magnet for tourists and unconventional lifestyles. That would seem to be a sensible move given that she is a divorcee whose only other income is her full-time job as a dental receptionist and she has a teenage daughter Chloe at home to support.  Despite being a bit demanding in the case of snacks and similar essentials of life, Chloe is often helpful with her computer knowledge and business acumen, which Janet seems to lack. Maureen, on the other hand, who also lives in the main house is frankly not keen on actually helping – she has other interests including performance poetry and well, men. In case of emergency, she is often absent in mind, body and spirit (unless from a bottle), leaving Janet to sort out the situation as much as possible.  

Janet tells the story of the garage/ cottage / self -catering annex etc in her own words, including her panic moments, her worries about most things including tax and welcome hampers, and her mistakes. Becky Papworth has given Janet a convincing voice to describe the daily ups and downs of being a landlady, host and owner of the newest B&B in the market, as well as trying to get on with her own life. There is romance, including with safe Peter, and who would expect her ex husband to reappear with issues? The humour is gentle and convincing, emerging from situations and the amazing variety of guests that the cottage attracts. There are classic mistakes in charging for stays and other traps, especially when a noisy neighbour gets involved, but there also some lovely visitors that restore everyone’s faith. The downsides of single parenting a teenager emerge, but also the rewards when Chloe is supportive of her mother’s efforts.

This is a genuinely funny book which is relatable on many levels even if you have never been tempted to let a cottage or even a room. Janet’s household is as chaotic as possible, but there is a lot of affection between the inhabitants. I really enjoyed her enthusiasm for gardening, how she copes with her job at the dentists with the memorable patients, and the hurdles she must overcome. Christmas is a brilliant set piece with a full house of people she has sort of collected. There are some awkward situations which I could see coming, but they were still funny. The characters were well drawn in their often-maddening consistency, especially the ever-flamboyant Maureen. This book was honest about the choices for older women in a way many other light reads are not, especially the realities of romance in a complex world. I especially enjoyed the tips for life that appear at the end of every chapter; they begin with “Tips for Running a B&B” and become Tips for other situations such as “Tips for Family Life” and even “Tips on Nights out with Sisters”. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book and recommend it as a light-hearted read.   

The Hidden Palace by Dinah Jefferies – a novel of two women facing enormous challenges in two very different times and places

The Hidden Palace by Dinah Jefferies

1923 and 1944. Two time periods, two women facing challenges and circumstances beyond their control. In this superbly constructed novel, the two timelines weave in and out of each other, as the young women discover that not everyone can be trusted, and some events are beyond their control. Dinah Jefferies has written a powerful book about betrayals and secrets that mean that decisions must be made. Rosalie Delacroix has fled from Paris in 1923, leaving no clues as to where she has gone, and has tried to make a new life. In 1944, Florence Baudin has faced the Occupation of France and escaped, risking her life, only to discover a challenge from her mother which seems impossible to meet.

The settings of these two women’s stories are very different, and very well introduced and maintained. In the earlier story the streets of Paris almost immediately give way to the colours, sights and smells of Malta, a natural paradise with lurking dangers, a place of beautiful buildings and squalor within a short distance of each other.

Florence’s new life begins in Devon, in an almost an impossibly comforting cottage, but it is soon revealed as a place of secrets. The first chapter opens with a journey on a crowded train, as Florence and her companion Jack are about to reach his cottage home. They have travelled together through the dangers of Occupied France and beyond to make their way to this point; it seems that Jack was a British agent in France while Florence has undergone a traumatic experience and needed to leave her sisters Elise and Helene behind. Florence and Jack are not a couple, and it seems that Florence’s mother Claudette wants to see Florence at her own cottage as soon as possible. When Florence arrives, however, Claudette is not exactly welcoming, especially when Florence explains what is going on in France with her sisters and why she was in greater danger. Claudette, it seems, wants Florence to find her sister Rosalie as a matter of urgency, but the only clue to her whereabouts is a Maltese cross. This is August 1944, and there is no possibility of travel, but Claudette is adamant.

