Married by Christmas by Scarlett Bailey



BLURB: “All she wants is a perfect Christmas Eve wedding…it’s been on Anna’s wish-list since she was a little girl, dreaming of a far happier family life than she’d ever experienced. Only now – two weeks before her big day – her perfect husband-to-be drops a bombshell…But nothing’s going to stop Anna’s plans – not even the pesky inconvenience of discovering her groom already has a wife!”

REVIEW: I’ve been reading this book as a bit of light reading to counteract dissertation research and historical non-fiction, and I found it thoroughly entertaining. The novel tells the story of Anna, a woman who obsessively colour-codes, lists and organises even the most minor details of her life – as you can imagine, her wedding is meticulously planned, and the most important part of all of the wedding plans is that Anna is determined to have her wedding on Christmas Eve. Things take an unexpected turn when Anna, convinced that her fiance Tom is cheating on her, ropes her best friend and flatmate Liv (who has hidden feelings of her own for Tom) into coming with her to spy on him. What she discovers, however, isn’t a recent affair; it is one long past. Tom admits that he is still married to a stripper he wed in a bar while drunk in Las Vegas, but their relationship ended abruptly with her departure to New York and his subsequent return to England. Determined not to miss out on her Christmas wedding fantasy, Anna decides to take matters into her own hands and fly to New York herself with the divorce papers. It is at this point in the novel, however, that the story becomes more predictable when Anna meets Miles on the plane journey to New York. Miles is an old acquaintance whom Anna hasn’t seen since they had a disastrous blind date eight years before, but as the two follow their separate courses in New York, both determined to achieve very different dreams, they find themselves relying on each other for support, guidance and friendship in a way that soon blossoms into much stronger feelings. Meanwhile, left in charge of Anna’s wedding, Liv is struggling herself with her feelings for Tom, feelings that she is finding more and more difficult to hide. I will not reveal any more of the story, and will leave it for you to find out how this tangled web of affections is resolved in the end, but I am pleased to say that, unlike so many ‘chick-lit’ books, the ending was not apparent from the very beginning, and took some thorough working out. Bailey writes in a witty, heartwarming and entertaining manner that makes the book difficult to put down, and I’m sure this book would make a particularly lovely festive read – I’m almost sorry I didn’t save it until Christmas myself!


The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory



BLURB: “Kateryn Parr, a thirty-year-old widow in a secret affair with a new lover, has no choice when a man old enough to be her father who has buried four wives – King Henry VIII – commands her to marry him. Kateryn has no doubt about the danger she faces: the previous queen lasted sixteen months, the one before barely half a year. But Henry adores his new bride and Kateryn’s trust in him grows as she unites the royal family, creates a radical study circle at the heart of the court, and rules the kingdom as Regent. But is this enough to keep her safe? A leader of religious reform and the first woman to publish in English, Kateryn stands out as an independent woman with a mind of her own. But she cannot save the Protestants, under threat for their faith, and Henry’s dangerous gaze turns on her. The traditional churchmen and rivals for power accuse her of heresy – the punishment is death by fire and the King’s name is on the warrant…”

REVIEW: I have read all of Gregory’s novel and was hugely excited to read this latest novel, which focused on Katherine Parr – my favourite of Henry VIII’s wives after Anne Boleyn. I was lucky enough to hear Gregory give a talk about this book on the day of its publication in the UK, and knowing how much she enjoyed writing it and how connected she felt to Katherine made the experience of reading the book even more enjoyable for me, particularly as Gregory is one of my idols when it comes to writing historical fiction. I mentioned in the review of the last book I read on Katherine Parr how frustrating I have always found it that she so rarely makes an appearance in the work of historical fiction authors, so it was refreshing to be able to read about her once again. I thoroughly enjoyed Gregory’s portrayal of Katherine; she comes into her own as a romantic, stubborn, and highly intelligent woman with a passion for reform that develops throughout the novel, so that the reader is also taken along on her discovery of the latest Protestant ideals. She is also a hugely sympathetic character; her relationship with the tyrannical Henry involves constantly walking on eggshells, just as it does for the rest of the court, and Katherine is perhaps the most successful of all of Henry’s queens at learning to manage the balance of power. She learns, mostly through terrifying trial and error, when to speak her mind and when to stay silent; when to use her body and when to use her mind; and, most importantly, that to keep safe and in the King’s affections, she must be an obedient wife. The extent to which Katherine has to go to protect not just her own life, but also the lives of her friends and beloved sister Nan, will horrify modern readers – particularly during a shocking scene when Henry abuses Katherine and derives huge sexual pleasure from the act. As a woman, I am always sickened to think of the ways in which women were treated and how they had to demean themselves to avoid such treatment in the future, and I feel that this is shown most clearly in this novel, rather than in some of Gregory’s earlier works. I was in triumph with Katherine at the end of the novel when she is bought the news of Henry’s death and can finally move on with her life; even though I knew how the story would end, I still had tears come to my eyes as I truly felt Katherine’s relief and pride that she had been the one to survive – though my sadness was perhaps added to by the fact that, as any historian will know, the rest of her life was certainly not always a happy one. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it.


