Resourceful Living by Lisa Dawson – Schemes, suggestions and inspiration to transform living spaces in the home

Resourceful Living by Lisa Dawson

Many people would love to be in a home that was attractive, comfortable and individual. Lisa Dawson’s book could be useful. By arranging and living with a sometimes spectacular range of vintage finds, repurposed household fittings and items, Lisa has created alternatives for all spaces in homes; even those that are sometimes tricky to find a theme for a suitable decorative scheme. She points out the dangers of spending too much on the furniture and fittings that may be attractive at a certain point, but soon date or fall out of fashion. She argues for picking up items from unconventional places, such as furniture charity shops and online selling sites such as ebay, while only spending money on new items after much thought. A great fan of making items suitable for other functions, she is a fan of using tea trollies for drinks of all kinds, as bedside tables and whatever function appeals at the time, while authentic tea chests also appear as tables. An advocate of taking the plunge and attempting different effects at a low cost, this is a book that has many positive messages both for those with a lot of financial resources as well as those with rooms to fill at a minimal cost but with an eye for fashion. Written in an accessible, non technical language, this is a book of help for the experienced seeking new inspiration as well as those for whom recycling and low cost comfort is a must. I was interested to have the opportunity to read and review it.

Lisa has plenty of hinting for those who are working with a budget, but want to transform the space they have to work with in a particular house. She extols the virtues of things like tile paint to change the appearance of a kitchen without too much drama, and opening up a small cooking area by removing units and replacing them with open shelves. She admits that issues such as storage can be a problem, and suggests storing items that are only used rarely, such as large serving dishes in a pantry. Lisa is an advocate of selling on items that are no longer useful or attractive in order to purchase things that fit a plan better.

I found that Lisa is a friendly writer who draws in even those less interested in home décor, or in my case live among books. I admire her honesty, such as getting rid of wardrobes only to move and find herself in need of such things in a different bedroom. Even those of us who feel stuck with our current arrangements can pick up useful hints for improvements if not transformations – using indoor plants and “shopping” in our house for things that would work better in a different room. She tackles the vexed question of lighting, such as gentle lighting for a dining room, while admitting the need for sufficiently bright lights in the kitchen to avoid cutting accidents. This is an attractive book in its own right with many solid and interesting ideas. Lisa is not a pretentious writer with a huge influencer budget, but makes reasonable, affordable and striking suggestions that can certainly transform any living space for the better.  

The House Opposite by Barbara Noble – A brilliant 1943 novel of the London Blitz made available by Furrowed Middlebrow at Dean Street Press

The House Opposite by [Barbara Noble, Connie Willis]

The House Opposite by Barbara Noble

A book written about life in London in 1943 will probably make some reference to the Blitz. In this powerful novel the bombing is a theme, constantly in the background, explaining and justifying what the characters do, how they live. There is no melodrama, but an acceptance that life is affected, that fear affects people in different ways, that people behave differently when there is real danger. This exceptional book has been made available by the brilliant Dean Street Press, as chosen to be part of the wonderful Furrowed Middlebrow series.  Connie Willis in her Introduction points out that Noble gets the Blitz right, in the facts, the atmosphere and the little details. I found it an incredible read, documenting the telling experience, the way that people fight to get on with their lives in the best way that they can, subject to the same emotions as people everywhere at any time. It is a book that speaks of first hand experience, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this special book. 

Elizabeth is a secretary who is having an affair with her married boss. Alex’s wife and children are in the country, evacuated away from the nightly bombing raids that give a certain desperation to Elizabeth’s thoughts about the man who she is secretly so attached to, the man she calls on the phone to check has survived, before adopting her role as the efficient Miss Simpson. Her loving father, solicitor and warden, has a huge potential for understanding, for coping, but her mother is terrified of the raids, fearful of being alone, and discovers some comfort in concealed alcohol. Elizabeth is coping, but feels a sort of guilt about Bob, a soldier who devotes his precious leave to her, unaware of her true feelings. Meanwhile Owen, who lives in the house opposite, is an insecure teenager who recoils from an flippant statement from her, that he is “Only that pansy Cathcart boy”. At eighteen he is wounded by her dismissal, but also by his own reactions, aware of his devotion to an older cousin, Derek, who was a schoolboy hero and protector, now in the glamorous air force, training to be a pilot. Derek was the shining sportsman, the instinctive leader, whereas Owen was the younger, bookish and only son of a mother who nurses a life changing secret. As he struggles with his feelings, he is fascinated by the damage, the excitement of a city in peril, the physical evidence of which could be collected. While Elizabeth does not fear for her own physical safety, she knows that others ar  losing everything and injured in horrifying ways, while she has accepted a secret relationship that brings her little joy and knows is tainted by a lack of a future. Alex’s claim to fear about the raids is set alongside the fact that when they leave London for a snatched weekend, they fear discovery “They were both of them secretly apprehensive all the time”. The bombing is almost a relief – it frees Elizabeth from worrying about a future that may never come for her.

