The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay // an outstanding historical novel

My run of children’s fiction reviews continues on The Paper Alchemist today – with even more historical fiction!

39903894Author(s): Hilary McKay
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication date: 20th September 2018
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes taken from this copy may be subject to change in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Clarry Penrose and her brother Peter live for their summers in Cornwall. They stay with their grandparents and run wild with their older cousin, Rupert. But normal life resumes each September, with boarding school for Peter and Rupert, and for Clarry, a dull return to an echoing old house and a father who doesn’t want her. 

Even worse, the shadow of a terrible war looms ever closer. When Rupert goes off to fight at the front, Clarry feels their skylark summers start to slip away from them. Can Clarry’s family survive this fearful war? And will any of them be the same when it’s over?

Modern publishing is obsessed with the next big thing; with flash-in-the-pan fads and blockbuster bestsellers and instant Hollywood movie deals. There is such pressure on the make-or-break debut, particularly in YA, that there hardly seems room for thinking about writers as people who may continue to exist beyond that first nerve-wracking publication day. One wonders if the likes of Sir Michael Morpurgo, who wrote seventeen books before War Horse, his most famous title, or Dame Jacqueline Wilson, who wrote dozens of books before The Story of Tracy Beaker, would be given the time to build a long-term career if they were to debut in today’s publishing landscape.

Hilary McKay certainly got out well from the starting blocks – her first novel The Exiles won the 1992 Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize – and has nudged awards from time to time since – in 2002 the first of the brilliant Casson family books, Saffy’s Angel, won the Costa, then known as the Whitbread Children’s Book Award. Her books have meant a great deal to many readers. And, in a testament to writers being allowed to hone their craft, it is in her third decade of writing for children that she has created one of her best books to date.

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The Skylarks’ War is an old-fashioned tale, written in distinctive, almost idiosyncratic prose. It is a coming-of-age story in the truest sense of the word. It follows an extended family of characters for years, from childhood to early adulthood, like Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle or Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks. Cheerful, bright Clarry is at its heart. There’s also bad-tempered, slowly-flourishing brother Pete, grammar school girl turned nurse Vanessa, and loyal, ungainly Simon. And then there’s Clarry’s favourite, her charismatic, reckless cousin Rupert (“Having endured the desertion of his parents, a Cornish winter when a gale was so strong it blew him off the cliff, a Christmas of scarlet fever and innumerable years in compulsory education, he was assumed to be indestructible and allowed to do what he liked”).

As historical fiction, The Skylarks’ War straddles a complex era in which the Edwardian period gave way to the First World War, and in which the young were faced with changes and horrors once unimaginable to their firmly Victorian parents and grandparents. It grapples with ideas of education, ambition, patriotism, trauma, and vibrant hope. I particularly liked the intense exploration of family dynamics and the use of letters. There are a few inelegant touches – an instance of (a heavily implied) ‘bury your gays’ trope, some Irish stereotypes – but on the whole it is a vivid, detailed, unputdownable novel. The book’s most astonishing achievement is its multifariousness: it has moments of appalling devastation and breathless high spirits, no-nonsense practicality and emerging aspiration, frosty distance and, finally, joyful warmth.

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Hilary McKay’s The Skylarks’ War is multi-faceted, vivid and gut-wrenching. A historical novel reminiscent of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse and Katherine Rundell’s Rooftoppers. 

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Into The Jungle: Stories for Mowgli by Katherine Rundell // an immersive re-imagining

Spoiler: this almost-reboot wins over a cynic (though to be fair it is written by one of my favourite children’s writers of all).

38812918Author(s): Katherine Rundell
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication date: 20th September 2018
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes taken from this copy may be subject to change in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Everyone knows the story of Mowgli, the wild boy who leaps from the pages of Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 classic The Jungle Book. But what about the stories of those around him?

What of the mother-wolf who raised Mowgli as her own? What of Bagheera, the elegant and mysterious black panther, or Baloo, the good-natured bear with a fondness for honey? What of the elephants and the shrewmice and all the creatures in between?

