Short Stories for Long Winter Evenings: A Glove Shop in Vienna and Christmas is Murder

A Glove Shop in Vienna published by Macmillan Children’s Books & Christmas is Murder published by Sphere, an imprint of Little Brown

Sometimes there are just too many things going on in real life for me to settle properly into a long novel. The run up to Christmas 2021 was certainly one of those times, thus I was delighted to find a collection of short stories by Eva Ibbotson in my local Public Library and to purchase a collection of short mysteries to read for my Book Club’s December choice.

A Glove Shop in Vienna contains nineteen short stories, many of which are set in Eva Ibbotson’s native Austria. Her delicately emotive writing conjures up snow and frost covered landscapes, lavish villas in the fashionable neighbourhoods of Vienna, illicit love affairs, grand passions and the intricacies of Viennese society in the pre-WWII years. I found it to be the perfect transportive read, whisking me off to an entirely different time and place. I think that the first story, Vicky and the Christmas Angel was my favourite with its insight into the tensions running below the coming together of disparate branches of the family at Christmas. Vicky comes of age following her dramatic and unwelcome realisation of the enormous contribution that “poor relation” cousin Poldi makes to the family’s annual festivities. I also loved the story of a great life-long love which finally flourishes in the headily exotic setting of the city of Manaus, deep in the Amazon rainforest. This has prompted me to seek out our much-read family copy of Journey To The River Sea, which I have wanted to re-read since hearing that Emma Carroll has written a book inspired by this classic.

Christmas is Murder by Val McDermid is another fantastic collection of short stories by a writer of immense dexterity. Her ability to create believable characters and imbue them with a back-story sufficient to make them the victim or perpetrator of a crime; scatter some red herrings; build tension and draw the story to a satisfactory conclusion within the confines of twenty to thirty pages is incredible in and of itself. However, Val McDermid adds another layer to the majesty of this collection, her uniquely beautiful prose. My favourite of the stories, Ghost Writer, had a supernatural rather than crime theme and ironically centered on a struggling writer:

Gavin had no talent for narrative. Story eluded him. Sometimes he sensed it almost within his grasp but whenever he tried to corner it, it slipped away, slithering under his out-stretched arms or between his legs like a nutmegging football.

p172

If we are going to use footballing comparisons, then Val McDermid must surely be the Dennis Bergkamp of crime writing, entertaining her audience with supreme skill and making her craft look effortless. It was such a treat each evening to enjoy these short stories once the day’s chores were done – in all honesty, it was the most pleasurable Book Club choice that I read in 2021.

Books for Christmas Gifts 2021

It’s that time of year when I start shopping for the books that increasingly form the backbone of my Christmas shopping list. There has been another fantastic roster of new books emerging this year and we are actually spoilt for choice when entering a bookshop, so I thought I would share some of the books that have stood out for me during the past 12 months and which I will be buying and giving this festive season.

Christmas/Festive Themed

Christmas/Festive themed books 2021

Once Upon A Silent Night by Dawn Casey and Katie Hickey is a beautiful retelling of the Nativity story inspired by a medieval carol, which would make a delightful gift for any pre-school child.

The Christmas Carrolls by Mel Taylor-Bessent and Selom Sunu is a huge-hearted festive story which absolutely brims over with Christmas cheer, warmth and humour.

The Lights that Dance in the Night by Yuval Zommer is an enchanting picture book which sparkles with the magic of the Northern Lights; in the author’s own words “a miracle of winter”.

Non-fiction

Non-fiction published in 2021 by David Fickling Books and Bloomsbury

Roar Like a Lion by Carlie Sorosiak: a wellbeing book with a different twist, looking at what we can learn from the animal kingdom to help us navigate some of life’s uncertainties. If you know a tween or teen who has struggled with some of the challenges of the past two years, put a copy of this compassionate and life-affirming book into their hands.

How Was That Built? by Roma Agrawal and Katie Hickey is quite simply a towering work of non-fiction which will make a fantastic present for curious minds of any age.

Translated Fiction

Interestingly, both of my choices in this category come from Scandinavian writers and feature unconventional stories brimming with wit and wisdom. Firstly we have the classic children’s story Pippi Lockstocking by Astrid Lindgren which has just been re-released in a glorious hardback format with new illustrations in her trademark collage-style, by Lauren Child. A beautifully designed gift for any child to treasure. Recommended for age 7+.

