‘The Duke and I’ – Julia Quinn

It’s always a strange experience to read a book after watching an adaptation, but once I’d accustomed myself to hearing the Lady Whistledown sections in Julie Andrews’ voice I didn’t find it too distracting.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock since Christmas 2020 it’s highly unlikely that you won’t have heard of/seen the Netflix adaptation of The Duke and I. You’ll probably have an idea about the story, some of the more controversial elements of the book and maybe even watched it (and perhaps have developed a rather unhealthy fascination with a certain actor). I shan’t spend too long recounting the plot.
From the outset we were plunged into life with the Bridgerton family, and it was clear that they were rather progressive for their time in some ways. Yet in others, they were very much of their time and this causes more than one or two problems.
Though her relationship with Simon is at the front of the Netflix adaptation, the book allows more opportunity to get into the mindset of Daphne and to gain some understanding of her as a character. Astute at times, yet painfully naive, but it seems Quinn wants us to favour this character so even when she is committing an act of betrayal that’s hard to read we’re given to understand she’s acting out of love for Simon. Sounds like an attempt to justify abusive behaviour to me, which doesn’t sit well, but Simon is more than capable of dishing out equally painful things. Again, he does this from a position that we are given to understand is due to his damaged persona. I found myself going round in circles rather as regards how to view these two and their relationship, and I don’t think Quinn makes it easy for readers.
I certainly found myself missing the ideas and attitudes of some of the characters who are clearly introduced to liven up the screen version – though Lady Danbury is mentioned here, she is reduced to a minor role that doesn’t seem fitting, and I was desperate to learn more about Eloise. It was certainly enough to have me keen to read the rest of the series to see how elements have been integrated.

‘The Once and Future Witches’ – Alix E. Harrow

Once upon a time there were three sisters. They shared a bond like no other, but their father was wicked and turned them against one another. The elder sisters left, each feeling they had been wronged, leaving the younger alone with their father until she could take no more of his dominance. She runs, and finds her way to a new town.

The three Eastwood sisters – James juniper, Agnes Araminta and Beatrice Belladonna –  reunite very early on. They are very different characters, but they are united in their determination to have a world where they can be in control of their destiny. They want everything they are denied on account of their gender. So, how do they propose to get it? Through witchcraft.

This story explores attitudes to female emancipation and developing gender roles, mixed in with a fascinating account of practising witchcraft and magic.

Nobody in this is quite what they seem. Some of the elements of the book are fantastical to say the least, but I loved the three sisters and their respective struggles to live the life they choose.

 

‘The Mystery of Mrs Christie’ – Marie Benedict

Agatha Christie is one of those authors that I know very little of. I’m aware that she had links to the village I now live in, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the stories by her that I’ve read. However, perhaps because of the time she lived in I am not particularly aware of any biographical details of her life.

I did not know that she actually disappeared for eleven days in 1926, so of course the idea behind this book had me interested.

Initially, I found myself wholly engaged. We follow the story through Agatha’s eyes of her meeting with Colonel Archibald Christie. The two developed what could best be described as an infatuation and it appears to be a wholly romantic story. For this reason I found it fascinating that the narrative was interspersed with the story told through Archie’s eyes of the days following his wife’s disappearance. This paints quite a different picture, and clearly depicts a relationship in turmoil with both parties determined to get their own way.

The story was fine, though as we neared the end it started to feel a little slow. As readers we knew from the start that Agatha was in control of this scenario, and it was frustrating to wait for the rest of the world to catch up.

When I summarised the story for my husband he said ‘like Gone Girl’. That manipulation and careful orchestration of people to lead a plan through its stages of execution definitely wasn’t lost on me. Neither Agatha nor Archie came out of this particularly well. They both seemed inherently selfish, and yet I couldn’t help but admire Agatha for having the ability to strategise at such a tumultuous time.

 

‘Concrete Rose’ – Angie Thomas

In the latest (I think, inevitable, bestseller) novel from Angie Thomas we focus on the early life of Star’s father, Maverick.

Set seventeen years before the events focusing on Star’s story we get to see Maverick Carter as a seventeen year old. From the outset we see glimpses of the man Maverick becomes, but we also get an insight into just how hard he had to fight to get to that stage.

The story feels familiar, knowing some of the details that are referenced in The Hate U Give. We watch Maverick dealing with the reality of becoming a father; the issues he faces each day with a father in prison; the expectations placed upon by him by others; his relationship with Lisa; school and work.

While I can’t begin to claim to understand his experiences, Thomas writes about them in a way that encourages you to empathise with him and the many like him. There’s some great characters ‘behind the scenes’ in his mum and Mr Wyatt, the mentor-like figure who helps him see his own worth. Of course there are some characters that it might be nice to hear a little more about but we see enough.

