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In Search of Mary Shelley by Fiona Sampson

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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.

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Top Ten Books of 2017

This year has gone so quickly, and I can’t believe the time has come already for me to write up my Top Ten Books of 2017! I had a hard time narrowing them down this year, as I’ve been lucky enough to read some truly incredible books. I hope you enjoy reading this post – please let me know if any of these books have also made it into your top ten!

 

10. All the Rivers by Dorit Rabinyan

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“How do I describe him now? Where do I start? How do I distill the first impression created in those few distance seconds? How do I extract his finished portrait, composed of layer upon layer of color, back into the pale, hasty pencil sketch that my eyes drew the first time they landed on him? How can I use a mere few lines to paint the whole picture with all its breadth and depth? Is it even possible to attain that sort of scrutiny, that measure of lucidity, when the hands of loss keep touching the memory, staining it with their fingerprints?”

This is a beautiful and moving love story, looking at the ups and downs of a relationship that goes against the religious, political and social beliefs of both people within it. The ending had me in tears, and I couldn’t put the book down.

Read my full review of the book here.

 

9. Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

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“There is music in your soul. A wild and untamed sort
of music that speaks to me. It defies all the rules and laws you humans set upon it. It grows from inside you, and I have a wish to set that music free.”

This is a truly magical novel, based on Christina Rossetti’s poem Goblin Market, that really captures the fantasy, lust and danger of the piece it is inspired on.

Read my full review of the novel here.

 

8. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

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“Reading a novel was like returning to a once-beloved holiday destination.”

This became one of the most popular novels of the year after the gripping TV adaptation aired over the summer, starring Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley. The book, however, is even more full of twists and turns, capturing the reader with every page.

Read my full review of the book here.

 

7. The Loving Spirit by Daphne Du Maurier

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“The child destined to be a writer is vulnerable to every wind that blows. Now warm, now chill, next joyous, then despairing, the essence of his nature is to escape the atmosphere about him, no matter how stable, even loving. No ties, no binding chains, save those he forges for himself. Or so he thinks. But escape can be delusion, and what he is running from is not the enclosing world and its inhabitants, but his own inadequate self that fears to meet the demands which life makes upon it. Therefore create. Act God. Fashion men and women as Prometheus fashioned them from clay, and, by doing this, work out the unconscious strife within and be reconciled. While in others, imbued with a desire to mold, to instruct, to spread a message that will inspire the reader and so change his world, though the motive may be humane and even noble–many great works have done just this–the source is the same dissatisfaction, a yearning to escape.”

Daphne du Maurier is one of my favourite authors of all time, and I’ve spent much of this year collecting these beautiful editions of her books and trying to make my way through as many of them as possible. ‘The Loving Spirit’ is a brilliant novel, working its way through generations of the same family and showing how something as pure as a desire for adventure can be passed on over decades.

Read my full review of the novel here.

 

6. Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon

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“The real problem, said Mary, was not women, but how men wanted women to be.”

This is a fantastic joint biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter, Mary Shelley, looking at the parallels between their lives. Both women were geniuses of their time, Wollstonecraft as a philosopher and feminist and Shelley as the revolutionary writer of one of my favourite books, ‘Frankenstein’. This book is a thorough and fascinating explanation of these two extraordinary women, and well worth reading.

Read my full review of this biography here.

 

5. Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley

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“Ah! There is nothing like staying at home, for real comfort.” – Jane Austen

This brilliant new biography of Jane Austen explores the life of the famous author through the places that she called home. Austen had many homes throughout her life, and each allows us to focus on a particular aspect or period of her life. This is the best biography of Austen I have read so far, and with her love of the home, I feel it is one she would approve of.

Read my full review of this biography here.

 

4. Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

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“What if the puzzle of the world was a shape you didn’t fit into? And the only way to survive was to mutilate yourself, carve away your corners, sand yourself down, modify yourself to fit? How come we haven’t been able to change the puzzle instead?”

Picoult is another of my favourite authors, and this book is truly incredible. It deals with the stigma still attached to black people in the South of America today, and is truly shocking. It makes you think very deeply about your own views, and in true Picoult style presents a strong conflict between right and wrong.

Read my full review of the book here.

 

3. Milk and Honey/The Sun and her Flowers by Rupi Kaur

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“neither of us is happy/but neither of us wants to leave/so we keep breaking one another/and calling it love” – milk and honey

“i do not weep/because i’m unhappy/i weep because i have everything/yet i am unhappy”  – the sun and her flowers

I couldn’t possibly choose between these two incredible books by Rupi Kaur. I read ‘milk and honey’ for the first time this year, and bought ‘the sun and her flowers’ as soon as it was published in June. Both books address questions of feminity, masculinity, abuse, relationships, break ups, mental health and friendships, and are fantastically and beautifully written.

Read my review of ‘milk and honey’ here.

