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The Summer Garden by Paullina Simons

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Tatiana and Alexander have suffered the worst the twentieth century had to offer. Now, after years of separation, they are miraculously reunited in America, the land of their dreams. They have a beautiful son, Anthony. They have proved to each other that their love is greater than the vast evil of the world…but they are strangers. In the climate of fear and mistrust of the Cold War, forces are at work in the US that threaten their life and their family. Can they make a new life for themselved and find happiness in this new land? Or will the ghosts of yesterday reach out to touch even the destiny of their firstborn son?”

REVIEW: I have been completely blown away by the Bronze Horseman Trilogy and, as such, was VERY excited to read this, the final installment in the series (though I admit, I’m definitely sad that it’s all over!). In this novel, Tatiana and Alexander are finally safe in America, ready to build a new life together as a proper family with their young son, Anthony. What neither of them is prepared for, however, is the huge physical and emotional impact that the war years have had on both themselves individually and on their relationship. Unable to fully understand each other’s experiences and sufferings, yet unable to move past them, Tatiana and Alexander find themselves stuck in a sort of limbo, moving from place to place across America as nowhere seems to ever feel like home. With this new life comes new secrets, new problems, and most importantly some new enemies – including a woman who tempts Alexander astray (I was so angry and felt so betrayed when I read this part of the novel that I couldn’t bear to read another word for two full days) and men who are determined to turn Alexander into the kind of man he never wanted to be – one of whom is equally as determined to get to Tatiana, at all costs. This novel takes us throughout the lives of Tatiana and Alexander, experiencing these new d0mestic, economic and personal struggles alongside them, and also allows us to witness Anthony’s growing up. As history begins to repeat itself by dragging an ambitious Anthony into the Vietnam war, Tatiana and Alexander find themselves facing the greatest test yet of their new lives – how to save their son from the fate they kept him from for so many years. This book is an amazing conclusion to an epic, brilliant and truly breathtaking trilogy, leaving the reader with the kind of satisfying ending that, back when reading ‘The Bronze Horseman’, we as readers would never have dreamed to be possible. I cannot describe to you how glad I am that this trilogy was recommend it to me, and nor can I pass on that recommendation highly enough. These books moved me to tears more times than I can count, and not just tears of sadness, either; tears of anger, relief and happiness were all part of my reading process as well. Simons’ writing style is elegant, beautifully descriptive, heavily detailed and constantly gripping. I have always been able to imagine the tales that this series has told so vividly because of her writing, which I feel definitely contributes to the major emotional impact this trilogy has had on me. I have genuinely found reading this series to be a process that has changed my view of the world and made me see so many things differently, and I will undoubtedly come back to read these books again and again.

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Always Emily by Michaela MacColl

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RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “Emily and Charlotte Bronte are about as opposite as two sisters can be. Charlotte is practical and cautious. Emily is curious and headstrong. But they have one thing in common: a love of writing. And when a neighbour dies under suspicious circumstances, they must combine the imagination and wit usually reserved for their pens to unravel a string of myseteries. Should they trust the handsome stranger Emily met on one of her solitary walks across the desolate moors or the intriguing local landowner that keeps appearing on Charlotte’s doorstep? There are a lot of knots to untangle, and they had better do it quickly – before someone else is killed.”

REVIEW: I am a great fan of both Emily and Charlotte Bronte (and, of course, their often-forgotten sister Anne, who is sadly not included in this tale) and was intrigued to read this novel, set before either of the two girls had published any written works. Both Emily and Charlotte are attending boarding school; Charlotte as a teacher, Emily as a pupil. Emily chafes against the rigid structure of the boarding school system, longing to be home and wandering the moors once again, while Charlotte’s creative mind means that she struggles to focus on her teaching tasks. Both girls eventually end up back at the parsonage, Emily after a near-fatal illness and Charlotte due to a suspension after the headmistress finds and reads one of her short stories. It is at this point that the mystery, the focal point of MacColl’s story begins to develop. Charlotte one day bumps into a mysterious man named Robert Heaton who claims that his sister is inflicted with madness and continuously runs away from home. Charlotte, however, is suspicious of Heaton’s motives for keeping his sister locked up at home, especially as it starts to seem as though Heaton is connected to the sudden erratic and volatile behaviour of her brother, Branwell. Simultaneously, during her walks on the moor, Emily meets a handsome young man who turns out to be Heaton’s nephew and the true heir to the Heaton fortune; he has come to rescue his mother, Rachel, whom he believes Heaton has drugged to keep her inside the house. Both sisters are unwittingly dragged into the mystery and soon begin to find that their creativity, wit and imagination are strengths that can aid them in helping young Harry Heaton and rescuing Rachel. This book is fun, light and easy to read, cleverly using quotes from the written works of both girls to link in with the unfolding events. There are clever twists and turns that make the story engaging, and MacColl effectively recreates the gothic atmosphere of Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ to connect the story even more closely with the Brontes as we know and love them. I enjoyed reading this book, although sometimes the events felt a little too unbelievable and the writing could sometimes feel rushed and overly simplistic; but overall, this was an interesting and enjoyable read that I would recommend to Bronte fans.

