A Beautiful Spy by Rachel Hore – the quietness of a woman’s double life in the 1930s

A Beautiful Spy by Rachel Hore

Minnie Gray wants to do more than marry and have babies, as expected of her in 1928. This is a novel of a young woman who gets involved in situations she doesn’t understand, in order to please a mysterious spymaster. Written with a sense of tension in a time of political uncertainty, Minnie’s story was inspired by the real life Olga Gray who was recruited as an MI5 infiltration agent. Like her, Minnie is connected to MI5 by Maxwell, and it is that which keeps her going through the tedium and danger of working among Communist Party members. A quietly written novel of a young woman trying to make the most of her life, clinging on the edge of what she thinks is important, with an awareness  of the tedium of a young woman’s life, this is a compelling tale well told. It has little to do with the glamour and excitement of a more usual spy story, and in a neat twist has her rejecting a film version of espionage, describing instead the loneliness of a young woman who cannot reveal to anyone the true nature of her work. Full of the small details of life in  early 1930s London, this novel is eloquent in describing Minnie’s quiet, efficient life which has a continuous element of danger,as she knows of the possible outcome of discovery. “A beautiful spy” is the somewhat ironic refrain that follows Minnie throughout this well written novel, as she feels more of a grey background figure, discreet, useful, and quietly used to the excitement of an impossible challenge. I found this a fascinating read, a beautifully executed theme, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book. 

The novel opens with Minnie attending a Conservative garden party in her home town. Helping her widowed mother from habit rather than political conviction, she is overwhelmed with the dullness of her life, and the expectation that she will marry well and be content with her lot. Intrigued by a mysterious woman, the vague promise of a more interesting employment attracts her, but seems to disappear quickly. It is over three years later, in November 1931, that she is invited to meet a mysterious Captain King in London. Not that she has moved on much in the intervening period, and she is not convinced by his offer of part time ‘work’ infiltrating the Communist Party, as long as she can find herself somewhere to live and another part time job. She shows enterprise and efficiency by calmly finding herself work and a flat, and gradually becomes a trusted organiser of offices and systems for the devoted but disorganised members of a Party attracted by the ideals and systems of Russia. Not that she is persuaded by patriotism or dedication, rather the regular meeting with the elusive Max, who praises her progress and urges her to further efforts. Even though his own life seems troubled, and she is somewhat tempted by a conventional life with the unexciting Raymond, she continues to try to impress Max, despite a continuing cost.

This novel narrates from the point of view of a bewildered young woman who rapidly learns the absolute discretion required of her double life, and has to meet challenges with little support. Hore quietly describes a life of small incidents, little details and the sort of self effacing efficiency that makes Minnie an effective operative.It also conveys the sense of loneliness necessitated by her secrecy from her family and few friends of her true actions. This is a book which is carefully written, yet stylishly describes the probable true demands on the quiet but effective agents of a silent conflict, and I thoroughly recommend it as the story of a woman spy in the build up to the Second World War. 

Spam Tomorrow by Verily Anderson – one woman’s wartime experiences in an eccentric, often funny, realistic account from Furrowed Middlebrow

Spam Tomorrow: Amazon.co.uk: Anderson, Verily: 9781913054212: Books

Spam Tomorrow by Verily Anderson

Spam, that wartime standby, might not be the first choice to name a novel, but this is an eccentric novel of life for one woman and eventually her family in the Second World War. Full of eccentric humour, this book first appeared in 1956, but has more recently been republished by the excellent Dean Street Press in their Furrowed Middlebrow series. Verily Anderson was a prolific writer who kept a diary from childhood, and this book has therefore got all the immediacy of recording events as they happened. Far from a romantic stiff upper lip atmosphere, this book is full of incidents of muddle and confusion, ranging from trying to arrange an instant wedding, through being over treated by enthusiastic volunteers, to the difficulty of getting three tiny children downstairs during a suspected air raid. Full of memorable characters ranging from dodgy lodgers to offhand but secretly thrilled grandmothers, this is wartime life taken at speed. There are points of fear, mainly during serious illness and persistent bombing, but also moments of gentle humour, such as dealing with an ex- Windmill dancer turned drunken Nanny. With a loving but sometimes bewildered husband, Donald, and small children to contend with, this is an all too true story of frequent house moves, illness under fire and the small challenges of living in wartime. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read this brilliant book, left breathless by its pace, and fascinated by one woman’s ability to not only cope with humour, but also record it with such flair.