Newly translated into English this year, Me and the Robbersons by Finnish author Siri Kolu (translated by Ruth Urbom) was one of my most joyous middle-grade reads of the summer. An anarchic tale of sweet-toothed, highway bandits on the roads of Sweden, the humour envelopes a beautiful story of acceptance. Recommended for age 9+.

MG Fiction

The Exploding Life of Scarlett Fife by Maz Evans and Chris Jevons is a riot of jokes, warmth and love, fully illustrated and perfect for readers who are gaining independence and don’t mind stopping every few minutes to wipe away the tears of laughter.

Mickey and the Trouble with Moles by Anne Miller and Becka Moor is their second hugely entertaining, illustrated, spy mystery in this series, which will test the brainpower of junior cryptographers. An excellent introduction to the world of espionage fiction.

The Crackledawn Dragon by Abbie Elphinstone is the conclusion to her Unmapped Kingdoms trilogy. It is a story brimming with kindness, playfulness and sheer, unbound imaginative brilliance which will delight readers of 9+

The Swallows’ Flight by Hilary McKay is a deeply moving story set during WWII and told from the perspective of both English and German characters. The elegant imagery of swallows flits through this story of the importance of seemingly small acts of kindness. A thoughtful read for anyone of 11+.

Island Adventures

Three books, all set on islands situated off the Irish coast were amongst my favourite MG titles this year, so I’ve given them a category of their own!

Noah’s Gold by Frank Cottrell-Boyce is a treasure chest of heart, humour and hope; a wonderful story which will entertain all the family. Perfect for reading aloud when the generations are gathered together over the festive period.

The Stormkeepers’ Battle by Catherine Doyle concludes the thrilling and lyrical trilogy of the battle for the soul of wild Arranmore Island.

The Way to Impossible Island by Sophie Kirtley is a life-affirming, time-slip novel about overcoming fears and challenging expectations.

Young Adult Fiction

Ghost Bird by Lisa Fuller is unlike anything I have ever read in all my (many) years as a reader. I actually haven’t written my full review yet as I am still trying to process the insight that author Lisa Fuller has generously provided into her cultural beliefs. I did find some aspects quite frightening, so would certainly say that this is a book for over 16s and not those of a nervous disposition but I’m sure it will also be of great interest to adults who wish to gain some understanding of the culture and spiritual beliefs of First Nations Australians.

I am Winter by Denise Brown is a beautifully written, gritty, and compelling whodunnit perfect for readers of 15+ .

Non-fiction November Review: Split Survival Kit by Ruth Fitzgerald & Angharad Rudkin

Cover image by Stef Murphy, to be published by Wren & Rook / Hachette Children’s Group
17th February 2022

This engaging, down to earth guide has been designed with great care to provide a practical road map to assist children and teenagers through the emotional journey encountered when parents decide to separate. One of the authors, Dr Angharad Rudkin is a Clinical Psychologist, specialising in children and family issues while Ruth Fitzgerald has written a hugely popular fiction series for the tween readership. The combination of clinical knowledge and skill at writing for the 10/11+ audience, combined with Stef Murphy’s artwork make this a book that youngsters will want to pick up and learn from, if they sadly find themselves facing this circumstance.

Starting from the premise that parental separation is a journey on which most people would not wish to embark, the book proposes to set out ten steps to help children navigate the emotional path, discussing all the steps along the way and giving young people the vocabulary they need to articulate their feelings. The ten chapters are broken into sections which include real life stories of young people who have already experienced these issues; advice on ways to think differently and empathetically about a situation; practical exercises to help manage emotions and journal writing or drawing hints to help youngsters track their feelings through the process.

The design and layout of the chapters has been done with great skill to ensure that the advice is accessible to all. The images convey information clearly and sympathetically; text is broken into chunks, often contained in panels which resemble pages ripped from a notebook or in bullet journal-style layout, with arrows and bullet points highlighting summaries or key points. Readers are guided through the process from the initial thought that perhaps they can encourage their parents to change track and stay together, to acceptance, to dealing with their own feelings, managing anxieties and finding the answers to questions that cause anxiety, learning how to talk about their family situation to others without embarrassment, how to cope when parents behave badly, how to deal with life split between two houses and the introduction of new family members and how to manage the impact on their own future emotional life.

