Curl up with three cosy winter-warmers  - by various authors - book reviews -

From love and drama in London’s East End in the early 20th century to a saga set in England’s first ever NHS hospital, and the tale of an orphan girl who dreams of becoming a lawyer, there are some gorgeous books to escape into this December.

Thursday, 10th December 2020, 7:00 am
The Jam Factory Girls

The Jam Factory Girls

Mary Wood

When two factory girls form an unexpected friendship with the daughter of their boss, it binds them all together in ways they could never have imagined.

Inspired by her own early years in the East End of London, bestselling author Mary Wood sweeps us away to the struggles of three young women in London’s Bermondsey in the time leading up to the First World War for a story full of love, loss, hardship and hope.

Wood, who lives in Blackpool during the summer and Spain during the winter, worked in the probation service in both Lancaster and Blackpool and her hard-hitting and emotional historical sagas reflect her own experiences with people from all walks of life, helping her to bring a realism and grittiness to her writing.

In The Jam Factory Girls, it’s 1910 and we meet 18-year-old Elsie Makin whose alcoholic mother Kitty has to work on the streets because she has no other way to help feed and clothe her children. Two of Elsie’s brothers, 17-year-old Cecil and four-year-old Bert, are robust boys but eight-year-old Jimmy is always ailing.

Caring for her siblings and working long hours at Swift’s Jam factory in Bermondsey is exhausting but, thankfully, her lifelong friendship with workmate Dot Grimes, whose dad regularly knocks her about, helps to smooth over life’s rough edges.

When Elsie and Dot – whose factory tasks involves the back-breaking work of washing jam jars and sorting through the fruit to be bottled – meet headstrong Millicent ‘Millie’ Swift, they are nervous to be in the presence of the boss’s daughter but Millie is eager to learn about jam making.

And against all expectations, Elsie and Dot are surprised to feel so drawn to Millie who is shocked to discover the conditions under which some of her father’s workforce live and the hardships they suffer on a daily basis.

As their clandestine friendship grows, Elsie and Dot begin to wonder if two East End girls should be socialising in such circles but when disaster strikes, long-held secrets are revealed which could change all their lives forever.

Wood excels at storytelling and this hard-hitting tale is full of heartbreak, rich period detail, and the harsh realities of life in the early 20th century as Elsie and Dot rely on their close friendship to see them through the best and the worst of times.

Written with insight, warmth and the empathy gained from the author’s years working with a cross-section of society, The Jam Factory Girls is an emotional rollercoaster from first page to last, and the perfect companion for winter nights.

(Pan, paperback, £7.99)

Nurse Kitty’s Secret War

Maggie Campbell

Escape into a drama-packed saga based on the pioneering doctors and nurses who worked at England’s first ever NHS hospital… the Trafford General in Greater Manchester.

Maggie Campbell – who grew up in Manchester at a time when the city was still on its knees after the Second World War, and can just about remember the end of rationing – retrained as a midwife after decades working as a seamstress in factories.

The Trafford General, originally called the Park Hospital, was opened in 1948 by Aneurin Bevan but during the latter years of the war, the hospital was transferred to the US Army, becoming the 10th US Station Hospital and treating service personnel from across the world.

Nurse Kitty’s Secret War – an uplifting and emotional story inspired by the hospital’s real history – stars a feisty young nurse determined to protect her patients in the first months after the end of the war.

It’s May 1945 and at 3pm, nurse Kitty Longthorne and the other surgical staff at South Manchester’s Park Hospital, listen to Winston Churchill’s broadcast on the radio announcing that Germany has signed a declaration of complete surrender. The war is over in Europe and the day of victory is to be celebrated as VE-Day.

The mood in Park Hospital – still full of wounded American soldiers – is jubilant and hopeful, although Kitty is anything but. Her secret boyfriend and the man she hopes to marry, handsome young surgeon Doctor James Williams, has been giving her the cold shoulder for the past week, and she can’t work out why.

Kitty knows James is busy campaigning for the future of Park Hospital but he’s also working closely with Nurse Violet Jones, Kitty’s friend and colleague, whose privileged background is closer to James’s than Kitty’s tough upbringing in Hulme.

A further worry for Kitty is that her beloved twin brother, Ned, who was reported missing in action, has now been identified as a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp.

Caring for the patients brings untold challenges for Kitty, and with a troublesome family that continually throws yet more obstacles in her way, is her career a mountain she may never be able to climb and will she have the strength to find her own happy ending?

Nurse Kitty’s Secret War is a reminder of the discrimination and inequalities of the health service in those early days, but also a celebration of the wonderful care and dedication of the hardworking and pioneering nurses.

Brimming with romance, heartache and drama, and with an appealing cast of characters, including an inspirational fierce but fair matron, this is a delightful winter-warmer.

(Trapeze, paperback, £6.99)

The Glasgow Girl at War

Eileen Ramsay

Eileen Ramsay, who grew up in Dumfriesshire and is the current Chair of the Romantic Novelists’ Association, sweeps us away to 1930s Scotland and into the life of an ambitious young woman who dreams of becoming a lawyer.

Previously published as The Quality of Mercy, this is a beautiful, heartwarming and inspirational tale set at a time when women’s career prospects were limited by marriage, motherhood, and age-old expectations and traditions.

At the heart of the story is Ferelith Gallagher who grows up in a convent orphanage in Glasgow in the 1930s but never stops dreaming of bigger and better things.

Ferelith, who was born out of wedlock, has no money behind her and no family to speak of, so she leaves the orphanage and travels to Edinburgh determined to study to be a lawyer even though it is a brave choice for a woman in the Thirties.

And when she falls in love with a young fellow student, she thinks she has finally found a home. But after a brief and disastrous marriage, Ferelith swears that she is through with love, and buries herself in her studies, striving to become the first female senior advocate in Scottish history.

But love hasn't finished with Ferelith and when she finally meets a man she knows she could be happy with, she finds herself torn between love and her burgeoning career. And when war breaks out, she knows for certain that life will never be the same again…

Ramsay delivers an emotional rollercoaster story which explores the difficult choices facing women in the battle to move beyond domestic roles and pursue their dreams of forging a career, particularly in professions like the law.

Full of the author’s natural warmth, superbly drawn characters, and wonderful storytelling, The Glasgow Girl at War is the ideal curl-up-and-relax book for fireside reading.

(Zaffre, paperback, £7.99)