As soon as I saw this book on social media I was intrigued. Like many people, I’ve always been interested in the relationship between twins – blame Sweet Valley High – but co-joined twins take this unique connection to a different level. My curiosity piqued when I discovered this was also based on a true story.
Scroll down to see my thoughts on this unusual book.
Book Review: The Maids of Biddenden Hall by GD Harper
Title: The Maids of Biddenden Hall
Author: GD Harper
Publisher: Ginger Cat
Genre: Historical fiction
Release Date: 16th June 2022
‘There is no I, there is no you. There is only us.’
Joined at the hip, Eliza and Mary Chulkhurst overcome fear and hostility to grow into gifted and much-loved women – one a talented musician and song-writer, the other a caring healer and grower of medicinal plants.
Entangled in the struggles for power and influence of the great Kent nobles of the time, they achieve much in their lifetimes and leave behind a legacy that survives to this day. This is the heart-warming inspirational story of two remarkable women leading one joint life, challenging adversity to become the best they can be.
From the start, I was thrown into the life and thoughts of the time as I was introduced to the girls as young children. As a disabled person, I found the beginning chapters hard to read, as anything unusual was classed as evil and life was expendable. Throughout the novel, it highlighted the hate, suspicion and bigotry that plagued the girls but also showed love, acceptance and their ability to flourish in their community and beyond.
As someone who has little knowledge of the era, the politics and social norms outside their farm was as mind-boggling to me as them at the beginning, but they used their intelligence and determination to make their mark as something more than a curious exhibit. It was refreshing to read. They were distinct individuals with Eliza being an accomplished musician and Mary, a healer. The detailed descriptions of the daily life made it easy to slip into their world especially Mary’s physica gardens. I knew nothing about them but could see Mary’s ambition reflected in community gardening projects nowadays.
This is a well written, unforgettable and uplifting story of two formidable women whose legacy lives on.
Would I recommend?
Yes, the twin’s lives drew me into the 12th century to discover a political and social landscape I knew nothing about. This fascinating novel followed two unique women as they made a place in a world beyond anyone’s expectations against a backdrop of stigma and patriarchy. Their story is as relevant now as it was then. It’s an ideal read for fans of historical fiction and stories based on little known personalities from the past.
GD Harper became a full-time author in 2016, publishing three novels under the pen name GD Harper. I have been both a Wishing Shelf Book Award finalist and Red Ribbon winner, been shortlisted for the Lightship Prize, longlisted for the UK Novel Writing Award and longlisted for the Page Turner Writer Award. The Maids of Biddenden was a finalist in this year’s Page Turner Book Award for unpublished manuscripts, longlisted for the Exeter Novel Prize and the Flash 500 Novel Award, and shortlisted for the Impress Prize.
Down at the Enchanted Emporium the witches of Whitby, Willow and Amber are chatting to author Rachel Burge about their book, Waking the Witch, writing and the Arthurian legend that inspired the YA novel.
Every Monday they chat to another author so why not subscribe to their blog so you don’t miss out on the gossip and writing advice.
I’m hoping next year, you’ll be able to read Willow’s story, A Blend of Magic and meet the team properly.
Ever since we read Waking the Witch by Rachel Burge, we’ve been wanting to know more about the author and how the story came about. So imagine our joy when Rachel Burge popped in for a drink at the Emporium.
Why not grab yourself a cuppa and take a break to catch up with her too?
Monday Merry Meet: Rachel Burge
Willow: Hi Rachel, come through to the back and have a seat if you can find one. Sorry for mess. Amber has been creating the perfect pumpkin for the window display and we have an excess of them everywhere. In fact, you can take a pumpkin or two with you when you go home, if you’d like?
Amber: Carving pumpkins isn’t as easy as I thought and seeds and gloop go everywhere. If you let me use magic…
September was dystonia awareness month and time for the fundraising challenge, Dystonia Around the World. I promised to write a short story if the target of £100 was reached and here it is. For those at the Enchanted Emporium, it is about the Willow’s grandmother, Old Jax from a small village in the Yorkshire Moors. I hope you enjoy.
