A better than expected look at the love of Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler

Alex and Eliza by Melissa de la Cruz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I must be upfront and declare myself absolutely obsessed with Hamilton the musical, from the first time I heard it I’ve been hooked and it’s helped both me (and my children) learn so much more about the history of the United States and the key figures in its establishment. Coming from the United Kingdom this is something we do not generally cover in our education system and it’s been great to learn through a medium so engaging as the music and lyrics of this wonderful show. Of course, one of my favourite relationships in the show is that of Alexander Hamilton and his wife Elizabeth Schuyler and when I saw this book it immediately caught my attention.

Melissa de la Cruz has been known for writing Young Adult books for a while and previously has penned the novels that accompany the Disney Descendants franchise. For me this nearly put me off this book altogether as I wasn’t quite sure I wanted someone to take the Hamilton romance and simply translate it from stage to page and add a lot of Young Adult sugar coating on top. I didn’t want it to taint my enjoyment of the love story because it was being dumbed down for a younger audience.

You can imagine my surprise therefore when I found this novel to be written in a style that immediately pitches itself as both intelligent and informed. This is not simply someone who has seen the show and decided to further romanticise the story. Instead, there has been significant research into the Schuyler family and the relationships between Eliza and her two sisters Angelica and Peggy. There is not simply an exact copy of the chain of events portrayed in the musical but instead, this story of Alex and Eliza’s love takes us through several years where initially they didn’t find it easy to like one another and events surrounding the war threatened to see Eliza dislike Colonel Alexander Hamilton quite significantly.

In this story, we find that rather than being the meek and somewhat giddy character she can appear in the show Eliza was hugely involved in the war effort, proactive and greatly intelligent. Her two sisters are instead the more vivacious characters who found it easier to mingle in the society their station raised them to

The only disappointment I had with this book was that once we reached the Happy Ever After moment when Eliza marries Alexander the story comes to its close, now fans of the show will know that this was very much only the beginning of their story and that there is much still to tell. I had hoped a little glimpse into this and felt that I could have cheerfully kept reading for another 200 or so pages. I wanted to know about the raising of their family, their changing relationship and the challenges they faced as Alexander grew more involved in the establishment of the new United States of America.

This book was much much better than I had anticipated, I flew through it in only 2 days and I would recommend it to any fans of the musical. It’s not simply a cliched retelling but an intelligent and well-written novel which enhanced my understanding of a romance which took place against the backdrop of huge change and revolution.

A fulfilling conclusion to Ahdieh’s Arabian adventure in The Rose & The Dagger

The Rose & the Dagger (The Wrath & The Dawn #2) by Renee Ahdieh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This year I’ve tried hard to really focus on completing series when I’ve started them. I’ve so far managed to blitz through around 6 sets this year and I was keen to complete The Wrath & The Dawn duology by Renee Ahdieh as well. Having really enjoyed the first book I was really keen to see how they would continue the wonderful Arabian story in The Rose & The Dagger.

The second book picks up very quickly after the end of The Wrath & The Dawn with Khalid trying to rebuild his broken city of Rey and Shazi having been taken to safety by Tariq to a settlement in the desert where she has been reunited with her sister and father. Tariq is still working with his uncle and the head of the desert tribes to try and overthrow Shazi’s husband who is still greatly misunderstood for killing his brides each night after their weddings. Shazi has been the only one to survive and Tariq is disappointed that his true love has fallen in love with another.

I found the first 100 pages of this book a little slow to get going, the chapters would flit between Khalid and Shaharzad and we really miss them being together and the sparks that would fly when they were. The initial chapters though are forgotten once the action does get going. We have so much going on, lots of new characters and romances and relationships and some really jaw-dropping OMG moments that keep you glued. Once the action was underway I flew through the last chapters, scared to take my eyes off the page in case I missed anything. There is magic, betrayal, true love, grief and loss and it makes for a wonderful end to this duology.

Again the atmosphere of the world Ahdieh builds jumps off the page in spades. Whilst there are lots of unfamiliar words for the different clothes, weapons and cultural references to the Arabian world in which this book is set it doesn’t detract from the enjoyment. Instead, it brings a really exotic flavour and a world in which I could spend all day.