Throughout the book there is a tone of positivity and calmness, readers are encouraged to look for the positives in their situation, advice is given on how to take control of those aspects which they can manage, and to accept that some things cannot be changed. It is made clear from the start that children are in no way to blame for parental separation and that their feelings are important and need to be discussed with the adults in their life. At the end of the book there are contact details for organisations which can supply further advice and help if needed, there is also a very helpful glossary of terms which children might hear during the family court process. While no book can take the place of personal discussion with responsible adults or even clinicians, this title is likely to be a very valuable addition to the wellbeing collections in school, public and even healthcare libraries, with its expert writing for children of 10+, presenting reassurance and practical guidance at a time of family break-up.

I am grateful to NetGalley and to Wren & Rook/Hachette Children’s Group for allowing me access to a pre-publication. electronic version of Split Survival Kit in exchange for my honest opinion.

Non-fiction November Review: Roar Like a Lion by Carlie Sorosiak, illustrated by Katie Walker

Cover design by Sarah Darby, published by David Fickling Books

After nearly two years living with the COVID-19 pandemic, research shows that many children and young people are suffering with poor mental wellbeing, so this newly published title from David Fickling Books will, I’m sure, be welcomed by many school librarians and school counsellors. It is an absolute joy in all respects, from the glossy, colourful cover, distinctive artwork and playful use of different font styles and its inspirational approach to the topic of mental wellbeing.

Author Carlie Sorosiak has looked to the animal kingdom with which we share such a large percentage of our DNA, to identify lessons that we can take from the mammals, birds and even reptiles that surround us. The tone of this book is one of kindness and compassion, which is brilliantly highlighted by the muted pastel colour scheme and Katie Walker’s distinctive and uplifting illustrations. The inspired decision to focus on stories of animals makes this book hugely appealing to tweens and teens, who can hopefully take encouragement from the cameos outlined here and apply the lessons to their own daily situations. The text is accessible, the advice written in down-to-earth fashion and nicely broken-up with different font effects, colour panels and the aforementioned illustrations.

My own favourite chapter is entitled DIG A LARGE BURROW Be Your Kindest Self which starts with this quote from author Henry James:

Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.

page 74, quote from Henry James

the chapter continues with tales of animals which have demonstrated remarkable acts that we would construe as kindness; wombats allowing other animals into their burrows to shelter from the devastating bushfires that swept Australia in 2019; dolphins who have rescued surfers from shark attacks and a giant tortoise who “adopted” a baby hippo in a Kenyan wildlife park!

Whether you want advice on making friendships, reaching out to other groups in an inclusive manner, finding your inner bravery or accepting your own unique self, there is a story for you in this book. In fact, if like me, you just want to read a warm-hearted book, packed with interesting anecdotes from the animal kingdom then I encourage you to find a copy of this delightful book. It is aimed at a readership of 10+ but I honestly think it could be enjoyed by anyone and should feature in all classroom, library or home wellbeing collections.

I am most grateful to Liz Scott and David Fickling Books for supplying me with a free copy of Roar Like a Lion in exchange for my honest opinion.

Blog Tour: I Am Winter by Denise Brown

Cover design by Anne Glenn, published by Hashtag Press 11th November 2021

This newly published YA mystery is a gritty, contemporary, whodunnit quite unlike anything else I’ve read this year. Denise Brown’s writing is exquisite and utterly compelling, placing the reader completely inside the head of her fifteen-year-old first-person narrator, Summer. She has structured the story with such skill that I honestly could not tell where it was heading; hints are dropped from the erratic machinations of Summer’s mind, which has been damagingly fragmented by her under-age drinking, drug taking and as we gradually discover, years of irresponsible parenting.

Summer lives a life of school truancy, duvet-wrapped daytime TV, and nights spent hanging out at the local playpark with a group of older teenagers – drinking alcohol that they have taken from their parents or purchased with fake-IDs and taking pills. Her best-friend Courtney (Cee) is always the life and soul of the party and Summer clearly revels in her friendship and basks in its reflected glory. She also has a massive crush on Cee’s older brother Ritchie, who acts like a protective figure to the girls but appears to only view Summer as his sister’s friend while he dates a string of older girls. Whilst Summer has no responsibilities in her home life, Cee is relied upon by her mother (known around the estate as “The Ovary”) to care for her troupe of half siblings, all of whom have different fathers. This is the scene that is set out in the opening chapter, before Cee’s dramatic death. She has been travelling in the back of a car with Summer, both girls high on alcohol and pills and singing at the top of their lungs when the car crashes and Summer witnesses the vitality drain from her only real friend.

