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Happily Ever After by Harriet Evans

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “This is the story of a girl who doesn’t believe in happy endings. Or happy families. It’s the story of Eleanor Bee, a shy book-loving girl who vows to turn herself into someone bright, shiny and confident, someone sophisticated. Someone who knows how life works. But life has a funny way of catching us unawares. Turns out that Elle doesn’t know everything about love. Or life. Or how to keep the ones we love safe…”

REVIEW: I absolutely loved this book. It isn’t often that I find so-called ‘chick-lit’ fiction that I actually enjoy, as the characters are usually somewhat one-dimensional and the ending of the novel tends to be staring the reader right in the face; but that was not the case with this novel. Evans tells the story of Eleanor Bee, a Bridget Jones-esque character whose struggles and successes in the tough world of publishing make for hilarious, realistic and often romantic results. The reader watches Eleanor grow from a shy secretary into the manager of a publishing division in New York, all the while following her familial problems and her relationship failures. It is hard to discuss the book without giving too much away, which I really don’t want to do as it was the surprises that the book held that made it so interesting to me. For literary readers, the frequent mentions of other books also adds an extra enjoyable dimension to the story, which can at times be truly heartbreaking as we witness Eleanor’s struggle with drink and her mother’s own downward spiral into alcoholism. I would highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a fun, relaxing read with relatable characters and a witty, lively insight into the publishing industry.

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Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “Maycomb, Alabama. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch – ‘Scout’ – returns home from New York City to visit her ageing father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise’s homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town and the people dearest to her. Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt. Featuring many of the iconic characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman perfectly captures a young woman, and a world, in painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past – a journey that can be guided only by one’s own conscience.”

REVIEW: Upon the release of this novel, I found myself to be one of the many people who, as avid fans of To Kill a Mockingbird, were greatly excited to read this novel and discover what had happened to all the characters whom we know and love from the original novel. Because of this, I found it extremely difficult to review the book as a stand-alone novel, and felt let down by how the characters had developed, as many of them had become something I no longer liked nor empathised with as I did in To Kill a Mockingbird. Yet, Go Set a Watchman was actually the novel that Lee wrote first, until persuaded by the publishers to write instead of Scout’s childhood, which they felt – it seems correctly – would appeal much more greatly to the reading public. In light of this, should we see the characterisation of our protagonists in Go Set a Watchman as the real characters, and the characterisation of them in To Kill a Mockingbird as a more innocent, sugar-coated version designed to sit more comfortably with the public conscience? These are just some of the questions I asked myself as I thought about how I was going to write a review of this book which, despite Lee’s brilliantly witty, energetic and philosophical writing style, for me could not hope to foster the same love in me as To Kill a Mockingbird did when I first read it four years ago. The reader is aware that things have changed greatly in Maycomb right from the start of the novel; we find out within the first fifty pages that Jean Louise’s beloved brother Jem is dead, though his death is never mentioned in great detail and felt somewhat skimmed over by Lee, who perhaps at the time had not realised how much of a beloved and important character Jem would become. The character of Dill seems to have been replaced by Jean Louise’s love interest, Henry, who was barely mentioned in To Kill a Mockingbird but who here is shown to have played a great role in Jean Louise’s early years and been the object of her affections throughout their adolescence. Dill is mentioned, but it is Henry who appears to colour all of Jean Louise’s childhood memories, rather than Dill. Minor characters like Aunt Alexandra and Uncle Jack are pushed to the fore in this novel, taking on integral roles, while the vibrant Calpurnia is pushed to the sidelines as racial tensions begin to mount and she distances herself from the Finch family, including her beloved Scout, who is heartbroken by Calpurnia’s indifference towards her. It is Atticus, however, that has caused so much controversy in reviews since the release of this novel, as Lee has him spouting racist views that disagree violently with the intelligent lawyer who we saw defend Tom Robinson with such passion in To Kill a Mockingbird. Yet, I would argue that, by the end of the novel, readers can see that in a sense Atticus has not really changed that much at all. Yes, his views have changed in a manner that completely horrifies Jean Louise and make her physically unwell, and also deeply shocks the reader – or so it seems. By the end of the novel, however, the reader begins to get a sense that Atticus does not necessarily believe in what he is saying; he is, in fact, trying to prevent the racial tensions in the South from escalating by becoming part of one side so that he is able to rein them in. This is how I perceived Atticus’ motives myself, though I will confess that this may be somewhat hopeful on my part, as I did not wish to lose the character I had always admired so greatly. The thing I did enjoy about the book, however, was that Jean Louise  – our beloved Scout – has not changed one bit. Scout acts as an anchor for the reader, acting as our ‘watchman’ – our conscience – and the only point of sanity in a world overrun by terrifying and upsetting racial hatred.