If you do, why not make a small donation to Dystonia UK – here. £1 can make a huge difference in providing support and research possibilities into this neurological condition.
Old Jax’s Quilt by Kate Kenzie
Hettie didn’t need the fragrance of sweet apple drifting through the open window to tell her something was amiss. Earlier, she’d accidentally snipped an inch from the end off one of her plaits while cutting fabric into squares and now Jenny Ramshaw cursed as she stitched her skirt into the quilt she was making. Aunt Mildred mutterings were also louder than normal. Not that anyone else heard or saw her. Only Hettie had the pleasure of possessing that “special gift”, apart from one other who was now in the village.
Hettie’s needle came free from the thread, fell, and rolled across the wooden floor sloping towards the window. The problem with old ramshackle buildings was nothing stayed where it belonged, with or without spectral help.
“It wasn’t me,” Mildred huffed. Her translucent form joined Hettie as she picked up the needle. “But while we’re here, you may as well look. You know you want to.”
The high street below was quiet. Even the Jack Russell outside the village shop resisted his usual incessant yap. He stood still looking toward the top of the hill, waiting as Hettie was. A circling crow landed on the roof opposite and did the same. A figure appeared on the horizon.
“She won’t come in, you know,” said Jenny recognising the signs of Hettie’s discomfort. “She never does.”
“Aye,” another of the sewing circle agreed. “She’ll pop into Pritchard’s place, pay her bill and be gone.”
“No. Too early for that,” said Clara Turner, the newest and youngest member of the circle. “Pritchard sends the bills out at month’s end. Besides, Old Jax just pops a cheque out for our Larry to collect.”
Roland Pritchard ran the newsagent that vowed to sell everything you ever needed, and Hettie knew he wasn’t the reason for the visit. Not when the thirteen-year-old paper kid, Larry, remained unfazed about cycling up the back lanes to the isolated farm at the edge of the village. Few ventured that way, but there was always one in the younger cohort brave or desperate enough for money to deal with the old crone from Speedwell Cottage.
“Whatever the reason, it’s nowt to do with us, Hettie. If you’re not sewing, you can make us another cuppa. We’re parched.”
With tea now served, Hettie joined the chatting group of women basting the large quilt together. Her ex, Tommy, once complained the sewing circle resembled a coven, but she didn’t take offence. Many members were distant descendants of the witches once scattered across the county by fear centuries before, but any magical abilities in the bloodline were now so diluted they’d become redundant. Unless you counted the occasional blown fuses when they all got together or the faint whispers in the air from seamstresses past. Tommy also said he couldn’t wait to leave this godforsaken place. Now that statement was unfair. Everyone who knew the history of Mexenby knew it was blessed, just not by the conventional god. Was it Hecate? Or was it Brigid? This was often up for debate. Only one person knew the answer and now she was coming their way.
The bell tinkled as the shop door flung open. The incoming customer was never one for subtlety and Hettie heard several thuds of feet descending the stairs behind her. No one wanted to miss this encounter and the electricity in the air mirrored their anticipation.
“Jax,” said Hetty to the stooped woman whose hands were as gnarly as the stick they clasped. Thin and frail, her veneer of vulnerability fooled no one except newcomers or tourists to the village. Everyone knew she was capable of single handily helping sick or lost sheep on the moors and farmed her smallholding alone. Jax never accepted anyone’s help and ignored the villagers as they did her unless a specific need drew them up the lane.
Jax offered a brief nod, but her silvery eyes flashed, warning Hettie not to get too close – not that she wanted to. The pungent lingering whiff of sheep was enough to make her keep her distance.
The click of the stick’s brass ferrule echoed around the small shop, muffled only by the endless bolts of fabric lining the walls. Hettie couldn’t resist a new design, a new hue and pattern she’d not seen before. Every time a salesman visited with a suitcase full of samples, she was in heaven. Despite Aunt Mildred’s warnings that people didn’t want that “overpriced fancy stuff” when a cheaper synthetic fabric would do, Hettie chose with her heart rather than her head. Yes, some customers wanted budget material, thread to fix clothes or ribbon to add a finishing touch, but others like her wanted more. Under Hettie’s care, the little haberdashery flourished. It lured people countywide to buy fabric for that extra special quilt, a unique pattern or just to be inspired. Forget bibliosmia, fabric had its own legion of fans. The refreshing smell of cotton and starch, combined with the dazzling array of colour, hypnotised visitors. Their clean hands trailed over the rolls of crisp linen, baby soft brushed cotton and silky-smooth satin. The quality and texture urged them to spend.
