Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

My second read for the 1930 club was an Agatha Christie that I am fairly sure I had never read before. A tip for those of you new to finding books for these club weeks – there is always an Agatha Christie for which ever year is chosen – and sometimes two. There were in fact two Christie’s published in 1930, the other one is Murder at the Vicarage, an old favourite that I have read a couple of times.

The Mysterious Mr Quin is a collection of stories, though it is presented almost like a novel in twelve chapters – each chapter is a different story in which Mr Quin will turn up eventually. It’s a thoroughly engaging and entertaining collection, in which the reader must suspend disbelief as coincidences abound. Christie really does flex her storytelling muscles nicely with these stories, taking us from English country houses to the South of France and Corsica. While many stories feature the unravelling of mysteries of the past, other stories concern matters in the present, several pieces having a supernatural quality.

There is something rather supernatural about our eponymous Mr Quin, Mr Harley Quin that is. He appears and disappears at will – and about whom there always seems to be an odd kaleidoscope of coloured light. To his friend Mr Satterthwaite; it would seem as if Mr Quin is always a harbinger of either death or love.

The collection opens with The Coming of Mr Quin, in which Mr Satterthwaite meets the enigmatic Mr Quin for the first time. It is New Year’s Eve, and Mr Satterthwaite is part of a country house party. As midnight approaches, he senses that there is drama in the air, perhaps even danger. There was a tragedy in the house several years before, and the occasion gives rise to talk about the man who had once owned the house and who was known to several of the people gathered there. Unexpectedly there is a knock at the door – and a stranger enters the fray. Mr Quin (his car broken down outside) is welcomed in and is drawn into the discussion about the tragedy – and what really did happen. Mr Quin doesn’t so much investigate the past – as help those who were there, to understand what happened – seeing things with a new perspective.

“The longer the time that has elapsed, the more things fall into proportion. One sees them in their true relationship to one another.”

This becomes a familiar storytelling device throughout this collection. Mr Quinn encourages Mr Satterthwaite and others to examine what they already know to unravel the truth of past mysteries. Mr Satterthwaite is an elderly man with an interest in people, he is fascinated by Mr Quin and with what his presence seems to draw out. In each story we see Mr Satterthwaite wondering about someone or something, and up pops Mr Quin, apparently out of nowhere – and when he appears Mr Satterthwaite knows his instinct about whatever has been bothering him is correct.

In subsequent stories, Mr Satterthwaite meets Mr Quin in all sort of places.  A country inn, with a storm is blowing up, has the landlord and his daughter reminiscing about a strange disappearance locally. He appears at society house parties where Mr Satterthwaite is present. Always there is something in the atmosphere, something between the other people present – or a story from the past that everyone is concerned with. A young wife is found dead with another man. A young man is convicted of a murder that Mr Satterthwaite can’t help but wonder about – and up pops Mr Quin to help him figure it out.

In Monte Carlo he meets a countess at the roulette table – someone Mr Satterthwaite senses is desperate. In another story Mr Satterthwaite meets a man planning to throw himself into the sea. As Mr Satterthwaite becomes drawn into the poor man’s life, he is not surprised to see Mr Quin is also present. In all these stories either death or love – and sometimes both play a part. After a night at the opera in Covent Garden, Mr Satterthwaite and Mr Quin come to the aid of a young woman over whom two men are scuffling. Later, it is Mr Satterthwaite’s quick thinking that is to save her.

Throughout these stories, Agatha Christie dispenses plenty of her own peculiar brand of wisdom.

“You say your life is your own. But can you dare to ignore the chance that you are taking part in a gigantic drama under the orders of a divine Producer? Your cue may not come till the end of the play–it may be totally unimportant, a mere walking-on part, but upon it may hang the issues of the play if you do not give the cue to another player. The whole edifice may crumple. You as you, may not matter to anyone in the world, but you as a person in a particular place may matter unimaginably.”

Mr Satterthwaite is another wonderful Christie character, in the tradition of Poirot and Marple. He is, we are told a rather elf like figure – something of a snob, he enjoys the company of the wealthy and titled, friendships he is quite proud of – but has little patience for the new breed of young person. He has a very discerning palate and spends part of each year in the South of France.  Despite the title, Mr Quin is not the main character, it is Mr Satterthwaite who is the main focus, the driving force behind the tales of tragedy, romance, and death.

