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Emma by Alexander McCall Smith

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “Sometimes it takes time to discover who you really are. And for Emma Woodhouse the journey is only just beginning. As she returns home to Norfolk from University, Emma starts to take charge. But as she begins to match-make various friends and neighbours, some important lessons about life and relationships await her…”

REVIEW: As followers of this blog may have noticed, I have read the previous two novels that have been published under the so-called Austen Project, which has had six different, well-known authors writing modern retellings of the six major Austen novels – as I had so greatly enjoyed Trollope’s rewrite of Sense and Sensibility and Val McDermid’s rewrite of Northanger Abbey, I was really looking forward to reading McCall Smith’s version of Emma. It was a good novel, with Emma re-interpreted brilliantly and the other characters instantly recognisable from the Austen original we know and love; Mr Woodhouse’s frantic obsession with cleanliness and disease was particularly amusing, as well as seeming accurate. The story progressed at a good pace and, while the reader often finds him or herself in conflict with Emma (as also happens many times in the original novel), by the end of the story we are glad that she has found her happy ending with George Knightley – though of course, a relationship with such an age gap is harder for the modern mind to comprehend, but McCall Smith made it fitting with the modern reader, who wanted it just as much as I suspect Austen’s Georgian audience would have. My only problem with the book was that, while I felt the previous two rewrites had been bought very successfully into modernity, I did sometimes still feel as though I were reading a Georgian novel whilst reading McCall Smith’s version. Some of the language and even some of the scandals seemed somewhat outdated and I feel some might have been bought further into the future. Overall, however, this was a very entertaining retelling of what is originally a very entertaining novel, and I would recommend it to fans of Austen.

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How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “It’s a good time to be a woman; we have the vote and the Pill, and we haven’t been burnt as witches since 1727. However, a few nagging questions do remain…Why are we supposed to get Brazilians? Should we use Botox? Do men secretly hate us? And why does everyone ask you when you’re going to have a baby?”

REVIEW: I absolutely loved this book. It amazes me how Moran can take so many serious, taboo topics and turn them into hilarious anecdotes and life advice, all the while proving to us that these subjects – including sex, menstruation, pornography -should not be taboo at all, but should be discussed freely and openly. Whilst discussing topics such as these, and numerous others, Moran is constantly demonstrating to the reader that the way we view many of these things is heavily controlled and influenced by the patriarchal attitudes of our society. I have prided myself on being a feminist for years now, and it was such a refreshing change to read a book where the author had exactly the same views as me on so many matters of everyday life – particularly pornography – and was not afraid to be firm in her belief in these views. Moran’s writing is witty, engaging, thought-provoking and often hilarious, and I would state that this is the book every modern woman – and every self-respecting man – should read.

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A Very British Murder by Lucy Worsley

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Ever since the Ratcliffe Highway Murders caused a nationwide panic in Regency England, the British have taken an almost ghoulish pleasure in ‘a good murder’. This fascination helped create a whole new world of entertainment, inspiring novels, plays and films, puppet shows, paintings and true-crime journalism – as well as an army of fictional detectives who still enthrall us today. A Very British Murder is Lucy Worsley’s captivating account of this curious national obsession. It is a tale of dark deeds and guilty pleasures, a riveting investigation into the British soul by one of our finest historians.”

REVIEW: This book is a fascinating exploration of how an obsession with murder has become ingrained into British culture, and takes various famous murder cases from the nineteenth century onwards to illustrate how the nation’s relationship with these cases began to develop and expand as time went on. With each new, sensational murder people found new – and often increasingly disturbing – ways of dissecting the event; grisly artefacts from murders were exhibited for people to view, such as part of the scalp of the murderer William Corder, which is still on display in the Moyse’s Hall Museum today. Puppet shows, songs and plays were performed in order to both dramatise and popularise the most horrific of the tales, such as that of Maria Marten, who was buried under the floor of the Red Barn. Worsley dissects each of these cases and the interest they incurred in great detail, and looks at how their legacies have stayed with us even today in the form of fictional detectives like Sherlock Holmes and the works of Agatha Christie. This book is absolutely fascinating; the murder cases themselves are just as interesting to modern readers as they were at the time, and the way they have impacted our current culture is also something that I had not expected to discover. I was gripped from the very beginning of this novel, which read almost like a detective story in itself – it is a story of a somewhat shameful section of the British consciousness, a part of us that has survived across centuries and that remains just as powerful in the modern day as it did in the Victorian age.