The book begins with Verily taking a phone call from Donald, her boyfriend, asking for her ring size. Sending a telegram in response “P DARLING STOP YOUR ADORING V” alerts the army Captain she is driving to possible fifth columnist activity. She had joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (F.A.N.Y.S) at the first opportunity to be part of the war, but the complications of a swift wedding means that she leaves suddenly, which was possibly a good thing in the light of her previous arrest for a misunderstanding in the house of a family friend. She comes from a large family, some of whom do not return from service, and there is a very real fear of invasion, which leads to her mother burying sardines. A bout of German measles finds her confined in an infection hospital, being visited by an alderman friend in a “sparkling  Rolls Royce”. It is these little phrases that lighten what could be tragic, such as her tears “falling into a fire bucket”. After a traumatic birth she does not feel fear as much as disappointment that she was not sitting up in bed with a baby in an artfully arranged nightgown. Having a small child who was apparently excited by air raids was unhelpful, so she must find a house at a safe distance, and deal with a financial crisis that had her taking some unusual holidaymakers with varying success.

This book represents an excellent slice of social history, as a woman tries to contend with everything thrown at her and her family. As people arrive in her life she describes them in a few but effective words, reflecting the transitory nature of wartime life and her enormous skill at capturing characters. I truly enjoyed this book, partly for its honest descriptions of life, but also the realistic humour that is never laboured, but completely natural. I would love to read more of her writing and would thoroughly recommend this wonderful read of life for a woman in the most unsettling of circumstances.

Charlotte by Helen Moffett – A character arises from the classic Pride and Prejudice in this fascinating novel

Charlotte: The perfect gift for any Austen fan (21st Century Jane Austen):  Amazon.co.uk: Moffett, Helen: 9781838770754: Books

Charlotte by Helen Moffett

The character of Charlotte Lucas in Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” is perhaps a minor one; the young woman who marries the challenging Mr Collins in order to secure her future. In this book Helen Moffett breathes life into a woman who seemed to be willing to settle. It accomplishes a lot as a novel, as it is set at first in 1811, several years after the event’s described in Austen’s classic, but goes back in time to reveal how Charlotte felt about accepting that she cannot wait for a better offer, and also follows Charlotte as she copes with tragedy and makes a new friend, before a momentous visit to a special house. It is vividly written, describing the feelings and emotions that Charlotte experiences over a substantial length of time. This novel introduces new characters, but significantly also new previously unsuspected aspects of well-established characters of the original novel.

Written in the same spirit as Jo Baker’s “Longbourn”, this is more than a continuation novel as it gives another dimension to the original classic, conveying much about minor characters and giving them real presence.  The research into such things as herbal “cures”, the life of a careful housewife in the early nineteenth century and the music of the time is immense, yet never interrupts the flow of the narrative. My edition of the book includes suggestions for further reading and Book Club questions, and this would be an interesting selection for group reading. A sensitive and powerful book, it works hard to give a sense of what really happened with Charlotte Collins, nee Lucas, and the family and friends that she created.

