Dear Mrs Bird

London, 1941. Amid the falling bombs Emmeline Lake dreams of becoming a fearless Lady War Correspondent. Unfortunately, Emmy instead finds herself employed as a typist for the formidable Henrietta Bird, the renowned agony aunt at Women’s Friend magazine. Mrs Bird refuses to read, let alone answer, letters containing any form of Unpleasantness, and definitely not those from the lovelorn, grief-stricken or morally conflicted.

But the thought of these desperate women waiting for an answer at this most desperate of times becomes impossible for Emmy to ignore. She decides she simply must help and secretly starts to write back – after all, what harm could she possibly do?

When I first saw the advertisement in the newspaper I thought I might actually burst. I’d had a rather cheerful day so far, despite the Luftwaffe annoying everyone by making us all late for work, and then I’d managed to get hold of an onion, which was very good news for a stew. But when I saw the announcement, I could not have been more cock-a-hoop.”

So begins Dear Mrs Bird by A.J. Pearce, a book I devoured over a couple of rainy afternoons curled up on my sofa. Relentlessly practical and optimistic in the keep calm and carry on sort of way you imagine war time women to have been, Emmy’s energy was exactly what I needed to channel to get me through lockdown. Like the blurb says, Emmy dreams of being a war correspondent – though currently working as a secretary at Strawman’s Solicitors and a volunteer telephone operator with the Auxiliary Fire Service three nights a week. So, as you can imagine, she is over the moon when she sees in the paper that the Launceston Press, publishers of The London Evening Chronicle, is hiring a part-time Junior.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t turn out quite like she thought. Rather than getting a position writing the news, it’s actually Women’s Friend magazine Launceston Press is hiring for. This magazine is pretty much what it sounds like – all crochet patterns, serialised romance stories, parenting advice and Henrietta Helps, the problem page. It’s this problem page that Emmy has been hired to type up letters for. Emmy quickly learns that having accidentally taken entirely the wrong sort of job is going to be the least of the problems in her role. The page is ruled by Mrs Henrietta Bird’s draconian hand. The old fashioned type, Mrs Bird refuses to answer questions that involve any sort of ‘unpleasantness’, which, for her, comprises pretty much everything of any interest – sex, politics, religion (with the exception of church fundraisers, of course), war, etc. The list of topics with which Henrietta won’t engage, presented to Emmy on the first day of her job, is extensive.

Obviously Emmy quickly takes the situation in her own hands, answering the listener queries Henrietta had been tossing in the bin for years on the DL.

And that’s when things start to get interesting.

Dear Mrs Bird is the quintessential comfort read. The language is delightful, with phrases like “cock-a-hoop” and “you’ll be smashing” scattered throughout giving Emmy and her friends voices that felt very much of the 1940s, which, coupled with typically stoic British throwaway comments about the war (my personal favourite: “if Hitler asks, tell him I’ve gone on holiday.”) providing what I felt was a pretty authentic insight into the time. Bombs were always a possibility, but life did not simply stop as a result.

The novel is very much a love story, but not in the sense you might expect from one of is genre. It isn’t a tale about Emmy sending off letters to a doomed sweetheart on the front, but instead a story of friendship. Emmy lives with her best friend Bunty (amazing name), and it’s these two women and how they navigate their young lives in the midst of war that is the heart of Dear Mrs Bird. How they support each other (no one is more thrilled about Emmy’s new job than Bunty), hold each other accountable, have fun together and when tragedy finds them – which, it’s a novel about the Second World War. You know that it does – navigate it together (well, with a few bumps along the way) got me right in the feels.

I haven’t read a lot of books set in the Second World War, but those I have were dominated by the high stakes, violence and tragedy of the situation – which totally makes sense. What I loved about Dear Mrs Bird, though, was that it was concerned only with daily civilian life, the daily grind of war – because it would have been a grind, and it would have been boring, frustrating and, at a certain point, normalised. Emmy’s story is one of how a person carries on their life despite the entire world’s descent into complete and utter chaos.

Which is quite a comforting message for right now, I think.

