Three for V.E. – three books that I am reading at the moment featuring the Second World War

FURROWED MIDDLEBROW: Sneak preview, FM30 & FM31 - CAROLA OMAN ...

Eve's War: The diaries of a military wife during the second world ...

 

Transcription: Amazon.co.uk: Atkinson, Kate: 9780857525888: Books

 

Three for V.E. 

 

Here are three books I am reading at the moment (yes, I read lots of books at the same time) and it occurred to me that they were all about the Second World War – and about women’s experiences of it. I hope to do a review of each eventually, but thought it might be interesting to look at them to mark this day, the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe.

 

The first book was originally published in 1940, and has been reprinted by the wonderful Dean Street Press in 2019 so it is easy to get hold of – “Nothing to Report” by Carol Oman. Mary Morrison is a busy woman in her village in 1939 – but despite all her occupations, she begins to realise that a War is coming. Whether it is because she expects relatives and friends to descend on her, or she knows that she will be asked to contribute in various ways, she realises that everything will change.

 

“Eve’s War” is a collection of diaries from a “military wife”, Evelyn Shillington, beginning in 1935, and ending in war – ravaged Italy, as she followed her husband Captain Rex Shillington on various postings. Edited by the wonderful Barbara Fox, who has produced books which often feature wartime memories, she has done a lively and excellent job of bringing these diary entries to many people.

 

The third book is a novel set in London, from 1940 onwards, and features eighteen year old Juliet Armstrong as she discovers war is not only fighting on a battlefield. “Transcription” by Kate Atkinson is a book published in 2018, looking at a woman’s work, and what happened in the aftermath to a war which changed everything.

 

I could have picked other books, especially from Persephone who have over twenty books written during or about the War years. My favourite wartime author is undoubtedly Angela Thirkell, who wrote several books at a time when the outcome of the war was far from obvious, combining humour, realism and people’s reactions to great effect.

 

Have you any favourite books from or about the period?

A Ration Book Wedding by Jean Fullerton – a new book to come!

 

Not a review, but to promote a book – A Ration Book Wedding by Jean Fullerton promises to be the sort of intense family saga of the Second World War which has been much loved by Jean’s many fans over the last few years. Especially topical given today’s anniversary, this book will show that in the darkness there was light. The Publishers say:

 

Because in the darkest days of the Blitz, love is more important than ever.

It’s February 1942 and the Americans have finally joined Britain and its allies. Meanwhile, twenty-three-year-old Francesca Fabrino, like thousands of other women, is doing her bit for the war effort in a factory in East London. But her thoughts are constantly occupied by her unrequited love for Charlie Brogan, who has recently married a woman of questionable reputation, before being shipped out to North Africa with the Eighth Army.

When Francesca starts a new job as an Italian translator for the BBC Overseas Department, she meets handsome Count Leonardo D’Angelo. Just as Francesca has begun to put her hopeless love for Charlie to one side and embrace the affections of this charming and impressive man, Charlie returns from the front, his marriage in ruins and his heart burning for Francesca at last. Could she, a good Catholic girl, countenance an illicit affair with the man she has always longed for? Or should she choose a different, less dangerous path?

 

 Jean Fullerton is the author of thirteen novels all set in East London where she was born. She also a retired district nurse and university lecturer. She won the Harry Bowling prise in 2006 and after initially signing for two East London historical series with Orion she moved to Corvus, part of Atlantic Publishing and is halfway through her WW2 East London series featuring the Brogan family.

 

My review of “A Ration Book Childhood”, part of this series, is to be found here  https://northernreader.wordpress.com/2019/10/10/a-ration-book-childhood-by-jean-fullerton-family-life-in-the-london-blitz-in-the-1940s/

 

A purchase link is here https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ration-Book-Wedding/dp/1786496097/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

 

 

Confetti at the Cornish Cafe by Phillipa Ashley – can Demi cope with a wedding in Kilhallon?

Confetti at the Cornish Cafe by Phillipa Ashley

 

A book which whisks the reader to Cornwall is always a treat, and this one talks realistically about the weather and farming inconveniences, as well as the problems of event organisations. One of a series based on Kilhallon Resort, it features some complicated relationships between families, especially where Demi and Cal are concerned. Old grudges and past hurts are brought into the story, as well as some notoriously difficult characters. Another big issue, of the ongoing search for a child in a challenging situation, dominates the thoughts of one of the characters. The main plot of this book relates to Demi’s attempt to turn the resort into a natural wedding venue. Rather than starting small, however, they are offered the chance to host the informal wedding of two popular celebrities, actors Lily Craig and Ben Trevone. With the eyes of the media on them, can Demi and her team pull off organising the celebrity wedding of the year as their first venture? Or will the odds stack up against them? With human difficulties and challenges of a canine nature, will there be calamity or confetti in a corner of Cornwall?

