Could You Survive Midsomer? by Simon Brew – An official interactive novel to survive and detect murder in English villages

Could You Survive Midsomer? By Simon Brew

An interactive book that could remind you of children’s make your own adventure book, this one is definitely aimed at adults. Anyone with the vaguest knowledge of television will have heard of Midsomer Murders, now on series twenty two, which features a collection of English villages which are the scene of multiple murders, often in a single episode. All are investigated by either Detective Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby or subsequently by his younger cousin John Barnaby; after all, the series has been going on television since 1997 so only two DCIs and an impressive list of sergeants have had their day in searching out the motives from a host of hapless villagers, who have included many British actors over several generations. Rather than another book of photographs or guide book to the area, this book is more of a puzzle or a book to get involved in. It is usable by those of us who have seen many episodes many times, or those whose knowledge of the actual television version is sketchy. I tried it several times so far, and am very pleased to have had the opportunity to discover and review this book. 

The basic idea of this book is to survive as a brand new detective in the area as you work through the various options that the book presents. Everyone begins with the same basic scenario; on your first day as a detective in the Midsomer area you are sent out to discover the circumstances of the unfortunate death of Peter James Maddock whose body has been found under a pile of homemade damson jam jars.  This being Midsomer, the sun shines as a Villages in Bloom competition begins. At the end of two sections which describe the setting (beautiful villages, gorgeous gardens and a whole host of suspicious characters) you are asked to make a choice as to what to do next, and you flick over the pages to find a numbered section accordingly. Some feature largely bewildering interviews with village characters, some have you investigating the scene of possibly relevant developments. Not only are you looking for clues and motives, methods and possibilities, but also avoiding dangerous situations of sudden and unusual death yourself. Do not be concerned; like the television series there is definitely dark humour in each section and sometimes actual comedy in the unlikely events. 

I really enjoyed attempting to navigate my way through this book. Being a huge fan of the series I recognised many references to episodes (lethal cheese, anyone?) though it would be possible to enjoy the book without knowing anything beyond accepting the rural scene. I could even visualize certain types of actors who would take the roles. There are a few pictures to break up the text, and they are also interesting. In these days of more time at home instead of actual socializing this book would undoubtedly be in the style of murder mystery gatherings, and could definitely be appreciated repeatedly as various choices can make for a successful detection of the guilty, or a very short experience as the becoming the latest victim of the mysterious murderer. This is a very well presented hardback with clear directions and well printed directions, and even space for notes in the back. This would make a lovely treat for oneself, or a intriguing gift for a murder mystery fan.  

Bookshop Tour on Four Wheels – Lockdown Books, Kington Hertfordshire – A special bookshop

Bookshop Tour on Four Wheels – Lockdown Books

It is really helpful and exciting when people contact me online to tell me about bookshops that are accessible for Morgan the trusty wheelchair. That’s how I found out about Lockdown Books!

It is in a small village on the Welsh borders – Kington in Hertfordshire. It is at number 48 on the High Street, which is not very long! After essential refreshments at a local cafe, we tracked down the shop and had a long chat with the owner. 

As you can see from the website – https://lock-down-books.com/  the bookshop specialises in “Politics, social and ecological issues, feminism, queer, landscape, art and poetry” . It means that there are not huge number of books on display, but they are all carefully chosen and certainly not what you would find in other bookshops generally. Local authors also present copies to the shop so there are some really special books available. There is also a collection of lovely art for sale from local artists, which we didn’t actually take photos of – probably copyright!

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays 10-5

48 High Street, Kington, Herefordshire. HR5 3BJ.

Tel: 07859 479896

We had a good time discussing book selling and life generally, so if you find yourself in the area, it’s a really good place to visit!