The book begins with a tragedy which affects Charlotte deeply. Not only a death of a family member, but also a reminder that the legal position of women can be threatened by so many aspects of life. As Charlotte fights off despair she finds an unexpected ally at Rosings, who has some understanding of her fears for the future. She thinks back to the events surrounding her marriage to Mr Collins, and how she coped with her marriage and assuming her responsibilities as mistress of a rural vicarage. The detail of picking and preserving produce, of her responsibilities to other people, her love for her children is all described in a way not to slow the story but give it real depth. An invitation to visit Mrs Darcy opens up a whole new world to Charlotte, as well as bringing back memories of their life long friendship. As beautiful gardens, music and more give some respite to her upset life, she discovers new emotions and interests that will affect so much. Moffett conveys this time with real skill and passion, a real feeling for a famous house and estate. By including short passages about the progress of other characters from Pride and Prejudice, this book continues the original novel in a respectful way and expands on the events that are so well known, such as the restrictions placed on Kitty Bennet. Letters received from Rosings keep Charlotte informed of other events of a somewhat surprising nature.

This is a thoughtful book which deserves to attract a lot of readers. As a reader of Austen continuation novels, this a special one which would also stand as an independent female led book of historical fiction. The progress of a woman frequently dismissed as someone willing to settle for a dislikable character emerges as a wonderful character for a realistic book of a woman’s experiences of life in the early nineteenth century, and is much more than a tribute to a well loved classic novel.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell Revisited – The Real “Blitz Spirit”?

A Chelsea Concerto: Amazon.co.uk: Faviell, Frances: 9781911413776: Books
Image result for a chelsea concerto

Following last night’s Documentary “Blitz Spirit with Lucy Worsley” which I really recommend if you can watch it on catch-up (BBC 1), I thought I would repost one of my older reviews.One of the real life “characters” who featured in the programme was Frances Faviell, who became volunteer auxiliary nurse and had some memorable experiences. At the end they briefly showed the account of the Blitz which she wrote – “A Chelsea Concerto” as well as another four novels.

  I was approached to review the book in 2016, as it had just been reprinted by Dean Street Press in their Furrowed Middlebrow series. I really found it an amazing book, so different from the other accounts of the Blitz in London that I have read.

Firstly, despite the fact that this book was written several years after the events described, this does not read like a novel. The Narrator records her own experiences in the order they happened, in all the confusion and muddle of a developing situation. This gives an immediacy to the text and an importance to such little things as the French design of a tin hat as well as the death of a friend that it usually found in a diary. That is not to say that the book is lacking characters; the obsessions of tragic Ruth and the solid dependable Mrs. Feetch are only two of the people who come to life in this book. The fear of destruction written about so movingly in the first part of the book is in contrast with the writer’s apparent optimism for much of the book’s progress, but it is never far away as every building becomes a target. Churches, hospitals and of course homes are destroyed, and the sense of helplessness as the water supply is cut off and help cannot get through is very vivid. One of the events shown in the television programme is brilliantly described in the book, a haunting experience.There are nightmare images that Favell witnessed and experiences that she endured which make this a grim read in places; this is not fiction in any sense, but distilled horror of war.

Having said this, this can be a funny and endearing book as Favell also recounts her experiences with the local characters, like old soldiers determined to help even though they are in their eighties, and a patient travelling in an ambulance who  is greatly comforted by a detailed account of the scenery going past, only to discover that the speaker could not actually see out of the window. There are shards of hope and love even if life is brief and troubled. Favell’s voluntary work meant that she effectively looked after a group of Flemish refugees, who are described as real individuals, real people who argue and fight, but who also stand together in their suffering. “The Giant” is described as a real man, trapped by his temper as well as forces beyond his control.  I was also struck by the reality of Catherine whose life story is tragic, yet she battles on with the support of Frances and others.

This book is an illustration of the fact that numbers of dead and injured mean little to the reader compared with the stories of real people, real lives and loves. Yes, much of this book is sad, but the survival of the human spirit makes the story of the blitz in London and in many other cities throughout this country feel very real. As someone who has read quite widely in the fact and fiction of this period, I really appreciated the opportunity to read this otherwise rare book,which really brings to life one woman’s life during one of the most challenging times in British history. The documentary was very powerful; it shows that history is “Inherently messy”, and we have to depend on first hand accounts to help us to sort it out,if we ever can. This is a stunning and remarkable book, which I recommend to everyone interested in this part of social history, especially in London. 

