Beauty in Thorns by Kate Forsyth

Published: 3 July 2017 (print)/ August 2017 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
 Vintage Australia/Wavesound Audio
Pages: 464/19 hours
Narrator: Juliette Burton
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Historical Fiction
★   ★   ★   ★   ★  – 5 Stars

The Pre-Raphaelites were determined to liberate art and love from the shackles of convention. 

Ned Burne-Jones had never had a painting lesson and his family wanted him to be a parson. Only young Georgie Macdonald – the daughter of a Methodist minister – understood. She put aside her own dreams to support him, only to be confronted by many years of gossip and scandal.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti was smitten with his favourite model, Lizzie Siddal. She wanted to be an artist herself, but was seduced by the irresistible lure of laudanum. 

William Morris fell head-over-heels for a ‘stunner’ from the slums, Janey Burden. Discovered by Ned, married to William, she embarked on a passionate affair with Gabriel that led inexorably to tragedy.

Margot Burne-Jones had become her father’s muse. He painted her as Briar Rose, the focus of his most renowned series of paintings, based on the fairy-tale that haunted him all his life. Yet Margot longed to be awakened to love. 

Bringing to life the dramatic true story of love, obsession and heartbreak that lies behind the Victorian era’s most famous paintings, Beauty in Thorns is the story of awakenings of all kinds.

Once again Forsyth has written a beautiful book that is filled with beauty, history, and heartache. I had been looking forward to reading this book and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The lives of the Pre-Raphaelites is tragic and inspiring, and to be swept up into their world was a vivid adventure.

This retelling of Sleeping Beauty explores the life of the famous artists who called themselves the Pre-Raphaelites. It was an area of history and art I knew little to nothing about but discovering their story thorugh this book was delightful.

Forsyth brings their stories to life with such detail and expression, and I marvelled at how these characters are more than character, they are people from history who contributed to the world and who brought their art and passion to the public.

What I found absolutely marvellous is that I could look up the halls of the Oxford Union Debating Chamber and see the murals in their completion whilst listening to the story about their creation. Seeing the completed works of these historical figures and putting real faces to the names is a delight that historical fiction can bring, especially when Forsyth does such a wonderful job keeping it as close to historically accurate as possible, with her own fairy tale mastery woven through.

The narration shifts between all of the character offering up a rounded perspective of their experiences and characters. The passion of Rossetti and the tragedy of Lizzie, as well as the brilliant and fascinating men and women who surrounded them is fascinating to read about. The story moves slowly but not dully, the exploration of character and the creation of art is fulfilling. With multiple characters to explore Forsyth balances their introductions and their voices very well, each having depth and complications that make you understand who they are and who they were.

I was fascinated about how so many known people from history connected to these characters, Kipling and Bernard Shaw all connect with these artists and Forsyth has blended their stories together beautifully. This is a wonderful skill I have noticed in all of Forsyth’s books. She seamlessly includes a range of information into the story that act like natural conversation and narrative without ever falling into the exposition chunk trap, which makes for a wonderful read but also help define the period and inform readers of the historical aspects of the story. Details about the movements of characters and filling in events that occur during the skipped time fall into place. I often got caught up in the story that when a character mentions people passed away years ago or were married for a certain amount of years I realised how much time had passed and it amazed me that it felt so right to just go on this journey with these character across their entire lives.

Forsyth covers numerous decades over the lives of these artists and their families. Even in the short space of reading this book I felt nostalgic, as these great figures entered their older age and they themselves were reminiscing about their youth. I recalled the chapters when they were young and carefree. I felt like I had gone on this journey with these artists and I empathised with them and pitied them.

When characters like Georgie and Ned reminisce about being young I thought back to the chapters where they were so carefree and idealistic, painting the mural and found myself becoming wistful sad and nostalgic alongside them. It hadn’t been 30 years for me, but I had been on this journey of their lives and seen their struggles and achievements and I wanted to mourn for them and celebrate them in a small way.

Burton does a wonderful job narrating the audiobook. I could picture everything with Forsyth’s words and Burton distinguishes these characters and brings their personalities off the page. Listening to the audio also gave the sensation of storytelling, I was being told a story about these grand artists from long ago and I loved listening to Burton tell me about their lives.

I implore you to look up their artwork when you have finished reading this book, I loved that I could see the finished product of a piece I’d only read about, or see the models that Forsyth describes in her story. It is a benefit of historical fiction and with a wonderful historical fairytale as beautiful as this it was a delight to relive it in a new way.

