The animals of Lockwood manor by Jane Healey

When WOII is luring around the corner, the Natural History Museum of London is looking elsewhere to store their precious collection of mammals. Hettie Cartwright is made director—as all men are going to war—of the new museum at Lockwood manor, an old country home with more than 99 rooms. Her reception by the lord of the manor is hostile. The only friend she can turn to is Lucy, the lord daughter’s. Lucy’s mother and grandmother have just died in a car accident and Lucy herself suffers from nightmares about a woman dressed in white and a blue room. When animals are starting to disappear or are changing places, Hettie wonders if this really is a haunted house after all.

Hettie has grown up in an unloved family and has always devoted most of her time to her work. However, as a woman she has little prospect to get promoted. But when all the men are called to war, this is her chance to prove herself as the responsible of the mammal collection. When soon after her arrival at Lockwood manor (the name being an allusion to Emily’s Brönte’s narrator in Wuthering Heights) animals start to disappear, she wants to preserve the animals and her promotion no matter what. She becomes obsessed. This sets her at hostile ground with Lord Lockwood and the servants of the manor.

The only person that seems to be friendly towards her is Lucy. But she’s a complicated character. Suffering from a sensitive nerving system and bad dreams, Lucy is afraid to leave her home and doesn’t dare to stand up to her father.

The animals of Lockwood manor is Jane Healey’s first novel and is set in the tradition of the great gothic classics such as Rebecca and Jane Eyre. All the gothic elements are there: a haunted house, a ghost story, family secrets, a young and inexperienced main character and a fire. However, I don’t think of this book as a merely gothic story. There’s also a heavy romance plot line.

The book has an original setting. The mammals and the home feature as real characters in the book. And while the story is set during WOII, the war is never really a part of the plot. Only just looming in the background. Chapters are alternating between Hettie and Lucy. With Lucy’s part being in diary form. I did enjoy Hettie’s perspective the most. I could relate to her and her fear and doubts felt real.

There’s a heavy sapphic romance in the book, which was a bit cliche done. I’ve recently read a range of books with the same theme (The crimson ribbon, The mercies, The testimony of Alys Twist…) and the plot felt a bit forced at times. I wanted to read more about the mystery that was hiding within the manor.

Jane Healey’s writing was ok. I had some trouble with the pace. Some chapters felt really slow, while the ending was quite sudden in its revealings. I’m ok with the ending, I had guessed some part of it, but it gives an explanation to most things that happened.

Overall, I did enjoy the animals at Lockwood manor and I’ll happily try one of Healey’s future works. The sound of ‘The Ophelia girls‘, which will be published this summer, already appeals to me.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Have you read this one? Any gothic recommendations?

Lady Chatterley’s lover by D.H. Lawrence

Middleclass woman Connie Read marries Clifford Chatterley of the Wragby estate, who got paralysed during WOI and is now bound to a wheelchair. This also means he isn’t able to give Connie any children of his own. The monotonous life at Wragby starts to bore Connie. When she meets her husband’s gamekeeper, the troubled Oliver Mellors, she loathes him at first. But in time, she visits him more and more in the woods and the two of them start an affair.

This is the winning novel of my first classics club spin. I added this book to the list because I saw the excellent BBC movie with Richard Madden and Holiday Grainger a few years ago. I didn’t remember anything from the plot so I was curious to start reading Lady Chatterley’s lover, expecting a romance novel with a lot of sex and drama.

But this didn’t turn out as expected. It’s written during the interwar period and has that typical early 20th century atmosphere. There were a lot of philosophical discussions that I wasn’t prepared for. About themes as social class, communism, women’s rights, industrialization… And that’s why I felt the story dragged on at times.

This book has a lot of sex, but compared to 21st century standards (I mean, we have 50 shades) it isn’t big deal. I can assume that in the 1920’s this was not done and the book has been banned in a lot of countries. But I also believe this was the cause because the book is about an affair between two people of a different social class. A respectable lady who mingles with a gamekeeper, who is far below her status… It would have caused quite a scandal in real life.

I didn’t feel the romance. Connie hates Mellors at first and slowly they grow towards each other, but I couldn’t understand why. The first times they have sex, it’s all about the sex and Connie is even thinking about other things while having intercourse. Her feelings towards Oliver change suddenly, but it’s never explained why. Mellors is a character that I couldn’t relate with. He speaks a certain dialect that I couldn’t understand (I read this book in English so that made these parts unreadable to me). I didn’t root for them, but I couldn’t also stand Clifford, who has little thought and affection for his wife.

The second part of the book got better (more action and dialogue, less philosophical themes), but all together I believe this story is better suited for a 2-hour movie than a 6-hour book.

