Table Two by Marjorie Wilenski – a Wartime story of women working through the Blitz and more

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As the bombs fell during the London blitz, they put all types of strains on those who lived there and tried to work. This novel was originally published in 1942, and was a closely observed picture of what the author knew well: a group of women who worked together in a random group while under immense strain.The wonderful Dean Street Press have recently reprinted this unique novel of bravery under fire, together with all the very real challenges of jealousy, relative poverty and unrequired passions. Not that this is a wholly gloomy book, as the wit of a dialogue with an authentic sound is in contrast with some of the events of a life dominated by sirens and explosions. The main characters of women depicted in this book are a fascinating collection of the relatively well off and the women left behind by life. There is some bitterness, but also the clash between women working in the Ministry for the money, having been struggling to make a living for many years, and the well off working for the War effort. The only novel by this thoughtful and skilful writer, this book represents a very readable insight into a time when the outcome of the Second World War was far from certain. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this intense but entertaining novel. 

 

Anne is the heroine, a young woman from a wealthy background recently left impoverished and so working at the Ministry in the translation department. Her background of friends and relatives mean that she has resources beyond the dreams of her co workers. As she starts working at “Table Two” of the translation department, she encounters the older Elsie Perne, able and efficient but starved of affection in her life of working throughout Europe, a situation ended by the onset of war. While the other women are talkative, noisy, jealous, depressive and childlike in all their accurate humanity, Elsie Perne is determined to do better, gain more status and regain her sense of self worth. She sees Anne as the only colleague who is not already biased against her, and in her desperation for simple friendship she becomes even less tactful. There are some set pieces of drama as the raids, previously discounted as empty threats, actually consume much work time and threaten the safety of the workers. Despite the London gloom, there are still glimmers of hope in a city transformed and no longer familiar, as every character must come to terms with shortages, lack of sleep and the need for concentrated work.

 

This book is very readable and enjoyable as a piercing view of people working together in nearly impossible circumstances. The humour is dark, the understanding of human dynamics painfully accurate, the variation between the women brilliantly drawn. I found the image of some of these women once more coming to terms with war moving, and this book is an incredible testament to the human spirit. I found the comparison with the very few male characters very interesting; they tend to be quite stock people like women often are in many books of the period. It is sad that this is the only novel published by this writer. I really enjoyed this book in every way.   

 

I really enjoyed this Furrowed Middlebrow book from a small selection of wartime novels. I’m greatly looking forward to reading some more as soon as possible. It’s such a shame that this was Wilenski’s only book.  

Her Dark Knight’s Redemption by Nicole Locke – romance and more in medieval France

1297 in Paris was a bleak and dangerous time to fall in love. Not only for the poor scraping a near living on the streets, but also for those with enormous financial resources as well as sworn enemies. This romance novel introduces Aliette, a homeless young woman long abandoned by her family, and continues the family tale of the mysterious Reynold. The man is a dark and incredibly secretive man; he sees secrecy as his only defence against enemies he has had for his entire lifetime. He is a danger to anyone he perceives as liable or guilty of betraying him. Aliette is a poor, near starving woman who has a great secret responsibility. Their meeting and subsequent close proximity makes them realise that what they have long believed about themselves is questionable; that affection may be possible. This well paced novel is a dark romance and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.

 

The book shows Reynold in his study, a well furnished room which is at odds with his well practiced skills in dealing out death to those who threaten him in any way. His well established secrecy is currently at risk  as an old woman has brought a small child, a baby, who she claims is his daughter. He is torn as he is strictly self controlled, but he fears that there is enough truth in her story that he escorts her to a squalid room and tragedy. Meanwhile, Aliette is more than usually worried about her survival and that of her adopted family. She has discovered a couple, Vernon and Helenwise, scavenging as street beggars, more than usually disadvantaged by their physical difficulties. Gabriel is a traumatised boy whose parents are dead, and he has been scarred for life as part of the events he has experienced. Aliette has been attempting to provide for the three desperate people, buoyed by their affection and company. Her series of small jobs does not provide much, and it is to attempt to rectify Gabriel’s theft of bread that brings her to Reynold’s attention. He dispatches some of his mercenaries to bring her into his deceptively large fortified house, and once there puts a propropsition to her which surprises them both. As they discover more about each other and the fact that draws them together, they begin to also find out the very real dangers of life of being in France with a family at war.

