Forest Silver by E.M. Ward – British Library

Forest Silver by E.M. Ward (Edith Marjorie) was first published in 1941 but it has just been reprinted by British Library as part of their British Library Women Writers series. I was sent a copy of the book by British Library for review.

The setting for the book is the Lake District, around the Grasmere area, quite early on in World War 2. The area has a lot of new people in it now as the bombing in cities has led to people looking for a safer place to live. But Wing-Commander Richard Blunt is there because he has been invalided out of the R.A.F. He had been badly wounded in an incident which had gained him the Victoria Cross, but had been left with a weak heart and a limp after his convalesence. He immerses himself in the history of the estate.

Corys de Bainriggs is now the owner of her family estate since the death of her grandfather. He had decided to skip a generation when writing his will, presumably he didn’t trust his daughter and wife with the running of the estate. Bonfire Hall is the name of the ‘big house’ and Corys loves every bit of the land surrounding it. She has been offered a lot of money by two of the new inhabitants, they each want a plot of her land to build a house on, but she’s determined to see off all such temptations. But when one of the old houses is burnt down the old man who had lived in it takes to sleeping outdoors Corys is so worried about him she makes a decision she comes to regret bitterly.

This is a great read, I hadn’t even heard of E.M. Ward before being sent this book. Her writing is lovely, she obviously loved the Lake District deeply, but her prose just lands on the right side of being purple. Corys is a bit of a tomboy, she’s described as being a bit immature because she wears shorts and doesn’t care about her looks, she even has brown skin at a time when having a tan wasn’t fashionable. When Corys rather fancies the looks of one of the male evacuees she begins to smarten up her appearance to try to attract his attention, she’s copying the behaviour of some of the young female evacuees, it all makes her seem authentic. An ungrateful old man is particularly recognisable.

Luckily I do know the Grasmere area, and for me that always adds to the enjoyment of a book, when I can see the landscape.

Thank you to British Library for providing me with a copy of the book. I hope that some more of her novels will be reprinted in the future.


Suddenly at His Residence by Christianna Brand

Suddenly at His Residence by Christianna Brand was first published in 1946 but it was reprinted by British Library in 2023. It’s an Inspector Cockrill mystery. It’s subtitled A Mystery in Kent, but really it could have been anywhere in the south of England. In Americal this book is titled The Crooked Wreath.

The setting is Swanswater Manor, a large house owned by Sir Richard March. As World War 2 is still ongoing the manor is fuller than usual, Sir Richard’s family has gathered together, including his grandchildren. After the death of his wife Serafita Sir Richard had married his long-term mistress Bella, who had had a daughter by him, and she had had a son Edward. He’s an attention seeker and has concocted mental health issues which might come back to bite him.

The whole manor house is a shrine to the first wife Serafita, there are portraits of her everywhere, and small tables with her ballet shoes and other personal things on show, it’s a cross that Bella has to bear.  Sir Richard is cantankerous and uses his wealth to manipulate his family, he’s always changing his will, despite the fact that he has a weak heart and could pop off at any time.

This is an enjoyable classic country house mystery, although I did guess who the culprit was, but not too early on.

There’s an interesting introduction by Martin Edwards.

Yours Cheerfully by A.J. Pearce

Yours Cheerfully by A.J. Pearce which was published in 2002 is a sequel to Dear Mrs Bird, you can read my thoughts on that one here.

With the departure of the ghastly Mrs Bird at the end of the last book things at work in the offices of the magazine Woman’s Friend are improving hugely for Emmeline Lake. She can now reply to the problems page letters as she would like to instead of going behind Mrs Bird’s back.

The bombing of London has eased up somewhat, but Emmy’s best friend Bunty is still carrying the scars both physically and mentally from her experiences.

The government is starting a campaign to get women into the wartime factories to do their bit, the Ministry of Information want the women’s magazines to promote the idea, but those women who are already working in factories are having a tough time of it. Although the government realises that nurseries are needed to let the mothers of young children get back to work, the men who run the factories have no intention of changing anything, in fact they’re sacking women if they have childcare problems. Of course the women aren’t even being paid the same as men for doing the same jobs! Emmy gets involved.

