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

Shipyard Girls at War

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


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


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


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

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

A Single Thread: The Sunday Times Bestseller: ...


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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

Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym – a wickedly funny look at the people of North Oxford

Crampton Hodnet: Pym, Barbara: 9781603811767: Books


This is a book which was missed out during the author’s lifetime, but turns out to be wickedly funny. Some characters push the limits of what is expected of them, others despair that life in North Oxford is merely repeating the tea parties and relationships of every year, but what amused me about this book is that “Crampton Hodnet” is actually an imaginary parish. Miss Morrow is the quiet companion of the demanding Miss Doggett, but in her thoughtful way she sees far more than most what is actually going on in the community. An illicit relationship is described, with amused tolerance. Petty jealousies, gossip in the library and of course a confused clergyman dominate this comedy of manners and more as Pym delights with her humorous insights, sometimes sharp but never hurtful. This is a book which reveals in its settings of faded chintz, “dark Oxford dining -rooms” and wet Sunday afternoons, of discoveries in the British Museum, and disturbing things happening in Paris. I thoroughly enjoyed this book with its observations of life and love in an Oxford suburb where “The pattern never varied”. 


The book opens with Miss Morrow quietly listening to the radio, the dubious Radio Luxembourg, in the dining room below the room where her employer Miss Doggett is resting in preparation for the tea party which is to come, to which various male undergraduates are invited. Miss Doggett is an avid collector of a certain sort of student, who are impressed by her collection of artistic treasures and who feast on the specific sorts of buns which her oppressed companion Miss Morrow must buy. 

Further excitement is guaranteed when the two women go to Miss Doggett’s nephew’s house, as Francis’s daughter Anthea is discovered in a flirtation with the eligible Simon. Further the vicar and his wife bring news of a curate who is shortly to arrive in the parish, a Mr Latimer, who will be seeking accommodation. As with other ladies in Pym’s novels, a curate is greatly prized, even when he gets involved in a tangled web with an imaginary evensong. Meanwhile, Francis Cleveland is a lecturer and tutors a beautiful student, Barbara Bird, and begins to create a fantasy of a life unlived, of a racy affair, of romantic reputations. Barbara dreams of a spiritual relationship, of life on a higher plain, but is not of the passionate disposition that would go with a great love.


This is a book of disappointments, but also of wicked enjoyment of gossip and speculation. It is perhaps not the sophisticated plot or delicate humour of her better known books, but it reflects an earnest attempt to try out the humour of characters who are funny without intention, such as Mr Latimer and his innocent speculation on the need for a wife without passion. Some characters are destined to reappear in later novels under their names here or other guises; certainly the spinster’s obsession with younger curates is a theme, as is the practical wife who knows her husband’s weakness all too well. I am not sure why this book was not published during Pym’s lifetime, whether she felt it was not satisfactory, an exercise in character creation and humour that she would later mine for ideas, or whether the onset of war and war work pushed it out of realistic publication. I enjoyed it, and found it genuinely funny and entertaining with some memorable characters.


I am fast “running out” of Pyms to read and review, but will try to find a few more second hand copies of the more obscure books – I will not be tackling the obviously sad books. She is a uniquely comic writer, though I will be looking for someone else who takes quite a light look at life. Maybe D.E. Stevenson? I have “Miss Buncle’s Book” as well as some books from other publishers….Any thoughts?

The Case of the Magic Mirror by Christopher Bush – a Dean Street Press Ludovic Travers reprint

The Case of the Magic Mirror (The Ludovic Travers Mysteries ...



This is a stunning murder mystery featuring Ludovic Travers, but unlike those that have preceded it, this is a pragmatic investigator who will pull a lot of tricks to resolve a situation. This is Ludo recalling a mystery that affected him personally rather than an almost academic problem for his friend George Wharton; he recalls the story in his own words, and it is a far snappier narrative than some of the other novels. He quickly acknowledges that even the title is not that important, but it does begin to hint at the elusive nature of the string of mysteries that present themselves in this story. Wharton appears in this story, but rather late on in the progress of the investigation. This 1943 novel, now reprinted by the excellent Dean Street Press, is in the form of the narrator recalling events from the difficult months of 1939, thus the Second World War is mentioned as on the horizon. This is a case which starts in court, but will take in many other places as Ludo, a new friend and George Wharton, have to discover a suitable version of the truth. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this different Ludovic Travers novel. 


