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The Lost Tudor Princess by Alison Weir

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Royal Tudor blood ran in her veins. Her mother was a Queen, her father an earl, and she herself was the granddaughter, niece, cousin and grandmother of monarchs. Some thought she should be queen of England. She ranked high at the court of her uncle, Henry VIII, and was lady of honour to five of his wives. Beautiful and tempestuous, she created scandal not just once, but twice, by falling in love with unsuitable men. Fortunately, the marriage arranged for her turned into a love match. Throughout her life her dynastic ties to two crowns proved hazardous. A born political intriguer, she was imprisoned in the Tower of London on three occasions, once under sentence of death. She helped to bring about one of the most notorious royal marriages of the sixteenth century, but it brought only tragedy. Her son and her husband were brutally murdered, and there were rumours that she herself was poisoned. She warred with two queen, Mary of Scotland and Elizabeth of England. A brave survivor, she was instrumental in securing the Stuart succession to the throne of England for her grandson.”

REVIEW: As many of you will know, Weir is one of my favourite historians and I have even had the good fortune to meet her and hear her give a talk on one of her previous books. Because of this, as well as because of the subject matter, I was extremely excited to read this book and have in fact been reading it since I got it at Christmas – blame final year of university for my unusually slow pace! As Weir herself states on numerous occasions, and as is made clear by the admiring tone of the blurb (which runs throughout this biography), Margaret Douglas was an extraordinary Tudor woman about whom very little has previously been written. She was related to many of the key figures of the age and played an integral role in history as we know it today, and after reading this book I am all the more upset to know that her story has remained so little known for so long. Margaret’s life was so full and rich with both scandal and heartbreak that it is difficult to summarise, but I shall attempt to do so in order to give you an idea of why this woman is so interesting and why, as Weir thankfully noticed, a biography of this kind has been a long time in coming. Margaret Douglas was the daughter of Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister, and was born a Princess of Scotland. Her mother fled with her to England, however, and it was in England that Margaret lived her life, though she maintained very close connections with Scotland. One of the most beautiful and intelligent women at Henry VIII’s court, Margaret caused scandals with her brilliant poetry and her passionate love affairs, two of which incurred the wrath of her Uncle Henry and both of which took place with members of the powerful Howard family. Margaret was eventually married to the Earl of Lennox and through this marriage maintained a high level of power in Scotland which she used on several occasions to attempt to influence different monarchs. She appears to have been a Catholic, despite accepting reforms, and was close to Mary I. Her relationship with Elizabeth was much rockier, particularly when she married her son, Darnley, to Mary, Queen of Scots, the most logical heir apparent to the English throne after the death of Elizabeth, which strengthened the claims of both Mary and Darnley. Although the son born of this marriage, James, would later become James VI of Scotland and James I of England, Margaret had to suffer the loss of her beloved son Darnley in a brutal murder that still remains unsolved. Several years prior to this her husband had also been brutally killed, and it seems that after these events Margaret was even more determined to play a political role. She came into conflict with both Mary and Elizabeth and cared for her young granddaughter, Arbella (who was yet another potential heir to the English throne) until her death. Margaret played a huge role in the shaping of English culture, court and politics (particularly in terms of the Elizabethan succession crisis) and appears to have been a truly amazing woman. Throughout this biography we get the real sense of a strong, intelligent and powerful woman who knows her worth and wishes it to be known to others. This is among my favourite Tudor biographies and I would highly encourage you all to read it.

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Chime by Franny Billingsley

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Briony knows she is a witch. She also knows that now her beloved stepmother is dead she must look after her beautiful but complicated twin sister Rose. Then the energetic, electric, golden-haired Eldric arrives in her home town of Swampsea, and everything that Briony thinks she knows about herself and her life is turned magically, dizzyingly upside down.”

REVIEW: I haven’t read any Young Adult fantasy for a while, and this was the perfect novel to get me back into it. ‘Chime’ tells the story of Briony Larkin, a young woman who keeps herself at a distance from everyone (including the reader) because she knows herself to be a witch, and believes that she caused the accident that left her twin sister Rose with some mental complications that require her to have almost constant care. As the novel opens Briony is still grieving for her stepmother, recently dead from what Briony suspects was a murder, and struggling to cope with looking after Rose. Her life begins to change, however, when Eldric arrives in Swampsea and is taken into her home by her parson father. Although completely uninterested and unwilling to engage in romance, Briony finds herself developing a reluctant friendship with Eldric, and as their feelings for each other begin to grow the reader feels truly heartwarmed. The feelings that blossom between Briony and Eldric give the reader a sense that love is possible for everyone, even those that try to reject it or fear the pain it might cause, like Briony. However, there is a darker undercurrent to the story. Desperate to prevent Rose from worsening with the dreaded swamp cough, Briony makes deals with such creatures as Mucky Face and the ghost-children in order to delay the progression of her twin’s illness. Reluctant to use her powers of witchcraft and yet forced to do so to protect those she loves, Briony is a complex and hugely likeable character despite the fact that she is written in a sense that pushes the reader away as much as the other characters. Billingsley’s style of writing is clever and original, leaving the reader just as in the dark as Briony herself and keeps up a truly gripping pace. As things begin to grow increasingly dangerous for Briony the reader finds themselves sympathising with this girl and wanting her to be safe – a girl who,  by her own admission, is wicked and sinful to the soul. To say anymore would spoil the twist that came near the end of the novel, one that I did not predict and hugely enjoyed. I would highly recommend this book.