I couldn’t recommend this book, or the duology as a whole any higher. It’s been a really fun journey and because these books have quite a different setting I have a feeling they will linger with me for some time to come.

A great fun contemporary read about falling in love unexpectedly

When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When Dimple Met Rishi was one of the breakout Young Adult contemporary books of this summer. Everyone who is anyone has been reading and raving about this novel over the past few months. I felt it only proper to read it before the summer drew to a close.

This is a novel about family values and culture versus the need to break out and find yourself and your own voice. Dimple is about to go off to college to study her love of coding but her family are keen for her to make an arranged marriage and become a good wife who will be there to support her husband and family. Dimple is independent and strong-willed and while she loves her family she loves coding more and she is not ready to give up her dreams just yet. She is surprised when her parents agree to her attending a summer coding programme at San Francisco University and she heads off determined to give it her all and win the coveted prize at the end of the programme, hence showing everyone that she is as good as she thinks she is and has a bright future.

On her first day Dimple is thrown when a young man comes up to her and tells her he is her future husband. You see Rishi has already been told all about Dimple, he’s going to the summer programme at SFU for the sole purpose of meeting the girl his parents have told him he is going to marry at the agreement of all their parents. The only problem is that no one told Dimple!!

This story was really funny, from the time when Dimple meets Rishi we fall in love with Rishi immediately. He is in a really difficult position as he likes Dimple, a lot, and he has been told that she is aware of their marriage and so when he finds she has no idea he has to backtrack and pretend that it doesn’t matter to him and he enters that dreaded ‘friend zone’. He’s such an endearing character, he’s instantly likeable and you feel for him as he is trying to be the devoted Indian son, making a marriage and going off to study a subject he doesn’t necessarily love in order to provide for his family in the future.

The way in which Dimple and Rishi impact each other’s lives is lovely, from a misunderstanding they grow into friends and from friends into a relationship which will change their lives for the better. They are each other’s biggest cheer squad, they learn about what it means to see life through the other’s eyes. Dimple to learn that complying with her cultural values needn’t mean giving up her dreams and Rishi in living his own dreams doesn’t mean he cannot be a good son and make his family proud.

This was such a quick book to read, the chapters are all quite short and snappy and we flick from Dimple to Rishi’s perspective every page or so to ensure we are aware of both points of view throughout. It’s nice to see how they each view their blossoming relationship and how they help each other to grow throughout the narrative.

It’s a great contemporary summer read, funny and emotional and with great characters leading the story.

A magical book full of Eastern Promise and beautiful romance

The Wrath and the Dawn (The Wrath & The Dawn #1) by Renee Ahdieh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I was young I always loved the fairy tale Aladdin because the setting of the Far Eastern world seemed so exotic and colourful and full of life. I loved the Disney adaptation and think that to this day it remains one of my favourite Disney musicals of all time. To find a book set in this wonderful fairy tale setting is exciting and to then find it is loosely based on the tales of Scheherazade’s A Thousand And One Nights is even more so.

The Wrath And The Dawn is the first book in Renee Ahdieh’s Wrath & The Dawn duology and follows Shaharzad, a 16-year-old girl who chooses to marry the King. Under normal circumstances, this would be every young girl’s dream but this King has been taking a new bride every night and his brides always meet the same fate, killed as the dawn rises the day after their marriage. Shahrazad’s best friend Shiva is one of the brides that Khalid has killed and Shazi marries him for one reason, to kill him and gain her revenge for the death of her friend.

Shazi begins to realise that this King whom everyone hates is hiding a secret, the real reason why he is killing these young women and as she begins to get to know him she finds herself doing the unthinkable and falling in love with the man she had set out to kill. There begins a love that encompasses them both but which could put their whole kingdom in jeopardy.

This book was just wonderful right from the outset. There are lots of new words and descriptions for the old Eastern weapons and dress but once you become familiar with them you are transported to this beautiful world full of spice and colour and beauty. Ahdieh manages to bring this to life and really pulls you into the atmosphere of the novel and it feels like true escapism. If I put the book down I couldn’t wait to get back to it so I could enjoy being in that world for a while instead of Scotland in what has been a cold, wet, windy summer.

