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The Muse by Jessie Burton

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“My life was a beanstalk and I was Jack, and the foliage was shooting up and up, abundant, at such a speed that I could barely cling on”

RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “On a hot July day in 1967, Odelle Bastien climbs the stone steps of the Skelton gallery in London, ready for her luck to change. She has been employed as a typist by the glamorous and enigmatic Marjorie Quick, who unlocks a potential Odelle didn’t realise she had. When a lost masterpiece arrives at the gallery, Quick seems to know more than she is prepared to reveal and Odelle is determined to unravel the truth.

The painting’s secret history lies in 1936 and a large house in rural Spain, where Olive Schloss, the daughter of a renowned art dealer, is harbouring ambitions of her own. Into this fragile paradise come two strangers, who overturn the Schloss family with explosive and devastating consequences…”

REVIEW: After recently reading Burton’s ‘The Miniaturist’, which I gave a glowing review, I was eager to see if ‘The Muse’ could possibly be just as captivating in my eyes. A lot of people I had spoken to and reviews I had read said that they had in fact preferred ‘The Muse’ to ‘The Miniaturist’, so my expectations were high from the off. I did find this novel easy to read, but did not find that it instantly hooked me in and gripped me, as ‘The Miniaturist’ had done; in actual fact, it wasn’t until about halfway through the book that I discovered the strong compulsion to continue reading and ended up carrying on until I had reached its conclusion. I have always enjoyed novels that flit between two or more different time periods, so I loved the way in which the reader was able to follow the path of Odelle in 1967 and Olive in 1936, and to see how these paths both paralleled and integrated with one another as revelations continued to be made throughout the novel. The stories, although initially seeming entirely different, ultimately connect in an unexpected way that provides a brilliant twist at the ending of the novel. Odelle’s story takes place in London; as a young black woman, she is used to being put down and receiving very little kindness or attention from anyone other than her best friend Cynth, who leaves Odelle lost when she gets married and moves out of their shared home. Odelle takes this opportunity for a new beginning, and finds a surprising level of understanding and lack of judgement when she begins work at the Skelton gallery under the intimidating Marjorie Quick. Despite her reputation, Quick takes a shine to Odelle – reminding me a little of ‘The Devil Wears Prada’, actually – and as her relationship with the owner of a rare mysterious painting develops, Odelle begins to realise that Quick knows far more about the painting’s history than she is letting on.

In Olive’s part of the story, we find here a young and lonely girl, living in rural Spain with only her beautiful but damaged mother and her well-connected, adulterous father for company. Olive nurtures a secret talent as an incredible painter, a talent which only increases with the arrival of a brother and sister, Isaac and Teresa, who soon become part of the Schloss household. For Olive, Teresa becomes the only friend she has ever really had; and her revolutionary brother, Isaac, becomes the lover and muse she has always dreamed of. When Olive passes one of her own paintings off as Isaac’s, we see how the stories of Olive and Odelle begin to intertwine, and feel sorrow over the dangerous consequences that this decision had for Olive.

As a reader, I liked both protagonists and enjoyed both of their stories equally. Personally, however, I tended to favour Olive and her chapters, purely because I could relate to the feelings of isolation she experienced, and the intense creativity that took over her when feeling a particularly strong emotion. Both characters were very well-written, however, and Burton does a fantastic job of setting the scene in both time periods so that it is easy to visualise. The ways in which Odelle’s and Olive’s stories connect are subtly hinted at throughout the book, but the novel does provide a shock ending and is highly impressive as a whole. Although I may not have loved it quite as much as ‘The Miniaturist’, I still really enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it.

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Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon

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“I think the hardest part of losing anyone is that you still have to live with the same scenery. It’s just that the person you are used to isn’t a part of it anymore, and all you notice are the gaps where they used to be. It feels as though, if you concentrated hard enough, you could find them again in those empty spaces. Waiting for you.”

RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “There are three things you should know about Elsie.
The first thing is that she’s my best friend.
The second is that she always knows what to say to make me feel better.
And the third thing… might take a little bit more explaining.

84-year-old Florence has fallen in her flat at Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. As she waits to be rescued, Florence wonders if a terrible secret from her past is about to come to light; and, if the charming new resident is who he claims to be, why does he look exactly like a man who died sixty years ago?”

