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The Silversmith’s Wife by Sophia Tobin

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “The year is 1792 and winter hangs heavy in Berkeley Square. As the city sleeps, the night-watchman keeps a cautious eye over the streets, and another eye on the back doors of the great and the good. Then in the dark he comes across the body of Pierre Renard, the local silversmith, lying dead, his throat cut and his valuables missing. It soon becomes clear that Renard had more than a few enemies, all with their own secrets to hide. At the centre of this web is Mary, the silversmith’s wife. Withdrawn and weak, haunted by her past and near-mad with guilt, hers is a story of murder, love and buried secrets…”

REVIEW: I don’t often read historical fiction books in this particular style, as any books I have read previously that combine history with crime I have tended to find quite dull. This book, however, enthralled me from the start and had me gripped the entire way through – and not just because I wanted to find out who had murdered the silversmith Pierre Renard, either. The novel tells the story of how the circle of silversmiths in London society cope with the death of one of their most prominent. charismatic and charming figures, who also happens to be one of the most hated men in London. The book focuses mainly on the stories of Mary, Renard’s widow, whose grief and suffering for the disabled brother that Renard took from her in the early years of their marriage has earned her a reputation as being half mad and alienated her from society; Harriet, his mistress, a young and beautiful gentlewoman married to a man who aggressively pursues the company of young boys to his own wife; Joanna, Harriet’s servant, who is struggling to cope with the death of her lover and the loss of her child many years before; Alban Steele, a visiting silversmith who has spent most of his life in love with Mary from afar; and Digby, the night watchman in Berkeley Square, whose hatred for the rich and obsession with both drink and Pierre’s death makes him very difficult for the reader to like or empathise with. Each character is written in a manner that is extremely compelling, and the reader develops their own type of attachment to all of them – even the spoilt, frivolous Harriet, whom we soon develop an almost paternal attraction to. The personal lives of these characters add intriguing levels of depth to the main vein of the story, that of trying to find the murderer of Renard, and are cleverly added to with the revelations from Renard’s diary at the beginning of each chapter. The reader soon finds themselves strongly sympathising with these characters for their various plights – I felt a strong sense of empathy towards Mary in particular, and was glad when she finally found happiness with Alban Steele towards the end of the novel. The revelation of Renard’s killer was very well done and a great surprise to the reader, which is of course what one wants from a murder mystery! The only problem I had with this book is that I felt there were still some loose ends that needed to be tied up, particularly with Harriet, whom I would have liked to have found out more about. There is a sequel, however, which I’m sure will answer many questions and which I am greatly looking forward to reading!

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The Departure by Neal Asher

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “The Argus Space Station looks down on a nightmarish Earth. And from this safe distance, the Committee enforces its despotic rule. There are too many people and too few resources, and then need twelve billion to die before Earth can be stabilised. So corruption is rife, people starve, and the poor are policed by mechanised overseers and identity-reader guns. Citizens already fear the brutal Inspectorate with its pain inducers. But to reach its goals, the Committee will unleash satellite laser weaponry, taking carnage to a new level. This is the world Alan Saul wakes to, travelling in a crate destined for the Calais incinerator. How he got there he doesn’t know, but he remembers pain and his tormentor’s face. He also has company: Janus, a rogue intelligence inhabiting forbidden hardware in his skull. As Janus shows Saul an Earth stripped of hope, he resolves to annihilate the Committee and their regime. Once he’s discovered who he was, and killed his interrogator…”

REVIEW: As those of you who frequently follow this blog may have noticed, I am not normally a science fiction fan. I was encouraged to read this book by my boyfriend, who doesn’t often find books that engage him – but he insisted that this book was unputdownable and, out of curiosity, I had to give it a try. He was definitely write. ‘The Departure’ is the first volume in The Owner series, and sets the reader up with an image of an Earth that is worryingly not too difficult to imagine. We are introduced to this dystopia with small sections of information at the beginning of each chapter which tell us about the disintegration of institutions such as the NHS, and these paragraphs really help to set the scene and give the reader a greater understanding of the world in which Alan Saul, the protagonist of the novel, finds himself. Saul is an interesting and extremely complex character, and the reader can flit from admiring him to hating him in the space of just a few sentences. Yet at the same time we ultimately want him to triumph over the corrupt Committee, whose goals at diminishing the human population are basically reverting to a very slow and torturous form of genocide. The reader sometimes appears to be represented in the novel by Hannah Neumann, Saul’s ex-lover and later companion who is often horrified by his apathy to killing and seems to represent the moral dilemma in which Saul finds himself. The relationship between Saul and Hannah is an interesting one, one which fails to develop into romance but in which it is clear that feelings between them remain and that they need each other in order to achieve their ultimate goal of defeating the Committee. Saul’s struggle against authority is mirrored by the shorter story of Varalia, whose tale also appears in short segments throughout the novel Varalia is a highly intelligent woman sent up to Mars during the earlier period of Committee rule and who now realises that she needs to rebel in order to save those stationed on Mars from starvation and eventual death. The relationship between Varalia and Saul, who are clear parallels to one another, is one that the reader can work out for themselves even before we are told, but it is still exciting to uncover the mystery of the connection between the two. It is difficult to say more about this novel without giving away too much, as this is a fast-paced tale with many twists and turns that often leave the reader shocked and almost breathless. The brutality of this cruel new world and the revolutionary battle against it makes it hard to put the book down even for a moment, and I found it to be truly gripping. I would highly recommend it to science fiction fans – and if, like me, you were not previously a fan of science fiction, this would be a good book to get started on; it will definitely give you the sci-fi bug! I am greatly looking forward to reading the further books in the series.

