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Antoinette May’s ‘The Determined Heart’

The Determined Heart: The Tale of Mary Shelley and Her Frankenstein

The Determined Heart reveals the life of Mary Shelley in a story of love and obsession, betrayal and redemption.

The daughter of political philosopher William Godwin and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley had an unconventional childhood populated with the most talented and eccentric personalities of the time. After losing her mother at an early age, she finds herself in constant conflict with a resentful stepmother and a jealous stepsister. When she meets the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, she falls deeply in love, and they elope with disastrous consequences. Soon she finds herself destitute and embroiled in a torturous love triangle as Percy takes Mary’s stepsister as a lover. Over the next several years, Mary struggles to write while she and Percy face ostracism, constant debt, and the heartbreaking deaths of three children. Ultimately, she achieves great acclaim for Frankenstein, but at what cost?

Most people you speak to will have heard of Frankenstein and some may even be aware that it was born out of boredom on a rainy evening when Lord Byron and the Shelleys attempted to entertain themselves by creating and telling scary stories. But very few of us really know very much else about its creator, Mary Shelley, the woman behind the monster. For example, I for one did not know that she was the daughter of such radical and influential parents. I also did not know what a difficult life she lead in her late teens and into her early adulthood. In this biography Antoinette May manages to both depict the events of Shelley’s life but at the same time illustrate key moments that helped to shape the novel that would go on to immortalise her forever. But unlike most biographies, May does not just give accounts of her life supported by evidence, she quite literally tells us the story of Mary Shelley’s life up until the age of roughly 25.

Mary Shelley led a life that would leave most broken, by the age of 21 she had had an affair, married, become estranged from her family, lost 3 children, her sister and her husband as well as her step-sister’s two children (one of which was also her husband’s), as well as writing Frankenstein among other things. In the space of two decades she went through more than most do in a life time but still found the strength and courage to continue to live a full life. However, because her life is depicted as a narrative, you become invested in her life as a character. May writes the story with very little emotional inflection from the narrator as none is warranted, she just writes the story as it was rather than asking for your pity or empathy, but it is very difficult not to give it as you watch the characters go through life changing events time after time. Another way in which this story is not your typical biography is in that it does not just tell the story of Mary Shelley’s life, but also sometimes delves into the the lives of the other characters in order to illustrate how they had an impact of Shelley’s life. Characters such as Lord Byron, Claire Clairmont, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft who had a considerable influence on her.

Although there is no explicit disclaimer stating the authenticity of the events in the story, it is billed as a biography and the source list at the end is extensive so that you do feel comfortable suggesting that these are in fact accurate depictions. However, I found the story to be so intriguing and unbelievable that I was compelled to do some research for myself and everything that I found was concurrent with May’s depictions. On the whole, this biography is very compelling especially as I don’t often find myself interested in reading non-fiction recreationally but this one in particular is so well written that it strikes a very happy balance between fiction and non-fiction. But more than that, what I liked about this book was the subject matter; I never expected the author’s life to be so interesting and really put my own life (as I myself am 21) into perspective.

As heart-wrenching as her story is, I’m glad to have gotten to know Mary Shelley, the woman rather than the writer, better. I couldn’t’ put it down, at first to find out what happened next and then because I didn’t want to abandon her. I would throughly recommend this tale of perseverance. Keep an eye out for The Determined Heart when it comes out in September this year if you’re looking for something compelling, earthy and heartbreaking.

 
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Posted by on July 21, 2015 in Literature Review

 

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Renée Knight’s ‘Disclaimer’

What if you realized the book you were reading was all about you?

When an intriguing novel appears on Catherine’s bedside table, she curls up in bed and begins to read.

But as she turns the pages she is sickened to realize the story will reveal her darkest secret.