I did feel that some of the incidents/events were quite easy to predict, but I’m not sure how much of that is because they’re referenced in the later book or because these events are the fairly obvious ones for certain characters. Regardless, I liked the way we see Maverick grapple with his own shortcomings and prejudices as he starts his journey to where we’ve first seen him.

 

‘When the World Was Ours’ – Liz Kessler

While this story will seem familiar in some ways, it offers an approach to the topic of the Second World War that will not fail to impact on readers.
At its heart this is a story about faith, love and having the courage to stay hopeful even in our darkest moments. It covers a period in history that cannot fail to shock, but what struck me in this was the emotional impact the book held.
Our story focuses on three children – Max, Leo and Elsa. Best friends, their story begins with a memory of a wonderful birthday celebration where they rode on a fairground ride, shared cake with one another, smiled and laughed. They each have a picture of that day. That picture becomes significant.
Told through their alternating perspectives, we start to see the fracturing of their idyllic childhood. Living at a time when fascism is on the rise, we know things are going to get tense. When we learn that Elsa and Leo are Jewish, we sense the personal conflict to come. Once we learn that Max’s father is becoming a much respected member of the Nazi party we get an inkling of how this might go.
Ambitious in its scope, we focus on a substantial period of history. We are given facts about the experiences the children have, while learning about the reality of the period. Disturbing, yes, but necessary if we are to ensure people do not forget what happened. There are details that will shock and upset readers – but I think this is inevitable when grappling with this historical experience. Told from the views of the children there is a simplicity to their accounts that, perhaps, renders events a little less upsetting.
Each of the children has a very different war-time experience. Leo manages to flee to England with his mother, desperate for news of his father who was sent to Dachau. Elsa remains with her family through many of the indignities bestowed on her simply because of her faith, but she is separated from them when they are taken to Auschwitz. Max has always been desperate for his father’s approval, and his need to belong and gain admiration makes him susceptible to the indoctrination of the Nazi party. As his father rises in power, Max follows. He too ends up in Auschwitz.
As we drew to the close of the book I had to face the stark reality that these three characters were not all going to get their happy ending. Some might not even survive the experience. By the end, that picture had come back to haunt us. Such a simple image, but it came to mean so much.
I’m grateful to NetGalley for allowing me to read this in advance of its late January publication, and will have no qualms about recommending it to readers.

 

‘Plain Bad Heroines’ – Emily Danforth

I had seen reviews of this on NetGalley, and could not believe the UK release was so long after the US one…so I requested the audiobook on NetGalley, and when I was sent an ARC I jumped straight in.

I listened to the opening with such a sense of anticipation, and found myself captivated but also repulsed by the opening. Our story begins in 1902, with Flo and Clara – two young students of Brookhants School for Girls who have a shared fascination with a scandalous book. Unfortunately, their story ends abruptly, and in ways too horrific to dwell on. I dislike intensely the thought of being stung, so this was a particularly macabre scene with which to open the novel…though the story definitely intrigued me.

I soon found my tendency to read a couple of books at the same time, and my relative unfamiliarity with audiobooks, meant that I soon found myself totally lost by this. The shifting perspectives and chronology is one of the strengths of the story – having now finished it, I am in awe at how cleverly constructed this is – but trying to listen to it in short bursts with gaps in-between was not working out. It got set aside until I knew I could do it justice.

Finding myself with the arduous task of stripping a bathroom, what more excuse could I find but to try and use the time wisely? Back to it…

Second time round – and actually listening to it for hours at a time over two days – meant I found myself immersed in the story from the outset. Listening to/reading the stories surrounding Brookhants School for Girls and its mysterious ‘curse’ was a joy.

In the publicity material we are told that this is a story of parts – queer love story, Gothic horror and Hollywood satire. The focus is on a number of stories tied to Brookhants over time: that of Libby Brookhants and her lover, Alex; poor Flora and Cara and, lastly, Harper Harper and Audrey. The one thing that unites these three stories is the mysterious Brrokhants School for Girls and the scandalous memoir that seems to hold the key to the purported curse.

I don’t want to say too much because Danforth reveals all, and the way she chooses to do this gave me physical chills. I never felt as if I could tell exactly what was happening, and the events unfolding – in whichever timeline we were focused on – were beautifully described. The narrator on the audiobook gave a different perspective on the experience, and this is certainly a book I will have to physically read too.

A huge thank you to the publishers Harper Collins and NetGalley for granting me access to this prior to its release.

 

‘The Burning Girls’ – C.J. Tudor

Thanks to NetGalley for granting me access to this before its publication in January 2021. Unsettling but riveting, and while elements of this were tough to read the overall impact is powerful.

