Category Archives: Bloomsbury Group

Henrietta Sees It Through – Joyce Dennys

So today I thought I would look at a book that I have already devoured from a series of perfect summer reads. These are of course the new Bloomsbury Group titles which look like they are going to live up to the ones released last year (though I still have three of those to read – whoops, nice to have something to look forward to) and are wonderful books that once forgotten are being fondly re-read or delightfully discovered. I loved Henrietta’s War when I read it last year and so of course was incredibly excited about Henrietta Sees It Through being published and naturally it’s the first in the new series I simply had to read.

‘Henrietta Sees It Through’ is the war years from 1942 – 1945 as written by our narrator Henrietta the doctors wife in the Devonshire countryside in the form of letters to her childhood friend Robert. It’s a side to war you don’t often see as really bar the rationing people aren’t that aware there is a war on (and this is written to much comical effect in the previous book Henrietta’s War too) to begin with. In fact most of them are in competition with just what they can do in order to be a part of the ‘War Effort’. Be it from the amount of heating materials they use, the way they can create clothes out of curtains and pyjama’s, who can knit the most and who can house the most evacuee’s.

There is a much darker twist though as the book goes on and suddenly Devonshire isn’t quite as safe as it once was – the siren is even rung on several occasions which has been unheard of until now. Though still incredibly funny in parts I can imagine Joyce Dennys couldn’t just make a set of columns for Sketch magazine (which is where Henrietta was created) constantly funny despite the fact the idea behind it was in some way to make people laugh during these trying times, Dennys own war effort if you will. So people in the village that Henrietta knows do loose loved ones as many people did and though there is sadness Dennys mixes in the hope of the Blitz Spirit which wasn’t just alive and well in London but around the whole country.

I wanted to include a passage which sums up a lot of the Henrietta spirit and also something that will strike a chord with all us book lovers out there. Here is a small drama in the world of Henrietta whilst trying to ‘do good’ during war times…

 ‘But it’s monstrous! It’s frightful! It’s a crime!’ I cried, getting red in the face. ‘Here we are stuck down here: no theatre, no music; the only thing which stops us becoming screaming savages is books, and now —‘
‘Pulp, all pulp,’ said Mrs Savernack, who dislikes books as some people dislike cats.
‘Do go away, Henrietta,’ said Mrs Admiral. ‘You really are terribly in the way.’
I rushed blindly into the street, nearly colliding with little Mrs Simpkins in her bath-chair, who was bringing Stray Thoughts For Girls as her offering.
On the way home I decided to steal the Fieldings. It was quite simple. That night, while the nine o’clock news deadened the sound of my burglarious entrance, I walked into the Savernacks’ house, saw the key of the depot on the hall table, picked it up, and walked out again. Then I went to the depot, lifted the Fieldings tenderly from their shelf, put five one pound notes on the counter under a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, returned the key to the Savernacks’ hall table, and went home.
‘More books?’ said Charles, looking up from The Times. ‘You’ll have to get another shelf put up soon.’
Next morning, like a murderer unable to keep away form the scene of his crime, I took another book down to the Good Book depot. The empty space on the shelf where the Fieldings had been yawned accusingly empty, but nobody seemed to have noticed it, and Mrs Savernack accepted Gone With The Wind very graciously.

I again thoroughly enjoyed the second, and sadly I think final, instalment of Henrietta and the goings on of her and her friends such as the wonderful Lady B, the ditzy flirtatious Faith (a lovely happy story line there) and a few new characters too not just of the human variety either. I said last year that ‘I haven’t smirked, giggled and laughed out loud at a book so much in quite some time. A perfect and delightful book’ after reading ‘Henrietta’s War’ (as you will see from the picture below where it is features on the back of this very book) and was worried this one might not be able to live up to the last one. However with Dennys adding a few darker shades of the war in I found the contrast added something extra that made this a wonderful follow up and whilst I carried on laughing, I was made to think much more about war and its effects. 9/10

Savidge suggests perfect prose partners;

Henrietta’s War by Joyce Dennys (you have to read both, it’s as simple as that really)
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer (wonderful novel of wartime Guernsey as told through letters between several wonderful characters, it will make you laugh and touch you emotionally, a favourite from 2008)

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Filed under Bloomsbury Group, Bloomsbury Publishing, Books of 2010, Joyce Dennys, Review

A Kid For Two Farthings – Wolf Mankowitz

And so it was time for me to try my third of The Bloomsbury Group. I don’t know what the deal with these has been outside of the UK but last year Bloomsbury re-issued some books from the early twentieth century partially on the advice of bloggers, though not this one as it’s an era I am only just getting to know better. So far though I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know these books would it be the case with Wolf Mankowitz’s ‘A Kid For Two Farthings’ a book that was even made into a film, neither of which I had heard of before this release.

