Review: Elizabeth Chadwick’s ‘The Irish Princess’

★★★☆☆

A semi-biographical historical novel, The Irish Princess is set in 12th century Ireland, before and during the Anglo-Norman conquest. Its titular heroine, Aoife MacMurchada, spends her adolescence and early twenties navigating the era’s political turmoil and violence, guided by her unshakeable loyalty to her family and determination to survive.

I read a few Elizabeth Chadwick novels several years ago, and my then-adolescent self was thoroughly impressed. Sadly, I was not so enamoured this time. Possibly, I have become more picky, but I think it might be that this book is written in a different vein to Shadows and Strongholds, with less emphasis on the romantic subplots I rated so much.

Aoife is an engaging heroine, and whilst her experiences as an adolescent are far removed from the majority of teenage experiences today, Chadwick opts for an honest portrayal of the times, in which girls were elevated to womanhood at a much younger age than we now consider mature.

“I shall honour them and bury with grief those who die. There is always a price to pay, daughter, remember that, but if you are willing to pay, then it is worth the sacrifice and never to be regretted.”

The best historical fiction is evocative, and conjures the past like a spell. There is certainly attention to detail in this book when it comes to the fashions and sensibilities of the era, but I did not feel any spellbinding connection to the setting. There is little description of the landscapes the characters move through, so in my mind it was all just vaguely Medieval, rather than rooted in a specific time and place.

The emphasis on the biographical aspects of the narrative make for a limited plot. The Irish Princess reads as a stream of events, and whilst this is true to life, the excitement factor is limited by the lack of any sustained tension. There is no real overarching narrative. Things happen, and Aoife moves on, growing wiser with time, but never fundamentally changing.

The characters are all evocations of real people, and like real people, most are morally grey. Aoife bears the standard romanticised hallmarks of a Medieval heroine – exceptional beauty, and noble blood – but her personality does occasionally show the taint of the violence she is exposed to during her upbringing. Personally, I would have liked to see more of her wily political dexterity, and less of her relationship with Richard de Clare, which I found romantically underwhelming.

Aoife buried her face against her upraised knees. She barely remembered what Richard de Clare looked like beyond a distant memory of rich auburn hair and piercing sea-coloured eyes… ‘Please make him go away,’ she whispered, and then: ‘Please make him stay.’

I do not think this numbers among the most intelligent and sensitive novels I have read, and for all the strength of its research, it lacks a certain delicacy. One of the characters is blinded, and whilst I could understand why they felt their world had ended, the narrative makes no effort to distance itself from tacit agreement with that sentiment. Mildly ableist, I think, and the book takes a similarly cavalier attitude to rape. Ultimately, the book reflects the attitudes of the harsher time it is writing about, but there is a sense that the author did not pause to consider the implications of Aoife’s undying admiration of her father, despite the narrative mentioning, offhandedly, his history as a marauding rapist.

The writing is reasonable, and Chadwick has a solid grasp on her characters. They tend to inhabit fixed roles, and not to develop beyond (or even challenge) the established confines of those roles, but the book does a decent enough job of presenting its historical figures in sympathetic context, and I think Aoife’s mixed feelings about her arranged marriage make for an interesting inner conflict during the early chapters.

Despite half-hearted efforts at chemistry, this is not a romance for the ages, instead presenting marriage as marriage often was in olden times – an act of family alliance against a cruel, vicious world. Ultimately, Aoife was a woman of her time, given the choices of her day. The writing is somewhat flat, and the characters’ emotions are regularly spoon-fed to the reader, but I think Chadwick succeeds in portraying her subject with respectful authenticity.

Review: Laure Eve’s ‘The Graces’

★★★☆☆

This witchy YA novel is reminiscent of The Craft, mingling similar adolescent themes of belonging, friendship and popularity with a healthy sprinkling of the occult. Our narrator is River, a new-in-town young adolescent, who joins school halfway through term, determined to make the most of this fresh start, and to leave the demons of her mysterious past behind her.

Introspective and insular, our heroine nevertheless dreams of popularity. To gain the social power she craves, she hatches a plan to insert herself into the Graces’ orbit. The fraternal twins, Thalia and Fenrin Grace, and their younger sister, Summer, are the school’s royal family, revered and feared, and possibly witches. Crushing hard on Fenrin, and mesmerised by his family’s esoteric ways, River makes stealthy efforts to bind her life to theirs, and to find definitive proof that they are a coven. From the outset, it is clear that she wants not so much to be with them as to become one of them.

