The Sweetest Thing by Fiona Shaw

Sixteen-year-old Harriet wants to leave her fishing village behind and start a new life in York. Mary, a girl from her village, wants to accompany her and so the girls leave, in the hope that they will have a better future in the city. There, Harriet and Mary are looking for jobs and when opportunities arise, the girls are happy to have found a way to earn money. Mary works as a laundress and she also gets paid for photographs, and Harriet works at a cocoa factory. There, Harriet falls in love with Thomas and her life seems perfect, but when certain events lead to a tragic end, Harriet’s world falls apart.

Intertwined with Harriet’s story is Samuel’s tale, a kind gentleman who helps Harriet with her job search. He is a Quaker and a collector of photographs showing working-class girls in their working clothes. Samuel cares deeply for working-class women and he wants to improve their situation. He takes a special interest in Harriet because he has fallen in love with her. However, he knows that he doesn’t have a chance, since she is already in love with someone else. Still, Samuel and Harriet become friends and when tragedy strikes, Samuel does everything in order to help Harriet.

The Sweetest Thing is a wonderful and engaging novel that gives the reader an account of late-Victorian life, drawing an intimate portrait of ordinary people while revealing their feelings, situations and hopes. The book concentrates on working-class women and their conditions and we learn a lot about their lives, especially through Harriet. For example we find out that young girls like Harriet who fell in love and wanted to get married had to hide their marriages in order to be able to continue working. Once a girl got married, she had to leave her position at the cocoa factory and become a house wife. However, many of these girls got married in secret and continued working as if nothing happened. That way, the girls could still earn money, although it must have been hard for them to pretend to be single.

In The Sweetest Thing, we also learn a lot about the cocoa factory and its shadowy policies and we learn how the owners put their employers in great danger in order to become successful and wealthy.

The novel also touches on topics such as religion, morality and ‘madness’ (Samuel’s sister Grace has been confined to an asylum because her mother couldn’t accept Grace’s friendship with another woman and her wish to never get married). Together, these subjects make The Sweetest Thing an enjoyable and captivating read. Moreover, each individual story will move you as the book concentrates on the protagonists and their tales, and I can assure you that Harriet and Samuel will linger in your mind for a long time.

I really liked this book because of its themes, the dated language and the individual stories that fascinated me. If you like historical fiction and if you are a fan of Sarah Waters and Tracy Chevalier, then I truly recommend this novel to you!

Note: I would like to thank Virago Press for sending me a copy of this book!

Andreea

 

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

After her mother’s suicide in India, sixteen-year-old Gemma Doyle is sent to the Spence Academy in Victorian London. There, she feels lonely and out of place, and she tries to make sense of the visions that have been haunting her since her mother’s death. Furthermore, Gemma tries to understand why she is followed by a mysterious and attractive young man who warns her against her visions.

As an incident occurs at Spence, Gemma is immediately accepted into the circle of the school’s most powerful girls and she is glad to finally have found some friends. But when the girls begin to play with supernatural powers, they put themselves in danger. Moreover, they discover that Gemma’s mother was involved with a dubious group called the Order. As the sixteen-year-old tries to find out more about this shady and dangerous group and about the true cause of her mother’s death, she discovers some shocking and frightful things, but she also learns a lot about herself and the destiny that awaits her.

Packed with 400 pages of suspense, gothic and supernatural elements, passion and jealousy, A Great and Terrible Beauty is a fascinating and intriguing novel that captivated me from the beginning. This is the first book of the Gemma Doyle trilogy and it tells the story of a sixteen-year-old girl who is unconventional and insecure and who tries to understand who she really is and what’s happening to her. At times, she is spoiled and likes to rebel because she doesn’t like society’s rules and thus, she refuses to submit to them. She doesn’t have impeccable manners and she doesn’t always think before she speaks. Still, she is a very likeable character, especially since she is so flawed. Her friends are also great characters and they have their own problems. These problems are very typical for the Victorian age, as women at that time had to fulfil a certain role, a role that didn’t allow them any freedom and independence. And that’s why I liked this book so much, because it touched upon these themes. Although A Great and Terrible Beauty is set in the Victorian period, the novel still felt very modern to me because it deals with things that are present in today’s society – the girls have to cope with rivalry, jealousy, trust, acceptance and self-knowledge – things that teenage girls have to face every day. And I think that’s what makes this novel so attractive to young adults, because it deals with matters that they understand and can relate to, since they go through the same things.

