Thirteen Ways to Smell a Tree by David George Haskell – Interesting and surprising ways trees and their scents fill our lives

Thirteen Ways to Smell a Tree by David George Haskell

This book is subtitled “A Celebration of our connection with Trees” and to a large extent it sums up the contents of this remarkable little book well. Instead of working its way through types of trees, it actually concentrates on perhaps our closest link with trees, even when we perhaps do not realise it. It argues that our sense of smell is vitally important to how we appreciate and recognise trees, that of the senses smell is the quickest to connect with the source, unlike sight which depends on light, and hearing which is mediated through sound waves. Our sense of smell connects us with memories, both our own and community, as well as alerting us to the presence of what is emitting the odour, however subtle. Thus, beginning with the scent of the Horse Chestnut – the “Conker tree” with the opening of the spiky green case to reveal the shiny magnificence of a new conker, through to the smell of books as discovered in shops, libraries and specific types of paper, Haskell reveals the scents of trees he has encountered and their history, especially the effects of his memories as well as their more general backgrounds.

This is a clever and personal book, revealing stories that will have a relevance to most readers and some surprising byways of history. There are many personal reflections, such as the excitement of gathering and preparing conkers for battle, and the speed with which they are destroyed despite their size and supposed strength. There are also points where research has been needed to establish origins, such as how quinine was harvested and traditionally used in medicines such as anti-malaria preparations until the relatively recent development of synthetic blends. Not that this is expressed in a heavy or ponderous way; this is a book in which facts and arguments flow like chains of thought. Thus, while woodsmoke is seem as a pleasant smell, redolent of community gatherings around a common fire for centuries, but also that it has come to be associated with the fear of wildfires that have destroyed acres of land around the world. While fire in its “sensory visual, aural and aromatic experience” has been seen as a common aspect of human gathering and celebration, it is also a way of inhaling many chemicals which can be harmful to the human body. Certain trees are to be mourned in their removal from our streets and environments like the green ash and elm, but they are the victims of diseases and creatures that attack and destroy from within. Ginkgo is a tree which has been planted in American urban areas, but if male and female trees are planted in the same locality, the resulting fertilisation can produce a fruit which is deeply unpleasant to smell as it falls to the ground. Alongside the aspects of the culinary use of the fragrant Bay leaf comes a surprising chapter on the “Pine Tree Hanging from the Rear-view Mirror”, those ubiquitous air fresheners to be found in cars and other vehicles. They became popular as people spent more time in enclosed vehicles and wanted something to cover both external travelling odours and anything less than fragrant in the car or similar itself. A scientist, Julius Samann, was the first to patent a small, concentrated hanger to dispel unwelcome scents, and moved from a politically incorrect outline to the now familiar pine tree shape, although apparently various countries seem to be typified by a different choice of scent. Another chapter is devoted to the casks used to mature whisky – not a straightforward choice of wood, but careful seasoned specific trees.

My favourite is the author’s own habit of smelling books, and how different printing and production standards can be revealed in the scent, as well as the age and storage of books. This is a book of the senses, a celebration of trees as a basic element in our lives, and most especially the unexpected smells which can evoke so much in our minds. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.

A Stolen Knight’s Kiss by Melissa Oliver – a medieval romance with many secrets and missions

A Stolen Knight’s Kiss by Melissa Oliver

Set in a medieval world of secret missions, London life on the streets and an unshakable loyalty to others and the King, this exciting story of a man and a surprising woman sweeps through an entertaining romance. In 1227 Nicholas D’Amberly is on mission to obtain a secret document that will reveal secrets that are vital to his sworn duty to the rulers of state. Meanwhile Eva is desperate to survive on the streets of a dangerous city having lost her protector and knows that she must make a new start in order to be safe. When the two encounter each other in a surprising and dramatic way, neither fully understands what their relationship could be, and how the tasks that they assume will be fraught with deceit and danger. This is a well-paced book that conveys how instant attraction despite everything can change lives, even when fighting to survive.