 

2. Home Going by Yaa Gyasi

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“We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”

This is an absolutely incredible book, and it was very hard to choose between this and the book I eventually chose for the top place. It tells the story of women and men through generations, beginning with two mothers and continuing with their descendants throughout time. The book is incredibly moving and thought-provoking; I cried more times than I can count, and put the book down feeling truly shaken and stunned.

Read my review of the book here.

 

1. The Hiding Places by Katherine Webb

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Katherine Webb has been in my Top Ten list, even previously in the top position, every year since I started this blog; 2017 was no exception. The release of her latest novel, ‘The Hiding Places’, was one I anticipated eagerly, and once I read the book I simply couldn’t put it down. It is beautifully written, with a fantastic twist, engaging characters and true talent. I absolutely loved this book, and am hoping for another Katherine Webb release in 2018!

Read my full review of this book here.

 

 

 

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Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley

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RATING: 5/5

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

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

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The Loving Spirit by Daphne du Maurier

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Janet Coombe longs for adventure and the freedom of the sea. She feels herself pulled fast under its spell, but in her heart she know she must sacrifice her dreams; she is a woman, and her place is in the home. So she marries Thomas, a boat-builder, and her restless spirit is passed down through her son, and on to his descendants”

REVIEW: I am a huge fan of Daphne du Maurier, and am slowly working my way through all of her novels. I am yet to find one I haven’t enjoyed, and ‘The Loving Spirit’, du Maurier’s debut novel, was no exception – just like all of the previous books of hers that I have read,  I simply could not put this one down. The book is split into four parts, the first telling the story of Janet Coombe; the second the story of her son, Joseph; the third the story of his son, Christopher; and the fourth the story of his daughter, Jennifer. The restless spirit of Janet, who longs to be away at sea but is chained to the home of her husband, is one I think many readers can sympathise with. Although Thomas is sweet and devoted, he is no match for the intelligence and the sense of adventure that exists in his wife, and is confused by her longing to escape; as readers, however, we often seek our own escape in books, and therefore Janet’s restlessness is easier to understand. The centre of Janet’s world is realigned, however, with the birth of her son, Joseph. She sees her own spirit in Joseph and the two form a close bond (which, admittedly, often seemed to me to be verging on incest, though I doubt this was  du Maurier’s intention) that is brutally severed with Janet’s death. Unable to bear the close knit town of Plyn after the loss of his mother, Joseph continues to live the life of a sailor that he embarked upon to his mother’s joy during her lifetime. When he returns to Plyn and determines to marry, however, his plans are almost thwarted by his younger brother, Phillip, who has grown into a cold, unforgiving young man filled with ambition and hate. By the end of Joseph’s tale, things are very unfortunate for him, and the third part of the book sees his wayward son Christopher, who abandoned the life of seafaring his father had planned for him to live a more comfortable life in London, return to Plyn with his wife and children. Narrowly missing the death of his father, Christopher joins with his cousins and tries to make a success of the shipbuilding business that his grandfather had owned, but is ruthlessly put down by Phillip at every turn. He has a strong bond with his youngest child, a girl named Jennifer, who is the protagonist of the final part of the book. Jennifer is strong-willed and, despite moving back to London with her mother after Christopher’s death, her heart longs to be back in Plyn. She returns there and ends up living with her miserly uncle Phillip, seeking revenge on him in every way she can before falling into danger herself.

Each of the parts of the book intertwine with one another, leading the reader through four generations of the Coombe family in a way that is both seamless and brilliant. Each story contains romance, trials and a love of the sea, and although I most enjoyed the sections of Joseph and Jennifer, the book as a whole was fantastic. There were twists in every part, yet the ending still left the reader pleased and with a sense of completion and satisfaction. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

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The Story of Alice by Robert Douglas Fairhurst

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “This is the secret history of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Wonderland is part of our cultural heritage. But beneath the fairytale lies the complex history of the author and his subject. Charles Dodgson was a quiet academic but his second self, Lewis Carroll, was a storyteller, innovator and avid collector of ‘child-friends’. Carroll’s imagination was to give Alice Liddell, his ‘dream-child’, a fictional alter ego that would never let her grow up.

This is a biography that beautifully unravels the magic of Alice. It is a history of love and loss, innocence and ambiguity. It is the story of one man’s need to make a Wonderland in a changing world.”

