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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!

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The King’s Curse by Philippa Gregory

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “As an heir to the Plantagenets, Margaret is seen by the King’s mother (The Red Queen) as a rival to the Tudor claim to the throne. She is buried in marriage to a Tudor supporter – Sir Richard Pole, governor of Wales – and becomes guardian to Arthur, the young Prince of Wales, and his beautiful bride, Katherine of Aragon. But Margaret’s destiny, as cousin to the Queen (The White Princess), is not for a life in the shadows. Tragedy throws her into poverty and only a royal death restores her to her place at young Henry VIII’s court where she becomes chief Lady-in-Waiting to Queen Katherine. There she watches the dominance of the Spanish Queen over her husband and her tragic decline. Amid the rapid deterioration of the Tudor Court, Margaret must choose whether her allegiance is to the increasingly tyrannical Henry VIII or to her beloved Queen. Caught between the old and the new, Margaret must find her own way, concealing her knowledge that an old curse cast upon all the Tudors is slowly coming true…”

REVIEW: I have been a fan of Philippa Gregory for many years, and thank her Tudor Court novels for bringing to life my love of history, leading me to not only undertake my own historical research into the period but also to go on to study history at university. I was so excited when she began the Cousin’s War series and look forward to a new read every summer! This book was certainly not a disappointment. I knew the story of Margaret Pole but had never read of her in any historical fiction novels, and she came very vividly to life for me in Gregory’s work. Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, had an extraordinary life, serving Elizabeth of York and Katherine of Aragon, as well as getting to see Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour take their place as Queens of England also. Her constant fighting for Queen Katherine and for her daughter, Princess Mary, was something I had not known about before and which actually made me emotional at several points. The struggles Margaret faces between her loyalty to Katherine and her need to keep the King’s favour in order to protect her family is wonderfully portrayed, and the reader is led to think about the challenges she faces and to conclude that they, in her place, would also find themselves in an impossible position. Margaret’s story is even more heartbreaking when we learn of her tragic and brutal end – she did not ask to be born into a noble family and yet she seems to spend her life fighting for survival because of it. 

I also enjoyed how Gregory linked the novel to her previous books set in the Tudor Court. In her novel on the early years of Katherine of Aragon, ‘The Constant Princess’, Gregory writes of a great love blossoming between Katherine and Arthur, and a promise made by Katherine at Arthur’s death that she would swear the marriage had been unconsummated so that she could marry his brother Henry and fulfill her destiny as Queen of England. I have always been quite attached to this suggestion and am glad that Gregory continued it. I also enjoyed the brief flashes we saw of the characters of Mary, George and Anne Boleyn, characters dealt with so thoroughly in ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ but given only fleeting and often amusingly different impressions in this text. 

Overall, I believe this to be one of my favourite Philippa Gregory novels to date (my others are ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’, ‘The Kingmaker’s Daughter’ and ‘The Boleyn Inheritance’) and hugely enjoyed learning more about Margaret Pole, a woman I now admire even more for her intelligence and bravery in the face of impossibly difficult circumstances.

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Burmese Days by George Orwell

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “Based on his experiences as a policeman in Burma, George Orwell’s first novel presents a devastating picture of British colonial rule. It describes corruption and imperial bigotry in a society where, ‘after all, natives were natives – interesting, no doubt, but finally … an inferior people’. When Flory, a white timber merchant, befriends Indian Dr Veraswami, he defies this orthodoxy. The doctor is in danger: U Po Kyin, a corrupt magistrate, is plotting his downfall. The only thing that can save him is membership of the all-white Club, and Flory can help. Flory’s life is changed further by the arrival of beautiful Elizabeth Lackersteen from Paris, who offers an escape from loneliness and the ‘lie’ of colonial life.”

REVIEW: Learning about British colonial rule in India during my first year of university this year really helped me to understand and appreciate the complex issues that Orwell deals with in this book. Orwell’s own experiences in Burma have clearly influenced the novel and show the corrupt and harsh nature of British Imperial rule in India without holding back, which, I would imagine, would have made the novel highly shocking at the time of its publication. My favourite thing about the novel was Orwell’s immense description of Burma – I could almost feel the heat and see the jungles, rivers and villages that Orwell described in such depth and detail, and I hugely admire Orwell for this amazing skill that made the book the perfect form of escapism. The character of Flory reminded me very much of Winston Smith in Orwell’s notorious ‘1984’, in that the reader admires him for his principles – Flory does not share the same racist views as his British contemporaries, and is happy to befriend the local people, particularly Doctor Veraswami – but yet finds in him many dislikeable traits, such as cowardice and a quickness to temper. Flory’s love interest, Elizabeth Lackersteen, is also a very interesting character; she has little to no feeling for Flory and is entirely different to him in character, but his feelings for her remain even after her affair with Verrall. Nothing could have shocked me more than the ending of the novel, however, in which we find out the depth of Flory’s feelings for Elizabeth, and it is this ending that has led me to give the novel a rating of 3.5 instead of 4 – I cannot bear to read of any harm coming to animals, and the end met by Flory’s loveable puppy, Flo, was enough for me to reduce my rating of this novel! It was, however, a fitting ending to the story, and I would still highly recommend this book to any Orwell fans or those interested in British colonial rule in India. 

