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Book review: Seven Days in May by Kim Izzo

13 Jun

kim izzoAs the First World War rages in continental Europe, two New York heiresses, Sydney and Brooke Sinclair, are due to set sail for England. Brooke is engaged to marry impoverished aristocrat Edward Thorpe-Tracey, the future Lord Northbrook, in the wedding of the social calendar. Sydney has other adventures in mind; she is drawn to the burgeoning suffragette movement, which is a constant source of embarrassment to her proper sister. As international tempers flare, the German embassy releases a warning that any ships making the Atlantic crossing are at risk.

Undaunted, Sydney and Brooke board the Lusitania for the seven-day voyage with Edward, not knowing that disaster lies ahead. In London, Isabel Nelson, a young woman grateful to have escaped her blemished reputation in Oxford, has found employment at the British Admiralty in the mysterious Room 40. While she begins as a secretary, it isn t long before her skills in codes and cyphers are called on, and she learns a devastating truth and the true cost of war. As the days of the voyage pass, these four lives collide in a struggle for survival as the Lusitania meets its deadly fate.

I love reading novels that shed light on events and periods of history that I know little about. The sinking of the Lusitania is one such event – I knew very little about the circumstances and theories surrounding the tragedy when I started this novel and I learned a lot from reading it. Kim has certainly done her research and evocatively brings to life both the ship itself and the activities of the British Admiralty in Room 40, some of which are still shrouded in mystery today.

Kim has created three excellent and very different female characters to lead Seven Days In May; Sydney and Brooke are rich American heiresses but as different as two sisters could possibly be. Sydney’s belief and active participation in the suffrage movement contrast sharply with her sister’s desire to be the leading light of New York society and Izzo sets up an excellent friction between the two which plays out throughout the story.

We also meet Isabel Nelson as she takes up a new post, working for the Admiralty in London. Izzo uses Isabel to give us a tantalising glance at the inner workings of the war effort. I’d never heard of Room 40 but have always been fascinated by the code breakers of World War Two and was surprised to learn of this predecessor. Isabel is also hiding her own secret past and this added another layer to the intrigue of the story.

Key issues of the time, particularly women’s rights, are brought to life through Isobel, Sydney and Brooke and this makes Seven Days in May a very readable and even relatable novel. I’ve enjoyed both of Kim’s previous novels but the combination of mystery, social history and the tension of an impending disaster make this my new favourite of her books.

Starting in January 1915, the story moves chronologically, charting the days to that fateful day in May and then following the aftermath of the sinking. Chapters are narrated in turn from  the viewpoints of Sydney, Isabel and Edward – the man Brooke is engaged to and the reason that the sisters are crossing to England. Edward is also an interesting character  who didn’t appeal to me much at first but I warmed to him as the novel progressed.

Building on rich historical detail, Izzo also packs plenty of drama and romance into this story which took me through the full range of emotions. The scenes from the sinking were just heartbreaking and I read with my heart in my mouth waiting to see which of the passengers survived. Seven Days in May is a gripping historical fiction read from Kim Izzo, perfect for fans of Gill Paul and Hazel Gaynor.

4/5

Seven Days in May is released on 15th June in paperback and ebook formats from Harper Collins.

Find out more about Kim and her writing at: http://kimizzo.com/wdp/

I’d like to thank Emma Dowson for providing a review copy of this book.

Book review: Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh

27 May

leopard at the doorStepping off the boat in Mombasa, eighteen-year-old Rachel Fullsmith stands on Kenyan soil for the first time in six years. She has come home.

But when Rachel reaches the family farm at the end of the dusty Rift Valley Road, she finds so much has changed. Her beloved father has moved his new partner and her son into the family home. She hears menacing rumours of Mau Mau violence, and witnesses cruel reprisals by British soldiers. Even Michael, the handsome Kikuyu boy from her childhood, has started to look at her differently.

Isolated and conflicted, Rachel fears for her future. But when home is no longer a place of safety and belonging, where do you go, and who do you turn to?

Leopard at the Door is Jennifer McVeigh’s second novel but the first that I’ve read. Her debut, The Fever Tree was chosen for the Richard and Judy book. I love discovering authors that are new to me and I’m so pleased to have been given the opportunity to read an early copy of this book – it is everything that I look for in an historical fiction read; beautifully described, evocative of another time and place, with a gripping storyline and a strong and interesting female lead.

McVeigh’s descriptions of place in Leopard at the Door are amazing; sights, smells, dress and people are all captured with such richness that I felt transported as I read. I’ve never been to Africa but the excellent scene setting in this novel meant that I didn’t have to work to imagine it and I particularly loved the vistas that McVeigh creates featuring wildlife.

Against this natural beauty, McVeigh sets a story of love, war and division that contrasts sharply. With her lead character Rachel we are given an observer’s insight into events and I loved the way that Rachel’s character was used to give perspective and also represented the divides in the story – it made for gripping reading. The story is shockingly violent in places yet there are also wonderful scenes of gentleness, compassion and love which makes it all the more heartbreaking to read.

