Toni’s Blind Date by Rosie Dean – a festive adventure of romance in a celebrity setting

Toni’s Blind Date by Rosie Dean

A seasonal book of complicated romance, the pain of the past and the potential of the future, this lovely book is a festive treat. Family is never straightforward, nor the complications of a relationship, but this is a book of natural and gentle humour as the main characters try to deal with a date over several days which is being reported to the world. Rosie Dean has created characters who go far beyond the usual reality television portraits, despite the intrusion of those trying to further ratings and their career. Smiling through challenges is one thing, but coping with life changing events is taking a bit more effort for Toni, a young woman with a fractured family and a troubled recent past. Will thinks he knows what he wants, but an inconvenient real attraction to the woman he has accidentally chosen is rather throwing him off. This very twenty-first century story of love in a festive climate includes some snowy scenes as skiing is featured, references to winter warming food and drink, and is generally a good escape in most senses. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this gently funny and entertaining novel. 

Toni and her partner Spencer are involved in the sports fitness industry in America, a reasonable choice as her mother is a nationwide television favourite diet and activity guru. Spencer is full of a new possibility for fame and fortune, when Toni lets him in on a secret. When disaster happens he is less than sympathetic, and she heads back to the UK to spend time with her television producer father.  Rick loves Toni despite her being taken by her mother when their marriage broke up, and quickly becomes the possessive father. His television production company is struggling with their biggest series, a reality dating programme which is being hijacked by characters who demand fame at any price. Meanwhile Will has been made redundant from a television production company, but has an idea he is desperate for Rick’s company to take up. He agrees to appear on the dating show, but due to a last minute switch ends up picking Toni to go on a date with, despite everything. They are sent on a romantic skiing trip where getting warm after a day in the snow could provide great footage for the cameras and social media, but how much genuine attraction is there between the couple, and can it survive revelations from several sources?

This is a lovely book in many ways, as Toni and Will are shown as being very different from the other contestants and more real, with their genuine emotions and issues. I really enjoyed the characterizations of Toni’s family, especially Brendan, the caring cousin. The family pressures on Toni and Will are well handled, and while there are some issues here of fate taking a cruel hand, the reactions of the main characters are well handled. This is a largely escapist book of celebrity and real life which is a cheering read in the build up to Christmas, as the setting of snowy romanticism and wealthy lifestyles contributes to a festive romance.  

The Bookseller’s Secret by Michelle Gable – Nancy Mitford’s mysterious legacy from the challenges of War

The Bookseller’s Secret by Michelle Gable

This brilliant book is set in two time periods and in the same place; a book shop in London in the Second World War and the present day. It also features Nancy Mitford, novelist and at this time, underpaid Bookseller. A novel of the difficulties of surviving in London as the scars of the worst of the blitz are everywhere and the War is an ever present threat. It also shows how Nancy is struggling to cope with her notorious family, her lonely marriage and the need to write a successful book. The contemporary section of the book, being eighty years later, features Katie, who has a deep need for a change in her life. This book of secrets, suspicions and mysteries has much to say about the need to write, the problems of families in both time periods, and the social pressures on relationships. The two main female protagonists both struggle with the problems of long standing relationships and the demands on them to write a best seller, even in trying circumstances. Those who know something of Nancy Mitford’s life and family will find much to interest them here, as the participants in one of the most famous family sagas feature in Nancy’s strand of the story, whereas those who know little or nothing of the outrageous Mitfords will learn a lot! There is a “Selected List of Sources” which lists the main books about the six women whose behaviour and choices were so newsworthy for the middle of the twentieth century. The twenty-first century section is a mystery with elements of romance, featuring some memorable characters and reminding the reader that the Second World War is not that far in the past. It is a novel which revells in its setting of a London of booksellers established for so long, witnessing social change and significant characters of the time. I found it a compelling read, and I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this enjoyable and informative novel.

The book opens with a glimpse of Nancy in Paris with her lover, the Colonel, referring to the stories  of her childhood that she had fictionalised in her best known novel “The Pursuit of Love”. How had she achieved this bright moment, she wonders. “Cheers to novels, I’d say! Cheers to readers the world over”. The focus switches to Katie, hungover in the company of her nieces, piecing together the terrible memories of a disastrous Thanksgiving meal with her family, when she reveals that she has broken up with her partner of so many years. She is soon in London, staying with her wealthy friend Jojo who lives very near to Heywood Hill, a book shop which bears a plaque recording that Nancy Mitford, “Writer worked here  1942 – 1945”. The other focus of the novel tells of how Nancy had arrived here, deprived of her allowance and not having seen “Prod”, her husband Peter, for a long time. She needs to work for money, for company, and to hopefully inspire her to write again. The question of a mysterious autobiography, revealing much about her current situation, is a tantalising mystery throughout both narratives, as  Katie is inspired by a chance meeting to seek out the elusive manuscript, and Nancy is desperately trying to find the impetus to write among the distractions of war and other writers who form part of her social set. 

