An Ordinary Life by Amanda Prowse – an intense, powerful novel of a woman’s experiences of war and so much more

An Ordinary Life by Amanda Prowse

This is a book that shows that no life is completely “ordinary”, and that everyone has their secrets. In this book, mainly set in the Second World War, life is fragile but love and memories can last. This is the story of a woman’s life, her work, the risks she took, but most importantly, her love. Molly begins the book as a ninety four year old woman, struggling to fulfill a promise,  to reveal a secret central to her life. As she looks back, remembers a brief and glorious time, a time of worry, fear and overwhelming longing, the reader is involved in a story of love, loss, fear and much more. The food, the clothes, the objects descriptive give texture to a story that can be recognised by any reader, while the dialogue gives life to characters despite a distance of time. This is a book where the characters really come alive, especially Molly, whose doubts, fears and so many other emotions seem so real. This is writing, a novel, which lingers in the memory in all its colours and variations. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.

After the older Molly has a nasty fall, she begins to remember her story, to go back to being eighteen years old in December 1943. Working in Bloomsbury, London as a senior translator for the Ministry of Information, she is a bright and ambitious young woman with a good friend, Geer, who drags her to a dance to meet her brother. Her attraction to Johan is immediate and total; happily it is mutual and each word, action and moment becomes vital to both of them. Snatched moments of love, spent in London and later elsewhere, become precious to Molly, diverting her from her work, her ambition, her petulant mother who she lives with, even a war that dominates everyone’s life. A sudden tragic discovery robs her of this blissful state, leaving her with a growing realisation that a new life beckons, very different from anything that she could have expected. The decisions that she must make, the special task that she chooses to embark on, fills her life, works on her brokenness, and leaves her a different person, a casualty of war and much more. Throughout this time she must depend on her family, made to realise that the heightened emotion she is enduring is beyond her alone, that she needs help from others to cope with so much, and express her greatest love.

This is a powerful novel that reflects the fact that war is more than a state of fear or even loss, that love can dominate a life in so many ways, that survival is more than bodily safety. A mission of incredible difficulty and danger is not the only story in this book, just as this is more than just an imaginative account of wartime life. It is the intense story of a woman who lives an extraordinary life of contrast and challenge, of love and sadness, but also purpose and small comforts. Prowse has created Molly as a woman of great depth and reality, her emotions and reactions though described by a narrator are vivid and understandable. There have been many books that deal with a woman’s wartime experiences, but this one places those feelings in the context of a long life, experiences that however brief are central to all that comes afterwards, colouring everything. The secret that Molly is trying to reveal is something and everything, a fact that has changed lives and made her own existence anything but an ordinary life.

Coming Home to Brightwater Bay by Holly Hepburn – a book of romance, writing and the wonderful Orkney Islands

Coming Home to Brightwater Bay by Holly Hepburn 

A book of glorious scenery, life in a community and romantic entanglements abound in this book of a writer struggling to embark on her latest novel. When Merina or Merry arrives on Orkney, she wonders how she will ever be able to recapture her drive to construct the romantic novels she has become well known for, or even face opening her laptop. This novel realistically shows coming to terms with a community that “treats writers like rock stars” and is eager to welcome her, but also means she must cope with new challenges. This is a beautifully written book which has much to say about some of the islands, the scenery and places which Merry comes to know and love. I greatly enjoyed seeing both the well known and less famous sites through Merry’s eyes, as well as how she tries to cope with the various challenges. There is a lot of humour in the dialogue and in the situations Merry finds herself in, not least when local alcohol is freely consumed. Having visited Orkney on several occasions I recognised some of the places which are so well described in this book, and the inspiration that they represent.  The story of Merry’s time on the Writer’s Retreat is really well written, and I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book. 

