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Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

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“A heart may desire a thing powerfully indeed, but that heart’s desire might be what a person least needs, for her health, for her continuing happiness”

RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “In her inspired re-working of the fairy tale Snow White and Rose Red, Margo Lanagan has created characters that are vivid, passionate, flawed and fiercely devoted to their hearts’ desires, whether these desires are good or evil. It is the story of two worlds – one real, one magical – and how, despite the safe haven her magical world offers to those who have suffered, her characters can never turn their backs on the real world, with all its beauty and brutality”

REVIEW: I have often said how much I enjoy reading novels that are retellings or reworkings of fairytales, and I’ve had ‘Tender Morsels’ on my bookshelf for so long that I’d almost completely forgotten about it. I was really excited to get stuck in, and see how Lanagan had managed to twist the traditional Snow White and Rose Red story.

‘Tender Morsels’ tells the story of Liga, a young woman who is raped and abused by her father and, after his death, is gang raped by a group of boys from the nearby village. Destroyed by what has happened, Liga hardly knows where to turn, and ends up opening a kind of magical portal to a new world, in which she and the two daughters she has bourne from these terrifying encounters will be safe. However, there are other points of view that appear throughout the story, such as that of the midget Collaby Dought and Davit Ramstrong, a man who accidentally enters into Liga’s magical world in the form of a bear, becoming close to her and both of her daughters. These points of view seem to switch very suddenly, and the fast move from third to first person can be quite confusing, particularly in the beginning of the novel when the reader is not yet used to it. The writing style also seems a little jumbled at times, but I think this may just be due to the author’s attempt to keep up a fast pace and to ensure that the stories of all the characters are included. It only appears to be the male characters in the novel who are granted a first-person perspective, despite the fact that the female characters – particularly Liga and her daughters, Branza and Urdda – are more central to the plot of the novel. This was another thing that I found slightly confusing, and I would have much rather heard more from the female characters; particularly as I found the character of Collaby to serve very little purpose as a whole in the novel, other than as an illustration of how dangerous the magical world could be despite the safety it provided to Liga and her family.

I did begin to enjoy the book significantly more from around halfway through, with the introduction of the first bear that the girls learn to befriend. From this point onwards the novel became more gripping, and it was from this point that the gradual discovery of the two parallel worlds began. Even in this section, however, which I enjoyed,  I found some aspects of the plot to be disappointing. The disappearance of Urdda, who finds her way into the real world from within the magical, is strangely dealt with by both Liga and Branza, neither of whom seemed to feel any hugely significant emotion towards her loss. The later transition of Liga and Branza into the real world, and their reunion with Urdda and the character of Annie (a favourite of mine) was well-written, with the real world being portrayed in stark contrast and Liga and Branza’s adjustment to this being completely believable. The reader also feels a grim satisfaction when Urdda uses the hidden magic within her to accidentally reap a terrible revenge on the five men who gang raped and abused Liga, leading to Urdda’s conception. However, I also felt that the announcement of Davit’s marriage to Branza came too close to the end of the novel and too suddenly, which did not allow Lanagan to sufficiently explore the emotions of Liga, who had nursed feelings for Davit ever since the time he spent with her as a bear in the magical world.

Lanagan’s writing style is unusual, and often vividly descriptive. The story itself, however, is highly complex and fast-paced, and could sometimes have done with being more detailed in places to ensure that the reader understood what was happening. As previously mentioned, the transitions from third- to first-person were also confusing and sometimes made the story hard to follow, and it would have been  nice to hear first-hand from the female characters. I enjoyed this novel, but would not read it a second time, and nor would I neccessarily make an enthusiastic recommendation. It was intriguing, but I had expected something a little different and think Lanagan could have gone down a different and more engaging route.

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The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

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“The stories are of men who, walking on the shore, hear sweet voices far away, see a soft white back turned to them, and – heedless of looming clouds and creaking winds – forget their children’s hands and the click of their wives’ needles, all for the sake of the half-seen face behind a tumble of gale-tossed greenish hair.”

RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door. One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid.

As gossip spreads through the docks, coffee shops, parlours and brothels, everyone wants to see Mr Hancock’s marvel. Its arrival spins him out of his ordinary existence and through the doors of high society. At an opulent party, he makes the acquaintance of Angelica Neal, the most desirable woman he has ever laid eyes on…and a courtesan of great accomplishment. This meeting will steer both their lives onto a dangerous new course.

