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The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever by Julia Quinn

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RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “At the age of ten, Miss Miranda Cheever showed no signs of ever becoming a Great Beauty. Her hair was lamentably brown, her eyes the same muddy colour and her legs, which were uncommonly long, refused to learn anything which might remotely be called grace. 

Only, in 1811, the nineteen-year-old Viscount Turner – eldest brother of Miranda’s closest friend – had kissed the hand of an awkward ten-year-old girl and promised her that one day she’d be as beautiful as she was clever. 

Now, eight years later, Miranda is a grown woman, and Turner an embittered widower. But she has never forgotten his kindness. Indeed it is only in her diary that she confides the truth: she has never stopped loving Turner, and she has never stopped hoping that one day he will see her as more than a naive girl.”

REVIEW: Although I found this book hugely entertaining and was swept away by the romance, just like I always am with Quinn’s works, I did find myself to be somewhat disappointed in Quinn’s construction of her heroine, Miranda Cheever. In the other novels I have read, Quinn’s heroines are often strong, independent women who lose none of their integrity when they fall in love with the main male character. Miranda, however, seemed much weaker than Quinn’s usual form of character, and I was disappointed with her lack of female strength when dealing with Turner, who, during their extremely rocky and unusual courtship, often treats her appallingly. Yet, Miranda still ends up marrying Turner, just as all of Quinn’s heroines do. Despite this lack of backbone in Miranda’s character, the book still make me smile and had some lines that made me laugh aloud. The romance of the story was as well-written as usual…I just wish Quinn had stuck to the usual mode of feisty females that she writes so well.

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Anne Boleyn: The Queen of Controversy by Lacey Baldwin Smith

 

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “The story of Anne Boleyn goes to the root of all history; what makes an individual or event memorable to later generations? Anne is an exceptional case for her life is a double helix intertwining extraordinary human drama with profound historical crisis. A young lady of no particular importance or talents – she was neither a great beauty nor a captivating charmer – married a man who turned out to be England’s most notorious monarch. and then three years later she was publicly executed for treason, accused of quadruple adultery and incest. Mistress Boleyn was the crucial catalyst for three of the most important events in modern history; the break with Rome and the English Reformation, the advent of the nation state, and the birth of a daughter whose forty-three years on the throne stand as England’s most spectacular literary and political success story. Remove Anne and the Reformation as we know it today would not have taken place; remove Anne and Elizabeth I would not have existed at all. Anne Boleyn stands as a monument to the truth that there is nothing consistent in history except the unexpected.”

REVIEW: It was so nice to dive back into a work of historical nonfiction for pleasure rather than study, especially when this is a work written by a historian whom I greatly admire. Baldwin-Smith’s previous biography of Katherine Howard is one of the rare accounts of the young Queen’s life and is one of my favourite and most useful works of nonfiction. This book, however, is unlike Baldwin-Smith’s usual style – he himself describes it as more of a ‘biographical essay’, giving a relatively detailed account of Anne Boleyn’s life while studying in depth the conclusions that four other eminent historians have drawn about her – Eric Ives, Retha Warnicke, G.W. Bernard and Alison Weir. In this sense, it was unlike the majority of other nonfiction works that I have read. I nonetheless found it to be extremely informative, written with a light and entertaining wit that made the account of Anne’s life all the more fascinating to read. Although I sometimes disagreed on his views of the other historians, on the whole Baldwin-Smith seems convinced of Anne’s innocence, which is something I always warm to in historians. Baldwin-Smith’s research, although seeming minimal in this rather brief and shallow account, is clearly meticulous and by dissecting the work of other historians in the area he clearly demonstrates his skill both as a historian and a historiographer.

