Review: The Dragon Lady by Louisa Treger

The Dragon Lady

 

Title: The Dragon Lady
Author: Louisa Treger
Publisher: Bloomsbury Caravel
Publication Date: 13th June 2019
Pages: 320

 


Thank you to the publisher for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I think The Dragon Lady is one of those novels which tries to be too many different things at once, and therefore ends up not exploring each of its themes to their full potential. Telling the life story of liberal activist Lady Virginia Courtauld, this book attempted to be a biography, crime novel and romance all at once – and sadly, this combination didn’t quite work for me.

Before picking up this book, I had never heard of Ginie Courtauld, so I was eager to learn more about this fascinating woman who defied the social customs of her time in more ways than deciding to get a shocking tattoo of a snake on her leg. During her time in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the 1950s, she and her husband fought for racial equality despite their liberal views making them unpopular amongst their European peers.

Although we get told about Ginie and Stephen’s activism throughout the novel, I never felt as though I was given the opportunity to truly discover what Ginie was thinking and feeling as the various events took place. The timeline skipped around a lot, especially during the first half of the book, and I found that this stopped me from truly getting into the story, since I’d just be getting to know one set of characters only to find myself pulled away to a completely different time and place.

A definite strength of Louisa Treger’s writing, though, is her descriptive prose. I especially liked the parts of the novel set in Rhodesia; I could literally feel the stifling heat as I read, and could vividly picture the vibrant gardens surrounding Ginie and Stephen’s home. I’m not normally one to particularly notice descriptive writing, but in this case it definitely helped bring the setting to life, and was one of my favourite things about the book.

The Dragon Lady transported me to a place and period of history I previously had no knowledge of, which I always enjoy when reading historical fiction. Unfortunately the characters fell a little flat for me, though. It might have been the jumping around in the beginning, but I never quite managed to connect to the characters, giving this more the feel of a factual biography rather than a gripping novel.

The Hamilton Book Tag

As you might have gathered from my constant shouting about it both here and on Twitter, I’m unashamedly obsessed with the MASTERPIECE that is Hamilton the Musical. So when I spotted the Hamilton Book Tag over on Pretty Purple Polka Dots, I naturally decided I’d have to do it myself!

The original tag was created by booktuber Maureen, and although some of the questions sound spoiler-y in nature, I’ve managed to find a way to answer all of them in a way that keeps the post completely spoiler-free (you’re welcome)!

THE QUESTIONS

1. The Room Where It Happens: Book world you would put yourself in

I was trying to think of a fantasy world, then realised that they’re generally bleak and terrifying, so instead I’ll go with the fictional town of Lakeview where all of Sarah Dessen’s books are set, because then I’d get to hang out with all her characters.

2. The Schuyler Sisters: Underrated Female Character

I feel like Emma Woodhouse from Emma gets a lot of hate, but I actually think she’s a great character. Her flaws only make me like her more, because I can get behind a realistic heroine way more than a perfect one.

3. My Shot: A character that goes after what they want and doesn’t let anything stop them

Is it even a blog post written by me if I don’t somehow mention Emmy Lake from Dear Mrs Bird?

4. Stay Alive: A character you wish was still alive

The Seven Sisters series might centre around Pa Salt’s death, but that doesn’t stop me from wishing we could have had some scenes with him and all his adoptive daughters before he died.

5. Burn: The most heartbreaking end to a relationship you’ve ever read

I’m not going to give any spoilers, but if you’ve read Home Fire you will know what I mean when I say that the ending completely broke me. And if you haven’t read it yet, you definitely should!

6. You’ll Be Back: Sassiest villain

Caroline Bingley from Pride and Prejudice has to be up there – she never passes up an opportunity to sass Lizzie with fake compliments.

7. The Reynolds Pamphlet – A book with a twist that you didn’t see coming

I recently read The Corset by Laura Purcell, and THAT ending took me completely by surprise!

8. Non-stop: A series you marathoned

I’m usually terrible at finishing series I’ve started, but I flew threw The Hunger Games trilogy during a family holiday.