The Dark Days Pact

Brighton, July 1812

Lady Helen Wrexhall has taken refuge in Brighton following the scandalous events at her presentation ball. Now she must complete her Reclaimer training, ready to battle the Grand Deceiver believed to have arrived in England.

Her mentor, Lord Carlston, is facing his own inner battle, and as he fights the violent darkness within his soul, Lady Helen’s loyalty is tested. Entrusted with a secret mission by the Home Office, she must make the agonising choice between betraying those around her or breaking her oath to the dark days club.

dark days pact

The Dark Days Pact by Alison Goodman, book 2 in a series, was kind of like a bad season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I didn’t hate it, but it didn’t half drag in places.

Things I liked:

  • 19th century feminism.
  • Spratt, the precocious child I really hope Helen is planning to save from a life of prostitution.
  • The last 250 pages – they were brutal!
  • Any occasion in which Helen beats someone up, Buffy-style.
  • Darby and Quinn – more of them in future please.

Things I did not like:

  • Lord Carlston (sorry!) Veering between a raging demon and the role of Giles (if he were fuckable) just didn’t work for me.
  • The first 200 pages.
  • Delia, the Dawn of the story. Irrelevant after her first season but kind of hard to dispose of.
  • Lady Margaret – like Xander, you have to believe at some point she’s going to show us why she exists, but with each chapter, the hope fades…

Things I hated but kind of loved hating:

  • The Duke of Selburn AKA Riley Finn.

The biggest issue I have with The Dark Days Pact is that it is 500 pages long for no reason. The action, excitement and plot development all take place in the second half of the book, and getting to it (though it was certainly worth it) was a challenge for me. I really think some authors need to take a lesson from Bardugo and write a duology once in a while.

The first 200 pages aside (sorry, Alison Goodman. I know you did a lot of research.), The Dark Days Pact is a really fun read. In this second instalment we really get a sense of the Dark Days Club as a government controlled organisation that is as susceptible to corruption as any other. The ghost of Samuel Benchley continues to cast a shadow over Helen’s life, mostly in the form of his erstwhile terrene, Lowry, a rapey, murderous creep determined to cling to his rapidly declining terrene strength – through any means necessary. The other villain of the piece is the much less scary, but more powerful Mr Pike, second secretary to the prime minster and the official ‘boss’ of the Dark Days Club. He’s the guy who knows all your secrets, and isn’t afraid to use them to blackmail you. And also he considers murder to be a good solution for dealing for problematic people. He’s kind of like every responsible adult in Buffy’s life – initially irritating but secretly sinister.

And then there’s Selburn. The Duke. The asshole. He’s the kind of guy who will totally call himself a feminist supporter while casually objectifying women and making intensely problematic pronouncements about consent.

We do not like him.

With the exception of Quinn, and most of the time Hammond, I do not like the men in these books.

I don’t think we’re supposed to. Except for Carlston I guess. Ugh. Who else is so over the I LOVE HIM but he might murder me but I LOVE HIM trope? I am raising two hands. It’s like when Spike tries to rape Buffy and then we’re just supposed to forgive him for it.

I did not forgive him for it.

Anyway – back to Selburn. What I find interesting is that it is Selburn and the other (white, straight) men who populate this book who are Helen’s true enemy, rather than the demons that she is supposed to be fighting. It is the men who actively participate in the creation of a society in which women have no freedom, even as they profess to be in love with them. It is these men who are a true threat to Helen’s life. Demons she can dispatch with a few punches, men however, have the ability to destroy her life without laying a finger on her. In one scene – MINOR SPOILER – Selburn tells Helen he is in love with her even as he threatens her with the consequences of rejecting him.

It’s crazy that a woman with the ability to crush a man with her little finger can still be controlled by him. But that’s the point Goodman is making. Back then, women’s lives weren’t their own, and for even the richest of women trying to take control had often devastating consequences. It is the feminism that runs throughout this story that kept me reading even during its most draggy chapters.

I’m interested to see what Goodman does with book 3.

I’m hoping it comes with some comeuppance for Selburn better than Helen inevitably ditching him for Carlston. I want an event that undermines the principles of misogyny that his entire life is built on. DESTORY HIM please, Alison.