Hettie studied Jax’s hand tapping her stick, the only sign Hettie could see that the old woman was uncomfortable in her surroundings. Calloused and twisted from years of manual labour, mud encrusted every nail and a tide mark of muck circled each cuff. Jax extended her arm towards a delicate yellow fabric. This was too much. Those hands mustn’t touch Hettie’s wares! If smudged with farmyard dirt, they could never be cleaned, and would have to be discarded in the reject bin at a reduced cost.
Aunt Mildred screeched in her ear, “Move.”
Hettie shot across the floor, snatched the roll away from danger and held it tight against her chest.
“Are you looking for anything in particular, Jax?” Hettie smiled despite the thunderous scowl on the old woman’s face. While the huddle of sewers eagerly waited for Jax’s response, Hettie stood her ground. Whatever renowned reputation Jax held, this was Hettie’s shop, and no one caressed her fabric with grubby hands, not even the infamous witch of Mexenby.
Jax leaned back on her staff and scrutinised Hettie. Her skin prickled cold under Jax’s intense stare, but she grasped the fabric tighter and met the gaze head on. To her surprise, Jax blinked, and her shoulders dropped.
“I need fabric. For a girl,” she snapped. “Something pretty. Soft.”
“Something like this? For a dress?” Hettie enquired, knowing the sewing group longed to know more. After decades of hiding on her farm, Jax’s appearance in this shop must mean something. Any juicy titbits to share over coffee were a small ask.
Jax remained guarded. “A blanket. Something like that.” She pointed to a sample quilt hanging on the wall, a complex interlocking design that took Hettie many evenings and shop hours to complete.
Hettie’s eyes washed over Jax’s clothes for clues that she would be up to the task which even advanced quilters cursed. Rising from mud splattered boots, heavily darned woollen tights covered Jax’s whippet thin legs, and her thick drab skirt and coat showcased similar repairs. A hotchpotch of patches covered larger areas of damage. Every stitch had only one purpose – to mend. Hettie fought the urge to recoil. The poor child, her poor fabric. Nothing could battle against the crudely jabbed stitches that would be their fate. Quilting required an abundance of patience, creativity, and care. Jax had none of these.
“I’ll make it. Tell me the colours and I’ll make her one,” Hettie offered. Aunt Mildred nodded in agreement. Her customers’ projects were the best advertisement for Hettie’s shop and Jax’s creation must not be allowed to thrive.
Jax’s upper lip quivered with refusal and her eyes pierced Hettie’s. Again, Hettie forced herself not to look away. A migraine threatened along with increased pressure in her head. The shop fell silent, waiting for an answer. If causing a crushing headache to her opponent was Jax’s response to an offer of help, no wonder people avoided her. Hettie debated whether to retract her proposal when Aunt Mildred coughed and broke the silence. Jax broke the eye contact and her eyes flicked to the ghost.
While rubbing head, Hettie tried to decipher the murmured communication between the two older women. Whatever Mildred was saying, Jax was listening.
Jax clicked her tongue against her remaining teeth and jabbed the stick to the ground, making everyone jump. “Fine. Mildred trusts you. You do it.”
She reached into her coat pocket and pulled out a battered leather purse. Her swollen fingers counted out several notes and flung them on the counter. With a hasty spin, defiant of her age, Jax flounced out, leaving everyone aghast.
Later, when the shop was shut, Hettie closed her eyes and took stock of the task ahead. All afternoon, the others offered their opinions and ideas. The mystery of who the girl was fuelled their conversation. Was she a relative? The next generational witch? Jax’s son had been disowned years ago when he left the village. Had there been a reunion? Unlikely, everyone decided, so maybe she was a distant cousin? The gossip turned to what the mysterious girl would prefer. Hettie refused to engage. That part was for her and the fabric to decide.