Mowgli is hungry for their stories, but as he listens, he learns that there has, perhaps, only been one constant in the life of the jungle: danger. There have always been animals like Shere Khan, and the great ape with red eyes who lives on the mountain…

Katherine Rundell is no stranger to the wild. She braved the Amazon rainforest to rapturous applause with Costa-winning 2017 children’s novel The Explorer. Here Rundell turns her attention to another vivid and intrepid adventure, this time set in India among some very familiar names indeed. It’s certainly a handy commission between original creations, a useful siphon for a little excess exuberance. It seems Rundell wasn’t quite done with the jungle after finishing The Explorer. 

Or perhaps the jungle simply wasn’t done with Rundell.

For the world of Into The Jungle is intoxicating and fiercely alive. In its stretch of wonder you can almost hear the rustling undergrowth, the bristling insects, the argumentative birds. There are landscapes conjured here from the rough Seoni hills to the open plains where the snake stream meets the elephant pool.

The book is framed as a series of stories being told to Mowgli. We hear that before she was wolf-mother, Raksha was a courageous pup. We meet a young Bagheera and a young Baloo. Kaa gets a human-centric escapade and even a jerboa named Jolt makes the overmighty aware of the creatures at their feet. Rather cleverly, these stories are then tied up in an overarching adventure which gives the novel a little more punch.

Into The Jungle has more time for female characters than its forebear, though it leaves any explicit criticism or acknowledgement of Kipling’s complex post-colonial reputation firmly in the author’s note. After all, this is a project set to coincide with further pop cultural versions of the 1894 original, including Disney’s live-action Jungle Book sequel and Netflix’s Mowgli. This is not a radical reinterpretation of a Victorian monument, but it is not saccharine, and it is very well-written. I am continually astonished by Rundell’s ability to immerse the reader. Her prose is expressive (“his spine rose and fell like a mountain range”; “the jungle at night shone gold and silver and deep-water blue”), and effective even in moments where you barely notice it. It’s a rare writer who can make you forget you’re only reading.

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Acclaimed children’s writer Katherine Rundell squares up to Rudyard Kipling in the vivid, immersive and energetic Into The Jungle. 

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The Lost Magician by Piers Torday // genre-hopping storytelling with some subversive twists

Today on the blog, it’s time for more children’s lit!

40126361Author(s): Piers Torday
Publisher: Quercus Children’s Books
Publication date: 6th September 2018
Category:
children’s
Source: I received a Netgalley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes taken from this copy may be subject to change in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

They may have survived the Blitz, but when Simon, Patricia, Evelyn and Larry step through a mysterious library door, it is the beginning of their most dangerous adventure yet.

There they discover the magical world of Folio, where an enchanted kingdom of fairy knights, bears and tree gods is under threat from a sinister robot army. The many stories of the Library are locked in war, and the children’s only hope is to find their creator – a magician who has been lost for centuries… 

Piers Torday’s The Lost Magician emerges from the same school of fiction that recently produced Patrick Ness’ Release and Katherine Rundell’s Into The Jungle. It is a writing back to a classic, even canonical, work in the form of a novel aimed at a young audience. While Ness took on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Rundell squares up to Rudyard Kipling, Torday tackles C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. 

In terms of critical acclaim, Torday certainly has clout. His first novel for children was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Award and nominated for the Carnegie Medal, while its sequel won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. Not content with merely interrogating one of the most beloved children’s books of all time, Torday also takes the opportunity here to explore themes of war, knowledge and the power of the written word.

There are nods to Narnia everywhere. Four children go to an old house, the home to a professor, to escape the effects of the Second World War. The youngest child stumbles into a magical world, which seems a bit choosy about when it can be accessed, and is not believed by their older siblings. Smaller allusions are scattered throughout the book. Larry, Evelyn, Patricia and Simon even share the same initials as the Pevensie siblings.

