A Gift in December by Jenny Gladwell

I am a big fan of festive reads … correction! I am a MASSIVE fan of festive reads. Like, borderline obsessed. One of my favourite things to do as December creeps closer is to stock up on Christmassy reads that I can enjoy, wrapped up in a festive duvet with a large mug of hot chocolate. Recently, whilst visiting a friend in Canterbury, I picked up A Gift in December by Jenny Gladwell. And ~ boy! ~ am I glad that I did. This quick but adorable reads has kept me cozy in these colder evenings, and everytime I have picked it up I have simply loved it.

The book follows Jane, a successful journalist, who has just finished an incredibly important exposé, which both cemented her career and caused her boyfriend (and his fragile ego) to disappear from her life. Feeling suitably low and disappointed, the idea of getting wrapped up in festive frolics is the last thing she wants to do. But, as her boss decides that she simply must go to Norway to cover the tree being selected, chopped down, and set back to London in a time-honoured tradition, Jane must pack away her grinchlike personality in a small cabin size suitcase and board the plane. Once in Norway, and surrounded by other writers, Jane uncovers a war time mystery of two lovers separated and estranged from each other. Trusted with a collection of intimate – and unanswered – war time letters, Jane tries to find out what really happened in those snowy, war time years in a small, isolated island in Norway.

I’m not sure my synopsis did this cracking little read justice but I have tried my best! Like with every book I have read, I want to pour my heart out and tell you every minute detail of the novel, but I am trying very hard to restrain myself so to not spoil this for you. I cannot recommend this book enough and am already trying to push it on everyone I know. The warmth I felt from this book was idyllic and I honestly think it is the tonic everyone needs this winter.

I think what made this book so perfect was the wonderful balance between the romance and the mystery plot. As it almost essential with every festive read, the romance plot is highly cliched and you can spot the match from far away. However, that didn’t make it any less delightful, and I spent the whole time waiting for the inevitable coupling to occur. But despite this, the fact that this is interweaved with the war time mystery made the novel amazing. I kept tearing through every page, eager to find the answer to each narrative and it was perfect. The wrapping up of both story lines was wonderfully done, not rushed or left half finished as I often find with this genre. The story was propelly developed and as I closed the final page, I felt immensly satisfied. I also loved finding out an area of history that I did not know about previously, the tradition of Norway gifting the tree for Trafalgar Square emerging from an alliance and friendship that came out of the chaos of WW2. I am definitely going to research this story more and absolutely adored discovering this nugget of the past with Jane.

Another fault I often find with festive reads is that the characters feel incredibly 2D and undeveloped. This often feel like they could have been lift from any other book and shoved forceably into this narrative and it can be incredibly jarring. However, this is completely not the case with this book! Gladwell creates wonderfully diverse characters so that even the characters you recognise – i.e. the egotistical z-celebrity, the instagram blogger, and even the scrooge-like main character – have complexities and intricacies that make them refreshing and engaging. Even the ‘villian’ of the novel – if you can have a villian in a festive read – is given a sympathic angle so that you cannot help but feel sorry for him. I loved this and it made the book so much more intriguing, as I became desperate to know all about them. Everytime I picked them up, I could wait to find out more and delve into their lives.

I do not think I can talk about this wonderful book without discussing the setting. The magical and beautiful Norwiegan setting is so enticing that you feel as though are there. Everytime the group moved to a new location, I was so amazed with how devastatingly gorgeous each setting seemed, and it has made me desperate to visit Norway for myself. Gladwell’s writing is so exquisite that I just wanted to submerge myself within her narrative and never leave. I’m definitely going to keep an eye out for her other reads.

I’m not sure if I’ve emphasised this enough but I ADORED this read. You seriously need to check it out. I rated it five stars and if I could have given it more I would have. As I’ve said, I love festive reads, so I’d love to know which festive reads you would recommend.

