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Poor Unfortunate Soul by Serena Valentino

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RATING: 2.5/5

BLURB: “Determined to be with her new love, Ariel makes a dangerous deal with Ursula. Will the cost of losing her enchanting voice and nearly her soul prove too high for Ariel, or will the power of good prevail?”

REVIEW: Ursula is possibly my favourite Disney villain (closely followed by Scar from ‘The Lion King), and having read Valentino’s previous twists on Snow White and Beauty and the Beast I was really looking forward to this one. I was, however, a little disappointed. The novel had so much potential, but many of Valentino’s ideas and tales about Ursula’s background could have done with more elaboration, as could the story of her time in Triton’s court. The story of how she lost the human father who adopted her was heartbreaking, and explained much about Ursula’s personality and villainous actions. Yet other backstories that would have added depth to her character were skimmed past; we learned that she had been close to Triton’s wife during her time at court, but little more about their friendship. We learnt of the fact that Triton and Ursula were in fact brother and sister, but saw little of the dynamics of their relationship aside from skimming the surface of their fallouts and hatred for one another. This made it possible to understand why Ursula targeted Ariel, but it would have been interesting to be able to identify more depth to her motives. Whereas Valentino’s previous books did make the reader feel sympathy for the villains whose stories she told, I have to admit that despite my intial sympathy for Ursula over the death of her adoptive father I had soon stopped feeling anything for her at all. This is unfortunate, as it is this sympathy for the villains which first attracted me to Valentino’s work. The three mad sisters who feature in all three novels are still prominent in this book, and I enjoyed following their story more than I enjoyed following that of Ursula, though of course the two storylines are linked. I particularly love the character of Pflanze, the cat belonging to the sisters, who can communicate with them as well as other witches. Overall, however, I found the book disappointing, and was able to read through it quickly as there was little to grab my attention.

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The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Joe, Beth and Frannie take their cousin Rick on an adventure he’ll never forget! Find out how they escape from the Land of Dreams. And what goes wrong in the Land of Topsy-Turvy. And who drives a runaway train in the Land of Do-as-you-Please”

REVIEW: I absolutely loved Enid Blyton as a child. Beginning with my Mum reading me her Famous Five books as bedtime stories, I soon ended up loving such series as ‘The Naughtiest Girl in School’, ‘Mallory Towers’ and ‘St Clare’s’ – and, of course, the Faraway tree stories. I picked up this copy during a free book giveaway at work a couple of weeks ago after realising I couldn’t find my Faraway Tree collection (which I’m still desperately hunting for!), and couldn’t resist re-reading it. ‘The Magic Faraway Tree’ is the second book in the series, and I remember it as one of my favourites. These stories truly are enchanting. A magic tree, inhabited by lovable characters such as the beautiful fairy Silky, the amusing Saucepan man, and kind-hearted Moon-Face, hosts a different magical land at the very top of its branches every week. Three local children, Joe, Beth and Frannie, are eager to introduce their cousin Rick to the wonders of the Faraway Tree and their beloved friends there, and this leads to a number of enchanting and amusing adventures for the children and their magical friends. My favourite tale had to be that of the Land of Magical Medicines, in which amusing incidents involving lots of growing, shrinking, flying and swelling up took place. The stories made me feel as safe and comforted as they did when I was a child, and I remembered the enchanting feeling of escaping on a new adventure every chapter with a great deal of fondness. I would highly recommend this book, and it is definitely the sort of story that should be read to children to encourage imagination and a belief in magic – one day, I hope I will be reading it to children of my own.

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Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “Effia and Esi, two sisters with two very different destinies. One sold into slavery; one a slave trader’s wife. The consequences of their fate reverberate through the generations that follow: from the Gold Coast of Africa to the plantations of Mississippi; from the missionary schools of Ghana to the dive bars of Harlem. Spanning continents and generations, Yaa Gyasi has written a miraculous novel – an intense, heartbreaking story of one family and, through their lives, the story of America itself.”