The novel begins with Ludo explaining how it came to be, an expensive investigation which had the potential to change his whole life. In 1937 he attends a trial in which a school acquaintance was found guilty, along with three other men, of a betting swindle which involved rural Post Offices. Apart from the sentencing of Rupert Craigne, the actor known to Ludo, his associate Sivley yells dire threats at him from the dock, and Harper, a prize fighter, remains silent. The fourth man, Rogerley, walks free, but many present think that all four men will have the potential for further trouble when released. Ludo is particularly interested to see a certain Charlotte Craigne in the court, as several years before he had a relationship with her as Charlotte Vallants. In a bitterly ironic twist, Ludo’s wife urges him to help Charlotte when Rupert is freed two years later. Charlotte has been supported financially by her stepfather, the wealthy Joe Passman, and it is to his house that she retreats with Ludo in pursuit. This is because she tries to blackmail Ludo with a story that she had given birth to a son that he had fathered. While he tries to find out the truth of her relationship with her husband and seeks to discover why she demands his assistance, he engages a private detective, Frank Tarling, who adopts the persona of a wealthy American visitor to great effect. When two murders occur on the same morning, and other people seem to be missing, Ludo and Frank have to delve into events on the Suffolk coast, the manor house of Passman, and many points between, while appearing to help Charlotte and, in Ludo’s case, assist the forces of law and order in the shape of George Wharton. 


This book is slightly more lively than the previous books in the series, and differs in its inclusion of a femme fatale as “the most formidable female antagonist that…Ludo was ever to encounter” as Curtis Evans points out in the introduction. This is a powerful mystery which is unlike previous books in the series, the narration which keeps moving and shows Ludo playing a double game where his wife and Wharton are concerned, while having a strange fascination with Charlotte, who makes an outrageous claim concerning his past which he wants to keep quiet until he has investigated further. It is an honest mystery with a suitable level of revenge, albis and more. I recommend it as a lively mystery from the early 1940s, now available in a new edition. 


Dean Street Press is a small publishing house that I am a great fan of, partly for its support of less well known crime writers of the twentieth century including several women, and partly because of its “Furrowed Middlebrow” imprint which specialises in rare books by women reprinted in both paperback and ebook.  I have reviewed many of both types of books on this site, and I hope to read and review more in the future.

Oraiaphon by Marian L. Thorpe – a novella of The Empire on the edge of history

Oraiáphon – Marian L Thorpe


This is a novella of many things, diplomacy, greed and music, but the greatest one is love. Not the obvious kind of a whirlwind romance, but of sacrifice. If that seems a soft option, it is far from it; the sort of love in this short book is painful, hopeful and largely unseen. Following the story of an Empire and surrounding states, this fourth book in a series draws heavily on the themes, stories and characters dominating the books of the Empire, as told by one of the central characters, Lena. In this book, Lord Sorley tells the story of the diplomatic experience of the Empire being joined to another state, his own ambitions and concerns, and the illness of his greatest friend, Cillian. I believe this book can be read as a separate, even standalone book, if only to create an appetite for the earlier novels. It is so vividly written that it carries the reader along, on the one hand to discover what is going to happen, but also to revel in the brilliantly written characters. This book, in common with the earlier three books, is a sort of historical fantasy, with elements of Roman Empire history and language. There is a list of characters and of the unusual words used in the narrative, but also it is possible just to let the story take over. The imagination and construction of this narrative is impressive, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book. 