REVIEW: My Mum and I both read this book within the space of a week – in fact, I was so hooked I read it in less than 48 hours. The quote I selected to share with you above is just one example of how incredibly moving, poignant and bittersweet this novel is, and demonstrates how well Cannon is able to describe even the most complex of emotions and events. It called to me, as someone who has relatively recently lost one of the people I loved above anything else in the world, and as with so many things in this book, rang true despite the echo of uncertainty that the novel as a whole leaves you with. The main cause of this uncertainty comes from the protagonist, Florence, who we gather very early on is a somewhat unreliable narrator due to her lapses in memory; she relies heavily on her best friend, Elsie, to prompt her and help her rememeber the important things. Although the book has two other narrators, one of whom helps to run the residence where Florence lives, the other the household handyman, Simon, Florence is the focal character in this novel and it is from her that most of the suspense and mystery develops throughout. The novel flits between the present time, where Florence lays waiting in her home for someone to find her and help her after she has suffered a fall, and telling the story of her recent months in the residential care home in which she lives. The chapters where Florence lays waiting for someone to find her are particularly poignant, as it highlights a fear that I am sure many of us dread – that of being completely alone. However, both these chapters and the ones in which Florence tells her earlier story allows us to form a bond with her, and we trust her despite her forgetfulness. When an old and familiar face arrives at the home, however, Florence is determined to find out why a man whom she believed to have been dead has suddenly returned to her life – is he here to torment her, to kill her, or to reveal her secrets? Either way, Florence soon engages a reluctant Elsie and a somewhat enthusiastic friend named Jack to help her uncover the secret of Gabriel Price, and discover his true identity.

The suspense in the novel is cleverly and well built-up, aided by the gaps in Florence’s memory that add tension and mystery. The twists come thick and fast towards the end of the novel, and the main twist is truly heartbreaking. Although it is unexpected, in hindsight the reader is able to think back on hints that Cannon cleverly threaded throughout the novel in order for this ultimate revelation to make sense. The book is truly gripping and bittersweet, and one I would highly recommend as something that really makes the reader think about life, humanity and how strong the bonds between people can be.

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Lady Katherine Knollys by Sarah Beth-Watkins

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RATING: 2.5/5

BLURB: “Katherine spent her life unacknowledged as the King’s daughter, yet she was given prime appointments at court as maid of honur to both Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard. She married Francis Knollys when she was 16 and went on to become mother to many successful men and women at court including Lettice Knollys who created a scandal when she married Sir Robert Dudley, the Queen’s favourite.”

REVIEW: I had been really looking forward to reading this biography. I know a fair amount about Katherine Knollys from my own research, but it has always irked me how little published research there is out there about the extended Boleyn family. With a rise in interest in Mary Boleyn after the publication of Philippa Gregory’s ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’, I suppose it was only a matter of time before someone decided to look into her daughter, Katherine, who led a fascinating life as the potential illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII and a close friend of Elizabeth I. I was glad of this, and have wanted to read this biography for a long time. Upon its arrival I was surprised by the length of this text; at approximately 111 pages it is much shorter than I was anticipating, and led me to wonder if this is perhaps a thesis written by Watkins whilst studying, though I am still uncertain of this.

Unfortunately, I did have several criticisms of this biography. My main bug-bear was the vast number of grammatical issues that littered the pages. Many of the sentences were poorly punctuated, creating long and rambling sentences that needed at the very least a comma to give pause for thought. There were also several statements made by the author that were false, and then later were contradicted and the reader instead presented with the correct fact. For example, in her chapter on Mary Boleyn, Katherine’s mother, Watkins states that Henry VIII never admitted to his affair with Mary. This is false on more than one count; Henry had first admitted it by asking the Pope for a dispensation in order to allow him to marry Anne (though her name was not specified at this stage) within the forbidden degrees of affinity, having slept with her sister. He used the affair with Mary yet again as a reason for annulling his marriage to Anne while she lay waiting for death in the Tower. However, Watkins later corrects this error in the following chapter on Anne, mentioning the 1527 dispensation specifically. This is clearly confusing, particularly for those who know very little about the period, though I was relieved when Watkins corrected herself. I also found that, in a peculiar sense, there was almost too much context. Major events in Katherine’s life, such as her marriage to Francis Knollys, were briefly skimmed over while Watkins instead chose to pay more attention to the state of Henry’s relationship with Katherine Howard at the time of Katherine and Francis’ wedding. The relationships between Henry VIII and four of his wives was highly detailed, and definitely overshadowed the woman who is supposed to be the focal point of this biography. Finally, I also found Watkins’ certainty that Katherine was Henry VIII’s child to be problematic. This is by no means a certain fact, and although it is likely that Katherine was the product of her mother’s affair with the King, and many historians do believe this to be the case, there is no actual proof. Yet, Watkins takes this as fact and writes nothing at all of the possibility that it may not be the case at all.

