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hold back the stars by Katie Khan

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Ninety minutes.

A few years from now, not too far in the future, two people meet. It is a classic story of boy meets girl. Except that it’s not. When we find them, they have an hour and a half left. Unless they can save themselves, they won’t survive.”

REVIEW: I was really intrigued by this book, which was bought for me as a gift by my boyfriend when I was going through a particularly difficult time. The premise – a couple who have only ninety minutes left to live – is interesting, and as a reader I was automatically hooked. The novel opens with two astronauts, Max and Carys, having been stranded from their spacecraft and currently floating out amongst the stars, with a diminishing air supply and no feasible way of saving themselves. From this point onwards, the novel switches between their present situation and their past life together, telling the reader the story of their relationship and the world in which they inhabit.

There is initially a vague indication of Max and Carys belonging to a world not unlike our own, but with a vastly different set of rules and political systems. In this world, people are encouraged to live as individuals rather than settling down as couples or families, and go on ‘rotation’ to different parts of the world every few years in order to stop them getting too comfortable anywhere and wasting their potential. At first, the reader is unsure if this is a kind of dystopia or if it is a post-apocalyptic version of our current world. It is later revealed that the latter is true, as we discover that the whole system of the world has changed after nuclear war broke out between the USA and the Middle East, destroying half the world. The relationship that blossoms between Max and Carys is therefore forbidden under their world’s laws, yet it also represents stability in a world in which people are expected to constantly move and change. The depiction of the relationship itself is also very realistic and believable, and many of the feelings the characters discussed and situations they were in reminded me frequently of both my past relationship and my current one, indicating the true realism of Khan’s writing.

The book becomes even more fascinating when, after the reader has become fully attached to Carys and Max and become a champion of their dangerous relationship, we return to the stars among which they are about to die. The death of Max in this chapter, who sacrifices himself to save Carys, is truly heartbreaking, and Khan’s depiction of Carys’ grief after the event is quietely brilliant. I was grieving myself whilst reading this novel, and really felt the depth and empathy of the chapters following Max’s death.

However, the novel then provides us with an alternate ending; one where Carys dies in order to save Max. This is equally as heartbreaking, and the way in which Max falls apart after Carys’ death is also brilliantly written. But. In a third and final unexpected twist, Khan then provides us with another possible ending; one in which Carys and Max realise that they cannot both survive, and that neither of them wish to carry on without the other – and end their lives together by cutting off their own air supplies simultaneously. This ending was the most beautiful and tragic of them all, and the only one that did not have me sitting there in tears – there was a sense of choice, and a sense of love, that made this ending my favourite one, and the one I felt most likely to have occurred if the novel were a real story. Although we as the reader do not actually know which is the real ending – it is left up to us to decide – I feel this is the one that made the most sense after learning of the relationship between the two characters, and I think will be the ending that most readers truly believe in.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book; it was unsual, romantic and excellently written, and I would highly recommend it.

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The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “Newly married, newly widowed Elsie is sent to see out her pregnancy at her late husband’s crumbling country estate, The Bridge. With her new servants resentful and the local villagers actively hostile,  Elsie only has her husband’s awkward cousin for company. Or so she thinks. For inside her new home lies a mysterious wooden figure – a silent companion – that bears an unsettling resemblance to Elsie herself…”

REVIEW: I had been eager to read this book since its release, so was extremely happy to receive it as a gift from my boyfriend recently. My hunch about this novel was right, as I absolutely loved it; I cannot praise it highly enough and would be very surprised if it doesn’t end up being my top book of the year. This novel tells the story of Elsie, and flashes between past and present as Elsie, locked up in an asylum and so traumatised she has lost the use of speech, begins to write the story of what happened to her at the urging of her doctor. The whole novel contains a real echo of the traditional Gothic novel, reminiscent of classics like ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘The Monk’ and is hugely gripping from beginning to end. The suspense built in the novel genuinely did give me chills on many occasions, and I felt so sucked into the story that I often completely forgot what was going on around me, as can only happen when reading a truly great book.