On her own release from hospital she is swamped with grief and guilt for persuading Cee to join her on the fateful journey, which is compounded by the gradual realisation that she is being unjustly blamed for supplying the pills which caused Cee’s heart to fail. This revelation is played out over social media, where the degree of love and loss for Cee is measured in likes and comments. Sadder than Summer’s grieving process is the image of lives validated or ruined by their perception on social channels. The cruel comments on her social posts develop into threatening notes through the letterbox, followed by foul deliveries and even an angry, abusive and foul-mouthed visitation from The Ovary warning her to stay away from the lantern ceremony organised in Cee’s memory. 

As the countdown to this ceremony ratchets up the tension, my heart was breaking at the lack of support that Summer is given by the adults around her. Apart from platitudes about how strong she is and how everyone knew that she loved Cee more than anyone else, Summer’s mother is far too obsessed with losing the baby-weight she gained with half-brother Jonah and enjoying nights out, to pay any attention to her daughter’s feelings. At one point, Summer describes her mother as follows:

She’s buried her eyes in hollows above her cheekbones, and her hair clings to last night’s cigarettes.

Chapter 26

Mum’s boyfriend; Jonah’s father, Mac, attempts to offer some advice about her unreliable friendships and her lack of school attendance, but it is clear that his main concern is his baby son who we learn has Down’s Syndrome. Mac provides the nurturing to his own offspring that “Mum” fails to provide to either of her children. As a reader, you comprehend the cause of Summer’s sofa-based stupor but desperately hope that she can find the impetus to break free from it and uncover the real identity of the drug-pusher.

This story is hard-hitting and tackles a number of social issues, including under-age sex, and the lack of self-respect and self-control exhibited by some youngsters when they have not benefited from a loving parental relationship. The difference in the level of care given to Jonah by Mac compared to Jonah and Summer’s mother is stark. This awakens Summer’s own caring side and you begin to hope that her love for her half-brother will be her salvation. She considers his experience of the world and concludes:

Whatever Jonah’s soul is made up of, it’s pink, and pure, and honest, and he follows me with his eyes wide open and trusting.

Chapter 33

Another wonderful relationship is the portrayal of platonic care between Summer and her friend from primary school, Kofi. He is a noble figure, undaunted by his step-father’s homophobic physical abuse, and proves to be a steadfast voice of reason and love when Summer needs an ally.

Throughout the story, Summer makes reference to her bear-wolf, a furry beast living in a hollow tree in the woods beyond her estate. I was never entirely sure whether this was indeed a real animal or a drug-induced delusion. By the end of the tale I could best rationalise it as her longing for a comforting, warm figure who would provide love and protection to her lonely soul. In my opinion, great books are those which leave an imprint after you have read them. This one left me wondering just how many teenagers face the daily reality of the lives portrayed here in fiction, facing the consequences of poor decisions because they have not had reliable guidance from those who should provide love, boundaries and aspirations. 

I highly recommend this book to a readership of 15+ and I am most grateful to Helen at LiterallyPR and  Hashtag Press for providing me with an electronic copy and inviting me to join the blog tour; do check out the other stops on the schedule.

Lego Life Hacks by Julia March and Rosie Peet, models by Barney Main and Nate Dias

Published by DK Books, models by Barney Main and Nate Dias

Two of my great loves come together in this book: Lego and the publisher DK Books! I have bought many Lego DK books for my own children over the years and also have a large Lego collection built up over their childhoods, so when I saw this title available on NetGalley I immediately requested it.

I can confirm that it is marvellous, containing detailed written and photographic instructions for innovative Lego builds suitable for amateur to expert builders alike. There are 50 projects in total, but obviously you can then adapt these as far as your imagination will allow. Some examples include: a fun speaker to amplify your phone, a Lego houseplant, photo-frame or pen holder to decorate your desk, or a catapult to fling paper into the recycling bin! As a quick test I attempted a couple of the easier builds and you can see my efforts below. When I have more time I definitely want to try building the catapult which I think would provide some fun the next time the family are all gathered together!

