Book Reviews, Historical, Young Adult, Young Adult Historical

Following Ophelia – Sophia Bennett Review

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Rating: ★★★★★

I always enjoy books about art, artists, painting. The descriptions are always more vivid, drawing your attention to details that are sometimes taken for granted – the way light shines on fabric, the shade of sky in the morning. Following Ophelia did just that, as well as delivering an exciting story, an amazing protagonist, and an insight into both Victorian London and pre-Raphaelite society.

Mary Adams is new to London, having left her home in Kent to work as a scullery maid. Amongst the tiresome and endless work however, she catches the eye of London’s artistic circles, with her striking red hair and green eyes, that mark her out as the next ‘stunner’. She begins to model in secret for Felix Dawson, a promising but as yet unknown painter, who makes her feel seen and important, and is ferried about by her new friends under the fake name ‘Persephone Lavelle’. However, as big as London may be, society is small, and should her secret be found out, she could lose everything. When it comes under threat, Sophia has some startling decisions to make.

I took to Mary instantly. The book opens as she leans precariously over the edge of the ship transporting her through London, and she is instantly marked out as adventurous and slightly rebellious. She is clumsy but clever, and I admired her brain and wit. As she started modelling, I wondered when she would begin to do things for herself, however. It seemed like everything was happening to Mary, instead of because of her, and she was happy being pampered and adored by artists and their friends. Nevertheless, she proved me wrong, and my love for her doubled when Mary herself began to notice the shallow nature of the society she was keeping. She began to wish for something more than being stolen away from her life as a maid in secret to live as a lady in disguise, and realised that life as a lady and a model gave her little more freedom than life as a friend. It is only towards the later half of the book that Mary really begins to make her own choices, but this character growth was my favourite part of the novel, as we really see her grow and take ownership for her choices and her life.

I really love how Sophia Bennett has brought Victorian London and the art of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood into YA literature, and she did an excellent job at crafting this world. Her writing was beautiful and she described everything from dresses to houses and streets so well that you can imagine everything in your mind as you read, but it never felt convoluted and was never at the expense of plot. It all simply wove together perfectly. Further, I liked that significant figures in Victorian art kept popping up throughout the novel, such as Effie Gray, Rossetti and Lizzie Siddal popped up throughout the novel, sometimes as speaking characters and sometimes in the background, but there was never an info-dump or a feeling that I didn’t understand who the person was. Instead, Bennett feeds us tidbits of information about the artists and their lives throughout the story.

Overall, I really enjoyed Following Ophelia and would class it as one of my favourite reads of 2017. I rarely read historical novels as I become wary of having to learn too many facts to enjoy the story, and I rarely see Historical works in the Young Adult section, but Bennett managed to take an area of Victorian history and make it accessible and fun, creating her own story for the setting and a strong character that keeps us hooked with her adventures and her personal growth. I was surprised to see at the end of the book an advert for a sequel, and although I am usually apprehensive about YA series that are not fantasy or sci-fi, I can’t wait to follow Mary/Persephone in her story.

Book Reviews, Historical

Mrs Hemingway – Naomi Wood Review

 

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Rating: ★★★★★

I’ve never read any books by Ernest Hemingway, or anything about him, but I was interested in this book ever since it came out. Instead of telling the story of the world famous author, it tells the story of his wives, and of the turbulent lives that they shared with Hemingway. Despite not knowing anything about Hemingway, as I said, I didn’t feel that this hampered my ability to enjoy the book, and I actually really loved it.

The book is split into four parts, each following a different wife. First is Hadley, then Pauline, Martha, then Mary. They each tell the story of their relationship with Ernest, but interestingly, from the end of their relationship. In most of the cases, the marriage is at the brink, and the wives are either desperate to save it, or eager to let go, and in the last case, Mary tells her story from after Ernest’s death. They go back from this unhappy ending to the happy beginnings, and then go through all the ups and downs of their relationships. I loved this from of telling events with hindsight of how the relationship would turn out in the end, and how the later events of a relationship influence the memories that the women have of earlier events. This was made even more interesting by the fact that there are overlaps in the relationships, as Ernest Hemingway often left one wife with the other waiting in the sidelines. What this means is that you often read the same event twice, whether it’s a dinner party, or a holiday, but through the eyes of the wife first, then the next wife, who was at the time the mistress, second.

There are many references to genuine primary documents in this novel, as Wood used references to real love letters and telegrams, which makes this all feel so much more substantial. I felt like I really was talking to the women in person, and you could feel their joy, anger, bitterness, or sadness. Although the four sections are not particularly long (about 80 pages), I felt like I really got to know the four different wives and their emotions, their hopes and their regrets. This was helped by the fact that the prose is simple, but still gets across what they feel strongly, so the novel never dragged on. Further, you get to see Ernest Hemingway from four different angles. Instead of Ernest Hemingway feeling like a substantial person that I had gotten to know however, Wood makes him stay a sort of enigma, as if neither wife really knew him fully or could ever hold onto him tight enough to make him stay. With each wife, he changes a little, and so you end up feeling the same desperation and confusion as the wives do.