The story then moves to Paris in 1923. Rosalie is desperate to find excitement and dance, rather than settle to a suitable marriage as her parents’ demand. A particular incident makes her decide to flee the city, her parents and break contact with her married sister Claudette, who has three daughters. She travels to Malta having found an advertisement suggesting they require nightclub dancers. She is impressed with the island, but soon discovers that some girls are deeply unhappy to be there. She changes her name and discovers that some friends represent the wealth and difference to be found on the island. Mysteries and secrets seem to be dangerous, and Rosalie must decide what to do.

This novel is far more than a straightforward wartime saga as it takes in more than one time period and various settings. It is the second in a series following “The Daughters of War” but as I have not read that book, I can confirm that it works a standalone. The two main female characters in this book are shown as resourceful and determined, and face severe challenges in so many ways, which provides the main plot of the novel in a convincing way. This is a novel which is difficult to put down once begun, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this powerful combined story.  

The Jane Austen Remedy by Ruth Wilson – an empowering memoir based on the works of Jane Austen

The Jane Austen Remedy by Ruth Wilson

This is an unusual book – part memoir of an interesting life, it is also the story of how a life was “reclaimed through reading” specifically the novels of Jane Austen. As an older woman Ruth Wilson was beginning to regret her calm life of conventional domesticity and marriage, so decided to reclaim her independence by a time of living alone and re reading the novels that had entered her life in 1947 as a teenager. So significant was her careful and structured reading that she decided to embark on a PhD on reading and teaching Austen, which she successfully completed in her late eighties in 2021.

While Austen’s books have been endlessly analysed, written of and adapted, considered and debated, this book looks at how one woman’s personal reactions to a collection of novels written many years before can speak not only to her but to many who may be in search of something more, a new perspective on a changing and challenging world. This is a personal book of memories and perspectives on novels which so many of heard of, but maybe not actually read in a spirit of enquiry and expectation that a woman of such different times could have anything to say to them. It argues for the joys of reading generally and specifically these early and revered novels. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this memorable book.

This book is written from the perspective of an Australian who has lived in that country for most of her long life. Born in 1932 to Jewish parents, Wilson’s childhood was lived in the shadow of a war that was at once far away but also had effects on her family life as the secret horrors of persecution came to be known. As she reaches the age of sixty, she began to question how easily she had accepted a role as wife, mother and teacher rather than following a more unconventional and possibly more satisfying life. When a legacy allows her to buy a cottage away from her husband and family, she seizes the opportunity to go beyond Woolf’s room of her own and establish herself in her solitude to reread all of Austen’s novels. She had encountered them throughout her life but had not really read them as significant statements of what life could be, or how them commented on life’s chances and changes. She discovered connections with characters that spoke to her in a new way and became determined to share them with others in the light of her new discoveries. Thus she follows an autobiographical account of a settled life, of school followed by college then her conventional marriage. Her father’s occupation of a doctor inspired her to see reading as an “antidote”, written by a near saintly woman as portrayed in her family’s biography in Austen’s case. Generally, a love of language and stories has informed and fascinated her, from family stories to the literature she studied academically. An enthusiasm for acting and reading aloud has made the experience of texts more personal and significant. Her interest in grammar has informed her reading of the texts of Austen’s novel generally. Wilson embarks on a series of chapters looking back on her life through the framework of the individual novels which sharpens the observations she has been making on such topics as relocation and moral choices.

This is at once a personal memoir and an appreciation of Austen’s writing. There are also discussions of other authors and writing, as there is a substantial bibliography of other books mentioned. There is also a short reading list of Austen related books of many types provided. This is a very interesting and readable book which has much to say on Austen’s writing and its power to change lives as well as change perspectives of women’s expectations and experiences.   

Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson – a complex and clever look at London nightlife and more in 1926

Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson

From a large cast of characters, an amazing sense of London life in 1926 and a deep understanding of what people are capable of, the latest novel by this talented author is so different from her other novels yet shows the same commitment to making historical fiction vivid and alive. This is a post First World War novel in which there have been losses on the battlefield, but this a time when girls and drugs were the valuable commodities on the streets of London.  Five clubs that operated on the edge of the law are owned by the redoubtable Nellie Coker, matriarch of a family of six children, fearsome, devious and haunted. Run by Nellie with a rod of iron, her five oldest children are charged with tasks to protect and advance themselves and the family empire. Not that it is easy; the success of the clubs with their frequently dubious business set ups depends on alcohol laws being adapted, blind eyes being turned to the fate of hostesses and other practices. Police raids, competition and those who have designs on the clubs as well as those who feel visceral anger towards Nellie are circling.

 Into this storm enters a police Inspector charged with sorting out the nightlife of London. Inspector John Frobisher is a quiet man, thoughtful and concerned with trying to sort out the gangs’ influence and the more violent elements doing business in the city, while suspecting that there is corruption in Bow Street station, where he has been assigned.  The remarkable Gwendolen, until recently a librarian in York, has just arrived in London in search of her sister’s friend Freda, and decides that there may be more than one way of finding her. Meanwhile Freda has decided to come to London to find fame and fortune, in the mistaken belief that, as her friend Florence says, the streets are paved with gold. It doesn’t take her long to realise that the only gold to be found is not all that it seems, and that she may have to make sacrifices to survive.

This is a book that contains action and twists, surprises and complex situations. It exposes some of the downsides of the life of the Bright Young Things, desperately trying to find new sensations to cover their memories. Nellie’s offspring includes the clever and enigmatic Niven, the oldest, whose experience includes surviving the horrors of the Somme. Ramsay is a complete contrast as he exists on the boarders of the fashionable life, unable to cope with Nellie’s expectations.

This is a book with enormous range, in terms of the themes it tackles, and the way it interleaves the characters’ stories. Gwendolen is a bright spark for more than one character; she sees things differently and seems unchangeable. Freda may be one of the youngest in the novel but has a fascinating backstory. There is subtle humour as well as a complex plot as it becomes clear that often people are not what they seem. There are bodies found and missing people, drinks and dancing, celebrations and disasters. The descriptions of London are simply brilliant, almost visible in the contrasts, full of the colours, sounds and smalls of a city in the interwar years. This is such an impressive novel in so many ways, with such a range of characters, situations and a clever plot with subplots. I enjoyed the style of writing, the depth of characterisation – Nellie’s omnipresence is frightening, and some of Frobisher’s discoveries very sad. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review, and I would thoroughly recommend it.   

Lessons by Ian McEwan – An Unchosen Life of memories and more

Lessons by Ian McEwan

“How easy it was to drift through an unchosen life, in a succession of reactions to events”. Roland Baines’ life has many fascinating aspects as related in this superbly written book. It reveals the pinpoint detail of his life as well as the big world events that shape things around him, the reactions he feels to things that seem out of his control, his actions that set his life and that of others on a particular path. It is a sort of life story, though it rarely travels in a straight line; like memories it goes off down pathways, waymarked by letters and notes on occasions, but often it takes the form of returning to events, considering them in the light of present knowledge. It is incredible in its details, of the interiors of buildings, especially homes. It is a book peopled by Roland, but also by a teacher, a wife, a baby and others who seem to enter the stage for a section, then fall back into the background.

 I found this book an intense reading experience, in which Roland is in the foreground, but others are given room for their stories, and events roll around. The events are sometimes world changing, others just challenge Roland’s world. Some are expected, some are almost surreal. A world recovering from War, with all that implies, questions of bravery and separation, becomes the dangerous peace of a Cold War which suddenly becomes real. The pain of the Iron Curtain’s effects on people is so well expressed in relation to Germany that the Fall of the Wall seems almost personal. Climate change, even covid, are seen through eyes of fear and some understanding, while the realities of Brexit linger in the background. This book brilliantly combines the personal with the political, the massive with the mundane, as Roland learns that there are many lessons in life to be learnt. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this big book in every sense.