A secret she thought no one else knew…

I chose this book because I found the premise very intriguing and mysterious which is not what I normally go for. I’m more often found reading something comedic or romantic fiction so this was a step outside of my comfort zone for me and at first I was a little disappointed. When I was younger I would also delve into the worlds of science fiction so I was expecting something more along those lines, assuming that the reason that the novel was telling her life was supernatural especially as according to the description the novel just ‘appears’ but that was not the case. So yes, I was a little bit disappointed when I first started reading. But that expectation and disappointment unfortunately lead to some confusion. Because I was looking for the usual themes and tropes that one would find in a Sci-Fi novel and not finding them I couldn’t get a grasp on how the novel worked. Different voices are portrayed from different times and slowly they converge towards the middle of the book. But each chapter doesn’t tell you who’s voice you are hearing, just the rough date from which it comes. Once I cast off my preconceptions it was much easier to get along with. Once I stopped thinking about what the novel could have been or the way I wanted it to be it was much easier to enjoy the story it actually was.

The story is, as the description says, it is about a woman who finds a book on her bedside cabinet but she has no idea who put it there and as she begins to read it she realises that someone has written a book about a dark period in her life, a period that she has never spoken to anyone about and, as far as she knew. she was the only person alive who knew about it. The book follows both her struggle with finding the author and controlling the fallout from the implications of the novel as well as the following the writer and their motivations and fight to ruin Catherine’s life. What I liked in particular about this novel was that facts and connections are introduced slowly, just dropped into the narrative as if they are unimportant but then are repeated, making it a little more obvious each time. At first I found this annoying as we knew very little so it was just the same hints over and over but nothing to give you any clarification of the thoughts running through our protagonists’ heads. But as the story develops and more connections are made it becomes clearer but not clear. It’s a typical ‘answers leaving you with more questions’ scenario.

But what I found interesting is that as the reader you get sucked into the lives of the characters, it is easy to see how the novel encourages you to take sides which can change at any moment depending on the developments that arise because there are effectively three stories here. Catherine’s, The author’s and the story itself ‘The Perfect Stranger’ that winds up on her bedside cabinet. So as their narratives develop, excerpts from the novel are given to us and the voices of people long since dead are revealed the perspective shifts, our understanding of events shifts. And I’m ashamed to admit it is far too easy to get swept along by ‘The Perfect Stranger’ without considering how much of it is fiction. I can honestly say that the twists and turns taken by the novel took me by surprise more often than not and I am one of those annoying people who prides myself on always knowing what’s going to happen next. But for me this novel was a bit like The Sixth Sense, you don’t see it coming but when you look back, when the characters look back, you realise the clues were all there.

Considering that I started out quite coldly towards this novel, struggling to pick it back up (That’s why it’s been so long since I’ve posted and for that I apologise) by the end I was quite invested and ended up staying up half of the night to see how it concludes. Mystery novel are not normally something I’d go for but based on this novel I might try another should one come up. I would recommend you try this one even if like me it is not what you’re used to, but if you do, prepare to commit yourself to it and stick it out to see where it goes. I guarantee it’s not where you’d expect it to. If you liked the sound of it and think it’s right up your alley then keep an eye out for it in April 2015!

Then you can let me know what you think!

 
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Posted by on December 16, 2014 in Literature Review

 

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Brooke Davis’ ‘Lost and Found’

Millie Bird is a seven-year-old girl who always wears red wellington boots to match her red, curly hair. But one day, Millie’s mum leaves her alone beneath the Ginormous Women’s underwear rack in a department store, and doesn’t come back. Agatha Pantha is an eighty-two-year-old woman who hasn’t left her home since her husband died. Instead, she fills the silence by yelling at passers-by, watching loud static on TV, and maintaining a strict daily schedule. Until the day Agatha spies a little girl across the street.Karl the Touch Typist is eighty-seven years old and once typed love letters with his fingers on to his wife’s skin. He sits in a nursing home, knowing that somehow he must find a way for life to begin again. In a moment of clarity and joy, he escapes. 