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Tatiana and Alexander by Paullina Simons

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Tatiana is eighteen years old, pregnant and widowed when she escapes war-torn Leningrad to find a new life in America. But the ghosts of her past do not rest easily. She becomes obsessed with the belief that her husband, Red Army Major Alexander Belov, is still alive and needs her desperately…Meanwhile, oceans and continents away in the Soviet Union, Alexander, having barely escaped execution, is leading a battalion of soldiers considered expendable by Soviet high command. New recruits survive only days. Yet Alexander is determined to take them across the ruins of Europe in one last, desperate bid to escape Stalin’s death machine, and see Tatiana once again…”

REVIEW: As frequent readers of my blog would have noticed, I absolutely adored the previous installment in The Bronze Horseman Trilogy, so I was extremely excited to start ‘Tatiana and Alexander’, the second novel in this series – so excited, in fact, that after allowing myself half an hour to sob over ‘The Bronze Horseman’, I launched straight into this one. After being told that her husband Alexander is dead, Tatiana, beyond heartbroken and pregnant with their first child, takes her flight from Leningrad as she and Alexander had planned. When both of her travelling companions are killed, Tatiana is forced to make the rest of the perilous journey alone, and upon her arrival in America she gives birth to a boy whom she names Anthony Alexander Barrington, after his father. Despite her best attempts to move on in life, caring for her son, working at the hospital and befriending a flighty young nurse named Vikki, Tatiana soon has reason to believe that her husband isn’t actually dead at all, and becomes obsessed with her desperation to find him. Meanwhile, Alexander is going through Hell back in Russia. Being questioned by the NKVD proves to be an experience full of torture and fear, but Alexander refuses to break, holding the memory of his Tatiana close to him. As his situation becomes more and more bleak, however, Alexander’s memories of Tatiana begin to fade and become tainted with the camp where he is imprisoned. Both Tatiana and Alexander, however, are determined to find each other, and both go to extreme lengths to do so. Once again, I do not want to go into too much detail on the journeys that both Tatiana and Alexander go through in their attempts to find each other, through fear of spoiling the book for readers. Just as with ‘The Bronze Horseman’, however, I formed a huge emotional attachment to this book, and on more than one occasion found myself sobbing with both sadness and joy. As can probably be inferred from the fact that there is a third installment in the series, Tatiana and Alexander are reunited (though I will not reveal how), and this moment is written beautifully, providing one of the most touching scenes I have ever read in a novel. The reader finds themself almost aching with relief for the couple, both of whom have suffered so much, and leave the novel with cherished hopes that they can finally, finally be happy. Simons’ gift for writing with such emotion is truly remarkable, and I am so excited to find out what happens in ‘The Summer Garden’, the third and final book in this epic trilogy.

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The Mistresses of Henry VIII by Kelly Hart

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Seventeen-year-old Henry VIII was ‘a youngling, he cares for nothing but girls and hunting’. Over the years, this did not change much. Henry was considered a demi-god by his subjects, so each woman he chose was someone who had managed to stand out in a crowd of stunning ladies. Looking good was not enough (indeed, many of Henry’s lovers were considered unattractive); she also had to have something extra to keep the king’s interest. And Henry’s women were every bit as intriguing as the man himself.”

REVIEW: I’ve had this book sitting on my Amazon wishlist for ages, so when I saw how cheap the second-hand copies were I decided to finally give in and order it. I’ve read  quite a bit on Henry VIII’s more famous mistresses, particularly Mary Boleyn, but I enjoyed learning more about some of his other mistresses, such as Anne Stafford and Bessie Blount, and was fascinated in uncovering those whom I didn’t even know existed. This book was clearly well-researched and the rumours and gossip surrounding possible mistresses of Henry’s was clearly lifted from primary documents, giving it true authenticity. My only criticism of the book, however, is that I feel the title can be a little misleading – the book did, in fact, focus quite heavily on Henry VIII’s wives as well as his mistresses. This is something that Hart explains clearly in the introduction, as she puts forward her intention to focus on all of the women of Henry’s romantic life, which would include his wives as well as his mistresses. In this case, I feel that the title should perhaps have reflected this direction of study more obviously; however, this did not spoil the book for me and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and learning more about the extramarital affairs of Henry VIII.

