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All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “For Marie-Laure, blind since the age of six, the world is full of mazes. The miniature of a Paris neighbourhood, made by her father to teach her the way home. The microscopic layers within the valuable diamond that her father guards in the Museum of Natural History. The walled city by the sea, where father and daughter take refuge when the Nazis invade Paris. And a future which draws her ever closer to Werner, a German orphan, destined to labour in the mines until a broken radio fills his life with possibility and brings him to the notice of the Hitler Youth.

In this magnificent, deeply moving novel, the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner illuminate the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another.”

REVIEW: This is a beautifully written and evocative novel which follows the stories of two young people, Marie-Laure and Werner, during the years of the Second World War, focusing particularly on the German occupation of France. Marie-Laure is a young French girl, blind and living with her beloved Papa, a security guard at the Museum of Natural History. In his charge is one of the most precious jewels in the world , the Sea of Flames. This particular diamond is world-renowned and held under tight lock and key, and endangers the lives of Marie-Laure and her father when he is put in charge of it in order to hide it from occupying German Forces. Moving to the coastal town of Saint-Malo to live with her eccentric uncle Etienne and his maid, Marie-Laure has to learn to adapt to a whole new landscape, as well as cope with the disappearance of her father.

Meanwhile, a young German orphan named Werner is plucked from the obscurity of his orphanage and the love of his younger sister when his clever inventions and skills with electrical equipment get him noticed by the Hitler Youth. As he becomes more deeply involved, Werner begins to notice the wrongs of the regime and understand its deep-seated hatred and brutality. His noticing of this keeps him from revealing the identity of Marie-Laure when he discovers her making secret radio broadcasts during the German occupation. This is the point at which the stories of the two characters intertwine, a point which shows us the true beauty of how people will still help others even when the world as they know it is falling apart.

I loved the alternating point of views of these two protagonists, and other more secondary characters were also involved, including Nazi general  Von Rumpel, who is ruthless in his quest to find the Sea of Flames. Having the point of views of bother Marie-Laure and Werner allowed the reader to experience how young people in two very different countries may have adapted to the dangerous situations and tense atmosphere of the period, allowing greater focus on a huge event. Doerr’s writing style is gripping and interesting, as well as being brilliantly descriptive and beautifully worded; he really brings across a deepening sense of danger in the lives of both characters as the story (and the war) progresses. And when the meeting of Marie-Laure and Werner finally comes, it is just as the reader hoped it would be and more, although the moment is snatched away far too quickly by tragedy that has the reader reeling and feeling heartbroken. Despite the poignant ending, it is also a satisfying one that ties up the loose ends and leaves the reader feeling a sad echo of the novel long after they had finished it.

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Circe by Madeline Miller

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“I had no right to claim him, I knew it. But in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me”

“He was another knife, I could feel it. A different sort, but a knife still. I did not care. I thought: give me the blade. Some things are worth spilling blood for”

RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe has neither the look nor the voice of divinity, and is scorned and rejected by her kin. Increasingly isolated, she turns to mortals for companionship, leading her to discover a power forbidden to the gods: witchcraft.

When love drives Circe to cast a dark spell, vengeful Zeus banishes her to the remote island of Aiaia. There she learns to harness her occult craft, drawing strength from nature. But she will not always be alone; many are destined to pass through Circe’s place of exile, entwining their fates with hers. The messenger god, Hermes. The craftsman, Daedalus. A ship bearing golden fleece. And wily Odysseus, on his epic voyage home.

There is danger for a solitary woman in this world, and Circe’s independence draws the wrath of men and gods alike. To protect what she holds dear, Circe must decide whether she belongs with the deities she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love”

REVIEW: I absolutely adored Miller’s debut novel, ‘The Song of Achilles’, which is now widely regarded as a modern classic. I’ve therefore had ‘Circe’ on pre-order for months now, and was so excited when it finally arrived. I got sucked into the story of Circe straight away; I enjoy Greek mythology, and therefore knew the basis of her story and the stories of those whom she meets during her exile on Aiaia. However, Miller writes with such detail, making every character come alive so vivdly, that even if you were clueless about Greek myth the novel would still be easy to get into and understand. It is easy for the reader to bond with Circe, mostly through emotions like empathy and understanding, as we see her increasing loneliness throughout the novel. When Circe is stung by unrequited love and seeks revenge, this is also something the reader can sympathise with; we have all been hurt by love, in some way or another. This makes Circe easier to connect with, and the reader enjoys following her experiences while on exile in Aiaia. Circe is visited by some of the most famous and notary figures of her time, and also learns to defend herself against the mortals who would take advantage of her being a woman alone on an abandoned island. I particularly enjoyed the development of the relationship between Circe and the infamous Odysseus, and later in the novel her friendship with his wife, Penelope. Through these briefly appearing characters, we are able to keep up with the wider political events in Greece at this time and to witness Circe’s involvement in them. It allows the reader to experience the famous events of the Odyssey from an outside, female perspective which puts a different spin on it.

