Jane Austen the Secret Radical

At any given point in time, I will probably be somewhere through a re-read of Pride and Prejudice. Even though its been months since I picked it up, I can tell you that right now I’m at Mr Bingley’s house with Elizabeth, having to endure Miss Bingley’s snide remarks while waiting for Jane to recover. I love all of Jane Austen’s novels (Northanger Abbey is my next favourite, Sense and Sensibility my least favourite).

I read nowhere near as much literary criticism as I should, but when I saw this book by Helena Kelly I knew I wanted to find out more. And I really enjoyed reading it. It takes a book at a time and explores how the texts reveal an awful lot about Austen’s viewpoint on a wide range of challenging issues. Some of those issues were not new to me; most people are aware of the allusions to slavery in Mansfield Park, but it was fascinating to explore fully each novel in turn with a focus on the messages contained within.

If there’s one criticism, I would say I didn’t particularly enjoy the fictionalised accounts of Jane’s life based upon her letters at the start of each chapter, as I felt they detracted from the exploration of her views which were based on her writing. However, this is well worth a read for fans of Jane Austen who want to explore in more depth her stories and themes.

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A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge

In 2016 I read and loved The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge; its Victorian setting and supernatural plot both appealed to me and it was so beautifully written. I first saw pictures of the hardback edition of A Skinful of Shadows online and knew immediately that I wanted to read it, mainly because I enjoyed The Lie Tree so much but also because of the amazing cover art. Now I know you should never judge a book by its cover, but let’s face it, we all do, and this one is so visually striking that it instantly made me want to read the story within.

The story follows Makepeace as she navigates the English civil war. But Makepeace is no ordinary girl. When she is 12 years old she learns that her nightmares of souls attacking and trying to possess her are not nightmares, and that she possesses a unique gift which means she can take in the spirits of the dead. However, this is more of a curse, as the dead seek to inhabit her body, to the exclusion of her own soul. When her mother dies, Makepeace finds her father’s family, who have a terrible fate lined up for all those who inherit the gift. What nobody, not even Makepeace, realises is that she is already carrying a soul within her: a bear who she encountered after his death at the hands of those who chained him for entertainment. In order to escape her terrible fate, Makepeace sets off on a perilous adventure, crossing from Royalist to Parliamentarian sides of the conflict, with Bear proving a loyal companion for the journey.

I have to admit, when it comes to historical fiction, the seventeenth century is not my favourite era, I tend to prefer stories set in and around the Victorian period. However, I loved this story. The mixture of history and fantasy once again proved gripping and the adventure was fast-paced and entertaining. As a protagonist, Makepeace was a strong character, but also flawed at times, which made her more rounded and really brought the story to life.

Whilst this is a story mainly written for teenagers/young adults, I would recommend it to anyone, as there is plenty in there for all to enjoy.

Fools and Mortals

Richard Shakespeare, younger brother to playwright William, is a petty thief but he is also an actor, who dreams of a successful stage career. If he can ever be given the chance to play a man, that is. His brother seems determined not to come to his assistance in achieving this dream, and even when he is promised a man’s role within the new play, that is not quite as it seems.

Then, when Richard is given responsibility for the scripts, some of them go missing, and the blame is immediately placed upon him. Richard soon identifies the real culprit and sets off on a dangerous mission to retrieve the playscripts that are so crucial to their theatrical success.

I really enjoyed reading this story. It certainly brought the world of Elizabethan London to life on the page and as a big fan of Shakespeare’s plays there was plenty to enjoy within the descriptions of rehearsals and preparations of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream (and briefly, ‘Romeo and Juliet’). The characters were well thought out and the author’s note at the end of the story gives an insight into just how much research was involved to bring the historical elements into the story.

In terms of negatives, I would say that the book is a little slow at the start and that the adventure across the streets of London, suggested by the blurb, actually happened within a very brief part of the story, so it was not quite what I expected. The main focus of the story is the world of the theatre, so it did not quite deliver the adventure/thriller plot I had thought it would. 

Good to read overall, even though it was not what I’d thought, but I would probably not recommend it to anyone who does not enjoy the works of Shakespeare.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – illustrated edition

It is becoming a bit of a Christmas tradition for me to read the latest illustrated edition of the Harry Potter series.

This book follows Harry and his friends Ron and Hermione through their third year at Hogwarts School. They must face a new threat from escaped prisoner, Sirius Black, and the dreaded Dementors who are searching for him. Even worse, it would appear that Black not only wants to harm Harry, but is also responsible for the death of Harry’s parents 12 years ago…

 The Prisoner of Azkaban has been my favourite book of the Harry Potter series for a long time. Why? I think the fact that it is a self-contained adventure before the later books all become part of the big plotline of facing Voldemort. Yet also, it is a massive part of that plot, and crucial to our understanding of what happens next. I like the introduction to the Marauders, and their story is one that I know I would love to read more of.

So, with all that in mind, I thoroughly enjoyed this edition with its beautiful illustrations. My favourite pictures in this book were the ones of Buckbeak and the other Hippogriffs; the level of detail brought the creatures to life on the pages.

A must for Harry Potter fans.