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 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 touching and emotive novel set in WWII occupied France about sisterhood and friendship

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After a month or so of sticking mainly to Young Adult fiction, I felt the need to read a “grown-up” book and one of the most frequently talked about books online was The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, a book full of emotion and guaranteed to make you cry was the vibe that people game me about this story and it sounded like just what I was looking for.

Set in France during the Nazi occupation of the Second World War we follow two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle and their two different experiences during this time. Vianne lives just outside of a small village with her daughter Sophie and husband Antoine who is called away to fight for France and upon their surrender is captured as a Prisoner of War. Her younger sister Isabelle is a willful 17-year-old who has been expelled from countless boarding schools and is sent to live with her sister during the war by their father who has had little contact with his daughters since the death of his wife many years before.

The first thing I loved about this book was the way that we followed the two sisters throughout the years of the war, from the early years when hope was high and people believed it wouldn’t go on too long and that human kind would never be so cruel as to allow the kinds of torture the Nazi’s would inflict upon people. From their different perspectives, it’s a really insightful book as we see the two sides to the story. Isabelle’s strong beliefs and outspoken nature mean she struggles to be complacent with the changes to French life when the German’s arrive and take over. She is insolent and headstrong and this leaves her sister fearing she will do something to place them all in danger.

Vianne, on the other hand, is trying to comply where she can, to keep her head down and raise no attention to herself and her daughter. When a German officer begins living in her home she struggles with reconciling the image of the harsh Nazi officer with the sometimes gentle and kind man she meets. People begin to question if she is too close to her lodger and she feels it hard to judge what is acceptable to take for her survival and what to be classed as collaborating.

From these point of view of these two different women we follow the resistance movement during the war, the defiant and dangerous acts that were undertaken to help allied pilots who became stranded in France and also the risks taken to help protect Jewish children from the prisoner of war camps. The tearing apart of families and the loss of friends and the sense of community.

I love that we see two different extremes of the German officer, it was nice to not have them all painted as intrinsically evil but instead to look at the internal struggles many suffered as the German campaign to eradicate Jewish people grew as the war went on. Whilst many reveled in the power it brought them others just wanted to go home to their families as much as the French women longed for their men to come home.

This book was beautifully written, it was such a wonderful story of sisterhood, family, motherhood and the things we will do to survive. A really moving piece and at times, as promised, a tear-jerker. I now understand why it is given such wonderful reviews and is regarded so highly. It was my first Kristin Hannah novel but I am sure after this it will not be my last.

 

Will Paula Hawkins second novel be as successful as her first

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book has been one of the most highly anticipated spring/summer releases this year, written by Paula Hawkins of The Girl On The Train fame it is her second novel and it’s almost as though the literary world is waiting to see can she deliver another smash hit or will it be a case of ‘one trick pony’. I read Girl On The Train fairly quickly after it’s release and whilst I enjoyed it I must confess to being surprised that it attracted as much attention as I did and that it made it all the way to movie status. I was therefore intrigued to read Into The Water to give me a second opportunity to assess the writing abilities of this new but very successful author.

This story is set in a small town next to a river and opens when the body of single mother Nel is pulled from the river, with everyone making the assumption it was most likely a suicide. A few months earlier a teenage girl from the town met a similar fate in the same river and questions remain unanswered about her death also. In fact, the river holds many secrets about the different women who have died in it over the years and this book is about their stories and the secrets the town holds about how they met their fate.

We are generally fairly used to thrillers with multiple perspectives, it is a popular format in literary fiction today but Hawkins takes this one stage further. In the first 50 pages of this book, there are literally so many characters introduced that it makes your head spin. None of the stories they are telling link together smoothly it is absolutely a snapshot of their own points of view on Nel’s death and whether it was a suicide and about what a controversial character she was in her life and the very differing opinions of her. This multiple to an excess perspective meant that it took me some time to really relax into this book, the first quarter leaves you a little confused, having to check you are beginning to place just who each character is and their links to the others. I imagine that like other lower rated reviews of this book it could be that this writing approach has meant that, like me, you are left actually not really caring what happened to Nel.

As the book progresses past the first quarter you suddenly begin to realise you are becoming more familiar with everyone, you don’t need to keep thinking so hard about it and you begin to relax more into the story. You are able to focus more on the history of the town, the dark secrets that it holds and begin to understand that there is much more that needs to be answered about Nel’s death. However, one thing that is clear is that this town is particularly disturbed. The secrets that run through it touch everyone in it and there are a lot of stories we touch upon along the way, some which evoke more sympathy than others.

I liked this book, a bit like Girl On The Train I found that the author did pull me through with her short snappy chapters. You’d sit down and say you’d read one more and suddenly you were 5 chapters later and thinking how you got there. Naturally, as this is a mystery novel I don’t want to delve too much into the plot for fear of ruining the experience for other readers but I will say that I felt the ending didn’t leave me totally fulfilled. Whilst some of the characters stories concluded nicely and we were able to see them beginning to move on, other parts left us with frustrating unresolved issues that niggled.

I have to be honest and say that I think this book is going to be one you will either really love or be like myself a little ambivalent about it. I am not sure that in a few months time it will have stuck with me. I am fairly sure that it will sell many many copies but I would put it on my ‘good but not outstanding shelf’