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The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “Leningrad, 1941: the white nights of summer illuminate a city of fallen grandeur whose palaces and avenues speak of a different age, when Leningrad was known as St. Petersburg. Two sisters, Tatiana and Dasha, share the same bed, living in one room with their brother and parents. The routine of their hard, impoverished life is shattered on 22 June 1942 when Hitler invades Russia. For the Metanov family, for Leningrad, and particularly for Tatiana, life will never be the same again. On that fateful day, Tatiana meets a brash young man named Alexander. The family suffers as Hitler’s army advances on Leningrad, and the Russian winter closes in. With bombs falling and the city under siege, Tatiana and Alexander are drawn inexorably to each other, but theirs is a love that could tear Tatiana’s family apart, and at its heart lies a secret that could mean death to anyone who hears it. Confronted on the one hand by Hitler’s vast war machine, and on the other by a Soviet system determined to crush the human spirit, Tatiana and Alexander are pitted against the very tide of history, at a turning point in the century that made the modern world.”

REVIEW: Okay, so I have two other books that I read prior to this one and which, technically, I should be reviewing first. But this book was recommended to me recently by a colleague and friend, with the warning that although it was her favourite book, it would break me – and she was definitely, one hundred percent right. This book is so unbelievably amazing that I had to write about it straight away; just like I had to read it for five hours solid yesterday just to finish, just like I consumed pretty much a whole pack of biscuits to deal with the emotional trauma of reading it, and just like I sobbed so hard for the last fifty pages that a lot of the words turned into a big blur and I had to keep going back and re-reading parts. This epic novel tells the story of Tatiana, who starts off at the beginning of the novel as a rather lazy, slightly selfish, and pretty hopeless young girl. The moment a soldier named Alexander crosses the street to speak to her, however, both of their lives are set to change and become intertwined in ways that will bring them danger and hurt those around them, but will also bring them love and hope in a time of terror. The blossoming relationship between Tatiana and Alexander turns sour when Tatiana discovers that Alexander is the man that her sister, Dasha, claims to have fallen deeply in love with. Refusing to be with Alexander and destroy her sister’s happiness, Tatiana finds herself pursued relentlessly by Alexander’s companion, Dimitri, and struggles to hide her feelings for Alexander; yet the two are bound together not only by their secret love for one another, but also by the secret that Alexander has kept hidden from everyone except her, a secret that could lead them all into danger. As the siege on Leningrad worsens, food becomes scarce, and one by one Tatiana’s family begins to slowly diminish, the situation growing more desperate when a blockade is enforced. With only Dasha left to her, Tatiana is determined not to ruin her sister’s happiness, but the pain she endures in doing so is heartbreaking for the reader to witness, particularly as Alexander’s skillful acting leads her to doubt his true feelings for her. Constantly seprated and reunited by war, Tatiana and Alexander both go through hell in their effort to stay apart, but never stop loving each other. When Tatiana and Dasha flee from Leningrad with Alexander’s help, it seems the two will never see him again, as as Dasha dies in her sister’s arms the reader begins to truly despair for Tatiana, who it seems is destined never to find happiness and whose suffering has reached paramount height. Having suffered years of starvation, been denied her love, lost her family and taken a dangerous journey across Russia that has killed the last family member she has left, it is hard to believe that things could get worse for Tatiana. And, suddenly, things do at last seem to be looking up. Alexander discovers Tatiana and the two finally achieve their happily ever after (be prepared for a number of pages of sex scenes – thankfully, unlike a lot of historical fiction I have read, these scenes are extremely well-written and didn’t make me want to dig a hole and bury myself in it forever out of embarrassment) – but it is not to last. At this point I feel it would be safest not to describe any more of the plot; I adored this book and I don’t want the ending to be spoilt for anyone. The final part of the book had such a huge emotional impact on me and I would hope that any one else who reads this novel will feel the same. I cannot possibly describe how much this book made me feel; it is so beautifully written, but Simons does not shy away from the darkness and harsh truths of this period of history, and it is the stark contrast between the terrifying atmosphere of the oppressive Soviet Union and the pure beauty of Alexander and Tatiana’s love that, I believe, makes the book so beautiful and moving. I don’t think I have ever cried so much at any book before; when I reached the end I felt truly broken, and I can only hope that the next two novels are just as brilliant as this one. If they are, then Simons deserves a serious reward. Just make sure you have some tissues handy; and the biscuits helped, too.