My first builds: phone stand, cable holder and earphone cable tidy

It is always lovely to see children innovating with their Lego builds but sometimes imaginations need a little stimulation. The beauty of having this book in your home, classroom or library is that it provides that nudge to encourage readers to use their bricks in different ways and develop their creativity. This would make an excellent gift for keen young builders, or even those of us who might want to experiment with our children’s collections! In fact, there are many situations in which I could see this book being used including teambuilding or wellbeing sessions for adults and collaborative skills sessions for children. I loved the “Meet the Builders” touch at the end with profiles of the two talented individuals, Nate and Barney, who supplied the models for this book. The brick gallery is also incredibly useful for those of us who sometimes need to replace a missing brick from a model kit and have no idea where to begin the search; this could have saved me many hours in the past! In summary, I highly recommend this fabulous book as an addition to your non-fiction collections.

I am grateful to DK Books and NetGalley for allowing me access to an electronic version of Lego Life Hacks in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Allies edited by Shakirah Bourne and Dana Alison Levy

Published by Dorling Kindersley 29 July 2021

This insightful collection of sixteen essays is an excellent resource for anyone who wishes to gain an understanding of the lives of individuals who might feel marginalised by their ethnicity, their religious beliefs, a disability or their sexual identity. It is pitched at a Young Adult readership but I think that the content is valuable for adults of any age. The goal of the book is to educate and enable the reader to use whatever privilege they might possess to become an ally to those who face challenges and perhaps discrimination, micro aggressions or outright bullying in their daily lives. 

I am embarrassed to admit that I had not really encountered the terms ally or micro aggression until I attended a disability workshop run by the well-known campaigner Samantha Renke earlier this year. It was listening to her daily, lived experience of the challenges that she faces negotiating a world that is not designed to enable her, that opened my eyes to the need for support or ally-ship from those of us who can encourage change. This book fulfills the same task, with contributions from authors who generously present their own experiences of either being made to feel marginalised or their attempts to fulfill the role of ally. It explains that micro-aggressions are the constant undermining comments that seem to diminish or dismiss an individual’s worth and that we cannot ignore these if we want to be an ally.

One of the aspects that I most appreciated is the tone of gentle encouragement, and forgiveness throughout. It can be very difficult to keep up with the evolving language around ethnicity or sexuality if you are not immersed in the study of it and several of the essays acknowledge that it is easy to inadvertently use the wrong words. The advice is to listen carefully to anyone who corrects you, apologise for any unintended offence caused by your words and continue to progress on your quest to be an ally. I found this to be very reassuring as I try and sometimes fail to get the language correct. In the opening essay, Dana’s Absolutely Perfect Fail-Safe No Mistakes Guaranteed Way to be an Ally, Dana Alison Levy states:

“Being a good ally without making mistakes is like eating popcorn without dropping any on the floor: it’s possible, but let’s be honest, it rarely happens.”

p.10

My takeaways from this book were that a mindset of openness, civility, empathy and kindness are required from us all to help every member of our society feel valued and that we can all learn from and support each other. I feel indebted to the sixteen authors who were prepared to open up about their experiences to help us all develop empathy and I really like the essay (and illustrated story) format that allows you to dip in and out and refresh your mind whenever necessary. At the end of the book there is a comprehensive list of further resources to explore, suggested by each of the contributors. I think that this will be a valuable resource for anyone who wishes to play their part in making society and their workplace kinder and more inclusive and I would recommend it to all workplace, academic and public libraries.

I am grateful to the publisher Dorling Kindersley and NetGalley for allowing me access to an electronic version of this book for review purposes.

#MGTakesOnThursday: Trailblazers Lin-Manuel Miranda by Kurtis Scaletta

Image created by @MarySimms72 and used with permission.

This is a weekly meme started and hosted by @marysimms72 on her brilliant Book Craic blog which I urge you to read. Also, please check out all the other posts and Tweets with the #MGTakesOnThursday tag, you will be sure to find many fantastic recommendations!

If you love books written for an MG audience and wish to take part, the steps to follow are:

  • Post a picture of a front cover of a middle-grade book which you have read and would recommend to others with details of the author, illustrator and publisher.
  • Open the book to page 11 and share your favourite sentence.
  • Write three words to describe the book
  • Either share why you would recommend this book, or link to your review.
Cover art by Luisa Uribe, published by Little Tiger Press

Author: Kurtis Scaletta

Illustrator: Cover image Luisa Uribe, internal images David Shephard

Publisher: Little Tiger Press

Favourite sentence from Page 11: 

“Overall the show won eleven Tonys, including best musical.”

