Christmas at Woolworths by Elaine Everest – a book of life, not just Christmas

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In spite of the title, this is not a book based on Christmas; only the last chapter occurs on the actual days themselves. This is a wartime saga about a group of women, their loved ones and the lives they lead relating to a branch of Woolworths in Kent during 1942. It is the second in the popular Woolworths girls series, and it is an undoubtedly an enjoyable novel with many dramatic events. Not an unhappy saga in most ways, but full of human interest as a group of women and some men experience life and love on the Home Front. While there are undoubtedly challenges, tensions and fear, this is a positive story of relationships which have developed under the most difficult of circumstances.

As the book opens in June 1942 with a Prologue in which the youngest of the girls, Freda Smith, is riding a dispatch motorbike towards the bombed city of Canterbury. Two of the women who work at Woolworths are known to be there, but prove to have been caught in an enemy action. The narrative then returns to Easter 1942, as manager Betty Billington is locking up the Woolworths store, and reflecting that the War may soon be over as the Americans have entered the battle. Sarah is keen to invite her to her grandmother Ruby’s house, where as usual a group are gathering to eat a meal. Ruby enjoys welcoming all comers to her home, which is fortunate as not only Freda lives there, but her son George often stays there while working locally. Sarah actually lives with her husband Alan in his mother Maureen’s house with their small daughter Georgina. Maureen is an essential worker at Woolworths, running the café, and all the women visit each other frequently. More difficult characters like Vera challenge the comfortable group, which is sometimes threatened by loss and the risk of some individuals taking on more active war work. Although new people such as the attractive Gwyneth are welcomed in, it appears to be a full time job keeping up with the whereabouts of the women as they are torn between the needs of their families and the demands of the war on everyone. As often the case, Everest is better when writing about the local area rather than elsewhere in the U.K., as a journey to Cornwall takes on a strange adventurous nature. There are movements between the houses as the war takes its toll on the arrangements of all. Romance is found in unexpected ways after sad disappointments, and there is some satisfaction when the American forces are seen not to be all they first promised.

As with all Elaine’s books about the Woolworths Girls, I really enjoyed the whole group dynamics explored in this book. She is such a skilful writer when it comes to varying the personalities of the girls, and it definitely makes the book very readable. Not that this book is all about the younger women; Ruby is a fascinating and steadying character in the novel. There is a certain amount of melodrama here, but it is all to the purpose of the novel and is always well handled. This is a saga about the time of the Second World War, but it is not a war book and there is far more about the relationships. Apparently Elaine has not finished with this series, and I look forward to reading further adventures.

So that is the final book I have read with Christmas in the title for this year! It is a bit misleading in this case, but I suppose it has value in describing a winter themed book. I have some other interesting books to review coming up, including the wonderful Jeanette Winterson’s small but powerful “Courage Calls to Courage Everywhere”. I also have a truly amazing “The Call” by Edith Ayrton Zangwell published by Persephone, which will take some reviewing as there is so much to say about a 1924 book featuring an incredible woman based on fact. Oh, and an essay, teaching prep and….Happy New Year!

Deadly Focus by R.C. Bridgestock – A truly gripping police procedural

This is a strongly written book; it may be nearly Christmas in Tandem Bridge, but there is violence, murder, and precious little time for celebrating. Detective Inspector Jack Dylan is introduced and injured within a page, but this appears to be his life. Procedure, order and method must happen, but what happens to the people who have lost, and the people who search, and those who love them? Despite the terrible events covered by this novel, this is all about the people, and it is the power of the descriptions of them that is the strongest element of the book. This book is far from being just a murder mystery; it is more concerned with the process of detection and how that impacts on Dylan and the others involved in the investigation. This powerful novel was sent to me by the publishers, and I was pleased to read this complex yet terribly human novel.

