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Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Review: Miss Austen

Title: Miss Austen
Author: Gill Hornby
Publisher: 23rd January 2020 by Random House UK, Cornerstone
Pages: 288 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: historical fiction
My Rating: 3 crowns


A wonderfully original, emotionally complex novel that delves into why Cassandra burned a treasure trove of letters written by her sister, Jane Austen – an act of destruction that has troubled academics for centuries.
1840: twenty three years after the death of her famous sister Jane, Cassandra Austen returns to the village of Kintbury, and the home of her family’s friends, the Fowles.
She knows that, in some dusty corner of the sprawling vicarage, there is a cache of family letters which hold secrets she is desperate should not be revealed.
As Cassandra recalls her youth and her relationship with her brilliant yet complex sister, she pieces together buried truths about Jane’s history, and her own. And she faces a stark choice: should she act to protect Jane’s reputation? Or leave the contents of the letters to go unguarded into posterity …
Based on a literary mystery that has long puzzled biographers and academics, Miss Austen is a wonderfully original and emotionally complex novel about the loves and lives of Cassandra and Jane Austen.
My Thoughts

‘Her purpose in coming to Kintbury had been to remove all that might reflect badly upon Jane or the legacy: that was the brief she had given herself.’

I love all things Austen. So it was with great interest that a story has been written about her sister, Cassandra. With the spotlight always on the talented Jane, it was refreshing to come across a tale from a differing perspective. There was always much controversy as to why Cassandra in her later years, destroyed all letters and correspondence concerning her famous sister. So here the author, Gill Hornby, has imagined how and why Cassandra undertook such a task. 

The novel alternates between the time Cassandra was actually collecting the letters, and with them in her hands to read and reflect, to another time, back on the actual events that gave rise to them. All these snippets of information that have been lost to history, are now imagined (by the author) through both the reasoning of Cassandra and musings on the actual events that saw them come to pass. 

I found the time period of Cassandra retrieving and destroying the letters are struggle. Not a lot goes on. She is determined to protect everything concerning her sister and there is a small side story to accompany that. Even the flashbacks to the imagined conversations of when Jane was alive - although seemingly commendable in capturing the voice of the time - still lacks that full engagement. This is not a complex tale at all. It meanders gently through the years, with often sad outcomes for the reasoning behind well known events. 

If you are looking for something new and riveting, then this is not the book for you. What you do read is the story of a sister and her family, the struggles and personal (possible) reasoning behind this most famous family’s correspondence. Jane Austen devotees are sure to appreciate this new interpretation. Personally, I struggled with the slowness. Initially intrigued as to why Cassandra would deny the world a window into Jane’s thinking, I felt this promising premise fell short. 

What I do feel warrants a mention is the definite social commentary on the plight of unmarried women and being a spinster in this time. The author has completed valid research and it really is rather sad how women struggled when not, through choice or otherwise, in a position to be married.

‘... thinking that this was the thing by which she would be defined from here on. She would have no other opportunity. Her future was to be denied her. She would have no marriage to succeed in, no vicarage to run, no children to raise. This was to be the test of Miss–forever, eternally Miss–Cassandra Austen.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher and provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Review: The Secret Messenger

Title: The Secret Messenger
Author: Mandy Robotham
Publisher: 12th December 2019 by Avon Books UK
Pages: 420 pages
How I Read It: ARC book
Genre: historical fiction
My Rating: 5 crowns


From the author of the bestselling The German Midwife comes another unputdownable tale of the bravery of everyday women in the darkest corners of WWII, set between German-occupied 1940s Venice and modern-day London.
Venice, 1943
The world is at war, and Stella Jilani is leading a double life. By day she works in the lion’s den as a typist for the Reich office; by night, she risks her life as a messenger for the Italian resistance. Against all odds, Stella must impart Nazi secrets, smuggle essential supplies across the city, and produce an underground newspaper on her beloved typewriter.
But when German commander, General Breugal, becomes suspicious, it seems he will stop at nothing to find the mole, and Stella knows she faces an uncertain future…
London, 2017
Years later, grieving Luisa Belmont finds a mysterious old typewriter in her attic. Determined to find out who it belonged to, Luisa delves into the past, and uncovers a story of fierce love, unimaginable sacrifice, and, ultimately, the worst kind of betrayal…

My Thoughts

Historical fiction is a firm favourite of mine and this book ticks all the boxes with an absolute winning combination. Told in a dual time narrative of present day and WWII, it is the historical story that shines with real strength. I feel that Luisa’s modern tale is more a tool to direct occurrences from the war time in Italy. All up this is a fantastic mix of intrigue and romance against the backdrop of Nazi occupied Venice.

‘I reflect on the past twenty hours–as different as day and night for me. For eight hours I could be accused of helping the German Third Reich to consolidate control of our beautiful city and country–yes, our country–and for the last four or five of aiming to knock holes in their plans to ride roughshod over Italian heritage and pride. I feel like a female Jekyll and Hyde.’

This story is mainly set in Italy during WWII and I totally enjoyed a look at Italian resistance as a change from the usual French focus. Even narrowing it down to Venice during the Nazi occupation and how the Venetians resisted was enthralling reading. There is a great deal of worthwhile research that has gone into this tale - the Venetian resistance, Venice itself (past and present) and an absorbing romance between Stella and the two men in her life at that time. There are some sensational twists that had me ‘oohing’ and ‘aahhing’ and rapidly turning the pages as what I thought to be a predictable conclusion was anything but. 

‘I’ve often mused after a drop that, despite the hardware of guns and machinery, this is an intensely human war–heavily reliant on faith in the good nature of people, whatever their origins. Kindness and softness, and not the cold metal edge of artillery, are what will win this war.’

If you at all like WWII stories, then this is a must read! You will rally alongside ordinary Venetians as they come together with their small acts of resistance chipping away until liberation and the ultimate victory over the Nazis was gained. So many of the characters are skilfully portrayed in their struggle and although fiction, undoubtedly has its roots in the sacrifices of the many women and men who fought for justice. Stella was a wonderful lead and with a clever plot, had me enthralled until the very end, right beside her granddaughter Luisa, in an attempt to unearth the truth about the roles played in this poignant tale from history. Much like Stella, I was fooled by masterful writing:

‘I see him for the shell he is–no lover of Venice or Italians after all. No heart to be beguiled by literature or the play of words. It was all an elaborate act. And I was fooled.’

I cannot recommend highly enough this wonderful piece of historical fiction. I particularly enjoyed the nod to the shared love of literature, particularly Jane Austen references. All up a most absorbing read and wonderful escapism.

He’s smiling once more and I see he’s looking directly at the volume of Jane Austen clutched in my hand. ‘Oh, this? This isn’t a fairy story,’ I come back, striding ahead to avoid any awkward conversation. ‘It’s literature.’ 
‘I agree,’ he says. ‘It’s very good literature. But equally, it’s not real life, is it?’ 
‘All the better in this day and age,’ I snipe, though not meaning to do so quite so sharply.‘Everyone deserves a place of fantasy and safety.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher and provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.