There is so much to admire about this book, the grim tolerance of destruction, the curiosity of where the bombs had fallen, the passing on of rumour and fact. The relief of surviving another night is set against the realities of others’ probable losses. It reveals and explains how people had to carry on with their own lives against constant uncertainty, how fear became a constant, tolerated as the immediate had to be dealt with on a daily basis. It is a revelation of how people truly responded to the times, and how life continued. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in first hand accounts of how people lived in a novel written and originally published without the benefit of knowing what the future would hold.     

Together by Luke Adam Hawker – Pictures and a Prose Poem of 2020

Together by Luke Adam Hawker

Sometimes a book comes along that is strikingly beautiful – well produced, with lovely illustrations and a text that is worth reading. This is such a book. It is beautifully illustrated, with drawings that at first glance all feature an older man and a dog, but looked at more deeply contain a multitude of small depictions of people doing many different things. It speaks of a storm coming, that will change our lives, but this is really the first Lockdown of 2020, the arrival of a virus that caused fear and more. Witty, reassuring and generally lovely, this is a book to treasure as a witness to some of the things that we all felt and continue to experience. I could quote from so many pages of things that struck me, or made me feel emotional. Its message is in the title, that we have been physically apart, but together in important ways. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.

The book begins with the acknowledgement that were busy, with places to be at certain times. An uneasy feeling of a coming storm, of crowds diminishing, of oncoming darkness is conveyed, with deft drawings and so many questions “It’s hard not having all the answers”. The new normal is strange – and fear can make people forget others are feeling scared. The way that such emotions as loneliness is conveyed is so clever, with individuals gazing from their houses and flats. I have two favourite images, of “Heroes amongst us stepped forward” for its subtlety, and the dolls’ house like page “Our homes became dance halls, classrooms, bakeries…” which features dozens of tiny images. People are dancing, playing games, toddlers learning to walk, and a cheeky memory of Freddie Mercury in the video where he is doing the housework. For anyone who has passed houses and flats and wondered what story is behind each door, this page is a joy. I also enjoyed the reminders that nature, the seasons, were and are especially memorable, with the rootedness and predictability being so visible. With plants as hope and trees as the steadfast prop with so many roots, these are wonderful pictures.

I have rarely found a book which sums up a whole range of stories and the sense of togetherness though apart as well as this book, with line drawings rather than words. The brief text is almost a prose poem, pointing out the pictures and summing so much up in so few words. This is a book that at first seems brief, but actually invites careful appreciation and admiration for the little things going on in the pictures, the tiny details that make up a lovely whole. The progress of the novel is very moving. Its message, that there may be storms, but we are stronger together, is an intensely beautiful one as expressed here.  This book would make a memorable and thoughtful gift for yourself or any book lover.

A Body in the Bookshop by Helen Cox – A York based Mystery for Kitt Hartley and friends

A Body in the Bookshop: the perfect cosy thriller for book lovers (The Kitt  Hartley Yorkshire Mysteries 2) eBook: Cox, Helen: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store

In honour of all the Bookshops that can open today in England – especially independent shops – I thought I would remind everyone not to take them for granted…

A Body in the Bookshop by Helen Cox

Kitt Hartley is a librarian and loves books. She also loves bookshops, specifically those in her home city of York. So when the theft of some very valuable first editions from Bootham Bar Books comes to light, she is keen to find out what happened. To be fair she is more worried about DS Charlotte Banks, who has been accused of assaulting a suspect in the burglary at the bookshop. Kitt’s friend, Evie Bowes, is also worried about Charlotte or Charley, not least because she was so supportive when Evie found herself not only in trouble but also in danger a few months before. So when Kitt learns more about the case from her new boyfriend, DI Malcolm Halloran, she and Evie become thoroughly involved – especially when that help involves visiting bookshops!