As Rachel returns to her father’s farm in Kenya after a six year absence she is also trying to find her place in the world. Sent to England at just 12 following the death of her beloved mother, Rachel is just eighteen when she returns and is still trying to make sense of her fathers’ actions and find her place in the family. But the farm that she returns to is subtly changed from the idyll of her childhood memories and immediately there are tensions in the house.

Charting the violence and horrors of the early 1950s and British Imperialism in Kenya, McVeigh shines a spotlight on a part of history that I know little about making this book much more than just an excellent read. McVeigh brings history alive and I was completely swept up in this story; it’s a must read for fans of Dinah Jefferies and readers who love historical fiction coupled with dramatic settings and love against the odds.

5/5

Leopard at the Door is out now in ebook and audio formats from Penguin. It will be released in paperback on 13th July.

Find out more about Jennifer and her writing at: http://www.jennifermcveigh.com/

I’d like to thank the publisher for sending me a review copy of this book.

Book extract: Island of Secrets by Patricia Wilson

21 May

Today I’m very pleased to share an extract from Patricia Wilson’s new novel, Island of Secrets, with you. After running her own business for twenty years, Patricia took early retirement and moved to the Greek island of Crete. When she dug up a rusted machine gun in her garden, and the inhabitants of her remote mountain village came with local stories of tragedy and triumph, she knew she had to tell their account of what really happened in September 1943, which became Island of Secrets. Patricia now lives on the island of Rhodes where she is researching and writing her second novel.

Island of SecretsThe story started at dawn on the fourteenth of September, 1943 . . .’

All her life, London-born Angelika has been intrigued by her mother’s secret past. Now planning her wedding, she feels she must visit the remote Crete village her mother grew up in.

Angie’s estranged elderly grandmother, Maria, is dying. She welcomes Angie with open arms – it’s time to unburden herself, and tell the story she’ll otherwise take to her grave.

It’s the story of the Nazi occupation of Crete during the Second World War, of horror, of courage and of the lengths to which a mother will go to protect her children. And it’s the story of bitter secrets that broke a family apart, and of three enchanting women who come together to heal wounds that have damaged two generations.

Extract 

The village of Amiras stilled, like a theatre waiting for the curtain to rise. Heat shimmered from the cobbled streets. In front of the kafenion, empty chairs stood in haphazard groups between square tables. Outside the closed supermarket, hessian olive sacks hung over boxes of potatoes and vegetables, protecting them from the fierce Mediterranean light.

A herd of long-haired goats shifted into the shadow of the hilltop chapel. For a few seconds, the dull clatter of their bells broke the peace and quiet of siesta time.

In the lower village, a blue door squeaked open and a wide hipped, middle-aged housewife hurried up the narrow streets. From the shade of a vermillion bougainvillea, a skinny white cat sniffed the air, narrowed its eyes and watched the woman.

Inside one cottage, an elderly couple sat as still and silent as the stone walls. A crucifix hung over a garish icon of Saint George. The martyr seemed distracted from his dragon slaying by an object in the livingroom. A chocolate box overflowed with photographs, letters and mementoes in the centre of a low round table.

The old woman, Maria, reached for a faded picture of Poppy cradling her baby. She studied the image and recalled Poppy’s last words, still fresh in her ears, although decades had passed.

Forget me, Mama. Forget I ever existed.

A shaft of sunlight streamed through the window illuminating Maria’s scarred hands – an ugly reminder of the fire. It took so much time for those wounds to heal.

Her wizened face hardened with a decision.

‘I will write to them, Vassili,’ she said to her husband sitting by the fireplace. ‘Voula can help me.’ She replaced the picture and closed the box. ‘God’s getting impatient, and I’m tired of it all.’ She crossed herself three times and prayer locked her arthritic fingers.

Vassili nodded as though he understood, but passing years had eroded his grief. He dropped his amber worry beads and hobbled to her side.

‘Don’t waste your thoughts on what’s dead and gone, old woman.’ He kissed her forehead.

Despite his words, scenes from the past returned and filled Maria’s head.

‘I can’t forget,’ she whispered, staring at ghosts that crowded into the whitewashed room.

Vassili followed her gaze, unable to see those who haunted her.

Recognising his confusion, Maria wished the spores of old age would moulder her mind too. Regrets were useless now. The time had come for forgiveness and, before she died, Maria hoped to touch the cheek of Poppy’s child.

‘Angelika has a right to know the truth, old man, she’s our granddaughter.’

‘Mama, Papa, your dinner’s here.’ Voula crashed through the doorway, the multi-coloured fly curtain whipping around her faded black dress. She gripped a casserole pot against her belly and grinned, her face a friendly gargoyle.

‘No need to shout, Voula, we’re not deaf,’ Maria said.

