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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “The Republic of Gilead allows Offred only one function: to breed. If she deviates, she will, like all dissenters, be hanged at the wall or sent out to die slowly of radiation sickness. But even a repressive state cannot obliterate desire – neither Offred’s nor that of the two men on whom her future hangs.”

REVIEW: I first read ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ when I was maybe fifteen or sixteen and just starting out on the road to feminism. With the arrival of the new television adaptation, I decided it would be a good idea for me to read the novel again before I started watching, and I am so glad I did. I forgot how incredibly chilling, moving, frightening and enraging this book could be, how Atwood’s writing can light a fire that makes it very difficult to sleep after reading. The protagonist, Offred, is a designated Handmaid; women known to be fertile who are placed in the households of husband’s with barren wives, kept there for only one purpose: to give the husband and his barren wife a child. Offred’s past life is somewhat unclear, and offered to the reader in snippets, yet although we know very little overall about her husband Luke and her young daughter, and do not ever find out Offred’s real name, we can’t help but feel a strong sense of sorrow for what Offred has lost and the life she now holds. Forming a strange friendship with the Commander, the husband in her household, Offred begins to experience more of what life is like for women who are neither wives nor handmaids, including Moira, her oldest friend. She also discovers a secret network of those who resist the dictatorial state regime, and begins to rebel against the Commander by embarking on a sexual relationship with his driver, which is completely against the law for a handmaiden. Offred’s story is told in a way that often seems jagged, but is also incredibly personal; we feel like Offred is talking directly to us, as was Atwood’s intention, needing someone to hear her story and make her feel real again. It is not the sort of book where I wish to write too much of the plot, as I would rather not give away the finer details. The most chilling thing about this book, however, is that it doesn’t seem that impossible. This is the kind of repressive, totalitarian state I genuinely believe we could see at some point in the near future; the repression of women and minorities is a key component of the novel and is something that we see in daily life, though of course on a far, far smaller scale. Yet, that prejudice exists, and the fear that it could turn into something darker and stronger is one that certainly manifests itself in the reader’s mind after finishing ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. This is an excellent book and I would highly recommend it.

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Eliza Rose by Lucy Worsley

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RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “Eliza Camperdowne is young and headstrong, but she knows her duty well. As the only daughter of a noble family, she must one day marry a man who is very grand and very rich. But Fate has other plans. When Eliza becomes a maid of honour, she’s drawn into the thrilling, treacherous court of Henry the Eighth…Is her glamorous cousin Katherine Howard a friend or a rival? And can a girl choose her own destiny in a world ruled by men?”

REVIEW: I am a huge fan of Lucy Worsley’s work, so despite the fact that this, her first historical fiction novel, is clearly intended for the child/young adult market, I was eager to read it anyway. This novel tells the story of Eliza Camperdowne, a young girl from a ruined gentry family who is her family’s only hope of achieving greatness under the reign of Henry VIII. After a failed betrothal to the son of the Earl of Westmoreland, Eliza is sent away to be educated in the art of courtly manners at Trumpton Hall, the home of the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. Trumpton Hall, however, is also home to Eliza’s confident, beautiful, reckless and often rather spiteful cousin, Katherine Howard. Katherine and Eliza instantly clash, and matters become worse when Katherine and the music master, Francis Manham, make Eliza the victim of a cruel joke. When the time comes for the girls of Trumpton Hall to be sent to court, however, it is only Katherine and Eliza who make the cut, and the two of them are forced to at least try and get along as they share accomodation and serve the same Queen, Henry VIII’s fourth wife Anne of Cleves. Unbeknownst to Eliza, who is struggling with her own feelings and engaging in her own flirtation with the illegitimate but charming servant of the King, Ned Barsby, and earning the admiration of Will Summers, the King’s Fool, Katherine is doing some serious flirting of her own. Eliza is both stunned and horrified when Katherine announces that she is to marry the King; Eliza herself had reluctantly decided to fight for the position of King’s Mistress, in order to help her family’s prospects. As a Maid of Honour, Eliza now has to work even harder to play the court game, and distances herself ever farther from her beloved Ned. When the whole thing comes crashing down around them with the discovery of Katherine’s adultery, it is Eliza who stays by her side, despite all their past bitterness and rivalry, and as Eliza achieves her happy ending she realises how foolish she was to have been jealous of Katherine in the first place.