As the novel opens a child goes missing, and the disturbing discovery of her body upsets and disturbs even those who have spent much of their adult lives investigating the sad and distressing circumstances of crime. Dylan has just been injured by a man with a grudge, and  reveals that there is a great secret in his home life: Jen Jones, who works in a nearby building. She seems to be practically perfect; accepting of long hours, exhaustion and not much contribution to the relationship from Dylan. A sounding board for his anxieties, a provider of all comforts, I found her a little too accepting and perhaps lacking in depth. There is always method to fall back on, the established procedure following a murder, the painstaking team work and the pressure on those who lead it. As another child disappears, Dylan and his team must intensify their work to discover the guilty, and prove that guilt beyond all reasonable doubt. Just as the work seems to be succeeding, Jen finds that her priorities dramatically change, and Dylan struggles on so many levels.

This is a gripping book, satisfyingly complex and always pushing forward so that one more chapter calls out to be read. Undoubtedly written by someone well versed in the everyday life of the police force, this is a detailed portrait of how an investigation happens and how the human beings involved cope. The skill of writing a book which is accurate yet incredibly readable is the most impressive thing about this novel; it will rob you of sleep as you must read it on to find out what happens. It has depths of understanding which emerge as Dylan shows his far from perfect personality, and the families of children reveal their overwhelming loss. Not that it wallows in grief in any sense; it is a book which keeps moving and pushing at the different elements of the people involved. I found it an engaging read from which I learnt a lot about how a police establishment works. It is almost photographic in its detail and range, and I found no difficulty in visualising what was going on, as the sights sounds and even smalls are so well described by these talented authors. I believe this book is part of a series; I am desperately keen to read more!

Meanwhile life at the Vicarage has slowed down since Christmas, but there is still a wedding tomorrow and Sunday is, well, Sunday. There is work to do on the M.A., a doctrine course and more family to come (Hooray!) so we will keep active….

A Christmas Wish for the Land Girls by Jenny Holmes- more than a Christmas book

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This novel, apparently a wartime saga about a group of girls working and living together, is taken a step further by this exciting and dramatic plot. A group of Land Girls has already been set up, with their romances, hard work and fearsome situations, living in and near a small town, in previous novels. In this book the land girls become dispersed, with two members moving to a distant village and farms which are indeterminate distances away from habitation. New characters are added which show different sides of the wartime experience. While there are shortages of some basics, absent friends and other elements of the wartime experience, this is not a war novel as such, but there is much to involve a reader with an interest in the period.

Joyce is one of the strongest characters in the previous novels, as she is a sensible and sympathetic land girl, working on farms where she has much experience and knowledge. Her romantic relationship does not feature heavily in this book, but her security allows her to understand and help others. She chooses to go further afield, to a farm where the farmer is taciturn and has a much younger, silent wife. Brenda also continues to be the most mobile land girl, for while she has found an isolated farm with a farmer and his spoilt daughter she also manages to retain and use her trusty motor bike. The worse tragedy happens involving a friend, and she can only remain steadfast in the face of sorrow. The two girls become involved in the life of the very small village, with a charming young vet and others. There is a rather stern Vicar, who is housing an evacuee with problems. One of the new characters introduced is Evelyn, a worker with the trees and countryside around. As with many of these books, dramatic events punctuate the book, with a rather exciting climax.

This is a genuinely engaging book, which keeps the reader thoroughly involved and intrigued. This type of book depends on the strength of the characters, and this book succeeds apparently effortlessly in making the reader feel invested in the people in this story. The characters are varied, with all their faults and strengths well described, and feel very human. Even the minor characters on the edge of the narrative have their interest and value, from their reactions to events and their development. The plot is simple, where even minor events assume great significance as they affect people that the reader feels genuine interest and involvement with throughout the book. Other characters from the previous novels make their entrances, especially as they coincide with Joyce and Brenda. Social events, emergencies and upheavals see people discovering much about other people, not always positive traits, but also some great strengths. Despite the title it is certainly about far more than the immediate Christmas season being more about a period of several months in local lives. This allows the situations and characters to really develop, and it is certainly not limited to a sentimental season.  I enjoyed this book immensely, even the bleak parts, and I recommend it as a good, fairly escapist read.

