Cornish Reading Challenge: The Thief’s Daughter by Victoria Cornwall

This year, I’ve chosen The Thief’s Daughter by Victoria Cornwall as one of my Cornish Reading Challenge reads!

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Hide from the thief-taker, for if he finds you, he will take you away …

Eighteenth-century Cornwall is crippled by debt and poverty, while the gibbet casts a shadow of fear over the land. Yet, when night falls, free traders swarm onto the beaches and smuggling prospers.

Terrified by a thief-taker’s warning as a child, Jenna has resolved to be good. When her brother, Silas, asks for her help to pay his creditors, Jenna feels unable to refuse and finds herself entering the dangerous world of the smuggling trade.

Jack Penhale hunts down the smuggling gangs in revenge for his father’s death. Drawn to Jenna at a hiring fayre, they discover their lives are entangled. But as Jenna struggles to decide where her allegiances lie, the worlds of justice and crime collide, leading to danger and heartache for all concerned …

I’m not usually one for romance novels – in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever browsed in the “romance” section of a bookshop! But The Thief’s Daughter is more than a romance novel. It’s a sweeping historical fiction, set in the depths of Cornwall in the 1700s, and it is truly enchanting.

I particularly liked Jenna, who, despite her status, her family, and, of course, her sex, manages to remain strong and independent, and speak her mind. It can be hard for authors to create Strong Female Characters in historical fiction, for women were severely oppressed simply for being women, but Cornwall manages to bring Jenna to life, making her strong and realistic. Cornwall has an excellent writing style, drawing you in and keeping you lost in her world. And I learned about the custom of wife selling – which is every bit as vile and sexist as you think!

It would be remiss of me to fail to point out the similarities to Poldark, and how much Jenna reminded me of Demelza. Her unfortunate start in life, the abuse she suffered at the hands of a man, the dressing up as a boy. Jenna, also like Demelza, goes to work for Jack as a housekeeper, but their relationship soon becomes more than a professional one. It’s the typical rags to riches (or rather, to moderate means) story, but Cornwall manages to weave the story perfectly, and make it original. For this is no rip-off of a popular story; The Thief’s Daughter stands strong on its own merits, and it is a tale to lose yourself in.

You can read all about Victoria Cornwall’s family history in Cornwall, and her recommendations for the Cornish Reading Challenge. What are you reading?

Amazon | Goodreads

Cornish Reading Challenge: Terri Nixon reviews Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

Author Terri Nixon reviews Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier for the Cornish Reading Challenge!

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I first read this book as a mid-teen, but although I’ve always known I’d enjoyed it, my memory did not do justice to the beauty of this book, and I realised that when I came to re-read it again recently.

It’s set in very familiar surroundings for me; I grew up on the edge of Bodmin Moor (between the ages of 9 and 19) and I was a regular in the church choir, which took turns each Sunday at several of the villages noted in the book; most notably Altarnun, Lewannick, and North Hill – the village where I lived during those years. I’d forgotten how much of a role North Hill played in the story of Mary Yelland, following the characters as they traversed between villages, and out on the open moor, I could easily envisage it all. And, needless to say, I appreciated it a lot more than I did as a youngster!

But even without the personal, local connection, it would have been a delight to plunge back into this dark tale of mystery, romance and intrigue;  the characters – good and bad – are so beautifully drawn; crushingly real, complex and fascinating. The story itself is one of violence, fear, and crime… and the unexpected sweetness of a potential new love, just when you least expect it; allies and enemies, the complicated meshing of the two, and the courage of a girl who refuses to be dragged down by the weight of her family’s history. The immediate impression of Joss Merlyn, on his niece, sets the tone perfectly for their volatile and frightening relationship: “though there should be a world of difference between the smile of a man and the bared fangs of a wolf, with Joss Merlyn they were one and the same.”