Hettie scanned the material, caressed those which attracted her and listened to the fabric hum. One by one, she dragged out the bolts she needed. Laying them on the large table in the workroom beside the yellow fabric Jax chose, she allowed her imagination to arrange them into a design devoid of childlike motifs. The colours resembled the sunrise seen over the Moors. The bedspread would be appreciated by a child and later, the woman she would become.
Hettie measured, and snipped into the night, until, with a yawn, exhaustion set in. She slumped over the table and slept.
A loud knock on the shop door woke her. Stumbling down the rickety stairs, she rubbed her eyes and smoothed down the wayward strands of hair escaping from her plaits. It was too early for customers.
Larry grinned when she opened the door and leaned on his bike. He didn’t acknowledge her dishevelled appearance but pulled out a tiny package from his fluorescent newspaper bag. Wrapped in crinkled brown paper and bound with twine, he handed it over with discretion worthy of an illicit drug deal.
“Jax said you needed this. Mildred knows what to do.”
Hettie slipped it into her apron pocket. Larry climbed on his bike and pedalled away. The door was nearly closed when he called over his shoulder.
“She’ll collect it in ten days.”
Ten days. Hettie swallowed hard. Jax expected a quilt to be ready in ten days? There weren’t enough hours in the day for her to do it. She’d have to tell Jax, it was impossible. With no phone at the farm, she’d have to trudge up there and tell her herself. Aunt Mildred appeared at her side and offered a smile. “You can’t do it alone, but this blanket was always one that required a team. It’ll work better that way.”
With a fresh cup of tea in hand, Hettie grabbed her telephone book and made a few calls.
All across the village, sewing machines whirred as each quilter made the blocks as directed by Hettie. The next day, the true work began. In exchange for copious amounts of tea and biscuits, the Mexenby quilters sat at the large frame and they stitched Jax’s quilt. Chat remained at a minimum as they concentrated on the pattern. Mildred was right. A quilt like this was better made with many hands. Quilts were magical like that. They forged friendships within groups, and love flowed into each stitch, which the recipient felt when they wrapped themselves in the end product. A hug from the community; proof they were seen and not alone. Hettie believed whoever this child was, they’d need it more than most. With Jax’s package still lodged in her pocket, she wasn’t the only one to think this.
Time progressed, as did the quilt. Stitches indented the material and brought the patterns alive. Did the quilters realise amongst the swirls and curves, they’d sewn several runic motifs into the fabric as instructed by Jax? No one mentioned them, to her relief. Hettie didn’t know the meanings despite, according to Mildred, the motifs being common in older quilts and garments made by those in the village.
“Just because you think you brought this quilting idea back from your globetrotting to America, generations before you made them here, we just didn’t rave about it,” she’d muttered when Hettie commented about them. Hettie hadn’t dared disagree. She still needed her great aunt’s help.
On the ninth night, the women snipped off their threads and placed their needles into their pincushions for the last time.
“Well, it’s done, apart from the final strip of binding,” Jennie stated. “Are you sure you don’t want us to stay and help? It’ll be quicker.” She failed to hide her judgement that Hettie was a slow stitcher.
“No, it’s fine. I can finish up. Thank you all. I’m sure Jax will appreciate it.”
This was met with low chuckles and Jennie shook her head. “Doubt it, love. But the kid might.”
With that, the women left with a murmur of goodnights until only Hettie remained.
Could she do what Jax required? The precise and bizarre instructions from Mildred bore a heavy responsibility. Maybe she could take the unfinished quilt to Jax to let her do the required ritual. A few mismatched, ugly stitches wouldn’t matter, would they? She was the witch, after all.
“Don’t even think about it” A frigid blast cooled Hettie’s shoulder with Mildred’s arrival. “Jax trusts you. Besides, you wouldn’t be the first Henderson to do it on behalf of the witches on the hill.”
