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Poor Unfortunate Soul by Serena Valentino

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RATING: 2.5/5

BLURB: “Determined to be with her new love, Ariel makes a dangerous deal with Ursula. Will the cost of losing her enchanting voice and nearly her soul prove too high for Ariel, or will the power of good prevail?”

REVIEW: Ursula is possibly my favourite Disney villain (closely followed by Scar from ‘The Lion King), and having read Valentino’s previous twists on Snow White and Beauty and the Beast I was really looking forward to this one. I was, however, a little disappointed. The novel had so much potential, but many of Valentino’s ideas and tales about Ursula’s background could have done with more elaboration, as could the story of her time in Triton’s court. The story of how she lost the human father who adopted her was heartbreaking, and explained much about Ursula’s personality and villainous actions. Yet other backstories that would have added depth to her character were skimmed past; we learned that she had been close to Triton’s wife during her time at court, but little more about their friendship. We learnt of the fact that Triton and Ursula were in fact brother and sister, but saw little of the dynamics of their relationship aside from skimming the surface of their fallouts and hatred for one another. This made it possible to understand why Ursula targeted Ariel, but it would have been interesting to be able to identify more depth to her motives. Whereas Valentino’s previous books did make the reader feel sympathy for the villains whose stories she told, I have to admit that despite my intial sympathy for Ursula over the death of her adoptive father I had soon stopped feeling anything for her at all. This is unfortunate, as it is this sympathy for the villains which first attracted me to Valentino’s work. The three mad sisters who feature in all three novels are still prominent in this book, and I enjoyed following their story more than I enjoyed following that of Ursula, though of course the two storylines are linked. I particularly love the character of Pflanze, the cat belonging to the sisters, who can communicate with them as well as other witches. Overall, however, I found the book disappointing, and was able to read through it quickly as there was little to grab my attention.

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The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Joe, Beth and Frannie take their cousin Rick on an adventure he’ll never forget! Find out how they escape from the Land of Dreams. And what goes wrong in the Land of Topsy-Turvy. And who drives a runaway train in the Land of Do-as-you-Please”

REVIEW: I absolutely loved Enid Blyton as a child. Beginning with my Mum reading me her Famous Five books as bedtime stories, I soon ended up loving such series as ‘The Naughtiest Girl in School’, ‘Mallory Towers’ and ‘St Clare’s’ – and, of course, the Faraway tree stories. I picked up this copy during a free book giveaway at work a couple of weeks ago after realising I couldn’t find my Faraway Tree collection (which I’m still desperately hunting for!), and couldn’t resist re-reading it. ‘The Magic Faraway Tree’ is the second book in the series, and I remember it as one of my favourites. These stories truly are enchanting. A magic tree, inhabited by lovable characters such as the beautiful fairy Silky, the amusing Saucepan man, and kind-hearted Moon-Face, hosts a different magical land at the very top of its branches every week. Three local children, Joe, Beth and Frannie, are eager to introduce their cousin Rick to the wonders of the Faraway Tree and their beloved friends there, and this leads to a number of enchanting and amusing adventures for the children and their magical friends. My favourite tale had to be that of the Land of Magical Medicines, in which amusing incidents involving lots of growing, shrinking, flying and swelling up took place. The stories made me feel as safe and comforted as they did when I was a child, and I remembered the enchanting feeling of escaping on a new adventure every chapter with a great deal of fondness. I would highly recommend this book, and it is definitely the sort of story that should be read to children to encourage imagination and a belief in magic – one day, I hope I will be reading it to children of my own.

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Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “Effia and Esi, two sisters with two very different destinies. One sold into slavery; one a slave trader’s wife. The consequences of their fate reverberate through the generations that follow: from the Gold Coast of Africa to the plantations of Mississippi; from the missionary schools of Ghana to the dive bars of Harlem. Spanning continents and generations, Yaa Gyasi has written a miraculous novel – an intense, heartbreaking story of one family and, through their lives, the story of America itself.”

REVIEW: I was keen to read this book when I first read about its release, and was lucky enough to find a work colleague to borrow it from. I’m so glad I did, because this book is incredible. In equal measures both heartbreaking and heartwarming, the novel is divided into chapters initially telling the stories of Effia and Esia, and then each of their descendants. The stories are often harrowing, but it is not right that stories of the suffering of slaves should be anything other than this; in writing these tales, Gyasi spares nothing in describing the details of the trials her characters face, from the domination of white over black to the domination of men over women in traditional patriarchal cultures. The stories vary in content and each has an important moral impact on the reader. I felt every word whilst reading this novel, which is partly what makes it such an intense read; it is gripping and impossible to put down purely because every word draws you in and holds you there as a witness to the events taking place. The story of Ness was my favourite, and one I found particularly moving; I had to put the book down for a while to recover! I also particularly enjoyed the story of Abena, though once again this was a more moving tale. The book itself is pure genius, showing how our suffering and our lives can have consequences that span generations in a kind of butterfly effect. What starts with Effia, an Asante girl who marries a slave trader, and her sister Esi, captured and sold into slavery herself, takes us on a journey that ends with a budding romance between their descendants as they explore Ghana, the land of their heritage. I can’t recommend it highly enough not only as a novel, but as a historical and moral lesson, and a captivating piece of literary art.

