Category Archives: Earlier 20th C

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Washington Square Press | 2017 (this edn 2018) | 389p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins ReidMonique Grant is a struggling magazine reporter in search of the Big Break. One day it comes to her in the most unlikely of forms. Reclusive Hollywood legend Evelyn Hugo is approaching the end of her life and now, aged almost 80, wants her story to be told for the first time and, for reasons Monique can’t fathom, she wants Monique to write it. And so, for day after day, Monique listens to this extraordinary woman tell the story of her life, a life known most of all for her seven husbands. But, as Evelyn reveals the truth about each of her marriages in turn, she also reveals the truth about her greatest love, a forbidden love, and her ambition that threatened to destroy it. Secret after secret are revealed until at last Monique knows everything.

I have heard so much recently about The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo that it felt serendipitous when I shortly afterwards came across a copy by accident in a local bookshop. I’m so glad I did. Taylor Jenkins Reid has created a woman in Evelyn Hugo that I suspect will be very difficult to forget. Evelyn dominates this book, from her difficult youth and early flowering as a beauty (best known for her impressive chest!) to her emergence as a starlet, a siren and, finally, a successful, admired Hollywood icon, albeit one who is always looked down upon for her divorce rate. It’s an incredible story and we’re told it in sections which cover each of her seven husbands by turn. And what a bunch they are. This novel overflows with larger than life personalities and it all builds up to an addictive portrayal of Hollywood between the 1950s and 1980s.

I really enjoyed Taylor Jenkins Reid’s style. The novel includes snippets from gossip columns and it all builds up to demonstrate so effectively how difficult and unfair life was for a woman wanting to become a successful actress, what she must compromise to achieve it. Evelyn is ruthlessly ambitious and yet she remains likeable, especially as she becomes more self-aware, but some of the decisions she makes might make you want to hold your head in your hands and groan. I hung on to every word.

This is also a love story, beautiful at times, and love doesn’t prove easy for Evelyn Hugo and I did pity her while also wanting to shout at her. There are some gorgeously tender scenes in this book and I laughed and cried several times. Evelyn is most definitely the star which does mean that Monique’s story is underwhelming by comparison but the majority of our time is spent enjoying Evelyn’s company, being shocked by her at times while at other times loving her as so many people did through her life. Evelyn’s struggle, though, is to determine which of them love Evelyn Hugo, the screen goddess, and which love Evelyn for herself. The two do not always go together. It’s a wonderful character portrayal. And that glamour! How I loved the glamour. This wonderful book drips in jewels, gorgeous gowns, lipsticks, red carpets and kisses. Fabulous.

Hitler’s Secret by Rory Clements

Zaffre | 2020 (23 January) | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

Hitler's Secret by Rory ClementsHitler’s Secret is the fourth novel in Rory Clements’ Tom Wilde historical spy thriller series. I think that this novel stands alone perhaps better than the others but I would still suggest that you read the others first. It’s certainly worth it as this is one of my most favourite series of recent years. This review assumes you’ve had the pleasure.

It is Autumn 1941 and the war is not going well for the allies. The position of America is critical as it wavers between war and no war, with those sympathetic to fascism in powerful posts. Britain must use all means at its disposal to influence the outcome and that means spies and subterfuge. Tom Wilde, an American in England, a Professor of Elizabethan history at Cambridge University, is a man that Britain’s secret service regularly calls on and he is perfect for their latest mission. They want to send him into Berlin as an American-German industrialist with Nazi sympathies and there he must obtain a ‘package’ that must be smuggled out of Germany at all cost. There are powerful men who will do everything in their power to stop it leaving Germany and Wilde must overcome them. It’s obviously a deadly mission and life has moved on for Wilde. He’s now living with Lydia and they have a child. But he is driven to do it.

Germany is every bit as challenging as he would expect and there he meets people both charismatic and dangerous, including Anton Offerbach, Sunny Somerfeld, the widow of a German hero, Martin Boorman, Hitler’s henchman, and many others. Wilde can trust none of them although he’ll need the help of some to discover the package. And when he does everything changes. There may well be no way back for Tom Wilde.

