Brazen by Julia Haart – an honest account of the two lives of a determined woman

Brazen by Julia Haart

This is the story of a woman’s life, or rather two lives. Julia Haart, now an immensely influential fashion designer and “one of the most powerful people in fashion”, dates her life as a seasoned international traveller and businesswoman as being under ten years old. Before that she was a very different person in difficult circumstances, living in ultra-orthodox religious communities, in a marriage that was virtually arranged, and with the four children which was regarded as a very small tally. A process of change which could be seen as a transformation, but which she sees as a difficult transition, was born of several needs, for a different way of life for her children, for financial security, but ultimately about freedom for herself as a person. Written in the first person, Julia comes over as a determined woman who directed her immense energy into being the most observant girl and woman she could be for the first forty years of her life. This is not a spoiler in that the book is related to a Netflix programme called “My Unorthodox Life”, and is subtitled “My unorthodox journey from long sleeves to lingerie”.

This book proceeds with the furious energy that Julia shows in her life, from what I gather from the text. Like her parents, she was born in Russia, and when they became secret converts to Judaism as a young couple, it was still very risky to be publicly active in religion. They managed to escape the fairly tough regime of the time, and were offered sanctuary in America after some time in a transit camp in Rome. This proved to be a move into an intensely religious community, where not only the laws of Judaism were kept, but also the extra strict requirements of a particular sect. Not only was Julia sent to a religious girls only school, but her home life was an extremely strict regime. Though there were moves which meant a slight relaxation of the rules, essentially Julia was brought up with the expectation of early marriage to a husband who she barely knew, no chance of a secular college education, and multiple pregnancies in a society where eight children was not considered remarkable. As her mother embraced every aspect of a Jewish woman’s life, after a ten year gap she gave birth to several children, and Julia records how she was effectively their main carer as well as continuing her studies until her marriage at the age of nineteen.

The sense of this book is that Julia was and is extremely driven. When her family became so involved in their faith, she seems to have embraced it as her life in every aspect. It was not just that her family and community expected her to wear suitable clothing, restrict her food to kosher in every respect, and never watch television or have non jewish friends, but that she felt guilty if she deviated from the requirements. She recalls lengthy times spent in private prayer on a daily basis, a confessional journal, and the very real fear that she would suffer terrible consequences if she failed to be the most observant person she knew. 

This is a book that does not hold back on any point, in terms of the intensely personal sexual ignorance she shared with her husband, and her refections on her failures in both her religious life and secular transistion period. This is a book which reveals her to be an intense person who may well have been aware of the extent of the unfair and unreasonable pressure on her for the first forty years, but who chose to conform in many ways. It is an honest book, which made me aware of how the particular form of religious belief that she followed affected every tiny detail of her life. There is no concealment of her difficult decisions. She comes over as someone who has always been aware of her own abilities, her own striving to succeed in her life, whatever the demands made on her at the time. It is an impressive book on many topics, and succeeds in offering real insight in the ways that women are treated in an intensely religious, fundamental setting and in the world of international fashion. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this unusual book, and recommend it to those interested in the role of women in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. 

Suffragettes in fiction – a booklist with comments

Suffragettes in Fiction – a Booklist

A few years ago I posted a book list – with notes – of fiction associated with the Reformation in Britain. It proved very popular, so here is my latest list, Suffragettes in Fiction. Some of the books have been reviewed on this blog, and you can find them under the author’s name on the right of this page. I cannot promise that I have read each word of all of these books, and it will be an ongoing project for me to add titles that I will either remember or discover in future. If you have any titles  that you think should be added, please use the Contact Me button above to let me know. I would like this to be a resource for the future!

There are lots of books which give the history of the Suffragette movement in Britain and elsewhere. Many of the women involved in the fight for the Vote for women – whether they advocated militant action or preferred persuasion – wrote their own accounts. These books are undoubtedly valuable to any study of the period and are relatively easy to look up and find. What can be more difficult is discovering novels which treat the subject fictionally. I believe fictional writing is an excellent way of getting a sense of what it really felt like to be in the thick of the experience, in this case for the women who chose to be active, but also their families, friends and supporters. This is because they are recounting actions they took, the prison sentences which may well have followed and the reactions of society to their activities which may be unexpected from non- fiction books. 