Bone China by Laura Purcell

This is a book that I have anticipated for the majority of the year. It’s a secret that isn’t very well hidden that I have adored Laura Purcell’s writing for quite some time now, instantly falling in love with both The Silent Companions and The Corset. I had decided that I was going to put off buying her latest release, Bone China, until after Christmas, as a little ‘New Year’ gift to me and to give me a chance to tackle my ever-growing TBR pile. However, one ill-fated Waterstones trip later, the book came home with me and my TBR books just looked on judgingly as I devoured it. But, I mean, it’s signed… it’s not like I could just leave it!

Bone China features a series of interweaved timeline in order to concoct a delicious and addictive read, a tantalizing mystery that leaves you engrossed and mystified. As always, I butcher synopsises, so I have chosen to lift this one from the wonderful book itself:

Consumption has ravaged Louise Pinecroft’s family leaving her and her father alone and heartbroken. But Dr Pinecroft has plans for a revolutionary experiment: convinced that sea air will prove to be the cure his wife and children needed, he arranges to house a group of prisoners suffering from the disease in the cliffs beneath his new Cornish home. While he devotes himself to his controversial medical trials, Louise finds herself increasingly discomfited by the strange tales her new maid tells of the fairies that hunt the land, searching for those they can steal away to their realm.

Forty years later, Hester Why arrives at Morvoren House to take up a position as nurse to the now partially paralysed and almost entirely mute Miss Pinecroft. Hester has fled to Cornwall to try and escape her past, but surrounded by superstitious staff enacting bizarre rituals, she soon discovers that her new home may be just as dangerous as her last…

What really attracted me to this book was the interesting setting of this novel. I’ll always be a big fan of historical fiction, particularly neo-Victorian novels, and this book definitely satisfied my addiction. However, most of the Victorian fiction novels I read feature inner city life, as this seems to be the setting most desired by writers. Bone China is set in the wild and savage countryside, a country house besieged by nature … and perhaps more magical forces. The sinister surrounding paints the perfect backdrop for the confusing and paranoid actions within the novel, the sense of isolation and, at times, claustrophobia simply terrifying.

I have always said, I am not a fan of dual narratives. I suppose this isn’t exactly right. I LOVE a dual narrative when they are done right however, I so often find myself ‘niggled’ by their confusing layout and find that I just cannot connect to the characters or the plot. Well, that most simply is not the case with this novel! Within this narrative, there are three timelines interweaved to make the perfect mystery. First we follow Hester Why as she arrives in Cornwall, a maid on the run with a fake identity. Plagued by a gin addiction, Hester is distrusting of all that she sees, especially to the strange behaviour that seems to follow all at Morvoren House. We receive glimpses into her past, hints as to the scandal that surrounds her and that led her to this inhospitable location. My favourite timeline had to be the one set forty years ago, as we follow Louise Pinecroft when she first arrives in Cornwall, the new location for her father’s strange experiments. I loved the confusion and the intrigue that surrounded this narrative, the juxtaposition between cold, scientific location, and undeniable, superstitious folklore.

I have to say, I think that this may have been one of my favourite novels of this year. I loved the mystery and the confusion that surrounded the narrative, and found myself in absolutely disbelief at the superstitious conclusions that seemed to surround the events that happen. The entire time I read this book I was gripped and eager to find the answers. I think it would make a perfect Winter Warmer as the nights grow darker and filled with the strange sounds of nightly storms. I can already tell this is going to be a read I’m dishing out to all my friends and familiar, eager to hear their lovely comments too.

How Do You Like Me Now? by Holly Bourne

[Trigger warning: sexual assault, eating disorder]

As much as I like fantasy, like to lose myself in a world that is different to our own, escaping into the impossible, there is something magical about a contemporary that I am totally addicted to. The connection, the relatability of the characters, the messages and mirrors to real life thrill me. I devour them because I like how they allow me to understand the world around me. Although it isn’t a genre that I regularly pick up, when I find one that is perfect, I can’t help but scream about it from the roof tops.