The Mysterious Mr. Quin is a wonderfully entertaining collection, plenty of spine tingling content – I particularly love that device of delving into the past.

This was a fabulous read for the 1930 club, we can always rely on Dame Agatha to deliver a great weekend read.

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There is always great comfort in returning to the familiar voice of a favourite author. Nina Bawden is a writer I have come to love as an adult – she was the author of one of my favourite children’s books too; Carrie’s War. Despite being remembered by many as primarily a children’s writer, she did in fact write more books for adults. I snapped up this copy of Anna Apparent when I was book shopping in London recently with Karen and Jacqui. The opening returns us to that world of Carrie’s War – a station platform thronged with people leaving the city – children being evacuated, it’s a typically good Bawden opening, she has a way of grabbing her reader’s attention immediately.

“One autumn evening in 1940, when she was four years old, Annie-May Gates passed within a yard of her future husband, her future mother-in-law, and neither of them noticed her.”  

In this novel Bawden considers the question of nature versus nurture and the effects of childhood trauma. Who exactly is Anna? The carefully nurtured daughter of an adoptive mother, the younger second wife of Giles, casual lover to Daniel? While she is all of these things in time, she is also an individual. Anna’s view of herself is disrupted in the wake of a tragedy. This much we learn in a very brief prologue. We are all products of our upbringing and environments, and to understand Anna, Bawden first takes us back to her childhood, and introduces us to the people who surround her.

At the beginning of the war, Crystal Golightly is in her late thirties, saying goodbye to her eighteen year old son. Crystal is leaving London to live with her mother in the country, her son will soon be joining his unit. Crystal is a rather smug, self-satisfied woman, beautiful and self-regarding the war upsets the rhythm of her life, her husband Basil in London, her son overseas, being back in her difficult mother’s home is less than satisfying.

Little Annie-May, who Crystal and her son Giles passed unknowingly in the station, has been evacuated to the village where Crystal is living with her mother. She and her young, unmarried mother end up on a local farm, the old farmer takes to them, and shows them nothing but kindness. However, when Annie-May’s mother goes back to London for a visit, she is never heard of again, and it is presumed she has been killed in the blitz. The Owen family at the farm, decide to keep Annie-May despite this, but when old Owen dies, his son and daughter don’t care for Annie-May properly, are both neglectful and abusive. When Annie-May has been living at the farm for two or three years, miserable and almost invisible, Crystal meets her in the village shop, struggling to get her words out, having developed a crippling stammer. Crystal is drawn into the world of Annie-May – who isn’t the most appealing little girl at this point – and is horrified when she discovers how the child has been living. 

Crystal takes on the responsibility for Annie-May, and when the war is over, she adopts her. Her son doesn’t need her anymore, and her marriage ended during the war, Annie-May, now called Anna, becomes her whole focus. Anna is devoted to Crystal, and as she grows, she seems to be cast more and more in Crystal’s image. Giles – never really much of a brother figure in Anna’s life – returned from the war with Tottie, who he met when he was liberating Belsen, just ten days after Tottie had arrived there. Tottie has a story she tells about the camps, and in time has shaken off the realities of the horrors she encountered more than the people around her, who are frequently embarrassed by them, terrified of saying the wrong thing. Giles is haunted by what he himself might have been forced to become, had he been born in a different place.

“How could he be sure that in their position he would have behaved differently? Oh, he wasn’t a sadist, a pervert, but he wasn’t a natural martyr either. For every monster, there were hundreds of ordinary men who had simply carried out orders. Ordinary, frightened men with wives and families – what else could they do? Become victims themselves? What would he have done? Could he really sit here, in comfort, hand on heart, and swear he would not have behaved as they did?”

When Giles’ marriage to Tottie ends he marries Anna, fourteen years his junior and his mother’s adoptive daughter. They settle into comfortable middle class domesticity, similar to the type of marriage Giles’ mother once had.

Anna is more than just Giles’ wife, more than a mother to two boys at boarding school – Anna is also the child who Crystal discovered tied up in a barn. There comes a time, when Anna must start to acknowledge – at least to herself who she really is.