The story opens with Sorley being told of his friend’s illness following wounds sustained in a huge battle. He has been representing his country in the court of another; but now he has been given permission to depart for “Wall’s End” where the new leader of the Empire is quartered with the wounded Cillian and his partner, Lena. Lena is pregnant, and is wearing herself sitting with Cillian, especially as hope for his survival seems slim. Sorley is horrified at the state of both of them. He has long been attracted to Cillian, but knows that the son of the previous Emperor’s one true love is Lena.  Therefore he faces the choice of comfort from a soldier servant, Druisius or Druise, who is aware of the situation. In addition Sorley is soon asked to help with the delicate negotiations between Casyn and a greedy Procurator who has arrived to settle the arrangements between the weakened Empire and Casil who provided the means to fight off threats to the Empire. He protests that he is only able to translate, he has not the skills to be a diplomat or a strategic advisor that Cillian has by experience and aptitude. Moreover, he soon realises that he must provide the support and calming music that is necessary in the Infirmary. Can his love and physical help Lena and Cillian survive this severe test?


I found this such an enjoyable book to read and become involved in, with its keen insights into diplomacy and statecraft. Moreover, I found it a fascinating resolution to various storylines which had emerged in the previous novels. It is a powerful and vivid read featuring memorable characters and a storyline which carried me into a world on the edge of history with its consistency. 


I really enjoyed this book, especially in the context of the previous three books of the trilogy which mainly proceeded it. I am eagerly awaiting the next book, “Empire’s Reckoning” which is due to come out soon.

I enjoy reading in a series in the background to the shorter and self contained books I usually review on this site. It appeals to my sense of completeness! I have read such vast series as “A Dance to the Music  of Time” in the past, and have kept the copies in case I feel like repeating the experience. Do you enjoy reading series of books beyond Harry Potter? I have also tackled a Dunnett series in the past as well as the Barsetshire books of Trollope and Thirkell. Have you any suggestions for further entertaining series of books?

Singapore Killer by Murray Bailey – An Ash Carter thriller set in the country in the 1950s

Singapore Killer by Murray Bailey


A thriller in an exotic setting, Ash Carter is the central character in this fast paced and terrifically exciting book of murder and more. As the number of unexplained bodies mounts up, he must try to find out if they are linked, and if they are, what the chilling motive for the deaths are in a time of military activity. The 1950s is a time of unrest, suspicion of military personnel,and of memories of occupation. This is not a time of high tech operations, rather a time of investigating the random incidences of crime affecting small tradesmen though with potentially larger links to bigger time crime. Ash Carter, for those who have not encountered him in previous novels from Murray Bailey, is an ex officer in the Special Investigations Branch of the military police. He has now established himself as an independent investigator dealing with matters brought to his small office. However, he is also brought in unofficially to deal with matters connected with the military presence in the area, contacting those he knew in various units. This is therefore a book of men trying to work out where the best position may be for them, and the petty issues of military life abroad. There are larger issues to consider as well, as potentially lucrative schemes emerge that endanger not only civil order, but also the lives of all those involved. I found this an intriguing and complex read, and was interested to have the opportunity to read and review this book.


The book begins with the deliberate crashing of a helicopter. A mysterious man is chained to another man, but manages to bring the aircraft down, before ensuring death and destruction. When Ash and his ex colleague Captain Robshaw begin to investigate the scene, they discover that the modified craft was not just involved in a tragic accident, but that there is evidence of deliberate killing, even the pilot being shot. This is in an area of jungle, and there is uncertainty about what the helicopter was doing there, even who the occupants were.There seems to be more questions to answer, especially when other bodies appear, and the person responsible seems to revel in setting up obscure clues to his identity as “Blackjack”.


Alongside this dangerous and potentially explosive trail of death, Ash also deals with requests for help that come to his small office, run efficiently by Madam Chau -receptionist, translator and much more. He has established his small business following some dubious involvement in previous investigations and cases. He keeps his contacts going as he realises that the small cases of suspicious spouses and even lost dogs requires his special knowledge of not only local individuals, but also their links with the military personnel in the area. He knows that a large secret society in the country operating beyond the law will also have an impact on seemingly small disputes. He is drawn further into personal danger by attempting to support a former colleague, when he must go undercover to investigate disappearances.


This is a vividly written book which reveals enormous knowledge of a situation beyond ordinary legal and social structures. Written in the voice of Ash, he frequently faces physical danger and discomfort in the pursuit of truth rather than money. There are convincing descriptions of the landscape, roads and much else in the countryside; the author is certainly skilled in conveying a real sense of place as well as suspense. This book operates as a standalone novel in a series, and it is easy to be quickly drawn into a different world of adventure and tension. A sometimes brutal but always honest read, this is a thriller to find much to interest the reader.   

