Book Review: 'Nightingales on Call' by Donna Douglas

by - April 25, 2014

Publishing 24th April 2014


The spring of 1937 sees a new intake of student nurses at the Nightingale hospital in East London. Among them is Effie O’Hara, a fun-loving country girl. She’s looking forward to experiencing the bright lights of London. But with her older sisters watching over her, how can she escape the confines of hospital life?

She finds an unlikely ally in Jess Jago, the new maid at the nurses’ home. Like Effie, Jess is looking for a new start. But it isn’t long before her past catches up with her…

Meanwhile, East End girl Dora Doyle once again finds herself at odds with spoilt fellow student Lucy Lane. But as the girls face dark times, they begin to realise their worst enemy can also be their best friend...



I'm a sucker for a drama novel with a period setting and Donna Douglas has delivered a beautiful, authentic story.

I hadn't realised that this was part of a series. I found out just before I started reading the book and I was a little concerned that I was going to find it difficult following the story and characters as I hadn't read the previous books in the series. But this book can definitely be read as a stand alone story. However I can definitely say that I am going to get hold of the other books and read them too.

I love the mix of different classes in the story all coming together at the hospital and working alongside one another. The dynamics of these characters working together create a very intriguing story, with some sassy attitudes and big egos thrown in the mix. 

I love the story for the drama between the student nurses, the matron and Jess, the new maid at the hospital. However I also adore the history aspect of the story. Donna Douglas portrays a very authentic setting in the late 1930's. I really felt it gave a vivid picture of what it was really like at the time, and what kind of struggles people faced from all different backgrounds. It definitely makes you appreciate what you have now.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who loves a period drama story and I can definitely say that I am looking forward to getting hold of the other books in the series to read more about the girls lives at the hospital. 

Donna Douglas' language breathes the life and times of the late 1930's into you.

About the Author:

Donna Douglas has always loved stories. As a child, she looked forward to her weekly fix of the Bunty comic, with its dramatic tales of girls achieving their dreams against the odds. Donna wanted to be a writer, but like her favourite fictional heroines, her dream seemed to be out of reach. Girls from the back streets of south London didn’t do that kind of thing.

But like those Bunty girls before her, Donna was determined. When she was 19, she landed her dream job, writing photo love stories for a teenage magazine. She went on to train as a ‘proper’ journalist, and worked on several women’s magazines. But the longing to tell stories never left her, and when she was 40 years old she published her first novel, Waiting in the Wings, which won the Romantic Novelists Association New Writers Award.

Her first novel in the Nightingales series, The Nightingale Girls, was published in 2012. Since then there have been two more, The Nightingale Sisters and The Nightingale Nurses. The next novel in the series, Nightingales On Call, is published in April 2014. Set in a 1930s East End hospital, The Nightingale novels are heartwarming, emotional stories of girls battling against the odds – just like those Bunty heroines of old.

Donna now lives in York with her husband. They have a grown up daughter. When she isn’t writing, she likes walking, reading and watching Pointless on TV.


