The Good People by Hannah Kent – Book Review.

Title: The Good People

Author: Hannah Kent

Rating: 4/5

Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Gothic, Literary, Irish Fiction


As a reviewer with Irish roots, I’ve always been drawn to tales set in the Emerald Isle. After visiting Ireland a few times, and exploring the Ring of Kerry and the mountains around Dingle, there is a clear sense of ancient magic and wilderness that just oozes from this beautiful country.

So when I was skipping through my Kindle feed (yes I read on the Kindle half the time. With my newest handbag being a Chanel Jumbo, I find it much easier to carry a small Kindle around rather than a beefy paperback), I stumbled upon The Good People by Hannah Kent and immediately got sucked into the story.

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Set in a valley in County Kerry, Ireland, The Good People intertwines folklore, religion, and science in this female-led narrative which is heavily based on their belief of ‘The Good People’ – fairies and creatures that live and cause illness/misfortune to people.

When Nóra’s husband Martin dies and leaves her a bereft widow in the rural community of Crohane, misfortune seems to fall across the valley like a toxin. The cows don’t milk, the crops keep failing and a stillborn baby is delivered, all to the horror of the local population. And fingers and rumours are drawn towards Nóra’s house, as she hides a terrible secret. Her grandson, Micheál – a once thriving boy – has been delivered back to Nóra after the death of her daughter. But much has changed with the boy. The child is unable to walk, speak or even properly communicate, which baffles Nóra as she struggles to bond or care for the boy that was apparently her grandson. However, it is soon suggested that the real Micheál was stolen away by ‘The Good People’, who left a fairy-child – a changling – in their midst. So, it is up to Nóra, her hired help Mary, and the local wisewoman Nance Roche, to sort out the changling child once and for all. But with a new priest in town who disapproves of this so-called heresy over the plight of what he considers to be an ill child, time is running out for these three women.

I’ve found with Kent’s writing that she enjoys writing about female-led stories in which turmoil is mixed in with a dose of reality, as this and her other novel Burial Rites, all deal with stories that have a basis in fact. The worries about ‘The Good People’ were held by Irish people at this time, as were the conflicts that the Church had with these almost pagan ideas. For me as a reader, I enjoyed the sense that what I reading wasn’t all fantasy and from the author’s imagination. It gave it a sense of realism.

What I enjoyed about The Good People was the feeling that Kent managed to draw upon. As the village is set in a closeted community in a rural area of Ireland, there is a real sense of isolation and claustrophobia throughout the text. It felt as though the reader was invading upon something that was very private. With the use of Gaelic words too, and a very apt vocabulary, Kent really goes that extra mile to bring the reader deeper into the Irish landscape.

The characters were all well-written too. The women all had deep layers of conflict, personal history, and individuality that made them all very unique to the story. I enjoyed how radically different some characters felt from the others too, as it presented each situation in a unique way as we read it. What Kent also doesn’t do – a strength here – is give a clear answer to the riddle of Micheál. The reader is left wondering whether a priest, a doctor or Nance’s influence would’ve solved the riddle, or what he actually is. This leaves a good ambiguity to the text which makes it memorable after the first read.

This novel was my first introduction to Kent as a writer, and I’ve happily purchased the rest of her books.

A fast-paced, enjoyable dive into the world of rural, pagan Ireland.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue – Book Review

Title: The Swans of Fifth Avenue

Author: Melanie Benjamin

Rating: 3/5

Genre: Celebrity, Memoir, Historical Fiction, Women’s Literature, Chick-Lit, Contemporary Fiction


“Babe Paley simply never made an empty gesture, and here she was, assembling a parade of them. But her feet, her hands, her mind, her heart, were all restless. Truman.”

Throughout all my years of being an English student, one author has cropped up time and time again during my studies. His words have always struck a deep emotional chord with me and I would eagerly devour his stories whenever I could. To me, Truman Capote was, and still is, such an enigma in his writing, as he not only invented the idea of the ‘nonfiction novel’, but brought to life the cult favourite of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And it 9780345528698wasn’t just his literary talent that he was praised for, but his flamboyant and very decorated personal life as a social butterfly and celebrity favourite.
So when I was sent The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin to review, I was thrilled.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue focuses on 1950s/60s New York City and author Truman Capote’s life and his relationship with the higher tiers of society. At the peak of the society, women of immense power, money, familial ties and intrigue stand apart from the rest. These are Truman’s ‘swans’, and they represent a world of riches and beauty that Truman desperately wishes to be part of. And at the head of this group, socialite and style icon, Babe Paley is the undisputed queen. Glamourous, elegant and always dressed exquisitely, Babe Paley oozed glamour and sophistication. But beneath the perfect wife and woman façade, Babe Paley is a highly sensitive and passionate individual who craves love and affection that she is not receiving through her perfectly suited, yet loveless marriage. And when Truman Capote sweeps into her life with a larger-than-life personality, he sets Babe’s dull world into glorious Technicolour. And through winning the affection of Babe, Truman is granted unrivaled access into the snake-pit that is New York high society. But is Truman trustworthy? And what do you do when secrets get revealed, and the picture-perfect charade comes crashing down about you?

