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Longbourn by Jo Baker

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “It is wash-day for the housemaids at Longbourn House, and Sarah’s hands are chapped and raw. Domestic life below stairs, ruled with a tender heart and an iron will by Mrs Hill the housekeeper, is about to be disturbed by the arrival of a new footman, bearing secrets and the scent of the sea.”

REVIEW: As a huge Jane Austen/Pride and Prejudice fan I was really looking forward to reading this book, which offers a view of the lives of the Bennet girls from a downstairs perspective. Sarah, the protagonist, is both likeable and easy to sympathise with as she yearns for a life beyond the gruelling routine of domestic service, and has some aspects of the famous Elizabeth Bennet about her in her intelligence and feisty spirit. Through Sarah we are introduced to her companions, who also work for the Bennet family – the quiet but gentle Mr Hill, the hardworking and loving Mrs Hill (his wife), Polly, the young maid-in-training, and a new arrival, James Smith, who comes to Longbourn in mysterious circumstances and remains silent on the matter of his past. Sarah is determined to find out who James is and where he has come from, but soon has her head turned by the Bingleys’ new servant, Ptolemy, who promises her a life of luxury and freedom with him in London. All of these events take place alongside the events we are so familiar with from Pride and Prejudice, which are reported from the perspective of the servants, and add an extra depth to Sarah’s story. Sarah’s close relationship with the elder Bennet sisters, Jane and Elizabeth, also ingratiates her with the reader as we know well of the goodness and kindness of these two characters. As Sarah and James begin to realise that they have feelings for each other, disaster strikes and James is forced to go on the run. It is at this point in the novel that we learn more of James’ background and, most importantly, his parentage, which is an excellent twist in the story. I really thoroughly enjoyed this book, which renewed my enjoyment of Pride and Prejudice as it felt as though I was experiencing it all over again, but in a new way. I did find myself disappointed slightly by the characterisation of Mr Bennet, whom I was always very fond of but who seemed far more ignorant of the feelings of others in Baker’s novel, and more driven by pride than Austen had led us to believe. This is the only minor flaw I found while reading the book, which I would highly recommend.!

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Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “Thirty-one and twice widowed, Katherine Parr must return to court – where an ageing Henry VIII has just had his fifth wife beheaded, and is searching for a sixth. As those around her scheme and plot on behalf of the King, Katherine falls for seductive Thomas Seymour. But her hopes of marrying for love are dashed when Henry dispatches Seymour abroad and makes Katherine his Queen. Trapped in a court riven by factions as dying Henry’s reign draws to its end, Katherine must use all her instincts to survive not just the obese King’s increasingly menacing behaviour but the treachery of those closest to him…”

REVIEW: Historical novels about Katherine Parr are unfortunately few and far between. History has often painted Katherine as the dull final wife, bookish and placid. who acted as more of a nurse than a wife to her ageing and temperamental husband. Fremantle, however, turns this reputation on its head, brilliantly portraying Katherine as the intelligent, compassionate and intensely religious woman that she was, and showing how she suffered at the hands of both her husband and a court torn apart by political and religious rivalries. Katherine’s relationship with her stepdaughter Meg and their servant girl, Dot, who becomes a second protagonist in the novel and plays a very important role in Katherine’s life, also adds more depth to Katherine’s character. The addition of Dot is also clever as it allows the reader to view life at the Tudor court from both the upper class and lower class perspective, meaning that we develop a greater understanding of the court as a whole. I really thoroughly enjoyed Fremantle’s portrayal of Katherine, who we so rarely get the chance to read about in depth, and was particularly gripped by reading of how close Katherine herself came to suffering the fate of two of her predecessors, Anne Boleyn and Kathryn Howard, due to her religious views. Fremantle’s portrayal of Henry himself was also very interesting – his volatile temper and his almost childish enthusiasm for playacting and tantrums made it easy to side with Katherine, whom the reader feels great sympathy for throughout the novel. When Katherine marries Thomas Seymour after the King’s death it is initially presented as an escape for her, a true love match; but any reader who knows of the history behind the marriage would know that Seymour undoubtedly did more bad for Katherine than good, and we are heartbroken with her to learn of his betrayal with Katherine’s own stepdaughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I, with whom he has an affair. The tragic ending of Katherine’s tale leaves the reader truly mourning, as Fremantle has written her so vividly that we almost feel as though we know her by the end of the book. I would very highly recommend this book and was hugely impressed with both Fremantle’s characterisation of the key figures of the period and by how accurately she depicts the court atmosphere.

