The Language of Food by Annabel Abbs – The voices of two women with a new view of the words of cooking

The Language of Food by Annabel Abbs

Recipe books are immensely popular; often being instant bestsellers. This novel is about the writer of the first recipe book that can be said to be truly inspirational, the result of the work of Eliza Acton. Apparently there is not much known about this talented and creative cook beyond her main book, “Modern Cookery, in All Its Branches Reduced to A System of Easy Practice, For The Use Of Private Families”, but the author has taken what is known and written a novel of subtle power. She has added a character of whom very little is known, but who becomes one of the two strong voices in this engaging historical novel. Ann Kirby is from a distressingly poor family and yet has an extraordinary determination to cook, to make something of her life. Eliza’s unmarried status overshadows her ambitions to write, her poems are in some way a breakaway from her past, and creating new and enriched recipes in a form to train and inspire her true vocation. The writing in this novel appeals to the senses in terms of recording and celebrating the texture, smell and taste of carefully cooked food. It contrasts the richness and possibilities of generous ingredients with the abject poverty of Ann’s family, the rural poor often forgotten in the criticism of the Industrial town conditions. It skillfully tells parallel and overlapping stories through the two women’s voices, both ambitious in their ways, but also realistic about the limitations that have been placed on them. I was so very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this wonderful book of women fighting for their true loves.

At the beginning of the novel there is a Prologue. Ann is a servant and more to a widower, whose gift of a book activates strong memories and a desire to act once she realises what it contains. The first chapter is Eliza’s visit to a publisher who she hopes will take her new collection of poetry and publish it. An excellent description of the man who makes the decisions follows, leaving Eliza confused and bitterly disappointed. Instead of a new volume of elegantly composed words in the style of the much admired Miss Landon, a cookery book is requested, probably in the light of the recent publishing sensation of a book of Domestic Cookery. Mr Longman thinks that the skill of writing a poem can easily be transformed to the writing of a recipe, yet Eliza is unwilling to concede such a thing. It takes a decided turn down in her family’s fortunes to bring her to realise that there may be an art to writing a genuinely accurate and inspiring recipe as the result of experimentation and improvement. Meanwhile Ann has to cope with her much loved mother, who taught her to write, being taken to an institution. She hardly dares to hope that she can improve her lot, and that of her father. Transfixed by her brother’s stories of working in a remarkable London kitchen, she is willing to work hard in the kitchen of the unusual Miss Eliza in order to cook really good food. Both women will have to work with secrets of their past and present to fulfil their dreams.

This is such an enjoyable and readable book that it is a real pleasure to discover seemingly along with the two women the beauty and satisfaction of good food cooked with real feeling. It reflects the poverty of the age, and the perils of choices beyond the security of marriage. It has a lot to say about the expectations placed on women at the time, and the pressure of secrets. I really enjoyed this book which was so well paced and lyrical about food, cooking and capturing a process which had been largely ignored to this point. It also contains historical notes at the end of the book to give the fiction a real context. It is a strong female led book which I thoroughly recommend.   

Bookshop Tour on Four Wheels – Drake, The Bookshop, Stockton

Bookshop Tour on Four Wheels – Drake, The Bookshop, Stockton

I discover bookshops that may be accessible by various means – including twitter, then try to message them to confirm that I can indeed get in with Morgan, my trusty powerchair. That is how I found out about Drake – The Bookshop, in Stockton. The town itself was pretty deserted when we arrived on a Monday afternoon in January, but the shop itself had a steady stream of customers while we were there. As you can see from the photographs, there is a wide enough door and completely flat access. The layout inside is spacious, with room to get right around the displays, which is so important for independent book browsing! It also features a lovely children’s room which is also on the flat, with a lovely display of picture books. The selection of books is excellent, with new hardback fiction titles available. Altogether a welcoming shop with lots to recommend it.