Hitler’s Secret was a very pleasant surprise to me, to put it mildly. I had falsely assumed that this was a trilogy and that last year’s Nemesis was the third and final novel. How glad I am I was wrong. Time has moved on for Professor Wilde but, now that England is in real danger of losing a war that Tom Wilde has worked so hard to try and prevent, his services are required once more. The result is another beautifully written, extremely well-plotted spy thriller, which is tense from start to finish but is also a genuine puzzler that makes you think. Everyone in it has their own agenda, their own secrets, their own limits – how far will each go to achieve their target? This shifts constantly. People are complicated in this novel as they are in real life. It can be impossible to predict how they’ll behave when faced with certain circumstances. And this is every bit as true for Wilde as it is for other characters in the novel.

The sense of danger is palpable as Tom Wilde finds himself in disguise in the lion’s den, in Berlin itself, having meetings with some of the most important figures in Hitler’s Reich. The tension is almost overpowering, as is Tom Wild’s bravery. But Wilde is also a very clever man. Unfortunately, he is up against some of the most ruthless and determined people in Nazi Germany and it’s not long before they all want him dead and a trail of blood is left across the land. It’s compelling and riveting.

But the novel also has a great deal of heart as Wilde must reflect on what’s important to him morally and he must make decisions accordingly. Although Hitler’s Secret is the most linear and possibly the most straightforward of the four novels, it is extremely well-written, as we’d expect from master storyteller Rory Clements, and very clever, with its dark and dangerous world brilliantly depicted. Tom Wilde is an exceptional character, bridging both American and British worlds, an outsider, someone who can make himself fit almost anywhere because of his deep insight into human behaviour and his expert knowledge of the lessons that history can teach us. I adore this series, it’s always one of the reading highlights of the year and, now that I know that this is not a trilogy, I really hope there’ll be more.

Other reviews
Holy Spy
Corpus
Nucleus
Nemesis

Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey

Simon & Schuster | 2015 | 560p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Letters to the Lost by Iona GreyOne cold February evening, a young woman runs through the London streets, fleeing an abusive boyfriend. She has nowhere to go, she doesn’t even have shoes on her feet. Jess escapes down a small and quiet street and there she finds a house that is clearly not lived in. As Jess tries to make herself as comfortable as she can, a letter arrives in the morning post, which hints at a mystery in the past, a love affair from over seventy years before. Jess finds more letters and soon finds herself caught up in the great love affair of Stella, a clergyman’s unhappy wife, and Dan, a US bomber pilot. Jess, along with Will, a young man who enters Jess’s life, becomes obsessed with finding out who these people were while playing out her own story.

I recently read The Glittering Hour, Iona Grey’s latest novel, and I was enchanted. It is such a beautiful tale of love and loss set in the 1920s and 1930s and so, not surprisingly, I immediately sought out its predecessor, Letters to the Lost. Letters to the Lost is every bit as wonderful. It’s not quite as devastatingly sad but it is such a beautiful story and, once more, features some wonderful characters.

This time the novel is split between the present day(ish) and 1942 and 1943. The blitz is over but London and its citizens are scarred by it. With many people away fighting on the frontline in Europe and North Africa, for those left at home, this is a time of worry, of terrifying telegrams, of food shortages and sometimes even boredom as so much of life is curtailed by the restrictions, hardships and blackouts of war. This is a time of hasty marriages and Stella has made one to a clergyman with whom she must settle in a small village where her business is everybody else’s. It is a disaster from the outset and for much of the novel we feel intensely for this young wife. The romance with the bomber pilot Dan is exquisitely portrayed but it is tinged with tension, guilt and fear. So few pilots survived the war. This is a time when you had to grab what moments of happiness you can, in the face of twitching net curtains and nosey neighbours. Iona Grey captures this perfectly and I was engrossed in this gorgeous love story.

Stella and Dan’s story alternates with that of Jess and Will in the present day. For much of the time, we’re so caught up in Stella and Dan that the later story of Jess and Will plays out in its shadow but by the end it is just as compelling and the parallels between the two are cleverly made. I loved Jess, perhaps even more than Stella, and Will is an unusual young man. My heart, though, belonged to Dan.