Vassili cupped a hand behind his ear. ‘Eh, what’s that? Ah, the food. No chance of any meat I suppose? I’ll be glad when Lent’s over. I can smell the lamb already.’ He shuffled to the kitchen table.

‘Only a few more days until Easter, Papa. I’ve made stuffed peppers. Will you have a glass of Demitri’s wine?’ Voula clattered the dishes and then helped Maria out of the armchair. ‘Anything else?’ she asked, pouring cloudy red krasí into tumblers before serving their meals.

Maria cut open a green pepper, hunched over her plate and sniffed the food.

Voula stopped bustling and watched Maria taste the rice stuffing flavoured with herbs, currants, and pine nuts. When she approved with a nod, Voula took a breath and smiled.

‘I want to write to Poppy and Angelika,’ Maria said flatly.

Voula’s eyes widened. She glanced around the table top and then at Vassili who guzzled his food. ‘Are you sure, Mama?’ She lowered her voice to a whisper. ‘What if it starts up again, the trouble, after all these years? Isn’t it better to forget? We can’t bring back the dead.’

‘No,’ Maria said, her face drawn and thin above the mound of colourful vegetables. ‘I’ve decided.’

***

The next day, Voula asked, ‘How do you want to start the letter, Mama?’ Her pencil poised over a child’s exercise book.

Maria grunted. ‘I’ve thought about it for hours. The beginning is the most difficult part. If it’s not perfect, they’ll screw it up and throw it away. We’ve got one chance at this, Voula. We should address the envelope to Angelika and put both letters in it. Otherwise, I fear her mother might tear it up unopened. Now, let’s see, how shall we begin?’

‘I know, what about: Dear Angelika?’

Maria rolled her eyes. She wondered if her daughter-in-law had lost more of her marbles in sixty-five years than Maria had in ninety. ‘Yes, very good, Voula,’ she snorted. ‘And then?’

Voula lifted and dropped her shoulders, which made her breasts quiver against her belly.

‘Write this then,’ Maria said. ‘I have wanted to send you a letter for a long time. I hoped to see you before I die, but I realise our meeting is unlikely.’

‘Mama!’

‘Oh, face the facts, Voula; I’m on my way out. Let’s get on with the letter before the Angel Gabriel replaces you as my personal assistant.’

Voula scratched her lip and nodded.

‘Now, write this, Voula: Angelika, please tell your mother I have never stopped loving her. Put your arms around her and kiss her from me. Poppy is in my heart. Say that I am sorry. Truly sorry. If I could have changed things, I would.’

‘Mama, how do we know Angelika reads Greek?’

‘We have to trust Poppy will have taught her. Anyway, we can ask Demitri to translate for us. What shall we write next? Perhaps something about Angelika’s father.’ Maria tilted her head to one side. ‘Yeorgo,’ she sighed. ‘Wasn’t he a beautiful man, Voula?’ Silent for a moment, Maria’s eyes glazed. ‘That’s another difficult part. I wonder if Angelika knows.’

Island of Secrets is out now in paperback and ebook formats.

Find out more about Patricia and her writing at: www.pmwilson.net

Book review: The Returning Tide by Liz Fenwick

9 May

returning tideTwo sisters and one betrayal that will carry across generations . . .

In wartime Cornwall, 1943, a story between two sisters begins – the story of Adele and Amelia, and the heart-breaking betrayal that will divide them forever. Decades later, the effects of one reckless act still echo – but how long will it be until their past returns?

The Returning Tide is something a little bit new for Liz Fenwick; her first departure into historical fiction. The novel is a time slip set partly in the present and partly during World War Two. It’s also set across two continents with characters from England and America which adds an extra dimension to the puzzle of how past and present are connected.

Liz’s trademark Cornish and coastal settings are of course breathtakingly present and add beautifully to the poignancy of the story with the natural beauty of England’s coast contrasting sharply with the wartime events of the story. I love wartime historical fiction and I was fascinated by the story that Liz uncovers in The Returning Tide having never given much consideration to coastal defences during the war. The story is all the more striking for being partly based on the recollections of one of Liz Fenwick’s relatives.

In the present we meet Lara who journeys to Cornwall from Cape Cod following the death of her beloved grandfather to find out more about her English family connection and solve the mystery of his final word the name ‘Adele’. In Cornwall Peta is preparing for her wedding which will take place in the family home: Windward. As the preparations play out, her grandmother recalls an earlier wedding and the heartbreak it caused her. As she dwells on the events of the past we go back with her to relive them and I was completely swept up in this story which has romance, adventure and drama. Love, heartbreak and family mysteries woven into it. 

Liz has created a complex and varied plot that kept me guessing as to exactly what had happened between twins Adele and Amelia. Told partly in letters between the two, Liz writes with emotion and I felt like I really was reading history. I part read and part listened to the audio version of this book and it is as beautifully narrated in the audio version as it is written. I do hope Liz decides to write more historical fiction as these were my favourite parts of the book. As past and present come together there is both regret and hope in this bittersweet story and I thoroughly enjoyed reading as the actions of the past and the full truth were finally revealed.