I don’t read a lot of adult or historical fiction, but occasionally, when novels from these genres catch my eye, they are for a reason. I knew that I would enjoy this storytelling from the point of view of women who are typically not as well remembered as the man they loved. Instead of this being about Ernest, through his wives’ eyes, it was about the wives, and I loved the complete focus on their inner lives and emotions.

Book Reviews, Historical

The Light Between Oceans – M.L. Steadman Review

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Taken from: @inkdropsbooks (Instagram)

Rating: ★★★★★

This book did so much to my emotions while I read it that I barely know where to start with this review! The Light Between Oceans is such a moving, riveting, and tragic story about people making the wrong choice, for the right reasons, and making the right choice even though it will hurt someone. It will push you to question what you would do in the characters’ positions, and although it might seem simple from the outside, it will make you root for each character in turn so that you just don’t know anymore.

Tom Sherbourne has returned to Australia after serving as a soldier in the Great War, and takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, a solitary, harsh island. He marries the young, bold Isabel and brings her home with him, where they set about building their life together. They are happy to begin with, but miscarriages and stillbirths mar their joy. Then, one day, a boat washes up on the shore, and inside it is a man – dead – and a baby girl. Tom should report it, but Isabel has fallen in love with the little girl, and she has suffered so much. However, it is easier to live with this choice on the solitary island than it is on the homeland. When Tom and Isabel return to the mainland with the baby, named Lucy, Tom hears about a local woman who lost her husband and baby daughter at sea. Faced with the truth, he must decide what to do, knowing that whatever he decides to do, somebody will suffer.

My favourite thing about this novel was the writing. Steadman’s prose is absolutely beautiful, almost poetic to read. I would happily read page after page of Steadman’s writing. Every word helps you to get into the characters’ mindsets. She expertly describes life of Janus Rock, the characters’ relationships, their daily lives, and it is the atmosphere that she creates of a sort of grey, dreary and lonesome island that allows the story and emotional turmoil of the characters to stand out. I felt that this high quality of writing was really important for me to connect with the characters and enjoy the novel, as the actual story itself is quite harrowing. Not only is it sad, but it’s filled with characters making decisions that are morally questionable – to say the least. If the writing had been more simplistic, I think that many of these situations would have felt too clear-cut, and because I wouldn’t have related to the characters, I wouldn’t have felt challenged by their choices, and the story would have just felt like heartbreak and bad decision after heartbreak and bad decision.

I have read some criticisms of this book where people are argued that it is too sad or that they can’t stand the characters’ decisions, but I felt like Steadman’s writing made it possible for me to inhabit both Tom and Isabel’s minds, see what they were going through, and understand that sometimes our minds can be clouded by emotion. At times, Tom is confident that he must return Lucy to her true mother, but he can’t face robbing his wife, who is his whole world, of her only joy. Meanwhile, when we meet Isabel has been worn down by the death of her own babies. She loves Lucy, she needs Lucy, and she sees herself as Lucy’s mother. We also see Lucy’s real mother, and her own sorrow. The true triumph of this book for me is that, just as Tom didn’t know what he should do, I didn’t either. It can be easy to criticise people and say ‘Why would you do X when Y is clearly the best choice?’ but in this book, I really felt for all the characters. I was heartbroken for all of the characters. I wanted them all to get their happy ending.

This isn’t a novel with a dramatic, fast-paced plot, but rather the action lies in the emotion. This was fine with me, I love exploring people’s inner lives, their choices, morals, choices. As I’ve said, Steadman’s writing made this book really stand out to me, but others who maybe prefer more plot over emotion might find this book a little boring. What I did like about the plot is that this isn’t a novel that is littered with secondary plots, with random events that distract you from the main storyline, and pointless characters. The story says firmly fixed on the main story – Lucy. Personally, I loved that. The author chose a topic, stuck with it, and delivered. I never felt confused or weighed down by rambling narrative because the subject of the passage is simple – Lucy, Isabel, Tom. So, even if you maybe prefer a plot that develops quickly, that isn’t to say that this book isn’t for you.

 

Book Reviews, Historical, Sci-Fi & Fantasy

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street – Natasha Pulley Review

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Taken from: @inkdropsbooks (Instagram)

Rating:★★★

This book was a bit like when you look at a recipe for a cake and when you read the list of ingredients you think ‘Well, that’s going to be the best cake I’ve ever had’ and then you eat it and it’s just plain, dry, and the icing-to-cake ratio is completely off. This is historical magical realism, with mystery, suspense, a hint of steampunk and romance, but all these aspects just didn’t sit right for me, and although Natasha Pulley’s writing was beautiful, I ended up finding this book confusing, slow, and difficult to finish.