The website for enquiries and more information is 

27 Silver Street, Stockton on Tees, TS18 1SX

Opening times: Monday to Saturday 9:30am to 5:00pm. Closed on Sundays

Telephone: 01642 909970 Email:

Write It All Down by Cathy Rentzenbrink – a book of encouragement to “Put your life on the page”

Write It All Down by Cathy Rentzenbrink

This book is subtitled “How to put your life on the page” and is a guide, encouragement and even friend in the process of writing your memoirs. This is a book that takes the reader through the entire process, from Preparation, Excavation, through Crafting and Editing to Getting Work Done. These are the main sections of the book, which give the basics of writing the story of a life, or part of it. It would work well for someone intending to seek publication (although there are no technical details of publishers etc), as well as someone seeking to construct a book for a more limited audience. Not that it expects everyone to sit and write flowingly before a quick tidy and submission; this book is far more detailed and realistic than that. It looks at the difficulties of getting started on a project that may have seemed attractive for a considerable time, but has been put off for many incidental reasons like waiting for a new laptop, the right setting, or the myriad other reasons for not actually writing. It also has encouraging words for finding time in a busy life, ideas for inspiration when stuck, and how to cope when Times are Tough. As an experienced writer of memoirs and fiction herself, the author has a track record for not only managing her own writing when distracted by circumstances but also leading workshops and other sessions. Rentzenbrink is above all honest and realistic in this book, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it. 

One of this book’s great strengths is the realistic knowledge that writing something, even the stories of one’s own life which should be well known, is neither easy nor straightforward.  While immense research such as that required by committed historical fiction writing, for example, is not required, it is recognised that a would-be writer of memoirs does need stimulation to remember and capture the moments. It suggests the collection of photographs and small souvenirs to trigger memories. It looks at exercises to write lists of places which may help structure writing a life story, as well a list of memories which may well not be included in the finished piece, but can help to trigger the process of remembering the useful points. It suggests the need for thinking through what to write that need not take place in front of a screen or with pen in hand, the process of seemingly doing nothing until thoughts are sorted. This is a book which suggests that real courage is needed in order to write the truth of memory in a way that will work for other people. It helps with examples of how to write an incident without distraction or surplus information; giving an indication of how easy it is to be led off on a completely different path or constructing a different atmosphere from the central memory. This book is the work of a writer who has produced four previous books which have been successful, as well as reading a phenomenal amount herself (as detailed in “Dear Reader”). She knows of what she writes! 

This book also includes a section of Further Reading, listing the books on Writing,and the memoirs which have inspired Rentzenbrink, via the most significant lines. She has An Inspiring Addendum, which consists of paragraphs of advice from well known writers who have published their own memoirs among other books, such as Matt Haig and Lucy Mangan. Altogether this is an immensely helpful book for anyone who has ever considered writing from their life, or indeed anyone who has thought about writing a significant length piece. It has advice, encouragement and the basic truth, that it is all about actual writing something down which is vital. 

The Maid by Nita Prose – A contemporary story of innocence

The Maid by Nita Prose

This book is narrated by the main character, Molly, and she has a phenomenally strong, distinctive voice. Deeply concerned with instructions and most importantly, cleaning, she is the ideal maid. She functions discreetly, capably and is almost invisible. Underneath there is a constant narrative of intention, some doubts, reconciling the difficult and often dirty world to her high expectations. Lonely and sometimes confused, she tries hard to recognise what others mean by their actions, but also by their expressions, and sometimes she fails. She is in many ways an employer’s dream, being conscientious almost to a fault. Molly, however, has secrets. Precious and clear memories of her only family, her Gran, are her guide to life, but there comes a time in this beautifully constructed novel when she has to go beyond her beloved grandmother’s precepts. This is a strong novel which looks with almost heartbreaking clarity at a remarkable young woman’s life at a crisis point. A real page turner, this new classic of contemporary writing draws the reader in gently and insidiously, as Molly’s logic becomes almost second nature. Discovering so much as the story develops, the reader may think that they know what is really going on, only to be almost as shocked as Molly is by some developments. Apart from Molly herself, I thought that the other characters were introduced and developed with real flair, and the setting of the hotel and flat which make up most of Molly’s world are carefully described. I was so very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this wonderful book. 