This is an enjoyable and interesting mystery which involves lively and realistic dialogue and some familiar settings for those involved in buying books, though without this element of risk. The connection with Halloran is enough to give some police procedural background, but the investigative methods that Kitt and Evie use are not in any official guidance. The setting, of a wintery York, is described with the eye of a local writer who knows just how many bookshops there are to be investigated. Evie’s situation, of having obvious reminders of her recent traumatic experiences is dealt with sensitively, as well as her own discoveries throughout the novel. Although this is the second “Kitt Hartley Yorkshire Mystery” I found it easy to enjoy this book as a standalone, as there is enough background to indicate the relationships that are central to the story.

The lively dialogue between the women is first demonstrated when Evie visits Kitt on a cold evening in December. While Halloran’s interruption is welcomed, the news he brings of Charley is a shock. Evie immediately resolves to go and find the woman who had helped her, and is shocked at the change in her usually confident friend. When she decides to investigate further, things get complicated. Kitt’s assistant at the library, Grace, gets involved in the investigation, and the drama increases when an unexpected death occurs. When the three women try to track down just what has happened, it involves several episodes of unusual detection, including a tour of all the bookshops in the city, which culminates in some potentially useful gossip as well as some sore feet for Evie from her trademark vintage shoes. A bus trip and a card reading also supply some details as a complex mystery emerges in which books and some bloodshed play their part.

This is a easy to read contemporary mystery which is well written and plotted. It gives a satisfactory amount of time to the realistic characters who feature in a case with a suitable number of red herrings and twists to maintain interest throughout. The setting is well realized, as a wintery York is the background to revelations of several kinds. I really enjoyed the depiction of Evie, with her vintage obsession and impulsive actions. This is a well handled contemporary murder mystery with some multi-layered characters and not too much gore in a realistic setting. I will certainly be keen to read other books in this series – murder mysteries with the human element.   

The Drowned City by K.J. Maitland – The after effects of the Gunpowder Plot rage through England.

The Drowned City by K.J.Maitland

In a time of social and religious upheaval, when a new royal house has come to rule England as well as Scotland, in the wake of a plot which threatened to destroy the government as well as the king, no one can be trusted. Bristol suffers a terrible event one year exactly after men are executed for their alleged part in the Gunpowder Plot; a huge, tsunami- like wave washes into the city and drowns hundreds of people. This novel is a tense historical thriller featuring a man who goes by the name of Daniel Pursglove, a magician, a man with a past. Acting under threats from the highest level, he feels obliged to investigate if another Catholic plot is brewing, and specifically if a certain Catholic leader is working in the ruined city of Bristol. The atmosphere of a town which is beyond ruined, with little food, full of unclaimed bodies and destroyed lives is incredibly well described in this novel. In a place almost unbelievable in its destruction, threat to the vulnerable and terror, Daniel finds himself with a nearly impossible task. As facts emerge about his past life he has to react as danger seems to threaten from every side. Incidents from the court of James I and the actions of Cecil, his chief adviser in some respects appear throughout the novel, not narrated by Daniel, but with a theme of the king’s unusual behaviour. In a time of suspicion over religion and the beliefs of every person in the kingdom, Daniel and others must watch their every step, as guilty or innocent there is the threat of betrayal and a painful ending. 

This is an intense novel of second guessing over situations of life threatening importance, where death and destruction are daily occurrences. In setting, plot and characters, this is a mature and skilfully written book with immense impact. I found it to be a compelling read with much to recommend it as a work of historical fiction and suspense. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this novel.  