The sunny beachside setting is a pleasing contrast to the dark themes and River’s stormy personality. Mostly, this is a teen drama about the tension between wanting to fit in and wanting to stand out, but it can also be taken as a parable about how fine a line separates popular and pariah.

I was completely and utterly in love with him.

It was the stupidest, most obvious thing I could have done, and I hated myself for it. Every girl with eyes loved Fenrin. But I was not like those prattling, chattering things with their careful head tosses and thick, cloying lip gloss. Inside, buried down deep where no one could see it, was the core of me, burning endlessly, coal black and coal bright.

Though I am not usually into books which focus on adolescent psychology, I enjoyed this one with a sense of guilty pleasure. River has various qualities which denote her a ‘not like other girls’ type of girl, but there is just enough self-awareness about how wishful her thinking is to avoid her personality being too much for the reader to endure.

In some ways this book is a supernatural romance, in which a ‘normal’ teenager is bewitched by something mystical and more than human. I was pleasantly surprised to find the romantic elements were kept in the background, however. Much of River’s behaviour is motivated by desire for Fenrin, but the story is more about her bittersweet friendship with Summer, and the experience of finding herself.

I am not completely sure how old River is meant to be, and by the end she is still in school, so it might not be fair to criticise the book for its protagonist’s immaturity and persistent state of delusion. It is a pity about the character development though. River’s experiences with the Graces are dark and dramatic, but I did not get a sense that she grew up because of them. On some level, she does learn that association with interesting people is not enough to make her interesting, and in doing so gains self-acceptance, but it is to be wondered whether the self she embraces is one she should instead commit to bettering. Towards the end the novel seems uncertain about what it has created, and the ending is weakly inconclusive.

That night I think we were trying to fight against death, against boredom and banality, against everything that made us cry and stare at our futures full in the face with dread. We drank and played games to be in the now, to be in each moment as hard as we could, because the moment was all that mattered, at the end of it all.

I am curious to read the sequel, The Curses, which is narrated from Summer’s perspective. River’s unreliable narration (and unhinged demeanour) in The Graces sort of works, but there are inconsistencies, and the disconnect between how she views herself and how I viewed her as a reader was jarring. I do not know whether I was supposed to sympathise with her, and I am not convinced it is a question the book can answer.

The marriage of black magic and teen insecurities is not always pretty one. Sometimes I felt I was reading a Carrie-esque horror, but substantial chunks of this novel are a drab internal monologue of a boring person reflecting on how boring they are. Unsurprisingly, this gets dull, fast. Things pick up as the story zigzags to the finish, only to descend into uncontrolled weirdness, as though the author wrote from the fog of a dream.

The essence of this novel is an outsider desperately trying to claw her way inside, so I am interested to see how this will contrast with the sequel, given that Summer is in some ways an insider who wants out. I have my reservations about this book, but the cliff-hanger ending makes it difficult to abandon the series at this point.

Review: Susan Hill’s ‘The Small Hand’

★★★☆☆

The Small Hand is a modern Gothic novella, published in 2010. It is my first Susan Hill read, and based on her reputation as a literary powerhouse, it must be said I expected something impressive. In reality, I was underwhelmed.

Adam Snow, an antiquarian book dealer, stumbles across a derelict estate. Upon entering its grounds, he feels an invisible child take his hand. Like the protagonist of many a Gothic/horror narrative, he thinks bizarrely little of this life-changing supernatural experience, and heads off home to London with only a vague interest in finding out more about the abandoned house. In the weeks that follow, his paranormal acquaintance starts to visit, no longer a forlorn child, but a sinister presence with increasingly malevolent designs.

This is possibly the most formulaic ghost story I have ever encountered. The plot walks paths laid by Gothic classics with such reliance on tropes that I struggle to list anything fresh it brings to the table. Contemporary settings can work well in Gothic narratives (Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian is a shining example), but in this case the setting has no bearing on the narrative, because the only substance is drawn, unchanged, from Gothic tradition. Mostly, The Small Hand is about a creepy manor, home to a phantom looking for closure. Aside from the occasional email, it feels as though the book could be taking place at any point in the last 500 years.

I stood in the dim, green-lit clearing and above my head a silver paring of moon cradled the evening star. The birds had fallen silent. There was not the slightest stirring of the air.

And as I stood I felt a small hand creep into my right one, as if a child had come up beside me in the dimness and taken hold of it.

The protagonist’s inability to piece the puzzle together, though it is one which anyone who has ever read a ghost story will be quick to figure out, was frustrating to say the least. However, I did enjoy the brief sojourn to a silent monastery in France, and I think in places the writing has a pleasing Daphne du Maurier vibe. Overall, I think this book is too tame though. It is, at most, mildly creepy. Perhaps because of the shocking lack of originality, the atmosphere is more soporific than scary.

