The Secret Guests by B.W. Black – Two Princesses escape the blitz, only to face other dangers

The Secret Guests eBook: Black, Benjamin: Kindle Store

The Secret Guests by B.W. Black


A book of war time secrets, long memories and much more, this is a fast moving novel about a unique though imaginary situation. It is based on the idea that the two princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, were in real danger during the London Blitz of 1940, and it was decided to send them to a safer place. For reasons which are not made clear, it is decided that they should be sent to the rundown house of a poor duke in Ireland, a neutral country in the war. Not being heavily guarded, the girls’ safety is largely dependent on maintaining the secret of their presence. There is the obvious danger of invasion by German forces as far as Britain, a short distance away across the sea. Also there is the perennial problem of Irish politics and long memories of past injustices and betrayals; the local people and even the small squad of troops are more sunk in their past disputes than is realised. The girls themselves are portrayed as a version of how they are perceived to be as adults, as one of the interesting things about this book is that the reader knows the girls survive. This is a well written book which introduces a lot of ideas and characters in a relatively short space. It is an unusual and effective mystery thriller. 


The book begins with Margaret watching the view from a Buckingham Palace window at the age of ten. Elizabeth collects her, and they go to their parents before setting off for their exile which is meant to keep them safe. A young woman, Celia Nashe, is known to be tough and resourceful, and having been accepted into MI5, looks to be sent on a mission with danger and purpose. Detective Garda Strafford, who has had a difficult past, is apprised of his mission by the Irish minister of external affairs. Both are to spend an indefinite length of time guarding the two girls in a house that has seen better times. Isolated and without a clear idea of what their task entails, both find the house and servants frustrating and the girls icily well mannered. Strafford retreats into a pattern of moody consideration of his lot; as the son of Anglo Irish landowners he has some idea of  the style of life the duke is trying to maintain. Nashe is frustrated that her brave mission is so far confined to being a sort of nanny, sort of guard against the unknown. Although issued with a gun that she is trained to use, the very domestic nature of the setting gives her no clue as to what she is actually supposed to do. The two girls meanwhile are different in their reaction to their uncomfortable confinement, their questionable aliases and seclusion. Elizabeth is strict in her deportment and only reveals her true love for horse riding. Margaret however is overwhelmed with various emotions  and longs for a different sort of freedom.


I found this an oddly paced book with emphasis on some characters and their motives, both within the house and in the area outside, which distracted from the central idea of the girls whose safety is paramount. Having said that, the story does place the characters in their setting, with all their weaknesses combining and leading to the rather brilliant ending. This is quite a different book in that it does not sit comfortably into crime or straight historical fiction; it is a sort of historical thriller which combines so very good characterisation with a clever idea. A concise  and fascinating read, it has many points to recommend it.


This is a different book from those I have been reviewing recently. The author is otherwise known as Benjamin Black, who writes the Quirke crime novels, and is in turn a pen name of John Banville, who won the Booker prize in 2005. So this is an example of an author who uses different names for different genres, and this is the first book I have read in any of them. (though typically I may well have some of his other books on the shelves. I must have a look!


On a more personal note, I am glad to say that my Daughter is getting better, though rather stiff and bruised. Thank you for your good wishes  for her recovery.

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


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


Transcription: 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?

Keep the Home Fires Burning by S. Block – a TV series continues into a novel to great effect

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It is sad when a television programme is cancelled, especially when it is left on a terrific cliffhanger. Fans of “Home Fires” the series which featured the village of Great Paxford during the darkest days of the Second World War. Based round the Women’s Institute members who between them are involved in every aspect of the village’s life, the television series depicted the lives and loves of many women, older and young, and their immediate families. This book picks up from where the second series ends, as a huge crisis occurs in the final episode affecting most of the village. The series was cancelled, but this book picks up the story at that exact point. Simon Block wrote the scripts for the television, and has now continued the saga in book form. This has the undoubted advantage that the author knows the characters well and can develop them logically and sensitively. It also depicts the village very well, and the way that the characters depend on each other. As befits the action of the television programme, this is a very dramatic book with plenty of emotion which also fits with the conditions of wartime. It provides an interesting and vivid picture of the time for anyone interested in life on the Home Front.


