Romance, drama and mystery for February nights - book reviews

Meet a young dressmaker searching for her mother, a rag-and-bone girl struggling to make ends meet, and an orphan boy trying to find happiness after a childhood scarred by tragedy in three super new sagas.

By Pam Norfolk
Tuesday, 26th February 2019, 2:51 pm
Updated Wednesday, 27th February 2019, 10:02 am
The Dressmaker of Drapers Lane by Liz Trenow
The Dressmaker of Drapers Lane by Liz Trenow

The Dressmaker of Draper’s Lane

Liz Trenow

The discovery of a small piece of silk sends a young 18th century dressmaker on a soul-searching hunt for the mother she never knew.

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Welcome back to the opulent and extravagant world of the London silk trade in the 1760s as former journalist Liz Trenow revisits some of the remarkable places and characters we first met in her bestselling novel, The Silk Weaver, inspired by real historical events.

The Dressmaker of Draper’s Lane is a rich and evocative tale about a young dressmaker born into poverty but now owner of a successful business, and is steeped in Trenow’s own personal history as a member of a family who have been silk weavers for nearly 300 years.

Here she brings to vivid life the intriguing Miss Charlotte, one of the charismatic supporting players of The Silk Weaver, whose life journey from a foundling hospital to single, independent woman of means was a story that Trenow knew was just waiting to be told.

In London in 1768, Miss Charlotte is a remarkable woman, admired by many. As a foundling who rose from poverty and now runs her own thriving dressmaking business in Draper’s Lane in the heart of society London, she has no need, nor desire, to marry and become a dependant.

The people she values most are her friend Anna Vendome, her older sister Louisa Fairchild, married to a country parson, and her beloved ten-year-old nephew, Peter. Louisa only came into her life a few years ago after a bit of detective work by her husband.

Miss Charlotte feels herself fortunate and ‘truly blessed’ and knows that after her miserable start in life – when her mother was forced to leave her at a newly opened foundling hospital in Bloomsbury – she should be content with what she has. But something is missing.

When Anna buys a bundle of fabric scraps at a bankruptcy sale, a small piece of rare and colourful silk inside triggers a curious sense of familiarity in Miss Charlotte, and prompts her to unpick a past filled with extraordinary secrets and revelations which will rock her settled life to the core.

Silk, in all its luxurious and colourful forms, is the thread that runs through this compelling mystery as the inspirational Miss Charlotte unravels her shadowy past to discover the truth and lies of who she really is, and what happened to her mother.

Her relentless search to find that sense of belonging which has always eluded her is at the heart of this beautifully written and emotional story which explores the plight of homeless children in the 18th century and the inequalities that marred the lives of many women.

With stunning descriptions of lavish 18th century clothes – from negligees and nightdresses to silk gowns and petticoats – this is a beautiful, multi-layered story stitched together with perfect precision.

(Pan, paperback, £7.99)

Belle of the Back Streets

Glenda Young

Long bike rides along the coast near Sunderland have provided fertile ‘thinking’ territory for Glenda Young’s gripping and gritty debut saga set in a tough North East mining community.

Belle of the Back Streets, which follows the fortunes and misfortunes of a teenage girl struggling to keep her family safe and above the poverty line in the years after the First World War, has all the favourite ingredients of a good saga… drama, romance, tragedy, flashes of northern humour and a delightful, down-to-earth heroine.

‘Any rag and bone!’ Everyone recognises the cry of Meg Sutcliffe as she plies her trade along the back streets of Ryhope. She learned the ropes from her dad Ernie when he returned from the war but when tragedy struck, Meg had no choice but to continue alone, with only her trusty dog Spot and beloved horse Stella for company.

Now the meagre money she earns is the only thing that stands between her mother Sally and younger brother Tommy’s safety and predatory rent collector Hawk Jackson who, much as he likes his money, also enjoys to be paid ‘in kind.’

Many say it’s no job for a woman, especially a beauty like Meg who is noticed everywhere she goes. But the plucky girl is determined to work on the cart, knowing it was what her dad wanted her to do, and what she now has come to love doing herself.

When she catches the eye of charming market worker Clarky, with his rugged features and warm smile, it looks like she might have found a protector and a chance of happiness. But is Clarky really what he seems? And could pit worker Adam Wilson, Meg's loyal childhood friend, be the one who really deserves her heart?

Young has created a believable and richly detailed world in this action-packed story full of hardship, kinship and resilience, and with a memorable cast of beautifully drawn characters, from the clever and determined Meg to the brutal, scheming and lascivious Hawk Jackson.

Meg’s rollercoaster journey from inexperienced girl to brave, worldly wise woman is paved with personal adversity and the pain and tribulations of the pit strike which had serious repercussions on mining communities in 1921.

With its vivid evocation of Ryhope in the early decades of the 20th century, and a compelling sense of time and place, Belle of the Back Streets is an impressive first book from an exciting new saga writer.

(Headline, paperback, £6.99)

Orphan Boy

Elizabeth Gill

A drama-filled rags-to-riches tale of a young man determined to succeed against the odds is the latest moving book in North East saga queen Elizabeth Gill’s Deerness Series.

Born in in Tow Law on the Durham fells, Gill loves her home territory, and her books, which now number over forty, reflect her natural warmth, her affinity with the folk of this tough corner of the country, and her gift for insightful storytelling.

Orphan Boy, a gritty, moving tale set in the early years of the 20th century, is packed with emotion, heartbreak and atmosphere as Niall McAndrew’s story unfolds against a backdrop of struggle, hardship and poverty.

Born to a mother who died in childbirth and an uninterested father who does not want his son to mix with other children, Niall grows up in Edinburgh as a solitary boy, without a home to call his own.

When he is just seven his father marries again but it’s a doomed union and soon Niall and his father are forced to leave Scotland to live in northern England where his father makes a shocking revelation.

Left alone and penniless, Niall is sent to a children’s home in Newcastle where his only friend is Bridget, a beautiful young girl forced prematurely into womanhood, who opens Niall’s eyes to his own good looks, telling him ‘You look like you fell out of heaven.’

But Niall has brains, spirit and ambition, as well as being blessed with good looks, and he is determined to escape his impoverished life. But his loveless childhood, and some terrifying events that he can never undo, have left their mark. Can he ever find the happiness he yearns for?

Gill is a warm, compassionate and humane storyteller with an acute awareness of life’s triumphs and disasters, and this compelling, hard-hitting story is full of the wisdom and understanding that has made her such a well-loved and popular author.

(Quercus, paperback, £6.99)