4/5

The Returning Tide is out now in paperback, audio and ebook formats from Orion.

Find out more about Liz and her writing at: http://lizfenwick.com/

I’d like to thank the publisher for sending me a review copy of this book.

 

 

Guest post: Historic houses and the inspiration for Evie’s Ghost by Helen Peters

6 Apr

I’m very excited to welcome Helen Peters to One More Page today to talk about her love of historic houses and how it inspired her beautiful new children’s novel, Evie’s Ghost. Helen grew up on an old-fashioned farm in Sussex, surrounded by family, animals and mud. She spent most of her childhood reading stories and putting on plays in a tumbledown shed that she and her friends turned into a theatre. After university, she became an English and Drama teacher. Helen lives with her husband and children in London, and she can hardly believe that she now gets to call herself a writer. Welcome Helen!

helen petersI have always loved visiting historic houses and imagining myself back to the days when they were properly lived in. And I’ve always envied the present-day staff who get to live in staff apartments in these beautiful places. The idea for Evie’s Ghost came to me when I visited Osterley Park, an incredibly grand eighteenth century palace now owned by the National Trust. I was fascinated to discover that the family who built it had only one child, a daughter, who had eloped, aged seventeen, with a man her parents considered unsuitable. I imagined a twenty-first century girl coming to live in this house because her mother had taken a job there. What if this girl somehow travelled back in time to meet the girl who lived there two hundred years earlier, and became caught up in her elopement plans?

I set the early drafts of Evie’s Ghost at Osterley Park, but Osterley Park is a sparkling, gilded, light-filled Georgian mansion, and I realised that I wanted the house in my book to have an older, ghostlier feel. So I based my fictional Charlbury House on another National Trust property: Chastleton, in Oxfordshire, an extraordinary house that has barely changed in four hundred years. I stayed with my family in the holiday apartment at this spooky Jacobean mansion one misty October half term, when the gardens, with their thick holly hedges and misshapen yew topiary, seemed particularly mysterious and ghost-laden.

Evie finds herself working as a housemaid at Charlbury, and visiting the servants’ quarters of historic houses helped me to imagine the lives of servants in the days before running water and central heating. Petworth and Uppark in Sussex have really well preserved servants’ quarters, with evocative artefacts and archive material that give the visitor a glimpse of servants’ working conditions and duties.

I find handwriting from the past particularly powerful, being so personal and specific. At my very favourite National Trust house, Ightham Mote in Kent, scratched into the glass of an upstairs window are the words, ‘Ann East, April 24 1791’. I’ve visited the house several times, and always wondered who Ann East was and why she scratched her name into that window. And then I read about Hellens Manor, an ancient house in Herefordshire, which has a particularly haunting message scratched into a bedroom windowpane. The message reads: ‘It is a part of virtue to abstain from what we love if it should prove our bane.’ The story goes that a young woman called Hetty Walwyn, who grew up at Hellens Manor in the seventeenth century, eloped with a stable boy. When she was widowed a few years later and returned to Hellens Manor, her family, furious at the disgrace she had brought upon them, imprisoned her for the rest of her life in the room where she scratched this message into the window glass with her diamond ring. According to legend, her ghost still haunts the chamber.

When I read this tragic tale, all the elements of my story finally came together. On her first night in her godmother’s house, Evie finds a message scratched into the glass of her bedroom window. It reads, ‘Sophia Fane, imprisoned here, 27th April 1814’. Evie’s discovery of this message is the beginning of her journey into the past and the story of the girl who scratched those words on her window two hundred years earlier.

Thank you Helen – I love visiting historic houses too – such fab inspiration!

Evie’s Ghost is released today (6th April) by Nosy Crow.

Find out more about Helen and her books at: http://nosycrow.com/contributors/helen-peters/

Repro_Evie'sGhost_cvr.inddEvie couldn’t be angrier with her mother. She’s only gone and got married again and has flown off on honeymoon, sending Evie to stay with a godmother she’s never even met in an old, creaky house in the middle of nowhere. It is all monumentally unfair.

But on the first night, Evie sees a strange, ghostly figure at the window. Spooked, she flees from the room, feeling oddly disembodied as she does so.

Out in the corridor, it’s 1814 and Evie finds herself dressed as a housemaid. She’s certain she’s gone back in time for a reason. A terrible injustice needs to be fixed. But there’s a housekeeper barking orders, a bad-tempered master to avoid, and the chamber pots won’t empty themselves. It’s going to take all Evie’s cunning to fix things in the past so that nothing will break apart in the future…

Guest book review: When My Ship Comes in by Sue Wilsher

5 Apr

My lovely Mum is back today and she’s been reading Sue Wilsher’s debut novel, When My Ship Comes In.

shipKeep the family together, that’s what her old mum always said. Put up and shut up. And that’s what everyone else did around there.

