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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.

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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.