This book is incredibly well researched, as Gable has used the extant letters of Mitford and others to provide the style of the dialogue between Nancy and the other wartime characters. The research is never allowed to interfere with the power of the story however, and the characters appear fully formed on the page. The modern section is lively and well written, highlighting aspects of Nancy’s story, especially in the light of her very successful “The Pursuit of Love”. This is a satisfying novel of a fascinating author in a fictional narrative, and I found it an enthralling read.  

Bookshop Tour on Four Wheels – The Tree House Bookshop, Kenilworth

Bookshop Tour on Four Wheels – The Tree House Bookshop

A real find in Kenilworth was The Tree House Bookshop. It was accessible for Morgan, my trusty powerchair, even though apparently one of the doors was giving some problems. This cosy shop, though accessible inside, has an actual treehouse inside – though I did not take the opportunity to climb inside! It sells second – hand books on a not for profit basis, with donations of stock welcomed. This means that the prices are low even for special books, and are affordable for all. They are well ordered (fiction by authors alphabetically etc) and there was even a small selection of Virago green books. The non fiction section was also well arranged, and I could navigate between the shelves pretty well (for a busy second hand shop anyway!). Its tagline is “Bringing people together through the arts” and it is a music venue in normal times. Profits are ploughed back into the shop, and a local, national and international charity supported. It came over a friendly shop with a lot of stock and a real community feel.

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The Moon Almanac by Judith Hurrell – A Month by Month Guide to the Lunar Year for everyone

The Moon Almanac by Judith Hurrell

A book of the moon arranged as a month by month guide, this is an intriguing little book with so much to dip into or indeed read. The Moon almanac proceeds through the lunar, or calendar year, with insights into the way the moon appears on earth, and how it may affect such things as weather in various parts of the world. It offers views from right around the world of what the moon’s perceived shape is at various stages, such as the “Smiling moon” . With poetry and prose quotations for every month, it is possible to trace how important it has been to creative minds over the centuries. There are traditions of gardening to rhythms dictated by the moon, as well as all important farming traditions as the seasons of planting and harvesting were established by an understanding of the lunar cycle. Altogether this is a delightful book and I was pleased to have had the opportunity to read and review this impressive Almanac.

The Introduction offers suggestions how to use this “eclectic collection of lunar lore, wisdom and trivia, with perspectives on the moon from poets, writers and philosophers from all corners of the globe and history.” For non specialists there is a helpful section “Phases of the moon” with small pictures which illustrates the differences between waxing and waning, gibbous and crescent. January begins with the special links between wolves and the moon and the Chinese New Year. February includes details of the Celtic goddess Brigid. March highlights the various religious and cultural events associated with the month, ranging from Lent to Holi, as well as the equinox moon. April reveals the secrets of a moon garden, while the May section reveals the fact that May 2022 “brings a total lunar eclipse”. It also comments on the dangers of moon dust! June of course means the Summer Solstice. July features another Super Full Moon in 2022 and an explanation of the moon and tides. The first harvest is a feature in August, and the secrets of “blue moons”. September is the month of Harvest moons and Michaelmas. In October there is a discussion of “The moon in female archetypes” which is very interesting. November is a time for preparation against the harsh weather to come. December of course features the “Cold moon” and the actual markings on the face of the moon in various cultures.

Altogether this book is filled with little snippets of information that are well presented. I learnt a lot from this book, and it is so well presented it would make an ideal gift or treat for anyone who is fascinated by this aspect of the natural world.  

Snow – kissed Proposals – The Christmas Runaway by Jenni Fletcher and Their Snowbound Reunion by Elisabeth Hobbes – two romantic historic romances

Snow – Kissed Proposals – The Christmas Runaway by Jenni Fletcher and Their Snowbound Reunion by Elisabeth Hobbes

Two novellas of love at the festive season, romance in difficult circumstances sparkle with the hope of attraction and the possibility of expressing that love. Both set in the Victorian era, they feature life in large houses but not necessarily among the wealthy, those who have faced hard times and now are challenged by the elements. They share humour and a spark of realism, well written characters and lively dialogue. The settings are well drawn and the backgrounds of homes, grounds and homes evoke imaginative pictures. The clothes are well described for both genders, giving support to characteristics and signifying much about the occasion and state of mind. Both authors have truly grasped the importance of satisfying plots and realistic characters, and I am so pleased to have had the opportunity to read and review this delightful book of two short novels. 