 

This is a strong romance which has common roots in other books, but is more than readable as a standalone novel. The romance between the two main characters is well expressed as a gradual discovery on both sides, when the real risks of their attraction become evident. I found this a well crafted book with a well expressed sense of apprehension throughout. Aliette is an attractive character for her loyalty and determination, her instinctive understanding of others and her sense of responsibility. There is a darkness in this book, but Locke is an experienced author who handles the theme well, and this is a successfully gripping and enthralling novel.   

Wild Spinning Girls by Carol Lovekin – a book of the power of women and a sense of loss

 

A story of wise women, lost mothers and changed lives, this atmospheric novel breathes a strange story of the power of women in the change of lives and a sense of place. The fear of birds and of the unknown dominate this book, as Ida discovers that not is all that it seems in a strange house that she has just inherited. This impressive book from Honno, the Welsh Women’s Press, is full of the weather and the unique nature of the remote countryside of Wales. The house itself becomes a character as each room suggests a terror and unexplained presence. Lovekin creates the idea of lost mothers, changed lives and unexplained forces from the depths of countryside and the unknown which happens in the depth of grief. This is very much a story of women who discover a lot about themselves and others. I found it a special and unique reading experience, and I was glad to have the opportunity to read and review it.

 

Ida was brought up to follow her mother as a ballet dancer, until a lapse in concentration ends her career. She then finds work in a bookshop, until it closes. Her parents are about to go to Paris on a second honeymoon, but a freak accident means that they are both killed. Bereaved and without a plan, Ida decides to visit a remote cottage in Wales where she was born which she has been left to her by her father. Unaccustomed to life in Wales, she finds the deserted house a great challenge as there is no lighting, heating or furniture in the house, but many birds, noises and other disturbing events. The most disturbing is the arrival of Heather, an unusual girl who is the daughter of the previous tenant, Olwen Morgan. Having retained the keys and knowing the area well, Heather is able to slip into the house and make demands about Ida’s residence there. Her words and actions are deeply disturbing, as she suggests that her mother, though dead, has not truly left the house.A Wise Woman, she was known locally for her knowledge of herbs and spells. Heather is a disturbance which Ida cannot cope with, especially as she is still in the throes of grief and guilt about her own mother’s death. As she tries to establish herself in the house, Ida encounters the locals who are vary in their reaction to her. As it seems supernatural forces at work, she tries to unlock the secrets of the house, Ty’r Cwmwl, the House of the Clouds.

 

The impetus of this novel is impressively mystifying. It has much to say about the power of women and a wisdom which defies explanation. The element of ballet is important as it suggests one of the impossible ambitions that a mother can have of her daughter. The research into herbs and plants, knowledge of birds and landscape is obviously impressive, but it is never allowed to get in the way of the story. The characters of Ida and Heather are vividly realised and the whole book is a strong testament to the power of women     

Death In Fancy Dress by Anthony Gilbert – a British Library Crime classic in every respect

Death in Fancy Dress Paperback British Library Crime Classic

 

Death at a fancy dress ball in country house – the classic murder mystery novel originally published in 1933, now republished in the British Library Crime Classic series. This particular book has an extra element to it: the search for an blackmailer who seems to be encouraging the suicides of previously unconnected and largely blameless people. The narrator of the tale, Tony, is a young lawyer who has been engaged to deal with a tricky international matter, and on his return encounters his old friend Jeremy Freyne. Jeremy has a reputation for disguise, trickery and a flippant attitude to life, fooling people and producing jolly observations on life. Tony and Jeremy are asked to visit Feltham Abbey, to discover if the “Spider”, or the presumed master blackmailer will be there by the British Secret Service. 

