Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle - Lady Fiona Carnarvon (The Women of the Real Downton Abbey #1)

Published: December 2011
Pages: 310
Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton


Lady Fiona Carnarvon became the chatelaine of Highclere Castle - the setting of the hit series Downton Abbey - eight years ago. In that time she's become fascinated by the rich history of Highclere, and by the extraordinary people who lived there over the centuries. 
One person particularly captured Fiona's imagination - Lady Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon. 
Almina was the illegitimate daughter of banking tycoon Alfred de Rothschild. She was his only daughter and he doted on her. She married George, the Earl of Carnarvon, at 19 with an enormous dowry. 
At first, life at Highclere was a dizzying mix of sumptuous banquets for 500 and even the occasional royal visitor. Almina oversaw 80 members of staff - many of whom came from families who had worked at Highclere for generations. 
But when the First World War broke out, life at Highclere changed forever. 
History intervened and Almina and the staff of Highclere were thrown into one of the most turbulent times of the last century. Almina was forced to draw on her deepest reserves of courage in order to ensure her family, the staff and the castle survived.
This is the remarkable story of a lost time. But Highclere remains and in this book, Fiona weaves Almina's journey into the heritage and history of one of England's most exquisite Victorian castles.


Like most people who have read this book, I only did it because of Downton Abbey, which I adore. It’s horrendous and I love it. The author, the current Countess of Carnarvon, plays up the Downton Abbey connection, but rather than giving an entire historic timeline of Highclere, she focuses in on the turn of the century and Lady Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon.  

I know the book is called “The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle”, but not a whole lot of it actually happens at Highclere. A lot of the action actually goes down in London and Egypt. The book also goes into detail on Lord Carnarvon’s excavations in Egypt, the hospital in London, and the action on the battlefields. There is an awful lot of history, but I found it a really interesting way to learn about the Victorian and Edwardian era and the First World War. So rather than the castle becoming the focal point of the book, the story revolves around Lady Almina and her family. I feel like the author feels a certain kinship to Almina, given that they both married into the Carnarvon family, both having to adapt to the new lifestyle that comes with the title, so there is probably a personal bias there.

As I was reading I couldn’t help but notice some serious parallels between Almina’s life and the plot of Downton Abbey, which made me wonder whether Fellowes sought inspiration for his series from the history of the castle itself. To me, this just means that anyone like me who is reading this book because they love the series, will really enjoy it.

The book is written in third person, and really reminded me of the style of Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale. Both books are based on real events and references letters, records and documents. However , the Countess of Carnarvon seems to have been a bit more liberal in her interpretation of the events than Summerscale ever was, giving accounts and descriptions of the “characters” opinions and emotions. Unless of course she has all this is recorded in letters and diaries, but it all seem a bit speculative to me.

Overall, this is a really great book that any fan of Downton Abbey would enjoy.

Four Stars ****

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

A Moment of Silence - Anna Dean ( Dido Kent #1)

Published: March 2011
Publisher: Allison and Busby
Pages: 300


When Miss Catherine Kent's fiance Richard Montague disappears, she is distraught. Catherine sends for her beloved spinster aunt, Miss Dido Kent. But on the very day of Dido's arrival, a sinister discovery casts unwelcome suspicion on Richard's sudden absence. Long-hidden family secrets begin to emerge as Dido attempts to unravel the strange happenings. Dido uses her logical thinking to carve a swathe through the ulterior motives of the other guests. When she finally arrives at the startling truth, it is to change the lives of those involved forever. But will it be for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness or in health?


A Moment of Silence is a murder mystery in the vein of a Jane Austen novel, following Miss Dido Kent , a ‘spinster’ detective.

In this novel, Dean answers the question of what would happen if Jane Austen had turned her hand to solving murders instead of writing novels. It turns out, that if she had been anything like Dido Kent, she would have been quite good at it. I feel that it’s a safe bet to make that Dido, a remarkably clever ‘spinster’, the daughter of a clergyman, at her brothers’ beck and call due to her financial dependence on them, is a profile of Austen as we have come to know her. The book has everything we have come to love about Austen’s novels, plus a murder mystery. It reminded me more of Miss Marple/Poirot murder mysteries than their modern equivalent, rich people with titles in old houses murdering each other.

That being said, like Marple and Poirot, I didn’t figure out the mystery until the very end when the characters did. However it was a quick and easy read, I flew through it, and it wasn’t frightening or gruesome like a modern thriller. The only criticism I would have is that I found it hard to keep track of the characters sometimes, as I would in a real Austen novel.

I would definitely recommend this to anyone who like old style murder mysteries and, obviously, Jane Austen. It’s a really enjoyable read and I can’t wait to read the next two.

Four Stars ****

Monday, 8 June 2015

The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins

Published: January 2015
Publisher: Doubleday
Pages: 316


Rachel catches the same commuter train every morning. She knows it will wait at the same signal each time, overlooking a row of back gardens. She’s even started to feel like she knows the people who live in one of the houses. ‘Jess and Jason’, she calls them. Their life – as she sees it – is perfect. If only Rachel could be that happy.

And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough.

Now everything’s changed. Now Rachel has a chance to become a part of the lives she’s only watched from afar.

Now they’ll see; she’s much more than just the girl on the train…


The Girl on the Train is a gripping and fast thriller that hooked me right from the start and took me about a day to read. This book has been compared to Gone Girl by so many people that it was hard not to do it myself as I was reading it, but I feel it is a useful way of figuring out if you’d like this book. If you found Gone Girl a little long, or convoluted you'd probably enjoy this.

