1

All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

515qVtYo3yL

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 generalĀ  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.

Advertisements
0

Lady Katherine Knollys by Sarah Beth-Watkins

23375239

RATING: 2.5/5

BLURB: “Katherine spent her life unacknowledged as the King’s daughter, yet she was given prime appointments at court as maid of honur to both Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard. She married Francis Knollys when she was 16 and went on to become mother to many successful men and women at court including Lettice Knollys who created a scandal when she married Sir Robert Dudley, the Queen’s favourite.”

REVIEW: I had been really looking forward to reading this biography. I know a fair amount about Katherine Knollys from my own research, but it has always irked me how little published research there is out there about the extended Boleyn family. With a rise in interest in Mary Boleyn after the publication of Philippa Gregory’s ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’, I suppose it was only a matter of time before someone decided to look into her daughter, Katherine, who led a fascinating life as the potential illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII and a close friend of Elizabeth I. I was glad of this, and have wanted to read this biography for a long time. Upon its arrival I was surprised by the length of this text; at approximately 111 pages it is much shorter than I was anticipating, and led me to wonder if this is perhaps a thesis written by Watkins whilst studying, though I am still uncertain of this.

Unfortunately, I did have several criticisms of this biography. My main bug-bear was the vast number of grammatical issues that littered the pages. Many of the sentences were poorly punctuated, creating long and rambling sentences that needed at the very least a comma to give pause for thought. There were also several statements made by the author that were false, and then later were contradicted and the reader instead presented with the correct fact. For example, in her chapter on Mary Boleyn, Katherine’s mother, Watkins states that Henry VIII never admitted to his affair with Mary. This is false on more than one count; Henry had first admitted it by asking the Pope for a dispensation in order to allow him to marry Anne (though her name was not specified at this stage) within the forbidden degrees of affinity, having slept with her sister. He used the affair with Mary yet again as a reason for annulling his marriage to Anne while she lay waiting for death in the Tower. However, Watkins later corrects this error in the following chapter on Anne, mentioning the 1527 dispensation specifically. This is clearly confusing, particularly for those who know very little about the period, though I was relieved when Watkins corrected herself. I also found that, in a peculiar sense, there was almost too much context. Major events in Katherine’s life, such as her marriage to Francis Knollys, were briefly skimmed over while Watkins instead chose to pay more attention to the state of Henry’s relationship with Katherine Howard at the time of Katherine and Francis’ wedding. The relationships between Henry VIII and four of his wives was highly detailed, and definitely overshadowed the woman who is supposed to be the focal point of this biography. Finally, I also found Watkins’ certainty that Katherine was Henry VIII’s child to be problematic. This is by no means a certain fact, and although it is likely that Katherine was the product of her mother’s affair with the King, and many historians do believe this to be the case, there is no actual proof. Yet, Watkins takes this as fact and writes nothing at all of the possibility that it may not be the case at all.

This biography did also have likeable and commendable qualities. Primary sources were used and quoted extensively throughout the biography, though some of the sources in the bibliography are somewhat questionable (another factor that led me to wonder if this was perhaps a thesis). This shows that despite some mistakes, research was undertaken, and I can only assume that some of the gaps in the biography are therefore due to a lack of detailed evidence. I also liked the writing style, as it was descriptive as well as informative, allowing the reader to gain a picture of what they were learning. I was also presented with some facts I did not previously know, particularly regarding Katherine’s descendants.

Overall, however, I am still hoping for further research and another biography to be written on Katherine Knollys. This biography was too short to do her justice, and many of her life events were discussed in too brief a fashion to make a real impact. This would be a good introduction to anyone wishing to learn more about Katherine, but I would advise seeking further texts for more information.

 

1

The Witch Finder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

914aGsS4ZOL.jpg

RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “1645. When Alice Hopkins’s husband dies tragically, she returns to Manningtree, the small Essex town where her brother Matthew still lives. But home is no longer a place of safety. Whispers are spreading – of witchcraft, and the terrible fate awaiting the women accused. And at the heart of it all stands just one man…

To what lengths will Matthew’s obsession drive him? And what choice will Alice make, when she finds herself at the very heart of his plan?”