This is a well-written story, very imaginatively written,  and it does evoke to some extent the dangerous, rumour-filled atmosphere of Henry VIII’s court in its latter years. I do feel, however, that the book was spoiled for me by some of the adjustments that the author chose to make to the historical facts. I do not blame Worsley for doing this, and in light of this novel’s intended audience I understand why the story was made simpler and some of the more lurid details removed. For example, instead of writing separately of Katherine’s affairs with the music master Henry Manox and her later, more serious affair with Francis Dereham, Worsley combines them into one person; a music master named Francis Manham who later attends on Katherine at court and continues a reckless affair with her there. Thomas Culpepper is not included in the tale at all, which I did find somewhat surprising even in consideration of the audience. When I removed myself from my mindset as an historian myself, however, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and felt it was an easy to read and engaging tale, and would be a good introduction to history for younger girls; I feel it would inspire many of them to pursue studies into the Tudor period, and this I think is the books most admirable quality – it serves as a source of inspiration.

 

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The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “I have stolen princesses back from sleeping barrow kings. I burned down the town of Trebon. I have spent the night with Felurian and left with both my sanity and my life. I was expelled from the University at a younger age than most people are allowed in. I tread paths by moonlight that others fear to speak of during day. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep. My name is Kvothe. You may have heard of me”

REVIEW: I was lent this book by a friend when I was about fourteen, and couldn’t get past the first ten pages. When I went on a trip to Foyles with my boyfriend for my 21st birthday earlier this year (a wonderful day where he gave me money and basically let me run riot in a five-floor bookstore), I saw this book on the shelf and decided to try it again. Something about the way the blurb was written appealed to me, and having now read many more fantasy novels than I had when I first tried this one at fourteen, I thought it might now be more up my street. I’m pleased to say that I was right, and am very glad that I tried reading this novel again. Rothfuss’ writing style is brilliant; witty, gripping, descriptive and transformative. I felt completely immersed in the fictional land that Kvothe is part of, and fully believed in all of its legends and history. This is the first novel in a trilogy telling the story of Kvothe. When we meet Kvothe at the beginning of the story he is a humble innkeeper, hiding from his own notoriety and accompanied only by his closest friend, student and servant, Bast. Most of the novel, however, is taken up by Kvothe sharing the story of his past; when a Chronicler arrives at the Inn desperate to hear his tale, Kvothe is reluctantly persuaded to let the Chronicler record his words on paper. Kvothe has led a fascinating life, and the reader eagerly awaits to find out what lies behind Kvothe’s fame and the air of mystery surrounding him. We learn of Kvothe’s past as part of a touring troupe, and his early training by the arcanist Abernathy. His parents and the rest of his troupe are killed in a horrifying murder that Kvothe believes was caused by the legendary Chandrian, and he decides that he will not rest until he finds out the truth about this unspeakable legend. After extensive months of living on the streets, Kvothe finally earns himself a place at the renowned University, through pure talent; but University without money is not easy, and Kvothe’s financial struggles, his enmity with some of the masters, his quick advancement through the ranks and his rivalry with rich student Ambrose combine to make his University years both a fascinating story and a constant struggle. The arrival of the beautiful Denna in Kvothe’s life, however, only complicates things further, and I must confess that Denna was my favourite character in this tale.Beautiful, talented and as mysterious as Kvothe, she is a true match for him, but love does not come easy. At the point of the novel’s ending, dark forces are at work in the present day that are forcing people to confront the possibly reality of the Chandrian, and we are yet to get past Kvothe’s University days in his relaying of the past. I am eager to read the next installments in the series and found this book to be gripping and beautifully written.

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The Kingdom of Little Wounds by Susann Cokal

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “On the eve of Princess Sophia’s wedding, the palace prepares a sumptuous display of riches. But in Skyggehavn, things are rarely as they seem. Beneath the veneer of celebration, a mysterious illness plagues the royal family, and one courtier’s power-lust will set a devious plot in motion.”