The book begins with an eleven-year-old boy, who has already had a complex life, going through a piano lesson with a young teacher who is unexpectedly reactive to his playing. She makes demands on him that go beyond what is to an extent already seen as a precocious talent, but he takes this as one more thing he cannot understand in a strange school existence. His mother is far away, but it seems that she cannot protect him – his dominant father sees to that. He is essentially vulnerable, and Miriam will go on to teach him and leave scars that cannot be left behind. The scene shifts to a house in London twenty-five years later, when new father Roland is abandoned by his wife, left to look after a seven month old baby, Lawrence, with no preparation and little understanding. A note solidifies the abandonment, the pain, and while the State grudgingly gives him a little money, the police are interested in a man whose wife has disappeared. This is especially the case when an officer finds a scribbled line of poetry which may suggest a woman’s death. It is only gradually that the reference becomes clear, as Roland’s memories of a curtailed formal education is explored, and his efforts to fill the perceived gaps – the courses of reading, the travels melt into the friendships, the relationships. Politics becomes personal when he encounters the realities of a divided Germany, and the endless debates about the government that pervade the dinners and drinks of friends and acquaintances. Still, there are questions, of women who he has been close to, of men who often challenge him. Memories, passions and sheer luck meld together to provide an unforgettable portrait of a life illustrated by reality.

This book is not only engaging, it is also immersive as Roland’s life story expands on the page. Like real life it does not run in straight lines; there are always considerations of others, of the what ifs, of the effects of decisions that he has taken, that others around him take, that are made on a global stage. The standout section for me concerns the fall of the Wall in Berlin in late 1989, when history is reduced to accident, to assumptions about people, when life changes forever in some ways, but also continues in others. This is a book that instantly becomes memorable, that I found an intense reading experience, and I recommend to those who are interested in life as it was actually lived by some in the second half of the twentieth century and beyond.

The Library by Bella Osborne – an enjoyable novel of contemporary life and a Book Club choice

The Library by Bella Osborne

Some book groups go for challenging literature – for our second meeting of our relaunched book group we decided that this book fitted the bill. It has characters that are perhaps unusual in a contemporary novel – a teenage boy and a seventy-two-year-old woman. It features one character who has severe problems and the topic of loneliness in two different age groups. It is also of course set in a library, one that Maggie and Tom meet in, and is under threat of closure. My edition also includes “Questions for your Book Club”, which we did not work our way through, but which made interesting points about the book’s themes. In a way it is a very positive book – but I admit to at least point that I found quite moving when Tom’s dad destroys something important to Tom. It has its comic points – Maggie it seems is a physically tough older lady, when it comes to work on her small holding dealing with Colin and other tasks, and in defence of herself and others. Tom describes himself as “invisible” as only a quiet sixteen-year-old can be, without friends and having lost his mother when he was younger. His relationship with his father is tough, his concern about a future working in the dog food factory understandable, and his half expressed hopes for romance painful. This is a novel that can set off many discussions topic, and also be an enjoyable book in its own right.

It is soon established that the importance of the library is that it is one of the few places that people from different age groups and backgrounds can come together and all find something for them that is free. Maggie is organised and resourceful, but essentially lonely with not enough to occupy her. Widowed and living alone, she enjoys reading many types of books, especially when it means she can go to the library on a Saturday for a book group. Tom’s appearance at the library is more accidental; a comforting memory of visiting with his mother, and a place of books which fill the empty hours in his difficult home life. After his dramatic meeting with Maggie, it becomes a place where he realises that he may find friends, both much longed for and surprising. The structure of the book is very interesting: Tom relates his own story and feelings in his own voice, including his terrible times with his father, his taking on of domestic responsibilities. Maggie’s story is closely related, but it soon becomes obvious that she has an unusual back story and a dramatic secret. As befits a teenager Tom has much to relate on the subject of food, especially the contrast between the sparse fare at home and the plentiful meals that Maggie happily provides, and there are also some wonderful pictures of the farming life that Maggie is used to, but which is a whole new world for Tom.