For full disclosure, I will confess that ghost stories are not really my thing. Much as I love a slice of Gothic fiction, I am more interested in vampires than ghouls. With that being said, it is true that I found this a more engaging story The Turn of the Screw. Given this text’s relative obscurity, I think it is also reasonable to conclude that this is not that best of Hill’s works – The Woman in Black is considerably more famous, and probably with good reason.

At just 165 pages, The Small Hand is a easy read, but it does feel dusty, as though it was written a long time ago, and has not stood the test of that time. A dud, perhaps? I find it hard to believe that this is Hill on top form.

Review: Edith Wharton’s ‘The House of Mirth’

★★★★★

What a read! Published 1905, The House of Mirth chronicles the brittle, glittering life of Miss Lily Bart, an impoverished New York socialite whose childhood in the lap of luxury has left her ill-prepared for the constraints of her minimal funds. To continue furnishing the trappings of her lifestyle, Lily must net a wealthy husband. Simple enough, for a beautiful, charming young woman, but Lily has spent her life snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Though the narrative takes place twenty years prior, this novel has thematic parallels to The Great Gatsby. It is also set in a similar world – one where pedigree and new money wrestle, and the loyalty a society darling can command from her ‘set’ is dependent on lavish summers in the Riviera, and a continuous supply of champagne.

The House of Mirth focuses much more on wealth, however, and is ultimately an unflinching portrayal of the horror the threat of poverty can inspire. Though she was written more than a century ago, Lily Bart is a palpably ‘real’ character. Times have changed, but her experiences as a single woman in financial distress remain comparable to experiences still being lived by women the world over.

Yes – it was happiness she still wanted, and the glimpse she had caught of it made everything else of no account. One by one she had detached herself from the baser possibilities, and she saw that nothing now remained to her but the emptiness of renunciation.

To read just as a depiction of the 1900s, this book is a delight. Edith Wharton was a fantastic writer, and her prose is as sumptuous as the settings, decadent yet graceful. In some ways the age of the book did surprise me, because it is so readable. Again, there are parallels to be drawn between Wharton’s writing and Fitzgerald’s.

The narrative revels in the types of beauty only money can buy, but it is not at heart a materialistic story. Lily’s journey is a painful one, full of personal growth and moral redemption. More than this, The House of Mirth balances its morals with an honest appraisal of how truly difficult it can be to do the noble thing. The choices Lily faces on her tumultuous road to ruin are genuine moral dilemmas, in which the wrong choice is often just right enough to feel more like a compromise than a mistake.

The novel is also a hesitant, slow-burn romance. Though this subplot is not the mainstay, its poignancy hits just the right spots, leaving the bittersweet taste of something perfectly incomplete.

Little as she was addicted to solitude, there had come to be moments when it seemed a welcome escape from the empty noises of her life.

The characters are fantastic, and many are incredibly nuanced, despite the short page count. Wharton had a real gift for pouring life into her literary creations, and even the brief appearances brim with psychological complexity, leaving a lasting impression.

Overall, this book has a somewhat operatic quality, and I do think it can withstand comparison to more hedonistic overtures of feeling like The Lady of the Camellias. The House of Mirth is the more cerebral of the two, but it is an equally spirited and gripping read, and I think it has greater philosophical depth.

I shall summarise by saying I could list pages of reasons why this book merits its status as a classic. One of my favourites, for sure.

Review: Scott Lynch’s ‘The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gentleman Bastard #1)

★★★★★

If there is one thing which is sure to draw me to a book like a shark to the scent of blood, it is an antihero protagonist. The best way to describe The Lies of Locke Lamora is a mafia-esque revenge thriller set in a Venetian-style fantasy kingdom. It is full of gory violence and sordid language, and its characters have less than a thimbleful of moral fiber between them. This book has been on my TBR list for many years, and having finally got to it I have no idea why I failed to make time for it sooner, because this is exactly my kind of read.

You can only imagine my delight when I realised that this is only the first installment in what is a planned seven-part saga. Book four is due to be released in August, and whilst I am always wary of unfinished series, particularly long ones (which I think rarely sustain their initial promise), I found Locke Lamora such an exciting delight of a novel that I cannot help myself. I am extremely invested in Lynch’s world and characters.

500 pages long, Locke Lamora packs in a complex, emotionally charged story which has just the right vein of humour to offset its genuine darkness. Locke, our protagonist, is a thief extraordinaire, naturally gifted (possibly a kleptomaniac) and trained from infancy to pull the most outrageous ruses on the nobility of an unequal society. A ghostly legend on the streets of his city, he is the fabled Thorn of Camorr.

