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Fallen Angels by Tara Hyland

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “San Francisco, 1958. On a dark December night, a baby girl is left at the Sisters of Charity Orphanage on Telegraph Hill. One year later, movie star Frances Fitzgerald takes her own life. Her husband, wealthy businessman Maximilian Stanhope, is rumoured to know more about her death than he’s letting on, but nothing is ever proved. What is the connection between these two events? That’s what Frances’ daughter, Cara, wants to find out. Abandoned by her mother when she was just seven years old, Cara’s childhood was filled with hardship and loss. As a young woman she finds professional success as a journalist, but on a personal level, she still struggles to trust those around her. Cara becomes convinced that uncovering the secret behind her mother’s death is the only way to lay her demons to rest. But learning the truth may end up tearing her apart.”

REVIEW: This novel was an absolute delight to read from start to finish. The story begins with the tale of young Franny Healey, an Irish girl with dreams of becoming a film star. After falling pregnant and being abandoned by the child’s father, she flees her family home and begins a new life in the East End of London with her baby daughter, Cara, living with a woman named Annie and her mischevious young son Danny. As more and more opportunities begin to open up for the ambitious Franny, however, she makes the decision to return Cara to Ireland, abandoning the child with a grandmother she has never met in order to make her name as Frances Fitzgerald, Hollywood movie star. From this point onwards, while Franny’s life changes in ways she only ever dreamed of, Cara’s begins to fall apart. After the death of her grandmother, Cara is sent to live at an Orphanage where the conditions are stark and the treatment almost unbearable. At the age of fourteen, she manages to escape to the East End of London where she was first raised, returning to the home she once shared with Annie and Danny. As the years pass, we are shown the stories of the lives of both women; Franny’s transformation into glamorous movie  star and her marriage to millionaire Maximilian Stanhope, and Cara’s love affair with Danny, which soon turns sour as his darker side begins to emerge. After the death of Franny in a car crash, however, the book gains a level of mystery, as both the reader and Cara try to work out what exactly happened to Franny, and whether, as many characters suspect, her husband could truly have been responsible for her death. The book takes many twists and turns and the ending is a brilliant work of genius, truly surprising the reader. Although the ending felt a little bit rushed, the conclusion that this novel brings the reader to more than makes up for this minor flaw – finding out Franny’s fate was truly shocking, involving many complex plotlines and ideas, and served to make this into a novel very much worth reading.

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Archenemy by Frank Beddor

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “The battle for Wonderland has come to a head. Imagination has been wiped from the land and even Queen Alyss has lost her powers. The Queendom hangs in the balance…”

REVIEW: Much like the previous book in the trilogy, ‘Seeing Redd’, I found that the finale of ‘The Looking Glass Wars’ series, ‘Archenemy’, often became tangled and complicated due to the amount of material that Beddor was attempting to deal with. This time, however, this only served to make the book even more gripping and exciting, leaving me with the certainty that Queen Alyss and the force of White Imagination would triumph, but with absolutely no idea of how they would get there. Alyss suffers so many setbacks in her attempts to restore Imagination to Wonderland, regain the Heart Crystal and reunite her torn and suffering kingdom, that we begin to wonder if she will ever actually get there. With King Arch’s takeover of Wonderland and Alyss’ unexpected alliance with her evil aunt Redd, things take an unexpected turn for the worse as Wonderland descends into chaos and anarchy, with some dissidents believing that the land would be more fair and equal if nobody possessed any Imagination at all. With the help of her trusted companions – Homburg Molly, Hatter Madigan, Bibwit Harte, General Doppelganger and, of course, her childhood sweetheart Dodge Anders, Alyss manages to restore Imagination and justice to the Kingdom – and, at the end of it all, is finally free to be with the man she loves. Beddor’s increased inclusion of our world and his incorporation of Alice Liddell into the story is even more cleverly done in this novel, I would argue, with our world seeming to reflect a much stabler and more simple way of life that the reader begins to long for. The series also reaches a satisfying conclusion, giving the reader the sense that everything has been put to rights. I did, however, find this book to be the most confusing and complex in the series, and sometimes the battle scenes became a little repetitive – this did not, however, ruin my enjoyment of the book or my enjoyment of the series as a whole.