This is a really enjoyable read with the relationships between the women of varied classes being to the fore, with no snobbery involved. The author did plenty of research to get the nitty gritty details of wartime Britain, including the fact that wives first realised that their husbands were either dead or missing when his army pay was stopped and they got no money! This happened several times to my father when the merchant ships he was on were torpedoed. No ship, no pay, but I suppose he was just glad to be picked up by another ship. I used to work with a woman who got a telegram saying her husband was missing and after six months they would begin to pay her her war widow’s pension, but what was she supposed to do for money for those six months?! The day before those six months were up she got a postcard from Italy from her husband who was a prisoner of war there!

My mother was of that WW2  generation and she worked in a factory sewing military uniforms, but that was before she was married with children. It was the most memorable time of her life though and every conversation came back to her wartime experiences. This book feels very authentic and true to the times. I’m looking forward to reading the next one in the series which is called Mrs Porter Calling.

Dear Mrs Bird by A.J. Pearce

Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce was very popular when it was first published in 2018 and I tried to borrow it from the library back then – but it never appeared, apparently it was never returned, so when I saw a copy of it in a charity shop a few weeks ago I decided it was coming home with me. Don’t ask me why a WW2 setting is a comfort read for me – it just is. Mind you my mother who was born in the 1920s didn’t read me fairy tales, she told me about wartime experiences, so that probably explains my interest.

The story begins in December 1940 and Emmeline Lake is a secretary in a solicitor’s office, but she dreams of becoming a war correspondent. When she gets an interview at a newspaper she’s absolutely thrilled when she’s offered the job, although she realises that she failed to ask any questions about the work she would be doing. On her first day at her new job she’s mortified to discover that she has given up her good job at the solicitor’s to take work as an office junior on a failing and old-fashioned women’s magazine, the Woman’s Friend.

Mrs Bird is her fearsome boss who thankfully isn’t often in the building as she spends her time doing her ‘war’ work in various organisations. Bur it’s Mrs Bird’s name at the top of the problems page, and readers send their problem letters to her despite it being Emmy who answers them. However Mrs Bird has instructed Emmy to cut up any letters which are ‘unpleasant’. Most of the letters come under that heading because Mrs Bird has such strict views on morality that she regards just about everything as being depraved. Emmy is quite upset about not being able to help the desperate women who are writing in for help, and ends up in trouble with Mrs Byrd.

Along with just about everyone else Emmy was volunteering, doing vital war work in what spare time she had as a telephone operator at the Auxiliary Fire Services, along with her best friend Bunty, it’s a desperate time as it’s the height of the Blitz. As you would expect the war takes a toll on their personal relationships.

This was an enjoyable read although it was a bit predictable at times. I’ll definitely be seeking out the sequels to this one. Interestingly it was apparently the author’s collection of wartime magazines which inspired her to write this – her first book.

Edited to add:
The weirdest thing just happened as just after I published this blogpost I discovered that I actually DID read this book way back in 2018 – but have absolutely no memory of doing so!! Well some books stick longer than others do, but I was so sure that this one had never turned up from the library after I requested it. I still enjoyed it – again.

The Wartime Bookshop by Lesley Eames

I was sent a digital copy of The Wartime Bookshop by Lesley Eames for review – by Netgalley. The book isn’t really my usual fare but the wartime aspect of it attracted me and I did enjoy it. It’s very early on in WW2.

Alice Lovell has moved to the small village of Churchwood with her father who has just retired as a doctor. The village seems to be run by Naomi Harrington, a lady of a certain age who has set herself up as the most inmportant inhabitant – in her mind anyway. Sadly as she has money a lot of the villagers are happy to take their cue from her, as they are afraid of upsetting her.

Alice has had an accident which means that she doesn’t have much use of one of her hands, she’s very self-conscious about it and dreads people looking at it. The only bright spot in her life is Daniel who had been a neighbour before her father had decided to move to the village. She’s in love with him but won’t really even admit the fact to herself, since her recent accident she doesn’t want him to feel he has to marry her.

In an effort to settle into the village she decides to volunteer at the hospital which is beginning to fill up with injured servicemen. Stuck in bed and not even allowed to go to the loo the men are bored stiff. Alice decides to read to them and almost all of them look forward to her and her reading sessions, but there’s a paucity of reading material. Will Mrs Harrington help or hinder?

This book is light entertainment, sometimes just what you need, although it has its fraught moments as you would expect.

I was glad to be sent a copy of this book by the publisher Transworld via NetGalley.
I was however perplexed by a couple of things. For some weird reason every time there was a double ‘f’ in the middle of a word they were missing and sometimes it was the ffs and an l which were missing. So the word different comes out as dierent, and it’s amazing how many words that a’ects!

