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In Search of Mary Shelley by Fiona Sampson

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “Mary Shelley was brought up in a house filled with radical thinkers, poets, philosophers and writers. The daughter of the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft – who died giving birth to her – and the revolutionary philosopher William Godwin, she eloped at sixteen with the notorious poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and embarked on a passionate relationship lived on the move across Britain and Europe. Before early widowhood changed her life forever, Mary experienced debt, infidelity and the deaths of three of her children. It was against this dramatic backdrop – and while she was still a teenager – that she composed one of literature’s greatest novels, Frankenstein, creating in the process not one but two of today’s most enduring archetypes.”

REVIEW: I am a huge fan of Mary Shelley, and with Frankenstein being one of my favourite novels, I am eager to read many of the new publications released to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the book’s publication. This new biography of Mary is the first of these I have read, and Sampson’s premise is very interesting. She aims to try and explore more of Mary’s feelings and emotions about the famous events that take place in her lifetime (both those involving her and those surrounding her), using her journal entries and travel records, rather than looking pointedly at the actual events themselves, which she argues are already well known. This is a view I would agree with – when I studied Shelley as part of an MA module, everyone knew the story of the creation of Frankenstein at the Villa Diodati just as well as I did. In doing this, Sampson ends up presenting a very sympathetic view of Mary, one which I also tend to support. Despite the romantic idealism of her elopement with Percy Shelley, in reality things turned out to be extremely difficult for Mary and her new partner; but for Mary in particular. Some of her journal entries certainly seem to indicate that she was feeling depressed during their relationship, and considering the problems they faced, who could blame her? Their trip around Europe was ruined both by Mary’s attention-seeking stepsister Clare tagging along, and by the Shelley’s debt, which dogged them everywhere they went and led them into many filthy lodgings. The couple had little time to themselves, and Shelley often seemed to spend more time with Clare than his wife. During their marriage, both Shelley’s previous wife and Mary’s half-sister committed suicide, and Mary lost three of their children, one of which appears to have been due to Shelley’s incompetent and uncaring attitude. I was also struck by just how many affairs Shelley seems to have had during their relationship, and how public he was about them! Writing poetry about other women and then getting your wife to edit these poems seems to me to be in the poorest of taste, and surely must have hurt Mary very deeply; especially as some of these dalliances occured when she was grieving over her lost children. I had never been a fan of Shelley from what I had previously read about his treatment of Mary, and the patronising way in which he consistently tried to adapt and change Frankenstein – I am even less of a fan having read this biography, and I think anyone reading it would feel much the same.

In terms of style, this biography was written in the present tense, which I found a really interesting choice. It makes the whole thing feel more real, more relevant, and I enjoyed reading a biography written in this manner. It also discusses many of Mary’s lesser-known written works, some of which I have read and some of which I haven’t and will be adding to my TBR list. My one criticism of this biography is that, while the present tense style is good, it often makes the writing seem too fast paced. There are many points where it seems like Sampson is just spilling her thoughts onto the page, rather than carefully planning and linking them as you would expect. The fast pace also sometimes makes it difficult to keep up with what is happening, and I think I would have preferred it had this biography been less fast-paced and instead been longer.

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The Autumn Throne by Elizabeth Chadwick

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Imprisoned by her husband, King Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of England, refuses to let him bully her into submission, even as he forces her away from her children and her birthright.

Freed only by Henry’s death, Eleanor becomes dowager Queen of England. But the competition for land and power that Henry stirred up among his sons has intensified to a dangerous rivalry.

Eleanor will need every ounce of courage and fortitude as she crosses the Alps in winter to bring Richard his bride and as she travels medieval Europe to ransom her beloved son. But even her indomitable spirit will be tested to its limits as she attempts to keep the peace between her warring sons, and find a place in the centres of power for her daughters.”

