The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

Enthralling and haunting, Kate Morton’s latest novel tells a gothic story of betrayal, dark secrets, madness and love. Meredith and her daughter Edie have never been close, but when a letter arrives fifty years after it’s been posted and Meredith refuses to reveal its contents, Edie is determined to find out if her mother’s emotional distance could be related to her secret past. Thus, Edie sets off to unravel Meredith’s past, but she is about to learn more than she expected. Evacuated from London during the Blitz, Edie’s mother was chosen by Juniper Blythe and taken to live at Milderhurst Castle with her literary family. The Blythes were eccentric people, whose lives revolved around the decaying castle and the dreadful tales that enveloped it and the more Edie investigates, the more skeletons come out of the closet. And what eventually comes to the surface is a tragic and disturbing truth that altered lives and destroyed hopes.

The Distant Hours will satisfy readers as they will stray into a labyrinth of deceit, family intrigue and mystery. Kate Morton has managed to capture a gloomy atmosphere throughout the novel by using various gothic elements, creating a dark and compelling tale full of suspense, romance and fascinating characters that will linger with you for a long time.

Needless to say, I very much enjoyed Kate Morton’s third novel and I hope that her next books will be just as wonderful, as I am savoring her writing style, her memorable characters and her captivating plots to the fullest.

The Distant Hours was very entertaining and informative and I found its themes very interesting. I liked to learn about the Blitz and its consequences for the protagonists and I loved to read about the Blythes and their fascination with writing and storytelling. But what I liked most was to learn about Milderhurst Castle, as I found its vivid descriptions fascinating and absorbing; the eerie tales revolving around the Blythe family were also very engaging.

Also, as I was reading this novel, I was reminded of another book that I’ve read in the past, namely, I Capture the Castle. There are certain similarities between these two books – of course there’s the setting and then both novels centre on a literary family. But The Distant Hours has more to offer; there are more stories to tell (modern and old) and I must admit that I liked it more than Dodie Smith’s novel. Kate Morton’s story has more twists and turns and it allows the reader a glimpse into a forgotten world where nothing is as it seems and after you’ve unveiled Milderhurst’s hidden secrets, you will sympathize with the characters and will be able to understand them better.

All in all, The Distant Hours was the perfect read for me and I would give it five stars out of five, as I loved everything about it. I can’t say anything negative about this novel except that I was sad that I finished it so soon. I think I can safely add Kate Morton to the list of my favorite authors!

What about you? Have you read any of Kate Morton’s novels? If so, did you like them as much as I did?

Note: I would like to thank Panmacmillan for sending me this great novel!

Andreea

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Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker (1939)

Norman Huntley and his friend Henry have been making up stories since they were young and they have pretended to know people who don’t even exist. But when they invent an eighty-three-year-old woman called Miss Hargreaves, they are more than surprised to see their new fictional friend standing beside them one day. Miss Hargreaves is exactly as he had imagined her – she is an eccentric and extraordinary old woman who makes Norman’s life difficult. Furthermore, she brings chaos into his sleepy Buckinghamshire town. As Norman tries to tell his friends and family about Miss Hargreaves’s arrival, he encounters difficulties, since the young man doesn’t even know where the curious old lady came from. Ever since Miss Hargreaves entered Norman’s peaceful life, everything has been tumultuous and weird, and the young man must now decide if he wants the old woman to be part of his life any longer or if he wants his once-ordinary life back. But how does one get rid of such an incredible person when one does not know where she came from in the first place?