Bawden’s exploration of Anna and the flawed people around her is as good as ever, and while this is not her best novel, it is still a good, involving read, offering some sharply observed character studies.

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With thanks to the Publisher for the review copy

This is a (very slightly edited) repeat of a post from just over five years ago. Lovely Turnpike books sent me this new edition of Tea at Four o’clock, which matches perfectly my other McNeill editions. I first read this one in a Virago Modern Classic, and it remains my favourite of all the Janet McNeill novels I have read.

Tea at Four o’clock is a psychologically astute novel of family tyranny and dominance, the title deliberately misleading with its connotations of cosiness. Set in the author’s native Belfast it is the story of a woman’s cautious attempt to reclaim the life she sacrificed to her exacting family.

Now middle aged, Laura Percival has spent her life at the Percival family mansion Marathon, in thrall to first her father, and later her elder sister Mildred. Laura and Mildred’s brother George, having incurred his father’s wrath left the family home twenty years earlier, never to return. Having nursed the bullying Mildred for the last few years, Laura is left bewildered in her sudden freedom when Mildred dies. Mildred was a woman who demanded that tea should be served at precisely four o’clock each day, that the plants should be watered each Thursday, she exacted a disabling obedience from Laura. On the day of Mildred’s funeral, Laura takes a small amount of pride in the Rev McClintock’s words of praise, in her “…exemplary devotion (who) did not spare herself in the long months of nursing”

Living temporarily at Marathon with Laura is Miss Parks, a strident figure once Mildred’s teacher, who had moved in to help, quickly making herself indispensable and now has little intention of moving back to her bedsitting room on the other side of Belfast. Miss Parks, showing a convenient devotion to the memory of Mildred and her habits sets out to continue the management of Laura. She has not reckoned however, on the reappearance of George Percival on the very day that Mildred is laid to rest.

“George’s memories of his home had been dominated so strongly, and for so long, first by his father and then by Mildred, that he had thought little of Laura during his years of absence. Any picture he had of her was of a quiet child who in her obedience to her father’s or Mildred’s bidding had seemed to accomplish much more than George ever had by his flouting of it.”

George has been living in another part of Belfast, in a smaller kind of house altogether, his wife Amy (who he believes to be rather common) and their daughter Kathie have never met George’s sisters, and have naturally always had an enormous curiosity about Marathon and its inhabitants. Having spotted the announcement of Mildred’s death in the newspaper, Amy persuades him to go to the house and attend the funeral; George arrives just in time to see the funeral cars leave the house. George decides to reacquaint himself with the sister who is left alone in the old family house. George’s motives are suspected by both the reader and the family solicitor Mr McAlister, who has his own designs on Laura. George is not easily repulsed, and to the extreme irritation of Miss Parks spends a lot of time over the next few days with Laura.

In trying to reclaim the life she has given to others, Laura must confront and understand the past, the part she and others played in the consequences which resulted from her one aborted bid for independence. McNeill’s masterly at slowly revealing the truth of both the past and the present, and ultimately Laura cannot help but be seen as having been complicit in her own oppression.

“During Mildred’s illness the hour after lunch had always been treasured, an oasis, a withdrawal into herself, a renewal of courage while the invalid rested. Now the necessity of idleness confronted Laura and became a weight, a terror. What was there for her to do? She glanced through the newspaper, reading the words, but understanding little of what she read. At last, in an agony of loneliness she went down the passageway into the kitchen.”

Told in flashback, we see Laura as a young woman, an art student, who meets Tom, a friend of George’s in her art class. Forever after, Laura is haunted by the ambiguity of the words he spoke to her once twenty years earlier, “I never told you I loved you.” Now Tom is dead, having gone to America and married the first woman he met, his son another young artist is visiting Belfast, and Laura hurries along to meet him. George would like to move his family into Marathon and begins to think he too can manage Laura; however, Laura turns out to be not quite so easily managed. The novel ends spectacularly with McNeill gently twisting the knife just one last time.

This new edition of Tea at Four o’clock is published on October 18th.  I also recommend her other novels re-issued by Turnpike books.