REVIEW: I studied Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe whilst at university, including the cases uncovered by the notorious Matthew Hopkins. This previous knowledge made me very keen to read this book, and eager to see how the witch craze may have been perceived from a female perspective, especially one so close to its instigator. Upon starting this novel after receiving it for my birthday, it became almost immediately clear that this book has been well-researched and the victims within it considered with empathy and respect. Underdown has primary sources from the Manningtree trials littered throughout the novel, serving to remind the reader that as incomprehensible as it may seem to our own minds, the belief in witchcraft was real and strong, leading to confessions, torture and death. It also brings an added realism to the described victims; Underdown gives the accused women personalities, discusses their back-stories, and on the whole treats them much more fairly than they were treated whilst alive. The writing style captures the tense, paranoid atmosphere not only of Manningtree but also of the other towns Matthew visits in order to investigate potential witches. This style makes the book a gripping read; despite being at work I had finished it in less than a week and found it hard to put down.

The character of Alice is also a likeable and sympathetic one, while the only way I can describe the character of Matthew is that he truly made my skin crawl. He is sneakily manipulative and subtly sinister, which serves to make him even more unsettling that had he outright raped and tortured witches himself. His madness is something the reader becomes aware of slowly over the course of the novel, and something we come to understand a little more as we uncover stories of his past from Alice and from their mother’s old friend, Bridget. His cruelty towards his sister, seeming to stem from his unhappiness over her marriage to a lowly servant, is truly shocking, and the reader constantly longs for Alice to be able to escape him. Underdown portrays Hopkins as a man who sees all women as whores, too forward and obsessed with sex. As such, he sees these traits as something worthy of accusing women of withcraft. There were many traits associated with witchcraft, many of which were included in this novel, including the suggestion of women having sex with the Devil, using animal familiars to help them with their evil deeds, and being particularly associated with deaths of women and babies in childbirth. It is not long before Matthew begins to see these traits reflected in his own sister, who tries her best to aid those accused and questioned by Matthew and in return finds herself accused and imprisoned by her own brother.

Many secrets are uncovered throughout the course of this novel, which continues to keep the reader guessing. Underdown does briefly deal with the issue of why those accused of witchcraft confessed, despite it being clear to our modern minds that this is a phenomenon we cannot possibly understand; this is perhaps why she does not explore these reasons particularly deeply. I was glad of the fact that Underdown did not try too hard to answer what are fundamentally unanswerable questions, though of course we can speculate. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and appreciated the depth of research. I absolutely LOVED the last line, which left me open-mouthed and stunned long after I had closed the book. I would highly recommend this novel.

0

Women and Power by Mary Beard

91qcPyXdgIL.jpg

RATING: 4/5

REVIEW: I’ve wanted to read this book since its release, and was really excited when a colleague lent it to me last week. I read it in one sitting and really enjoyed it; Beard dealt with a lot of interesting issues facing women today, linking these back to classical Greek and Roman examples as well as examples from later history. This is both fascinating and terrifying; it succeeds in making the reader feel we are not alone, as these attitudes have always been faced by women – but by the same premise, this then horrifies us that we are still facing prejudices that date back to the time of Homer and his Odyssey.

The book consists of two essay-style pieces, which Beard delivered as lectures. The first, ‘The Public Voice of Women’, looks at how women’s voices are suppressed daily in public life, from the culture of mansplaining to the booing and hollering over women MP’s who try to speak in Parliament. The second follows on from this theme, looking more closely at ‘Women in Power’ and how they are judged and treated, their images transformed into something irrefutably masculine in order to make them more acceptable to wider society. I really enjoyed reading this, as I have frequently noticed with anger the attitudes towards female politicians in the news and in headlines, which often tend to focus on their clothing or mock their speeches – I’m by no means the biggest fan of Teresa May, but I was upset on her behalf at how much she was mocked for the terrible cough she suffered from during her party conference speech.

This book is really interesting, and I agreed with all of Beard’s points made in both essays. I both loved and hated the link to Classical times, purely because of the fact that it upset me to realise how little progress in fundamental attitudes towards women has really been made, and therefore how far we still have to go. I would have liked more of an in-depth discussion on mainsplaining, as this is one of my absolute pet hates as a woman and also fits in well with both topics of discussion, yet it was only mentioned briefly. Overall, however, I would highly recommend these essays and am fully supportive of Beard’s point of view and arguments.

