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Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

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“A heart may desire a thing powerfully indeed, but that heart’s desire might be what a person least needs, for her health, for her continuing happiness”

RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “In her inspired re-working of the fairy tale Snow White and Rose Red, Margo Lanagan has created characters that are vivid, passionate, flawed and fiercely devoted to their hearts’ desires, whether these desires are good or evil. It is the story of two worlds – one real, one magical – and how, despite the safe haven her magical world offers to those who have suffered, her characters can never turn their backs on the real world, with all its beauty and brutality”

REVIEW: I have often said how much I enjoy reading novels that are retellings or reworkings of fairytales, and I’ve had ‘Tender Morsels’ on my bookshelf for so long that I’d almost completely forgotten about it. I was really excited to get stuck in, and see how Lanagan had managed to twist the traditional Snow White and Rose Red story.

‘Tender Morsels’ tells the story of Liga, a young woman who is raped and abused by her father and, after his death, is gang raped by a group of boys from the nearby village. Destroyed by what has happened, Liga hardly knows where to turn, and ends up opening a kind of magical portal to a new world, in which she and the two daughters she has bourne from these terrifying encounters will be safe. However, there are other points of view that appear throughout the story, such as that of the midget Collaby Dought and Davit Ramstrong, a man who accidentally enters into Liga’s magical world in the form of a bear, becoming close to her and both of her daughters. These points of view seem to switch very suddenly, and the fast move from third to first person can be quite confusing, particularly in the beginning of the novel when the reader is not yet used to it. The writing style also seems a little jumbled at times, but I think this may just be due to the author’s attempt to keep up a fast pace and to ensure that the stories of all the characters are included. It only appears to be the male characters in the novel who are granted a first-person perspective, despite the fact that the female characters – particularly Liga and her daughters, Branza and Urdda – are more central to the plot of the novel. This was another thing that I found slightly confusing, and I would have much rather heard more from the female characters; particularly as I found the character of Collaby to serve very little purpose as a whole in the novel, other than as an illustration of how dangerous the magical world could be despite the safety it provided to Liga and her family.

I did begin to enjoy the book significantly more from around halfway through, with the introduction of the first bear that the girls learn to befriend. From this point onwards the novel became more gripping, and it was from this point that the gradual discovery of the two parallel worlds began. Even in this section, however, which I enjoyed,  I found some aspects of the plot to be disappointing. The disappearance of Urdda, who finds her way into the real world from within the magical, is strangely dealt with by both Liga and Branza, neither of whom seemed to feel any hugely significant emotion towards her loss. The later transition of Liga and Branza into the real world, and their reunion with Urdda and the character of Annie (a favourite of mine) was well-written, with the real world being portrayed in stark contrast and Liga and Branza’s adjustment to this being completely believable. The reader also feels a grim satisfaction when Urdda uses the hidden magic within her to accidentally reap a terrible revenge on the five men who gang raped and abused Liga, leading to Urdda’s conception. However, I also felt that the announcement of Davit’s marriage to Branza came too close to the end of the novel and too suddenly, which did not allow Lanagan to sufficiently explore the emotions of Liga, who had nursed feelings for Davit ever since the time he spent with her as a bear in the magical world.

Lanagan’s writing style is unusual, and often vividly descriptive. The story itself, however, is highly complex and fast-paced, and could sometimes have done with being more detailed in places to ensure that the reader understood what was happening. As previously mentioned, the transitions from third- to first-person were also confusing and sometimes made the story hard to follow, and it would have been  nice to hear first-hand from the female characters. I enjoyed this novel, but would not read it a second time, and nor would I neccessarily make an enthusiastic recommendation. It was intriguing, but I had expected something a little different and think Lanagan could have gone down a different and more engaging route.

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The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

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“The stories are of men who, walking on the shore, hear sweet voices far away, see a soft white back turned to them, and – heedless of looming clouds and creaking winds – forget their children’s hands and the click of their wives’ needles, all for the sake of the half-seen face behind a tumble of gale-tossed greenish hair.”

RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door. One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid.

As gossip spreads through the docks, coffee shops, parlours and brothels, everyone wants to see Mr Hancock’s marvel. Its arrival spins him out of his ordinary existence and through the doors of high society. At an opulent party, he makes the acquaintance of Angelica Neal, the most desirable woman he has ever laid eyes on…and a courtesan of great accomplishment. This meeting will steer both their lives onto a dangerous new course.

What will be the cost of their ambitions? And will they be able to escape the destructive power mermaids are said to possess?”