Together, Millie, Agatha and Karl set out to find Millie’s mum. Along the way, they will discover that the young can be wise, that old age is not the same as death, and that breaking the rules once in a while might just be the key to a happy life. 

What first drew me to this novel was that it had been likened to The Hundred Year Old Man which I bought many years ago but have never gotten around to reading. But reading the blurb of both novels I could already see the similarities even down to the fact that once I’d read them I thought ‘this is going to be hilarious, I must have them’. And I wasn’t disappointed, I found this novel to be laugh out loud in places, uncomfortable in others and even heart-wrenching in places. But what impressed me the most about this story is its ability to deal with very difficult issues like that of loss and death and abandonment in ways that you wouldn’t necessarily expect as well as bringing genuine life to the characters and their perspectives.

Each character reacts to and deals with their lose in different ways, the most amusing being Agatha who chooses to become a nightmare neighbour, never leaving her wilderness of a home and yelling at passers-by . The most interesting being Millie, Davis seems to get right into the psyche of a child and perfectly displays what you’d imagine the inside of a child’s head to be. But at the same time capturing the simplicity with which children can see the world and cut to the heart of an issue without worrying about propriety, applying unique forms of logic leading to moments of complete and profound clarity like the passage below:

‘The start date and the end date are always the important bits on the gravestones, written in big letters. The dash in between is so always so small you can barely see it. Surely the dash should be big and bright and amazing, or not, depending on how you had lived. Surely the dash should show how this Dead Thing had lived. Did Errol ever know that his life would be just a dash on a gravestone? That everything he did and all the food he ate and the car trips he took and the kisses he gave would all end up as a line on a rock? In a park with a whole lot of strangers?’

What really strikes you throughout this novel however is the sense that neither generation seem to be able to get a handle on the world, to make sense of the people around them. We are never given the perspective of anyone who is not a child or an octogenarian but we are shown their interactions with the average citizen but only as far as to show how our protagonists consider the world. The phrase ‘Once an adult, twice a child’ has never been more apparent than while I was reading this book. Those at the beginning of life are still learning how to navigate the world and society and those at the end of their lives come to realise that it doesn’t matter what you do because ‘you’re going to die’ as Millie would tell you… repeatedly so do what you like.

Considering that, by and large, this novel comes across as a comedy or at the very least highly amusing, it deals with very complex and very dark issues. The comedy makes it more palatable but I found a deep sadness at the heart of this story that when I let my mind linger on it made my eyes well up and my heart sad. But I also found an admiration for Davis because it is she that has achieve all this, taken the time to consider these topics and put them across to the reader that makes it enjoyable to read but does not compromise the tragedy of it whilst acknowledging that it’s never too early to consider the world and it’s never too late to reclaim it.

I know, I know, I’ve loved every novel I’ve reviewed so far but what can I say? I know what I’m going to like and I very much liked this one. I whole heartedly recommend this book to any and everyone. I might even go so far as to say this is my favourite book for review to date (out of all three of them, yes). Worry not, I will be reading Disclaimer by Renee Knight next and I have no idea how I will feel about it, it’s a bit out of my wheelhouse but I will keep you posted. But yes to sign off, I challenge you to read the blurb and not think that Lost and Found is a must read…

 Don’t you think?

 
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Posted by on December 7, 2014 in Literature Review

 

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Charlie N Holmberg’s ‘The Paper Magician’

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Ceony Twill arrives at the cottage of Magician Emery Thane with a broken heart. Having graduated at the top of her class from the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined, Ceony is assigned an apprenticeship in paper magic despite her dreams of bespelling metal. And once she’s bonded to paper, that will be her only magic…forever.Yet the spells Ceony learns under the strange yet kind Thane turn out to be more marvelous than she could have ever imagined—animating paper creatures, bringing stories to life via ghostly images, even reading fortunes. But as she discovers these wonders, Ceony also learns of the extraordinary dangers of forbidden magic.An Excisioner—a practitioner of dark, flesh magic—invades the cottage and rips Thane’s heart from his chest. To save her teacher’s life, Ceony must face the evil magician and embark on an unbelievable adventure that will take her into the chambers of Thane’s still-beating heart—and reveal the very soul of the man.