A Great and Terrible Beauty was an engrossing read that left me longing for more and I am desperate to read the sequels, as I want to know how Gemma’s story will continue. The last sentences of this book definitely make you curious about the next two books:

“I’m running because I can, because I must. Because I want to see how far I can go before I have to stop.”

I want to find out more about Gemma’s destiny, about the Order and about the realms and I hope the sequels will satisfy my thirst!

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

Andreea

And Only to Deceive by Tasha Alexander

When Emily agrees to marry Philip, the Viscount Ashton, she decides to do so because she wants to escape her authoritative mother and also because she has to submit to the rules of Victorian society. Thus, when she learns about her husband’s death while on safari in Africa soon after their wedding, Emily feels little grief, since she barely knew the man she married.

However, nearly two years after her husband’s death, Emily begins to show interest in Philip and she is eager to find out more about his passion for artifacts. This has to do with the fact that she discovered his journals, and since then, the young widow longs to learn everything about Philip. While she reads more and more, she is surprised to find out how much her late husband really loved her. But Philip’s passionate love for her doesn’t seem the only thing that was unknown to Emily. As she digs deeper into Philip’s world of antiquities, the young widow finds herself entangled in a dangerous web of intrigues, mysteries and deception. Just when Emily realizes that she has fallen in love with her late husband, she begins to suspect that Philip might not be the man everyone believed him to be. Was Emily’s late husband really involved in a shady business concerning rare stolen artifacts? And what do his two attractive and wealthy friends have to do with this matter? What are their real motives for courting Emily? As she tries to find the answers to all of these questions, Emily has to be careful, because danger awaits her everywhere and people are not who they appear to be.

And Only to Deceive is a very suspenseful novel set in the late Victorian period and while the book’s main theme is a mystery involving stolen artifacts, it also strongly deals with issues such as a woman’s search for independence and it shows how a woman’s attempt to gain freedom impinges on her role in society. And Only to Deceive successfully displays Emily’s struggle for independence in a male-dominated world where a woman’s role was to be a good wife and mother, sacrificing her own needs for her family. The ultimate goal for every aristocratic woman in Victorian England was to marry well, and to marry in a short period of time. If two or three years passed and a woman had not found a suitable husband, she would be considered a failure. Thus, Emily, like every other aristocratic young woman at that time, is pressured by her mother to find a wealthy husband. In order to avoid any unpleasantness and to escape her mother’s controlling behavior, Emily defers to her mother’s will. She doesn’t really know her husband when she marries him and she doesn’t show any interest in getting to know him, as she does not love him. It is only after Philip’s death that Emily begins to show interest in him (and to eventually fall in love with him), as she discovers his journals and begins to read Homer and to visit the British Museum in order to learn more about her late husband. In doing so, she gains a lot more than just finding out about Philip’s passions. Emily begins to yearn for more freedom; she longs to do whatever she pleases, to read what she likes and to wear what she wants, regardless of society’s rules. (Widows had to spend at least a year in deep mourning and to dress in black; once a widow entered the period of half-mourning, she would be allowed to gradually return to society and to attend events that were appropriate for a widow). Thus, Emily starts to rebel little by little and to show her strong-minded side more often. There’s a particular scene in the book that highlights her rebellious character and her rejection of society’s rules: After dinner, Emily and her friend Margaret, prefer to stay with the gentlemen and drink port with them instead of retiring to the drawing room as ladies would normally do. This was of course a very shocking thing to do, because it disregarded society’s rules that were imposed on women at that time and it did not please Emily’s mother and the other guests. (Although I must admit that I found it very amusing). As the story unfolds, Emily embarks on a journey of self-discovery and refuses to remarry again, knowing that marriage would put an end to her newfound independence.

And Only to Deceive was the perfect book for me, as I really liked reading about Emily’s journey and her fight for independence. I am very interested in this subject, as it’s a major issue when it comes to Victorian Literature and Culture. I must admit that although I found it very interesting to read about art forgeries and the intrigues and deceptions involved (which are actually the main themes of the novel), I found it more interesting to read about Emily’s rebellious way and her desire to learn more about the world, to read and to explore new places. I just enjoyed reading about her attempts at escaping the submitting role that Victorian society has forced upon her and I loved that Tasha Alexander has chosen this path for the heroine.

Overall, I really loved this engaging book and I recommend it to everyone who is interested in Victorian Literature and to everyone who likes to read a suspenseful novel set in the Victorian period.

Note: I would like to thank the author and her publicist Danielle Bartlett from Harper Collins for giving me the opportunity to read and to review this wonderful book!

