All The Nice Girls, By Joan Bakewell

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The Independent Culture

Since turning 70, Dame Joan Bakewell, official spokesperson for the elderly, has now published two books. Her 2003 autobiography looked back on her adventures in the chauvinist world of modern broadcasting, and her debut novel also has the changing lot of women as its theme.

At the heart of the book is a wartime story about the pupils and staff of a northern girls' grammar. It's 1942, and in an effort to contribute to the war effort, the school 'sponsors' a merchant navy ship.

Some girls write to the lonely sailors, others, like the school's glamorous headmistress, Miss Maitland, take a more hands on approach. Interspersed with the high seas drama is a parallel narrative set in 2003 on the eve of the Iraq war.

This is an enjoyable and even at times a thrilling read, though the book's contemporary chapters take the history lesson one step too far.