Miss Austen by Gill Hornby

Cassandra Austen returns to Kintbury in search of old letters between herself, her sister and their mutual friend Eliza Fowles. Eliza’s daughter Isabella has to move out of the priory after her father’s death and so the house is emptied. But Cassandra, who is taking care of the estate of her beloved sister and author Jane Austen, doesn’t want certain letters to be made public.

Miss Austen is a novel about Jane’s older sister Cassandra. Cassandra lived a lot longer than Jane and, in this book, symbolises the single woman in the 19th century. Her fiancé Tom Fowles died before they could marry and Cassandra vowed not to marry anyone else. The book is told in two perspectives: that of Jane and Cassandra as young women and that of the older Cassandra who moves in with Isabella in search of the letters. Isabella, too, is one such single woman who therefore has to look for a new home.

The book alludes to a number of Jane’s works and although the letters are fictional, Jane’s voice is clearly evident in them. The love of literature splashes from this book. But something is missing. The older Cassandra storyline hints to some kind of secret that cannot be disposed. Yet, the letters contain not so much information about Jane and Cassandra that is really secret. So for me it felt Cassandra went through a lot of trouble for nothing.

All in all, this is an adorable novel that takes you into the world of the Austen family. A book to crawl under a blanket with, but one that will also soon be forgotten I’m afraid.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Have you read this one? Do you recommend another book about Jane Austen’s world?

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Spindrift by Tamara McKinley

After the death of her husband, Christy wants to travel alone from Australia to the Scottish Isle of Skye, where she was born. Her family doesn’t like the idea and so her granddaughter Kathryn and daughter Anne, with whom Christy is at odds, join her on this journey. Once they arrive at Skye, Christy is faced with her past. It’s time to reveal her story.

I once enjoyed Mckinley’s ‘Oceana trilogy’ immensely. Because I was in the mood for something light, I decided to try another of her books. I chose this one because it was set on Skye.

Among other things, Spindrift is about the highland clearances in the 19th century, emigration to Australia and the gold rush in their new homeland. I don’t read a lot about Australia, which makes McKinley my go-to-author for that.

But in terms of structure, this was very different from what I was used to from McKinley. The whole story revolves around a family secret that is talked around throughout the whole book, even though I guessed the truth early on. This was quite frustrating to read as the pace was slow. There are also fewer different perspectives than in the Oceana books. Christy tells her story and at the same time we follow her son-in-law Harold who is in search of the truth back in Australia.

Some characters are a bit caricatured and the pacing is odd, but the descriptions of Skye were very vivid and therefore I still enjoyed the book. Undoubtedly not McKinley’s best book though. I do recommend to start with her Oceana books, of which ‘Lands beyond the sea‘ is the first.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Can you recommend some other books set in Australia? Have you read anything from McKinley?

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Margaret Hale returns to her childhood home ‘Hellstone’ when her cousin Edith gets married. Her father is vicar there but this weights heavy on his conscience and he decides to give up his position. The family moves to a town called Millstone in the north of the country. Millstone is an industrial village where there’s a lot of poverty. Margaret also meets the wealthy Mr Thornton, one of her father’s new pupils who she takes an immediate dislike to.

North and South is my first Elizabeth Gaskell and can be summarised as a socialist version of Jane Austen’s works. It is a slow-paced love story with some political criticism and plenty of melodrama. Which is the general summary of a typical Victorian novel.

The story is well put together, although a little predictable. I had trouble with the pacing. It is so slow, only to end suddenly. There are also some characters (The Higginsen in particular) who speak dialect which didn’t help the readability. There’s another love interest involved, but we don’t really get to know him. So you can only root for Mr Thornton, even when I didn’t really like him.

I don’t have much else to say about the book. It’s certainly not a bad classic, but you have to take your time for it. And I don’t need to read it again at the moment.

This is book 16/50 of the classics club, which I’m going to put off for a while as I don’t enjoy these classics as much as I’d hoped. I’m still constructing my own house at the moment and I feel better reading ‘lighter’ books written in modern times.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Have you read anything by Elizabeth Gaskell before?