REVIEW: ‘The Autumn Throne’ is the third and final book in Elizabeth Chadwick’s trilogy following the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine. I have loved this whole trilogy and was so excited to read the final novel, which did not disappoint. Chadwick writes Eleanor’s story so beautifully, absorbingly and realistically that at times it feels more like a historical biography than a novel; the thoroughness of Chadwick’s research is obvious in every line, and each figure has such a depth to their personality that the reader really feels they can connect with these long-dead historical figures. Eleanor herself is an inspiration, and has been portrayed as such throughout all three novels, but even more so in this final installment. Despite her increasing fragility and descent into old age, Eleanor remains strong and firm in her resolve. She refuses to bow to Henry, declining his offer of making her a convent abbess despite the fact that this leaves her imprisoned at Sarum, kept out of the loop of court news and only rolled out to be present for important state occasions. Upon Henry’s death, Eleanor is freed by her beloved son Richard – only to be caught up in the battle for power and position taking place between him and his brother John. Richard, although devoted to his mother, is hard-headed and determined to lead a crusade that will take him away from England; leaving Eleanor in charge. Tensions continue to mount between the sly and cunning John and the bold Richard, but Eleanor continues to hold her own, despite finding such politics increasingly draining. She travels across countries to bring Richard his bride, Berenguela, and to free him from captivity. It is also heartwarming to see Eleanor reunited with many of her daughters in this novel, who had been sent away to make prestigious matches with other Royal dynasties. I enjoyed seeing Eleanor rebuild her relationship with daughters Matilda and Joanna, and loved the character of Richenza, Eleanor’s bold and intelligent granddaughter who stayed close by her grandmother until the end; their relationship reminded me a little of the close bond I had with my Nan.

Throughout the novel, Eleanor loses several of her children, and these losses are dealt with by Chadwick in a way that is both sensitive and heartfelt. I found myself feeling strongly connected to Eleanor during these scenes, and the way in which Chadwick writes makes it so easy for the reader to understand and empathise with her. I have read several works of historical fiction on Eleanor of Aquitaine, but this trilogy has to be the best I have read. Each book has been so well-researched and written with so much detail and thought; every character comes alive and the period and landscape are so well-described that you can almost imagine yourself travelling across medieval Europe. I would highly recommend these books for their accuracy and imagination, to anyone wishing to learn more about Eleanor or about medieval England.

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How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “Tom Hazard has a dangerous secret. He may look like an ordinary 41-year-old history teacher, but he’s been alive for centuries. From Elizabethan England to Jazz-Age Paris, from New York to the South Seas, Tom has seen it all. As long as he keeps changing his identity he can stay one step ahead of his past – and stay alive. The only thing he must not do is fall in love…”

REVIEW: I picked this book up as a spur-of-the-moment purchase, and absolutely fell in love. I couldn’t put it down, and read it in just a couple of days despite the rush of returning to work after New Year. This book is perfect for history geeks like myself as we get to see some of the lifetimes that Tom has lived and the people he has met, including Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Although the book begins in the present, the chapters switch to reveal more about Tom’s background and what he has suffered throughout his almost five hundred years on earth. In the present day, Tom is a history teacher led under the guidance of the Albatross Society, who protect those with longer lives at the cost of them committing some rather unsavoury tasks every eight years. He has a dog named Abraham and a crush on the French teacher, Camille, and seems perfectly normal. However, Tom’s life began as the descendant of French aristocracy living in a small English village, where his mother was accused and killed of witchcraft due to his youthful appearance and apparent lack of ageing. When Tom finds the love of his life in Elizabethan London, she and their child also begin to be targeted due to Tom’s lack of ageing, with the superstitious Londoners of the 16th century accuse him of being a demon in disguise. Though it breaks his heart, Tom realises that he is a danger to those he loves due to his condition, and from then on resolves to live alone. And in the 19th century, when he is recruited by the Albatross Society, they agree with his conclusion, warning him not to fall in love and change identities every eight years. In the present day, however, Tom is growing increasingly wary of Hendrich, the leader of the society, who seems to be becoming more ruthless towards those who refuse to join the society and who expects Tom to either persuade or kill them on his behalf. Tom only agrees because Hendrich promises to find his long-lost daughter, Marion, who has inherited his condition; but when Hendrich wants him to kill Omai, his oldest friend, Tom is faced with an impossible choice…

This book is absolutely fantastic. There are so many twists and turns, and so many beautiful and poignant moments; I was often left with tears in my eyes. Haig manages to make every single time period that he writes about realistic and engaging – it is clear that he researched each period thoroughly. The characters, Tom in particular, are easy to connect and empathise with, and the reader finds themself warming to him almost instantly. As a dog lover, I confess I also loved the addition of the elderly dog Abraham in Tom’s present day life as his companion. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it.