We meet a wonderful cast of characters, Jalal the cousin of Khalid and Captain of his Guard, Despina the handmaiden of Shazi who is initially sent to spy on her but who becomes her close friend and confidante. Tariq, the childhood friend and love of Shazi who sets out to rescue her from the palace the fate that has befallen all the other brides of the Caliph. Ahdieh spins a wonderful tale, we know that Khalid hides a secret but we aren’t given this too early on in the novel so this means that the relationship built between Shazi and Khalid feels built upon their real feelings for each other despite the uncertainty Shazi faces about her future.

The ending leaves things wide open as we don’t arrive at a neat conclusion but instead we have a cliffhanger that will lead us into book 2, The Rose & The Dagger which I cannot wait to read. I find duologies are often really nice as 2 books is a good number that means you get to spend a good long time with characters that you love without having to commit to lots and lots of novels. I am excited to add this to my completed duology list of 2017.

This is absolutely one of my 5 star reads this month as it’s a book that was entierly different in setting from lots of books available and a unique take on old fairy tales.

A touching story of teenage love against the odds

Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Young adult fiction is one of my guilty pleasures, although I now beyond the age group where I could ever be considered a young adult I find this genre is currently burgeoning with brilliant authors with some strong stories to tell and I enjoy reading them, they are an escape from the adult world back to a more innocent time when you didn’t have to worry about what bills to pay and what everyone is having for dinner that evening. A time when anything was possible and you have your whole future in front of you.

Jennifer Niven has become very highly regarded in this genre after her last novel “All The Bright Things” received rave critical reviews, I haven’t read that book yet however and I decided to start with Holding Up The Universe. I was lucky enough to listen to this book via audiobook as well as reading parts and whilst I do not regularly listen to audiobooks as I sometimes find they interfere with my enjoyment of the story, this adaptation was exceptional and it is highly recommended if this method of enjoying the book appeals to you more.

This is a great story of Libby Strout and Jack Masselin, two teens who are preparing to return to school after the summer break. For Libby however it is a huge undertaking, she was one “America’s Fattest Teen” unable to leave her home and having had to be cut out of her bedroom by emergency services very publicly a few years before. She has spent the last years losing weight and addressing the demons which caused her to eat excessively after the death of her mother. Not having attended school for many years she is now ready to return and face the world and her peers, she is fierce and happy and with a dream to be a dancer she makes one of the most endearing heroines I’ve read for some time. Vulnerable and yet feisty and strong it is almost impossible not to fall in love with Libby.

Jack doesn’t face a world without difficulties either, popular and enigmatic he is the centre of the popular kids at school but Jack is hiding a strange and unusual secret, he suffers from prosopagnosia, a condition which means that he is unable to recognise faces. Even the faces of the people he holds dearest he is unable to recall, he has to learn people by other identifying features such as their hair or size or sticky out ears in the case of his younger brother. Nobody is aware of Jack’s secret and he tries disguising it each day, leading to awkward situations such as when he kisses his girlfriends cousin thinking it’s his girlfriend and suddenly everyone is outraged at him.

Jack and Libby’s worlds are about to collide, at the outset of the book we are told Jack is going to do a bad thing but we aren’t aware what that thing is going to be. It is, however, going to be the catalyst that throws them both together and once they meet it begins a chain of events that will change both of their lives forever.

I literally loved this story, Jack and Libby are both incredible characters. Jack is cocky on the outside but struggling to hide his illness on the inside and so he uses his bravado to get him through. Inside he is a good guy, he tries to run with the crowd but his conscience jars him and we know he a decent human being. Libby is outwardly strong and feisty but inside she’s still struggling with people bullying her for her size and shamed by the fact everyone knows about her having to be cut from her home years before. It’s a story about how difficult high school can be to manoeuvre, the judgements teens make on each other and how cruel their jibes can be. How even the simplest of things can make you stand out from the crowd and how if your crimes are as heinous as Libby’s and you dare to be physically different to the extreme people will go to any lengths to let you know you aren’t wanted.

I read this book at the same time as watching the TV series 13 Reasons Why and whilst this book doesn’t by any stretch cover bullying to the same extent the themes resonated through both and left me feeling that for all that we have become more aware of the impact bullying can have there still seems to be no end to the ability for people to be cruel in their judgement of others in the ability to make themselves feel more secure. As is said in 13 Reasons Why, of course the popular kids are cruel that’s how they got popular in the first place.

