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Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “this is the journey of

surviving through poetry

this is the blood sweat tears

of twenty-one years

this is my heart

in your hands

this is

the hurting

the loving

the breaking

the healing”

 

REVIEW: I love poetry, and am always seeking out new poets with work I can enjoy. I had wanted to read this highly praised series of poems by Rupi Kaur for some time, and picked it up on a shopping trip last weekend. I flew through the whole thing in one sitting, and put it down having felt the strangest rush of emotions. Upon finishing it I felt restless, and instantly desperate to read it again. Kaur’s poems, based on four main themes – hurting, loving, breaking and healing – instantly connect to the reader, drawing out memories and emotions evoked by the incredible thought she puts in to every verse. The book is fantastic, and even when dealing with sensitive themes that the reader may not actually have experienced, makes us feel every inch of the pain that Kaur has poured into the words. It is also an incredibly feminist text, addressing the way men view women in terms of the male gaze, sexual objectvity and even rape and abuse. Kaur’s poems put the power in the woman’s hands, and address the many ways in which men view and exploit female sexuality. I absolutely loved this book, and am eagerly awaiting payday so I can purchase Kaur’s latest release, ‘the sun and her flowers’. I will end this review with one of my favourite poems from the book, one that really struck a chord with me based on an experience I went through in the summer of last year;

“neither of us is happy

but neither of us wants to leave

so we keep breaking one another

and calling it love”

 

 

 

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The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “London 1893. When Cora Seaborne’s husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness. Retreating to the countryside with her son, she encounters rumours of the ‘Essex Serpent’, a creature of folklore said to have returned¬† to roam the marshes. Cora is enthralled, believing it may be an undiscovered species. Setting out on its trail, she collides with local minister William Ransome, who thinks the cure for hysteria lies in faith, while Cora is convinced that science offers the answers. Despite disagreeing on everything, he and Cora find themselves drawn together, changing each other’s lives in unexpected ways…”

REVIEW: I was lent this book by a friend, and after hearing and reading nothing but rave reviews – as well as loving a bit of historical fiction – I was really looking forward to reading it. Although it seems a little slow to get into at first, I was soon gripped, and was disappointed that I didn’t have as much free time as I would have liked to be able to whiz through it! ‘The Essex Serpent’ tells the story of Cora Seabourne, but also a number of smaller characters who are equally fascinating – her friend the surgeon, Luke, her Socialist maid Martha, William’s wife Stella, the schoolgirl Naomi Banks, and Cora’s son, Francis. All of the characters combine to add a real depth to the story, and the reader grows to care about all of them and is eager to find out how their stories will end.

When Cora is told about the Essex Serpent after the death of her husband, she travels to the tiny village of Aldwinter and meets the vicar William Ransome, his wife Stella, and their three children, including their intelligent and curious daughter Joanna. Despite their differing ideals a strange connection blossoms between Cora and William, much to the disappointment of Luke, who has long been in love with Cora. As events within Aldwinter, particularly near the Blackwater, begin to darken, it seems more and more likely that the presence of the Essex Serpent may actually be a reality. The book continues to twist and turn right up until its end, and hooks the reader not just with the plotline of the serpent itself, but also with all of the threads leading off from this book. Perry’s writing is wonderfully descriptive, making the reader feel as though they are really there, and has a fast-paced, gripping style that nicely builds up the suspense that is so crucial to the novel. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it, particularly for the relationship between William and Cora, which develops and progresses realistically and is more believable than many of the romances that develop in the majority of historical fiction novels.

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The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “When Carrie Fisher recently discovered the journals she kept during the filming of the first ‘Star Wars’ movie, she was astonished to see what they had preserved¬† – plaintive love poems, unbridled musings with youthful naivete, and a vulnerability that she barely recognised. Today, her fame as an author, actress and pop-culture icon is indisputable, but in 1977, Carrie Fisher was just a (sort-of) regular teenager.”