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In the Shadow of Lady Jane by Edward Charles

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RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “It is 1551 and a single act of heroism plunges ambitious young Richard Stocker into a tide of religious and social upheaval which will change not only his own life but the course of British history. In gratitude for saving his daughters from a flooded river, the powerful Lord Henry Grey agrees to employ Richard in his household. Passionate young Lady Katherine has already fallen for the dashing man who saved her life, while Richard himself develops a profound friendship with her troubled but brilliant sister, Lady Jane Grey. Theirs is a bond which will only be severed three years later, when Lady Jane is put to the axe at the age of just sixteen.”

REVIEW: Having read many novels on Lady Jane Grey all written by women, I was eager to see if there might be any difference in how a male author might portray this troubled martyr of a girl, whose unwanted Queenship and untimely death make up one of the greatest tragedies in British Royal history. I was impressed by the way Charles portrayed Jane; in fact, his portrayals of all of the members of the Grey family were exactly as I had imagined them and as I myself would have written them, and each of them had me gripped from the start. I also quickly grew fond of the protagonist, Richard Stocker, whose admiration for Lady Jane and tender love for the Lady Katherine, as well as his friendship with the young Mary, make him seem amiable and lead to him becoming a likeable character. The story of Jane Grey’s downfall in all its tragedy is well known, and Richard’s character was woven seamlessly into the narrative of this sorry tale, so that in places it felt almost like a fiction rather than a non-fiction book – which is rare in most historical fiction. There were, however, some minor problems that I had with the novel – firstly, that in the editing process it does not seem to have been picked up that Charles often lacks the use of commas in longer sentences. This does not detract in any way from his general writing style, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but simply would have made it easier for the reader; sometimes I felt like I was racing through the sentences, and commas would have helped to give them a better pace and not make me feel overloaded with information. I was also upset that at the end of the book, we know of Lady Jane’s end, and are given clues and hopes for the futures of both Katherine and Richard; but Mary, who starts off the book as a fairly central character, remains a mystery, and we learn nothing of her future life. Overall, however, these are only minor problems and I would definitely recommend Charles’ book, particularly due to his excellent portrayal of the Grey family.

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Longbourn by Jo Baker

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “It is wash-day for the housemaids at Longbourn House, and Sarah’s hands are chapped and raw. Domestic life below stairs, ruled with a tender heart and an iron will by Mrs Hill the housekeeper, is about to be disturbed by the arrival of a new footman, bearing secrets and the scent of the sea.”

