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Normal People by Sally Rooney

Normal People is one of those books where I felt like very little happened, but I couldn’t put it down and I will probably be thinking about it for years to come.

The story follows Marianne and Connell from sixth form through University. Both academic high achievers, they come from very different backgrounds. Connell’s mum is the cleaner for Marianne’s mother. They begin a secret relationship in high school, before moving separate ways and picking up the relationship at various points throughout University. Marianne’s life is not as perfect as it may seem, and her brother is frequently violent towards her, and this relationship impacts on her other relationships. Connell was popular at school but becomes lonely during University and falls into depression. Neither of them feel able to connect to others or express how they really feel.

This is an interesting story, although at times it feels as though nothing much happens and if you’re searching for a clear resolution at the end, you may be disappointed. However, it does present complex three-dimensional relationships in a way that leaves you thinking about the characters for a long time after you finish reading it.

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Deeplight by Frances Hardinge

The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge is one of my favourite books I’ve ever read, so I’m always keen to read Hardinge’s new novels. I have to say that Deeplight probably has one of the most beautiful covers of any of the books I’ve read so far this year.

Deeplight tells the story of Hark and his friendship with Jelt. They live in the Myriad, a group of islands that were once surrounded by huge gods that lived in the Undersea. Until one day the gods all died out. Now various members of society travel to the depths of the sea in submarines, desperate to find any pieces of the gods to bring back and make use of. When Hark is convicted of a crime and sent to work for Dr Vyne, Jelt follows him. Together they discover the heart of one of the gods, and it changes them both in unexpected ways. However, with the exciting discovery also comes danger, and Hark has to battle to ensure the safety of the whole Myriad.

I did find this book a little slow going at first, and found the characters and setting hard to relate to. As with all of Hardinge’s novels, her descriptive language is amazing, and it helps you to develop a clear picture in your mind, but for me the plot of the first half of the book felt a little jumbled. The last section of the story was much better, and the final 100 pages or so were really tense and exciting.

Unfortunately I didn’t enjoy Deeplight as much as The Lie Tree but it is an enjoyable story with some nice messages about friendship and power.

Award winners/nominees, Must-reads

Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I’ve seen this book recommended numerous times, but have only just got around to reading it. Earlier this year I read Miller’s second book Circe, also based on Greek mythology, and really enjoyed it.

The Song of Achilles is a retelling of the story of Greek hero Achilles, culminating in his role within the siege of Troy. The story is told from the point of view of his companion and lover, Patroclus. Patroclus is a prince himself, who is exiled and sent to live with Achilles’ father. When Achilles is sent to the centaur Chiron to be educated, Patroclus follows him, refusing to be separated from Achilles. The perfect life they enjoy there is broken by the news of war with Troy. Agamemnon seeks out warriors to battle against the Trojans, who have taken the wife of Menelaus, Helen. Achilles is said to be the greatest soldier ever to exist, but is also prophesied to die at Troy, so his mother, the goddess Thetis, hides him. Ultimately, fate cannot be stopped, and Patroclus follows Achilles into the battle.

This was a well written and interesting story, covering a wide period of time (the siege of Troy lasting many years). Achilles’ story is tragic, like that of so many Greek heroes, and his character is complex. This is as much a love story as a story of war and adventure, and telling it from Patroclus’ viewpoint gives us a different perspective from the traditional retellings of Greek myths: there is no glorification of battle, but sorrow at the tragedy of loss. Telling it from this viewpoint allows the reader to see the consequences of a world in which becoming a legend is more valued than life itself. The love story between Patroclus and Achilles is powerful and heart-breaking at times.

A really fantastic book, and one which I didn’t want to put down, I highly recommend this book.

Historical fiction, Murder/mystery/adventure/thriller

The Huntress by Kate Quinn

I’ve been reading and enjoying a few historical novels lately, and when I saw this book advertised on twitter, I knew it was something I wanted to read.

The Huntress follows three stories that begin separately but begin converge as the story progresses. Nina Markova is a Russian woman living in WW2, who is treated cruelly by her father, and decides to leave to find a better life. She soon finds her place in the world, flying aeroplanes and becomes part of Russia’s all-female group of fighter pilots who battle against the Nazis and earn the nickname of the Night Witches. When she crash lands in occupied Poland she faces a chilling encounter with die Jagerin, The Huntress of the title. In 1950s Austria, British ex-journalist Ian Graham is on his own mission, hunting war criminals, when he finds a lead on the whereabouts of die Jagerin, who was responsible for the death of his brother. He decides to pursue the lead, wherever it may take him. The third part of the story focuses on Jordan, a teenage girl in post-war Boston, who finds herself becoming suspicious of her father’s Austrian bride. Her initial confrontation leaves her thinking she is mistaken, but after her father dies in unusual circumstances she still can’t shake the feeling that something is not quite right.