Now, this story is indeed very glamourous and scandalous. With a fairly fast pace and well-timed flashbacks and forwards, it keeps the reader interested, and allows you to become immersed into a world that seems entirely foreign from the everyday. From wearing Chanel suits to light lunches at the Plaza and into shopping sprees in Tiffany’s, this world seems so entirely rich and vibrant that is feels almost dreamlike. Now, despite the novel having a darker and more real undertone – with the Truman Capote scandal, the hidden lives of the glamourous women (drink, drugs, sex scandals, domestic abuse etc) – this novel isn’t particularly hard-hitting in those senses. To me, these were issues that really could have been explored and in better detail. In my opinion, this novel just wanted to have a halcyon glaze of glamour and beauty.

The ‘Swans’ were really an interesting group of women. They were all beautiful, charming, malicious, and as two-faced as they could come, and they thrived on attention and the scandal that surrounded their lives. With loveless marriages, money issues, drug and drink addiction and cosmetic surgery pressures, these women were constantly scrutinised by their closest friends as well as society, and I found them all to be highly interesting and unique characters. I particularly found Slim Keith and Gloria Vanderbilt to be interesting figures as they stood apart from the rest of the swans, and gave the taste of individuality and strength.

The relationship between Babe and Truman was always one of interest. To me, Benjamin has really written it as a relationship that seems so co-dependent and unhealthy, it borders on obsession. Both with unresolved mother issues, these two lonely hearts were drawn to each other for different reasons. And whilstbabe-paley-wearing-a-creation-of-traina-norell-photographed-by-horst-p-horst-from-american-vogue-in-1946 Truman ultimately sacrifices his relationship for the sake of a quick buck – his infamous short story ‘La Côte Basque 1965’ fictionalises and reveals all of Babe’s secrets, resulting in his Swans cutting him out of New York society – there is a sense that Truman really did care for Babe. And with the latter chapters showing both Babe and Truman’s downward spiral, due to illness and drink and drug dependencies, it is then when the book really does come into its own. After watching interviews and reading books on Capote, I thought that Benjamin really captured his spirit well.

Throughout the novel, I thought Benjamin captured the intimacy and secrecy of this world well. Sometimes it felt very intrusive whilst reading it, as though you, the reader was being allowed into the gilded cage and offered up the secrets.
All in all, I found this novel enjoyable. Yes, it some parts it was too sweet, and skimmed over the darker parts of the novel. But it was a light, and comfortable read. Perfectly suited for travel or a holiday. But don’t expect to be reading hard-hitting literature here. Full of scandal, intrigue and beautiful clothes, this novel transports you away to the cool interiors of Bergdorf’s, St Regis and Tiffany’s.

To buy this book – Amazon/Waterstones

Author’s website – Click Here

Top 5 Books – The Romanovs

I’ve decided to start having a series of blogposts about my Top 5 picks. Whether this be a fashion, beauty, film, television series or books, I’ll pick out my Top 5 choices, offer a small review, and the chance to buy these picks as gifts or for yourself.

But for my first one, I thought I’d do something on a topic that I know extensively. An ongoing obsession/fascination of mine is Imperial Russia, and mainly focusing on the rule of the last Tsar and his family. I’ll be updating a complete 2016 blogpost on all the reference books I have on them soon, but here is just a little snippet of what books I personally consider my favourites.

1: Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie

This is my favourite book of the entire collection. I’ve had it for many years, and the r517zvo1s7ml-_sy344_bo1204203200_eason I love it so is because not only does it focus on the last Tsar, but it is also a really good introductory piece for people who want to start reading around his family and the lead-up to the Revolution. Some of the reference books you can buy can be very in depth and overwhelming, and for seasoned Russian historians like myself, that isn’t a problem. But for people who are interested in the whole Anastasia mystery, and want to learn a little bit more of the historical side, Massie’s text is good for them. The way Massie writes is in a very readable and clear style, and it is obvious how well researched this book was. The amount of detail he goes into is very good, and he writes contextually too. So you get the fullest picture of Russia at the time. What also makes this book interesting is the emotional way he deals with the tsarevich’s illness, which Massie himself had to deal with fir
st-hand when his own son was diagnosed with haemophilia. This very personal touch made the book even more readable and heartfelt. This text is definitely a recommended read, as it opens up the Romanovs to an audience who may just be discovering them.