You can purchase Beauty in Thorns via the following

QBD | Booktopia | Book Depository

Angus and Robinson | Dymocks

Fishpond | Amazon Aust | Amazon | Audible

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

Published: 8th February 2018 (print) / 1st March 2018 (audio)Goodreads badge
Publisher:
 Raven Book / Bolinda/Audible
Pages: 512 / 16 hrs and 41 mins
Narrator: Jot Davies
Format:
 Audio
Genre: Historical/Crime
★   ★   ★   ★   ★  – 5 Stars

How do you stop a murder that’s already happened?

At a gala party thrown by her parents, Evelyn Hardcastle will be killed–again. She’s been murdered hundreds of times, and each day, Aiden Bishop is too late to save her. Doomed to repeat the same day over and over, Aiden’s only escape is to solve Evelyn Hardcastle’s murder and conquer the shadows of an enemy he struggles to even comprehend–but nothing and no one are quite what they seem.

Deeply atmospheric and ingeniously plotted, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a highly original debut that will appeal to fans of Kate Atkinson and Agatha Christie.

I loved this book. I loved that I was confused, intrigued, amazed, perplexed. I loved that my brain nearly short circuited as I tried to get my head around what I knew, what clues I should be picking up on, weaving together this story told in fractures and out of order and yet happening all at the same time.

Turton takes you on a journey unlike any before to help solve a mystery like you’ve never seen, I cannot believe this is his debut novel. What he has done is incredibly complicated but brilliant. It’s the desire of every detective to see everyone’s perspective of the moments before a murder and with a mystery and a loop trapping the participants, it is the opportune moment to piece together clues and motives. Don’t let the 500 pages daunt you, it’s an intricately woven puzzle that makes use of the space and has the feel of an old fashion mystery, information obtained through observing and questioning, lurking and snooping, and secret meetings in the library.

I loved the loop. I love anything that has a loop factor. Turton plays with this notion creatively and in an odd way it reminds me of playing a computer game and playing the same levels over and over. The first time around you don’t pick the fruit from the tree and you go on but fail. The second time you pick the fruit and can trade it for information with a villager. Turton has done an exceptionally clever job piecing this together so that the reader has no idea what is going on just like our narrator, but as he learns, we learn and it allows us to start piecing together our own theories and suspect lists.

The benefits of knowing how much longer there is in this book is you are almost giddy with anticipation at what could possibly be left to happen. There is even a moment when you think it’s finally solved but there are 3 hours left on the audiobook and then all hell breaks loose again. It’s divine! I listened to this riveted to my seat, unable to do anything else much because I was captured by this story. I couldn’t even try and figure anything out until a moment before I was told I was wrong because of the beautiful chaos and complexities and intricacies that are seamlessly making up this story that here’s no time to do anything except listen dutifully in astonishment.

Turton makes use of every one of these 500 pages and right up until the final moment there is perfect pacing that is just the right speed and intensity that the scene or the character needed. You could feel what these characters felt, you understood who they were. The ongoing stress and impact of these loops is shown believably and cleverly within the novel in a way that affects the story, it can’t even just be an inconsequential act, Turton makes sure every act that is taken has meaning and an affect somewhere within this house and for its occupants.

I basically stopped doing anything so I could focus on this story, I listened with intensity for the final third of the book unable to stop listening such was the fascination I had developed. I have never read anything quite like this before, similar stories exist for sure, but what Turton has done, mixing these styles together is genius and unique and I loved every second of it. I genuinely cannot believe this is a debut novel and I certainly wait with anticipation what Turton will come up with next.

You can purchase The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle via the following

Booktopia | Book Depository | Audible

Amazon | Amazon Aust | Wordery

Angus & Robertson | Dymocks

 Fishpond | QBD

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Published: 14th March 2006 (print) / 15 June 2012 (audio)Goodreads badge
Publisher:
 Alfred A. Knopf / ABC Audio
Pages: 552 / 14 hours 22 minutes
Narrator: Dennis Olsen
Format:
 Audio
Genre: Historical YA
★   ★   ★   ★  – 4 Stars

It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will be busier still.

By her brother’s graveside, Liesel’s life is changed when she picks up a single object, partially hidden in the snow. It is The Gravedigger’s Handbook, left behind there by accident, and it is her first act of book thievery. So begins a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the help of her accordian-playing foster father, learns to read. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor’s wife’s library, wherever there are books to be found.

But these are dangerous times. When Liesel’s foster family hides a Jew in their basement, Liesel’s world is both opened up, and closed down.

I’m glad I finally got a chance to read this, it has been on my list for a very long time and thankfully it didn’t disappoint. There were some adjustments to make with the audio format, it took a lot of getting used to, but at the heart of it, it’s a beautiful story.

Zusak’s approach to the story is quite unique. I loved the narrator and I loved how the story jumped around in time, always connecting back to things with a seamlessness. I actually kind of liked that some parts were spoiled early on, it made me think that if key spoilers were going to be announced in the first few chapters, whatever secrets that were kept must have been even bigger. Little did I know that Zusak’s plan was to ruin you in a completely different way with words that crush you and emotions that sneak up on you when you thought you were safe.