The story focuses on single mother Jack Brooks, a vicar, and her daughter. After an awful incident involving one of her parishioners Jack is troubled, and the Church is unsure how to support her. Their answer is to pack Jack off to Chapel Croft, a temporary placement in a small Sussex village. This village has a long and troubled history, and from their first day in the village it is evident that this place harbours many secrets.

As we follow Jack in her role we are given a number of clues about her mysterious past. She has her own secrets, and has had her own share of troubling experiences. We don’t learn the exact nature of these until later…but there’s little hints and I was desperate to know how her story tied in with that of the mystery voice – a character recently released from prison who we know has committed awful acts and for reasons we’re not sure of wants to find Jack.

The focus on Jack’s mystery was certainly intriguing, but the historical focus of the Sussex Martyrs and the two village girls who disappeared years earlier was just as interesting. The previous vicar had spent time investigating these incidents, and there’s lots of clues given as to what happened though the significance of certain details isn’t pertinent until later. The body count was surprisingly high, and I can only imagine the fun Tudor had planning this and working out how to combine elements of a number of story threads.

I don’t want to say more in case of revealing certain plot details that are best learned at the point Tudor chooses to reveal them. Suffice to say, if you enjoyed her other novels this will probably go down well. There are some elements of the story that aren’t fully resolved and yet this ambiguity – for me, anyway – showed all too clearly how the boundaries between evil and horror can blur.

 

‘The Silent Stars Go By’ – Sally Nichols

 

Margot has been in love with Harry ever since his family moved to their village. As a vicar’s daughter Margot knows certain expectations are held for her, so it is something of a shock to learn that nineteen year old Margot is actually the mother of a toddler. The father, Harry, went missing in action and doesn’t know he has a child.

Worried about the social implications of having a child when unmarried, Margot’s parents engineer events so that they adopt the child and he is raised as their own. Now nineteen, Margot wonders how she can reconcile her thoughts and feelings with her sense of duty.

The story is quite a familiar one, so I’m assuming this is a foray into the context for younger readers.

We see things through Margot’s eyes and, in the main, it’s all a little superficial. I would have liked to know a little more of Harry’s thoughts upon learning the truth, and for a family so worried about what others would think of them there was little to indicate this was necessary. The elder brother suffering was also somewhat glossed over.

I felt sympathy for the experience of all those involved, but it never really developed in a way that made me feel overly engaged. I’m sure, however, that younger readers of those who don’t know much about this period in history will fall under the spell of Margot and her family and wonder how things were ever like this.

 

‘D.O.G.S’ – M.A. Bennett

This series doesn’t seem to have grabbed everyone, but I enjoyed the first part of the series (however ridiculous the scenario seemed) and this more than delivered.

Trying to come to terms with her role in Henry’s death, Greer is back at S.T.A.G.S and needing something to bolster her chances of getting into Oxford. She doesn’t question the timing of events, but we are very suspicious when the first Act of a lost Ben Jonson play is put under her door. Greer is intrigued by the idea of putting on something thought to be so dangerous that it closed the theatres.

Before we know it we are following the preparations for this play, and – of course – things are inextricably linked to Longcross and Henry’s family. We know someone has secrets, and we can’t help but wonder just how this play fits with our current story.

I loved the feeling of a story within a story, and yet we still have a sense of Greer’s story developing in ways that perfectly blend a sense of threat with excitement. It wasn’t clear just who was hiding what, and even at the end there’s a murkiness to this that suggests our understanding of the Order and the threat they pose has more layers to reveal.

I can’t wait to read the final part.

 

‘The Pull of the Stars’ – Emma Donoghue

 

The Pull of the Stars would be a great read at any time, but as we find ourselves still fighting Coronavirus every page felt important.

Set in Ireland, 1918, we focus on a small part of a much wider problem. Still fighting the ravages of war, the effects of this flu sweeping the nation are evident everywhere. We see them through the eyes of nurse Julia, a woman dedicated to her patients on the maternity ward as she goes about her work.

I was struck by the hopelessness of the situation these people were in. The cheery slogans urging people how to fight this seemed so at odds with what they were experiencing due to poverty or a lack of social care that I felt real anger about how such situations are handled (more a response to what’s happening now than through any knowledge of the time).

From the opening pages I found myself fascinated by the little details Donoghue records about life on the maternity ward in the grip of a pandemic. There was so much to find bleak and dispiriting about this – with the characters we encounter having a high death rate – but there were also some beautiful moments that will stay with me awhile. The joy of the singing between Bridie and the orderly, the elation at a healthy birth after a problematic experience and the sense of hope found from the eating of the blood orange her brother brought all the way from Italy and saved for her birthday.

While there was a lot to find frustrating about this, the time overwhelmingly was one of resolve and determination to wring the life out of your time on this world. A good lesson.

Thanks to the author, publishers and NetGalley for sending me an ARC in exchange for my honest thoughts.