Which brings me onto the fantastic ‘How Do You Like Me Now?’ by Holly Bourne. I picked this book up on a whim when on a bit of a contemporary and romance splurge. I like hard hitting books, reads that leave you shocked and reeling, but sometimes you need something light and fluffy. That is what I thought I was getting myself into when I picked up the book. The front cover is welcoming, the illustrated figure looking at you friendly and appealing. But this book is so much more than that. In this little novel, such a wealth of social and gender issues are held within and I was hypnotised with the experiences of the characters, whose lived I recognised from my own life.

Who the f*ck is Tori Bailey?

There’s no doubt that Tori is winning the game of life. A straight-talking, bestselling author, she’s inspired millions of women around the world with her self-help memoir. And she has the perfect relationship to boot.

But Tori Bailey has been living a lie.

Her long-term boyfriend won’t even talk about marriage, but everyone around her is getting engaged and having babies. And when her best friend Dee – her plus one, the only person who understands the madness – falls in love, suddenly Tori’s in terrifying danger of being left behind.

When the world tells you to be one thing and turning thirty brings with it a loud ticking clock, it takes courage to walk your own path.

It’s time for Tori to practice what she’s preached, but the question is: is she brave enough?

Good Reads

For me, the stand out perfection of this novel sits with the wonderful protagonist: Tori. I found her completely relatable, faults and all. Despite having success in the past, Tori is stuck with the question of what is next. People look towards her for help and support, but the truth is that they are looking for a Tori that doesn’t exist, a Tori that was fiction itself. She is constantly torn between being true to herself and projecting a ‘truth’ to others around her. Every action she makes is motivated by the perception of herself by others, both in terms of her fans and her friends. There is a strong focus on social media, the affect on Tori and the image she returns. Her narration is brutally honest and blunt, and the truthfullness was one I recognised from the voices in my own mind. Bourne’s narrative is honestly a masterpiece and every time I turned a page, I felt immersed in Tori’s life as I was with my own.

There are a variety of heavy hitting issues that are discussed in this novel that I believe are so important. I have already touched upon the discussion of social media, however this is only the tip of the iceberg. Also discussed within the pages of this delectable read are: sexual politcs; navagating adulthood; body image; integrity etc. I often read books that involve these issues but this book truly handles these topics in such a unique and intimate way. Through the first person narrative voice, Tori shares her inner thoughts in a completely unrestrained manner, meaning that there is no way you can ignore the echoes in your own life. I cannot ignore that the thoughts that Tori has are the thoughts I have had. The novel forces you to bring a mirror to your own life and examine your own personal thoughts and think about what has made you view the world and your life in that way.

The book follows a chronological structure, nine months in Tori’s life. It follows obligatory weddings, dates, book tours, interviews, as well as the intimate moments of her own life. You are left witness as she operates through her life, urging and wishing that she would be more honest with those around her, but having to accept that, when you are in her shoes, you aren’t honest either.

I think it is perfectly clear that I absolutely adored this read. It was honest and relatable and I felt such a connection to the writing style and the characters I met along the way. I can’t wait to see what follows Holly Bourne after her debut novel.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler 

I have to say, I think retellings are some of the most challenging reads to pull off. What makes them particuarly difficult is that the original is always such a favourite to so many people. That’s what I was dubious of as I picked up Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler, a retelling of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. The original text is, itself, such a controversal story, a source of constant debate in literary circles and coffee shops alike. I myself have read the original text, having studied it for University, and definitely still find it a story I have complicated feelings over. I picked up this novel because I have just started teaching Taming of the Shrew to my A Level class and I was intrigued by the premise of it. I was interested to see whether the novel glossed over the controversial topics or whether the author would transform them into a modern setting. And I have to say that I was not disappointed!

Kate Battista feels stuck. How did she end up running house and home for her eccentric scientist father and uppity, pretty younger sister Bunny? Plus, she’s always in trouble at work – her pre-school charges adore her, but their parents don’t always appreciate her unusual opinions and forthright manner.

