Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce – a hymn to friendship and to the resourcefulness of women in a man’s world

I’m often drawn to the scenarios described on the backs of Rachel Joyce’s books. But not really enjoying The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry half as much as everybody else seemed to, I haven’t read any further. But looking for an audiobook, I came across Miss Benson’s Beetle and seeing it was read by the truly splendid Juliet Stephenson, I couldn’t resist. Soon I was immersed in the story, set in the early 1950s London, where dowdy, middle-aged schoolteacher Margery Benson has an epiphany.

It doesn’t take much to tip a schoolteacher over the edge, and imagine being a home science teacher in the rationing years, poorly paid and a hopeless cook. She struggles to maintain engagement in a class of sniggering girls. When one student draws a cruel caricature of her, Margery can bear it no longer. She steals a pair of brand new lacrosse boots belonging to the deputy head and decides to embark on a long dreamt-of adventure: to travel to New Caledonia in search of a gold beetle. She had seen it mentioned in her late father’s beetle book, but it has yet to be collected, named and sent to the Natural History Museum.

Margery needs an assistant and advertises. Of the three who reply, the only possible contender does a reference check on Margery and changes her mind. Mrs Pretty can’t write a letter that makes sense; the disagreeable Mr Mundic wants to take over as expedition leader, ready with a gun to fight off savages – clearly he has a screw loose. At the last minute, desperate for anybody really, Marjory writes offering the position to Enid Pretty.

At the train station, the two take a while to recognise each other as Enid is dressed in a tight pink suit, a ridiculous hat and dainty sandals decorated with pompoms. And why does she clasp her red valise as if her life depends on it? Margery is dressed in an ancient shabby suit, the lacrosse boots and a pith helmet. Somehow they make their connection to the ship that will take them to Australia, in spite of Enid not having a passport.

The two make an odd couple, Edith, a former cocktail waitress seems to be running away from something, constantly looking over her shoulder as if she’s being followed. But she has the streetwise knack of acquiring by fair means or foul anything they might need. If only she would stop talking. An array of difficulties – sea sickness, lost luggage, a tropical cyclone and so much more – forges an unexpected friendship. Yet things aren’t quite so simple as finding a beetle and setting off for home again.

The story is full of madcap scenes, some poignant revelations and life-or-death challenges as both women slowly open up about their past lives and the things they are afraid of. There’s also quite a lot about beetles – Margery has become quite the expert. I also enjoyed some of the minor characters, particularly the British wives who are stuck in New Caledonia because their husbands are there on business or as diplomats.

Bubbling through it all is a wry humour. I came away feeling the book was a wonderful hymn to friendship, and to women surviving in a man’s world, a world that in the shadows of World War II is shown to capable of horrific cruelty. And I was quite right about Juliet Stephenson – her reading is superb, bringing to life the two main characters hilariously. I am sure the novel is a brilliant read in print, but I do recommend the audiobook too. Miss Benson’s Beetle earns a four out of five from me.

Book Review: The Kitchen Front by Jennifer Ryan – a wartime novel about friendship, rivalry and rationing

Jennifer Ryan cements her reputation for World War Two fiction about the women stuck at home with her third novel, The Kitchen Front. Her previous books, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir and The Spies of Shilling Lane, similarly threw together unlikely allies and mined small-town prejudices, keeping up appearances and the difficulties of maintaining anything like normal life when there’s a war on.

Ryan has a knack for discovering interesting story threads in the archives of wartime social history and memoirs. Here she’s latched on to the concept of cooking competitions that encouraged housewives to make rationed ingredients stretch further and items like whale meat (ugh!) which weren’t rationed somehow palatable. Here we’ve four main characters each vying for a radio slot on The Kitchen Front hosted by fastidious bon-vivant, Ambrose Hart.

Lady Gwendoline Strickland seems a likely candidate as she already hosts wartime cooking demonstrations in Fenley Village Hall. But she doesn’t get all that much cooking practice in, having all the trappings of a manor house kitchen, a cook and kitchenmaid. And a wealthy husband – a not very nice wealthy husband, but still, she’s got a lot of clout.

Then there’s Audrey, Lady G’s sister, who is toughing it out as a war widow, raising three boys and keeping the wolf from the door by baking pies and cakes that sell locally. She barely makes ends meet, and to make matters worse, she’s in debt to her sister for a mortgage on her home, the home she and Gwendoline grew up in. Without the house and grounds, she wouldn’t have the garden and orchards for her ingredients. So Audrey’s under a lot of pressure.

Also in the running is the Stricklands’ cook, Mrs Quince, one of the most famous manor house cooks in the country. But Mrs Quince is getting on and relies heavily on Nell, the kitchenmaid, who’s been learning at the cook’s elbow ever since she left the orphanage at fourteen. The two enter Ambrose’s competition jointly, and Mrs Q encourages shy Nell to speak up and come out of her shell.

The final entrant is London chef, Zelda Dupont. Zelda (not her real name) has always been on struggle street, but has worked her way up to be sous chef at a top London Hotel. When it’s bombed and she finds herself jobless, alone and pregnant, she winds up in Fenley, overseeing the staff canteen at a pie factory. Few know she’s in the family way, although her landlady has twigged and makes her life hell. If her boss finds out, she’ll be out of work too. Winning the competition could save her bacon.