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Splendid by Julia Quinn

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “American heiress Emma Dunster has always been fun-loving and independent with no wish to settle into marriage. She plans to enjoy her Season in London in more unconventional ways than husband hunting. But this time Emma’s high jinks lead her into more dangerous temptation…

Alexander Ridgely, the Duke of Ashbourne, is a notorious rake who carefully avoids the risk of love…until he plants one reckless kiss on the sensuous lips of a high-spirited innocent. Soon sparks – and laughter – fly when these two terribly determined people cross paths during one very splendid London spring Season…”

REVIEW: This is Julia Quinn’s debut novel which I have, ironically, discovered only after reading many of her later works. The raw talent that Quinn possesses for writing Regency romances sees its establishment in this novel, which was just as entertaining and easy to read as all of her later novels, if perhaps a little less polished. Quinn’s first novel tells the story of the ‘splendid’ Emma Dunster, who travels to London to spend the social Season with her beloved cousins, Belle and Ned, in the very heart of the great city. Emma makes a huge impression on London society, but on none more so than the dashing and standoffish Alexander Ridgely, whose interest in Emma begins during an unlikely encounter in which she saves his nephew whilst dressed as a serving maid. Alexander and Emma’s relationship is one that blossoms gradually throughout the novel, with moments where the reader truly wants to knock some sense into them and get them together sooner! Yet the friendship that develops between them is both surprising and tender, although heavily tinged with desire, and this makes the later romantic relationship that develops between them far more believable than it might if Emma were simply seduced. The relationship between Alexander and Emma is the main focal point of the novel and one that is both gripping and entertaining throughout. The other more minor characters in the novel are also very well written and provide a brilliant humorous element to Alexander and Emma’s relationship – in particular, Alexander’s mother and sister, and Emma’s cousin Belle, all three of whom constantly conspire to bring the couple together in increasingly scandalous ways. The only part of the novel that falls short, however, is the ending. It is only at this point that the reader begins to recall that this is Quinn’s first novel, and by the ending it appears that she is trying too hard to create a shocking plot which simply ends up being unrealistic. The kidnapping of Belle by an unwanted admirer and the subsequent rescue attempts – which are often thwarted through crossed wires and changed plans – is an entertaining part of the book but one that seems to have little bearing on the rest of the story and almost appears as an afterthought, added on even after the marriage of Alexander and Emma; which, in my opinion, would have been the obvious concluding point. I greatly enjoyed this book all the same – Quinn’s books are the perfect form of escapism and great for some light relief when life is becoming stressful. However, I would warn those who have only read her later novels to bear in mind that this, as Quinn’s debut novel, can at times fall short of the standard we are used to from her fantastic works of regency romance.

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Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Tiger Lily doesn’t believe in love stories or happy endings…until she meets Peter Pan in the forbidding woods of Neverland. Immediately, she falls under his spell – holding him like a secret in her heart. Peter is unlike anyone she has ever known. Reckless and brave, he both scares and enthralls her. She will risk everything – her family, her future – to be with him. But Tiger Lily soon discovers that the most dangerous enemy can live inside even the most loyal and loving heart.”