Dr. Battista has other problems. After years out in the academic wilderness, he is on the verge of a breakthrough. His research could help millions. There’s only one problem: his brilliant young lab assistant, Pyotr, is about to be deported. And without Pyotr, all would be lost.

When Dr. Battista cooks up an outrageous plan that will enable Pyotr to stay in the country, he’s relying – as usual – on Kate to help him. Kate is furious: this time he’s really asking too much. But will she be able to resist the two men’s touchingly ludicrous campaign to bring her around?

Good reads

I have to say, I did not expect to like the characters as much as I did. As I started reading, I had almost decided that I was going to hate Pyotr, Petruchio’s modern double, as he is such a complicated character. When you study him, you are told to see Petruchio as Katherine means of freedom, allowing her to escape her ‘shrewish’ identity, however you cannot ignore the brutal and, at times, cruelly abusive treatment of this fiesty, non-conformist woman. In Tyler’s retelling, although she does not shy away from Pyotr’s controling and narcissistic characteristics, there is a warmth and an empathy that you cannot help but feel towards him. He, in himself, is such a complex character, navagatiting a Western society and culture which is completely alien to him. He is completely reactionary to the world around him, fuelled with a strong sense of justice which often blinds him to the reality of his actions. Yet, at the same time, you cannot ignore the clear affection he has towards Kate. Although the marriage is arranged so that Dr Battista,  a scientist, can carry on working with Kate’s father, and so secure a green card, there are clear moments between the pair which are sweet and so affectionate that I was constantly torn between thinking this was unfair and hoping that it would all work out. 

In fact, there is not a single character in this novel that I did not adore reading. Kate was, obviously, a clear favourite, caught between the demands of her father and fighting for her own existance. However, the portrayal of Bianca, as a tempestous teenager, was incredible, her performance of naivity so carefully crafted that you could not help but be impressed. The world Tyler creates is so interesting, and every character is so detailed, having flaws and vulnerability, that it is uneasy to see who truly is a villian in the story, something that I don’t think was as developed in Shakespeare’s original play. 

As I said earlier, I was truly interested to see how Tyler transformed the controversial issues surrounding the play onto a modern background. Although the conversations changed slighty, the impact and the narrative was so familiar that it really resonated with me. From discussion on how to govern femininity in an unconsciously sexist society, to expressing male vulnerability, this text explores a broad range of topics which are so important to today’s cultural consciouness. I found the discussion surrounding mental health particulary interesting, looming over the text like an ominous shadow, however it was done so in such a respectful and intriguing way. It adds a complexity and understanding to the characters that I think they were bereft of before. 

As I said before, I genuinely believe that retellings are the most difficult stories to ‘get right’. I have read so many bad retellings I don’t often have faith in them. However, this is a wonderful read. Regardless of being a retelling, this is a fantastic and complex work within its own right. I absolutely adored meeting the characters and sharing in their world. Definitely one of my favouite reads this year!

The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg

Where Happily Ever After Is Not Just A Promise, But A Rule...

It was this tag line that made me so eager to devour this novel. Well, that and the absolutely stunning cover.

The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg

The Kingdom by Jess Rotherberg is set in a dystopian future, following life within ‘The Kingdom’, a theme park that promises all your dreams will come true. This DIsney-esque park takes Magic to the extreme, using technology to create ‘hybrid’ ~ half machine, half alive ~ of extinct creatures, such as polar bears and dinosaurs, as well as those more ‘fairy tale’, such as horses with wings. But the animals aren’t all that is magical within the park. The novel follows Ana, one of seven Fantasists, beautiful half human, half android princesses, who are progreammed to make wishes come true, no matter what. Ana has been brought up to believe everything that the Kingdom deems true, and is blinded by the magic of the park. That is, until she meets Owen, the maintenace worker, and she begins to uncover the cruelty behind the mask, a cruelty that ultimately ends with Ana standing trial for Owen’s brutal murder.