REVIEW: I’ve been desperate to read this novel since its release, partially because it is a historical fiction, partly because it was long listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, much like two other novels I have greatly enjoyed reading recently (‘Three Things About Elsie’ by Joanna Cannon and ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman), and, to be honest, partly because it had the word mermaid in the title. This novel tells the story of two fascinating individuals, whose lives intersect irrevocably with the discovery of a mermaid. Jonah Hancock is a widowed, childless merchant, living in a large house with his niece Sukie, who helps him to run the home, and his maid Bridget. He is lonely, and his life is turned upside down when the captain of one of his ships returns from the sea with what appears to be the body of a mermaid. His exhibiting of the mermaid brings him into contact with our other protagonist, Angelica Neal, a famed courtesan who is determined to work for herself rather than be under the rule of a brothel madam. After a doomed romance with a young man she meets at a party held to display Jonah’s mermaid, Angelica is left ruined, and her life once again collides with Jonah’s as she begs with him to marry her, following the feelings he has held for her since their first meeting. Jonah does indeed marry Angelica, and stuns her by revealing that he has found a live mermaid. This creature, however, is far more like the sirens of Greek myth than how we picture a mermaid to be, and soon had Jonah trapped under her spell. He hides her away so as not to have to share her, but her feelings of melancholy and doom soon spread from her hiding place, endangering the two people Jonah cares about most; Angelica and Sukie.

Hermes Gowar sets the scene beautifully; the reader really gets a sense of what life was like in 1785, from the bustling city life to the quiet contentment of Jonah’s mercantile lifestyle. The fact that the reader becomes almost instantly integrated into the time period makes the novel immediately engaging, and it continues to be so throughout. From around halfway through the story becomes even more gripping, and once I had started I could hardly bear to put the book down. I also loved the strong female characters that came in the form of Angelica and Sukie, as well as some of the minor characters like Bel Fortescue and Eliza Frost. These are all women who rebel against the conventions of their time; Angelica by both her trade and her independence, and Sukie in her intelligence and bold nature. I really enjoyed reading about both women and, as much as I liked the characer of Jonah, found him overshadowed in my mind by these two brilliantly feisty characters. Some parts of the story, in fact, reminded me of one of my favourite television series of last year, ‘Harlots’, which I would highly recommend if you enjoyed this novel; it is set at a similar time and evokes similar feelings in the viewer as this novel does in the reader. I absolutely loved the ending of the novel, and also enjoyed the fact that the perspective of the mermaid flowed throughout the novel, brief but powerful and engaging. I would highly recommend this novel and feel sure it will make it onto the list of my Top Ten Books of 2018 at the end of this year.

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Always and Forever, Lara Jean by Jenny Han

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“I like the way he looks at me, like I am a wood nymph that he happened upon one day and just had to take home to keep.”

RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Life is good for Lara Jean. She is head over heels in love, her dad’s finally getting remarried and her sister Margot is coming home for the summer. But change is looming. And Lara Jean can’t ignore the big life decisions she has to make – where she goes to college for one. Because that would mean leaving her family – and possibly the boy she loves – behind.

When your head and your heart are saying two different things, which one should you listen to?”

 

REVIEW: After finishing ‘P.S. I Still Love you’ in a single sitting, I rushed straight into reading the third and final instalment of this trilogy, ‘Always and Forever, Lara Jean’. Once again, it was a smooth and easy transition onto the next novel, moving fluidly along with the storyline. By this point in the plot, Lara Jean and Peter have been together for a year, and have a lot of decisions to make in terms of their futures, both in terms of their careers and their life together as a couple. Han deals well and sensitively with the whole idea of growing up and moving on, particularly in terms of home and family as Lara Jean wonders what will become of her Dad and sister Kitty if she moves away to college. As someone who commuted to university from home and has yet to be able to move out, I understand the pull of family ties and how important home is, and many of the readers of this novel will surely be at the age where they are facing similar feelings and decisions. When Lara Jean fails to make it into her first choice university close to home, she is forced to consider the possibility of moving elsewhere, leaving her family behind and potentially jeopardising her relationship with Peter. Their fears of the dangers of a long-distance relationship threaten to tear Lara Jean and Peter apart, whilst at home things are also becoming tricky as Lara Jean’s elder sister Margot rebels against their idea of their Dad remarrying. There is a sense of nostalgia that runs throughout the novel, another thing that readers can identify with, as we have all had to make decisions that make us reflect on our childhood and younger years. The whole novel deals with this conflict between the familiar and the new, and the feelings this conflict presents us with, as well as the subsequent dilemmas. I really enjoyed this novel, in fact the whole trilogy, and felt it provided an ideal ending. By finishing with Lara Jean and Peter aiming to continue their relationship despite their moving to separate colleges, it gives readers the chance to develop their own conclusions about the future of their relationship and to invent their own happy ending for the couple. I would highly recommend this whole series for a light, sometimes emotional, but mostly uplifting read that appeals to the true romantic in all of us.

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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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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.