I also enjoyed the fierce and believable relationship between Circe and her son, Telegonus, the illegitimate child of Odysseus, and the budding romance she develops with Odysseus’ other so, Telemachus, as incestuous as this may seem to modern eyes. In light of this particular relationship, I also loved the ending; both pure and romantic, it showed Circe making the ultimate sacrifice for Telemachus and finally choosing whether to remain a deity or become a mortal like her lover.

I greatly enjoyed this novel and loved learning more about Circe, and more about the famous Greek myths in general, through the eyes of a character whom I could somehow relate to and whose perspective I enjoyed reading. I did not enjoy it quite so much as ‘The Song of Achilles’, but I would highly recommend it all the same.

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Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “The Orient Express was unusually full for the time of year. Hercule Poirot sat in the elegant restaurant car and amused himself by observing his fellow passengers: A Russian princess of great ugliness, a haughty English colonel, an American with a strange glint in his eye…and many more. The food and company were most congenial and the little Belgian detective was looking forward to a pleasant journey.

But it was not to be. After a restless night, Poirot awoke to find that tragedy had struck. First, the train had been brought to a standstill by a huge snowdrift. Secondly, a passenger lay dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times, his door locked from the inside…”

REVIEW: I love a good murder mystery, and it amazes me that despite having seen any number of stage and screen adaptations of Agatha Christie novels, I had never actually read one until now. Many of the Christie screen adaptations were ones I binge watched with my Nan, so my Grandad purchased me the beautiful copy pictured above for my birthday this year as a sort of gift in rememberance of her. However, with a story as famous as ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, I had already broken my number one rule as a bookworm: I had seen the movie before reading the book. This is something I hate doing, but is even more frustrating considering the incredibly clever layers of mystery that Christie builds up throughout this novel, which should have made the ending of the mystery more of a shock to me. This did not mean, however, that I appreciated the intellignet intricacies of Christie’s writing any less, nor did it mean that I did not enjoy the novel, but unfortunately I do think it may have affected my overall enjoyment.

The novel is easy to get into and instantly intriguing; Hercule Poirot is a familiar character, well-known and likeable despite his rather pompous nature. His fun, witty and engaging nature makes him trustworthy to the reader even when we can sense his arrogance, a trait that is not normally endearing. I did find some parts of the novel slower than others, and also found the frequent use of French without translation somewhat frustrating, though in the time period in which Christie was writing more readers would probably have been able to translate this from their own education. I enjoyed the duplicity of the mystery with the clever weaving in of the Daisy Armstrong case, which eventually provided many of the answers to this particular mystery. Although knowing the ending meant that I was not held in suspense, I could appreciate the way in which the reader was held in suspense right up until the last minute. The mystery still provided a satisfactory conclusion for the reader, however; we felt sympathy for the murderer(s) and understand the motives, and therefore are glad of the ending which Poirot devises for them.

I would recommend this novel and am looking forward to reading further stories by Christie in the future.

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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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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

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“I simply didn’t know how to make things better. I could not solve the puzzle of me.”

RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend. Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled existence. Except, sometimes, everything…”

REVIEW: I’d heard a lot of good things about this novel, including a recommendation from a work colleague with whom I have very similar taste in books. I was also intrigued by the premise of the novel itself; as someone who suffers with depression, anxiety and frequent low moods that leave me feeling like the loneliest person in the world, despite the incredible support I have around me. From that perspective, I wondered what it would be like for a person to truly be alone, without the network of family and friends that I am lucky enough to have. And the character of Eleanor is one who is truly alone. Her social skills are basically nonexistent, meaning that even in environments where she is surrounded by people, like in her work place, she finds it almost impossible to click or make connections with anyone. Eleanor lives alone, and has done for many years, enduring only a weekly, highly unpleasant phone call with her emotionally abusive Mother as her only outside human contact. This makes it difficult for even the reader to connect with Eleanor; she feels distant to us, as distant as she is to the rest of the outside world within the pages of the novel. And even though we know from the scars on Eleanor’s face, her relationship with her mother and the subtle hints she gives throughout the novel about her past that she has clearly been through something traumatic, we still don’t feel hugely attached to her – we just feel sorry for her. The isolation Eleanor experiences is, I think, what makes it difficult to become instantly hooked by the novel. However, the more Eleanor begins to integrate with the outside world through her budding friendship with Raymond and the events it leads her into, the more the reader becomes attached to her and, in turn, the more gripping the book becomes. As Eleanor ingratiates herself with more of the characters, she also does so with the reader. Her friendship with Raymond does develop in a way that could be seen as predictable, but in that sense it is also highly believable and realistic.