I absolutely adored this book at that is largely down to the main character, Ana. Ana is a wonderfully heartwarming character and her loyalty, compassion, and curiousity are incredibly engaging. At the beginning of the novel, Ana believes what her supervisers have told her, that she is not capable of emotions, that she isn’t real, and that she should always follow the script. Indeed, at the beginning, Ana feels exactly like a machine. However, as her story progresses, you cannot ignore that Ana is undeniably human, with emotions to follow. She tries to rationalise the world around her, understand the cruelty she sees, ignore the derrogatory and abusive treatment by the Kingdom workers to her and her sisters. My heart absolutely went out to her, especially when you learnt the dark and gruesome secrets behind the ‘magic’. As the story comes to a close, we see Ana completely transformed, ignited by an anger and desire for justice.

The Kingdom created by Rothenberg is truly terrifying, and is so terrifying simply because its deception is so convincing. You can understand why so many customers, and even the Fantasists themselves, are seduced by the promises of the park. The descriptions of the lands that make up the Kingdom sound truly magical, from Mermain Lagoon with ‘real’ mermaids, and Winterland with Polar Bears. But, when the illusion shifts, the horror and true darkness of the Kingdom gleams through. From the exploitation and abuse the Fantasists face, the mistreatment of the hybrid animals, to the diseases and suffering that the Kingdom’s experiments cause the animals to live with, the materialistic, intolerant, and uncaring reality is every bit nightmare as to the fairy tale they try to project. I devoured this book in a matter of hours, and this was largely because I was so terrified about what was going to happen next, what cruelty this business was going to imagine next.

This book is written in a really interesting way, with the time line switching between Ana’s life in the Kingdom with her discovery of the park’s cruelty, and Ana’s trial for Owen’s murder. The structure is truly delicious as it leaves you trying to piece the little pieces together and see how they all work together, that overwhelming feeling that something sinister is happening throughout. The combination of court scripts and evidence files leaves you uncertain and eager to know more, all working towards and ending that will leave you begging for more.

The ending felt like that beginning of a series, the start of a quest, and I sincerely hope this is the case. I know I am not ready to leave Ana, nor ready to leave the injustices of the Kingdom left unpunished. I cannot recommend this novel enough, especially if you are a fan of Disney, and fantasy, and sci-fi dystopians. It was definitely reminiscient to the struggles in the Lunar Chronicles, and I felt like it filled a gap left by this series. What about you? Have you read this? If so, what did you love about it?

Ordinary People By Diana Evans

I picked up Ordinary People by Diana Evans whilst wandering through my local wonderful Waterstones. It was 100% an impulse buy, the cover instantly drawing me in. I wanted to know about the people on the front, wanted to know how they were connected and what affected them, what made them ‘Ordinary’ People.

Ordinary People by Diana Evans

The novel is set about ten years ago, spanning Obama’s election and Michael Jackson’s death. It largely follows two couples as they try to navigate through life, dealing with the troubles and burdens that accompany adulthood.

South London, 2008. Two couples find themselves at a moment of reckoning, on the brink of acceptance or revolution. Melissa has a new baby and doesn’t want to let it change her but, in the crooked walls of a narrow Victorian terrace, she begins to disappear. Michael, growing daily more accustomed to his commute, still loves Melissa but can’t quite get close enough to her to stay faithful. Meanwhile out in the suburbs, Stephanie is happy with Damian and their three children, but the death of Damian’s father has thrown him into crisis – or is it something, or someone, else? Are they all just in the wrong place? Are any of them prepared to take the leap?

Good Reads

The novel is certainly not a light hearted read. The characters face true troubles which unfortunately are completely relatable. In fact, that is something I really enjoyed about these characters. They felt so undeniably real that I just couldn’t help but be completely invested in their lives. Whether it was the shattering grief devouring Damien, or the conflict with Melissa about balancing her ‘female’ responsibilities, like motherhood, with her devout feminism, I couldn’t help but feel as though the dilemmas were my own. There is a sense that the normality these characters are facing is suffocatingly maddening, and you can’t help but watch in horror as they unevitably make decisions that leaves others reeling.

