Friday, 20 July 2018

Book Review: ALL THE EVER AFTERS by Danielle Teller

Author: Danielle Teller
Publisher: William Morrow
Read: July 2018
Expected publication: out now

Book Description:

We all know the story of Cinderella. Or do we?

As rumors about the cruel upbringing of beautiful newlywed Princess Cinderella roil the kingdom, her stepmother, Agnes, a woman who knows all too well about hardship, privately records the true story. But what unfolds is not the princess's history. The tale Agnes recounts is her own.

A peasant born into serfdom, Agnes is separated from her family and forced into servitude as a laundress’s apprentice at Aviceford Manor when she is just ten years old. Alone, friendless, and burdened with a grueling workload, Agnes carves a place for herself in this cold place that is home to Sir Emont Vis-de-Loup, a melancholic and capricious drunkard.

Using her wits and ingenuity, Agnes eventually escapes and makes her way toward a hopeful future, serving as a housemaid for the powerful Abbess Elfilda. But life once again holds unexpected, sometimes heartbreaking twists that lead Agnes back to Aviceford Manor, where she becomes nursemaid to Ella, Emont's sensitive, otherworldly daughter. Though she cares for Ella, Agnes struggles to love this child, who in time becomes her stepdaughter and, ultimately, the celebrated princess who embodies all our unattainable fantasies.

Familiar yet fresh, tender as well as bittersweet, the story of Agnes and Ella's relationship reveals that beauty is not always desirable, that love may take on many guises, and that freedom is not always something we can choose.

Danielle Teller's All the Ever Afters challenges our assumptions and forces us to reevaluate what we think we know. Exploring the hidden complexities that lie beneath classic tales of good and evil, this lyrically told, emotionally evocative, and brilliantly perceptive novel shows us that how we confront adversity reveals a more profound—and ultimately more precious—truth about our lives than the ideal of “happily ever after.”

My musings:

One great thing about reading challenges is that they make me pick up books I would normally never choose to read. Fairy tale retellings are a genre I had never really considered liking, so I felt some measure of trepidation when I picked up All the Ever Afters, even though it came highly recommended. I need not have worried, because I found I really enjoyed it!

As the blurb states, All the Ever Afters by Danielle Teller explores the story of Cinderella from her stepmother Agnes’ perspective. We have all heard of the evil stepmother and the ugly stepsisters that made Cinderella’s life such a misery, haven’t we? If not through books, then through Disney’s movie version, which left little doubt as to who the villains were in this story. So it may come as a surprise when I tell you that Teller’s book will challenge all you have ever believed about this classic fairy tale. The story starts when young Agnes, born into servitude, is being sent into service as a laundry girl at the nearby manor house at just eleven years of age, because her family simply can’t afford to keep her at home. My heart simply broke for her as she was facing a loveless life full of backbreaking labour at the mercy of the cruel laundress Elizabeth, who never misses an opportunity to belittle and torture her young charge. But Agnes is clever and brave, and through sheer wits and ingenuity, she manages to escape her fate to make a life for herself that no other serf could have ever dreamed of.

Teller has done her homework well, and her account of Agnes’ life is full of fascinating detail of everyday life in the middle ages. What stood out most for me was the lack of control the poor had over their fate, being bound by the feudal system and ever at their manor lord’s mercy, counting little more than the livestock in the lord’s paddocks. For women, this fate was even worse, as the only escape from a life of servitude was usually marriage, which was arranged for them. A good marriage required a dowry, so all Alice could have hoped for was being betrothed to an equally poor man, bearing many children they could not afford to feed and a life of hard and thankless labour without even the simplest of creature comforts. For Alice to escape this life was nothing short of a miracle, and I greatly admired her courage. I was also fascinated by the details of the chores Alice was supposed to accomplish daily, especially the grind of laundry work – never have I been more grateful for laundry soap and my washing machine! I briefly worked in a laundry once as a young backpacker, but it’s steamy, backbreaking work was nothing in comparison to what Alice had to put up with.

Without giving too much away, Alice’s younger years form a better part of the narrative, creating a three-dimensional picture of a remarkably brave and clever young woman forging her own path in a world controlled by the rich, the noble and the aristocracy. Alice’s life story was fascinating, and I was totally spellbound. When, later in the book, Cinderella comes into the picture, my ball was already firmly in Alice’s court, no matter how this tale would play out. Teller has a few surprises in store to explain some of the well-known details in the fairytale, and I really loved her interpretation of events as seen through Alice’s eyes. Princess Elfilda, as is Cinderella’s official name, draws a few parallels to modern-day aristocracy, which was very cleverly done. However, I was a lot less invested in Ella’s story as in Alice’s, which is perhaps why the later part of the book lost a bit of steam for me.


