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Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “All her life, Liesl has heard tales of the beautiful, dangerous Goblin King. They’ve enraptured her spirit and inspired her musical compositions. Now eighteen, Liesl can’t help but feel that her musical dreams and childhood fantasies are slipping away. But when her sister is taken by the Goblin King, Liesl must journey to the underground to save her. Drawn to the strange, captivating world she finds – and the mysterious man who rules it – she soon faces an impossible decision. With time and the old laws working against her, Liesl must discover who she truly is before her fate is sealed.”

REVIEW: Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ is one of my favourite poems – in fact, Rossetti herself is among my favourite poets. My Mum even bought me a beautiful Folio Society copy of ‘Goblin Market’ and other poems for my eighteenth birthday. S. Jae-Jones was clearly inspired by the poem ‘Goblin Market’ in the writing of this fantastic novel; she quotes it at the beginning of the book and quotes a number of other poems by Rossetti throughout. The novel tells the story of Liesl, a gifted young composer who is overshadowed by her beautiful sister Kathe and her talented younger brother Josef, who looks set on his way to becoming the next Mozart. What no-one knows is that Liesl is the talent behind the music that Josef plays, and has continuously helped and inspired him, despite her compositions being scorned by her drunken father. Liesl and Josef have always had a deep belief in the stories their grandmother Constanze tells them about the Goblin King and his Underground court, and the Goblin Grove has acted as a sanctuary for them for many years. Liesl has long forgotten her childhood friendship with the young Goblin King, and the promise she once made to one day be his wife, and her belief on the stories themselves is starting to slip away. After a terrifying experience with Goblin fruit sellers at the market, however, Liesl is forced to confront the reality of the Goblin King. Her sister Kathe is taken by him and, although the rest of her family have erased Kathe from their memories, Liesl cannot. She finds her way to the Underground world of the Goblin King through her music, and manages to set Kathe free. As her price, however, she must stay Underground with the Goblin King, whom she feels a reluctant but powerful desire for. The complex relationship between Liesl and the Goblin King makes for gripping and powerful reading, the desire between the two characters so strong that it practically jumps from the page. The love that slowly begins to develop between them is so full of passion and emotion that the reader is completely sucked in by it, the sacrifices they make for each other painful to read of  – and the ultimate sacrifice that is made at the end of the novel made me cry for quite some time, though I will not spoil it here.

I absolutely loved this book. S Jae-Jones really captures the magical, fantastical, yet somehow Gothic and slightly terrifying atmosphere of much of Rossetti’s poetry, especially ‘Goblin Market’. She turns this epic poem into a beautiful, gripping story full of emotion and meaning, and I enjoyed every page. I only wish the book could have been longer!

 

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The Story of Alice by Robert Douglas Fairhurst

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “This is the secret history of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Wonderland is part of our cultural heritage. But beneath the fairytale lies the complex history of the author and his subject. Charles Dodgson was a quiet academic but his second self, Lewis Carroll, was a storyteller, innovator and avid collector of ‘child-friends’. Carroll’s imagination was to give Alice Liddell, his ‘dream-child’, a fictional alter ego that would never let her grow up.

This is a biography that beautifully unravels the magic of Alice. It is a history of love and loss, innocence and ambiguity. It is the story of one man’s need to make a Wonderland in a changing world.”

REVIEW: I have wanted to read this book since its release, and was very excited to receive it for my birthday last month. I am a huge fan of Alice in Wonderland and have read the book and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, many times. Although I knew a little, as many of do, about the story behind Carroll’s creation of this famous tale – his close friendship with a little girl named Alice Liddell, whom he one day took a boat ride with and, to amuse her, told her the story which would eventually become Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – I learnt a great deal more through reading this biography. Douglas-Fairhurst writes beautifully, and the book reads almost like a novel itself, truly capturing the magic surrounding both the creation and dissemination of Alice. A great deal of time is spent discussing one of the great mysteries of Lewis Carroll; how close was he to Alice Liddell and the other little girls he befriended and photographed? As an amateur photographer, the majority of Carroll’s portraits involved young girls, many of them named Alice and some either nude or barely dressed. Douglas-Fairhurst discusses the problems this poses for us in the modern day, looking back on Carroll and his life; realistically, many of us might apply the term of paedophile to Carroll, in light of what we can see from his photographs and the letters he wrote to these young girls. However, Carroll – when he was busy being Charles Dodgson – was a reverend, a religious man, and often condemned those who viewed the purity and innocence of children through a ‘sinful’ eye. I would concur with the conclusion that Douglas-Fairhurst makes: that Carroll was, in fact, simply captivated by the innocence and beauty of youth, a period of life which he saw as carefree and creative. Carroll maintained a close relationship with children because he loved youth and wished to reconnect with his own lost years, and I think you can see that childish and youthful imagination shining through in both of the Alice books. I really enjoyed learning more about Carroll and the story behind the creation of Alice, and would highly recommend this book.

