Spotlight: Random Things Tours

A Beautiful Spy by Rachel Hore

Pages: 413

Publisher: Simon and Schuster

ARC provided by Random Things Tours

Interwar spy novel

Book excerpt

Summer 1928

It all began at a garden party in a leafy provincial suburb. ‘Don’t dawdle, dear,’ called Mrs Gray, hurrying ahead along the front path.

Minnie sighed as she shut the wooden gate then followed her mother round the side of the white-painted mansion with reluctant footsteps. They passed beneath an arch of tumbling pink roses and out onto a sunny terrace overlooking a rolling expanse of lawn dotted with people and stalls selling home- made jam and baked goods.

From here she surveyed the busy gathering with dismay. There were a few people she recognized, but they were mostly her mother’s friends, middle-aged women in frumpy hats and floral frocks, some with their husbands in tow. At twenty-one, it seemed that Minnie was the youngest person here. How she wished she’d never come.

‘Look, there’s Sarah Bowden. Come on, Minnie!’ Mrs Gray, bright-eyed and purposeful, propelled her daughter across the grass to where a willowy lady in navy was queuing by a snowy canopy where teas were being served.

‘Betty darling,’ Sarah Bowden cried in welcome, carmine lips curving in her foxy face. ‘And Minnie. So sweet of you to keep your mother company. I’m here on my own. Ernest had a bowls match, wretched man.’

‘I’m not being sweet, Mrs Bowden, there was nothing else to do.’ Minnie had never warmed to beady-eyed Mrs Bowden. ‘Tennis was called off and Mother wouldn’t leave me moping at home, would you, Mother?’

‘Really, Minnie,’ her mother muttered. ‘Do you have to be so honest? I’m sorry, Sarah, sometimes I don’t know what to do with her.’

‘Poor dear Minnie,’ Mrs Bowden murmured, patting Minnie’s arm. ‘It won’t be much fun for her here.’ She glanced around and her voice dropped. ‘Honestly, Betty, look at the men. The ones that aren’t old and married are hardly a young girl’s dream.’

Mrs Gray scanned the crowd with a predator’s eye. ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ she said briskly, ‘there are one or two nice younger ones. Don’t slouch, Minnie. It’s not attractive.’

They took their turn at the rows of white crockery and there was a pause while they collected cups of tea and finger sandwiches. Minnie slid a slab of warm marble cake onto her saucer then licked her fingers, causing her mother to frown.

Mrs Bowden narrowed her eyes and whispered above the rattle of cups, ‘Did you hear that Mr Chamberlain himself is expected?’

Mrs Gray’s expression clouded. ‘His wife didn’t mention it when I saw her at last week’s committee meeting.’

‘Didn’t she?’ Mrs Bowden said happily. ‘There are rumours, you know, that he’s to switch to our constituency in the next election to be sure of a good majority.’

‘I know about that. Minnie, I’ve told you how important Mr Chamberlain is becoming in the House of Commons. It would be something for you to meet him.’

‘If you say so,’ Minnie murmured, long bored by the sub- ject of the Chamberlains, though secretly she supposed that encountering Neville Chamberlain would be special. Not only was he one of Birmingham’s MPs, but he was the son of the renowned Victorian statesman Sir Joseph Chamberlain. Now what was wrong? Her mother was inspecting her in a critical manner. My hair, probably. Minnie touched a hand to her new blonde crop and worried whether the style suited her.


Three girls dreaming of better lives

A Rachel’s Random Resources Blog Tour for The Tobacco Girls by Lizzie Lane

r/suggestmeabook: I want a familiar tale of three friends facing adulthood tinged with the imminent onset of WWII.

Movie rating: PG

Publisher: Boldwood Books

ARC courtesy of Rachel’s Random Resources

From the publisher: Bristol 1939. School leaver Maisie Miles suspects her father, a small-time crook, has an ulterior motive for insisting she gets a job at the W. D. & H. O. Wills tobacco factory but keeps it to herself.

She’s befriended by effervescent Phyllis Mason and kind-hearted Bridget Milligan who take pity on her and take Maisie under their wing.

But beneath their happy go lucky exteriors they all harbor dreams and worries about what the future holds. Engaged to be married, Phyllis dreams of romance and passion but when it comes there are dire consequences.

Bridget, seemingly the level-headed one, harbors a horror of something unspeakable that she cannot easily come to terms with. There’s great comradeship at the tobacco factory, and with the advent of war everything is about to change, and even the closest friendships are likely to be strained.


Excerpt

Slight of stature, dark-haired and dark-eyed, fifteen-year-old Maisie Miles was currently engrossed in a world of her own. Though the newspaper sellers and the wireless shouted warnings of war to come, it meant nothing to her.


The world, her surroundings and everything else, was blanked out by the letter she’d almost snatched from the postman’s hand. She’d bobbed out of that front door ten times at least that morning, waiting for him to come so she could grab the letter before he had chance to shove it through the letter box. Hopefully it would be her ticket out of York Street, the Dings and the larger area that was St Phillips’ Marsh.

The envelope was blue, the paper of a quality she’d never encountered before. The letter inside matched the envelope both in colour and quality.

Her brown eyes glowed and her creamy complexion burst into pinkness as she read the letter for the third time.

Dear Miss Miles,
In response to the reference I received from your teacher Miss Smith, and the fact that since leaving school you have experienced some domestic work in the kitchen of the Royal Hotel, in Bristol, I am delighted to offer you the position of kitchen maid at Priory House, Long Ashton, which, as I am sure you know, is just outside the city of Bristol and not far from Ashton Court…

Feeling sublimely happy, Maisie closed her eyes and held the letter to her heart. Bliss. Green fields and trees. She’d never been to Ashton Court, but the redoubtable Miss Smith had told her that the sumptuous mansion had been built with the proceeds of a vast sugar plantation on the island of Jamaica.

The letter had come from the housekeeper who was known personally to Miss Smith.

‘A much respected acquaintance,’ she had told Maisie. ‘It’s a private house, so only glimpsed through the gates.’

It was obvious from her tone that Miss Smith herself had never been into the house but would very much like to.

For her part, Maisie wasn’t interested in the house. It was the prospect of fresh air far away from the stink of York Street which attracted her.

The house she’d grown up in was situated in the Dings, a subdistrict of St Phillips, a less than salubrious area of Bristol, where the air was thick with the stench of bone yards, soap works and slaughter houses.

Added to the cloying stench was the deafening rattle from the marshalling yards stretching from Midland Road to Lawrence Hill, a sprawling expanse of glistening rails linking the Great Western Railway with the Midland Railway. Like the smell, the railway never ceased: the goods trucks shunting backwards and forwards, chains clanking, metal rails squealing beneath metal wheels. Of late it had been busier and nosier than usual. The old man, the old sod, her father, declared it was all to do with impending war because it said so in the papers. As if he would know! She’d never seen him read anything. It was more likely he’d heard the newspaper vendor shouting out the news from his pitch outside the Kings’ Cinema in Old Market.

Maisie didn’t care. All she wanted was to get away to something better.

There was nothing attractive about number five, York Street. It had a yard at the back, a patch of dusty dirt between the back of the house and the brick privy that lurched against the far wall. It was a place of mouldy walls and cramped rooms, packed with shabby furniture and a cold hearth that even when lit did little to warm one room, let alone the whole house.

‘What you got there?’ Suddenly the very air was ripe with menace.


Lizzie Lane is the author of over 50 books, a number of which have been bestsellers. She was born and bred in Bristol where many of her family worked in the cigarette and cigar factories. This has inspired her new saga series for Boldwood, The Tobacco Girls, the first part of which will be published in January 2021.