With its historical context and a main character who will challenge her place in society through birth and gender, All the Ever Afters will appeal to lovers of historical fiction, especially if you enjoy books set in the middle ages. Teller’s attention to detail and rich descriptions of everyday life at the time made for fascinating reading, but will perhaps disappoint readers looking for a happily-ever-after fairy tale or the type of rose-tinted mystical elements of the Disney version. I really appreciated the down-to-earth realism with which Teller explores this old classic, and highly recommend it to readers who have loved books like The Last Hours by Minette Walters or The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett.


Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Book Review: THE LIDO by Libby Page

Title: The Lido
Author: Libby Page
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Read: July 2018
Expected publication: out now
My Rating: πŸŒŸπŸŒŸπŸŒŸ

Book Description:

A tender, joyous debut novel about a cub reporter and her eighty-six-year-old subject—and the unlikely and life-changing friendship that develops between them.

Kate is a twenty-six-year-old riddled with anxiety and panic attacks who works for a local paper in Brixton, London, covering forgettably small stories. When she’s assigned to write about the closing of the local lido (an outdoor pool and recreation center), she meets Rosemary, an eighty-six-year-old widow who has swum at the lido daily since it opened its doors when she was a child. It was here Rosemary fell in love with her husband, George; here that she’s found communion during her marriage and since George’s death. The lido has been a cornerstone in nearly every part of Rosemary’s life.

But when a local developer attempts to buy the lido for a posh new apartment complex, Rosemary’s fond memories and sense of community are under threat.

As Kate dives deeper into the lido’s history—with the help of a charming photographer—she pieces together a portrait of the pool, and a portrait of a singular woman, Rosemary. What begins as a simple local interest story for Kate soon blossoms into a beautiful friendship that provides sustenance to both women as they galvanize the community to fight the lido’s closure. Meanwhile, Rosemary slowly, finally, begins to open up to Kate, transforming them both in ways they never knew possible.

In the tradition of Fredrik Backman, The Lido is a charming, feel-good novel that captures the heart and spirit of a community across generations—an irresistible tale of love, loss, aging, and friendship.

My musings:

Apart from reading and hiking, swimming has been one of my long-time passions, and I was immediately drawn to this book when I found out it centres on a local swimming pool that is put under threat by a large development company. Whilst the term “lido” is not widely used in Australia, the issue is a very topical one here as well. Many small communities are facing the loss of their recreation facilities, as money talks and most public pools don’t make enough income to cover running costs. Our town has been lobbying for a pool for years, so the story seemed very close to my heart! When I saw the gorgeous cover, I knew I absolutely had to have this book, even though it is not my usual genre, lacking the darkness, murder and mayhem I usually look for in books.

Page uses two main characters to highlight the importance of the pool to the community: octogenarian Rosemary, who has been swimming at the lido for forty years, and had countless happy memories of the place, including meeting her husband there; and journalist Kate, who has only started swimming at the lido after meeting Rosemary, but who is discovering that it is helping with her anxiety and self-consciousness. Soon the two women strike up an unusual friendship that will prove not only beneficial for them, but also for the whole community.

I really liked the way Page gives brief snapshots into the lives of other swimmers who regularly come to the lido. As a regular swimmer myself, I could relate to many of the sentiments expressed by the lido’s users, including how addictive lap swimming can become! The story itself is pretty straight-forward and holds few surprises, but it proved to be uplifting and the type of feel-good read I normally rarely pick up. This is definitely a light and undemanding summer read, one that will not require much of the reader but will leave you with a warm glow that good things can still happen and that people are basically good and honest. Sometimes you just need a story like that to escape from the harsh realities of real life!

Whilst I liked the overall concept of the book and was prepared for the lack of action and gore, I felt that I did not engage with the characters nearly as much as I would have liked. Rosemary, who is a most intriguing woman, relives many of her happy memories of the lido, but some of her life is never fully explored, such as the pain of remaining childless and the struggles and conflicts she and her devoted husband George must have had at times because of it. Similarly, we are being told about Kate’s struggle with anxiety, but it remains an abstract concept rather than a real problem showing through in her dealings with happenings in the story. Personally, I like a bit of balance and thought that the story was a lot poorer for the lack of glimpses at the “dark side”.  I guess I am just too old and cynical to see life through those rose tinted glasses any longer (my job as an ED nurse probably doesn’t help there either). There were a few moments where Page really nailed it for me (such as when Kate rubs sunscreen into Rosemary’s back and the older woman reflects on how no one touches her any more since George died – SOB!), but at other times the story meandered along without any real substance and even lost my interest a few times.