(Of course if you have ideas for others places we could visit – do let me know – please – twitter @NorthernReader or comment below)

The Patchwork Girls by Elaine Everest – a story of early Wartime and women working together

The Patchwork Girls by Elaine Everest

Helen is a young woman who wakes up to a nightmare: her husband John has been killed. Even though it is London in 1939 it is still a surprise; the cause is given as a gas explosion. The event forces her to return to her mother’s home with all its tensions and her offensive stepfather. After running away to London to avoid him, her difficult mother and village life, how can she survive her return given the ominous onset of war and all the implications of rationing and worse? Even her best friend has gone silent in London, and she knows no one in the village. The only person taking an interest in her is an RAF officer who seems to be investigating her MP husband’s death, but his interest does not seem to be friendly. A village sewing group may provide a lifeline for her and Effie, whose daughters need a safe home while her husband is on active service abroad. Can sewing pieces of fabric truly help with trauma on this scale?

This is a standalone book from the author of several series of wartime novels. At its heart are the memories and more of women as they deal with more than the usual cycle of marriage and life; they are looking to challenges that will require more of them than knitting socks for troops. As it introduces characters like Lizzie, the strong minded Canadian who actively tries to improve the lives of others, it looks at how women can work together to make a difference even in difficult circumstances. Aware that she may seem an outsider as Britain gears up for War, her determination to offer friendship and more to Helen is a strong theme in this engaging book. The research into the setting and various aspects of early wartime life makes this a fascinating read, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this entertaining book.

As she surveys the scene of her husband’s death, Helen is shocked at her reaction, especially as in the light of questions from the attentive Inspector Richard Gladstone. While she realises that as an important MP with responsibilities in the preparations for war his sudden death must be investigated, she is mystified as to why he is taking such an interest in her. After all, while her marriage was never passionate or even very loving, she fulfilled all the duties of the perfect MP’s wife. She had spent the day largely with her friend Felicity, and in leisurely shopping. Now she must make a quick decision about where she is going to live, and how she must come to terms with her greatly changed future. Her mother’s disappointment in no longer being associated with an MP is difficult to cope with, so when she sees an advertisement for a sewing group she snatches at the opportunity, and is soon persuaded that the simple construction of a quilt can help resolve her difficult memories, especially when more revelations further rock everything. Meanwhile Effie, a live-in housekeeper in Helen’s mother’s employ, has had to retrieve her daughters from their evacuation home, and now faces the bleak choice of returning to London and its dangers or finding a home in the village. As Helen despairs of remaining in her mother’s house, Richard is asking yet more questions, and Effie is struggling, they must find a swift answer to their difficulties. 

This is certainly an engaging and entertaining book, with a well constructed plot and a warmth in some of the characters. Helen is a particularly interesting character who has to cope with some very tricky situations. I recommend this book to all those who are interested in wartime stories, and especially those who would like to gain some knowledge of how groups of women working together on crafts made a real difference to life on the Home Front. 

Elaine Everest is the author of bestselling novels The Woolworths Girls, The Butlins Girls, Christmas at Woolworths and The Teashop Girls. She was born and raised in North-West Kent, where many of her bestselling historical sagas are set. She grew up listening to tales of the war years in her hometown of Erith, which has inspired her own stories. 

Elaine has been a freelance writer for 25 years and has written over 100 short stories and serials for the women’s magazine market. She is also the author of a number of popular non-fiction books for dog owners.

When she isn’t writing, Elaine runs The Write Place creative writing school in Hextable, Kent. She now lives in Swanley with her husband, Michael and their Polish Lowland Sheepdog, Henry. 

Her Secret War by Pam Lecky – a wartime romance becomes a thriller as Sarah must decide what do to for the best

Her Secret War by Pam Lecky

Sarah Gillespie is a young woman in trouble in this historical novel with an intense story of deceit, loss and much more. It is May 1941, and although Sarah lives in neutral Dublin, a stray bombing raid threatens her life and changes it forever. When the man she loves leaves to enlist with the idea that their relationship is over, her decision to move to England comes with its own problems and challenges. Can she cope in a world which seems to be dedicated to the war effort, but also poses a test of her own loyalty and bravery?