 

Demi narrates much of the story, as she worries about the sheer logistics of expanding from her successful new cafe with its memorable menu to catering for a designer wedding. She manages to enlist one of her family/ friends to act as a wedding planner to hire in various companies to provide different elements of the reception. Unfortunately Lily and Ben’s entourage throw in some extra demands which adds to Demi’s stress. Meanwhile relatives and locals with involvement in the area are not always keen to help; Mawgan is a difficult and wealthy woman in the village who is keen to scrape an aquaintance with Lily and Ben in order to get in on the act. Cal’s interest and involvement is genuine, but he is distracted by a person from the past. While the major selling point of the resort is the beauty of the area and its isolation, but the weather is not always kind. When Lily and Ben make a preliminary visit to the area, drama erupts centred around Lily’s small dog, Louie, to whom she is very attached.  Harry is her bodyguard, but he is obviously very fond of her and takes many risks. 

 

I found this a well written book which drew me into complex relationships which were established before the opening of this novel. I enjoyed it as a standalone book without having encountered the previous books in the set, because Ashley is a good writer who handles her material so well it is entertaining on its own. The small elements such as Demi’s particular recipes for treats for the cafe are well explored. I also enjoyed the idea of Demi’s pride in her book of treats for dogs, which fits in well with one of the non speaking characters in the book, Mitch the dog. The characters in this book are very well drawn, even to the minor ones mentioned, and the ending more than satisfactory. I recommend this as a light read which is very easy to enjoy.   

 

I am still searching around for books that take my interest, and sometimes I am not able to find other books in the series. If it was possible I would no doubt be hunting around for others in the series. As it is I am so keen to read lighter books that I am not always too worried waiting sort out the correct order. So, here is one of Phillipa’s books, and I believe I have a couple of her others in a different series to come. I have been getting some books from other places, so who knows what will turn up next? I might even climb over some of daughter’s stuff…

No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym – Love researched and explored

No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym

 

Dulcie is heading towards being an older spinster.  Disappointed in love, she now lives a quiet life in her late parents’ house in an unfashionable, even distant suburb of London. As with many other books, some of whose characters turn up in this novel, there is another woman who feels the sadness of love. These are not tragedies, as Dulcie’s new aquaintance Viola elegantly suffers the frustrations of unrequited love, and Laurel discovers the possibilities. There is an absurd man in the form of Dr Alwyn Forbes, impressed with himself, yet always wondering about the women around him. There is also a clergyman, floating around in a tatty cassock, not quite getting the point. This 1961 novel is full of the light touches of women working within their worlds, but this is a book which goes further afield than some of the others into areas of London that have associations for characters that prove to be otherwise, as well as a further journey of discovery for some, which provide a meeting of plot as well as some of the central people of the story. This is a book of realistic clothes, disappointing meals, indexing and researching, of odd books turning up and paintings which typify life. A gentle book of confusions, embarrassments, and little hints of the lives of women and some men as they contemplate others and their expectations. A book of acute observations and faded lives, this is a slightly sadder novel in Pym’s output, but still captures something of Dulcie’s curiosity about those around her, beyond the indexes.

 

The novel begins with three characters all slightly out of their comfort zone. Dulcie is attending a conference of those who work in publishing, but not those who have the glamour of racy bestselling novels, but rather the mechanics of indexes, of editing and small bits of research. She meets the languid Viola, an admirer of Alwyn, possibly affecting even his marriage to the disappointing Marjorie, whose interest in the conference centred around his scheduled lecture, “Some problems of an editor”. It is notable that more than one of the lectures is entitled “Some Problems of…”, as if the important but unexciting topics of indexes and editing are apologetically handled. The evening meal, as many of the carefully described meals throughout the book, is colourless and unexciting, even though Dulcie and to an extent Viola have some hopes of it.

 

The relationships as established at the conference go forwards into the rest of the novel, as other characters are discovered rather than firmly laid down, and is propelled by Dulcie’s gentle researches and accidental discoveries. Her hopes for her young niece Laurel’s influence on her rather quiet home do not come to pass in the way she expected, whereas her unexpected lodger becomes a vague partner in her unusual researches into the life and times of a man for whom a small stone squirrel  becomes a talisman of a past time and attraction. The set pieces of Dulcie’s unwilling witnessing of a sort of confrontation, of a shy florist who takes surprising action, and a dinner party which brings together some strange friends all contribute to a life where a particular form of love will not be returned, but nothing is impossible. 