The book opens with Alex, Merry’s long time partner, breaking up with her in a restaurant. She has had problems writing for some time, but Alex seems reluctant to wait until she regains her inspiration. She is deeply traumatised by his desertion, as they have been together for many years. Supported by her best friend Jess, who is also a novelist, she manages to get a six month’s Writer’s residency on Orkney, which includes a small cottage in Brightwater Bay. She is welcome by the librarian from the island, Niall, who makes her welcome. Greatly impressed by the setting, she feels inspired to write for the first time in months, which is useful as she has to speak at various events throughout her stay. She encounters others who inspire more complex stories, including Helen at the Italian Chapel, who reveals the story of her grandparents who met during the Second World War on the islands. She meets an older neighbour who insists that she takes up running, as well as a hungry goat. A flat tyre means that she encounters Magnus, a boat builder who originates from Iceland, and who is eager to show her more places. 

This is a humorous and very readable book which I enjoyed. Merry is a memorable character, with a great sense of humour and a realistic approach to life. She is deeply wounded by Alex’s desertion, and this book deals well with her recovery which proves to be complex. It offers real insight into some of the things that can inspire a writer, as well as charting Merry’s progress on a very friendly island. This being a romantic novel there is an element of confusion in Merry’s mind as she finds that she is confronted with new attractions. I also liked the variety of characters that Hepburn has created, including Jess whose writing is a little more earthy and Sheila who gives Merry a new perspective on her abilities. This is a very enjoyable book which I thoroughly recommend, not least for its appreciation of the wonderful Orkney Islands. 

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!)  

A Messy Affair by Elizabeth Mundy – multicultural London, reality TV and murder with humour

 

“The Only Way is Murder” is a subtitle to this book, which itself neatly encapsulates what this book is all about. The suspicious death of reality TV star Terry is soon seen as being far more like murder to Lena the Hungarian super cleaner and unofficial detective. She has started her own business cleaning and catering for clients in her part of contemporary London, and she employs friends and relatives who have also arrived from European countries. In two previous novels she has become unwillingly involved in the detection of cases which have involved her friends, and she is seriously attracted to PC Cartwright, an ambitious young police officer. This is a standalone book which can definitely be read alone, as Mundy does a good job of introducing the characters and snippets about their past. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this super quirky book. 

 

Lena is frustrated by her cousin Sarika who has met and started an impassioned  relationship with Terry, a star of a reality based tv show similar to “Made in Chelsea”. Despite the programme depicting an on and off romance in which Terry is involved with Marsela, Sarika is so convinced that she and Terry have a future that she arranges a date for Lena with one of Terry’s co stars, Raz. Everything would be manageable, except that both Sarika and Terry have received threatening notes. As Lena begins to learn about the series “N1 Angels” from one of her favourite clients, Mrs Kingston, reports of Terry’s death begin to circulate. Lena is convinced that his murderer is not only connected to Terry’s exciting romantic and complicated life, but also fears for her cousin’s safety. Quickly she is plunged into a complex world of troublesome clients, well known criminals and television celebrities. While she cleans and tries to spend time with the attractive Cartwright, while keeping an eye on her excitable cousin, she tries out various theories which can get very confusing. 

   

This is an extremely well written murder mystery set amongst a convincing contemporary world of women who are trying to survive and thrive by whatever means available. The men are not always the quickest on the uptake, and it is often up to Lena to sort out their problems. There is a very strong element of humour as Lena tries to sort out the possible interconnections between her cleaning jobs, her love life and the celebrities who seem to pop up around her. The narrative is well written with a complex plot which draws in the many characters. The dialogue and indeed Lena’s speech is distinctive as she struggles to cope with the English idioms and phrases. Her near compulsion to clean and tidy is a strong plot device as it means that she discovers many significant things about her suspects as she sorts out their homes and businesses. I really enjoyed the mixture of black humour, thriller and murder mystery, whether it is a set piece like a meeting at a skating rink, or a funeral reception with ambitious young women. I recommend this as an entertaining read with an underlying theme of the multicultural nature of London, the nature of instant celebrity, and the truth of those who clean and sort out the lives of others. 