As Christmas Eve is fast approaching, I have decided to keep posting reviews over the holiday period. This may be because I am addicted, or maybe it is because I know that despite the adverts and tv specials, not everyone has a Christmas filled with family and friends. Having endured some pretty horrible Christmas seasons I know that it sometimes good to be distracted, even if you cannot immediately buy the books (though with the power of the internet…) that I review or check your library for borrowing possibilities. So, do have a good Christmas wherever you are, whatever you wish for, and however you spend it!

Crime at Christmas by C.H.B. Kitchin – an excellent study of setting and character

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It is generally agreed that nothing can beat a good Golden Age Mystery at Christmas, and this 1934 novel reprinted in 2015 fills the bill admirably. A large house, with a group of ill assorted guests, a determined (amateur) detective, a murder or two and some diverting red herrings. Economic double dealings, mixed motives and unfulfilled romance are superbly realised in this little known but admirable novel. This tale is not confined to the house itself, but it is in the immediate environs that a mystery begins and deepens during a deeply trying Christmas for all concerned, but especially “the stockbroker sleuth, Malcolm Warren”. While this is not the most strongly plotted novel of its type, the characterisation and setting is so richly described that it is a thoroughly enjoyable read of its genre.

At the beginning of the book, Malcolm as narrator recalls a financial transaction in which he is instructed to buy shares on behalf of a Mr Quisberg. As he has a harmless and unspoken passion for Mrs Quisberg, and indeed is going to stay at the family home for Christmas, it becomes a very important transaction. When he arrives at the large Beresford Lodge in Hampstead he discover a full house, complete with servants and a resident nurse for a younger son. There are several adult children present as Mrs Quisberg has been married before, and they include a young woman, Amabel, with her gentleman friend, Dixon. Other guests include extrovert and expert Dr Green and another son, Clarence. A young male secretary, Harley, has brought his mother to stay for a night. An early tragedy means that the festivities are very subdued. There is much taking to sick beds and suspicion at least on Malcolm’s part, while the energetic Dr Green promises to remedy all difficulties. There is much observation of small incidents by Malcolm, and red herrings aplenty as another death occurs.

There are sometimes novels which so skilfully convey a setting that the reader feels as if they could successfully navigate around the house and garden as described, and this is one of those books. There are points at which it seems overwritten, and overly detailed, but essentially this is a book which takes the reader along very well. There is a previous story referred to in which Malcolm is also unwillingly involved in a murder investigation, and certainly he is a trusted part of the case with little fuss. This is a confidently written book, with a firm grip on plot and characters. It is not a spectacular mystery, but well fulfils the demands of the genre. It is a complex tale, but well controlled and the final chapter manages to tie up the loose ends. I enjoyed its clever insight into the various characters, and appreciated the fact that the deaths were causes of actual sorrow to some of the characters rather than just an elements in a puzzle or unfortunate events. I would recommend this book for any time of the year, because the Christmas timing is a convenient reason for getting people together rather than a vital part of the story. It is an entertaining and enjoyable book, with a skilful feel for setting and characters.


We managed to get to some shops today, and have started on the Christmas essentials. We have bought Christmas presents for a pair of Tortoises, goldfish, a pair of cats, and of course Selwyn, the Vicarage cat. He is very interested in the bag of gifts! Tomorrow morning we have some visitors who will help to clean and repaint the crib figures (the nativity figures on broomsticks for ease of story telling to a packed church three times) so I am hoping to still be able move through the hall…

If you are on twitter, follow #vicaragexmas for more details of our progress…

Christmas with the Bomb Girls by Daisy Styles – an enjoyable read of wartime women

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Sagas featuring a group of girls working together during wartime seem to be particularly popular at the moment, and this Christmas edition of the Bomb Girls is a representative sample of the type. This book is engaging and has enough jeopardy in it to be exciting and page turning, which is an achievement when the setting is largely rural and not affected by the London or any other city blitz. The characters were established in a previous book “The Bomb Girl Secrets” (the original “The Bomb Girls” was in the same setting but featured a different cast of girls), but it would be perfectly possible to read this book as a stand alone novel with enjoyment. This book draws its scope wider than the factory site and supporting village to great effect; and some of the newer characters bring with them problems that have not arisen before.