 

 

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The Last Tudor by Philippa Gregory

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Elizabeth’s royal cousin Jane Gret is faced with the choice of death or denying her faith after being forced onto the throne of England. It is left to Elizabeth to measure the threat posed to her by the remaining Grey girls – the famous beauty Katherine Grey and her sister, a little person, Mary. Alternately befriended and snubbed, the two girls thrive as the queen’s companions, learning to judge her moods and avoid her temper tantrums. But they each have a secret: Katherine is in love with an heir to the great family Seymour, and Mary with the queen’s sergeant porter. They come to realise that Elizabeth will never allow them to marry for fear of a Tudor heir to the throne.

Their martyred sister Jane’s advice is clear. ‘Learn you to die’, Jane wrote in her famous letter to Katherine. But Jane’s tragic story and her fatal choice is only the beginning for her two beloved sisters…”

REVIEW: I have always been a fan of Philippa Gregory, but as readers of this blog may remember, I was very disappointed with her previous offering, ‘Three Sisters, Three Queens’, which was unrealistic and poorly written. ‘The Last Tudor’ is another novel about three sisters, but in this Philippa Gregory is certainly back on form. The book is based solidly on historical fact and primary sources, which the previous book seemed to lack and which is vital in writing historical fiction – there is a great deal of difference between artistic licence and plucking facts out of nowhere. This novel is split into three parts, each narrated by one of the three Grey sisters – Jane, Katherine and Mary. I previously knew quite a bit about Jane and Katherine Grey, but far less about Mary, and was therefore surprised by what I read. The book is gripping and well-written; I didn’t want to put it down despite knowing how the stories of each character would end. The tragic lives and the strength and endurance displayed by these three women make them truly worthy of admiration, and I hope that in releasing this novel more people take an interest in these bold historical figures. Jane’s story narrates her devotion to the Protestant faith, which she refuses to recant even upon facing death, and her difficult relationship with her mother. When Jane is pushed into marriage with Guilford Dudley, and then pushed to take the throne upon the death of her cousin, Edward VI, she is terrified and unwilling. Yet Jane is brave, and sees her accession as an opportunity to strengthen the Protestant faith throughout England. When supporters rally behind Mary Tudor, however, Jane finds herself in the Tower of London, betrayed and neglected by those she trusted most – aside from her two younger sisters, who continue to love and support her.

Upon Jane’s execution, we move on to hear Katherine’s story. Viewed as giddy and foolish by her religious older sister, we discover that Katherine is actually intelligent in her own right, with a deep understanding of court politics that serves her well both in the court of her Catholic cousin Mary and later in the court of the volatile Elizabeth, who views both Katherine and Mary as threats to her throne. Katherine is also beautiful, with a love for animals and merriment at court, and she soon catches the eye of Ned Seymour. By marrying the two would hold a strong claim to the throne in the form of any children they may have; so knowing that Elizabeth will refuse them permission, the two marry in secret. Katherine is soon pregnant with Ned’s child, and while he is abroad on a diplomatic mission she is locked up in the Tower, where she gives birth to a son who has a strong claim to the Tudor throne. Ned and Katherine gain the sympathy of a Tower jailer who allows them to meet in secret, and she soon gives birth to a second son. The two are torn apart when Elizabeth discovers this, forced to live away from each other until Katherine dies of grief.

Finally, we hear the story of Mary, a sufferer of dwarfism who at the time would have been referred to as a ‘little person’. Mary uses her height to her advantage, able to spy and listen in on court gossip without anyone noticing she is there. Also beautiful and intelligent, she falls in love with her social inferior, the Queen’s sargeant porter Thomas Keyes. Much like Katherine, when their secret marriage is discovered, the couple are separated and Thomas is locked up in the Fleet prison.

All three sisters had tragic lives and suffered cruel and terrible fates at the hands of the Tudor Queens. This novel is a fascinating attempt by Gregory to make their stories better known, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

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The Hiding Places by Katherine Webb

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “One hot summer in 1922. A house at the heart of the village. A crime that will shock the community. A man accused and two women with everything to lose.

When Donny Cartwright is accused of murder, his sister Pudding is determined to discover the identity of the real killer. Together with newcomer, Irene, she begins to uncover the truth – a secret that has been buried for years. But when they happen upon a strange object, hidden in the past, they realise it will change everything…”

REVIEW: I am about to reiterate for the millionth time that Katherine Webb is one of my all-time favourite authors; this time, however, I am going to add that ‘The Hiding Places’ may well be my favourite book of hers so far. Gripping and beautifully written, with a huge twist that I didn’t see coming at all (very shortly followed by a second shocking twist), this book is absolute genius, and I finished it feeling both overwhelmed by the story and disappointed that it was over.