Diary of an Ordinary Woman – a novel by Margaret Forster – An authentic view of the twentieth century

Image result for diary of an ordinary woman margaret forster

This is a book which spans most of the twentieth century through the eyes of one woman; an ordinary woman by her own admission. Millicent King is a superb creation, a realistic witness to the great events of two World Wars, a relative of some who have died, a participant in some great social upheavals. The clever thing that Forster achieves through this book is to leave gaps, the sort of spaces that someone who kept a diary for most of their lives would probably naturally leave. Thus the run of the mill, routine months and years do not slow down the pace of the book, and the reader is left convinced that this is indeed the life story of a woman who has experienced so much. This is a well written book, full of the challenges of real life, as observed by one person first hand. Lack of communication between family members, unfinished business and the disappointment of other people’s choices are themes that run throughout the book. There is hope, resilience and real affection in this woman as she does her best, does the unpredictable, and records it all. This is an effective book, revealing so much about life in Britain between 1914 and 1995.

 

The book begins with Millicient as a middle child, aghast that her parents keep having children, annoyed that she has to help look after them. She is not desperately excited by school, but becomes keen on doing a course in teaching as an effort towards independence. With an older brother at the Front, she begins to appreciate the real nature of the War. She meets Tom, but as her family’s fortunes fail tragically she has to work in a shop. When eventually she begins another job, she is suddenly given the opportunity to travel. On her return, she meets other men and she makes the dramatic decision to sleep with one of them, making a conscious and responsible provision. In the background her family develops, changes and sometimes make demands on her, but at all times she tries to keep in touch out of a touching mixture of affection and duty. She meets a man, Robert, through her work, but there are many barriers to their relationship and when she has to assume enormous responsibilities her life dramatically changes. As another war ends she begins to think about the bigger issues and discovers that even an ordinary woman can make a stand.

 

I think I can recall that some readers made a fuss when they realised that Millicient was a character rather than a woman they could have actually met. Such is the effectiveness of the writing that I could feel the frustration when there was a gap in the diaries, that it was not possible to discover more about this contradictory but impressive woman. Having read several real diaries of women written during the twentieth century, this book is an incredible success in imitation and homage to women who lived through this period with all its challenges. This is sometimes a painful read, but always honest and consistent with the main character. This is a second read for me, and I recommend it as an example of historical fiction at its best.

 

I really enjoyed rereading this book, despite the fact that I have so many new books to read. It is a really well researched book in every sense.

Meanwhile some deadlines for the conference that I was speaking at have come and gone. Now one of Northernvicar’s two churches has its Bicentenary over the next few weeks, so either I will get a lot of reading done as I sit around in the background, or there will be jobs to be done! Still, a Bicentenary doesn’t happen that often!

Him by Clare Empson – a novel of mystery and obsessive love

A romantic obsession that changes lives is not an unusual theme for a book, but in this novel it is the main point from which all other actions flow. A picture of alternative family groups, the painful loss of parents and a wealthy lifestyle culminate in a woman suffering from elective mutism. Silence is a powerful element in a novel of remembering and sorrow, as Catherine takes refuge from all that she cannot accept. Empson’s strength is in making a variety of characters really come alive,as they negotiate the past and present with so many questions.

I have been fascinated to discover this book, and grateful to have the opportunity to read and review it.  

