Christmas at Woolworths by Elaine Everest – a book of life, not just Christmas

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In spite of the title, this is not a book based on Christmas; only the last chapter occurs on the actual days themselves. This is a wartime saga about a group of women, their loved ones and the lives they lead relating to a branch of Woolworths in Kent during 1942. It is the second in the popular Woolworths girls series, and it is an undoubtedly an enjoyable novel with many dramatic events. Not an unhappy saga in most ways, but full of human interest as a group of women and some men experience life and love on the Home Front. While there are undoubtedly challenges, tensions and fear, this is a positive story of relationships which have developed under the most difficult of circumstances.

As the book opens in June 1942 with a Prologue in which the youngest of the girls, Freda Smith, is riding a dispatch motorbike towards the bombed city of Canterbury. Two of the women who work at Woolworths are known to be there, but prove to have been caught in an enemy action. The narrative then returns to Easter 1942, as manager Betty Billington is locking up the Woolworths store, and reflecting that the War may soon be over as the Americans have entered the battle. Sarah is keen to invite her to her grandmother Ruby’s house, where as usual a group are gathering to eat a meal. Ruby enjoys welcoming all comers to her home, which is fortunate as not only Freda lives there, but her son George often stays there while working locally. Sarah actually lives with her husband Alan in his mother Maureen’s house with their small daughter Georgina. Maureen is an essential worker at Woolworths, running the café, and all the women visit each other frequently. More difficult characters like Vera challenge the comfortable group, which is sometimes threatened by loss and the risk of some individuals taking on more active war work. Although new people such as the attractive Gwyneth are welcomed in, it appears to be a full time job keeping up with the whereabouts of the women as they are torn between the needs of their families and the demands of the war on everyone. As often the case, Everest is better when writing about the local area rather than elsewhere in the U.K., as a journey to Cornwall takes on a strange adventurous nature. There are movements between the houses as the war takes its toll on the arrangements of all. Romance is found in unexpected ways after sad disappointments, and there is some satisfaction when the American forces are seen not to be all they first promised.

As with all Elaine’s books about the Woolworths Girls, I really enjoyed the whole group dynamics explored in this book. She is such a skilful writer when it comes to varying the personalities of the girls, and it definitely makes the book very readable. Not that this book is all about the younger women; Ruby is a fascinating and steadying character in the novel. There is a certain amount of melodrama here, but it is all to the purpose of the novel and is always well handled. This is a saga about the time of the Second World War, but it is not a war book and there is far more about the relationships. Apparently Elaine has not finished with this series, and I look forward to reading further adventures.

So that is the final book I have read with Christmas in the title for this year! It is a bit misleading in this case, but I suppose it has value in describing a winter themed book. I have some other interesting books to review coming up, including the wonderful Jeanette Winterson’s small but powerful “Courage Calls to Courage Everywhere”. I also have a truly amazing “The Call” by Edith Ayrton Zangwell published by Persephone, which will take some reviewing as there is so much to say about a 1924 book featuring an incredible woman based on fact. Oh, and an essay, teaching prep and….Happy New Year!

A Gift from Woolworths by Elaine Everest – 1945 – a challenging year for a special group

Friendly memories of a much missed shop, mixed wartime experiences, and a group of tremendously engaging people are all ingredients of a most enjoyable novel. Elaine Everest has repeated her successful formula to produce a lovely book, with people that it is easy to feel interested in and even concerned about throughout the book. Confidently handled and with a clearly developed narrative, this is a saga which delivers on the promise of earlier books in the series. Trauma, grief, and dislike of certain new characters contrasts sharply with those characters that we have been keen to follow through several years of development so far. This could also be enjoyed as a standalone novel which goes far beyond the Christmas feel given to the title and cover. It could truly be enjoyed at any time of the year, as the vast majority of the book deals more with a wedding, marriages challenged and work attempted. This is a novel set during 1945, so this a tricky time when the end of the War seems possible, but still far off as regards the danger to loved ones. I was really pleased to be given the opportunity to read this book as part of a blog tour, and eager to review it here.

This book opens with a Prologue in set in December 1945, and features Betty, a much loved character in the series. Despite how the previous book finished, with her seemingly living an ideal life at last, in this brief section she seems distracted and discontented. It will take most of the novel to find out why, and what happens to her and those she most loves. As the book begins properly in February 1945, Sarah is in labour with a baby and struggling. As her friends Maisie, mother in law Maureen and others gather to help, there is a gentle reminder of what has happened to some characters during the preceding books. Ruby, Sarah’s grandmother, is very present as she prepares for her special day promised for so long. As the last air raid warnings sound and bombs fall, the cast of characters realise that there are still dangers to themselves and their loved ones. There is bravery and loss still to contend with as the last few months of the War proceed, as the much loved children of various characters play and grow and demand attention. The mark of a good book is that the reader almost audibly cheers, sighs and generally reacts strongly when the cruel or nasty characters are dealt with, especially when achieved as cleverly as here. A cheating man is humiliated, a thoroughly dislikeable character comprehensively dealt with as part of a joint effort, and justice is meted out. Someone who threatens part of Maisie’s family appears, and cannot easily dismissed, and as may be predicted there is at least one birth which will cause problems. Alongside all the challenges and joys, difficulties and misunderstandings, Woolworths is a character, with all the demands of selling rare everyday goods to be met.

This is a clever book, which shows so well the skills of writing really engaging stories and well worked out themes. Every character, however minor, is rounded and developed, consistently drawn and identified. I really enjoyed this book, which in a way is a quick read, but one which I was not eager to finish as I was enjoying it so much. I can thoroughly recommend this as a book to lap up at any time, but which seems particularly suited to this time of year.