A Store at War by Joanna Toye – Introducing Lily as she starts work at Marlow’s, the best department store in town

A Store at War: The First Book in a Gripping New Wartime Drama Series: Book  1: Amazon.co.uk: Toye, Joanna: 9780008298234: Books

A Store at War by Joanna Toye

Lily has left school without her School Certificate, but in June 1941 she is hopeful of  getting a job where she could not have imagined otherwise – Marlow’s department store. As the daughter of a widowed and remarkable mother, she needs to work, and this is a big opportunity to avoid working on the market or a similar role. Her two brothers Sid and Reg have joined up, though Sid is at home on sick leave, having injured his ankle. This is the first book in a series of wartime sagas which tell the story of Lily, her family and friends. There are the highs of discovering attractions, new opportunities and much more, but this is wartime, so there will be absences and loss, limitations and rationing to contend with as well. Joanna Toyce’s first original novel sets up situations for Lily and others to contend with, both as a family and individuals. The dialogue is lively and sounds realistic, and the characters come alive on the page.  Lily is a wonderful character, so well drawn in many ways, with doubts as well a genuine concern for others. Lighter in feel than many other wartime sagas, this is a book which promises much for the later books in the series. 

The book opens with Lily preparing to go to her interview. Painfully aware how much rides on this meeting, she tries to tame her hair and is desperate to appear a little older. Not that her mother will allow her too much leeway, demanding that she wash off the make up she has applied. Marlow’s is the most upmarket shop in the town, where even entering the shop to look around seems impossible to a girl like Lily. She is only fourteen when the book begins, and she is so nervous when she discovers that her interview is to be with Cedric Marlow himself, the owner of the shop. As his secretary Miss Garner, acknowledges, as all the usual people who would be employed in the shop have left for war service of one kind or another, only the old, the very young or otherwise exempt are applying for jobs. This is a time of rationing, when virtually all food had to be queued for, saved and stretched. Cedric himself notices the worn out nature of Lily’s shoes, knowing that the family could not afford to shop in the place where she will work. As the story progresses there are new people introduced, such as Gladys, with her difficult home life and tragic family history, and Beryl, who is sharp and difficult. Lily’s mother Dora is a strong woman, with sayings and resources for every event, who is desperately proud of her children and always worried for their well being. Not that Lily tells her everything, and with air raids, a complicated plan and more, Lily must work hard in every sense.

This is a well written book that handles difficult situations well. There is a lot of research here, into minor things like available food, clothing restrictions and the set up of a local department store, but the information is blended into the narrative well. All the characters have layers, from an optimistic girl in search of love to a sad story of family challenges. I really enjoyed this novel, having had the opportunity to read a later one in the series, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys female led fiction set during the Second World War.          

Melting in the Middle by Andy Howden – an entertaining contemporary novel of one man facing challenges

Melting in the Middle by Andy Howden

“Do good among the carnage” may be the slogan for this book of contemporary challenges for a man struggling with all elements of his life. Not that it is a miserable book in any sense; on the contrary it is full of humour as Stephen struggles with the problems of twenty-first century life. There are many chocolate related jokes as he works as Marketing director for an old established firm of chocolate manufacturers, even though they are struggling with their product lines of Bingo Bars, Munchy Moments and Little Monkeys. Stephen is divorced, wanting to share in the care of his two teenage children despite their reluctance to actually talk to him. It is only meeting Rachel, who has other priorities, that Stephen begins to see a way of coping with his life. Much of the humour in this book comes from the antics of an American company, Schmaltz, in the person of Brad Hardman, who is determined to take over Europe. As company-speak and management jargon are deployed to express some really daft ideas, Stephen struggles to keep his sanity in this mainly light hearted novel. Funny, touching and immensely relatable, this genuinely enjoyable book looks at the problems of parenting, work and relationships in a confusing world. Howden has a real gift for creating and maintaining characters who come alive on the page, whether it is a sophisticated Italian or a sulky teenager. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this entertaining book.