0

In Search of Mary Shelley by Fiona Sampson

37819165

RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “Mary Shelley was brought up in a house filled with radical thinkers, poets, philosophers and writers. The daughter of the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft – who died giving birth to her – and the revolutionary philosopher William Godwin, she eloped at sixteen with the notorious poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and embarked on a passionate relationship lived on the move across Britain and Europe. Before early widowhood changed her life forever, Mary experienced debt, infidelity and the deaths of three of her children. It was against this dramatic backdrop – and while she was still a teenager – that she composed one of literature’s greatest novels, Frankenstein, creating in the process not one but two of today’s most enduring archetypes.”

REVIEW: I am a huge fan of Mary Shelley, and with Frankenstein being one of my favourite novels, I am eager to read many of the new publications released to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the book’s publication. This new biography of Mary is the first of these I have read, and Sampson’s premise is very interesting. She aims to try and explore more of Mary’s feelings and emotions about the famous events that take place in her lifetime (both those involving her and those surrounding her), using her journal entries and travel records, rather than looking pointedly at the actual events themselves, which she argues are already well known. This is a view I would agree with – when I studied Shelley as part of an MA module, everyone knew the story of the creation of Frankenstein at the Villa Diodati just as well as I did. In doing this, Sampson ends up presenting a very sympathetic view of Mary, one which I also tend to support. Despite the romantic idealism of her elopement with Percy Shelley, in reality things turned out to be extremely difficult for Mary and her new partner; but for Mary in particular. Some of her journal entries certainly seem to indicate that she was feeling depressed during their relationship, and considering the problems they faced, who could blame her? Their trip around Europe was ruined both by Mary’s attention-seeking stepsister Clare tagging along, and by the Shelley’s debt, which dogged them everywhere they went and led them into many filthy lodgings. The couple had little time to themselves, and Shelley often seemed to spend more time with Clare than his wife. During their marriage, both Shelley’s previous wife and Mary’s half-sister committed suicide, and Mary lost three of their children, one of which appears to have been due to Shelley’s incompetent and uncaring attitude. I was also struck by just how many affairs Shelley seems to have had during their relationship, and how public he was about them! Writing poetry about other women and then getting your wife to edit these poems seems to me to be in the poorest of taste, and surely must have hurt Mary very deeply; especially as some of these dalliances occured when she was grieving over her lost children. I had never been a fan of Shelley from what I had previously read about his treatment of Mary, and the patronising way in which he consistently tried to adapt and change Frankenstein – I am even less of a fan having read this biography, and I think anyone reading it would feel much the same.

In terms of style, this biography was written in the present tense, which I found a really interesting choice. It makes the whole thing feel more real, more relevant, and I enjoyed reading a biography written in this manner. It also discusses many of Mary’s lesser-known written works, some of which I have read and some of which I haven’t and will be adding to my TBR list. My one criticism of this biography is that, while the present tense style is good, it often makes the writing seem too fast paced. There are many points where it seems like Sampson is just spilling her thoughts onto the page, rather than carefully planning and linking them as you would expect. The fast pace also sometimes makes it difficult to keep up with what is happening, and I think I would have preferred it had this biography been less fast-paced and instead been longer.

0

The Autumn Throne by Elizabeth Chadwick

index

RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Imprisoned by her husband, King Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of England, refuses to let him bully her into submission, even as he forces her away from her children and her birthright.

Freed only by Henry’s death, Eleanor becomes dowager Queen of England. But the competition for land and power that Henry stirred up among his sons has intensified to a dangerous rivalry.

Eleanor will need every ounce of courage and fortitude as she crosses the Alps in winter to bring Richard his bride and as she travels medieval Europe to ransom her beloved son. But even her indomitable spirit will be tested to its limits as she attempts to keep the peace between her warring sons, and find a place in the centres of power for her daughters.”