Altogether this is a novel which provided many talking points. We spoke about libraries at some length; we admitted that our own use of libraries varied at the moment but that they were valuable places that are worth fighting for. The fight for the library as described in the book is realistic, with the suggestion that the local authorities are only really interested in the financial aspects of the closure. This is a novel which we generally enjoyed, and I would certainly recommend it as a good read which combines lots of interesting issues with great characters.

The Bleeding by Johana Gustawsson – three time periods, three women, three desperate situations

The Bleeding by Johana Gustawsson

This is a complex and well written thriller with gothic elements, a murder mystery that erupts from the very beginning, and the story of three women in different time periods each with their own dilemmas and issues. It spares no details of a murder scene and subsequent grisly finds, but there is a genuine shock on the part of observers; this is far from people dismissing a killing as yet another event. There are women in the lead in every section with a range of backgrounds and stories. This is a carefully written book which emphasises the women as individuals, with their identities in various roles and individual challenges. It is a novel destined to linger in the memory, a book of cleverly interleaved stories and questions. There is delicacy as well as strength, love and genuine concern for others as well as determination to survive. There are different forms of motherhood and imaginative interest in the fate of other women in a solid setting. It is a successful novel that I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review.

The opening section of the novel is set in 2002, narrated by Maxine. She is driving in difficult conditions, and thinking about her baby Hugo, as well as her older daughter Charlotte. This is Quebec, a place of more extreme weather, and, it emerges, the sort of small town knowledge of other people that can confuse police investigations. It seems that Maxine is police officer who is going to have to investigate a brutal murder, with the main suspect being known to her. Thus, she is addressed as Lieutenant Grant, as she is confronted by her former teacher, Mrs Caron, stained, spotted and streaked with blood. The next person to appear is a teenager, Lina, in post war Quebec of 1949. She is being tormented by some other girls who she calls the “two witches”. She has to go to the Rest Home where her widowed mother works as a carer and encounters an extraordinary older woman who suggest new ways to cope, unorthodox books to read, and an appreciation of the dying of the sun at sunset. As Lina continues to struggle with her tormentors, her “old lady” tries suggesting ways of maintaining her sense of worth, of resisting their attempts to embarrass and ridicule her. The third time period is “Belle Epoque Paris” in 1899, when Lucienne is a wealthy woman with two daughters who she has far more affection for than her rather disappointing husband. When tragedy strikes, she seeks comfort from some controversial sources, which in a way creates more questions than they answer.

This is a sophisticated novel which interleaves the story of the three women. As tenuous links begin to emerge between the stories of the women, so many clever themes weave in and out of the narrative. There is a greater emphasis on the more contemporary story, as a woman begins to persuade another to break her silence. This is a powerful novel in which women take the lead, sometimes in surprising way, and I found it difficult to put down as I was so keen to find out which narrative strand would feature next and what would happen. I recommend this as a rich immersive novel.   

Death of a Bookseller by Bernard J Farmer – a 1956 novel of the book world reprinted as the 100th British Library Crime Classic

Death of a Bookseller by Bernard J Farmer

For its reprint series to choose this book as number one hundred was a great move on the part of the British Library Crime Classics series.  It was apparently a rare book to obtain in the decades since its first publication in 1956, so this republication is much deserved. While the author Bernard Farmer was not a well-known author, and as Martin Edwards points out in his usual informative Introduction, not much is known about his life, he produced three novels featuring Wigan as a main investigating character. He also served as a police officer himself, and thus the strictures placed on the sergeant in this novel for using his time and acting on his initiative in crime solving is probably realistic. He was also an avid book collector so has some idea of the addiction of obtaining a much sought-after edition of a book. He points out how “ruthless” the passion can be, especially when the “book runners” who feature in this novel are depending on discovering and selling on at a profit as their precarious livelihood. Not that the business is confined to men – the novel features a female character, Ruth Brent, who makes it clear that she will do a lot of things in order to obtain books for her American boss. This book works so well because it has a plot which demands action before a time limit, and a lot is at risk for the main characters. It is a book which I really enjoyed and was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review.