There are so many components that bring this book together: the characters work together with the history, and their environment brings it all together perfectly. Zusak’s blunt in some ways, but can weave a descriptive sentence in other ways as well. In a conflicting situation, I both loved and hate the side notes. I liked that they were like small information snippets or opinions from the narrator that provided more information to the reader and it gave it a nice aspect of being like footnotes while you read. The problem with them though is they didn’t translate to audio very well. Not that they couldn’t have, just that they weren’t done very well in this instance. Olsen does a fine job with the audio, but the sidenotes are told in hushed tones, something that is very hard to hear sometimes. It also made me realise I’m not a fan of accordion music.

Another thing I loved was that Zusak doesn’t shy away from harsh realities. He brings out the strain and the tension of Hitler’s Germany, as well as the pressure to conform and the consequences if you don’t. Zusak manages to explore a wide range of the social and political climates through his characters without it feeling like they are being forced into situations in order to explain things. There was no sense of Forrest Gump where all the important things happen to be connected to the characters, and yet with the structure Zusak has created, there is always a natural way to get all the information across and bring the main characters into the story.

I did think it was a bit long. I get that it is meant to be an ongoing story that builds up gradually over the course of the war, but my halfway I was a bit tired. I still enjoyed the story, but I was surprised that I was only half way. In a way it made sense not to rush it, there is a lot of power in a slow story that sinks its teeth into you and makes even the smallest action weigh heavy by the end of the book, especially over the course of a war. Of course I got my second wind and by the time I got to the end I’d gotten back into the swing of the story and Zusak brings this epic journey to a brilliant end. It’s poignant, heartbreaking, and for all the warning you get through the entire book, Zusak still manages to punch you in the heart.

You can purchase The Book Thief via the following

Booktopia | Book Depository | Wordery

QBD | Dymocks | Fishpond

Amazon | Amazon Aust

 

 

Little Miss Sure Shot: Annie Oakley’s World by Jeffrey Marshall

Published: 5th May 2014Goodreads badge
Publisher:
 Self Published
Pages: 148
Format: ebook
Genre: Biography/Historical
★   ★   ★   ★ – 4 Stars

Little Miss Sure Shot is a fictionalized account of the life of Annie Oakley, drawing heavily on the real timelines and events of her life. However, the book is not a biography – it invents situations, people she meets, and a myriad of conversations. Moreover, while the book is presented chronologically, apart from the prologue, it skips certain periods and attempts to focus on those that are especially vital, such as the early years Annie spent with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, including the tours through Europe. A special feature of the novel is the framing of Annie’s loving marriage to fellow sharpshooter Frank Butler, whom she married at sixteen and remained married to for 50 years until her death. Frank was far more than just her husband – he was her manager (he gave up his own shooting for that role) and her constant companion. The novel closes with an epilogue in Frank’s voice, presenting an overview of their lives together and the circumstances of her death in 1926.

Little Miss Sure Shot is a fictionalized account of the life of Annie Oakley, drawing heavily on the real timelines and events of her life. However, the book is not a biography – it invents situations, people she meets, and a myriad of conversations. Moreover, while the book is presented chronologically, apart from the prologue, it skips certain periods and attempts to focus on those that are especially vital, such as the early years Annie spent with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, including the tours through Europe. A special feature of the novel is the framing of Annie’s loving marriage to fellow sharpshooter Frank Butler, whom she married at sixteen and remained married to for 50 years until her death. Frank was far more than just her husband – he was her manager (he gave up his own shooting for that role) and her constant companion. The novel closes with an epilogue in Frank’s voice, presenting an overview of their lives together and the circumstances of her death in 1926. 

Note: I was provided a copy of this book for review.

 Not knowing anything about Annie Oakley before starting this book I was not sure what I was in for but it wasn’t long before I became engrossed with the story. Marshall has been quite clever in his presentation of this book, stating clearly that it is not a biography, but it is also not a novel either. Somewhere in the middle is this book that looks at key moments in Oakley’s life, and explores her rise to stardom and life in the spotlight with a few fictional elements added.

There is not a lot of dialogue or plot, and being a semi-fictionalised account of Oakley’s life it isn’t supposed to have a plot per se, but Marshall writes in such a way that it has a narrative feel which also makes the story flow nicely. I liked that it read more like a novel than a nonfiction biography, having said that the writing does have an informative tone to it mixes this with snippets of dialogue and scenes that balance it out nicely.

