Fingers in the Sparkle Jar by Chris Packham

I no longer buy hardback books unless I want something particularly special – they’re large, cumbersome and tricky to comfortably read so when Chris Packham’s book Fingers in the Sparkle Jar first became available, I knew I had to wait until it was released in paperback. This was made considerably harder by the fact I worked in Waterstones over Jol and would regularly pass the book whilst working and would admire it’s alluring cover – the simple but iconic silhouette of a bird of prey – and occasionally, I would run a loving hand over the smooth, fresh cover; my fingers practically itching to prise open the pages, my legs wanting to run to some forgotten corner of the shop and devour its contents in greedy chunks. But I waited. Patiently.

I remember when Packham first arrived on Springwatch; I was in my teens and I immediately didn’t like him. He was replacing Bill Oddie, who I had become accustomed to watching and I didn’t warm to this strange man. So much changes with the passing of time though and I soon warmed to his quirky jumpers, slight speech impediment, a fiery passion for nature and an a seemingly endless well of wildlife knowledge that surpassed that of the other presenters. I admired his love for the more unpopular beasts like woodlice and cockroaches because he simply wasn’t a man to pick and choose which wildlife deserved more admiration or attention. As I got older and progressed my education, Packham was consistently flitting into the news for being what some dubbed “controversial”. What they call controversial, I call a committed conservationist using his fame for a good cause, nay, the best cause. There are numerous things he has been wrongly criticised for and among them was calling for an end to driven grouse shoots due to the risk to Hen Harriers, keeping the fox hunting ban, branding the people culling badgers as ‘thugs’, his views on human population and calling out wildlife charities for their silence and inaction with regards to certain issues. (See this link discussing this particular subject)

The Countryside Alliance has frequently criticised both Packham – who has presented Springwatch and the Really Wild Show – and the BBC. In 2013 it said the broadcaster was “neither fair nor balanced” on rural issues.”

No, Countryside Alliance, he’s saying what all conservationists should be. I could go on for hours about this but I’m not going to as I’m here to review his book.

I ordered the book in the post along with two other plump Philippa Gregory books about Tudor women. I often find I don’t have the energy to read through the week now as I work so much but I carefully set the book aside for the weekend, when I’d have more time and energy.

Fingers in the Sparkle Jar explores Packham’s childhood and the beginning of his love for nature; from collecting and tasting tadpoles, to Grass Snakes, keeping ladybirds in matchboxes, intimate encounters with a Vixen and her cubs, a deep fascination with Dinosaurs, blowing Eggs and of course, stealing a Kestrel chick. Each section is dated and flits tirelessly between Packham as a child, a teenager and as a man, told in both first and third person narrative and often through the eyes of others around him; be that the Ice Cream man, a neighbour or his therapist. In many ways, these outside perspectives were often the most poignant or heartbreaking to read as they emphasised how the world perceived him as odd for simply not fitting in and having a bizarre dedication to the outside world.

This book is deeply descriptive and consequently paints beautiful pictures of the landscapes and the wildlife Chris encounters in your minds eye; you don’t so much read the book as walk alongside with him on his ventures into wilderness to find his own slice of wild. Perhaps some would find this level of description clunky and difficult to read but I personally found it charming; my insides would warm as I was drawn into the world of this unique little boy finding solace and endless pleasure from the wildlife around him. Hiding in holes to see foxes, getting wet and cold throughout spring whilst hunting for a Kestrel’s nest, catching fish in jam jars, seeing an otter for the first time in the wild…. Maybe I’m biased to such a book as I saw much of my own childhood in these pages; forever falling in rivers, bumping into wildlife accidentally and being amazed at those deeply intimate moments when I would make eye contact with a wild animal. We’d share those few moments, eye to eye; only mere seconds would pass but they always felt like an eternity until one of us turned away. It was never me.

“Apparently i had to ‘learn to wait’. But why? after all id been waiting all my life to see a real otter. Didn’t a whole lifetime of anticipation qualify for instant otters? Would yet more waiting make me feel better, would the tedious trudging around antelopes at toddler pave actually enhance my experience? Why are adults all such idiots?”

The evocative imagery is what makes this book; every encounter with a wild animal is absorbing and fascinating and you can feel his love and passion radiating through the words. The love he has for his Kestrel is overwhelming, faintly reminiscent of Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave due to the freedom, unadulterated pleasure and companionship this bird offers him.