This book in three words: “Meet me inside”

I can give this book no higher recommendation than to tell you that as soon as it arrived through my letterbox it was read in one sitting by the teenage uber-Hamilfan in my household and given her seal of approval!

This latest biography from Little Tiger’s Trailblazers series is aimed at a Middle Grade readership with an engaging blend of illustrations, short chapters and fact-filled illustrated panels, but the evidence here suggests that it will also appeal to the huge number of Hamilton fans amongst the YA readership. Author Kurtis Scaletta presents the details of Lin-Manuel’s non-stop rise to the top of his profession in an engaging and entertaining manner. Throughout the book you learn about Lin-Manuel’s important influences, the stories behind his musical productions and his key collaborators as he has turned the world of musical theatre upside down. It certainly gives the impression of a man who writes as if he is running out of time and leaves you wondering “what comes next?”

As well as exploring Lin-Manuel’s unique musical and creative talent, this biography is careful to explain that a lifetime of hard work is behind the phenomenal success that he enjoys today. I also love that it outlines his continuing involvement with the Puerto Rican community, inspired by his father’s political work, and his determination to portray his culture in a positive light. His hugely generous charitable activities and his dedication to his family are further details which contribute to the picture of an individual who combines great talent with humility.

History certainly has its eyes on Lin-Manuel Miranda and this book fizzes with the energy apparent to anyone who has had the good fortune to see the live performance of Hamilton. I hope that it will inspire young readers to believe in their talents, follow their hearts and dedicate themselves to using their skills to make the world a better place. It is lovely to see a book which promotes the arts and their place in society as budgets for the arts seem to be constantly under threat both in schools and society as a whole. Highly recommended for all existing fans of Hamilton and all children who have an interest in music and drama.

I am very grateful to Little Tiger Press for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

#20BooksOfSummer Review: Old Tabby Brontë The Servant’s Tale by Hilary Robinson

e-book, Published by Strauss House Publications

The second of my #20(10)BooksOfSummer challenge is somewhat different from my usual reading material and was bought on the strength of my admiration for Hilary Robinson’s writing.

This gem of a monologue expresses the righteous indignation felt by a loyal servant, in defence of a master whom she feels has been unjustly portrayed by a biographer. The servant in question is Tabitha Aykroyd who devoted many years to the service of the Brontë family, after the Reverend Patrick Brontë lost his wife and was left to care for six young children.

Hilary Robinson has used her exquisite writing talent, and I presume her experience as a radio producer, to conjure a wonderfully nuanced portrait of family life at Howarth Parsonage through the authentic voice of Tabby. The perfectly executed monologue is written in six parts, entirely in Yorkshire dialect. Thanks to the inclusion of an explanation of the use of the > symbol to indicate a glottal stop and a glossary of Yorkshire dialect, I could hear Tabby’s voice in my head throughout, despite my southern origins! I really felt as if I was sitting at the kitchen table sharing a pot of Yorkshire tea with an old servant and hanging on her every word as she refuted the inaccuracies in Mrs Gaskell’s biography, The Life of Charlotte Brontë.

The tale is written as a repudiation of the negative impression that Mrs Gaskell gave, of the Reverend Brontë’s care for his offspring, in her publication. As a household employee of the family for many years, Tabby is incensed that her master’s reputation has been besmirched and her irritation is palpable as she sets the record straight. As her narrative unfolds, many biographical details of the Brontë’s lives and personalities, and the way that these informed their works of fiction, are revealed quite naturally; the author’s meticulous research manifests completely organically throughout. A tale of devoted family love and support, beset by constant tragedies, emerges in this short but moving monologue.

I adored this monologue and I would imagine that it will have huge appeal to those who love Charlotte, Emily and Anne’s writing. It is also likely to be a great companion piece to students who have to read one of the Brontë sisters’ novels for GCSE or A level. Furthermore, as one of the rare readers who is actually not a big fan of the Brontë’s novels, I thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in this monologue and learning some of the background to a uniquely talented family. It is only available as an e-book at present, although I believe that an audiobook might be planned, which is excellent news for dyslexic readers. I actually listened to the excellent Audible reading of Jane Eyre by Juliet Stevenson in preparation for reading Old Tabby Brontë, the first time that I have managed to get to the end of that story, after three failed attempts to read it! I was certainly intrigued to learn about some of the experiences that influenced that classic novel.