Frances, leader of the WI, has had much to come to terms with in discovering the truth about her late husband. She takes on responsibility for a small boy, which she finds quite challenging as she discovers that even sending him to school is fraught with difficulties. Pat’s abusive husband Bob has not been improved by the events in the village, and he has found that the discovery of Pat’s friendship with Marek, a Czech soldier has fuelled his continuous anger with his wife. Erica Campbell has her family worries, as both of her daughters have had their struggles in the past and are not finding the present any easier. With her husband ill she must make important arrangements, and one option has a profound effect on many people. The farmer, Steph, has surmounted many challenges with the hard work necessary for running a farm  in wartime, but must now face her sternest test yet.


This is a fascinating book for anyone who has seen the television series, and the first section of the novel has enough catchup detail for those new to the saga. Obviously it is not the same as watching the television, but the nature of the writing is fast moving and emotionally sensitive. The descriptions are well written and the dialogue keeps the story going. The inclusion of such timely aspects of life as the appeal for Mass Observation as a potential outlet for Pat shows a good depth of research which is not overly pushed. I found this book offered a really good read and an excellent fictional extension of a saga with solid characters who deserved continued exploration. I am looking forward to reading the next book in the series, “A Woman’s War”.

East End Angels by Rosie Hendry – Life in the London Blitz

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A saga of the Second World War, but this time quite a special one, Rosie Hendry’s book is about three women who undertook one of the most dangerous jobs on the Home Front: ambulance driving in London. The danger that they tackle every night as the Blitz starts in 1940 is the main drama of the book, yet they are young women with real and challenging family backgrounds. The addition of the beginnings of romance is an added complication and for the three young women discovering new relationships is a new dimension to their lives. There are tragedies and barriers to negotiate, both real and in life, but ultimately there is some hope as real friendship survives all.

Stella, or Frankie, is new to Station Seventy – Five as well as driving, and she soon discovers that there is far more to her role than manging large vehicles. An unusual introduction to Winnie reveals a sense of flexibility regarding rules, which can mean both trouble and survival, not least for a small dog called Trixie. A third young woman, Bella, completes the trio at the centre of the novel, with her sadness at her family’s loss. Personality clashes and a firm boss can make life complicated, but personal crises are soon to be swallowed up in the overwhelming danger each character faces as German planes begin their nightly raids. Nevertheless, each woman must face concern about loved ones as both civilian and military family and friends are in dangerous and threatening circumstances. Winnie has to battle a forceful family despite her brilliance in her work and her seemingly luxurious living conditions. Bella’s living arrangements continue to be difficult, though she develops a unique insight into people’s lives. Frankie has to cope with challenging relatives as well as her real fears of managing in devastating circumstances. Places in London such as St. Paul’s cathedral become symbols of survival as there is no peace for the people of London, and exhaustion sets in for many.

This book is engaging, as each character seems to work as a real person in difficult circumstances. It is not overly melodramatic, as contemporary accounts of the blitz back up many of the events explored with a sure touch. The writing style does not wallow in the tragic, and Hendry packs in many events in this confident narrative. I enjoyed her creation of the characters, as she shows a deft touch at conveying emotions and motives. It is a very readable book, with a skilful realisation of what will keep the reader involved. I look forward to discovering further books in this series.

Meanwhile I have enjoyed rereading (for about the third time) “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” for the next Bookworms meeting in November. It is different from the film! I think that they are both enjoyable in their own way, as long as I remember that they are different things. I read it in two sittings….…and-a-book-group/ ‎  is my review from some time ago

The Chapel at the End of the World by Kirsten McKenzie

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On the face of it, this book would seem to have a limited potential audience as the Chapel mentioned is a tiny building on Orkney. Having said that, the themes in this book are much more international and timeless. It is the story of men and women at war, prisoners on an island, and betrayal of friends. The decoration of a special building takes on a mystical purpose as prisoners see the face of those they love and fear in the face of an otherwise beautiful Madonna.

The story opens with Rosa and Emilo being welcomed back to Orkney to celebrate the survival of the Chapel constructed by Emilo and other Italian prisoners of war in the 1940s. They were engaged when Emilo entered the Italian army and was almost immediately captured and sent to a bleak camp on an island which felt like the edge of the world, such was the weather and isolation. While he treasures letters and pictures from Italy, he increasingly struggles to believe he will ever return. His friend Bertolo, also a prisoner, feels more isolated and with less purpose as his family in Italy struggle. Rosa has her own problems, as the invading Germans turn from allies to oppressors in her native town. Her wartime experience is too much linked to the forces of resistance for safety, and ironically the non-combatants who did not join the army are in more danger. Sliding loyalties and daily challenges mean that her war experience feels more brutal even though she is in her home with family.