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Three Sisters, Three Queens by Philippa Gregory

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “When Katherine of Aragon is brought to the Tudor Court as a young bride , the oldest princess, Margaret, takes her measure. With one look, each knows the other for a rival, an ally, a pawn, destined – with Margaret’s younger sister, Mary – to a sisterhood unique in all the world.The three sisters will become the queens of England, Scotland and France. United by family loyalties and affections, the three queens find themselves set against each other. Katherine commands an army against Margaret and kills her husband, James IV of Scotland. But Margaret’s boy becomes heir to the Tudor throne when Katherine loses her son. Mary steals the widowed Margaret’s proposed husband, but when Mary is widowed it is her secret marriage for love that is the envy of the others. As they experience betrayals, dangers, loss and passion, the three sisters find that the only constant in their perilous lives is their special bond, more powerful than any man, even a king.”

REVIEW: I have always been a huge fan of Philippa Gregory, despite the fact that I have been annoyed by some of the theories she chooses to put in her hugely popular historical fiction novels – for example, her ideas surrounding George Boleyn in ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ have led to many a false representation of him and, as I am planning to write my Masters dissertation on him, this has always irked me. I always enjoy reading her books though, and just have to remind myself to take them with a pinch of salt, just like any other historical fiction novel. With ‘Three Sisters, Three Queens’, however, I was a little sceptical of the premise before I even began to read it. ‘Three Sisters, Three Queens’ tells the story of the relationship between Katherine of Aragon, Princess Margaret Tudor, and Princess Mary Tudor, all through the eyes of Margaret. The novel’s description seems to put forward the idea that these women had a loving, unbreakable bond, and considering the fact that Katherine of Aragon was in charge of the Army that killed Margaret’s husband, I was very doubtful of this being true. Upon actually reading the book, however, Gregory creates a much more complex, believeable relationship between these three remarkable women that the one I had been led to expect, and many of my inhibitions were soon pushed aside. Margaret is not always a likeable narrator; she can be selfish, naive, arrogant and competitive. However, she can also be brave, loving and determined, all qualities that I hugely admire, and having read very little about her previously I found myself becoming quite attached to Margaret. Despite my initial misgivings I found myself racing through the book, eager to read more of the sisterly rivalry that took place between the three women, Margaret’s often disastrous love affairs, and the escalating political turmoil that all three women become caught up in. My only criticism upon finishing the book is that I would like to have read more about Mary; she is a fascinating woman in her own right and I have hopes that Gregory might pen a future novel focusing on her in more detail, rather than the reader simply meeting her from afar and only seeing her as a silly, impulsive young girl.

 

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Four Sisters by Helen Rappaport

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “On 17 July 1918, four young women walked down twenty-three steps into the cellar of a house in Ekaterinburg. Together with their parents and their teenage brother, they were brutally murdered. Their crime: to be the daughters of the last Tsar and Tsarita of All the Russias. ‘Four Sisters’ is an authoritative and poignant account of the lives of Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia. Drawing on their own letters and diaries, Rappaport paints a vivid picture of the sisters’ lives in the dying days of the Romanov dynasty. We see their hopes and dreams, the difficulty of coping with a mother who was a chronic invalid and a haemophiliac brother and, latterly, the trauma of the revolution and its terrible consequences.”

REVIEW: I have always been fascinated by the Romanov Imperial family, particularly these final seven individuals, who make up the last ruling family of Russia. The four sisters – Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia – are vividly bought to life within this work. The Grand Duchesses are shown as they grow from innocent girls into accomplished and caring young women. We learn of their secret crushes, their work as nurses during the First World War, the games they played, the struggles they dealt with in coping with their unwell mother Alexandra and brother Alexei, their love for the notorious Grigory Rasputin, and above all we learn of how sheltered their lives were and how they seemed to have longed for a sense of normality, to be part of the ‘outside world’. What I enjoyed most about this book is that Rappaport clearly presents the four princesses as individuals; their collective nickname, OTMA, and the fact that the most famous photographs of them involve them all dresssed to match and seated as a group, means that often in books about this period their individual identities and personalities can get lost and muddled together. Here we learn about the passionate heart and caring nature of Olga; the serious but sensitive Tatiana; the sulky but devoted Maria; and the mischevious, lively Anastasia. I was absolutely fascinated to learn more about the sisters as individuals, and surprised to learn how difficult their lives often were, and how it was mostly their reputation and image that allowed this last Imperial family to survive as long as they did. The girls became a symbol of innocence and hope, and in the end were taken down by the perceived extravagance of their regime, which had almost nothing to do with them at all. My only minor criticism was that I felt that the section of the book dealing with their last days at Ekaterinburg were a little rushed; this can be excused, however, by the fact that Rappaport has published a book solely dealing with this time, which I have already ordered and am looking forward to reading. I absolutely loved this book and relished the opportunity to learn more about these young women who are, so often, neglected by history.