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Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Seventeen-year-old Catherine ‘Cat’ Morland has led a sheltered existence in rural Dorset, a life entirely bereft of the romance and excitement for which she yearns. So when Cat’s wealthy neighbours, the Allens, ask her to accompany them to the Edinburgh festival, she is sure adventure beckons. Edinburgh initially offers no such thrills: Susie Allen is obsessed by shopping, Andrew Allen by the Fringe. A Highland Dance class, though, brings Cat a new acquaintance: Henry Tilney, a pale, dark-eyed gentleman whose family home, Northanger Abbey, sounds perfectly thrilling. And an introduction to Bella Thorpe, who shares her passion for supernatural novels, provides Cat with a like-minded friend. But with Bella comes her brother John, an obnoxious banker whose vulgar behaviour seems designed to thwart Cat’s growing fondness for Henry. Happily, rescue is at hand. The rigidly formal General Tilney invites her to stay at Northanger with son Henry and daughter Eleanor. Cat’s imagination runs riot: an ancient abbey, crumbling turrets, secret chambers, ghosts…and Henry! What could be more deliciously romantic? But Cat gets far more than she bargained for in this isolated corner of the Scottish borders. The real world outside the pages of a novel proves to be altogether more disturbing than the imagined world within…”

REVIEW: I love reading modern twists on classic novels, and Val McDermid’s 21st century version of Jane Austen’s brilliant ‘Northanger Abbey’ certainly did not disappoint. The original ‘Northanger Abbey’ has often been classified as a work of Gothic fiction, Austen’s only novel in this genre, and McDermid brilliantly translates the suspense, mystery and drama of Victorian Gothic into a modern setting. The blurb pretty much covers the main points of the story, but I would just like to comment on how excellently McDermid transformed the characters from 19th century paragons to modern teenagers. Cat is just as she is in the original text; witty, imaginative and insistent on believing in the kindness and good hearts of others, while the banter between her and Henry reflects passages from the original text, making the reader feel even more attached to the characters. McDermid’s most brilliant achievement, I feel, was her transformation of Bella Thorpe. Bella behaves exactly how one always imagined the modern Isabella would, written as a selfish, vain and overdramatic flirt who cares little for the feelings and needs of others. I thoroughly enjoyed McDermid’s twist on a literary classic, and couldn’t put it down – therefore I would highly recommend it, particularly to fans of Austen’s original.

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Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Hardy’s atmospheric, moving story of star-crossed lovers shows human beings at the mercy of forces far beyond their control, setting a tragic drama of human passion against a background of vast stellar space and scientific discovery. ‘Two on a Tower’ tells the story of Lady Constantine, who breaks all the rules of decorum when she falls in love with the beautiful youth Swithin St Cleeve, her social inferior and ten years her junior. Together, in an ancient monument converted into an astronomical observation tower, they create their own private universe – until the pressures of the outside world threaten to destroy it.”

REVIEW: Thomas Hardy has been my favourite author ever since I read what is now my favourite book, ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’, just over three years ago – consequently, I was greatly looking forward to reading ‘Two on a Tower’, one of Hardy’s lesser known works. The novel did not disappoint. The love affair that develops between Lady Viviette Constantine and Swithin St Cleeve is slow to develop, at least on his part, but this gives their love a greater realism than is seen in the majority of classic novels; the slow-burning nature of their affection also makes Viviette’s confession of love (and Swithin’s reciprocation) much more satisfying and exciting for the reader, as does the forbidden nature of their affair. Despite being a promising astronomer, Swithin is an orphan of low social rank with hardly a penny to his name, while Viviette is the neglected wife of an absent yet bullying Lord Constantine, making her the Lady of the parish. Socially, the two could not be more different, yet, a shared interest in astronomy brings them together in the most believable of ways. I was hugely impressed with Hardy’s knowledge of astronomy and astronomical terms, and loved how the movements of the stars and planets almost seemed to become characters themselves in the plotline, often reflecting the moods of the characters in hugely symbolic ways. Being of such different ranks and ages, however, means that the love that Swithin and Viviette share does not fail to undergo numerous hardships, even after their hasty, secret wedding in London. It is impossible to say more without ruining the novel, but it is safe to say that, as in the majority of Hardy’s works, there is no escape from tragedy for the star-crossed couple, and the ending had me in floods of tears. I would highly recommend this book to fans of Hardy, Victorian literature and romance. 

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Three Weeks With My Brother by Nicholas Sparks

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RATING: Considering the highly personal nature of this book, it doesn’t feel right to give it something as trivial as a rating. If I did, however, it would be 5/5.