This is a wartime novel which enters the territory of thriller as a young woman desperately tries to do the right thing, while risking everything. From the loss of her family to discovering relatives who genuinely care for her is an interesting theme, but it is when a mysterious demand to complete a special mission emerges that Sarah is really tested; can her honesty, courage and resourcefulness be enough to ensure her survival, and at what cost to those around her? This is a brilliantly constructed novel with enough twists and surprises to satisfy any reader, as well as showing the author’s real talent for creating characters that really succeed in terms of realism. The setting of wartime England and the work of a special office is well described, with immense research into even the tiny details, but which never interrupts the narrative. I enjoyed the dialogue, especially between cousins Martin and Sarah. Overall this is a powerful and intense book of “love and espionage” which I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review. 

Sarah’s story begins on a dark night in Dublin, where she is upset after her boyfriend Paul O’ Reilly has revealed his secret plans to enlist in the RAF in England. He must keep it a secret not just because of his family’s concern about danger; Pat, his father “is a fierce IRA man, same as our Da.” Sarah has no secrets from her younger sister Maura, who she has brought up following their mother’s early death. Their father Jim is a violent bully who spends his time and money in the pubs of Dublin with doubtful associates. Sarah is aware that even on a night which is full of the sound of German planes overhead he will not concern himself with his daughters’ welfare, but will be angry if she is absent when he returns the worse for drink. Sarah tries to reassure Maura and herself that Ireland’s neutrality will keep Dublin safe from enemy bombing, but tragically on this night she is proved wrong. Sarah is left with nothing and no family in an instant, and when Paul insists on disappearing she is left with no option but to seek refuge with her uncle and family in England. Her welcome there is better than her greatest expectation, especially when it comes with a job that enables her to feel that she is really contributing to the war effort. A secret challenge to her safety then invades her life and leaves her struggling to see what to do; she wants revenge on the enemy, but at what cost?

This novel seems to begin as a romantic saga of a young woman being challenged in life and love, but soon becomes something much richer and exciting. I really enjoyed this engaging book with its picture of a young woman facing many dilemmas and the aspects of a wartime thriller which are well handled. Altogether I recommend this book for its construction, its tension, and its picture of a young woman facing enormous challenges. 

Empire’s Heir by Marian L. Thorpe – a young woman must make decisions that will affect an Empire on the edge of history.

Empire's Heir (Empire's Legacy Book 6) by [Marian L Thorpe]

Empire’s Heir by Marian L Thorpe

Intense, moving and deeply personal, this novel set on the edge of history is a picture of an unconventional family under various threats is an engaging read. A political thriller of sorts, this is a novel which features a subtle and intelligent story of a group of people who are playing for high stakes – their lives and the survival of their country in the face of a powerful ruling Empire. The talented author continues a saga in a created world which draws inspiration and historical veracity from Roman history with other elements added. This book is the second in a second trilogy of an Empire where women are frequently warriors, politicians and in the case of one of the main characters here, diplomats. Gwenna is a young woman who is the acknowledged heir to the land of Esperias, and it is largely her story which dominates this novel which I believe can be read as a standalone and indeed taster for the other novels. Certainly most of the challenges she faces in this novel are new and must be worked at independently of what has gone before; her parents have their own stories but this is Gwenna’s story. While her father Cillian is present, her mother Lena is coping with a tragic loss and her fears for the future, taking some refuge in the military role which she is uniquely qualified for given her stormy past. 

This is a novel told through the perspectives of Gwenna and Cillian as they make choices and take actions that may have implications for thousands of people as well as themselves. The inherent tension kept me reading, the world creation is superbly consistent, and yet it is the humanity of the narrative which maintains interest. Thorpe is a skilful creator of characters and settings in the little details, the small points that reveal immense research into the sources which construct an Empire on the edge of history, and I was accordingly so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this deeply satisfying book. 

As the book opens Gwenna is negotiating a trade deal with the ruler of a neighbouring state. It concerns wool as befits a largely agricultural state, but it also reveals the sophistication of the society in which Gwenna and her family live and act. Gwenna acquits herself well, despite the fact that both sides are dealing with personal griefs that will echo throughout the book. She also reveals that she has been invited to the investiture of the new Emperor of the East who was assuming his role from the abdication of his mother who had been the effective ruler of the Empire. Gwenna has been invited specifically in her role as heir to the leadership of Esparius, but also as a potential bride for this new young Emperor. There turns out to be competition for the role, other young women whose backgrounds also represent political implications as well as their own personality, and Gwenna must make fine judgements of her wishes amid huge tensions. The other point of view narrator of the story is Cillian, her father, whose own history with the Empress is complex, and together with Lena, has made decisions that have affected his own position as well as nominating his eldest child for a role that she was given as a baby. He is determined to accompany her to Casil, even though he knows that he risks his own life in several ways; as a sick man who needs constant medical attention, but also as a potential traitor who has walked a tightrope of diplomacy for decades. 

