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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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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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Heartless by Marissa Meyer

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Long before Alice fell down the rabbit hole…and before the roses were painted red…The Queen of Hearts was just a girl, in love for the first time.”

REVIEW: I’ve been wanting to read this reimagining of the story of the Queen of Hearts for quite some time, and was really excited when I picked it up on my birthday book-shopping trip. This novel tells the story of Catherine, Lady Pinkerton, the future Queen of Hearts. In this version, however, Catherine is a very a likeable character; a young woman who wishes to run away from her life as a member of the nobility and use her exceptional talents to set up a bakery with her maid, Mary-Ann. This dream appears to be dashed, however, when Catherine discovers that the perfectly kind but extremely foolish King of Hearts wishes to ask for her hand in marriage, a fact which her parents are all too delighted by. Upon fleeing his initial proposal Catherine meets the King’s new court jester, Jest, a handsome and mysterious young man who captures Catherine’s interest at once. As the Kingdom begins to grow in fear after a series of Jabberwock attack and the King’s intentions grow increasingly serious despite her attempts to slow things down, Catherine’s dreams seem to be becoming an increasingly distant possibility. Her relationship with Jest develops throughout the novel in a way that draws the reader in at once and makes us desperate for the two to find a way to be together, removed from the world they know so that each of them can realise their dreams. It is difficult to write more of the plotline without giving away spoilers, but it is easy to see how Catherine developed into the infamous Queen of Hearts, a villainess we are familiar with from her many depictions in book and particularly in film. Even knowing what she will become and witnessing some of this transformation towards the end of the novel, the reader still sympathises with Catherine. I am really hoping that there will be a sequel to this novel, as it is definitely one of my favourite Wonderland-set novels that I have read, and I’m eager to find out what happens next now that Catherine is the Queen of Hearts.

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The Loving Spirit by Daphne du Maurier

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Janet Coombe longs for adventure and the freedom of the sea. She feels herself pulled fast under its spell, but in her heart she know she must sacrifice her dreams; she is a woman, and her place is in the home. So she marries Thomas, a boat-builder, and her restless spirit is passed down through her son, and on to his descendants”

REVIEW: I am a huge fan of Daphne du Maurier, and am slowly working my way through all of her novels. I am yet to find one I haven’t enjoyed, and ‘The Loving Spirit’, du Maurier’s debut novel, was no exception – just like all of the previous books of hers that I have read,  I simply could not put this one down. The book is split into four parts, the first telling the story of Janet Coombe; the second the story of her son, Joseph; the third the story of his son, Christopher; and the fourth the story of his daughter, Jennifer. The restless spirit of Janet, who longs to be away at sea but is chained to the home of her husband, is one I think many readers can sympathise with. Although Thomas is sweet and devoted, he is no match for the intelligence and the sense of adventure that exists in his wife, and is confused by her longing to escape; as readers, however, we often seek our own escape in books, and therefore Janet’s restlessness is easier to understand. The centre of Janet’s world is realigned, however, with the birth of her son, Joseph. She sees her own spirit in Joseph and the two form a close bond (which, admittedly, often seemed to me to be verging on incest, though I doubt this was  du Maurier’s intention) that is brutally severed with Janet’s death. Unable to bear the close knit town of Plyn after the loss of his mother, Joseph continues to live the life of a sailor that he embarked upon to his mother’s joy during her lifetime. When he returns to Plyn and determines to marry, however, his plans are almost thwarted by his younger brother, Phillip, who has grown into a cold, unforgiving young man filled with ambition and hate. By the end of Joseph’s tale, things are very unfortunate for him, and the third part of the book sees his wayward son Christopher, who abandoned the life of seafaring his father had planned for him to live a more comfortable life in London, return to Plyn with his wife and children. Narrowly missing the death of his father, Christopher joins with his cousins and tries to make a success of the shipbuilding business that his grandfather had owned, but is ruthlessly put down by Phillip at every turn. He has a strong bond with his youngest child, a girl named Jennifer, who is the protagonist of the final part of the book. Jennifer is strong-willed and, despite moving back to London with her mother after Christopher’s death, her heart longs to be back in Plyn. She returns there and ends up living with her miserly uncle Phillip, seeking revenge on him in every way she can before falling into danger herself.