The Small Widow

As Strangers Here

The Maiden Dinosaur

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I have loved everything by E H Young that I have read, and continually wonder why she has not been re-issued since many of her novels were brought back by Virago in the 1980s. Moor Fires was not one of the novels Virago published then, probably because it is quite different to those novels they did. It has a different tone – the characters behaving in ways we would find a bit peculiar now. There is something slightly Hardy-esque to the writing in Moor Fires, an old fashioned story-telling – but I have no problem with either of those things. E H Young’s writing is still very good, and many of the themes she would return to in later novels are present too – overshadowed perhaps by a dramatic romanticism that I don’t usually associate with her. I knew before hand it was different to the E H Young books I had already read; I was prepared for something different and that perhaps helped me enjoy it more.

Moor Fires was first published in 1916 – the third of Edith Hilda Young’s novels. Those novels she was perhaps better known for – and were later re-issued by Virago were published between 1922 and 1947. Those novels are definitely stronger, in terms of character development and in the themes she explores so deftly throughout her work. I suspect that the tone of Moor Fires reflects the times in which it was created – perhaps a time when some people wanted to look to the past, be taken away from the horrors of the daily news reports – we all know how that feels.

The novel set on a stretch of wild moorland, where twin sisters Helen and Miriam Caniper live with their stepmother; Notya and their two brothers.

The sisters are twenty as the novel opens, and clearly very different. Helen is a domestic being, she loves her home and the moorland and has no wish to be anywhere else.

“For Helen, all trees were people in another shape and she could not remember a time when these had not been her friends, but now they seemed not to care, and she started up in the sudden suspicion that nothing cared, that perhaps the great world of earth and sky and growing things had lives as absorbing and more selfish than her own.”

Miriam longs to escape, she enjoys nothing more than to torment the young men who come in her way, proud of her looks and quick to make fun of others.

Zebedee Mackenzie is a young doctor returned to the moor after three years away to take over his father’s practice. Both Miriam and Helen have been looking forward to their first sight of Zebedee, and it is Helen who meets him first, while she is out on the moor looking for the moor fires that are lit at Easter time.

The Caniper family live in a house called Pinderwell House, named after the man who lived there before. The sisters have inhabited the house with the ghosts of past residents. The bedrooms named Jane, Pheobe and Christopher, the names, the sisters have decided, of the children poor Mr Pinderwell never had with his young wife who died so tragically young. The family deserted by their father have lived here for sixteen years.

Over the coming months, Helen spends more and more time with Zebedee and is soon in love with him, a feeling he returns.

“…now she descried dimly the truth she was one day to see in the full light, that there is no gain without loss and no loss without gain, that things are divinely balanced, though man may sometimes through his clumsy weight into the scale. Yet under these serious thoughts there was a song in her heart and her pleasure in its music shone out of her eyes…”

Miriam meanwhile is tormenting the life out of local farmer George Halkett. Miriam has no intention of becoming romantically involved with George, the sisters grew up with him on the moor, though he is a rough, unsophisticated man, brought up by a difficult and temperamental father. Miriam is waiting for the arrival of Notya’s brother – Uncle Alfred – hoping to persuade him to take her away to London.

Zebedee and Helen enter into a kind of secret engagement – Notya is ill, and Zebedee also ill with some kind of respiratory illness is forced to go away to get better. Helen wears his ring under her clothes and no one else knows how far things have progressed with them. Miriam continues her teasing of George – driving him to contemplate sexual violence.

It is Helen who stops him, coming upon him poised to strike, her sister insensible on the floor – she talks him down. We’re clearly supposed to understand that George is not a monster – but has merely been driven to such lengths by a silly woman (hmmm, I have a few problems with this – but ok – Miriam is really very silly). George is beside himself with fury – but in that moment he recognises in Helen something he has always loved. In order to save her sister from his base intentions, Helen does the only thing she feels she can. She promises to marry him. Well of course she does.

“The front door stood open, and she passed through it, but she did not go beyond the gate. The moor was changelessly her friend, yet George was on it, and perhaps he, too, called it by that name. She was jealous that he should, and she did not like to think that the earth under her feet stretched to the earth under his, that the same sky covered them, that they were fed by the same air; yet this was not on account of any enmity, but because the immaterial distance between them was so great that a material union mocked it.”

Helen is keen to get Miriam away and contacts Uncle Alfred to help – meanwhile she is caring for Notya and carrying around more than one secret. Zebedee is due to return soon, and George is never far away.