Iona Grey writes beautifully. The words dance and dazzle across the page. Both past and present are depicted so vividly and I loved the way that the story moves between London with its bombed out churches and tea dances and the Cambridgeshire countryside with its fetes and squabbles and where tinned peaches can cause such excitement. Letters to the Lost is an enchanting, emotional read and I loved every page.

Other review
The Glittering Hour

The Glittering Hour by Iona Grey

Simon & Schuster | 2019 (Pb 17 October) | 471p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The Glittering Hour by Iona GreyIt is 1936 and young Alice, just 9 years old, has been sent to live with her grandparents and governess at Blackwood Park while her parents sail to Burma on business. Alice is a quiet child, self-sufficient and missing her mother Selina terribly. Her grandparents keep their distance while her governess is far too interested in what is going in the outside world to fuss about a small, lonely girl. Alice’s only friend is Polly, once her mother’s maid and now returned to the house just to look after Alice. It is to the two of them that Selina writes long letters, full of love, giving Alice the clues to a treasure hunt which will lead her to objects and places so precious to Selina and so significant to Alice in ways that she has yet to learn.

And so we discover the great love affair of Selina and the struggling artist Lawrence Weston during the glorious summer and autumn of 1925, a time when Selina was the brightest of all of London’s Bright Young People, and the light that radiated from her drew Lawrence to her like a moth to a flame. The Great War casts a long shadow. Selina mourns her brother. Everyone has lost someone, while many of the men who came back have not returned whole. Love is something to be treasured, perhaps especially because it is forbidden and must be kept secret. It’s time for Alice to discover the truth.

I heard such wonderful things about The Glittering Hour on Twitter and I knew I had to read it immediately and so I did. I am drawn to novels set in the 1920s and 1930s, these years of glamour and decadence (for the rich), sandwiched between times of such terrible sadness. The premise of the novel is wonderful and Iona Grey delivers on it perfectly. This is a beautifully written novel, so evocative of the times in which it is set, and the author does such an astonishing thing in bringing both the child Alice and the adult Selina to life. As the story moves between the two and between the two different years, I was spellbound.

I loved everything about this novel. I really enjoyed watching Alice explore Blackwood Park, discovering her mother’s secrets there, seeking out clues to her life in the house and gardens, helped by Polly and the gardener, ignored by her grandparents and governess. Alice is a child so in need of love, counting the days until her mother will return to her. The heart of the book, though, belongs to Selina, Alice’s mother, and a woman so full of love who has to make the most difficult decisions because she is so afraid of losing more people close to her. It’s a joy reading about her exploits, especially those involving Lawrence, including those infamous treasure hunts that frequently featured in the newspapers of the day. Selina is a gorgeous person and I loved her instantly.

The Glittering Hour is a novel about love but it’s also about loss and, when it hits you, it is heart wrenching. I cried a great deal, while loving every word that I was reading. The Glittering Hour is a gorgeous novel. It’s romantic and sentimental, it’s also deeply conscious of the legacy of war on these times and on these young people. I was riveted to it. I’m looking forward very much indeed to reading Iona Grey’s earlier novel Letters to the Lost. I have no doubt it will be just as enchanting.

Black Sun by Owen Matthews

Bantam Press | 2019 (3 October) | 336p | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

Black Sun by Owen MatthewsIt is 1961 and the Cold War rages between the Soviet Union and the United States, fueled not only by the space race but also by the competition to dominate the technology of nuclear war. Arzamas-16 has been established as the centre for the Soviet Union’s nuclear research and it is there in this secret, closed city that Soviet and German scientists develop weapons of mass destruction. Just days before the biggest nuclear bomb ever built is due to be tested in the atmosphere above the frozen north, one of the key scientists involved in its development is found dead, murdered by radiation poisoning. The murder shakes the Kremlin to its core and so Major Alexander Vasin of the Special Cases branch of State Security is sent to investigate. He finds a secretive, privileged community of scientists, soldiers, police and their families and not one of them wants to help Vasin’s investigation. But Vasin has no choice but to dig and to stir, uncovering secrets, upsetting people, while all the time trying to keep his own secrets safe. Meanwhile, the countdown to the detonation of the Armageddon bomb continues.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Soviet Union. I visited it a couple of times and I’ll never forget it. And so I’m drawn to novels, especially thrillers, about life, politics and crime behind the Iron Curtain. Black Sun was irresistible, not least because it’s based on a true story and that makes it absolutely terrifying. It shows so dramatically and effectively how close the world was to annihilation during those Cold War years and how the weight of this was carried on the shoulders of so few.