REVIEW: This twist on the classic tale of Peter Pan had me hooked from start to finish and I read the entire book in one sitting. Anderson turns the character of Tiger Lily, a mere footnote in the pages of J.M. Barrie’s book and the majority of the film adaptations into a protagonist in her own right, introducing the reader to a brave and admirable young woman who makes her own way in life regardless of the disdain of the rest of her tribe. Tiger Lily was raised by the leader of the tribe, Tik Tok, an extremely interesting character who seems to represent the transgender community in a way we rarely see in young adult fiction; he is a male noted as being extremely feminine, preferring to wear his hair long and dress in clothes usually prescribed to the female members of his tribe. The fact that he retains a position of power despite his differences is something I felt was really inspiring and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about his character, only wishing that we could have learnt more about him and his backstory. Tiger Lily may be the protagonist of the story, which initially revolves around her relationship with the parental Tik Tok and her closest friend, a young boy named Pine Sap who is clearly in love with her  – but the story is, in fact, narrated by a far more famous character; Tinker Bell. Tinker Bell follows Tiger Lily from the beginning to the end of the story, as an almost unnoticed companion whose devotion for Tiger Lily – and later for Peter Pan – comes through with every word. Through Tinker Bell we learn of Tiger Lily’s daring exploits, such as her saving of the shipwrecked Englander Phillip and her later friendship with Peter Pan. Upon meeting Peter, Tiger Lily soon becomes lost in spending time with him and the Lost Boys, partly to escape her fears of the marriage that has been arranged for her with Giant, a frightening and violent older member of the tribe. The love that blossoms between Tiger Lily and Peter is gradually built up and extremely well written despite being told through the jealous eyes of Tinker Bell, who has also fallen for Peter but loves Tiger Lily too much to prevent her from losing out. Peter is also written extremely well – vulnerable yet arrogant, he is the perfect combination of wild and daring hero and frightened little boy, so that the reader can understand why Tiger Lily so wants to care for him. Things change dramatically with the arrival of Wendy, however, and as the Englander Phillip makes drastic changes to the lives of Tiger Lily and the rest of the tribe, Tiger Lily’s world begins to fall apart. This book is one of the best reimaginings of a classic story I have ever read and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Each and every one of the characters was engaging and often bought a unique element of suffering to the story that made the reader keen to learn more about them. I would highly recommend this book not only to fans of J.M. Barrie’s original but also anyone looking for an adventurous, exciting, easy read that can be enjoyed at leisure.

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Anne of Cleves by Elizabeth Norton

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RATING:3.5/5

BLURB: “‘I like her not!’ was the verdict of Henry VIII on meeting his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, for the first time. Anne could have said something similar upon meeting Henry and, having been promised the most handsome prince in Europe she was destined to be disappointed in the elderly and corpulent King. Forced to proceed with their wedding for diplomatic reasons, Henry and Anne tried to make the best of the situation, but attempts to consummate the marriage were farcical. After only seven months of marriage Henry was so desperate to rid himself of Anne that he declared himself impotent in order to secure a divorce. Anne was also eager to end her marriage and, with her clever handling of Henry obtained one of the biggest divorce settlements in English history. Anne of Cleves is often portrayed as a stupid and comical figure. The real Anne was both intelligent and practical, ensuring that, whilst she was queen for the shortest period, she was the last of all Henry VIII’s wives to survive. Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, lost his head for his role in the marriage, but Anne’s shrewdness ensured she kept hers.”

REVIEW: Prior to reading this biography, I had only ever read about Anne of Cleves in historical fiction or in books that were about all six of Henry VIII’s wives – never before had I read a factual book dedicated entirely to her. Although Norton’s biography of Anne is short, this makes it both concise and easy to read – packing such a large amount of information in so few pages makes the book engaging and interesting the whole way through as each page tells the reader something new. This biography reveals Anne of Cleves to be a fascinating historical figure, highly undeserving of the reputation she generally holds as being dull and unintelligent. Her marriage to Henry was Anne’s first marriage, and in order for it to take place she was separated from her family and sent to a country where she knew no-one and had barely any grasp of the native language – just as Catherine of Aragon had done so many years before. As Anne’s relationship with Henry so famously began to crumble, the reader cannot help but feel sorry for this woman who is unable to seek advice from those around her and is left adrift and unsure of herself in a strange new land. The way Anne handles her separation from Henry, however, is highly admirable, showing a great level of independence and authority for a woman in this time period when her rights would have been so constrained. Anne cleverly and willingly took up her new position as the King’s Sister and showed every honour to Henry, his children and his next two wives until her own demise during the reign of Mary I, many years after the death of Henry himself. Anne was clearly much more strong and intelligent than she has been perceived to be and that was thoroughly well-illustrated in Norton’s book. I did feel, however, that the book could have been longer to avoid parts of it seeming rushed. I also felt that, at time, Norton placed far more of a focus on Henry’s character and feelings rather than those of Anne. Overall, though, I still enjoyed the book greatly and am pleased to have learnt more about this fascinating woman.

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Jude The Obscure by Thomas Hardy

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Jude Fawley, the stonemason excluded not by his wits but by poverty from the world of Christminster privilege, finds fulfilment in his relationship with Sue Bridehead. Both have left earlier marriages. Ironically, when tragedy tests their union it is Sue, the modern emancipated woman, who proves unequal to the challenge. Hardy’s fearless exploration of sexual and social relationships and his prophetic critique of marriage scandalised the late Victorian establishment and marked the end of his career as a novelist.”

