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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.

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The Kingdom of Little Wounds by Susann Cokal

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “On the eve of Princess Sophia’s wedding, the palace prepares a sumptuous display of riches. But in Skyggehavn, things are rarely as they seem. Beneath the veneer of celebration, a mysterious illness plagues the royal family, and one courtier’s power-lust will set a devious plot in motion.”

REVIEW: This book is a complex and remarkable tale combining history, fantasy, passion and intrigue within the kingdom of Skyggehavn, a land in which the royal family are finding themselves slowly dying away and being plunged deeper and deeper into mystery and scandal. The book mostly follows two women, although a variety of characters get their own chapters in order to have their say, which adds to the depth of the novel. These two protagonists, however, are the main focus of the tale, and despite their dislike of each other they form an unlikely alliance as they become entangled in the plots and treasons that surround the throne. Ava Bingen is the first of the women that we meet; she is a young seamstress to the Queen who finds herself in a great deal of trouble after accidentally stabbing the Queen with a needle on the night of the Princess’ wedding. Forced to become an unwilling spy and treated like a whore by the ambitious Nicolas in order to save her own life, Ava finds herself far deeper in the court web of intrigue than she would like, particularly when she is placed in the royal nursey, caring for the four youngest royal children, all of whom have an unknown and possibly deadly disease. The other woman involved in the story is Midi, a black woman who is unable to speak after an injury inflicted on her tongue by a jealous mistress. Seen as exotic and craved by many of the men of the court, Midi also works in the nursery, tending to the royal children, and both women become caught up in relationships with the eager court historian, Arthur Grammaticus. The intense rivalry between them, mostly stemming from Midi, is forced to dissipate when King Christian dies suspiciously whilst his Queen, the mad Isabel, is still pregnant with a possible son and heir. Ava and Midi end up in the thick of the scandal as Isabel’s most trusted maids, and are forced to take drastic steps to ensure the survival of the Queen and their own safety. This book is so gripping, brilliantly written and absolutely fascinating – definitely a contender for top place in the Top Ten Books of the Year list I will be publishing at the end of 2016. The twists and turns the novel takes, taking the reader to ever darker and more mysterious places, are truly unbelievable, and I left the book with the sense that no matter what I read next it couldn’t quite match up to the standard of this fantastic work of fiction.

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Fairest of All by Serena Valentino

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “How did the Wicked Queen become so evil? When the King asks for her hand in marriage, the beautiful daughter of a cruel mirror-maker accepts, hoping her fortunes will change for the better…but will they? This is the untold tale of love, loss and dark magic behind the classic story of Snow White”

REVIEW: Having previously read Valentino’s novel ‘The Beast Within’, I was really looking forward to getting my teeth into ‘Fairest of All’, and it certainly did not disappoint – in fact, I enjoyed this novel even more! It tells the story of the daughter of a mirror-maker. Bullied and tormented by her father, she is both amazed and delighted when the King of their realm begins to pay attention to her and, after her father’s death, asks her to marry him and become his Queen. The new Queen, dazzlingly beautiful, is thrilled by this change in her life; she falls deeply in love with her new husband and also with his precious daughter, Snow White, whom she treats as her own child. The three form a new family, and with her dear friend Verona by her side the Queen feels as though nothing can go wrong – despite her husband’s frequent war campaigns and the arrival of his three very peculiar cousins, three strange sisters who seem determined to frighten Snow White and encourage the Queen to cruelty through the use of a gift they provide her with; a magic mirror that contains the face and soul of her dead father. Things begin to take a turn for the worse, however, when the King dies in battle. Despite Snow White needing her more than ever, the Queen sinks into grief, neglecting her new little daughter and becoming more and more dependent on her magic mirror. As she begins to obsess over remaining the fairest in the land, her wild fixation on her own beauty leads her to turn against not only the budding Snow White, but also Verona, who is beginning to eclipse her in beauty. With the encouragement to the three sisters, this leads us to the events of the story that we know and love from the Disney film ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’; the Queen sends her huntsman to kill Snow White but, when he fails and Snow White runs away, she transforms herself into an old crone and kills Snow White herself with a poisoned apple. In this version of events, when running away from the Dwarves the Queen knows what will lead to her end, and sacrifices herself in falling from the cliff, knowing that Snow White will be revived by her Prince and find happiness with him. I absolutely loved this book and can’t wait for the UK release of ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls’ next month, as Ursula is my favourite Disney Villain!