Having said that, the first book I want to mention is “Prisons and Prisoners – Experiences of a Suffragette” by Lady Constance Lytton. It is recollections of a titled lady with good connections who actively supported the cause of Suffrage for women, and who was imprisoned four times despite her ill health and contacts. She actually chose to disguise herself on at least one occasion to see how working class women were treated. I read it in an old edition in a library, but it seems that more copies are available online at least. It reads like a novel!

One of Persephone’s three reprinted Suffragette novels is actually partly based on Lytton’s book – “No Surrender” by Constance Maud. First published in 1911, it is from one of the writers in the recently formed “Women Writers Suffrage League. The Preface in the Persephone edition calls it a passionate account which was originally reviewed by Emily Davidson. It also puts the alternate views of the time, and was mentioned in the BBC series “Novels That Shaped Our World”.

 “William, an Englishman” by Cecily Hamilton was the first Persephone reprint. Originally published in 1918, it shows the low level organisation of the Suffragettes on a less involved level before showing the reality of War for innocent bystanders. The other Persephone book is “The Call” by Edith Ayrton Zangwill. Originally published in 1924, it tells the story of Ursula, who would be a remarkable woman at any time, but this book recounts how she is drawn into the activity of the Suffragettes and how it changes her life. Although a book of its time, it is a vivid read of how a woman at the time was forced to make choices in order to live how she wished. 

Another member of the Women Writers Suffrage League was May Sinclair, whose 1917 book “The Tree of Heaven” was recently reprinted in the British Library Women Writers series. She fictionalised some of the Women’s Suffrage movements, and used her main character Dorothea to question the whole issue of feminism at the time, given the demands of the First World War. When Sinclair wrote this book she did not know how anything would turn out, and therefore it is a fascinating read. 

An interesting novel that I acquired an unusual printed copy of is “The Convert” by Elizabeth Robins. It is a little difficult to track down information about, but promises a detailed look at the process of suffrage protest. 

Looking towards more contemporary novels, I found “A Hundred Tiny Threads” by Judith Barrow (2017) which is a much more expansive book about characters in the early part of the twentieth century. It is memorable for how the main character is drawn in to be a speaker for the suffrage movement, and some of the women involved locally. There is a searing account of a young woman’s imprisonment, and the real danger that poor prison conditions posed. “The Falling Thread” by Adam O’Riordan (2021) promises a look at the lives of young women in Manchester in the first part of the twentieth century, including the element of suffrage movements. 

For a touching, funny and well written look at what happened to the women who fought for the vote in later life, my favourite is “Old Baggage” by Lissa Evans (2018) which features the redoubtable Mattie, who looks back from 1928 to the battles fought and what her life is like now. It also comments on the less well resourced women unable to vote even after 1918 because they did not own property, and the well off women who were lured away by other ideologies. Its main question “What do you do next, after you’ve changed the world?” is a very suitable comment for the book as a whole.

In other media, the tv documentary “Suffragettes with Lucy Worsley” (2018) is worth seeing if you can find it – a nonfiction approach but with dramatisations of incidents that brings the records alive. The film “Suffragette” (2015) with Carey Mulligan in the lead role is a very effective fictional account of the true costs of action for women and features some brilliant settings. 

So there is a start – I may find more and would love some suggestions of fictional Suffragette books.

The Life of Crime by Martin Edwards – “Detecting the History of Mysteries and their Creators” – a BIG book!

I told you it was a big book! This is how I could read it!

The Life of Crime by Martin Edwards

I was really excited when this large book arrived, and immediately planned to take it with me to Gladstone’s residential library (so I could read it undisturbed and borrow a book cushion!). Having read Martin’s previous books – The Golden Age of Murder and The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, I admit to wondering where this one would go. I need not have been concerned; there are whole new areas of this subject that he has managed to cover in this book. As a confirmed fan of the British Library Crime Classics series (100 and counting), crime fiction mainly set in the past as well as Dean Street Press reprints, I have a reasonable working knowledge of the genre, so I was really pleased to see familiar titles popping up in the text as well as the twenty pages of Select Bibliography. One of the enormous strengths of this book is the notes at the end of each chapter, which not only give relevant information on titles of books and adaptations but also comments about the authors – such as the political relationship between Ruth Rendall and PD James. I must admit to not reading all of these for each chapter – but when I come to use this book for reference as I have the previous two big books, I will no doubt have cause to be grateful for them.