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Leaving Time By Jodi Picoult

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Jenna Metcalf was with her mother the night she disappeared, but she remembers nothing. In the wake of those tragic events, she has lost not one parent, but two; her father is in an asylum, and she now lives with her grandmother – who finds it too painful to talk about what happened. Ten years on, Jenna is the only one who still seems to care. And she is determined to seek the truth, no matter how shocking and life-changing it might be…”

REVIEW: This is my favourite novel of Picoult’s that I have read since ‘Nineteen Minutes’, which I think will always hold the top spot for me and which I named my top book of the year last year, despite heavy competition. As with all Picoult’s novels, the twist at the end of the book makes it difficult to review without giving too much away, but I can assure you that this twist is one of Picoult’s finest – it truly shocked me and I didn’t see it coming despite having been gripped for the entire novel, trying as desperately as the protagonist to find out what happened to her mother. Jenna’s mother worked at an elephant sanctuary and dedicated her life to studying and caring for these animals; Picoult’s research into elephant behaviour is meticulous, and gives the reader a great deal of factual knowledge as well as allowing us to become as fond of the elephants as Jenna’s mother, Alice, was. One night at the sanctuary, the body of another employee was found trampled by an elephant, and further off was found the unconscious Alice. After being treated in hospital, she discharged herself – and was never seen again. Jenna has subsequently spent the rest of her life trying to find out what happened to her mother, and fears that her mother may have abandoned her for good, or died herself. Receiving little help from her traumatised grandmother, Jenna turns to ex-detective Virgil Stanhope; once the lead detective on the Alice Metcalf case, Virgil is tortured by the fact that it remains unsolved and has turned to drink, but reluctantly agrees to help Jenna and develops a bond with her. They also receive help from the disgraced psychic Serenity who, once a famous celebrity, was slaughtered by press and public alike after several failed readings that gave many false hope of finding those they loved. Yet Serenity senses something special in Jenna, and together the three of them embark on a journey to find the truth about what happened at the sanctuary that night. Picoult, an expert at weaving stories through multiple narratives, tells this tale through the eyes of Jenna, Serenity and Virgil, and through the eyes of Alice herself, who tells us the story right from the beginning – before Jenna was even born. This is a fascinating novel that I simply could not put down, and I would very highly recommend it.

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The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

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RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, recuperating from a broken leg, becomes fascinated with a contemporary portrait of Richard III that bears no resemblance to the Wicked Uncle of history. Could such a sensitive, noble face actually belong to one of the world’s most heinous villains – a venomous hunchback who may have killed his brother’s children to make his crown secure? Or could Richard have been the victim, turned into a monster by the usurpers of England’s throne? Grant determines to find out once and for all, with the help of the British Museum and an American scholar, what kind of man Richard Plantagenet really was and who killed the Princes in the Tower.”

REVIEW: Tey’s book was, I felt, very cleverly written, using the realms of fiction to examine and explore the case of the Princes in the Tower with all the thoroughness and research of a non-fiction study. As a historian myself the mystery of who killed the Princes in the Tower has always fascinated me, and just as Grant does in the novel I had reached the conclusion that Richard III was not, in fact, their murderer, though I differ with Tey on who I think was the murderer instead. Through putting such an investigation within the realms of fiction Tey is able to make the story two-dimensional; the reader gains enjoyment from learning about Grant, though we only see small snippets of his life as he is confined to a hospital bed and all of those he meets are either visiting friends, hospital staff or his helpful researcher Carradine. Grant’s mission to find out the truth about the Princes in the Tower and vindicate Richard initially starts as a means of amusing himself to beat the boredom of being hospitalised and immobile, yet it soon becomes an obsession. The conclusions Grant draws are based on solid historical evidence, and quotations from scholarly works on the subject are used throughout the book to back up his ideas, just like in a piece of non-fiction. Although I appreciate the cleverness of this two-dimensional model of writing, I did sometimes find it to be difficult to read as a fiction novel as there was so much factual evidence involved; I feel Tey might have been better off using her extensive research to write a full, non-fiction vindication of Richard III, rather than wrapping the mystery up within the confines of a historical fiction piece.