A Prologue describes the lull that is observed in Bristol, as a busy day continues as normal. Within seconds of a man remarking on the withdrawal of the water from the port, a towering wave thunders through the city and beyond, into the countryside, picking up and drowning or brutally injuring untold numbers in its wake. Animals, workshops,homes, houses and supplies are all destroyed. As the bodys of the dead and recently living are mutilated and torn away by the sea, no one knows who will be left. Daniel is then described as being in a prison, arrested on vague charges, hoping to survive in a place of suffering. Dramatically given the option of freedom if he will go to Bristol  and try to discover the whereabouts of a potential Catholic leader, he soon finds himself in a still functioning inn on a mission with few clues and significant danger. As a ruined city tries to survive in the face of loss, a desperate and lawless people are suspicious of shadows and strangers, especially when Daniel asks questions of those who are trying to snatch a living by any means. 

Maitland is a writer so confident of her material that she handles several convoluted themes of religion, power and threat with a dark edge, including graphic descriptions of the torments of torture on slight suspicions. The near total destruction of Bristol is also unsparingly described, as well as the after effects of food shortages and the growth of crime as people try to survive. The character of Daniel emerges brilliantly from his own account of his progress and challenges, his theories about what may be going on as everything seems dark and uncertain. I believe that this is the first novel in a series; I will be keen to discover what happens next for the resourceful Daniel.  

The Spoilt Kill – A Staffordshire Mystery by Mary Kelly. A 1961 novel republished in the British Library Crime Classics series

The Spoilt Kill (Hedley Nicholson #1) by Mary Kelly

The Spoilt Kill – A Staffordshire Mystery by Mary Kelly

Just to prove that not all murder mysteries need to take place in a country house, or the excitement of London, this novel from 1961 is set in a pottery in Staffordshire. It is very educational in terms of the process of creating tableware from design to final sale, and the details are carefully woven into a clever plot of murder and industrial espionage. This novel has been reprinted in the highly successful British Library Crime Classics series. As Martin Edwards points out in his informative Introduction, it marked a high point for writer Mary Kelly with its blend of a realistic workplace setting with almost lyrical descriptions of the surrounding area. It is also excellent on characters – Corinna as the designer with a mysterious past, Gillian being a demanding wife, the ambitious Dudley, attractive Freddy and the responsible Luke. Others jostle for attention as they work in Shentall’s Pottery or are linked to it, and they are all considered by the thoughtful Hedley Nicholson, private investigator who narrates in a calm, sometimes resigned way. The unusual structure of this book means that a body is discovered “What happened” with its identity concealed from the reader, then a section which explained the build up to the find “What happened before”, and then a section of “What happened after” which explains the events which followed. I particularly enjoyed this section, as sometimes the crime is solved and all the characters instantly disappear from view, which can be frustrating if I have developed an interest in them. This is a well written and satisfying addition to the series, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this intelligent and sensitively narrated novel.

The novel begins with Nicholson observing the subdued Corinna guiding a party around the pottery, gloomily aware of her sadness. The tourists ask questions, allowing her to expand on the description of the site. In a quiet way she explains how the kilns are no longer coal heated but gas fired, cleaner and less effort. In time she will show Nicholson the area which has been transformed by this change of fuel; this is a carefully researched book in which the setting is enhanced by the dialogue, as well as being deeply rooted in character. Nicholson is attracted by Corinna, but her reticence is deep rooted and he is confused by her sudden bursts of revelation. Can he trust her, or indeed any of the other characters he has been brought in to investigate, as potentially lucrative designs have been appearing elsewhere on inferior products. The system of design and production has some gaps which would allow the designs to be misappropriated, but there seems no easy way to discover who is responsible. The appearance of a body in a shocking way elevates the investigation to a new level, but is Nicholson ready to discover the truth?

This is a novel which is outstanding for its sense of place and setting, as well as its resigned narration by Nicholson. It is never easy to review a mystery novel without giving too much away, but it is easy to point out how genuinely well written this novel is, revealing so much about the fictional characters Kelly has created through as seen through Nicholson’s eyes. I recommend it as a very readable book which reveals much about its time and setting.