REVIEW: As a huge ‘Star Wars’ and Carrie Fisher fan, I was so upset to hear of her death just before Christmas last year, less than two weeks after I had lost my Nan. I received this book from my brother for my birthday in February, and have only just gotten around to reading it. This autobiography intermingles Carrie’s own memories of the events that occured during the filming of the first ‘Star Wars’ film with a series of extracts from the journals her ninteen-year-old self kept at the time. This is the autobiography that caused a sensation when Carrie revealed the intimate details of her affair with Harrison Ford, who was married at the time. Her own commentary is witty and lively, and she makes little apology for what happens, encouraging the reader not to blame Harrison for the affair, which was common among actors who were away from home for an extended period of time. She writes affectionately of other men involved in the franchise, particularly George Lucas and Mark Hamill, as well as the hair and make-up artists she had on set. The pages from her journal are particularly interesting; it is clear to see the talented author she would become in those pages. Her writing style is witty, but also beautiful and evocative, really giving off a sense of vulnerability, as does the poetry she writes in these pages. This book is fascinating and ideal for any ‘Star Wars’ or Carrie fan, giving a real insight into the events behind the film and how Carrie’s personality and character developed over the years.

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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “The Republic of Gilead allows Offred only one function: to breed. If she deviates, she will, like all dissenters, be hanged at the wall or sent out to die slowly of radiation sickness. But even a repressive state cannot obliterate desire – neither Offred’s nor that of the two men on whom her future hangs.”

REVIEW: I first read ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ when I was maybe fifteen or sixteen and just starting out on the road to feminism. With the arrival of the new television adaptation, I decided it would be a good idea for me to read the novel again before I started watching, and I am so glad I did. I forgot how incredibly chilling, moving, frightening and enraging this book could be, how Atwood’s writing can light a fire that makes it very difficult to sleep after reading. The protagonist, Offred, is a designated Handmaid; women known to be fertile who are placed in the households of husband’s with barren wives, kept there for only one purpose: to give the husband and his barren wife a child. Offred’s past life is somewhat unclear, and offered to the reader in snippets, yet although we know very little overall about her husband Luke and her young daughter, and do not ever find out Offred’s real name, we can’t help but feel a strong sense of sorrow for what Offred has lost and the life she now holds. Forming a strange friendship with the Commander, the husband in her household, Offred begins to experience more of what life is like for women who are neither wives nor handmaids, including Moira, her oldest friend. She also discovers a secret network of those who resist the dictatorial state regime, and begins to rebel against the Commander by embarking on a sexual relationship with his driver, which is completely against the law for a handmaiden. Offred’s story is told in a way that often seems jagged, but is also incredibly personal; we feel like Offred is talking directly to us, as was Atwood’s intention, needing someone to hear her story and make her feel real again. It is not the sort of book where I wish to write too much of the plot, as I would rather not give away the finer details. The most chilling thing about this book, however, is that it doesn’t seem that impossible. This is the kind of repressive, totalitarian state I genuinely believe we could see at some point in the near future; the repression of women and minorities is a key component of the novel and is something that we see in daily life, though of course on a far, far smaller scale. Yet, that prejudice exists, and the fear that it could turn into something darker and stronger is one that certainly manifests itself in the reader’s mind after finishing ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. This is an excellent book and I would highly recommend it.

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Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession by Alison Weir

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RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “Fresh from the palaces of Burgundy and France, Anne draws attention at the English court, embracing the play of courtly love. But when the King commands, nothing is ever a game. Anne has a spirit worthy of a crown – and the crown is what she seeks. At any price”

REVIEW: I am a huge fan of Alison Weir, and have been to see her give lectures on several occasions; I even have a signed copy of my favourite one of her books, ‘The Lady in the Tower’, a non-fiction book on Anne’s downfall. I have spoken to her about my research and writing ambitions, and she is genuinely a lovely woman. I am also a big Anne Boleyn fan, having written my undergraduate dissertation on how she was portrayed by Catholics and Protestants during the reign of her daughter, Elizabeth I – she is also now forming a large part of my Masters dissertation on how Henry VIII manipulated the treason laws on his descent into tyranny. My interest in Anne means that I am always on the lookout for new books about her, so I was very excited to read this book, the second in Weir’s collection of historical fiction novels from the perspective of Henry VIII’s six wives.

