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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!

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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.