The writing style of this novel was truly interesting, with a balance between social commentary and magical realism. The characters, particulary Melissa, find their struggles staged in the ‘real’ world, metaphorically presented through magical realism. Initially, I found this quite tricky to get my head round, especially as the rest of the novel is so pragmatic, but once I had let it sink in, it was the perfect analogy for the discussions within the novel. I loved the conversations surrounding identity, and feminism, and monogamy, and love. It felt like every page uncovered a social taboo, forcing the characters (and the reader) to consider why it shouldn’t be taboo and the consequences of making it taboo. For example, Micheal never voices his need for love and comfort, the reassurance of commitment that he needs for Melissa, largely because he is worried it would undermine her perception of his ‘male’ identity, and Evans forces us to watch the terrible consequnces of this silence.

My Cafe must haves: a book and a coffee.

My one critism of this novel was the ending, yet at the same time I believe it was the perfect ending for it. It’s a contradiction, I know, however the nature of the novel meant that there is no happy ending, or at least not a conventional happy ending. Instead, you are presented with a real life ending, and left with the complicated feelings that accompany life. When I closed the final page of the novel, I felt an absense from having left the characters behind, that sense that they hadn’t truly found their purpose, the fear that life was going to deal them a cruel hand again. But then I realised, that’s the whole point. The point of the novel was not to recreate the Hallmark happiness we expect when dipping our toes into fiction, but to show that happiness can exist outside of the fiction, a lesson we often need to be reminded of.

I do not think I can recommend this book enough. Yes, it wasn’t a happy ‘lounge about and read happy nonsense’ read, but it certainly resonated with me and the uncertainity that seems to come when you first enter adulthood. I also loved how diverse this novel was, from ethniticity to contexts to ideologies, not just capturing one aspect of life but the true reality, something we need much more of.

August TBR

Not to sound too much like a cliché but, how is it August already?!? As the school holidays have hit, I am very much looking forward to having a month off to just relax and read and have fun. I do have a bit of ‘teacher-y’ admin to do but, to be honest, I planning on ignoring that for as long as possible.

Whilst I was scrolling through instagram (by the way ~ did you know I have a bookstagram for this blog? You can find it here) I came across a photo challenge by BookBookOwl and thought I just had to take part. As the first challenge is your August TBR, I thought I just had to make a blog post to. See here we are. I’ll stop blabbering now.

The first book on my list is Ordinary People by Diana Evans. I have already started reading this book and I have to say I’m really enjoying it. It follows two couples as they try to manage their adult lives with all the hassle that real life brings. From babies to grief, to domesticity to career paths. I haven’t heard a lot about this book so I’m quite looking for to discovering it for myself. Currently I’m really enjoying the diversity within the characters and the refreshing way each person is presented.

The Kingdom by Jess Rothenberg was a book a picked up purely by chance on my recent visit to Canterbury. I was instantly drawn in my the cover which I simply stunning. The blurb suggests that it’s a mixture of fairy-tale retelling, dystopian, and sci-fi. I honestly can’t wait to get my teeth into this one.

I have currently got a real urge to do some writing and the project I have in mind definitely falls into the romance genre. Whenever I feel myself catching the writing bug, I always like reading around the genre. I just can’t get enough of it! I picked up The Lemon Tree Café by Cathy Bramley whilst I was doing my food shop, simply because the title grabbed my attention. It sounded so darn cute, I can just imagine sitting in the garden, lazy in the sun, and lapping this up.

Finally, I have Regeneration by Pat Barker. I have wanted to start this series for ages and I cannot wait to. I’ve only challenged myself to the first book this month, just to see how I get on with it, but I honestly can’t wait.

And there you have it ~ my August TBR. It’s not a massive one but I can’t wait to see how I get on. What have you got planned for this month?