The language is raw and honest; flowery description wouldn’t sound right when you’re describing such a bleak and dramatic landscape, and du Maurier strikes exactly the right note in every scene – be it the loneliness of a new life with unknown relatives, the fear of discovering what kind of life is is, or the tenderness of a friendship that just might be the one thing that saves you.

In short, Jamaica Inn is not a “romantic novel,” in the generally accepted meaning, but the romantic wildness of the Cornish landscape plays a huge role in transporting the reader to Bodmin Moor, and the coast that brings both riches and misery to its inhabitants. Exciting, and satisfying, this novel is deservedly labelled a classic.

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Cornish Reading Challenge: Under A Cornish Sky by Liz Fenwick

My first choice for the third annual Cornish Reading Challenge is none other than Liz Fenwick’s Under A Cornish Sky.

For fans of Judy Finegan and Rosamunde Pilcher, a spelling-binding tale of romance and intrigue, set against the gorgeous Cornish coast.

Demi desperately needs her luck to change. On the sleeper train down to Cornwall, she can’t help wondering why everything always goes wrong for her. Having missed out on her dream job, and left with nowhere to stay following her boyfriend’s betrayal, pitching up at her grandfather’s cottage is her only option.

Victoria thinks she’s finally got what she wanted: Boscawen, the gorgeous Cornish estate her family owned for generations should now rightfully be hers, following her husband’s sudden death. After years of a loveless marriage and many secret affairs of her own, Victoria thinks new widowhood will suit her very well indeed . . .

But both women are in for a surprise. Surrounded by orchards, gardens and the sea, Boscawen is about to play an unexpected role in both their lives. Can two such different women find a way forward when luck changes both their lives so drastically?

In Under a Cornish Sky Liz Fenwick weaves another deliciously irresistible tale set in the heart of her beloved Cornwall.

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I’m ashamed to admit that I had never read any of Liz Fenwick’s work until this year. She’s been on my list for a while, and I believe she deserves a place on everyone’s reading list – especially if you love Cornwall.

Under A Cornish Sky is gorgeous, and pure escapism. I listened to the audiobook version, read by Anne Dover, and it was fabulous to leave the confines of my car during my hot, outskirts-of-London commute, and travel back to my beloved Cornwall. Demi, short for Demelza, runs away to Cornwall after the death of her mother and the breakdown of her relationship. Welcomed by her aged grandfather, she soon settles into life in Cornwall – until a revelation shakes her world once again.

Demi is a little bit irritating, I have to say. There’s not much to her – she seems to have to be guided along her path, every step of the way, and it doesn’t feel like she’s in control of her own future. She clashes with Victoria Lake, wife of Demi’s estranged father, who is an irascible, strong, fiery woman. Why is almost every character called Victoria an irascible, strong, fiery woman? Not that I’m complaining – I am all of those things – but we Victoria’s do seem to be portrayed as the she-wolves in literature. Victoria Lake is no different. Over 60, she hasn’t lost her appetite for life (or sex!), and her passion for her home, Boscawen, is infinite. Victoria is, arguably, one of the best characters, though I may be a little biased.

There are also small threads of feminism woven between these pages. Under A Cornish Sky isn’t an openly feminist book, and I don’t know what Fenwick will think of my interpretation, but there are clear messages portrayed through the characters. Brought up to believe she was worthless as a girl, Victoria was unable to inherit Boscawen, her family home. Her duty in life was to marry – and marry well – and to provide heirs. University education would be wasted on her, according to her father. Despite her anger at Demi for simply existing, she recognises that Demi has probably been overlooked and underestimated her whole life, just as Victoria had, so the bond of sisterhood is established, even amongst Victoria’s anger and despair.

Under A Cornish Sky is a brilliant read, and, in my opinion, even better as an audiobook. If you haven’t read any of Liz Fenwick’s work yet, and you’re looking for a recommendation for this challenge, look no further.

Goodreads | Liz Fenwick

Did You See Melody? by Sophie Hannah

I review Did You See Melody? by Sophie Hannah.