Eureka by Anthony Quinn – the summer of 1967 brought to vivid life

Eureka: Amazon.co.uk: Quinn, Anthony: 9781910702529: Books

Eureka by Anthony Quinn

It is the summer of 1967, and the sun is beating down on London, complete with the music of the Beatles and relationships being enjoyed to the full. This is the background of Quinn’s novel, overflowing with characters and in settings that are full of the sights, smalls and sounds of a time of change and challenge. Nat Fane, a screenwriter,  had wanted to be an actor, but discovered the thing that made him stand out from the crowd, would fund a glorious lifestyle and kept him in touch with the celebrities of the age is writing the screen versions of novels and stories.This novel is about a film being made of a story by Henry  James, and the challenge of making it relevant. As other people depend on Nat’s words, including young film maker Reiner Werther Kloss, a young actress in need of money and a start, an older actor scarred by experience and notoriety, and a host of others, Freya, an instinctive journalist collides with the project. Freya is a favourite character of Quinn’s, recurring over several of his novels, witnessing many things and wondering about more. 

This is a book which manages to breathe a sense of the time over every page, as social history and living people seem to collide. The large cast of people in this vibrant novel are brilliantly depicted, as much of the interest circulates around making a film, the script of which is threaded through the novel. As the focus flips from Nat and his unusual tastes, Billie and her sad relationship and the dubious film backer and his doubtful motives, this is a novel which moves through London and briefly in the sunlight of a location. From a seedy studio, through expensive restaurants to the streets of Germany, this is a novel which succeeds in being visual yet full of the sounds of a new era.   

The novel opens with the bored Nat getting frustrated about writing  a screenplay for “The Figure in the Carpet”, a report of which leaves his name out, and an unexciting meal in an expensive restaurant. He meets Billie Cantrip, RADA graduate and a young woman who will surprise him with her singular sensitivity. As she returns to her disappointing flat where her older partner is being dissatisfied about everything, she thinks about the lyrics of the new recording “Penny Lane”, which relates so strongly to everyday life. As other characters are introduced, there are connections to Nat, Billie and the reporter Freya. The latter thinks that there is more to the surprisingly young director of the film than is first apparent; she decides to find out more about his carefully contrived image.

There are some surprising things about this book – it is detailed about certain activities, it refers to past hurts and present dangers, it suggests secrets and lies. Some of the characters are given a backstory which if it is revealed is episodic. It has great energy and yet runs along smoothly, revealing hints about each of the main characters in various settings.It offers a glimpse of another time, a mystery and characters who seem to be of their time. I found it a very enjoyable read, with multi-dimensional characters who interact with the others in a very realistic way. I recommend it to anyone who admires good characterisation and novels set in this time of enthusiasms and change. 

The Halfpenny Girls by Maggie Mason – three young women face their family problems in Blackpool together.

The Halfpenny Girls

The Halfpenny Girls by Maggie Mason

Three young women live on one of the poorest streets in Blackpool in 1937. They have become very close, even when they are down to their last few coins, partly through their work at the local biscuit factory, but also because of growing up together in tough circumstances. Alice has a violent father and three younger brothers to keep together. Marg’s Gran is losing her understanding of the present. Edith has a challenging brother and an alcoholic mother to contend with as well as a sick father. This book has its traumatic and difficult moments, but underlying everything is the friendship, even love, between the three women which extends to their families and friends as needed. A memorable night in the Tower Ballroom marks meetings that could give new hope, but how far can they trust the unknown?

Maggie Mason has created new characters in this first of a Blackpool based trilogy that linger in the mind, in a setting of a close community. As authentic aspects of life in the late 1930s are referred to, reading this book is an immersive experience of how those without many material resources struggled to cope, when the most basic healthcare cost money which could be ill afforded, when working conditions were tough and potentially dangerous, and food was relatively expensive. Despite all the challenges the women face, they maintain their closeness and mutual support, and it is this element which really runs throughout this novel. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.

