The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead has received such good reviews I had to read it. A novel based on a period in history, is my kind of book.

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation plant in Georgia. She witnesses scenes of terror and hell but takes strength from these traumatic events which helps her on her journey across America.

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She runs away from the plantation on the underground railroad, a way of transporting slaves on the sly and run by free men. The first part of her journey takes her North and she  becomes a model in a museum. Disgustingly she is made to dress as a slave and from her life in Africa.

But she has to quickly move on again via the underground railroad when the plantation owners from Georgia track her down and attempt to capture her. She then moves onto South Carolina and meets a husband and wife, the former of which suggests she stays in their attic. The wife is sceptical of the situation and stays out of Cora’s way. The only way Cora can see the outside world is through a small hole the wall where she sees slaves being murdered on stage and white folk harbouring slaves slaughtered before her eyes.

But even in the attic Cora cannot escape the race and is soon tracked down again. Her last view of South Carolina before she hops on the underground railroad is of the husband and wife being murdered.

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The end of the book hints that Cora will continue on travelling and running.

I found the novel hard to get into, enjoyed the middle and then just wanted it to finish for the last 100 pages. I feel I may be the only person in the world who didn’t particularly enjoy the book. I couldn’t warm to Cora as the main character and sadly the plot didn’t do enough to keep me interested.

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Big Little Lies – Lianne Moriarty

Big Little Lies – Lianne Moriarty

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It took me a few episodes to warm to Big Little Lies when it was broadcast in the summer as at times it seemed like a lot of style over substance. But I persevered and loved it by the end of the last episode.

After reading Lianne Moriarty’s Truly Madly Deeply a few months ago I knew I wanted to read Big Little Lies.

When reading the book it is hard not to visualise the TV programme and thankfully the latter kept very close to the former.

Centred on three women, the book reveals their glamorous lives are not all they seem and are brought together by one tragic incident.

Jane is escaping her past and thinks living in different towns will allow her to do this. She has a son, Ziggy, but mystery surrounds his father. Until Jane reveals to Madeline that Ziggy’s son was the product of a one night stand with a bully.

Madeleine has three children and is ‘queen bee’ of the playground. Behind closed doors she harbours insecurities but is incredibly loveable and will do anything for her friends. She doesn’t however have time for her ex-husband’s hippy loving wife Bonnie, who’s child just so happens to be in the same year as Madeline’s youngest.

Everyone wants to be Celeste, a former lawyer with twin boys and a gorgeous millionaire husband, Perry. Everyone thinks she has the dream life. But her husband beats her and she concocts a plan to leave him.

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The three women all have children’s starting school but an altercation leads to Ziggy being called a bully and a petition started to remove him from the school. Jane knows her son is no bully. The real tormentor turns out to be exactly like his dad.

At a charity night, the atmosphere is fractious with waring couples. But tempers boil over when Jane reveals the true identity of Ziggy’s father, Perry. In a fit of rage Perry hits Celeste. In retaliation Bonnie then pushes Perry over the balcony to meet his end.

Like the TV show the story is interspersed with antidotes of other parents stories detailing the women’s character and what went on that night. Nothing is revealed at this stage but you start to put the pieces together.

For me, I much preferred the book, the plot built more and more and I did not want to stop reading it. Next for me is to get my hands of a copy of Moriarty’s – My Husband’s Secret.

Swing Time – Zadie Smith

Swing Time – Zadie Smith

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In my opinion Zadie Smith is back to her best with Swing Time.

 

I had to read White Teeth for university and loved it. I then read N-W which I struggled with so I was slightly apprehensive to read Swing Time.

 

If you want a book that’s all out action, this isn’t it. Smith is a master at really delving into a character’s mind through their life events and views on the world and I felt as though I had known both characters for years. For me that’s the test of a good author.

 

The book flits between two friend’s childhoods and how their lives cross during adulthood.

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The narrator (I don’t think we are ever told her name) loves dance however as much as she tries, she’s not as good as her classmates. Her mother is a political activist and spends her time dealing with the problems of the community and eventually becomes an MP. The narrator’s mother and father separate during her teenage years which has an effect on her. She drifts through school and university not knowing who she wants to be.

