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The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

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RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, recuperating from a broken leg, becomes fascinated with a contemporary portrait of Richard III that bears no resemblance to the Wicked Uncle of history. Could such a sensitive, noble face actually belong to one of the world’s most heinous villains – a venomous hunchback who may have killed his brother’s children to make his crown secure? Or could Richard have been the victim, turned into a monster by the usurpers of England’s throne? Grant determines to find out once and for all, with the help of the British Museum and an American scholar, what kind of man Richard Plantagenet really was and who killed the Princes in the Tower.”

REVIEW: Tey’s book was, I felt, very cleverly written, using the realms of fiction to examine and explore the case of the Princes in the Tower with all the thoroughness and research of a non-fiction study. As a historian myself the mystery of who killed the Princes in the Tower has always fascinated me, and just as Grant does in the novel I had reached the conclusion that Richard III was not, in fact, their murderer, though I differ with Tey on who I think was the murderer instead. Through putting such an investigation within the realms of fiction Tey is able to make the story two-dimensional; the reader gains enjoyment from learning about Grant, though we only see small snippets of his life as he is confined to a hospital bed and all of those he meets are either visiting friends, hospital staff or his helpful researcher Carradine. Grant’s mission to find out the truth about the Princes in the Tower and vindicate Richard initially starts as a means of amusing himself to beat the boredom of being hospitalised and immobile, yet it soon becomes an obsession. The conclusions Grant draws are based on solid historical evidence, and quotations from scholarly works on the subject are used throughout the book to back up his ideas, just like in a piece of non-fiction. Although I appreciate the cleverness of this two-dimensional model of writing, I did sometimes find it to be difficult to read as a fiction novel as there was so much factual evidence involved; I feel Tey might have been better off using her extensive research to write a full, non-fiction vindication of Richard III, rather than wrapping the mystery up within the confines of a historical fiction piece.

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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.!