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The Angel Tree by Lucinda Riley

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “Thirty years have passed since Greta left Marchmont Hall, a grand and beautiful house nestled in the hills of rural Monmouthshire. But when she returns to the Hall for Christmas, at the invitation of her old friend David Marchmont, she has no recollection of her past association with it – the result of a dreadful accident that has blanked out more than two decades of her life. Then, during a walk through the wintry landscape, she stumbles across a grave in the woods, and the weathered inscription on the headstone tells her that a little boy is buried there. With David’s help, Greta embarks on a quest to rediscover her lost memories, and begins to piece together the fragments of not only her own story, but also that of her daughter, Cheska, the tragic victim of circumstances beyond her control. And,  most definitely, not the angel she appeared to be…”

REVIEW: This is an absolutely amazing book, and one of the things that makes it so amazing is the many plot twists and shocks that unfold as Greta begins to uncover memories of her past; because of this, it is very difficult to review the book without spoliers, so if you like the sound of this novel from reading the blurb (which you should do!) then I suggest you proceed with caution when reading this review, as there will be SPOILERS.

The novel opens with Greta’s return to Marchmont Hall and her dramatic discovery of the grave of a young boy within the grounds of this stately home. As we are taken back into Greta’s past, we discover that this dead child was her son, Jonny, an illegitimate child who was to be passed off as the heir of the Marchmont estate (rather than the bastard of an American GI) as Greta had married Owen Marchmont, seeking peace and security for her and her child. Although Jonny tragically died, however – and this is written in a beautiful, touching and moving style that really gets to the reader – he also had a twin sister, Cheska, who survives to become Greta’s pride and joy. Running away from a grief stricken and increasingly dangerous Owen, Greta and her daughter find themselves in London, where, with the help of Greta’s dearest friend David, Cheska is soon turned into a child movie star. This is the turning point in the novel, the moment when we begin to slowly discover that Cheska – the angel child, the apple of her mother’s eye – is not all she seemed. Mentally disturbed by her brother’s death as a child, Cheska’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and disturbing as the novel goes on, and worsens drastically after an affair with charming (but married) singer Bobby Cross leaves her pregnant and alone. The rest of the novel, encompassing both Greta’s past and present, is marred by Cheska’s rapid mental decline and wild behaviour which, although stabilised after Greta’s accident when she leaves England to become a Hollywood success, begins to escalate upon her return to England, when she discovers a daughter that wants nothing to do with her and a mother who cannot remember her. I can’t say much more without giving away some of the bigger twists of the novel, but suffice to say this book will have you gripped from beginning to end, never quite sure of what could happen next. Although Cheska’s mental instability makes for gripping and dramatic reading, it is also written about with sensitivity; Riley has clearly taken a great deal of time to research mental illness and the ways in which it can impact both the suffering individual and those around them, although admittedly Cheska’s case is extreme. I was hooked by this book the whole way through and would certainly read it again, even though I now know all of the plot twists! I would very highly recommend it.

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The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “For seventy years Josef Weber has been hiding in plain sight. He is a pillar of his local community. He is also a murderer. When Josef decides to confess, it is to Sage Singer, a young woman who trusts him as her friend. What she hears shatters everything she thought she knew and believed. As Sage uncovers the truth from the darkest horrors of war, she must follow a twisting trail between terror and mercy, betrayal and forgiveness, love – and revenge.”

