#frydayfavourite – September 2019

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This month’s #frydayfavourite is Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks.

From the synopsis: When an infected bolt of cloth carries plague from London to an isolated village, a housemaid named Anna Frith emerges as an unlikely heroine and healer. Through Anna’s eyes we follow the story of the fateful year of 1666, as she and her fellow villagers confront the spread of disease and superstition. As death reaches into every household and villagers turn from prayers to murderous witch-hunting, Anna must find the strength to confront the disintegration of her community and the lure of illicit love. As she struggles to survive and grow, a year of catastrophe becomes instead annus mirabilis, a “year of wonders.”

This book has been a favourite of mine for many years and was when I fell in love with historical fiction. I live not far from Eyam, the setting for this book, and have been fascinated with the place and the time when the Plague wiped out most of this small, Derbyshire village ever since a school visit there when I was about 9 years old.

Is there a particular time or place in history that you’re fascinated with? Comment below.

Blog Tour Review: The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott ⭐⭐⭐⭐

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Welcome to my stop on the blog tour for the book that Hutchinson Books is calling their “Major break-out debut of the year”. Thank  you to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for the invitation to take part in the blog tour, and to Hutchinson for my ARC copy of the book.

SYNOPSIS:

TWO FEMALE SPIES. A BANNED MASTERPIECE. A BOOK THAT CHANGED HISTORY.

1956. A celebrated Russian author is writing a book, Doctor Zhivago, which could spark dissent in the Soviet Union. The Soviets, afraid of its subversive power, ban it. 

But in the rest of the world it’s fast becoming a sensation.

In Washington DC, the CIA is planning to use the book to tip the Cold War in its favour.

Their agents are not the usual spies, however. Two typists – the charming, experienced Sally and the talented novice Irina – are charged with the mission of a lifetime: to smuggle Doctor Zhivago back into Russia by any means necessary.

It will not be easy. There are people prepared to die for this book – and agents willing to kill for it. But they cannot fail – as this book has the power to change history.

Sold in twenty-five countries and poised to become a global literary sensation, Lara Prescott’s dazzling first novel is a sweeping page turner and the most hotly anticipated debut of the year.

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MY REVIEW:

An exciting read from the first few pages, I couldn’t put this book down. I’m a big history lover but didn’t know much about the Cold War. I relished the chance to learn and found that as well as a sensational book, this was also a fascinating history lesson. The evocative imagery drew me in and I was fully immersed in the world on the pages as I savoured every expertly written word. 

Secrets. Love, Betrayal, Espionage. War. Oppression. Darkness. Hope. Freedom. History. The author has woven all of these things into this beautiful, moving and spectacular debut novel. We learn the truth behind Boris Pasternak’s masterpiece, Doctor Zhivago; how the banned novel came to be smuggled out of, and then back into the Soviet Union as part of a propaganda war by the US. We follow the network of courageous people charged with tasks than enabled its completion and publication, and moved between their varying perspectives and timelines in locations of East and West. 

One thing that struck me about this book is the multitude of strong women. It was an era where the world was still seen to be very much run by men. Where women with degrees were destined for the typing pool whilst their sometimes lesser educated male counterparts were the boss and where the knowledge and power these women had often wasn’t seen. From the ladies in the typing pool, to Boris Pasternak’s lover, each has their own unique strengths. 

A favourite character of mine was Irina. I enjoyed watching her grow quietly in confidence as she’s taken from a meek immigrant’s daughter to a brave US spy aware of, and delighting in, her own power. Once she is being trained by veteran spy Sally, her self-assurance blossoms and she wants to be more like her mentor, a woman who seems to exude it in her every move. Another woman who’s strength stood out for me was Olga, Boris’ mistress and muse. I did feel like her strength came from a very different place and was more self-serving, such as how she went to any length to help Boris no matter the risk to her children, who should have come first. While I didn’t agree with her putting her lover before her children, I did admire how she wouldn’t crumble even in the most desperate of circumstances. She was pivotal in Boris’ life and the story of Doctor Zhivago in a myriad of ways. The chapter in which she writes a letter to her interrogator about her experiences in the gulag, was emotional, devastating and yet hopeful. It was a stand-out chapter in the book and the one that I will probably remember most of all long after reading. 