As well as the flashes between Elsie’s past and present, a third timeline is added when we learn of the origin of the silent companions and their arrival at The Bridge. During the reign of Charles I, a nobleman’s wife named Anne writes of the events leading up to the King visiting the manor house. She writes frequently of her mute daughter, Hetta, whom she conceived through witchcraft and who seems to show similar kinds of tendencies in terms of her work with plants and herbs. When seeking novelties to decorate the house and impress the King, Anne comes across the wooden ‘companions’ in an antique shop. These are portraits of various people that are also shaped like human beings, meaning that when hidden around the house they would give one a fright upon being seen. As soon as the companions are brought into the household, however, terrifying things begin to occurr…

When pregnant and widowed Elsie is relocated to The Bridge in 1866 with her husband’s cousin Sarah, the servants and villagers act with oddity and hostility towards her. Elsie soon finds herself in danger of far more than malicious gossip, however, when the companions are discovered and begin to multiply, leading Elsie to question just how her husband’s sudden death occurred – and if her and her baby will be next…

This novel is incredibly well-written; both sinister and vividly descriptive, the reader is hooked and thrilled by the entire tale. There are many heartwrenching moments in the novel as well as terrifying ones, and the combination of these leave the reader constantly on edge. The end of the novel – particularly the final word – is especially chilling and leaves the reader stunned, continuing to think about the novel long after closing it. I would very highly recommend this book.

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The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

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“None of us ever know all the possible courses our lives could have and maybe should have taken. It’s probably just as well. Some secrets are meant to stay secret forever. Just ask Pandora.”

 

RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Mother of three and wife of John-Paul, Cecilia discovers an old envelope in the attic. Written in her husband’s hand, it says: to be opened only in the event of my death.

Curious, she opens it – and time stops.

John-Paul’s letter confesses to a terrible mistake which, of revealed, would wreck their family as well as the lives of others.

Cecilia wants to do the right thing, but right for who? If she protects her family by staying silent, the truth will worm through her heart. But if she reveals her husband’s secret, she will hurt those she loves most…”

REVIEW: Having read previous novels by Moriarty, I was very much looking forward to reading ‘The Husband’s Secret’. This novel tells the stories of four women: Cecilia, Tess, Rachel and, taking place several years prior to the other perspectives, the story of Janie. The novel is instantly gripping as Cecilia discovers the letter from her husband and the reader eagerly urges her on to open it; we are also introduced to Tess very early on, who discovers that her husband is having a relationship with her cousin and best friend Felicity, and to Rachel, a grandmother who is heartbroken at the thought of her son and grandson moving abroad and who has already lost so much. The book is instantly gripping, and the reader is intrigued to see how the stories of these three women who are intially present in the novel could possibly be linked. In this manner, mystery is built whilst the protagonists are made easily likeable as we wait for the letter to be opened.

I had expected to reach almost the end of the novel by the time the contents of the letter were revealed, but actually uncovering the story of Rachel’s murdered daughter Janie and the identity of her killer relatively early on in the novel somehow makes it even more intriguing, as I could not see where the story would then go. The reader is then introduced to Janie through flashbacks where she tells the story of the events leading up to her death, and the twists revealed through these and, indeed, through the present-day perspectives, keep the reader guessing despite the fact that the conclusion of the main mystery has long been revealed. I absolutely loved the ending of the novel and how it links to the butterfly effect, with Moriarty showing us how the lives of the characters would have been had certain events not taken place. I find the whole idea of the butterfly effect fascinating, and loved seeing it depicted fictionally. I didn’t love this novel quite as much as ‘What Alice Forgot’, but I greatly enjoyed it and would highly recommend it all the same.

 

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The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins by Antonia Fraser

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “London, 1728. A young, well-dressed man is driven through streets of jeering onlookers to the gallows at Tyburn. They call him a murderer. But Tom Hawkins is innocent and somehow he has to prove it, before the rope squeezes the life out of him.

It is, of course, all his own fault. He was happy settling down with Kitty Sparks. He should never have told the most dangerous criminal in London that he was bored and looking for adventure. He should never have offered to help, the king’s mistress. And most of all, he should never have trusted the witty, calculating Queen Caroline. She has promised him a royal pardon if he holds his tongue but then again, there is nothing more silent than a hanged man.”

REVIEW: Having greatly enjoyed ‘The Devil in the Marshalsea’, I was really looking forward to reading the first of its sequels. Once again, I found this novel just as impossible to put down as the last, and had devoured the whole thing within a day. This novel follows seamlessly on from the last and continues the story of Thomas Hawkins whom, as the book opens, is on his way to Tyburn to be hanged. The novel continues to flash back and forth between the events leading up to the hanging and Tom’s approach to the gallows in the present. It is easy to fall back into Tom’s world and Hodgson once again does a fantastic job of setting the scene and making the reader feel as if they can really smell, taste and experience the world of eighteenth century London.