This is a well written novel which deserves a good readership. It achieves much in its mainly parallel narrative and covers the fears of an effectively occupied country as well as the isolation of a sparsely peopled island. There is much about the struggle of maintaining life and morale in a place where food is short and materials to beautify a chapel nearly non-existent. Anyone who visits the chapel today marvels at the location and the sheer effort of transforming very basic buildings into a holy, beautiful place.  The idea of the ingenuity of the decoration from discarded metal and homemade paint is very impressive, even if the real artists are not mentioned. Rosa’s survival is assured throughout, but her silent suffering mirrors the experience of many civilians in the face of total war. McKenzie has a light touch which does not increase the realistic events to high drama; this makes them in a way more readable.

As someone who has visited the chapel on several occasions and found it a very moving tribute to the prisoners, this is a memorable book which I would recommend as an understated but truthful account of a place, and a world, at war.

I discovered this book at the wonderful Orkney library during the early part of our holiday. Northernvicar made a special journey to the house at Skara Brae to get me a copy to bring back, published by John Murray, so thank you very much to him. I may put up an extra post with some pictures from our Orkney odyssey,  but in the meantime you can read for many photos of the Italian Chapel itself.

Peace Breaks Out – Angela Thirkell

I usually try to review books in this blog that are easy to get hold of, but I think I will do this one as although copies are expensive, it is being brought out on kindle on the 3rd November so will be available. I am surprised that Virago bring out some of Thirkell’s books on kindle only; those who have discovered her usually like physical copies of her books to add to their collection. I have two physical copies, but would still welcome a paperback. The three books that are coming out on the 3rd are on my birthday list, so watch this space…

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This is one of Thirkell’s  wartime novels in a way, though based more on the events of V.E. Day and “Vee – Jay” Day. It does reflect why some do not get on with her books, as the war is a background issue and those who lose loved ones rare in her books. There is a character in one book whose husband is posted as missing, and it is a moving picture of a woman whose life is in some senses on hold until she gets confirmation of her husband’s fate.  One of the characters who is not always the most popular (Mr Adams) tries so hard to find news. Which novel is it? I feel it might be one that is due to come out in the near future…

But I digress. This novel is surprisingly bitter about Peace being declared, seeing the announcement as an inconvenience rather  than marking the end of a terrifying time. Maybe it’s because this book is set in the countryside where air raids are rare (see Northbridge Rectory   for  home front descriptions), or maybe the day to day concerns of bread supply are the realistic way most people actually made it through. There are some disturbing references to refugees from European countries, but maybe I’m a little sensitive to such things at this time. Having just finished a Mitford novel ( I read them over breakfast – don’t judge) I found myself gritting my teeth far more over her subject matter. Is it a matter of hindsight or a genuine problem with writing of the past?

This novel is dominated by romance. David is at his outrageous flirting again, which almost proved disastrous in Wild Strawberries  , and it is more than time that someone stronger takes him on, which looks increasingly possible. In the meantime both Anne (Miss Buntings second heroine) and Martin are both made miserable by his antics. This book features many reoccurring characters, so may not be the best place to start with Thirkell (High Rising or Wild Strawberries  being better) . This novel will not disappoint Thirkell fans, if only because it features Lady Emily and her “portable property” barriers, her formidable if selective memory, and her appreciation of “that lovely creature”, Robin’s mother. This book ends so well for those with a sentimental nature, but could put others off who like their fiction a little more realistic and sensible….

In other news, northernvicar and I made our annual pilgrimage to Harrogate for the History festival. We only went to events on the Friday, but saw some interesting new novelists speak about their debut novels, and Wolf Winter  win the prize. I also saw Philippa Gregory’s presentation on her work, and the queues for book signing after she won the Outstanding Contribution Award. I have reviewed a few of her books, including her latest here More to come about this festival I’m sure.

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A Chelsea Concerto – Francis Favell – A Furrowed Middlebrow book

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Here is the first book that I have read from the reprint series from Furrowed Middlebrow. I was approached to review it in ebook form, which does affect my reading of it, and explains why I can only use this image that someone else has supplied. But I really found it an amazing book, so different from the other accounts of the Blitz in London that I have read.