Annie’s life is presented chronologically, though there are brief references to future moments or memories of the past, but Marshall connects these together smoothly and doesn’t jar the story with them. While Marshall admits this not a true biography, there is no doubting it has a great deal of information about Oakley’s life. Marshall explores Annie’s childhood and how she started shooting at 8 years old, and he also focuses intensely on her time with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. One of the great and consistent elements in the story though is the exploration of Oakley’s marriage with Frank. As her husband for 50 years it is wonderful to see their connection grow and the influence he had on her life.

While the Wild West show was interesting, discovering about life during that time and the difference in society across Europe and America not to mention Annie’s place within them was fascinating. It was also wonderful to discover just how famous Annie was and the impact she had on the world. As a person she comes across as someone who is independent and knew what she wanted, and she was determined to be herself no matter what. Her strong ideals, ingenuity, and her desire that every woman should learn to shoot makes her a wonderful woman and key part of history, something which Marshall captures wonderfully.

I really enjoyed this book and I loved learning about Annie Oakley and her life. The problem of not being a real biography means there is an uncertainty about certain facts and events, but Marshall’s recount about Annie’s life piques your interest and curiosity in just the right way to want to go and learn more about her. Knowing this biography is based on some element of truth though makes the sad bits sadder but the good bits greater and there is no doubt it is a charming and heart-warming story and one of admiration for Annie and the life she lead.

You can purchase Little Miss Sure Shot via the following

Amazon

Amazon Aus

Amazon UK

Book Bingo BookBiography

Desperate Reflections (#3) by Shay West

Published: 28th August 2014
Goodreads badgePublisher: Booktrope Editions
Pages: 248
Format: ebook
Genre: Young Adult/Historical/Science Fiction
★   ★   ★  – 3 Stars

In this final book of the Adventures of Alexis Davenport Series, we find Alex dealing with more drama than ever: her first break-up, her mom’s new boyfriend, and attempting to learn the secrets of her “gift” on her own. Desperate to stop Drifter, Alex uses her ability to locate the evil Traveler, only to discover that he lives in her time… And he knows who she is. In a final race against time, Alex must discover Drifter’s ultimate plan, stop him, and save her family…all before prom.

Note: I was provided a copy of this book for review

From the revelation at the end of the second book I was eager to start reading the final one and find out what was going to happen. In the three years since discovering her ability Alex is slowly understanding what she is capable of. She is confident if not wary when it comes to travelling and it’s clear the various women she’s taken over have helped her discover more about herself. With the danger of the Traveller coming closer to home than ever before I’m glad West chose to put more light on the travelling than the school life and she did a good job in concluding the series and wrapping things up nicely.

The story is interesting and engaging as per usual and West adds a lot more intrigue and drama into the story which only adds to the enjoyment. With the Traveller closing in on Alex and she still trying to understand her abilities, there is the ongoing game of cat and mouse that they play both through time and not and the creativity West has in these situations is excellent.

West’s strength is certainly in the time travel aspects, but there is also an improvement in her writing about Alex’s home and school life compared to previous books and I think this comes down to good representation through the characters. Alex seems to be more settled at school and at home and the pettiness of the past has been put aside meaning she can enjoy herself more. There are still hints of the immature and petulant girl but West’s ability to portray these emotions is much more successful and suits the story much better as there is a greater believability and understanding behind them.

Alex’s pent up anger issues and outburst are given a detailed explanation and cause this time which was wonderful, and West works it into the story well. If West was using this as the cause of previous outburst, it isn’t until now that it has come across successfully. The events in this book may be the final straw for Alex where she snaps and the floodgate of emotions break through in their entirety, and even though previous books hasn’t explained this well enough, it makes sense this time.

The weak point is sometimes in the narrative voice, and while the story is interesting the narration sometimes lets it down. Somehow West is able to write in a way that is engaging and thrilling, while other times the writing and story falters and becomes quite oddly expressed but the interest remains and keeps you reading through these parts.

What stands out in this novel is that Alex certainly seems more confident in herself which reflects how much she has learnt about herself and how she has grown, and she is more open to addressing her feelings about issues in her life. It’s a small part of the story but it is great character improvement, especially for Alex.

There are answers given in this book, endings and explanations as well but West keeps some secrets to herself. The ending was really well done and I loved that West used details from earlier books to help Alex along. The story is engaging and at times can be fast paced and filled with tension and suspense, and as usual West makes you nervous about just how far the Traveller will go to stop Alex. I think the time travelling and certainly the conclusion makes up for the faults in the story and you finish feeling like a series has been concluded well and with a bit of mystery remaining. To be picky is to ask for a history on why Alex can travel through time and more detail about it but as a snapshot into her life and not into the grand scheme of things, West’s series is one that is intriguing and enjoyable.

 

Purchase Desperate Reflections via the following

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

iTunes

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