Featuring strong characters with real depth, this is an absorbing tale of exciting twists and turns, secrets and deceit set in a world of risk and intrigue. The historical context is well drawn, with the small details of food, furnishing and clothing revealing thorough research and an understanding of the period, used skilfully to create a fascinating setting for the story. The two main protagonists have much to share, yet each have every reason to be suspicious of the other as their aims and backgrounds clash. This book is part of a trilogy, but it stands alone as I enjoyed the idea behind the novel. I found this a fascinating book and was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.

As the book begins Nicholas is in an inn in Southwark. A member of the secret group “The Knight’s Fortitude”, he has just acquired a secret document from dubious sources to inform their mission. Seeing a young woman being accosted, he goes to help her, only to discover that the pouch he kept the document and his most precious possession in has gone missing. He sets off in pursuit of the suspect, only to discover that he is on the trail of a young lad in the company of the distracting female. It is only when he finally catches up with them that he discovers that the youth is in fact a young woman. It transpires that Eva has been given a task of her own; to steal the very document that Nicholas so prized. She hopes that it will yield enough money to set herself and her companion Marguerite up in a safe place. She has reckoned without Nicholas and his determination to retrieve that which was stolen from him, and he will do anything to get it back. After they have been brought together by a dangerous incident, they begin to discover more about each other and there is a deep mutual attraction. Their relationship quickly becomes very special, but they know that circumstances will dictate that they cannot stay together. The intensity of their situation means that their time together is precious, yet can they really succeed against the odds?

This is an absorbing and entertaining book which reveals a lot about life in the period and the relationship between women and men. As Eva is so used to dressing as a boy, she finds that the prospect of returning to life as a woman a challenge, especially as she believes that Nicholas may be connected with the death of the most important person in her life. This is a fascinating book with the large element of romance which I enjoyed.    

Inspector Dreadlock Holmes & Other Stories by John Agard – two police officers arrive in a small English town and several stories of humour and identity

Inspector Dreadlock Holmes and other Stories by John Agard

This is essentially a collection of memorable short stories, the first seven concerning two black police officers sent as a diversity policy move to Middleham- by -Sea. All the stories reflect the question of identity, as people and later creatures are surprised by difference, by origin, and by the hidden truths central to many lives and situations. Some of the stories are more like observations, as negotiations and discussions preoccupy minds and hearts, whereas others are tales of the past, of famous people considered through the eyes of others, and in one case, given voice by a small, remarkable child. No two stories are exactly the same as even the first seven vary in format, with poetic couplets inserted to further the story, change the mood, convey in dialogue and important aspect of the story. They are a pleasing variation that immediately change the rhythm, the atmosphere of the story, giving it depth and sometimes immediacy.

As the miniature mysteries of the first stories give way to the other tales, there is an enormous imagination of display, as chips confer with fish, spices consider repatriation and Charles Darwin is fondly remembered. British villages find new ways of life in hats, blacksmiths are challenged, Shakespeare’s birthday is marked, and cats are adored. The range of subjects and points of view is enormous, as many deal with discovering the origins of people’s motives, as contemporary life is mixed with the historical and even the mythical. This is an entertaining and original book, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.

The book opens with the stories that concern Inspector Dreadlock Holmes and his sidekick “rookie” Rudeyard Fly, the former aware of his roots in the Windrush voyage and the latter a budding poet, who come from South London to the “Anglo Saxon” town of Middleham – by Sea by special request of the Middleham Criminal Investigation Department. There are cultural and other differences to contend with, but as both police officers are keen to get on with the job of detecting and living in the area, they are greeted with a mildly surprised reaction. Their first case seems to involve a passionate activist Lord Montagu, who has been found unconscious with a cucumber by his side. Suspecting foul play, they have the pleasure of interviewing the welcoming Lady Montagu, retired opera singer and memorable wife of the supposed victim of suspicious activities. Holmes is particularly taken with the accommodating lady, and this interest provides the main theme of the following stories, when he is not investigating unusual cricketers and events in libraries. While Fly is obsessed by cricket, Holmes prefers golf, and he later becomes involved in other activities as well as encouraging his younger colleague. Both feel the unusual stresses of small-town life, as misunderstandings and unfortunate events abound. A possible fiasco in all senses keeps Holmes on his toes, but overall, he remains calm in the face of many distractions.