REVIEW: This book is a complex and remarkable tale combining history, fantasy, passion and intrigue within the kingdom of Skyggehavn, a land in which the royal family are finding themselves slowly dying away and being plunged deeper and deeper into mystery and scandal. The book mostly follows two women, although a variety of characters get their own chapters in order to have their say, which adds to the depth of the novel. These two protagonists, however, are the main focus of the tale, and despite their dislike of each other they form an unlikely alliance as they become entangled in the plots and treasons that surround the throne. Ava Bingen is the first of the women that we meet; she is a young seamstress to the Queen who finds herself in a great deal of trouble after accidentally stabbing the Queen with a needle on the night of the Princess’ wedding. Forced to become an unwilling spy and treated like a whore by the ambitious Nicolas in order to save her own life, Ava finds herself far deeper in the court web of intrigue than she would like, particularly when she is placed in the royal nursey, caring for the four youngest royal children, all of whom have an unknown and possibly deadly disease. The other woman involved in the story is Midi, a black woman who is unable to speak after an injury inflicted on her tongue by a jealous mistress. Seen as exotic and craved by many of the men of the court, Midi also works in the nursery, tending to the royal children, and both women become caught up in relationships with the eager court historian, Arthur Grammaticus. The intense rivalry between them, mostly stemming from Midi, is forced to dissipate when King Christian dies suspiciously whilst his Queen, the mad Isabel, is still pregnant with a possible son and heir. Ava and Midi end up in the thick of the scandal as Isabel’s most trusted maids, and are forced to take drastic steps to ensure the survival of the Queen and their own safety. This book is so gripping, brilliantly written and absolutely fascinating – definitely a contender for top place in the Top Ten Books of the Year list I will be publishing at the end of 2016. The twists and turns the novel takes, taking the reader to ever darker and more mysterious places, are truly unbelievable, and I left the book with the sense that no matter what I read next it couldn’t quite match up to the standard of this fantastic work of fiction.

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A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

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RATING: 4/5

REVIEW: ‘A Little Princess’ was one of my favourite books as a child, and my parents bought me a beautiful copy (shown above) as a present upon my recent graduation. I dived straight back in to re-reading it, and loved it just as much as I did all the times I read it as a child. ‘A Little Princess’ is an enchanting story of an unusual young girl named Sara Crewe. Eccentric, intelligent and imaginative is sent to an English boarding school by her beloved Papa after growing up in India. Sara’s Papa leaves the school’s two mistresses, the harsh Miss Minchin and the weak-willed Miss Amelia, with the strictest instructions that his daughter be treated like a Princess in every way, and provides her with an elaborate trousseau, lavish homeware and a beautiful doll whom she names Emily. Sara becomes the show pupil of the school, but despite this remains a kind and modest little girl. She befriends the plump, unintelligent Ermengarde, the timid young servant girl Becky, and the spoilt little Lottie, and enchants not just them but many of the other girls with her creative stories, which she is happy to share with everyone. When Sara’s father unexpectedly dies, however, Sara’s whole world is changed forever. She is forced by Miss Minchin to work as both servant girl and tutor to the younger pupil, banished to the attic, and out of loneliness befriends the attic’s resident rat (whom she names Melchisdec), and his family. Yet she remains constant in her kindness, hope and imagination, and retains her friendships with Ermengarde, Becky and Lottie, albeit in secret. Sara also befriends the Indian gentleman who moves in to the house next door, and whose monkey sneaks in to her attic one day. From then on, both the Indian gentleman and Sara imagine themselves as friends, despite their hardly knowing each other, and take courage from thinking of each other’s lives. Sara, as she deserves, in fact receives the happy ending she deserves due to her acquaintance with this gentleman; it turns out that he was once her father’s friend and business partner, and came to England in order to find Captain Crewe’s little girl and give her a proper home. Sara is restored to her former position, taking Becky with her as a lady’s maid and happily leaving Miss Minchin and her school behind to start a new, happy life as a little princess once more. The story is heartwarming and teaches a great lesson to children –  and indeed, a lesson that even as adults we often need reminding of – that even in the worst of situations, we should always act with kindness, hope and courage, because a happy ending is always possible.

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After You by Jojo Moyes

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Lou Clark has lots of questions. Like how it is she’s ended up working in an airport bar, watching other people jet off to new places. Or why the flat she’s owned for a year still doesn’t feel like home. Whether her family can ever forgive her for what she did eighteen months ago. And will she ever get over the love of her life.

What Lou does know for certain is that something has to change. Then, one night, it does.