This is a vivid story of family, friends, and others whose lives are being decided by a complex set of circumstances frequently beyond their control. Though in a unique setting, their actions, reactions and emotions are common to people throughout history and everywhere. I recommend this novel as an engaging continuation of a well established story, but also a tension filled narrative of a group of people negotiating a complex situation in its own right. 

The Collector’s Daughter by Gill Paul – a review of a novel that brings the real woman out of the mystery of Tutankhamun’s tomb’s discovery in the 1920s

The Collector’s Daughter by Gill Paul

A woman has memories of an incredible time in her life, but those memories are fragile and are at risk. Lady Evelyn Herbert grew up in Highclere Castle (the real Downton Abbey) and yet her greatest memory is of being the first person into the tomb of Tutankhamun, possibly the richest archeological discovery of the twentieth century.  This is a fictional reworking of her life, where historical events are set in a love story that lasted for decades despite all sorts of challenges. Featuring her husband Brograve who became a wealthy man as well as an MP, this is a story that jumps between the 1970s when Eve struggles with strokes that rob her of memories, and the 1920s when the great discovery took place. From a photograph of Lord Carnarvon, Eve’s father and Howard Carter, the archeologist who was the lead in the search for a significant tomb, the third figure of a young woman is given her own story with great success, as her memories are challenged by time and ill health. Her determination, individual charm and so much more are the themes of a book which transforms our understanding of the woman who helped make history, but is seldom mentioned. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this tremendous novel.

This book opens in London, July 1972. Eve has had another stroke, and Brograve is anxiously awaiting to discover what damage has been done on this occasion. The author has gathered information about stroke rehabilitation from a physiotherapist who worked in the field pre 1980s, when scans made diagnosis very much easier. As Eve’s determination to recover her facilities means that she regains many memories of significant events and emotions in the 1920s, including her loving relationship with Brograve, so many things are challenged. Her progress is described alongside Brograve’s help, as the focus returns to 1920, when she met and made good friends, and the scene was set for the archaeological work that led to the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb.Various characters appear, including her volatile mother Almina, her much loved if difficult father “Pups” and her great friend, Carter. In the background is the idea of the curse that was supposed to mean disaster for anyone entering the tomb, and was probably largely created by the media of the day. An insistent Egyptian woman who insists on questioning Eve about the discovery, Ana Mansour, provides much of the impetus for Eve to remember what really happened to some of the artifacts found in the tomb, and she is an uncomfortable character in the story throughout. 

This is a beautifully written story of a life and a relationship dominated by events in the 1920. As the author points out in the back of the book, it is about memory and the loving relationship between Eve and Brograve. I found it a completely engaging read, which not only succeeds in giving a real and vibrant life to a woman who was an active participant in a significant historical discovery but also making her a memorable character in her own right. The research in this novel is impressive, ranging from the history, the biographies of the main characters where they exist, and the medical realities of a series of what were seen as strokes in the 1970s. Despite that the narrative is never slowed by facts and evidence; it rather flows between the established time periods in an entirely intriguing way. I really enjoyed reading this book; I recommend it to anyone with an interest in Tutankhamun’s tomb and its discovery, and especially to anyone who is interested in the life of a woman who has been sidelined by history but contributed to a famous series of events in the twentieth century.  