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The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “On an autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives at a grand house in Amsterdam to begin her new life as the wife of wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt. Though curiously distant, he presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. It is to be furnished by an elusive miniaturist, whose tiny creations ring eerily true.

As Nella uncovers the secrets of her new household she realizes the escalating dangers they face. The miniaturist seems to hold their fate in her hands – but does she plan to save or destroy them?”

REVIEW: This book has been on my TBR list for a long time (as have a significant number of the books I own!), but I decided I had to read it before watching the TV adaptation that aired on the BBC over Christmas. I was instantly hooked; Burton’s writing style is vividly descriptive as well as gripping, building suspense and the curiosity of the reader. The characters are complex, each having their own personalities and secrets that make the book, and the hints Nella receives from the miniaturist of future events, even more intriguing. Nella arrives at the home of her new husband and instantly feels left out in the cold; Johannes himself is often absent and lavishes more affection on his two whippets than he does on her (though, as a greyhound owner, I can sympathise with him on that one); his sister, Marin, is distant and controlling; only the servants, Cornelia and Otto, seem to warm to Nella and try to make more of an effort with her. When Johannes gifts her with the cabinet that holds a replica of their own home, Nella initially feels confused and a little patronised. Deciding to make the best of the situation, she looks up a miniaturist to make pieces for the house; and this is where the suspense really begins to build. Providing far more than Nella asks for, the miniaturist sends packages containing exact replicas of all those who live in the household, and as secrets unfold and events start to take a dramatic turn, every step is reflected in the figures and items made and sent by the mysterious miniaturist. I don’t want to give too much away, as one of the things that led me to enjoy this book so much was the revelation of secrets and the plot twists these led to. I couldn’t put this book down; I loved Burton’s writing style and how engrossing the plot was. It made me cry more than once, and I loved the intricacies of the characters and the depth Burton clearly went into when creating them. The book also highlighted so many of the social issues and stigmas that existed at the time, including attitudes towards sexuality, race and women. I would very highly recommend this novel and look forward to adding Burton’s second novel, ‘The Muse’, to my TBR pile!

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Love Letters to the Dead by Aca Dellaira

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “It begins as an assignment for English class: write a letter to a dead person. Laurel chooses Kurt Cobain – he died young, and so did Laurel’s sister May – so maybe he’ll understand what Laurel is going through. Soon Laurel is writing letters to lots of dead people – Janis Joplin, Heath Ledger, River Phoenix, Amelia Earhart, Amy Winehouse…it’s like she can’t stop. She writes about her new high school, her new friends, her first love – and her shattered life. But the ghosts of Laurel’s past can’t be contained between the lines of a page forever. She must face up to them – before they consume her.”

REVIEW: This book has had a few highly critical reviews on Goodreads, so I went into it with pretty low expectations. It certainly exceeded them, however, as I personally really enjoyed this novel! As someone who has been grieving, and is still not entirely past it, I found Dellaira’s depiction of grief, as expressed by Laurel’s character, to be very relatable, and considering grieving is such a complex process that differentiates greatly between people, I think this is an impressive feat for any writer to achieve. The novel tells the story of Laurel through the letters she writes to a variety of dead celebrities and historical figures. Through Laurel’s letters we learn of her struggles to accept the death of her older sister May the previous year, and how it has torn her family and changed the dynamic since – Laurel’s relationship with her Dad was one I found particularly moving. We also learn about Laurel’s new life upon transferring to her new school, particularly her friends and the boy she develops a crush on. She reveals nothing about her sister even to her two closest friends, Natalie and Hannah, and they struggle with problems of their own as they develop feelings for each other and try to face the social stigma that these feelings are a victim to. With Sky, however, Laurel is able to be most herself, as Sky seems to understand and empathise with some of what she is going through and how it has damaged her; it is clear to the reader that Laurel has severe anxiety problems, even though she doesn’t neccessarily realise this herself, and these problems make it a struggle for her and Sky to progress in their relationship – particularly as Laurel refuses to confess to him her previous childhood traumas and how May’s death has added to these. I think the characters in this novel are so well-written in that they all seem so real; they are relatable and the reader can empathise with all of them and their different situations. I think Dellaira’s depiction of grief and loss in this novel are its best and most impressive quality, and I would recommend it, particularly to those who have been through similar experiences.