Gladys is the singer of the group whose dynamic talent meant an engagement with ENSA and foreign travel to entertain the troops. However, as the book opens, she has returned to England in something of an uncharacteristically downhearted state. Edna, one of the older women associated with the group looks to be finding true love at last, but will she discover more? A new character, Rosa, appears as a new worker. Exiled from Europe by reason of her Jewish descent, she emerges as a fascinating character whose talents and affection for the other women goes some way to ease her loneliness and sadness. While Kit and Violet seem well settled after their traumas of the previous novels, they have new circumstances and challenges to deal with in this book which take their stories in different directions. It is Gladys’ story which dominates, as she experiences sorrow before heading off in different way. It is at this point that my major criticism of this book emerges; she finds herself in London which is still undergoing a Blitz which I felt was very late, and her work seems to hark back to the conditions of the First World War in the movement and description of the soldiers. Still, a real romance is discovered and some explanations are made.

This book is certainly more than just a Christmas read, as much of the narrative concerns events long before the Christmas celebrations in which it culminates. It is a touching climax to an enjoyable novel which succeeds in many of the necessary elements of this sort of saga. It is a truly female led novel, in which virtually all the action is led by the women of the title. All of life’s major hurdles are dealt with in this well written novel which conveys many of the challenges of the wartime experience. I enjoy Styles’ writing which is mature and competent, given that she deals with some very difficult situations in this novel. I found Rosa’s experiences very moving and a different element to these books which are usually focused on the British circumstances in wartime. Despite my criticism this book is well researched and well written, and I recommend it as a good read.

So we are getting near Christmas, and many other book bloggers are writing “best of 2018” type posts. I’m not sure that I am quite capable of going through all my posts and sorting out only ten, as I have read some really good books this year, some of which have been much better than I expected. Possibly I’ll tackle a highlights type post in which I look  back on some posts.

Meanwhile, the crib figures are behaving themselves a little better in the hall. Daughter arrives tomorrow, so she can supervise the cleaning and possible repainting of the figures…

A Very Murderous Christmas – Ten Classic Crime Stories for the Festive Season

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Murder for Christmas? There seems to be a tradition of buying, and hopefully reading, murder mystery novels at this time of year. Possibly people fondly imagine that they will have time to actually read an entire novel over the festive season, but for those who lack that sustained reading time, this is an ideal book. Ten short stories by a mixture of writers, ranging from the clever development on classics to actual Golden Age gems, this is a book which will have something for everyone. The cosy, the clever and the complex are all represented here for enjoyment in those quiet moments that we actually get, without trying to remember what has gone before. These are not carefully introduced, justified and put into context, but just presented as they stand, in all their complexity or clever simplicity.

Margery Allingham’s “The Man with the Sack” is the first story, featuring her favourite detective, Campion. A version of Holmes and Watson appear, followed by a clever and funny contribution by Anthony Horowitz in “Camberwell Crackers”. Father Brown makes a welcome appearance, as well as Inspector Morse and Rumpole. A railway mystery, “A problem in White” by Nicolas Blake, precedes a fantastic and chilling Ruth Rendell murder tale. A club for considering hypothetical murder disturbs thanks to Gladys Mitchell, and the final story literally takes the locked room mystery to a new level in “The Problem of Santa’s Lighthouse” by Edward Hoch.

Thus there is quite a range of tales in scope, time and style. It is obviously enjoyable if you already know of some of the detectives (and lawyer!) involved from longer books or even television, but they would still work without previous knowledge. One or two authors will be broadly known, others less so, but all are allowed to show their established skills. Several, if not most, are not so Christmas based as to be only of interest at a particular time of year, but all have at least a seasonal element.  The dedicated mystery fan may well recognise one or two stories here, but it is a new collection published this year so there will be surprises. There are several similar books that have come out over the last few years, and this collection does not feel like a startling new revealing reprint. It is, however, great entertainment, and would make a great gift for anyone, or an enjoyable treat for oneself.