Miss Hargreaves is a hilarious book about an unusual friendship; it’s a wonderful story about creativity, the power of imagination and the its consequences. I have wanted to read this book since I discovered it last year and I am happy that I finally had the chance to do so because it was exactly as I had imagined it. I liked this unusual story and I liked Norman because he is a creative young man who, on the spur of a moment, likes to invent people or events that have never taken place. For him, it’s entertaining and amusing to make up these stories and he is very good at it and very convincing. But when Norman and his friend Henry invent Miss Hargreaves, their troubles begin. Although it was only meant as a silly joke, the young men are shocked to learn that their creation has somehow come alive. And since the old lady makes Norman’s life very complicated, he thinks about putting her off. Still, he isn’t quite sure if he really wants to get rid of her for good. On the one hand, he likes this eccentric and impossible old lady, but on the other hand, Miss Hargreaves drives Norman mad, with her oddities and strange behaviour. That’s why I really sympathized with him; I felt his frustration toward Miss Hargreaves, but I also understood why he was proud of his creation.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading about Norman and his unusual friend and I found their adventures very entertaining and funny. I liked all the characters in this book and I loved the dated language. If you like to read books set in the past and if you like imaginative tales, Miss Hargreaves will be the perfect novel for you!

Note: This review has been written for Nymeth’s 1930s Mini-Challenge.

Andreea

Days of Grace by Catherine Hall

Alternating between WWII and the present, Days of Grace tells the story of Nora Lynch, who at the age of twelve, is sent as an evacuee to live with the Rivers family in the English countryside. Nora immediately feels welcomed and loved by Mr. and Mrs. Rivers and their daughter Grace. From the outside, the Rivers seem like the perfect family, but in reality, there are many cracks beneath the surface, and Nora is too young to understand. The young girl is just happy to have found a friend in Grace and she enjoys every minute that they spend together. However, as her feelings for Grace become stronger with each passing day, Nora realizes that she cannot suppress her passion for Grace any longer, thus, she decides to return to London. 

When a pregnant young woman enters her life fifty years later, Nora is ready to reveal the secrets that she has kept for so long, and when she does so, the reader will be very surprised!

Days of Grace is an emotional story about friendship, suppressed passions, dark secrets and jealousy. As soon as you begin reading about Nora, you cannot help but feel moved by her dramatic story. That’s why this gripping tale will linger in your mind for a long time, as you will sympathize with Nora and you will be eager to learn all of her secrets.

I must say that I normally don’t like to read books on war, but I was interested in this one because I wanted to learn more about the children who were evacuated during the war. I wanted to find out how these children felt and how they dealt with this difficult situation, since they were separated from their parents. Furthermore, I wanted to learn how they were treated by their surrogate families. That’s why I liked Days of Grace so much; it showed all of these things and even more.

Days of Grace is an engaging novel packed with beautiful writing, historical detail, drama and heart-warming characters. Overall, I was really pleased with this book and I would recommend it to everyone out there who likes to read books on war and to Sarah Waters and Daphne du Maurier fans!

Note: I would like to thank Meredith Burks from Penguin Group for sending me a copy of this book!

Andreea

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories by Susanna Clarke

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories is a ravishing collection of eight short stories full of charm, magic and wit. These fascinating stories are set in the same England as Susanna Clarke’s bestselling novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and the talented author skillfully portrays once again a nineteenth century England where faeries live among humans and where magic is present everywhere. In these spellbinding stories, Susanna Clarke explores the relationship between humans and faeries, showing the reader how the presence of faeries influences humans in different ways.

Here’s more about the eight stories:

The Ladies of Grace Adieu tells the story of three ladies who live in Grace Adieu and who deal with Jonathan Strange and his brother-in-law in their own way, using their magical powers to achieve what they want.

On Lickerish Hill is narrated in Suffolk dialect and is a wonderful retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin story where a young wife seeks the help of a faerie creature so she can fulfill her husband’s demands.

Mrs Mabb deals with a young woman whose financé has been enchanted by the Faerie Queen. The young woman is determined to find her finacé who is being held prisoner in Mrs Mabb’s house, but there are many obstacles standing in her way.

The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse was inspired by Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and it’s one of my favorite stories. It is set in a village called Wall, which happens to be situated near the wall that separates the human world from Faerie. This funny story shows the reader how the Duke of Wellington accidentally enters the world of Faerie, nearly not surviving his visit.

