Book reviews: Step into spring with three escapist novels

The Allotment Girls by Kate Thompson
The Allotment Girls by Kate Thompson
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Enjoy a gripping wartime tale set in bombed-out London, meet a woman struggling to rebuild her shattered life in 1850s County Durham, and be moved by a mystery set near stunning St Ives in Cornwall in three glittering new spring sagas.

The Allotment Girls by Kate Thompson

Four young women must dig deep into their reserves of inner strength if they are to survive the slings and arrows of Blitz-hit London in a sparkling wartime story from the new queen of East End sagas.

The Allotment Girls is the fourth entertaining and atmospheric novel from journalist Kate Thompson, an exciting and accomplished voice in women’s fiction whose impressive stable of books includes top-selling titles like Secrets of the Sewing Bee, Secrets of the Singer Girls and The Wedding Girls.

Thompson has proved herself a master storyteller, bringing to life the humour, hardships and close community spirit of London’s East End during the onslaught of the Second World War in compelling sagas based on hours of thorough research.

Her latest page-turner, The Allotment Girls, is filled with Thompson’s trademark beautifully drawn and authentic characters and was inspired by the gutsy Bryant & May match girls of London’s Bow who famously walked out on strike against the exploitation of their greedy factory bosses in 1888.

This gritty, absorbing and heartwarming new story stars a later generation of the Bryant & May girls as they battle through sweat, toil, tears and bombs to start a Dig for Victory allotment in the grounds of the factory.

Life in the Bryant & May match factory might be grimy and tough but for East End girl Millie Brown it is a welcome escape from her shabby home in a bomb-shattered terrace and the clutches of her nasty husband Curly ‘Razor’ Brown, ‘an oily two-bit villain’ from Whitechapel who has ended her dreams of being a professional singer.

Also joining her at the factory is her Bryant & May pen pal Pearl O’Hara who has mysteriously and hurriedly left the firm’s Liverpool factory and her home, and is now desperate to avoid anyone asking ‘awkward questions’ about her reasons for coming to Blitzed-out London.

The friendship group also includes Annie Trinder who lives with her irrepressible ‘nan’ Elsie, a 60-year-old ‘force of nature’ and ‘one-woman intelligence unit’ who is struggling to cope under the nightly bombardments.

Finally, there is Rose Riley whose adopted, tough-nut mother Maureen is becomingly increasingly cruel to the beautiful, gentle Rose. Desperate to know who her real mother was, Rose would dearly like to ask Maureen but she is becoming worryingly distant and paranoid.

Inspired by the Dig for Victory campaign, Annie persuades the owners to start a Bryant & May allotment in the factory grounds. With plenty of tilling and toiling, the girls eventually carve out a corner of the yard into a green plot full of life and colour.

In the darkest of times, the girls find their allotment a tranquil, happy escape. Using pierced dustbin lids to sieve through the shrapnel and debris, they bring about a powerful change, not just in the factory but their own lives.

As the war rages on, the garden becomes a place of community, friendship, and lies, and as the garden thrives and grows, so do the girls’ explosive secrets…

The Allotment Girls, which also pays tribute to other people and events from the capital’s past, is an exciting blend of real history and fiction as Thompson delivers another compelling and thought-provoking story featuring a cast of wonderful characters and an eye-opening glimpse into the lives of ordinary women in wartime London.

In a captivating story brimming with nostalgia, romance and drama, Thompson brings us danger, despair, intrigue and deceit, but there is also love, laughter and tears, the warmth of friendship and the close bonds that glue together families in times of hardship and hopelessness.

Nostalgia with a gritty edge…

(Pan, paperback, £6.99)

The Quarryman’s Wife by Elizabeth Gill

When she loses both her only daughter and her husband, Nell Almond discovers that her consolation lies not in embracing her sorrow… but in nursing her feelings of anger and loneliness.

But when all hope and happiness seem lost, can she rebuild her shattered life on resentment and bitterness?