“I’ve got kids that enjoy stealing. I’ve got kids that don’t think about stealing one way or the other, and I’ve got kids that just tolerate stealing because they know they’ve got nothing else to do. But nobody – and I mean nobody – has ever been hungry for it like this boy. If he had a bloody gash across his throat and a physiker was trying to sew it up, Lamora would steal the needle and thread and die laughing.”

Aside from its unashamed exploration of the joys of crime, this book is about brotherhood. Locke leads a small cabal of talented thieves known as the Gentleman Bastards, comprised of our eponymous criminal mastermind, a cunning pair of identical twins, a baby-faced bruiser, and their young apprentice. Together they are clever, quick, and can pull of anything they set their minds to. Or at least they think they can, until they find themselves netted in the politics of their city’s criminal underbelly. Caught between the authorities and the shifting sands of criminal power on which their shared fortune has been built, Locke and his comrades must rise to the challenge of engineering a ruse with bigger stakes than any they have pulled before. It is the only way to save their lives.

One of the best things about this book is its willingness to kill people. Staged deaths and miraculous resurrections are common in the fantasy genre to the point that they are more trope than cliché, but Lynch commits to representing a criminal underworld without romanticising it into a safe realm of fairytale adventure. In this book, a pretty face and quick wits do not guarantee survival, and Locke’s charming arrogance is not just there for embellishment. Everything about our protagonist exists so that the story can test it.

Characters die in this book, few of them gently, and some of them are characters who would, in many a fantasy novel, be protected by plot armour and their status as inevitable fan favourites. As Locke’s mission becomes less about survival, more about vengeance, the story ramps up the drama and the stakes, becoming more exciting with every page. I took a break about 150 pages in, but thereafter the only way to stop me reading would have been to pry the book from my hands.

“Gentlemen Bastards,” hissed Locke, “do not abandon one another, and we do not run when we owe vengeance.”

The start is good, and the story just keeps getting better as it goes. The dialogue is witty, the plot is clever, and the setting is immersive to the point of being able to smell the salt on the ships, the grime of dusky alleys. Though it is not Venice, the setting is such a realistic evocation of a canal city that it almost feels like I have been there.

Also, despite the crassness of the world the characters inhabit, there is real beauty to this book. I do not think that Lynch’s writing is up there with Guy Gavriel Kay, but there is a literary element to the prose which elevates it above other grimdark fantasy offerings such as Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire Trilogy. I loved that series at the time I read it, but I would argue that Lynch’s writing is considerably more sophisticated.

I will definitely be reading Red Seas Under Red Skies in the next few weeks. I want to give myself a short break, so that I can really savour this series instead of gorging on it, but honestly I am not sure how long I will to be able to resist. Finishing Locke Lamora was a bittersweet experience, because the world it invited me to enter was one I never wanted to leave. I am so excited to go back and find out more about Locke’s past, as well as join him on his next adventure.

Review: M.R. Carey’s ‘The Book of Koli’ (Rampart Trilogy #1)

★★★☆☆

This British post-apocalyptic sci-fi, written in a broken English dialect, is an easy 375 page read. The style reminded me of similarly futuristic passages in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, but the resemblance is only superficial. Narrated by a fifteen-year-old boy born and raised in a small village in what was once West Yorkshire, The Book of Koli is a conventional dystopian genre novel, leaning into YA. The exact date of the setting is not specified, but it is safe to assume we have jumped forward several centuries.

Koli, our standard adolescent protagonist, has never ventured beyond the confines of ‘Mythen Rood’ due to the dangers of the outside world. The premise, of a rebellious teenager growing up in claustrophobic settlement surrounded by sinister wilderness, is nothing new, but I did find the details of the setting interesting. Koli’s world is the legacy of a huge gene-splicing project, in which the world’s flora and fauna were genetically engineered to survive in more hostile conditions. This had a number of unintended consequences, but chief of them is that fact that every living thing now has a taste for human flesh, including the trees.

Koli’s small community is ruled by the Ramparts, a cluster of individuals whose claim to power rests on their ability to wield the technologically advanced weapons of the old world. When they come of age, each villager is given the chance to test one of these ancient devices in the hope that it might ‘choose’ them. Strangely, however, only the members of one family, the existing leaders of the community, ever seem to receive this honour.

The old times haunt us still. The things they left behind save us and hobble us in ways that are past counting. They was ever the sift and substance of my life, and the journey I made starts and ends with them.