The book begins with Stephen at a business meeting, where he silently despairs of his colleagues and their presentations regarding the business of selling chocolate bars. There is a disquieting rumour that the struggling Grimley’s is about to be taken over, and he is thrown by the risk to his job which means he can stay local for his children on the alternate weekends when he has access. Saddened, he goes home via Cambridge, where he hears a beautiful hymn sung in a college chapel. He reluctantly goes to a neighbours’ party, where he meets the younger and unusual Rachel, who seems very different from anyone else he has ever met. As a result he finds himself at a church service, a little bewildered. It does not take long for the takeover to become reality, and accordingly Stephen and a group of his colleagues are taken to a tatty hotel just outside Paris, where they are subjected to a rally style meeting to whip up enthusiasm for the takeover. Hardman announces his dramatic methods to improve sales and his dubious choices of managers, including Carol, a young woman that Stephen knows well. When a whole new way of working is introduced, he has to take action to cut the workforce in his department. Rachel encourages him to try and do what is necessary, but with a certain amount of kindness. Can he hope to “do good among the carnage”?

This is a very enjoyable book which pokes gentle fun at contemporary business practices, which can run roughshod over established ways of working. It also manages to show the very real difficulties of being a parent to teenagers, coping with an ex partner and much more. It is an enjoyable read with a real plot, characters that are consistent and an underlying humour. I recommend it as an entertaining read. 

She Came to Stay by Eleni Kyriacou – a powerful story of a young woman facing challenges in post war London

She Came to Stay by Eleni Kyriacou

Soho, London in 1952. Dina is a young woman from Cyprus, keen to discover life in her adopted home. An unexciting job in a grimy cafe, a shared damp flat with an over protective brother and a London frequently beset by fog could be a sad existence, but quietly getting a job at the Pelican, a nightclub, excites her. Sewing costumes from vivid and beautiful materials is a treat in a drab postwar London. This is a novel of the details and descriptions that reawakens a sense of a battle scarred city, where opportunities for a new life seem just out of reach, and dampness and dark dominate. 

Dina has travelled from her homeland for a new beginning, and is eager to grasp for everything that London has to offer, but has also confined her with her Peter, a brother who is determined that she should live as a good Cypriot girl, and make a good marriage. This is a brother who drinks, smokes and gambles compulsively, spending any money that they earn, unless it is extra and hidden. A powerful story of the squalid rooms and flats inhabited by immigrants in post war London, it speaks of the fear of those new to the country of authorities and absolute poverty in a country where dreams had led them. The characters are intensely drawn, physical beings who come alive on the page, realised by an author alert to the slightest gesture and expression. The advent of Bebba, bleach blonde and determined to move on from a life on Cyprus, rocks Dina’s world, and this intense novel goes on to describe that change. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this compelling book written in the voice of a young woman and a narrator who seeks out the motives for life changing action. 

The excitement of achieving a job in a somewhat tatty nightclub may not seem significant, but Dina sees it as a way of escaping “the damp and the rats and cramped bedsit”. She is skilled at sewing, and the glimpses of the young female performers are realistic, but speak of a different life. She encounters Bebba, who has little respect for any rules, and who seems determined to experience Soho life in every sense. As she becomes a friend, she takes the inexperienced Dina to the clubs and the bars of Soho, showing her new ways to live. She visits the room which Dina shares with Peter, and begins to weave her way into their lives, helping with the rent, distracting both of them with her fashionable clothes. Dina becomes a little suspicious of her friend, jealous of her increasing influence over Peter, but has a secret romance of her own. When Bebba’s secrets erupt into their lives, the tension between the three of them takes a dangerous new turn. 

This is a memorable book, with powerful emotions brilliantly described in the two narrative strands, the third person narrator describing some of Bebba’s actions and feelings, the other the voice of a frequently incredulous young woman trying to cope with unforeseen pressures while desperate to experience life in London. I found it very well written, brilliantly paced and full of atmosphere which goes beyond the blinding, choking fog which descends onto London, cloaking life in so many ways. This is a strong novel of immense research, much of which is listed at the back of the book, but which never interrupts the flow of the narrative. I recommend it as a brilliant read, a female led novel with much to say about a young woman’s life and challenges in a London full of post war opportunities. 