The Quarryman’s Wife is the second gritty and gripping novel from North East saga queen Elizabeth Gill in her atmospheric Weardale Sagas which began last year with The Guardian Angel and sweep us away into the lives of families in a small town 19th century community.

Born in in Tow Law on the Durham fells, Gill loves her home territory and her many books reflect her natural warmth, her affinity with the folk of this tough corner of the country, and her gift for insightful storytelling.

In 1857, in Stanhope, Weardale, a small dales town in County Durham, Nell Almond of Ash House doesn’t think her life can get any worse when her married daughter Arabella Wearmouth dies in childbirth leaving behind Frederick, now a poor, motherless child.

But then tragedy strikes a second time and she finds herself widowed. Her husband Harold has died and she has been left to sort out the new management of his limestone quarry, the biggest in the dale and the source of the family’s livelihood.

Harold’s last wish was that a new man called Bernard Lennox must be brought in to run the quarry. In the meantime, she must dismiss the two current managers… she has no regrets about getting rid of her son-in-law Dan Wearmouth, a man she dislikes, but feels guilt over the sacking of Zeb Bailey who has been a good manager despite a serious crime in his youth.

But it is baby Frederick, her grandson, who troubles her most. On Nell’s instructions, after Arabella’s death, the baby was given to Shirley McFadden, a quarryman’s wife with two little girls of her own, to keep and nurse.

It had seemed the right thing to do at the time but the child lives in hand-me-down clothes in a cramped and meagre cottage and now she is alone, Nell desperately wants him to return to his rightful place with her as heir to the quarry.

Nell’s decision to try to take back Frederick will have tragic repercussions in this small mining community… and will it mean she is condemned to loneliness for the rest of her life?

The Quarryman’s Wife is a moving, heartbreaking story, packed with drama, passion and the author’s wisdom and empathy, and all set amongst the brooding, windswept hills and dales of the North East.

(Quercus, hardback, £20.99)

A Cornish Orphan by Sheila Jeffries

Enjoy being swept away to beautiful Cornwall and its fascinating history, folklore and culture in a gorgeous new saga from the much-loved West Country author Sheila Jeffries.

Set in a fishing community in 1929, this nostalgic and heartwarming story about a young girl who is rescued from a shipwreck by a lifeboat man and taken in by his family is brimming with drama, emotion and Jeffries’ trademark spirituality.

Inspired by the rich history, artistic tradition and colourful folklore of the stunning coastal town of St Ives, and with a nod to some of the area’s lesser known culture and legends, including male voice choirs, saffron bread and a range of fantastical giants, sea spirits and ‘spriggans,’Jeffries works her magic in this tale of mystery, friendship and love.

Following a terrible storm at Porthmeor Beach near St Ives in 1929, seven-year-old Lottie is rescued from a shipwreck by one of the lifeboat crew, Arnie Lanroska. Her expensive clothing suggests that she comes from a wealthy family but Lottie’s back bears the scars of a severe beating, and how she came to be on a cargo ship in the first place remains a mystery.

Arnie and his wife Jenny already have two young children, Matt aged nine and Tom aged five, but are desperate to keep Lottie as they lost their only daughter to stillbirth. They decide to foster Lottie, despite outcries from the local community, and although Matt appears hesitant to get close to Lottie, Tom quickly warms to the new sister in his life.

But when tragedy strikes the very heart of the Lanroska family, the repercussions could change the lives of everyone close to them…

The timeless, rugged beauty of Cornwall forms the stunning backdrop to this moving, vibrant and nostalgic story which is imbued with Jeffries’ natural warmth and celebrates not just local history and tradition but the eternal bond between man and nature.

A born storyteller, Jeffries brings a unique tenderness and passion to this compelling novel, allowing both the natural world and spirituality to play powerful roles in the bittersweet fates and fortunes of her characters.

Seductively nostalgic, full of intriguing imagery and history, and beautifully imagined…

(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £6.99)