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Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Charlotte-Rose de la Force, exiled from the court of Louis XIV, has always been a great teller of tales. Selena Leonelli, once the exquisite muse of the great Venetian artist Titian, is terrified of time. Margherita, trapped in a doorless tower and burdened by tangles of her red-gold hair, must find a way to escape. Three women, three lives, three stories, braided together in a compelling tale of desire, obsession and the redemptive power of love”

REVIEW: I absolutely adored this book. I have previously reviewed one of Forsyth’s other works, ‘The Wild Girl’, on this blog before and had been greatly impressed by it, so I had high expectations of this novel. I was not disappointed. Forsyth has a wonderful ability to weave magic and mystery into her writing with her links to famous fairy tales – in this case, that of Rapunzel – which makes the story familiar to the reader but also gives them something new and interpretative to be amazed by. The interwoven narratives of Charlotte-Rose, Selena and Margherita combine to create a dazzling story of magic and romance, with shocking twists and turns and links that constantly keep the reader guessing. Charlotte-Rose’s tale is dramatic, tragic and sometimes amusing; her life in the court of the Sun King Louis XIV makes for hugely entertaining reading, and Forsyth captures the ever-changing atmosphere of the French court beautifully. Charlotte-Rose’s disasters in love and politics alike make her a very relatable character, though her bold nature at first makes her difficult to warm to. As the reader gets to know Charlotte-Rose, however, and experiences her misfortunes, we grow to be quite fond of her and feel extremely sympathetic during her imprisonment in the Bastille and her later removal to a convent. The character of Selena Leonelli is very similar – initially, and throughout much of the book, she is the villain of the piece due to her kidnap and subsequent imprisonment of the young and vulnerable Margherita. However, once we hear the story of her childhood, her career as a courtesan and her relationship with the painter Titian (who truly seems to come to life in this story), the reader cannot help but reluctantly feel some sympathy for this villain, causing a twist in loyalties that only ever, in my opinion, is caused by the very best of books. Finally, the story of Margherita, a vivid and intricate retelling of the story of ‘Rapunzel’ (originally written by the real Charlotte-Rose de la Force whilst in retirement in a convent) is at once familiar and miles apart from anything I have ever read of the tale before. Margherita’s tale was possibly my favourite of them all – reading it is like revisiting childhood but with none of the gory details being spared. I can understand, after reading this book, why Forsyth has been compared to Angela Carter; her work is mysterious, magical and stays with the reader long after the book has been closed. A fantastic read (did I mention I read it in a matter of hours?! I simply could not put it down!). I look forward to reading Forsyth’s future works.

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‘1984’ at London’s Playhouse Theatre

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A friend and I went to see this amazing adaptation of the notorious George Orwell classic ‘1984’ (which I have previously reviewed on this blog) and I simply cannot fault it. The book was brought to life in a chilling, tense and haunting sense, lingering in the mind of the audience just as the book does in the mind of the reader, and causing us to ask all the right questions. The production has a limited run but I urge you to see it if you can!

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Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville

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RATING: 2.5/5

BLURB: “Vienna, 1899: Josef Breur – celebrated psychoanalyst – is about encounter his strangest case yet. Found by the lunatic asylum, thin, head shaved, she claims to have no name, no feelings – to be, in fact, not even human. Intrigued, Breur determines to fathom the roots of her disturbance.

Years Later: In Germany, we meet Krysta. Krysta’s Papa is busy working in the infirmary with the ‘animal people’, so little Krysta plays alone, lost in the stories of Hansel and Gretel, the Pied Piper and more. And when everything changes and the real world around her becomes as frightening as any fairytale, Krysta finds that her imagination holds powers beyond what she could ever have guessed…As the shadows and echoes between them multiply, it becomes clear that these two interwoven narratives are the interwoven threads of one much bigger story, which scours the darkest, most shameful places of twentieth-century history and reveals – in a dizzying final twist – a path back out to the light.”

REVIEW: This book is a very difficult one to review due to the complex and surprising nature of its storyline. Somewhat ironically, given its title, the book was a lot darker than I expected it to be and highly distressing in parts, especially the scenes involving Krysta, a young girl who is orphaned after the murder of her father, a doctor undertaking experiments on patients for the Nazi regime. The double narrative of the story demonstrates an extremely impressive level of skill in Granville’s writing, as both stories – that of the mysterious ‘robot’ Lille and the orphaned Krysta – take many twists and turns and are sometimes confusing to follow. When the reader discovers the link between the two tales it is indeed a great surprise, though we then begin to notice the small clues that are littered throughout the book in order to help us reach this conclusion. Yet, although shocking and upsetting, the link between the two stories is clumsily revealed and somewhat difficult to understand at first. I also found the book very difficult to get into and only really found myself hooked in around the last 20-30 pages. The storyline of the book is extremely ambitious and although I understand what Granville was trying to do, I personally got little enjoyment from the book and found is difficult to understand at times – though I am sure that other readers may fare better with this very well-written but complex work.

