Book Review: V for Victory

Having enjoyed Crooked Heart and Old Baggage, I’d been looking forward to reading V for Victory so was delighted to receive a physical ARC during lockdown when most review copies were ebooks. This is the latest installment in a loosely linked series about characters lucky enough to have crossed the radar of the inimitable Mattie Simpkin, a glorious creation by the author. I enjoyed this tale at least as much as her previous works – and that is high praise.

The story is set in London during the closing months of the Second World War. Noel, Mattie’s godson, is now nearly fifteen years old and being schooled at home by an eclectic group of tutors. They are all lodgers at Green Shutters, the house Noel inherited when Mattie died. His guardian, Vee, goes by the name Margery Overs. She masquerades as the boy’s aunt and worries about repercussions should she be found not to be who she claims. In their salubrious Hampstead neighbourhood, the running of a boarding house – necessary for income – is regarded with disdain.

Another key character in the tale is Winnie, one of many wardens stationed across the city who help coordinate necessary resources when bombs wreak their devastation. Winnie was one of Mattie’s Amazons, along with her twin sister, Avril. The latter has literary ambitions which provide a delicious injection of humour. The author has a knack for dropping observations about human behaviour into every situation, gently mocking pretensions while whisking the reader through each scene.

The vivid picture provided of wartime London is one of the best I have read. And yet, despite the destruction and deprivations, this remains a tale of people – their daily challenges and concerns. The characters are far from perfect people but their flaws and foibles are mined to ensure the reader recognises why they have acted in ways that may be regarded with censure. The unlikable are those who look out only for themselves.

The various plot threads are engaging and rattle along at a good pace. Vee’s grey life finds colour when she is befriended by an American GI. Winnie’s experiences as a warden offer a grim evocation of the role – a stark contrast to the gilded life led by her sister. Noel’s settled existence is threatened when he is visited by a soldier with knowledge about his past.

There are standout scenes that particularly resonate. I enjoyed the literary party where it seemed everyone wished to talk about the book they had inside them – with no interest in anyone else’s conversation unless they saw an opportunity for personal advancement. The depiction of the rocket attack Winnie deals with is strengthened by the nuances of what is horrific but has become everyday.

The descriptions of people throughout remain entertaining. For example, of Avril’s husband, a kindly man working for the Foreign Office who adores his confidently beautiful wife:

“He was a very nice man, diffident and slightly bewildered, like a staid dog who’d been taken for an unexpectedly vigorous and sustained walk.”

The lives rendered add depth to an affecting story sparked by humour. Tension is added by the precarious nature of their existence. Death is as likely from a road traffic accident as from a bombing raid. Moments of happiness can be found by those willing to recognise and work for them.

Although often poignant, the tale offers hope and a reminder of the good in people from all walks of life. Beautifully written, this is a rare and recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.

Book Review: Wed Wabbit

Wed Wabbit, by Lissa Evans, is a children’s story laced with humour and riddles. Its protagonist is Fidge, a young girl who is still struggling to cope with the death of her father. Grief is not an explicit plot thread but goes some way towards explaining why Fidge acts as she does. Her mother is doing her best under difficult circumstances, again not something the children reading this tale may take away. They will likely enjoy the adventure and more fantastical elements, especially when our heroes must do battle in a popular fictional world.

Ten year old Fidge is tired of reading the same storybook, night after night, to her four year old sister, Minnie. But all Minnie wants is The Wimbley Woos. These tales are set in a colour coded community of creatures shaped like dustbins with limbs, who each have different skills and use them to help the others. Fidge would far rather be packing for their upcoming outdoor activity holiday. She is trying out a high-density packing technique to minimise her required luggage. Unlike her mother and sister, Fidge is organised.

The next day there is some last minute shopping to be done. Fidge has been promised a pair of flippers but first Minnie needs sandals. As usual on these excursions there are distractions. They run out of time. Angry that she is the one who ends up carrying the plethora of toys Minnie insists on taking with her everywhere, which she then drops when something exciting catches her eye, Fidge lashes out in anger with devastating consequences.

All of this means that Fidge must go and stay with her annoying cousin, Graham, who is scared of: stairs (in case he falls down them), toast (in case he chokes on a crumb), insects (in case he catches a tropical disease) – the list goes on. His parents pander to his phobias and talk of little other than their concerns for their son. Fidge doesn’t believe Graham has anything wrong with him that couldn’t be cured with a change of attitude. Graham regards Fidge as far below his superior intellect.