This is book 5/50 for the classics club.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Have you read anything by D.H. Lawrence?

The color purple by Alice Walker

America, early 20th century. The black sisters Nettie and Celie grow up together until their mother dies and their father abuses Celie, the oldest. Celie flees into a loveless marriage with a much older man who beats her, leaving Nettie behind. When Shug Avery, her husband’s ex-lover, comes to town, the two women develop a friendship and Celie finally starts living. Then she discovers her husband has kept Nettie’s letters, who is now in Africa as a missionary, from her.

This is the most recent book from my Classics club list, written in the eighties but already considered a classic. It even has a Penguin classic edition, so I decided I could use it for my list. I always back off from reading books about racism. I can’t really explain why I find it hard to pick them up. But once reading I seem to find them quite fascinating. This was also the case with ‘the color purple‘.

This is a novel mainly consisting of letters from Celie to God. She writes in faltered English, which makes it not always easy to read. But I hadn’t a problem with that. It contributed to the story and the characterization of Nettie, who is not learned, a bit naive and learns about life the hard way. In the middle of the book, Nettie’s perspective is added to the story. She writes her letters in more perfect English to Celie from Africa where she’s working as a missionary together with another black family.

The book is as much about racism as about feminism. Apart from Nettie and Celie, there are some other black women that are part of the main cast. The outspoken Sofie, free-fought Shug and invisible Piep (whose real name is Mary Agnes). A lot of bad things happen to them, but this creates a strong bond between the women.

I enjoyed Celie’s perspective the most. It gave me an insight into the difficult position of black women in the south of America not even 100 years ago. Nettie’s story in Africa talks about the colonization, another heavy subject. So I would understand that you can feel a bit overwhelmed when reading this book, but I should praise Walker for having written a balanced book. There’s friendship, love and hope everywhere.

I understand why this is considered a modern classic and a book every woman should read at least once.

This is book 4/50 for the classics club.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read the color purple?

Howards End by E.M. Forster

The middleclass sisters Margaret and Helen Schlegel are living in London together with their younger brother Tibby. On holiday in Germany, the land of birth of their deceased father, they meet the Wilcoxes, a family rich by business. Back in England, Helen goes to live a few days with them at Howard’s End, the favourite house of Mrs. Wilcox. But things don’t go as planned. After a romantic affair with the youngest son Paul, Helen returns to London. At an opera show, she accidentally steals an umbrella of the clerk Leonard Bast who has a poor income. In the coming years fate will bring these three families together again.

I had already seen the most recent BBC/Starz adaptation, so I knew the story a bit. I love how everything comes together at the end and how Howard’s End seems to be an extra character in the book. The house is always there, looming over the events.

Howard’s End was published in 1910 and offers a pre-war perspective on European relationships. At times, it felt like a total different world out there. The book covers a lot of interesting themes: social class, poverty, prejudice, feminism and sisterhood. The three families are all part of a different social class. The Schlegel sisters are middleclass. They love art, poetry and culture and don’t need to worry about money. The Wilcoxes are affluent, trying to make even more money thanks to the right investments. They tend to value things over people. While at the same time, the Basts are struggling to make ends meet. Leonard wants to get higher up in life and starts taking an interest in books and art, a subject he enjoys discussing with the Schlegel sisters.

The main perspective was that of Margaret, the older Schlegel and not my favourite character. Margaret is sensible and thoughtful. She’s the perfect opposite of her impulsive and emotional sister and the rather dull and rational Wilcoxes. She’s the much needed conscience in the story, as many of the other characters appear rather flat and insensitive at times.

The writing is good, although I found it a bit difficult at times. There is some dialogue, but also a strong narrator perspective where Forster directly speaks to the reader. Some of these aren’t always that easy to follow. There are also some time jumps that can be confusing.

In the end, I understand why Howard’s End is considered a true classic. The unique atmosphere of Europe before the Great War combined with themes that are still highly relevant today make for a great novel. I also have ‘A passage to India’ from Forster on my classics club list and am looking forward to see if I’ll like it even more.

This is book 3/50 for the Classics Club.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Have you read anything by E.M. Forster? What’s your favourite?

The Fabergé secret by Charles Belfoure

Prince Dimitri Markhov is one of the closest companions of tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra. He’s an architect, which makes him one of the few aristocrats with a real job, while his wife Lara likes nothing more than to gossip and meet with her lovers. When Dimitri meets the young doctor Katya at a ball and she takes him to a few art meetings, he discovers that the situation of the peasants in Russia is worse than his friend the tsar wants him te believe. Jews are killed in pogroms, while children sleep in dirty houses and the war with Japan is draining the imperial coffins. Slowly, Dimitri starts to doubt his aristocratic friends and joins the revolutionary cause.