What will be the cost of their ambitions? And will they be able to escape the destructive power mermaids are said to possess?”

REVIEW: I’ve been desperate to read this novel since its release, partially because it is a historical fiction, partly because it was long listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, much like two other novels I have greatly enjoyed reading recently (‘Three Things About Elsie’ by Joanna Cannon and ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman), and, to be honest, partly because it had the word mermaid in the title. This novel tells the story of two fascinating individuals, whose lives intersect irrevocably with the discovery of a mermaid. Jonah Hancock is a widowed, childless merchant, living in a large house with his niece Sukie, who helps him to run the home, and his maid Bridget. He is lonely, and his life is turned upside down when the captain of one of his ships returns from the sea with what appears to be the body of a mermaid. His exhibiting of the mermaid brings him into contact with our other protagonist, Angelica Neal, a famed courtesan who is determined to work for herself rather than be under the rule of a brothel madam. After a doomed romance with a young man she meets at a party held to display Jonah’s mermaid, Angelica is left ruined, and her life once again collides with Jonah’s as she begs with him to marry her, following the feelings he has held for her since their first meeting. Jonah does indeed marry Angelica, and stuns her by revealing that he has found a live mermaid. This creature, however, is far more like the sirens of Greek myth than how we picture a mermaid to be, and soon had Jonah trapped under her spell. He hides her away so as not to have to share her, but her feelings of melancholy and doom soon spread from her hiding place, endangering the two people Jonah cares about most; Angelica and Sukie.

Hermes Gowar sets the scene beautifully; the reader really gets a sense of what life was like in 1785, from the bustling city life to the quiet contentment of Jonah’s mercantile lifestyle. The fact that the reader becomes almost instantly integrated into the time period makes the novel immediately engaging, and it continues to be so throughout. From around halfway through the story becomes even more gripping, and once I had started I could hardly bear to put the book down. I also loved the strong female characters that came in the form of Angelica and Sukie, as well as some of the minor characters like Bel Fortescue and Eliza Frost. These are all women who rebel against the conventions of their time; Angelica by both her trade and her independence, and Sukie in her intelligence and bold nature. I really enjoyed reading about both women and, as much as I liked the characer of Jonah, found him overshadowed in my mind by these two brilliantly feisty characters. Some parts of the story, in fact, reminded me of one of my favourite television series of last year, ‘Harlots’, which I would highly recommend if you enjoyed this novel; it is set at a similar time and evokes similar feelings in the viewer as this novel does in the reader. I absolutely loved the ending of the novel, and also enjoyed the fact that the perspective of the mermaid flowed throughout the novel, brief but powerful and engaging. I would highly recommend this novel and feel sure it will make it onto the list of my Top Ten Books of 2018 at the end of this year.

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Always and Forever, Lara Jean by Jenny Han

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“I like the way he looks at me, like I am a wood nymph that he happened upon one day and just had to take home to keep.”

RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Life is good for Lara Jean. She is head over heels in love, her dad’s finally getting remarried and her sister Margot is coming home for the summer. But change is looming. And Lara Jean can’t ignore the big life decisions she has to make – where she goes to college for one. Because that would mean leaving her family – and possibly the boy she loves – behind.

When your head and your heart are saying two different things, which one should you listen to?”

 

