Book reviews: Drama, romance and adventure for spring nights

Travel back to Lancashire's Bowland Fells in the mid-19th century for a moving saga, join the Kentish Woolworths girls as they suffer the slings and arrows of wartime, and follow the plight of a young woman turned out of her own home.

Tuesday, 8th May 2018, 12:02 pm
Updated Tuesday, 8th May 2018, 12:06 pm
The Street Orphans by Mary Wood
The Street Orphans by Mary Wood

The Street Orphans by Mary Wood

Blackpool-based author Mary Wood has a long association with Lancashire and she takes to the remote Bowland hills for a new saga brimming with the gritty realism that has become a hallmark of her much-loved books.

Wood worked in the probation service in both Lancaster and Blackpool and her hard-hitting and emotional historical novels reflect her own experiences with people from all walks of life.

The thirteenth child of fifteen born to a middle-class mother and an East End barrow boy father, Wood’s childhood of ‘love and poverty’ gave her a natural empathy with the less fortunate and a lifelong fascination with social history. Now a great-grandmother, Wood’s exciting tales of romance, hardship and adventure have won her an ever-growing army of devoted readers and admirers.

The Street Orphans brims with all those ingredients we have come to expect from this warm and wise author as we follow a crippled orphan girl on a gruelling journey through death, despair and destitution after the death of her father.

Born with a club foot in a remote village near Slaidburn in Lancashire’s Bowland hills, Ruth Dovecote is feared and ridiculed by her superstitious neighbours who see her affliction as a sign of witchcraft and ‘evil powers.’

When her father is killed in an accident and her family evicted from their tied cottage within hours of his death, Ruth, her mother and four siblings hope to leave behind their old life and start afresh by finding work in Blackburn’s flourishing cotton mills.

But tragedy strikes on the road as they make the long trek to Blackburn on foot, setting in motion a chain of events that will unravel the lives of Ruth’s family.

Their fate now lies in the hands of the Lord Frederick Rollinson, the Earl of Harrogate, and his betrothed, Katrina Arkwright, daughter of a wealthy self-made man. Even more worrying is the scheming Marcia, Katrina’s cruel and jealous sister who will stop at nothing to get what she wants.

Meanwhile, Ruth is harbouring an impossible dream. From the moment she meets Frederick, there seems to be a spark between them and she hopes that he will save her from the terrible fate that awaits those accused of witchcraft.

Her dream is that one day her destiny and the Earl’s will be entwined but Frederick, Katrina and Ruth face a pivotal moment in their lives… one that will not only affect them, but generations to come.

Wood excels at storytelling and this haunting, hard-hitting tale is full of heartbreak, rich period detail, emotional intensity and the harsh realities of life at all levels of society in the mid-19th century.

Written with insight, warmth and compassion, The Orphan Girls is gripping from first to last page…

(Pan, paperback, £6.99)

Wartime at Woolworths by Elaine Everest

The Woolworths girls are back in town… and there can only be trouble ahead!

It’s hard to believe that Wartime at Woolworths is only the third book in Elaine Everest’s wonderfully nostalgic wartime Woolies series which has brought new life and love for the famous stores which once graced almost every high street in the country.

This ‘family’ of devoted and dedicated store staff have become like friends to an army of readers who have taken the hard-working women – and their trials and triumphs – to their hearts since The Woolworth Girls hit the shelves two years ago.

Set once again in Everest’s home town of Erith in Kent, where she briefly worked as a Woolworths girl herself, this new chapter in the lives of the charismatic friends and their Woolworths boss Betty Billington sees the group facing their biggest challenges yet.

It’s 1943 and fun-loving, elegant Maisie Carlisle is devoted to her baby daughter Ruby and her work at Woolworths. But her happy life with her husband David, who is an RAF officer, and their baby makes her think longingly of her mum and dad in the East End of London from who she is now estranged.

But with the war now into its fourth year, the capital suffering massive casualties in the blitz and her husband not keen on her venturing into a danger zone, what will she find when she sets about searching for them and will she be safe?

Meanwhile, Sarah Gilbert and her husband Alan, an RAF pilot, are blissfully happy and longing for a sibling for their daughter Georgina. Sarah is making plans to try to save money so that when the war is over, they can rent their own home instead of living with family. But dark days lie ahead…

Freda Smith is heading home to Birmingham in search of her mother, back to the unhappy life she fled because of her bully-boy stepfather and far away from the safety of Woolworths and her new friends.

As Woolworths boss Betty Billington struggles to keep her staff afloat, their kindly guardian angel Ruby tries to look out for everyone, and with families separated by the perils and uncertainty of war, will the good friends be able to keep on pulling together?

Everest works her storytelling magic in this new chapter of wartime Woolies in Kent, and when the irrepressible Woolworths girls get together, you know that there can only be romance, drama, tears and laughter in ‘store’!

(Pan, paperback, £6.99)

The Empire Girls by Sue Wilsher

Essex ‘girl’ Sue Wilsher’s new novel set in the streets around Tilbury Docks in 1952 could not be more timely as the plight of the Windrush immigrants from the Caribbean makes headlines across the country.

In her author’s note, Wilsher reveals that her new novel, The Empire Girls, which tells the heartbreaking story of a young unmarried mother, grew from her research into local history and life in Britain generally in the Fifties.

The emotion packed into the pages of this gritty and compelling portrait of the moral codes which dominated society, the stigma of illegitimacy, and the exclusion faced by immigrants from the West Indies, reflects Wilsher’s desire to go some way to addressing the injustices.

Teenager Doris was born in the front bedroom of the Empire pub near Tilbury Docks and grew up emptying ashtrays before school. The pub is the haunt of the dockers and run by Vi, Doris’s tough, watchful, unforgiving mother.

And when Doris becomes pregnant and gives birth on her bedroom floor, she is kicked out of the house and forced to fend for herself. Desperate to look after her baby daughter Laura, born with a club foot and unsuitable for adoption, Doris finds refuge in Southend, hoping for a better life and willing to take any job going.

When she finds herself cast out again, Doris has nowhere to go but home, back to Tilbury, but she is now welcome there and once again has to look for shelter and work.

Homeless and as a single mother, life is tough for Doris and it becomes even harder when she becomes friendly with her neighbour Claude. He is one of the newly-arrived Windrush immigrants and she is determined to help him find a new life in Britain. Now Doris must decide where her heart lies…

This is the second Essex-set saga from Wilsher. It’s a page-turning, well-researched and revealing story filled with heartache and drama as two very different women battle with the hardships and prejudices of life in the Fifties.

Unexpected friendships, love, resilience and hope all play a part as Wilsher delivers another gripping slice of life in the mid-20th century.

(Sphere, paperback, £7.99)