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Top 10 Books of 2015

  1. The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
  2. Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult
  3. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden 
  4. The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
  5. The Pact by Jodi Picoult
  6. The Night Falling by Katherine Webb
  7. The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory
  8. Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle
  9. How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
  10. The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo

It’s that time of year again! I can’t believe it’s come around so quickly. I’ve read a total of 51 books this year (I used to read more, but I guess that’s what final year of university does to your reading time!) and it was a real struggle to pick my top ten as there have been so many amazing reads. The decision was eventually made, and listen above are my Top Ten Books of 2015.

I would also like to take this opportunity to say thank you to everyone who has ever followed, favourited or commented on any of my reviews, and to anyone who has even taken the time to read them at all. I would especially like to thank those who have offered me their own works of fiction to read – it’s a real honour to be trusted with reading and reviewing someone’s most precious piece of writing. I have lots of new books to read as well as some exciting debut novels to review in the upcoming year! So Happy New Year to you all, and I hope you’ll continue to read this blog in 2016 :)

 

 

 

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Whatever Love Is by Rosie Rushton

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “When Frankie Price goes to live with her wealthy cousins, she finds herself part of a social scene that she’d only read about in magazines. Shy and overwhelmed, she retreats into her own passion; writing. But when the entire family is rocked by scandal, and her mate Ned comes under the spell of the beautiful but manipulative Alice, Frankie realises that she has to fight for the life she wants.”

REVIEW: Rosie Rushton has written a series of young adult novels based on each of Austen’s six full novels. I had read all of them when I was younger, and they encouraged me to move on to read Austen’s works themselves; all of which I now adore. I had not, however, read Whatever Love Is, Rushton’s adaptation of Mansfield Park, and picked it up when I happened to see it in a bookshop recently. I love the way Rushton makes the stories of Austen so accessible to teenage readers, and translates the characters almost seamlessly into modern times. I feel that the more rebellious characters of Mansfield Park – i.e. Henry, Mary and Tom – were always rather forward for Austen’s time, but Rushton manages to make even the sedate Fanny Price into a relatable and enjoyable modern character. Fanny is transformed into Frankie, a shy, awkward teenage girl who comes to live with the Bertrams after her mother’s mental breakdown and her father’s decision to travel. Her feelings for Ned (Edmund)  are made clear from the beginning of the novel, and she pours both these feelings and the discomfort she feels around the rest of the family into her writing. When Ned falls for the scheming Alice (Mary), and her brother decides to pursue Frankie, things become complicated. Frankie can see right through the Crawford siblings, but the other characters in the novel remain frustratingly unaware of their true characters, and the reader grows more attached to Frankie as she struggles to expose them whilst not causing any scandal or upset. This is a very enjoyable adaptation of Mansfield Park, and the ending left me with a smile on my face just as Austen’s novel did. I really enjoyed the way in which Rushton adapted the story to fit more with concepts of modern relationships and current ideas surrounding both romance and family, and would encourage any fans of Austen (even if, like myself, you are no longer a teenager!), to read this adaptation.

 

 

 

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Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “This story is a rare and utterly engaging experience. It tells the extraordinary tale of a geisha -summoning up a quarter century, from 1929 to the post-war years of Japan’s dramatic history, and opening a window onto a half-hidden world of eroticism and enchantment, exploitation and degradation”

REVIEW: A lovely friend of mine bought this book for me for Christmas after months of asking me to read it because she loved it so much – and I’m very grateful that she introduced me to this brilliant novel. The novel tells the story of Chiyo, a young girl from a small Japanese fishing village who is sold, alongside her sister, to a man who sends them to the town of Kyoto. Chiyo and her sister Satsu are separated as Chiyo begins her training as a Geisha and Satsu is forced instead into the much more degrading occupation of prostitution. We follow Chiyo on her journey from maid to student to apprentice, until she eventually becomes the geisha Sayuri under the guidance of Mameha. Sayuri’s life as a geisha sees many ups and downs, with the vengeful Hatsumomo constantly trying to destroy her reputation and men vying for her attention. Sayuri has her heart set, however, on the Chairman she has worshipped since her teenage years; but they seem destined to never be together and her fate rests instead in the hands of many different men. Nobu is probably the most influential of these men and plays a large role in Sayuri’s life – I will confess he was a favourite character of mine and I did hope that the two of them would end up together at the end of the book! It is hard to write much more about the plot without giving away spoilers, so I shall leave my summary of the book there. The narrative is directed through the eyes of Sayuri, which allows the reader to grow hugely attached to her and come greatly to care about the troubles she experiences both before and during her time as a geisha. Golden’s writing is also beautifully descriptive and evocative, and a true pleasure to read. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it.