Like Doctor Zhivago, this is a story about love and war. And while it initially may seem that the story of the Cold War is most prominent, it was soon apparent that at the heart of this book is more than one love story. It is also a story about ordinary people doing remarkable things and trying to do their part to help change history. It’s easy to see why the film rights for this book have already been snapped up as it has all the ingredients needed to make a great movie.

The Secrets We Kept is a compelling, electrifying book that reads like a combination of literary fiction, historical fiction and thriller.  If you know nothing about the Cold War or Doctor Zhivago then don’t let that deter you picking this up as I was the same before reading this. Not only have I learned a lot, but I’m eager to find out more and to read the book at its centre. 

Out now to buy from your favourite bookseller. 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Lara Prescott was named after the heroine of Doctor Zhivago and first discovered the true story behind the novel after the CIA declassified 99 documents pertaining to its role in the book’s publication and covert dissemination. 

She travelled the world – from Moscow and Washington, to London and Paris – in the course of her research, becoming particularly interested in political repression in both the Soviet Union and United States and how, during the Cold War, both countries used literature as a weapon. 

Lara earned her MFA from the Michener Center for Writers. She lives in Austin, Texas with her husband.

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Review: ‘The Girl at the Window’ by Rowen Coleman ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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SYNOPSIS:

A house full of history is bound to have secrets…

Ponden Hall is a centuries-old house on the Yorkshire moors, a magical place full of stories. It’s also where Trudy Heaton grew up. And where she ran away from…

Now, after the devastating loss of her husband, she is returning home with her young son, Will, who refuses to believe his father is dead. 

While Trudy tries to do her best for her son, she must also attempt to build bridges with her eccentric mother. And then there is the Hall itself: fallen into disrepair but generations of  lives and loves still echo in its shadows, sometimes even reaching out to the present…

A hauntingly beautiful story of love and hope, from the Sunday Times bestselling author of The Memory Book and The Summer of Impossible Things.

MY REVIEW:

Rowan Coleman blends fact and fiction to create a breathtaking novel that captivated my soul. A story that is part non fiction, part gothic fiction, part historical fiction and part family saga, the writing is atmospheric, eloquent, lyrical and poetic with just the right amount of goosebump-inducing terror.

Told by multiple narrators over three timelines, this is the story of Ponden Hall and some of the many people who have occupied its walls. Built by the Heatons in 1540, the family have lived there ever since. It is also the place that Emily Bronte would come to use the library and where she wrote her classic novel, Wuthering Heights. The infamous house felt like a character in its own right, and it when it spoke it gave me chills. 

Trudy has always been fascinated with her ancestral home and with the Brontes – Emily in particular. As a young girl she would whisper her secrets to her, imagining her walking the halls as she did. Though Trudy is reluctant to live with her estranged mother Mariah, she is happy to be back at Ponden Hall as its always been home. She immediately feels a peace upon returning and, once again, speaks to it like an old friend. One day, Trudy makes a startling discovery – two pages of writing bound in leather, one of which she instantly recognises as being written by none other than Emily Bronte. The other was written by a girl named Agnes who says she used to live in the house two hundred years before Emily visited. What is Agnes’ story? And could this lead Trudy to the infamous and elusive second manuscript of Emily Bronte? 

This is the second novel I’ve read by this author. I fell in love with Rowan’s writing style when I read The Summer of Impossible things last year and after reading this book I know that it wasn’t a one off. Her prose is a joy to lose myself in every page is filled with heart and emotion. In this book there was the addition of the stunning scene setting – everything from the descriptions of the house and landscape to her mother’s appearance was vivid and immersive. 

The author’s love of Ponden Hall, Wuthering Heights, and the Brontes shines through every page of this novel. I’m ashamed to say I’ve never got around to reading Wuthering Heights but have since bought it, as well as another based on Heathcliff, and can’t wait to read them and learn more. Her passion is contagious.