Firstly, despite the fact that this book was written several years after the events described, this does not read like a novel. The Narrator records her own experiences in the order they happened, in all the confusion and muddle of a developing situation. This gives an immediacy to the text and an importance to such little things as the French design of a tin hat as well as the death of a friend that it usually found in a diary. That is not to say that the book is lacking characters; the obsessions of tragic Ruth and the solid dependable Mrs. Feetch are only two of the people who come to life in this book. The fear of destruction written about so movingly in the first part of the book is in contrast with the writer’s apparent optimism for much of the book’s progress, but it is never far away as every building becomes a target. Churches, hospitals and of course homes are destroyed, and the sense of helplessness as the water supply is cut off and help cannot get through is very vivid. There are nightmare images that Favell witnessed and experiences that she endured which make this a grim read in places; this is not fiction in any sense, but distilled horror of war.

Having said this, this can be a funny and endearing book as Favell also recounts her experiences with the local characters, like old soldiers determined to help even though they are in their eighties, and a patient travelling in an ambulance who  is greatly comforted by a detailed account of the scenery going past, only to discover that the speaker could not actually see out of the window. There are shards of hope and love even if life is brief and troubled. Favell’s voluntary work meant that she effectively looked after a group of Flemish refugees, who are described as real individuals, real people who argue and fight, but who also stand together in their suffering. “The Giant” is described as a real man, trapped by his temper as well as forces beyond his control.  I was also struck by the reality of Catherine whose life story is tragic, yet she battles on with the support of Frances and others.

This book is an illustration of the fact that numbers of dead and injured mean little to the reader compared with the stories of real people, real lives and loves. Yes, much of this book is sad, but the survival of the human spirit makes real the story of the blitz in London and in many other cities throughout this country and others. As someone who has read quite widely in the fact and fiction of this period, I really appreciated the opportunity to read this otherwise rare book, and I look forward to many other Furrowed Middlebrow reprints.

Every Good Deed and Other Stories – Dorothy Whipple – a new Persephone!

I was really pleased to get a review copy of this book, another long awaited short story collection by that much undervalued writer of the twentieth century, Dorothy Whipple. If you have ever looked at the Persephone collection of books, which now number 120, you will have heard of the great Dorothy Whipple. They now publish ten of her books, including eight novels and the rather good collection of short stories The Closed Door and Other Stories  (Persephone no. 74). There has been much debate about why this novelist whose books were very popular when published is not more known today. Some have pointed out that the writing is too intimate, perhaps too painfully honest, so that the reader cannot help be drawn too far in, identify with the characters so much that they feel their sadness or frustration. Certainly that can be a difficulty with some of the longer novels; it is sometimes necessary to put them down and return to real life, such is the pull of the narrative, the emotions related. I would argue that such involving writing can be cathartic and necessary in a difficult modern world!

The title story, Every Good Deed  is in fact a novella, published separately in its original form, and thus is longer than the other stories. It is about the “Miss Tophams (who) lived tranquilly at The Willows”. They live quiet lives full of good works and music; their lives are made easy by the efforts of their invaluable Cook, and everything is ordered and pleasant. Their lives are then invaded by the odious Gwen, and suddenly they have to deal with a girl of more realism, more up to date and grasping ways. They have until now lived in a dated bubble of mutual congratulation and  innocence, now they have to deal with the reality of real life, financial demands, and teenage tantrums. I winced at this, the crash that was coming, the complete upset of a world. I could also see Gwen’s view, in an environment she had not expected, never understood, and it was to be anticipated, perhaps, that she would take advantage of in a day to day way. When she leaves, quietness and contentment descends once more, until her return brings a new life to the sisters. Their dilemma is summed up in one paragraph.

But nowadays it is different. The Miss Tophams were modern in that they were apologetic about what they thought to be right and diffident in condemning what they felt to be wrong, in case it wasn’t. The conversation that took place in Miss Emily’s bedroom that night…might have amused a sophisticated listener.   

This is a story with twists that sadden and change the story from the expected, but also show a realism of a lifestyle challenged and changed by real life, and in which hope and loyalty can triumph.

The other stories, as different in many ways as possible, always feature at least one woman who is challenged by the choices and behaviour of another. Boarding house  is a fascinating little picture of how one person is fated to change the complacency  of many lives. Susan is so sad, but unsurprising. Miss Pratt  is a delightful story of families and dependent relations which really appealed to me. The story that lingers is One Dark Night,  even if the ending is a little contrived, which shows war as a nuisance rather than just full  of grand heroic gestures.

The world of Dorthy Whipple is full of the small intimate details of lives lived which drag you in, and in these short stories sometimes trick you by diverting off in unexpected ways. Do try this book for pictures of lives past, but still real.

Persephone Books are available from several enlightened bookshops where they live on shelves, or directly from where you can easily get lost for many hours of bookish pleasure.