This is a big book to read cover to cover as I did, having over six hundred pages of text, and would be a rewarding book to dip into to research certain topics and authors. It is undoubtedly an ambitious book, which looks at the history of crime fiction from the eighteenth century and the beginnings from the pen of William Godwin and The Adventures of Caleb Williams, which I read in pursuit of a literature MA, through the sensation novels of Wilkie Collins, which includes one of my favourite novels The Woman in White, and the aspects of Dickens’ novels which dealt with crime such as one of the first professional detectives, Inspector Bucket. The Edwardian period is examined, but of course the book really hits its stride with the Golden Age books which provided interwar escapism for so many. The puzzle and gimmick books are mentioned, as well as the complexity of pen names for authors which concealed other professions and actual gender. Here are the beginnings of the Detection Club and the awards it established, much prized among authors of the time. The entire book is shaped by the decision to give a certain amount of background to many of the authors and their often tangled lives, as well as revealing those books which were actually collaborations such as the Dick Francis books. 

I particularly enjoyed Martin’s choice of authors who have a chapter of their own, partly because they were the usual suspects such as Agatha Christie, but also because they provided a way into authors I did not know so well, especially the American creators of new styles of detective writing such as Raymond Chandler. The other great ambition of this book is not only to provide a history of British crime fiction, but to expand it across the world. So there are chapters on Dutch crime as well as East Asian detective fiction for example, as well as the American development of the genre. There are passing references and indeed chapters about the transmission of crime fiction, not only in printed form but big and little screen adaptations. Predictably there were tensions of many kinds in transferring novels to films, with arguments about writing the screenplays and so forth. I enjoyed the anecdotes about the famous Inspector Morse adaptations, including how the later novels by Colin Dexter changed to reflect the actors’ strengths. 

This book, which also includes Indexes of Titles, Names and Subject, is a magnificent achievement by any standards, building on previous books on the subject such as Bloody Murder by Julian Symons and Martin’s own books. It is comprehensive, yet easy to read in a style that maintained my interest throughout, even though I doubt I will ever be a huge fan of the more obscure and violent American offerings. It is a book that I enjoyed reading from cover to cover, and yet I know it would be enjoyable to dip into and consult for particular projects. I was extremely  pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it, and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys crime fiction from the past and the present, from around the world, and in enormous depth.      

War Babies by Rachel Billington -Three sisters and their lives in the second half of the twentieth century

War Babies by Rachel Billington 

Millie, Di and Cleo are three girls who are the War Babies, born during the Second World War. The effect that war has on their parents and everyone around them will affect everything in some respect, leaving them with needs that cannot easily be met by the people that they encounter. A distant mother who wants to help people, and a father who has his own secrets leaves the three girls to grow into young women who are desperate to succeed, desperate to impress. Millie, Millicent, feels the pull of an academic career, but instead chooses marriage, motherhood and religious devotion. Di, Diana, wants to be a soldier, be at the centre of the battles that follow a worldwide conflict. Cleo, Cleopatra, discovers the words that build stories, new worlds that she finds easier to cope with. When disaster overtakes them, how will knowledge, memories and secrets prepare them for a whole lifetime?

This is a brilliantly plotted book which drops a hint in the Prelude to the nature of the book. Its opening, on the return of Brendan to his wife and daughters following his war service is incredibly telling. His wife Julie, mother of the three children that he barely knows and in the case of Cleo, the youngest, has never met, is crucial in summing up not only his relationship with his wife who is seemingly deliberately distant, but also his first effective contact with these three small girls. The brilliance of the writing of this book is shown in what could be dismissed as a childish squabble for attention, had it not foreshadowed how the girls would feel about each other, but mainly their mother. Di, in her second piece of the book, sums it up “Julie became less fiendish after she was elected to parliament.” She talks at her daughters, not waiting for answers, superficially the caring mother, but really already distant from their lives.The girls all respond in their own ways, and there are so many lines that could be quoted to show their feelings. The author has cleverly given each girl her own voice in sections to express her progress, her encounters with men, alcohol and religion as appropriate for their lives apart from Julie,and especially after the departure of their father. Each tries to construct a world for themselves, and each struggles to connect with the men that they encounter, some of whom they try to love. 