In summary, if you are looking for a light, summery, escapist and feel-good read that centres around swimming and the friendship between two very different women, then this may be perfect for you. However, readers who prefer a meatier and more substantial read may find that this one is not quite what they are looking for. 

Thank you to Netgalley and Hachette Australia for the free electronic copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Audiobook Review: THE DARKNESS by Ragnar Jonasson

Title: The Darkness
Author: Ragnar Jonasson
Narrator: Amanda Redman
Read: July 2018
Expected publication: out now
My Rating: πŸŒŸπŸŒŸ1/2

Book Description:

At sixty-four, Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdottir of the Reykjavik Police is about to take on her last case before she retires: A young woman, an asylum seeker from Russia, found murdered on the seaweed covered rocks of the VatnsleysustrΓΆnd in Iceland.

When Hulda starts to ask questions it isn't long before she realizes that no one can be trusted, and that no one is telling the whole truth. Spanning Reykjavik, the Icelandic highlands and the cold, isolated fjords, The Darkness is a thrilling new crime thriller from one of the biggest new names in Scandi noir.

My musings:

I really love Jonasson's Dark Iceland series, so I couldn't resist picking up The Darkness when it popped up in the list of recommendations on Audible. DI Hulda Hermannsdottir is an interesting character, defying all stereotypes of your average fictional detective. It was refreshing to see an older female protagonist lead the story in this dark mystery, offering not only her vast experience, but also a rich past that made for an intriguing background. In fact, Hulda is only a few months short of retiring when she is being told by her boss that her replacement would be arriving in two weeks' time, at which stage she will be expected to vacate her desk at the station. A most undignified finale to four decades of serving the public! As a parting "gift", or to keep her occupied on her last days on the job, Hulda is allowed to choose one cold case that has haunted her to look into one last time. Forced into a corner and somewhat afraid of being pushed into early retirement, Hulda chooses to re-open the investigation into the death of a young Russian asylum seeker, whose body had been discovered floating in an icy river. Her death, which had been investigated only in the most perfunctory manner by one of Hulda's less diligent colleagues, had been deemed a suicide for lack of evidence. Hulda has never believed this verdict, as it didn't make sense to her that a woman who had been on the verge of being granted asylum would kill herself. Once she starts asking a few questions it becomes obvious to her that some vital clues have been overlooked, and Hulda is becoming more and more convinced that the Russian woman had been murdered.

I can never resist a story about a cold case, as I find them so intriguing. The lies, the secrets, the little clues uncovered one by one – it all makes for fascinating reading! Jonasson offers his usual cold, bleak atmosphere to this story (which I enjoyed), and a straight-forward prose that tells this tale in an almost matter-of-fact voice. Even though I found myself getting invested in Hulda’s story very quickly, there were a few elements that did not work well for me. Some parts of the story dealt with Hulda’s early childhood, which formed part of her later personality. Whilst intrigued with these snapshots into Hulda’s past, they managed to make the story a bit disjointed and didn’t marry well with the rest of the tale for me. I also think that too many of Hulda’s secrets were revealed too soon. If there is going to be a sequel (I believe this is the first part of a trilogy told in reverse), these details would have been better kept back from the reader, as I felt they didn’t quite gel with the overall picture I had formed of Hulda and make me hesitant to pick up further books in the series. Furthermore, I was a bit underwhelmed by Hulda’s investigation, which lacked much of the suspense and finesse of Jonasson’s other novels. In summary, this was a bit of a mixed bag for me. I enjoyed parts of it, and not others, and am not sure if the format of a trilogy told in reverse really works for me. 

Monday, 16 July 2018

Book Review: THE BOY AT THE DOOR by Alex Dahl

Author: Alex Dahl
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Read: July 2018
Expected publication: out now

Book Description:

Cecilia Wilborg has it all--a loving husband, two beautiful daughters, and a gorgeous home in an affluent Norwegian suburb. And she works hard to keep it all together. Too hard...

There is no room for mistakes in her life. Even taking home a little boy whose parents forgot to pick him up at the pool can put a crimp in Cecilia's carefully planned schedule. Especially when she arrives at the address she was given
and finds an empty, abandoned house...

There's nothing for Cecilia to do but to take the boy home with her, never realizing that soon his quiet presence and knowing eyes will trigger unwelcome memories from her past--and unravel her meticulously crafted life...

My musings:

Are you a fan of mysteries with dark and disturbing undertones and sinister, unlikeable characters that really get under your skin? Then this may be the perfect book for you! Dahl’s opening chapter immediately drew me in and set the tone for this addictive and yet disturbing novel which made me want to fling it away in horror, but at the same time read deep into the night to find out what would happen.