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My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Orphaned at an early age, Philip Ashley is raised by his benevolent older cousin, Ambrose. Resolutely single, Ambrose delights in Phillip as his heir, a man who will come to love his grand house as much as he does himself. But the cosy world the two have constructed is shattered when Ambrose sets off on a trip to Florence. There he falls in love and marries – and there he dies suddenly. In almost no time at all, the new widow – Philip’s cousin Rachel – turns up in England. Despite himself, Phillip is drawn to this beautiful, sophisticated, mysterious woman like a moth to the flame. And yet…might she have had a hand in Ambrose’s death?”

REVIEW: As many of you will know, I discovered a love of Daphne du Maurier upon reading ‘Rebecca’, and this love has continued to grow as I progressively work my way through her numerous novels and short stories. I stumbled across ‘My Cousin Rachel’ in a charity shop and am very glad I chose to pick it up – this novel is full of du Maurier’s usual spectacular levels of suspense, mystery and intrigue, all mixed up with a little bit of romance. Philip’s level of adoration for his guardian and cousin Ambrose are clearly demonstrated from the very beginning of the book, and it is due to this that we readers feel Philip’s pain upon Ambrose’s death. We also share his instant hatred for Ambrose’s wife, Rachel, whom Ambrose often writes of in letters that become increasingly distressed and accusatory. Philip is initially convinced that Rachel killed his cousin; but when she arrives in England, his feelings towards her begin to change. Even the reader finds that they are conflicted in their feelings towards Rachel, whose character is both sweet and kind-hearted, but who still raises suspicion due to the constant recurrences that Ambrose’s letters make throughout the novel. The ending of the novel is shocking, as usual with du Maurier, but gives the reader no concrete answers regarding Rachel’s guilt or innocence, leaving us to make up our own minds as to whether or not we trust Rachel – and I must say, I still haven’t drawn my own conclusion! I would highly recommend this book!

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Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “In a Swiss sanitorium, a brilliant psychiatrist encounters a rich young patient whose problems exert a seductive fascination. After their marriage, they live on the French Riviera. There, set against the sun-baked stone houses and the drama of the sea, Dick and Nicole Diver’s glamour and wealth suggest a fabled existence – the charmed lives of the seriously and breathtakingly frivolous. But, as with all confidence tricks, luck can run out”

REVIEW: As a huge fan of ‘The Great Gatsby’, which I studied a couple of years ago for my AS levels, and of many of Fitzgerald’s short stories, I was greatly looking forward to reading this novel, which is of a much longer length and a very autobiographical nature. I undertook a fair amount of research on Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald when studying for my exams and can certainly understand why many critics have made links between this novel and Fitzgerald’s personal life, particularly the mental and emotional instability of his wife, Zelda (as illustrated by the character of Nicole), and the main character, Dick’s, slowly increasing dependence on alcohol. This enriched the book for me personally, and made it a more enjoyable read. The relationship between Nicole and Dick begins unconventionally and this seems to poison their marriage throughout the novel, leading to several serious misunderstandings. The growing distance between the couple is beautifully and subtly written, so that the reader almost cannot foresee them falling apart until it is too late. As both characters descend into extramarital affairs  – Dick first, with a young and beautiful actress named Rosemary (who possesses many of the same qualities as that of Daisy Buchanan in ‘…Gatsby’), and towards the end of the book, Nicole with a man named Tommy. The disintegration of the couple’s marriage is extremely realistic and believable, making it even more difficult for the reader to accept and digest. For me, this novel could never possibly match ‘…Gatsby’, but I feel that Fitzgerald must have felt a great sense of relief in writing it; it allowed him to express the pain he felt surrounding his wife in a way that was both impersonal and therapeutic. I would definitely recommend this novel, particularly to anyone with an interest in Fitzgerald’s personal and private life.