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, 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.