This is a desperately honest book, with each of the main characters trying to explain, trying to justify the decisions they take, the actions that will determine their lives to a lesser or greater extent. It is this desperate honesty set amid the changing times from the 1950s towards the end of the century which forms the strongest attraction of this book. Billington has used her skill at capturing a moment, a point in time, and making so much depend on it, while making sure that her characters also move on, change and develop. It is a balancing act which she achieves, setting out a significant incident, then moving her characters on. Thus the book takes on aspects of a thriller, with the reader knowing that there is more going on, and wondering if it will ever be revealed. 

This is an intense novel, which manages to convey a sense of the feeling that each character experiences throughout. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book, and recommend it to everyone who is interested in the nature of the relationships between sisters and life in the second half of the twentieth century.

The Peacock House by Kate Glanville – the past hold many secrets for Evelyn, but how will they affect the present?

The Peacock House by Kate Glanville

A large house set in the Welsh countryside, several deep mysteries about its past, and an eccentric woman living there alone – this novel has all the ingredients of a gripping story. Evelyn is the older woman, whose life is so wrapped up with the history of Vaughan Court that the two seem inseparable. When a young woman, Bethan, arrives, her presence suddenly becomes necessary; partly because for the first time in years Evelyn needs help, and partly because her grandmother was Evelyn’s greatest friend in the past. This is a book for secrets, family and love that was not always a positive force in life. Full of revelations and readjustments, Evelyn is to discover that secrets can be many edged swords, even in a quiet and peaceful setting. 

It is the setting that almost becomes another character in this well written book which flows so well. We see Vaughan Court at various times; in its twenty-first century incarnation as Behan first sees it, shabby and with obvious breakages and losses in its formerly grand facade. It is also described in its progress throughout the Second World War, where its grim aspect is presented to another young woman, and later where part of the renowned gardens are taken over by a selection of huts for military purposes. There will be secret parts of the estate which challenge some memories, but also confuse a small girl trying to cope with her own situation. Always there are the peacocks, noisy, disruptive and putting on a significant display, ever present. The characters that Glanville creates in this book are memorable for the right reasons, all with memories and inconsistencies, especially Evelyn who harbours secret fears and regrets, resentments and so much more. Bethan, with her own emotional issues, becomes the catalyst for much of the action as she innocently tries to interview the older woman for a magazine. The dialogue that the two have, as well as with Tom the local doctor, is so realistic and in this Glanville shows a real ear for how people express themselves. 

The author is also very good at using clothes to say so much about the character and their current preoccupations. I found Bethan’s fascination with the vintage pieces that she finds stored in the house endearing; in one classic skirt she becomes a little girl once more – desperate to twirl around. This book is so good at creating these moments, these small secrets that enliven the narrative and add greatly to the overall sense of its style. 

This is a book that contains so many threads of stories and memories that it is a truly lovely read. The menacing presence of mountains and the natural surroundings to the estate where metallic items have almost been subsumed into the earth, the nightly disturbances of breakages and damage, the way that the characters interact are all so skillfully achieved without padding and unnecessary detail. There is a lot of research here into the effects of the War even on relatively secluded places, the contrast with the much bombed London, the presence of Americans in the latter part of the War, yet the information is blended in and never allowed to interrupt the narrative. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this enjoyable book, and recommend it to anyone who enjoys a far reaching story of love and life with more than a hint of romance. 

The Manager by A.K. Wilson – a powerful contemporary story of the City and two unique women who work there

The Manager by A.K. Wilson

The City of London is a place of ambition, power and money, and Katy has always worked there. Not that she is ambitious, or in search of power and money, but she works for people who are fighting everyday for all three. Assisting, helping, covering for – all words for what she does, what she has always done for the men who employ her. After all, it’s what she knows, even though a strong work ethic is what destroyed her childhood. All this seems destined to change, however, when she meets the charismatic, powerful and yet enigmatic Riley Daniels. For the CEO of a company charged with secret information, Riley seems open to other things than just riding roughshod over those who work for her, but is that really the case? How much will Riley demand of Katy, and how much is she willing to give?