This is my second post for this year’s #20BooksOfSummer challenge which is kindly hosted by Cathy Brown on her amazing 746Books.com blog. Do check out the other bloggers who are taking part in the challenge, it’s a great way to broaden your reading range.

image created by Cathy Brown 746books.com

#Blog Tour: Jane Austen Investigates The Abbey Mystery written by Julia Golding

It is a truth universally acknowledged that combining a favourite genre with a favourite author is a combination to thrill the soul of a book reviewer!

I am so delighted that the blog tour for Jane Austen Investigates The Abbey Mystery brings you to my review today. I simply could not believe my luck when I was offered a proof copy of this first book in a new series by acclaimed author Julia Golding (whose earlier books were hugely enjoyed by my daughter when she discovered them ten years ago). A historical mystery featuring thirteen-year-old Jane Austen as the investigator; it is simply all of my bookish dreams come true.

From the very first paragraph the reader is swept into teenaged Jane’s life in a small Hampshire village in 1789, where her lively mind and adventurous spirit feel stifled by the restrictions placed on female behaviour. For those readers not familiar with Jane Austen’s works the clues come thick and fast. As she walks a country lane trading insults with older sister Cassandra we are told that:

“Words were Jane’s greatest treasure and she spent hers carefully”

And a few pages later Jane’s mother declares:

“Your wit will make you infamous one day”.

Following the opening scene and its resultant carriage accident, Jane is sent in place of her older sister to Southmoor Abbey where she must act as a lady’s companion to Lady Cromwell during the week-long preparations for her son’s coming-of-age ball. Her reluctance to fulfil this post is made bearable when her older brother Henry challenges her to find proof of the existence of the legendary Abbey ghost, the Mad Monk, said to haunt the ruins of the Abbey buildings destroyed during the reign of Henry VIII.

Setting out to uncover this mystery Jane soon finds herself needing to use all her ingenuity and observational skills to unravel the layers of intrigue as horse theft, library fires and deeply buried secrets threaten to send an innocent man to the gallows. Her intelligence, straight talking and courage radiate through the grand country estate as she brings her sharp moral focus, honed by her upbringing as the daughter of a clergyman, into an establishment run by a bully. I don’t want to go into a detailed description of the plot for fear of giving away any spoilers but I will say that the characters populating the novel are wonderful and brought to life through Jane’s perceptive dissections of their personalities. Additionally the story is peppered with “Easter eggs” which anyone who has read the works of Jane Austen will recognise and enjoy.

The fate of servants living entirely at the mercy of rich landowners; young women encouraged to marry to ensure their status in society and estates which could only be inherited by male heirs, all of which are explored in Austen’s novels are included as themes in this mystery. The inclusion of Lord Cromwell’s former bodyguard and his daughter, brought to Hampshire after Lord Cromwell’s time in India and forced to work as a chef and laundry girl is a fascinating touch. It opens Jane’s eyes to the empowerment of women allowed in other cultures and also to the callous and unfeeling treatment of people from overseas. I also loved Jane’s coded letters to Cassandra which appear through the story.

Author Julia Golding has used her academic knowledge of the life and works of Jane Austen to create a fascinating portrait of her teenage heroine. Not only is her laser-sharp perception of personalities, the social order and behaviour explored but there is also plenty of historical context added to the story. Details of the East India Company and the changes expected in society following the American Civil War help the reader to understand the environment in which the Austen family lived. The story is constructed in short chapters, driving the narrative at a fast pace and often ending on cliff-hangers, making this a perfect book for a class read.

I can still picture the day (many years ago now) that my English teacher, Miss Lewis, introduced my class to Pride and Prejudice by reading aloud Mr Collins’ proposal to Elizabeth Bennet, which started my love of Jane Austen’s writing. I can see this book igniting that love affair with Jane Austen’s novels at an even earlier age, as this book is perfect for primary school pupils in upper key stage 2.

I highly recommend it to anyone who loves the historical fiction of Emma Carroll, the historical detective mysteries of Katherine Woodfine and Robin Stevens or the recently published Egmont middle grade adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels. I am grateful that I was sent a free proof copy by Lion Hudson in exchange for my honest review, I have pre-ordered no less than three copies already to gift to tweens and teenagers of my acquaintance!