I was happy to be approved for this book of a new to me author because of its beautiful cover (gorgeous, isn’t it?) and interesting setting. I always enjoy books that take place in Russia under the tsars. I can’t really explain why, I just find the Romanovs an interesting dynasty.

But when I started reading I was afraid this would be too much a love story as the blurb suggests. But luckily, I enjoyed the story no less. There are enough elements to like. The novel is written in short chapters from different perspective which kept the pace up.

Dimitri’s character is in constant conflict between his friendship with the imperial couple and his new views on Russia and the need for change. There are also some interesting side characters such as the baron, Lara and of course Nicholas and Alexandra. Their struggle with the sickness of their son touched my heart.

The ending was perhaps a bit too perfect for my liking but I understand the author’s choice. As Dimitri Markhov apparantly isn’t based on a real person, this was the perfect way to write him out of what happens next.

I hadn’t heard of the jeweller Fabergé and his famous imperial eggs before. I loved the descriptions of the eggs, and all other cultural references to Tolstoj and Tchaikovsky in the story. I hope to one day marvel at a Fabergé egg in real life.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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

The forgotten orphan by Glynis Peters

Maisie Reynolds has grown up at the Holly Bush orphanage in Southampton. At the age of 17, she realizes she’ll never be adopted. Separated from her twin brother Jack at the age of five and with no memories from her parents, Maisie is looking for answers about her past. When WOII arrives in Engeland, all the orphans except Maisie are moved from the city. The building will be turned into a care home for wounded soldiers. Maisie’s future is unsure. Will she be able to set up a life on her own? Can she find her brother?

I must start with the fact that this wasn’t a book for me. It is astandard WOII fiction novel, a genre that dominates the book store shelves. These kind of books tend to feel like they are all the same.

This is a coming of age story with good character building. Maisie is a young naive girl trying to make the best of the situation. She has some lovely friends in Charlie and Joyce. I enjoyed to read about all the secondary characters and their lives during the war. But the plot is just too thin for my liking. Especially the mystery around Maisie’s family is too far fetched and there are too much coincidences in how the revelations slowly unfold. There is also a heavy romance plot line in the form “boy meets girl and they are instantly in love”.

Britain in times of war made for a fine scenery. In times when the world outside comes to a halt due to a global pandemic, it’s strange to read about normal life going on through the bomb attacks of the Germans.

If you love WOII fiction with some drama and romance, this might be the perfect holiday read for you.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for a copy in return for my honest opinion.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Before the crown by Flora Harding

In 1943 war is raging through Europe and Prince Philip of Greece is an officer in the English navy. His Greek royal family is in exile and his sisters are wed to German officers. At Windsor Castle, seventeen-year-old princess Elizabeth, heir to the English throne, is eagerly awaiting Philip’s visit to court. She fell in love with the prince some years before and hopes to win his affection. But in times of war not everyone is fond of Elizabeth marrying a foreign prince.

I must admit that I haven’t read many books about the Windsors before, I haven’t even started watching ‘The crown’ yet. But this ensured I could start this book without expectations.

The novel is written from both Elizabeth’s and Philip’s point of view and opens with the two of them meeting at Windsor during the War. Elizabeth has been smitten with Philip for some years, and the two of them write letters to each other on a regular basis. Philip hasn’t formed an attachment yet but his Mountbatten relatives have made clear that a match with the English throne would be advantageous for him and his family.

It seems strange to read a historical novel about people still alive. If felt wrong to get an insight into their private lives. Harding writes some very real and convincing dialogues. You immediately discover there’s a difference between Elizabeth’s confined life at court and Philip’s worldly views. Philip never had a home, as the Greek royal family lives in exile and his parents chose to live apart. I didn’t know much about Philip’s family and I found it very interesting to get to know his uncles, parents and sisters.

I also loved the representation of the Queen and King, both not destined for the throne but determined to make the best of it. Elizabeth is a more passive character. She’s clearly in love but has learned to restrain herself. She places herself in the shadow of the more lively and extraverted Margaret. Sometimes that made me shout at her to stand up for herself.

The couple will face some serious challenges before their marriage, but the reader knows they will overcome them in the end. There is some romance involved of course, but the focus of the novel is more on England during and after WOII. It will never be my favorite period, but Harding has certainly surprised me with this sweet and interesting story.

Thanks to Netgalley and HarperCollins Publishers Australia to provide me a copy of this book in return for my honest opinion. Before the crown is now worldwide available.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.