Fidge is still carrying Minnie’s toy collection including her favourite bedtime companion, Wed Wabbit, which Fidge hates. The cousins argue, the toys end up at the bottom of the cellar stairs, Fidge realises Minnie will need Wed Wabbit but a massive thunderstorm cuts off power. And then, because this is what most of the story is about, the cousins end up in the land of the Wimbley Woos.

Although filled with feats of derring-do and puzzle solving, this is a gently told tale injected with a great deal of wit. Fidge needs to solve a riddle if she is to bring Wed Wabbit home. Wed Wabbit is not so sure that this is what he wants as he is angry, which puts the entire land in danger. Even with her detailed knowledge of the Wimbley Woos’ skills, Fidge struggles to get them working as a team. And then the rainbow land starts losing its colour.

There are obvious (at least to an adult) uplifting messages underlying the tale. These do not detract from the fun way the challenges being overcome are portrayed. All the characters, even the initially annoying ones, have their part to play. A great deal is learned by Fidge and Graham – without too much moralising.

Wed Wabbit is published by David Fickling Books.

My copy was borrowed from my local library.

Gig Review: The Greenwich Book Festival – Festival Party

The 2018 Festival Party, held in the impressively vaulted Queen Mary Undercroft, had a theme of Celebrating Women Writers. The featured authors were predominantly London based with four of the five published by Penguin. From the readings and discussion of their work these appeared to be mainly commercial fiction – historic or domestic noir. Of the books being promoted I had only read Lissa Evans’ Old Baggage which I thoroughly enjoyed.

The venue opened half an hour before the first panel convened allowing attendees to purchase drinks, mingle and find seats at the round tables. The chair of the event and co-founder of the festival, Patricia Nicol, then called for the audience’s attention.

The first panel brought together Imogen Hermes Gower, Lissa Evans and Paula McLain.

Imogen introduced her latest release, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. The book is set in late eighteenth century London. At the time it was a maritime city. There were few bridges across the river, allowing access to the tall ships arriving laden with cargo. Ships were built that enabled the creation of the empire. Grand houses were established in the west of the city around Hyde Park for the moneyed classes who enjoyed leisurely pastimes. The men would vie for the renowned courtesans, the celebrities of the day. There was a cachet in ‘owning’ such women.┬áLondon at this time was booming. It was an exciting period.

The book’s protagonist, Mr Hancock, is a merchant living in Deptford. He is lonely and grieving having lost his wife and daughter. When one of his captains delivers a mermaid statue that he has sold his ship to obtain Hancock is displeased but determines to do what he can to capitalise on the purchase. Imogen told us that such a mermaid exists in the British Museum where she worked.

The other main character in the book is Angelica Neal, a desirable and accomplished courtesan living in Soho, who Hancock meets at a party. Women who wanted more than childcare and needlework had to find ways to protect themselves. They sought freedom but had to work within the patriarchal structures.

Lissa‘s protagonist, Mattie Simpkin, is a former militant suffragette, now in late middle age and looking for a cause to fight for. Set in 1928 London, this was a significant year as the enfranchisement of the people was enacted and Emmeline Pankhurst died. Lissa talked of the suffragettes, how they fought together to shoulder down the door but then, once through, scattered to settle into domesticity or fight new causes. In this aftermath many stayed good friends, leaving their estates to one another on death. They led extraordinary lives. Before the First World War they had caused and endured violence. When the war started Pankhurst decided their fight should be paused which split the movement.

Old Baggage is a comedy but has depth and layers. Its apparent lightness was not easy to write. Mattie first appeared in an earlier work, Crooked Heart. Lissa had not intended to devote a book to her but she chained herself to Lissa’s conscience demanding to be written about.

Paula‘s protagonist existed. Martha Gellhorn would become one of the greatest war correspondents of the twentieth century. For a few years, around the Second World War, she would also enter into a relationship with Earnest Hemingway, and this is what she is remembered for. Paula did not wish this remarkable woman to be merely a footnote in someone else’s history.

Hemingway married four times. Gellhorn was the only one to leave him. She was his intellectual equal. She flung herself at life, was ambitious and independent. Hemingway was at the height of his powers when they met and was attracted by her audacity which, once married, he would try to suppress. He expected her to put him first, going as far as to steal her journalist’s ID and offer himself in her place.

