Beyond the Margin by Jo Jackson – two lives expose contemporary issues on the edge


This is a book of life on the edge; both in reality and in emotional terms. Joe is a man who has been about as low as possible and now lives on the edge of the land, and Nuala is always on the edge of disaster. This is a book which features the difficulties and the tremulous joys of life as it describes days when the natural world offers so much, as well as days when people are at their most challenging. This book depicts the problems and inadequacies of the child care system in contemporary Britain and its effects on children and young people. It also deals with small agricultural communities on the edge of subsidence farming. It is an undoubtedly powerful book about the intertwining of two people, two fates, two lives. Difficult subjects are tackled head on, but in a basic and brilliantly observed way. Dealing with subjects such as drug abuse, teenage pregnancy and domestic abuse, it also looks at positive views of life. It looks at how certain people can look beyond the outer appearance to see the real person beneath. This sensitive and skilfully written book is an impressive and weighty book in many ways, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it. 


Two lives intersect when a man offers a lift to a teenage girl in the pouring rain. She is awkward, needy but also fiercely independent. The scene then changes to a young woman who remembers scenes from her childhood, her life in care, her dismay over her abandonment. Life has been difficult and she reacts by seeking her freedom in a new setting, away from the tearing tragedies that have beset her. 


A young man has had a hard life, a nearly impossible childhood, teenage years full of challenges. He has truly lost so much, but is haunted by a child that he cannot forget, he cannot outrun, and his guilt and pain pushes him further and further away. It is only when he gets to the edge of the land that he stops, nervous of a large animal but forced into action. His thoughtfulness and kindness give him a slight hope of a new start, but one that is tenuous, dependent on different people from any he has met before. He must confront his past life and discover a new way forward.


This is a mature book full of detail about potential problems in contemporary life. It also shows huge insight into the thought processes and instinctive reactions of a child and teenager, the sensitive approach of some adults which has an effect, the twists of fate that can change lives. The world of subsistence farming is beautifully described and sensitively worked out. This is a powerful book which has much to say about the nature of life and the pain of separation, the search for a child and the parent figure that is so necessary to a young person’s sense of self. I found this a profoundly moving book that I would recommend as a searing insight into difficult lives, combined with the genuinely positive input that can be made by relative strangers. There is hope, love and genuine concern in this book, and altogether it is an uplifting read.  

Rags – to – Riches Wife by Catherine Tinley – An historical Romance with several surprises


This is a Regency historical romance with several twists. Jane Bailey is a lady’s maid, proud of her service to Lady Marianne Kingsford who featured in an earlier book by Tinley. Robert Kendal is a young man who effectively runs his elderly uncle’s estate. The two are thrown together in difficult and bewildering circumstances, and in this novel there are several twists and turns. The life of a servant is well reflected in this clever novel in which an educated and proud young woman is placed in a household in a way that she never expected. The development of a romance is a main part of the narrative, but also the element of a fish out of water, a daily realisation that roles are reversed. 


There is a lot of research evident in this novel, as the roles of servants, especially lady’s maid, is painstakingly explored. The life of a maid is far more complex than usually supposed, consisting of dressing and undressing her mistress through the changes of clothes suitable for the time of day, caring for her clothes by way of washing, mending and refurbishing, and making sure all her needs were met. The physical side of the work is well demonstrated as Jane’s hands take some time to recover from the washing and other irritants. The insecurity of employment of those in service is emphasised as even Jane, with her special link to Marianne, goes in fear of doing something to lose her post, or otherwise being put out of a job. There is also an interesting element of remembering an attack that  has affected Jane’s life, and may have an effect on her future ability to enjoy a relationship. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this multi layered book.


The book opens in 1800 with the death of Jane’s father. For Jane and her mother it begins a difficult time of poverty and the fortunate finding of a position in a wealthy household. After a point at which everything seems to be uncertain, even dangerous, their loyalty is rewarded. Jane’s mother is in charge as a housekeeper, while Jane becomes the personal maid for the mistress of a well off house. Meanwhile Robert is being dispatched to find the young woman with only the vaguest of instructions. It is not as easy as he expects, and there is additionally a very detailed and significant account of the journey they undertake together. Their arrival at the House involves encountering some of the characters that live there, as well as Jane’s confusion as to her status.


I found this a very readable book with a sure touch in revealing character, attraction, status anxiety and much more. The importance of the distinction between servants and those that they serve is well demonstrated. Jane’s insecurity is more about her concern for her role than her undoubted attraction to Robert. However, their growing relationship is beautifully drawn, and there are many surprises to be enjoyed on the way. This is a most enjoyable read and a fine example of a well researched historical romance novel.   