REVIEW: After finishing ‘P.S. I Still Love you’ in a single sitting, I rushed straight into reading the third and final instalment of this trilogy, ‘Always and Forever, Lara Jean’. Once again, it was a smooth and easy transition onto the next novel, moving fluidly along with the storyline. By this point in the plot, Lara Jean and Peter have been together for a year, and have a lot of decisions to make in terms of their futures, both in terms of their careers and their life together as a couple. Han deals well and sensitively with the whole idea of growing up and moving on, particularly in terms of home and family as Lara Jean wonders what will become of her Dad and sister Kitty if she moves away to college. As someone who commuted to university from home and has yet to be able to move out, I understand the pull of family ties and how important home is, and many of the readers of this novel will surely be at the age where they are facing similar feelings and decisions. When Lara Jean fails to make it into her first choice university close to home, she is forced to consider the possibility of moving elsewhere, leaving her family behind and potentially jeopardising her relationship with Peter. Their fears of the dangers of a long-distance relationship threaten to tear Lara Jean and Peter apart, whilst at home things are also becoming tricky as Lara Jean’s elder sister Margot rebels against their idea of their Dad remarrying. There is a sense of nostalgia that runs throughout the novel, another thing that readers can identify with, as we have all had to make decisions that make us reflect on our childhood and younger years. The whole novel deals with this conflict between the familiar and the new, and the feelings this conflict presents us with, as well as the subsequent dilemmas. I really enjoyed this novel, in fact the whole trilogy, and felt it provided an ideal ending. By finishing with Lara Jean and Peter aiming to continue their relationship despite their moving to separate colleges, it gives readers the chance to develop their own conclusions about the future of their relationship and to invent their own happy ending for the couple. I would highly recommend this whole series for a light, sometimes emotional, but mostly uplifting read that appeals to the true romantic in all of us.

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P.S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han

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“I know now that I don’t want to love or be loved in half measures. I want it all, and to have it all, you have to risk it all.”

RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Lara Jean didn’t expect to really fall for Peter. They had just been pretending. Except suddenly they weren’t. Now Lara Jean is more confused than ever. Then another boy from her past returns to her life, and Lara Jean’s feelings for him return too. Can a girl be in love with two boys at the same time?”

REVIEW: I couldn’t wait to get started on this novel having just finished its predecessor, ‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’, and was pleased to find that ‘P.S. I Still Love You’ flowed seamlessly on from that first novel; it almost felt as though there had not been a break between them at all. The novel picks up with Lara Jean dithering over what to do about her fall out with Peter who, after embarking on a fake relationship with him in order to make their respective crushes jealous, it turns out she does actually have feelings for. Once again, Lara Jean has turned to letter-writing in order to express her feelings for Peter, who she fears will go running back to his domineering ex-girlfriend, Genevieve. The two confess their feelings for one another, and the reader can’t help but be ecstatic when Lara Jean and Peter agree to try out having a relationship for real. It isn’t long, however, before jealousy begins to rear its ugly head, with Lara Jean uncomfortable with the close relationship Peter maintains with Genenvieve, and Peter growing jealous of Lara Jean’s frequent contact with another boy she used to have feelings for, John Ambrose McLaren, who doesn’t help things when he comes back to town and turns out to be the great-grandson of Lara Jean’s favourite resident at the care home she works at. With Peter needing to be at Genevieve’s side in order to help her deal with family issues, and Lara Jean’s friend Stormy trying to push her and John together, their relationship is severely tested. Jealousy is something anyone who has ever been in a relationship can understand, and makes the whole story more relatable for the reader. I found the whole story to be more emotional than the previous novel as the ups and downs of Lara Jean and Peter’s relationships were played out. However, I remained connected to the characters in the novel throughout and felt strong amounts of empathy for them. I still choose Kitty as my ultimate favourite character, however, and I love the sass combined with vulnerability that her character brings to the novel. I read this book in one sitting and did the same with the third and final installment – keep an eye out for my review of that, which I’ll be posting tomorrow!

 

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

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“I simply didn’t know how to make things better. I could not solve the puzzle of me.”

RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend. Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled existence. Except, sometimes, everything…”

REVIEW: I’d heard a lot of good things about this novel, including a recommendation from a work colleague with whom I have very similar taste in books. I was also intrigued by the premise of the novel itself; as someone who suffers with depression, anxiety and frequent low moods that leave me feeling like the loneliest person in the world, despite the incredible support I have around me. From that perspective, I wondered what it would be like for a person to truly be alone, without the network of family and friends that I am lucky enough to have. And the character of Eleanor is one who is truly alone. Her social skills are basically nonexistent, meaning that even in environments where she is surrounded by people, like in her work place, she finds it almost impossible to click or make connections with anyone. Eleanor lives alone, and has done for many years, enduring only a weekly, highly unpleasant phone call with her emotionally abusive Mother as her only outside human contact. This makes it difficult for even the reader to connect with Eleanor; she feels distant to us, as distant as she is to the rest of the outside world within the pages of the novel. And even though we know from the scars on Eleanor’s face, her relationship with her mother and the subtle hints she gives throughout the novel about her past that she has clearly been through something traumatic, we still don’t feel hugely attached to her – we just feel sorry for her. The isolation Eleanor experiences is, I think, what makes it difficult to become instantly hooked by the novel. However, the more Eleanor begins to integrate with the outside world through her budding friendship with Raymond and the events it leads her into, the more the reader becomes attached to her and, in turn, the more gripping the book becomes. As Eleanor ingratiates herself with more of the characters, she also does so with the reader. Her friendship with Raymond does develop in a way that could be seen as predictable, but in that sense it is also highly believable and realistic.