The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer



BLURB: “The past is a foreign country: this is your guidebook. We think of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign (1558-1603) as a golden age. But what was it actually like to live in Elizabethan England? If you could travel to the past and walk the streets of London in the 1590s, where would you stay? What would you eat? What would you wear? Would you really have a sense of it being a glorious age? And if so, how would that glory sit alongside the vagrants, diseases, violence, sexism and famine of the time? In this book Ian Mortimer reveals a country in which life expectancy is in the early thirties, people still starve to death and Catholics are persecuted for their faith. Yet it produces some of the finest writing in the English language, some of the most magnificent architecture, and sees Elizabeth’s subjects settle in America and circumnavigate the globe. Welcome to a country that is, in all its contradictions, the very crucible of the modern world.”

REVIEW: This has to be one of the most gripping and entertaining non-fiction books I have read in a long time. Mortimer takes the reader through all imaginable aspects of life in Elizabethan England, from life at court to life for the poor, from food to clothing, from travel to entertainment – all the while punctuating pages of extensively researched information with witty anecdotes and contemporary accounts of the period. This is the first book I have read that has truly made me feel as though I myself am living in Elizabethan England, and has given me a great deal of information that I did not previously know of. I was also impressed by how Mortimer managed to present the information – much of which had the potential to be quite dull – in a witty manner that made the whole book both engaging and as easy to read as a piece of fiction. This book would be a great introduction to those who know very little about the reign of Elizabeth, and also adds something new for the more seasoned historian looking for something new to read.


The Night Before Christmas by Scarlett Bailey


RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “All Lydia’s ever wanted is a perfect Christmas. So when her oldest friends invite her to spend the holidays with them, it seems like a dream come true. She’s been promised log fires, roasted chestnuts, her own weight in mince pies – all in a setting that looks like something out of a Christmas card. But her winter wonderland is ruined when she finds herself snowed in with her current boyfriend, her old flame and a hunky stranger. Well, three (wise) men is traditional at this time of year…”

REVIEW: It seems a strange time of year to reading a book set at Christmas, but once my Mum had finished this one and told me I would love it I decided the time of year would just have to be put aside for a while! The Night Before Christmas is funny, light-hearted, romantic, realistic and full of hope all in one, aided hugely by the main character’s obsession with romance. The reader instantly develops an attachment to Lydia Grant, the protagonist, who panics when she finds an engagement ring hidden in her boyfriend’s luggage days before they go away for Christmas, when she suddenly realises that she doesn’t want to marry him. As they arrive at the secluded Heron’s Pike, the hotel now being run by her university friend Katy, her husband Jim, their two children and a one-earned greyhound fondly known as Vincent Van Dog, Lydia receives even more of a shock when their friend Joanna shows up with a new man in tow – a new man who disappeared once Lydia had fallen in love with him several years before. As if this isn’t complicated enough, her friend Alex is pregnant and grumpy and nothing in the house seems to be working, leading to the local handyman Will turning up at the house. Lydia is instantly drawn to the attractive Will, but the presence of her current boyfriend Stephen and her ex Jackson has already complicated things enough for the very confused Lydia. Unwillingly drawn into a love triangle with Jackson and Joanna, she also breaks off her relationship with Stephen – which would probably have solved many problems if they weren’t all snowed in and forced to spend the holidays together. Lydia’s confusion is something that will resonate with many readers, and as the story progresses we sympathise with all of Lydia’s predicaments, whilst desperately encouraging her blossoming relationship with Will. I enjoyed the fact that this wasn’t one of those completely predictable chick-lit books, and that it kept me surprised, amused and entertained throughout. I would highly recommend it – and not only because of my deep love for greyhounds like the lovely Vincent!