This is a stylish and brilliantly written contemporary novel with many elements. Wilson has recreated a world of the City which extends from the unique buildings, all given their names by those in the know, to the coffee shops and specialist suppliers of high end luxury items. She has populated it with the workers, who are driven by their lifestyle of long hours for big rewards, at least in theory, at whatever the sacrifice. Katy knows it well, the obsessive men she has worked for as a near nameless assistant, the person who manages their diary and even elements of their private lives, selecting gifts for wives and silently knowing more than they suspect. Katy recalls her story in her own distinctive voice, drab and largely unnoticed, until the breakthrough of a new job, even a new role. Including elements of thriller, romance and commentary on contemporary society, this is a truly enthralling book that I devoured with great interest and enjoyment. Feminist in a different way, it has so much to say as a story of two women in a world that is not ready for them. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this intoxicating debut novel.

When Katy is made redundant from being an assistant to the departing Giles, who would be surprised if he ever stopped to realise how much she knew about him, she has to look for another, similar role. Friendless and lonely in London,  no one stops her to point out that maybe she is capable of more. When she applies for the intriguing post of “loyal, trustworthy assistant” she is mildly surprised that the role demands vetting and extreme discretion, and yet applies without further research. When she arrives for an interview she soon realises that she has misjudged everything, that the Chief Executive is the unique Riley, and that the meeting is like no other. The company building is a revelation, but not as much as Riley herself, whose requests and demands are like no other boss she has ever met. The other employees are also a puzzling assortment of people,especially Cam. As Katy is drawn into the dizzying orbit of the attractive Riley, nothing will ever be the same.

This is such an exciting and readable novel with so many reasons to recommend it,as the author has obviously immersed herself in so many elements of the City, the secret world of those who work there, and imagined something and someone very different. Katy and Riley are wonderful characters, the writing is fresh and powerful,and the plot is fascinating. An excellent discovery!    

Gods Galore by Rupert Stanbury – the Greek gods and goddesses have made it to the twenty first century – but they have their problems…

Gods Galore by Rupert Stanbury

Funny, insightful and enjoyable, this entertaining look at the progress of the Greek gods and goddesses in the twenty-first century is a glorious read. All the favourites are there; Zeus, being top god, Hades, still in charge of the Underworld, and Poseidon in his watery kingdom. Not that they are having a good time of it – Zeus is preoccupied by the outrageous behaviour of some of his sons and bewildered by some of his daughters, while his wife Hera is not so keen on his extra marital affairs. Hades has perhaps fallen into letting things slide, when a system has been working for thousands of years, why change it. Poseidon is definitely letting things slide, with his wife never visiting and his urge to oversee the seas of the world disappeared, he has simply given up trying. Fortunately for the gods there are still humans appearing in their realms who have a different way of looking at things. Nobbly Butt may be a human builder, but he has certain resources and attractions, while Vesta’s story could be a sad one – if it wasn’t for her ability to question the status quo, and befriend an endearing and unique dog. Totty is only there because of an unfortunate mistake, but with the help of the “Pocket Rocket” she is soon making a huge difference. 

Inventive and imaginative, this is a book written with with humour and skill as puns, sly references to modern life and well developed ideas run throughout this novel. The characters are well drawn and confident, and surprisingly endearing in the circumstances of unexpected aggression (Mars), financial acumen (Hebe) and the wonderful set of mermaids who show more than a passing interest in Totty’s progress. There are so many ideas fizzling throughout this book, as Lennie the eagle tries to further his causes with the sort of support of a hungry tortoise, and the debate about equality rages through the highest councils and among various goddesses. It is a clever book, working from a myriad of sources to remind the reader of the basics of the legends without interrupting the flow of the narrative with long references and explanations. I remembered some of the stories with a gentle reminder – that Bacchus was the god of drinking – so naturally he is publican and supplier of alcoholic beverages to the gods, ably overseen by Mistress Nell Quickly who carries her Shakespean personality on with aplomb. There is an exhaustive list of the Principal Characters in the first pages of the book, which can be handy for reference, but certainly does not need to be committed to memory before embarking on the novel. One of the joys of this book is discovering the connections and links, and the often cheeky ideas that are carried through.

I particularly liked the character of Hebe as she deals with her problematic sibling Mars and aids and abets Totty to change the set up in the marine world. Vesta asks some very interesting questions and skillfully gets things done. Of course, Cerberus’ quest for Mars bars and friends is hugely entertaining, especially in his encounter with the banana fish.