But does the stranger on her doorstep hold the answers Lou is searching for – or just more questions? Close the door and life continues: simple, ordered safe. Open it and she risks everything. But once Lou made a promise to live. And if she’s going to keep it, she has to invite them in…”

REVIEW: I only recently got around to reading the prequel to this book, ‘Me Before You’ (as some of you may remember) and I absolutely loved it, so I was both excited and filled with rather a lot of trepidation upon starting this second novel, ‘After You’. I had no need for concern, however; yet again, Moyes writes a brilliantly sensitive, humorous, heartwarming (and, at times, heartbreaking), poignant and hugely enjoyable story. When the novel opens it is eighteen months after Will’s assisted suicide and Louisa is struggling to move on with her life even after taking a trip around Europe and moving into a new flat in London. Relations with her family are still strained, she works in an airport pub, and feels lonely in the barely decorated flat. Things all begin to change, however, when Lou falls from the balcony of her block of flats (an accident which, much to her anger, everyone seems to think is a suicide attempt) and is terribly injured. With the help of paramedic Sam, however, she survives, and from there on her situation begins to see some slow – and somewhat rocky – improvement. She is reunited with her family (the sub-plot of her mother turning into a liberal feminist was absolutely hilarious and lightened up many of the more emotional moments), and a mysterious knock on her door one night leads to the discovery of Will’s daughter, Lily, whom he had never known about during his lifetime and who comes to Lou seeking both information about her father and an escape from her uncaring mother. Throw in a relationship (or maybe not a relationship, in Lou’s uncertain mind) with Ambulance Sam, the paramedic who saved Lou’s life, a job offer in New York and the chaos of introducing Lily to the Traynors and we now have an amazing follow-up to the phenomenal ‘Me Before You’ – and this one also made me cry at the end, though for very different reasons. Undoubtedly this is one of the best sequels I have ever read, which is even more impressive considering what it had to live up to, and I highly recommend it to any ‘Me Before You’ fans.

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Poldark: Ross Poldark by Winston Graham

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Tired from a grim war in America, Ross Poldark returns to his land and his family. But the joyful homecoming he had anticipated turns sour, for his father is dead, his estate derelict, and the girl he loves is engaged to his cousin. However, his sympathy for the destitute miners and farmers of the district leads him to rescue a half-starved urchin girl from a fairground brawl and take her home – an act which alters the whole course of his life…”

REVIEW: I never got around to watching the ‘Poldark’ series when it aired on TV, and I always prefer to read books before I watch their adaptations anyway, so I was looking forward to reading at least the first two novels in the series so that I could catch up on the TV programme. This first book in the series definitely did not disappoint and it was the fastest I’ve read a book in a while, plus it managed to keep me awake on my morning commute, an impressive feat to say the least. This novel introduces us to Ross Poldark, a dark, brooding soldier with both physical and emotional battle scars, who also happens to have a warm heart and an understanding, generous nature. When Ross returns to his ancestral home, Nampara, he finds the estate left in ruins by its reckless servants after the recent death of his father, and is also devastated to learn of the engagement of his beloved, Elizabeth, to his cousin Francis, despite the fact that before he left for the war an understanding had been between them that she would wait for him and one day be his bride. Feeling hurt and betrayed, Ross throws himself into improving the estate, also involving himself heavily in helping his tenants and the local people; particularly young Jim Carter and his wife Jinny Martin, two characters whom the reader finds themselves growing strongly attached to despite them being on the sidelines of the plot, as they suffer misfortunes and gratefully receive the help of Ross at every turn. In his efforts to aid people, Ross accidentally ends up rescuing a young girl named Demelza Carne. Beaten by her father and forced to care for five brothers, Ross is upset by Demelza’s plight and takes her (and her mongrel dog, Garrett) into his home as kitchen maid – a decision that will have far-reaching consequences, however, as Demelza grows up and begins to prove herself a match for Ross, gaining his love and desire as much as he tries to resist her. The relationship that blooms slowly between Ross and Demelza is central to the novel, as is the story of the poor tenants like Jim and Jinny; one of the other lesser characters whom I truly admired, however, was Ross’ cousin Verity, who defies her family in the name of love and proves a true and loyal friend to Ross during his darkest times. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and am looking forward to finding 0ut how the lives of many of the other characters in the novel have progressed in the next installment.