Mr Simonelli or the Fairy Widower is a story about a clergyman who finds out that he is related to a powerful fairy lord. In order to rescue the community from his fairy cousin, the clergyman has to match his fairy wits against his relation.

Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby gives an account of the adventures of Tom (the fairy prince) and David (the Jewish doctor). This story particularly explores the relationship between humans and faeries.

Antickes and Frets is one of my favorite stories as it deals with the vengeful Mary, Queen of Scots, who tries to harm Queen Elizabeth by using magical embroidery.

John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner tells the story of John Uskglass (also known as the Raven King) who is harassed by a charcoal burner. This simple man seeks revenge against the Raven King by calling upon various saints.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories has all the right ingredients of great fairy tales – vengeful owls, dark woods, houses that never appear the same way twice and ladies who embroider terrible destinies. Our heroes and heroines have to overcome many obstacles and they have to be careful, as Faerie is a dangerous and wild place!

This wonderful collection is packed with vivid character portraits, wit and intelligence. In addition to that, the author’s original and beautiful writing style will enchant readers and will make them long for more. The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories is certainly a remarkable collection of stories that will sweep you away and astound you. Be prepared to be taken on an unforgettable journey into the magical world of faeries where nothing is quite as it seems.

What I really liked about these stories was the fact that Susanna Clarke has managed to capture so many different relationships – the relationship between sisters, parents, friends, but also the relationship between humans and faeries. The characters are very charming and you can’t help but feel sympathetic to them. But what is probably the most attractive thing when it comes to this collection of stories is the author’s writing style. It’s so unique and masterful and it will remind you of Jane Austen’s prose as both are highly formal and witty. Furthermore, Susanna Clarke offers the reader a number of different viewpoints, thus, achieving a various number of effects that will most certainly appeal to readers who appreciate an eminent storytelling.  

Nonetheless, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories will not appeal to everyone, as not everyone will delight in this sort of genre. However, this collection of magical stories will certainly make Neil Gaiman fans and fantasy lovers happy, as they will adore Susanna Clarke’s distinctive and bewitching voice! As for my part, I must say that I just loved The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories and I can’t wait to read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in the near future. Susanna Clarke is now one of my favorite authors and I am looking forward to reading more works by this marvelous author! I have never read anything like this before and I think that’s why I found The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories so special and captivating!

If you want to find out more about Susanna Clarke and her work, please visit her website here. The site has many features, including a section where you can read the short story The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse (which I mentioned above). Click here if you want to read it and if you want to acquaint yourself with Susanna Clarke’s brilliant writing style.

Have you read Susanna Clarke’s bestselling novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell? If so, did you like it? Also, what is your favorite fantasy novel?

Note: I would like to thank Peter Miller from Bloomsbury Publishing for sending me a copy of this engaging collection!

High Rising by Angela Thirkell

High Rising is the first book in the Barsetshire series and it centers on Laura Morland, a widowed author who writes “good bad books” in order to support her family. After her husband’s death, the mother of four boys decided to become a very successful author of second-rate books and in the course of time, she has managed to attract a large reading public with her entertaining books about the fashion industry in 1930s England. Thus, she leads a happy life with her youngest son and her hilarious housekeeper Stoker in High Rising where she often visits her quirky friends and neighbors. But her friends and neighbours are not the only ones who are comical. Laura’s eight-year-old son Tony has a passion for trains and his love for trains often results in endless discourses about his objects of desire. Tony’s speeches are often very exhausting and Laura is glad to meet with her friends in order to relax and talk about other matters. With her neighbor and friend George Knox, she can discuss her books since George is a fellow writer (although a very eccentric one). Nonetheless, Laura really enjoys his company and she also enjoys being surrounded by her other friends, including her secretary Anne Todd and her publisher Adrian Coates. Overall, Laura is really content with her life in High Rising and she loves its close-knit community, but everything changes when her friend George hires a new secretary. Miss Grey, or the “Incubus”, is a very devoted secretary, but something just seems odd about her. When High Rising’s residents begin to suspect that Miss Grey secretly intends to marry George, Laura tries to prevent this unthinkable thing from happening. Aided by her friends, Laura is eager to reveal Miss Grey’s real intentions and to restore happiness in High Rising. But the “Incubus” doesn’t seem to be Laura’s only problem. She needs to take care of other things as well, including an anonymous letter, a drunken proposal and her attempt at matchmaking!