I really enjoyed this story, which covered a range of locations and time periods and built to a dramatic climax. For me, the best sections of the story were those that focused on Jordan’s life in America, and her suspicions of her new stepmother, as I felt they built a good level of tension and drama. I also found Jordan’s character likeable, and someone the reader could relate to. The pursuit of the Huntress was well written and exciting, although I do think it was fairly obvious which character she was from quite early on within the story.

An interesting historical novel, and one that taught me about some areas of WW2 I’d previously had no knowledge of (The Night Witches); this is well worth a read.

Award winners/nominees, Historical fiction

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites came to my notice as part of a list of top books of the 21st Century on Twitter. I was intrigued by the idea of the historical novel about the last person to be executed in Iceland.

The story takes place in the 1820s and follows protagonist Agnes, as she is taken to be held prisoner on a farm while she awaits execution for a double murder. She is accused of brutally murdering the man she was housekeeper for, and of burning his house to the ground afterwards. The story of her life is revealed as she shares it with Toti, an assistant Reverend who has been assigned to help her prepare spiritually for her execution.

This piece of historical fiction is almost poetic in its vivid descriptions of Agnes’ life. It builds a depth around her character and really draws the reader into her experiences. It’s not a fast paced, action filled book, but rather a detailed character piece that really draws the reader in to empathise with Agnes. It builds to an incredibly tragic ending, probably all the more so as it is based on real events.

If you enjoy character-based historical fiction then this is well worth a read. It’s perfect for fans of The Essex Serpent and I for one found it a fascinating story.

Award winners/nominees

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

The Testaments is probably the biggest book event of 2019; a direct sequel to Atwood’s incredible dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which was published 34 years ago.

I only read The Handmaid’s Tale for the first time last year, and found it to be a gripping (and terrifying) story, and one that felt worryingly relevant. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this book.

The Testaments follows three narratives: that of Aunt Lydia (who will be familiar to readers from The Handmaid’s Tale); Agnes, a girl who has grown up in Gilead and chooses to become an Aunt rather than marrying; and Daisy, a teenager in Canada, who is suddenly thrown into the world of the Gilead resistance. The story tells of the beginning of the downfall of dystopian Gilead, a world based on Old Testament religious ideals, and the suppression of women.

This book was certainly an enjoyable read, and at its best when we were being shown Aunt Lydia’s story, especially that of her past and how she became an Aunt. This section of the book, looking at the early days of Gilead, and how Aunt Lydia became Aunt Lydia was fascinating. I also really enjoyed Daisy’s and Agnes’s stories towards the start of the novel.

Where it worked less well was towards the end, when the novel became more of an action adventure. The increase in pace seemed necessary, but it just did not have the same impact that the rest of the book did.

Overall, this was a great read and a brilliant insight into Aunt Lydia’s character, but not quite as good as The Handmaid’s Tale. It is still an incredible book though, and one that I would highly recommend.

Romance/ chick-lit

Austenland by Shannon Hale

It’s no secret that I’m a bit of a Jane Austen fan. I love all of her novels (apart from Sense and Sensibility which I just can’t warm to), so when I fell into a bit of a reading slump last week, this was just the kind of light-hearted story that I needed to lift me out of it.

Austenland tells the story of Jane, who is obsessed with Mr Darcy, but also unlucky in love herself. An elderly relative leaves her an unexpected gift within her will: a 3 week holiday at Pembrook Park. It turns out that this is an immersive Jane Austen experience, complete with costumes, no technology, and a guaranteed ‘romance’ with one of the actors who play a range of eligible bachelors from Regency England. Jane finds it hard to adjust to this strange holiday, especially when she has to deal with the aloof Mr Nobley. She finds herself more comfortable with the gardener, Martin, but she cannot shake the doubt over the reality of every experience at Pembrook Park.

The story was definitely engaging and at it’s best when it didn’t take itself too seriously. A real highlight was the ridiculous Miss Charming, crying “tally-ho” with her enthusiastic fake English accent at the most bizarre of moments. Overall the love story within was fun to read (even if fairly predictable) and I would say that this is an enjoyable book for anyone who has ever (even briefly) wished themselves inside a Jane Austen novel.