The Glass of Time by Michael Cox

If you are a follower of my blog, then you probably know that I have a little obsession with the Victorian Era and with books set in that period. Hence, you may not be surprised to hear that I was eager to read Michael Cox’s The Glass of Time.

Luckily, I received a copy of this great book from John Murray Publishers and after I have spent the last days reading The Glass of Time, I must say that it lived up to my expectations, just as I imagined it. This novel was everything I expected: 531 pages packed with suspense, mysteries, intrigues, betrayal and romance – the perfect ingredients for an unforgettable gothic romance! But now, let’s have a look at the plot:

1876: Nineteen-year-old orphan Esperanza Gorst has been living in France ever since her parents died years ago. She cannot remember her dear parents and doesn’t know much about them. When they died, they left their young daughter in the care of Madame de l’Orme and Mr. Thornhaugh and she has received a most remarkable education from them. Thus, when her guardians send her to England to occupy a position as a lady’s maid at the gothic house of Evenwood, it soon becomes clear that Esperanza will not take on the role of an ordinary servant. Madame de l’Orme and Mr. Thornhaugh have sent the young girl to Evenwood with a specific purpose in mind. They want Esperanza to fulfil a Great Task, but the heroine doesn’t know yet what this task is about. She has been told to wait for three ‘Letters of Instruction’ that will clarify her role at Evenwood. In the meantime, Esperanza’s assignment will be to win over her new mistress, the former Emily Carteret, now the 26th Baroness Tansor. With her charm and intelligence, the heroine succeeds in accomplishing her task and she wins Lady Tansor’s trust and respect over the course of time. Soon, she is no longer a lady’s maid, but she is Lady Tansor’s companion and friend. As Esperanza receives the first two letters of instruction, she learns that she must not trust Lady Tansor, but rather to consider her as an enemy. However, Esperanza finds it hard to do so, since she pities Lady Tansor, as Esperanza sees that Lady Tansor is plagued by grief and sorrow. Although her mistress is strict and disdainful to others, she is kind to Esperanza and the young girl finds it hard to regard her as her enemy. Nevertheless, the nineteen-year-old has to fulfil the Great Task and follow the letters of instruction that tell her to uncover Lady Tansor’s dark secrets. As Esperanza digs deeper into Lady Tansor’s past, she finds herself entangled in a web full of shocking mysteries, murders, deceptions, jealousy and revenge. She also finally finds out why she has been sent to Evenwood, and when she does, she is shocked to learn that there is a connection between her and Lady Tansor. But what kind of connection? At Evenwood (and everywhere else, it seems), people are not who they pretend to be and Esperanza must pay heed before it’s too late, as dangers are all around her. Whom can she really trust and will she be able to fulfil the Great Task?

Well, if you want to know the answers to these questions, you will have to read this captivating book. I won’t tell you more about it, as I don’t want to spoil this haunting tale. All I can say is that you must read The Glass of Time if you are a fan of gothic romances and if you like to read books that are set in the Victorian Period. I promise you that you will enjoy this well written novel, as it’s a page-turner and a fascinating read that will appeal to everyone who loves a suspenseful mystery with a touch of romance. In this engrossing tale, nothing is quite as it seems and you will witness how the past can haunt one’s present as one cannot always accomplish to leave the past behind so easily!

I really loved The Glass of Time and I am looking forward to reading Michael Cox’s other novel The Meaning of Night in the near future!

The Agency: A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee

In 1853, twelve-year-old orphan Mary Quinn is struggling to survive on the unsafe streets of shady London by committing crimes. But one day, she is unwary and is caught housebreaking and therefore, Mary is sentenced to hang. Luckily, she is rescued by a mysterious woman, who is dressed as a prison warden. The woman turns out to be Anne Treleaven, the head teacher at Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls and she offers Mary an exceptional education at her school. There, she is able to acquire fine manners and other special skills. After finishing her education, Anne reveals to seventeen-year-old Mary that the academy is in fact a cover for The Agency – a top secret female investigative unit. Acknowledging Mary’s intelligence, bravery and good skills of observations, Anne encourages Mary to join The Agency and thus, put her hard training to the test.