The book opens with a description by the narrator of herself,  Molly the maid. With a certain amount of clarity, she says that she likes things clean and neat. Her uniform, clean and pressed every day, is like assuming an invisibility cloak, as she puts it on she feels that she becomes invisible to everyone, a silent, non-judgemental cleaning force. It is maybe this wordless acceptance of people’s lives as shown by her folding and tidying, cleaning away people’s mess, that actually endears her to Giselle, the second, glamorous wife to Mr Charles Black. He is a businessman, infamous for his dealings in unspecified matters, but as a frequent guest in the penthouse suite, undoubtedly wealthy. He treats Molly as a necessary but inconvenient item in the hotel. Giselle, however, chats to Molly, revealing perhaps more than she intends to of her real feelings. Molly has regrets, such as an ill advised relationship in her past, but that has not prevented her from hoping that Rodney, bar manager in the hotel, will continue his apparent interest in her. Meanwhile she will keep on cleaning and bringing rooms back to a state of perfection, always mindful of her manager, Mr. Snow’s, words of wisdom.

This is a book which has important things to say about the realities of life for a person who has to reassure herself that people are laughing with her, not at her. It is about innocence on many levels, of true innocence in life and daily situations, and innocence in more complicated emergencies. It is about relationships – with those we love, and with those who do not have others’ best interests in mind. It is a book about how women, who make up the majority in such relatively low paid jobs, have to cope with being ignored. This is an important book in many ways, but also a book  that is a very good and satisfying read, and I thoroughly recommend it.          

The City of Tears by Kate Mosse – an immense book of French historical events seen through the eyes of women

The City of Tears by Kate Moss

This is a powerful book of historical fiction. A second book in the Burning Chambers series, this immense book has just been published in paperback. Returning to France in 1572, this book stands alone as it recalls the major characters with implied backgrounds. They are men and women, children, who represent two sides of the religious movements in sixteenth century France. Journeying from the idyllic countryside to the heaving, overpopulated city of Paris, it sweeps onwards into Amsterdam and beyond, where people vacillate between wanting to live peacefully together following their own preferences in religious practice, to condemning those who have opposing views. Politics and religion are a heady mix, and in this tightly written, well paced novel, an extremely dangerous one. The proposed marriage of two royal families, the joining of ambitious dynasties, is supposed to be witnessed as the raising of new hope, but instead leads to trouble for many present. Seen through the perspective of one fictional relatively wealthy family group, and especially the women, it begins to appear that not everyone is going to survive, let alone remain together. Ambitions, the desire for revenge and so much more seem to come together against those hoping for peace and tolerance. This is a powerful book, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it. 

The book opens in May and June 1572. An older woman, Marikan, prays for guidance. Past tragic memories and a present dilemma leave her uncertain and troubled. Should she reveal what she remembers, what little she knows, or should she preserve a silence against her duty? In a way a dilemma is solved, and tragedy is set in train. At a far away place, Chateau de Puivert in Languedoc, a younger woman, Minou Reydon- Joubert, the Chatelane considers the troubled past and the seemingly peaceful present. Her father, her aunt, her sister and brother are all present, together with her husband Piet, daughter Marta and small son Jean-Jacques. Her husband is  strangely silent, but essentially it is a loving relationship, probably after the traumatic events as recorded in the first book. It is a special day, as Minou has decided that they will all go to Paris to witness the marriage of Marguerite de Valois to King Henri of Narvarre. This is an important and unexpected joining of two houses by marriage, houses that have long been divided by religion. Most of Minou’s family follow the Huguenots in religious practice, but many inhabitants of France follow the tradition of strict Catholicism. By the time of this book the Wars of Religion have raged through France for ten years, and as in any civil war, neighbours and even families have been divided. With this marriage it is to be hoped that peace and reconciliation will be achieved, but with vested interests on both sides, nothing is certain. There are those for whom religious differences  are almost excuses for violent action, and there are worrying signs of danger even in the countryside, and definitely in the overpopulated streets of Paris. 