Set in pre-war Britain, High Rising gives the reader a glimpse into the entertaining world of English country society. Angela Thirkell manages to depict village life in such a witty and original way, making the reader smile and long for more. Her amusing characters will draw you in and you will begin to care deeply about each of them, as they are alluring with their little intrigues and problems. My favorite character was Laura’s curious son Tony, since I found him hilarious with his obsession for trains and with his annoying questions. I also found his poems very entertaining and I had to smile whenever I read passages about Tony.

What I really like about High Rising is the fact that it concentrates more on dialogue and characterization, thus the plot takes a back seat. The book is full of wit and charm and I really enjoyed reading about these little funny stories concerning High Rising’s residents. Angela Thirkell’s novel captures a way of life that no longer exists and the reader will delight in exploring this ingenious world of rural England with its lovely and memorable characters.

I look forward to reading more novels by this great author and I recommend this book to everyone who wants to read a funny book with a feel-good vibe!

Note: I would like to thank Erin C. Smith from Beaufort Books for giving me the opportunity to read and review such a great novel!

Other reviews:

Booklust

Isa & May by Margaret Forster

While Isamay is working on her dissertation about the importance of grandmothers in history, she can’t help thinking about her own grandmothers and the role these two amazing women have played in her own life so far. Named after her grandmothers, Isa and May, who were present at her birth, Isamay shares more than just her name with these two unlikely women. She has inherited May’s stubbornness and determination and she looks just like elegant and sophisticated Isa.

As Isamay devotes herself to her interesting thesis, she examines famous grandmothers such as Queen Victoria, George Sand and Elizabeth Fry, and she attempts to find out in what way these grandmothers have influenced and shaped their grandchildren and what effect they had on their grandchildren. Although she is caught up in her work and is concentrating more on the past than the present, Isamay never forgets to visit her grandmothers or to think about them. Isa and May couldn’t be more different and they are jealous of each other and always fight for Isamay’s attention. They have high expectations regarding their granddaughter and therefore, Isamay is always trying to please both of them. However, her grandmothers are not the only important people in Isamay’s life. There’s also Ian, her secretive boyfriend, who never wants to talk about his past or his family, even though Isamay is eager to find out everything about him. Nonetheless, they seem to get along well, until Isamay changes her mind concerning a serious matter. Almost thirty, Isamay has never wanted children, but she suddenly considers this possibility. But Ian seems so sure of the fact that he doesn’t want any children that Isamay begins to wonder if his decision might have something to do with his mysterious past. As the would-be academic is caught up between the past and the present, she learns a great deal about history’s most influential grandmothers, but she also reveals and uncovers the dark secrets of her own family.

One could say that Isa & May is a powerful book about grandmothers and their important role in family life, but this novel is so much more than that! In my opinion, Isa & May is a tribute to every grandmother out there and I think that everyone should read this novel, as it narrates such a heart-warming story that will linger in your mind for a long time! After I have finished reading this book, I thought about it the entire day and I couldn’t help thinking about my own grandmother and how she has influenced me and guided me my whole life. I just loved Isa & May and I could really identify with Isamay in regard to her relationship with her grandmothers. I really liked the protagonist and I enjoyed reading about her dissertation work, as I found it fascinating to learn about these famous grandmothers. I loved all these glimpses into the past and I couldn’t get enough of Margaret Forster’s beautiful writing! I can’t believe that this was my first book by this talented writer! I think that Margaret Forster might become one of my favorite writers and I am looking forward to reading her other books in the near future!