 

This novel of women and men in an enclosed group involving a ball, blackmail and state secrets moves along smoothly, full of the chatter of a time when the effects of the First World War are still being felt. Wealthy people, servants and friends all mingle where there are underlying secrets and long term grudges, so when the inevitable  murder happens there is a pool of suspects for Tony and Jeremy to investigate. This well paced novel full of period detail is an entertaining story of mystery and fantastic characters. The dialogue which runs throughout the book reveals a certain level of black humour from not only Jeremy, but also the women and men who are at the party or generally live in the area. This book was written by the talented Lucy Malleson under her pen name of Anthony Gilbert, and as Martin Edwards explains in his fascinating introduction, while she did not gain the big commercial success she wanted, she wrote some excellent novels and short stories. Two of these, Horseshoes for Luck and The Cockroach and the Tortoise are also in this book, which are small gems of crime and deceit. I was really pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.

 

The usual elements of a country house mystery are fully present in this novel. A victim who gains little sympathy with anyone, a number of people with reasonable motives, two people who are determined to discover the guilty party. There are some interesting and well drawn characters who are introduced and developed throughout the novel, and the author gives full weight to the female characters which is not always the case in books of the period. 

 

This is an enjoyable and very readable book with a well focused mystery at its heart. The larger search for the Spider gives a greater depth to this story which lives it above a simple murder mystery. The issues of the interwar years are well represented, as the problems left from one war are still present and in the background. I found the characters well drawn and contribute greatly to the overall effect of the book, with the unusual Merriel Ross being especially intriguing. This is a worthy addition to an already highly successful series of books and I would be very interested to see other books by Anthony Gilbert.  

Roses of Marrakech by Rachel Clare – A romance in time and place, 1944 to 2016.

 

A story of place, of love, of secrets revealed; this is a book which encompasses a lot in its substantial length. Ivy is a young woman who has had self image problems for many years, but despite everything has created a life for herself, albeit devoted to teaching. It is only when her beloved great aunt Rose dies that she decides to explore something else- the beauties and textures of Marrakesh in Morocco. This is a book where stories are revealed and the price of real love shown. A book of enormously beautiful writing, depicting a life lived in England full of family and countryside, contrasted with an in depth tour of the main sites and hidden corners of Marrakesh.

 

 As Ivy walks the tiny byways of the city where history burns so brightly, she also reads of her aunt Rose and her venture into a great experience of love. It is only when Ivy discovers herself also facing the adventure of love with all its stresses and pitfalls that she understands what made Rose the woman she became and showed to a small girl who was so shy. This is a book of contrasts, of beautifully written descriptions, but also revealing great insights into love over many years and in several places. I was so entranced and am grateful to have had the opportunity of reading and reviewing this book. 

 

This book begins with the birth of Ivy, and her parents joy somewhat affected by the news that she has a permanent facial birthmark. As she grows she discovers that she is grievously affected and made unhappy by the attitudes of others to her appearance, but makes a great friend in a girl called Mei. Rose has died, but not without giving Ivy every element of love and support. Being a schoolteacher she decides to use part of her legacy from Rose to travel to Morocco for her long summer holidays alone. When she gets there she discovers a great love for the place, making her way among the small corners, markets and more. She makes a friend of the young son of the owner of the riad where she is staying, and falls in love with the place in which she walks and explores. Soon she meets a man who transforms her experience of the place in every way. At the same time she is reading Rose’s diary of her mysterious early life, her family and its losses. As her own love affair deepens, she discovers Rose’s own wartime romance and wonders where both loves are headed.

 

This is a big book with many elements to be enjoyed. Through it the reader discovers Marrakesh and the surrounding countryside. The people she encounters are all well drawn and so fascinating. The sights, smells and sounds of the streets around the riad where she is staying are wonderfully illuminated by the writing of Ivy’s story. The combination of love stories and wonderful writing of place makes this a truly special book. It is engaging in so many ways, and well paced in its gradual discoveries. A story of romance, of special places and discoveries, this is a splendid book which deserves a lot of interest. 