This book, like others produced by Mosse, tackles the troubles of French history head on, and is certainly not a gentle read. The writing is phenomenally strong, featuring determined individuals of every age and background. An informative historical note is included, and this book uses fictional characters as a means of conveying huge truths of the time. It is an admirable and big book in every sense, and I recommend it as a really memorable reading experience.       

Loved by a Gentleman by Alizee Kay – a special novel of a contemporary woman’s life

Alizee Kay

Loved by a Gentleman by Alizee Kay

This is an impressive debut by an author who has succeeded in creating memorable characters in a lovely readable novel. Focusing on a situation that she evidently knows while working in hospitality, she has produced a book that conveys something of the pride in a job. Alizee Kay has also been ambitious in setting her novel just before and during the 2020 lockdown, and managing to deal with a time that many other fiction writers have avoided. Her central character, Beatrice, is described with great sensitivity and understanding. The setting is lovely, swapping between a great house hotel and Beatrice’s own home. Both are described so well that it is possible to visualise the grand view from the front of the big building and something of the change to a limited setting during lockdown. Kay handles the first whispers of danger in early 2020 very well. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this special book.

When the book begins, Beatrice acknowledges that she still has strong feelings for Logan, her previous boss. Not that she has seen him for over a year; she is now the boss of her own hotel. She is very successful, winning prizes within the industry. She understands her staff, willing to build them up in terms of confidence, in timely praise and much more. Across the hotel lobby she sees Arian, a young man who seizes her attention. She is more than keen to offer him a job: he is confident, effortlessly polite and keen to impress. He seems the perfect fit for a job at the hotel, always keen to help, they are soon having conversations that extend beyond work, and Beatrice’s best friend notices a difference in her immediately. For all that they become close, the fact remains that he is married, with children. As news of a virus begins to come from China, Beatrice realises that her work, all that which gives her life meaning in many ways, may have to change, and that her reason for seeing Arian may disappear as well. 

The style of the writing is extremely careful and readable. Kay raises some valid points about contemporary life through this story. The main one is the loneliness experienced by single people, especially women. This theme has been featured by writers over the last few years, specifically how women work hard and may well be extremely successful at work, but find it difficult to form relationships outside the office or wherever. Adult loneliness has been a problem for some time, but of course was exacerbated by lockdown when many people were confined to their homes, and not even able to work if it could not be completed remotely, like Beatrice. Many people found themselves without purpose or direction, and I think Kay has caught that concept well. This is a worthy debut and shows real promise in terms of its pace, overall composition and thoughtful response to the feelings of contemporary women in these difficult days.   

At Death’s Door by Anna Legat – A mystery in Bishops Well proves a challenge for Maggie and Sam

At Death’s Door by Anna Legat

This is a “cosy” murder mystery set in the traditional English village, but one that suddenly becomes much bigger as one character recalls the mysteries of her life which are on a far wider stage. Those who read the first book in this series will recognize some of the characters, but this novel stands alone in its narrative. Maggie, who sometimes takes over the otherwise third person narration to reveal what she thinks, is a wonderful character with a special talent, almost a burden, which helps with investigations in the village of Bishops Well. When combined with the restraining personality of Samuel Dee, neighbour, good friend and confidante who can bring his legal experience and knowledge to a situation, they form an impressive team. In this book he must introduce the strong character of his mother Deirdre for support and her cooking skills to back him up – as Maggie is thrown into confusion and some despair by events close to home and further away. There is still humour, a number of secrets and some interesting food options in this book of contemporary mystery and much more. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this very good novel.

The book opens with a somewhat fed-up Sam joining an archaeological dig in a local spot in unpromising weather. When a body is discovered, there is celebration as the assumption is that they have found the Celtic remains that they sought. It is, however, immediately apparent to an on-site pathologist that this is a much more recently buried body, and one that needs to be identified. Maggie for various reasons offers her ideas – and more – to the police in the form of a rather testy DI Gillian Marsh, as well as chatting with someone most concerned with the probable crime. As the various residents of the village discuss the potential wrongdoers, old memories emerge of secret departures and assumptions made about a young woman many years before. Maggie meanwhile must cope with the outcome of a situation that has been in the background for slightly less time. It is a welcome distraction when she is drafted in as a supply teacher to a local school and discovers a young man who has issues. Sam is meanwhile finding his feet in the village after leaving London. He has had a traumatic time, and it is to his credit that he tries so hard to help his friend Maggie, even when he wonders why when she behaves in such memorable ways.