From the imaginative mind of debut author Charlie N. Holmberg,The Paper Magician is an extraordinary adventure both dark and whimsical that will delight readers of all ages.

As I have been mostly reading my course texts in recent years it has been a while since I’ve been able to sink my teeth into a good Sci-Fi and Holmberg’s The Paper Magician has made for a wonderful reintroduction. The world she creates is not all that much different from our own, located in London with recognisable sights.

The magic she uses is very subtle, the paper magic is explained in a way that is so simple that it seems almost plausible, almost as though all we’ve been missing is the magic bond to bring our origami works of art to life. It is detailed enough that you can tell her explanations are well thought out but not so much so that it is almost painful to follow. Also, for me it was almost like a mystery novel as although the story is linear in its plot there are hints continuously through out to events that happened before the story began, references that mean nothing to us because we don’t know what’s gone on previously. But Holmberg doesn’t tell all up front, she leaves bread crumbs to leave you intrigued as to what the characters are referring to and makes you wait to make sense of them, as the other characters find out, so do we. Holmberg shows a creativity and an imagination that is highly refreshing because its not outlandish, you get the impression that she looked at the world around her and thought about what could be rather than making up a world of her own in which you have complete control and can make it exactly how you want it.

The narrative itself takes place over a surprisingly short amount of time, mere weeks in the world of the story but that does not seem to effect the pace of the story, at no point did it feel like the story was being padded or drawn out as can often be the case when an entire novel tells only a short amount of time. The middle/main portion of the story is repetitive, in the sense that there was a quest like formula that the protagonist had to get through, but that didn’t make it boring. In fact I found myself at the end of the story in no time wondering how it could possibly end there, I wanted to know what happened! I was bitterly disappointed when I went to get the next story, having already read the first teaser chapter from the sequel at the end, only to find that NetGalley had archived it the day I finished the first novel!

My favourite aspect of Holmberg’s writing was her descriptions and great imagery, okay it helped that I’m fairly familiar with London anyway, but I really enjoyed the descriptions.It was almost as if I were the paper magician reading the words to life around me, which is something coming from a girl who just likes to cut to the good stuff and ordinarily ignores the scenery. As a bookseller, I would whole-heartedly recommend this book to customers who are thinking about trying out Sci-Fi but don’t want to be thrown into the deep-end. It is not the best novel you will have read but who needs that from every novel. It was a thoroughly enjoyable read that I would be eager to get my hands on the sequel of just to see where its going! And that’s all one can ask when they pick up a book and are whisked off into another world.

Don’t you think?

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2014 in Literature Review

 

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Katie Fforde’s ‘A Perfect Match’

Three years ago Bella Castle left her home town nursing a broken heart over Dominic Thane, the man she fell in love with but couldn’t have …

Now she’s made a new life for herself in the country, working as an estate agent.

Bella loves her job and she loves her boyfriend Nevil. But recently he’s been preoccupied, and she’s starting to question if his future hopes and dreams are a perfect match for hers.

And when Dominic turns up unexpectedly in search of his dream house, she begins to wonder if home is really where the heart is. But she’s over him, isn’t she?

I chose this book because I’ve read and enjoyed Katie Fforde’s, Recipe for Love, A Perfect Proposal, Love Letters, Going Dutch, Practically Perfect, Paradise Fields and Artistic Licence… to name a few. In fact it wasn’t until I started the list that I realise just how many I’ve consumed in a period of years. That’s part of the beauty and charm of Fforde’s writing. You can be completely absorbed in her world of quaint towns and village life for a few hours then put it down and out of your mind. Therefore each time you pick it up its like rediscovering an old friend.