Each of the parts of the book intertwine with one another, leading the reader through four generations of the Coombe family in a way that is both seamless and brilliant. Each story contains romance, trials and a love of the sea, and although I most enjoyed the sections of Joseph and Jennifer, the book as a whole was fantastic. There were twists in every part, yet the ending still left the reader pleased and with a sense of completion and satisfaction. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

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Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “All her life, Liesl has heard tales of the beautiful, dangerous Goblin King. They’ve enraptured her spirit and inspired her musical compositions. Now eighteen, Liesl can’t help but feel that her musical dreams and childhood fantasies are slipping away. But when her sister is taken by the Goblin King, Liesl must journey to the underground to save her. Drawn to the strange, captivating world she finds – and the mysterious man who rules it – she soon faces an impossible decision. With time and the old laws working against her, Liesl must discover who she truly is before her fate is sealed.”

REVIEW: Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ is one of my favourite poems – in fact, Rossetti herself is among my favourite poets. My Mum even bought me a beautiful Folio Society copy of ‘Goblin Market’ and other poems for my eighteenth birthday. S. Jae-Jones was clearly inspired by the poem ‘Goblin Market’ in the writing of this fantastic novel; she quotes it at the beginning of the book and quotes a number of other poems by Rossetti throughout. The novel tells the story of Liesl, a gifted young composer who is overshadowed by her beautiful sister Kathe and her talented younger brother Josef, who looks set on his way to becoming the next Mozart. What no-one knows is that Liesl is the talent behind the music that Josef plays, and has continuously helped and inspired him, despite her compositions being scorned by her drunken father. Liesl and Josef have always had a deep belief in the stories their grandmother Constanze tells them about the Goblin King and his Underground court, and the Goblin Grove has acted as a sanctuary for them for many years. Liesl has long forgotten her childhood friendship with the young Goblin King, and the promise she once made to one day be his wife, and her belief on the stories themselves is starting to slip away. After a terrifying experience with Goblin fruit sellers at the market, however, Liesl is forced to confront the reality of the Goblin King. Her sister Kathe is taken by him and, although the rest of her family have erased Kathe from their memories, Liesl cannot. She finds her way to the Underground world of the Goblin King through her music, and manages to set Kathe free. As her price, however, she must stay Underground with the Goblin King, whom she feels a reluctant but powerful desire for. The complex relationship between Liesl and the Goblin King makes for gripping and powerful reading, the desire between the two characters so strong that it practically jumps from the page. The love that slowly begins to develop between them is so full of passion and emotion that the reader is completely sucked in by it, the sacrifices they make for each other painful to read of  – and the ultimate sacrifice that is made at the end of the novel made me cry for quite some time, though I will not spoil it here.

I absolutely loved this book. S Jae-Jones really captures the magical, fantastical, yet somehow Gothic and slightly terrifying atmosphere of much of Rossetti’s poetry, especially ‘Goblin Market’. She turns this epic poem into a beautiful, gripping story full of emotion and meaning, and I enjoyed every page. I only wish the book could have been longer!

 

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The Story of Alice by Robert Douglas Fairhurst

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “This is the secret history of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Wonderland is part of our cultural heritage. But beneath the fairytale lies the complex history of the author and his subject. Charles Dodgson was a quiet academic but his second self, Lewis Carroll, was a storyteller, innovator and avid collector of ‘child-friends’. Carroll’s imagination was to give Alice Liddell, his ‘dream-child’, a fictional alter ego that would never let her grow up.

This is a biography that beautifully unravels the magic of Alice. It is a history of love and loss, innocence and ambiguity. It is the story of one man’s need to make a Wonderland in a changing world.”