This is a book which I found easy to immerse myself in, even when the narrative took a surprising direction. Legat is a sensitive writer as well as providing an element of humour, especially where Maggie is concerned. She is so good at giving us Maggie’s slightly chaotic view of life throughout this book, as well as balancing a mystery which involves many local people and challenges to her family. The setting of her cottage and the other elements of Bishops Well is so effective that it is almost possible to visualise the buildings as well as the essence of village life. This is the second book that I have read in “The Shires Mysteries” series and I am certainly looking forward to the next one.   

Resistance – Book 1, Liberty by Eilidh McGinness – A story of Occupied France

Resistance – Book 1 Liberty by Eilidh McGinness

This is a dramatic novel of a significant time and place in twentieth century history, Occupied France during the Second World War. The stories of resistance by “official” groups and determined individuals is told from the fictional experiences of two young people, and it is their bravery that this book largely celebrates against a background of brutality and betrayal. Sabine Faure works on the family farm outside a fictional village of Saint-Antoine-de Double in Dordogne in South-West France. As befits someone who has grown up in the area, she has an excellent knowledge of the people and places, the routes and secrets of the mainly wooded area. The same cannot be said for the charismatic Herisson, who has to learn how to cope in an environment that is at once bountiful in hiding places and food but is also filled with danger as various German groups seek to hunt down anyone who opposes them. The other characters that fill this book, whether quietly trying to resist the occupation or seemingly willing to accept the status quo, are also drawn as real people. The pace of the book is admirable, as the two young people encounter potentially life changing challenges. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this impressive book.

The book opens in July 1941 when Herisson is being smuggled in a wine barrel by sympathetic men out of the Occupied Zone of France. He has abandoned his home and any family to find and join a Resistance group, being determined to fight for a free France and a Communist dream. He is joined by three friends, all young men determined to risk everything to fight. As they walk towards a village in which they have been told is a contact, they are a little frightened by the unusually dense woodland that surrounds the road. Meanwhile Sabine is working on the family farm, resenting her peasant status and wishing she could do more than prepare and deliver cheeses. Meeting a good friend, she is shocked to be given a mission for the local resistance which she is uniquely able to complete. While keen to take action, she is painfully aware that her overbearing father is keen to keep his head down and not endanger the family at whatever cost. She knows that her actions will endanger not only herself but many people around her, but she is still determined to embrace the opportunity. Her first meeting with Herisson is not a positive experience for either, as both realise that so much depends on absolute secrecy, and he and his friends have made a lot of assumptions about how easy it will be to become involved. Indeed, their first encounter in the woods with a group is not something that they could have predicted, and they are swiftly left in no doubt as to the realities of resisting the German forces.

This is a novel which is firmly anchored in the realities of communities largely at the mercy of occupying forces. It is not the world of British agents though there is a supporting role in the background; most of those who are active in the operations and deliveries are aware of the possible impact on their communities of discovery and reprisals. This is a well-paced novel of those who risked so much behind the lines, with a solid base of research which never intrudes into the narrative. I recommend this book to anyone who wants a fictionalized picture of the French people under occupation and all those who tried to make a difference, often at great personal cost.  

Should I Tell You? by Jill Mansell – an escapist gem of community, friendship and much more

Posting on the first day of the tour!

Should I Tell You? by Jill Mansell

A contemporary view of a community, this well written, witty book is a genuine escapist gem. Set in a fictional town in Cornwall, it features some fascinating characters who find themselves in complicated situations, some of whom are searching for resolutions that may not exist. While three relatively young people are at the heart of the story in some respects, it is often their relationships with older characters that are also really satisfying. Very different people, brilliantly described, encounter challenges in this novel that are continually surprising and always interesting.