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The Princess and the Captain by Anne-Laure Bondoux

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “Princess Malva of Galnicia is beautiful, idealistic and very wilful. On the eve of her arranged marriage, she escapes the palace and sets sail for Lombardaine, unaware that a much more terrifying ordeal lies ahead. Orpheus is the young man sent to bring the Princess home. Thoughtful, rational and stubborn, he is as determined to return Malva as Malva is to be free. But there are far greater powers at work, steering these two towards the boundaries of the Known World, and beyond”

REVIEW: I first read this book when I was about twelve or thirteen and have often returned to it over the years; sometimes it just feels like the right time to return to the comfort of an old favourite. This book had everything I loved at thirteen and everything I still love now – danger, adventure, fantasy, travel and, of course, a dash of romance. Princess Malva escapes the palace after being humiliated by her father and betrothed to a much older man with the help of her maidservant, Philomena, and the guidance of her old tutor, the Archont. The Archont is not all he seems, however, and as soon as Malva and Philomena have fled he proceeds to hunt them down and make their lives as difficult as humanly possible. The two women are eventually separated and Malva ends up trapped in a harem with very little promise of escape – until the arrival of Orpheus Mcbott,  who is looking for a mission after the recent death of his father. Orpheus and Malva soon become the heads of a rather mismatched but extremely loveable crew, and each of these characters easily work their way into the reader’s heart – there is Babilas, the mute sailor tormented by the loss of his lover; Lei, a girl whom Malva befriended in the harem; orphan twins Peppe and Hob, who were stowaways on Orpheus’ ship; Finopico, the slightly crazed but very talented cook and fisherman; and Zeph, the loveable St Bernard who once sailed the seas with Orpheus’ father. Together the crew face many dangers and fears, crossing the boundaries of the Known World and fighting off numerous enemies. Although parts of the last hundred pages of the book are truly, truly heartbreaking (you WILL cry), it is completely worth it to read a book that is the true definition of escapist fiction.

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To Catch an Heiress by Julia Quinn

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “When Caroline Trent is kidnapped by Blake Ravenscroft, she doesn’t even try to elude this dangerously handsome agent of the crown. Yes, he believes she’s a notorious spy named Carlotta de Leon, but she’s tired of running from unwanted marriage proposals, and hiding out in the company of a mysterious captor is awfully convenient – especially as, when she turns twenty-one in six weeks, she’ll gain her fortune.

Blake Ravenscroft’s mission is to bring ‘Carlotta’ to justice, not to fall in love. His heart has been hardened by years of intrigue, but this little temptress proves oddly disarming and thoroughly kissable. And suddenly the unthinkable becomes possible – this mismatched couple might actually be destined for love”

REVIEW: This book, much like all of Quinn’s work, was great fun to read. Caroline Trent, for me, is Quinn’s best heroine to date – she is clumsy, witty, brave and willing to stand up for what she believes in, and this makes her character extremely enjoyable to read about. The relationship between Caroline and Blake progresses at a believable rate, rather than being rushed into, and – although waiting for them to get together can, at times, be frustrating – is amusingly commentated on by Blake’s closest friend, the Marquis of Riverdale (who take centre stage in Quinn’s later novel ‘How to Marry a Marquis’, which I have also reviewed on this blog), who seems just as exasperated as the reader by Blake and Caroline’s cautious courtship. The addition of Blake’s sister Penelope also provides a fun and enjoyable addition, with this group of characters undoubtedly complimenting each other to the extent that they are my favourite set of characters in any Quinn novel. Although I did not enjoy it quite as much as ‘How to Marry a Marquis’, this book was easy to read, fun, romantic and light-hearted, with some real laugh-out-loud moments. Definitely a good book to read if you want to relax and wind down – or if you just need something to put a smile on your face.