Killing Beauties by Pete Langman – she-spies in Cromwell’s London – dangerous streets and people


Spies are fascinating, and spies in an historical period unburdened by difficult hi tech are even more involving. In this book the fact that the spies are very much women adds to its attraction, as both Susan and Diana spend the first part of the book using their unique talents to fool those around them. This book is set in the time of Oliver Cromwell’s ascendancy, in 1655. King Charles I is dead, executed by Cromwell and others who believed that it was the only way to end a series of battles, civil wars that had divided the not only the country but also families and friends. This is a book about a brutal time, when Charles who would be in time acknowledged as king Charles II lives in France, partly at the charity of the French king. Susan and others are maintaining not only the hope that this young man will return to his dangerous kingdom, but also making it possible that his supporters who will welcome him survive and thrive. In a state where a security system is being established, where casual brutality is accepted on the streets of London, where women are not valued for their intelligence or abilities, Susan must survive and act. This is an exciting novel, full of telling detail and vivid descriptions of a dirty and disturbing London, and very memorable characters. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this excellent and exciting book.


This book begins with a powerful man in Cromwell’s service. John Thurloe is busy with a suspect, torturing him while receiving intelligence of the planned arrival of two further agents of the king’s cause. As Cromwell establishes himself as the effective ruler of the kingdom, two women come together in an inn  and receive their orders from Susan Hyde’s brother, the influential Edward Hyde, chief advisor to Charles Stuart in exile. The women, especially Susan, realise that the letter in its intricate packaging contains orders that not only put them at incredible risk, but will also challenge their abilities and reputations.  It is soon obvious that Susan is a woman of quick thinking and resource, as they pull off an impressive stunt which makes them “disappear”. There is a certain grim humour that runs throughout the book, as the women carry out small plots and actions that mislead and confuse the men around them. As Susan now has to plan a campaign that will involve a long term deception on a chief official, she obtains supplies and information that will give her access to the trust of her target. The men who work for Thurloe discover the benefits and challenges of pushing the edge of espionage and gathering knowledge of the supporters of exiled Charles. 


This is a sometimes shocking, sometimes surprising and always entertaining book. Susan trades on the fact that many women, lower class and working in the inns and back streets of London, were basically invisible and often fair game for men with a small amount of power and or money. Adopting one of the few roles that allowed women to move around London without suspicion, that of healer and midwife, she manages to gain access to men and places. There is a really special impact to this book, full of evident research which does not overwhelm the fiction, giving insight into the life of the most ordinary of people, whether apprentice, female innkeeper or others. This book is a superb picture of a troubled time in Britain’s history, whether spymaster or nearly invisible woman. Exciting, entertaining and always enjoyable, this is a novel which lifts history off the page, and is historical fiction at its best.      

The Hopes and Triumphs of the Amir Sisters by Nadiya Hussain – a contemporary insight into life

Image result for nadiya hussain


This is the story of Mae, youngest of the Amir sisters. She has managed to spread her wings and move to university, but the experiment is not going well. Readers of the other two Amir sisters books will know why – a complicated arrangement of sisters and babies means that her already close family has become a demanding one as well. This book works well as a standalone novel, as I had not read the previous two. Mae’s issues with finding friendship and support at university are a common problem; her family problems are universally recognisable. This contemporary novel is written with affection and compassion, and with great skill. This is a narrative of the small things, the funny things, the completely confusing things in today’s world. This book cleverly focuses on Mae within the context of her family and though her eyes. It is an honest account of being nineteen and trying to emerge from a demanding family. I found it an engaging and honest book, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it. 


As the book opens Mae is at university, struggling to make sense of her course and the other students around her. She feels unable to communicate with them in a lighthearted way, or indeed at all. She decides to  go home, despite the fact that her communication with her family has been mainly obsessed with the two babies, Adam and Zoya. Mae is disregarded by all, except when wanted for babysitting and other help. Her beloved parents have changed and ignore her in favour of her brother. Her return to university gets her involved in various problems, and it does not take long for her to reach a crisis point.What happens next is confusing, challenging and a little bewildering, and involves Mae in a lot of family, cultural and other issues. 


This book is a clever construct of plot and setting. It shows real insight into family life, where the needs of some are ignored in favour of those that shout the loudest. The challenges involved in looking after small babies, stepchildren and others are clearly shown, as part of the general stresses of family life. Mae’s individual struggles go right to the heart of her identity, as she tries to work out her place at university in all senses, her place in a family which seems to ignore her, and what she truly wants from life. The humour of this book runs throughout, as well as the very real challenges that Mae faces. Apart from the normal problems of growing up in today’s world, Mae has to face the facts of the world outside her family, and it is a struggle. Her problems are well explored and this is not a predictable novel in many ways. I thoroughly enjoyed this insight into a young woman’s life and times, and recommend it to all readers of contemporary fiction who appreciate a lighthearted element to their reading, with a strong narrative flow. 



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

Image result for keep the Home Fires butning bookImage result for home fires tv show


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


I have discovered that Amazon has not got any paperback copies of this book at the moment. So if you would like a copy, the publisher, Dome Books, have a website you can buy it from. See for details.

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

Image result for it walks by night john dickson carr


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


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


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


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


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

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

Image result for the princess plan by julia london


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


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


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


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