What I loved about Isa & May was the fact that it dealt so much with the past. If you follow my blog, then you certainly know that I tend to read books that are set in the past, preferably in the Victorian Period. Thus, when I first heard about this book, I didn’t really know if I wanted to read it, because it is set in the present. But I still wanted to give it a try and I am so glad that I did, because it’s now one of my favorite books! Even though Isa & May is set in the present, it deals more with the past than with the present and that’s why I loved this book so much! I loved reading about Isamay’s relationship with her grandmothers and sometimes, I had to smile and laugh when I read about May, because she is such a great character and I grew really fond of her! I am very enthusiastic about this novel and I think it will appeal to everyone out there! Whether you have lost a grandmother, or if you still have one, and especially if you are a grandmother – Isa & May will make you smile and you will find this novel delightful! This book was perfect for me as I was lost in Margaret Forster’s beautiful writing and I think that the author has a real gift for storytelling! I was really impressed by Isa & May and I hope you will share my feelings if you decide to read this wonderful book!

Here are a few passages that I liked:

Page 97-98:

“It struck me today, as I was walking across Hyde Park, that I don’t really fully live in my own times. I often don’t see what is actually there. I see the trees, I see the grass, I see the Serpentine – I don’t mean that I’m not seeing my surroundings. But I don’t seem to see the real people. I wipe away all their reality. Instead, I fill the park with women in long dresses and men in frock coats, and other nonsense. I see children with hoops. Only the horses and dogs stay the same, because they never change. I love the past and live in it too much.”

And:

“I am comfortable in past times. The people are so familiar to me…The past is so secure, all over and done with, all ready to be explored. The future was always exciting, but it also worries me now. I am no longer in a hurry to get to it. When my grandmothers talk about the past, it all makes sense to me, doesn’t bore me in the least. I encourage them, I always want more detail, and I go with them all the way.”

I think I like these lines because I also sometimes find myself living in the past and therefore, I can fully identify with Isamay!

Note: I would like to thank Kevin Soar from Random House Group for sending me a copy of this engaging book!

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

You know you’ll love a book if the first page makes you long for more and if you forget about everything else that surrounds you. But if the first sentence already overwhelms you and you just want to read on and on and never stop reading, then it must be an amazing book. And for me, that was the case with Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. I just couldn’t put this book down and I was lost in du Maurier’s beautiful writing style and her vivid descriptions. The entire book is just fascinating and you’re aware of this fact when you just read the first sentence:

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…”

As a reader, you immediately begin to ask a lot of questions (Where is Manderely? What happened there? Who is the narrator?). You just want to find out more about the mysterious speaker and about Manderley. With each page, I was eager to find out more about the narrator and about Rebecca. Needless to say, I just loved this book and it is now one of my favorite books. I don’t know why it took me so long to read it, as I knew about it from my mother and grandmother. We had this book for as long as I can remember, but yet, I didn’t get to read it and I don’t understand why. But better too late than never, right? I am just glad that I finally had the chance to read such a wonderful and engaging book that astounds you and takes you to places who have never dreamed of!

This time, I won’t dwell on the summary of the book, since I think that most of you have already read it. (In case you haven’t read it yet, you can find out more about this book here). Instead, I want to do something different this time. I am going to answer some study questions and that way, you can find out what I have to say in particular about this excellent novel.

I’ve chosen three questions for further reflection:

Why do you think the narrator remains nameless?

If you have read the book, you may have noticed that the heroine’s name is never revealed in this novel. I think that the absence of a name symbolizes how uncertain the heroine is of herself; when she marries Maxim, she takes his name, but she doesn’t feel really comfortable in it, because she is not the first to have taken Maxim’s name. She is not the first Mrs. de Winter, and thus she has to compete with the late Mrs. de Winter, with Rebecca. Rebecca’s name is haunting the narrator like a dark shadow throughout the book and it’s even the book’s title. The heroine feels defeated and overpowered by Rebecca, until she finds out the truth about her. When she learns about Rebecca’s true nature, our heroine is suddenly feeling at ease; she no longer fears Rebecca and she begins to feel comfortable as Mrs. de Winter and as the mistress of Manderley.