The novel contains a fair amount of detail about the science of nuclear technology but it isn’t daunting. Vasin is no expert and he is our witness. As he learns, so do we, and what he learns is incredible. But every bit as fascinating as the science is Arzamas-16 itself. Owen Matthews brings this real place to life with so much detail and colour. The people who live there are unusual. They live privileged lives, listen to banned music, wear banned clothes and eat, drink and smoke so much better than normal Soviet citizens. But they live secluded lives, shut away from the rest of the country by fences and guards. We see how this affects the wives perhaps more than the men. And when you have such a self-contained community, fueled by vodka and stress, passions can flare. Murder can happen.

I was particularly interested in how the legacy of the war and Stalin’s Great Purges affects these people. More than one served time on a Gulag, another survived the siege of Leningrad, another is a Nazi who experimented on people (now he has to make do with goats). It all adds up to a rich portrayal of a place in which emotions are complicated and life might be privileged, but it wasn’t always this way for many of the citizens, and then there’s the cloud of nuclear war that hangs over them all.

Vasin is an interesting character but we’re not allowed to get too close. This is in some ways quite a cold and clinical thriller. Not everything, not everyone, is black or white. It’s much more complicated than that. Vasin, like most characters in the book, isn’t entirely likeable and nor, I think would you expect him to be. He is a KGB officer, after all. But he does have a genuine desire to seek out the truth, which is no easy thing when most people have secrets, including Vasin, including the scientist who was killed. Although Black Sun is a cold thriller, set in a very cold place, it is extremely compelling and involving. More than anything, though, it is horrifying to learn about what was going on this most secret of places and how it could have had devastating consequences for us all.

The Seven Sisters by Lucinda Riley

Pan | 2014 (this edition 2018) | 627p (plus an extract of The Storm Sister) | Review copy and bought copy | Buy the book

The Seven Sisters by Lucinda RileyMaia D’Apliese rarely leaves her home in the grounds of the grand lakeside castle in which she and her five sisters were brought up by their adopted father, known to them all as Pa Salt. But her father encouraged her to accept an invitation from an old school friend to visit her in London and it’s while she’s there that Maia receives a call from her father’s housekeeper Marina, the woman who effectively brought the girls up and who loves them as a mother, who breaks the terrible news that Pa Salt has suddenly died. Maia rushes home to discover that he has already been buried at sea, with no fuss at all. It’s devastating. And so Maia must wait for her five sisters to also return home whereupon they will each be given an object left by their father which hints at their early lives before they were adopted. If each wishes it, they can embark on an adventure to discover the truth of their past. But there is another mystery. Each of the sisters is named after one of the stars in the Seven Star constellation. So who is the seventh sister?

The novels tell the story of each of the sisters in turn, starting in The Seven Sisters with the eldest, Maia, a translator who is probably the most withdrawn from the world but is also the most beautiful. The clue left to her by Pa Salt takes Maia on a journey to Rio where she, along with the writer whose work she is there to translate, discover clues to her family’s identity. We’re then treated to a parallel story in the 1920s and there we meet Izabel, the stunning queen of Rio’s high society who falls in love with a man she shouldn’t.

When I received The Sun Sister to review I was intrigued. I loved the sound of it, with its time split story concerning one of six sisters trying to trace her origins in a distant land. I saw that it was the sixth in the series and so I thought I would go back to the beginning and read The Seven Sisters. I am so glad I did. It is enchanting and is so clearly only just the start of a great story. By the time I’d finished it I’d bought up all of the other novels so that now I can catch up, ahead of the publication of the much anticipated novel next year (hopefully) on the seventh mysterious sister. These are books in which clues are scattered. I want to follow them in order and watch the characters of these fascinating and very different sisters develop.