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Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “When a mysterious young woman named Katie appears in the small town of Southport, her sudden arrival raises questions about her past. Beautiful yet unassuming, Katie is determined to avoid forming personal ties until a series of events draws her into two reluctant relationships. Despite her reservations, Katie slowly begins to lower her guard, putting down roots in the close-knit community. But even as Katie starts to fall in love, she struggles with the dark secret that still haunts her…”

REVIEW: I have read many of Sparks’ books over the years as he is the favourite author of one of my closest friends, but ‘Safe Haven’ has definitely made it into the ranks of my favourite Sparks books. The story of Katie, a beautiful but fearful woman who has run away from an abusive husband and given herself a new identity, is extremely gripping and also very emotional. Although we only find out about Katie’s past through flashbacks, or through the eyes of her psychotic husband Kevin, the glimpses we get are enough to make us instantly sympathise with her character and to hope that her new life works out. When Katie begins to make herself at home in Southport, befriending her mysterious next-door neighbour Jo and forming a relationship with widower Alex and his children, Josh and Kristen, the reader feels the happiness that she herself feels in making a new life for herself. As Katie and Alex’s relationship begins to progress, however, so does Kevin’s search for his missing wife, leading to a shocking climax of the novel that will have readers on the edge of their seats. The portrayal of the abusive relationship, Kevin’s descent into madness and the blossoming love between Alex and Katie are all very believable and make the novel all the more enjoyable. I would highly recommend this as one of my favourite Sparks novels.

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The Night Falling by Katherine Webb

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Puglia, Italy, 1921. Leandro returns home now a rich man with a glamorous American wife, determined to make his mark. But how did he get so wealthy – and what haunts his outwardly exuberant wife? Boyd, quiet English architect, is hired to build Leandro’s dreams. But why is he so afraid of Leandro, and what really happened between them years before, in New York? Clare, Boyd’s diffident wife, is summoned to Puglia with her stepson. At first desperate to leave, she soon finds a compelling reason to stay. Ettore, starving, poor and grieving for his lost fiancee, is too proud to ask his Uncle Leandro to help. Until events conspire to force his hand. Tensions are high as poverty leads veterans of the Great War to the brink of rebellion. And under the burning sky, a reckless love and a violent enmity will bring brutal truths to light…”

REVIEW: As any long-term followers of this blog will know, I am a huge fan of Katherine Webb – I have read all of her novels and each and every one of them has been given a high rating on this blog. This new novel, The Night Falling, is no exception. It took me longer to get into than Webb’s previous works, but once I had gotten into it, I was hooked. This novel mainly focuses on the stories of Ettore and Clare. Ettore is an extremely hard working Puglian peasant, struggling to support his sick father, his hotheaded sister and her baby son Iacopo. He is also struggling to deal with the grief and anger he feels after the death of his fiance Livia, who died after becoming the victim of a brutal rape, and is on the hunt for her attacker to exact his revenge. Clare is from the other end of the spectrum, a middle-class Englishwoman who travels to Puglia with her stepson Pip in order to join her husband, Boyd, while he works on creating a new home for the formidable Leandro and his wife Marcie. Clare is restless and uncomfortable in Puglia, fearful of Boyd experiencing another depressive episode and of losing her relationship with Pip, who seems to be growing up much faster than she might like. Underlying the tales of these two very different people – who will eventually become lovers – is a class war that has been rife for decades, with the poor working in hard, laborious jobs under the rich, exploitative masters, including Ettore’s enemy the sadistic Ludo Manzo. This class struggle can sometimes make the book very distressing to read as the lives of the poor are described in harrowing detail and the farm environments made to seem harsh and hostile places; I was also particularly upset when reading any of the parts that mentioned how the masters treated animals, as I always find it difficult to read of animals being harmed in any way. Yet, the fact that Webb is unafraid to deal with the harsh realities of the period makes the book, and her writing itself, all the more admirable. We can picture the environment so well that we are almost made to feel part of it, and we suffer alongside the characters in the book, all of whom are written so well that they seem almost to leap from the page. The last hundred or so pages of the book offer so many twists and turns, uncovering past mysteries as well as revealing unexpected truths of the present storyline, and I simply couldn’t put it down. This is yet another brilliant novel from Webb and I can’t wait to read more!