REVIEW: I was so excited to read this book as I knew it incorporated two of my favourite things – Picoult, and history. This was a very dark story, however, even by Picoult standards, as it deals with the unspeakably horrific events of the Holocaust, and although Picoult deals with the matter extremely sensitively, brilliantly portraying its brutality in a way that doesn’t for a moment allow readers to forget that not only is this all terrifying to read, it’s all true, and this is what makes it hard to read. The story is told from the perspectives of Sage Singer, a damaged young baker trying to hide from the world; Minka, her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor; Leo, a Nazi-hunting detective working for the FBI; and a girl called Ania, from a story that Minka wrote during her youth that was shaped by her time at Auschwitz. It is difficult to write about the story without giving too much away, but the real moral dilemma of the story begins when Sage meets Josef Weber, an elderly widow, at a grief counselling group. As they form an unlikely friendship, Josef confesses to Sage that he is a former Nazi, and asks her to help kill him as he can no longer live with his guilt. Sage is then left with the dilemma – does she kill Josef as a punishment for who he was? Or does she forgive him and save him because of who he is now? The reader experiences this moral conflict with Sage, particularly as she recruits Nazi hunter Leo to help her find out more about Josef’s past – and if he is even telling the truth. Reading the horrific story of Minka, Sage’s grandmother, and her time in the concentration camps makes the dilemma all the more intense for both Sage and Minka, particularly as it emerges that Josef was responsible for some of her suffering. I will say no more for fear of spoilers, but I will say that although at times the true horror of the subject can make the book distressing and difficult to read, it is a thoroughly researched and moving portrayal and, I would imagine, deals with a lot of the issues that both victim and Nazi survivors face. I would highly recommend it.

 

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The Red Necklace by Sally Gardner

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “Paris, 1789. While the aristocracy dine, dance, gossip and gamble their way to disaster, the poor and starving dream of revolution. Enter the boy Yann Margoza, destined to be a hero; Tetu the dwarf, his friend and mentor; Sido, unloved daughter of the foolish Marquis de Villeduval; and the sinister Count Kalliovski, who holds half the aristocracy in thrall to him. The drama moves from Paris to London and back, as the Revolution gathers momentum, and the hope of liberty and the dream of equality are crushed beneath the wheel of terror. Too many secrets, too many murders, and the blade of the guillotine is yet to fall…”

REVIEW: This book is primarily designed for Young Adult readers, as sort of a fictional introduction to the events of the first few years of the French Revolution, and I very much enjoyed it. Gardner’s writing is brilliantly evocative and her descriptions of the horrific mentality displayed by the mob is highly realistic and shocking to the reader. Gardner is also highly skilled at making the reader develop an attachment to the main characters, particularly Yann and Sido, though Tetu the dwarf is also a heartwarming invention. The novel tells the story of Yann Margoza, a young boy of gypsy heritage who is working with a magician and Tetu in a show with an automaton, where his ability to project his voice and read minds is highly prized. When the magician Topolain is murdered by the sinister Count Kalliovski, however, Tetu and Yann are forced to go on the run as Kalliovski realises that Tetu knows far too much about his past. These events see Yann flee to London, where he is taken in by the kindly Laxton couple, yet he cannot forget about Tetu or the young aristocratic girl he met when he was escaping – Sido. Sido is the neglected daughter of a Marquis who longs to break free but is forced into obeying the will of a father whom she is unswervingly loyal to, despite his cruelty. As the revolution begins to gain pace however, and terrifying secrets about Kalliovski’s murderous past begin to emerge, Yann knows that despite his fears he must return to Paris and save Sido from a fate worse than death. This novel is well-written and perfectly captures the atmosphere of the revolution, and I particularly enjoyed reading of the budding romance that developed between Yann and Sido.

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The Revenant by Michael Punke

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RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “Hugh Glass isn’t afraid to die. He’s done it once already. When expert tracker Glass is viciously mauled by a bear, death seems inevitable. The two men ordered to remain with him flee, stripping him of his rifle and hatchet and leaving him to die alone. But soon a grim, horrible scarred figure is seen wandering, asking after two men, one with a gun that seems too good for him…”

REVIEW: Now in reviewing this book, take note, because I am about to say two things that I very rarely, if ever, say. First of all, I watched the recently released film version of The Revenant before I read the book – something I generally try to avoid doing. Secondly – and this is something I think I have only ever said once before – I felt that the film was significantly better than the book. This does not mean, however, that Punke does not present a gripping, absorbing and often terrifying retelling of the true story of Hugh Glass, a fur trapper who, after being bought close to death in a bear attack, is abandoned and left helpless by his comrades, leaving him to trek across vast terrains fraught with uncountable dangers in order to seek his revenge against the men who deserted him. The book is undoubtedly good, and takes the reader deep into a world we could otherwise never hope to understand, also introducing us  to the vicious conflicts that took place between white settlers and the hugely victimised Native Americans, something that isn’t bought to our attention often enough. It is a tough read though – particularly if you are an animal lover like myself (this is an even worse problem in watching the movie) – as Glass does literally anything and everything that he can possibly do to ensure his own survival and to obtain his revenge against Fitzgerald and Bridger. I felt disappointed with the ending of the book, however, though my view here was clearly prejudiced by how much I enjoyed the ending of the film, which I felt provided closure for both Glass and the viewer. In Punke’s book, however, the reader is forced to watch the perpertrators of the crime go fundamentally scot-free, and this feels extremely anticlimactic when the whole book has been spent building up Glass’ desire for revenge and setting fire to the same need in the reader. I did enjoy the book, but would perhaps recommend that it be read before the film, as I think this has highly coloured my judgement of what is otherwise a fascinating and shocking tale based on true events.