My favourite of the other stories is that of the baby Cosmopolitan Brown, whose special abilities are foretold and indeed come to pass much to the bemusement of those around him. Altogether this is a book of stories which is filled with gentle humour and telling revelations by a talented writer of tales of the imagination and identity which I found entertaining and memorable. It is another contribution to the Holmes genre which is unusual and good humoured.

Good Taste by Caroline Scott – an entertaining historical novel of food, friendship and a woman’s progress

Good Taste by Caroline Scott

This is a funny and light-hearted novel of food, writing and romance set in the early 1930s that has some interesting themes. Scott has previously written outstanding novels featuring the immediate aftermath of the First World War, tender, powerful and full of insight into the human cost of War in various forms. In this enjoyable book Scott moves the focus to an interwar period of rising prices and hints of trouble to come. Her main character, Stella Douglas, is a young woman whose preoccupations with writing a successful book sit alongside her concerns for her father, her best friend’s well being and the mysterious if opinionated Freddie.  I found this a fascinating and absorbing read with a clever plot of realisation for the main character, Stella, and those around her. The characters are relatable, as Stella panics over money with her precious advance, her drab little house, her grief for her late mother and her concern for her friend Michael. The other characters are well introduced and consistent in their descriptions, even if they spring several surprises on Stella.

This is a novel of discovery as Stella hopes to encourage people to submit recipes for English food by posting an appeal in local newspapers. It is a promising idea for a book in the eyes of her publisher, and she is entranced with the idea, but she soon discovers that many “typical” English dishes have their roots in the frequent invasions and influences that have occurred over centuries. The author has cleverly included letters from people across the areas whose similarity of ideas echo each other, even when they claim that their recipe is exclusive to the family. These different voices add to the depth of the book and add to the humour! Stella’s experiences and thoughts are the essential focus of the book, so we see other people from her point of view.

The main drive of Stella’s book is that English food is special and deserves to be celebrated in the face of foreign menus. Stella originally trained at the Slade as an artist but has made a living contributing columns and articles regarding food to a magazine. At the start of the book, she is living alone in a small rented house in Yorkshire in order to keep an eye on her father who has been left alone to run the family farm after the death of her mother. She has left London owing to her mother’s illness but misses the life she lived there, the range of food and particularly her friend Michael who runs a restaurant. She is lonely in Yorkshire and her main interest is in writing biographies of women cooks. When her publisher suggests the book of English food, she has visions of glorious meals in traditional kitchens throughout the land. However, it soon seems that very few food types are English in origin, most having been brought by the Romans, Vikings, Tudor explorers and later arrivals. She is overwhelmed by oatcakes and very brown food. When she encounters the forthright Freddie, he is adamant that English food is vastly superior, and that she can choose to find a different direction. Meanwhile others close to her are being very surprising – and not always in a good way.

I found this book so enjoyable in many ways. Stella is a genuinely engaging character who is surprising in some ways for a woman of her time, but also completely right for the context. The research is so good that the furniture, the setting and everything is just right, but there are no extra facts that get in the way of the story. The whole appeal for details is so convincing that I could almost believe that Scott put out this sort of appeal and got similar results! I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book and recommend it as an entertaining read.

What Child Is This? by Bonnie MacBird – A brilliant Sherlock Holmes Christmas Adventure

What Child is This? by Bonnie MacBird

A book which features the serious, dedicated and brilliant Sherlock Holmes at Christmas may be an unusual concept – surely the great man would not be interested in such celebrations as befit the season in the late Victorian era? In this beautifully illustrated book Dr Watson, the narrator as usual, has to work hard to interest Holmes in any form of festivity, so it is perhaps fortunate that two absorbing cases spring up in mid -December, 1890. This is the fifth book in MacBird’s enjoyable series featuring the famous detective in his traditional setting, but I can confirm that it works very well as a standalone novel even if you have not been keeping up with all of the other books. This is partly because this is essentially Holmes’ stories written with a contemporary flair, with a full understanding of the original tales, their characters and settings. The dialogue, especially between the sometimes temporarily bewildered and surprised Watson and the mysterious Holmes, reflects some of the humour and methods employed by the detective in Conan Doyle’s books.  This is a truly enjoyable book, made even more memorable by the illustrations from Marvel artist Fran Cho, whose thoughtful pictures emphasise the essential points of the novel. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this excellent book which would make a lovely gift for any Sherlock Holmes fan and a treat for oneself!