The book was incredibly well-written, as Weir’s always are. It was engaging and considering it amounts to over 500 pages, I read it quickly as I found it difficult to put down. I found Weir’s portrayal of Anne particularly compelling, as it very much fit with my own perspective on what Anne was like as a woman, and what her motivations were for marrying Henry. Weir has Anne marry him not for love, but for her own ambition, although her love for Henry begins to grow throughout their courtship, leading her to eventually become jealous of his relationships with other women and thereby slowly turning him against her. This is very much how I have always seen their relationship, so it was refreshing to read of a historical ficiton point of view that still paints Anne as a good person, motivated by her religious and radical beliefs just as much by ambition, and keen to do good despite lacking popular support; usually, if Anne is portrayed as ambitious, she is often also depicted cruelly. The scenes regarding Anne’s downfall, particularly the final few pages that deal with her execution, are extremely beautifully written and very emotional, allowing the reader to experience the horrific moment of the execution through Anne’s eyes. The sheer amount of historical research was evident, and where many historians tend to skim over writing about politics, for fear of losing the interest of the reader, Weir makes sure the reader is always aware of the political, religious and international context in which the events are taking place. She also uses phrases in the dialogue that have clearly been lifted and adapted from primary texts of the period, which adds an aspect of authenticity.

I loved the book for all of these reasons. I did, however, have two main issues with the novel that has caused me to give it a lower rating. Tbe more minor one of these was the idea of Anne’s secret love for Henry Norris, and even this alone would not have caused me to enjoy the book any less – I just don’t believe that this was a factor in Anne’s time as Queen or, indeed, in her downfall. But Weir explains her choice to write this in the author’s note, and I understand her use of the evidence for artistic licence and can see how, in light of writing the novel, she has shaped the evidence to fit this conclusion; it did add to the novel, and therefore I enjoyed it. My main problem was the way in which Weir chose to portray George Boleyn.

George Boleyn is one of my particular areas of interest and speciality. I am in the very slow process of writing a book on him myself; he also forms a large part of my Masters dissertation, which I am currently writing, and has been a fascination of mine for several years. I have looked at him in depth and, although I acknowledge that he had many flaws, namely his pride and ambition, I admit that as a historical figure I am attracted to him, and wish that he was more widely known. A poem by a Spanish author once accused George of being a rapist. This is a theme that Weir has chosen to use and run with, and she has George confess to Anne that he has ‘forced widows and deflowered maidens’,¬† a line taken directly from this poem. Yet, in her non-fiction work, Weir cites a poem by the same Spanish author, which accused Anne of being guilty in her adultery and acting as a whore with many men, and states that it is an unreliable piece of evidence. The poetry was written from a point of view which would have been extremely hostile to Anne and the Boleyn family as a whole, coming from both a Catholic perspective and one which would have supported Katherine of Aragon and the Princess Mary, seeing Anne and her daughter as nothing more than a concubine and a bastard. I have always agreed with this assessment of the poem being unreliable, and do not understand how Weir could say this herself and then use a poem by the same author as evidence for writing George as a rapist. The evidence is flimsy at best, and although I appreciate that he has been dead for several hundred years, I feel this is a strong and unfair accusation to make, and as one that has also been mistakenly portrayed in the TV drama ‘The Tudors’, may end up being all that people who focus only on popular fiction end up believing, thereby damaging George’s reputation completely. Weir also has George involved in the poisoning of Bishop Fisher, a rumour which was spread about at the time and one which, with the use of artistic licence, I can understand her using although I may not agree. What I cannot support, however, is her writing that George also poisoned Katherine of Aragon, when it is known full well that she died from cancer. Although I acknowledge the fact that I am protective of George and the way he is portrayed, and therefore am biased, I do believe it is wrong to write of someone as a rapist when the evidence is unreliable, even when taking artistic licence into consideration.