‘Nothing new’ is a description that can be applied to the book as a whole. We have our standard unrequited adolescent crush, our standard coming of age ceremony, and out in the world beyond we have our standard dystopian mix of hungry beasties and hyper-religious cannibals. It is not bad, but there is little besides the setting which can be praised for freshness.

Compared to The Girl With All the Gifts, I think The Book of Koli is a better piece of writing, solidly plotted and respectable. I do not think it is anything particularly special, however.

I found the plot predictable. Also, I did not find Koli an engaging narrator. He is a fifteen-year-old boy, and so the book delves dutifully into his dull self-absorption, sexual awakening, and first crush. Even though the story is narrated in hindsight, our protagonist is about as annoying as you would expect a fifteen-year-old who believes he is in love to be. Though the setting and characters offer scope to move beyond, the book always keeps a foot firmly in the YA genre, and its few new ideas surrender quickly to familiar tropes.

Everything that lives hates us, it sometimes seems. Or at least they come after us like they hate us. Things we want to eat fight back, hard as they can, and oftentimes win… And the trees got their own ways to hurt us, blunt or subtle according to their several natures.

It is the secondary characters who saved the story for me, because they are a lot more interesting than Koli. Ursala is genuinely cool, and I found the AI, Monono, who Koli unwittingly befriends, an entertaining presence. Rather than creating a future completely removed from our current reality, Carey uses Monono to connect Koli to his world’s history, something which is used to good effect. The dissonance in their dialects adds some mild humour.

In places the book is quite gritty, and it manages a few scenes of violence, but overall the narrative is characterised by its simplicity. The darker themes, like inbreeding, are portrayed in their most sanitised light. A shrinking gene pool does not lead direct from healthy babies to total infertility, and whilst the book acknowledges this, it does not commit to representing what a heavily inbred community would look like. Everyone is either healthy and of normal appearance, or dead in early infancy, without delving into the plethora of health issues inbreeding can lead to, and which can be lived with, even in settings where medical care facilities are limited. I mean, just look at the Ptolemy line in Ancient Egypt, and the Hapsburg dynasty. I found it all a bit half-hearted, as though the author was not actually interested in exploring the setup he had created.

Inoffensively average, this book is a nice start to the trilogy. Overall, I do not feel sufficiently excited about the sequel to jump straight into it, mostly because my enthusiasm for another journey through Koli’s head is minimal. Unlikable characters can, and often are, interesting, but it is difficult to get behind one whose personality is tiresome, no matter how interesting the story might be.

Review: Anne Brontë’s ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’

★★★★☆

Like many classical novels, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall starts out slow, the reading experience like wading through syrup. It is definitely worth pushing through the first 50 pages though, because once this book gets going it is a gripping narrative, brimming with scandal. Considered a landmark in the history of feminist literature, the text explores themes of domestic abuse, alcoholism and female autonomy with surprising frankness.

Anne Brontë is generally considered the least recognised of the Brontë clan. Wildfell was immensely popular when first published, but after Anne’s death from tuberculosis (she was just 29), republication was delayed by almost a decade, pushing the text into obscurity. Charlotte Brontë’s motives for withdrawing her sister’s novel from reprint are unclear, though it is evident she did not have a high opinion of the book – ‘For my part, I consider the subject unfortunately chosen – it was one the author was not qualified to handle at once vigorously and truthfully.’

Unable to replicate the initial buzz on its second run, Wildfell never entirely recovered its standing. It is reasonable to speculate, however, that its rise to greater prominence in recent decades will continue. Viewed as coarse in its day, this novel has a dark grittiness I would not expect to find in many classics from this era. With all the drama of a soap opera, and an uncompromising backbone of feminist values, its unsettling relevance does not entirely depend on the book’s historical context.

“When I tell you not to marry without love, I do not advise you to marry for love alone – there are many, many other things to be considered.”

Mrs Helen Graham, a mysterious and reclusive woman, arrives in a sleepy Yorkshire village with her young son, husband not included. Her independent aloofness is initially a source of great irritation to local landowner Gilbert Markham, but as their mutual dislike softens into curiosity, the truth of Helen’s circumstances is gradually revealed.

The narrative is split into three volumes, and styled as a collection of letters from Markham to his friend, as well as extracts from Helen’s diary. Though her account does not begin until the second volume, Helen is easily the text’s most striking character. Her haughty piousness does not make her very likable, but it is hard not to admire her courage and conviction. Trapped in a terrible marriage with a cruel, emotionally abusive husband, she takes drastic action to protect her child from moral bankruptcy, following her principles no matter the cost.