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Original Screenplay by J. K. Rowling

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “Explorer and magizoologist Newt Scamander has just completed a round-the-globe trip in search of the most rare and unusual magical creatures. Arriving in New York, he intends his stay to be just a brief stopover. However, when Newt’s case is misplaced and some of his fantastic beasts escape into the city, it spells trouble for everyone…”

REVIEW: Before the ‘Fantastic Beasts…’ film came out in cinemas last November, I admit I felt a little bit of a trepadation at the thought of a whole new Harry Potter-linked franchise. After I had been to see the film, however, I became completely obsessed; as an animal-lover I adored all of the magical creatures Rowling introduced to us, many of whom we had heard mentioned in the original Potter series but never fully seen. I also loved how Newt’s story links to the Harry Potter books, such as the link with Grindelwald and the mention of Dumbledore. After I went on for weeks about how much I loved the film, my Mum bought me the screenplay for Christmas. Sometimes I find reading scripts to be a little more challenging; to me, they often feel clunky and the stage directions can easily feel like interruptions. However, the screenplay of ‘Fantastic Beasts…’ was a joy to read and flowed just as the words and actions flowed on screen. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I am very much looking forward to watching the film again when the DVD comes out next month.

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George Boleyn by Clare Cherry and Claire Ridgeway

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “George Boleyn has gone down in history as being the brother of the ill-fated Queen Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII, and for being executed for treason, after being found guilty of incest and of conspiring to kill the King. This biography allows George to step out of the shadows and brings him to life as a court poet, royal favourite, keen sportsman, talented diplomat and loyal brother.”

REVIEW: As many of you will not know, but as everyone who knows me well is all too aware, I am completely obsessed with George Boleyn. Much of my academic career so far has been dedicated to research about him and his life, and I am currently planning my Master’s dissertation, in which he will heavily feature. It has always frustrated me that George, despite being such a fascinating and important historical figure is generally overlooked due to the fame of his sister, Anne Boleyn. Although Anne Boleyn is of course worth great admiration –  my undergraduate dissertation was on her, in fact – it is upsetting that George is often relegated to a chapter or a few sentences in books about his sisters. His portrayal in fiction, both in the form of books and TV shows, is also something that I have often found distressing, not to mention based on very little factual evidence, as is pointed out in this book. Therefore I was delighted to receive this biography as a Christmas present from my Mum, who has been a victim of my obsession for several years now and has herself become quite fond of George. This biography brilliantly gathers together the little evidence we have on George from primary documents and cleverly examines what these sources can tell us about George’s life and his career as a courtier, poet and diplomat. The authors’ admiration for George and respect for his talents really shines through in the writing, and it made such an enjoyable change to read something of this nature dedicated entirely to George. This book will be a valuable source to me in the research and writing of my dissertation, and I hope it introduces many more people to the fascinating historical figure that is George Boleyn.

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Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “When a newborn baby dies after a routine hospital procedure, there is no doubt about who will be held responsible: the nurse who had been banned from looking after him by his father. What the nurse, her lawyer and the father of the child cannot know is how this death will irrevocably change all of their lives, in ways both expected and not.”

REVIEW: As many of you will know, I am a huge Picoult fan, and was delighted when a fantastic friend bought me ‘Small Great Things’, her latest novel, for Christmas. This book, like so many of hers have done, has really stuck with me since I finished reading it, and as her books often do has caused me to ask questions of myself that I might not have asked had I not read it. It is also highly appropriate to read this book now, in light of recent political events in the US and, indeed, across the world, as racial hate crime is on the rise. This book does not just tell the story of a nurse who is accused of killing a baby, a crime she did not commit; it tells the reader how it feels to be a black woman in the United States, showing both the subtle and more shocking racial prejudices that face them in day-to-day life.

Ruth Jefferson is a well-liked, experienced and respected midwife, and is both angered and upset when she is told by the father of one of the babies put into her care that she is no longer allowed to tend to the baby due to the colour of her skin. When the baby dies a couple of days later and it emerges that Ruth could have saved him, but was torn between her duty and the command of the child’s father, the situation soon blows up and Ruth is taken to court, accused of murdering baby Davis Bauer. Throught the novel we experience the events through the eyes of Ruth, the main protagonist, but also through Turk, the baby’s father, and Kennedy, Ruth’s lawyer. As the blurb states, this case changes the lives and perceptions of all three of these characters, but this is not something I want to delve deeply into in this review; Picoult’s books are always so gripping that I fear to give away the ending would simply ruin the novel and dramatically reduce its impact. And this book did have an impact on me.