As usual with MacBird’s novels which feature her long-time passion with Holmes and his world, The Prologue features the claim that this is an original story as discovered from the pen of Dr John Watson. It is therefore free of any of the gimmicks and jokes of twenty first century “Updates” in intention. It is in the busy time of the lead up to Christmas, and the now married Watson is staying with his “irritable friend” Holmes in the temporary absence of his wife Mary. In the absence of a tempting case, Holmes is conducting rather smelly experiment which is only interrupted by the arrival of a singular young woman, Heffie O’Malley. A protégé of the detective, her ability to assume the roles of poor girl and expensively dressed lady in turn has made her invaluable to Holmes when searching for information and now she is gainfully employed by Scotland Yard for her talents. Watson is compelled to persuade Holmes to leave the flat to avoid further odours, and it is when they are well fed and proceeding along Oxford Street that they are confronted by an expensively dressed woman who has been knocked to the pavement and a small boy being abducted by a large man. Launching into the melee, Holmes rescues the boy yet fails to detain the attacker. As Watson assists the lady and hands her Holmes’ card, the two friends enter a world of the plight of children in the city of London, where they are subject to threats and ill treatment. The case as it emerges is a complicated one, made more challenging by an old adversary of Holmes and the complex motives of those chiefly involved. Another case of a missing son, this time an adult, means that Holmes is forced to employ not only the special services of Heffie, but also involve Watson in a change of clothes.

The book is subtitled “A Sherlock Holmes Christmas Adventure”, and certainly the two cases and their surrounding circumstances require more than the deductive reasoning that Holmes often employs as they take the two men to some unusual places and events. This book is enthralling and well-paced, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  

An Indiscreet Princess by Georgie Blalock – the story of Princess Louise and her fight for freedom

An Indiscreet Princess by Georgie Blalock

Princess Louise is the daughter of Queen Victoria, who since Prince Albert’s death, has clung onto her children and severely restricted their actions. In this brilliantly written novel, which quickly became totally absorbing, Louise is shown deciding that she must make her break for freedom, or submit to being a shadowy figure at the beck and call of an unpredictable woman with tremendous influence. It is subtitled “A Novel of Queen Victoria’s Defiant Daughter” but Louise argues with her mother and rejects some of her demands to achieve a level of freedom for herself or those she loves. This is an effective story of a young woman who has talent, determination and passion, but must battle against the odds and the expectations of others to claim the freedom taken for granted by many. Apart from the remarkable Louise there are other characters who are introduced and consistent throughout the novel including members of the royal family like Bertie, Victoria’s heir, as well as the artistic circle the princess was desperate to join. Her secret relationship with Edgar Boehm, the famous sculptor, is documented elsewhere, but here it is explored in all the challenges and devotion it involved. Her ambition to be the sculptor her father would have wanted is her first and long-lasting obsession, but she discovers that to be an artist in a vacuum is impossible.  I found this to be an extraordinarily absorbing book which kept faith with the biography I had read of Princess Louise, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this enjoyable book.

The book begins in February 1868 as Louise addresses Parliament in place of her mother, who clings to the idea of being the reclusive and sorrowing widow several years after Albert’s death. She has a triumphant reception and is congratulated by Mr Disraeli the new Prime Minister. Louise remembers her beloved father’s wish for her to be an artist and is especially grateful to Disraeli for a gift and the assurance that she did well. Her two female attendants, the young Lady Sybil, her staunch friend, and Lady Ely, spy for her mother, typify the challenges that she faces. When she is told that her tutor can no longer keep teaching her, Louise campaigns to be allowed to attend the National School that her father established. A very grudging permission enables her to enter a new world of artistic endeavour, and although it takes time for her to be accepted as a genuine artist by her peers, she is soon seizing every opportunity to meet other artists. When a mutual attraction is confirmed with Boehm, she has to adopt many subterfuges to spend time with him. Meanwhile her brother Leopold is chafing against the restrictions that his illness places upon him, as he is desperate to live a full life like his brothers. Louise has to cope with her siblings’ varying levels of support and active dislike for her activities, her mother’s frequent impositions and the public’s reaction to her as she tries to live a fulfilling and free life.

