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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.

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A Week in Paris by Rachel Hore

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “September, 1937. Kitty Travers enrols at the Conservatoire on the banks of the Seine to pursue her dream of becoming a concert pianist. But then war breaks out and the city of light falls into shadow. Nearly twenty-five years later, Fay Knox, a talented young violinist, visits Paris on tour with her orchestra. She barely knows the city, so why does it feel so familiar? Soon touches of memory become something stronger, and she realises her connection with these streets runs deeper than she ever expected. As Fay traces the past, with only an address in an old rucksack to help her, she discovers dark secrets hidden years ago, secrets that cause her to question who she is and where she belongs.”

REVIEW: A few weeks ago I reviewed one of Hore’s previous novel, ‘A Place of Secrets’, which I was truly enchanted by – and I had similar experience whilst reading ‘A Week in Paris’. ‘A Week in Paris’ tells the story of Fay Knox, a musician who goes in search of a past that her mother has always kept hidden from her whilst on a week-long working trip to Paris, where her parents lived during the Second World War. As Fay begins to uncover more of the terrifying events that took place surrounding her parents during the French occupation of France, she also develops a tentative but realistic and moving relationship with Adam, an activist and journalist whom she met many years before during a school trip to Paris. When Fay discovers an old friend of her mother’s, a Madame Ramond, the story of her parents’ past begins to unfold, with the narrative switching between Fay’s journey in the 1960s and her mother, Kitty’s, troubling experiences during the Second World War. The change between the past and the present keeps the reader constantly on their toes, always eager to read on and see what happened next in the stories of both women. The violence that Kitty sees towards Jews in the past sections are also cleverly paralleled with the terrible treatment of oppressed Algerians in France during the present section, making the targeting of minorities a very prominent issue within the novel as a whole. It is difficult to say more about the novel without ruining the shocks that await both Fay and the reader as Kitty’s story begins to emerge in ways that we could not possibly have imagined. I will say, however, that this book had me hooked from start to finish, I simply couldn’t put it down! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and look forward to working my way through the rest of Hore’s published works.

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Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “I didn’t ask for any of this. I didn’t ask to be some kind of hero. But when your whole life gets swept up by a tornado – taking you with it – you have no choice but to go along, you know? Sure, I’ve read the books. I’ve seen the movies. But I never expected Oz to look like this. A place where Good Witches can’t be trusted and Wicked Witches may just be the good guys. A place where even the yellow brick road is crumbling.

What happened? Dorothy.

My name is Amy Gumm – and I’m the other girl from Kansas. I’ve been recruited by the Revolutionary Order of the Wicked, and I’ve been given a mission: Remove the Tin Woodman’s heart. Steal the Scarecrow’s brain. Take the Lion’s courage. And then – Dorothy must die.”

REVIEW: I have always been a huge fan of the tale of ‘The Wizard of Oz’. As it was my mum’s favourite childhood film and book, I became absorbed in the world of Oz from a very young age, and have never truly left it. Even now, at nearly twenty, my room contains a number of Wizard of Oz memorabilia that has been bought for me over the years. Because of this fascination I have with the land of Oz, I’m always looking out for books that bring a fresh new twist to one of my favourite tales – and Danielle Paige’s ‘Dorothy Must Die’ has certainly done that. At the beginning of the novel, we are introduced to Amy Gumm, a teenage girl from Kansas who is suffering with bullies at school and a neglectful, alcoholic mother at home. When a tornado sweeps through the trailer park where Amy and her mother live, Amy finds herself crash-landing in an Oz that is barely recognisable, bathed in what seems to be eternal night and covered with barren land. With the help of a Munchkin girl named Indigo and a monkey named Ollie, Amy begins the initial stages of her journey to the Emerald City to find out exactly what has happened to the land she knows so well from the books and movies. What Amy ends up finding, however, is something much darker than she could have imagined. Dorothy has returned to Oz and, trapped by her greed for magic, has become a ruthless dictator, controlling the entire land of Oz and systematically draining it of its magic – and it seems that Amy is the only one who can stop her. Upon being recruited by the Revolutionary Order of the Wicked, Amy is given training to develop her own magical and fighting potential by a group of renegade witches, who all persist in telling her the same thing – she is the only one who can defeat Dorothy, and Dorothy must die. Amy’s journey through Oz, and her attempts to grow close to Dorothy by becoming a Palace maid, is extremely gripping, both thrilling and sometimes terrifying the reader, but always with a hint of Amy’s sarcastic humour to lighten the dark tone of the tale. The transformation of Dorothy from the innocent heroine we know and love into a malicious and calculating dictator is one that stuns the reader, and makes the story even more gripping. The novel ends on a frustrating cliffhanger, with the reader desperate to go on to the next stage of the journey with Amy – fortunately, a sequel is due for release in early May which I personally am greatly looking forward to. What amazed me most about this book, however, was the brilliance of its storytelling – that it could turn I, the little girl who dressed up as Dorothy for years on end and worshipped her on film and in print,  into a vicarious member of the Revolutionary Order of the Wicked  – that is what amazes me the most about this novel.