I loved spending time with Jack and Libby, they are beacons of hope in a world where people allow themselves to become boxed in by the standards of others. They lift each other up and make us want to root for them and that is a very special thing.

A beautiful historical novel from Kate Morton

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have been a big Kate Morton fan since reading The Forgotten Garden and despite a dip in form in The Distant Hours she is definitely back to her best with The Secret Keeper.

From the first chapter it starts with a bang when Laurel Nicolson witnesses her mother Dorothy violently stab a man who comes to their quiet countryside home one summers afternoon. For years she has lived with what she saw without understanding why her mother would do such a thing but as she prepares for her mother’s 90th birthday many years later she begins to be drawn into the mystery even further.

Jumping between present day and London in the second world war we see the story through the eyes of Laurel, her mother Dorothy during the war and find out about the mysterious relationship between Dorothy and her friend Vivien. Twisting and turning from the start the writing is wonderful. The story is gripping and beautifully evocative of war time London. Just when you think you’ve got the ending all figured out it twists and turns again.

A brilliant book, I was reading it whilst on holiday in busy Blackpool and found that I couldn’t wait to keep going back to reading it, snatching moments in the car or a quick 5 minutes here and there to keep reading so gripping was the story. Very much recommended.

A wonderful tale of life on a prison island, filled with mystery and romance

Ember Island by Kimberley Freeman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Kimberley Freeman is an author I discovered a year or so ago after reading her novel Wildflower Hill and I immediately fell in love with her mix of contemporary and historical fiction stories, often set in remote and picturesque Australian settings. Finding any new novel by this author is exciting and I have been looking forward to delving into Ember Island for some time now.

This book begins at the wedding of Tilly in 1890 where we find the bride very much in love with her husband and looking forward to her future with husband Jasper, but things take an alternative turn when Tilly’s beloved grandfather collapses at the wedding and she finds herself remaining behind to care for him rather than joining her new husband at their home on Guernsey.

The story of Tilly is mixed with that of author Nina, who struggling to finish her latest novel seeks solace on Ember Island in the old family house that she purchased. There she finds letters and diaries of her great-great grandmother who has hidden the pages in the walls of the home Nina is now seeking to renovate, piece by piece she begins to pull together an understanding of life on Ember Island at the turn of the century.

What I loved about this book is that unlike similar historical/contemporary novels, who follow a dual storyline format, we don’t find ourselves jumping endlessly backward and forward in time. Instead, much of the book is told from the perspective of Tilly. We follow her journey as a newlywed to join her husband Jasper and begin their new life on Guernsey, we share her despair as she realises she’s been tied into a loveless marriage with a man who is in love with another and follow her as she escapes Guernsey after a terrible tragedy occurs for which she blames herself.

Tilly is a wonderful main character and Freeman writes her story beautifully, we long for Tilly to find happiness and share with her the guilt she carries with her for the events she is fleeing from. Ember Island proves a wonderful setting for the novel, an island with a prison on it where she finds herself fulfilling the role of governess to Nell, the only daughter of the widowed prison governor Sterling. She finds herself glimpsing happiness on the island but struggles when she forms a friendship with a prisoner on the island, Hettie, and draws comparisons between her own circumstances and those of the inmate.

Although it is a good blend in this book of the modern and the historic, almost the book could have stood alone as a purely historical novel. Whilst Nina’s story is interesting and gives us a chance to refocus during the novel by stepping back from Tilly’s world, I question whether in fact it added anything to the narrative or if like me readers have found themselves just skimming them so they could return to the heart of the action. I wanted this book to be a 5-star review, and at points I thought it had that potential but I also felt that the ending in some ways was not as satisfying as the beginning of the book. I wanted a more rounded conclusion. Instead, it seemed to be a little pulled together in a very small epilogue that left me wanting more for Tilly.

I would say that this book is my second favourite novel by this author after Wildflower Hill and if you are a lover of authors like Kate Morton and Rachel Hore then this is an author I am absolutely sure you will enjoy reading.