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The Lost Tudor Princess by Alison Weir

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Royal Tudor blood ran in her veins. Her mother was a Queen, her father an earl, and she herself was the granddaughter, niece, cousin and grandmother of monarchs. Some thought she should be queen of England. She ranked high at the court of her uncle, Henry VIII, and was lady of honour to five of his wives. Beautiful and tempestuous, she created scandal not just once, but twice, by falling in love with unsuitable men. Fortunately, the marriage arranged for her turned into a love match. Throughout her life her dynastic ties to two crowns proved hazardous. A born political intriguer, she was imprisoned in the Tower of London on three occasions, once under sentence of death. She helped to bring about one of the most notorious royal marriages of the sixteenth century, but it brought only tragedy. Her son and her husband were brutally murdered, and there were rumours that she herself was poisoned. She warred with two queen, Mary of Scotland and Elizabeth of England. A brave survivor, she was instrumental in securing the Stuart succession to the throne of England for her grandson.”

REVIEW: As many of you will know, Weir is one of my favourite historians and I have even had the good fortune to meet her and hear her give a talk on one of her previous books. Because of this, as well as because of the subject matter, I was extremely excited to read this book and have in fact been reading it since I got it at Christmas – blame final year of university for my unusually slow pace! As Weir herself states on numerous occasions, and as is made clear by the admiring tone of the blurb (which runs throughout this biography), Margaret Douglas was an extraordinary Tudor woman about whom very little has previously been written. She was related to many of the key figures of the age and played an integral role in history as we know it today, and after reading this book I am all the more upset to know that her story has remained so little known for so long. Margaret’s life was so full and rich with both scandal and heartbreak that it is difficult to summarise, but I shall attempt to do so in order to give you an idea of why this woman is so interesting and why, as Weir thankfully noticed, a biography of this kind has been a long time in coming. Margaret Douglas was the daughter of Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister, and was born a Princess of Scotland. Her mother fled with her to England, however, and it was in England that Margaret lived her life, though she maintained very close connections with Scotland. One of the most beautiful and intelligent women at Henry VIII’s court, Margaret caused scandals with her brilliant poetry and her passionate love affairs, two of which incurred the wrath of her Uncle Henry and both of which took place with members of the powerful Howard family. Margaret was eventually married to the Earl of Lennox and through this marriage maintained a high level of power in Scotland which she used on several occasions to attempt to influence different monarchs. She appears to have been a Catholic, despite accepting reforms, and was close to Mary I. Her relationship with Elizabeth was much rockier, particularly when she married her son, Darnley, to Mary, Queen of Scots, the most logical heir apparent to the English throne after the death of Elizabeth, which strengthened the claims of both Mary and Darnley. Although the son born of this marriage, James, would later become James VI of Scotland and James I of England, Margaret had to suffer the loss of her beloved son Darnley in a brutal murder that still remains unsolved. Several years prior to this her husband had also been brutally killed, and it seems that after these events Margaret was even more determined to play a political role. She came into conflict with both Mary and Elizabeth and cared for her young granddaughter, Arbella (who was yet another potential heir to the English throne) until her death. Margaret played a huge role in the shaping of English culture, court and politics (particularly in terms of the Elizabethan succession crisis) and appears to have been a truly amazing woman. Throughout this biography we get the real sense of a strong, intelligent and powerful woman who knows her worth and wishes it to be known to others. This is among my favourite Tudor biographies and I would highly encourage you all to read it.