The Seven Sisters tells such a compelling story and it tells it gorgeously. I’ve read a novel by Lucinda Riley before (The Love Letter), which I loved so I knew I was in safe hands. This is important when embarking on reading a series in which every book is at least 600 pages long. I love how Lucinda Riley writes. It’s light but it’s also insightful. These characters are brought to life and I love here the way in which the past and the present interconnect. It’s a wonderful story but it’s also extremely sad and tender. It did make me cry.

I found myself completely caught up in the stories of Maia and also, maybe even more so, Izabel. I know nothing about Brazil in the 1920s but Lucinda brings it to life by focusing on an object that we’re all familiar with, the great statue of Christ the Redeemer, which Izabel and other characters in the novel observe being created. It even takes Izabel to Paris. Rio and Paris couldn’t be more different. Izabel must still wear a corset unlike her Parisian counterparts, she can’t go anywhere without a chaperone. Belle Époque Paris, with all of the freedom it offers, is irresistible and Izabel is completely consumed by it. It’s fabulous to read. My favourite pages, though, were those describing the lakeside castle in Switzerland. It really does feel like a secluded paradise.

I knew I’d fall for this series and I was right. The Seven Sisters, like the other novels, is very long but it’s a fast, engrossing read. It also contains layers of mystery concerning Pa Salt and the missing sister which are only just hinted at here. Clearly this will be developed through the novels. Next up is The Storm Sister, the story of the second eldest sister Ally, named for the star Alcyone. This time the destination will be Norway. I can’t wait.

Other review
The Love Letter

The Women at Hitler’s Table by Rosella Postorino

HarperCollins | 2019 (14 November) | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Women at Hitler's Table by Rosella PostorinoIt is 1943 and Rosa has fled Berlin, a city of bomb raids that reminds her of loss, to live with her parents-in-law in East Prussia. Her husband Gregor is fighting on the Russian front and her parents are dead. But Rosa finds no peace in this remote and rural part of Germany. Hitler’s hidden headquarters, the Wolfsshanze or Wolf’s Lair, is nearby and Hitler spends more and more time there, increasingly paranoid as the war begins to go badly. Ten German women are picked to serve as his food tasters, to protect Hitler from poison. Rosa is selected and there’s nothing she can do about it. Three times a day she plays a Russian roulette, eating Hitler’s food and then then forced to wait for an hour each time to ensure that she isn’t about to die. The women are virtually imprisoned, only allowed home in the evening. They’re not treated well. And so a type of solidarity slowly grows between these women. But each is so different from another. They think about everything, including the war, differently. It isn’t long before Rosa finds much more to test her than her daily fear of being poisoned to death.

The Women at Hitler’s Table (translated by Leah Janeczko) is a fascinating novel that examines the influence of Hitler on not just these women, but on all of Germany. This is increasingly a war he cannot win but he will not give in. The Wolf’s Lair feels like a den of paranoid madness, its grounds protected by wire as well as guards who are as temperamental as their master. These women live in a state of fear and it’s not just from the food. We also see the wider state of Germany as Rosa remembers her life in Berlin, her marriage. She now faces uncertainty about the fate of her husband. Hitler is a man who has sent his men to fight in the frozen East while he hides in his lair. Rosa suffers but there is another side to this book as it explores her relationship with the officer in charge of them.

Rosa’s an interesting character who is clearly at her wit’s end while trying to hold everything together and stay alive. She is difficult to warm to and the prose, which feels dispassionate, increases our distance. The sexual tension, which plays such a part of the novel, seems strange. But it’s difficult to judge anybody in this novel when they were living in such unnatural times. The line between love and murder, life and death could hardly be less thin. This does make for uncomfortable reading at times but I nevertheless found it mesmerising. It’s hard to look away.

The novel is filled with ideas and difficult questions as these women have to decide how far they will go to survive. Their feelings towards Hitler are ambivalent. They’re afraid of him but they’re working to keep him alive. As the novel goes on, Rosa has to make some choices that will stay with her for the rest of her life. She made these choices but how far was it due to Nazi pressure? And through it all, Rosa develops a relationship with food that is far from normal. At this stage of the war, many people are starving but Rosa and the others are full on Hitler’s food. But every mouth could kill. I found this such an interesting theme and it continues through the novel.