The book opens with diligent and kindly Sergeant Jack Wigan encounters a somewhat tipsy Michel Fisk who is celebrating “the find of my life”, the author’s own signed copy of Keats’ Endymion. This is the sort of discovery “book runners” dreamt of: acquiring a copy of a well-known work with an author’s inscription marking it as a special copy. He knows that it would be the pinnacle of any collection and if he were to sell it, could produce a life changing amount. Wigan helps Fisk home and is rewarded with a sight of his collection of books. He is inspired to begin looking for rare books himself, not to make a profit but to begin a worthwhile collection. So, when subsequently Fisk is found stabbed and the Keats missing from his home, he is offered a spell in the detective branch to help with his newly acquired knowledge of book buying. As he does so, he comes to realise that it is a world of its own, with men and one or two women desperately seeking the sort of elusive book that will bring in at least a profit and possibly a change in fortunes. Among those he encounters is the argumentative Fred Hampton, who seems particularly desperate to earn money from the occupation of seeking out bargains. Other runners include Charlie North, while there are also those who have a more professional set up, even shops, but who are still obsessed with certain books. As Wigan fears that there may be a miscarriage of justice regarding the murder, time is of the essence in discovering the truth.

Farmer introduces many themes in this novel, including the restrictions on serving police officers, the urge for some to obtain convictions speedily, and the iniquity of capital punishment. It even looks at the dangers of devil worship, and the problems of detection. There is some humour and a lot of honesty in this novel, and while it is very much of its times, it is clearly based on definite experience and knowledge. It is a convincingly written novel which I greatly enjoyed, and I recommend it as a real gem for booklovers and crime enthusiasts interested in a world of dedicated collection.

The Art Fiasco – Poppy Denby Investigates by Fiona Veitch Smith – a novel of the North East and intrepid women!

The Art Fiasco – Poppy Denby Investigates by Fiona Veitch Smith

It’s 1924 and there is murder and mystery in a city art gallery – a crime with roots in a local mining community and the city of Newcastle. This is a novel that I picked up because it was shown as local – to Newcastle that is – despite the fact that I have not read the earlier books in the series of “Poppy Denby Investigates” – and I loved it! The story roves around the buildings of Newcastle and at least one of the mining villages – Ashington – that I encountered when I lived locally. I enjoyed the setting and the time at which an exhibition of the work of a fictional artist Agnes Robson is taking place in the Laing Art Gallery, and young investigative journalist Poppy Denby is visiting from London. I have seen earlier books in this series but not actually read any yet – possibly because the earlier novels are set in London. I can therefore confirm that you can read this novel as a standalone.

The author has managed to encapsulate so much in the book – Poppy’s specific backstory in the same area as well as her career in London, the career choices now open to women and the reaction of more traditional people, the miner-artists groups that emerged in the interwar period, the pressure of past scandals and even murders among many more themes. The characters are vivid and memorable, as the author manages to differentiate between the women who feature in this novel. Poppy’s Aunt Dot uses a wheelchair and together with her friend Grace are a formidable force. There are references throughout the novel to a group of suffragettes in which the two women featured who had endured some hard times in the fight for equal suffrage. Delilah, Poppy’s friend and a successful actress is a resolute friend and an attractive character who provides a contrast to the more reserved Poppy, and gives the author more scope to describe the clothes that the young women wear in careful detail.