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot – but modern readers will find Helen’s actions inexplicable – she loves Zebedee, but she has lots of sympathy for George, she recognises his frailties and feels she needs to help him. The ending is extraordinary – and very memorable. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed Moor Fires, it’s not one to start with, but for readers who are already fans of Young – it’s worth tracking down.

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Margaret Millar was an American-Canadian mystery writer who I had never heard of until I read about her on Canadian blogger Buried in Print’s site. Vanish in an Instant is my first book by her. She was a prolific writer – and was awarded the Edgar Allan Poe best novel award for one of her later novels.

I’m not always a fan of that American hard-boiled style that writers like Raymond Chandler employ – and although there is an element of that style here it is definitely softened. Margaret Millar’s characters are explored with some depth I think and there is some nice descriptions which make her more readable for me than a writer like Chandler, who I didn’t engage with.

Set in a small Michigan town in winter, with snow lying thickly and the first of the Christmas lights going up, Vanish in an Instant, concerns the death of a well known local lothario. Claude Margolis has been stabbed several times in the neck and was found dead in the cottage where he takes his lady friends. Virginia Barkeley; the spoiled young wife of a local doctor, has been arrested for the crime, she was found wandering nearby covered in the victim’s blood, and local gossip casts her as Margolis’ latest conquest.

“Mrs Hamilton’s face looked crushed, like paper in a fist. ‘Why didn’t someone tell me? Virginia wrote to me, Carney wrote. No one said anything. I though things were going well, that Virginia had settled down with you and was happy, that she was finally happy. Now I find out I’ve been deceived. She didn’t settle down. She’s been running around with married me, getting drunk. Behaving like a cheap tart. And now this, this final disgrace. I just don’t know what to do, what to think.’”

As the novel opens, Virginia’s mother Mrs Hamilton and her companion Alice have arrived from California to deal with the unexpected crisis. Mrs Hamilton is clearly aware that Virginia can be, what she calls difficult – but she is keen to manage the situation, and if necessary, throw money at it. She hires cynical local lawyer Eric Meecham to help get her daughter out of jail. Meecham goes straight down to the police station to see her. Here he finds Virginia, cross and uncooperative, but having borrowed a lipstick from one of the guards. She doesn’t seem too clear on what happened that night – and with mounting evidence against her Meecham isn’t sure what he will be able to do.

“Virginia was sitting on her narrow cot reading, or pretending to read, a magazine. She was wearing the yellow wool dress and brown sandals that Meecham had brought to her the previous afternoon, and her black hair was brushed carefully back from her high forehead. She had used Miss Jennings’ lipstick to advantage, painting her mouth fuller and wider than it actually was. In the light of the single overhead bulb her flesh looked smooth and cold as marble. Meecham found it impossible to imagine what emotions she was feeling, or what was going on behind her remote and beautiful eyes.”

Later, a man intercepts Meecham outside the house Virginia shared with her husband and admits that it was in fact he who killed Claude Margolis. The admission seems too good to be true – but Earl Duane Loftus tells a believable story – and is able to back it up with evidence. Virginia is freed to return home, and Meecham is free to walk away from the case – and yet something stops him. Although not representing Loftus Meecham becomes drawn further into the world of Loftus, meeting his landlady and her husband, his alcoholic mother and her bickering landlords. Loftus is a sad character, and it seems as if Meecham wants to know what has driven him to act as he has. He is a tenacious character, he simply can’t stop asking questions, he worries that perhaps Loftus has been paid to admit to something he didn’t do. Meecham is a rather world weary character a bit jaundiced by the world he has lived in – but there is hope for him perhaps, as he catches the eye of Alice – young and untarnished – but could they possibly be happy?

I’m keeping this review a bit shorter than usual, as I am worried about unintentionally including spoilers. Margaret Millar’s storytelling is a bit of a slow burn, but I really enjoyed the atmosphere of this small town in deep winter. Millar explores her characters well, they are people who are ill, lonely or unhappy – and the worlds they inhabit aren’t always comfortable.

I am sure that I will read Margaret Millar again following this fully satisfying read that is full of unexpected surprises.