The book starts in 1883, when Thaniel Steepleton, your average civil servant, returns to his tiny flat to find a costly golden pocket watch on his pillow. He tries to sell it, but nobody will take it, and so he appears to be stuck with it. However, he realises that there is something odd about the watch when it saves his life from an explosion that tears through Scotland Yard. He sets about investigating, and meets the Japanese watchmaker Keita Mori, whose creations are whimsical, unlike any clockwork he has ever seen, and who Thaniel suspects is hiding something. Elsewhere, Grace Carrow is battling her family’s expectations of her as she studies physics at Oxford and pursues her dream of making a scientific breakthrough that will help her gain her independence.

One thing that I loved about this book was the setting. Victorian London really comes to life, and Pulley makes you feel like you are there, among the grimy streets, at Whitehall, getting the tube, standing in the rain. At times, the book feels like Sherlockian, with a whimsical element to it that makes everything stand out just a little bit more. I also really enjoyed the Japanese elements that feature throughout the story. Keita Mori is Japanese, but he is far from a token POC character. Through flashbacks, we see his life in Japan, we learn about Japanese history, we see an entire Japanese community in London and a second Japanese character features heavily in Grace Carrow’s storyline. Mori’s shop was another favourite setting. I loved Pulley’s descriptions of all of the different clockwork creations, and despite being told repeatedly that they are just clockwork, you find yourself wondering whether there is something more to it.

There is an element of fantasy, but it isn’t in your face. A better term might be magical realism. There was clearly more to Mori than meets the eye, and I was eager to find out what it was. When we do find out, I was excited to see where the story would go. You do find out the truth, but unfortunately, I felt like all the fun was lost after this point, and the novel went from being magical and mysterious to being a bore. I was confused about how this ‘fantasy’ element worked, and how it fitted in with the characters’ storyline. Although I did get it, I felt like it was far too technical and confusing at times. Much like Mori’s clockwork, there were far too many different elements to understand, and I felt like it dragged the plot down a bit. A more simple explanation could have been better and given the story itself more room to shine.

Apart from these brilliant parts of the book, the simple reality is that this book was boring. It was so slow and I was just reading it without understanding what the characters were looking for, what they were trying to do and how they were hoping to get there. Even though the inciting action of this novel is the explosion at the start and Thaniel’s attempts to find out who was behind it, this fades into the backdrop of this story and when it stepped back into the forefront towards the end I was confused and a bit lost. I had basically forgotten all about it. I think that some storylines made the book too busy, like the scenes set in Japan, which would have worked better woven into the main storyline in my opinion

I’m gutted that this book wasn’t everything I thought it would be. I was really expecting this to blow me away, but it just fell flat in so many ways. I found myself fighting to get through it, and once I did, I wasn’t satisfied at all. I would have liked to have seen more character development for the characters, particularly Grace and Mori, and I might have enjoyed the story more if the plot was clearer throughout the book. I liked that the plot was mainly one of mystery and intrigue and that romance did not play a big part, but unfortunately, the romantic storyline that did feature fell flat in my opinion because the characters and the plot were so difficult to grasp.

Book Reviews, Historical, Young Adult

Review – ‘The Book Thief’ – Markus Zusak

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Taken from: @inkdropsbooks (Instagram)

Rating: ★★★★★

The Book Thief was one of the most beautifully written stories I have read. Not only was the story moving, but the narrative style felt new and fresh, and the characters real. I began recommending this book to people when I was still only a few chapters in, and I don’t think I will stop recommending it for a while yet.

thebookthief_2The Book Thief takes place in WWII Germany, where a nine-year-old girl called Liesel is sent to live with foster parents, The Hubermanns, in Himmel Street. With her father and brother death, and her mother a communist, it is unlikely that she will ever see her family again. All around her, Nazis have taken grip of the nation and her neighbours, but within her own home things are different. The Hubermanns take in a Jewish fist-fighter who is hiding from the Nazi regime, and try their best to keep him safe. Meanwhile, Liesel and her friend Rudy take to stealing in order to survive life in their poverty-stricken town. Liesel, however, is uninterested in stealing food, and instead turns to books, which she treasures above all else. Although the world around her is war-torn and in crisis, Liesel is content with her family and books, but it shall not be so for long.

The-Book-Thief-coverI loved reading Liesel’s story and about her relationships with the other characters. In particular, I enjoyed reading about her experiences with the different books that she came into contact with, whether legitimately or as a result of her stealing. It definitely makes this book suitable for all you bookworms out there! I also liked the way that Zusak highlights Liesel’s books as an escape for, not only her, but her friends and family as well as she reads her books aloud during the air raids. Also, I loved how the books brought her and Max together in a strong friendship, as they read together and write each other stories or descriptions of their lives and the world. However, although the theme of books and words that runs through The Book Thief was a major, central theme, it did not overshadow the story. I was still eager to find out whether Max would survive the war, whether Rudy would win the race, and whether the mayor’s wife would overcome her depression. In a magical way, Markus Zusak managed to take a little girl’s story and passion for books and use it to weave her story together with various other people in her town.