“That surge of raw ecstasy as the male kestrel flew into view and his mate squeezed out of her cubbyhole made me physically shake.”

“Every minute was magical, every single thing it did was fascinating and everything it didn’t do was equally wondrous, and to be sat there, with a Kestrel, a real live Kestrel, my own real live Kestrel on my wrist! I felt like I’d climbed through a hole in heaven’s fence.”

In addition to his collections and his feral activities, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar touches on various other elements of his childhood; his difficulties at school, the unhappiness at home, his discovery of punk and the understanding of mortality and where he stands in the universe. Ultimately this book is both brave and powerful; not only does it expose the dazzling highs of nature exploration but touches on his troubles as a child and as an adult; each chapter finishes with Packham as an adult, discussing his mental health following a suicide attempt. These excerpts of Packham as a man are deeply personal as he studies his life where he has never and will never fit in; it explores acceptance in a world where nobody understands him.

It’s very rare for a book to move me to tears nowadays but this book did so on a couple of occasions; I won’t go into too much detail for risk of spoilers but the book would synonymously break and then mend my heart; encountering other children mindlessly killing tadpoles with a hammer, finding a fox still alive in a snare, his Kestrel becoming unwell… This stories spoke to me personally as you can feel Packham’s outrage and confusion at other people mindlessly abusing wildlife, (it explains a lot about why he seeks to ruffle so many feathers when it comes to conservation); in one such instance, he tries to visit a Falconer to help with obtaining a License to keep a bird of prey and spots a tiny Falconet in a cage:

“It was scared, scruffy and small, it couldn’t settle and when I knelt down to study it, I saw confusion and desperation, a sadness in its peeled forgotten eyes.”

This is a deeply exposing memoir about a true love and passion for nature – such passion for a subject so close to my heart, my very being, made by insides hum with joy. Full to the brim with close encounters with wildlife and the unbridled joy it brings him alongside the sorry state of struggling with his inane studies, trouble at home, bullying, death and finally turning to punk in outright defiance of a world that has repeatedly pushed him down and branded him an outsider. I saw so much of myself in Packham’s childhood exploits and experiences – although I never stole a Kestrel chick – and all reading this book has done is deepen an existing love for the man.

I wish to finish with two quotes; the first is a quote from the book itself which seems incredibly poignant; the second, from the guardian newspaper.

“The result of my possibly excessive appetite for juvenile amphibians wasn’t diagnosed through any medical examination so I cant prove anything scientifically. But those harmless inoculations probably positively contributed to the ignition of a spark that fuelled a lifelong interest in living things, an enduring curiosity in everything that creeps, climbs, bites, stings, slithers, scuttles or slimes; and in entirely romantic terms, I imagined, the molecules of the tadpoles i digested were fused into the fabric of my eyes to facilitate a heightened awareness if life and instilled a profound love for it, the likes of which could never have arisen from my sterile school studies…. but only from the heart that fluttered as my throat was tickled, softly, by the simple beauty at that essential point in my own metamorphosis.” 

“The reason Packham seems to divide opinion so starkly is precisely because he is passionate, speaks his mind and is willing to stand up for what he believes in. In the pressured and unforgiving world of television those are rare qualities.”

Packham is the kind of conservationist we need. 10/10. Must read.

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We Need to talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver

Where on earth do I start with this book? Something in Shriver’s writing style just caught me by the throat and dragged me in – it’s similar to way I write in a way and that is probably why it hooked me so quickly. Aside from being an absolute bloody masterpiece on top of  that.

The entire book is made up of an internal monologue of a woman named Eva in the form of letters to her husband and revolves around her son, Kevin. Mere days before his 16th birthday, Kevin goes on a murderous rampage and kills seven of his fellow high school students and a teacher with a crossbow. The book follows Eva’s journey through motherhood as she looks bath on Kevin’s conception, birth and childhood and struggles to understand whether his actions are partly her fault. What passes in this novel can be referred to as the ‘darker side’ of motherhood and is undoubtedly what many women – especially those who don’t desire children anyway, including myself – fear. Eva never sincerely wanted to be a mother; she doesn’t enjoy pregnancy and fails to bond with her child upon his birth – even as a newborn, Kevin seems averse to his mother, rejecting her breast milk and crying incessantly, hatefully all day. Whereas the husband, Franklin, is an enthusiastic and loving father, Eva fails to bond with her son as he grows and is the only one to witness the cold, difficult, hateful and arguably sociopathic behaviour of their son.