Mary is intrigued by this new opportunity and therefore, takes up this thrilling challenge with great expectations. Her first assignment as a female investigator is to infiltrate the Thorold household in order to collect information on Mr. Thorold’s missing cargo ships. In the guise of a lady’s companion, Mary must work fast and find out the truth about Mr. Thorold’s business. But in the Thorold household, nothing is quite as it seems and Mary must be careful in deciding whom she can trust. Everyone seems to have dark little secrets: Mrs. Thorold acts rather suspiciously, her daughter Angelica is spoiled and seems to hide something and Mr. Thorold’s secretary Michael Gray flirts with Mary. And then there’s also James Easton, an arrogant, yet very attractive young man. His brother George is one of Angelica’s suitors and they have met several times. But why is James always behaving so strangely and why does he follow her everywhere? Can she really trust him or will she put herself in great danger by cooperating with him? And why is Mary trying to avoid talking about her past and parents?

The Agency: A Spy in the House is a delightful novel set in the heart of Victorian London, where shady and dangerous things are taking place. Y.S. Lee has written a compelling tale packed with suspense, action, mystery, intrigues and romance. Readers will enjoy accompanying Mary on her dangerous journey through the dusky streets of Victorian London and witnessing how this young and clever detective discovers secrets and fights the demons of her troubled childhood. I really loved this captivating tale and I wanted to read more about Mary and her fascinating adventures! The Agency: A Spy in the House is Y.S. Lee’s first novel and it’s part of a trilogy. Therefore, there will be a second novel in the Agency series, called The Body at the Tower and it will be published in August in the States. I can’t wait to read the promising sequel!

For more information on the Agency series, please visit the author’s website here. There, you can also enter a contest to win a copy of The Agency: A Spy in the House and other prizes.

Note: I would like to thank the author and her publicist Tracy Miracle from Candlewick Press for sending me a copy of this engaging book!

Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler

Jane Eyre is one of my favorite books and Charlotte Bronte is one of my favorite authors – so how could I not want to read Becoming Jane Eyre, where such a talented and influential female author comes to life?  

Part biography and part fiction, Becoming Jane Eyre concentrates on the short life of a brilliant author who has produced famous works such as Jane Eyre, Villette and The Professor. Sheila Kohler’s novel gives the reader an insight into Charlotte’s life as a writer, but also as a daughter and sister. The reader can witness how Charlotte managed to create such remarkable novels, despite the fact that she had a difficult life, plagued by loss, grief and poverty.  

Born in 1816 in Yorkshire, Charlotte Bronte is the daughter of a poor clergyman and the third of six children. She has to deal with tragedy at an early age as she witnesses the deaths of her mother and her two sisters, Maria and Elizabeth. In addition to that, her relationship with her father isn’t always happy and easy. The parson doesn’t know how to handle his daughters; his son Branwell has always been his favorite child. But it is Branwell who disappoints him the most – the young man drowns his sorrows in drugs and alcohol and falls into debt. Facing poverty, the sisters have to take up positions as teachers and governesses. In 1842, Charlotte and Emily travel to Brussels to enroll in a boarding school. There, Charlotte teaches English and grows closer to Constantin Heger, a married professor. For the first time in her life, she feels appreciated and understood. Her professor recognizes Charlotte’s writing talent and they spend a lot of time together, having fiery conversations about literature, religion and writing. Charlotte has fallen in love with this intelligent man, but she knows that there is no future for them. She soon feels lonely in Brussels because Constantin Heger has become distant. Disappointed, she returns home and uses her experience at the boarding school as an inspiration for her novel The Professor (and later for Villette). But when The Professor is rejected by many publishing houses, Charlotte cannot hide her disappointment. What she doesn’t know yet, is the fact that she will soon write her famous novel Jane Eyre. While she takes care of her sick father, Charlotte has a vision of a young girl, orphaned and alone. The young girl, named Jane, has to deal with ill-treatment, poverty and tragedy. Many ideas come to Charlotte’s mind, as she recalls her own journey – a journey full of suffering, disappointment and foolish dreams. While she thinks about her protagonist Jane, Charlotte relives everything once again – the pain she felt when her sisters died, her teaching experience in Brussels and her feelings for the professor. But Charlotte wants Jane to have a better chance in life. That’s why she decides to give her heroine a strong voice; she gives Jane the courage to speak up for herself and she wants her to be happy, with her Mr. Rochester. Thus accrues an impressive tale of independence, love, forgiveness and morality. When Jane Eyre is finally published, it receives many positive reviews and high praise. Anne and Emily also publish their novels Agnes Grey and Wuthering Heights, but they don’t experience the same success. Charlotte is nevertheless very content with her achievement, but her happiness is short-lived, since she can’t share her success with her siblings. After Branwell’s death, she also loses her beloved sisters Anne and Emily, who die of pulmonary tuberculosis. In 1854, Charlotte marries Arthur Bell Nicholls, her father’s curate. She soon becomes pregnant, but tragedy strikes again when only after nine happy months of marriage, Charlotte dies, along with her unborn child, at the young age of 38.  