Also in my usual nit-picking way I noticed that nurses mentioned how thankful they were that they now had antibiotics to use on their patients. However they weren’t available that early on in the war, pre Dunkirk. 1941 is the important date and even then they were not widely available.

Strangers at the Farm School by Josephine Elder

Strangers at the Farm School cover

Strangers at the Farm School by Josephine Elder was first published in 1940 but the setting is September 1938, the new academic year for The Farm School. There are a lot of changes, the school has become very popular and has almost doubled the amount of pupils that they had. The original pupils aren’t too happy about that, and the new people aren’t terribly impressed with the place at all. Most of them are locals but there are also two Jewish refugees from Germany, a brother and sister.

Johanna and Hans have had to leave their parents in Germany, and in recent years they had had a horrible time because of Hitler’s attitude to Jews, people they had formerly thought of as friends had turned against them, and their father is now in a concentration camp. Their mother had managed to get them on a Kindertransport train to England. But Hans in particular isn’t happy about being at the Farm School and he struggles with the lack of rules after the rigidity of what he has been used to in Germany.

Annis is voted head of the school, and Arthur is not happy about it, he thinks the head should be a boy – him.

“I rather think he’ll want watching,” Kitty said. “He’s the sort of person who thinks it’s all wrong for a girl to be in authority over boys. Kicked up a fuss at first because he had to have lessons from mistresses as well as masters, and in his family the girls have to make the boys’ beds for them, and the boys don’t do anything at all in return. There would be some sense in it if they cleaned the girls’ shoes for them, but they don’t, they loll about in a lordly sort of way.”

I think this is my favourite of the three books in this series. Josephine Elder was so forward thinking for the time the book was written in. Thirty years later my mother still thought that education was wasted on daughters because they “ended up pushing a pram anyway”. My brothers were treated like little household gods while I did all the housework! Can you tell I am still bitter about it?!

Anyway, I suppose the subtext of this book is that people shouldn’t be judged too quickly as often they have talents that are unexpected, particularly the teachers.

I was slightly disappointed that at the beginning of the book young Kenneth’s death (in the previous book) is written as being almost a blessing, because he was mentally handicapped. That attitude was rife in Germany at the time with such people being killed in hospitals as they weren’t deemed to be useful in a country which was fashioning itself as the ‘master race’. But I don’t think most people in Britain would have thought like that.

The Gourlay Girls by Margaret Thomson Davis

The Gourlay Girls by the Scottish author Margaret Thomson Davis is the second book in her Clydesiders trilogy which was first published in 2000. The setting is Glasgow and it begins with young Wincey witnessing her grandfather’s death. She’s so shocked by it that she runs out of the house and wanders into a neighbourhood that she doesn’t know. She’s soaking wet and bewildered by the time young Florence Gourlay finds her in the street and takes pity on her and so takes Wincey to her own home where she knows her mother will feed her and sort things out.

The Gourlays live a hand to mouth existence in a two room tenement with three generations, the old Gaanny is a ‘greetin faced’ curmudgeon if ever there was one. Her son the father of the family is out of work like most of the men in the area. It’s the 1930s and work is scarce, so the Gourlay females, the mother and three daughters of the family have been taking in sewing to keep starvation at bay, but one more mouth to feed in the shape of Wincey doesn’t seem to be a problem for the motherly Teresa Gourlay.

Wincey’s own family is wealthy and from Glasgow’s west end, so the poverty stricken east end of Glasgow is a revelation to her, but it isn’t long before Wincey feels well-loved and cherished in her new family. That’s something that she never felt within her own family. A sense of shame and guilt over not helping her grandfather when he was dying leads Wincey to opt to stay with the Gourlays instead of making her way back home, the longer she stays missing the harder it is to go back home.

Margaret Thomson Davis could be described as the Scottish version of Catherine Cookson I think. She tells a good story, but isn’t the best writer. Although I enjoyed this book it annoyed me that the author hadn’t managed to write separate voices for all the females, with Teresa the mother’s voice being particularly anonymous, which is surprising as she was supposed to come from the Highlands originally, there was no sense of a Highland accent or dialect.

Otherwise I enjoyed it. The tale begins in 1932 and goes on to the outbreak of World War 2 and with the help of Wincey the Gourlays’ little business has expanded hugely, but that brings problems too.

I’ll definitely continue with this trilogy, the third book is Clydesiders at War.