This is a novel which brings to life an unconventional woman who has to find the bravery to fulfil her deepest desires. It is detailed and atmospheric, representing an impressive level of research into real lives, the buildings and settings they inhabited, as well as the demands of the artistic world at the time. The research is never just deposited, but skilfully woven into the narrative giving it real depth and conveying a deep understanding of the time and people involved in Louise’s life. This is a deeply satisfying read of a woman’s search for happiness despite opposition, and I recommend it as an excellent read.

The Winter Dress by Lauren Chater – a dress has survived, but what does it mean in this powerful historical novel

The Winter Dress by Lauren Chater

This is a book about a dress. A once beautiful dress lost and rediscovered, that becomes a deeply important symbol for two women living in different centuries, different places, but both dealing with losses that are beyond their comprehension. In this serious book of women’s lives, the two narrative threats blend to answer questions that are deeply felt even if they cannot be easily spoken of by those most deeply involved in the tales. Based on a real life discovery of textiles in 2014 off the coast of Texel, an island in North Holland, this is a novel of a clothing historian – more than a fashion historian, who feels a deep need to go beyond the details of style and therefore date, and try to discover who owned the dress, why it was carefully stored on a ship so that it survived centuries, and why it is so important. It has much to say about the nature of women’s lives in both the seventeenth and twenty first centuries, the ways families work, the tension and links between the closest of relations. It also speaks of the importance of physical objects, of personal clothing, to open doorways into the past.

Jo Baaker in contemporary times is searching for answers, but in the process discovers much about herself and those around her. Anna Tesseltje’s life has been shaped in the 1600s by her birth date coinciding with a downturn in her family’s fortunes, by her feelings of inadequacy in the face of the challenges she and her family have faced, by a world of wealth and security that she once knew but now can only aspire to in the lives of others. The two women are separated by time and circumstance, but Jo begins to discover what may well link them. The book begins in the blaze of light that is contemporary Australia, of a life there which could be rich in so many ways. Jo is asked about the “old hurts” which have pursued her from the island of Texel where she was born, grew to be a teenager, and where she was orphaned. Her curiosity about the people, the women who wore clothes at particular stages in history has become the foundation for her academic life; the discovery of this remarkable survivor, a yellow silk dress, is the first substantial reason she has found to return to Texel, the place which seems grey, damaged and confining. Excited by the implications of the discovery of the dress, partly as an artifact, but also by the insight it may offer into a departed world.

Anna is a young woman whose life has been traumatic and is scarred by losses. She is first seen living with her older sister who had been destined for a good marriage, but now the two girls are barely surviving in a poor area by washing the clothes of others.  As the yellow silk dress is rediscovered it speaks to them both not only of its owner, their late mother, but also a way of life, a time of hope and excitement. As Anna finds herself facing new challenges, she realises that the silk dress may assume more importance than she ever thought possible.

One of this book’s great strengths is the more minor characters but who emerge as strong influences in the book. This is a novel that reveals immense research, into the possibility of a woman artist who was at the centre of many circles in the 1600s, into the nature of women’s clothes as handed on, passed around, status symbols and central to self-image. It also has much to say about how family links, devotion, care can take different forms, but also how injuries are perceived. This is a well plotted and paced book, blending and interweaving lives and motivations. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book and recommend it as a powerful read.  