The Woman, the Mink, the Cod and the Donkey by Margerie Swash – an affectionate parody with its own cheeky humour

Scarf next to a copy of The Woman, the Mink, the Cod and the Donkey with a plate of biscuits

The Woman, the Mink, the Cod and the Donkey by Margerie Swash

This book is subtitled “An Affectionate Parody”, and it would be difficult to deny that it does take its inspiration from a certain bestseller which is generally labeled as a “book of hope”. There is hope, searching and more in this one, but it is also a bit more realistic as Emanuel Santos has captured the essence of the drawings from the original, and added a few spots of ink and wine glass stains for good measure. This book is about a woman who is in search of an open pub in a time of lockdown. It is funny in its own right, which I can definitely assert not having read the original, and I think has its own charm and points to make. Another comment is that “She was looking for wine. Instead she found friendship”, which I think is not a bad maxim for anytime, let alone the interesting times in which we live. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this charming and somehow insightful book.

Set in the “strange, sad region of yesteryear called ‘lockdown”, the author hopes that it will “make you smile” whenever you read it, because it involves wine, and a certain amount of love. The humour is gentle – never criticising or poking fun at the original, but posing a parallel situation or two. The woman is after wine, but that is not her only quest – she welcomes the odd group of companions so much that even when she does get wine, courtesy of a talkative and otherwise rejected mink, she says “there is something missing”. The odd assortment of travellers include a donkey, who is the noisiest of creatures with his constant “he haws”, but who never actually says anything interesting or remotely useful: “The irony. We all know a donkey”. The party travels far, with many questions ranging from “would you rather be famous or rich?” to “Are we there yet?”. Unusual travelling requirements are met, and yet the search goes on.

This is undoubtedly a charming little book which gently suggests an alternative set of images in a now familiar style. I enjoyed its humour, and it certainly made me smile on a tricky day. I enjoyed its clever and knowing style, and the illustrations are gently funny (such as when three of them are pointing the way in unison). Yes, it is a parody, but it has much more going for it as a cheeky book in its own right. I recommend it as a cheerful book for tricky, and not so tricky, times. 

Bookshop Tour on Four Wheels – WHSmith, Newtown, Wales

Bookshop Tour on Four Wheels – WHSmith, Newtown, Wales.

Since I was a teenager (ok, probably somewhat before) it was said that my favourite shop in any place was WHSmith. I know it’s not an independent bookshop, they often sell books cheaply and therefore damage the sales of independent bookshops, but if you live in a place where bookshops are thin on the ground/ nonexistent, it may be the only place to actually handle and choose books. From the point of view of my Bookshop Tour, it can be the only place that I can get into with Morgan, my trusty powerchair. Most WHSmiths have accessible doorways, often automatic, and many offer a lift. Sometimes (especially at Christmas) actually getting to the books can be tricky with a lot of other stuff getting in the way! Still, if you can face that challenge, they can provide a physical bookshop in a town or shopping centre when there is nothing else on offer. Here is the link to their high street statement.  https://www.whsmithplc.co.uk/what-we-do/uk-high-street-retail 

One of the reasons I am writing this is because we recently visited this in Newtown, mid Wales. It lacks an independent bookshop as far as we could discover, but the branch of Smith is very historic. There was talk of a museum of the first floor, but if there was, I couldn’t get to it. The shop features a beautiful magazine / newspaper display area, but there was no member of staff present; they were are the other (automatic) entrance to the shop. Still, the photographs did come out rather well…  

The Castilians by V.E.H Masters – a story of history, siege and loyalty

The Castilians: A story of the siege of St Andrews Castle: 1 (The Seton  Chronicles): Amazon.co.uk: Masters, VEH, Masters, VEH: 9781838251505: Books

The Castilians by V.E.H Masters

This is a vivid and impressive debut which succeeds in making a significant event in Scottish history come alive, as a family is divided by forces that they do not truly understand. Historical novels are probably at their best when they concentrate on the story of one or two characters, what happened to them and why, and during the reign of Henry VIII those characters are usually royal. This book looks at events in far off St. Andrews in Scotland, the clash between the interpretations of faith, a siege of a strategically important castle. The events that follow from a single death in 1546 are seen through the experiences of two young people, bright and thoughtful Bethia, so much more than a compassionate girl, and her brother Will, determined to argue and fight for the new way of following God. Loyalty, trust and love dictates their actions, and makes them doubt their motives. The daughter and eldest son of a prosperous merchant, they are not an influential or titled family, but all strong willed enough to make a difference. The life on the streets of the town, the activities of a port, the shadow of a castle is beautifully realised. This is a book which shows evidence of a huge amount of research into the elements of life from the most basic through to the theological arguments on both sides, but it never interrupts or upsets the narrative. It creates an atmosphere of real life how it would have been lived in the houses, ale houses and the Castle itself. It does not shy away from the dirt and basics of life, but describes them in detail to forward the story. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this special book which kept me enthralled throughout.

