The Mothers – Brit Bennett

Rating: 5 stars

the mothers.jpgIf you read one book this year (assuming you still have enough time – it is nearly Christmas), make it Brit Bennett’s The Mothers. The Mothers tells the story of a close-knit African-American Christian community, and centres around the lives of two women within it, Nadia and Aubrey. It relates Nadia’s teenage romance with the local pastor’s son Luke, and the pregnancy, abortion and cover-up that result from it.

It’s a contemporary novel, dealing with a number of difficult issues, but it has a lightness of touch, a complexity and a sensitivity that mean that the story and characters dominate, and it doesn’t feel moralising (perhaps because it’s not).

The Mothers is a story centred on women and their place in a small community, and though it focuses on two relationships with men – Nadia and Aubrey’s with Luke, and Nadia’s with her father – these relationships don’t dominate, and what emerges as the most significant and enduring relationship is that between Nadia and Aubrey.

I would strongly recommend this book to anyone. Although women are the main players, and a lot of it focuses on female experience, it’s a book that ranges widely and touches all areas of society. It’s also pacy and engaging. Once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down. If you haven’t already read it, read it right now. I promise you won’t regret it.

Louise CAV ReviewsReviewed by Louise

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Lavinia’s Book of the Month: April

Every month, our friend Lavinia Collins is going to share with you a book she’s read and recommends.

The Lady and the Unicorn – Tracy Chevalier

Just like her famous novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Chevalier’s The Lady and the Unicorn imagines the female muses behind the bewitching and beautiful Lady and the Unicorn tapestries now in Paris’s Musée de Cluny. If you haven’t seen the tapestries, you really should: they’re gorgeous.

The_Lady_and_the_unicorn_Desire.jpg

In The Lady and the Unicorn we switch between multiple perspectives: Nicholas, the artist; Claude, the daughter of the patron and one of the figures Chevalier suggests that the tapestry depicts; her mother, the inspiration for some of the other figures; and characters at the Brussels lissier that weaves the tapestries, including Alienor, the weaver’s blind daughter who loves her garden and can feel colours in the wool.

The book is pacy, sensory and engrossing. Just as the tapestries themselves potentially express the senses of sight, taste, touch and smell, the book is loaded with sensuous and sensory description. Nicholas is the most beguiling character – a swaggering artist and incorrigible slut, he is nonetheless able to charm the reader as much as the various women who fail to see through the self-interest in his charms. Chevalier gets the balance just right – Nicholas is a jerk, but he’s a jerk you can’t help but love. Perhaps it’s something to do with his seemingly supernatural ability to bring even the nervous virgins he encounters to the giddy heights of pleasure without too much of an effort (!). This is a far cry from the rather wide-eyed ingenue Griet in Girl with a Pearl Earring – and in my personal opinion is much more charming.

I completely adored this book. It was over too quickly, but that was because I couldn’t put it down. I love these tapestries, and I loved Chevalier’s imagining of their production. From my perspective, a must-read!

lady and the unicorn chevalier.jpgYou’ll love this book if:
– You like historical fiction
– You like romance
– You like books
– You can read

You might want to avoid this book if:
– You have no taste

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Lavinia’s Book of the Month: March

Every month, our friend Lavinia Collins is going to share with you a book she’s read and recommends.

The Grave – Diane Dickson

diane dickson.jpgI couldn’t tell how much I was enjoying Diane Dickson’s The Grave until I lost my Kindle charger and ran out of battery 60% of the way through, and felt as though I was suffering from a grave emergency. The Grave is a fast-paced gritty crime thriller. I’m actually not a regular crime fiction reader, and I stumbled across Dickson’s book because we are published by the same publishing house, and I thought I’d give it a try. 

We open with a body being disposed of, and we (or I!) think we know what’s going to happen, but the story unfolds with many twists and surprises. The story follows Samuel, a secretive man with a dark past, and Sylvie, a fragile young woman with a difficult history. Samuel lives in the forest, so for a while this story made me think of that Dolly Parton song where she falls in love with a weird forest man called Joshua (listen to it now), but that’s by-the-by. Samuel’s savvy, together and strong, and Sylvie’s constantly in tears. But (and I don’t want to say too much about this) the story and the characters are deeper than that: Samuel is also vulnerable; Sylvie is also strong. And what feels at the beginning as if it could turn into a male-orientated crime story with a female accessory, quickly diverts from that and offers so much more. 