The Will to Succeed by Christine Raafat – Anne Clifford and her fight for her fights – a novel

Image result for "The Will to Succeed" Christine Raafat

 

Sometimes historical fiction can give the reader a whole new perspective on a period of time, and the sort of people who lived during a time of change and challenge. Lady Anne Clifford was a woman who had one focus in her life, the inheritance of her family’s lands. In the seventeenth century women of course were not generally seen as having independence; only an exceptional few were landowners in their own right. Her obsession dated back to the time of her father’s death, when she was only fifteen, and was informed that she would inherit a fortune but not the lands that had been entailed down the generations of her family.  From that point onwards she was willing to fight for what she believed she should have, and for that she was willing to endanger everything. This carefully written novel is a testament to the determination of a woman who fought everyone in a fiercely patriarchal society peopled with those who were influential and changeable. I found this a powerfully written and effective novel which feels as solid as a non fiction history book, but brings characters to life like the best of imaginative novels. I was very grateful to have the opportunity to read and review this excellent book.

 

Born in 1590, Anne was the only surviving child of the third Earl of Cumberland, and thanks to her mother, Lady Margaret’s, connections at the royal court she became a popular and admired lady in waiting first to Queen Elizabeth then among those in the court of King James and Queen Anne. It is when her wish of marrying Richard Sackville is realised that her determination to fight for her inheritance really comes to the forefront of the story. With a subtle hand Raafat describes a young couple very much in love. It is only when, following a long separation when Richard travels, that he falls under the influence of unscrupulous gamblers and  a corrupt court, that he seeks to redress his financial losses by commanding Anne to give up her claim to her lands in the north of England. The loss of trust, the legal inequalities which face Anne, and the varying fortunes of the couple and those around them make for a focus to a fascinating account of life in and around the royal courts of England in the 1600s.

 

I found this a carefully executed book, which gives a believable picture of life for a woman of determination and strength in difficult circumstances. There is an immense amount of research demonstrated in this book which never gets in the way of the story; the small details of jewelry, clothing and everyday life of travel and setting is combined to make a tremendous narrative. This is a novel of powerful women and determined men, long journeys across the country, and the dispute which had a serious effect on several lives. Anne’s story is indicative of the problems that many wealthy women faced over the centuries, that their lives, loves and children became ways of control over them as the second best gender. This is a fascinating novel , and I recommend it as a fine example of historical fiction with a unique woman at its centre.   

Hidden Wyndham by Amy Binns – the life, love and letters of John Wyndham , author

 

With the subtitle “Life, Loves, Letters “, this is the book that truly explores the somewhat shadowy author of the bestselling “The Day of the Triffids” among other clever and successful science fiction novels. John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Benyon Harris was an intensely private man in many ways, who ordered many of his own papers to be destroyed at his death by the great love of his life, Grace. Binns has used details unearthed very carefully from various sources to give this highly successful picture of a man who wrote so brilliantly of alternative ways of living, especially appreciating his thoughts on the way that society “downgraded” women by marriage. His letters which survive give an enchanting view of a man who loved a woman very deeply for a long time, but who he refused to compromise in an institution he distrusted.

 

 This is a moving portrait of a thinker, writer and feminist in a time of difficult peace and challenging war. A man who struggled with school until he encountered a totally unique institution, and who chose to live for most of his adult life in a community on the physical edge of Bloomsbury, if not getting involved in the curious situations which that society implied. He is shown as an innovator in terms of literary output, quietly using alternative views to influence his readers. I was fascinated and very grateful to have the opportunity to read this excellent biography of a long term literary hero.   

 

This book carefully reveals details of his parents; his father being a pretentious politician and lawyer who gave his sons pretentious names to seek a link with famous families. George Harris was a cheat who tried to gain every possible financial benefit from his wife’s wealthy family, and their acrimonious breakup was another off putting factor when it came to views on marriage. John remained close to his mother and brother throughout their lives. The book really came alive for me when the letters between John and Grace were printed. John wrote beautiful letters to her throughout the war years, as he tried to persuade her to stay out of a London which was being regularly bombed. He was aware of what made a good letter as he was spending his time censoring letters in a government department. He vividly described the bombing raids and described the evacuation from the club in which he lived. One person got separated from the rest , and he wrote of the man “greeting us with the enthusiasm of a shipwrecked sailor” .