The Heart Stone by Judith Barrow – The story of a strong woman during the First World War

The Heart Stone by Judith Barrow

The beginning of the First World War marked a change for many people. For Jessie life changed in a less obvious way. She realized that she is actually in love with Arthur, her friend since childhood. The lure of joining up, even lying about one’s true age, is too much, but things are not always that simple. Jessie is a strong minded young woman, who works hard in the family bakery and shop, but sometimes strength is not enough. This is a moving story of many parts of Jessie’s experience which may well have been common to many women at the time, of domestic struggles, even violence, but also of deep love for family and those moments of true love. Jessie’s resilience in the face of challenges must last for a long time, with the help of true friends who support and care for her through everything. In a time when women had to rely on each other, when even the vote and other rights were a distant dream, this is a book of a fight to survive, despite everything. Written with a strong sense of time and place, this a brilliantly researched novel where the story is never interrupted by the display of historical facts . It manages to balance life at home while women waited for news, with the filtered tales of life in the trenches and the truth of the fear of soldiers’ experiences. It also shows how not everything improved with the end of the War, and some situations became even more difficult. Friendship, love and hope distinguish this compelling novel, and I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this memorable novel.

The novel begins with a Prologue, in which Jessie returns form Blackpool with her friends to be greeted by the headline “Britain At War”. The first few chapters deal with the trip, how it is the first time Jessie has seen the sea, how she and Arthur spend a memorable day with their friends Clara and Stanley. She had hesitated about going and leaving her newly widowed mother to cope with the bakery. She realizes that her mother, a nervous woman, will be frightened by talk of war. Jessie is concerned about Amos Morgan, who hangs around the shop. Her fear is soon realized, and even exceeds her expectations. Arthur is caught up in the drive for volunteers for the army, and despite being under age announces his imminent departure for war. He is convinced that it will all be over soon, and finds a spot for their reunion, marked by a heart shaped stone on a hill above the town. Meanwhile Jessie keeps in touch with her determined friend Clara, as they both fear for their loved ones away from home.

There are some severe trials for Jessie and some of her friends in this book, but there is always progress. It emphasizes how people were convinced that the War would be over quickly, that the men would return home soon, and life would go back to normal. This author is extremely successful in conveying the sense of how people thought, the fear of what people would say about women’s situation, and the sheer physically of life in the first half of the twentieth century, especially for women. The character of Clara is a wonderful supporting character, who shows what a woman can achieve given better circumstances. Altogether this is a memorable book for all the right reasons, and I thoroughly recommend it  as showing the reality for women in tough times.

The Duke’s Runaway Bride by Jenni Fletcher – a special romantic Regency Belles of Bath novel

The Duke’s Runaway Bride by Jenni Fletcher

When a Duke’s new bride runs away on her wedding day, it makes for a tricky start to any marriage. The Bride has turned up in a biscuit shop in Bath, and those who have read the other books in Jenni Fletcher’s series about the “Regency Belles of Bath” will know that surely romance will be in the air. Not that it is necessary to read the other books in this series to enjoy this book; it is a book very much about Beatrix, Duchess of Howden and her relationship with her new husband, Quinton Roxbury. Not that he comes unencumbered; he has a family who in their various ways are almost as challenging as his concerns about his absent wife. This is a book of romance, but also some memorable characters whose reactions to Beatrix are very entertaining, as well as a heroine whose newly found independence challenges every assumption. With humour and a keen understanding of the power of scandal in a world of secrets, this book revels in the setting of a large if shabby house for the discovery of a genuine relationship that could change lives, if both Beatrix and Quinton can understand it. Will the lure of her friends in a fashionable bakery and the attractions of being truly independent for the first time in her life triumph over her relationship with the husband she has barely met? I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this special, well written book.

