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?

Treasure island by Robert Louis Stevenson

The young Jim Hawkins gets his hands on a treasure map from the old sailor Billy Bones. The map belonged to the feared pirate captain Flint and indicates the location of riches on Skeleton island. Jim sets sail to the island with a few friends, but the one-legged cook John Silver turns out to be an old shipmate of Flint and the crew turns against them.

This classic novel was my result for the 27th CC spin and I must admit that I was looking forward to reading it as I had just finished the Starz series ‘Black sails’, which can be seen as a prequel to this novel. I also do have a thing with pirate stories and novels that take place on a ship.

The book opens with Billy Bones coming to stay at the pub of Jim and his parents. He offers old tales of his life as a seaman and is scared of a pirate with a wooden leg. When he dies, Jim finds a treasure map in his belongings, just before a pirate crew can get hold of it. Subsequently, Jim and his friends from the town set sail to Skeleton island but mutiny looms around the corner and Jim has to use his wit to make it out the adventure alive.

I must start with admitting that this was not an easy read for me. I struggled with the language (I read it in English). A lot of words were unfamiliar to me and I had difficulties with understanding what was going on at times and who was speaking. This is a common critic on this novel apparently. Maybe, next time I should read it in Dutch.

But it is a classic adventure novel with a lot of imagination. It highly influenced how we think of pirates and it has a lasting impact on popular culture (Black Sails is a great example of that of course). The story did feel a bit outdated at times, and I expected more action. But still, I believe I enjoyed this one enough.

I in particular loved the opening chapters, where Jim and his mother try to outwit the pirates. John Silver proves the ideal villain, although I can’t help but love him too. It was a short and entertaining read but I had expected to love it even more.

This is book 7/50 for the classics club. And book 10 for #20booksofsummer.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Have you read this? Did you enjoy it?

Far from the madding crowd by Thomas Hardy

Sheep farmer Gabriel Oak falls in love with the outspoken and beautiful Bathsheba Everdene, but she refuses him. However, Gabriel stays loyal to her and becomes her shepherd when Bathsheba inherits a farm from her uncle. Bathsheba wants to govern the farm herself and attracts the attention of two new suitors in doing that. One of them is her neighbour farmer Mr. Bolwood, a quiet single man ten years her senior. The other is a soldier and womanizer who goes by the name of Frank Troy.

I was looking forward to discover Hardy’s writing, expecting a romance that would swoon me away. The story is set in the fictional county of Wessex in the 19th century and centers around Bathsheba Everdene and her three suitors. When Bathsheba becomes head of a farm run by men, she wants to do things in her own way.

This is a difficult review to write. Hardy is a master writer. I loved his poetic writing. But I’m sorry to say that I didn’t enjoy the plot at all. I’m no romance person in general, but I had too many issues with the unhealthy relationships that were a focus in this story.

I didn’t like Bathsheba at all. She’s impulsive, restless and can’t make up her mind. Her character evolves during the story, but still I find her selfish in her behaviour towards the men. She only seems to care about her own feelings. Her joke on Valentine’s Day towards Mr. Boldwood made my eyeballs roll out.

And then we come to the men. Mr. Boldwood comes forward as a pusher, or a stalker even. He expects Bathsheba’s love in return for I don’t understand what. And Troy is just the casual bad boy who has a nice talk but don’t takes it serious with any woman. The only character I really felt bad for in this novel was Fanny Robin, poor thing.

But luckily we have Gabriel Oak. Sweet and loyal Gabriel. Patient and trustworthy Gabriel. He always knows what to say or when to stay quiet. Gabriel is perfect. He never stinks. I’m just not into perfect characters. So yes, he is the least annoying, but I found him irritating nonetheless 😅.

I really appreciated Hardy’s writing and the humour in the discussions by the villagers in the local pub. They were fun. But I’ve again experienced that good writing isn’t enough for me. I need to enjoy the plot and this starts with having characters I can relate to.

I still have ‘Tess Of d’Urbervilles’ on my classcis club list, so I’ll definitely give Hardy another change. I really expected to like this one, as everyone seems to do. So don’t let my review put you off from reading this.

This is book 6/50 for the classics club. And book 3 for #20booksofsummer.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Have you read and enjoyed anything by Thomas Hardy?

The tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

When Mrs Helen Graham and her five-year-old son Arthur move into the abandoned Wildfell Hall, she becomes the talk of the town. Her strange ways and ideas mark her from the other nobel families. Gilbert Markham is the only one to befriend the young woman who paints to earn a living. But rumours grow that Helen has left her husband, the father of her son. Wildfell Hall is a quiet sanctuary no longer when her secrets are to be exposed.

Anne is the last of the Brontë sisters of whom I hadn’t read a novel yet. Having both loved ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’, I was looking forward to discover her writing. So ‘The tenant’ became my first book for the classics club.

The tenant of Wildfell Hall is a Victorian epistolary. The novel is told from two perspectives. The first part is a long letter from Gilbert Markham to his brother-in-law (who doesn’t appear in the novel, apart from just being the unknown receiver of the letter). He writes about the arrival of Mrs Graham and her son at Wildfell Hall and the reception by the other families. There is some irony about the elite in this book reminiscent of Jane Austen. But in my opinion Anne is more subtle and funnier (I especially loved Fergus, who’s sadly only a minor character).