The three young women meet on the way to work in Bradshaw’s biscuit factory, and it becomes immediately obvious that Alice has received a severe blow in the face from her father. This is not a mark of straightforward domestic violence, as Alice’s father was involved in rescuing a man during a significant incident in a factory, and his resulting head injury has transformed his personality. She has been trying to cope with him and her brothers ever since. Marg’s father has died, and her mother seems weakened by breathing problems. As her grandmother is likely to roam if unsupervised, she has to pay for care, as well as encouraging her younger sister to stay at school and have extra tuition which will transform her prospects. Her Uncle Eric is a frequent and unpredictable visitor, sometimes helping financially. It is his gift of a pound note that means that Marg can pay for an evening of treats for the trio, which involve visiting the heart of Blackpool and indulging in a visit to the Tower. When Alice is whirled off to dance by a handsome young man, Edith has severe reservations even though she is asked to dance as well. Only Marg is left on the side, but as they later begin to return home they discover that a “rumpus” has erupted on the street, this time involving Alice’s father who has attacked Harry, her oldest brother. Marg returns to find that her Uncle Eric’s visit has involved alcohol and cigarettes, which has left her mother in a poor state, so that Ada, a nurse and unofficial first line of care must be summoned. Edith’s streetwise brother makes observations of wealthy young men taking advantage of poor girls like Edith, but despite it all the young women have a glimmer of hope.

This is the sort of book that is so easy to become totally involved with in a good way. Edith, Marg and Alice come over as real people who are struggling to keep themselves and their families going. Mason is so well versed in this time that the story never becomes weighed down by research or explanation. As the book acknowledges the possibility of war to come, I look forward to discovering what happens next for this extended community.    

Art and Industry – Seven Artists in Search of an Industrial Revolution in Britain by David Stacey. Combining art and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution

Art and Industry by David Stacey | Waterstones

Something a little different on Northernreader today – Northernvicar writes a review of a non fiction book (and he knows his stuff, so I have just edited it…)

David Stacey, Art and Industry, Seven artists in search of an Industrial Revolution in Britain

 This attractive and informative book is by a Civil Engineer with a degree in the History of Art, and I found it fascinating. The seven artists are Joseph Wright, John Opie, Phillippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, Penry Williams, William Havell, JMW Turner, and Henry Hawkins.

It covers the period between 1750 and 1830, and is a well-illustrated discussion of the work of seven artists and where their work fits in with the huge changes the country was undergoing. Stacy builds on the post-War work of Francis Klingender, through to Celina Fox writing in the last decade, and discusses many of the influences on Art, both those from the Continent and from people like Edmund Burke and Joshua Reynolds. There is an extremely useful time line of the Industrial Revolution, and complete lists of all the sketches, drawings and paintings that he refers to, as well as a list of the illustrations that appear in the book itself. A vast bibliography makes this book an excellent starting point for further research. The index is a carefully combined list of names, places and much more.  

He starts locally to Derby with Joseph Wright and the Cotton mills of Cromford, with portraits of Sir Richard Arkwright and paintings of the mills themselves. The Lombe brothers had built a silk mill in Derby in 1721 and within fifty years Arkwright had mills all along the Derwent. Wright painted them in the 1790s, and the text discusses the life of the men, women and children employed there (although they were not painted) and other aspects of Wright’s life. He writes about attitudes to slavery, and discusses Wright’s painting “A Conversation of Girls”, a painting which raises issues of race and colonial power – sadly, that painting is not depicted in the book.

John Opie’s “A gentleman and a miner” takes us to Cornwall, where the miner Captain Joseph Morcom (1744-1827) is handing a specimen of copper ore to Thomas Daniell of Truro, a man who was a major investor in the Cornish mining industry. Opie himself was born in 1761 in the mining are of West Cornwall, and eventually moved to London. His talent was recognised by Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Stacey gives us a good biography of him and his work, as well as telling us about Daneill and Morcom. One of Boulton and Watts steam engines can be seen in the background, and this power drove mining developments, enabling them to dig deeper. Yet the economics were always difficult, and the life of the working poor very different to that of the investors.

I remember buying a postcard of “Coalbrookdale by Night” when I was a lad and we visited Ironbridge, and I now know more about its painter, the Frenchman, Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg (1740-1812). He designed sets for David Garrick, and his first major journey into England was in 1778 when he came to Derbyshire collecting material for The Wonders of Derbyshire, “a pantomime entertainment devised with Richard Brinsley Sheridan and first performed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in January 1779” (page 43). In 1801 he visited Coalbrookdale and the Severn Gorge. Stacey describes the history of the works there and other artists who made a record of all that was going on. Some of the artists hint at the working conditions, but even now Coalbrookdale is such a beautiful Valley, it is difficult to picture what it must have been like to have toiled there, hour after hour, day after day. I enjoy Blist’s Hill Museum, but always feel guilty at the leisure I have to enjoy it.