Amber, Lachlan and Raffaele were all fostered at some point by Teddy and May, and it is there that their relationship began. May has now died, and the three friends are worried about Teddy, who seems to have found a new friend in Olga, who is younger, more vibrant and perhaps more acquisitive than they would like. Meanwhile Raffaele is saddened by his recent break up with the dynamic Vee, who seems to have changed from the lovable woman he first met. Peggy is an amazing character, but is concerned about her shy son Benjie who seems to be finding life difficult. As Mansell describes the colours, clothes and setting of a few weeks by the sea, I was carried along in a wonderful haze of dialogue and events that I thoroughly enjoyed. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book, and I would recommend it.

The book opens with an incident in the life of Lachlan, talented chef and known for his brief liaisons with women. It is one of the reasons that Amber, who has been attracted to him for years, will not mention her true feelings, not wanting to threaten their deep friendship over a brief affair. They are brought together by their concern over Teddy. After a period of mourning, Amber had succeeded in persuading him to go on a cruise. Lachlan is concerned because he seems to have found a person to spend time with who is the complete opposite of his late wife May, the dramatically dressed Olga. Lachlan particularly jumps to the conclusion that she is only attracted by Teddy’s evident wealth and generosity. Amber then thinks back to her first encounter with Raffaele and Lachlan, the two boys brought together by their difficult backgrounds and experiences in the care system. It soon becomes evident that the relationship between the three of them means that they try to protect each other from all trouble, feeling deep sympathy for each other even though they are now successful adults. Their encounters with Teddy and the remarkable Olga, as well as the now challenging Vee, shows that they are a thoughtful group who value each other immensely. Peggy, wealthy and dynamic, has insisted in helping Lachlan set up his successful restaurant in Lanrock, is instrumental in improving Amber’s stained glass business, and is convinced that her own art needs to find its true audience. Her son Benjie cannot always keep up with his mother’s outrageous ideas, and finds that she will do many things in order to get her way. 

Overall, this is a combination of stories and themes that provide a fascinating read. There are twists that I did not foresee, events that move everyone one along, experiences that are well described. I really enjoyed reading this well written book, and will definitely find others by this talented author.      

Bookshop Tour on Four Wheels – Harlow Carr Garden Centre Bookshop

Enter via the gardening section…

To find a bookshop!
Studying some of the stock! ( I was wearing a mask!)

There is also a garden…

Bookshop Tour on Four Wheels – Harlow Carr Garden Centre, Harrogate


01423 565418


Crag Lane Harrogate North Yorkshire HG3 1QB






Open Daily: 09:30 – 18:00

For those of us who would list “visiting bookshops” as one of our hobbies, the last few years have been difficult. Even when restrictions have eased, and we may have felt confident to venture out, not all of us have been able to get into bookshops owing to mobility problems and challenging access. In this series I celebrate the shops that I can actually enter and get round on Morgan, my trusty powerchair. 

Today I am featuring a shop within a shop – a garden centre at RHS Harlow Carr. We actually first discovered it in 2020, when meeting in the gardens for a legal, socially distanced picnic with our adult offspring who we had not seen for months. Venturing into the garden centre I expected the usual – piles of gardening books, maybe a few puzzle books, the usual thing. I entered via the Gardening section, only to discover that the area was in fact a small but well stocked bookshop, with new fiction and non fiction, an older collection of fiction with many interesting titles, biography, history and even specific crime fiction. After months of ordering books on the phone and online it was lovely to actually be able to handle and choose books in real life! As you can see from the photos, the books are well organised in a relatively spacious designated area so my more recent trip was very enjoyable. There are now several entrances to the building, all on the flat,  – there is a slope at one side of the bookshop which is said not to be wheelchair friendly – I could manage it but it is mentioned in the accessibility statement.I am not sure who is in charge of book buying, but there is an excellent selection available whenever I visit.  Thank you Harlow Carr!