Essex, 1959. Flo earns her money as a scrubber, cleaning the cruise ships and dreaming of a day when she might sail away from her life in the Dwellings, the squalid tenements of Tilbury docks. Then the Blundell family are evicted from their home.

Fred, Flo’s husband, finds work at Monday’s, a utopian factory town. Suddenly, it seems like everything is on the up for Flo Blundell and her children. Even Jeanie, Flo’s sulking teenage daughter, seems to be thawing a little in her shiny new surroundings.

But when Flo’s abusive husband Fred starts drinking again, he jeopardises the family’s chance to escape poverty for good.

Flo is faced with a terrible decision. Must she fight to keep her family together? Or could she strive for the life of her dreams – the kind of life she could have when her ship comes in?

GRIPPING! From the first page!

Sue Wilsher has an amazing ability with words – hauling the reader into this book, warts and all! No feeling is spared just true and real descriptions that have you on the edge of your seat – not because this is a story with an amazing adventure thread or a deceptive dark secret – but because this story is REAL! You live the minute, every minute!

Flo Blundell has awful and desperate decisions to make from the outset of the story, based around Tilbury docks and set in 1959, when folk were still feeling the scars of war but light was beginning to dawn on a better future for some.Flo is very loyal to her family, eight year old Mikey, fifteen year old twins Jeanie and Bab’s and her dear elderly ailing mother who lives in the tenement next door.

Although her husband is a drunkard and treats her aggressively – when he is at home, Flo remains the loyal wife, for she relates to her husband’s dark secrets of the past, and excuses him because, “He can’t help it.” Flo has a secret plan of her own; the Oxo tin in the larder helping to hide her dreams of a better life across the sea, but that is dashed when the contents are needed to deal with a very imminent and demanding problem, which can’t wait.

Cleverly the book switches from the third person to the first person – at first I found this a bit odd and had to do a double take to decide who was relaying events – but then I realised this was a very good tactic, because the person describing events was actually the character who chose to say very little – this was a wonderful way of getting inside someone’s thoughts and actually helping the reader to understand their way of thinking.

One dilemma leads to another and poor Flo has to deal with many dramas and heartbreaks all because of Fred’s inability to control his temper!  Amazingly life seems to turn a corner at this point, but cleverly Sue still has the reader with heart in mouth expecting the worst and then just when you start to relax – Wham! Everything turns upside down again!

Sue’s descriptions are so real that you can smell the smog, taste the grime and feel every punch and kick launched at Flo. Thankfully there are some saviours in this traumatic world and Flo finds friendship and support in the least expected quarters. She never gives up on herself or her family and latterly makes a very brave decision.

Jeanie is the quiet moody twin who seems angry with the world, no matter what – she has her own plans and ambitions and although she has an affinity with her twin, when the time comes to face one of the cruellest decisions, she does so alone. Sue Wilshire has obviously researched her facts and because of my age I could relate to many things that happened, hearing similar stories when growing up and remember well the tin bath in front of the fire!

This isn’t a ‘Happy ever after story’ but it is a heart wrenching and heart-warming story of life in the late fifties and early sixties, for the working classes. A lovely read and I look forward to other volumes from Sue.

5/5

When My Ship Comes In is released in paperback and ebook formats on 6th April by Sphere.

Find out more about Sue Wilsher and her writing at: https://historicalwriters.org/writer/sue-wilsher/

I’d like to thank the publisher for sending us a review copy of this book.

Book review: The Song of the Stork by Stephan Collishaw

14 Mar

song of the storkFifteen-year-old Yael is on the run. The Jewish girl seeks shelter from the Germans on the farm of the village outcast. Aleksei is mute and solitary, but as the brutal winter advances, he reluctantly takes her in and a delicate relationship develops.

As her feelings towards Aleksei change, the war intrudes and Yael is forced to join a Jewish partisan group fighting in the woods.

Torn apart and fighting for her life, The Song of the Stork is Yael’s story of love, hope and survival. It is the story of one woman finding a voice as the voices around her are extinguished.

Having read The Song of the Stork, I can easily see why Stephan Collishaw was selected by the British Council in 2004 as one of the best young British novelists. I found Stephan’s writing beautiful to read even though the events that he describes are horrifying.  At just over two hundred and sixty pages, The Song of the Stork is a short novel but one that had a huge impact on me as I read and a book that I won’t forget easily.

Yael is a fifteen year old Jewish girl on the run from the Nazi soldiers who destroyed her village, separated her from her family and continue to present a very real threat to her life. As war rages around her, Yael does all she can to survive, clinging to the hope that one day she will reunite with her family. Collishaw writes with a readable and honest style that shows all that Yael has to endure.

As a student of history, I studied Nazi Germany in quite a lot of detail and I’m well aware of the horrors of the Holocaust. The Song of the Stork brings those horrors starkly to life yet shows just how strong the human spirit can be. Collishaw has clearly done his research but more than just knowing the historical details of the period, he gets under the skin of his characters and brings them fully to life on the page.