Mrs England by Stacy Halls

Ruby May is a trained childnurse whose London family is going to emigrate abroad. But because Ruby sends her monthly wages to her mother, sister Elsie and brothers, she feels she cannot leave them and decides to stay in England. She ends up at Hardcastle House in a remote corner of the country as a nanny for Mr and Mrs England’s four children. But once there, the other servants are unfriendly to her and Mrs England herself shows little interest in her or the children. Ruby also brings her own secrets which she will have to face after a letter from her father arrives.

This is the third book of Halls that I read (after The familiars and The foundling) and I can say that I’m a huge fan of the kind of stories that she brings. Each time her books consist of a fine historical background with a ‘gothic’ mystery at its centre. In ‘Mrs England‘ the remote Hardcastle House is the ideal setting with strange inhabitants and their secrets as in any Gothic novel.

Ruby is a nice main character with whom you immediately relate. But she carries a past with her that sometimes makes you wonder about her motives. The story unfolds slowly. Or at least it felt slower than in Hall’s other books. But the story is well constructed. There were some elements that I guessed but some things you don’t really see coming. The ending is satisfying enough.

I think I found this to be Halls’ least interesting book so far. Maybe because the setting is more typically gothic and the pace was on the slow side. But I would definitely recommend her books, they are great reads. And I enjoyed reading about Mrs England and Ruby May. I’m curious to see which setting Halls will choose for her next novel.

This is book 10/20 for ‘20 books of Summer‘.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read anything by Stacey Halls?

The bell in the lake by Lars Mytting

In the remote Norwegian village of Butangen, young Astrid Hekne dreams of a life that’s more than working on a farm and bearing children. She serves the new pastor Kai Schweigaard, who’s burning with ambition and, when the cold of the old stave church claims a victim during the harch Winter, finds himself determined to build a new church. For this purpose, the student architect Gerhard Schonauer from Dresden comes to Butangen. But the church is home to the famous sister bells, named after Astrid’s ancestors, and they are said to protect the village, against all costs.

The bell in the lake‘ is a very atmospheric historical novel in which Mytting managed to write very beautiful descriptions of the 19th century Norwegian landscape. The local myths, legends and superstition are also discussed. As well as the hard life in the village where time has stood still.

The story is told from the point of view of Astrid and the two men she meets, Kai and Gerhard. Astrid dreams of a life outside Butangen, but at the same time she wants to protect the old church, and especially the sister bells, from demolition. There are very few stave churches left in Norway and this book really introduced me to their existence. What a beautiful gems!

Although this book is well written with an original real-life setting, I still missed something to give it 5 stars. Maybe because the plot was a bit predictable? Mytting could have made some bolder choices in there I believe. This is the first book of a trilogy and I am sure that I’ll read the next one. It offers me a change of scenery to what I’m reading most of the time. I’m curious to see what will happen next at Butangen.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Have you ever been to Norway?

The people’s princess by Flora Harding

Lady Diana has just got engaged to Charles and moves to Buckingham Palace to prepare for their wedding. But Diana is lonely in the big palace. She comes across a portrait of an earlier princess of Wales, Charlotte. When she gets her hands on her secret diary, she soon discovers Charlotte’s life and passions might be more familiar to Diana than she thought.

I was very hesitant to read this book because Diana is hard to call history and we all have memories of her. But Harding created such a beautiful image of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip (I read it when both were still alive) in ‘Before the crown‘ that I decided to give ‘The people’s princess‘ a start.

Diana feels very human in this story. It takes place in the weeks before her famous wedding in St Paul’s Cathedral. You feel her struggling with the distant Charles, the unreadable queen, the press and her eating disorder. One day, she gets hold of the diary of another princess of Wales, beloved by the people. And so we read the story of Charlotte in the 19th century.

Charlotte was the only child of George IV and thus heir to the throne. Her parents were unhappily married and lived apart. Charlotte was trapped in golden cage yearning for passion with only her loyal staff for company. Her only chance at freedom was to get married but she didn’t agree with the proposed match of her parents. Yearning for love and freedom, Charlotte tells her story in her diary.

The fact that the author chose to tell Charlotte’s story via a diary didn’t feel credible in my opinion. Many scenes weren’t written in diary form, so it felt a bit artificial done to weave Diana’s chapters with Charlotte’s. But ignoring the diary part, the story of Charlotte herself is interesting and well portrayed. The parallels between the two princesses are nicely highlighted in this novel.