Unable to gain passage as a war correspondent, Gellhorn made her own way to Spain to report on the Civil War. Rather than list the dead, as reports at the time did, she wrote about the living victims, the survivors in a bombed and broken land. She stowed away on a ship and ended up in the thick of the action while other journalists remained on the periphery. Her social conscience was her drive and she wanted to wake this in others.

Living with Hemingway she watched as his books became best sellers while hers disappeared. As an introduction to her work, Paula suggested we read Travels With Myself and Another.

Following a short break during which we could revisit the bar and mingle with other attendees, a second panel convened bringing together Diana Evans and Louise Candlish. Whereas the previous three writers were talking of historic fiction, these two have written domestic stories set in more recent times. Their London is south of the river.

Diana‘s Ordinary People is set against the backdrop of Barack Obama’s 2008 election victory. It is a portrait of black British life. It opens with two couples attending a party to celebrate Obama’s inauguration. The crisis explored is the arrival of children in these busy, professional Londoner’s lives. Diana takes the reader inside the minds of the men and the women. She wished to represent the experiences of parenthood and marriage from both points of view as well as black lives, ordinary lives.

London is rich in history yet is also difficult to live in. Diana writes of the resentments of couples. The women are trying to work from home, constantly interrupted by children and the demands of keeping the house in order. The men are resentful of having to commute to jobs they do not enjoy.

Music plays an important role as does the psychology of the characters. They are trying to find their place in an increasingly gentrified city.

Louise‘s Our House explores the folly of aspiration. A husband sells the family home without the wife knowing. It is a page-turner, a twisty thriller. It was conceived as a cautionary tale.

From the moment they moved in, the wife in the book had been constantly improving her house, intending to create a forever home yet never reaching an point where this was achieved. The couple are property obsessives, forever checking how much the house is worth and how they could climb the property ladder. The sale can occur due to the couple’s birds nest custody arrangement. This happens when parents separate but hold on to the family home where the children continue to live. A second, small property is purchased and the parents take it in turn to live in each house.

Our House is a he said / she said novel. This format is integral to the plot. Neither lead character is lying but neither are they listening to the other’s story. Louise told us it was fiendish to plot. She used timelines for each character, including a car and phones. It is set in South London Zone 3, an affluent area with good schools and overland train rather than underground. It is Louise’s twelfth novel and more complicated and ambitious than previous works. It is about bitter love.

All five authors then took to the stage for an audience Q&A.

Imogen was asked who her influences were. She mentioned Beryl Bainbridge and Danielle Dutton but explained that to achieve an authentic voice for the period she collected words and phrases.

The authors were asked if they felt writing about women over the age of forty was dangerous. They agreed that they felt free to write about who they wanted so long as what they had to say captivates. Writers write the books they want to write, books they would want to read. It was pointed out that the majority of readers are middle aged women.

Paula was asked about her book The Paris Wife. She explained that whatever she writes she wants to feel emotion, to put herself in the setting and feel invested in the novel.

The authors were asked how they managed to make a living when they first started writing (I’m sure this is a question no writer should be asked!). None of the panel started as full time writers as they needed jobs to pay the rent. They squeezed in writing time somehow. Demands on resources depend on individual circumstances. Those without dependents can live on less. Creative Writing courses were recommended for those needing to learn discipline and structure. Mostly though, a writer has to want to write.

The authors were asked how they knew when to stop, to let go and submit a manuscript. The answer was, when they felt they could do no more to make it better. It must be the absolute best, the most polished it can be at the time. Unless under a deadline it was suggested that work then be set aside for a month before returning with fresh eyes. A community of writers can be useful in providing feedback. However, don’t reword and rework so much that buoyancy is lost.

Imogen was asked if any of her characters were based on historical figures. She borrowed her courtesan from several who existed, especially one whose friend / servant wrote about her. One particular bawdy scene was based on a real party held when Captain Cook brought some artifacts to London – a scientific orgy!

And on that note the event was drawn to a close. Books were available to buy with authors willing to sign on request. I was happy to be able to introduce myself to the lovely Alison Barrow, Director of Media Relations at Transworld, who has sent me some amazing books over the years.

On our way back to our overnights digs, my daughter and I discussed the lack of diversity in the literature featured at an event celebrating women writers – where was the fantasy, the experimental, the poetry? Thankfully this was addressed at subsequent events at the festival, which I will write about over the coming week.