Having three narrators from different timeline was a choice I loved. I really liked each of them and thought each woman brought something important to the story. Though each was born hundreds of years apart and lived very different lives, they were also similar in many ways. Both of the older timelines were well researched and felt authentic. I felt like I was actually reading things that Emily Bronte and a girl from the 1600s had written and experienced. The supporting characters were all just as well written as the narrators. I loved young Will particularly and enjoyed the honesty he brought to the story in a way that only a child of that age can. He was unafraid to ask difficult questions or say things adults avoided and never doubted that the things he saw and experienced were real. He gave Trudy a reason to carry on after Abe’s death and a reason to return to Ponden Hall. Without these things she may never have made her discoveries.

I also really enjoyed the flashbacks that told Trudy and Abe’s love story. I liked the fact that Abe was a real character we got to know and not just Trudy’s late husband or Will’s late father. Those stories also gave us greater insight into who Trudy is, why she hadn’t returned to Ponden Hall in so many years, and why she and her mother are estranged. I have wondered about the author’s inspiration for how they fell in love as it was so romantic, wistful and funny. 

In The Girl at the Window the author has blended fact with fiction to create a haunting and enchanting story. It was a book where I relished every word and never wanted it to end. I don’t think I can do more to describe how much I love this book or how exquisitely written it is, so I’m going to finish by saying that you should go read this book now! Just be prepared to fall in love. 

Thank you to Ebury Press and Penguin UK for my gifted copy of this book.

Out now.  

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Rowan Coleman lives with her husband and five children in a very full house in Hertfordshire. She juggles writing novels with raising her family. She longs to live at Ponden Hall.

She is the bestselling author of THE MEMORY BOOK, WE ARE ALL MADE OF STARS and the critically acclaimed THE SUMMER OF IMPOSSIBLE THINGS. 

Find out more about Rowan at http://www.rowancoleman.co.uk, Instagram, Facebook or Twitter: @rowancoleman.

Review: ‘The Confessions of Frannie Langton’ by Sara Collins ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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Happy Paperback Publication Day to the lovely Sara Collins and one of my favourite books this year.

SYNOPSIS: 

1826, and all of London is in a frenzy. Crowds gather at the gates of the Old Bailey to watch as Frannie Langton, maid to Mr and Mrs Benham, stands trial for their murder.

The testimonies against her are damning – slave, whore, seductress. And they may even be the truth. But they are not the whole truth.

For the first time Frannie has the chance to tell her story. It begins with a girl learning to read on a plantation in Jamaica, it ends in a grand house in London, where a beautiful woman waits to be freed.

But through her fevered confessions, one burning question haunts Frannie Langton: could she have murdered the only person she ever loved?

REVIEW:

“I would never have done what they say I’ve done, to Madame, because I loved her. Yet they say I must be put to death for it, and they want me to confess.But how can I confess what I don’t believe I’ve done?” 

This remarkable debut novel is one of those books that reaches into your soul. Forbidden love, secrets, lies, obsession, madness, brutality, rage and murder. This book is filled to the brim with them all and takes you on an unforgettable journey as alleged murderess Frannie Langton tells her story. 

The Mulatta Murderess is what the papers have called her. But her name is Frannie Langton. The former slave is standing trial for the murders of her Master and Mistress, George and Marguerite, but says she couldn’t have done it because she loved her mistress. But that’s all she will say. She offers no evidence of her innocence, nor any defense. Instead, she writes her so-called confessions that tell the story of her life from her beginnings on a Jamaican plantation to the present day as she awaits judgement.

“Reading was the best thing and worst thing that’s happened to me.”

I loved the use of Frannie writing her own story and how it wasn’t chronological. The switches in the timeline skillfully wove the past and present together in a way that felt fresh and compelling. It also increased tension, foreshadowed events, and kept us guessing while also answering some questions in piecemeal. The excerpts of trial testimony sporadically inserted into the book were the perfect way to provide flashes of another perspective while showcasing the many prejudices and uphill battle Frannie was facing in her case.