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The Storyteller’s Daughter by Cameron Dokey

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RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “After a bitter betrayal, a King vows never to be deceived again. But the King’s plan to protect himself will endanger all of the realm’s young women, unless one of them volunteers to surrender her life to marry the King. To everyone’s relief and horror, Shahrazad, the daughter of a legendary storyteller, steps forward. On her wedding night, Shahrazad begins to weave a tale for the King. Fascinated, the King lets her live night after night. Just when Shahrazad dares to believe that she has found a way to keep her life – and has discovered an unexpected love – a treacherous plot disrupts her plan. Now Shahrazad must hope that love is strong enough to save her”

REVIEW: This book is one of many in the ‘Once Upon a Time’ collection, a project by a number of authors (including Dokey) designed to reimagine fairytales in a new and vibrant way, turning the women of these tales into true protagonists. This is the first novel of the project I have read, and I found it enjoyable. ‘The Storyteller’s Daughter’ is a retelling of the Arabian Nights tale, and Dokey introduces a strong and likeable main character with the blind but gifted Shahrazad, an outcast of society who remains the beloved apple of her father’s eye. The majority of the novel is a mixture of stories that Shahrazad reads from the scrolls left to her by her dead mother Maju, and the relationship that develops between Shahrazad and Shahrayar when she marries him in order to save other women from certain death. I enjoyed the tales told by Shahrazad, and the blossoming romance between herself and Shahrayar; I also enjoyed the coup that was staged against them both towards the end of the book. However, I did find that the writing sometimes seemed stilted, often simplistic and rushed, which made it a little dull at times. The relationship between Shahrazad and Shahrayar was also built up very mildly and never seemed to reach a point of culmination for the reader. This, and the simplistic writing style, could both be explained by the fact that these books are based on fairytales which, after all, are meant to teach and guide us rather than launch into vivid and length descriptions of each and every detail. I did, however, think that some elements of this book could have used more description and visualisation in order to give it more depth and prevent it from being just another traditional fairytale.

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Seeing Redd by Frank Beddor

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RATING:3/5

BLURB: “Alyss of Wonderland’s rule has just begun, but the Queendom is already under threat. Someone is using the brutal Glass Eyes and attacking Wonderland on all sides. It can only mean one thing: the evil Redd Heart has returned…”

REVIEW: This second novel in Beddor’s Alice-in-Wonderland-inspired ‘The Looking Glass Wars’ trilogy was, I found, much more complex than the first. Rather than having one plot, it seemed to have several smaller sub-plots that combined together to make a gripping but also rather tangled story of Alyss’ first few months as Queen of Wonderland. Firstly, of course, is the story of Alyss trying to fit in with her role as Queen, learning once again to manipulate her powers of White Imagination, dealing with an unruly populace, and attempting to determine and control her feelings for the much-changed Dodge Anders. On the opposing side, however, is the tale of Redd Heart, who has retreated to our world and is attempting to build up her armed forces enough to take on Alyss, while also trying to complete her own unfinished Looking Glass Maze which, she believes, will make her far more powerful than Alyss. The introduction of a more personal story for Hatter Madigan was one that I really enjoyed, and I felt that it added an extra dimension to the novel, dealing with themes of love and sacrifice that make the novel far more touching. The addition of King Arch of the Boarderlands as a second enemy to Alyss and Wonderland was also inspired, making the novel even more full of conspiracy and treachery. This is a great follow-up to the first book, and I am really looking forward to reading the last book in the series!

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The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “You think you know the true story of Alice in Wonderland? Well think again. Alyss is destined to become Queen of Wonderland…until her parents are murdered. She flees to safety in our world. Years pass. Now it is time to return.”

REVIEW: I absolutely love twisted versions of fairytales (as long-term followers of this blog may by now have realised!) and was greatly looking forward to reading this trilogy. The first book in the series opens with the birthday party of the young heir to the throne, Princess Alyss Heart, a celebration that travels throughout Wonderland. However, the festivities are soon ruined by the invading forces of Alyss’ vindictive Aunt, Redd Heart, the sister of Queen Genevieve and, as she believes, the rightful heir to the throne of Wonderland. As both of her parents are murdered by Redd and her army, Alyss escapes with the head of the Millinery Army, Hatter Madigan, into the real world. Here Beddor cleverly links the story of Princess Alyss with the tale of Alice in Wonderland that we all know and love, as Alyss is adopted by the Liddell family and becomes the inspiration for a work of fiction written by Reverend Charles Dodgson (pename Lewis Carroll). She even catches the eye of the young Prince Leopold and is all set to marry him when she is abruptly returned to Wonderland by her childhood sweetheart, guardsman Dodge Anders. Thirteen years have passed in Wonderland since her disappearance, and Redd’s control over Wonderland is completely Totalitarian and fully established, sharing similarities with real dictatorships throughout history. From this point on a battle exists between Redd and the Alyssians, the resistance movement that has now rallied around Alyss, as Alyss tries to find the Looking Glass Maze –  a maze which, if she successfully navigates it, will make her powerful enough to destroy Redd and take back the throne of Wonderland. The book is brilliantly written, with links to all of our favourite characters from Lewis Carroll’s original tale. Beddor makes Wonderland a dark and mystical place that entrances the reader and grips them from the very first page. I have almost finished the second book in the trilogy and look forward to seeing how if it will conclude as well as this first book did!