Yael seeks shelter at the farmstead of a local mute boy, Aleksei. I was absolutely captivated as Yael very slowly won Aleksei over and I couldn’t help but be impressed by the way Stephan has written a love story without words between the two main characters showing that even in the darkest of times and most difficult of circumstances, love can grow and hope can flourish.

What struck me particularly whilst reading was how despite the acknowledged horrors of persecution and war, that both still continue. The tension of the story is continually high and the bleakness of Yael’s future broke my heart but despite all of this, I finished the book hopeful. There are many beautiful moments in the story, acts of kindness and small mercies that show human nature at its best.

The Song of the Stork is a surprising and moving historical love story and I’ll definitely be adding Stephan’s previous book to my reading pile. I look forward to reading more from him in future.

5/5

The Song of the Stork is out now in paperback and ebook formats from Legend Press.

I’d like to thank the publisher for providing a review copy of this book.

 

 

Extract and giveaway! The Wedding Girls by Kate Thompson

3 Mar

Today I’m delighted to be first stop on the blog tour for Kate Thompson’s new novel, The Wedding Girls which is published on 9th March by Pan Macmillan. Kate is a journalist with twenty years’ experience as a writer for the broadsheets and women’s weekly magazines. She is now freelance and, as well as writing for newspapers, she’s a seasoned ghostwriter. The Wedding Girls is her third novel, following the Sunday Times bestseller Secrets of the Singer Girls and The Secrets of the Sewing Bee. You can find out more about Kate and her books at: http://www.katethompsonmedia.co.uk/

Read on for an extract from the book and the chance to win one of five copies!

The wedding girlsIf a wedding marks the first day of the rest of your life, then the story starts with the dress.

It’s 1936 and the streets of London’s East End are grimy and brutal, but in one corner of Bethnal Green it is forever Hollywood . . .

Herbie Taylor’s photography studio is nestled in the heart of bustling Green Street. Tomboy Stella and troubled Winnie work in Herbie’s studio; their best friend and hopeless romantic Kitty works next door as an apprentice dressmaker. All life passes through the studio, wishing to capture that perfect moment in time.

Kitty works tirelessly to create magical bridal gowns, but with each stitch she wonders if she’ll ever get a chance to wear a white dress. Stella and Winnie sprinkle a dusting of Hollywood glamour over happy newly-weds, but secretly dream of escaping the East End . . .

Community is strong on Green Street, but can it stand the ultimate test? As clouds of war brew on the horizon, danger looms over the East End. Will the Wedding Girls find their happy ever afters, before it’s too late?

Extract

Prologue

18 january 1933

St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, London

A fine frost covered the churchyard in a glittering blanket of silver as the first flecks of snow began to drift from an ivory sky.

To some, January might have been a queer month in which to tie the knot, but to Kitty Moloney it was perfect.

Married when the year is new, he’ll be loving, kind and true, or so went the old rhyme. The bride, Miss Nancy Beaton, would enter the church, but she would emerge, quite transformed, as Lady Smiley, wife of Sir Hugh Smiley, a Grenadier Guards officer and baronet. There was something irresistibly romantic about starting the New Year with a new name, especially one as grand as that, Kitty thought.

Stamping her frozen feet on the flagstones to keep out the cold, she tried her hardest to nudge her way to the front of the crowd for a better view, but it was impossible. Everyone loved a wedding, and no one could resist the sight of a bride, especially a well-known society one such as Nancy.

Kitty was hemmed in on all sides by stout matrons in damp wool coats, all clamouring for the best spot from which to view the bride enter the church.

A whiskered constable was holding back the crowds, a disapproving figure in black, his cloak spread wide like a bat, with the Palace of Westminster arching up into the skies over his helmet.

‘Mind yourself, girlie,’ tutted the woman in front; a dressmaker, judging by the sketchbook and pencil in her hand. ‘Us hoi polloi gotta keep a respectable distance.’

Kitty felt foolish. Her gaze slid down and a flush of pink washed over her pale cheeks. What was she even doing here? She was just a girl from the wrong side of town, a shabby fourteen-year-old in cardboard-patched boots and her big sister’s hand-me-downs. And then she remembered. She was somebody. In five days’ time, she was to start an apprenticeship under the tutelage of wedding dressmaker Gladys Tingle at her Bethnal Green workshop.

Gladys’s voice when she had hired Kitty while she was still at school, not two and twenty days previous, rang through her mind as clear as a bell in the chilly churchyard.

‘If a wedding marks the first day of the rest of your life, then the story starts with the dress. Immerse yourself in wedding gowns, my girl, leave no stitch unturned, ’cause it’s the society sorts from up West that the girls from the East End wanna look like. It’s pictures of their wedding gowns in the Daily Sketch they’ll be bringing in for us to copy!’