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Happily Ever After by Harriet Evans

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “This is the story of a girl who doesn’t believe in happy endings. Or happy families. It’s the story of Eleanor Bee, a shy book-loving girl who vows to turn herself into someone bright, shiny and confident, someone sophisticated. Someone who knows how life works. But life has a funny way of catching us unawares. Turns out that Elle doesn’t know everything about love. Or life. Or how to keep the ones we love safe…”

REVIEW: I absolutely loved this book. It isn’t often that I find so-called ‘chick-lit’ fiction that I actually enjoy, as the characters are usually somewhat one-dimensional and the ending of the novel tends to be staring the reader right in the face; but that was not the case with this novel. Evans tells the story of Eleanor Bee, a Bridget Jones-esque character whose struggles and successes in the tough world of publishing make for hilarious, realistic and often romantic results. The reader watches Eleanor grow from a shy secretary into the manager of a publishing division in New York, all the while following her familial problems and her relationship failures. It is hard to discuss the book without giving too much away, which I really don’t want to do as it was the surprises that the book held that made it so interesting to me. For literary readers, the frequent mentions of other books also adds an extra enjoyable dimension to the story, which can at times be truly heartbreaking as we witness Eleanor’s struggle with drink and her mother’s own downward spiral into alcoholism. I would highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a fun, relaxing read with relatable characters and a witty, lively insight into the publishing industry.

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Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “Maycomb, Alabama. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch – ‘Scout’ – returns home from New York City to visit her ageing father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise’s homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town and the people dearest to her. Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt. Featuring many of the iconic characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman perfectly captures a young woman, and a world, in painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past – a journey that can be guided only by one’s own conscience.”

REVIEW: Upon the release of this novel, I found myself to be one of the many people who, as avid fans of To Kill a Mockingbird, were greatly excited to read this novel and discover what had happened to all the characters whom we know and love from the original novel. Because of this, I found it extremely difficult to review the book as a stand-alone novel, and felt let down by how the characters had developed, as many of them had become something I no longer liked nor empathised with as I did in To Kill a Mockingbird. Yet, Go Set a Watchman was actually the novel that Lee wrote first, until persuaded by the publishers to write instead of Scout’s childhood, which they felt – it seems correctly – would appeal much more greatly to the reading public. In light of this, should we see the characterisation of our protagonists in Go Set a Watchman as the real characters, and the characterisation of them in To Kill a Mockingbird as a more innocent, sugar-coated version designed to sit more comfortably with the public conscience? These are just some of the questions I asked myself as I thought about how I was going to write a review of this book which, despite Lee’s brilliantly witty, energetic and philosophical writing style, for me could not hope to foster the same love in me as To Kill a Mockingbird did when I first read it four years ago. The reader is aware that things have changed greatly in Maycomb right from the start of the novel; we find out within the first fifty pages that Jean Louise’s beloved brother Jem is dead, though his death is never mentioned in great detail and felt somewhat skimmed over by Lee, who perhaps at the time had not realised how much of a beloved and important character Jem would become. The character of Dill seems to have been replaced by Jean Louise’s love interest, Henry, who was barely mentioned in To Kill a Mockingbird but who here is shown to have played a great role in Jean Louise’s early years and been the object of her affections throughout their adolescence. Dill is mentioned, but it is Henry who appears to colour all of Jean Louise’s childhood memories, rather than Dill. Minor characters like Aunt Alexandra and Uncle Jack are pushed to the fore in this novel, taking on integral roles, while the vibrant Calpurnia is pushed to the sidelines as racial tensions begin to mount and she distances herself from the Finch family, including her beloved Scout, who is heartbroken by Calpurnia’s indifference towards her. It is Atticus, however, that has caused so much controversy in reviews since the release of this novel, as Lee has him spouting racist views that disagree violently with the intelligent lawyer who we saw defend Tom Robinson with such passion in To Kill a Mockingbird. Yet, I would argue that, by the end of the novel, readers can see that in a sense Atticus has not really changed that much at all. Yes, his views have changed in a manner that completely horrifies Jean Louise and make her physically unwell, and also deeply shocks the reader – or so it seems. By the end of the novel, however, the reader begins to get a sense that Atticus does not necessarily believe in what he is saying; he is, in fact, trying to prevent the racial tensions in the South from escalating by becoming part of one side so that he is able to rein them in. This is how I perceived Atticus’ motives myself, though I will confess that this may be somewhat hopeful on my part, as I did not wish to lose the character I had always admired so greatly. The thing I did enjoy about the book, however, was that Jean Louise  – our beloved Scout – has not changed one bit. Scout acts as an anchor for the reader, acting as our ‘watchman’ – our conscience – and the only point of sanity in a world overrun by terrifying and upsetting racial hatred.