You’ll love this book if: 
– You like mystery/crime fiction with a twist 
– You’re looking for something gritty 
– You’d like typical crime grit but with some decent female characters for a change 

You might want to avoid this book if: 
– You’re sensitive to graphic violence and graphic sexual violence 

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Lavinia’s Book of the Month: February

Our new feature. Every month, our friend Lavinia Collins is going to share with you a book she’s read and recommends.

seacrest 2.jpgThe Seduction of Sophie Seacrest – Mary Campisi

I got this book free through a BookBub promotion and I was looking forward to a bit of frivolous romance fiction. I was not disappointed. If you haven’t signed up for BookBub yet go and do it immediately! Free books and offers every day tailored to your interests – what more could you want?

But back to the matter at hand: The Seduction of Sophie Seacrest. This booked ticked all of the boxes for historical romance fiction. And I mean all of them. Bodices were ripped. Swoons were swooned. Our hero is a tall, dark handsome stranger, returned from a mysterious life at sea with a dark secret. He assumes a false name and returns to his family estate. His family are old enemies of the Seacrest family who live nearby. The daughter, Sophie, is beautiful (of course) with auburn hair and flashing eyes. She’s wilful, too, defying the conventions of society by being universally considered gorgeous and desirable and being wholeheartedly well-liked by everyone she meets. Sophie’s just your typical virgin capable of multiply orgasmic sex at the drop of a hat (or the rip of a bodice). Your typical girl next door. The scene is set, and romance and intrigue can begin! Throw in a mysterious avenger, a sick little sister that needs Sophie’s care and an unpleasant suitor who she almost has to marry.

There were no surprises in this book, but we don’t read romance fiction of this kind for surprises. It’s true-to-type, steamy and entertaining. There’s lots of steamy assignations and society intrigue, so if that’s your bag, read away!

You’ll love this book if:
– You’re looking for a true-to-type historical romance
– You like tall dark handsome strangers
– You don’t mind female genitals being referred to as ‘her woman’s heat’

You might want to avoid this book if:
– You don’t want to take romance conventions with a pinch of salt
– You’re looking for a “serious” read.

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The Guinevere Trilogy – Lavinia Collins

GuinevereFirst, an admission. Lavinia Collins is a good friend of this blog. You may have read some of her guest posts here and on the Chapterhouse website, and the more eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted her hiding in our header picture. That said, we felt that her books deserved our attention. Lavinia is the author of three fantasy/romance trilogies, each set in the world of King Arthur, each taking on a different perspective. This first trilogy is written from the point of view of Queen Guinevere, and tells the story of her marriage to Arthur and [SPOILER ALERT] her subsequent affair with Arthur’s greatest knight Sir Lancelot.

What separates Collins’ work from other interpretations of the King Arthur legend is her focus on female experience. As she argues here, in most modern versions the female characters are less well-developed, serving mostly to move the story along, and have little agency of their own. The characters of Morgan and Morgawse, Arthur’s half-sisters, are often elided together, while Guinevere herself often seems to have little personality to speak of. Collins’ books turn this narrative on its head, giving each of these characters their own take on the story. The Guinevere Trilogy itself contains lashings of drama and romance, and references pre-Christian religion and the occult. There is a sense of a country in turmoil, uncertain of how to join up its wild and varying factions, stuck between one world and another. This sense is reflected in the mercurial Guinevere, torn between her different lives, kind at one moment and cruel the next. Having been pulled from her native land to marry her father’s conqueror at the opening of the story, and having had to adapt to a new religion and new customs overnight, we see Guinevere as conflicted in all things from the outset.

Set in a world where women have little power or autonomy, it’s wonderful to read an Arthurian story with a woman at the centre. The major pull of the book is the idea of a woman’s struggle to define herself and live her own life in a world defined by male interests. If that sounds up your street, you should definitely check it out.

