Blog Reviews

The Blue by Nancy Bilyeau

Blue 40121191The Blue is a novel which wears its research lightly and moves at a cracking pace. Genevieve Planche is a strong-willed and adventurous character, who refuses to settle for the dull life of a porcelain painter and instead sets her sights on becoming a true artist. Recruited as a spy within the Derby factory, with the promise of the teacher she Derby dsc_0291desperately needs, she is soon in deep trouble. In the quest to uncover the secret of making the colour blue, which will revive the porcelain industry, there is double-dealing, murder, and a search for a chemical formula, and all these propel the plot forward to keep the reader hooked.

Derby is not the only factory wanting the elusive colour, and the book takes us to Versailles and the hermitage of Madame de Pompadour, and to the interior of the Sevres Factory for the final climax of the story. Well-researched and well-written, this will please anyone who loves the art of ceramics or a cracking adventure.

The Planches were real figures, and Derby porcelain was at the height of its popularity in the 18th Century. Nancy Bilyeau skilfully weaves the facts and fiction together to produce a highly entertaining glimpse of the world of porcelain.

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Buy the book here US  UK

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A German powder compact causes trouble in #WW2

Today I welcome author Clare Flynn, who I met at the Historical Novel Conference where we were both helping out stuffing goody bags for all the delegates. Clare is going to talk about how one particular object speaks to the themes in her new WW2 novel, The Chalky Sea.

The German Powder Compact

The Chalky Sea MEDIUM WEBThe Chalky Sea, my fifth novel, takes place between the summer of 1940 and the end of the war in 1945. The main character, Gwen Collingwood, is a married thirty-something woman whose husband has headed off to war to a destination unknown (he is in what we now know as Special Operations). For Gwen, an unhappy and unfulfilled woman, who appears emotionally cold, the war represents a form of liberation. Refusing to be evacuated from her small seaside town, even after it becomes a frequent target for the Luftwaffe, Gwen, like many of her contemporaries, finds working for the war effort gives her a new sense of purpose.

You asked me to talk about a real historical object that I found inspiring or related to my book. I’m going to pick a powder compact. I’ve chosen that because one scene in the book revolves around it – and because this object, once ubiquitous, is rarely seen these days other than in the handbags of Vintage enthusiasts or on the shelves of collectors. Powder compacts, at their height of popularity in the 30s, 40s and 50s, declined from the 1960s as heavily powdered faces fell out of fashion.

With rationing and shortages, make-up was not freely available as the war progressed. Women were encouraged instead to eke out their supplies. As one cosmetics advertisement said at the time:

“No lipstick – ourMTI2MjU4Njc2ODU5MjAzNTU0s or anyone else’s – will win the war. But it symbolises one of the reasons why we are fighting.”

Any self-respecting middle-class woman would have had a powder compact, often an ornate one – not in throwaway plastic, but a jewelled or engraved permanent container, intended to be refilled when the powder itself ran out. Compacts were much more than functional objects – they were fashion accessories.

In The Chalky Sea, there is a scene early in the war, between Gwen and her friend, Daphne Pringle, in the ladies room of a local hotel at a benefit to raise money to buy a Spitfire. Daphne claims to have forgotten her face powder, so asks to borrow Gwen’s. The compact is an unusual one, gold and monogrammed with Gwen’s initials, a gift from her husband before they married. The eagle-eyed Daphne examines the object and notices there is an inscription in German and immediately makes the assumption that Gwen must be German and has been concealing that fact. The explanation that Gwen and her husband met in Germany in the 1920s and Roger had a line from Goethe “Glücklich allen, Ist die Seele, die libel” inscribed as a romantic gesture, is greeted with skepticism by Daphne. For her, anything associated with Germany is automatically cause for suspicion – even the woman she regards as her best friend.


Her voice was frosty. ‘I had no idea you were German.’

‘I’m not.’

‘Then why do you have a powder compact with a German inscription on it?

‘It was a gift from Roger.’

‘From Roger?’ Daphne’s hand went to her mouth. ‘Good Lord, is he German?’

‘Neither of us is German. We happened to meet there. In ’23. I was at finishing school in Switzerland and Roger was working for The Reparations Commission. We met at a party at the British embassy in Berlin. I was a friend of the daughter of one of the attachés there.’

‘You speak German?’

‘Yes.’ Gwen felt herself bristling.