9. Satisfied: Favourite book with multiple points of view

Homegoing is unique in that every single chapter is told from a different point of view, and it’s one of the many things I love about this book.

10. Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story: A book/series you feel like will be remembered throughout history

The Hate U Give has already had such a huge impact on so many people – I definitely think it will become a classic.

 

BONUS QUESTIONS

1. Helpless: A relationship you were rooting for from the start

I don’t know if this is cheating since they’re already together at the start of the book, but I loved Eden and Connor’s relationship in Goodbye, Perfect.

2. Ten Duel Commandments: Favourite fight scene

Basically any fight scene involving Vin in The Final Empire – Brandon Sanderson writes the most inventive and cinematic fight scenes.

3. Say No To This: Guilty pleasure read

I pretty much just read whatever I fancy, regardless of target age range or genre, so I don’t really have an answer for this one!

4. What Comes Next: A series you wish had more books

I wish The Century Trilogy by Ken Follett was longer than 3 books – I’m currently putting off reading the last one because I don’t want it to end!

5. Right Hand Man – Favourite BROTP (Friendship)

My favourite platonic relationship is hands down Frances and Aled in Radio Silence.

6. What’d I Miss: A book or series you were late to reading

Hahahaha basically EVERY POPULAR SERIES (see answer to Question 8). The worst culprit is probably The Mortal Instruments, which I only started reading last year.

Review: The Corset by Laura Purcell

The Corset


Title: 
The Corset
Author: Laura Purcell
Publisher: Raven Books
Publication Date: 20th September 2018
Pages: 416

 

 

Thank you to the publisher for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I wasn’t too sure what to expect from this book – but oh boy, it was INTENSE. This beautifully-written Gothic tale sucked me in from the very beginning, taking me on a wild ride through the grim and grisly parts of Victorian Britain.

The Corset tells the story of Dorothea Truelove, a young heiress with a passion for phrenology, and her visits to Oakgate women’s prison to visit Ruth Butterham, a sixteen-year-old seamstress convicted of murdering her mistress. From the very beginning there is a supernatural element to Ruth’s tale, which I previously haven’t enjoyed in historical fiction – but Laura Purcell weaves it so deftly into the story that it fast became one of my favourite elements.

I love stories with contrasting protagonists, especially when both are women, and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know both Dorothea and Ruth through their alternating chapters. The stark contrast between Dorothea’s scientific world view and Ruth’s fantastical tale made the story so interesting, causing me to continuously reassess my opinions as I tried to decide who I believed.

There’s lots of good period detail in here, including some interesting detail on phrenology and lots of insight into the process of dressmaking. It’s worth noting that Laura Purcell also doesn’t shy away from the more gruesome details in her writing – and in fact there were a couple of points where I actually did have to set the book aside for a moment, because the more graphic scenes are written so vividly that they actually made my stomach churn!

Most of the characters in this novel aren’t great people at all, yet I still found myself absorbed in their lives as I eagerly awaited the next twist or turn. I enjoyed reading about them with the same sort of morbid fascination as I felt when reading Wuthering Heights, so I definitely think Laura Purcell succeeded in capturing the essence of Gothic fiction.

The final twist took me completely by surprise, and I’m still mulling it over even a day after finishing the book. Overall this was a thoroughly absorbing read, and I’m keen to read more by Laura Purcell – but if The Corset is anything to go by, I think I’m best sticking to reading her books during daylight hours!

 

Review: After the Party by Cressida Connolly

After the Party


Title: 
After the Party
Author: Cressida Connolly
Publisher: Viking
Publication Date: 7th June 2018
Pages: 272

 

 

I have such mixed feelings about this book. For the first half I was absolutely loving it and couldn’t wait to see where it was headed – but by the time I got to the last 90 pages or so it became an uncomfortable slog, so much so that I seriously considered not finishing it.

After the Party opens in 1979 with a woman called Phyllis Forrester describing being reunited with her children after a stint in prison – although her crime is not disclosed at this point. We then move back to the 1930s, where Phyllis and her family have returned to England after spending a few years abroad.