I always tend to avoid damaging a books pages by bending them down for later reference but my copy is plump from the volume of pages I have folded down to look back on sentences, paragraphs, descriptions that I found just painfully captivating. Eva is an extremely likeable character; strong, independent and with an urge to explore the world, I couldn’t help but admire the fact she wanted to hold on to her free bohemian lifestyle, her successful travel book business and the simplicity of love between two people being more than sufficient without involving children. As the novel progresses though, you do become concious of the fact that Eva is not necessarily a reliable narrator – she doesn’t necessarily always tell us the truth and may have had her own motives for painting Kevin so poorly.

Ultimately the reader is left to make a decision; does Kevin behave the way he does due to Eva’s actions? Her coldness? Or is Kevin just an outright horrible human being? An afterword from Shriver mentions that the readers of her book fall into one of those two categories – blaming Eva or just believing Kevin is downright evil. Honestly? I’m the latter. Unreliable narrator or not, the fact the book is entirely from her perspective made me feel closer to Eva; I felt her frustrations, her disappointments, her anger and although I knew I was being programmed to feel certain things about certain characters – Franklin, for example, with his stereotypical “American Dream” of a happy family with a nice house and picket fences is painfully dull and close minded compared to well-travelled Eva – I still felt that despite that, I firmly stood behind Eva. Shriver undoubtedly intended for us to take sides. To me, the disinterest in the mother and son relationship is shared by both parties and not purely a by-product of Eva’s coldness – there is too much wrong with Kevin, too many purely malicious acts and behaviours to ignore or to blame on anyone but himself.

I would be sincerely intrigued to hear a man’s perspective on this book as I suspect that being female and not desiring children either made me relate with Eva a lot more whereas a man might see her completely differently. I will be forcing this book on my boyfriend so I can have his opinion on it.

Here are a few fragments of the book that really spoke to me and had to be shared:

“Though it may be more romantic the bereaved as gaunt, I imagine you can grieve as efficiently with chocolates as with tap water. Besides, there are women who keep themselves sleek and smartly turned out less to please a spouse than to keep up with a daughter and, thanks to is, she lacks that incentive.”

What possessed us? We were so happy! Why, then, did we take the stake of all we had and place it all on this outrageous gamble of having a child?”

“…it’s amazing that with the advent of effective contraception that anyone chooses to reproduce at all”

“This is why people smoke, I thought”

“Casting my own eye down Fifth Avenue as my belly swelled, I would register with incredulity; Every one of those people came from a woman’s cunt. In my head, I used the crudest word I could, to bring home the point. Like the purpose of breasts, it’s one of those flaring facts we tend to suppress.”

“Ever notice how many films portray pregnancy as infestation, as colonization by stealth? Rosemary’s Baby was just the beginning. In Alien a foul extraterrestrial claws it’s way out of John Hurt’s belly.”

“For all our squinting at the two sexes to blur them into duplicates, few hearts race when passing gaggles of giggling schoolgirls. But any woman who passes a clump of testosterone-drunk punks without picking up the pace, without avoiding the eye contact that might connote challenge or invitation, without sighing inwardly with relief by the following block, is a zoological fool. A boy is a dangerous animal.”

“Oh, Franklin, there is no use pretending now. It was awful. I may be capable of toughness in respect to certain kinds of pain, but if so, my fortitude dwells in my calves or forearms but not between my legs”

“From the very beginning that child was particular to me…to me he was never “the baby”. He was a singular, unusually cunning individual who had arrived to stay with us and just happened to be very small”

And I’m going to stop quoting excerpts of the book now as I sense I’m getting carried away. Read it yourself, you’ll see exactly what I mean!

As much as I enjoyed this novel and the writing style it is not, however, a novel to be taken lightly. The subject matter is harrowing, the events of the book disturbing and it is most definitely an emotional rollercoaster for anyone who chooses to pick up a copy. Importantly, most importantly, this book will make you think. Even when I wasn’t reading, I was trying to unpick the characters of the book thread by thread, to understand their thoughts and actions and work out who was really to blame for the events that unfolded. It reaffirmed my already dubious and sceptical feelings about reproducing myself (no thanks) and chilled me to the bone at times. That being said, dark subject matter or not, the book is engrossing and often brought a smile to my face.