 

This is a Pym that Husband acquired because I couldn’t find any more on my double banked and tough to access books. As I mentioned before, I’m struggling to access A – H because of my daughter’s house contents being shoved in that room. The limited space for the letter P is stuffed rather full with Ellis Peters (especially Brother Cadfael) Elizabeth Peters (Amelia Peabody) and Jean Plaidy (many, many historical novels) . I am still searching for Pym – maybe they are being shy and retiring….?

These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer – a well known and brilliantly written historical romance

These Old Shades (Alastair-Audley, #1) by Georgette Heyer

These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer

 

Historical romance of the Regency period has never been written better than by Georgette Heyer, who in some ways initiated the genre. In this book she demonstrates her skill in creating memorable characters, setting and a detailed,  wonderful plot. It is well known that her research was not only impeccable but ongoing, and when this book was written in 1926 she did not have the benefit of as many research options as today’s authors, who yet still get things wrong! The story is a little complicated, and it depends on personalities, a delicate social world which must be negotiated, and journeys between Britain and France. Heyer’s confident handling of her material adds consistency to the character’s behaviour, while she appreciates every detail of dress which plays an important part in this particular book. She revels in the details which have much to do with the construction of the image of several characters during the book, and while there several twists and turns here, the gender issue is well explored. I really enjoyed reading this mature and exciting novel.

 

The novel begins with the languid Justin Alastair, the Duke of Avon, who discovers and buys a boy, Leon, who he resolves to keep as a page. This is regarded as strange and even conceited behaviour by several friends and acquaintances, especially Hugh Davenant, but overall Avon is notorious for outrageous behaviour and affecting strange behaviour. He is a wealthy man with a past, but Leon seems to be devoted to him. When they travel to England, Avon reveals he knows more about Leon than he is willing to divulge at this point. When Leonie is forced to appear, her behaviour and dress becomes a bone of contention with his sister Fanny who he seeks out to help him with his ward. She is the first person who is brought into a circle of friends and family who seek to help, and the dialogue with which they speak is funny and entertaining. An adventure in which a horse is stolen and sold, an evil drink is consumed and a “pig – person” behaves badly, is exciting and a little frightening for a young woman and an otherwise dissolute young man. A plan must be formed for a launch into society and the glorious description of balls, parties and clothes ensues.

 

This is a book of an author writing at the height of her powers. The main characters are well drawn and consistent and the humour which pervades the conversations between a group of friends is very funny; I was particularly amused by the references to Mr Manners, angry ex-owner of a stolen horse, “who will be satisfied with nothing less than our lives” as Avon grimly observes in jest. Tiles and names are important in this book, but the characters are suitably different from each other even in the French aristocracy to be understandable. It is a book with real depth, with the clever suggestion that even less than central characters have a backstory. It has a real plot and is enormously entertaining. The characters are engaging and the settings realistic. I really enjoyed this book, and recommend it as a wonderful example of an historical romance.

 

When life gets tough, it is wonderful to find a comfort read, or reread. I have not read Heyer’s book for several years, when family issues meant I needed an ongoing distraction. I had bought a few of her books, and borrowed others, so I have never being sure if I had a full set or if I had read them all. Some of my copies are a bit tricky to get to at the moment, so some one gave me some to read. As I am trying to review a book a day at the moment I thought that this really enjoyable book deserved a post, if only for my own interest, and I hope that it is perhaps a reminder of the skill and talent of this very special author.

Eileen – The Making of George Orwell by Sylvia Topp – the woman behind the scenes

 

This is certainly the book which will form the definitive biography of Eileen O’Shaughnessy, first wife of the author who adopted the name George Orwell. It is definitive because it has taken every scrap of information that can be probably found about a woman who died at the tragically early age of thirty – nine, who had packed a lot into those years. An Oxford graduate in the early days of women being tolerated at University, and able as a writer and typist, she turned her considerable literary talents into helping, editing and promoting the work of two Erics, her brother who was a noted surgeon, and Eric Blair, better known as George Orwell. 

 

This book puts forward descriptions of this attractive and intelligent woman who chose to subsume her own talents under the pressure of the career of the author of such books as “Animal Farm” to which she may well contributed ideas just before her death.  She undoubtedly was the person who worked hard to ensure the well being and writing of a husband who demanded trying living arrangements while struggling with his own health. She was the first to type up the manuscript of “The Road to Wigan Pier”, and she was part of Orwell’s Spanish adventure which was behind the book “Homage to Catalonia”. Much more than merely a muse or inspiration, she took on the job of working on the text of the books, typing, suggesting and improving manuscripts. Topp is to be congratulated on her sterling work in tracking down every scrap of information about this brilliant woman, and combining it into an immensely readable book. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this extremely successful book.

