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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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Mistress of All Evil by Serena Valentino

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RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “What of the Dark Fairy, Maleficent? Why does she curse the Princess Aurora to fall into an eternal sleep?

Many tales have tried to explain her motives. Here is one account, pulled from those passed down through the ages. It is a story of love and betrayal, magic and fantasy. It is a tale of the mistress of all evil.”

REVIEW: As a Disney fan and reader of all of Valentino’s previous novels on the Disney villains, I was looking forward to reading her take on the story of Maleficent, who is one of my favourite villains. I enjoyed instantly the links to Valentino’s previous novels, as the story opens where the last novel (‘Poor Unfortunate Soul’) left off, with the funeral of Ursula taking place and the Weird Sisters placed under a sleeping spell by their younger sister Circe. Other links to the previous novels occured throughout this tale, including the return of the characters Grimmhilde and Snow White, as well as Princess Tulip and Prince Popinjay. The return of these characters really added to the story; particularly the return of Nanny, who serves as a focal character in this novel in particular. We learn that she was once Maleficent’s adoptive mother, having found Maleficent as a young fairy abandoned in the Fairylands due to her green skin and growing horns. Maleficent was able to lead a happy childhood with Nanny, despite opposition and hostility from other members of the fairy community including Flora, Fauna and Merryweather, who essentially act as the high-school bullies of the story. From reading of this backstory, Maleficent becomes a highly empathetic character, as readers begin to understand the trauma of her past and the events which led her to become the Mistress of All Evil. In the present day, however, Maleficent has just put the Princess Aurora under a sleeping curse and seems determined to kill her, something she insists is for Aurora’s protection, though none can understand her motives.

When Maleficent’s motives are revealed, however, my interest in the novel waned slightly as this was the point where, for me, the plotline became just a bit too far-fetched. It is revealed that Maleficent is Aurora’s mother, and that Aurora was born of a magic spell invented by the Weird Sisters (through which they created their own daughter, Circe) in order to give Maleficent the company she craved after her magic destroyed the Fairylands and she lost all contact with those she loved. Maleficent soon realises, however, that Aurora will also have magic as she does, and rather than let it turn her daughter evil, she decides to put her into an enchanted sleep and attempt to kill her. I felt this whole section of the novel was stretched beyond what would be believeable purely to fit in with the traditional Disney storyline, and found that somewhat disappointing.

Overall, however, I still really enjoyed the novel and I loved the ending; it was my favourite yet of Valentino’s novels, despite the extraordinary plot. I am very much looking forward to reading her next Disney villains novel, which I believe will centre on Mother Gothel from ‘Tangled’.

 

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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 Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “On an autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives at a grand house in Amsterdam to begin her new life as the wife of wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt. Though curiously distant, he presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. It is to be furnished by an elusive miniaturist, whose tiny creations ring eerily true.

As Nella uncovers the secrets of her new household she realizes the escalating dangers they face. The miniaturist seems to hold their fate in her hands – but does she plan to save or destroy them?”

REVIEW: This book has been on my TBR list for a long time (as have a significant number of the books I own!), but I decided I had to read it before watching the TV adaptation that aired on the BBC over Christmas. I was instantly hooked; Burton’s writing style is vividly descriptive as well as gripping, building suspense and the curiosity of the reader. The characters are complex, each having their own personalities and secrets that make the book, and the hints Nella receives from the miniaturist of future events, even more intriguing. Nella arrives at the home of her new husband and instantly feels left out in the cold; Johannes himself is often absent and lavishes more affection on his two whippets than he does on her (though, as a greyhound owner, I can sympathise with him on that one); his sister, Marin, is distant and controlling; only the servants, Cornelia and Otto, seem to warm to Nella and try to make more of an effort with her. When Johannes gifts her with the cabinet that holds a replica of their own home, Nella initially feels confused and a little patronised. Deciding to make the best of the situation, she looks up a miniaturist to make pieces for the house; and this is where the suspense really begins to build. Providing far more than Nella asks for, the miniaturist sends packages containing exact replicas of all those who live in the household, and as secrets unfold and events start to take a dramatic turn, every step is reflected in the figures and items made and sent by the mysterious miniaturist. I don’t want to give too much away, as one of the things that led me to enjoy this book so much was the revelation of secrets and the plot twists these led to. I couldn’t put this book down; I loved Burton’s writing style and how engrossing the plot was. It made me cry more than once, and I loved the intricacies of the characters and the depth Burton clearly went into when creating them. The book also highlighted so many of the social issues and stigmas that existed at the time, including attitudes towards sexuality, race and women. I would very highly recommend this novel and look forward to adding Burton’s second novel, ‘The Muse’, to my TBR pile!