The competition nicely shapes the plot of the novel and Ryan throws in lots of recipes and wartime tips for making those rations go further (Sheep’s Head Roll, anybody?). But really, this is a story about friendship and family, about pulling together, facing up to the truth and making a go of things. It’s a lovely, warm-hearted story, with a couple of villains you love to hate, and a touch of romance. It has that feel-good factor in spades, but there’s enough humour to keep things from getting mawkish. A charming, relaxing read, getting a four out of five from me.

Book Review: The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley

Book connections can be puzzling. What led me to seek out this novel was probably a recommendation in connection with another book I enjoyed, but what it was escapes me. This story similarly connects random characters, one leading onto the next.

It begins when elderly Julian leaves an exercise book in Monica’s café, with the title The Authenticity Project carefully lettered on the cover. Inside Julian describes his loneliness since his wife died, and how he lost friends and relationships, now going days without talking to anyone. He closes with the challenge to whoever picks up the book to ‘tell your truth’.

Monica does. She writes about her longing for a family, in particular, a husband and a baby. She’s in her late thirties and fears she’s left it too late. But Monica doesn’t just tell her truth, she decides to help Julian. She’s looked him up online and discovered he’s a once famous artist, and a minor celebrity in his day. Her plan is to weasel him out of his cave by advertising for an artist to teach drawing at her café. He regularly stops by for coffee, so is sure to see it. She leaves the exercise book in a bar where it is picked up by Hazard, a stock broker with addiction issues and so the story goes on.

Hazard is an interesting character in that he’s a really obnoxious on the one hand, but has the self-awareness to take himself off on a retreat to Thailand to detox. Perhaps a new Hazard hides beneath all that drug and alcohol fuelled brashness. The exercise book is just the trigger he needs. He’s read both Julian’s and Monica’s ‘truths’ and decides to help Monica from his tropical hideaway.

More characters join the chain. Happy-go-lucky, live-for-the-moment Riley, an Australian gardener, who doesn’t understand the English with all their hangups. New mother, Alice, who has a social media addiction, as well as the husband and baby Monica craves. But they don’t make her happy. They’re all interesting and entertaining in their way, although it’s Monica and Hazard who are the most engaging and complex, the ones who can’t make up their mind what they want or how to get it.

The Authenticity Project is a light and entertaining novel. The changing viewpoints work well because everyone is trying to fix things for others, creating dramatic tension, and a community of sorts emerges. It made me wish Monica’s café was just up the road so I could pop in, join an art class or curl up on a sofa with a book. The references to famous people of the eighties Julian used to hang out with, his designer wardrobe and old LP collection, add plenty of colour and I loved the Fulham setting. It’s a a feel-good kind of read, maybe just the thing for the holidays with an original, well-executed storyline. I’m giving this one a three and a half out of five.

Book Review: The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Matt Haig writes the sort of books that get picked up for movies starring Benedict Cumberbatch (How to Stop Time is one, though still in development). The Midnight Library is the first I’ve read, but looking at his back catalogue, I can see the potential for screen adaptations in the stories he comes up with. They look original, life affirming, sometimes romantic and with a bit of philosophy thrown in. There’s that category, Speculative Fiction which might put you off if you’re not into sci-fi or fantasy. But on the other hand, this could be the Spec-Fic for you.

The Midnight Library is the story of Nora, once a promising young swimmer who, if her dad’d had his way, would have gone on to Olympic glory. She could have been a rock star too, if she hadn’t pulled out of her brother’s band, causing a rift between them that has continued to this day. Her life could have included a career in glaciology, helping save the planet with her studies on Arctic sea ice, or an academic career in philosophy. But somehow, at 35, Nora has hit rock bottom, losing her music store job, missing family and far-away friends and living in a grim flat in Bedford..

When her cat dies suddenly, Nora feels she is so worthless she tries to kill herself, but wakes up in the Midnight Library instead. Here, the librarian is Mrs Elm, a kindly figure Nora remembers from school, who shows Nora the Book of Regrets, and gives her the chance to start again, picking alternative life paths until she finds the one she wants to live. Each segment shows Nora in a new life story, but being dropped into a different life at the age of 35 and having to figure out what she has to do adds some interesting tension. Who are these people, she wonders, and what do I next?

The Midnight Library plays with the idea that if we could live our life again, what would we decide to do differently. Would we be happier? More fulfilled? It is peppered with very quotable quotations – Nora didn’t study philosophy at uni for nothing – and as such the book seems to be full of wisdom. When you’ve got to the end, you might find yourself thinking about your own life and its crossroads and turning points. The ultimate in personalised Spec-Fic, perhaps.

As Thoreau wrote, ‘It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.’ 

It’s a fun read though – like Nora, you don’t easily pick what will happen next – and there’s a smattering of humour. Though you realise fairly early on that there’s a moral to the novel, not your usual fictional resolution. I was at a writer’s conference recently when the presenter on novel structure reacted adversely to the suggestion that a novel should have a moral. But this one does and somehow avoids being too icky – though some might disagree.

I wouldn’t like to read a book like The Midnight Library too often. It’s a bit gimmicky and too many stories with philosophical meanderings would lessen the effect. However, sometimes a book like this is just the ticket and could be a tonic if you’re feeling stuck in a rut, or to spark a lively book group discussion. I can’t quite bring myself to give the novel a four, so it’s a three-and-a-half read from me.