In The Christmas Runaway, the impetuous Miss Fiona MacKay is introduced as she finds herself stranded in appalling weather trying to reach her friends house. She has run away from her comfortable home and father; she has the reputation for being adventurous and curious. Happily she is rescued by a man who she at first takes for a rural worker with a cart, as his untidy working clothes and general appearance seem to suggest. She is pretty dishevelled herself after all, and wearing bright and unsuitable clothing for the place in which she is walking. She soon discovers her mistake as to the identity of the large and good looking rescuer, but is not discomposed for long. When she reaches territory she sets about renewing an old and strong friendship, and giving her honest opinion to those who need to hear it. Gradually being trapped with Angus Drummond does not seem so bad after a while, and indeed they seem well matched in terms of being headstrong and determined, even when they clash.Can the approaching festive season bring them together, or push them apart forever. 

Their Snowbound Reunion deals with slightly older people who meet after a gap of some fifteen years. The story begins with the young Amy rushing to meet Anthony at a favourite spot in the village where she lived and he was visiting his aunt. When he does not turn up she is told that he left the area in the morning in the hope of a job with a newspaper. Several years later Amy has returned to the house in which Anthony’s aunt once lived to apply for a job as a housekeeper, learning that Anthony has inherited the house but does not intend to visit at any point. Keen to get a job, she agrees to work there and compile an inventory of the house contents.After all, she has moved on, married and been widowed, and knows the area well. However, it suddenly appears that Anthony is going to make a short visit to the house, and in the run up to Christmas he will return to the house he has not seen for many years. Amy and the household have been preparing for a very quiet Christmas, but it now seems that things will be very different. 

This is a lovely read, especially in the build up to Christmas. Both authors are well versed in creating escapism in historical fiction, and their two couples are vibrant and vivid creations. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys romantic historical fiction, especially at Christmas.         

World of Plants – Stories of Survival by Alexandra Davey – A wonderful book of one hundred very special plants from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh

World of Plants  – Stories of Survival by Alexandra Davey

This stunning book is produced by The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, and is actually a guide to one hundred plants that are threatened in the wild to varying degrees. Each plant has its own story of survival in a world where forty percent of the world’s plant species are at risk of extinction. The list of reasons why these and other species are at risk is staggering: climate change, the destruction of habitats, the careless introduction of pathogens and pests, the extinction of seed distributing species, disease and of course human activity. 

It is the story of the discovery and conserving of plants ranging from mosses to the largest tree, the largest living thing on earth. It gives stories of essential biodiversity, where plants contribute to a delicate ecosystem that is of benefit to humanity as well as representing the balance of species across the world. 

The book represents the collection of the four gardens in Scotland, in that it identifies where the plants are kept in each of the establishments. As the climate and other conditions range from the very warm (thanks to the gulf stream) to the more challenging temperature range, the location of the plants is carefully considered; indeed some were present when the gardens were acquired. The growth of the rare species is therefore facilitated and encouraged in the pure form which is important when hybrids have emerged in the wild. It means that the plants can be studied for their exact biology, conserved, and that seeds and cuttings can be transferred to other locations. The author has pointed out how individuals, communities and organisations and even governments have worked together to make this scheme possible, to pull species back from the brink of extinction. Not everything has been straightforward, some specimens have been lost which makes those that survive extra precious. 

This book is a very beautiful collection of photographs of a number of special plants. The hundred selected have been chosen for their resilience and survival story; they range from the tropical to those local to Scotland. While these exact species are rare, even the non-expert can see the type of plants they represent, as the photographs are simply wonderful close-ups of the most significant parts of each plant. Indeed in the Acknowledgements section mentions “Lynsey Wilson for her many wonderful photographs  and patience with our demands for even better ones”. They are simply wonderful renditions of each specimen. Each entry shows symbols detailing how endangered they are, ranging from vulnerable to extinct in the wild. It deals the places where they are still present in the wild, the attempts to conserve them and increase the population, and the holdings in the botanical gardens. It points out which garden they are present in, and where it might be possible to see them, including looking over a bridge! The information also includes where they are important to humans, as the basis of coffee, medicines, traditional ritualistic practices and so on. 