The Empire by Michael Ball – an absorbing historical novel of theatrical life and more

The Empire by Michael Ball

This is a fantastic read. Full of drama, excitement and suspense, this is an absorbing book of theatrical life set in a town theatre in the 1920s. While the shadow of the Great War lingers over several of the characters, this is a world and a family story in its own right. It is filled with amazing characters, from all sorts of backgrounds and motivations, but all revolving around The Empire, a theatre that reflects the glories of past shows and a promise of further experiences. As virtually all the action takes place within its warren of corridors, rehearsal room and of course its splendid auditorium it offers a marvellous feeling of a community with its gossip, heroes and surprising regulars. Michael Ball has created a world of theatrical activities affected by the pressures of the outside world but in a very special way; while there are challenges to the straightforward running of a building which excites loyalty and passion from virtually everyone who works there, invention, initiative and innovation from those who have perhaps been overlooked can change everything. For everyone who loves the theatre this novel is a must, for anyone who enjoys a strong and absorbing story it is a powerful tale. I really enjoyed it and was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it as the first of an enchanting series.

There is a long list of the characters to begin the book, but rather than be daunted by this programme like listing, it became a useful reference point. The beginning is carefully written as an overture, introducing some of the most important characters in their typical settings, from the influential editor of a local paper through to a Lady with a significant interest in The Empire. We first see the theatre through the astonished eyes of a young man, Jack Treadwell, who has not long returned from France after his service during the recent war. This is 1922, and people are determined to move on from a War which affected virtually everyone. Jack has been told to go to the theatre in a message from his late mother, and he is soon involved in the dizzying place of entertainment which has welcomed so many over the last few years. He encounters Grace soon after entering the building, and while she may not bear the official title, he soon understands how she is in fact in charge of much of the daily running of the building. From stagehands to musicians, the stage door dog called Ollie to the costume manager, Jack soon charms them all with his good humour, genuine fascination with the people and their activities and his determination to improve the theatre’s fortunes. Grace in particular is intrigued by his innovations, and when a campaign by a local theatre owner causes problems, joins forces with him to help the situation. Of course The Empire does not exist in in a vacuum; Lady Lillian Lassiter was married to the late local businessman who had given her the theatre as a gift to mark her original career, a decision which has upset his family as they now benefit from his business dealings but cannot control the theatre. Sir Edmund as owner of the rest of the shares has a dubious past and a somewhat shady present. Other forces in the town may well have an influence on the progress of The Empire, and there are those who are far from dedicated to the theatre’s success. The trials and triumphs detailed in this book make for absorbing reading.

This is a book that I thoroughly recommend as a light but fascinating historical novel, and it offers an impressive insight into life in the 1920s for many types of people. I look forward to the next instalment!

The Almanac – A Seasonal Guide to 2023 – a Month by Month guide to the year by Lia Leendertz

The Almanac – A Seasonal Guide to 2023 by Lia Leendertz

For a small hardback book this book contains a wealth of information, fascinating facts and interesting, useful information. Arranged by months, this book reflects a seasonal journey through the year from January through to December. This book is so valuable because it gives the actual dates for significant events in 2023, of holidays, special days and so much more. It is beautifully laid out with clear printing of the information, and illustrations of the tables – of tide times (with how to work it out for each locality at the start of the book) and phases of the moon. There is a beautiful drawing for the start of every month, often linked to the zodiac sign which is further detailed in the text. When the zodiac symbol is drawn, it also picks out the shape of the star formation that gives the consolation its name. This is a book with which to explore so much, with its section for each month, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.

Each month begins with a list of the days of note in the month. This may include special days for particular faith like Lammas in the Christian faith in August, Bank Holidays, major sport events and other yearly landmarks like the Notting Hill Carnival. It gives details of the month “at a glance” such as the appearance of the countryside and traditional practices in rural areas such as Morris dancing. The “Sky at Night” section looks at which planets are more obvious in the night sky. There is a page of the times of sunrise and sunset at a certain place, and the tide timetable. The phases of the moon are illustrated. Highlights of gardens are listed, and the concept of Gardening by the moon. Each month has two recipes, often from a part of Britain but also from around the world. It will often include ingredients that are freely available in that particular month, which encourages seasonal cooking.  The sign of the Zodiac is discussed with an illustration. A folk song for the month with the tune is also given, with a set of traditional words. The world of nature is also covered – May’s offering is pond life creatures illustrated allowing identification of certain beasts.