Characters aside, the book itself is a very clever observation of American’s attitudes to guns as well as murderous teenagers going on rampages for being bullied, for being dumped by girls, for not achieving well in school etc. and Eva – and I imagine by extension, Shriver – heavily criticises the weakness of these young men. For taking the slightest snub to be justification for a bloody massacre. It mocks the availability of weapons to young people in the states – the sheer absurdity of it and that is another important thing to take from this book.

I will also quickly mention the film – it is very good and although doesn’t manage to convey half of what the book does (a film that covered the book in that much details would take hours upon hours) Tilda Swindon manages to convey so very much about Eva not with dialogue but purely with the power of facial expressions. A must watch.

A definite must read and this book deserves to be hailed as a classic.

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The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Plath has always been a woman that interested me. I distinctly remember her name cropping up in English Literature lessons and instantly that small spark of intrigue was lit inside of me; I would regularly encounter quotes of hers on tumblr and often chose to reblog them because they were always poignant, powerful and set the wheels and cogs of my mind racing. Her comments about mental health always touched me because of their honesty and I felt so inspired by this unusual woman I kept hearing about. When I learned that she had killed herself shortly after publishing her one and only book ‘The Bell Jar’ I felt an aching sadness that such a talented lady didn’t have someone there to bring her back from the brink of such darkness.

I set myself the task of finding myself a copy of ‘The Bell Jar’ – I have recently started to altogether avoid Waterstones after years of spending far too much money on books because I was being overly anal about wanting it to be ‘New’ so I knew I’d have to have a good look around in some local charity bookshops. I popped in to one tiny one in a town near where I live – and I mean tiny, it’s the littlest bookshop I’ve ever been in – doubting I would find it but decided to look anyway. Lo and behold, there it was, snuggled in between several other considerably larger hardbook volumes by some author or another. I paid a pound for the book and I was itching to read it as soon as I’d got home.

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Esther Greenwood is a college student from Boston; she manages to get a summer internship working for a magazine in New York. Despite it epitomising what the majority of young women would seemingly dream of – the parties, the clothing, the lifestyle, the fame – Esther herself feels somewhat disillusioned, lost and not stimulated by the big city and the people within it. Her disillusionment with society is an indicator of the onset of depression and her lack of desire to conform to the societal norms and pressures on young women of the time is poignant and plays a significant role in the decline of her mental health; she feels trapped by the concept of being unable to have sex before marriage as a woman, having to marry at all and bear children. When Esther eventually returns home to the suburbs of Boston to live with her mother, she discovers that she has been denied by a creative writing course but decides to spend her summer writing a novel. Her mental health deteriorates rapidly and what follows is a disturbing account of how Esther is then treated for her depression and later, her attempted suicides.

‘The Bell Jar’ is considered semi-autobiographical as so much of the novel reflects Plath’s own life and experiences with clinical depression – often referred to as a ‘Roman à clef’; a novel with the semblance of being fictional but in fact being an account of real life events. I think the most disturbing aspect of this novel is the fact it is a chillingly honest account of someone enduring the darkness of depression which is in itself terrible but what makes it worse is that it was at a time where it was painfully misunderstood; the electroshock therapy, the way Esther is treated by her fellow human beings – including her mother – and the fact she is essentially locked up in a mental hospital is shocking, difficult to read and process. My heart aches for the volumes of people forced through such a horrendous course of ‘treatment’ to ‘cure’ them at such a time (1950s/1960s) Despite 60 years not being a particularly large timescale in the grand scheme of things, you would have thought that attitudes towards mental health would have evolved enormously in this time but in many ways reading ‘The Bell Jar’ only highlighted continuing stigmas and ignorance around mental health today; it remains vastly misunderstood by not just the common man, as it were, but through many of the upper echelons of society. Admittedly we may not be giving anyone electroshock treatment anymore – not in this country at least – but despite a degree of evolution in understanding and overall attitudes, mental health as a subject and its sufferers remain taboo, bizarre, strange, shunned, discriminated against…

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Despite it being such a sinister and troubling topic, Plath’s skill as a writer is undisputable; she manages to create such incredible depth, beauty and realism to mundane tasks and macabre, themes and her rampant feminism is an absolute delight. Here are a few excerpts that particularly plucked the chords in my heart:

‘Later Buddy told me that the woman was on a drug that would make her forget she’d had any pain… I thought it sounded just like the sort of drug a man would invent’

‘It might be nice to be pure and then to marry a pure man, but what if he suddenly confessed he wasn’t pure after we were married? …I couldn’t stand the idea of a woman having to have a single pure life and a man being able to have a double life, one pure and one not’

‘There was no waste-basket in sight, so I crumpled the flowers up and laid them in the deep white basin. The basin felt cold as a tomb. I smiled. This must be how they laid the bodies away in the hospital morgue. My gesture, in its small wall, echoed the larger gesture of the doctors and nurses.’