In 1848, when the book was published, men had exclusive legal rights over their children, and could wield terrible power over their wives. A wife who left her husband without his consent was technically breaking the law, as she was, in the eyes of the law, her husband’s property. To some, Anne Brontë’s willingness to explore these unsavoury themes was shocking and tastelessly provocative, but she went so far as to defend her choice of subject matter, stating in her preface that ‘to represent a bad thing in its least offensive light, is doubtless the most agreeable course for a writer of fiction to pursue; but is it the most honest, or the safest? Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life to the young and thoughtless traveller, or to cover them with branches and flowers?’

‘I would rather have your friendship than the love of any other woman in the world.’

There are no principal characters who I loved as people in this book, but the characters do feel grounded and real. Wildfell is, in its way, a romance, but its portrayal of humanity is more authentic than romantic. The book actively challenges the notion that brooding, Byronic men just need a dose of virgin love to be redeemed, and I liked this. The notion that good girls can offer bad boys a personality transplant is one that crops up in even the most modern romances, and it is problematic. No woman should feel it is her life’s purpose to engineer a man’s moral salvation, and romanticising this form of martyrdom encourages young women to sacrifice their own happiness.

Thematically, I thought this was an amazing book, but I can see why it was subjected to technical criticism. The plot does not always make complete sense, and on several occasions major character shifts are extrapolated from tenuous circumstances, or plot conveniences that do not ring with truth. Helen is characterised as intelligent, but on several occasions she makes unfathomably bad decisions, seemingly just to push the narrative forward. Also, Gilbert Markham’s personality, which mostly consists of hot-headed foolery, makes it difficult to credit him as a viable love interest.

Overall, I do not think this is the most ‘polished’ classic I have ever read, and with its tidy, predictable conclusion, I would agree that it is less intellectual than many of its contemporaries. The book also relies heavily on Helen’s strong religious faith to get her through difficult circumstances, which I found difficult to relate to.

However, I most definitely enjoyed the read. Easily my favourite classic of those I have read so far this year, and still worthy of applause for its boldness and bravery in challenging the gender roles of its era. In many ways, Wildfell was ahead of its time, and I think its influence on the historical romance genre can still be felt today. Though many classical authors died prematurely, I find Anne’s early death particularly tragic. Had she lived to defend her work, I am sure her legacy would not have been so overshadowed.

Review: Angela Steidele’s ‘Gentleman Jack: A Biography of Anne Lister’

★★★☆☆

Having recently finished the BBC drama series, Gentleman Jack (well worth the watch), I was eager to find out how much this fictional portrayal aligned with the facts. Anne Lister was a Regency-era landowner, traveller, and pioneering lesbian. With her all-black wardrobe and ‘gentlemanly’ mannerisms, it is an understatement to say that she cut an striking figure in the wealthy social circles of Halifax, West Yorkshire, in the early 1800s. Her extensive diaries, which were written in a secret code to hide their erotic content, document her unashamed pursuit of various women, and offer valuable insight about her life and times.

Portrait of Anne Lister by Joshua Horner

Angela Steidele’s biography is mostly comprised of quotes from Lister’s writing, framing the subject’s own words with additional facts and a sprinkling of context. I have mixed feelings about the book overall, mostly because it paints Anne Lister in a completely different light to the TV series. This is by no means a flattering biography, and whilst there is no denying that Lister deserves to be recognised for her courageous self-acceptance in an era governed by repressive Christian morality, the text makes it clear that she was an unpleasant character.

From playing an instrumental role in her first lover, a half-Indian schoolgirl, being committed to a mental asylum for life, to bullying her wife into financial subservience, the biography paints Lister as a gaslighter, a hypocritical cheat, and a malicious liar who had little regard, or respect, for anyone else’s wellbeing.

She too was God’s creation. No lesbian self-hatred, no desperation, no tears, no noose. Instead, an early form of gay pride. Anne Lister made no attempt to hide her difference; she flirted with it.

In many ways, the Lady of Shibden Hall was an archetypal Byronic figure, with all the flaws that implies. Had she been a man, I think she would be derided by modern historians as a Tory landowner whose attitude towards the femme-presenting women she pursued was at best scornful of their intelligence, and at worst predatory.

To be fair, this is not really a fault of the book. If anything, it suggests the BBC drama is an over-romanticised portrayal which neatly glosses over the unsavoury aspects of Lister’s personality. This biography does make for some uncomfortable reading, however.

The book is stuffed with research, so I am fairly confident of its accuracy, but for all the wealth of the author’s studies, I am not convinced that the text succeeds in painting a full picture of its subject. The narrative focuses on Lister’s sexual liaisons, to the extent that they are not really contextualised within the wider story of her life. Each chapter title is the name of the woman (or women) Lister was seducing at a given point in her life, which I thought in poor taste.