The historical setting is very well done as is the location. It feels cold, remote, hostile. There is a mood of paranoia that hangs over everyone, it even haunts Rosa’s dreams, and there is an atmosphere of distrust, the ever-present possibility of imminent potential death. Rosa and the other women don’t have normal relationships with one another. It would be impossible. Watching Rosa try to pick her way through each day, from meal to meal, is compelling. Despite the troubling subject matter, The Women at Hitler’s Table is a novel that lingers on the mind.

The Lost Ones by Anita Frank

HQ | 2019 (31 October) | 453p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Lost Ones by Anita FrankIt is 1917 and Stella Marcham is stricken by grief for the loss of her fiancé Gerald, killed in the trenches of France during the Great War, a war which shows no signs of ending. There are still many young men whose lives the war waits to claim. Stella’s family find Stella’s grief hard to deal with and, as the months pass, suspect a mental weakness. They find a solution. Stella’s sister Madeleine is pregnant. Her husband has moved her away from London to the safety of the countryside and his manor house, Greyswick, and the care of his mother, Lady Brightwell, while he continues his war work in the capital. She needs a companion. Both sisters are delighted to see each other and draw comfort from the other. But Stella is worried by how she finds her sister. Madeleine seems unsettled, unhappy, even frightened, and when Stella finds a little toy soldier tucked inside her bed she begins to understand that something is not right with this house. And then the nights are disturbed by the sound of a child crying. A child that cannot possibly exist.

I love a good ghost story and I am drawn to tales of haunted houses and there is something extra chilling and sad about those which are set during the First World War, a time when many wives and mothers were drawn to learn about the spirit world due to the untimely, violent loss of their men and boys. The Lost Ones is beautifully written, with its gorgeous prose as haunted by a lost world as the house is. The descriptions of Greyswick and its grounds are evocative and powerful and the novel has such a strong sense of time, place and mood.

The heart of the novel, though, lies with its cast of characters, in particular Stella and her maid Annie Burrows. Annie’s relationship with Stella is a fascinating one. They’re from different classes and experiences but the two of them are drawn together by what they witness in the house. Annie’s past, as the daughter of a man who died trying to save Stella’s sister in a fire, casts a shadow over the relationship and the novel. Annie is hard to know. We’re presented this world from upstairs, in Stella’s words, in comfort. But Annie’s voice breaks through and it adds a real edge to the novel. Then there are the women who live in the house – Lady Brightwell, her companion and the housekeeper. Each is a scene stealer. Possibly the only character who doesn’t linger in the mind is Madeleine. It’s as if the house has stolen her true self away and she must leave to save herself.

The ghost story is such a good one. It’s poignant and sad and at times pleasingly frightening. There is also another side to things – the treatment of women in the early 20th century, the issue of mental health and grief, male domination of society and the home, and the role of women as both victim and oppressor. Stella had experienced an independent life in France as a nurse. She now has no independence at all. But The Lost Ones is also a novel about love. The moments when Stella remembers the precious, short time she shared with Gerald are upsetting but there comes a time when they start to give her comfort. This is something she has to work through. Just as the house itself must endure darkness before it can re-emerge.

The Lost Ones is an excellent and extremely atmospheric haunted house story set at a time stricken by loss due to the First World War. In this atmosphere of loss, grief, worry and traumatic memories, ghosts thrive. But what is it they’re trying to say? I loved the characters and I really enjoyed exploring the house. I did guess the outcome and there was some predictability but nevertheless this novel is beautifully written and evocative of time and place, just what you need for these long dark evenings.

And what a gorgeous hardback!