‘The dark felt thick as velvet…cobwebs touched my face with the softness of moths’

‘I knew I should be feeling grateful to Mrs Guinea, only i couldn’t feel a thing. If Mrs Guinea had given  me a ticket to Europe, or a round-the-world cruise, it wouldn’t have made one scrap of difference to me, because wherever I sat – on the deck of a ship or a street cafe in Paris and Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.’

The concept of a Bell Jar, the namesake for this novel, entrances me; essentially it is a metaphor suggesting that those who suffer with mental health issues are under a glass jar in their own foul air, stewing in it, trapped in it and unable to escape while others are trapped under similar jars and the rest of the population breaths the free air. As someone who has grappled with depression, I could completely relate with what Plath was describing and that’s all I’m going to comment about that. It spoke to me as I’m sure it has and will continue to speak to many others.

Plath is unique for her honesty; her poems and this, the only novel she wrote, are so tangible and real that you can almost taste her bitterness on your tongue, her lack of remorse is almost touchable, her disdain and pain can almost be smelt. What is disconcerting but admirable is Plath’s cool manner when tackling heavy subjects; the descriptions of several suicides are concise, to the point and curiously devoid of intense emotion. Her heavy and prolific criticisms of societal pressures on women to fit neatly into little designated boxes of either be a virgin or a whore and subservient to men in some way or another are a delight to read and absorb. There is a wonderful analogy of life for a woman through the use of a fig tree; each fig represents a different life choice – a career, marriage and children but Esther (and therefore Sylvia) finds there are too few figs available to her and is unable to choose the one fig she have been constrained to as opposed to many.

Overall, ‘The Bell Jar’ is an astoundingly poetic novel that tackles a sombre and harrowing topic head on; this isn’t a light read but should rather be read in concise chunks and absorbed carefully. The book reverberated with aspects of my own life which I found difficult at times and I would advise readers to be wary of this novel for that reason.

Plath was an incredible woman and has truly left an astounding legacy in the form of this novel, I only hope that the women of today feel that they can choose more than one fig and that we can help those trapped in their own Bell Jars, as Plath was stuck in hers and never received the help she truly needed.

10/10.

The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman

This will not be in any way a ‘conventional’ book review; those of you who are aware of Wladyslaw Szpilman’s book ‘The Pianist’ will know that this is a true account a Polish Jew who survived the Second World War and the mass genocide of the Jews. Therefore, due to the fact this is non-fiction and a very emotive and sensitive topic, I will not be flippantly dubbing it as ‘a good read’ or any other such nonsense. This book is powerful, heart-wrenching, disturbing and the events described in it are inescapably terrible; it should be read with care and respect in order to remember this piece of history and to marvel at the sheer luck and force of will that kept this man alive.  This is no light-hearted read to take on holiday; this is harrowing and on many occasions I had to stop reading it to catch my breath and escape from the atrocities described on the pages.

I have been sat staring at my computer screen for over an hour now attempting to type up something resembling a synopsis but it has only resulted in managing to reach a paragraph before hastily deleting it and repeating the process. Subsequently, I am not going to describe this book in any way beyond what I have already said above. I do not feel that a paragraph can in any way do justice to the magnitude of the content contained in this book and therefore all I can say is read the book for yourself but do not do so lightly. This is a piece of history that should never be forgotten.

I read this book to coincide with the 70 year anniversary of the Holocaust. I don’t think any other time would have felt truly suitable.

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Misery by Stephen King

First and foremost I should say that I have read Stephen King’s ‘Misery’ before; years ago, in fact, as I recall reading it whilst still in secondary school and writing an analysis of the use of language in the book for homework. I’d seen the film long before I read the book – what a film. Seriously, seeing a film like that how could I NOT want to read the book. I’ve reread a few books this year – including the Lord of the Rings trilogy – as I reread so so many books when I was younger, when I hit my late teens I was almost loathe to reread anything. But this reread was a fantastic revisit to a brilliant novel. I decided to read it on a whim after catching the end of ‘The Green Mile’ on tv and having a sudden craving for Stephen King.