After a brusque examination of Kitty’s hands and nails, Gladys had dismissed her with orders to start at 9 a.m. prompt the first Monday morning after the new school term began.

A sudden burst of handclapping and the distant thud of horses’ hooves brought Kitty back from her wonderings.

‘I say! There she is,’ called out an excited voice. ‘God bless you, Nancy!’

Applause and cheers rang out and the crowd stirred into life. The dressmaker gasped and dropped her pencil. A small space opened up in the crowd as she bent to retrieve it. Seizing her chance, Kitty wriggled through the sea of stockinged legs and found herself at the very front.

She opened her eyes wide, then wider still and just like that, her grumbling tummy and frozen feet were forgotten. For gliding down the flagstones on the arm of her father was the bride, and what a marvellous bride was she!

Nancy emerged dreamlike from the snow, a tiny ethereal vision in a long sweep of buttery silk, its diaphanous overskirt shimmering with silver embroidery and hundreds of tiny pearls. In her pale fingers she clutched a spray of chalk-white flowers.

Kitty gazed in wonderment, for Nancy looked like no other woman she had ever seen: a perfect china shepherdess, her brown eyes large and liquid, her lips full and rosy. Atop her gleaming curls, tiny white flowers and a dusting of snow. In her wake, two pageboys in white satin breeches and tails, holding the train as if it were made of glass. In the swirling snow, looking like they had stepped straight from the pages of a children’s fairy tale, they drew a collective sigh from the crowd of admiring matrons.

And then came the bridesmaids: tall, slender and serene in white tulle and taffeta. Kitty counted seven – no, wait, eight of them – and oh, how dreamy, how utterly dreamy. As they slid past like a bevy of swans, she realized they were all connected by a long continuous garland, smothered in snowdrops, which looped from one maid to the next like a maypole. Everywhere Kitty looked there was light, snow-white blossom: encircling slender waists and trailing over shoulders.

Kitty felt her heart turn over. It was a performance, a thrilling, spectacular show with a Snow Queen its star. She sighed deeply. If the walk to the church door could be this glamorous, Kitty could only guess how heavenly the interior of the church must look. How dashing the groom, how regal the guests, to what impossible height the ceiling must soar.

The bride was drawing closer now, so close Kitty could almost reach out and touch the hem of her ermine-trimmed gown. Instead, she gazed up at her with shining eyes and realized she was holding her breath.

Please look at me, Kitty from Bethnal Green. Notice me.

But the Snow Queen bride passed on by, poised and unreadable, leaving in her wake a scented trail of allure.

Kitty sagged and scuffed the toe of her boot on the ground. Who was she fooling? Girls like Nancy were born to glide on marble floors bedecked with roses. Girls like her were consigned to watch them from the damp darkness of the crowd, anonymous and unseen.

But as the bride reached the church porch, something magical happened. She turned. Flickered those large dark eyes over the crowd and settled on Kitty. A whisper of a smile, the flash of a diamond as she raised her hand. And then she was gone, stepping into the church, off to meet her glittering future, leaving Kitty as pale and faint as the January sky. Nothing could ever come close to the lavish, romantic dream Kitty had witnessed.

As the crowd dispersed and she reluctantly began the long walk back to the narrow streets of the East End, Kitty made a vow in her secret heart. She wouldn’t just be the wedding seamstress. One day, she would be the bride.

Giveaway!

Kate’s lovely publisher has given me five paperback copies of The Wedding Girls to give away to lucky readers.

To enter  just leave comment in the box below or re-Tweet one of my tweets about this giveaway or like one of my posts about this giveaway on my Instagram page.

I’ll pick five winners using Random.org after the closing date.

This giveaway is open to UK residents only and will close at midnight on Wednesday 8th March. Good Luck!

 

Book review: Ambulance Girls by Deborah Burrows

21 Feb

ambulance girls bpbOn duty during London’s Blitz…

As death and destruction fall from the skies day after day in the London Blitz, Australian ambulance driver Lily Brennan confronts the horror with bravery, intelligence, common sense and humour.

Although she must rely upon her colleagues to carry out her dangerous duties, Lily begins to suspect that someone at her Ambulance Station may be giving assistance to the enemy by disclosing secret information. Then her best friend, Jewish ambulance attendant David Levy, disappears in suspicious circumstances. Aided – and sometimes hindered – by David’s school friend, a mysterious and attractive RAF pilot, Lily has to draw on all of her resources to find David, and negotiate the dangers that come from falling in love in a country far from home in a time of war…

Ambulance Girls is the first book in a new historical saga series from Deborah Burrows and will appeal to fans of wartime sagas such as Daisy Styles’ The Bomb Girls and Donna Douglas’ nursing series’. I do love a good historical saga and particularly those that shed a light on the important work done by women during war. Set in London in 1939, Ambulance Girls starts with a brave rescue and is an excellent tribute to the men and women who put their lives on the line to rescue others during the second world war and particularly during the Blitz.