This is a book that will provide good reading throughout the year. I have picked out some favourites, such as the Folk Song for Aries’ Ram “The Derby Ram” which is especially interesting given where I live.  My favourite recipe is for Pea soup with cheesy mushroom dumplings, and the rhubarb recipe to be found in February. I enjoyed looking through this book in 2022, and it would be a fascinating guide through next year.

Not at Home by Doris Langley Moore – a 1948 novel of the entertaining battle for a home reprinted by Furrowed Middlebrow at Dean Street Press

Not at Home by Doris Langley Moore

While there are some exciting and brilliant novels written about the actual experience of being in London during the years of the Second World War, this exciting and brilliant novel looks at another Home Front battle – the immediate post-war years when accommodation in London was scarce, and accordingly there were problems. In this book, originally published in 1948 and now thankfully reprinted by Dean Street Press in the Furrowed Middlebrow series, this exceptional author has created two characters who are operating in the relatively small space of a house. Elinor MacFarren, unmarried, botanical writer and avid collector, decides to rent out part of her house to the highly recommended Mrs Antonia Banks, married to the absent American Captain Bankes who is currently with the Occupying Forces in Europe. This decision will lead to some frustrating, funny and always fascinating situations when the two women get into some entertaining battles – with weapons of their own devising. Both women learn something even if we usually see things from Miss MacFarren’s point of view, as she must bend her standards and even indulge in some uncharacteristic behaviour in order to cope with her exasperating tenant. The supporting cast of actress, nephew, husband friends and others mean that this delightfully memorable book is a pleasure to read. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this enjoyable book.

Miss MacFarren has always been independent, living in a family home, on good terms with her nephew Mory and through him obtaining glimpses of a very different lifestyle of films and the acting profession. As he is caught up in a tricky and potentially financially damaging affair, her small problems in maintaining the house come to the fore, especially in terms of affording the somewhat diffident services of Mrs. Manders. She has already had to part with some of her botanical collection and knows that even her best efforts at authorship will not sustain her for long. When her managing friend Harriet recommends a customer, Mrs Bankes, Mrs MacFarren arranges that the prospective tenant should visit. Despite misgivings at their first meeting, the arrangement is soon made, as Mrs Bankes goes on what would now be called a charm offensive and assures her surprised land lady of her care for the delicate items on display. She further promises to be a domestic paragon and take on the employment of the servant. Her actual arrival in the house is full of unwelcome surprises for the steady Miss MacFarren – too much furniture, large packing cases that are never to be fully unpacked and damage to the rooms are annoying enough, but what is somehow worse is the quantity of friends who also appear and continue to inhabit the supposedly shared spare room. It becomes obvious that Mrs Bankes has a chaotic social life, with scant disregard for her quiet landlady, and no concept of taking care of the expensive objects and pictures in the house. Miss MacFarren has been generous in her allocation of space and facilities to her paying guest but is sorely tried by the continual disturbance of telephone calls, callers and appropriation of everything including precious rations. Her attempts to complain are dismissed with half promises, and eventually even Mrs Manders is driven away. When Joss Bankes arrives, he is so charmed by the house that he somehow lessens the effects of his childish wife, but his stay is not long and if anything, Mrs Bankes becomes even more trying when he departs. While Miss MacFarren is quietly sent to drink, she discovers that he may have unexpected allies in dealing with her slippery tenant, but as cruelty and neglect begins to feature, she begins to despair.

While feeling sympathy for Miss MacFarren’s plight, it is fascinating to observe how she tries to cope with Mrs Bankes latest excesses. Mrs Bankes is always outwardly charming in her seemingly artless attitudes, but not much credit is given to her behaviour as the book proceeds. The advent of Maxine is surprising into Miss MacFarren’s life, but the young woman’s genuine charms are in such opposition to Mrs Bankes personality that it is an entertaining contrast. This is such an enjoyable book, full of clever observations and references to the difficulties of London life that I thoroughly recommend it as offering insight into the times, women’s lives and so much more.