I really enjoyed seeing how the relationship between Tom and Kitty had progressed, and also enjoyed the introduction of Sam, nephew of Tom’s old cellmate Samuel Fleet, who becomes almost like a son to Tom despite Kitty’s wariness of his sly and quiet ways. When a murder is committed in the house next door, fingers are soon pointed at Tom, who was seen to have had a very public argument with the dead man just a few days prior to his murder. In order to save his own skin – and that of Kitty – Tom is talked into becoming one of cunning Queen Caroline’s many spies. His mission is to help the King’s mistress, Henrietta Howard, escape the clutches of her vengeful husband Charles, on a quest to ruin her and take away their son. Sucked into court life and determined to save himself and his lover, Tom is also tasked with solving the murder of his neighbour. Just as in the previous novel, the reader is as puzzled as Tom by the murder and equally as conflicted about who can be trusted. The twist in this murder was just as spectacularly delivered and I again loved the ending of the novel.

 

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What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

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“He made her more confident, funnier, smarter. He brought out all the things that were there already and let her be fully herself, so she seemed to shine with this inner light. He loved her so much, he made her seem even more lovable.”

RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “Alice is twenty-nine.

She adores sleep, chocolate, and her ramshackle new house.

She’s newly engaged to the wonderful Nick

. . . and is pregnant with her first baby.

There’s just one problem. That was ten years ago . . .

Alice slipped in her step-aerobics class, hit her head and lost a decade.

Now she’s a grown-up, bossy mother of three in the middle of a nasty divorce and her beloved sister Elisabeth isn’t speaking to her.

This is her life but not as she knows it.

Just how many mistakes can you make in a decade?

Can she ever get back to the woman she used to be?”

REVIEW: Having both read and watched ‘Big Little Lies’, another creation of Moriarty’s, I was really looking forward to reading some more of her books. ‘What Alice Forgot’ tells the story of Alice (duh), who is knocked unconscious during a gym class and wakes up believing that she is a 29-year-old Mum to be, happily married and doing up her dream house with her perfect husband, Nick. What Alice actually discovers is that she is a 39-year-old Mum of three, her adored sister is barely speaking to her, her mother has married her husband’s father, and she and her husband are going through a messy and bitter divorce. Completely stunned by these revelations, Alice finds herself unable to even remember her own children, and finds it completely impossible to comprehend the idea that she could be happily living a life without Nick.

The novel is instantly gripping and unputdownable, as the reader is just as desperate to uncover Alice’s memories as she is herself, and to find out exactly what happened between her and Nick. The reader instantly sympathises with Alice and warms to her, surprised to learn how much of a different woman she seems to have become in the last ten years with her military style organisation and her coldness towards Nick. The reader also recognises the connection between Alice and Nick despite their coldness towards each other in the present day, and wills them to get back together. With Alice’s memories being slowly pieced back together, the reader gets to know the other characters in the novel, particularly her children, at the same rate as she does – therefore, the reader bonds with them at the same rate . We also learn a little more than Alice through reading Elizabeth’s journal and Frannie’s blog, meaning that in terms of some of her relationships she’s actually a step behind the reader.

I loved the ending of the novel and how the characters blossomed throughout the story; it wasn’t just the protagonists’ story we were following, as it was easy to become invested in all of the characters. I would highly recommend this novel and am greatly looking forward to reading more of Moriarty’s work!

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The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “London, 1727 – and Tom Hawkins is about to fall from his heaven of card games, brothels and coffee-houses into the hell of a debtors’ prison.

The Marshalsea is a savage world of its own, with simple rules: those with family or friends who can lend them a little money may survive in relative comfort. Those with none will starve in squalor and disease. And those who try to escape will suffer a gruesome fate at the hands of the gaol’s rutheless governor and his cronies.

The trouble is, Tom Hawkins has never been good at following rules – even simple ones. And the recent grisly murder of a debtor, Captain Roberts, has brought further terror to the gaol. While the Captain’s beautiful widow cries for justice, the finger of suspicion points only one way: to the sly, enigmatic figure of Samuel Fleet.

Some call Fleet a devil, a man to avoid at all costs. But Tom Hawkins is sharing his cell. Soon, Tom’s choice is clear: get to the truth of the murder – or be the next to die.”