We are introduced with ‘A Kid For Two Farthings’ to the hustle and bustle of the East End in London at some point in the 1950’s. Six year old Joe’s father has gone to Africa and is soon to send for Joe and his mother. In the meantime life must go on for them. In the case of Joe, like many a six year old, his life is a mixture of the real and the imagination. After unsuccessfully trying to raise a chick each week Joe decides to buy something bigger, so when he see’s a man in the market selling a unicorn how can he not buy one?

You might be wondering how a young boy would know what a unicorn looked like and the answer is Joe’s neighbour Mr Kandinsky. Mr Kandinsky is a wonderful character, knowing Joe is missing his father he almost takes on a Grandfatherly role for the young man, also filling his head with magic and adventure. So when Joe brings home a goat he believes is a unicorn how can Mr Kandinsky tell him its not, well he doesn’t. But then strange things start to happen, could it be the belief of a young boy in his unicorn bring luck to these people and those around them?

I couldn’t work out whether it was originally a children’s book or not as it had that sort of tone about it which confused me a little. Actually with some of the wrestling scenes involved maybe not. I also thought the ending was a bit sudden, but I don’t want to give anything away, it just felt a little unfinished. Having said those small gripes with the book I did enjoy this book.

I think I was possibly expecting a little bit more but then that might be because I have overhyped this series in my head, and also because Henrietta’s War was just so brilliant. It’s a quirky short novel/novella that I would recommend people give a go if you like things that celebrate London, give you a delightful tale from a child’s eyes and are a little different from everything else out there. This is a wonderful series and if you haven’t tried on of the titles then I really recommend you do. Either pop to their website and see the whole series or you can see my thoughts on two of the other titles I have read so far here. Have I told you how amazing I thought Henrietta’s War was at all ha, ha, ha!

Have you read this book, if so what did you think? Has anyone seen the movie? Which of the other Bloomsbury Group titles have you tried and which would you recommend I read next?

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The Bloomsbury Group for Your Book Group?

I had a lovely email yesterday from Alice at Bloomsbury who wanted me to let you all know about a competition that they are running. You and your book group could win eight copies of one of the Bloomsbury Group titles such a the delightfully quirky The Bronte’s Went to Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson or the fantastically amazing Henrietta’s War by Joyce Dennys. You simply have to go here…

Also up for grabs are some book marks and greetings cards. I would like it if they did a range of mugs… wouldnt they look fab in your kitchen and how delightful for tea parties with your friends. Anyway my marketing genius idea’s over, do pop there and enter the drawer, you have until the end of the day. I have popped an email over on behalf of The Riverside Readers, but should any other members wish to do so go for it! The more the merrier I say.

Oh and a thank you to A Work In Progress whose picture of the books I have borrowed (as I dont have them all – hem hem), I didnt ask but couldnt find any as lovely and so must send credit that way!

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The Brontes Went To Woolworths – Rachel Ferguson

Now I mentioned earlier that I would be popping up a post of one of the books that has been one of my favourite books of the year so far. Now by favourite I don’t mean “best literary read” of the year in this case, though that’s starting to sound negative and I couldn’t be negative about this book if I tried, what I mean by favourite is that its been one of the most funny and barmy reads that I think, as yet, I may ever have read… seriously its just cuckoo but in an utterly brilliant way.

The Bronte’s Went to Woolworths, originally published in the early 1930’s and now brought back by The Bloomsbury Group, isn’t a book about the Bronte sisters being whisked in a time machine to the 1990’s and ending up working for the now defunct chain of shops. What a good premise though, maybe I should write that book myself? It is however a quite brilliantly bizarre tale of the three Carnes sisters, even if the first line in the book is one of them saying they hate books about sisters – its that sort of book.

Katrine is studying to be an actress though for the main ends up playing characters who invariably mislay their virtues. Deirdre, who narrates part of the tale, is a journalist and is now trying to become a novelist. The youngest of the sisters is Sheil who is still studying though seems to have her head in the clouds. These girls along with their mother seem to be living in a world that is half made up with talking nursery teddy bears and dolls accompanying them wherever they go or inventing characters based on people they read about in the newspaper and having them around the dinner. This is all under the watchful and long suffering eyes of Agatha Martin who also narrates the tale and helps you see the fact from the fiction.

However one day at a charity function Deirdre meets the wife of Judge Torrington someone Deirdre read about and has made an imaginary best friend of. What happens when the character she has created genuinely becomes a friend and therefore needs to fit in with the life that has been fictionally created for him? If not it may shatter the fantasy illusions that these sisters seem to have created since the death of their father with their mother playing along. It’s a surreal, very funny in parts and quirky book that if you give it patience will pay of in dividends.