This story deals with many important and hard to digest issues from the era, such as slavery. Though as a house girl Frannie is spared things such as working in the fields in the searing heat each day, she is still treated as less than human. And when Miss-bella, her Mistress on the plantation, decides to teach Frannie to read and write she feels lucky and doesn’t heed the warnings from Phibbah, another slave, that an educated negro is a threat to the white man. But she soon learns Phibbah was right. Reading the appalling brutalities that Frannie and other slaves are subjected to is hard at times but it is an important and potent part of her narrative. 

“I was all anger. Anger a drumbeat. Anger,  steady as rain on glass. Anger, like a hot spurt of blood from a wound.”

At an author event I attended back in May Sara Collins said, “novels for me come from characters” and talked about how she didn’t have a book until she knew her characters. This is evident for me in what a complex and wonderful character Frannie is. She’s honest, raw and flawed. She’s brave and intelligent. She refuses to be told what her life will be and dreams of more. Perhaps the most prolific part of Frannie’s narrative is anger. She talks about her rage at being looked down on, when she witnesses injustice and at being told she can and will only ever be a slave. She is very self-aware about her anger and there are times she’s ashamed of it, but overall she owns and accepts her rage, even seeming to be fuelled by it. You see it present in varying ways throughout her life and I have a lasting image of her hands cramping into fists by her sides. With all this anger you’re probably thinking she’s obviously guilty, but what I love about this book is it turns so many assumptions on their head. As you read it isn’t so hard to imagine that maybe she didn’t do it. Most of the time I understood her fury and thought I would have felt the same in her shoes. 

The other characters in this novel are all equally well written. While her Masters were very different, they were also both vile, evil men who mistreated her and I despised them both. She had a very different relationship with each of her Mistresses: Miss-bella was someone I loathed but also pitied at times. She taught Frannie to read but knew the danger that brought and she still mistreated her in other ways. Madame Marguerite was the woman Frannie loved and who she claimed was in love with her. She is a selfish and self-indulgent character but other than that I found myself vacillating between many feelings about her over the course of the book as although Frannie is in love with her and clearly worships her, as an outsider you see how she manipulates, uses and even puts Frannie in danger by her actions. 

“My life began with some truly hard things, but my story doesn’t have to, even though nothing draws honesty out of you like suffering.”

Though this is one of my favourite books I’ve read this year, I’ve found this review hard to write. So much happens and it’s hard to know what details to give without spoiling it and to eloquently describe how this book made me feel. But I needed to write this review, to tell others about this incredible story.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton shows us the worst of humanity but also some of its kindness. We see loneliness, hopelessness, desperation, brutality, anger and death, but also strength, hope, love and passion. It’s a haunting, beautiful, somber, eye-opening, emotional and penetrating story that gives a voice to those that have been forced to remain silent and muted. At the time the book is set people of colour were seen as less than human and race is a big part of this story, but for me, this is overwhelmingly a story about what it means to be human. How the differences in our skin don’t change the way we feel, love or dream. And a reminder that how the way we treat others says much more about ourselves than anyone else. 

Sara Collins’ debut novel is a masterpiece and is not only one of my favourite books this year, but ever. She deserves every bit of the accolades and recognition coming her way. It’s been two months since I finished it and I still find myself often thinking about Frannie and her story. I also can’t stop telling people they should read it. I definitely fell a bit in love with the imperfect but wonderful Frannie and her story and am going to be the first in line for a ticket if I get my dream and they make it into a film. 

Out now.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sara Collins studied law at the London School of Economics and worked as a lawyer for seventeen years. In 2014 she embarked upon the Creative Writing Masters at Cambridge University, where she won the 2015 Michael Holroyd Prize of Re-creative Writing and was shortlisted for the 2016 Lucy Cavendish Prize for a book inspired by her love of gothic fiction. This turned into her first novel, The Confessions of Frannie Langton.

 

Review: ‘Lady in the Lake’ by Laura Lippman ⭐⭐⭐⭐

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SYNOPSIS:

A stunning, multi-voiced, period piece – tackling race, gender politics, and the volatility of mid ‘60s America – from the author of SUNBURN

Cleo Sherwood disappeared eight months ago. Aside from her parents and the two sons she left behind, no one seems to have noticed. It isn’t hard to understand why: it’s 1964 and neither the police, the public nor the papers care much when Negro women go missing.