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With thanks to the publisher for the review copy

The Secret Life of Books is another in a long line of attractive tomes produced to woo all us book lovers who love reading about the things we love to read. Preaching to the choir? Oh absolutely, but that’s no bad thing. Tom Mole brings his own ideas to the genre and there are some lovely personal anecdotes here too – including an insight into his young daughter’s adorable book group. There is also a rather surprising story about Philip Larkin and an Iris Murdoch book.

“I realised that you couldn’t talk about the book as an object without also talking about the things that people did with books. Reading was one of those things, of course, and people’s reading left their own traces on books. But reading was only one of the things that people did with books, and not always the most important.”

Well… I still think the reading of the books is the most important, but yes, when you think about it, we do, do a lot of other things with books. We buy them, collect them, give them away, deface them, talk about them, socialise around them, take them on holiday, arrange them on bookcases. This book is a celebration of all the things we do with books and more besides – as it also traces the history of how those things we do with books came about.

Looking at the subtitle; Why they Mean More than Words we see the author’s intention in this book is to explore the physical book, rather than what they contain. I found this a very interesting way to approach a book about books. The book is broken up into eight chapters, and between each pair of chapters is an interlude that celebrates a piece of artwork featuring books.

What emerges is a thorough exploration of books as objects, from the early scrolls and codex through to the leather bound first edition that would cost a small fortune to own today, to the cheap second hand paperback sporting coffee stains and inscriptions and on to the e-book. Mole suggests how books can reveal something of the status and wealth of the owner (think those very expensive first editions). There are often so many different editions of the same book – the contents are the same yet the physical object very different and what they mean to the owner can also be different. We leave something of ourselves behind in these books too as the author discusses – food stains, jottings – a bookmark where we stopped reading and never went back. We also take a great pride in the way we display our books. The author also suggests that the books we choose to put on our bookshelves tells us something about who we think we are. Oh, and don’t we all love looking at people’s shelves?

“A library is an argument. An argument about who’s in and who’s out, about what kinds of things belong together, about what’s more important and what’s less so. The books that we choose to keep, the ones that we display most prominently, and the ones that we shelve together make an implicit claim about what we value and how we perceive the world.”

The author understands the physical relationship we have with our books. He remembers an old Benjamin Disraeli book he has which had survived long years without being read, Mole had to cut the pages himself in order to read it. When we are searching a book for a favourite passage, we use nonverbal clues to help us – our memory of the physical book itself, the place on the page, how far through the book it was – this isn’t something we can do with an audio or digital book.

Something that resonated with me is how keeping a book previously read on our shelves somehow keeps it alive – something of that book is retained in our memory. Personally, I look at my bookshelves as places filled with old friends.

“Even if we can’t recall most of what we’ve read, the presence of the books serves as an aide-memoire, a reassuring sign that not everything we’ve read is lost. Books on the shelves are sandbags stacked against the floodwaters of forgetting.”

The author considers how technological developments are changing the way we read, and therefore our relationship both with books and the way we share them. Once it might have been wing backed chairs that gave a reader a small amount of privacy, shielding them as they lost themselves in a book, today it could be noise cancelling headphones that help to cut us off from the world around us. The author clearly understands the benefits of e-books – but warns how these technologies can also prove problematic, reminding us how e-readers have built in obsolescence, and how files stored on old devices can suddenly become difficult to access.

The Secret Life of Books contains lots of fascinating little nuggets of information with lots of historical facts I didn’t know, an exploration of books as objects is an interesting take on the book about books. The author’s enthusiasm for books is infectious, and this is a treasure trove for book lovers.

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I really had wanted to review this one a little earlier in the week, but I am struggling a little to keep up with the blog. I’ll still be here – but the gaps between posts might get a bit wider some weeks, I’m so thoroughly exhausted all the time at the moment.

Needing something of a diverting but comforting nature last weekend, I turned once again to my pile of Dean Street Press books. I have quite a few to choose from and having enjoyed so many books set during the Second World War, I was drawn to Wine of Honour because it is set in the early months of peace.

The war had been so disruptive to normal life – people were spread across the globe – separated from their loved ones sometimes for years, put into uniform and given completely new roles. Suddenly, that all came to an end, and for some people it wasn’t quite the celebration it should have been. Those who had felt purposeful and busy, or enjoyed being defined by a role or a uniform, found themselves thrust back into their pre-war tedium, several years older and no better for it.