Captured by Her Enemy Knight by Nicole Locke – an historical romance of particular intensity


This is the story of Cressida, who is seen in the year 1297 at large in England. She is a warrior, a weapon trained from childhood in the arts of war. This historical novel is in the genre of romance, and much of it concerns the relationship between Cressida and Eldric, a knight. This book is a powerful tale of two lives intertwined by faith and an attraction that goes beyond the usual expectations. As they explore the past, the events that they know of and some that they can only guess at, they exchange stories of brutality and worse; this is in no way a courtship of delicate manners but a physical narrative of several differences. Revealing events over a few days with implications from the past, this is a book of intensity in its descriptions of a woman and a man in close proximity. The writing is lively and vivid, with such clever descriptions that it is easy to visualise the woman and man and their intimate setting. Their situation, it soon transpires, has far reaching implications not only for their own lives, but also the fate of many others. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this unusual historical romance.


The book opens with Cressida seeking a sight of her employer who she identifies as her father. She is a younger woman who has talents best suited to the role of warrior, and it soon appears that she has a great deal of battle experience, not in set piece conflicts but in the picking off of specified targets for assasination. She is determined to find and contact her father, who has made her “The Archer”, a sophisticated killing machine. She is an expert in every weapon except the sword; she can keep watch for extended periods and kill men to order. She can hide in high places, and picks a tree which overlooks the port with its coming and going of boats. A few hours later she feels herself pulled out from the tree by rough hands, and despite her desperate attempts to free herself which include inflicting injuries on her captor, she is taken up to a boarding house and secured as a prisoner. Eldric of Hawksmoor is a man who she has watched for years, a huge and powerful warrior with great responsibility to King Edward himself. For complex reasons her father has in the past instructed her, as part of her role, to kill Eldric and others, but she has instead chosen to observe him, discovering an attraction for him that she cannot explain. Eldric meanwhile is torn between the unexpected discovery that his long term adversary who he has sworn to kill in revenge for his friends is female, and his sworn duty to take the Archer to London and the King. He feels a powerful attraction to her, especially when he discovers her past history, but he soon realises that she will fight him with every ounce of her strength. 


This is a strongly written tale of mutual attraction in nearly impossible circumstances. It seems to be one of a sequence of books which feature some of the characters alluded to in this story, but it certainly stands alone as a complete novel in its own right. It is a skillfully written novel of character and setting, with two unusual but fascinating main characters.    



The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion – Parents, friends and children in a contemporary comedy of life

The Rosie Result


The third book in a highly successful series, this novel records the efforts of Don Tillman to cope with life. It follows “The Rosie Project” and “The Rosie Effect” in recording his great life events, but also tracing his development from a younger man who struggled with everyday social interactions, and had a tendency to use his brain power to overcome and solve problems. This novel revolves around Don and Rosie’s son, Hudson, and his struggles to cope with school, friendship and life generally. Following the Genetics Lecture Outrage incident, Don decides to take the lead in sorting out his son’s issues, as various teacher’s at the School demand that the boy take a test for autism. This raises all sorts of memories for Don, as in his school career he had been perceived as different and had constructed all sorts of coping strategies. As Don and Hudson hit difficulties, Rosie has problems with being the only woman in her department of research, and various family and friends have to work out their own difficulties. 


This book probably works as a standalone book, as it gives a lot of background to Don’s past mistakes and victories, and each friend is introduced with small insights into their connection with the family. It is in some ways a comedy, a book that looks at the friendship bonds that change lives, and how being different actually feels. It illustrates the small and large problems of life and love in a person’s life, as we hear Don’s voice throughout, continually assessing and reasoning. A genuinely entertaining and uplifting book, it looks at the joys and trials of being different in a lively and vivid way.   