Throughout the book we see the daily racism experienced by Ruth who, although less aggravated by it than her older sister Adisa, is physically hurt every time she is treated as inferior – which, of course, anyone would be. I have never considered myself to be a racist person, and I still do not in any way; yet, the question was raised in this book about the difference between active racism – whereby people act like the character of Turk and racially abuse those with different racial backgrounds to themselves – and passive racism, where people do not see themselves as racist but do not do anything to particularly discourage racism from happening. I found this point to be a really interesting one, and although I would definitely not accuse myself of active racism, I began to think that many of us are probably guilty of passive acts of racism, even if we do not mean to be. This debate is something that has really stuck with me since I finished the book, and is something I think many readers will find themselves thinking about once they finish the novel.

Overall I found this book to be gripping and excellently written, dealing with a sensitive subject in a way that educates readers as well as telling them a story. I would highly recommend it.

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Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and author Mary Shelley were mother and daughter, yet these two extraordinary women never knew one another. Nevertheless, their passionate and pioneering lives remained closely intertwined, their choices, aspirations and tragedies eerily similar. Both women became famous writers and wrote books that changed literary history, had passionate relationships with several men, were single mothers out of wedlock; both lived in exile, fought for their poisition in society, and interrogated ideas of how we should live.”

REVIEW: I have counted both Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley among my historical idols  since I was introduced to them both by my fantastic English teacher during my AS level year: Wollstonecraft for her feminist tract A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which addresses many areas that feminists such as myself still identify as areas that require change to this day; and Shelley for her novel Frankenstein, one of my favourite books of all time, as well as her tumultuous personal life. Until now, I have never before had the opportunity to read a biography covering this exceptional mother and daughter in one go. I thoroughly enjoyed the way in which Gordon chose to structure this biography; it can be difficult, initially, to understand how Wollstonecraft and Shelley can have led such similar lives, and how Wollstonecraft had such an influence on her daughter, when the two only shared the same earth for a matter of days. In structuring it so that the chapters alternate between Wollstonecraft and Shelley, Gordon makes it easier for the reader to map out the parallels in the lives of these two women, looking at what they were each experiencing during the different stages of their lives. Gordon’s writing style itself is fantastic – the book flows almost like a novel, and is engaging from start to finish, with keen speculation and vivid description adding to the enjoyment of the reader, who may feel daunted by such a large non-fiction text without such additional flourishes. Gordon made me feel much closer to these two women, whom I have long considered as role models, and I feel I gained so much more understanding and sympathy from knowing more about their lives. It has also given me a new way to look at things when reading their written works, as I can now apply my knowledge of their backgrounds and the events occuring in their lives when writing to enhance my understanding of their novels, letters, diaries and tracts. I found it difficult to put this book down, something of a rarity with me and non-fiction, and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in literature, the women themselves or even those interested in the period from a historical perspective, as the lives of these women tell us much about the political climate and social expectations of the period.

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Jeremy Poldark by Winston Graham

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “Cornwall, 1790-1791. Ross Poldark faces the darkest hour of his life. Accused of wrecking two ships, he is to stand trial at the Bodmin Assizes. Despite their stormy married life, Demelza has tried to rally support for her husband. But there are enemies in plenty who would be happy to see Ross convicted, not least George Warleggan, the powerful banker, whose personal rivalry with Ross grows ever more intense.”

REVIEW: My first book review of 2017 sees me returning to the Poldark series; there are so many books and my Aunt and I have been buying a few at a time and then swapping, so it’s going to take me a while to get through and I keep getting distracted by other books in the meantime! I do really enjoy this series, however, and this third installment, ‘Jeremy Poldark’, was just as good as its predeccessors. This novel opens in the weeks leading up to Ross’ trial at the Bodmin Assizes; after some ships ran aground near Nampara, Ross was suspected of not only smuggling some goods from these ships, but was also accused by some of murdering the ships’ crews. His nemesis, George Warleggan, smug after his victory over Ross in taking over the mines, is rallying people against Ross, hoping that he will be sent to prison. Demelza, however, arrives early in Bodmin and contrives to meet any whom she feels might have an influence on Ross’ case, working against Warleggan to gain support for her husband. We are also reunited with the character of Verity, who despite being happily married is clearly struggling to adjust to the role of stepmother, wiht two stepchildren who seem inclined never to see her. Francis’ struggles also come to the fore as he attempts suicide, but is talked out of it by the intelligent physician Dwight Enys, who takes on a greater role in this novel as he begins to fall in love and take over Doctor Choake’s medical authority. It is hard to write more without giving away too much, but safe to say this is a satisfying continuation of the series and I look forward to finding out what will happen next to the Poldarks – the mysterious Jeremy of the title included.