REVIEW: I was keen to read this book when I first read about its release, and was lucky enough to find a work colleague to borrow it from. I’m so glad I did, because this book is incredible. In equal measures both heartbreaking and heartwarming, the novel is divided into chapters initially telling the stories of Effia and Esia, and then each of their descendants. The stories are often harrowing, but it is not right that stories of the suffering of slaves should be anything other than this; in writing these tales, Gyasi spares nothing in describing the details of the trials her characters face, from the domination of white over black to the domination of men over women in traditional patriarchal cultures. The stories vary in content and each has an important moral impact on the reader. I felt every word whilst reading this novel, which is partly what makes it such an intense read; it is gripping and impossible to put down purely because every word draws you in and holds you there as a witness to the events taking place. The story of Ness was my favourite, and one I found particularly moving; I had to put the book down for a while to recover! I also particularly enjoyed the story of Abena, though once again this was a more moving tale. The book itself is pure genius, showing how our suffering and our lives can have consequences that span generations in a kind of butterfly effect. What starts with Effia, an Asante girl who marries a slave trader, and her sister Esi, captured and sold into slavery herself, takes us on a journey that ends with a budding romance between their descendants as they explore Ghana, the land of their heritage. I can’t recommend it highly enough not only as a novel, but as a historical and moral lesson, and a captivating piece of literary art.

 

 

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Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: ‘This new telling of the story of Jane’s life shows us how and why she lived as she did, examining the places and spaces that mattered to her. It wasn’t all country houses and ballrooms, but a life that was often a painful struggle. Jane famously lived ‘a life without incident’, but with new research and insights Lucy Worsley reveals a passionate woman who fought for her freedom. A woman who far from being a lonely spinster in fact had at least five marriage prospects, but who in the end refused to settle for anything less than Mr Darcy’.

REVIEW: After a month-long summer break indulging myself by re-reading Harry Potter, I’m back, and with a book that is currently one of my favourites I’ve read this year. Lucy Worsley’s new biography of Jane Austen is one of the best biographies I’ve read in a long time, showing us a completely new side to a woman who is generally believed to have written incredible novels, but otherwise been rather dull. Worsley focuses on the places that Jane called home throughout her lifetime, and how these places inspired her novels, hindered or encouraged her writing, and to what extent they can be perceived as a true home. Despite being a big Austen fan, I had not previously realised just how many times Jane and her family moved around, often dependent on the charity of relatives – particularly her many brothers. After the death of her father, Jane, her beloved sister Cassandra and her mother moved from place to place, two spinsters and a widow with little money to call their own, until they finally settled at Chawton, one of the places most associated with Jane Austen. Between her childhood home at Steventon and her final home at Chawton, Jane moved between a great number of cities including Southampton and, most popularly, Bath. However, as Worsley explains, things could have been very different for Jane had she chosen to marry. Modern readers of Austen’s novels tend to picture her as somewhat frustrated, able to write such beautifully romantic plots into her novels because she longed for such a life herself. Although suitors of Jane’s such as Tom Lefroy and Harris Bigg-Wither are relatively well known, Worsley reveals the real story behind these two relationships, as well as revealing a further three prospective suitors for Jane’s hand in marriage. Had Jane accepted one of these offers, her life would surely have been more comfortable, and she may well have been able to provide for her sister and mother also. Yet, Jane did not settle for any of these suitors – it seems that, perhaps, she was as much in pursuit of real love as the characters in her novels were. This biography therefore shows us the real story behind many of the modern perceptions of Jane Austen, and was written in such a beautiful narrative style that it felt like a novel, making it incredibly easy to read for a work of non-fiction. The book has clearly been thoroughly researched and, despite of course knowing how Jane’s tale would end, was so well-written that I found myself very emotional at the end of the book when Jane’s story came to a close. By introducing us to this hidden side of Jane, witty, fun, sarcastic and full of imagination, Worsley allows us to feel close to Jane; she makes her so accessible that the reader actually feels grief when reading of Jane’s death, despite it having taken place exactly two hundred years ago. This is an incredible biography and I would highly recommend it.

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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.