As the book begins, Quinton is struggling to cope with his difficult family. His mother is an angry woman, unforgiving of her late husband who she hated. His sister Antigone is almost as disagreeable, his two brothers unreachable and his youngest sister silent and hiding. Into the middle of his problems appears a letter from his missing wife. She is living as Belinda Carr, who lives and works with her friend Nancy running Belles in Bath. The fierce Nancy MacQueen is rather anti-men, so when Quinton turns up, wanting to talk to Beatrix, she does not encourage a speedy reconciliation. When the married couple do discuss matters, they reveal some of the reasons why their wedding day ended so badly. Beatrix knows that he only proposed marriage on their first meeting because he wanted her money as she is an orphaned heiress, and her uncle had negotiated for her hand as he wanted the connection with his title. Quinton explains that he had been estranged from his late father and had until recently been in France: “But there was a war!” exclaims Beatrix. “That probably explains why they gave me a sword and a pistol” replies Quinton “I was a Major”. Partly as a result of the revelations, they agree to give their marriage a chance, and Beatrix is to return to Howden, his family house, and live at there as Duchess for six weeks, but she is convinced that at the end of the time she will still want a divorce. The story of those six weeks takes up the bulk of the novel, as they both discover much more about exactly who they have married.

I really enjoyed this novel, especially the developing relationship between Beatrix and Quinton. The family that she encounters is so well described, and a surprising character acts as the catalyst for change. Dealing with Quinton’s mother is especially challenging, as the older woman is stubborn and difficult. Beatrix’s progress is well described, as is Quinton’s emotional revelations. This is a very special book that I recommend to anyone who enjoys romantic historical fiction.  

The Stromness Dinner by Peter Benson – a foodie delight! A Guest post from Northernvicar

Image result for the stromness dinner peter benson

I read this book, almost in one sitting. Which isn’t bad for a book chosen for the title! Ed is a builder in south London. He’s based near Guy’s Hospital, so I knew enough about the London environment to enjoy it. He renovates Marcus’ flat, then gets asked to have a few days north to renovate the house in Stromness that was owned by Marcus’ father. I liked the way his journey north makes sense – hire a van, load it up, early start, coffee at Newport Pagnell, lunch at Woodall, break at the border, sleep at Pitlochry, very early start, doughnut in Inverness, coffee at Tain, ferry from Scrabster.

I can picture the house he is working on, the crowds from the cruise ships, the beauty of St Magnus and the ferry ride to the outer islands (though I could not manage four bacon rolls in one crossing). I love the idea that Skara Brae “was made up like the Flintstones. It was like some farmer had lost all his sheep in accident and woken up in the middle of the night a few days later and thought ‘I’ll make an old village in the sand dunes at the bottom of that useless field, tell some nobs from England that I’ve discovered the ruins of somewhere that was built before anyone even thought about the pyramids and I’ll be quids in’” (page 135).

Claire, Marcus’ sister, comes north, staying at a nearby inn, removing what she wants from the house, and Ed is smitten. As well as a decorator he is a chef, and loves cooking for two. She insists he takes some time off, and they travel to see Hermann, an old friend of her dad’s, who is an artist on the island of Eday. At lunch Ed writes “Hermann and I sparred, Claire and Hermann did that thing old men and younger women do when they know they could have had something but time worked against them, and Claire and I danced” (page 200). A trip to the Pier Art Centre at Stromness matches my memory of it – a fascinating building, art I didn’t understand, expensive pencil sharpeners in the shop.

Ed loves his food, He describes the meals he cooks, and the meals he has eaten, in superb detail. I am no gourmet-chef (or gourmet diner), but I love the idea of telling the about the best meal he ever ate as a substitute for telling the reader about a night of amazing sex. Enough details to make me think “lucky man”. Will it just be a holiday fling, or more than that?

This is a really good read that I would recommend; if you haven’t been to Orkney you will want to go, and if you know and love Orkney, you will want tot go back.