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Top Ten Books of 2017

This year has gone so quickly, and I can’t believe the time has come already for me to write up my Top Ten Books of 2017! I had a hard time narrowing them down this year, as I’ve been lucky enough to read some truly incredible books. I hope you enjoy reading this post – please let me know if any of these books have also made it into your top ten!

 

10. All the Rivers by Dorit Rabinyan

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“How do I describe him now? Where do I start? How do I distill the first impression created in those few distance seconds? How do I extract his finished portrait, composed of layer upon layer of color, back into the pale, hasty pencil sketch that my eyes drew the first time they landed on him? How can I use a mere few lines to paint the whole picture with all its breadth and depth? Is it even possible to attain that sort of scrutiny, that measure of lucidity, when the hands of loss keep touching the memory, staining it with their fingerprints?”

This is a beautiful and moving love story, looking at the ups and downs of a relationship that goes against the religious, political and social beliefs of both people within it. The ending had me in tears, and I couldn’t put the book down.

Read my full review of the book here.

 

9. Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

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“There is music in your soul. A wild and untamed sort
of music that speaks to me. It defies all the rules and laws you humans set upon it. It grows from inside you, and I have a wish to set that music free.”

This is a truly magical novel, based on Christina Rossetti’s poem Goblin Market, that really captures the fantasy, lust and danger of the piece it is inspired on.

Read my full review of the novel here.

 

8. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

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“Reading a novel was like returning to a once-beloved holiday destination.”

This became one of the most popular novels of the year after the gripping TV adaptation aired over the summer, starring Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley. The book, however, is even more full of twists and turns, capturing the reader with every page.

Read my full review of the book here.

 

7. The Loving Spirit by Daphne Du Maurier

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“The child destined to be a writer is vulnerable to every wind that blows. Now warm, now chill, next joyous, then despairing, the essence of his nature is to escape the atmosphere about him, no matter how stable, even loving. No ties, no binding chains, save those he forges for himself. Or so he thinks. But escape can be delusion, and what he is running from is not the enclosing world and its inhabitants, but his own inadequate self that fears to meet the demands which life makes upon it. Therefore create. Act God. Fashion men and women as Prometheus fashioned them from clay, and, by doing this, work out the unconscious strife within and be reconciled. While in others, imbued with a desire to mold, to instruct, to spread a message that will inspire the reader and so change his world, though the motive may be humane and even noble–many great works have done just this–the source is the same dissatisfaction, a yearning to escape.”

Daphne du Maurier is one of my favourite authors of all time, and I’ve spent much of this year collecting these beautiful editions of her books and trying to make my way through as many of them as possible. ‘The Loving Spirit’ is a brilliant novel, working its way through generations of the same family and showing how something as pure as a desire for adventure can be passed on over decades.

Read my full review of the novel here.

 

6. Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon

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“The real problem, said Mary, was not women, but how men wanted women to be.”

This is a fantastic joint biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter, Mary Shelley, looking at the parallels between their lives. Both women were geniuses of their time, Wollstonecraft as a philosopher and feminist and Shelley as the revolutionary writer of one of my favourite books, ‘Frankenstein’. This book is a thorough and fascinating explanation of these two extraordinary women, and well worth reading.

Read my full review of this biography here.

 

5. Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley

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“Ah! There is nothing like staying at home, for real comfort.” – Jane Austen

This brilliant new biography of Jane Austen explores the life of the famous author through the places that she called home. Austen had many homes throughout her life, and each allows us to focus on a particular aspect or period of her life. This is the best biography of Austen I have read so far, and with her love of the home, I feel it is one she would approve of.

Read my full review of this biography here.

 

4. Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

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“What if the puzzle of the world was a shape you didn’t fit into? And the only way to survive was to mutilate yourself, carve away your corners, sand yourself down, modify yourself to fit? How come we haven’t been able to change the puzzle instead?”

Picoult is another of my favourite authors, and this book is truly incredible. It deals with the stigma still attached to black people in the South of America today, and is truly shocking. It makes you think very deeply about your own views, and in true Picoult style presents a strong conflict between right and wrong.