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Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

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RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “Humbert Humbert is a middle-aged, frustrated college professor. In love with his landlady’s twelve-year-old daughter Lolita, he’ll do anything to possess her. Unable and unwilling to stop himself, he is prepared to commit any crime to get what he wants. Is he in love or insane? A silver-tongued poet or a pervert? A tortured soul or a monster? Or is he all of these?”

REVIEW: Due to the sensitive topic matter and the nature of the writing style, it is difficult to write an objective and clear review of this infamous novel. Humbert Humbert’s (HH) story is told through his eyes, detailing his relationship with the twelve-year-old Lolita, which begins when he becomes a lodger in the home she shares with the novel. Even before he meets Lolita, the reader is told by HH of his predilection for young girls, whom he terms ‘nymphets’, and is disturbed to read of how he watches them in parks, school, etc. We already know, therefore, that he is a danger to Lolita as soon as they meet. When HH ends up married to Lolita’s mother, the ends he will go to to achieve his desire become even more shocking for the reader, and end in Lolita’s mother’s death and a whirlwind trip around America for HH and his nymphet. It is difficult to say much more about the book without giving away too much of the various plot twists and the complexities of both HH’s character and Lolita’s, who is surprising in many ways to any reader who already had previous conceptions of what she might be like before starting the novel. I would caution anyone who plans to read the novel that although it is gripping, it is also extremely disturbing to a modern reader when there are such strong views against childhood sexuality present in our current society, and rightly so. I did find many parts of the novel to be extremely upsetting, but can also appreciate that Nabokov’s writing talent really shines through here; his writing reflects the psychopathic nature of HH himself, as it ┬áis often fragmented and complex to understand. I would recommend it based on Nabokov’s writing, but not necessarily based on the highly sensitive subject matter.

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Roses Have Thorns by Sandra Byrd

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “In 1565, seventeen-year-old Elin von Snakenborg leaves Sweden on a treacherous journey to England. Her fiance has fallen in love with her sister and her dowry money has been gambled away, but ahead of her lies an adventure that will take her to the dizzying heights of Tudor power. Transformed through marriage into Helena, the Marchioness of Northampton, she becomes the highest-ranking woman in Elizabeth’s circle. But in a court that is surrounded by Catholic enemies who plot the Queen’s downfall, Helena is forced to choose between her unyielding monarch and the husband she’s not sure she can trust – a choice that will provoke catastrophic consequences.”

REVIEW: I was greatly looking forward to reading another novel about Elizabeth I, keen to see how Byrd’s portrayal of Elizabeth would link in with my own views and perceptions. The character of Elin von Snakenborg only added to my intrigue – Byrd states in the afterword that she chose Elin as a subject not only because her story was so unusual, but also because she had never really been written about before. This surprised me, as Elin’s story is a writer’s dream even without the artistic licence that Byrd has clearly taken; it is full of passion and intrigue, and made even more fascinating by the close relationship that develops between Elin and the Queen. Through Elin’s eyes we suffer her personal struggles – the love affair between her fiance and sister, her struggle to marry the Marquess of Northampton, her descent into widowhood, her love affair with Thomas Gorges, and her suffering as their once perfect relationship begins to slowly deteriorate. Yet we also experience the struggles faced by Elizabeth, through Elin’s closeness to the monarch. The story spans the majority of Elizabeth’s reign and focuses particularly on the Catholic threats and the problem of recusancy that plagued Elizabeth throughout her rule; this makes a refreshing change, as many historical fiction authors struggle to face religious and political problems of the period head-on due to the difficulty of making them accessible to the reader. Byrd makes these problems accessible for the reader but also gives the reader with prior knowledge of the period a new interpretation of the key events and figures of the time, making the book enjoyable for all. Although in places the book could sometimes feel rushed, I read it quickly and enjoyed finding out more about a woman I had previously known nothing about, as well as uncovering a new and intelligent portrayal of Elizabeth herself.