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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “It was always difficult being Harry Potter and it isn’t much easier now that he is an overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic, a husband, and father of three school-age children. While Harry grapples with a past that refuses to stay where it belongs, his youngest son Albus must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted. As past and present fuse ominously, both father and son learn the uncomfortable truth: sometimes, darkness comes from unexpected places”

REVIEW: This book is a tough one to review, and not purely because it is a printed version of the recently released play ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’, set nineteen years on from Deathly Hallows, at the exact point where the epilogue left off – a play which, despite being in two different online queues for six hours each, I’m now not going to get to see until 2018 at the earliest, and that’s if I’m lucky. But enough about that; back to the book. It is also hard to review because I really, truly, do not want to spoil it for anyone. I was fortunate enough not to have any aspect of the plotline ruined for me and I think because of that I enjoyed reading this even more. Being given a new part to the Harry Potter story was truly like a gift in my eyes, and no matter how uncertain I initially was this book had me hooked. I read it in a matter of hours. It captured the true essence of Harry Potter in its purest form and sobbed more times than I can count – and not because the play is sad. I sobbed because we got more from characters we know and love, because so many aspects of the story were exactly what the fans have always imagined, because the twist was fantastic, because there were some wise words from my favourite Dumbledore, and because this book made me feel every emotion I ever felt whilst reading the original series all over again. I can only imagine that watching the play itself must be even more of an intense, amazing experience. I cannot describe to you how much I loved reading this script or, indeed, how much I love Harry Potter. It turns out J.K Rowling was right with her words at the premiere for the final Harry Potter movie – Hogwarts is always there to welcome us home. And believe me, it’s better than ever.

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A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

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RATING: 4/5

REVIEW: ‘A Little Princess’ was one of my favourite books as a child, and my parents bought me a beautiful copy (shown above) as a present upon my recent graduation. I dived straight back in to re-reading it, and loved it just as much as I did all the times I read it as a child. ‘A Little Princess’ is an enchanting story of an unusual young girl named Sara Crewe. Eccentric, intelligent and imaginative is sent to an English boarding school by her beloved Papa after growing up in India. Sara’s Papa leaves the school’s two mistresses, the harsh Miss Minchin and the weak-willed Miss Amelia, with the strictest instructions that his daughter be treated like a Princess in every way, and provides her with an elaborate trousseau, lavish homeware and a beautiful doll whom she names Emily. Sara becomes the show pupil of the school, but despite this remains a kind and modest little girl. She befriends the plump, unintelligent Ermengarde, the timid young servant girl Becky, and the spoilt little Lottie, and enchants not just them but many of the other girls with her creative stories, which she is happy to share with everyone. When Sara’s father unexpectedly dies, however, Sara’s whole world is changed forever. She is forced by Miss Minchin to work as both servant girl and tutor to the younger pupil, banished to the attic, and out of loneliness befriends the attic’s resident rat (whom she names Melchisdec), and his family. Yet she remains constant in her kindness, hope and imagination, and retains her friendships with Ermengarde, Becky and Lottie, albeit in secret. Sara also befriends the Indian gentleman who moves in to the house next door, and whose monkey sneaks in to her attic one day. From then on, both the Indian gentleman and Sara imagine themselves as friends, despite their hardly knowing each other, and take courage from thinking of each other’s lives. Sara, as she deserves, in fact receives the happy ending she deserves due to her acquaintance with this gentleman; it turns out that he was once her father’s friend and business partner, and came to England in order to find Captain Crewe’s little girl and give her a proper home. Sara is restored to her former position, taking Becky with her as a lady’s maid and happily leaving Miss Minchin and her school behind to start a new, happy life as a little princess once more. The story is heartwarming and teaches a great lesson to children –  and indeed, a lesson that even as adults we often need reminding of – that even in the worst of situations, we should always act with kindness, hope and courage, because a happy ending is always possible.

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Katherine Howard by Josephine Wilkinson

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Katherine Howard was the fifth wife of Henry VIII and cousin to the executed Anne Boleyn. She first came to court as a young girl of fourteen, but even prior to that her fate had been sealed and she was doomed to die. She was beheaded in 1542 for crimes of adultery and treason, in one of the most sensational scandals of the Tudor age. The traditional story of Henry VIII’s fifth queen dwells on her sexual exploits before she married the king, and her execution is seen as her just dessert for having led an abominable life. However, the true story of Katherine Howard could not be more different. Far from being a dark tale of court factionalism and conspiracy, Katherine’s story is one of child abuse, family ambition, religious conflict and political and sexual intrigue. It is also a tragic love story. A bright, kind and intelligent young woman, Katherine was fond of clothes and dancing, yet she also had a strong sense of duty and tried to be a good wife to Henry. She handled herself with grace and queenly dignity to the end, even as the barge carrying her on her final journey drew up at the Tower of London, where she was to be executed for high treason. Little more than a child in a man’s world, she was the tragic victim of those who held positions of authority over her, and from whose influence she was never able to escape.”