I loved Gilbert’s perspective. You get to read the opinions of women on another woman from the point of view of a man who adores her. Gilbert is a bit naive, insecure and stubborn at times. But still he makes for a good main character.

Halfway, Gilbert receives Mrs Graham’ diary and we are introduced to her story. Here, the writing style changes and I needed some time to get used to it. Helen’s story covers some very serious themes that must have been taboo subjects in the 19th century. Alcohol addiction, mental abuse, adultery… The men in Helen’s story are vile creatures.

Anne has written a quite modern story, that maybe isn’t as upsetting anymore than it used to be. But it tells the story of a woman fleeing her unhealthy marriage for a safe haven. This story doesn’t need ghosts or a haunted house. The writing is extremely readable, it didn’t feel as if I was reading a 19th-century-book.

This doesn’t make it any easier to choose my favorite Brontë sister 😅

This is book 1/50 for the Classics club.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

What’s your favorite Brontë classic and why?

The confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

Frannie Langton is a mulatta slave at the Paradise plantation of Mr. Langton in Jamaica. As a mulatta and a house slave she doesn’t fit in, especially as she has learnt to read and write. When Mr. Langton wants to write a book about species, Frannie helps him with it and the two of them conduct some strange experiments. After a fire, Langton and Frannie leave Jamaica for London. Once there, he gives Frannie away to Mr Benham and she becomes a house slave again. She can’t remember anything when a few months later her mistress, whom she loves dearly, is found dead with herself sleeping beside the body. In jail, Frannie decides to write her story as it may be the only way to save her life.

I picked this book up at the library when looking for Bridget Collins’ ‘The binding’. Lured in by the beautiful cover and the promise of an original gothic novel, I immediately started reading it.

The story opens in London with Frannie in jail for the brutal murder of her owners, Mr. and Mrs. Benham. She can’t remember anything of that night and doesn’t believe she would be able to murder her mistress whom she loved with all her heart. So she starts writing her story from the beginning, when she was still a house slave at a Jamaican plantation.

I had expected much of this story, but it didn’t live up to my expectations. The story does have some gothic elements such as a murder, a household with secrets and some strange experiments, but I wouldn’t define it as the gothic novel I had hoped it would be.

The story itself is interesting enough, although I got the impression of having it read all before. There are a lot of predictable plot elements and some cliches. Frannie is a complex character and you don’t really get a grip on her.

What really put me off was the writing style. Collins writes in first person but it wasn’t always clear whether something was said in a dialogue or it were just thoughts of Frannie herself. I couldn’t follow what was said and done in some chapters. And especially when the trial begins, it all becomes a mess. Frannie appeals to a certain ‘you’, with which she means her lawyer and this strangely changes the whole narrative and style. There are some revelations at the end, but they couldn’t make up for the rest of the novel.

I must give Sara Collins credit for writing some beautiful lines about the importance of reading. The fact that Frannie has learned to read and can share that knowledge with Marguerite is an important aspect of the story. It makes her even more the outcast.

But in the end, I’m disappointed by this book. Yes, it has an original main character and it talks about slavery and racial debate, so in that sense it’s an important story to tell. But I couldn’t see past the messy writing style and had hoped that the crime aspect would take up a more prominent role in the book.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

What’s your favorite gothic novel?

Valhalla by Alan Robert Clark

Princess May Of Teck moves with her parents to Florence after they have fallen from grace within the English royal family. The serious May likes Florence and the company of painter Henry Thaddeus Jones. After their return to England, Queen Victoria wants May to marry Eddie, her grandson and second in line to the throne. Against all odds, Eddie and May become fond of each other. But when Eddie suddenly dies of the flu, May’s future becomes unsecure.

I must admit I didn’t know anything of Queen Mary’s life before I read this novel. My knowledge of the British royal family stops at Queen Victoria, apart from the current’s queen of course :). So Valhalla gave me a nice insight in the young May Of Teck and the formidable woman she would later become.

This is a story about love and duty. And the longing for freedom of a young woman not able to make her own choices. It’s about the sad loss of a prince and how it can torn a whole family apart.

I feel I now have a better understanding of Mary Of Teck’s young life, although some of the elements in the novel are fictional or only based on rumors (her love interests for example). Mary is often seen as an ice-queen alongside her husband George V. In this book you get to know the young couple and how they try to keep up appearances. I had hoped to learn more about Georgie’s character and the king he would be.

At first the writing style didn’t really grip me. I just couldn’t always follow who said what. Halfway the book, I felt a connection with May and I just wanted to know how her story would end. At that point, I was used to the writing and I enjoyed the book a lot.

The title ‘Valhalla’ is only explained in the last chapter. I believe it would have worked out better if it had been mentioned earlier in the book. Now it felt a bit artificial.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher to provide me with a copy of this book in return for my honest opinion.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

What’s your favorite book about royalty?