 

It’s not until she works for a TV company that she meets pop superstar Aimee, who takes the narrator under her wing, that she feels she’s on the verge of discovering who she is. Aimee’s world presence causes her to set up a charitable foundation which has a deep effect on the narrator. However when she mixes business with pleasure and is unceremoniously ‘dumped’ by Aimee, the narrator realises without Aimee’s money, travel and employment she has nothing.

 

Everyone knows a Tracey – the loud mouth girl at school who thought she was the bee’s knees and would go on to achieve all her dreams. Whilst Tracey is the more talented dancer of the two, her arrogance and bolshie nature becomes her hindrance. She manages to get some work in the West End however it’s not as big as she would have hoped and having children holds her back.

 

The narrator is always completely in awe of Tracey even when they haven’t seen each other for years.

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Both girls without the power of dance struggle to work out who they are. They both dreamt of becoming stars of the stage however lack direction when that dream is taken away.

 

It’s not a particularly easy read and it’s not one you can drop in and out of. There’s little action but a lot of character exploring. You need to give it your full attention and you will most definitely be rewarded for it.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

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Somewhere along the line I missed the memo that Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible was a modern take on Pride and Prejudice – yep I missed the fact it said this on the cover and still didn’t twig when reading the blurb about Jane and Liz. Considering I wrote about Pride and Prejudice in my dissertation I am slightly concerned about myself.

Anyway, Eligible is a fun and frothy update on Jane Austen’s classic for the 21st Century.

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There’s single Jane who is going through IVF in her bid to get pregnant. She then meets Chip Bingley – star of tv show Eligible (pretty much the same as The Bachelor) and after a rocky start they fall in love and conduct their marriage ceremony in front of the camera for a special episode of Eligible.

There’s Mary, and because she’s as quiet as a mouse everyone thinks she’s a lesbian. However she’s actually studying and is also part of a bowling team (!).

Kitty cannot live without WiFi and relies on her parents for everything. She eventually starts a manicuring business.

Kitty’s partner in crime Lydia married CrossFit trainer Ham (who is based on Mr Wickham), who is turns out is transgender.

And of course there’s Liz, a magazine journalist who’s relationship with Jason is doomed from the off. Then she meets Mr Darcy, also seemingly doomed from the start, but we all know how it ends.

Mr and Mrs Bennett are as comical as Austen’s portrayal. Living a champagne lifestyle with mounting debts, Liz convinces them to sell their sprawling home.

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There are moments of pure hilarity namely Liz and Jane trying to explain to Mr and Mrs Bennett what transgender.

For true Austen lovers this book will bring tears to your eyes but I think Sittenfeld has created a great update for the 21st century. Yes at times it’s farcical but it’s easy reading and will definitely put a smile on your face.

One of us is Lying by Karen M McManus

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One of us is Lying by Karen M McManus

One of us is Lying is one of those books you could read cover to cover in an afternoon. I tried as hard as I could not to do that because it was so good I didn’t want it to be over. I would describe it as Gossip Girl meets Agatha Christie.

 

It’s not a high-brow ‘who done it’ novel but it does grab your attention and the four main characters are extremely defined and are the type of people you would expect to find at any school.

 

Simon, is the school nerd who strives to be a part of the ‘it’ gang by having a gossip website listing everyone’s darkest secrets. Sadly Simon never gets his wish as during after school detention he has a severe allergic reaction to some peanuts and dies.

 

The only four people in the room at the time – Bronwyn, Nate, Cooper and Addy are the main suspects but none of them confess to the murder. Their part in Simon’s murder is heightened more when the police find there are unpublished posts on Simon’s computer about all four of them.

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Bronwyn is a usually a straight A student and comes from a middle class family who have set their sights on her going to Yale or Harvard. However she has cheated on a test which Simon somehow knows about.

 

Nate is the school bad boy – he sells drugs, his dad’s a raging alcoholic and his mum is AWOL. He’s the prime suspect and strikes up an unlikely romance with Bronwyn as they are thrown into this awful situation.