‘I see.’ Daphne’s voice was frosty.

‘As far as I’m aware, Daphne, it’s not a crime. I speak French as well.’

The relationship between Daphne and Gwen doesn’t survive the war, and is emblematic of how people change during the intensity of sustained conflict. Behaviour and attitudes, that might be overlooked in peacetime or never surface at all, come to the forefront and relationships are put to the test. Gwen forms a new friendship with a working class woman, Pauline, to whom in peacetime she would have been unlikely to give the time of day.

So, the powder compact for me is emblematic of the times and of Gwen and Roger’s relationship, a relationship which Gwen stifled in its infancy, a victim of her own past and her own doubts and fears. Had the war not happened, Gwen might well have stayed friends with Daphne, and continued to drift in what was then a passionless marriage, without confronting her own buried emotions and desires.

The German powder compact also opens a door for Gwen, by revealing her knowledge of German, which leads to a new role for her in the war effort.

The Chalky Sea is available as a paperback and a Kindle e-book.

ImageClare’s website

Amazon author page




You can download a free copy of Clare’s short story collection, A Fine Pair of Shoes and Other Stories via her website.


Learning and Leisure – the disappearance of Night School


In the old days people went to ‘Night School’ to learn a new skill, like a language, or carpentry, or DIY, or car maintenance, and you had to book well in advance to secure your place. That idea morphed into ‘Adult Education’, and that into ‘Adult and Community Education’, as if by adding the word ‘community’, whole communities would suddenly be engaged in out of hours education. For the past couple of decades I have been a teacher for adults at day and evening classes and have noticed big changes in the way adults learn and are taught. Class numbers are dwindling, and the average age is getting older. Aren’t younger people interested in leaning new skills, I wondered?

The first thing you notice  if you turn up at a government-funded  leisure class is the mounds of paperwork. The increase in paperwork was first highlighted as far back as 2008 in this article  in The Guardian. On the obligatory termly feedback forms, learners ask over and over again for less paperwork, but their pleas are ignored, despite the fact this might be the only criticism they have of the class. The vast amount of paperwork is to ensure quality of teaching, an admirable aim, but remember, these are adult customers we are talking about, not children forced into a learning environment. If they don’t feel the class meets their needs they can ask to choose another course, ask for a refund, or complain. Few do, as the quality of teaching is often excellent, with or without the ‘peer review, mid-term survey ‘etc etc.

Some of the classes are classes  earn you a qualification, for example an NVQ or similar, but according to the Adult Learning Survey figures, only 25% of the classes are of this type. The rest are leisure learning classes such as ‘Holiday French’, ‘Watercolour Painting’, ‘Guitar for Beginners’. These provide a social as well as an educational function, though the coffee breaks might well now be consumed by form-filling, as the learners puzzle over whether or not they really know how to play Scarborough Fair well enough to tick it off on their list of objectives, and whether or not playing to each other counts as evidence, or whether the tutor must video it.

The amount of paperwork has meant Adult Education teachers in subjects such as the  Arts, Sport or subjects such as Yoga have given up with a system which demands they do initial assessments on people who don’t want to be assessed. Adults who have come to a class to relax or because they failed in school find that their first lesson (even in Yoga) consists of an assessment of their current ability, (slightly scary) and that the whole scheme of paperwork is managed by, believe it or not – the school inspectors, Ofsted. Students are confronted by a ‘what are your objectives’ questionnaire, often when they are a total beginner to a subject. e.g.Q: ‘Astronomy – what are your personal learning goals in this class?’ A: ‘Er…I would like to know more about the stars.’

The National Adult Learning Survey 2010 ‘has recorded a steep decline in non-formal and informal learning compared with previous NALS. Participation in formal learning is unchanged. The decline in non-formal learning coincides with the shift in public funding away from short courses in favour of longer courses leading to nationally recognised qualifications.’

At the same time, there has been a huge rise in the number of people who now head for the U3A – the University of the Third Age. The U3A runs its classes as interest groups. There is no paperwork, and the teachers are unpaid volunteers. You can join as long as you are retired or semi-retired, and in these days of the internet, lots of people are semi-retired or work part-time from home. Many of the retired people who used to  support Local Authority Adult Education classes have joined the U3A, and groups are thriving and bursting at the seams. This is for several reasons – first because the cost is so cheap to attendees – £1 or £1.50 a class, plus a nominal joining fee. Secondly, there is no paperwork to do and no exams. Thirdly, the classes (described as interest groups) are led by enthusiasts for their subject, who again are often excellent teachers, and the classes are designed to be guided by the needs of the attendees.