The Pact by Jodi Picoult


RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “When Chris wakes up in hospital, Emily is the first person he asks for. She is the love of his life. But Emily is dead, and Chris is the sole witness to what happened in the park that night. He claims it was a suicide pact: they were both meant to die. Then the investigation turns up motive for murder, and there is only one suspect…”

REVIEW: Besides the fact that I’m a huge fan of Picoult already (which I would be amazed if none of you had noticed!), the Romeo-and-Juliet-esque aspect of this story really appealed to me, and I was greatly looking forward to reading it. The novel focuses on two neighbouring families, the Hartes and Golds, who have always been great friends and whose children, Chris and Emily – born only six months apart – develops a close bond that results in them becoming lovers. One night, however, the two families receive phone calls from the hospital, and when they arrive they discover that Chris is badly injured and Emily is dead, in what Chris claims was a double suicide gone wrong. As the police uncover more about Chris and Emily’s relationship, however, alongside anomalies in the autopsy report, a strong case for Chris being the murderer of Emily begins to develop, which tears the two close-knit families apart. As Chris fights to prove his innocence in the modern day, with the help of charismatic lawyer Jordan McAfee, we learn more about the development of Chris and Emily’s relationship, and the problems they faced – particularly in regards to Emily’s fear of sex and unwillingness to be intimate with Chris – through flashbacks. These flashbacks make us more uncertain about whether or not Chris did deliberately orchestrate the murder of Emily, while in the modern day scenes we are more convinced of his innocence. As usual, Picoult presents us with a gripping conflict in whether or not we choose to believe Chris over what happened; when the events of the night of Emily’s death are finally revealed, the reader is presented with yet another conflict that remains in mind long after the book has finished; how far would you go to make the person you love happy?


Emma by Alexander McCall Smith


RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “Sometimes it takes time to discover who you really are. And for Emma Woodhouse the journey is only just beginning. As she returns home to Norfolk from University, Emma starts to take charge. But as she begins to match-make various friends and neighbours, some important lessons about life and relationships await her…”

REVIEW: As followers of this blog may have noticed, I have read the previous two novels that have been published under the so-called Austen Project, which has had six different, well-known authors writing modern retellings of the six major Austen novels – as I had so greatly enjoyed Trollope’s rewrite of Sense and Sensibility and Val McDermid’s rewrite of Northanger Abbey, I was really looking forward to reading McCall Smith’s version of Emma. It was a good novel, with Emma re-interpreted brilliantly and the other characters instantly recognisable from the Austen original we know and love; Mr Woodhouse’s frantic obsession with cleanliness and disease was particularly amusing, as well as seeming accurate. The story progressed at a good pace and, while the reader often finds him or herself in conflict with Emma (as also happens many times in the original novel), by the end of the story we are glad that she has found her happy ending with George Knightley – though of course, a relationship with such an age gap is harder for the modern mind to comprehend, but McCall Smith made it fitting with the modern reader, who wanted it just as much as I suspect Austen’s Georgian audience would have. My only problem with the book was that, while I felt the previous two rewrites had been bought very successfully into modernity, I did sometimes still feel as though I were reading a Georgian novel whilst reading McCall Smith’s version. Some of the language and even some of the scandals seemed somewhat outdated and I feel some might have been bought further into the future. Overall, however, this was a very entertaining retelling of what is originally a very entertaining novel, and I would recommend it to fans of Austen.


How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran


RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “It’s a good time to be a woman; we have the vote and the Pill, and we haven’t been burnt as witches since 1727. However, a few nagging questions do remain…Why are we supposed to get Brazilians? Should we use Botox? Do men secretly hate us? And why does everyone ask you when you’re going to have a baby?”

REVIEW: I absolutely loved this book. It amazes me how Moran can take so many serious, taboo topics and turn them into hilarious anecdotes and life advice, all the while proving to us that these subjects – including sex, menstruation, pornography -should not be taboo at all, but should be discussed freely and openly. Whilst discussing topics such as these, and numerous others, Moran is constantly demonstrating to the reader that the way we view many of these things is heavily controlled and influenced by the patriarchal attitudes of our society. I have prided myself on being a feminist for years now, and it was such a refreshing change to read a book where the author had exactly the same views as me on so many matters of everyday life – particularly pornography – and was not afraid to be firm in her belief in these views. Moran’s writing is witty, engaging, thought-provoking and often hilarious, and I would state that this is the book every modern woman – and every self-respecting man – should read.