REVIEW:  Hardy’s final novel, and possibly his most scandalous, tells the story of Jude Fawley (a young boy at the start of the novel), whose dream is to study in the nearby college town of Christminster and enter into the church just as his old schoolteacher and idol, Master Phillotson, has gone away to do. The novel follows Jude as he grows and sees his attempts to improve himself by learning Latin and Greek and seeking out new ways to learn, readying himself for the journey to Christminster that he believes will make his fortune. Jude’s plans are put on hold, however, when he is seduced by the beautiful but cunning Arabella, who traps him into marriage with a false pregnancy and proceeds from then on to make a misery of her young husband’s life. The couple agree to live separate lives, allowing Arabella to move to Australia with her family and Jude to follow his dreams of living and studying in Christminster. Christminster, however, is not all Jude dreamed it to be, and his lack of money prevents him from gaining entry into one of the prestigious colleges there. He is, however, reunited with his old friend Phillotson, and also meets his cousin, the free-spirited Sue Bridehead who, despite a nervous disposition, prefers works of theology over religion and is openly defiant towards authority. Jude and Sue soon develop feelings for each other, and these feelings both scandalise society and shape the tragic events that take place throughout the rest of the novel. When Sue marries Phillotson, only to leave him months later in order to live openly with Jude, the couple are shunned from town to town and find it difficult to find work, leading them into deep poverty. This only increases when Arabella returns, married again to another man, and brings with her a child of Jude’s whom she leaves in his care. The tale gets sorrier from here on in, with the children’s suffering providing the most shocking part of the story and proving greatly upsetting to the reader. The twists this story takes are such that I cannot reveal any more of the plot, but I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed the novel despite finding it one of the more upsetting Hardy novels that I have read, mainly due to events concerning the children of Jude and Sue. My only problem with the novel was that I could not bring myself to like the character of Sue and found her extremely irritating despite her pretensions to cleverness and wit, and therefore during parts of the novel where she claimed to be suffering I found it difficult to feel anything other than dislike for her. Overall, however, the characters of Jude and Phillotson were particularly interesting and I thoroughly enjoyed reading the novel.

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1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII by Suzannah Lipscomb

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “One of the best-known figures of British History, the stereotypical image of Henry VIII is of a corpulent, covetous and cunning King whose appetite for worldly goods met few parallels, whose wives met infamously premature ends, and whose religion was ever political in intent. Moving beyond this caricature, 1536 – focusing on a pivotal year in the life of the King – reveals a fuller portrait of this complex monarch, detailing the finer shades of humanity that have so long been overlooked. We discover that in 1536 Henry met many failures – physical, personal and political – and emerged from them a different man: a revolutionary new King who proceeded to transform a nation and reform a religion. A compelling story, the effects of which are still with us today, 1536 demonstrates what a profound difference can be made to a nation simply by changing the heart of a King.”

REVIEW: I have read a great many biographies of Henry VIII since my fascination with the Tudors developed, but none captured and held my attention quite as well as this one did. Focusing on one short but extremely dramatic year in the reign of Henry VIII, Lipscomb looks at the crises of religion, masculinity and politics that engulfed Henry in a period that many describe as his annus horribilis, and analyses the effect that these events had on his personality. Prior to 1536, Lipscomb argues, Henry seems to have been beloved by the people, a benevolent King who, despite outbreaks of temper, was on the whole well-liked and respected, ruling with at least an attempt at justice and fairness. After 1536, however, the tyrannical, obese and intimidating monarch that we are all familiar with from school history classes began to emerge. It is this transition – from golden prince to tyrant – that Lipscomb explores. She focuses particularly on ideas about masculinity at the time, and how Henry’s reputation as a man was heavily damaged by the adultery charges brought against Anne Boleyn and the rumours about his impotence which circulated during her trial. This meant that Henry had an even greater need to prove himself as a man and assert his masculinity, which he did through strengthening his religious policy, taking a firmer line against his political opponents and in Parliament, and through the use of royal iconography – in particular, the infamous portrait of him which was painted as part of a mural designed by Holbein. Lipscomb’s explorations of this paints a very believable image of Henry’s descent into tyranny, and clearly explains to the reader why Henry’s need to prove his masculinity was inextricably linked to proving his status as the rightful King and Supreme Head of the Church. This biography was easy to read and understand which made it easier to absorb the information – something that often passes the reader by with more heavily written non-fiction books. I thoroughly enjoyed it and look forward to reading any further works that Lipscomb may publish on the Tudors.