Fforde’s writing can be rather formulaic at times but that is not necessarily a critique. She knows what she’s good at and more importantly she knows what we won’t which I think why I’ve come back to her over and over without even realising. I confess this isn’t my favourite of her novels despite the fact that it ticks all the boxes. Small town, check. Previous heartbreak, check. Crappy current boyfriend, check. Return of the dashing heartbreaker, check. Task that allows our heroine independence, check. But for some reason, this particular novel didn’t work for me.

Fforde usually portrays strong yet heartbroken women looking for a way to restore their confidence and sense of self worth. But I found Bella a highly irritating. She never seemed to stick up for herself in the face of her boyfriend’s belittling, irritated smiles and quick changing of subjects left me yelling ‘say something!’. She quickly discovers that passive aggression gets you nowhere but strong-armed into an unwanted marriage and home.  Nevil is the stock patronising, misogynistic ‘bad guy’ that I refuse to believe could possibly exist. Although I myself am not, and never have been, a man I have always found the male characters in Fforde’s writing to be fairly well rounded and complex, not as much so as the heroines, but enough to be believable. Nevil is nothing but a caricature and Dominic is barely explored.

That being said, it is always possible that my opinion is heavily coloured by my own personality. It is possible that relationships like Bella’s do exist but I could never see myself putting up with the behaviour that Bella does and therefore cannot relate with her. But I love Alice! She is a ray of sunshine! A perfect balance of classic and modern, opinionated yet understanding. She is the figure of the older lady that any young woman would be happy to have in their life. Alice conducts her relationship with Michael perfectly by being open and adventurous yet cautious enough to be sure. What is wonderfully refreshing is that she is independent, unmarried with no children and perfectly happy, there is no sense of judgement.

The Perfect Match is a story about exactly that, be that the perfect house, perfect house-mate or relationship. There are an expanse of truly heart warming relationships displayed throughout the novel to offset the more enraging ones. Katie Fforde is a wonderful way to take a few hours to yourself, get lost in her world and relate to or castigate her characters. I’d recommend you try her novels for yourself to get lost in quiet, quaint towns across Britain.

 
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Posted by on November 20, 2014 in Literature Review

 

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Fred D’Aguiar’s ‘The Longest Memory’

Written in taut, poetic language, THE LONGEST MEMORY is set on a Virginian plantation in the 19th century, and tells the tragic story of a rebellious, fiercely intelligent young slave who breaks all the rules: in learning to read and write, in falling in love with a white girl, the daughter of his owner, and, finally, in trying to escape and join her in the free North. For his attempt to flee, he is whipped to death in front of his family, and this brutal event is the pivot around which the story evolves.

D’Aguiar’s novel The Longest Memory is one that I have been studying this week in my Representing Slavery module at university but it’s unlike any of the other books that we’ve studied so far so I’ve decided to make it my début review. The subject matter is obviously a sensitive one, one that it is difficult to say you’ve enjoyed lest someone get the wrong impression. So instead I will say that I enjoyed D’Aguiar’s writing in this novel. He does not adhere to the same restrictions that perhaps other writers fall prey to in the sense that he has a freedom and fluidity of medium that I personally have never experienced before. It’s written mostly in first person present but not completely, he adopts different characters voices (both male and female), he switches to verse form and back, he incorporates newspaper clippings and diary entries. The result of this is a novel that intrigues the reader as you have no idea what you  to expect as you turn the page.

The beauty of this novel is that although it is fairly short (a godsend when doing an English degree) it’s polyphonic form makes it feel full. It effectively tells one story from many perspectives, each chapter/character giving us a little more information/insight into the one event that is the main focus of the book.

Although there is both violent and disturbing imagery in The Longest Memory it does not detract from the beauty of the writing or the complexity of what D’Aguiar is trying to do with this novel. I would wholeheartedly recommend it just for the experience of reading a novel that so flies in the face of what we’re used to expecting when we pick up a novel.

 
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Posted by on November 6, 2014 in Literature Review

 

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