REVIEW: As a huge Jane Austen/Pride and Prejudice fan I was really looking forward to reading this book, which offers a view of the lives of the Bennet girls from a downstairs perspective. Sarah, the protagonist, is both likeable and easy to sympathise with as she yearns for a life beyond the gruelling routine of domestic service, and has some aspects of the famous Elizabeth Bennet about her in her intelligence and feisty spirit. Through Sarah we are introduced to her companions, who also work for the Bennet family – the quiet but gentle Mr Hill, the hardworking and loving Mrs Hill (his wife), Polly, the young maid-in-training, and a new arrival, James Smith, who comes to Longbourn in mysterious circumstances and remains silent on the matter of his past. Sarah is determined to find out who James is and where he has come from, but soon has her head turned by the Bingleys’ new servant, Ptolemy, who promises her a life of luxury and freedom with him in London. All of these events take place alongside the events we are so familiar with from Pride and Prejudice, which are reported from the perspective of the servants, and add an extra depth to Sarah’s story. Sarah’s close relationship with the elder Bennet sisters, Jane and Elizabeth, also ingratiates her with the reader as we know well of the goodness and kindness of these two characters. As Sarah and James begin to realise that they have feelings for each other, disaster strikes and James is forced to go on the run. It is at this point in the novel that we learn more of James’ background and, most importantly, his parentage, which is an excellent twist in the story. I really thoroughly enjoyed this book, which renewed my enjoyment of Pride and Prejudice as it felt as though I was experiencing it all over again, but in a new way. I did find myself disappointed slightly by the characterisation of Mr Bennet, whom I was always very fond of but who seemed far more ignorant of the feelings of others in Baker’s novel, and more driven by pride than Austen had led us to believe. This is the only minor flaw I found while reading the book, which I would highly recommend.!

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Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “Thirty-one and twice widowed, Katherine Parr must return to court – where an ageing Henry VIII has just had his fifth wife beheaded, and is searching for a sixth. As those around her scheme and plot on behalf of the King, Katherine falls for seductive Thomas Seymour. But her hopes of marrying for love are dashed when Henry dispatches Seymour abroad and makes Katherine his Queen. Trapped in a court riven by factions as dying Henry’s reign draws to its end, Katherine must use all her instincts to survive not just the obese King’s increasingly menacing behaviour but the treachery of those closest to him…”

REVIEW: Historical novels about Katherine Parr are unfortunately few and far between. History has often painted Katherine as the dull final wife, bookish and placid. who acted as more of a nurse than a wife to her ageing and temperamental husband. Fremantle, however, turns this reputation on its head, brilliantly portraying Katherine as the intelligent, compassionate and intensely religious woman that she was, and showing how she suffered at the hands of both her husband and a court torn apart by political and religious rivalries. Katherine’s relationship with her stepdaughter Meg and their servant girl, Dot, who becomes a second protagonist in the novel and plays a very important role in Katherine’s life, also adds more depth to Katherine’s character. The addition of Dot is also clever as it allows the reader to view life at the Tudor court from both the upper class and lower class perspective, meaning that we develop a greater understanding of the court as a whole. I really thoroughly enjoyed Fremantle’s portrayal of Katherine, who we so rarely get the chance to read about in depth, and was particularly gripped by reading of how close Katherine herself came to suffering the fate of two of her predecessors, Anne Boleyn and Kathryn Howard, due to her religious views. Fremantle’s portrayal of Henry himself was also very interesting – his volatile temper and his almost childish enthusiasm for playacting and tantrums made it easy to side with Katherine, whom the reader feels great sympathy for throughout the novel. When Katherine marries Thomas Seymour after the King’s death it is initially presented as an escape for her, a true love match; but any reader who knows of the history behind the marriage would know that Seymour undoubtedly did more bad for Katherine than good, and we are heartbroken with her to learn of his betrayal with Katherine’s own stepdaughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I, with whom he has an affair. The tragic ending of Katherine’s tale leaves the reader truly mourning, as Fremantle has written her so vividly that we almost feel as though we know her by the end of the book. I would very highly recommend this book and was hugely impressed with both Fremantle’s characterisation of the key figures of the period and by how accurately she depicts the court atmosphere.