REVIEW: I have wanted to read this book since its release, and was very excited to receive it for my birthday last month. I am a huge fan of Alice in Wonderland and have read the book and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, many times. Although I knew a little, as many of do, about the story behind Carroll’s creation of this famous tale – his close friendship with a little girl named Alice Liddell, whom he one day took a boat ride with and, to amuse her, told her the story which would eventually become Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – I learnt a great deal more through reading this biography. Douglas-Fairhurst writes beautifully, and the book reads almost like a novel itself, truly capturing the magic surrounding both the creation and dissemination of Alice. A great deal of time is spent discussing one of the great mysteries of Lewis Carroll; how close was he to Alice Liddell and the other little girls he befriended and photographed? As an amateur photographer, the majority of Carroll’s portraits involved young girls, many of them named Alice and some either nude or barely dressed. Douglas-Fairhurst discusses the problems this poses for us in the modern day, looking back on Carroll and his life; realistically, many of us might apply the term of paedophile to Carroll, in light of what we can see from his photographs and the letters he wrote to these young girls. However, Carroll – when he was busy being Charles Dodgson – was a reverend, a religious man, and often condemned those who viewed the purity and innocence of children through a ‘sinful’ eye. I would concur with the conclusion that Douglas-Fairhurst makes: that Carroll was, in fact, simply captivated by the innocence and beauty of youth, a period of life which he saw as carefree and creative. Carroll maintained a close relationship with children because he loved youth and wished to reconnect with his own lost years, and I think you can see that childish and youthful imagination shining through in both of the Alice books. I really enjoyed learning more about Carroll and the story behind the creation of Alice, and would highly recommend this book.

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Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “When a newborn baby dies after a routine hospital procedure, there is no doubt about who will be held responsible: the nurse who had been banned from looking after him by his father. What the nurse, her lawyer and the father of the child cannot know is how this death will irrevocably change all of their lives, in ways both expected and not.”

REVIEW: As many of you will know, I am a huge Picoult fan, and was delighted when a fantastic friend bought me ‘Small Great Things’, her latest novel, for Christmas. This book, like so many of hers have done, has really stuck with me since I finished reading it, and as her books often do has caused me to ask questions of myself that I might not have asked had I not read it. It is also highly appropriate to read this book now, in light of recent political events in the US and, indeed, across the world, as racial hate crime is on the rise. This book does not just tell the story of a nurse who is accused of killing a baby, a crime she did not commit; it tells the reader how it feels to be a black woman in the United States, showing both the subtle and more shocking racial prejudices that face them in day-to-day life.

Ruth Jefferson is a well-liked, experienced and respected midwife, and is both angered and upset when she is told by the father of one of the babies put into her care that she is no longer allowed to tend to the baby due to the colour of her skin. When the baby dies a couple of days later and it emerges that Ruth could have saved him, but was torn between her duty and the command of the child’s father, the situation soon blows up and Ruth is taken to court, accused of murdering baby Davis Bauer. Throught the novel we experience the events through the eyes of Ruth, the main protagonist, but also through Turk, the baby’s father, and Kennedy, Ruth’s lawyer. As the blurb states, this case changes the lives and perceptions of all three of these characters, but this is not something I want to delve deeply into in this review; Picoult’s books are always so gripping that I fear to give away the ending would simply ruin the novel and dramatically reduce its impact. And this book did have an impact on me.

Throughout the book we see the daily racism experienced by Ruth who, although less aggravated by it than her older sister Adisa, is physically hurt every time she is treated as inferior – which, of course, anyone would be. I have never considered myself to be a racist person, and I still do not in any way; yet, the question was raised in this book about the difference between active racism – whereby people act like the character of Turk and racially abuse those with different racial backgrounds to themselves – and passive racism, where people do not see themselves as racist but do not do anything to particularly discourage racism from happening. I found this point to be a really interesting one, and although I would definitely not accuse myself of active racism, I began to think that many of us are probably guilty of passive acts of racism, even if we do not mean to be. This debate is something that has really stuck with me since I finished the book, and is something I think many readers will find themselves thinking about once they finish the novel.

Overall I found this book to be gripping and excellently written, dealing with a sensitive subject in a way that educates readers as well as telling them a story. I would highly recommend it.