  

Becoming Jane Eyre is a must read for Bronte fans as Shelia Kohler gives us a glimpse into the life of a gifted author, illustrating how passionate, intelligent and kindhearted Charlotte Bronte was. Sheila Kohler allows Charlotte to speak from the bottom of her heart, making her vulnerable, but at the same time showing us a strong and determined young woman. Becoming Jane Eyre depicts Charlotte Bronte as a devoted woman, who was very passionate about her family and her writing. If you get the chance to read this book, you will delight in finding out about the Bronte sisters; you will be able to cast an eye at Charlotte’s relationship with her father and to witness her intimate thoughts on love and writing.  

I truly loved this novel and I couldn’t put it down. I felt sad when I finished this book and I longed for more information on Charlotte Bronte. That’s why I want to read The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell in the future!  

I would like to thank Gabrielle Gantz from Penguin Group  for giving me the opportunity to review this great novel! Gabrielle also sent me two other Penguin books which I will read and review soon. Thank you for everything, Gabrielle! 

The Séance by John Harwood

The Séance by John Harwood

Constance Langton’s childhood takes an unhappy turn when her younger sister Alma dies at the age of two. Her mother goes into mourning and hardly speaks to anybody, and her distant father ignores her and eventually abandons the family. Since she feels unloved and neglected by her parents, Constance begins to think that she might have been a foundling. However, her questions remain unanswered because the girl has no one to confide in. She often feels alone and she can’t bear to see her mother so unhappy, therefore, Constance wants to find a way to cheer her mother up and to put an end to her pain. Thus, one day, Constance pretends to be taken over by Alma’s spirit and tells her mother that she is in heaven. The girl thinks that her mother will finally be able to go on with her life and to stop mourning, now that she knows that Alma is in heaven. Constance’s mother, however, seems to become obsessed with the idea of hearing Alma. Thus, the two attend a series of séances where Constance continues to pretend to be her sister. Her mother seems to be happy and she even smiles sometimes, but she is no longer content with only hearing Alma; she also wants to see and hold her. In desperation, Constance decides to take her mother to a séance held by a group of charlatans. There, her mother is convinced that she has really seen her beloved Alma and after all these years of grief, she finally seems to have found peace. But when Constance’s mother commits suicide after this event, the girl is shattered and she begins to blame herself for her mother’s death. Since her mother is gone, Constance is all by her self and she feels hopeless and lonelier than ever. Much to her surprise, Constance soon learns that a distant relative has bequeathed her entire estate to her. The protagonist finds out that the estate consists of Wraxford Hall, a derelict manor house in the English countryside. The decaying mansion has an obscure reputation: once, people have mysteriously disappeared there and other sinister things have taken place. Still, Constance doesn’t seem to be deterred by Wraxford Hall’s sombre history. She is determined to find out everything about the decaying mansion and about her distant relatives in the hope that she will learn more about herself. While she tries to unveil the dark secrets of Wraxford Hall, she becomes more and more convinced that she has indeed been a foundling, as she feels a strong connection to Wraxford Hall’s former residents. As the protagonist digs deeper into the mysterious events surrounding the decaying mansion, she finds herself entangled in a web of secrets, lies and deception. Thus, Constance needs to be careful, as in this world of illusion, nothing is quite as it seems and hidden dangers await her.

The Séance is an accomplished second novel from a very talented author; this compelling tale pays homage to Victorian Literature and to Victorian ghost stories. John Harwood has created a captivating world of intrigues, mysteries and dark secrets. The reader will enjoy this suspenseful ghost story, as the author has successfully managed to capture the language and spirit of the Victorian period and in addition, he has provided us with a well-constructed plot and fascinating characters. The Séance will appeal to readers who enjoy Victorian ghost stories and gothic tales and I recommend this novel to everyone who is interested in the Victorian Era. I am a huge fan of Victorian ghost stories, thus I must say that I loved this spellbinding tale! I really liked reading about Wraxford Hall, with its secret passages and hidden chambers, and I loved how the author has used the elements of a classic ghost story in this engaging novel (haunted houses, stormy nights, skeletons in the closet, dark mysteries and secrets, etc.). All in all, The Séance is a terrific Victorian ghost story and therefore, a must read for ghost story lovers!

I would like to thank Mariner Books for sending me a copy of this engaging novel!

 

Previous Older Entries