I think that we have finally posted all the Christmas cards, which is a good thing as tomorrow is last posting day for second class. Our tree is looking under decorated, but I’m sure that will soon be addressed, while large crib figures are due to be overhauled after their year long stay in the garage ( a flock of sheep has appeared in the Vicarage hallway, which is a worrying development; Selwyn the Vicarage cat is looking perplexed…).  Meanwhile, I am hoping to review some more books before Christmas, and generally over the festive period, so you can officially watch this space!

Odette by Jessica Duchen – Magic and real life for women in the twenty first century

This is a novel of many things, life, love, folklore and a huge dollop of magic. On one level this works like an ordinary story of a young woman whose life has been difficult, but who is finding her feet. The mystical fantasy is so well done, as a girl in need seems to crash into her life. As a metaphor for the others in life, those on the outside, this is a powerful fiction which deals with identity, the important elements of a different existence, and the joy of humanity. I found this a mature and confident book, written with a lightness of touch which reflects the element of flight inherent to the story. The subtitle, “A 21st Century Fairy – Tale”, reflects the nature of a book as an adult fable, when so much of life is challenged. I was really grateful to read and review this book as part of a blog tour.

Mitzi is a young woman managing to get by on fees for writing articles and pieces for the local papers. She is living in a cheap flat filled with the books belonging to her mysterious landlord, Rob. She finds the classic tales that speak of magic and romance but is saddened by the betrayal by her one time boyfriend at a time of loss. She nevertheless worries about those around her who live on the streets, who are forced to work, and tries to help them. Her brother Harry, a struggling actor, finds fulfilment in assuming other identities. Into a window crashes a swan, and Mitzi discovers a friend who knows nothing of life in twenty – first century Britain, who has no money, papers or clothes but who is driven to find love. The humour of this book is nicely judged as Odette, a young woman, discovers cocktails, pizza and other things that people take for granted. People make assumptions about Odette, just as they have about Mitzi, but the spells on both have to be challenged.

This is a book which combines lovely, lyrical writing with the hard facts of life, where women are judged and manipulated. It is genuinely funny, when a swan behaves as a human girl in another guise, when misunderstandings occur with modern life. So many elements of beauty, music and stories shine through, even when progress seems impossible. The ending is really exciting, and revelations are significant. I really enjoyed the writing style, where Mitzi is a young woman with real concerns and yet the magic of the story shines throughout the book. This story really works in its unpredictability and its subtle blend of magic and reality. The writing really kept me turning the pages as I was really eager to discover what would happen next to characters I engaged with easily. This is a genuinely well written book which succeeds in so many ways; fantasy, realism and a good grasp of what makes people tick, with subtle references to those people who get stuck without hope. A beautiful book, I can really recommend it as an absorbing read.

So we have just sung our final choir concert for this year, and it actually got warmer while we were in the church! Our Christmas tree is finally up, and cards received on display (I said we would need more Blu Tac!), and I have bought a cake from a friend. I’m only doing one service tomorrow, so a bit more restful than some Sundays. This is my final blog tour book for this year, but I have plenty more books to review (and wallow in) so watch this space – Northernreader keeps going during the festive season!

Attend by West Camel – Deptford, Deborah, Reality and Fantasy

A novel of harsh reality, complex relationships and a hint of fantasy, “Attend” is a novel which draws the reader in, messes with her mind, then leaves a shock. It is the story of people with a past, sometimes difficult, sometimes tragic, and the vulnerable present that they find themselves in as they look around Deptford. This is a contemporary book, but the persistent fantasy is of someone who can look back for over a century, and does so in acts of compulsive storytelling. As characters are forced to examine themselves and what is truly going on around them they discover not only their weaknesses but also their strengths, even if that discovery comes at a high cost. It is a faithful insight into the drab loneliness of solo lives, lived on the edge of others’ preoccupations. I am grateful for the opportunity to experience this unusual book as it is first published.

