Plenty Under The Counter

Kathleen Hewitt

IWM Wartime Classics, £8.99

Born in 1893, Kathleen Hewitt was a bold woman for her times, leaving the family parsonage behind to pursue the life of an artist. In the course of a varied, independent life, she wrote 23 books, many of which were thrillers or murder mysteries. One of a series of reissues of wartime novels by Imperial War Museums, this is set in a London of bedsits and boarding houses during the Blitz, a milieu Hewitt knew well. Flight Lieutenant David Heron is convalescing at Mrs Meake’s boarding house after bailing out in the Channel. When a man is found stabbed to death in the back garden, he feels compelled to investigate. Written and published while the war was still raging, it portrays a besieged city Blitzed Londoners would recognise, complete with dark underbelly of black marketeers, but failed actor Heron’s theatrical demeanour, and the characters’ general breezy stoicism lightens the grimness of their circumstances, making it a jauntily entertaining period piece.

The Town

Shaun Prescott

Faber & Faber, £8.99

Settlements across Australia are dwindling, and an unnamed writer pitches up at an unnamed town to research the trend. But something is going on that’s much more mysterious than just a demographic decline. The writer finds an uneasy, even sinister, atmosphere. The bus circles round and round without picking anyone up. There’s a local radio station no one listens to. People seem to be suffering from collective amnesia. And very literal holes appear, threatening to swallow up time itself. When the writer’s own memories start to slip away, escape looks increasingly unlikely. As an allegory for the decline of rural communities, full of characters who have lost their identity along with their sense of purpose, The Town is a sad and sobering novel. But it’s also so much more than that. Kafka fan Prescott has tapped into a rich vein of strangeness, fashioning his own brand of Australian existentialism in a remarkable novel that draws on satire, dystopia, absurdism and science fiction.

Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy

Anne Boyd Rioux

W.W. Norton, £11.99

In a book that can be enjoyed equally by fans and scholars, Rioux, of the University of New Orleans, examines the enduring appeal of the 150-year-old Little Women. The novel’s origins are interesting in themselves, Louisa May Alcott’s father being a Vegan Christian who founded a utopian community in which Louisa and her sisters lived, though, ironically, her book was widely criticised on publication for insufficient piety. Rioux follows the history of Little Women through various editions (giving proper weight to their illustrations) and the numerous film and TV adaptations that came in its wake, tracing its legacy through American culture all the way to The Hunger Games and HBO’s Girls. She studies too the varying feminist attitudes towards the book and the vexed subject of school reading lists. Fans of Little Women will find more to interest them in some sections than others, but Rioux does a fine job of accessibly summing up the appeal of a popular classic.