Cecilia Wilborg is one of Sandefjord’s “yummy mummies”, a mother to two young girls and wife to successful banker Johan, living an affluent life in this picturesque Norwegian town where appearance matters. With pristine homes, expensive cars, stylish clothes and au-pair girls to look after the more unsavoury aspects of child-rearing, the women of the town gather regularly to gossip and (whilst they won’t admit it) judge each other. Appearance is everything, and Cecilia has long learned to fit in and play the game. It was absolutely not part of her plan to be tasked with driving an abandoned boy home, whose mother has failed to pick him up from the pool after her daughter’s swimming class, but how could she refuse without looking mean and uncharitable? Very reluctantly, Cecilia agrees, not realising that her carefully constructed life will soon unravel as a result.

I have typed and erased parts of this review several times already, loathe to reveal any spoilers that may take away some of the shock value of this dark and evil tale. May I just say that my heart broke several times over for little Tobias, the abandoned boy the story centres around? There were a lot of surprises in store in this story, and most characters managed to shock me as the layers of carefully constructed lies were slowly being stripped away. As a lover of the bleakness of Scandinavian noir, I got exactly what I had bargained for!  I am a bit lost for words to be honest. At times I wanted to throw this book across the room in anger and disgust, alternated by a deep sense of sadness for all involved. This was not a happy story, but a very compelling one, which saw me flicking the pages furiously until the early morning hours, because I could not tear myself away.

For lovers of Scandinavian noir, The Boy at the Door is a must-read, and I think you will not be disappointed with this gripping, dark and intense tale. There are many triggers for the faint-of-heart and readers who do not enjoy dark stories with lots of dysfunctional characters, but for me this was a definite winner! I am looking forward to reading more from this author!

Thank you to Netgalley and Head of Zeus for the free electronic copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.

Saturday, 14 July 2018

Book Review: WATCHING YOU by Lisa Jewell

Title: Watching You
Author: Lisa Jewell
Publisher: Random House UK
Read: June 2018
Expected publication: out now

Book Description:

You’re back home after four years working abroad with a brand new husband in tow. You’re keen to find a place of your own. But for now, you’re living with your big brother, camped out in his spare bedroom. And then – quite unexpectedly – you meet the man next door.

He’s the head teacher of the local high school. He’s twice your age. And he’s devastatingly attractive. Soon you find you’re watching him. All the time. But what you don’t know is that someone is watching you. Or that what has started as an innocent crush is quickly turning into an obsession as dark as it is deadly.

Family secrets, illicit passion, and an unexplained murder lie at the heart of Lisa Jewell’s gripping new novel.

My musings:

Ever since reading The House We Grew Up In, I have been a huge fan of Lisa Jewell’s writing, and am very happy she has taken the plunge into writing psychological thrillers. Jewell is a master of characterisation, and her portrayal of flawed and disturbed characters usually drives the story for me! Watching You is a very apt title for her latest novel, as everyone in this book is spying on one another. Joey watches Tom, Jenna watches Bess, Freddie uses his telescope to spy on the whole street, and Jenna’s slightly crazy mother thinks she is being watched by just about everyone else (she has a point). With all this spying and lying going on, there is a constant sense of menace and tension in the air, belying the idyllic setting of the colourful painted houses in this expensive neighbourhood.

As usually is the case with Jewell’s novels, no one is quite who they initially seem. Dark secrets simmer just below the surface and will ultimately lead to murder – and I dare you to predict the ending of this one! Most of Jewell’s novels take part in a small, closed setting, and this one is no exception, featuring neighbours in the small housing community of Melville Heights, much like one of her previous books The Girls (which I loved). The author uses multiple POVs to bring her story to life, which in this context worked very well for me. I love slow burning, character driven novels where people present only the parts of themselves they want others to see. Jewell does a great job in gradually stripping them of their masks, layer by layer, until the ugly core is revealed. Most of the characters here surprised me with their revelations, which made for some very interesting dynamics.

It is impossible to go into this story any further without revealing something that may spoil the surprise for other readers, so I will just say that it starts with a bang (or more accurately, a corpse) and then takes you back in time to unravel the mystery. The path to enlightenment may contain some clues but is also paved with red herrings, so the armchair detective has his / her work cut out for them. Tense, creepy and utterly addictive, the story soon drew me in and I was utterly absorbed with these dysfunctional characters until the very end.

Thank you to Netgalley and Random House UK for the free electronic copy of this novel and for giving me the opportunity to provide an honest review.