When we leave nature we leave our only steady guide, and, from that moment, become inconsistent with ourselves.’

There are some interesting sections in the book, but they are not detailed enough. I wanted to know a lot more about the fascinating Ladies of Llangollen, and Lister’s connection to the Brontë sisters was an intriguing tidbit of information that I would have liked to explore in greater detail. The speculation that Anne Lister might have inspired Emily Brontë’s characterisation of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights receives less than a paragraph. Like several other things the book mentions in passing, it seemed worthy of much more discussion.

Many, if not most, of the quotes Steidele uses are drawn from Lister’s habit of rating her sexual performance after every encounter. Interesting, yes, but the book seems so geared towards the sexually scandalous elements of Lister’s life that it neglects many other aspects of her existence. At times, I felt that the book was determined to prove nothing but how much of a lesbian Lister was. It was obviously an important part of her identity, but regardless of the cruel ways in which she used and discarded her lovers, I feel any historic figure merits a more nuanced portrayal than one characterised entirely by their sexual relationships.

Ultimately, given the wealth of source material this book had to draw upon, I felt its focus was too narrow. Lister’s sex life was interesting and unconventional for its time, and it makes sense that the author was drawn to the scent of scandal, but Lister was also a brave mountaineer, and a shrewd manager of her estate in a time when most women could not dream of financial independence. Undoubtedly, she was in reality more rounded and nuanced than this book suggests. It is not a bad read, but I think the picture it draws of Anne Lister’s fascinating character is biased and incomplete.

Review: Philippa Gregory’s ‘Tidelands’ (The Fairmile #1)

★★★☆☆

Not a bad book, but not as good as I was expecting. Tidelands is a historical novel set at the end of the English Civil War. The narrative does cover the trial and execution of King Charles I, but only as a minor subplot. Unlike most of Philippa Gregory’s other novels, Tidelands is not focused on royalty and recorded historical events. Unusually, the text inhabits the world of the era’s downtrodden poor, drawing inspiration from lives that never made the pages of history.

Our main character is Alinor Reekie, a herbalist and midwife who must walk a fine line if she is to avoid being accused of witchcraft. With her negligent husband lost at sea but not confirmed dead, Alinor is caught in an uncomfortable limbo, neither a wife nor a widow. Her struggles are confounded by dire poverty. Alone, she struggles to raise her adolescent children, Rob and Alys, and to maintain her independence.

On Midsummer’s Eve, when the ghosts of dead sailors are known to visit, Alinor goes to the beach in search of closure, only to meet a living soul, James Summer. Compelled by her sense of charity (and perhaps by an appreciation of his excellent cheekbones), Alinor shelters this mysterious stranger for the night, despite him being a Catholic spy.

She thought that if she were to meet her husband’s ghost drifting like a sea fret through the dark yew trees, she would be the happiest that she had been since her girlhood. If he was drowned, she was free.

The level of detail and realism in the setting is fantastic to read. Tidelands is not a heavy book, but I gleaned some interesting facts about historical medicine and the witch mania of the era. The strength of the research sings through every scene, without this seeming forced or overdone. Gregory has a gift for taking the reader on a journey through time, animating the past with clear passion and a genuine wealth of knowledge. This talent is exercised throughout the novel.

Had the other elements matched this standard, I have no doubt this would have been a five star review. Unfortunately, however, the setting is where the realism ends, because from the beginning, every decision the characters make seems ridiculous. It is difficult to empathise with a protagonist who makes mistakes that she has all the knowledge to prevent, and it is more difficult still when those mistakes are huge, dangerous ones, made for no logical reason.

Alinor is mostly characterised as a loving, dependable mother who wants the best for her children, and who has always used her wits to keep herself out of trouble. Years of caution are thrown to the wind, however, the moment James appears. I did not find the ‘passion’ between these two believable. Everything happens too quickly for their connection to be established, and for all that their relationship is portrayed as a head-over-heels rush of feeling, the book is missing the most vital element of any romance: chemistry.

‘I did not know that there could be a woman like you, in a place like this.’

If a relationship is one that has great challenges to overcome from its outset, the qualities which make it worth the struggle need to be convincing. Alinor is five years older than James, and her experiences as a mother are a natural contrast to his complete lack of sexual experience. They come from different classes, different educational and social backgrounds, and have different religious and political beliefs – the cause of wars, at the time. These many differences made it an unlikely pairing from the start, but the real problem is I never got the sense that these differences were worth overcoming, because the relationship had no substance beyond an appreciation of each others’ good looks. Given the dangers, the rewards never felt worth the risks, which just made Alinor look foolish.