To buy the book – Waterstones/Amazon

2: A Lifelong Passion: Nicholas and Alexandra – Their Own Story’ by Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko

This is an unique book in the fact that it tells the story of Nicholas and Alexandra but through their own letters, diary entries and letter they exchanged with family members. This truly brings to light the love the pair sh51c8gzazbjl-_sy344_bo1204203200_owed for each other, and how they perceived the world around them and the changes that were happening in the time they lived in.
In my mind, there’s was the greatest love story ever. And just by reading the letters they wrote to each other during long months of separation, you’ll see what I mean. I find it fascinating that if you compare how they felt when they first started courting, to years after when they were writing during WWI and had been married for years with five children, the love never seems to change. It just gets stronger, with the same amount of passion and yearning for each other. It’s truly moving.
Also, what I find interesting is how they address the political climate in which they lived. The Russian Revolution has been written and studied about for decades, but to hear how the real people of the time were dealing with it adds to a very interesting and enlightening read.
This is a perfect book to take with you on travels, as you can pick and choose sections that you want to read, and immerse yourself in the romance.

To buy the book – Amazon

3: Ekaterinburg – The Last Days of the Romanovs by Helen Rappaport and The Murder of the Romanovs by Andrew Cook.

I honestly couldn’t choose between these two books. The deaths of the Romanovs have been sensationalised and covered by the media so much that it’s good to find two books who just seem to deal with the facts. These two books cover the deaths, naturally, but also what happened after in some detail, especially with the controversial topic on whether somebody survived.51spxj7gbil-_sx325_bo1204203200_main_9781445600703_13

What I love about the Rappaport book is that it also dedicates chapters to Nicholas, Alexandra, the girls and Alexei – which I love reading as it just gives overviews on them. The chapter about the girls is probably my favourite as it dedicates large passages just to the girls mannerisms and personalities, which I find fascinating as since Anastasia has become the “famous” one out of the sisters, the rest of them seem to have been forgotten in a sense. So learning that these girls also had dreams and hope like the rest of the family is a strong reminder that they too suffered. The Rappaport book also gives some details about the situation after the death, with mentions of Anna Anderson and concluding it beautifully with the chapter ‘The Scent of Lillies’.
The Cook book draws from more source-related material and deals with the death but also the discovery of the bodies and the identification of the bodies. Definitely a more scholarly book than the Rappaport, but it is no less as well done as it does go into the unseen police footage and documents concerning what happened on that day. Despite being harder to read and definitely not for the light-of-heart, I would recommend this book as it does draw on a different approach in writing about the Romanovs.
Both these books together give any reader enough information concerning what happened in detail.

To buy Ekaterinburg – Amazon/Waterstones

To buy Murder of the Romanovs – Amazon/Waterstones

4: The Russian Court at Sea: The Last Day of a Great Dynasty by Frances Welch

This is a relatively new and interesting book, mainly because it doesn’t focus on the last 51aglyjunplTsar in a sense but what happened to his extended family after Nicholas and Alexandra’s deaths.
It tells the story of when 17 of the Russian royal family went into exile on the HMS Marlborough in April 1919, carrying some of the most prominent members of the family – including Nicholas II mother, his sister and the Crown Prince Felix Yussapov, once coming from the richest family in Russia and cited as Rasputin’s murder.
It details the family’s flee from Russia, with remnants of their old grand life – priceless pieces of art and jewelry – wrapped up and stored in blankets and the frankly bizarre experience it was for all of them and those aboard the Marlborough.
This is a interesting book, because it does follow where the Romanov lines stretch out all over Europe and America and shows the rapid decline from riches-to-rags that some of them faced, and it doesn’t focus on Nicholas at all. It focuses on how their deaths affect the family and how they, in effect, continued the Romanov line away from Russia and their people.
This is a breath-of-fresh-air novel for giving a different view on what happened to the Romanovs, and I highly recommend it.

To buy this book – Waterstones/Amazon

5: The Romanovs: Love, Power and Tragedy by A.N. Bokhanov

The jewel of my collection. This book is a real gem, and an incredibly hard-to-get book for a good deal, but believe me, it’s so worth the money you spend.
Full to the brink of unseen photos of the family, and fascinating insight to the family. The written information isn’t necessarily new in that sense that you could read it anywhere else, but5164p0vbvwl-_sy344_bo1204203200_ it is the photographs you pay for. It also features diary extracts, scans of unseen letters and everything you need for a visual treat. It’s emotional in some places, just because you do see how the family functioned, not as a royal family but like a normal one and it does beat all over rivals for a photographic book about the Romanovs.
So beautifully illustrated, this is not to be missed! It is also a surprisingly large and heavy book, but well worth the money. I can’t explain to you how much any Romanov fans should get this book.I don’t think I can explain how much I love this book and cherish it in my collection.

To buy this book – Amazon.