This novel tells the story of what happens to the small town of Slaughterford when a local businessman, recently married and liked by everyone, is brutally murdered. The story is written in third person but focused through the perspectives of three women; Pudding, the sister of the boy arrested for the murder; Irene, the victim’s new bride; and Clemmie, a mute village girl embarking on a secret love affair. Pudding’s brother, Donny, damaged by his experiences in the First World War and now needing almost constant care, is an easy target to pin the crime on, and as he was at the scene of the murder, it seems that little can be done to rescue him. As Pudding’s search for the real killer, and evidence that will save her brother from hanging, heightens, she enlists the help of the victim’s wife, Irene. Although initially uncertain, Irene soon comes to believe in Donny’s innocence, and, combined with the strange feelings she has been getting ever since she moved to the rural town with her husband, begins to sense that something more sinister is behind the murder. As the two work together to unveil the mystery surrounding Alistair’s death, and a similar murder that occurred precisely fifty years earlier, new evidence comes to light that makes for a twist that both alarms and confuses the reader initially, but is soon revealed to¬† be simply a brilliantly complex plot twist from the author.

As usual, Webb’s writing was wonderfully emotive and descriptive, and the novel hooked me in from the beginning. I absolutely loved this book and would highly recommend it.

 

 

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Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “this is the journey of

surviving through poetry

this is the blood sweat tears

of twenty-one years

this is my heart

in your hands

this is

the hurting

the loving

the breaking

the healing”

 

REVIEW: I love poetry, and am always seeking out new poets with work I can enjoy. I had wanted to read this highly praised series of poems by Rupi Kaur for some time, and picked it up on a shopping trip last weekend. I flew through the whole thing in one sitting, and put it down having felt the strangest rush of emotions. Upon finishing it I felt restless, and instantly desperate to read it again. Kaur’s poems, based on four main themes – hurting, loving, breaking and healing – instantly connect to the reader, drawing out memories and emotions evoked by the incredible thought she puts in to every verse. The book is fantastic, and even when dealing with sensitive themes that the reader may not actually have experienced, makes us feel every inch of the pain that Kaur has poured into the words. It is also an incredibly feminist text, addressing the way men view women in terms of the male gaze, sexual objectvity and even rape and abuse. Kaur’s poems put the power in the woman’s hands, and address the many ways in which men view and exploit female sexuality. I absolutely loved this book, and am eagerly awaiting payday so I can purchase Kaur’s latest release, ‘the sun and her flowers’. I will end this review with one of my favourite poems from the book, one that really struck a chord with me based on an experience I went through in the summer of last year;

“neither of us is happy

but neither of us wants to leave

so we keep breaking one another

and calling it love”

 

 

 

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Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: ‘This new telling of the story of Jane’s life shows us how and why she lived as she did, examining the places and spaces that mattered to her. It wasn’t all country houses and ballrooms, but a life that was often a painful struggle. Jane famously lived ‘a life without incident’, but with new research and insights Lucy Worsley reveals a passionate woman who fought for her freedom. A woman who far from being a lonely spinster in fact had at least five marriage prospects, but who in the end refused to settle for anything less than Mr Darcy’.

REVIEW: After a month-long summer break indulging myself by re-reading Harry Potter, I’m back, and with a book that is currently one of my favourites I’ve read this year. Lucy Worsley’s new biography of Jane Austen is one of the best biographies I’ve read in a long time, showing us a completely new side to a woman who is generally believed to have written incredible novels, but otherwise been rather dull. Worsley focuses on the places that Jane called home throughout her lifetime, and how these places inspired her novels, hindered or encouraged her writing, and to what extent they can be perceived as a true home. Despite being a big Austen fan, I had not previously realised just how many times Jane and her family moved around, often dependent on the charity of relatives – particularly her many brothers. After the death of her father, Jane, her beloved sister Cassandra and her mother moved from place to place, two spinsters and a widow with little money to call their own, until they finally settled at Chawton, one of the places most associated with Jane Austen. Between her childhood home at Steventon and her final home at Chawton, Jane moved between a great number of cities including Southampton and, most popularly, Bath. However, as Worsley explains, things could have been very different for Jane had she chosen to marry. Modern readers of Austen’s novels tend to picture her as somewhat frustrated, able to write such beautifully romantic plots into her novels because she longed for such a life herself. Although suitors of Jane’s such as Tom Lefroy and Harris Bigg-Wither are relatively well known, Worsley reveals the real story behind these two relationships, as well as revealing a further three prospective suitors for Jane’s hand in marriage. Had Jane accepted one of these offers, her life would surely have been more comfortable, and she may well have been able to provide for her sister and mother also. Yet, Jane did not settle for any of these suitors – it seems that, perhaps, she was as much in pursuit of real love as the characters in her novels were. This biography therefore shows us the real story behind many of the modern perceptions of Jane Austen, and was written in such a beautiful narrative style that it felt like a novel, making it incredibly easy to read for a work of non-fiction. The book has clearly been thoroughly researched and, despite of course knowing how Jane’s tale would end, was so well-written that I found myself very emotional at the end of the book when Jane’s story came to a close. By introducing us to this hidden side of Jane, witty, fun, sarcastic and full of imagination, Worsley allows us to feel close to Jane; she makes her so accessible that the reader actually feels grief when reading of Jane’s death, despite it having taken place exactly two hundred years ago. This is an incredible biography and I would highly recommend it.