Deborah clearly knows her history and has done her research; I live and work in London and I was fascinated by the details that Deborah put into this story; it certainly made for thought provoking reading as I read about places and landmarks that I visit regularly and the devastation that the bombing raids wreaked.

We meet Lily Brennan who is fairly new to England and working as an ambulance driver. This novel stood out from other sagas to me for having an Australian female lead which gave a very different perspective on the war and I enjoyed seeing London through her eyes and also learning about the country that she called home. Having read several books about the nursing profession during the war, I enjoyed getting another perspective on the work that so many women volunteered to do.

Lily is an excellent lead; she’s bright, strong and has an innate sense of what is right that she is willing to fight to defend. I admired her bravery as she pushed herself to the limits to help others and her tenacity in fighting for what she believes is right. Lily’s partner in the ambulance is David; a handsome and educated Jewish man who Lily has formed a close bond with. I enjoyed their banter and I felt that their relationship was very well written.

I was also struck by the way that this novel quickly showed that David is considered an outsider. There’s a sad and sobering theme to Ambulance Girls that highlights clearly that anti-semitism wasn’t the preserve of Hitler and the Nazis but also prevalent in England during the war. I always find it fascinating to think about what people knew at the time, what attitudes were accepted and how this played out in day-to-day life in England. We hear a lot about the camaraderie and fighting spirit of the war years but in Ambulance Girls we also see the other side of the story with characters who take advantage of others’ misfortune and show prejudice to others.

As David goes missing, Lily teams up with an old school friend of his to try to find him. David’s RAF pilot friend, Jim was one of my favourite characters in the book and I loved reading as his relationship with Lily developed. Their story brings the romance element to the story but certainly not in a conventional way and I enjoyed how this story line kept me guessing.

I’m so pleased that there are going to be more books in this series. The next, Ambulance Girls Under Fire is due for release in October and will focus on Celia Ashwin, another ambulance driver that we meet in this book. I can’t wait to read more about the characters that Deborah has introduced here and find out what happens to them next.

4/5

Ambulance Girls by Deborah Burrows is published by Ebury Press, in paperback on 23rd February.

Find out more about Deborah and her writing at: http://deborahburrows.com.au/

I’d like to thank the publisher for providing a review copy of this book.

Book review: Before the Rains by Dinah Jefferies

20 Feb

before the rains cover1930, Rajputana, India. Since her husband’s death, 28-year-old photojournalist Eliza’s only companion has been her camera. When the British Government send her to an Indian princely state to photograph the royal family, she’s determined to make a name for herself.

But when Eliza arrives at the palace she meets Jay, the Prince’s handsome, brooding brother. While Eliza awakens Jay to the poverty of his people, he awakens her to the injustices of British rule. Soon Jay and Eliza find they have more in common than they think. But their families – and society – think otherwise. Eventually they will have to make a choice between doing what’s expected, or following their hearts. . .

Dinah Jefferies’ ability to conjure up the sights, smells, tastes and atmosphere of a particular country at a particular time in her writing is second to none. Dinah’s books unite two of my favourite topics; history and travel and always provide a wonderful escape and as with her previous novels, Before the Rains is another vividly transporting story and I loved it.

For Before the Rains our destination is India in the 1930s. It is a time of great change for the country and in the wider world and lead character Eliza embodies this with her desire to strike out in her own right as a photographer and pursue a career as a photojournalist. Eliza is given the opportunity to visit one of the princely states to photograph the royal family as part of an archive by the British Government and this sets the scene for a story filled with colour, drama, secrets and mystery that examines the tensions between two cultures and provides a captivatingly emotional story of loss and love that really brought the characters to life for me.

I’ve never visited India but it’s clear from her evocative writing that Dinah has and that she loves the country that she is writing about. I thought Dinah cleverly presented practices and customs and the different views on them on both sides of the story with understanding and allowed me as a reader to form my own judgments on this period of history. 

With Jay and Eliza, Dinah has created one of my favourite relationships in an historical fiction novel – I loved how their connection slowly developed and was heartbroken when it became clear that the expectations of Jay’s royal role would not allow them to be together. Dinah uses both Jay and Eliza and their relatives and friends in India and England to explore the notions of love, loss, family, fate and destiny and as you’ve probably gathered by now, I found Before the Rains an emotional and gripping read.

The story is in four parts and follows Eliza through a year in her life. I very much enjoyed reading about the changes that the diiferent seasons bought and the festivals and celebrations that went with them. As secrets are revealed and change cannot be avoided, Eliza has to decide whether to follow her head or her heart and Dinah kept me hooked right to the end of the story with excellent pace and fantastic locations that mirrored the drama of the story. I can’t wait to see where she will take me next!

5/5

Before the Rains is released in hardback and ebook formats by Viking on 23rd February.

Find out more about Dinah and her writing at: http://www.dinahjefferies.com/

I’d like to thank the publisher for providing a review copy of this book.

BTRjustpreorder