The book mainly observes Poppy’s progress in untangling the events of an evening and her experiences at the heart of the mystery. Her tentative relationship with a police officer is a relevant consideration as the plot plays out, but it is her own ability to search out the truth which is most important. Agnes’ story which emerges throughout the book is a fascinating one and provides a picture of life for women during the early part of the twentieth century. It is one of the many strengths of the book, and I found it fascinating.

This is a book that I was pleased to have picked up by chance and that I enjoyed greatly. That is  probably because of the way that the female characters were portrayed, in every variant of life choices and how they reacted to events around them. Poppy’s investigations were well described and are motivated by loyalties to friends and family as well as the truth. There as so many well drawn characters it is hard to pick out favourites, but I did admire Yasmin, KC and so competent as a parent and person. Altogether I found this an exceptional book which I really enjoyed, found difficult to put down and thoroughly recommend.

The Little Wartime Library by Kate Thompson – a wartime novel of the people who fought to survive a war and the library which opened books to all (with factual extras)

The Little Wartime Library by Kate Thompson

This is a novel that has a clear message – libraries are great and reading is for everyone. It is specifically about a little library that was established in Bethnal Green tube station during the Second World War. In this fictional version it is run in 1944 by a young woman, a widow, Clara Button, with the assistance of the remarkable Ruby Munroe. It is shown to be a vital part of a huge air raid shelter that was established in the station by locals, despite the protests of the authorities to begin with, and it has saved many lives in an area that suffered greatly in the Blitz and continues to be a vital refuge for families and other civilians. It is set after the terrible disaster which overcame some two hundred people in March 1943 when a mother and child slipped on the stairs and caused a major pile up of people in which many were killed. The effects of this accident are felt most deeply by Ruby in the novel, though of course it became a terrible secret which destroyed many families while being kept quiet by the authorities. It is one of the many elements of real historical facts which are successfully blended into the narrative, allowing Kate Thompson to capture some of the anguish and upset experienced by the people of the East End of London. The presence of so many children in the shelter is another remarkable tale, especially as Clara has such determination to open the world of reading for them through the wonders of books.

This is a terrific story with a brilliant setting above and below the streets of London which are rendered almost unrecognisable by years of bombing and destruction. The shelter is very well observed with all the facilities including a dizzying number of metal bunks so that hundreds of families, couples and individuals could sleep in safety over a period of years. There is also a theatre and places to eat apart from the library. The latter is shown as a centre for everyone, as anyone can sign up for a ticket, borrow books or to an extent, find a quiet refuge to read. Clara is responsible for establishing a story time for children every evening which welcomes children of all ages to listen to a story as well as finding encouragement to enjoy reading. Clara is a remarkable character who has lost her husband before the book begins and comes under a lot of pressure from her family and in laws to give up work, especially following the destruction of the original library where she worked. Even though she is determined to make the library a special place, she attracts the attention of a man in authority who wants to dictate what happens in the library. It is fortunate that she has the unwavering support of many people, including Ruby who is the vibrant young woman who demands attention, especially from men. Ruby has family issues including the death of her sister Bella, and seeks to avoid thinking too hard about the past. She is deliberatively provocative in her support for Clara, and a memorable character in her own right. As most of the men at this time had been conscripted into various military forces, this book focuses on the women and children who bear the brunt of wartime trials. I really enjoyed this fictional saga, and was very pleased to have had the opportunity to read and review it.

The other element of this paperback edition which I found absolutely fascinating is the large section at the back which gives the historical facts behind the story, including the wartime provision of books from various sources, and how they were vital to the war effort, even listing the titles that were especially in demand. It looks at how libraries around the countries survived and some of the dedicated people who made sure that access to books continued. Thompson has undertaken a lot of work in relation to libraries especially over the last few difficult years, and throughout the novel there are positive comments about libraries gleaned from her interviews. This section of the book would have justified the cost of the book alone, and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone interested in the social history of libraries in this country. Altogether this is a book which I am so happy to have discovered, and that I cannot recommend enough.