Overall, I would recommend the book very highly to fans of Anne, as I enjoyed the way she was written.

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Men Explain Things To Me and Other Essays by Rebecca Solnit

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “In her iconic essay ‘Men Explain Things to me’, Rebecca Solnit investigates the conversations of men who wrongly assume they know things and wrongly assume women don’t. This famous and influential essay is included here along with the best of Solnit’s feminist writings. From rape culture to grandmothers, from French sex scandals to marriage and the nuclear family, and from Virginia Woolf to colonialism, these essays are a fierce and incisive exploration of the issues that a patriarchal culture will not neccessarily acknowledge as ‘issues’ at all.”

REVIEW: I have considered myself a feminist from the moment I was old enough to understand what the term meant, and have recently decided to read more feminist texts in order to increase my understanding and awareness of the issues we face on the road to achieving equality between men and women. Solnit’s collection of essays is both fascinating and horrifying; it is also worrying how many of her examples I recognised through either witnessing similar scenarios or being involved on them. Her title essay, ‘Men Explain Things to Me’, describes an experience Solnit had in which a man decided to lecture her on the topic of a book she had recently read, using her own book as the basis of his knowledge without imagining that she could possibly have been the author. I am sure many women have also had an experience of ‘mainsplaining’ – it happened to me in a university seminar only a couple of months ago, where I was lectured by a tutor who possessed a very patriarchal view of Mary Shelley and her novel ‘Frankenstein’, without realising that I had not only studied both author and work in detail, but am also an avid fan. Her essay ‘The Longest War’, which talks about the statistical rates and experiences of rape, sexual violence and domestic abuse across the world, was particularly striking and terrifying, and one that hit close to home as I have a close friend who as a result of a rape that took place forty years ago has never been able to live a normal life. Solnit’s essay on marriage equality was another one that really stood out for me. This collection of essays is wonderfully written, engaging and definitely enough to light a fire even in those who may not yet identify with the idea of feminism. I would highly recommend it.

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Wise Children by Angela Carter

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “A richly comic tale of the tangled fortunes of two theatrical families, the Hazards and the Chances, Angela Carter’s witty and bawdy novel is populated with as many sets of twins and mistaken identities as any Shakespeare comedy, and celebrates the magic of over a century of show business.”

REVIEW: I studied Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories’ during my English Literature A-level, and it has become a favourite book that I often return to. I was recommended ‘Wise Children’ very recently by my A-Level Literature teacher, and was looking forward to reading more of Carter’s work. ‘Wise Children’ tells the story of twin sisters Dora and Nora Chance through the eyes of Dora, as she looks back on their lives and the chaotic liasons that have shaped and changed their sprawling Shakespearean family. As the illegitimate daughters of famed thespian actor Melchoir Hazard, Dora and Nora were cared for by their grandmother upon the death of their mother and found themselves using their beauty, charm and hidden family connections to rise up the glittering social ladder and form careers for themselves as minor Hollywood starlets, and later on as a singing and dancing double act. As we learn more about their lives and the affairs that have made their family into a melodrama, we can’t help warming to Dora and Nora and cetting caught up in their glamorous and dramatic lives. The events culminate at Melchoir’s hundredth birthday party at the end of the novel, where revelations galore plunge events into mirth and chaos. This book is fast-paced and witty, often comical and somehow extraordinarily Shakespearean, and Carter’s style is easy to distinguish. Although it took a chapter or so to get into, once I did so I really enjoyed this book and found it both fun and easy to read, and would highly recommend it.