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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 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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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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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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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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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.