The Photographer of the Lost by Caroline Scott

SImon & Schuster | 2019 (31 October) | 504p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Photographer of the Lost by Caroline ScottIt is 1921 when Edie receives a photograph in the post. It takes a moment or two for her to take in what she sees. She then realises she’s looking at the face of her husband, who was lost in action four years before, one of so many to have been claimed by the Great War. Edie doesn’t understand why she’s received the photo but it inevitably opens wounds that have barely begun to heal over. It also lights a hope. Could Francis be alive after all? If he is, why didn’t he come home? It stirs up terrible memories for Francis’s brother Harry as well. Harry and Francis fought alongside each other on the front line, beside their other brother, the youngest of the three, Will. Harry now spends his days in northern France and Belgium taking photographs of graves, battle sites, bombed buildings to send back to mourning relatives at home. But now he’s on the hunt for his brother, a soldier who has no known grave. He learns that Edie is also in France searching for the truth, but he doesn’t know where she is. He must search for her as well. She, too, seems lost.

The Photographer of the Lost is a beautifully-written, exquisitely sad tale that moves between 1916/1917 and the frontline experiences of Francis, Harry and Will, and 1921, when both Harry and Edie are in France, separately searching for Francis, seeking closure. Both want to move on but neither can. Harry can’t even escape from France. His memories and his sadness keep him there, plus the need to help widows and mothers who may never be able to visit the graves of their loved ones in foreign soil.

Harry and Edie guide us through this haunting novel but it’s the people they meet on their quests that make The Photographer of the Lost so special. Many of them have both physical and mental scars from the war and each is trying to remember (or forget) in their own way. One man, for example, has made it his life’s work to re-inter soldiers in neat, respectful cemeteries where they can be visited, another is a stone mason who wants to rebuild France with his own hands. And there are several others who have their own stories to tell, their own wounds to bear. But the one thing they are all able to do is to listen. Both Harry and Edie receive comfort as they meet other people all affected by the war.

The Photographer of the Lost is a desperately moving novel that links the war itself with the years of suffering that followed it. It explores the burden of memory for soldiers such as Harry who survived. It is beautifully set in the almost-destroyed towns of northern France and Belgium, such as Arras and Ypres as well as the towns and villages of the Somme. The scars of the land reflect those of the people who died there and those who are effectively the walking wounded, unable to keep away. At times I felt the novel was almost too sad to bear and, strangely, this distanced me a little from Edie and Harry, but the beauty of this novel and the elegance of its writing cannot be denied.

Mitford Murders catch up: The Mitford Murders and Bright Young Dead by Jessica Fellowes

I recently read The Mitford Scandal by Jessica Fellowes and I absolutely adored it, so much so I immediately went out and bought the two books that preceded it and read them straight away. I’ve always been interested in the Mitford sisters, not least because they lived not too far from me and I regularly visit the beautiful Swinbrook church (the daffodils are gorgeous!) where they’re buried as well as their home and its adjoining church at Asthall. I’m also fascinated by the 1920s and 1930s (Brideshead Revisited is quite possibly my favourite novel), as well as being a Downton Abbey addict. Thinking about it, these novels could have been written for me.

I have, of course, read them in a bit of a daft order, starting with the third and latest, The Mitford Scandal, which focuses on Diana Mitford, and then going back to the beginning, leaping back ten years or more to 1920 and The Mitford Murders (focusing on Nancy) and then on to Bright Young Dead (focusing on Pamela), set during 1925 and the heyday of the flappers who fill these pages. Reading the two earlier books made me appreciate the third even more. It also made me feel more forgiving towards Gus and more understanding of our heroine, Louisa, nursery nurse to the Mitford girls, later their chaperone, and always wanting to escape service while being extremely grateful for the safety and security that this work offers. Characters also appear in Bright Young Dead who have quite a role to play in The Mitford Murders. I think a re-read may be in order.

I thought I would jot down here a few thoughts about these two first books. You can read my review of The Mitford Scandal here.

The Mitford Murders by Jessica FellowesThe Mitford Murders

Blurb: It’s 1919, and Louisa Cannon dreams of escaping her life of poverty in London, and most of all her oppressive and dangerous uncle. Louisa’s salvation is a position within the Mitford household at Asthall Manor, in the Oxfordshire countryside. There she will become nurserymaid, chaperone and confidante to the Mitford sisters, especially sixteen-year-old Nancy – an acerbic, bright young woman in love with stories. But when a nurse – Florence Nightingale Shore, goddaughter of her famous namesake – is killed on a train in broad daylight, Nancy and amateur sleuth Louisa find that in postwar England, everyone has something to hide.