Altogether this is a very enjoyable book which I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review. It is a cheerful and positive account of the goddesses and gods of Greek stories, cleverly overlaid with more twenty-first century preoccupations. It would be enjoyable for anyone who knows and appreciates these stories, those who enjoy references to other stories and situations, and those searching for a genuinely funny book.

Villager by Tom Cox – an unusual and memorable novel of landscape and nature

Villager by Tom Cox

This is a vibrant, funny and fascinating fictional offering from nature, music and folklore writer Tom Cox, author of many observational writings on life and notebooks. This is a novel of several parts, different times and various characters, all brought to life with a masterly style. Diaries, accounts of travels and detailed descriptions of a life shared on the banks of a river are tied together with the musings of “Me”, a difficult to define part of the village, the landscape and the centuries of life it has seen. There are also some parts of this book in a different format – a Message Board for the community reflecting obsessions and a Search Engine. The time settings are also varied – now, decades ago and decades in the future. There are the dreamy times, of rivers that speak, of a pile of rocks which are described in many ways, and the simple joys of progressing across the land. There are also the harder times of change and development which don’t always work. Whatever the section, the writing is always assured and confident, with a real feel for the landscape and the plants that contribute to the overall setting. There are so many details, the abandoned gates and latches, the golf course layout, the birds whose presence and songs seem to define the experience of the British countryside. The characters, not all locals and in residence for generations, but those who visit, work, escape from cities and life in other countries, are well introduced and consistent, and bring the reader into an understanding of their stories. I found it an amazing and very different read, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.  

There are many things that keep this book a cohesive whole, despite the time jumps and character arcs that are nearer long chapter length. The character of Me holds the narrative together, and in the most literal sense gives depth to the stories. The stories themselves are like trails across the book, with recurring characters, references and incidents. The area, particularly the village, has stories that merit different levels of attention – the battle that raged over the ground, that meant that blood poured into the ground. The river that overflows, makes at least one house damp, but also forms a boundary, a source of comfort for a lonely man. The music that the area inspires that lingers in the memory not of one or two individuals, but over life times. A golf course that trips up the unwary with the holes beyond the ninth. What items survive the decades and what are they for? A doll that seems to lurk in an unexpected place? Animals that carry secrets? A description that I particularly enjoyed is “As the dog – a smallish one, of I don’t know what breed which never makes a noise and puts me in mind of a bereaved aunt from a drabber Britain – watched us”. Those who have read some of Cox’s other writing will appreciate the subject matter of the risks and joys of sea bathing, the speech and sheer noise of a river, and the idea of people glimpsed and not seen again. 

This is a book which I greatly enjoyed, found absolutely fascinating, and showed the many moods of nature and landscape. The characters endure mistakes and frustrations, but also the companionship of nature. Glints of humour, the love of the natural world and so much more dominate this book. This is a memorable book for all the right reasons, and I thoroughly recommend it to Tom Cox’s many fans, and also those who want to read of nature in all its wildness, depth and influence on the people that visit, travel through it and stay for decades.  

Only May by Carol Lovekin – a story of nature, growing up, and secrets

Only May by Carol Lovekin

This is a suitable time to be reading this book. It is filled with the sense of May, the month in the countryside, the time of hawthorn blossom, when May is at its most beautiful. The book is also about a young woman called May, as it mainly features the character who shares her thoughts and so much more as she turns seventeen, an important age in this almost ethereal narrative. May has a gift somewhat at odds with her mainly gentle, quiet nature: she can tell with every instinct when a person is lying. Mainly that doesn’t matter, it is small lies of people trying to conceal a minor misdemeanour, but in the novel it becomes important. May is beginning to suspect that her life in the 1950s, when memories of War haunt at least one character, is based on lies. After all, she is part of a small family; her mother Esme, passionate about order, tidiness and routine. Her father who seems only partly present, physically disabled by War, but also living in a realm of memories and pain. Finally, her aunt, Ffion, whose favourite word is “Wild” and is eccentric in every way, who chooses to live in a battered old caravan with equally battered possessions and quite the opposite from her sister Esme. May knows that her family is small, partly because her father is unable to connect, a victim of War in so many ways, and her mother chooses to devote herself to him, as he came back from the fighting.