The Mystery of the Moated Grange by Angela Brazil

The Mystery of the Moated Grange cover

The Mystery of the Moated Grange by Angela Brazil was published in 1942 and World War 2 does feature in it as the tale opens with the Bevan family enjoying a last hour together before Captain Bevan goes off to rejoin his regiment. Captain Bevan had had a week long leave but he had to spend so much time in London with solicitors that the time had gone so quickly. The upshot of that is that he has inherited an estate from an elderly uncle – if the uncle’s estranged son doesn’t turn up to claim it. It’s thought that the son must be dead.

Maenan Grange is a moated property in rural Herefordshire and it has just been rented out to a boarding school which has been evacuated to the safety of the countryside. The two Bevan girls are enrolled at the school while Mrs Bevan becomes a sort of custodian of the house. It’s an awkward situation for Mrs Bevan and the teachers who really don’t want the owner of the property looking over their shoulders. The older son of the family is sent to a nearby boarding school for boys.

The Bevan children are very impressed with their new home, but they know there’s some sort of mystery surrounding it as they overheard their father saying something was a gamble. The Bevan sisters, Marian and Hilda find it difficult to make friends with the schoolgirls, Marian is particularly aware of her status as the daughter of the owner of the grange, and is a bit stand-offish with the other girls for that reason.

The possibility of the grange being haunted and a hint of lost treasure make this one seem like a cross between an Angela Brazil and an Enid Blyton, but it’s an entertaining light read for pandemic times.

If you fancy having a read at an old-fashioned school story have a look here at the Angela Brazil books available free from Project Gutenberg. This book isn’t available free as it’s one of her later books. She had a very long career which began in 1899 and ended in 1946, she died in 1947.

Listening Valley by D.E. Stevenson

Listening Valley

Just a couple of weeks ago I managed to buy an old copy of Listening Valley by D.E. Stevenson in Edinburgh, sadly it doesn’t have it’s dust jacket though. I can’t say I’m all that keen on the cover of the paperback above, but I suppose it’s better than nothing.

The book begins with the Edinburgh childhood of Louise and Antonia Melville. On the surface they have a very comfortable upbringing, it would seem that money was no problem. But in truth they’re really emotionally neglected children, brought up by the nannie. They both have the same problem – they weren’t born a boy and both parents wanted a boy, particularly their father as his family home was a castle and he wanted to pass it on to a son. In disappointment he ended up selling the castle. Their mother was a bridge fiend and playing bridge seemed to take up all of her time. She was disappointed because she thought of her girls as being very dull compared with other children she met, but as she never took the time to get to know her daughters she had no idea of their real personalities at all.

Inevitably both girls marry young, Tonia marries a man even older than her father is but he’s kind and wealthy and gives her some badly needed confidence, in wartime they move to London and experience the Blitz.

Eventually the action moves back to Scotland where Tonia settles close to what had been her father’s country estate. But the war is still very much in evidence with an airfield very close by. Tonia’s home becomes a meeting place for young airmen who never knew when their number would be up.

I thoroughly enjoyed this one, it has some truly ghastly characters in the shape of sponging relatives, I have a feeling that they crop up from time to time in Stevenson’s books, she must have been bothered by some I think! I bet they never read her books though.

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

I’m still stuck in World War 2 but this time it’s a fictional book, The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton was first published in 1947 and if you enjoy a World War 2 English setting then you’ll love this one.

Miss Roach is a rather lonely woman in her late thirties, she’s a reader at a firm of publishers and like many people she has been bombed out of her home in London so she has taken up home in a suburban boarding house in Thames Lockdon (Henley-on-Thames) and she is having to commute into the city every day by train.

The boarding house is populated by single people all older than Miss Roach, the women are of the genteel variety, but it’s Mr Thwaites who is a thorn in Miss Roach’s flesh. Thwaites is an elderly man who gets his kicks picking on Miss Roach at every opportunity, usually at meal times. He’s a bully and a buffoon and Miss Roach dreads mealtimes, but when an American serviceman comes into her life things seem to look up a bit.

There seems to have been quite a fashion for books with a wartime boarding house setting, I suppose it was a new experience for strangers to be thrown together as they were and as such it was a rich source of copy.

I have a confession to make – this was actually a re-read for me, but it was a long time before I realised that! It seems that I read it way back in 2011 and during this re-read I kept thinking I’m sure this must have been made into a film, because it seems so familiar. But at no point did I think I had already read it – until I got almost right to the end – honestly – what am I like?!

Anyway, I still enjoyed it and if you’re interested in what I said about it in 2011 you can read that post here