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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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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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Closed Casket by Sophie Hannah

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “Lady Athelinda Playford has planned a house party at her mansion, but it is no ordinary gathering. She announces that she has decided to change her will, cutting off her children and leaving her fortune to someone who has only weeks to live…

Among Lady Playford’s guests are Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and Inspector Edward Catchpool of Scotland Yard, who have no idea why they’ve been invited…until Poirot starts to wonder if Lady Playford expects a murderer to strike. When the crime is committed, and the victim is not who Poirot thought it would be, will he be able to solve the mystery?”

REVIEW: I’ve always been a fan of Agatha Christie, particularly those stories led by Poirot, one of her most famous protagonists. I was keen to read these new takes on Christie’s original character, written by Sophie Hannah, after being recommended them by a friend. I was most certainly not disappointed; in fact, I was instantly captured by how Hannah seems to mirror Christie’s writing style so accurately, whilst also adding an additional flavour of her own particular style. The book was witty, offered an excellent social commentary on the class issues of the period, and captured the true essence of a traditional murder mystery. Mostly narrated by Inspector Edward Catchpool, an old associate of Poirot, this novel tells the story of famed children’s mystery author, Lady Athelinda Playford, who lives with children Harry and Claudia and their respective partners, Dorro and Randall. The household also contains a butler, maid and cook – and, most integral to the story, a young, unwell man named Joseph Scotcher who is a close friend of Lady Playford, accompanied by his nurse, Sophie. Alongside Poirot and Catchpool, Lady Playford also invites her lawyer friend, Michael Gathercole, and his associate Orville Rolfe, to stay at her home for the announcement of changes she has made to her will. Upon the announcement that she plans to leave all of her estate to Joseph, who is dying of a kidney disease, there is uproar among her family, and Poirot begins to expect that he and Catchpool have been invited to prevent a sinister event occuring. When Joseph is murdered later that evening, having just proposed marriage to his nurse, the events take a darker and more confusing turn. As the mystery deepens and the police get involved, making inept decisions at every turn, Poirot and Catchpool are left to work on their own intiative to uncover who, out of the many motives presented by Lady Playford’s guests and family, felt their motive deeply enough to murder an already dying man – and how they did so. I do not wish to reveal the ending of the story here, as the twist is cleverly done and thoroughly explained by the character of Poirot, but I was very impressed with the ending and, indeed, with the book as a whole. I am very keen to read Hannah’s other Christie-inspired work, ‘Monogram Murders’ – I’m hoping it will be waiting under my Christmas tree!

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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.