 

The account of John’s early literary endeavours and as he moves into his world famous novels is fascinating, with some unique pieces about stories that had small or obscure publications. Influences such as the puffball mushrooms in the countryside around were a direct influence on certain books; the breakdown of society in Day of Triffids was from what he saw in the immediate aftermath of war.

This book forms a very satisfactory insight into the life and times of a great twentieth century writer. Many people like myself  have devoured Wyndham’s books as the most accessible of science fiction. It was fascinating to learn about what influenced some important novels and read about the person who created them. I recommend this for all those who enjoy literary biographies.      

Rules of the Road by Ciara Geraghty – a book of a road trip like no other, challenging and changing lives s

 

Terry is the sort of woman who worries about worrying. Super housewife, concerned mother and household cleaning expert, she has a friend who is the exact opposite, Iris Armstrong. Iris has gone missing. This is unusual and unprecedented, as Iris is the sort of person that it is impossible to miss- a retired nurse who runs the local Alzheimer’s Society with her positive energy and view of life. It is through a strange set of circumstances that Terry sets off to find her friend in her car containing her father who has dementia. When she finds Iris, they set off on a journey like no other as Iris seeks a solution to her situation. This is a book which seeks to combine a certain black humour and explore what is important in life, as Terry braves situations she has never previously encountered. It is an important book about the impact of life, the way it is lived and the choices we make. It is about different sorts of courage, and the daily truth of illness. I found it a most interesting read, and I am grateful for the opportunity to read and review a copy.

 

Iris has MS, and has previously fought to maintain her independence. It is now that she has evidently decided to travel to Switzerland to end her life when Terry decides that she must try to persuade her not to go through with it. Terry has always been a worrier, a fantasist about the worst possible outcomes. Her family, consisting of a husband with many fixations on doing the same things well, and two adult daughters who have both depended on their mother’s slavish devotion, have encouraged Terry to become totally devoted to them, cooking, cleaning and providing complete support. It is only Iris who has distracted her, found her another focus, provided other activities apart from  stain removal and only driving “where she knows”. Terry had always tried to care for her father, until his advanced dementia meant that he entered a Nursing Home which cannot accommodate him for the week that Terry abandons everything. As Terry and Iris travel in Terry’s old but solid Volvo, it is her father who provides a commentary of confusion and quotes from the Highway Code. Not that it is an easy journey from the Irish public via London and Dover to Europe, as Terry uses her “running away” money to fund petrol, in the face of communication from her baffled family.  

 

This book offers much by way of interesting people that the small group encounter, including  a memorable meeting with a family member. It has a lot to say about the choices that women make in contemporary society, and that people make about their lives generally. Iris is an unusual and strong character and her observations about her illness are moving in their rejection of the predictable. The minute descriptions of life with dementia are remarkable. Probably the biggest challenge is to Terry, as she is forced to confront her fears and obsessions. The humour of the writing slices neatly through potential angst, and this is certainly a memorable read. 

 

A Mother’s Journey by Donna Douglas – a new and lively wartime saga set in Hull

 

A new saga series set in Hull, 1940, is a good thing, and this immensely readable book is a wonderful first book. A young woman, Edie, makes her way along Jubilee Row, struggling with a big suitcase. She has a secret, but those observing her are intrigued by where she is headed. Two families, the Maguires and the Scuttles, are dominated by strong women who pride themselves on their involvement with and knowledge of  the streets of their area. They know that Edie is going to be sharing a house with Patience, who has many issues. There are daughters of both families who have had to learn to live without their husbands, for the war is affecting everyone. The shelters are well used. Two brothers, Charlie and Sam, have very different experiences, as some are still affected by a previous war. Meanwhile Joyce is enduring a marriage which has turned to abuse, and worries about her son Alan. 

 

This a book that examines through the eyes of people immersed in the changes and challenges of war. It introduces and develops the stories of individuals and a community brought together by adverse circumstances in a lively and engaging way. I was really pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.