Paul Sheldon, writer of the popular bestselling ‘Misery’ books is eager to leave the series behind him in order to do some ‘serious writing’. Having just finished his latest novel ‘Fast Cars’ in his hotel retreat in the mountains, he decides to drive home despite having drank a large amount of champagne and unaware of the approaching storm. As the snowfall worsens, he loses control of his car and crashes. He is rudely brought back to life by a stranger breathing life back into his lungs with her foul breath and later wakes to find himself in the home of his ‘Number One Fan’, Annie Wilkes, who has read all of his Misery books more than once. Paul quickly realises that Annie is a nutter.

This book is the epitome of a psychological thriller; even as someone who has read this before, this novel is so impeccably well written that you feel physically tense when reading it at times. The use of language is fantastic; Paul becomes addicted to the painkilling medication he is being given and after a sudden outburst of rage from Annie, she splatters his soup up the wall. Instead of giving him his medication on time, Paul is forced to watch her clean the wall; there is a paragraph lacking in any punctuation that simply lists each activity she is undertaking in cleaning the wall; this clever use of no punctuation perfectly reflects Paul’s need for the drugs and the stress he is feeling for being denied them. King is hardly one of the best writers I have encountered – his plot-lines are fantastic but I’ve always found his writing style a little… weak at times. Misery is an obvious exception. Would highly recommend. I imagine I will continue to reread this book throughout my life; it is a wonderfully tense and surprising novel that will have you gasping for breath, emulating Paul’s emotions and on the edge of your seat.

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The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

I was first introduced to the works of Thomas Hardy whilst I was studying English Literature for A-levels. We spent a large amount of time studying his poetry and later, his most well-known novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles. I fell in love with his poetry – his evocative imagery, stunning metaphors and intricate descriptions of nature captivated me and he is easily my favourite poet for these reasons. I thoroughly enjoyed Tess of the D’Urbervilles and the only other novel of his that I have read so far is Jude the Obscure. I was bought this book several years ago as gift after asking for some of Hardy’s novels and it’s been whispering at me, demanding to be read, for some time.

Grace Melbury was born and raised in the rural, working-class village of Little Hintock. Her father, a timber merchant and working man is plagued with the guilt of wooing Grace’s now deceased mother away from his friend, John Winterborne in his youth. By way of paying back his debt, he promises that Grace will wed John’s son, Giles Winterborne. In an effort to give his daughter the best opportunities and a higher social standing than Little Hintock has to offer, he sends her away for an education. But when she returns, both she and her father see a wedding to Giles, despite his best efforts, as beneath a woman now educated and of high social standing. Grace is soon noticed by the only man of her equal in the village, Doctor Fitzpiers, who has recently moved into the area and is running a local practice. Fitzpiers becomes besotted with Grace and Grace is equally overwhelmed by the attention from such a mysterious and educated man. Strongly encouraged by her father, happy to see her wed well, they are set to marry despite Grace starting to have misgivings about her husband-to-be, especially when she sees another young woman leaving his house in the early hours of the morning.

What follows is a culmination of tragic irony, unrequited love and and unhappy ending in the beautiful pastoral countryside of his fictional Wessex, based on the South-West of England. These are persistently common themes in Hardy’s novels – he never seems to want his characters lives to go smoothly or end particularly happily but in doing so, Hardy explores and openly mocks his era. In this novel, Hardy makes a mockery of the archaic law surrounding marriage at the time – that being, it was considerably easier for a man to divorce a woman than a woman to divorce a man as well as making a mockery of social standings and the futility of its importance. Cleverly, the mood of the novel and our heroine, Grace, is closely emulated by the changing of the seasons; when things bode well, it is spring, summer but when thing start to go wrong, autumn and winter and the cold and decay they bring with them arrive.

Hardy has always had a skill with description and this novel is no exception – his descriptions of the natural landscape are magnificent and show a man who was clearly in love with nature and wanted to express this through his writing. Here are a few poignant examples:

‘…a few faint lights, winking mire or less ineffectually through the leafless boughs and the undiscernable songsters they bore, in the form of balls of feathers, at roost among them’

‘A few flakes of snow descended, at the sight of which a Robin, alarmed by these signs of imminent winter and seeing that no offence was meant by the human invasion, came and perched on the tip of the faggots that were being sold, and looked into the auctioneer’s face, whilst waiting for some chance crumb from the bread-basket.’