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The Gentleman’s Daughter by Amanda Vickery

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RATING: 4/5

REVIEW: I thoroughly enjoyed my second venture into the historical research of Amanda Vickery, and found this book to be absolutely fascinating in terms of addressing the lives of middle- to upper-class women living in England in the Georgian era. Being a feminist I have a very keen interest in women’s history, but knew very little about the lives of Georgian women aside from what I had learnt from Jane Austen novels. In this book, Vickery tackles her subject with the use of personal items like diaries and letters, which give us a real flavour of what these women went through, and their thoughts and feelings regarding such events. Soon the reader finds themselves developing a personal attachment to women like Elizabeth Parker, whose first happy marriage was destroyed by the death of her husband and who then seems to have suffered a relationship of both mental and physical abuse with her second husband, John Shackleton. The stories of these women can be touching, heartwarming, amusing and even heartbreaking, but they provide a fascinating insight into the private lives of women whom I personally knew so little about. It is this personal element, I feel, that makes the book so easy to read and absorb; the information given about life for these women is accompanied by real primary evidence that adds a new depth to what we already knew about life in Georgian society. I was completely fascinated not only by the vast amount of information presented to me, but also by the way Vickery writes and incorporates such personal details into a vivid account of everyday life. I would very highly recommend this book to anyone studying the Georgian period and also to those with an interest in women’s history.

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Juliet Immortal by Stacey Jay

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “Juliet Capulet didn’t take her own life. She was murdered by the person she trusted the most, her new husband, Romeo Montague, who made the sacrifice to ensure his own immortality. But Romeo didn’t anticipate that Juliet would be granted eternal life as well, and would become an agent for the Ambassadors of Light. For seven hundred years, Juliet has struggled to preserve romantic love and the lives of the innocent, while Romeo has fought for the dark side, seeking to destroy the human heart. Until now. Now Juliet has found forbidden love, and Romeo, O Romeo, will do everything in his power to destroy their happiness”

REVIEW: This novel opens with the soul of Juliet awakening in the body of Ariel Dragland, a teenage girl who has both physical and emotional scars that Juliet is hoping to heal by finding Ariel’s soulmate and giving her life a purpose. When Juliet wakes she is in a car accident with the boy who broke and humiliated Ariel, Dylan Stroud – and things get much, much worse when Juliet realises that Romeo is occupying Dylan’s body and aiming to destroy her. This event, a dramatic opening to the novel, leads to Juliet meeting Ariel’s saviour – and, she is soon to realise, her very own soulmate – Ben. As Juliet tries to pick up the pieces of Ariel’s relationship with her mother, Melanie, and Gemma, her best friend, she discovers that her feelings for Ben are growing stronger. Upon discovering, however, that Ben is meant to be Gemma’s soulmate, and that these are the two people she was sent to earth to reunite, Juliet’s new life on earth becomes much more complicated – particularly with Romeo making false promises and thwarting her plans every step of the way. The way the novel plays out provides several twists and turns, but the book as a whole remains a relatively light and easy read, both hugely moving and entertaining, and gives a brilliant twist on the traditional story of ‘Romeo and Juliet’. I would definitely recommend it to fans of Shakespeare’s original and fans of young adult fiction.

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A Place of Secrets by Rachel Hore

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REVIEW: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Can dreams be passed down through families? As a child Jude suffered a recurrent nightmare: running through a dark forest, crying for her mother. Now her six-year-old niece, Summer, is having the same dream, and Jude is frightened for her. A successful auctioneer, Jude is struggling to come to terms with the death of her husband. When she’s asked to value a collection of scientific instruments and manuscripts belonging to Anthony Wickham, a lonely 18th-century astronomer, she leaps at the chance to escape London for the untamed beauty of Norfolk, where she grew up. As Jude untangles Wickham’s tragic story, she discovers threatening links to the present. What have Summer’s nightmares to do with Starborough folly, the eerie crumbling tower in the woods from which Wickham and his adopted daughter Esther once viewed the night sky? With the help of Euan, a local naturalist, Jude searches for answers in the wild, haunting splendour of the Norfolk forests. Dare she leave behind the sadness in her own life, and learn to love again?”

REVIEW: This novel is both one of the most fascinating crossovers of past and present I have ever read, and also one of the most complex to try and explain! The novel takes so many twists and turns, both in Jude’s present story and the past that she becomes absorbed in through her research, that it is difficult to try and describe the plot without giving too much away. Rather than attempting to do this and giving away spoilers of this amazing novel, I will say instead that I thoroughly enjoyed it. The story of Jude and her conflict with her sister Claire, as well as her fascinating journey of discovery into the life of Esther Wickham, whose journals she discovers in the back of a cupboard whilst she is valuating the books of Esther’s adopted father, Anthony Wickham, is a brilliant combination of historical enquiry and modern family dilemmas. Jude’s blossoming relationship with Euan, whom she fears may in fact have feelings for Claire, also provides the added tension to the sisterly dynamic that makes Jude and Claire’s relationship so interesting. The story of Esther, revealed through her journals, as well as the mystery of Tamsin Lovall, Jude’s gran’s closest friend from childhood who disappeared one day, both have links to the present that astonish and amaze the reader. The book in its entirety is extremely gripping and holds the attention of the reader from beginning to end. I look forward to reading more of Hore’s  books in the future.