BLURB: “By their early thirties, Nicholas Sparks and his brother Micah are the sole survivors of their family. So when a striking travel brochure filled with the most exotic places on earth lands on Nicholas’ mat one morning, an adventure is decided upon.The two brothers embark on a three-week trip around the world. A milestone in their lives and a celebration of their family, it is also a journey of thrills, moments of joy and awe-inspiring sights. They take us through the lost city of Machu Picchu, the deep Australian outback and the vibrant and vast Indian subcontinent, recalling their rambunctious childhoods and the tragedies that have shaped their lives and tested their faith”

REVIEW: I have always admired Nicholas Sparks as an author; and, after reading this extremely moving memoir, I can now say that I also admire him greatly as a human being. I knew little about Sparks before reading this autobiography (of sorts), which was recommended to me by a friend who is a huge Sparks fan. This book definitely sparked a great deal of excitement in me with its descriptions of the exotic locations visited by Sparks and his brother on their three-week journey, which takes them to places I have always dreamed of seeing – now, thanks to Sparks, my imaginings of these places have come to life and my desire to see them is even greater. My own love of travel meant that I automatically connected with this book, and the early anecdotes about Nicholas’ life with his unconventional parents, rebellious brother and sweet sister often had me smiling or laughing aloud. Ultimately, however, the book is about so much more than a journey around the world; this memoir tells a true story of personal loss and grief that I myself could hardly begin to comprehend. The reader discovers that, although several years apart, both of Sparks’ parents died young in sudden and unexpected accidents that left the family reeling. His second son, who still remains undiagnosed, was identified as having a condition akin to Autism, which led to much stress and tension within the family unit. Most heartbreaking and tragic of all, however, was learning of his sister Dana’s brain tumour, developing just before the birth of her twin boys and meaning that she never lived to see them fully grown. The grief that Sparks still feels for the lost members of his family rings so true and pure in this memoir that it made me sob to read it – and yet I am glad I did. Both Nicholas Sparks and his brother Micah describe how these events changed their outlooks on life completely, shaping their faith and their attitudes, and once I had closed the book I completely understood this. This book teaches us not only about the nature of grief and the cruelty of the world, but also that we should value every minute that we are given with the ones we love – which, I do believe, is a very valuable thing to be reminded of. 

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Peter Pan by J.M.Barrie

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RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “When Peter Pan and his fairy companion Tinker Bell fly in through the window of Wendy’s nursery one night, it is the beginning of an adventure that whisks Wendy and her brothers Michael and John off to Neverland. There they will find mermaids, fairies, pirates led by the sinister Captain Hook, and the crocodile who bit off his leg – and still pursues him in hope of the rest!”

REVIEW: I love diving back into children’s classics (especially when I’m ill, like now!) and was really looking forward to reading this lovely copy of ‘Peter Pan’ that I purchased yesterday. I had never read the original story as a child and, after reading the novel, I am almost glad that I didn’t! For a children’s tale, ‘Peter Pan’ is surprisingly dark, dealing with themes of death and violence in a relatively open and brutal way. The disappearance of the children to Neverland begins as a great adventure, but the reader soon discovers that there is a darker side to this magical land, where children never grow up and pirates are at war with them. I do think, however, that this darkness prevalent throughout the story is a positive thing – it teaches children of hidden dangers; it teaches them to be wary but also teaches them to be brave in the face of danger. However, because of these themes, I think this tale would be better told to slightly older children, perhaps between the ages of six and ten, rather than those who are younger. I did, however, really enjoy returning to this magical story, and was particularly amused by the spiteful and jealous Tinker Bell, who held all the features that we know and love from Walt Disney’s adaptation of the novel many years after its publication.

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Elizabeth of York: The First Tudor Queen by Alison Weir

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Elizabeth of York would have ruled England, but for the fact that she was a woman. Heiress to the royal House of York, she schemed to marry  Richard III, the man who had deposed and probably killed her brothers, and it is possible that she then conspired to put Henry Tudor on the throne. Yet after her marriage to Henry VII, which united the royal houses of Lancaster and York, a picture emerges of a model consort – mild, pious, generous and fruitful. It has been said that Elizabeth was distrusted by Henry VII and her formidable mother-in-law, Margaret Beaufort, but contemporary evidence shows that she was, in fact, influential”

REVIEW: As much as I have read about Elizabeth of York in the past, I have never before read a biography wholly dedicated to her, and as a fan of Alison Weir I was doubly excited to read this one. Weir’s research is thorough and her love and admiration for her subject clearly shines through, undoubtedly influencing the readers own views on Elizabeth of York and the difficult life she led on her road to power. Sometimes biographies such as this can be difficult to get through and dull to read, but this was as easy as reading a novel – an impressive feat, considering the high level of detailed information that was supplied by the author. I really enjoyed reading this and learning more about Elizabeth of York, but I did have one point of contention. Weir discusses the notorious mystery of the Princes in the Tower at length, as these young princes were the brothers of her subject, Elizabeth of York, but throughout the biography she seems fully content to stick staunchly to the view that Richard III was responsible for the murder of these two young boys. No other possible perpetrator was considered, and although this is clearly because Weir is openly convinced of Richard’s guilt, I feel that as a historian she should have perhaps considered the possibility that Margaret Beaufort was the murderer (as is my own belief), or any of the other possible villains, in order to widen the perspective and context of her research. It may be, of course, that this was only a problem for me because I do not believe in Richard’s guilt; I did, however, feel it was worth mentioning as it was the only problem I found in what was otherwise a witty and engaging biography of a woman who deserves to be remembered as a woman in her own right, rather than just as the wife and mother of two infamous Tudor Kings. 