So, here are my Top 5 Romanov books. I’ve been collecting books on The Romanovs for years, and there are both positives and negatives for all the books I own. But, I really do recommend these books, as they give you a good insight and starter information for the Russian royal family. So, if you have any questions, please let me know!

 

 

Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire – Book Review

Title: Egg & Spoon

Author: Gregory Maguire

Rating: 3/5

Genre: Children’s Books, Children’s Literature, Fairytale, Fantasy, YA, Modern Fairytale, Adaptation, Historical Literature.


“Think of egg and spoon. If there is an egg, well, fine. You eat. Unless you use your spoon to hold the egg out of my reach. Does being in possession of a spoon give you more right to the egg?”

When the author is man who wrote Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister and Mirror, Mirror, and who has carved himself a spot in the genre of revising and writing novels inspired by children’s stories, I was expecting great things when I picked up Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire. The blurb promised me a tale of weaving ‘together of Russian folklore, mythical creatures and fantastical characters’ and I was also intrigued by the cover art featuring typical symbols of ‘Russia’ – a Firebird, a Russian stacking doll and Saint Basil’s Cathedral. So, I bought it and read it in under a week. And yes, this is a modern fairytale with a interesting blend of Russian folklore against a 20th century historical story. And when you have the figure of Tsar Nicholas II arguing wi20708810th Baba Yaga, the Slavic witch, what more do you want?

This story follows a few plot lines, but mainly focuses on the tale of misidentity and a sort of Prince and the Pauper-scenerio. We start off with a monk being jailed, and relaying the story of when two worlds collide and the aftershocks of such a collision. Elena Rudina lives in the provincial and highly impoverished Russian countryside with her dying mother. Her father has been dead for years, and one brother has been conscripted by the Tsar into the army, whilst the other has been taken as a servant. Elena is desperate for a chance to start a new life. And when a train breaks down just outside her village, a train carrying a noble family destined for Saint Petersburg and an audience with the Tsar himself, Elena finds herself befriending a passenger. Ekaterina, or Cat, is of noble birth and standing, and despite initially finding Elena an amusing pastime, the two girls become firm friends. But after a freak accident concerning a Faberge egg, Elena and Cat’s lives become switched. And from a discovery of the firebird’s egg, and Cat stumbling upon Baba Yaga in her house perched atop of oversized chicken legs, this story sets the scene for a magical adventure across the wilds of Russia and The North.

So, what did I love about this book? The story is highly vivid and the writing is rich in imagery and description. Maguire certainly knows how write a fantastical world, and how to make it feel even realistic. As a Russian historian, I loved the time period in which it was set, and Maguire incorporation of Slavic and Russian folklore figures. Both Elena and Cat were girls who grew up and changed as the book progressed, and they became more likable, as Cat becomes humbler whilst Elena becomes more assertive. And the figure of Baba Yaga – a very popular supernatural being from Old Russian tales – becomes easily one of the favourites, as her no-nonsense view on the world is refreshing, especially when it helps cut down the fairytale element.

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Image courtesy of http://lisasvensk.wordpress.com

The book also has some very life-affirming and positive messages. There is emphasis on family values, not losing yourself, and being open to different cultures and not narrow-minded. But the most obvious message comes in the form of the Ice Dragon. Towards the end of the book, Elena, Baba Yaga, Cat and others travel to the North Pole to visit an ice dragon, who cannot sleep due to humanity’s complaints and overwhelming needs, and is subsequently melting the ice with his fire. And if this isn’t a clear message about global warning, then I don’t know what is. But after the children assure the ice dragon that they would cut down on their own greed, he seems to fall asleep. To me, this is such a clever way of writing about anti-materialism and being more mindful of the planet’s needs. And for younger readers to read this, and perhaps take it in without realising it, it certainly has that moralistic ground that fairytales always have a base in.

But I did have some criticisms over this story. For a start, the plot can be very convoluted at times, and sometimes seem very long-winded. Not much happens in the first third of the book, and despite the action picking up later, this long-winded introduction does affect it in the long run, as it made it sometimes hard to follow, hard to read and just hard to digest. I also disliked Baba Yaga’s references to modern-day culture. She mentions Kool-Aid, Cheerios and musicals that were written long after tsarist Russia, and despite her stating that her magical powers allows her to travel between time periods, it completely lost the Imperial Russian feel of the book, and made the writing feel awkward.

But all-in-all, I did enjoy the book. The end was fairly satisfying and neat, as it brought the stories all together in one large fairytale mismatch, and all the characters parted after a period of growth. With a good mixture of both fictional and real historical characters, Maguire brought to life a well-written and overall fairly good piece of fairytale fun, and despite it being marketed for Young Adults, I would say that ages of 10+ could read, and enjoy it with ease.

But let me know if you’ve read Egg & Spoon! And what are your thoughts on modern/traditional fairytales?