This book is an impressive artifact in its own right, with incredibly high production values in its hardback format and high definition pictures. Even for a non expert it is very approachable and written in a lively fashion.There is an index to the scientific names to permit further studies, and is generally a book to treasure. It would make a perfect gift for anyone who is interested in the wide variety of plants in our world, and all the impressive attempts to preserve them, as well as a lovely addition to one’s own collection of plant studies. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this wonderful book. #AD

Christmas with the Cornish Girls by Betty Walker – three young women work at a military officers’ convalescent home in 1941

Christmas with the Cornish Girls by Betty Walker

A well written novel telling the story of three women in 1941 as they work in a military officers’ convalescent home. Although the second book in a series, the setting is different from the first and new characters are introduced; it could certainly be read as a standalone novel.  This book is a brilliant story of the strange circumstances of war, the frustrations of rationing and fear in bombing raids, the unusual circumstances of life and the difficulties of uncertain relationships. Each of the three young women who feature have very different backgrounds and circumstances, are not necessarily great friends to begin with, but are forced to make connections in order to get through. As with the previous book in the series, there is a wealth of detail in the setting, with the descriptions of the wards and rooms being particularly detailed, and the clothes and other personal details being just right for the time. The dialogue is well used and reflects the language and especially the accents of the time. There is obviously a lot of research behind this book, but it never interferes with the narrative. Altogether it makes for a really enjoyable and involving reading experience, and I was really pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this novel. 

The Cornish setting of this book means that it opens in the small village of Porthcurno, the site of a top secret listening post which provides work for Lily with her aunt and sister. It perhaps also increases the number and intensity of enemy bombing raids, and some of the women are emerging from a shelter, relieved to see that their home is still standing. When they are told that one of them must find new employment, Lily realises that her bad memories and current restlessness may well mean that she should take up an offer to work at Symmonds Hall. Eva, a Colonel’s daughter, is working at the Hall and wrote to offer Lily an alternative to her cleaning job, and the young woman decides to take up the training post. Eva has trained as a nurse, partly because she has a special interest in one of the officers receiving treatment at the Hall. She is a vivacious and determined character, and soon involves several people in her schemes and plans, which are always well intentioned. Perhaps the most remarkable character to be introduced is Sister Rose Gray. An experienced nurse who grew up in the area, she is very dedicated to her work at the Hall, and tries to ensure that the other nurses are similarly hard working.She has a strict reputation, but secretly admires doctor Lewis Lanyon, who she has known for years. Rose also becomes concerned about the treatment of the children in the adjoining Orphanage who she glimpses through windows and fences. She ponders whether they are harshly treated, especially when one small boy, Jimmy, particularly comes to her attention. As the festive season approaches, preparations and concerns about various patients come to the fore, especially as bombing raids seem to interupt every plan. 

This is a book that I greatly enjoyed, finding myself quickly immersed in the story and the fictional lives of the characters. The writing maintained my interest throughout, and the working out of the plot kept me guessing. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys female led dramas set during the Second World War as a lively and well written book. 

The Custard Corpses by M J Porter – a wartime mystery with surprises and twists.

The Custard Corpses by MJ Porter

As titles for murder mysteries go, this must be one of the most bewildering. It actually covers an excellent murder mystery novel, where there are bodies, and a fascinating link with an innocent pudding. Set in the dark days of the 1940s, this book is an intelligent recall of difficult days of blackouts and the ever present risk of a return to the bombing which damaged so much of the midlands, including Birmingham, where the story is largely set in 1943. Chief Inspector Sam Mason cannot help brooding over an old case which marked his career and was an obsession for his late boss. The incisive writing shows a man who works doggedly for results with the assistance of a young woman who has inspired organisational skills.This book can be termed as shocking, certainly it is surprising, and it has much to say about bad treatment of children. It is a well plotted book, with complex investigations. It anchors on well researched wartime elements; a magazine known for its illustrations and photographs, rationing and wartime travel. There are hints of humour despite the grave subject matter, and the importance of love and family relationships. This is a carefully written book which is lively and fast moving which has plenty of atmosphere. The characters are consistent and impressively drawn. I was very interested in having the opportunity to read and review this fascinating and very readable book. 

The book opens with a strange tale of an artist departing his rented room as he rushes to fulfil a mysterious commission and receives payment that will change his life. The story then switches to Sam Mason, dealing with the twinges of pain associated with his fighting in the First World War. His wife is very worried about their son, away fighting in the present conflict. There are reminders, however, of an unsolved case, the twentieth anniversary of which is nearly arrived. A young boy, Robert McFarlane, was found dead, drowned, outside a local hall. Sam was not in charge of the investigation, but still felt keenly the anguish of the child’s family, especially when he receives a visit from the boy’s sister. She has acquired a piece of information which may well start a new lead in the investigation which has never properly been closed. As he takes his first tentative steps towards discovering the true extent of the implications of the murder of the child, a number of surprising breakthroughs arrive to tax him. Can he get the support of his immediate superior to continue what ought to be done? Will those closest to him make a difference? How much persistence and dogged determination will Constable O’Rourke need to show to help Sam make the breakthroughs he so desperately needs?