May admits to those who are concerned about her being lonely as a family’s only child in a small Welsh village. She claims that her best friend Gwen is like a sister when she needs one, when she has secrets that she is willing and able to share. Gwen knows of her secret, her ability to detect untruths, and will help her with it, when it comes to confrontations. Gwen does not accompany May on her most secret journeys, the walks through the woods, the visits to the graveyard where her grandparents are buried. Ffion is also keenly involved in aspects of May’s life, with her observations on the power of the moon, her insistence on secrets, her odd dress sense. She knows something of May’s seeking out the underlying sense of the woods. No one really appreciates how May feels about the bees that follow her, almost trying to communicate with her, sharing their secrets and telling her to look closer.

This is an unusual book, in some ways about the underlying excitement of growing up, sensing new, almost frightening possibilities. It is also about the secrets hidden in a family, in a group of people, that hover on the edge of revelation. Lovekin is a spiritual writer who takes as her subjects things on the edge of dreaming, on the edge of consciousness. This book is about an immersion in nature in so many ways, in its observation, its secrets and its delicate beauty. It has an overwhelming sense of place, the small woods, gardens and journeys. Like all families, and many individuals, there are many sides to know, to discover, and May is discovering so much about herself in the context of others.

I enjoyed this book for its lyrical writing, its beautiful construction, and its essential wild delicacy. It has so much to say about May, and her voice echoes throughout the book, but very much in her context. It is observational, delicate, yet with a core of hardness in some of the characters who tell lies, who behave badly, who test May in so many ways. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys nature writing, but also those who are fascinated by people and the secrets that define them.

The Orphanage Girls by Mary Wood, the beginning of a powerful trilogy featuring life for people in the early twentieth century

The Orphanage Girls by Mary Wood

This is the first novel in an exciting new trilogy of novels about life in London in 1910 and in the years leading up to the First World War.     Mary Wood is extremely skilled at bringing to life individuals and communities in vivid ways; women who from their earliest years face nearly unthinkable challenges, where actual poverty is a force in their lives, and they have to face the cruelties inflicted by some men. While there are sympathetic characters who do what they can to help, there are also greater forces at work. This particular novel is very ambitious and brave in that it deals with such subjects as the abuse of children and the racism that affected families. It reveals something about the ambitions of young women to change their lives,and the shock of different cultures in London at the time. As sometimes with Mary’s (and her other pen name Maggie Mason’s) books, while official families may have broken down, the main female characters are often fortunate to find new effective families, and in this novel Ruth begins from a fairly anonymous institutional start. She knows nothing of her parents, her origins beyond being found as a baby, and must make her way with the help of friends. 

This is a beautifully constructed novel, with the highs and lows of Ruth’s progress well laid out so well that the reader can sympathise with her plight, as well as rejoice with her in her successes. This is a novel which introduces, establishes and maintains characters that are consistent throughout the book. They are varied, from the decidedly evil, through those who are keener to look out for their own interests than take a chance on a stranger, to those who welcome Ruth and others into their lives. There is a terrific variety of people, from staff at the orphanage and big houses, to market traders who are hardened by circumstance, to the homeless and unemployed who accept any help. The lively dialogue that the characters employ gives shape to their personalities, from the cockneys who get by, the kindly Rebekah with her African tones, to the more well off people who make briefer appearances. What people wear is also closely detailed; the shabby and insufficient clothing of the orphans, the bright colours of the African community, the scavenged clothing and headgear of men and boys living off pennies under market stalls. This book is very visually written, with vivid descriptions of people enabling the reader to imagine what the characters look like.  

This novel begins with Ruth being left in no doubt as to the abuse of various kinds carried out by staff at Bethnal Green Orphanage. The combination of poor conditions and physical cruelty is life threatening, and it proves difficult to escape. Not that freedom is easy, with no money, shelter and references, Ruth must depend on the kindness of strangers  to try to survive. While she meets the redoubtable Bett whose harsh demeanour conceals genuine concern, others are more careless of Ruth’s wellbeing. An older boy, Robbie, bears her company and practical assistance, despite his own bad memories. Their welcome from Rebekah offers more than Ruth and Robbie ever felt possible, but there are those who are actively seeking her, meaning that an orphan on the run is still vulnerable to attack.

This is an enthralling book which truly enveloped me as a reader. It describes challenging circumstances, but also the power of friendship and love when there seems to be little hope left. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it, and recommend it to fans of female led fiction.