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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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All the Rivers by Dorit Rabinyan

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “A chance encounter in New York brings two strangers together: Liat is an idealistic translation student, Hilmi a talented young painter. Together they explore the city, share fantasies, jokes and homemade meals, and soon fall in love. There is only one problem: Liat is from Israel, Hilmi from Palestine.

Keeping their relationship secret works for a while, but the outside world always finds a way in. After a stormy visit from Hilmi’s brother, cracks begin to form and their points of difference – Liat’s military service, Hilmi’s hopes for Palestine’s future – threaten to overwhelm their shared life. Then comes the inevitable return to their divided communities, and the lovers must decide whether to keep going or let go, or have the decision made for them.”

REVIEW: I was lent this book by a friend and was looking forward to reading it upon her recommendation. Rabityan’s writing is beautiful; poetic but also fast-paced, it adds to the heightened emotions that already fill the story of Liat and Hilmi, two lovers who seem destined never to be together. Their warring backgrounds put a constant strain on their budding relationship as they clash over politics, over the secrecy of their relationships, and over the future of themselves and their warring nations. Added to this is the fact that Liat has a clear date in mind for when she must return to Israel, putting a time limit on their relationship that earmarks their happiness as only temporary. The cracks begin to show when socialising with their friends and the few family members they let in on the secret, but when Liat returns to Israel with Hilmi following not close behind to visit his own family members, the reader begins to hope that the two will find a way to defy their politics and families and be together after all. It is difficult to continue to give a summary of this novel without giving too much away; the ending was truly a shock and left me in tears for quite some time afterwards. Rabinyat has a way of writing that makes the reader feel as though they are in Liat’s shoes, which allows us to experience both her joy and her pain. I cannot emphasise enough the sheer quality of the writing in this book, which was both thought-provoking and heartbreaking – my only complaint is that I wish it could have been longer.

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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.

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Splintered by A.G.Howard

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “Alyssa Gardner hears the thoughts of plants and animals. She hides her delusions for now, but she knows her fate: she will end up like her mother, in an institution. Madness has run in her family ever since her great-great-great grandmother Alice Liddell told Lewis Carroll her strange dreams, inspiring his classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

But perhaps she’s not mad. And perhaps Carroll’s stories aren’t as whimsical as they first seem.

To break the curse of insanity, Alyssa must go down the rabbit hole and right the wrongs of Wonderland, a place full of strange beings with dark agendas. Alyssa brings her real-world crush – the protective Jeb – with her, but once her journey begins, she’s torn between his solidity and the enchanting, dangerous magic of Morpheus, her guide to Wonderland.

But no-one in Wonderland is who they seem to be – not even Alyssa herself…”

REVIEW: I’m sure frequent readers of this blog have gathered by now that I enjoy retellings of classic stories and fairytales, and I have a large stack of Alice in Wonderland retellings ready to get through on my bookshelf. Splintered was one of these books. It tells the story of Alyssa Gardner, a bold young woman who finds herself isolated from most of her peers due to her ability to hear the words spoken by insects and plants. The only people she lets herself be close to are her father, who is still devoted to her mad mother, her best friend and work colleague Jen, and Jen’s older brother Jeb, who has always been protective towards Alyssa, but whom Alyssa has always wanted much more from. After an incident at the institution where her Mum lives, Alyssa finds a series of clues and objects linked to Wonderland which she believes will cure her mother’s madness. During an argument with Jeb, she accidentally lures him into Wonderland with her, plunging the two of them into great danger. Although the pair begin to learn much more about themselves and each other, leading them to confess their feelings for one another, things are complicated by Morpheus, Alyssa’s dangerous but attractive guide to Wonderland. As Alyssa completes an increasing number of tasks that we recognise as stemming from the original story – for example, her emptying of the Pool of Tears – she begins to uncover more and more secrets about her heritage, and finds a way to break the curse of madness that has plagued the women of her family ever since Alice Liddell.

This book was clever and imaginative, and the storyline was more unusual and different from many of the usual formulaic reproductions of the Alice story. There were some parts of the book that I simply enjoyed less than others; I loved the development of the relationship between Alyssa and Jeb, and the conflicting desires Alyssa felt for the two men in her life. There were some elements of Wonderland itself that I enjoyed less; for example, the moment when the flowers turned into zombie-like creatures and chased Alyssa and Jeb in an attempt to eat them. I can’t pinpoint what exactly about this book didn’t quite hit the spot for me, because I did enjoy it, and the writing style was good with vivid description. I am intrigued to see what the further books in this series have to offer for this tale.

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Original Screenplay by J. K. Rowling

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “Explorer and magizoologist Newt Scamander has just completed a round-the-globe trip in search of the most rare and unusual magical creatures. Arriving in New York, he intends his stay to be just a brief stopover. However, when Newt’s case is misplaced and some of his fantastic beasts escape into the city, it spells trouble for everyone…”

REVIEW: Before the ‘Fantastic Beasts…’ film came out in cinemas last November, I admit I felt a little bit of a trepadation at the thought of a whole new Harry Potter-linked franchise. After I had been to see the film, however, I became completely obsessed; as an animal-lover I adored all of the magical creatures Rowling introduced to us, many of whom we had heard mentioned in the original Potter series but never fully seen. I also loved how Newt’s story links to the Harry Potter books, such as the link with Grindelwald and the mention of Dumbledore. After I went on for weeks about how much I loved the film, my Mum bought me the screenplay for Christmas. Sometimes I find reading scripts to be a little more challenging; to me, they often feel clunky and the stage directions can easily feel like interruptions. However, the screenplay of ‘Fantastic Beasts…’ was a joy to read and flowed just as the words and actions flowed on screen. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I am very much looking forward to watching the film again when the DVD comes out next month.