Read my full review of the book here.

 

3. Milk and Honey/The Sun and her Flowers by Rupi Kaur

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“neither of us is happy/but neither of us wants to leave/so we keep breaking one another/and calling it love” – milk and honey

“i do not weep/because i’m unhappy/i weep because i have everything/yet i am unhappy”  – the sun and her flowers

I couldn’t possibly choose between these two incredible books by Rupi Kaur. I read ‘milk and honey’ for the first time this year, and bought ‘the sun and her flowers’ as soon as it was published in June. Both books address questions of feminity, masculinity, abuse, relationships, break ups, mental health and friendships, and are fantastically and beautifully written.

Read my review of ‘milk and honey’ here.

 

2. Home Going by Yaa Gyasi

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“We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”

This is an absolutely incredible book, and it was very hard to choose between this and the book I eventually chose for the top place. It tells the story of women and men through generations, beginning with two mothers and continuing with their descendants throughout time. The book is incredibly moving and thought-provoking; I cried more times than I can count, and put the book down feeling truly shaken and stunned.

Read my review of the book here.

 

1. The Hiding Places by Katherine Webb

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Katherine Webb has been in my Top Ten list, even previously in the top position, every year since I started this blog; 2017 was no exception. The release of her latest novel, ‘The Hiding Places’, was one I anticipated eagerly, and once I read the book I simply couldn’t put it down. It is beautifully written, with a fantastic twist, engaging characters and true talent. I absolutely loved this book, and am hoping for another Katherine Webb release in 2018!

Read my full review of this book here.

 

 

 

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The Potion Diaries by Amy Alward

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “When the Princess of Nova accidentally poisons herself with a love potion meant for her crush, she falls crown-over-heel in love with her own reflection. Oops. A nationwide hunt is called to find the cure, with competitors travelling the world for the rarest ingredients, deep in magical forests and frozen tundras, facing death at every turn. Enter Samantha Kemi – an ordinary girl with an extraordinary talent. Sam’s family were once the most respected alchemists in the kingdom, but they’ve fallen on hard times, and winning the hunt would save their reputation. But can Sam really compete with the dazzling powers of the ZoroAster megapharma company? And just how close is she willing to get to Zain Astee, her dashing enemy, in the meantime?”

REVIEW: I bought this book quite spontaneously from a seller on Depop as it sounded like it would be a nice, fun, fantasy read. It is indeed an easy novel to read, and cleverly combines realism writing within a fantasy setting. The protagonist, Samantha Kemi, is an ordinary but extremely gifted young woman in a world where people who are born Talented are instantly put above those who are ordinary, and where synthetic medicine companies have stolen away the power of the tradtional alchemists whom Samantha descends from. She stills helps to run the alchemist’s store belonging to her grandfather, and is a genius when it comes to mixing potions, with strong instincts and clever insights. When Princess Evelyn, who offers a few chapters in her own perspective throughout the novel, is poisoned  by her own love potion, the Wilde Hunt gives Sam the chance she needs to win some much needed cash and bring back the power of the notorious Kemi name. Synthetic medicine companies are also competing in the hunt, however – as is the King of Nova’s powerful exiled sister, Emilia, who will let no-one stand in her way. Sam finds herself increasingly in danger and under threat through the twists and turns of the hunt, ruthlessly pursued by Emilia due to her instinctual gift for working out which are the right ingredients. Her quest leads her across the globe with her family Finder, Kirsty, and also into the path of Zain Aster, a close friend of the Princess and heir to the synthetic ZoroAster pharmaceutical company. Despite her disagreement with synthetic potions, Sam finds herself drawn to Zain, and the two of them begin to develop feelings for each other as the Wilde hunt constantly throws them into each other’s paths.

I enjoyed the novel, particularly the quests for the different ingredients and the descriptions of the parts of the world that this took Sam and Kirsty to. I also felt that the developing relationship between Sam and Zain was written well and at a believeable pace. I did find the writing to be a little rushed in places, however, and also feel that there is not really a need to extend this book into a series, as is planned by the author – already there are two following installments. I liked the ending and feel that the story should perhaps have been left alone, rather than risk it becoming dragged out and predictable. It was, however, a light and easy read that was entertaining and introduced a fun new world.