Pushed to the breaking point, Cara Burrows abandons her home and family and escapes to a five-star spa resort she can’t afford. Late at night, exhausted and desperate, she lets herself into her hotel room and is shocked to find it already occupied – by a man and a teenage girl.

A simple mistake on the part of the hotel receptionist – but Cara’s fear intensifies when she works out that the girl she saw alive and well in the hotel room is someone she can’t possibly have seen: the most famous murder victim in the country, Melody Chapa, whose parents are serving life sentences for her murder.

Cara doesn’t know what to trust: everything she’s read and heard about the case, or the evidence of her own eyes. Did she really see Melody? And is she prepared to ask herself that question and answer it honestly if it means risking her own life?

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Sophie Hannah is, as far as I’m concerned, one of those authors that most people have heard of. She’s written an impressive number of books, and has even picked up her pen to continue Agatha Christie’s work – being described as “genuinely Christie’s heir”. But I have to confess, I’d never read any of her work until Did You See Melody? came up on Netgalley. That will have to be rectified.

Cara is from Hertford, England, which, coincidentally, is where I currently live. But (sadly), Did You See Melody? isn’t set in Hertford. Cara jets off to the US, away from her husband and children, for a couple of weeks at a five star resort. She’s carrying a secret, a burden, and needs time away from those she loves. She has a decision to make. But instead of the relaxing, mind-clearing break she was hoping for, Cara finds herself mixed up in a long-running mystery – what really happened to Melody Chapa?

Melody’s case had been big in the US. Full of twists and half-truths, her parents were eventually convicted of her murder, despite her body never being found. The sightings of Melody were usually ignored, but there’s something sinister about her case. As Cara gets dragged deeper into the past, she’s scared that she’ll never see her future – uncertain as it was when she stepped off the plane. But did she really see Melody?

Did You See Melody? is absolutely full of twists and turns, and will leave you wondering whether there’s still more to Melody’s story.

Sophie Hannah | Goodreads

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

“Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks
When she saw what she had done
She gave her father forty-one.”

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I’d never heard of Lizzie Borden before I read about this book. The topic instantly grabbed me, and I knew I had to have it. I was crossing my fingers every time I searched for it on NetGalley, and, lo and behold, it came up. And I was approved!

When her father and step-mother are found brutally murdered on a summer morning in 1892, Lizzie Borden – thirty two years old and still living at home – immediately becomes a suspect. But after a notorious trial, she is found innocent, and no one is ever convicted of the crime.

Meanwhile, others in the claustrophobic Borden household have their own motives and their own stories to tell: Lizzie’s unmarried older sister, a put-upon Irish housemaid, and a boy hired by Lizzie’s uncle to take care of a problem.

This unforgettable debut makes you question the truth behind one of the great unsolved mysteries, as well as exploring power, violence and the harsh realities of being a woman in late nineteenth century America.

I love a good historical fiction, particularly one based on a true story. Lizzie Borden is famous (or infamous) for being acquitted for the murders of her father and step-mother in 1892. Told from the perspectives of Bridget the maid, a troubled young man called Benjamin, Emma the eldest daughter, and Lizzie herself, we’re thrown into a whirlwind of a whodunit.

There’s clearly something very strange about the Borden family. Lizzie is in her thirties, Emma in her forties, and neither of them have ever married or moved away from their childhood home. Emma, the eldest, gave up a large part of her life to care for Lizzie, when they were left motherless after their mum died. Their father married Abby a few years later, and it seems the sisters made a decision to never love their stepmother.

There are also clear signs of abuse. Andrew Borden is often violent and quick to anger, and Lizzie too has a fiery temper. Emma has escaped to her friend’s house when the murders occur, and is dragged back by the tragedy. You can almost feel her desperation to cling on to her freedom. It’s Emma who I identify with the most: the eldest daughter, older by a fair few years, forced to give up childhood and become a parental figure.

See What I Have Done is full of secrets, and Schmidt doesn’t give them up easily. This is a triumphant debut, wonderfully written and well-researched (Schmidt stayed in the Borden house while writing this book, which is actually now a creepy hotel!). Lizzie Borden dug her claws into me and didn’t let go until the very final page.