The book opens with Catherine relating her current situation, as she sits silently in hospital, recognising her favourite nurse, awaiting the arrival of her husband and children. They are baffled by her silence, hurt by her “elective mutism” as described by Greg, the psychiatrist. There has evidently been a traumatic event located at a large local house, something that Catherine has had a violent reaction to which has rendered her silent. The book switches to fifteen years earlier in Catherine’s voice, as she describes the day Lucian arrived in a tutorial and first asked her out for lunch, which she declined. Then the narrative turns to four months ago when the family arrive in their new house in the country, when Catherine seizes a moment of privacy to look through a box of letters and papers relating to her relationship with “you”, Lucian, a rich and attractive man. He continues to feature in celebrity gossip frequently, but she is recalling a time when they were both students from seemingly different backgrounds, inseparable and powerfully in love. As Sam’s own infidelity is revealed, Lucian’s own account of four months before appears, as he describes a day spent with his long term group of friends, more like a family, as he learns of his mother’s death. Jack has been with him throughout his life, sent to Eton but from a family could barely afford it. Jack’s expensive tastes have kept him attached to Lucian who has inherited a sizeable fortune and a beautiful house. Harry is another member of the group, extremely wealthy but only now rejoicing in his great love for Ling, his new wife from Thailand. Together with two  women, Rachel and Alexa, they have all formed a group of wealth and are united in many ways, including the mystery of Catherine’s sudden desertion of Lucian when their passionate relationship was at its height. Mysteries are only gradually solved, attitudes challenged and hurt exposed as the time frame weaves between Catherine and Lucian, jumping from fifteen years before, to four months previously, to the present of Catherine’s bewildering silence.

This is a novel which deals with the continuing love, obsession with another person which shapes entire lives. Catherine has continued to love Lucian despite her marriage to Sam; Lucian has continued to miss and obsess about Catherine and retain the hurt of her sudden desertion despite his seemingly idyllic lifestyle. This powerful narrative is an account of love and life with strong emotions, movingly described as these characters leap out of the page with their dialogue, their actions and surroundings. I found this book engaging and emotional, a contemporary testimony to the sometimes destructive power of love.  

The Hourglass by Liz Heron – time, Venice, love and loss in a unique novel.

This is a mysterious book, dealing with time and a woman that does not age, places and people she encounters, and in the centre, the beautiful and lovely Venice “no ordinary city”. As the story develops, tantalising hints and sophisticated subtle writing tell a truly extraordinary tale of love, a long life and the crumbling of a city with a unique nature. This is a confidently written book, full of the mystical memories of a woman who has known love and loss, change and challenges. Heron has constructed a story of a powerful personality, glimpsed through her own eyes, full of the self-knowledge that comes with a long life. From the first, the reader is shown that not all is how it first appears, and thus the stage is set for a glorious exploration of opera and Venice over so many years. I was very grateful to receive a copy of this unique book to read and review as part of a tour.

The book opens with various quotations, most poignantly from Mozart, as the idea of the “constant woman? As mythical as the phoenix”is mentioned. In contrast, a young man is described arriving in Venice, Paul Geddes, seeking a Mrs Forrest. It soon emerges that he is seeking information, the story of a barely mentioned opera singer, Esme Maguire, with all the fervour of a new convert to the magic of opera. He has heard that Mrs Eva Forrest, a widow, has discovered some papers relating to the mysterious woman in her late husband’s belongings. He meets the lady, becomes entranced by not only the tantalising folders of papers that she dispenses to him, but also the lady herself. As they glide effortlessly into a relationship, she shows him the faded glories of Venice, the crumbling buildings of great age, the more recent restaurants and sites of interest beyond the first impressions of tourists. Against this background Paul reads the papers that form an account of the life of a woman who claims to have lived through so many years. She reveals how an illness led to her seemingly supernaturally long life, escaping the signs of age, having to use her wits, charm and singing abilities to literally veil her secret, mask her identity from even those she loves the most. Her connection to Venice dominates everything, and her memories echo the present day journeys around Venice as Paul is shown a mysterious city. He searches not only for the elusive Esme, but for a resolution for his suspicions of the unpredictable, beautiful Eva.

This is a novel which achieves so much as the truth slips in and out of view, forming a fascinating, almost hypnotic, tale of a woman’s life through various settings. I found it a mesmerising account of episodes of life, with the fear of relationships which end too soon, or in one case, not soon enough. This book evokes so many images, of a woman exiled from the city she loves, only able to return as a new person, of a crumbling but beautiful set of buildings, of the loyalty and love of many people who cannot be allowed to find out the truth. This is a book that will linger in the memory, with its yearning for love and truth of a life so unusual.

This is a truly lovely book, and once again it is lovely to read such an unusual novel.

Something very different soon!