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Wolves in Winter by Lisa Hilton

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RATING: 2.5/5

BLURB: “Italy, 1492. Five-year-old Mura is a strange and bewitching child. Daughter of a Nordic mother and Spanish father, she has been tutored in both Arabic learning and the ancient mythology of the North. But when her widower father is taken by the Inquisition, Mura is sold to a Genoese slaver. In the port of Savona, Mura’s androgynous looks and unusual abilities fetch a high price. She is bought as a house slave for the powerful Medici, arriving in Florence as the city prepares for war against the French. When the family are forced to flee, Mura finds herself gifted to the notorious Lioness of Romagna, Countess Caterina Sforza. Beautiful, ruthless and intelligent, the Countess is fascinated by Mura’s arcane knowledge. As the Lioness educates her further in the arts of alchemy, potions and poisons, Mura becomes a potent weapon in the Machiavellian intrigues of the Renaissance court…”

REVIEW: I must start this review by clarifying that, despite the poor rating I have given this novel as a whole, I did find the first third of the book extremely gripping and was instantly hooked. Mura is introduced to us as an unusual, mystical  child, who escapes with a prostitute as her home and her father go up in flames at the hands of the Inquisition. From then on Mura suffers a series of hardships, including a harsh rape in the brothel, the supposed death of her only friend, a young clerk named Cecco, and the witnessing of many atrocities of war than even the reader cannot entirely erase from their minds. There were many elements of the book, however, that I felt were not sufficiently explained or dealt with in enough detail, and this is perhaps where I began to wander and lose interest. For example, Mura is described as having some kind of mystical power; the visions she has permeate the novel in a disjointed and metaphorical fashion that often makes them difficult to understand. There are hints of associations with demons and associations with wolves, yet we never fully find out the extent of Mura’s powers, nor do we really see much of them, despite the fact that every other character in the novel makes a hugely big deal out of them. The only proper sign of power we see from Mura is in the potions she mixes in Caterina Sforza’s household; but this was a talent held by many wise women at the time, and does not make Mura particularly unusual for the period. There were also frequent mentions by Mura of some sort of genital deformity that was never clearly explained, though it was, however, hinted that Mura would not be able to have intercourse or give birth. Yet, later in the novel she becomes the mistress of the captor of her mistress, Caterina. I was quite puzzled by this, though by this point in the novel my attention had begun to wander so I may have missed the explanation that was surely there somewhere. Although the presence of these issues did diminish my enjoyment of the book, there were many things I liked about the novel. It has a very satisfactory conclusion involving my favourite plotline of the book, that of Mura’s growing closeness with the clerk Cecco, and the battle scenes and war crimes committed were written with such a level of clarity and detail that I found them truly shocking and haunting. If Hilton had perhaps explained some of the more complicated elements of the book a little more clearly, I feel that I would have enjoyed it more.

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Coming Home by Rosamunde Pilcher

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “As a girl, Judith gives her heart to Nancherrow, the Cornish estate where she grew up, practically adopted by the glamorous Carey-Lewis family. And to their eldest son. But the sun-drenched Cornish days give way to the rolling clouds of war and Judith has a lot of growing up to do before she can finally come home”

REVIEW: As you may have noticed, there has been quite a gap between this review and my previous one – namely because this book is 1016 pages long which, although not the longest book I have ever read, did make it more time-consuming than I had imagined! However, I can say without doubt that it was definitely worth taking up so much time to read this wonderful novel. It was lent to me by my nan, who has read a lot of Pilcher’s works before but claimed this as her favourite and insisted I would like it. Slightly doubtful, I began to read this book despite longing to read some new ones I had bought – and was instantly hooked. The novel follows Judith Dunbar, a girl of fourteen at the start of the book, over the ten years of her life that encompass boarding school and the Second World War, which brings a huge amount of tragedy both to Judith and to those she holds dear. At the beginning of the novel, Judith is separated from her mother and sister, who are travelling to join her father, an officer stationed in Singapore, and is sent to St Ursula’s school as a boarder. There she meets Loveday Carey-Lewis, the spoilt and chaotic child of the glamorous Carey-Lewis family, who soon take Judith in as one of their own and give her her very own bedroom at their grand manor of Nancherrow. Through Nancherrow Pilcher introduces some fascinating characters; Loveday’s parents, the stoic Colonel and his glamorous wife Diana; her brother Edward, who soon steals Judith’s heart; her older sister Athena, a beautiful traveller; and doctor Jeremy Wells, whose affection for Judith grows throughout the book and consistently delights the reader, among many others. Each and every single one of the book’s many characters are brilliantly written, seeming almost to jump off the page, and the reader grows to care about all except the villains of the piece, which includes old lecher Billy Fawcett. This book had me hooked from start to finish with its simple, heartwarming and tragic tale of Cornish country life, and by the end of the novel I cared so deeply for the protagonist, Judith Dunbar, that I felt almost as though she were a friend of mine. I would highly recommend it.