In my opinion, it reminded me more of Before I go to Sleep by S.J. Watson, because so much of the plot and the mystery is concerned with memory, or the lack of it. Rachel, the main narrator , is an alcoholic and suffers from blackouts causing her to have gaps in her memory. This plays a huge role in the plot as Rachel tries to retrieve her missing memories to solve the mystery.

As well as being narrated by Rachel, the plot is narrated by Anna and Megan. All three narrators are extremely unreliable for different reasons. The book is written in the form of entries, mostly morning and evening to coincide with Rachel’s train in and out of London.  I found reading from Rachel’s point of view extremely interesting, I’ve never read a book from the point of view of an addict and it was riveting and heartbreaking to watch Rachel struggle with herself.

The narrative jumps backwards and forwards, and as I wasn’t really paying attention to the dates I was very confused to begin with. But when “the inciting incident” happens , the jumping back and forwards makes a lot more sense.

I wouldn’t say the ending was unpredictable, but I only figured it out only a few pages before the characters did , so in that way it’s one of the most surprising thrillers I’ve read.

The Girl on the Train is a fast paced, gripping read and I would recommend it to anyone who is new to the thriller genre like me, and anyone who’s looking for a quick holiday read.

Five Stars *****

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

The 5th Wave - Rick Yancy

Published: May 2013
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 460


The 1st Wave took out half a million people.

The 2nd Wave put that number to shame.

The 3rd Wave lasted a little longer, twelve weeks... four billion dead.

In the 4th Wave, you can't trust that people are still people.

And the 5th Wave? No one knows. But it's coming.

On a lonely stretch of highway, Cassie runs. Runs from the beings that only look human, who have scattered Earth's last survivors.

To stay alone is to stay alive, until she meets Evan Walker. Beguiling and mysterious, Evan may be her only hope.

Now Cassie must choose: between trust and despair, between defiance and surrender, between life and death.


I found The 5th Wave kind of hard to get into , I’m not super into alien invasion stuff in general, but once I did, by God was I hooked. I would recommend this to everyone, especially people who like sci fi, but also to those who don’t.

While our lead character is Cassie, who also read from several other character's points of view. I found that this really rounded out the narrative. It stopped the plot from suffering from that very insular narrative style that the hunger games has. Like with Katniss, we get Cassie’s point of view, but unlike in the Hunger Games we get to see what is going on outside of Cassie’s sphere of consciousness which really adds to the overall tension and action of the novel. The novel is mostly narrated by Cassie , but we also get a lot of “Private Zombie’s” point of view, and some other characters.

To me this was most definitely a war novel, based around the survival of the fittest. Without giving too much away, I felt the novel raised so many really important questions like what would we be willing to do to survive?, when is it time to give up? , is it ever time to give up?, and is it worth fighting when you’re on your own? These are absolutely terrifying questions that I hope I will never have to know the answer to, but it’s horrifying to think that so many people throughout the course of history and even today had to ask themselves these questions. The conditioning of child soldiers plays a huge part in this story, as it does in real life wars. In the novel we see the practice of training the children when they are young, stripping them of their humanity and conscience in order to brainwash them into carrying out their leaders violet demands without question.  It was frightening enough reading about this in fiction, but remembering that this happens in real life we truly terrifying.

Going hand in hand with the theme of war is that of trust. Due to the nature of the alien invasion, the humans have an impossibly hard time figuring out who they can trust. At the beginning of the story Cassie’s father gives her the simple advice, that the enemy is the person shooting at you. At the time I felt like it was quite good advice, but as the story progressed I realised that nothing is that simple. Throughout the novel all the characters grapple with concept of trust and struggle to figure out who they can actually trust.

Yancy also deals with the theme of colonisation in this novel. The alien colonisation of earth kind of reminded me of a reverse Avatar , in which the humans and the aboriginal people and the aliens and the colonisers. I thought that this was really clever, taking a coloniser population( ie Americans) and treating them as the colonised. It’s been almost universally acknowledged for some time now that colonisation is a terrible practice and can only be achieved by the dehumanisation and destruction of the native populace, which is exactly what happens in The 5th Wave. The colonisers do not respect the colonised and do not see them as equals, which is what enables their brutality.

The pervading emotion in this book is fear. Throughout the book I felt an overwhelming sense of fear and hopelessness, that all was lost and the aliens were unbeatable. They always seemed to be one step ahead of everything that Cassie and the others tried to do to take them down and I couldn’t help feeling like nobody was going to come out of this alive.

Cassie is undoubtedly a fantastic protagonist. She is extremely strong, clever and shrewd and looking for her little brother Sammy gives her something to live(or die) for. It is her sense of purpose that carries her through, and it made me wonder what she would have done had she not had him to fight for.

The only problem I would have had with this book is that the waves seem kind of illogical to me. These aliens are really clever , could they not have come up with something to just kill everyone in one go - or do they get some kind of perverted enjoyment out of the fourth and fifth waves. But I guess if they had figured out how to kill everyone in one go there would be no story. Feel free to correct me if I missed something important, but it seems like kind of a huge plot hole to me. Also there was a bit of insta-love, which always annoys me. Maybe people fall in love faster in apocalypse scenarios, maybe someone should do a study?

Overall this is a fantastic book. I would thoroughly recommend it to everyone, it definitely lives up to the hype.

Four and a half stars