Hettie raised her eyebrow. It was the first time she had heard about anything about a connection between her ancestors and the Mexenby witch legend. There was no time to question Mildred now. The last section needed doing. Hettie flung the blind open, flooding the room with moonlight and she unwrapped Jax’s package revealing an old coin, a tiny pouch of herbs, several dried apple seeds from the Speedwell orchard, and a bobbin of thread. Under Aunt Mildred’s guidance, she lit a candle and whispered the words from Jax’s scrawled note.
“Well, you need to say it louder than that, dear,” Mildred interrupted “and say it as if you mean it. Intention sets the magic.”
Hettie took a deep breath and despite feeling ridiculous, repeated the words. Maybe magic was as real as the ghost haunting her shop. It was worth a go. She blew out the candle and passed the needle through the smoke three times before threading it with Jax’s cotton.
She slipped the coin, and pouch of herbs into the embedded secret pocket she’d made earlier in the quilt and added the seeds into the binding. With Jax’s words lingering in the air, Hettie finished the last stiches as dawn broke on the day of the deadline.
Wrapped in brown paper and neatly tied with ribbon, Hettie popped the quilt under the counter for collection, but Jax didn’t come. A week passed and another before news of Jax’s son’s fatal accident sent shockwaves through the village. Jax retreated into further solitude refusing to talk to anyone including Larry. A month went by and then several. After a year Hettie placed the package in a cupboard. Apart from the occasional visit from a spider or two, it lay forgotten for the next four years.
A sweet aroma of apples hung in the air and Hettie’s new electronic till refused to work. She snapped at Mildred whose mutterings made it hard to think. Jennie stomped down the stairs to complain the kettle refused to boil. They looked at each other, aware of a shift in the air.
“Jax” they said together. Jennie stood on guard while Hettie rushed to the cupboard to retrieve the forgotten order.
The bell tinkled above the door when it opened.
It wasn’t Jax.
A young woman in a vibrant pink jumpsuit stepped in clutching the hand of a young girl. Hettie knew before anything was said. The air hummed as the girl hopped from one foot to another. A sprig of Speedwell apple blossom tucked into her golden hair confirmed the thought.
Flashing a huge grin, the girl said, “Grandma says you have a gift for me.”
I’m excited today to review Black Hearts by Doug Johnstone for his blog tour. This was my first time reading about the Skelf women but I’d heard great things about the series so couldn’t wait to jump in.
Book Review: Black Hearts by Doug Johnstone
Title: Black Hearts
Author: Doug Johnstone
Publisher: Orenda Books
Release Date: 29th September 2022
The Skelf women live in the shadow of death every day, running the family funeral directors and private investigator business in Edinburgh. But now their own grief interwines with that of their clients, as they are left reeling by shocking past events.
A fist-fight by an open grave leads Dorothy to investigate the possibility of a faked death, while a young woman’s obsession with Hannah threatens her relationship with Indy and puts themboth in mortal danger.
An elderly man claims he’s being abused by the ghost of his late wife, while ghosts of another kind come back to haunt Jenny from the grave … pushing her to breaking point.
As the Skelfs struggle with increasingly unnerving cases and chilling danger lurks close to home, it becomes clear that grief, in all its forms, can be deadly…
Apart from the unusual set up where the novels and investigations are based in a funeral parlour, the thing that leapt from the page was the beauty and personality of the city, Edinburgh. I haven’t been since I was a child but has been on my wish list to return and this book intensified that longing. The descriptions brought it alive and if you do know the city, I imagine it would lead to a greater reading experience.
I loved the intriguing concept of a private investigating business entwined with a funeral parlour. Both the investigations the Skelfs take on and the multi-generational family interactions kept me turning the page. Despite reading this as a standalone with no previous knowledge of the characters, I became immersed in their lives and felt their heartache, grief and fear as the story progressed. The emotions displayed were authentic. Grief was not washed over and sanitised, nor was the post trauma experienced by Jenny after the death of her ex-husband. Reading about the aftermath of a horrific event made me want to forget all the other books on my TBR pile and read the back catalogue to catch up.
The investigations required no previous knowledge of the family affairs. The case which stood out was Udo who is convinced he is being attacked by his late wife and hearing her through the wind phone. These phones give the ability to people to talk to lost loved ones which I’d never heard of before. This thread added emotional depth and a spiritual element to the book and these phones would be useful everywhere.