What makes this novel a work of Gothic Literature?

There are many gothic elements presented to us throughout the book, but ultimately, it’s Rebecca’s “ghost” what makes this novel a work of Gothic Literature. From the beginning, the narrator has to compete with Rebecca. Everyone compares her to Rebecca and our heroine feels haunted by Maxim’s first wife. Her spirit is still present at Manderley, partly because Manderley is still run just as Rebecca has run it and also because Mrs. Danvers keeps Rebecca’s bedroom ready for her, as if Rebecca would return any minute. Furthermore, Rebecca’s memory is piercing the house and all of those who knew her. Our heroine feels her presence everywhere; every little thing reminds her of Rebecca; from the pen she uses to write letters to the chair she sits in. Everyone is still talking of Rebecca, preserving her memory, and mourning over her death. Thus, Rebecca’s “ghost” is haunting our narrator. Even though we are not talking about a real ghost, or supernatural forces, Rebecca is still present at Manderley; although she is dead, Rebecca’s spirit is still filling up the rooms with the help of her “messenger”, Mrs. Danvers, who is very devoted to Rebecca and who is willing to retain her memory forever, at all cost.

How does Maxim’s relationship with our heroine develop throughout the novel?

At the beginning, our nameless narrator is really happy when she marries Maxim. She has a great time on their honeymoon and she is anxious to arrive at Manderley and to take on the new role as Mrs. de Winter and as the new mistress of the house. But when the couple arrives at Manderley, the heroine sees that Rebecca’s presence dominates the place. Everything is run exactly as it was run when Rebecca was alive. Mrs. Danvers, who admired Rebecca, is always mentioning the former mistress of Manderley and she makes clear that she doesn’t approve of the narrator. The sinister Mrs. Danvers makes our heroine feel inferior and she tells her how much everyone loved the perfect Rebecca, especially Maxim. Thus, our heroine begins to feel intimidated by Rebecca and she begins to wonder if Maxim still loves Rebecca. Maxim and the narrator don’t really spend time together, and Maxim doesn’t tell his wife that he loves her. The heroine thinks that Maxim doesn’t love her and that he has married her only because he didn’t want to be alone anymore. She feels that Maxim treats her like a child and that he makes fun of her. During the course of the novel, everything changes, because Maxim tells her the truth about Rebecca’s evil nature. He tells her that Rebecca’s image was a mere illusion; she was not who she seemed, and therefore, our heroine doesn’t have to compete with the late Rebecca anymore. Maxim finally confesses his love for the narrator, and their bond grows stronger. They are companions now, who share everything with each other and there are no secrets that stand between them anymore. At the beginning, Maxim was distant to her and Rebecca was always lying in-between, but now that everything has been clarified, Rebecca’s shadow cannot interfere with the couple anymore. The question is if they are really happy now, with everything they’ve been through. So many things have happened that none of them will be able to forget and even though they love each other, the past is still haunting them from time to time. Daphne du Maurier gives little hints here and there (at the beginning of the novel) and the reader can conclude that not everything is perfect for the couple. Even if you want to forget your past, you can never quite accomplish that, because there will always be certain things that will remind you of it!

I wish I could answer more questions, but I am afraid that I would give away too much and I don’t want to spoil the story. For those who haven’t read Daphne du Maurier’s masterpiece, I highly recommend that you do so. You won’t regret it, as Rebecca is an amazing tale full of dark secrets, remarkable characters and mysteries. This novel has everything I expect from a great book: psychological suspense, gothic elements, romance and twists. I just loved this book from beginning to end as it reminded me a little bit of Jane Eyre (one of my favorite books). I loved the characters and the plot was captivating and mesmerizing! Daphne du Maurier has created a fantastic and unforgettable tale and her descriptions and writing style are beautiful and breath-taking! I can’t wait to read other novels by this talented writer (I only read Frenchman’s Creek a few years ago)!

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