Anne has returned to a place she knows well, perhaps too well, as she is confronted with a family she has in some senses abandoned, amidst the buildings, pathways and places she can remember with painful clarity. It is when she is at her lowest, when the memories crowd in, that she is first confronted by the mysterious character of Deborah. Without beginning or end, she conjures up a world of mystery, remembered things, and endless sewing.

Sam is a troubled young man of secrets and deceptions, as he tries to continue a world of encounters with men that leave him dissatisfied. He too lives in a drab world, challenged by the actions of others, all too aware of the dangers inherent in his lifestyle. He too meets Deborah, as he alternates saving her and being saved by her, drawn in by her fantastic stories and yet beyond puzzled the unlikely tales, he develops in courage and begins to discover what is important.

The characters in this book are satisfactorily multi dimensional, as even a small baby is given a role as a challenge for Anne. Dark comedy and soap opera type emotion is combined with a literary style that lifts this book away from romantic drama, especially in those moments concerning the elusive Deborah. The subject matter, of drug use, twisted friendship and danger makes this a powerful novel, yet the presence of Deborah somehow gives it an ethereal element. Not that she always has a positive story to tell, as she recalls wartime London. As even buildings and roads seem to move with her words, Anne and Sam have to discover how to survive and live in the world.

This is an impressive novel, confidently written with an eye to the visual as well as the emotional experience of the characters. A strongly written book, with powerful events and challenging conflicts, this is memorable and compelling reading. The confusing details of a mysterious life are put up against the reality of everyday life with the small touches of clothes, daily routine, as even the inaccessibility of Deborah’s home becomes familiar. This is a book which poses many questions, but is also a compelling narrative. An impressive and challenging debut, Camel’s characterisation is well developed and mature throughout this memorable book.

I have spent much of the last 24 hours writing and sorting out Christmas cards. We have moved so often (ten times!) that we send cards to people in several places, and so we had to find not only a Post Office to dispatch (late running ) cards abroad, but also to buy an eye watering number of second class stamps. After some Christmas shopping in a selection of very individual shops at Cromford Mill, Derbyshire, we tried to post the cards (having put the stamps on in a cafe!) only to discover a shortage of post boxes with adjacent parking. Tomorrow we must put our artificial tree up with help, as well as sing in a concert. Such fun!

Today South London, Tomorrow South London by Andrew Grumbridge and Vincent Raison – London Tales

This is an unusual book. Ideal for those who know and love South London, or would like to, especially with an interest in pubs and drinking establishments. Fast food places, cycle routes and even drugs feature in a series of recollections of journeys, pilgrimages and fact finding missions based around frequent pub visits, in a world where an hour spent between alcoholic beverages is at least thirty minutes too long. Really funny, with a variety of humour and dialogue designed to entertain, this is a book of adult language and ideas, certainly not for the easily shocked. It is contemporary life writ large, a book for today’s casual classes, reflecting a world where there is always money for another pint however it is obtained. The sun shines, the rain pours, no doubt there are cold days, but all is sort of sunny in a book which is intended to gently shock. I was very interested to receive a copy of this genuinely funny book.

The book is narrated by a character called “Deserter”, who appears to spend his time imagining and working out journeys and days which are meant to explore the wonders of a South London known only to the shady locals and invisible (or too challenging) for tourists and those with prejudices against drug use and other dubious pursuits. He frequently summons friends and acquaintances to join him; all quaintly named as “Half – Life” with his never ending appetites ( of all kinds), unusual dress  and profound life views. Described as “six foot four of imminent menace clothed in supreme confidence”, he is a creation who always has a relevant comment, apposite observation or burning objection for whatever is going on. Roxy is the nature lover who knows the birds that are possible to see in the lakes of Thamesmead, and how to smoke dubious substances in any location. Dirty South is a much more amenable character, except when confronted with the tough decisions of life relating to food and drink. The journeys undertaken in this book in search of such delights as pubs on roundabouts, crazy golf courses, urban views and famous roads all have their highs and lows as pubs are discovered to be closed or demolished, or rated on the friendliness of bar staff and range of ales on offer.