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Red Riding Hood by Sarah Blakley-Cartwright and David Leslie Johnson

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RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “Valerie’s sister was beautiful, kind and sweet. Now she is dead. Henry, the handsome son of the blacksmith, tries to console Valerie, but her wild heart beats fast for another: the outcast woodcutter, Peter, who offers Valerie another life far from home. After her sister’s violent death, Valerie’s world begins to spiral out of control. For generations, the Wolf has been kept at bay with a monthly sacrifice. But now no-one is safe. When an expert Wolf hunter arrives, the villagers learn that the creature lives among them – it could be anyone in town. It soon becomes clear that Valerie is the only one who can hear the voice of the creature. The Wolf says she must surrender herself before the blood moon wanes…or everyone she loves will die.”

REVIEW: This novel is a spin-off from the 2011 film of the same name, loosely based on the classic fairytale and directed by Catherine Hardwicke, who writes in the introduction to the novel that she felt the story would work just as well on paper as it had on screen. I saw the film not long after its release, and I enjoyed it – as many of you will probably have noticed, I do like fairytale retellings – though I did feel while watching it as though something was lacking. The story was much the same in the book. At the beginning of the novel, all of Valerie’s worries are centred on who she will chose to dedicate her life to – the handsome blacksmith Henry who wishes to marry her, or the unpredictable Peter who was once her childhood friend and wishes for her to run away with him. When her older sister Lucie is killed by the Wolf, however, everything changes for Valerie. The situation worsens upon the arrival of the priest, Father Solomon, who claims that the Wolf is someone from the village itself. This leads neighbours to turn against each other, and Valerie’s friends to turn against her so severely that she is labelled a witch for being the only person who can communicate with the Wolf. The novel does indeed mirror an Early Modern witch hunt, particularly with its fear of the supernatural and things it doesn’t understand – like the young boy Claude, who is mentally disabled and targeted by Father Solomon for his differences, in what is undoubtedly the only moment in both the novel and film where the reader feels truly distressing emotions, horrified and upset by the treatment of the innocent Claude. Although the finger of suspicion is pointed at many characters in the novel, one of the major letdowns of the book for me was how obvious it appeared to me who the Wolf really was -though I still will not mention the name in the review, for the sake of spoilers. I also found the writing to be simplistic and often very clunky, with unemotive dialogue, though the description of the violence endured by the villagers during Solomon’s crusade was very well-written. Overall, I feel that this could have been a much better novel had the writers been able to diversify a little more from the events of the film and perhaps expand on them.

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The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

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RATING: 4.5./5

BLURB: “Kelsea Glynn is the Queen of the Tearling. Despite her youth, she has quickly asserted herself as a fair, just and powerful ruler. However, power is a double-edged sword, and small actions can have grave consequences. In trying to do what is right – stopping a vile trade in humankind – Kelsea has crossed the Red Queen, a ruthless monarch whose rule is bound with dark magic and the spilling of blood. The Red Queen’s armies are poised to invade the Tearling, and it seems nothing can stop them. Yet there was a time before the Crossing, and there Kelsea finds a strange and possibly dangerous ally, someone who might hold the key to the fate of the Tearling, and indeed to Kelsea’s own soul. But time is running out…”

REVIEW: As followers of this blog will know, I was absolutely amazed with how extraordinarily brilliant the first book in this (soon-to-be) trilogy, The Queen of the Tearling, was. I was so amazed, in fact, that the minute I finished it I sat down and ordered this sequel, The Invasion of the Tearling. I couldn’t put it down, and, as is always a worry with sequels, it definitely did not disappoint. Kelsea’s compassionate and righteous decision to end the Tearling’s trade with the Mort, which involved the sending over of 300 Tearling people of all ages and genders per month based on a lottery-style system, is one that the reader heartily praises in the first novel and , while we still support Kelsea’s decision in the sequel, the ramifications of her actions are becoming far more apparent. The Red Queen, noticing the late shipment, has realised the threat that Kelsea presents to the dominion she holds both over her own lands and the Tearling, most of which is gained through a dark, violent power that she obtains from the demon Row Finn, who also meets with Kelsea throughout the novel to recruit her to his dark purpose. Interestingly, in this book we learn far more about the origins of the Tearling and the world that preceded it – a future version of our current world – as Kelsea begins to have visions of the life of Lily Mayhew, a pre-Crossing woman who begins to rebel after years of horrifically violent abuse from her political husband. Cleverly, Johansen links our slowly uncovered knowledge of the Tearling’s origins with the knowledge we slowly gain about the Red Queen. Both stories – that of Lily and that of the Red Queen – are linked with Kelsea’s own past, and inform her transition to power and the decisions she makes. Kelsea becomes much harder and colder in this novel as she struggles to decide how to wield the power that the sapphires she possesses have given her, but the reader still strongly supports her decisions and finds themselves in increasing desperation alongside Kelsea and her councillors as the Tearling and the Mort armies lean ever closer to war. The ending of the novel produces a shocking twist, and is left on a cliffhanger that has made me desperate for June 2016 to come around so I can read the final installment! This was a well worthy sequel in a brilliant series, and I can’t wait to find out what happens next.