Also, the unprotected sex. Granted, reliable contraceptives were not available in the era, but Alinor is a midwife. Her willful ignorance of basic biological truths struck me as completely unbelievable, given her precarious circumstances. Obviously, you cannot sit on a pregnancy and hope it will go away, and Alinor’s shying away from difficult decisions seemed at odds with the grave situation she had put herself in.

The only other Gregory novel I have read is The Other Boleyn Girl, which is I think a much stronger and more cohesive narrative. In this, and in most of her other books, Gregory structures her narratives around the biographies of famous historical figures, rather than inventing her own plot, so I wonder if Tidelands’ clumsiness is simply the result of inexperience in structuring a story.

Ultimately, I did not feel that the potential of this novel was realised. Whilst I loved the world, everything else was too obvious and silly to engage me. Alinor’s intelligence seemed to fluctuate like shifting sand, and for all that the narrative tries to be about female autonomy under the repressive Cromwell regime, its protagonist is passive to the point of being a background character in her own life. Alys did show rather more promise, and thanks to her the book does have a satisfying conclusion, but I think I will skip the sequel in favour of venturing back to the Plantagenet and Tudor series, which seem to be the author’s better work.

Review: V. E. Schwab’s ‘Vengeful’ (Villains #2)

★★☆☆☆

Reviewing this book has taken some time, mostly because I’ve been too busy rolling my eyes at it.

Vengeful is the sequel to Vicious. It is, I think, the better half of the duology, but I would not go so far as to call it a compelling narrative. The average rating on Goodreads is an impressive 4.21 stars, so I had reason for optimism. I was kicked off the hype train before it even left the station, however. The opening scene is gripping, and for the first few pages I wondered if this novel might have taken the few good bits of Vicious and elevated the series to a much higher level. The answer is no.

The main issue I have with this book is its characters. They are simply excruciating. Trying too hard to make a protagonist seem cool usually has the opposite effect, and Vengeful is a textbook example of this. If it was YA, I think Schwab might have gotten away with it, but these adults, in a book supposedly aimed at an adult audience, are such strained caricatures of charisma that all I could do was wince.

A taste for dark clothes and a penchant for one-liners are not sufficient to create a badass hero, and I think the book lacks awareness on this point, focusing so much on stylised details that it completely neglects the actual substance of the narrative.

“You’re such a weirdo sometimes.”

“Only sometimes?” asked Victor. “I’ll have to try harder.” Those blue eyes flicked to Eli. “Normal is overrated.”

On a structural level, I thought this book had serious problems. The shifting timelines are horrendous. Every few pages the narrative flits four years ago, or seven, or two weeks back, or returns to today. As soon as I had settled into where and when we were, off we went again. I could follow the gist of the narrative, but one of the major issues is that I soon realised there was no need to. No matter where I found myself in the characters’ lives, they were the same people. This is because Vengeful has absolutely no character development.

I could not find much I liked about this book, but I will say that the actual writing is decent. Nothing to get excited about, but an unintrusive flow of words, which did make this a quick and easy read.

There are far too many words though. For an action-packed revenge thriller with superpowers thrown in, Vengeful is a 550+ page bloater of a book. I felt the uncomplicated plot could have been tidily executed in half the pages.

He rounded, dizzy, expecting to see a cop, or a thug, or even an EON soldier, but there was only a single man, short and balding, wearing round glasses and a white lab coat.

That was the last thing Nick saw before his vision blurred, and his legs buckled, and everything went dark.

The half-arsed feminism is another blemish that knocks off the shine. Our villainess, Marcella, has such a frustrating wealth of potential, but her fun, vampish qualities are not utilised to any inspired effect. Before the story goes anywhere, her whole gig turns into a game of apportioning blame onto men when she does not get her way. Her stance can be summed as ‘they’re trying to take me down because I’m a powerful woman and that scares them,’ and I could not buy it. Not only is this an embodiment of some tired (and outdated) clichés, but come on.

Marcella is a sadistic megalomaniac, and a terrorist. Philosophising on the nuances is all very well, but there is no nuance here. Presenting her as a woman vilified by a misogynistic world, when she is actually nothing but a villain, does nothing but undermine legitimate efforts to combat sexism.

I did like the concept of the character June (though her powers did a number on the logical consistency of the story), and you can say that the gory scenes are unflinching. Otherwise, I thought this was a soulless book. Good for a laugh, but unfortunately that laugh is a bitter one, enjoyed only at the expense of the series’ wasted potential.

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