See What I Have Done is due out in May 2017, and you really don’t want to miss it.

Goodreads | Amazon UK

The Wish by Bill Griffin

I review The Wish: The 99 Things We Think We Want Most by Bill Griffin.

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Just over 1,000 days ago, Bill Griffin launched Crowdwish, a website and app with a single proposition – it simply asked people what three things they thought they wanted most.

Wishes poured in from all over the world, with the site promising to take some form of meaningful action for the most up-voted wish every twenty-four hours.

Wishes that have gained national press attention range from the assisting of a woman who wanted to find a half-decent boyfriend (‘just not a dick basically’), duping Katie Hopkins into signing a gagging order and attaching a faux marble plinth to the offices of the Daily Mail.

The Wish reviews 99 of the site’s most popular wishes, and asks: what are the things we really want, how can we get closer to them and how much happier would we be if they were to come true? The result is a snapshot of the hopes, dreams and desires that unite us all, part reflection on a fascinating social experiment, part humorous rumination on the nature of happiness and part instruction manual for life.

The Wish is funny, upbeat and genuinely helpful – each reader is invited to pick one wish from the book that resonates most with them, and email the author for help in making it happen.

If you don’t know what Crowdwish is, you’re seriously missing out. Every day, Crowdwish grants the most popular wish on their website. From helping the homeless to making people feel beautiful, from supporting feminism to giving career advice, Crowdwish is for absolutely everyone.

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On the 8th of March 2017, my wish for the Cornish Reading Challenge to be promoted came to the top, and was granted. I’ve always found the people at Crowdwish to be lovely and helpful, and I’m so pleased they’ll be joining in the the reading challenge this year.

Bill Griffin and the team at Crowdwish do excellent work, helping the community and spreading the love. The book, The Wish, is a unique, lovely little collection of wishes, and has been released with 99 different covers. If you need a little pick-me-up, pick up The Wish, and get involved with their online community.

Amazon UK | Goodreads

The Burning Girl by Claire Messud

I review The Burning Girl by Claire Messud.

Julia and Cassie have been friends since nursery school. They have shared everything, including their desire to escape the stifling limitations of their birthplace, the quiet town of Royston, Massachusetts. But as the two girls enter adolescence, their paths diverge and Cassie sets out on a journey that will put her life in danger and shatter her oldest friendship.

Claire Messud, one of our finest novelists, is as accomplished at weaving a compelling fictional world as she is at asking the big questions: To what extent can we know ourselves and others? What are the stories we create to comprehend our lives and relationships? Brilliantly mixing fable and coming-of-age tale, The Burning Girl gets to the heart of these matters in an absolutely irresistible way.

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Girls. They’re the subject of choice these days. The Girl On The Train, Girls On Fire, Gone Girl… we seem to be obsessed with the inner workings of girls – or women, as the case may be. But The Burning Girl really is about girls – particularly the friendship between girls, and how utterly complex it can be. As close as sisters, as vicious as enemies, the friendships between girls can be stormy and intense, fulfilling and thrilling.

Cassie is a girl on fire, with a rough home life and a deep desperation to be loved. Julia, her best friend, is what you’d call a normal girl, with a fiery feminist mother and laid-back father, and an average, loving home. Julia has direction – she speaks clearly of the expectations placed upon her, that she’ll go to university and do well for herself. But Cassie has no such expectations – nobody expects her to amount to anything. And nobody is surprised when she apparently goes off the rails, screaming for attention. Or was she? I was Cassie, once upon a time, but now I’m Julia (and her mum!), so I can relate to both of these girls.

The storyline isn’t new, nor is it surprising, especially not to any female readers. But it is fresh, insightful, glorious. Messud is an incredible writer. The Burning Girl is wonderful and triumphant, and will be read in one sitting.

The Burning Girl is due out in August.

Goodreads | Amazon UK