The book begins several years after the end of The Rosie Effect, with the family living in New York. When Rosie is offered a research position in Melbourne, Australia, Don is happy to go with her, but Hudson states clearly “No. I don’t want to go to Australia. I don’t want to change schools. I don’t want to change anything”. Despite their own problems, Rosie and Don decide that he should give up his job which was threatened anyway and concentrate on the Hudson Adjustment Project. He tackles various teachers, and makes it possible for Hudson to spend time with his apparently sole friend, Blanche, who has a sight problem. In time, various friends and relatives are joined into the effort to help Hudson with various tasks and skills, even though they may well have difficulties of their own.


This is a contemporary book which has much to say about differences which can trouble individuals. It explores some of the difficulties and the problems of “solving” them, by medical intervention or otherwise. The various characters in the novel all have their backstories, and each is well drawn, even if they do not play a significant part in the story. There are running throw away jokes, such as that the Porsche car that Don drives is always requiring work from Phil who always passing on mild criticisms to Rosie. This book is uplifting and encouraging, taking a positive look at the differences that some people handle in different ways, the labels that they cope with and the assumptions that others make. I recommend it as a happy read in most ways, despite a few sad episodes, and that it has a lot to say in a positive and humorous tone.   


This is a really interesting book, with some memorable characters. In the midst of the comedy there are some really interesting comments on autism and other elements of personalities. All three novels, I hope, will open discussion on the differences some people live with and attain so much. Certainly the first book did in our book group. As our book group cannot meet at the moment I have been putting a review of the book and some questions into the church magazines and on the website. So far I have done “Mr Rosenblum’s List” by Natasha Solomons and “Old Baggage” by Lissa Evans. We were not due to meet in June, so there will be a gap before the next one…  

Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten – a story of a woman whose life ascends to the highest level at great cost


A novel of Russia which covers a large chunk of the life and reign of Peter the Great, but not of politics or battles, this is the story of Marta. Born an illegitimate villager where the local monastery own all the land and the work of the villagers, this young woman ascends to the side of the Tsar of all Russia. With little to recommend her apart from her physical attractions, her intelligence and wit, she is prepared to use any method to ensure her survival , knowing that her relationship with Peter, a huge and powerful man, is the only way she can live. This is a huge book in every sense, covering many years, battles and movements of people. Marta’s elevation from poor peasant to the highest woman in the land is a remarkable one; the difference between the extremes of poverty where a teenager can be sold for a few coins and the fabulous wealth of a Russian Tsar who can build a city in an inhospitable area. Unlike some novels set in Russia it is relatively easy to work out the names of the individuals involved, and the story of a woman’s progress is a lively and fascinating one. This novel has its passages of brutality and adult realities, but does not dwell on the horrors. It is undoubtedly a magnificent achievement in terms of sustained story telling and atmospheric descriptions of battle and its aftermath, celebrations and sorrows, huge wealth and extreme poverty. Seen through the eyes of a singular woman notable for her loyalty and courage, this is a powerful and immensely readable novel. I felt very fortunate to have the opportunity to read and review this amazing debut. 


The novel begins with a description of life in a feudal village, where a living must be scraped from a harsh landscape. When Marta catches the eye of a local merchant, she is sold into household service and eventual abuse. As she commits a significant act of desperation, she runs away to a local town and seemingly into a worse situation. Escaping once more she finds herself in a good household where she is treated well until the town is overtaken by enemy troops, and she is on the point of brutal treatment by soldiers when she is saved by an officer who turns out to be close to the Tsar himself. Through the good offices of a friend she comes to the notice of the Tsar himself, and finds herself in the unique position of lover of an absolute ruler. As battles come and go, loss is experienced and challenges must be met, Marta comes to realise that she may well be at the mercy of a man whose mood and inspiration can change in an instant. 


This is a book of characters whose slightest wish can change the fate of thousands of people. Marta herself is a brilliantly drawn character who has a life that is sometimes like a fairy tale, at other points like a horror story. The pace of this book draws the reader in and keeps them reading; it presents a world that does not necessitate any prior knowledge of the history of the country or people involved. It is the product of knowledge and research which flows through the story in a completely natural way. I found it to be an incredible read, and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in historical fiction.  


There is a huge difference between this historical novel and others that I have reviewed here. It is dominated by a woman, and is truly honest about her motivation. I found this so readable that its considerable size was not a problem. It is a compelling read on many levels.