While I have no means, or intentions, of following the journeys of discovery that this book encapsulates, I can appreciate the humour and subtle observations it slips in about life in the twenty first century. It is a fantasy of a type, the fantastic reminiscences of a fictional gang who idle away their time theoretically solving life’s great conundrums such as whether cycle ways offer enough halts for refreshment, or if the human form is suited to leaning on one elbow while enjoying a drink. Possibly in the face of politics and society’s upheavals, this is an almost comforting read. Nothing is too serious, no one is ever really hurt, and life is permanently jolly in a loving evocation of contemporary London as seen in good company and frequently through the bottom of a beer glass.

Having just returned from the second Carol Service of the week, I can confirm that Derbyshire is rather cold of an evening. Clever deployment of torches meant that we could see the words, when not giving out sheets for late comers. The end of term at University means that there is another break from reading and other regular sessions, but still an essay remains to be done in the background. Sigh.  What with a hundred odd cards to write and post, there’s no rest in the Vicarage just yet….

Miss Marley by Vanessa Lafaye – A dreamlike book of Victorian London life for women

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“A Christmas Carol” by Dickens is dominated by one fact: Jacob Marley is dead. This book takes that fact and gives a completely different view; that of a sister who loved him, feared for him and was loyal in every respect. A hauntingly beautiful book about a young woman who saw the painful reality behind a life devoted to monetary profit at the cost of everything else, Lafaye has created a character who can stand next to the much loved characters of Dickens’ well known story. Bitterly hard, sad and full of longing, this is a book that manages to convey a hope far beyond usual romantic endings. I was pleased to receive a proof copy of a short novel which nevertheless has an enormous emotional impact.

This book conveys an atmosphere of Victorian London which strives to be festive, despite the bleak existence of a significant number of its inhabitants. Jacob and Clara are children who have fallen on hard times, slipped through any safety net of family life as their unfortunate parents have died. They have, however, so much hope of a return to a pleasant and comfortable life. Jacob fiercely protects his sister, promising her that “tomorrow will be better”, as she gazes fascinated at a dolls’ house representing a world that now only exists in her memory. Tragically, their only chance survival comes at a cost, and while Clara is grateful for the chance, she realises disturbingly early that Jacob is changing. Women in this short book are given the perspective that love, hope and compassion are the key to life, and this is in sharp and significant contrast to the men’s view of the world.

While I have read a lot of Dickens, I have often been disappointed in his depiction of female characters. This book triumphantly overturns that problem, making Clara and indeed Belle real people, who come to dominate the novel in their steadfast attachment to the men that they love. This is a book of the sights, sounds and tastes of London, in all its challenges and humanity; the small bits of food and money, the contrasts between rich and poor, the constant quest to live better lives. It undoubtedly has a dream like quality, as Clara appreciates the beauty of the flowers, of the seasons, of people around her. This is in sharp contrast to Jacob, who also longs for better things, but is frightened of loss in so many ways. His desire for a better life for himself and his sister at whatever the cost means that he can continually justify himself by saying “It’s nothing personal. Just business” even though he acknowledges that others suffer. The sharp contrast between rich and poor, compassion and business gives a resoundingly clear motive for the much loved classic story of Scrooge and his redemption. This is an admirable book, conveying the reality of a way of life that many have tried to capture, and more than establishing an additional and significant character in the much loved world of “A Christmas Carol”.

We have returned from a pre Christmas break in the real North, when I got to Barter Books (some lovely things there) and visited a couple of lovely little towns in Scotland. Yes, I had a haggis roll for lunch! Now for more Carol services, University and teaching planning and writing so many cards…