Phyllis and her family move in very high circles, with lots of internal politics going on between her two sisters as they jockey for position in the political organisation they are currently both members of, which we soon come to learn is Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. The tension between Phyllis and her sisters kept me intrigued throughout the first portion of the book, as did the glamour and opulence of the parties they attended.

With tension brewing and relationships straining as Phyllis and her husband also began to involve themselves with the British Union, I was very much given the impression of impending shock and drama – but the “dramatic events” promised by the blurb never really put in an appearance. I’d expected the imprisonment of Phyllis to form the nail-biting conclusion to the book, but instead it happened sooner than I expected, which instantly sapped all the intrigue out of the story for me.

The remainder of the novel displayed abundant evidence of Cressida Connolly’s historical research, but unfortunately it often read more like a textbook description of the fate of women like Phyllis who were imprisoned during the Second World War. I found myself completely disconnected from Phyllis as a character, and all the characters I’d previously been interested in seemed to fade into insignificance.

By the time the plot reached its unsatisfactory ending, I found myself thinking I must have completely missed the point of this novel. At its heart I think it is an exploration of how seemingly ‘nice’ and ‘respectable’ people such as Phyllis can end up becoming extremists. Through Phyllis it is demonstrated that nobody ever thinks of themselves as an extremist – her political views were perfectly sensible and reasonable as far as she was concerned.

I did very much like the themes explored in this novel, often finding that it resonated too closely with our current political climate – but in the end there wasn’t enough of interest to grip me all the way through.

Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

 

Title: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Author: Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication Date: 10th July 2008
Pages: 248

 

 

Alright, I hope you’re ready for a gushing review – because that’s definitely what this one is going to be! It may have a mouthful of a title, but The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is an instant new favourite of mine, and a strong contender for the best book I’ve read so far in 2019.

This epistolary novel is told entirely through letters sent and received by Juliet Ashton, an author from London who has made a name for herself writing comedic fiction throughout the Second World War. The novel opens in 1946, where we find Juliet trying to come up with a subject for her next book when she receives a letter from one Dawsey Adams from Guernsey, who was a member of the titular literary society during the Nazi occupation of the island during the war.

Through Juliet’s correspondence with Dawsey we are introduced to various other members of the literary society – and these characters were definitely a highlight of the novel for me. From the quirky Isola Pribby and her quest to find her life’s calling, to doting grandfather Eben Ramsey whose grandson Eli was evacuated to Yorkshire during the war, I really felt as if I was reading about the lives of real people.

Much of the novel’s plot focuses on the occupation of Guernsey during the war, and it was here that the authors’ meticulous research shone through. Reading about some of the atrocities faced by the residents of Guernsey during the war made me so angry, because in all the years I spent studying WWII in History classes at school, not once were any of these issues covered.

There were definitely some emotional moments in this book, but it maintained a hopeful, heartwarming style –  very similar to Dear Mrs Bird, one of my favourite novels of 2018. The authors succeeded in building up an excellent picture of their fictional Guernsey literary society, highlighting how the war entangled various members of the community in unexpected and unusual ways. Each character had their own story to tell, but there was still a central overarching narrative to drive the plot forward.

At only 248 pages long, this is a relatively short novel, and I would have happily read another 200 pages about these wonderful characters’ lives! The epistolary format may be a turn-off for some, but I personally love this style of novel – and if you do too, I would highly recommend giving this beautiful story a read.

 

OWLs Readathon Wrap-Up

Throughout the month of April, I was taking part in the OWLs Magical Readathon hosted by G over at Book Roast. In my OWLs Readathon TBR post I briefly discussed how the readathon works, so check it out if you’re wondering what on earth a Magical Readathon is!

To pursue my magical career of choice (Astronomer), I was required to pass 3 OWLs: Arithmancy, Astronomy and History of Magic. I successfully completed those exams, and also managed to pass another 3 to bring my total to 6 exams passed. I therefore ended this exam season with a grade of Exceeded Expectations, which was my initial aim at the beginning of the month!