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The Constant Princess – Philippa Gregory

Rating: 2 stars

constant princess.jpgWe don’t usually publish reviews of less than three stars, but I think Philippa Gregory is big enough to take this one.

I was very excited to read The Constant Princess – Katherine of Aragon is a fascinating figure, very often shoved into the long-suffering-wife-of-philandering-husband pigeonhole – and I was excited to read about her.

The long and short of it is, this does not reflect Gregory’s best work. Where The Other Boleyn Girl and The White Queen combined historical research with fluid storytelling, bold characters and lots of sexy fun, The Constant Princess is very heavy on exposition, and the only character that really emerges from the page is Katherine herself.

There are moments that sparkle: Katherine’s negotiations with her father-in-law twice over, Henry VII, and the opening, set in Al Andalus in Muslim Spain, where we see brief flashes of the fascinating Queen Isabella. But these wonderful moments are swamped under so much plot exhibition, so much information and historical knowledge dump, that it really flattens the story out.

I loved the details about late-medieval Spain. I loved the setting at the beginning, but as the book wore on, it got weighed down. Henry VIII, when he appeared, had none of the charisma Gregory wrote so well in The Other Boleyn Girl. This seemed to be largely because of the vision Gregory made regarding the famous case of whether or not Katherine and Henry’s marriage was legal. I found that her decision about it (which I won’t spoil) was not implausible, but the way it led was a bit of a stretch.

So, would I recommend this book? I think I would as a repository of fascinating information on Muslim Spain. As a historical novel, not so much. It’s a shame, because so much of Gregory’s writing is so great. I’m going to keep reading.

Louise CAV ReviewsReviewed by Louise

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Mistress of Rome – Kate Quinn


*Contains spoilers. Venture forward at your peril!*

kate quinnMistress of Rome is a historical novel set in the reign of the Emperor Domitian. It follows Thea, a Jewish slave escaped from the mass suicide at Masada, Lepida, her mistress, and Julia, the niece of the Emperor.

In the main, I enjoyed Mistress of Rome; it was easy reading and nicely pacey. Descriptions didn’t drag and it moved smartly through the action. There was also a lot of lovely historical detail. Quinn had obviously done her research on ancient Rome, and both Domitian’s administration and his (reported) darker proclivities. All of that was wonderful.

There were also some (unintentionally hilarious) glitches with the e-book version I read. In several places, the word ‘toga’ had somehow been replaced with the word ‘synthesis’, and any time it was supposed to be (I think) ‘white toga’, it said ‘lawn synthesis’. Very bizarre.

Why less than four stars, then? The narrative moved around from perspective to perspective freely, which was not necessarily such a bad thing, only it did so so quickly and through so many different characters that it wore slightly. But my main issue was with the characterisation of one of the main characters. As with Patricia Bracewell’s historical novels, also reviewed here, the book had a bit of a Madonna/whore complex. Mistress of Rome was slightly better for that in that Thea, the ‘good’ character, had a little more light and shade in her than Bracewell’s irritatingly irreproachable Emma, but Lepida, Thea’s antagonist, was a complete stereotype, a parody of the shallow, manipulative, sex-crazed woman that seems to haunt even female writers, still. Most irritatingly of all, a certain male character whom we are supposed to see as good and honourable is portrayed as completely weak to Lepida’s seductions and is promptly absolved of any responsibility.

[*SPOILER AHEAD*] 

When Lepida is eventually strangled to death by someone who her Machiavellian plotting has deeply wounded, this is presented as something that we ought to be pleased about, and think she got what she deserved. While Thea had a history, a complex emotional past, and a personality, Lepida never developed beyond a cardboard cut-out. Perhaps I ought to be more lenient, since I did enjoy the book in the main, but it is just so endlessly tiring to read books over and over again that present women along the Madonna/whore dichotomy. Where women who are anything less than kind are always flashing-eyed evil seductresses. It’s time for something new, and really it’s female authors who ought to be leading the way.

Rating: 3.5 stars

Louise CAV ReviewsReviewed by Louise

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