REVIEW: There a very few biographies out there on Katherine Howard, and, more importantly, of the ones that are out there very few of them are actually very good. Wilkinson has done extensive research into Katherine Howard and interpreted the sources in a new and different way, uncovering new findings and creating a fascinating, sensitive and insightful biography that gives the reader a real sense of connection to Katherine herself. Wilkinson’s findings show Katherine to be a young girl whose naivety led to her being used and abused by older and more experienced men, chiefly her childhood music teacher, Henry Mannock, and her famed lover Francis Dereham. Both of these men, in Wilkinson’s eyes, used the pretty and vulnerable Katherine as a kind of plaything, and Dereham at least seems to have held their intimacy over her for her entire life, possibly using it as a form of blackmail when she became Queen, as did many of the women whom she had viewed as her girlhood friends. Wilkinson also shows that although Katherine is believed to have taken Thomas Culpepper as her lover, and indeed this is what it is often believed she and Culpepper were executed for, this may not neccessarily be the case. Wilkinson presents and compelling and believable case, using primary documentation, that suggests that instead Katherine was merely cultivating Culpepper’s friendship and loyalty so that he could report back to her when the King was unwell and unable to see his wife. This would, in turn, extend her influence when apart from the King and, although Wilkinson believes (as did many contemporaries involved in the building of evidence against Katherine) there may have been a intention or desire between Katherine and Culpepper, she does not suggest that the two of them actually engaged in any intimate sexual act; simply that they exchanged letters, were close friends, and held long conversations with Lady Rochford as their chaperone. I found this biography to provide a fascinating and somewhat heartbreaking insight into Katherine’s life and found myself fully convinced by Wilkinson’s presentation of the evidence; the only slight thing in which our opnions differ, however, is that Wilkinson suggests Katherine herself encouraged flirtateousness with the King and was glad to be even considered for the position of Queen – I personally, however, believe that Katherine was instead encouraged by her ambitious family, perhaps even pushed forward, to become Henry’s next Queen. I do believe, however, that Katherine was a good, kind-hearted queen who used her influence to help others and tried to be a good wife to her king. As such, she suffered a tragic fate, and the evidence put forward by Wilkinson which shows how she was used and then later accused of crimes she may not have even committed makes her an even more tragic victim of the tyranny of Henry VIII.

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After You by Jojo Moyes

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Lou Clark has lots of questions. Like how it is she’s ended up working in an airport bar, watching other people jet off to new places. Or why the flat she’s owned for a year still doesn’t feel like home. Whether her family can ever forgive her for what she did eighteen months ago. And will she ever get over the love of her life.

What Lou does know for certain is that something has to change. Then, one night, it does.

But does the stranger on her doorstep hold the answers Lou is searching for – or just more questions? Close the door and life continues: simple, ordered safe. Open it and she risks everything. But once Lou made a promise to live. And if she’s going to keep it, she has to invite them in…”

REVIEW: I only recently got around to reading the prequel to this book, ‘Me Before You’ (as some of you may remember) and I absolutely loved it, so I was both excited and filled with rather a lot of trepidation upon starting this second novel, ‘After You’. I had no need for concern, however; yet again, Moyes writes a brilliantly sensitive, humorous, heartwarming (and, at times, heartbreaking), poignant and hugely enjoyable story. When the novel opens it is eighteen months after Will’s assisted suicide and Louisa is struggling to move on with her life even after taking a trip around Europe and moving into a new flat in London. Relations with her family are still strained, she works in an airport pub, and feels lonely in the barely decorated flat. Things all begin to change, however, when Lou falls from the balcony of her block of flats (an accident which, much to her anger, everyone seems to think is a suicide attempt) and is terribly injured. With the help of paramedic Sam, however, she survives, and from there on her situation begins to see some slow – and somewhat rocky – improvement. She is reunited with her family (the sub-plot of her mother turning into a liberal feminist was absolutely hilarious and lightened up many of the more emotional moments), and a mysterious knock on her door one night leads to the discovery of Will’s daughter, Lily, whom he had never known about during his lifetime and who comes to Lou seeking both information about her father and an escape from her uncaring mother. Throw in a relationship (or maybe not a relationship, in Lou’s uncertain mind) with Ambulance Sam, the paramedic who saved Lou’s life, a job offer in New York and the chaos of introducing Lily to the Traynors and we now have an amazing follow-up to the phenomenal ‘Me Before You’ – and this one also made me cry at the end, though for very different reasons. Undoubtedly this is one of the best sequels I have ever read, which is even more impressive considering what it had to live up to, and I highly recommend it to any ‘Me Before You’ fans.