Maddie Schwartz – recently separated from her husband, working her first job as an assistant at the Baltimore Sun- wants one thing: a byline. When she hears about an unidentified body that’s been pulled out of the fountain in Druid Hill Park, Maddie thinks she’s about to uncover a story that will finally get her name in print. What she can’t imagine is how much trouble she will cause by chasing a story that no-one wants her to tell.

REVIEW:

“Alive, I was Cleo Sherwood. Dead, I became the Lady in the Lake..” 

Set in Baltimore in the mid ‘60s, Lady in the Lake tackles some of the prominent issues of the era such as racial discrimination, women’s role in society and gender inequality. It is also a story of women trying to make a better and happier life for themselves, forbidden love and secrets. 

The story begins with a haunting, mysterious, and foreboding prologue that left me excited about the book and full of questions that I couldn’t wait to have answered. 

Told by multiple narrators, the two women whose stories are the focus of this novel, are also the narrators we see the most. Cleo Sherwood is a single mother who is trying to get ahead and create a good life for herself and her two sons. She had moved out of her parents house leaving her boys there, although she visited regularly, and was working in a local bar. She disappears on New Year’s Eve after being seen on a date with a mystery man but no-one other than her family seem to care.

Maddie Schwartz is the typical beautiful and perfect housewife but she feels bored and trapped. She leaves her  husband after almost two decades of marriage and is trying to start again, which for her means an exciting relationship with an unsuitable man and getting a job as an assistant at a local newspaper. When Cleo’s body is found she becomes determined to find out what happened to her despite warnings that not only does no-one care, but she will get herself and others hurt if she pursues it. Wanting not only justice but her name on a story, she decides to ignore the warnings and continue her investigations.

The story unfolded in a way I didn’t expect but really enjoyed. I liked that I could never figure out who had killed Cleo and that most of the twists took me by surprise. I loved the historical aspect of the book and the author had me immersed in the era, especially when reading the parts narrated by Maddie and Cleo.

The abundance of narrators did sometimes feel too much, but most of them did give a perspective that added to the story and gave you possible clues so I could see a reason to give them a voice. The chapter narrated by Cleo’s eldest son was particularly heartbreaking and I was in tears reading it. It was a great reminder of Cleo as a mother as that side of her was overlooked by most people as they chose instead to focus on the more salacious side of her character to paint her in the light that suited them. 

I’ve wanted to read a novel by this author for a long time so I was thrilled to have the chance to review this ARC and I can’t wait to read more of her work. Lady in the Lake reminds us how difficult it was for women of any race to make a better life for themselves outside of the social conventions in a time not so long ago. An intriguing and alluring novel that I would definitely recommend.

Thank you to NetGalley, Faber & Faber and Laura Lippman for the chance to read this novel in exchange for an honest review.

Publication Date: July 25th 

My Sentimental Book Stack

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I was tagged by @diaryofabookmum & @silverliningsandpages on bookstagram to create a #sentimentalstack and enjoyed doing it so much that I decided to post it on here too.

𝓣𝓱𝓮 𝓓𝓸𝓵𝓵 𝓕𝓪𝓬𝓽𝓸𝓻𝔂 & 𝓕𝓻𝓪𝓷𝓷𝓲𝓮 𝓛𝓪𝓷𝓰𝓽𝓸𝓷 – these were the books from the first author event I went to since starting my bookstagram account. It was such a special moment that I’ll never forget.

𝓣𝓱𝓮 𝓒𝓸𝓵𝓸𝓻 𝓟𝓾𝓻𝓹𝓵𝓮 – The first book my other half bought me for my first birthday together. He bought me purple themed gifts and didn’t know I’d always wanted to read this book

𝓜𝔂 𝓢𝓲𝓼𝓽𝓮𝓻’𝓼 𝓚𝓮𝓮𝓹𝓮𝓻 – the first book I read by one of my favourite authors Jodi Picoult.

𝓣𝓱𝓮 𝓦𝓲𝔃𝓪𝓻𝓭 𝓸𝓯 𝓞𝔃 – A favourite childhood book and the start of a lifelong obsession.