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Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “When a mysterious young woman named Katie appears in the small town of Southport, her sudden arrival raises questions about her past. Beautiful yet unassuming, Katie is determined to avoid forming personal ties until a series of events draws her into two reluctant relationships. Despite her reservations, Katie slowly begins to lower her guard, putting down roots in the close-knit community. But even as Katie starts to fall in love, she struggles with the dark secret that still haunts her…”

REVIEW: I have read many of Sparks’ books over the years as he is the favourite author of one of my closest friends, but ‘Safe Haven’ has definitely made it into the ranks of my favourite Sparks books. The story of Katie, a beautiful but fearful woman who has run away from an abusive husband and given herself a new identity, is extremely gripping and also very emotional. Although we only find out about Katie’s past through flashbacks, or through the eyes of her psychotic husband Kevin, the glimpses we get are enough to make us instantly sympathise with her character and to hope that her new life works out. When Katie begins to make herself at home in Southport, befriending her mysterious next-door neighbour Jo and forming a relationship with widower Alex and his children, Josh and Kristen, the reader feels the happiness that she herself feels in making a new life for herself. As Katie and Alex’s relationship begins to progress, however, so does Kevin’s search for his missing wife, leading to a shocking climax of the novel that will have readers on the edge of their seats. The portrayal of the abusive relationship, Kevin’s descent into madness and the blossoming love between Alex and Katie are all very believable and make the novel all the more enjoyable. I would highly recommend this as one of my favourite Sparks novels.

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The Night Falling by Katherine Webb

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Puglia, Italy, 1921. Leandro returns home now a rich man with a glamorous American wife, determined to make his mark. But how did he get so wealthy – and what haunts his outwardly exuberant wife? Boyd, quiet English architect, is hired to build Leandro’s dreams. But why is he so afraid of Leandro, and what really happened between them years before, in New York? Clare, Boyd’s diffident wife, is summoned to Puglia with her stepson. At first desperate to leave, she soon finds a compelling reason to stay. Ettore, starving, poor and grieving for his lost fiancee, is too proud to ask his Uncle Leandro to help. Until events conspire to force his hand. Tensions are high as poverty leads veterans of the Great War to the brink of rebellion. And under the burning sky, a reckless love and a violent enmity will bring brutal truths to light…”

REVIEW: As any long-term followers of this blog will know, I am a huge fan of Katherine Webb – I have read all of her novels and each and every one of them has been given a high rating on this blog. This new novel, The Night Falling, is no exception. It took me longer to get into than Webb’s previous works, but once I had gotten into it, I was hooked. This novel mainly focuses on the stories of Ettore and Clare. Ettore is an extremely hard working Puglian peasant, struggling to support his sick father, his hotheaded sister and her baby son Iacopo. He is also struggling to deal with the grief and anger he feels after the death of his fiance Livia, who died after becoming the victim of a brutal rape, and is on the hunt for her attacker to exact his revenge. Clare is from the other end of the spectrum, a middle-class Englishwoman who travels to Puglia with her stepson Pip in order to join her husband, Boyd, while he works on creating a new home for the formidable Leandro and his wife Marcie. Clare is restless and uncomfortable in Puglia, fearful of Boyd experiencing another depressive episode and of losing her relationship with Pip, who seems to be growing up much faster than she might like. Underlying the tales of these two very different people – who will eventually become lovers – is a class war that has been rife for decades, with the poor working in hard, laborious jobs under the rich, exploitative masters, including Ettore’s enemy the sadistic Ludo Manzo. This class struggle can sometimes make the book very distressing to read as the lives of the poor are described in harrowing detail and the farm environments made to seem harsh and hostile places; I was also particularly upset when reading any of the parts that mentioned how the masters treated animals, as I always find it difficult to read of animals being harmed in any way. Yet, the fact that Webb is unafraid to deal with the harsh realities of the period makes the book, and her writing itself, all the more admirable. We can picture the environment so well that we are almost made to feel part of it, and we suffer alongside the characters in the book, all of whom are written so well that they seem almost to leap from the page. The last hundred or so pages of the book offer so many twists and turns, uncovering past mysteries as well as revealing unexpected truths of the present storyline, and I simply couldn’t put it down. This is yet another brilliant novel from Webb and I can’t wait to read more!