All of the aforementioned events, however, happen in the ‘Good Days’ section of the novel, where Eleanor is beginning to explore her surroundings, has developed a crush on a local musician and has begun to make herself over with new clothes, a fresh haircut and the advice of Bobbi Brown. This all takes place alongside her friendship with Raymond. The ‘Bad Days’ section of the novel, however, is far shorter, but made a huge impact on me. It’s painful to read, particularly for someone who understands some of what Eleanor is feeling and has had similar experiences in thinking of their own self worth. This section is incredibly written by Honeyman, sensitively done by someone who clearly understands the issues involved and so striking that it had me in tears despite the fact that all ended relatively well, with Eleanor’s back story finally being revealed and her relationship with Raymond left open to the interpretation that it could, perhaps, end up as something more.

I completely fell in love with this novel. It is rare that I find a writer who I feel truly understands mental illness, but reading this book I felt like Honeyman really understands and empathises with what myself and thousands of others go through every day. I would highly recommend it.

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The Muse by Jessie Burton

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“My life was a beanstalk and I was Jack, and the foliage was shooting up and up, abundant, at such a speed that I could barely cling on”

RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “On a hot July day in 1967, Odelle Bastien climbs the stone steps of the Skelton gallery in London, ready for her luck to change. She has been employed as a typist by the glamorous and enigmatic Marjorie Quick, who unlocks a potential Odelle didn’t realise she had. When a lost masterpiece arrives at the gallery, Quick seems to know more than she is prepared to reveal and Odelle is determined to unravel the truth.

The painting’s secret history lies in 1936 and a large house in rural Spain, where Olive Schloss, the daughter of a renowned art dealer, is harbouring ambitions of her own. Into this fragile paradise come two strangers, who overturn the Schloss family with explosive and devastating consequences…”

REVIEW: After recently reading Burton’s ‘The Miniaturist’, which I gave a glowing review, I was eager to see if ‘The Muse’ could possibly be just as captivating in my eyes. A lot of people I had spoken to and reviews I had read said that they had in fact preferred ‘The Muse’ to ‘The Miniaturist’, so my expectations were high from the off. I did find this novel easy to read, but did not find that it instantly hooked me in and gripped me, as ‘The Miniaturist’ had done; in actual fact, it wasn’t until about halfway through the book that I discovered the strong compulsion to continue reading and ended up carrying on until I had reached its conclusion. I have always enjoyed novels that flit between two or more different time periods, so I loved the way in which the reader was able to follow the path of Odelle in 1967 and Olive in 1936, and to see how these paths both paralleled and integrated with one another as revelations continued to be made throughout the novel. The stories, although initially seeming entirely different, ultimately connect in an unexpected way that provides a brilliant twist at the ending of the novel. Odelle’s story takes place in London; as a young black woman, she is used to being put down and receiving very little kindness or attention from anyone other than her best friend Cynth, who leaves Odelle lost when she gets married and moves out of their shared home. Odelle takes this opportunity for a new beginning, and finds a surprising level of understanding and lack of judgement when she begins work at the Skelton gallery under the intimidating Marjorie Quick. Despite her reputation, Quick takes a shine to Odelle – reminding me a little of ‘The Devil Wears Prada’, actually – and as her relationship with the owner of a rare mysterious painting develops, Odelle begins to realise that Quick knows far more about the painting’s history than she is letting on.

In Olive’s part of the story, we find here a young and lonely girl, living in rural Spain with only her beautiful but damaged mother and her well-connected, adulterous father for company. Olive nurtures a secret talent as an incredible painter, a talent which only increases with the arrival of a brother and sister, Isaac and Teresa, who soon become part of the Schloss household. For Olive, Teresa becomes the only friend she has ever really had; and her revolutionary brother, Isaac, becomes the lover and muse she has always dreamed of. When Olive passes one of her own paintings off as Isaac’s, we see how the stories of Olive and Odelle begin to intertwine, and feel sorrow over the dangerous consequences that this decision had for Olive.

As a reader, I liked both protagonists and enjoyed both of their stories equally. Personally, however, I tended to favour Olive and her chapters, purely because I could relate to the feelings of isolation she experienced, and the intense creativity that took over her when feeling a particularly strong emotion. Both characters were very well-written, however, and Burton does a fantastic job of setting the scene in both time periods so that it is easy to visualise. The ways in which Odelle’s and Olive’s stories connect are subtly hinted at throughout the book, but the novel does provide a shock ending and is highly impressive as a whole. Although I may not have loved it quite as much as ‘The Miniaturist’, I still really enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it.