Book Review: Old Baggage

In Lissa Evans’s previous novel, Crooked Heart, the reader is briefly introduced to Mattie Simpkin, an elderly lady who was once a suffragette. Old Baggage is set a decade earlier and offers further details on the life of this idiosyncratic character. Neither book relies on the other for its story but, having enjoyed the earlier work, I was delighted by the links that exist.

The tale opens in 1928. Mattie is walking across Hampstead Heath when she is assailed by a memory, her momentary distraction enabling a thief to make off with her handbag. In attempting to waylay the malefactor she injures a girl who then threatens legal action. Mattie’s good friend, Florrie Lee, steps in to help, offering the girl, Ida Pearse, a position in the house where she lives with Mattie. Florrie works as a Health Visitor and is the more practical and empathetic of the pair. She grew up in a poor household whereas Mattie came from a wealthy family. This disparity is more significant than Mattie can realise. The causes she cares about are linked to female equality and aspiration which can be stymied by family circumstances as much as legislation.

Mattie went to university in a time when these institutions refused to confer a degree on a woman, however well she did in their exams. As a suffragette she was imprisoned and badly treated leading to a lifelong contempt for upholders of law and order. When she sees how little Ida knows about the rights Mattie has spent her life fighting for, the older woman decides this is indicative of an important matter that she can address. She places an advertisement in the local newspaper inviting girls to join a club which she will use to propagate her views. As she says to a friend:

“one should try to spark a few fresh lights along the way. To be a tinderbox rather than a candle.”

Mattie is not the only suffragette looking to influence the young people of London. The idea for the girls’ club was inspired by an encounter with another old friend whose outlook has moved towards Fascism. The two groups, which the ladies set up, hold their meetings on the Heath and soon become rivals leading to a confrontation. Mattie has been foolish in her dealings with the attendees at her club – favouring one for personal reasons – with cataclysmic results.

The minor plot threads and contextual references add depth to what is an entertaining and accessible story. Mattie is a wonderful character, her drive, intelligence and willingness to take responsibility for her headstrong actions and their consequences an inspiration. Florrie offers a different perspective, quietly supporting and mopping up after her friend. The varied milieu offer a stark reminder of the importance of the welfare state.

It takes skill to write a book that is congenial and captivating whilst offering the reader interesting topics to chew on. The attributes and actions of the characters demonstrate how multifaceted an individual can be, and how often one judges on incomplete information. Old Baggage is funny, tender, fervent and affecting. It does not shy away from important issues but neither does it preach. It is a joy to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.

Book Review: Crooked Heart

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Crooked Heart, by Lissa Evans, takes the reader inside the heads of some of society’s misfits. It explores loneliness and relationships alongside ideas of morality and the easy judgements inflicted on those deemed not to conform. It shows that friendships can blossom across the generational divide when preconceptions are set aside and individuals are accepted for what they are.

Set at the start of the second world war, the story introduces us to Noel, aged ten, an orphan who has been raised by his highly intelligent, idiosyncratic godmother Mattie (she obviously took this role seriously despite being an outspoken atheist). When Mattie’s mind starts to deteriorate Noel becomes the carer but cannot prevent her death. He moves in briefly with relatives of Mattie’s before being evacuated with his new classmates to St Albans where he joins a household of schemers and skivers. At the heart of this household is Vee who is always on the lookout for some way to raise the money she needs to care for her mother and adult son, neither of whom appreciate her efforts. Noel is taken in as he comes with a ration book and an allowance. Vee judges him sickly, something from which she hopes to benefit.

From this unlikely start a bond is formed between the grieving boy and his new carer. Noel quickly catches on to Vee’s scheming and becomes involved, with mutually beneficial results.

Each of the characters is described as society would see them and also as they see themselves. The reader is thereby able to better understand and empathise with why they act as they do. Despite first appearances none of the main protagonists turn out to be as bad as first thought, unlike many of the supposedly upstanding citizens with whom they interact.

There is much to consider whilst reading this book but this is secondary to why I would recommend it. Quite simply, it is a beautifully written story that is enjoyable to read. There are no wasted words, no passages that drag. Each of the sub-plots offer interest and add to the whole. I cared about the outcome of every deviation from Noel’s story as well as the denouement of his tale.

I was not disappointed. Having immersed myself in this imaginary world I emerged replete and delighted to have discovered such a skilful writer. In tying up each thread of the tale she developed her characters and concluded their stories without at any stage compromising what had gone before.

A credible tale filled with humour and pathos about people who are flawed and how they cope in a less than perfect world. I will be recommending this book to everyone, again and again.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.