Screen Shot 2015-07-09 at 14.23.01One of the most fascinating things about this book, which makes it stand out from the crowd, is its narrator. The Book Thief is narrated by Death itself. Although one might assume that death, if personified, would be a greedy, cold person, Zusak in The Book Thief offers a different Death. In this book, Death is a caring, compassionate narrator, who tries to gently offer release to the souls that are dying throughout this war, and who watches over Liesel like a parent over the course of her life. Further, making the narrator Death means that many of the passages in the book about humanity, mortality, and war did not feel out of place as they could easily have coming from a child narrator. It also meant that we could be given little snippets about the fates of the characters that a first-person narration from one of the characters would not have been able to provide, such as where a person’s life took them, or what a person was thinking or saying in their final moments. Above all, I liked Zusak made Death seem like a gentle creature, who does not relish in war but is pained by it. It is a fresh perspective compared to the common view that Death takes who it wants. Death in The Book Thief regrets many of the souls that s/he has to take, and as a narrator highlights many of the most beautiful shows of humanity in the book.

Overall, I think that The Book Thief is a masterpiece of a novel. Although the story is about a little girl, it is enough to make a grown person cry, as I did when I reached the end of the book. It is an emotional rollercoaster, beautifully crafted by Markus Zusak and I advise you to put it at the top of your ‘To-Read’ list if you haven’t read it already.

Book Reviews, Historical

Review – ‘Longbourn’ – Jo Baker

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Rating: ★★★

I have been reluctant in the past to read any of the abundance of Pride and Prejudice inspired works out there, from sequels, to modern re-imaginings, or any of the others. However, I am glad that I decided to read Longbourn by Jo Baker, which focuses on the life below stairs for the servants of the Bennet family. It had a great balance of original storylines and characters and aspects from Austen’s work, although I would have liked a touch more of the latter.

An image from one of Longbourn's covers
An image from one of Longbourn’s covers

Longbourn centres on one of the Bennet family’s maids Sarah, who works along with Mr and Mrs Hill, as well as a second younger maid called Polly. She works hard every day, waking up before the Bennets have even. At the beginning of the book, a footman called James is hired, and Sarah is sure he is hiding something. Sarah’s life revolves around that of the Bennet family, who are going through all of the events we know; ‘Netherfield is let at last’, the balls at Meryton and Netherfield, Mr Collins’ visit and Elizabeth’s visit to Mr Collins’ parish, right up until Jane’s engagement, Elizabeth’s marriage to Mr Darcy and her life at Pemberley. However, Sarah’s experience of these things is far from exciting and she dreams seeing the world. She takes a liking to one of Mr Bingley’s staff, a black man called Ptolemy Bingley from one of the Bingley family’s plantations, who tells her stories of London, but is she also falling for James, the mysterious footman? Although it would be easy to simply tell Elizabeth Bennet’s story from the position of a fly-on-the-wall maid, Jo Baker does not do this and instead writes her own original stories for the staff. This was done so well that the stories of the Bennet family largely take a back seat, and matter only in the changes that they create in the lives of the maids; whether characters such as Ptolemy Bingley call at Longbourn, whether the work is heavier or lighter, or whether Sarah has to deliver letters to and from Meryton. However, there were only vague references to the Bennet family and their lives and perhaps with another few scenes where Sarah and the other staff interact with the family, the two stories would have felt more intertwined rather than  completely separate stories. It was the relationship between the staff and the family that I was really interested in, but the scenes where the two met in any way, shape or form were so few and superficial that it probably would have made no difference if Sarah worked at any other house in Meryton, not particularly with the Bennets.

Jo Baker, author of Longbourn
Jo Baker, author of Longbourn

I loved the angle of Longbourn which focused on the servants and their invisible world at Longbourn because, apart from the fascinating original storylines by Jo Baker, telling the book from the servants’ perspectives showed the main Pride and Prejudice characters in a different light. Although Austen shows the Bennets as leading a rather humble life, they are still wealthy enough to be almost completely ignorant of the lives of their staff. Lydia naively comments that she wishes her life were as easy as that of the maids, and Sarah is sent out on last-minute errands in the rain for things like roses for shoes and ribbons for dresses. We love Lizzie Bennet in the original story because of her independence and habits such as her love of walking, but in Longbourn we see the struggles that the maids like Sarah have in getting the mud off of Lizzie’s boots and dresses. Not only was reading of the lives of the servants interesting and informative, it was also rather funny, such as when Sarah comments that the Bennet family avoid any eye contact with her, perhaps because they know she has seen all of their dirty underwear.

The new characters – Sarah, Polly, Mr and Mrs Hill, James and Ptolemy – were all interesting and well-drawn. In particular, Sarah’s character felt like a real young girl and Jo Baker did a great job at writing her voice; it felt like within a few pages I knew just what sort of a person Sarah was. The other characters that we knew already were only really seen when they interacted with the staff, and although this did not happen often, I do think that Baker succeeded in making them recognisable when it did; Elizabeth and Jane giving Sarah one of their dresses seemed like something they would do, as did Wickham’s prying presence in the kitchen and Mrs Bennet’s insistence on Mrs Hill listening to her complaints. The only point at which I think this faltered was towards the end of the book when Sarah follows Elizabeth to Pemberley. At this point, which is where we see the most Elizabeth, she is far from the Lizzie that we know and love and seems far more anxious about people’s thoughts of her that I would have liked. I would have also enjoyed more mention of the events that we know throughout the book; perhaps more scenes between the sisters and Sarah where we could overhear their conversations about characters like Mr Wickham and Mr Bingley and see more of the relationships between the sisters. Instead, there were large chunks where almost no mention was made of Pride and Prejudice’s story or characters at all, and I could have been reading a completely unrelated story.

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Longbourn’s cover art

However, my biggest complaint of Longbourn would be its ending. Much like the ending of Pride and Prejudice, we whizzed through several years worth of the character’s life and many of the developments in the characters were very satisfying; Polly’s decision to become a teacher, and Mary’s improved confidence and relationship with her mother were all uplifting endings. However, with Sarah’s story, it felt like a rushed and unexplained ending, which was disappointing after reading over 400 pages of her searching for a happy ending. Also, the chapters where we are taken back in time to learn of the background to the main story through flashbacks felt like an information-dump and I would have preferred to learn these facts in less detail if they had been revealed through dialogue.

Overall, although Longbourn was an enjoyable book with interesting storylines and characters, I would have preferred if there was a touch more mention of the story and characters in the original story which I know and love.  I also was not a great fan of the ending but the story in general kept me interested throughout most of the book. I have heard that a film adaptation is in the works for this book, which I am definitely looking forward to, although hopefully more will be made of the link to Pride and Prejudice, and the ending may be made more speedy and dramatic.

Book Reviews, Historical

Review – ‘Tulip Fever’ – Deborah Moggach

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A preview from the 2016 film adaptation

Tulip Fever is a tale about art, love, and breaking the rules. Sophia Sandvoort has never considered straying from the path of faithfulness in her marriage, until her husband Cornelis hired the young, talented painted Jan van Loos to paint their portrait. Once she begins to break the rules, it seems that there is no stopping, and before long, the pair’s lies grow bigger than either of them can control.

Set against the backdrop of ‘Tulipomania’ in 1630s Amsterdam, Moggach’s story captures the imagination from the first page. I loved the way that each chapter was short and sweet, and the way that each scene was described like a painting, in beautiful but not too-long-winded detail. With Moggach’s writing, you dive headfirst into the story, and feel as if you can see, feel, and smell everything that she describes, from the food to the dresses and Amsterdam itself. Each of the characters has a chance to tell the story from their point of view, from the main three, Sophia, Cornelis and Jan, to Sophia’s maid Maria, Jan’s apprentice Jacob and his servant Gerrit (some of my favourite chapters). There are even chapters told by paintings, flower sellers, and seasons. This flitting between characters was done with subtlety and didn’t interrupt the story at all, but rather made it flow perfectly, showing each of the characters’ roles in the story.

72872From when I picked up the book, I was intrigued by this ‘Tulipomania’. The idea of a nation becoming so obsessed with flowers that men gave up their jobs and risked their livelihoods to nurture and sell them was fascinating.  When it finally became intwined with the story, I was thrilled, but I wish that it had played a bigger role, or that we could have seen more of its effects. There were hints of it in the opening chapters, but when it actually did become a part of the story, I felt like it was brushed over a little too much.

There was only one issue that I really had with this book, and that was that I felt like I had simply read it before for much of the first half of the book. If you, like me, have read other books set in a similar period in Amsterdam, also with an emphasis on art or forbidden romances, like Girl With a Pearl Earring or The Miniaturist, it might feel a little repetitive. However, this is more to do with me than the book itself, and once the story had really got going (past the simple, bound to happen love affair), I could see that this story was going along a route that I hadn’t read before. Therefore, if you start doubting whether this book is a repeat of something else, don’t be fooled. The story is thrilling and full of twists and turns, and you won’t regret finishing it off.

Overall, the beautiful writing in Tulip Fever matched with the exciting storyline made it a pleasure to read. I couldn’t get enough of it and couldn’t bear to put the book down. The narrative flows beautifully and not a single word felt out of place. Definitely read this book before the movie is released later this year.

Book Reviews, Historical

Review – ‘Suite Française’ – Irène Némirovsky

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I picked up Suite Française in search of a heart-wrenching tale of love, loss, and war, and although I did get some of that, I think that what really makes Suite Française an emotional experience is the story behind it, not the story in it. As a book, it reads beautifully, but the structure and story itself didn’t sit right with me at times, but it serves as a marvellous insight into life during the French Occupation in the Second World War, as does the story of Némirovsky and her novel’s publication.

Suite Française was originally planned as a series of five stories narrating the lives of ordinary French citizens living in the Second World War under German occupation. However in 1942, about halfway through the creation of her novel, the author Irène Némirovsky, a Jew, was arrested and died in Auschwitz. The notebook containing this story was preserved by her daughters, and almost sixty years later in 1998, the story that she had written was published. Although I expected this novel to be a passionate love story, a sort of Birdsong-esque novel, I was surprised to find that this was much more. What Némirovsky accomplished was to create a looking glass into life in provincial France during the Occupation, an insight into the minds and lives of its people as they tried to resist Germany’s influence in their lives, while having to live alongside their German occupiers.

AN55349772Mandatory-CreditbSuite Française is split into two novels – the two that the author had completed before her arrest. The first, ‘Storm in June’ follows a group of panicked Parisians as they flee the city under threat of invasion. These characters range from the wealthy Péricand family, the author Gabriel Corte and his mistress, and Maurice and Jean Michaud who must flee Paris on foot after being abandoned by their employer and planned travelling companion, and who are grieving for their son who is missing. The second part of the novel, ‘Dolce’, is set in a small French village a year after the first, and focuses on the Angellier household. In this house, Lucile, whose husband is a prisoner of war, is living with her mother-in-law. When a German officer, Bruno von Falk is billeted to their house, Lucile struggles as she begins to fall in love with the officer. Elsewhere in the village, tensions between the French and Germans rise as Benoît, a farmer, takes an intense dislike to the German in his house.

Although I enjoyed the various different characters, I don’t think that the structure of the book flowed well at all. For the first part of the book, ‘Storm in June’, I found it hard to keep reading and frequently grew bored. The characters were given one chapter before moving on to a different, unrelated character, as they aimlessly travelled through the French countryside. If these characters stood out clearer in my mind as human beings, I may have been more interested in their stories, but instead Storm in June felt like a mess. On the other hand, I couldn’t put down this book when I was reading ‘Dolce’. It was far more unified as it focused on a smaller group of characters, their stories, and relationships, rather than hopping around different stories. Rather, with ‘Dolce’ I felt invested in the story I was reading, and genuinely cared about where it would go. Once I had struggled through the first half of this book, everything was fine.

Suite-Francaise-CoverWhat I really enjoyed about Suite Française – or to be precise, ‘Dolce’ in Suite Française – was Némirovsky’s commentary on the situation at hand. The passages where she described the French and Germans living side by side were fascinating, and I particularly enjoyed her questioning of their differences. At the end, when the German troops are ordered to move on, there is a passage which highlights the complexities and conflict in the relationships between these people; they had lived together for months, had shared stories of their lives, had made friends, but now they were at war again. The relationship between Lucile and Bruno is another example of this. As they grow closer, they deny that there are any differences between them, and you believe that they can defy all odds, but it becomes tragically clear that the fact they are on opposing sides is still a barrier.

Lucile and Bruno’s relationship was beautifully written, although I feel that it lacked passion and emotion. Although Némirovsky described the characters discussing the issue of their nationalities, and suggested that they had overcome their differences, I didn’t understand why they loved each other. In fact, from one scene to the next, Lucile was suddenly exclaiming her love for Bruno with no explanation of how their relationship developed to this point. It seems unrealistic to me that their love simply grew out of a few conversations – especially when these conversations were not written for us to read. If this relationship had been a little more believable, the story itself would have felt more emotional to read, and the ending would have been even better.

Overall, Suite Française was an interesting book, and at times somewhat exciting, but overall I think it was a little too soft. I would have liked for there to be more tension, and to have felt more of a connection with the characters. On the other hand, Némirovsky’s description of life in Occupied France was fantastic; it simply would have been the icing on top of the cake if the smaller details and the lives of individual characters had been equally well explored.

Book Reviews, Historical

Review – ‘Go Set A Watchman’ – Harper Lee

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55 years after audiences first met the characters of Scout, Jem, Atticus, Calpurnia, and more in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, Harper Lee’s new (old) novel Go Set A Watchman has hit the shelves. This marks the first time in a long time that I have been so excited for a book to be published that I preordered it, and I awaited the book’s arrival eagerly. Although I don’t think Go Set A Watchman is as moving as its predecessor and despite the story being extremely simple, I did enjoy the book and the opportunity to revisit characters like Scout.

Screen Shot 2015-07-17 at 22.03.29Go Set A Watchman is set in 1950s in Maycomb, that is, two decades after the story in To Kill A Mockingbird. Scout now goes by her proper name Jean Louise and lives in New York but has returned to Maycomb to visit her elderly father, Atticus. However, while staying in Maycomb, Jean Louise’s saintly view of her father is shattered as she learns that he is a member of a racist group opposing the end of segregation. Over the course of Go Set A Watchman, Jean Louise grapples with this revelation, and must decide whether she continues following her father’s word as gospel or stands firm in her own view. In other words, whether she is able to stand firm in her convictions knowing that the man she most admires disagrees with her.

Although Go Set A Watchman sounds like a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird – and in a way, is just that – it is more of a draft/alternative. There are mere references to what would become central storylines in To Kill a Mockingbird, like Tom Robinson’s trial, which has one vital difference in this book. Furthermore, an equally vital component of To Kill A Mockingbird, Boo Radley, is not even mentioned in this book. That means that, for those readers like me who were eagle-eyed and waiting for references of what happened to certain characters or to read about Jean Louise’s memories again, there would have been some disappointment. Even more upsetting though, was what felt like the mere seconds that was given to Calpurnia’s reappearance. Calpurnia, who is such a personality in To Kill A Mockingbird, barely spoke, and let’s not even talk about Jem. However, there were some new characters like Henry, or Hank, and some new stories that entertain. I particularly enjoyed the story about Hank, Scout, and her ‘falsies’, even if it wasn’t really a part of the main story, it contributed and took me back to Scout’s familiar narrative.

Harper-Lee-UKAnother aspect of Go Set A Watchman that you may have heard of recently regards what feels like changes being made to characters that go right to the core of how we see them. For one, Scout, our dear Scout, is no longer ‘Scout’ but now Jean Louise, the name she shoved aside as a child. Her spunky, rebellious attitude has faded, and Scout – I mean – Jean Louise now wears dresses. The closest we even get to dungarees in Go Set A Watchman is slacks. However, to be fair, people do change and so I accept Scout’s superficial changes because at heart, Jean Louise is still our Scout. Her perspective in life is exactly what I would have expected her to grow up thinking. She is frequently referred to as ‘colour-blind’ and struggles to live in a world and with people who aren’t, and struggles to deal with the realisation that the people closest to her and who made her who she is are now revealed to be different to what she thought they were.

On the other hand, both ours and Jean Louise’s vision of Atticus is torn apart in this book. In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus is different to all the racist, prejudiced people of Maycomb. Scout in the narrator of the story but Atticus is the hero. In this book,  Jean Louise stumbles upon Atticus attending a Citizens’ Council meeting in the Maycomb Court, the same place where as a child she saw her courage defending Tom Robinson, a black man accused of rape by a white woman even though he knew he’d been “licked” before the case began, and introduce and listen to white supremacist speakers campaigning against the work of the NAACP, the end of segregation, and the right to vote of black Americans. Although passages such as reading extracts from the speech, or hearing Atticus’ remarks about why he wants to keep segregation, were sickening, Harper Lee wrote the book so masterfully that I felt the same betrayal as Jean Louise. We are made to understand Jean Louise so deeply that we feel like retching and screaming and fighting with her, and that, to me, is a sign of brilliant writing. In fact, many writers cannot achieve that same level of connection between their readers and characters, but I felt as if my own hero had stabbed me in the back.

Screen Shot 2015-07-17 at 22.06.20Recently, there has been much whispering about Go Set A Watchman and whether this portrayal of Atticus as a racist will ruin the experience of To Kill A Mockingbird for readers. In response, I believe that this is a mistaken belief. When I first began reading the passages where Atticus is shown to be a racist, I too feared whether I could ever enjoy the story again, but when I reached the scenes where Jean Louise discusses her feelings with everybody from Hank, her Uncle Jack, to Atticus himself, I felt like Harper Lee was taking us on a journey of discovery with Jean Louise. The main journey in this book is not about how Atticus ‘became’ racist, but is about Jean Louise’s journey to independence and confidence in her own beliefs. As Uncle Jack puts it, Jean Louise must destroy the vision of her father as a God in order to know herself, and must find her own sense of morality.

Still, I think that Go Set A Watchman also makes an interesting point about racism in society. Atticus is largely a good guy, at least in To Kill A Mockingbird, but in Go Set A Watchman, he is the same man. He has done the same great things, he is loved by many, but he holds these prejudiced views. Uncle Jack makes the point that Atticus has always lived by the letter of the law, but I feel that what Harper Lee may have been pointing out to us is that the law is not enough to put an end to racism and prejudice. Atticus and Jean Louise talk about a slow end to segregation and racism being necessary, but Lee appears to dispute this. We must try to put an end to racism in all parts of society and our lives, not simply relying on the law to do our work for us.