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The Marriage Game by Alison Weir

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Their affair is the scandal of Europe. Elizabeth Tudor proclaims herself the Virgin Queen but cannot resist her dashing but married Master of Horse, Lord Robert Dudley. Many believe them to be lovers, and there are scurrilous rumours that Elizabeth is no virgin at all. The formidable young Queen is regarded by most of Christendom as a bastard, a heretic and a usurper, yet many princes covet Tudor England and seek her hand in marriage. Under mounting pressure to take a husband, Elizabeth encourages their advances while trying to avoid commitment in a delicate, politically-fraught balancing act which becomes known as ‘the marriage game’. But treading this dangerous line with Robert Dudley, the son and grandson of traitors, could cost her her throne…”

REVIEW: A few weeks ago I went to see Alison Weir give a talk at the National Archives on this book, and hearing her views on the Elizabethan marriage game and the relationship between Elizabeth and Robert Dudley made me enjoy this book even more. Weir’s book explores the complexities of Elizabeth’s reign and the dilemmas she faced in regards to the problem of whether or not to marry and secure the succession, and her fears of ending up instead in thrall to a husband who would likely wish to control both her and her throne. She also places particular focus on the exact nature of the relationship between Elizabeth and Robert Dudley, which is still hotly debated by historians. The love, friendship and passion that exists between the couple is brilliantly written and remains believable throughout the novel, as do the many arguments they go through over Elizabeth’s refusal to appease her councillors and marry Robert himself. Elizabeth’s character is so vividly written that the reader can picture her clearly; she seems so alive that she almost jumps off of the page. Yet, despite the power that Elizabeth projects, the reader is introduced to a vulnerable side of her that many works of historical fiction often choose to ignore in fear that it will make Elizabeth seem weak – instead, Weir has used Elizabeth’s vulnerabilities to make her seem stronger, as the reader respects all that Elizabeth has gone through and how she has overcome such events. Weir explores both Elizabeth’s relationship with her mother and her controversial flirtation with Thomas Seymour, and uses both of these events to give Elizabeth a level of complexity that many other works of historical fiction are clearly lacking in. Although as this is a work of historical fiction there is some level of artistic licence involved, Weir has managed to cleverly weave these imagined scenes with famous pieces of Elizabethan history that many of us know and admire – for example, Elizabeth’s visit to Robert Dudley’s home at Kenilworth is well-documented, and Weir uses it as a setting for Robert’s last desperate attempt to get Elizabeth to be his bride. The book covers the entirety of Elizabeth’s reign, a vast amount of time to deal with in a book of less than five hundred pages, yet the reader does not feel as though they are left uninformed of any important or famous events, nor do we feel as though the story is rushed. The various suitors that offer Elizabeth their hand in marriage are presented in many different ways – some are clearly designed to amuse the reader, but others we develop a genuine affection for, like the Duke of Anjou. The deaths of her closest friends and advisors increase as the book goes on, and each of these are written so sensitively that we mourn alongside Elizabeth. Overall, this book gives the reader a true sense of who the real Elizabeth was and allows them to feel as though they have forged a connection with her – Weir’s writing allows us to not only follow Elizabeth on the journey of her reign but also to suffer her losses, celebrate her triumphs, and dither over her dilemmas. I would highly recommend this books as one of the rare gems of historical fiction that focus on the woman, rather than the Queen.