I am atrocious at making and sticking to TBRs, so unsurprisingly I did deviate slightly from the list I set myself back when I wrote my TBR post. Here are the books I actually did end up reading, and some brief thoughts on each of them:

Arithmancy

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie SocietyThe Prompt: Work written by more than one author

My choice: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Rating: *****

Thoughts: An absolute delight! Such a heartwarming WWII tale about how books can help you through the toughest times.

 

Astronomy

The Start of Me and You

 The Prompt: Star in the title

My choice: The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord

Rating: ****

Thoughts: This was the closest book on my TBR to fitting the prompt, so I decided to stretch the rules a little. I’m glad I did, too – this was such a fun and adorable YA contemporary.

 

History of Magic

Black Sheep

The Prompt: Published at least 10 years ago

My choice: Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer

Rating: **

Thoughts: Definitely NOT Heyer’s best. Unlikable characters, boring plot, and a very unsatisfying conclusion. Would recommend giving this one a miss.

 

Herbology

The Western WindThe prompt: Plant on the cover

My choice: The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey

Rating: ****

Thoughts: A clever, twisty (and occasionally historically inaccurate) medieval thriller with a completely enthralling ending. Read my full review here.

 

Defence Against the Dark Arts

Radio Silence

The Prompt: Reducto: title starts with an “R”

My choice: Radio Silence by Alice Oseman

Rating: *****

Thoughts: My first Alice Oseman novel – but certainly not my last! Her characterisation is second to none, and I still think about this book constantly even though I finished it weeks ago.

 

Potions

A Torch Against the Night (An Ember in the Ashes, #2)

The Prompt: Next ingredient: sequel

My choice: A Torch Against the Night (An Ember in the Ashes #2) by Sabaa Tahir

Rating: ****

Thoughts: Well, THAT was intense. I’m pretty sure my heart barely stopped pounding the whole way through! Simultaneously excited/terrified to read book 3.

 

So that’s it for the Magical Readathon until the NEWTs in August! I had so much fun taking part in it – huge thanks to G for all her incredible hard work in putting this amazing event together and making it such a great experience for everyone ❤

 

 

 

 

 

Review: The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey

The Western Wind

 

Title: The Western Wind
Author: Samantha Harvey
Publisher: Random House UK, Vintage Publishing
Publication Date: 1st March 2018
Pages: 304

 

 

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Western Wind seems to have been everywhere recently. Longlisted and subsequently shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, it was also the Waterstones fiction book of the month for March this year. Although the 1490s time period isn’t my usual choice, the premise sounded so intriguing and creative that I thought I’d give it a try.

This novel follows four days in the life of village priest John Reve in the aftermath of the death of one of his parishioners. The really unique thing about this story, though, is that it moves backwards in time from the fourth day following Thomas Newman’s death towards the day of the death itself.

I was a bit sceptical about this method of telling the story, since I was worried the tension would all fall away as we moved backwards through each day – but Samantha Harvey definitely knew what she wanted to achieve, and executed it so well. Within each of the four days, an additional layer was peeled back to further explain certain characters’ motives and actions, until the incredibly clever final section of the book which had me utterly gripped.

Despite really enjoying the beginning and end of the book, my attention did waver during the middle two days. During this portion there was little in terms of excitement or pace, and many of Reve’s actions and musings made little sense until the final section of the book.

Another point to note is that this novel should not be read as an informative guide to life in 1490s England. I’d attempted to prepare for this by reading an article by Samantha Harvey in which she explained some of her choices regarding historical detail – but this didn’t stop some of the inaccuracies really grating on me. The worst culprit for me was a description of rain tapping on people’s coats, which brought to mind jarring images of modern anoraks and jerked me right out of the medieval setting.

Samantha Harvey’s evocative descriptions of the Somerset countryside thankfully helped bring the village of Oakham to life, even if the portrayal of the time period was sketchy. I got a real sense of the dismal, murky atmosphere in the village as its inhabitants attempted to come to terms with the loss of one of the wealthiest and most well-liked members of their parish.

Overall, I found The Western Wind to be a challenging but rewarding read. The middle section was a slog at times, and some of the inaccuracies were frustrating, but this is such a well-crafted and intelligent novel that I can definitely see why it made the Walter Scott Prize shortlist.