REVIEW: I have wanted to read this book since its release, and was very excited to receive it for my birthday last month. I am a huge fan of Alice in Wonderland and have read the book and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, many times. Although I knew a little, as many of do, about the story behind Carroll’s creation of this famous tale – his close friendship with a little girl named Alice Liddell, whom he one day took a boat ride with and, to amuse her, told her the story which would eventually become Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – I learnt a great deal more through reading this biography. Douglas-Fairhurst writes beautifully, and the book reads almost like a novel itself, truly capturing the magic surrounding both the creation and dissemination of Alice. A great deal of time is spent discussing one of the great mysteries of Lewis Carroll; how close was he to Alice Liddell and the other little girls he befriended and photographed? As an amateur photographer, the majority of Carroll’s portraits involved young girls, many of them named Alice and some either nude or barely dressed. Douglas-Fairhurst discusses the problems this poses for us in the modern day, looking back on Carroll and his life; realistically, many of us might apply the term of paedophile to Carroll, in light of what we can see from his photographs and the letters he wrote to these young girls. However, Carroll – when he was busy being Charles Dodgson – was a reverend, a religious man, and often condemned those who viewed the purity and innocence of children through a ‘sinful’ eye. I would concur with the conclusion that Douglas-Fairhurst makes: that Carroll was, in fact, simply captivated by the innocence and beauty of youth, a period of life which he saw as carefree and creative. Carroll maintained a close relationship with children because he loved youth and wished to reconnect with his own lost years, and I think you can see that childish and youthful imagination shining through in both of the Alice books. I really enjoyed learning more about Carroll and the story behind the creation of Alice, and would highly recommend this book.

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Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and author Mary Shelley were mother and daughter, yet these two extraordinary women never knew one another. Nevertheless, their passionate and pioneering lives remained closely intertwined, their choices, aspirations and tragedies eerily similar. Both women became famous writers and wrote books that changed literary history, had passionate relationships with several men, were single mothers out of wedlock; both lived in exile, fought for their poisition in society, and interrogated ideas of how we should live.”

REVIEW: I have counted both Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley among my historical idols  since I was introduced to them both by my fantastic English teacher during my AS level year: Wollstonecraft for her feminist tract A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which addresses many areas that feminists such as myself still identify as areas that require change to this day; and Shelley for her novel Frankenstein, one of my favourite books of all time, as well as her tumultuous personal life. Until now, I have never before had the opportunity to read a biography covering this exceptional mother and daughter in one go. I thoroughly enjoyed the way in which Gordon chose to structure this biography; it can be difficult, initially, to understand how Wollstonecraft and Shelley can have led such similar lives, and how Wollstonecraft had such an influence on her daughter, when the two only shared the same earth for a matter of days. In structuring it so that the chapters alternate between Wollstonecraft and Shelley, Gordon makes it easier for the reader to map out the parallels in the lives of these two women, looking at what they were each experiencing during the different stages of their lives. Gordon’s writing style itself is fantastic – the book flows almost like a novel, and is engaging from start to finish, with keen speculation and vivid description adding to the enjoyment of the reader, who may feel daunted by such a large non-fiction text without such additional flourishes. Gordon made me feel much closer to these two women, whom I have long considered as role models, and I feel I gained so much more understanding and sympathy from knowing more about their lives. It has also given me a new way to look at things when reading their written works, as I can now apply my knowledge of their backgrounds and the events occuring in their lives when writing to enhance my understanding of their novels, letters, diaries and tracts. I found it difficult to put this book down, something of a rarity with me and non-fiction, and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in literature, the women themselves or even those interested in the period from a historical perspective, as the lives of these women tell us much about the political climate and social expectations of the period.

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Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Sisters Marianne and Elinor couldn’t be more different. Marianne is desperately romantic and longing to meet the man of her dreams, while Elinor takes a far more cautious approach to love. When the two of them move to the country with their family, miles away from London, there is little prospect of them finding anyone at all. But then they meet their new neighbours, including kind Edward Ferrers and the good-looking, dangerous Willoughby – and it seems happiness may be just round the corner after all. Things aren’t always as they appear to be though. Soon, both sisters will need to decide who to trust in their search for love: their family, their new friends, their heads – or their hearts?”

REVIEW: Despite this being one of my favourite of Austen’s novels, I have only read it once and I was quite young at the time, so despite having watched the film pretty much constantly since then I decided I needed a refresher on the original story. ‘Sense and Sensibility’ tells the story of Elinor and Marianne, two very different sisters who are forced into near poverty when their father dies and their home passes to their older brother and his domineering wife, who is determined to force the girls, their mother and their younger sister Margaret from their home. Upon moving to the countryside, however, Elinor and Marianne find themselves with a new circle of friends, many of them comical (I personally find Mr and Mrs Palmer very amusing), and with new love interests. Elinor is introduced to Edward Ferrers, the brother of her sister-in-law, and the two of them develop a warm relationship based on shared interests and understanding. Headstrong Marianne, however, enters into a much more dangerous relationship with Willoughby (who reminds me very much of the notorious Wickham from ‘Pride and Prejudice’), falling completely in love with him and embarking on a passionate courtship that eventually ends in heartbreak. The contrast between Elinor and Marianne really adds to the story, and it is heartwarming to see how their understanding of each other grows throughout the novel, changing their relationship with each other. Of course, being an Austen novel, despite the ups and downs of their romances the two girls both eventually find love; Elinor with Edward, and Marianne with the kindhearted Colonel Brandon, her champion from the beginning of the novel. This is a lighthearted, romantic and often amusing tale, with just enough scandal and drama involved to make it gripping – a true Austen masterpiece.