But the biggest rival of all to Adult Education and  the U3A is the internet. Now you can tutor yourself in just about anything on-line. A friend of mine recently learnt how to french-polish a table via an online tutorial, including setting fire to the polish. He wasn’t warned not to try it at home. In one way, this method of learning is extremely empowering. The emphasis is firmly on the learner motivating him/herself, and there is something to be said for making mistakes in the privacy of your own home where no-one will see you, or grade you out of 10.

So what is lost? In all these ways of learning the inspiration of a one-to-one relationship with a teacher/mentor. I can’t imagine anyone will remember their online tutor in quite the same way as they remember someone they have actually had face-to-face contact with. I remember my teachers as people first, and as teachers second. (Thank you, Mrs Wells, Mr Thurloe, Mike Robson, Chris Bostock). Enthusiasm can come over online, but it is not the same as being galvanized by the personal attention of someone who sets you on fire to learn. With the internet method of learning we have to rely on inspiring ourselves, and perhaps that is a good thing, but perhaps we will miss the real-life contact with someone who cares about our progress as an individual.


The U3A method keeps a sharing relationship open, but runs the risk of  tutors being unqualified or inexperienced in their subject. Health and Fitness courses in particular are much in demand with the older age-group, but the U3A has few members qualified enough to lead them. The Adult Education model focuses narrowly on judging quality of teaching by whether or not the forms are filled, and  not on the invisible relationship between learner and teacher. The internet appeals massively to men, conspicuously absent at most of these classes, but engaging with learning online. There is a strong appeal to them in Doing It Yourself.

As a creative writing tutor, I have seen a big shift away from learning in class to learning online. Is this an advantage or disadvantage to the learner? What do you think? Is leisure learning important? If  leisure learning classes were to disappear altogether, would anything be lost?


Ring of Stone by Diane Scott Lewis


A decade ago, when researching my first novel, I traveled to Cornwall, England. After reading so many books on the West Country, and then seeing the countryside for myself, I became interested in the strange rock formations that the Cornish imbue with mystical powers. That’s when I struck on the idea for my recent release, Ring of Stone.

The Cornish believe there is magic in a stone ring, usually formed by centuries of wind and rain. I used such a formation in my story. A ring that would save one character from evil and encourage another to face her deepest emotions.

However, this mystical aspect is only a small part of the story that portrays a determined young woman in the eighteenth century to strive to become a physician. Women were barred from medical school in this era, though several did practice in the remoter areas of England, usually taking over after a doctor husband’s death.

My heroine, Rose Gwynn, travels to Cornwall from America with her family after her father accepts a position at a bank. In this foreign land, she defies her parents and approaches the village doctor, resolved to ingratiate herself into his practice. Dr. Nelson is hiding a dark secret, and fears Miss Gwynn’s closeness will reveal it and ruin him. While sympathetic to her wishes, he refuses her and sends her away; but the doctor’s trials are just beginning.

Meanwhile, Rose’s beautiful sister becomes engaged to a local peer. Catern Tresidder, who works in the village tavern, was molested by this man—and far more—and she is desperate to warn Rose. But no one wants to believe a former servant, purportedly jealous and out for revenge. Catern must forge a new path in her life and come to terms with her tragic past.

These three characters, Rose, Catern, and Nelson, will collide, helping and hindering one another as the story progresses. The ring of stone behind Rose’s home holds the key to her past and future—and her sister’s life—as the novel concludes on a dangerous, windswept cliffside.

To make my story authentic, I researched the medical practices for the late eighteenth-century and was delighted to find this resource online: This site has a digitalized version of Dr. W. Buchan’s (a member of the Royal Society in London) 1785 treatise on medical treatment. I was surprised when reading this to discover a modern take on the importance of cleanliness and exercise.

This is the time of the French Revolution, when women were demanding to be educated the same as the men. Rose will also make these demands, though women wouldn’t be admitted to medical schools for another century.

I hope readers will enjoy this journey into the myths and realities of eighteenth-century Cornwall, and the struggles of these characters as they learn to evolve and find their own happiness.

For more information on my books, please visit my website: