Book Reviews, Historical

The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro Review

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Rating: ★★★★★

I’ve decided to write this review despite not being to actually put into words what I love this book. The only way I can summarise it is the Kazuo Ishiguro’s writing is magical, and he has a wonderful way of layering a seemingly simple story with nuances and themes so that it doesn’t smack you in the face.

It is 1956, and Stevens, who has been a butler at Darlington Hall for years, has been given some time off by his new American boss, and has been offered one of his cars to use for a motoring holiday. Stevens decides he will travel the west country, and visit an old friend, Miss Kenton, who used to be a housekeeper at Darlington Hall, before leaving to marry. Over the course of his week-long holiday, he writes a diary and explores his life at Darlington, and particularly his time spent working under the old Lord Darlington, before the house was bought by the wealthy American he now works for.

One aspect to the novel is that of Stevens’s working life at Darlington Hall. This considers his career as a butler, and Stevens’s own sense of satisfaction and pride from his position, as well as his opinion of his employer Lord Darlington. I really liked the way that this encompassed a range of historical events, as Lord Darlington play a role in European politics of the 1930s. I also found Stevens’s exploration of the meaning and importance of his lifetime of service to be really interesting. It was moving to see him almost try to convince himself that his work was meaningful, struggle with whether his life had been well spent, and with how other people see his accomplishments, especially in a society that is leaving behind the aristocratic world that Stevens is used to.

The other side of the novel is that of Stevens’s personal life, which is closely interlinked to that of his working life, but looks at his relationships with his father and Miss Kenton, the housekeeper at Darlington, who left many years ago to get married, and who he is travelling to visit. Although they were closely wound up in Stevens’s working life, it was refreshing to see a slightly more human side to Stevens, who keeps a tight hold of his emotions. Again, I enjoyed reading how Stevens struggles to decide whether he has made the right decisions in his relationships, and decide how he feels about the people that have passed him by.

The best thing about this book is Kazuo Ishiguro’s writing. My favourite book is Never Let Me Go by him, and I found that this had the same gentle style of writing that I loved about that book, which meant that I felt like the voice of the narrator was so realistic that I could believe they were a real person. It genuinely felt like Stevens was a real person, telling us a real story about his life, and as if there was no author being a middleman between him and me. It means that the characters all feel real, so the story feels real too, and it also meant that despite this book being laden with commentary on social class, historical events, and other themes, these issues are never being waved about in your face as if the author was trying especially hard to make the book complex, but rather, they feel natural.

Overall, I really loved this book and just like Never Let Me Go, I would probably consider it one of my favourite books.

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Book Reviews, Historical

See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt Review

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Rating:  ★★

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

As a huge fan of true crime, I have always been interested by the case of Lizzie Borden, accused of murdering her father and step-mother with an axe in 1892. Although she was acquitted at trial, Lizzie remains the main suspect in the murder, and I was really looking forward to reading See What I Have Done, which is a retelling of those events. The book benefits from the fact that the events of the book are so infamous, however, because the plot is so simple in that you know what happens, there needs to be more to make the book worthwhile. which in my opinion, See What I Have Done lacked.

In particular, as I said above, I was excited to see how Sara Schmidt presented Lizzie Borden herself, and the aspects of her character which led her to not only supposedly murder her parents, but to dominate her complicated relationship with her sister, and live the rest of her life in the very town where she allegedly committed the crime. Unfortunately, I think the book failed to make Lizzie interesting to me, and instead she was just annoying and simplistic. The Lizzie Borden in the novel is childlike in tone, throwing tantrums and manipulating those around her, but I felt like the dark side to her just wasn’t dark enough. It didn’t strike fear into me, and if the events of the story weren’t based on real life events, I don’t know that I would have suspected that she was even capable of the crime. Most of the characters had an issue along these lines for me. Apart from the set character that they were assigned in the story – Lizzie is childlike and scheming, Emma is the older sister who feels trapped by responsibility, the maid Bridget wants to go home to Ireland – there was nothing else to them. There were no grey areas or complexities, and I didn’t really care about any of them.

The second issue that I had with the book was the slow, lugging pace of the plot and the overuse of minor details. For example, I could barely tell whether the events of the book were simply focusing on the day of the murder, or the days leading up to it and after, because nothing really happened – apart from the murder itself, that is. It seemed like every single action by the characters was one of three options – eating pears, eating mutton, or struggling with food poisoning. I suppose that these details were meant to add to an atmosphere of claustrophobia in the house and increasing tension, like a ticking time bomb, but in reality it just felt repetitive and irrelevant after a time.

Regardless of the lack of action, the book could have been saved by more faceted character exploration, but as that was also lacking, I just felt like I was trudging through mud trying to finish this book. I think it could have been saved by some more character interactions, as they actually barely spoke to each other, but I suspect perhaps that Schmidt did not want to take any artistic liberties adding in events that are not historically proven.

I think Sarah Schmidt was perhaps trying to cast doubt on the belief that Lizzie committed the murders by including the chapters with her uncle and Benjamin, a man hired to teach Mr Borden a lesson. However, she didn’t really go through with it and kept with the story that Lizzie was guilty, which then just made me wonder what the point of these narrators were. I would have preferred for there to be a tighter focus on the Lizzie and her immediate family, or even just Lizzie and her sister Emma, exploring Emma’s suspicions, instead of having so many narrators. This would have made the book much more interesting that simply all of these characters eating mutton and pears.

Overall, I wish that I had loved this book, but it just failed to make me feel that tinge of terror and curiosity that I love getting from the Lizzie Borden case and other true crime stories. It was too weighted down with attempts to create an atmosphere, which simply fell flat for me and felt repetitive and boring.

Book Reviews, Contemporary, Historical

Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi Review

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Rating: ★★★★★

Homegoing is a breathtaking look at the effects of slavery over centuries, spanning generations and continents. It is an epic family saga containing stories of love, trauma, loss, war, and friendship. it was a beautiful and moving read, and I was very impressed at how Yaa Gyasi covered so much in terms of scope, and yet managed to make each story feel personal.

The premise of this novel is that two half-sisters, unknown to each other and who live in different villages, in eighteenth-century Ghana are thrust into different lives by chance. Effia is married to an Englishman and lives her life in the Cape Coast Castle, ignoring the slaves that are being held beneath her, destined for another life. Esi however is captured and taken to America, where she lives the difficult life of a slave. Each chapter of the novel follows a different generation in the two strands of the family, focusing in on one individual, at a significant time in their life. Effia’s descendants experience warfare between tribes in Ghana, and the fight for freedom from British rule. Esi’s descendants are bought and sold as slaves, live through the Civil War, forced labour prisons, jazz and crime.

Homegoing is a look at the history of two nations through individuals’ lives, and this is what makes it so moving. It is easy to talk of the historical and social events covered in this novel from a detached perspective without truly understanding the human impact. The main thing that struck me while reading Homegoing was that it makes it clear, in a visceral and shocking way, through the memories of the characters, how recent the events that we consider ‘history’ actually are.

I really loved the format of this novel, with each chapter following a different person. We get a snapshot of life at a particular time, band I liked the experience of becoming invested in a character over the course of their chapter and to feel invested in their story, only to have them ripped away at the end. Each chapter felt like it ended too soon, but I didn’t resent it. Rather, it felt like this served a larger purpose of giving the stories and emotions inside of them more immediacy, and it gives the book constant momentum as you are always being thrust forward. It may take getting used to, but the chapters are each so brilliantly written that you won’t struggle to get into them. The writing is also so excellent, with fire and water imagery running through the novel, and I didn’t find it difficult to follow who was who, because usually the character is introduced, at least briefly, in the previous chapter.

Overall, I really loved reading Homegoing. I loved how Yaa Gyasi wrapped up the novel in a bittersweet bow at the end, neat and tidy, but not forced or difficult to believe. When I put it down, I was left wanting aching to return to the characters and learn more about them. It gives you a lot of food for thought, and indeed left me thinking about its contents for days afterward.

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Book Reviews, Historical, Young Adult, Young Adult Historical

Stalking Jack the Ripper – Kerri Maniscalco Review

 

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Rating: ★★★★★

I first heard about this book on booktube, and it immediately piqued my interest. A young woman in Victorian England studying forensic medicine, sneaking away at night to work in her uncle’s lab dissecting corpses, who sets about investigating the infamous Jack the Ripper serial killer who is plaguing London at night. It took me forever to find a copy, but once I managed to read it, I could not put it down.

First of all, the plot is tightly woven and moves along quickly. There wasn’t a single part of the book that bored me, but rather there was always something happening or something that would become relevant later on. I loved that the mystery unfolded in a way that makes sense in the context of the protagonist, Audrey, being a student forensic science. I was worried that the identity of Maniscalco’s Jack the Ripper would be easy to figure out, that the protagonist wouldn’t be that great at investigating, or that the mystery would actually end up taking a back seat to other storylines such as a love interest or Audrey’s family drama. Instead, Audrey is genuinely intelligent, a quick thinker, and I really enjoyed following her footsteps for the book. I was genuinely surprised by the plot twists, and was kept guessing until the last moment.

I also loved the secondary storylines in this novel. I loved reading about Audrey balancing her practice of forensic science and macabre investigations with being a Victorian lady. The parts of the book that dealt with ‘normal’ society weren’t boring and didn’t feel detached from the main plot, but rather were woven seamlessly into the main plot and helped to flesh out Audrey as a character and make her even more relatable and enjoyable. There was also a brilliant slow-burn romantic subplot, and what I loved the best about it was that it was just that – a subplot. It didn’t overpower the central mystery, or divert the story away for extended periods of time, and added to the book rather than distracting me from its core.

This book didn’t disappoint at all. It was fun from start to finish, and was that perfect blend of dark, macabre, gore, and a fun, exciting mystery adventure, with romance and a witty, clever female protagonist. It reminded me a lot of The Dark Days Club, which I also loved, apart from the fact that it was historical fiction rather than fantasy, and I would recommend you read it for a creepy but fun read!

Book Reviews, Contemporary, Historical

The Penelopiad – Margaret Atwood

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Rating: ★★★★

I’ve wanted to read more work by Margaret Atwood since I read The Handmaid’s Tale at school, but I’ve never gotten around to it. When a friend recommended this book to me, and then by lucky coincidence I found a second hand copy a few days later, I decided to give it a try. I was not disappointed. Atwood’s writing is so easy to read but its simplicity is wound up with subtle commentary on the world around us.

The Penelopiad is a retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey. In the original tale, Odysseus leaves his home and wife to fight for Helen in the Trojan War, setting off on a decades long journey battling monsters and sleeping with goddesses. When he returns home, a hundred suitors are vying for his wife’s attention, and he kills them all, and his wife’s twelve maids, for betraying him. Atwood’s version, however, gives Penelope a voice of her own, agency, and strength. In this story, Penelope’s role is more than just that of a sitting duck. She develops a scheme of her own to, alongside her maids, keep the suitors at bay, by lying to and manipulating them. Although when Odysseus returns home her experiences are ignored, the story gives her a life, depth, and character.

Atwood shows us Penelope’s life before she met Odysseus, her views of him, or her cousin Helen, of the island where he takes her, of her life when he disappears. We see the life of a woman who hears nothing of her husband for decades but rumours of his exciting travels, death-defying feats, and different sexual partners, all whilst she remains at home trying to be the perfect wife. My favourite part of it, however, was the fact that Margaret shows us Penelope’s life after death. The story is told by Penelope from the other side of the River Styx, looking back on her life. It’s interesting to hear a story told by someone who has the benefit of hindsight, and even better, we see her interactions with the people that she knew in life, and so, in a very small amount of pages, Atwood shows us all of these ancient characters in a variety of different positions, and at various times of their lives. For example, Penelope’s twelve maids appear as a chorus after every chapter, giving their own commentary on the events.

The Penelopiad is a very short book, and so it was a quick, single-day read, and I really enjoyed it. I have not read The Odyssey, but I was familiar with the story, and I always find it interesting to see retellings of familiar stories. I loved the focus on the women in the story, who are relegated to minor, background roles in the original, but are now given a starring role. I also liked how Atwood gave Penelope depth, but that her character was not typically ‘nice’. She is a faithful wife, but that is not all that she is – she has a mind of her own. Overall, I really enjoyed reading The Penelopiad, and I can’t wait to read some more of Atwood’s work.

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Book Reviews, Historical, Young Adult, Young Adult Historical

Things a Bright Girl Can Do – Sally Nicholls Review

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Rating: ★

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

I have loved learning and reading about the suffragettes for years, and from when I first learned that this YA suffragette novel was being published, I was brimming with excitement. I was thrilled to be sent a copy. However, no matter how excited I was, and how much I wanted to like this book, I just didn’t think it was a good book. I thought that the writing was poor and the story was stretched too thin across the characters and the time that it spans. I’m gutted to be one of the lone voices so far disappointed in this book so far, but I can’t help it. I read this a while ago, but held publication of this post back until today when the book is published because I suspected it might not go down too well, but I hope anyone who disagrees with me will remember that these reviews are just my personal opinions on the book as a novel and not the subject matter.

Things a Bright Girl Can Do follows the story of three young girls – Evelyn, May, and Nell – from 1914 to 1918, through their struggles as they campaign for votes for women, the trials of the First World War, and finally to the first extension of suffrage to women in 1918. Evelyn is seventeen, from a wealthy background, and expected to marry her childhood sweetheart. However, she is frustrated at not being allowed to follow her dream of attending Oxford University, which drives her to join the suffragettes. May, however, is seventeen and has grown under the influence of her feminist, socialist, pacifist, vegetarian mother. Being a suffragette to her is a given. Nell is also already a suffragette, driven by the poor living and working conditions that she witnesses her family dealing with on a daily basis, and motivated by the suffragettes’ promises of social reform. The three of them join the fight for votes for different reasons, and we follow them as they pursue this fight through four tumultuous years.

A positive of this book is that the characters are diverse for a book set in this period, and which follows three white women. The book not only explores class and sex, but also LGBT issues, and even mentions a few times the work of BME suffragettes like Princess Sophia Duleep Singh. Sally Nicholls managed to include a broad and varied amount of information relating to the suffragette movement, however, in my opinion, this scope was at the expense of depth for the characters and the story. I felt like the characters were not detailed and three-dimensional, but rather the writing and the characterisation felt flat, and the girls felt instead like a vehicle for the presentation of all of this social history. Further, if diversity of characters was going to be the highlight of this book, there could have been even more, perhaps in the form of a POC protagonist.

My main issue with the characterisation of these girls was that their motives for acting the way that they did felt superficial. I’m not saying that I don’t understand why they were suffragettes, but I felt like Nicholls took for granted that modern audiences will. As a feminist reader, of course I will instantly cheer on these suffragette protagonists, but I still want characters to feel real. I have recently been watching Susan Dennard’s writing tips on her Instagram stories, and she mentions that characters must have a ‘desperate desire’, something that drives the more superficial desire of the plot. Yes, these girls want the vote. But why? What drives them to these lengths? What makes them abandon social norms? What makes them, in particular, act differently to other women who do not become suffragettes under the same pressures? As understandable as their reasons are from a detached perspective, I couldn’t feel their motivations on a human basis. I understood that Evelyn wanted to study and have opportunities like her brothers, but I didn’t feel her anger and her resentment come across in the writing.

You might have heard of the saying ‘Show, don’t tell,’ in writing. In my opinion, I couldn’t feel this because it didn’t stick to this rule. It meant that I couldn’t experience what Evelyn, May, and Nell were thinking and feeling because the author’s narrative was a wall between us rather than a bridge. Rather than getting into the characters’ heads, feeling exactly what they are feeling, we’re held at arms’ length. For example, one of the girls is arrested. We are told that it is the worst thing that has ever happened to her, the cell is described in detail, we are told that she feels lonely, but we can’t feel her loneliness, and we just have to take the description for face value rather than trying to experience for ourselves what it might be like to be arrested like her. This personal connection felt even more important than in most books considering that we know, in hindsight, that the suffragettes did eventually achieve their goal of female suffrage. If the only thing hooking us as readers is ‘Do they get the vote?’ the hook isn’t strong enough, because we know that they do. Instead, we have to also be hooked by the girls’ personal deep desires, and I just wasn’t.

This made it difficult for me to feel emotionally connected or invested in the girls as people. I had to just accept when characters fell in love, rather than feeling the love that they felt, accept that they were angry, rather than feel angry with them. Rather than feeling Nell’s pain and struggle, I was treated to a pages-long retelling of her families’ troubles during her entire childhood. I generally cannot stand info-dumps, and this book was full of them. Rather than embedding the historical facts more gently in the story itself, perhaps revealing information through conversations or experiences, and so making the historical facts feel more poignant, the information was simply dumped on us in the narrative. On the other hand, there were things that could have been mentioned. I expected, when Nell starts work as a munitionette, that mention would be made of many munitionettes being poisoned by the substances they were working with and the health implications, or of the explosions that killed many, something that would have been easy to point out considering its relevance to her story, and yet it wasn’t.

I wanted to give 2 stars just in recognition of its subject matter and representation of different social groups, but I decided not to, simply because the subject matter was literally the only thing that kept me reading this book. I also felt that the causes represented could have been more impactful with stronger writing, and perhaps a smaller focus. Instead of spreading the story so thinly over three girls and four years, perhaps focusing on one perspective with the others as secondary characters would have allowed for the depth of detail that was missing. I can’t describe how gutted I am to have not enjoyed this book, but I just couldn’t see past the poor writing.

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.