The book opens with Bethia sitting and reading, translating from a huge book. She is an unusual girl, keen to learn, unwilling to enter into the usual domestic or fashionable life of the town, willing to get involved in the family business rather than follow her mother’s obsessions. Her first action is to try and find her much loved younger brother in a crowd which could quickly become dangerous.  The crowd is there to witness the execution by burning of George Wishart who has spoken against the established church, of which the grasping, ambitious Cardinal Beaton is the corrupt embodiment. When certain factions decide that something must be done, it involves many young people of the town and area. What Will witnesses from inside the castle where there is brutality and jockeying for position, and what Bethia has to face as she tries to preserve all manner of secrets and safety makes for a gripping story as people are caught up in a siege and a fight which has vast political implications as well as personal consequences for all those involved.

This is a personal book of the strength and resilience of individuals when faced with difficult circumstances. It is also about the love and loyalty between members of a family and friends which overcomes divisions and class. The character of Bethia is a strong and well drawn one, as she tries to cope with pressures to fulfil her parents’ wishes as well as her own wishes. Will grows from an argumentative boy to someone who must make decisions. I found this book very engaging and would recommend it to all those who enjoy discovering the personal and social implications of history. 

A Woman Made of Snow by Elisabeth Gifford – an historical novel of family, journeys and much more

A Woman Made of Snow by Elisabeth Gifford

This is an extraordinary book in many ways. It is a novel about the tricky relationships between mother in laws and daughter in laws, about the problems of living in a big house, and the problem of trust. It is also a historical novel about a discovery of a very different way of life in a harsh part of the world. It is written so well that it is nearly impossible to put down, at least I could not wait to find out what happened to the main characters. It features a mysterious body found in the grounds, the search for a name and the need to identify what happened. It is skilfully constructed to make the surprises blend in and are consistent with the characters and the times. This is a well researched book but the research never dominates the narrative and feeds it brilliantly. This is a novel that will linger in the mind for its story and its well drawn characters. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this very enjoyable novel. 

The book begins with a mysterious voice, waiting for the discovery that will change things, for a long mystery to be solved. The scene changes to 1944, Northampton, and a generous young woman called Caro who not only stops to offer a serviceman a lift, but is not overly perturbed when it turns out to be a black G.I. who is used to being ignored. She is driving around giving lectures, and has already met Alasdair who she is engaged to marry. The story then moves onto 1949, when they are married and living in a cottage on the Kelly estate which belongs to Alasdair’s family. Caro is busy looking after her baby daughter Felicity, and negotiating the tricky relationship with her mother in law Martha. There are many expectations and tensions between the women, not helped by Caro’s lack of confidence in her role as full time mother. The only glimmer of light is that Martha wants Caro to do some research into the family history in order to strengthen a possible application to the National Trust to safeguard the house. A sad discovery inspires a more determined hunt, but it is in finding a diary that diverts the narrative into a journey into the Arctic, a journey that will change lives and leave an unexpected legacy in many ways. 

This book combines some fascinating details of life in various periods, the setting for journeys, the characteristics of a demanding house. The characters are so well drawn that some of their trials reflect contemporary, familiar tensions within families.The clothes, the postwar austerity and the confusion of a young woman is cleverly built up. The descriptions of an extreme journey are beautifully written, with a real understanding of the time, the conditions and the challenges  in such undertakings beautifully conveyed. I found Oliver’s story particularly touching and thought that there were some lovely characters. This is a truly delightful novel in its realism and plot, the motivations of the characters, and the understanding of human nature. I thoroughly recommend it as an excellent read in so many ways.