But it doesn’t cut deep enough and sometimes felt inauthentic. Harding does write smoothly but the book unfortunately did not get under my skin. Of her two novels, I preferred ‘Before the crown’.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for a copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Are you familiar with Charlotte’s story?

Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier

After her mother’s death, Mary Yellan moves to Jamaica Inn to live with her aunt Patience and uncle Joss. But the driver of the carriage warns her right away that strange things are happening at Jamaica Inn, a remote country estate in Cornwall. Once there, she discovers that Patience is afraid of her husband, who drinks a lot and hangs out with vagabonds. When Mary starts to hear strange noises under her room at night and her uncle asks her to shut her eyes, she begins to wonder what this is all about. Especially after meeting her uncle’s younger brother Jem, who is a charming horsethief.

Jamaica Inn is a typical gothic story about a mysterious estate in which a young girl tries to understand what frightens her. Du Maurier is a great author and creates a real page turner. It may all be a bit less ingenious than Rebecca, but I really liked Mary as a main character much more. She’s strong and dares to speak out against the men in her life. I liked her :).

Her uncle Joss is a larger than life character and the truth behind his actions is horrifying. There’s a bit of romance and there are some twists that you see coming. But Mary does not and it has a certain charm to experience it all from a brave but naive young girl. The various characters are well developed: from horsethief Jem, the albino priest Francis Davey, to Mr Bassat who would do anything to drag Joss before court. It all blends together beautifully.

The house ‘Jamaica Inn’ really comes alive through the pages and is a character in itself. The descriptions of a cold and foggy Cornwall provide that dark atmosphere the gothic genre is known for. I certainly enjoyed reading it. And I think I can proudly say now that I am a Du Maurier fan!

This is book 11/50 for the classics club.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

What’s your favourite Du Maurier novel?

The Romanov empress by C.W. Gortner

Dagmar, who goes by the nickname ‘Minnie’, unexpectedly becomes princess of Denmark when her father inherits the crown from his uncle. Her elder sister Alix soon engages herself to the heir to the British throne, ‘Bertie’, the eldest son of Victoria. After Minnie rejects a marriage with another of Victoria’s sons, she catches the eye of Nicholas of Russia, the future Tsar. Nixa and Minnie are madly in love, until Nixa dies unexpectedly before their marriage. Minnie eventually marries his younger brother Alexander, ‘Sasha’. She takes on the orthodox name of Maria Feodorovna and leaves everything behind to build a new life in Russia as future Tsarina.

This is a fantastic book! It covers the last 60 years of the Romanovs’ reign through the eyes of Dagmar of Denmark, better known as Maria Feodorovna. Maria was the daughter-in-law of Alexander II, who was murdered by rebels, Tsarina of Alexander III and mother of Nicholas II, the last Tsar.

Maria, or Minnie, is a strong woman with a real-life personality who comes of age during this novel. As a young girl, she arrives in Russia in a big family. She tries to find her own place and genuinely loves her new country. She also tries to support the men around her, without trying to take over the power.

This is one of those books where the family tree up front really comes in handy. You also get a good but complex view of the relationships between the various European royal families. There are so many people with the same name that nicknames are needed :).

You can feel the unrest in Russia growing. From the hunger of the peasants, the disastrous war with Japan, the rise of the Nihilists and later the Bolsheviks to Tsarina Alexandra and her Rasputin. I found Minnie’s relationship with her sister-in-law the German ‘Miechen’ in particular very fascinating. Miechen is a confident and proud woman and she challenges Minnie to bring out that side in herself more.

Then there is her daughter-in-law Alexandra, whom she distrusts from the very beginning. Alexandra and Nicholas aren’t the rulers that the Russian Empire needs in times of War. But they are deeply in love with one another. Minnie struggles with that, as she senses that Alexandra will be their undoing. This is also the first book I have read where Alexandra and Nicholas are not just presented as victims, but as two people who stood at the wrong side of history.

Minnie is also concerned with the fate of the people and a true advocate of democracy, something she is not thanked for within her family. She volunteers for the Red Cross and a number of other charities.

And yet the revolution cannot be averted. It remains strange to read about these events. A century later, we still don’t know exactly what happened to the Tsar and his family, or to some other Romanovs who did not survive 1918. Fortunately, we do learn a lot about the fate of the survivors in the historical note.