So this is a very different book from some of those I have reviewed recently!It is definitely not just a book for Christmas, though many would enjoy it and its predecessors as a special present. Going round a Supermarket in the last few days it is so clever how you get the impression that you must buy now in good time for Christmas. Although not a particularly late shopper, I can always seem to think of things that I need. Of course, living in a Vicarage means that we work until Christmas day lunchtime , then sleep! Not for us the Icelandic Book Flood this year…

The Woolworths Girls by Elaine Everest – The start of a series

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This is the first book in the Woolworths series, and having read the third novel before it, this book answers a lot of my questions. The community of women with some additional men forms very quickly, then changes, develops and reforms. This is as a result of several things: war, romances and some very deep feelings. The background of common employment in Woolworths draws some very disparate people together and the beginning of the Second World War means that some are sent away to face unknown dangers. There appears to be room for the joyful, the worried, those who have been alone and those who have always been loved. It is a sort of soap opera, very melodramatic, but the author manages to keep it under control well. In some senses it is comfort reading, well written and reliable in maintaining interest; indeed, preventing sleep as one more chapter seems so attractive.

This book shops the assembling of three girls as they all seek employment at Erith’s branch of Woolworths. Sarah is the much loved granddaughter of Ruby, thoughtful of others and showing great ability. She quickly attracts the interest of Alan, trainee manager of the shop, who gradually reveals his secrets. Maisie is newly married, seen as glamorous owing to her dressmaking skills, already fed up of living with her mother in law. Freda, the youngest, has escaped from her abusive stepfather and arrived in the town looking for Lenny, a much loved but troubled brother. Ruby also has George, Sarah’s father staying frequently. At various times the various girls move in and out of Ruby’s house, as social events centred round the shop come and go. Betty Billington is the assistant manager of the shop, who comes to reveal her sad past as she becomes closer to the girls. As war approaches the girls find love and affection for the shop, but the demands on them and those they are close to brings some anxiety and even sorrow.  Music, clothes and the dangers of being on the home front run alongside the drama people change and various people come and go from Ruby’s house.

This book benefits greatly from being only the first in a series of books which is evidently going to run for a while, so many of the ends of the story do not have to be tied up. Having said that, many elements of the story are resolved and this book stands alone in many respects. The way is left open for several sequels however, as the characters have emerged as more than interesting enough that one wonders what will happen to them in the future, and the time scale of quite early enough in the war leaves many possible avenues open for peril!  This is a most enjoyable read, and I recommend it as a substantial novel which goes far beyond just a romantic drama.

My trips round bookshops continued on Tuesday with a visit to “Bookwise” in Newark. We arrived fifteen minutes before it closed (we did not know it existed – Newark is a confusing place!) so it was a bit of a supermarket sweep situation. Northernvicar found many lovely books, I found some really old hardbacks, as well as a copy of Everest’s “The Butlins Girls”. Now just to find somewhere to put them all. Bookwise is a charity shop which has branches locally, raising funds for local music making by children and young people. The Newark branch is due to move apparently; round the corner. If you find yourself in the area, why not have a look? See their website here http://www.bookwiseshops.co.uk/

Wartime at Woolworths by Elaine Everest – An addictive saga!

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This is the sort of book which is partly comfort reading, partly melodrama and essentially a family saga. It is about people who behave predictably in a particular setting, this time war time Kent. The idea was originally that three girls are brought together by their common employment at a branch of Woolworths, but by the time of this third book in the series the links between the original girls are so complicated by common friends and family that it is difficult to see the characters that the first book was based on. It is quite complex, as part of the action takes place out of the immediate vicinity of the shop, and a knowledge of major events of the time helps to make the narrative and some of the emotions demonstrated clearer.

The story opens with Betty who is running the Erith branch of Woolworths in conversation with Sarah. The action then leaps backwards to a few months before when these two women are dealing with the crisis, and minor drama of life on the home front, when Betty has been promoted to manage the store, but is dealing with a staff shortage brought on by the absence of men who are fighting in the forces. Also the original Woolworth girls are distracted by young children and family pressures, despite the efforts of Ruby who appears to be some sort of universal grandmother. Two of the three girls decide to go back to their places of origin to try and discover what remains of their families, in London and Birmingham respectively. Both searches result in drama and long lasting repercussions as wartime problems claim the full attention of the reader. Based on an actual tragedy in London, there are few happy outcomes here. The various generations of the women are complicated, and their trials and tribulations are interwoven. There are happy moments of survival and joy, as well desperation. All matters are quickly resolved and while melodrama is the order of the day, there are happy human elements of joy and relief throughout.

This book is really a sort of soap opera in novel form. Everest undoubtedly creates characters who have a variety of emotions, and the wartime setting gives a lot of scope for dramatic incident which she takes full advantage of, and not in the most obvious way. Some events are difficult to believe in objectively, but the whole is a pleasing and slightly addictive narrative. The interlinks of people are a little difficult to keep up with and various generations are mixed in confusing ways, but as this is the third book in a series many readers will have a greater knowledge than I have of the setting and people described. Many of the characters are more than happy to help in the most difficult of circumstances, and in many ways this is a positive book. I was happy to read this review copy of the book and found it surprisingly enjoyable. It seems to sit well in its genre of twentieth century saga featuring women in difficult circumstances, and it is generally a positive read.

I asked for a review copy of this novel as I too was a Woolworths girl: I had a Saturday job in a large branch clearing tables in the cafe. I learnt various things, such as how to eat left over cream cakes in record time, and how to deal with awkward customers. Much of my earnings subsidized my book habit! This was an addictive read, and I freely admit to tracking down a copy of the first in the series!