#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!

Review: The Awesome Power of Sleep: How Sleep Supercharges Your Teenage Brain written by Nicola Morgan

Cover illustration by Thy Bui, published by Walker Books

We spend, on average, one third of our lives asleep! However, most of us give very little thought to this process until it causes us problems. This wonderfully informative book, written by award-winning author Nicola Morgan, explains with perfect clarity the science of sleep and presents workable strategies to help achieve our 7-9 hours per night.

The book begins by taking us on a journey through the science of sleep, explaining sleep architecture, the physiology of the sleeping brain and current scientific theories about the reason for sleep. You will learn about the 2012 explanation of the glymphatic system, circadian rhythms and the function of the suprachiasmatic nucleus – don’t be put off by the vocabulary it is all explained thoroughly. The changes that take place during the teenage years are addressed in a reassuring manner so that teenage readers will recognise and be able to deal with sleep issues they may be experiencing. The author is very careful to explain which issues may require a consultation with a GP. With the change in all of our life styles caused by the shutdown of our normal social interactions it is a highly appropriate time for this book to be published as the many enforced hours inside our houses have probably caused a greater disruption to sleep patterns than at any time in recent memory.

After explaining the necessity of sufficient sleep for good mental health, for learning and exams which are obviously an incredibly important aspect of teenage life, through to explaining the current theories about dreaming, Nicola Morgan never patronises her readership. Instead, she explains complex scientific content with great clarity, precision and reassurance.

The final chapters of the book introduce strategies to aid readers to achieve the desired number of hours of nightly sleep. This includes improving the physical environment of bedrooms, useful strategies for the evening wind-down routine, advice about screen-usage and when to turn off your devices, and strategies to use during periods of wakefulness in the night. 

Nicola Morgan is clearly an author who knows her teenage audience extremely well. The inclusion of self-test quizzes and checklists throughout the chapters make this an engaging and interactive read, ensuring that the information is processed and absorbed to consolidate its usefulness. As someone who reads many academic papers as part of my day-job, I highly applaud her ability to distil advanced scientific evidence and theories into such a readable and engaging format.

All of the information presented in this book is backed up by evidence-based science and there is a comprehensive list of resources at the end of the book providing links to reliable sources of further scientific and health-based information. I am passionate about the provision of reliable health-related content to individuals and will be adding this book to my recommended reading list for a project I am working on. Although it has been aimed at teenagers, I would encourage parents of teenagers and indeed any adult with sleep-related concerns to read it.

Another aspect I loved about this book is that the author makes it quite clear when the science is inexact and points out that there may be different schools of thought about particular issues. I think it is really important for young readers to understand that science is constantly developing and testing new ideas and that often there is not an exact answer and instead we have to critically analyse the current evidence and make educated choices.

I am most grateful to NetGalley and Walker Books for approving my request to read The Awesome Power of Sleep: How Sleep Supercharges Your Teenage Brain.