REVIEW: ‘The Autumn Throne’ is the third and final book in Elizabeth Chadwick’s trilogy following the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine. I have loved this whole trilogy and was so excited to read the final novel, which did not disappoint. Chadwick writes Eleanor’s story so beautifully, absorbingly and realistically that at times it feels more like a historical biography than a novel; the thoroughness of Chadwick’s research is obvious in every line, and each figure has such a depth to their personality that the reader really feels they can connect with these long-dead historical figures. Eleanor herself is an inspiration, and has been portrayed as such throughout all three novels, but even more so in this final installment. Despite her increasing fragility and descent into old age, Eleanor remains strong and firm in her resolve. She refuses to bow to Henry, declining his offer of making her a convent abbess despite the fact that this leaves her imprisoned at Sarum, kept out of the loop of court news and only rolled out to be present for important state occasions. Upon Henry’s death, Eleanor is freed by her beloved son Richard – only to be caught up in the battle for power and position taking place between him and his brother John. Richard, although devoted to his mother, is hard-headed and determined to lead a crusade that will take him away from England; leaving Eleanor in charge. Tensions continue to mount between the sly and cunning John and the bold Richard, but Eleanor continues to hold her own, despite finding such politics increasingly draining. She travels across countries to bring Richard his bride, Berenguela, and to free him from captivity. It is also heartwarming to see Eleanor reunited with many of her daughters in this novel, who had been sent away to make prestigious matches with other Royal dynasties. I enjoyed seeing Eleanor rebuild her relationship with daughters Matilda and Joanna, and loved the character of Richenza, Eleanor’s bold and intelligent granddaughter who stayed close by her grandmother until the end; their relationship reminded me a little of the close bond I had with my Nan.

Throughout the novel, Eleanor loses several of her children, and these losses are dealt with by Chadwick in a way that is both sensitive and heartfelt. I found myself feeling strongly connected to Eleanor during these scenes, and the way in which Chadwick writes makes it so easy for the reader to understand and empathise with her. I have read several works of historical fiction on Eleanor of Aquitaine, but this trilogy has to be the best I have read. Each book has been so well-researched and written with so much detail and thought; every character comes alive and the period and landscape are so well-described that you can almost imagine yourself travelling across medieval Europe. I would highly recommend these books for their accuracy and imagination, to anyone wishing to learn more about Eleanor or about medieval England.

2

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

time

RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “Tom Hazard has a dangerous secret. He may look like an ordinary 41-year-old history teacher, but he’s been alive for centuries. From Elizabethan England to Jazz-Age Paris, from New York to the South Seas, Tom has seen it all. As long as he keeps changing his identity he can stay one step ahead of his past – and stay alive. The only thing he must not do is fall in love…”

REVIEW: I picked this book up as a spur-of-the-moment purchase, and absolutely fell in love. I couldn’t put it down, and read it in just a couple of days despite the rush of returning to work after New Year. This book is perfect for history geeks like myself as we get to see some of the lifetimes that Tom has lived and the people he has met, including Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Although the book begins in the present, the chapters switch to reveal more about Tom’s background and what he has suffered throughout his almost five hundred years on earth. In the present day, Tom is a history teacher led under the guidance of the Albatross Society, who protect those with longer lives at the cost of them committing some rather unsavoury tasks every eight years. He has a dog named Abraham and a crush on the French teacher, Camille, and seems perfectly normal. However, Tom’s life began as the descendant of French aristocracy living in a small English village, where his mother was accused and killed of witchcraft due to his youthful appearance and apparent lack of ageing. When Tom finds the love of his life in Elizabethan London, she and their child also begin to be targeted due to Tom’s lack of ageing, with the superstitious Londoners of the 16th century accuse him of being a demon in disguise. Though it breaks his heart, Tom realises that he is a danger to those he loves due to his condition, and from then on resolves to live alone. And in the 19th century, when he is recruited by the Albatross Society, they agree with his conclusion, warning him not to fall in love and change identities every eight years. In the present day, however, Tom is growing increasingly wary of Hendrich, the leader of the society, who seems to be becoming more ruthless towards those who refuse to join the society and who expects Tom to either persuade or kill them on his behalf. Tom only agrees because Hendrich promises to find his long-lost daughter, Marion, who has inherited his condition; but when Hendrich wants him to kill Omai, his oldest friend, Tom is faced with an impossible choice…

This book is absolutely fantastic. There are so many twists and turns, and so many beautiful and poignant moments; I was often left with tears in my eyes. Haig manages to make every single time period that he writes about realistic and engaging – it is clear that he researched each period thoroughly. The characters, Tom in particular, are easy to connect and empathise with, and the reader finds themself warming to him almost instantly. As a dog lover, I confess I also loved the addition of the elderly dog Abraham in Tom’s present day life as his companion. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it.