All of the aforementioned events, however, happen in the ‘Good Days’ section of the novel, where Eleanor is beginning to explore her surroundings, has developed a crush on a local musician and has begun to make herself over with new clothes, a fresh haircut and the advice of Bobbi Brown. This all takes place alongside her friendship with Raymond. The ‘Bad Days’ section of the novel, however, is far shorter, but made a huge impact on me. It’s painful to read, particularly for someone who understands some of what Eleanor is feeling and has had similar experiences in thinking of their own self worth. This section is incredibly written by Honeyman, sensitively done by someone who clearly understands the issues involved and so striking that it had me in tears despite the fact that all ended relatively well, with Eleanor’s back story finally being revealed and her relationship with Raymond left open to the interpretation that it could, perhaps, end up as something more.

I completely fell in love with this novel. It is rare that I find a writer who I feel truly understands mental illness, but reading this book I felt like Honeyman really understands and empathises with what myself and thousands of others go through every day. I would highly recommend it.

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To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

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“Love is scary: it changes; it can go away. That’s the part of the risk. I don’t want to be scared anymore.”

RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Lara Jean Song keeps love letters in a hatbox her mother gave her – one for every boy she’s ever loved. She can say anything she wants, because the letters are for her eyes only. Until the day they’re sent out…”

REVIEW: I read Jenny Han’s previous trilogy, ‘The Summer I Turned Pretty’, when I was in secondary school. I remember how much the characters resonated with me, and how well Han manages to portray the dilemmas that so many of us go through in our teenage years. Unfortunately for me, I’m kind of reliving some of these dilemmas now I’m in my early twenties, so felt it might be a good time for me to finally embark on ‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’, which has been on my TBR list forever.

‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’ is narrated by Lara Jean Song, a slightly awkward, kooky and family-orientated Junior year student who seems to be far more fond of the idea of love than she is of actually being in it – a feeling that I can sympathise with, having always been a bookworm who thought that my life was going to turn into a real-life version of ‘Pride and Prejudice’. Lara Jean keeps a box of letters to all the boys she has had feelings for in the past, which she hides even from her closest friends; her capable older sister Margot and sassy younger sister Kitty. When Margot goes off to study at University in Scotland, it’s left to Lara Jean to manage things at home – alongside dealing with the fallout that her letters have after they mysteriously get sent out. One of the first to confront Lara Jean is Peter Kavinsky, the most popular boy in school, who gave Lara Jean her first kiss. Much to her surprise, Lara Jean finds herself in a fake relationship with Peter as he tries to rile his ex-girlfriend Genevieve, and she tries to antagonise the boy she truly loves: Margot’s ex-boyfriend and their next door neighbour, Josh. With him and Margot only recently having broken up, Josh is shocked to say the least, but it soon becomes apparent that he, too, has feelings for Lara Jean. While Josh is beginning to realise his feelings for her, however, Lara Jean is gradually starting to wish that her relationship with Peter wasn’t actually a set up after all…

I absolutely loved the development of the relationship between Lara Jean and Peter, which, although its blossoming was easy to predict, was still highly believeable and certainly felt real. I identified a lot with Lara Jean as a character, and I think a lot of readers will; not only is she a very likeable protagonist, she also goes through many of the same conflicting emotions and experiences that we’ve all suffered when it comes to boys. I also really warmed to Kitty, who was probably my next favourite character in the novel – I loved the mixture of her strong attitude combined with her vulnerability. I read this book at top speed, it’s so easy to read and the need to know what is going to happen kept the pages turning for me. I enjoyed it so much that I instantly ordered the following two novels, and am already fifty pages in to ‘P.S. I Still Love You’ – which I’m sure I shall be reviewing very soon!