Would I recommend?
Oh yes. With the authentic writing, strong women and an immersive location this is a book to read. It can be read as a standalone, but it won’t be enough. You’ll want to read the rest of the series so be prepared to increase your TBR pile.
Doug Johnstone is the author of twelve novels, most recently The Great Silence, described as ‘A novel [that] underlines just how accomplished Johnstone has become’ by the Daily Mail. He has been shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Book of the Year three times, and the Capital Crime Best Independent Voice one; The Big Chill was longlisted for Theakston’s Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year. He’s taught creative writing and been writer in residence at various institutions, and has been an arts journalist for twenty years. Doug is a songwriter and musician with five albums and three EPs released, and he plays drums for the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, a band of crime writers. He’s also player-manager of the Scotland Writers Football Club. He lives in Edinburgh.
Thank you Random Thing Tours for inviting me to this tour and providing an advanced copy for me to review and give my honest and unbiased opinion.
I’m excited to hand my blog over to historical fiction author, Rachel Brimble today for her views on whether writing gets easier the more you write. As an unpublished author with one novel written and another in progress, I can’t wait to find out the answer.
Does It Get Easier The More Books You Write?!by Rachel Brimble
I recently attended a local book fair where I was selling my books as well as advertising my First Chapter Critique service (https://rachelbrimble.com/first-chapter-critique-service/). There was a nice level of interest in my books, with many lovely historical readers complimenting my book covers or asking questions about my Edwardian and Victorian romance series. Yet, the most frequently asked questions asked were 1) “How did you start writing?” and 2) “Does writing get easier the more books you write?”
I love that so many readers dream of becoming writers as I was one of them for so many years and it seems the advent of phones, iPads and Netflix has not lessened peoples’ love of a good novel!
So, let me answer these questions…
I started writing because it was something that I had wanted to do ever since reading Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven series, around the age of eight or nine. On and off through the years, I would write articles or short stories and send them to magazines and online story websites. After some success, I was encouraged enough to write a novel. So, when my youngest daughter started school full-time, I got serious about publication!
After a few rejections from other publishers, the book was accepted by The Wild Rose Press in 2007. I have been lucky enough to have at least two books a year published ever since.
Question number 2…
Unfortunately no, writing does NOT get easier the more books you write – I wish I could say differently, but I would be lying!
Writing is hard work. It is something that takes discipline and commitment. It means walking around with the skin of a rhino and smiling through the disappointments and long, long, LONG waits for publishers and agents to get back to you. It is sitting your butt in the chair in front of a blank screen, finding the words to fill it and then repeating the process 360 plus times until you have a finished novel.
Writing is HARD!
BUT…it is also the most rewarding vocation in the world (notice I say vocation, not job – this has to be the pursuit of your heart’s calling, my loves!) and it is something that gives bucketloads of satisfaction whenever an author receives a book contract, a great review, their box of paperbacks in the mail or, of course, a royalty cheque…
If you are an aspiring writer with a burning desire to write a romance or women’s fiction novel but unsure where to start, then feel free to check out my First Chapter Critique service (https://rachelbrimble.com/first-chapter-critique-service/) or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions about you might have about the service. I am a multi-published, bestselling romance author on a mission to help other romance writers achieve their publishing dreams! So many other writers helped me when I started out, I love paying it forward.
If, on the other hand, you are a reader rather than a writer, why not check out my latest series? If you like the Edwardian era The Shop Girl series will be for you or, if you’re more of a Victorian lady, check out the Ladies of Carson Street trilogy.
Rachel lives in a small town near Bath, England. She is the author of 29 novels including the Ladies of Carson Street trilogy, the Shop Girl series (Aria Fiction) and the Templeton Cove Stories (Harlequin). Her latest novel, Victoria & Violet is the first book in her new Royal Maids series with the Wild Rose Press and releases 17th October 2022.
Rachel is a member of the Romantic Novelists Association as well as the Historical Novel Society and has thousands of social media followers all over the world.