‘…the Mother of Months, was in her most attenuated phase – starved and bent to a mere bowed skeleton’ (referring to the moon)

‘The darkness was intense, seeming to touch her pupils like a substance’

‘…all she could see were more trees, in jackets of lichen and stockings of moss. At their roots were stemless yellow fungi like lemons and apricots, and tall fungi with more stem than stool. Next were more trees close together, wrestling for existence, their branches disfigured from wounds made my mutual rubbings and blows’

Truly wonderful and flawless descriptions of the natural environment unlike any else; I am yet to encounter any writer who describes the natural world so perfectly.

This novel was fantastic; the events in the book are heart-wrenching and troubling – I found myself gasping and crying out when reading sentences foretelling the doom of it’s characters. Grace, admittedly, I found a little annoying due to her ignorance at times but I do not think that she, as a character, can be wholly blamed. Although educated to a higher standing, she is not educated in the ways of love or even the world and thus she can be forgiven. I would highly recommend this book and shall do profusely along with all of his other works.

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The White Princess by Philippa Gregory

I think it’s safe to say, I could live on a diet of Philippa Gregory books – from the number of them I have read and reviewed, I really hope she continues to produce books to such a high standard in the future. I have already heard rumours somewhere online that the BBC is already discussing making a new series focusing on the War of Roses novels by Mrs Gregory after the success of the first series The White Queen. I hope this was more than a rumour as the series was impeccable and very loyal to the books.

This book follows Elizabeth, the daughter of former Queen of England, Elizabeth Woodville, who had married Edward IV, one of three sons of York. At the end of the previous novel The Kingmaker’s Daughter‘ which focused on the events of Anne Neville’s life, Elizabeth is in love with and courting Richard III . From the eyes of Anne, distraught over the death of her son and seeing the love of her life slip away from her and into the arms of a young and beautiful woman, it is an unpleasant end to her rise to the throne and the end of her life. But Richard is slain at the battle of Bosworth while battling troops led by Henry Tudor, staking his own claim to the throne of England. Elizabeth and Henry Tudor are bound together by a betrothal made before Richard’s death and as Henry claims the throne, her mother rushes to ensure he will honour the promise of the betrothal to her daughter, a daughter of York, to finally unify the Houses of Lancaster and York and put an end to the Cousin’s War.

As she is a Princess, Elizabeth has been aware from a young age that it would be extremely unlikely for her to marry for love and instead, she would have to marry for the good of her family and to tie her to the throne. Although she is aware of her duty, she is distraught at the loss of Richard and wary of Henry; a man who has spent so little time in England but spent his life hidden away abroad, plotting to take the throne. The book follows the years of their marriage together – beginning so poorly with rape, hatred and her lingering love for Richard before progressing into an understanding and even love. But Pretenders continually rise and dispute Henry’s weakening claim to the throne; Pretenders claiming to be the lost sons of York and Henry becomes increasingly obsessed and paranoid with ensuring the ultimate destruction of these young men to the point of madness and Elizabeth’s loyalty is torn; between her husband and the children she bears him and the love of a boy claiming to be her lost brother.

As with all of the women in Gregory’s novels, as we see everything from her perspective, we endure everything alongside her; we feel her emotions and her struggles, we empathise with her and want the best for her all the way through the novel. Gregory’s ability to create such a closeness to a character is astounding; when Henry’s actions are despicable, I felt her emotions towards him and when she started to feel a degree of affection for him, I found myself sincerely hoping that despite such an unpleasant (to say the least) beginning, she would find some measure of happiness in her marriage. Few novels can compel my emotions in such a way but I found myself almost worrying about Elizabeth (a fictional character based on a factual woman) when I wasn’t reading about her and that, surely, is proof of how good Gregory’s novels are.

I would highly recommend this book and all of the others in the series – I don’t know if it is Gregory’s intention, but I have always personally felt stronger for the York women – I have always wanted them to succeed over the Lancastrian women, despite her books following the women on both sides. So suffice to say I felt a lot for Elizabeth. I have always admired that fact that these works of fiction based on fact have reflected Gregory’s own theories as what could have really happened in this time period and as the women in history are so rarely discussed in depth and are largely forgotten, I am glad that despite these novels being fictional, Gregory has given a voice to so many of the women who had a truly vital part to play in this period of history.

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