In South Wales he writes about Penry Williams and the ironworks at Merthyr Tydfil. Williams was a local man, and he includes some of the labourers in his pictures. Industrial relations in the South Wales valleys were never easy. Chapter 5 discusses William Havell and the Welsh Copper industry, a lot of it on Anglesey. Much of the ore was shipped to Swansea where it was processed, and then exported – Manillas, bangles used a currency in Africa and the slave trade. There are pictures of mines and staithes – fascinating to compare the staithes on the River Tawe in South Wales with those on the River Tyne sketched by John Wilson Carmichael a few decades later.

The most famous name in the book must be J.M.W. Turner, and Stacey writes about his paintings of canals from Lancaster to Dudley, and across to Leeds and south to Chichester. A book of drawings of canal construction would be fascinating, it is interesting to see that Turner shows them as fitting harmoniously into the countryside, just as painters would show the railways blending in so quickly after construction.

Back to North Wales for the final chapter, “Henry Hawkins and the Penrhyn Slate Quarry”. I have several dvds which show the quarry at work 150 years later, when there was a little more health and safety than there was when Hawkins painted (in the early 1800s there were 150 injuries and 7 or 8 deaths every year). Hawkins includes pictures of the workers and the deplorable conditions they laboured under.

Altogether this is a scholarly book which is extremely readable. I recommend it to anyone interested in the art work that captured the beginnings of the biggest social developments in Britain’s history.

A Sister’s Wish by Donna Douglas – During the Blitz of Hull, family relationships are strained

A Sister’s Wish by Donna Douglas

Hull in the spring of 1941 was a dangerous place to be, and in this novel by the experienced writer Donna Douglas no one knows that better than Iris. She has lost her three year old daughter Lucy and the best friend who had been caring for her, Dolly. As she returns to Jubilee Row from hospital after a long stay she is terrified of returning home, not because of the heavy bombing but because of the memories that will be all around her. As she is greeted by her extended family and neighbours she is unable to cope, unable to meet with their expectations. This rich and multi-layered story of a complex family trying to survive amid the horrors of total war is full of characters who all have their own challenges and fears. While they mainly live very close to each other, there are details of other parts of Hull that were damaged, streets that almost disappeared and landmarks that were affected. Besides the impressive cast of characters, Douglas has completed a lot of research into conditions in Hull and the main raids that scarred the area, but the research is never allowed to slow the narrative. The characters are vibrant and seem real, each one having their own part to play. This is a novel that I enjoyed reading very much, and found engaging throughout. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this compelling book.  

As Iris’ family prepare for her arrival at home, there is a subtle introduction to the people who have been waiting for her return. This includes her two remaining children, a baby Kitty, and nine year old Archie who has strong memories of his younger sister and Dolly, the friend who was looking after them. He feels guilty for not looking after her more, and will be challenged by someone who criticizes him for his reaction to the trauma. Edie has been the subject of a previous novel, but her story in this book is self explanatory.Left alone by the man she loved, she is now concentrating on Bobby as the focus of her love, even though a good friend would welcome the company of another single parent. It is Ruby, capable and happy to support anyone, that has to cope with horrible memories of her past when her most difficult relationship is challenged. As Big May Maguire tries to hold her family together in the face of the most destructive bombing Hull has faced, real shelter is difficult to find.

This is a deeply absorbing book which is difficult to put down, as the relationships in a complex group of family, friends and neighbours is severely challenged. As relationships are affected by loss, everyone must reassess what they truly feel, as the most surprising people show a determination and courage previously unsuspected. One of the main stories, of Ruby and her younger sister Pearl is very involving, as loyalties, love and a life-long role of caring is shaken. Douglas has tremendous confidence in her characters, and places them in settings which prove testing in so many ways. Her understanding of their feelings for a place transformed by bombers is touching, as it is not only the physical injuries they must cope with in this emotionally realistic novel. This a wartime story set in a place which suffered sustained bombing is different from other sagas in its handling of a true community of characters in a relatively small place. I recommend it for its understanding not only of adult reactions to a nearly impossible time, but also a sensitive handling of the trauma suffered by children.