 

This book looks at the immediate ancestors of Eileen, the places she lived, and the influences on a girl who was typically Head Girl and House captain at school. On going to Oxford in 1924, Topp has tried to capture what it was actually like for the tiny number of women attending the University in this period. She has gathered all the available comments on her academic work, showing that she was certainly gifted and hard working. Her life after graduation lacked a certain direction, but she was generally admired and succeeded in every post she held, even running a typists’ agency. Her fateful meeting with the slightly strange Eric Blair was certainly memorable for him, as he apparently decided that she exactly fulfilled his requirements for a wife, despite his other attachments to various women. He is shown to be self centred and demanding, though undoubtedly quickly devoted to his vivacious and much admired young woman. Their wedding challenged expectations, as well as the demands of the somewhat primitive cottage that they embarked on sharing with many visitors. The rigid timetable that Blair/ Orwell adopted meant a lot of hard physical work, which she only abandoned when she chose to follow him to a dangerous war torn Spain. While it is highly likely that she did not live a lonely life in Barcelona according to Topp’s painstaking investigations, she was extremely active in transporting the badly wounded Blair from a dangerous Spain where he became a hunted man. Her life when they returned to Britain was obviously sadly affected by the outbreak of war and the loss of her much loved brother Eric. When in became obvious that the couple were unable to have children naturally, the adoption of a baby, Richard, added to the pressure on a woman already in weakened health. Her much mourned and sudden death obviously had a stong effect on a man who was established as an author, significantly resulting from her efforts. 

 

This is a book which is the product of so much painstaking research, yet the insightful writing makes it a pleasure to read. I recommend this book not only to those interested in Orwell, but also those interested in women who were subject to the challenges and changes of the mid twentieth century.     

 

This is a fascinating book and has been quite a weighty tome on my excellent book trollies, which have given me the opportunity to store my books to read and review in a sensible way. Thanks to Harry who tracked them down and presented them for birthday and Christmas presents ( They are from Hobbycraft by the way – mint green by choice!)  

Death In Fancy Dress by Anthony Gilbert – a British Library Crime classic in every respect

Death in Fancy Dress Paperback British Library Crime Classic

 

Death at a fancy dress ball in country house – the classic murder mystery novel originally published in 1933, now republished in the British Library Crime Classic series. This particular book has an extra element to it: the search for an blackmailer who seems to be encouraging the suicides of previously unconnected and largely blameless people. The narrator of the tale, Tony, is a young lawyer who has been engaged to deal with a tricky international matter, and on his return encounters his old friend Jeremy Freyne. Jeremy has a reputation for disguise, trickery and a flippant attitude to life, fooling people and producing jolly observations on life. Tony and Jeremy are asked to visit Feltham Abbey, to discover if the “Spider”, or the presumed master blackmailer will be there by the British Secret Service. 

 

This novel of women and men in an enclosed group involving a ball, blackmail and state secrets moves along smoothly, full of the chatter of a time when the effects of the First World War are still being felt. Wealthy people, servants and friends all mingle where there are underlying secrets and long term grudges, so when the inevitable  murder happens there is a pool of suspects for Tony and Jeremy to investigate. This well paced novel full of period detail is an entertaining story of mystery and fantastic characters. The dialogue which runs throughout the book reveals a certain level of black humour from not only Jeremy, but also the women and men who are at the party or generally live in the area. This book was written by the talented Lucy Malleson under her pen name of Anthony Gilbert, and as Martin Edwards explains in his fascinating introduction, while she did not gain the big commercial success she wanted, she wrote some excellent novels and short stories. Two of these, Horseshoes for Luck and The Cockroach and the Tortoise are also in this book, which are small gems of crime and deceit. I was really pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.

 

The usual elements of a country house mystery are fully present in this novel. A victim who gains little sympathy with anyone, a number of people with reasonable motives, two people who are determined to discover the guilty party. There are some interesting and well drawn characters who are introduced and developed throughout the novel, and the author gives full weight to the female characters which is not always the case in books of the period. 

 

This is an enjoyable and very readable book with a well focused mystery at its heart. The larger search for the Spider gives a greater depth to this story which lives it above a simple murder mystery. The issues of the interwar years are well represented, as the problems left from one war are still present and in the background. I found the characters well drawn and contribute greatly to the overall effect of the book, with the unusual Merriel Ross being especially intriguing. This is a worthy addition to an already highly successful series of books and I would be very interested to see other books by Anthony Gilbert.