To conclude, which I feel I must do in order to stop myself rambling for days on end, I think Go Set A Watchman is an enjoyable, interesting book and that Harper Lee was truly successful and bringing us into what felt like a close relationship with the characters. I don’t think that Go Set A Watchman would have have been anywhere near as successful as To Kill A Mockingbird if it had been published 55 years ago, and I am thankful that it wasn’t, or we wouldn’t have had all of the beautiful, complex stories that Lee gave us, but as a (sort of) sequel, it works. It works because we can revisit characters and places that we have seen before, and it works because we see Scout undertake another massively significant journey of discovery.

Have you read Go Set A Watchman? What did you think? Comment below.

Book Reviews, Historical

Review – ‘The Miniaturist’ – Jessie Burton

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The Miniaturist has not only topped bestseller lists since it was published in July 2014, but has won award after award. When I found myself lost for choice in the bookshop, I decided to take the hint and pick The Miniaturist up off the bestsellers’ shelf, intrigued by the synopsis on the back cover. After reading it, I can understand why it has done so well. It was mysterious and gripping, the characters had depth and it was beautifully written.

18498569The story revolves around Petronella in 17th century Amsterdam, who has been married to wealthy merchant, Johannes Brandt. Although he is kind to her, he is never home, leaving her with his sister Marin and their servants Cornelia and Otto, and consummates their marriage, leaving her feeling uncertain about why she is there. As a wedding present, Johannes gives his young wife Nella a miniature replica of their house, and she hires the services of a miniaturist in the town to decorate it. However, the miniaturist begins to send her things that she didn’t ask for, as if mocking her – a cradle, although she has no chance of being pregnant. She soon realises that there is something more sinister to the miniatures however, as they seem to be warning her about things in her future, and reveal secrets about the house’s inhabitants that nobody, let alone the mysterious miniaturist, should know. As secrets begin to unravel in the household and tragedy strikes, she looks to the miniaturist for help as to what to do, but must find her own two feet and learn to be independent, without the help of her husband, sister-in-law or the miniaturist.

I really enjoyed Nella as a character and reading the book from her perspective, as well as her relationships with Marin in particular. It was interesting to see her internal battle concerning what a woman should be. She feels that it is her duty to be a good wife and a mother, but she feels like she has been cheated out of this dream and so has no chance at being a ‘real’ woman. I loved her relationship and conflict with Marin, who runs the household and with whom she feels she must compete to be respected as the master’s wife. However, as their relationship evolves, seeing Nella’s view of what her role as a woman should be change was brilliant. She begins to understand why Marin has not married and how she valued her independence, and then as she discovers Marin’s secrets, understands that Marin is not simply the cold and distant woman that she believes her to be.

JessieBurton%c2%a9AlexanderJamesThe Miniaturist is written brilliantly in that there truly are secrets hidden around every corner. At no point in the book had I predicted what was to happen, which I loved, as sometimes books cannot make a surprise completely surprising, and give things away earlier on. No, with this book, I was genuinely shocked at various points, and some secrets were revealed only for you to find out that they were false, and there was yet another secret hiding around the bend. Even Cornelia, the character who I thought was the key to knowing the secrets of Nella’s household, had pieced together pieces of information incorrectly, and not even the closest members of the household, Marin and Johannes, knew each other completely. The miniaturist, despite being the mystery which occupied my thoughts most during the book, was not even the biggest mystery in the book, although she was the only unsolved one. I would have liked for Nella to meet the miniaturist, also ironically and perhaps symbolically called Nella, who, from what we learn about her, is so interesting for a 17th century woman, but I appreciate the shroud of secrecy that still covers her character. I also approve of how, although Nella does become an independent woman in charge of her own fate to an extent, her story and that of the other female characters, Marin and Cornelia, does not feel unrealistic of the time at which the novel is set.

Jessie Burton’s writing style is gentle and easy to read, and she effortlessly weaves in hints to future storylines without giving anything away too quickly, but making you intent on piecing things together. I loved how she described Amsterdam and its people, and how the house itself sometimes felt like a city within Amsterdam that I was scurrying along with the characters. Even though there were very few descriptive passages, I could visualise every scene in my head and was imagining what the characters looked like, what the rooms looked like, what the streets smelt like and the extent of the cold that the characters were experiencing so much so that I am now twiddling my thumbs waiting for a movie to be made of it to see if other people imagined it like I did. I liked that, even at the times when great revelations have been made, the writing was never over-exaggerated and overdone; I found it somewhat reminiscent of The Girl With The Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier in that all of the narrative feels peaceful and paced, despite still making your heart race at times.

The Miniaturist is a fascinating story with brilliant, complex characters and an unpredictable plot. I felt like we got to know all of the characters and the main character Nella was interesting and admirable. I would recommend this book to anybody, and genuinely hope that this book will soon be snatched up to be adapted into a movie or television adaptation.