 

Cooper is your ultimate jock and his dad is pushing him to get a scholarship to a top university for his baseball. However Cooper has a secret which Simon knew all about – he’s gay. Once he does come out his dad can barely look at him and his school friends turn against him. However when the media gets hold of the murder story, Cooper is immediately backed by gay activist and his friends soon change their mind about him.

 

Addy is the school’s princess and beauty queen. She has had a steady boyfriend, Jake, for years however his controlling ways started to take their toll and she slept with his best friend, which Simon knows.
All four have a reason for wanting him dead but it’s an unlikely culprit who really did it.

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The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

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Everyone ever has been reading The Essex Serpent. When it first starting making waves (pardon the pun) I read the blurb and it didn’t appeal to me, mainly because it sounded so bonkers.

Fast forward a few months and I jumped on the bandwagon and thought it can’t be that bonkers if it’s winning awards and topping the fiction charts.

I am probably the only person who’s read this book and closed it thinking this is not the one for me and should probably learn by now that the books critics hail as wonderful are the books I tend not to enjoy. Perhaps my reading is low brow.

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The whole way through the book I was waiting for something to happen. I was longing for something to happen when they got a sighting of the serpent but the action never really materialised for me. Perhaps that’s the parallel Sarah Parry is trying to draw with the characters who were also on their edge of their seats waiting for something to happen.

Cora’s character intrigued me, a woman who’s ahead of her time with her confidence and big ideas and acting on her desires with rector and family man William.

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One thing I can see why everyone is raving about is the beautiful way the novel is written. The language used and the storytelling is incredible, I felt immediately transported to the 19th century.

For me the plot itself was just too ‘way out’ there however I am glad I have read it.

Katherine of Argon – The True Queen by Alison Weir

Katherine of Argon – The True Queen by Alison Weir (Six Tudor Queens series)

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I am actually obsessed with anything to with The Tudors (it might be because one of my teachers at primary school looked exactly like Henry VIII, during the larger years, and then dressed up as him for non-uniform day).

In comparison to Anne Boleyn, I feel history has always portrayed the other five wives as dull or childish so I was looking forward to reading the Six Tudor Queen series.

Obviously everyone knows the story of Katherine of Argon – a Spanish princess married to Henry’s sickly older brother, Arthur, and once Arthur dies she then marries Henry. The country has always been Catholic and after several miscarriages and deceased children all Henry and Katherine have to show is their daughter Mary. Wanting a male heir and knowing that Katherine is no longer of child bearing age he turns his attentions elsewhere – namely Anne Boleyn.

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Desperate to marry Anne, Henry tries to say that his marriage to Katherine was never valid as she had already slept with his brother – however , he was too sickly to consummate anything. When this doesn’t work he reduces Katherine’s staff and sends her off to various decaying stately homes. He tries to convince parliament that the marriage was never valid and to be divorced it must be annulled by the Pope, who happens to be Katherine’s nephew. When the saga draws on and on Henry takes matters into his own hands, proclaims himself as head of the church and the country is then protestant. The stress and hurt causes Katherine to become ill and she sadly dies.

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Several things during this historical novel struck me, the time between the death of Arthur and the marriage between Katherine and Henry. I always assumed it was almost instantaneous however its some seven years but the delay is due to dowries and status in Katherine’s motherland.

In this version of events, Henry and Katherine are portrayed as deeply in love. In other interpretations she is shown as having more love for Arthur.

The length of time between Henry and Katherine separating and his marriage to Anne Boleyn – seven years in total is somewhat longer than I thought.

What really struck me is the determination and decorum Katherine shows even in her darkest days. Locked up in moulding houses at Henry’s orders she still loves him and will not have a bad word spoken about him. She could have easily said to the King’s men that yes the marriage was not binding and she would have saved herself being locked up, but for her own pride and the country’s she refuses to give in and refuses to be acknowledged by anything other than ‘Queen’.

She is portrayed as an incredibly brave woman, who’s faith gets her through and is a much more interesting character than I first thought.

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