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Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “Hopeless romantic Isla has had a crush on brooding artist Josh since their first year at the School of America in Paris. And, after a chance encounter in Manhattan over the summer break, romance might be closer than Isla imagined. But as they begin their senior year back in France, Isla and Josh are forced to face uncertainty about their futures, and the very real possibility of being apart”

REVIEW: I have previously reviewed both of Perkins’ other works in this series, ‘Anna and the French Kiss’ and ‘Lola and the Boy Next Door’, and as many of you will know I loved them both. This novel, however has to be my favourite of the three, though for a more personal reason – I understood Isla. I’m not ashamed to admit that I sobbed reading this book, because it was so nice to finally read about a character who shares exactly my insecurities, my fears, my ambitions and feelings – I felt like Stephanie Perkins was writing about me, and that gave me a strong personal connection with the book that made it even more enjoyable than the last two. Although I was already disposed to be attached to Isla because she reminded me of myself, she is clearly a fun and witty character in her own right, just like Anna and Lola, and the reintroduction of Josh (one of the major characters in ‘Anna and the French Kiss’) as her love interest was a twist that I really enjoyed. It also gave Perkins the chance to bring back the much-loved characters from the previous books, and prove to us that they have succeeded in gaining their very own happy endings. I felt, upon reading this book, that Isla’s and Josh’s relationship was the most real of all portrayed in these novels; both are hugely flawed characters, and allow their own insecurities to get in the way of what both of them see as the best thing in their lives, just like many real couples do. The ups and downs of their relationship were also very realistic and, although I often wanted to shake and slap some sense into both of them, made the book even more entertaining. I also liked Perkins’ inclusion of Kurt, Isla’s closest friend, who is part of the autistic spectrum; his character is portrayed with great sensitivity, and many of the most moving moments in the novel, I found, came from Kurt. As always, the Parisian setting only succeeded in increasing my love of the story and adding an extra dimension to it – Perkins somehow manages to make the setting almost like another character, with its weather and landscapes often reflecting the moods and emotions of the characters. I loved this book so much that I read it in a matter of hours and was completely gripped the whole way through. I would highly recommend it, particularly to fans of the previous two books. I also, on a personal note, would like to thank Perkins for writing a character who made me see that I am not alone in letting my insecurities get the better of me sometimes. 

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The Darkest Hour by Barbara Erskine

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RATING:4.5/5

BLURB: “In the summer of 1940, most eyes are focused on the skies above. The battle for Britain has just begun. But talented artist Evie Lucas has eyes for no-one but a dashing young pilot called Tony, and spends her days sketching endless portraits of him. She wants his parents to have something to remember their only child by in case in all goes wrong in the war…

Seventy years later, recently widowed art historian Lucy is trying to put the pieces of her life back together. But when she accidentally ends up stirring up a hornet’s nest of history which has been deliberately obliterated, Lucy finds herself in danger from people past and present who have no intention of letting an untold truth ever surface…”

REVIEW: This book was recommend to me with rave reviews by a very close friend, and upon beginning it I could instantly understand why she had been so obsessed by the story. The book hooks the reader in from the very last page and, with numerous and shocking twists and turns, does not let them go until the very last page has been read and the book closed. The book opens with the mysterious death of Lucy’s husband, Laurence, in a car crash that sees her life completely destroyed, and from this point onwards continues to move between the lives of Lucy, a historian and researcher, and Evelyn Lucas, a young war artist who is the subject of Lucy’s new biography. Evelyn is easily likeable – hardworking, witty and beautiful, she is kept under close guard by her agent and sometimes lover, the bullying and brutal Eddie Marston, whose villainy only continues to develop throughout the book. Evie’s brother Ralph and his friend, her lover Tony Anderson, are characters that we grow to care for hugely, and fear for strongly in the stories Erskine tells of the Battle of Britain. The more we learn about Evie, however, the more her life begins to influence events in the modern day. Lucy soon finds herself haunted not only by Evie’s brother Ralph, shot down while in action, but also a much more malicious ghost intent on keeping the Lucas family secrets safely in the closet. It is difficult to say much more without revealing too much of the story’s plot, but on a final note I would say that Erskine’s writing is hugely realistic, gripping and engaging, and flits between past and present with complete ease. I really enjoyed this book and am looking forward to reading more of her works!