I mention patience as at the start I was worried (oddly after discussing this yesterday) that I wasn’t going to gel with this book at all. The line between what is fantasy and reality can be quite confusing and it did take me about thirty pages or so until I worked out what was what, who was real and who wasn’t. If you don’t like books that need some hard work for great reward or aren’t a fan or the surreal then maybe skip this one. If like me you enjoy both those things, the era of the 1930’s and the writings of Nancy Mitford then you will lap this all up once you have set it straight in your mind and be carried away with it all. Brilliant.

Rachel Ferguson’s not a novelist that I had heard of until I started reading The Bloomsbury Group’s reissued classics but she is definitely be intrigued to read much more of. I have seen that one of her novels ‘Alas, Poor Lady’ has been published by the lovely Persephone and so I think that will be my next port of call for all things Ferguson. Have you read The Brontes Went to Woolworths, if so, what did you make of it? If you haven’t would the slight craziness put you off? Whats the most barmy book that you have read? Do you think we sometimes have to put hard work in as the reader (I do) or should the author make it plain sailing?

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Henrietta’s War – Joyce Dennys

Do you ever have the inkling that a book might just be so completely and utterly ‘you’ that you actually put off reading it for quite some time as you are scared of being right? Now I know that sounds a little bit crazy but once you have read that book there are two outcomes. You may either hate it and end up being deflated and forlorn possibly never wanting to open a book again… ever! Or there is the possibility you will love the book so much you wish that you could un-read it and have the pleasure of that first read all over again? Joyce Dennys ‘Henrietta’s War’ is definitely the latter for me, utterly delightful. I think that any book that has the line “Dear Robert, I have a great urge to knit something for you” with in the first chapter (or letter in this case) is going to be a hit with me

Henrietta’s War actually started out as columns in Sketch. Dennys was an artist who has many successful collections though once married and a mother in the late 1920’s her life became a domestic one in the English countryside and so needed something to take her frustrations out on. Out came Henrietta’s wartime letters to her ‘childhood friend’ Robert who is ‘out on the front’ and eventually became published as a collection and a novel in the form of this wonderful book.

Henrietta is a ‘doctors wife’ (which all the local women think is very important in a slightly unconvinced way) to Charles and mother to Bill and Linnet living in Devon. As we meet her World War II is raging though where she lives the only real way that war is effecting them is the rations and ‘people are talking cockney up and down the high street’. Having home help she spends most of her time trying to join in the War Effort, joining local clubs, doing good, gossiping with her friends (wonderful characters like the bossy Lady B and Mrs Savernake and the flirty Faith who ‘The Conductor’ is in love with) sunbathing on her roof, writing letters to Robert and getting a lot of bed rest.

To have visitors during a Day in Bed is a grave error. It means getting out to do your hair, make up your face, and have your bed made. A little talk on the telephone with a sympathetic friend who is really interested in your symptoms is the only social intercourse that should be allowed. A good deal of pleasure can be derived from asking for your fountain-pen and notepaper, and then not write any letters…

For some people the war wasn’t all bombs and terror, for some in the middle of nowhere it must have felt somewhat removed in many ways and Dennys addresses this. She also looks at how these people lived, admittedly in a comical tongue in cheek way, when the greatest crisis they had was not having enough sugar to make marmalade for the villages ‘Marmalade Week’. We see how the villagers coped and in some ways continued as normal, or as normally as they could, having jumble sales to raise money, joining drama clubs and even at one point getting arrested as Henrietta does.

Most war novels focus on the awful things that happened during that time, what Dennys does with these fictional letters is try and see the light in these dark times and to look for a way to entertain people during the difficulties with laughter.

But now such is Hitler’s power, this evil influence has begun to effect even the residents, and it keeps breaking out in the most unlikely quarters. Miss Piper, the girl in the greengrocers, has gone into jodhpurs; Faith, our friend, looks quite superb in a pair of pin stripped flannels; Mrs Savernack, though I can hardly expect you to believe this, saw fit to appear in a pair of khaki shorts (we all consider her excuse she is digging her way to victory a poor one); and I tell you frankly, Robert, only my love for Charles has kept me out of a pair of green corduroy dungarees.

I haven’t smirked, giggled and laughed out loud at a book so much in quite sometime. A perfect and delightful book and if that wasn’t enough there is more… the lovely illustrations that Dennys also put into the letters.  

Images & Words of Dennys

If you love books by Nancy Mitford, or that show WWII from a different view point, or have you laughing out loud on public transport, or like books set in villages that house wonderful quirky characters (or all of these) then this is most definitely a book for you. I was also in many ways reminded of Good Evening, Mrs Craven by Mollie Panter Downes which I loved earlier in the year. I am so pleased that this gem has been brought back by Bloomsbury and into the mainstream for people to enjoy. I can think of three people instantly I will be buying copies for. I am only hoping, with everything crossed, that Bloomsbury decides to release ‘Henrietta Sees It Through’ which would just be wonderful.

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Filed under Bloomsbury Group, Bloomsbury Publishing, Books of 2009, Joyce Dennys, Review