Gortner is a fantastic author. And this is without a doubt one of his best books. I wish there were more historical fiction books about the Russian Empire.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Have you read anything good about the Russian Revolution before? What’s your favourite C.W. Gortner?

The doll factory by Elizabeth Macneal

Iris and her twin sister Rose paint porcelain dolls for the cruel Mrs Salter. They both have an abnormality: Iris has a bone disorder on her collarbone and Rose has a disfigured face since she recovered from smallpox. Iris is looking for more in life and dreams of becoming a painter. When Louis Frost, one of the Pre-Raphaelite artists in London, asks her to be his model, she only accepts if he will teach her to paint in exchange. Meanwhile, we also meet Silas, a taxidermist, who hopes his work will end up at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. While witnessing the construction of the Crystal Palace, he meets Iris and is instantly intrigued by her. But there seems to be a thin line between love and obsession.

This book has been fairly hyped as a good historical fiction debut with a fun Victorian setting. I was really looking forward to reading it. But after 50 pages I really felt like I was reading a different book…

We meet Silas and Iris. Silas is a taxidermist and his profession is also described in great detail. Animal murder/abuse is a big trigger for me so I had some trouble with it. But apart from that, Silas is also an obsessive man with a dark side. His chapters were not easy to read for me. However, I continued because I found Iris an interesting character because of her love for art and her relationships with Louis and her sister Rose. I liked her chapters a lot more.

I also struggled a bit with the writing. Maybe it was the translation (I read this one in Dutch). So, all things together, I didn’t really like this book. Halfway through, the tone changes to a kind of psychological thriller and the ending gets rather cliché and felt not carefully worked out.

I am one of the few people who feels this way about ‘The doll factory‘ so maybe it is just me? I don’t feel the need to pick up anything else from Macneal, also because the blurb of her next book (Circus of wonders) doesn’t attract my attention.

Too bad, I thought I would love this book. A story about art at the time of the Great Exhibition felt like a great setting but I found this story a bit over the top.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Have you ever been disappointed by a book a lot of other reviewers seemed to love?

Love in time of cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

As a teenager, Florentino Ariza falls head over heels in love with the noble Fermina Daza. They send each other secret letters and promise eternal loyalty. Until Fermina returns from a trip and rejects him without giving a good reason. She decides to marry the rich doctor Juvenal Urbino instead. Florentino is desperate, but continues to love Fermina during his life, waiting for her husband to die so that he can take another chance at her.

Let me start by admitting that ‘Love in time of cholera‘ has good and bad points. Marquez’s writing is poetic and incredibly atmospheric. Beautiful sentences flow from his pen. They do not always improve the reading pace, but they are not such a hindrance as with other literary classics. Columbia in all its scents and colours really comes to life. At the same time, there is a lot of melancholy in this book. I did not find any magical realism, for which the author is also known. That seems to be more prominent in his other works.

This is an extremely romantic story. The last 40 pages are amazing. Florentino would really do anything for his Fermina. But…

Florentino falls in love at a very young age with Fermina, who then chooses someone else. Florentino now wants to remain faithful to her by not taking another woman as his wife. Decades later, at her husband’s funeral, he stands at her door to declare her eternal love. Yes, romantic, isn’t it?

Only, in the 50 years in between, our Florentino will lie with literally every woman he meets. His heart is obviously already sold to Fermina, so he doesn’t care about those women at all. Some of his mistresses choose this kind of liaison consciously. But there are also problematic cases. For instance, one woman has her throat cut by her husband after her infidelity is discovered. Another dark-skinned woman confesses that she has been raped so many times that she has started to believe sex is her destiny. And at one point, Florentino becomes the guardian of a 14-year-old girl for whom he holds affection as a grandfather would, apart from also initiating her into sex way too early. And spoiler: that girl will commit suicide before her 20s when Florentino suddenly drops her. Romantic, huh?

So I think Florentino is anything but a nice guy and I am actually very happy for Fermina that she chose someone else. This story is more about obsession than romance I’m afraid. I get the hype for the language and the romantic ending. But for the 21st century, the portrayal of the women in this story is too problematic to be completely overwhelmed.

I might pick up his epos ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ one day, but I’m not sure about it yet 🤔.

This is book 10/50 for the classics club.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Have you read anything by Marquez?