𝓜𝓪𝓽𝓲𝓵𝓭𝓪 & 𝓣𝓱𝓮 𝓑𝓕𝓖 – two of my favourite childhood books that evoke good memories.

𝓘𝓷 𝓒𝓸𝓵𝓭 𝓑𝓵𝓸𝓸𝓭 – I read this as part of my English A Level. It was the first true crime book I read, before this it was only magazine articles. It instantly struck a chord and cemented my interest in true crime.

𝓕𝓵𝓸𝔀𝓮𝓻𝓼 𝓲𝓷 𝓽𝓱𝓮 𝓐𝓽𝓽𝓲𝓬 – I first read this as a teen and have read it many times.

𝓐 𝓣𝓲𝓶𝓮 𝓣𝓸 𝓚𝓲𝓵𝓵 – my first John Grisham book. He’s been a favourite author of mine ever since.

What would be in your sentimental book stack? Comment below.

‘The Corset’ by Laura Purcell ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5

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Is prisoner Ruth Butterham mad or a murderer? Victim or villain?

Dorothea and Ruth. Prison visitor and prisoner. Powerful and powerless. Dorothea Truelove is young, wealthy and beautiful. Ruth Butterham is young, poor and awaiting trial for murder.

When Dorothea’s charitable work leads her to Oakgate Prison, she is delighted with the chance to explore her fascination with phrenology and test her hypothesis that the shape of a person’s skull can cast a light on their darkest crimes. But when she meets teenage seamstress Ruth, she is faced with another theory: that it is possible to kill with a needle and thread. For Ruth attributes her crimes to a supernatural power inherent in her stitches.

The story Ruth has to tell of her deadly creations – of bitterness and betrayal, of death and dresses – will shake Dorothea’s belief in rationality, and the power of redemption.

Can Ruth be trusted? Is she mad, or a murderer?

This gothic novel had been languishing on my shelves for a while when I decided to pick it up as my fiftieth read of 2019. The Silent Companions was one of my favourite reads last year so I began this full of high expectations. I was not disappointed.

Dorothea  Truelove is attracted to the forbidden and isn’t interested in the life expected of her as a wealthy heiress, but in becoming a better and more useful person. She spends time on charitable work which leads her to Oakgate Prison and Ruth Butterham. Sixteen-year-old Ruth is awaiting trial for murder. She grew up poor and was sold to work as a seamstress to pay of her mother’s debts. It is her talents with a needle and thread that she claims enabled her to kill, saying that she has the ability to sew death into the things she creates.

Dorothea and Ruth are two very different women. Dorothea has known a life of privilege while Ruth has known nothing but poverty. Both have suffered loss but the effect it’s had on their lives is very different. When they meet they have outlooks on life that are also different but find that they come to bond over Ruth’s story. I liked both main characters and the author did a great job of writing their diverse lives in a way that made you understand their actions and beliefs. There were some other great characters in this book too. Some I loved and others I despised.

The author highlights many important issues of the time in this novel. There is an interesting look at mental health and phrenology, women’s roles in society and how workers were sold into slavery with no rights and treated appallingly. In particular, I think Ruth’s life and the struggle of the poor in Victorian times was particularly well written. I could almost smell the rot and decay of their dank, desolate and depressing living conditions and feel their terror at being starved, having no rights and the fear of what their cruel employer might do to them for the slightest reason. There were parts of Ruth’s story so harrowing I’d have to stop reading and take a break for a while.

I am so glad that I finally read this book. Dark, haunting, atmospheric, chilling and raw, this was impossible to put down. The story is exquisitely written and has solidified Ms Purcell as one of my favourite authors whose novels are a must-read. There is so much I loved about this novel: the ambiguity, the magnificent writing and that mindblowing ending that had me sitting there in disbelief at what I was reading. I would vacillate from heartbreak to anger to disgust as I read Ruth’s story. To be honest Dorothea’s chapters almost felt like light relief in comparison.

So is Ruth mad or a murderer? Victim or villain? That is something you’ll have to read and decide for yourself. The Corset is an outstanding piece of gothic noir that I highly recommend.

Out Now