‘Your duties will begin at five o’clock sharp, when you will lay the fires, draw the curtains and make sure the boiler is lit. You will then wake me at precisely five-thirty with a cup of tea and my breakfast. I like two boiled eggs and buttered toast. Lightly boiled, mind. I can’t abide eggs like rubber.’
The fearsome Home Sister glared at Jess as if she doubted she could ever be equal to such a task. Jess smiled back, her tongue rammed in her cheek to stop herself from speaking out of turn. She didn’t want to lose this job before she’d managed to get it.
‘At six o’clock you must wake the students,’ Sister Sutton went on. ‘Once they have gone, you will clean the bathrooms, sweep, dust and polish all the halls and stairs, and clean the students’ sitting room. The nurses are supposed to keep it tidy, but they tend to be rather careless.’ Her bulbous nose wrinkled with distaste. ‘I will carry out my room inspection at midday, so I expect everything to be in order by then.’ She stared at Jess, her eyes as tiny and dark as raisins in her doughy face. ‘You have been in service, you say?’
Jess nodded. ‘Since I was thirteen.’  Although none of the houses where she had been employed as a maid of all work were anywhere near as big as the student nurses’ home. With its grand entrance, sweeping staircase and long passages, it was like one of the country mansions she had read about in her favourite Jane Austen books. Except there were no works of art on the drab, brown-painted walls, and the floors were covered in polished lino and not Turkish rugs. But the ornate plasterwork on the high ceilings still whispered of the house’s elegant past.
As the Home Sister continued to list the maid’s duties, Jess gazed up at the twisting plaster vine leaves and carved bunches of grapes and wondered how she would ever be able to reach up there with a duster.
‘Are you listening to me, girl?’ Sister Sutton’s sharp voice interrupted her thoughts. ‘I hope you’re not daydreaming? I have no time for daydreamers.’
‘No, Miss. Sorry, Miss.’
‘Please address me as Sister.’
‘Yes, Miss – I mean, Sister.’
Jess bobbed her head. She wasn’t easily intimidated, but Sister Sutton seemed as imposing as the house she presided over. She wasn’t much taller than Jess, but at least three times as wide, her severe grey uniform stretched over her solid bulk. Wisps of wiry hair escaped from beneath her starched white bonnet, tied in a bow amid her quivering chins. A Jack Russell terrier pranced around her feet, yapping up at Jess. The din filled the echoing passageway where they stood, but Sister Sutton seemed oblivious to it.
‘It says in your references that you’re a hard worker and quick to learn.’ The Home Sister looked doubtful as she consulted the papers in her hand.
‘I am, Miss – Sister.’
‘Your previous employer seemed very satisfied with you. So why did you want to leave?’
‘I wanted a live-in job, Sister.’
‘Really?’ Sister Sutton’s brows rose. ‘Most young girls seem to want to live out these days.’
Most young girls don’t come from where I do, Jess thought. ‘I would prefer to live in,’ was all she said.
Before Sister Sutton could ask any more, Jess turned her attention to the dog. She bent to stroke it but it lunged forward, snapping at her outstretched fingers. She snatched her hand back sharply.
‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you. Sparky is very fussy about people,’ Sister Sutton said.
Jess eyed the dog. He stared straight back at her with hostile black eyes, as if he knew exactly who she was and where she had come from.
The front door opened and two students came in, chattering together. As soon as they spotted Sister Sutton they froze and fell instantly silent. They tried to slink towards the stairs, but Sister Sutton wheeled round to confront them.
‘You two! Where do you think you’re going?’ she demanded.
The girls exchanged nervous glances. They weren’t much older than Jess, one pretty and blue-eyed with dark curls, the other brown-haired and sharp-featured, her neat nose pointing skywards.
‘Please, Sister, it’s eleven o’clock,’ the dark-haired girl stammered. She had a lilting Irish accent that was as sweet as her round face.
‘I can tell the time perfectly well, thank you very much. Why aren’t you on your wards?’
‘We’ve been sent off duty until one, Sister,’ the other student explained. Her voice was clear and crisp, each syllable perfectly pronounced, like one of the lady announcers on the wireless.
‘I see. Why couldn’t you have said that, O’Hara?’ Sister Sutton swung her bulk around to face the Irish girl again.
‘I – I – sorry, Sister,’ she mumbled.
‘I should think so, too. And look at the state of you. Crumpled apron, grubby collar – and is that a pin I see sticking out of your cap?’ She drew in a sharp breath. ‘Tidy yourself up immediately or I shall cancel your half-day off.’
‘Yes, Sister.’
Jess stared at the Irish girl as she fumbled with her cap, a blush rising in her face, unable to see why Sister Sutton was making so much fuss. The girl looked immaculate to Jess, in her blue-and-white striped dress and spotless apron. But she couldn’t imagine how thick and itchy that heavy fabric and those woollen stockings must feel on such a warm April afternoon.
Jess caught the brown-haired girl’s eye and gave her a sympathetic smile. The girl tossed her head, stuck her turned-up nose even further in the air and stalked straight past her towards the stairs, the Irish girl hurrying behind with her head down.
Charming, Jess thought. She pulled a face at the girl’s retreating back, then quickly stopped when she realised the Home Sister was glaring at her.
‘Are you sure you’re capable of this kind of work?’ she said. ‘You don’t look as if you could lift a broom.’
Jess knew what Sister Sutton was thinking. At seventeen years old, she was still as slight as a child.
‘I’m stronger than I look,’ she promised, squaring her shoulders. ‘Just give me a chance, and you’ll soon see what I can do.’
Sister Sutton pursed her mouth. ‘You’re certainly good at speaking up for yourself, I can see that.’
‘Sorry, Sister.’ Jess pressed her lips together. And she’d tried to be so careful not to put a foot wrong.
But then Sister Sutton heaved a sigh that shook all her chins and said, ‘Very well, you may have a trial. One month and then I shall decide whether you’re up to the job or not.’
Jess let out the breath she had been holding since she arrived on the doorstep of the nurses’ home. Her fingers ached where she’d kept them twisted together for so long. ‘Thank you,’ she said.
‘Thank you, Sister,’ Sister Sutton corrected her. ‘You must refer to me and the other nursing sisters correctly at all times. You must also remember not to speak to anyone unless they speak to you first, and to stand up whenever a sister enters the room. And you must keep your distance from the other girls here. They are student nurses at the Nightingale Hospital, and as such they are your social superiors. They must be treated with due deference.’
Jess thought about the sharp-featured girl, tossing her head so haughtily and walking past Jess as if she didn’t exist. But after four years in service, she was used to being treated like part of the furniture.
And if that was what it took to escape from the hatcheries, then she would willingly become invisible.
‘Now,’ Sister Sutton went on, ‘I will show you to your room.’ She bustled off down the passageway, a bunch of keys jingling from her belt. Reaching the door at the farthest end of the passage, she took the keys in her hand and held them close to her face, squinting at each in turn until she selected the right one.
‘Here we are,’ she said, unlocking the door and throwing it open. ‘The room’s small, but perfectly adequate for your needs.’
Jess stepped inside. Sister Sutton was right, it was small. Scarcely bigger than a cupboard, with just enough room for a narrow bed and a chest of drawers. But to Jess, it seemed like a palace. There was even a small shelf above the bed where she could keep her books.
She stepped inside, breathing in the clean smell of furniture polish and fresh linen. Spring sunshine flooded the room, making everything bright and cheerful.
Jess went over to the window and gazed out over the garden. It couldn’t be more different from the hatcheries. Living here would be like living in Victoria Park, waking up surrounded by grass and trees and flowers every day.
‘It’s beautiful,’ she breathed.
Sister Sutton huffed. ‘Well, I don’t know about that,’ she said. ‘But as I said, it’s perfectly adequate for a maid’s needs.’
Jess looked around her again. Whatever the Home Sister might think, to her it was perfect. Almost too perfect. Girls like Jess Jago didn’t get that kind of luck.
Perhaps 1937 was going to be the year everything changed for her, she thought.

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  1. Fabulous review Jess. So glad you enjoyed Nightingales on Call and want to read the others :)

    Thank you for supporting Donna.


  2. Thanks Shaz, glad you enjoyed it. I am definitely looking forward to the others. It's great to get caught up with a writer's characters! xx


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