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Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “Effia and Esi, two sisters with two very different destinies. One sold into slavery; one a slave trader’s wife. The consequences of their fate reverberate through the generations that follow: from the Gold Coast of Africa to the plantations of Mississippi; from the missionary schools of Ghana to the dive bars of Harlem. Spanning continents and generations, Yaa Gyasi has written a miraculous novel – an intense, heartbreaking story of one family and, through their lives, the story of America itself.”

REVIEW: I was keen to read this book when I first read about its release, and was lucky enough to find a work colleague to borrow it from. I’m so glad I did, because this book is incredible. In equal measures both heartbreaking and heartwarming, the novel is divided into chapters initially telling the stories of Effia and Esia, and then each of their descendants. The stories are often harrowing, but it is not right that stories of the suffering of slaves should be anything other than this; in writing these tales, Gyasi spares nothing in describing the details of the trials her characters face, from the domination of white over black to the domination of men over women in traditional patriarchal cultures. The stories vary in content and each has an important moral impact on the reader. I felt every word whilst reading this novel, which is partly what makes it such an intense read; it is gripping and impossible to put down purely because every word draws you in and holds you there as a witness to the events taking place. The story of Ness was my favourite, and one I found particularly moving; I had to put the book down for a while to recover! I also particularly enjoyed the story of Abena, though once again this was a more moving tale. The book itself is pure genius, showing how our suffering and our lives can have consequences that span generations in a kind of butterfly effect. What starts with Effia, an Asante girl who marries a slave trader, and her sister Esi, captured and sold into slavery herself, takes us on a journey that ends with a budding romance between their descendants as they explore Ghana, the land of their heritage. I can’t recommend it highly enough not only as a novel, but as a historical and moral lesson, and a captivating piece of literary art.

 

 

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Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: ‘Jane hasn’t lived anywhere for longer than six months since her son was born five years ago. She keeps moving in an attempt to escape her past. Now the idyllic coastal town of Pirriwee has pulled her to its shores and Jane feels as if she finally belongs. She finds friends in the feisty Madeline and the incredibly beautiful Celeste, two women with seemingly perfect lives – and their own secrets. But at the start of a new term, an incident involving the children of all three women occurs in the playground, causing a rift between them and the other parents. Minor at first but escalating fast, until the whispers and rumours become vicious and spiteful, and the truths blur into lies. It was always going to end in tears, but no-one thought it would end in murder…’

REVIEW: Although I am normally an advocate of reading books prior to watching their adaptations, I must admit that when ‘Big Little Lies’ aired on TV a few months back I watched the first episode and was hooked. I watched the six episode season in less than a day (and I’m not normally a binge watcher) and knew that I had to read the book it was based on. After doing so, I have to say the show was an excellent adaptation, varying only minimally from the original novel. The novel focuses mainly on three women, although other female characters are also heavily involved, such as Madeline’s ex’s new wife Bonnie and Renata, one of the other mothers at the school. Jane is the closest to a protagonist out of these three women, having moved to the town of Pirriwee with her son, Ziggy, for a fresh start by the beach. She soon befriends ditzy Madeline and stunning Celeste, who hides her husband’s emotional and physical abuse behind a very formal and polite exterior. The three cement their bond on the first day of school, when Ziggy is accused of hurting Renata’s daughter, Amabella. Jane and her new friends are convinced of his innocence, but the war between them and the other parents continues as Ziggy is isolated and the other parents attempt to have him suspended. By the time of the much-anticipated Trivia Night, tensions are at a high, and the novel takes a highly unexpected and brilliant twist. This is one of those books where it is very difficult to sufficiently review it without giving too much away, and I would hate to spoil the ending of such a gripping and well-written novel. In reading this, the reader not only becomes very invested in the characters, but is also able to picture the beautiful coastal setting in which the novel takes place, as Moriarty writes so well. I would highly recommend this book for people who have watched the TV series, and those who enjoy dramas and thrillers.