REVIEW: The first in the Thomas Hawkins murder mystery series by Antonia Hodgson, ‘The Devil in the Marshalsea’ is at once unputdownable and instantly gripping. The writing is fast-paced and descriptive and truly makes the reader feel as though they themselves are living in 18th century London; particularly during the chapters where Tom is locked in the Marshalsea, where the reader can almost feel the claustrophobic, terrifying atmosphere of the prison itself. Tom is a likeable character despite his many vices and shortcomings, and the reader instantly roots for him – I suspect this is because he is open about his own flaws, rather than trying to hide them from himself or the reader. He is a witty and intelligent character who the reader can instantly get behind.

Tom ends up in debtors prison after wracking up gambling debts that he fails to pay off after having been robbed of his last savings. Life in the Marshalsea is cruel and only money can prevent Tom from being taken the other side of the wall, where prisoners are cramped together in tiny cells, hardly fed and forced to stew in their own dirt, where disease is rife and corpses are dragged out every morning. With the help of his friend Charles, Tom is given a mission – to find the murderer of the late Captain Roberts, in order to secure his release and the payment of his debts. He finds a cellmate in the notorious Samuel Fleet, whom most of the inmates are convinced murdered Captain Roberts himself; but despite his misgivings, Tom soon begins to trust Fleet, and finds him valuable in terms of the investigation – despite being distracted by Fleet’s pretty niece Kitty, who works as a maid at the prison.

Due to the many twists and turns taking place throughout the novel, the reader is just as wrapped up in the mystery of who killed Captain Roberts as Tom is. There is a constant questioning from both Tom and the reader as to who could be trusted, and the mystery remains thrilling right up until the very end of the novel, when the killer is finally discovered. I loved the ending of the novel and couldn’t wait to get started on the next!

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The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

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“I know love is fragile. And loving someone like you is near impossible. Like holding something shattered through a raging sandstorm. If you want her to love you, shelter her from that storm…And make certain that storm isn’t you.”

RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “Every dawn brings horror to a different family in a land ruled by a killer. Khalid, the eighteen-year-old Caliph of Khorasan, takes a new bride each night only to have her executed at sunrise. So it is a terrible surprise when sixteen-year-old Shahrzad volunteers to marry Khalid. But she does so with a clever plan to stay alive and exact revenge on the Caliph for the murder of her best friend and countless other girls. Shazi’s wit and will get her through to the dawn that no others have seen, but with a catch…she may be falling in love with a murderer.

Shazi discovers that the villainous boy-king is not all that he seems and neither are the deaths of so many girls. It’s up to her to uncover the reason for the murders and to break the cycle once and for all.”

 

REVIEW: It’s been a long while since I read any kind of Young Adult fantasy novel, so I was really looking forward to ‘The Wrath and the Dawn’. It certainly did not disappoint; I was hooked from the first page and found the book difficult to put down. Shahrzad is a brave and likeable heroine, and the reader cannot help but warm to her. After the death of her best friend Shiva at the hands of the Caliph of Khorasan, Shazi is determined to get revenge at whatever costs. She volunteers to marry the Caliph with a plan in place that will hopefully ensure her survival – and his demise.

When Shazi enthralls the Caliph with a story, one she promises to continue the following night – this novel clearly takes inspiration from the ancient story of ‘One Thousand and One Nights’, and does so brilliantly – she becomes the first of his brides to survive until the dawn. Much to the amazement of those in the palace, Shazi continues to survive, and begins to break through the Caliph’s barriers in a way that no-one else, not even his closest friends, have managed to do before. This comes at a cost, however; Shazi’s determination to murder Khalid is weakened as she begins to learn more about him and grow close to him. The development of feelings between the two is slightly predictable, yet so well-written that it still leaves the reader hooked even though we can clearly see it coming. The love-hate relationship soon turns to love and as Shazi learns the truth behind the deaths of Khalid’s wives, she realises the only way the two of them can be happy together is by breaking the curse that lays heavy upon Khalid and the land of Rey.

As Shazi grows closer to Khalid, however, outside forces are homing in on the surprising relationship between the two and are determined to put an end to it, including Shazi’s former lover, Tariq. Her father, Jaqar, also uses his magical gifts in order to try and save his daughter, not realising that Shazi is, in fact, beginning to feel at home in her new role as Calipha of Khorasan and wife of Khalid.

I loved the development of the relationship between Shazi and Khalid, so much so that I almost resented the parts of the novel where we got to see the perspectives of other characters, like Tariq. The novel itself is beautifully written and the reader can really visualise the setting; having never been to a country remotely comparable to the fictional land of Rey, this is an impressive feat for Ahdieh to have managed. The cliffhanger ending also made me eager to jump straight into the sequel, ‘The Rose and the Dagger’, which I will be reviewing on here shortly!