This is a sophisticated and sensitively written book of memorable crimes that have haunted lives. It is fiction, but has the feel of grim realty in some instances. It is a book undercut by war, but mainly in terms of its effects rather than actively pursued. It makes several valid points about the men who are not away fighting, whether they have obvious injuries or illnesses, as Sam tries not to speculate too much about those who are still in civilian roles. The presence of women police officers does not seem to excite much comment from other characters, even though there were still only three hundred and eighty five by 1945. This is a very solidly written book which I found intriguing and informative. I recommend this book as a strongly constructed book of wartime investigation and some realistic characters.

Bookshop Tour on Four Wheels – Kenilworth Books

Bookshop Tour on Four Wheels – Kenilworth Books

After hearing about Kenilworth Books on twitter, and being assured that it was accessible, we finally managed to get there! Kenilworth has many shops that I could get into, I’m glad to say, on the high street. Kenilworth Books was accessible for myself and Morgan, my trusty powerchair, as well as children, dogs and everyone else! I could get around the shop well, and it had a good selection of both recent books and older titles. With cards and other gifts available, there was certainly a lot to look at, especially with a good number of signed editions and offers. Their website is here and it has a wealth of information about what they offer. They are on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  I have also included lots of photos!

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Kingscastle by Sophia Holloway – a wonderful historical novel of discovery, humour and romance

Allison and Busby

Kingscastle by Sophia Holloway

There are some books I want to read in one sitting, because I am enjoying them so much. This book, set in the early part of the nineteenth century with the end of the Napoleonic wars, features such wonderful characters that I did not want it to end. Many people enjoy novels set in this pre Victorian era, a genre made fashionable by Georgette Heyer, and this one is a super example of that popular type of book. It features a tall dark hero – one Captain William Hawksmoor – a genuinely awful female – Lady Willoughby Hawksmoor – and romantic possibilities. There is adventure, a community at risk, and a sophisticated plot of misunderstandings amid genuine danger. I enjoyed the details of clothes, the countryside setting with some significant houses, and most of all the dialogue, whether waspish, witty or just plain clever. There is an ill-treated heroine, some “capable” women, and so much to enjoy in this book of manners, romance and the problems of coping with new challenges in life. The research which provides the scaffolding is present, but never interrupts the narrative. I was so very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this wonderful book.  

When the book begins William is astonished to receive a visit from a lawyer, Mr Tideswell, with the news that he is now the fifth Marquis of Athelney, heir to the title and vast estates. After all, he is the younger son of a youngest son, and had never thought that he would inherit, but there have been a series of deaths that have led to this point. He is further surprised to hear that in order to be able to act without trustees he must marry and produce a male heir within a certain time. It seems at the very least he must take command of his estates and embark on a new way of life from his naval career, which he has followed since the age of fifteen. He accompanies the lawyer to London in a hired coach previously beyond his means as a half pay naval officer in a time of peace, and is supplied with the clothes, the valet and an indication of how his life is to be lived. 

His arrival at his main estate of Kingscastle is notable for his bewilderment at the sheer size of his house, his staff, and the requirements of having a substantial number of tenants and others who are dependent upon him. His first encounter with his fearsome aunt, the Dowager Lady Willoughby, is a surprise, if only because of her whole attitude to him and her surprising determination that he should immediately marry the girl she has selected for him. Fortunately he has spotted another young woman, an underpaid companion who is far more interesting than the rather insipid Charlotte, Eleanor Burgess, but no one is seriously suggesting her as a potential bride. Her ladyship is indeed determined that they will be kept apart, and there is nothing she will not do, even in the face of an emergency, to prevent any unauthorised romance. 

One of the delights of this book is the battle that Lady Willoughby puts up to bend everyone and everything to her will. Even when so many things are at risk, she continues her appalling behaviour. I get the impression that the author really enjoyed creating and maintaining this character and her authoritarian manner. The other characters are so well written and consistent, including the lovely Harry Bitton and the resourceful Anne Greenham. I thoroughly recommend this novel to all who enjoy historical fiction with an element of romance, and I will be eagerly seeking out Holloway’s other novels. 

'I have to get married'