This biography did also have likeable and commendable qualities. Primary sources were used and quoted extensively throughout the biography, though some of the sources in the bibliography are somewhat questionable (another factor that led me to wonder if this was perhaps a thesis). This shows that despite some mistakes, research was undertaken, and I can only assume that some of the gaps in the biography are therefore due to a lack of detailed evidence. I also liked the writing style, as it was descriptive as well as informative, allowing the reader to gain a picture of what they were learning. I was also presented with some facts I did not previously know, particularly regarding Katherine’s descendants.

Overall, however, I am still hoping for further research and another biography to be written on Katherine Knollys. This biography was too short to do her justice, and many of her life events were discussed in too brief a fashion to make a real impact. This would be a good introduction to anyone wishing to learn more about Katherine, but I would advise seeking further texts for more information.

 

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The Witch Finder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “1645. When Alice Hopkins’s husband dies tragically, she returns to Manningtree, the small Essex town where her brother Matthew still lives. But home is no longer a place of safety. Whispers are spreading – of witchcraft, and the terrible fate awaiting the women accused. And at the heart of it all stands just one man…

To what lengths will Matthew’s obsession drive him? And what choice will Alice make, when she finds herself at the very heart of his plan?”

REVIEW: I studied Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe whilst at university, including the cases uncovered by the notorious Matthew Hopkins. This previous knowledge made me very keen to read this book, and eager to see how the witch craze may have been perceived from a female perspective, especially one so close to its instigator. Upon starting this novel after receiving it for my birthday, it became almost immediately clear that this book has been well-researched and the victims within it considered with empathy and respect. Underdown has primary sources from the Manningtree trials littered throughout the novel, serving to remind the reader that as incomprehensible as it may seem to our own minds, the belief in witchcraft was real and strong, leading to confessions, torture and death. It also brings an added realism to the described victims; Underdown gives the accused women personalities, discusses their back-stories, and on the whole treats them much more fairly than they were treated whilst alive. The writing style captures the tense, paranoid atmosphere not only of Manningtree but also of the other towns Matthew visits in order to investigate potential witches. This style makes the book a gripping read; despite being at work I had finished it in less than a week and found it hard to put down.

The character of Alice is also a likeable and sympathetic one, while the only way I can describe the character of Matthew is that he truly made my skin crawl. He is sneakily manipulative and subtly sinister, which serves to make him even more unsettling that had he outright raped and tortured witches himself. His madness is something the reader becomes aware of slowly over the course of the novel, and something we come to understand a little more as we uncover stories of his past from Alice and from their mother’s old friend, Bridget. His cruelty towards his sister, seeming to stem from his unhappiness over her marriage to a lowly servant, is truly shocking, and the reader constantly longs for Alice to be able to escape him. Underdown portrays Hopkins as a man who sees all women as whores, too forward and obsessed with sex. As such, he sees these traits as something worthy of accusing women of withcraft. There were many traits associated with witchcraft, many of which were included in this novel, including the suggestion of women having sex with the Devil, using animal familiars to help them with their evil deeds, and being particularly associated with deaths of women and babies in childbirth. It is not long before Matthew begins to see these traits reflected in his own sister, who tries her best to aid those accused and questioned by Matthew and in return finds herself accused and imprisoned by her own brother.

Many secrets are uncovered throughout the course of this novel, which continues to keep the reader guessing. Underdown does briefly deal with the issue of why those accused of witchcraft confessed, despite it being clear to our modern minds that this is a phenomenon we cannot possibly understand; this is perhaps why she does not explore these reasons particularly deeply. I was glad of the fact that Underdown did not try too hard to answer what are fundamentally unanswerable questions, though of course we can speculate. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and appreciated the depth of research. I absolutely LOVED the last line, which left me open-mouthed and stunned long after I had closed the book. I would highly recommend this novel.