This first mystery is possibly even better than The Mitford Scandal, not least because there are shadows overhanging these bright young lives – Louisa’s background in crime and the First World War, culminating in the murder of a brave and caring woman which begins the novel. There is a stark contrast between the glamour of the Mitford family and their circle and the poverty and insecurity of Louisa’s life in London. She is in genuine danger from her uncle and there are a couple of scenes which are quite shocking and completely unexpected in a novel that one might assume to be cosy historical crime. Jessica Fellowes takes time to set the scene for Louisa’s entry into the lives of the Mitfords while also introducing us to Gus, the railway policeman who wants so much to prove himself. He didn’t fight in the war due to his debilitatingly poor eyesight and his brothers never allow him to forget his lack of service. So now he wants to serve in other ways.

I really enjoyed the descriptions of Gus and Louisa trying hard to work for a living in these post-war years. Their lives couldn’t be more different from those of the Mitford’s circle but Louisa is given a taste of that life through her work as Nancy Mitford’s chaperone and ‘almost’ friend. When Nancy gets it into her head to investigate the murder that opens the novel, Louisa has no choice but to go along. The cost to herself could be very high indeed. I found it all thoroughly engrossing. I loved the glimpses of high society while I was also fascinated by the ‘downstairs’ world of Louisa and Gus. Most of the Mitford girls are still in the nursery and so they have yet to come into their own but they are scene stealers even so. The novel is based on a true murder case and Jessica Fellowes blends fact with fiction in a most entertaining and atmospheric way.

Bright Young Dead by Jessica FellowesBright Young Dead

Blurb: Meet the Bright Young Things, the rabble-rousing hedonists of the 1920s whose treasure hunts were a media obsession. One such game takes place at the 18th birthday party of Pamela Mitford, but ends in tragedy as cruel, charismatic Adrian Curtis is pushed to his death from the church neighbouring the Mitford home. The police quickly identify the killer as a maid, Dulcie. But Louisa Cannon, chaperone to the Mitford girls and a former criminal herself, believes Dulcie to be innocent, and sets out to clear the girl’s name… all while the real killer may only be steps away.

Now that I’ve caught up I’m not sure how I’m going to manage without my regular fix of Louisa, Gus and the Mitford girls, each of whom is both fascinating and appalling (in different ways). I find these books completely immersive and enthralling. Bright Young Dead, set in the mid 1920s, captures the mood of the day and contrasts the glamorous, decadent life of the flappers with the dangerous underworld of the poorer parts of London. The Mitford sister in the spotlight is now Pamela. Her eighteenth birthday party is to be a treasure hunt (a most popular activity at the time) but it is ruined by a tragedy – a young man falls to his death from the tower of the church that adjoins the Mitford home of Asthall Manor. Louisa, Pamela’s nursery nurse and chaperone, feels responsible. She had brought into the house a young servant, Dulcie, who was desperately trying to escape the clutches of a London gang of female thieves, led by the infamous Alice Diamond. But the girl is found beside the body. Stolen property is found in her possession. As Dulcie is tried for murder it seems to be an open and shut case. But Louisa is worried. She saw other people at Pamela’s party acting suspiciously. She will have to risk everything if she is to prove that Dulcie is innocent. If Louisa is right, then someone very close to the Mitfords could be a killer.

Bright Young Dead is every bit as good as the books that precede and follow it, with the added appeal that the novel is set in the mid 1920s, a particularly glamorous time. It’s all captured here as the elder Mitford girls flit between Asthall and London with Louisa in tow. Louisa is particularly interesting here as she observes how she is treated by the upper classes. She is resisting the idea of being in service. The Mitford sisters, and their parents, can be kind but they can also be carelessly cruel. While they attend the theatre, shows and dinners, far too often Louisa must stand outside the door or sleep in broom cupboards. The Bright Young Things are beautiful but they’re also appalling and their behaviour (and appearance) is wonderfully observed by Jessica Fellowes. Guy also receives attention as he begins to slowly develop his police career, alongside a woman police officer who has even more to prove than Gus has. It’s an interesting case with an array of intriguing suspects, all set against a backdrop that is at times glamorous and at other times is very ugly indeed.