 

Edie’s story is a common one, as she recalls her lost love Rob, an RAF officer who was killed over France.  Her pregnancy is going to become obvious shortly, but her stepmother Rose still ensured that she had no home elsewhere. The two residents of the ground floor of the house, Patience and Horace, have a sadness of their own, and Patience is keen to preserve her home as a sanctuary. Meanwhile, young widow Iris is aware of her life long friend Sam’s interest in her, but cannot begin to think of anyone else after Arthur’s death. Edie has to discover the truth about those around her as she tries to establish herself in her new surroundings, and the reader too can be surprised and intrigued by the various people in the area. As Joyce finds daily challenges her story is particularly affecting, and many issues about the lack of choice for married women at the time are well explored. There is also closeness demonstrated between some people which is positive, although in every encounter there is the sense of threat from a war which is in the background. 

 

I really enjoyed this book as a really lively and well paced read. There is a drive as the characters reveal much about their previous lives, and the revelations are well paced against a background of air raids and the real impact of war. I found this book immensely readable and it kept me wondering about the truth about each character; there are moments of real suspense deliberately created and well played out.  I was genuinely taken by surprise by some of the revelations which emerged. This is a saga which keeps moving and developing as the reality of life in Hull is revealed. There is a lot of research here that is well written into the story, it never holds up the flow of the narrative. I recommend this lively book with plenty of drama and human interest.   

Four Minutes to Save a Life by Anna Stuart – a contemporary look at life behind closed doors

 

Four minutes is not long to save or even change a life, but it is all Charlie Sparrow, the newest delivery driver with Turner’s Supermarkets, is meant to spend with each customer. Charlie is a man with a huge secret or two, but when he gets the orders to venture into Hope Street, he soon realises that he is going to be challenged in lots of ways. This is a book of enormous humanity and the real power of friendship. As Charlie enters houses with people’s mundane groceries, he also enters the lives of the lonely and isolated for a few brief moments a week. Not that even that insight is guaranteed, as the scheming Ryan is on the case. 

 

This is a skilfully written book about the big secrets a person can hide, but also how a small moment of conversation and genuine interest can make all the difference. It is a sad comment of how isolated people can be, but also how hope can help. Anna Stuart has created characters with real depth and integrity as well as sadness, and I found this a really uplifting book about how caring people can be with a little encouragement. I am really grateful to have had the opportunity to read and review a copy of this book.

 

The Prologue of this book shows Charlie making a bonfire of the things that he feels have contributed to his current sadness. His books and even passport are to be destroyed in order to make himself Charlie Sparrow – “a little dull, a little ordinary but, pray God, harmless”. Week One off the book shows him signing in as a delivery driver and meeting Bri, who is very welcoming. Soon he is heading out with a van of deliveries, nervously anticipating meeting the people on his list. Vikram is making curries in hope rather than anticipation. He gets excited by the visit, as he realises that his only other company is an elderly tortoise called Rickets now that his beloved wife is no longer there. The second visit is Ruth Madison, who is engaged in fixing a food processor. Not that she knows what she is going to do with it, but she feels compelled to fix things as it least it temporarily distracts her from the sense of loss that follows her. Charlie understands and indeed is interested in the jigsaws she also completes. Another visit is to Greg, as he consults his social media accounts and his “Inspirational” reputation. Following a terrible accident he has lived a changed life in an adapted house with few or no real visitors. His frequent trips have made him a star on twitter, but his bitterness strikes Charlie as he carefully delivers the groceries.

 

Despite the subject of this book, there is an underlying humour which emerges from the dialogue and other events which helps to maintain hope. I found Charlie an intriguing and fascinating character, whose life has obviously taken a difficult turn. His evident guilt is always threatening to overwhelm him, but he finds space to try to make a difference. I found the twists and revelations in this book moving and effective, and well within the range of reality. This is a really well written book that deserves to do really well, and I recommend it to those who enjoy contemporary insights into lives that many lead. 

 

I really enjoyed this book from local – to -me author Anna Stuart, which is not surprising as I have read  historical fiction novels, which include some stories of really strong women. As Joanna Courtney she has written the “Queens of the Conquest” series among others.   Despite my reading statistics being pretty impressive, I wish I had got round to reading all of her books *adds to list of potential Book club picks*