“I wonder how many women today are back in their pre-war ruts. For how many was the war merely a temporary disarrangement and for how many others has it meant complete re-adjustment, an entirely new set of circumstances? This is a stupid thought for me to have when, even in my own case, I don’t know the answer.”

The story is told from several perspectives. Part of it is the first person narration of Helen Townsend – the rest of the novel told in the third person. Helen and her neighbour Laura Watson are friends who don’t have that much in common, they became close while serving together in the ATS. Now they are both back in their village of Kirton, out of uniform and feeling like strangers in their own village. Helen is married to the local doctor Gyp who has been away in the East for five years. However, she has spent much of the war – serving in various places – with her lover Brian Gurney – who is also from the village. Gyp is due back at any moment and Brian wants Helen just to go away with him.

Laura has returned to normal life quite reluctantly but with a grim resignation. Trapped at home with her domineering father – who is very grumpy and disagreeable and doesn’t care at all for how his daughter feels. Laura had loved the ATS – she is already beginning to live on the memories of the past few years, and Helen recognises that Laura will continue to do this – and that as time goes on her memories will only sharpen. Helen feels a little awkward around Laura now, as she thinks she may have an inkling about her and Brian but really isn’t sure. They have not become the kind of friends who confide such things to one another.

Helen’s lover Brian is the younger son of Sir James and Lady Gurney, his sister married a Polish officer and was soon widowed with a child, his elder brother who joined up by pretending he was younger than he was is now nearing forty and has nothing to do. While Lady Gurney is worried about her eldest son her husband is worried about their finances – living at Kirton Manor is starting to seem it may no longer be an option. Angela Worthing a woman determined to carve out a career for herself in this brand new peace, draws close to Peter, and tries to help him.

The Cobb family run the local pub – and the war has changed them too. The daughter Lily came home from the WAAF pregnant, her fiancé killed before he could marry her. The Cobbs welcomed their daughter home with nothing but pride – she has been a wonderful help to her father behind the bar. Their son, Dick has come home damaged from the war – badly injured at the moment he was given a captaincy – he is struggling to hold down a job and be a good husband and father.

Mary Cross who lost her husband in the First World War, is mother to an RAF pilot, she spent her life trying to be both mother and father to her son. Now she writes an agony column in a national magazine.

While most of the novel takes place in the village – we also pay a few fleeting visits to London, where we learn the BBC is so longer wearing its wartime camouflage – and the streets are full of damaged buildings and scaffolding.

“She walked round by Lansdowne Place where, since May 1941, they’d been patching up the blitzed corner. She noticed, with methodical satisfaction, that yet another gleaming yellow brick building was nearing completion. You could date the devastation and the rate of repair from the lighter brick walls down to the grey black of the house on the Guilford Street corner.

Yes, spring was certainly here. The ladies of Guilford Street had discarded their utility furs for brighter and shorter jackets. Pale sunshine gleamed on the darkening partings of bleached heads. They are feeling the draught, poor dears, Angela thought, and noted the complete absence of American uniforms from the street scene. That was the big transformation—apart from spring and scaffolding—there were no Americans.”

Wine of Honour is fascinating for how it shines a light on one fairly short period of time – those first months of peace in 1945. Wives had to learn to live with husbands again, wind back the clock several years, remember who it was they had once loved so much.

“It went on and on and, quite suddenly, Laura felt desperately tired. Everybody but herself was married or doing something interesting. Only she was left out and lonely. She could have wept for the years snatched from her life. Years of hard work and happiness and the promise of something exciting just ahead. A lovely phase of her life which peace had cut short, leaving her instead just those number of years older.”

Parents had to learn how to live with the altered people their adult children had become, and those children had to reconcile the fact that the best years of their lives were in the past, and all they had ahead was middle age. Society had changed – and everyone had to find their new place in it. Change is always interesting for the way people handle it and Barbara Beauchamp has tapped into this perfectly. Wine of Honour is a lovely, highly readable novel – and I zipped through it.

(A small warning for those reading this edition, there are a few typos – names being mixed up. Maggie Cobb became Mary at one point and Lady G, Laura – I got momentarily confused, this issue might have been fixed in the digital version.)

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