But it is not a retelling. Rather than a landscape of perpetual winter full of talking animals and Turkish delight, the reader is greeted with a subversive and surprising note which casts a niggle of doubt over the entirety of the magical proceedings which follow. The world of Folio is a sprawl of larger-than-life fairytale figures (ironically in the case of Tom Thumb) and vaudeville villains. Torday’s bold, brash approach draws on a wild variety of characters and styles, allowing the Three Bears to appear in the same chapter as a War of the Worlds-esque amassing of the forces known as Unreads. The core, rather unsubtle conflict is between sides known as Reads (who represent a rich tradition of human storytelling), Unreads (robots who prefer the concrete and abhor imagination) and Never Reads (the most dreaded of all).

For me, The Lost Magician was a little didactic and the genre-jumping occasionally jarring, but it’s a book many will extol. I liked the book most when it was rooting itself in historical fiction. It teases out familial relationships and acknowledges details sometimes not seen elsewhere, like dyslexia not being a barrier to love of storytelling. For all its outlandish technicolour, the prose was perhaps at its best when at its simplest and most grounded: “It was a kind of manor house, of which there were many in that part of the world, and to the children it just looked very old and very smart. The stone was honey coloured, blazing in the afternoon sun, and there were roses clambering up the side…”

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Piers Torday’s interrogation of a children’s classic combines magic and adventure with subversion and a swirl of historical fiction. It’s not the most subtle of books, but will find fans among children and adults alike (and have more clued-up readers wondering, “Which one is supposed to be Jesus?”). 

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The Storm Keeper’s Island by Catherine Doyle // Doyle comes home with island tale

Today on the blog, it’s time to dive back into middle grade with this latest review…

36634765Author(s): Catherine Doyle
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publication date: 12th July 2018
Category: children’s fiction, middle grade
Genre(s): fantasy, magical realism
Series or standalone?: series (#1)
Source: I received a proof copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes taken from this copy may be subject to changes in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Fionn Boyle and his older sister Tara have been sent to stay with their grandfather on the tiny Irish island of Arranmore for the summer. Fionn has never met his grandfather before – an eccentric old man who lives in a cottage brimming with candles – though he knows his islander ancestors have long lived in tandem with the sea, a force city-born Fionn is afraid of.

Unbeknownst to Fionn, an old magic is stirring deep inside the layers of Arranmore. A dark storm is coming. The same kind of storm that took his  father twelve years ago. To protect his family, Fionn must embrace his destiny as an heir to the storm keepers, for their island is calling out to him…

Catherine Doyle made her début as one of the bolder contributors to Irish young adult fiction with the Blood for Blood trilogy, a teen twist on movies like The Godfather set in the dark, dangerous underworld of the Mafia, but her first middle grade offering, The Storm Keeper’s Island, couldn’t be further from the blood-soaked streets of Chicago. With the temperamental skies and sea-salt tang of the island of Arranmore, it seems that Catherine Doyle has come home.

The island setting is undoubtedly one of the book’s stand-out features. Doyle offers up vivid, whirling descriptions, adding to an already interesting landscape an ancient mystery which stirs as soon as Fionn sets foot on its windswept shores. On Doyle’s Arranmore, tea is a must and magic is everywhere. This elemental magic is protected by a storm keeper and, in one of my favourite touches, gathered amid memories in the colourful array of candles Fionn’s grandfather Malachy makes by hand. The island is steeped in history, from miraculous lifeboat rescues to strange caves.

The book’s higher powers, Dagda and Morrigan, are plucked straight from Irish mythology, and while the pairing is not a new one, the appeal of the dichotomy is understandable (if you’ve read this post, you’ll know I have something of a soft spot for The Dagda). There are hints of fantastical worldbuilding – water-dwelling merrow, a flying horse identifiable to those literate in Irish mythological cycles – but there’s definitely a sense that this is an opening gambit written with laying groundwork in mind. Any sequels worth their salt will delve deeper into the rich and complex seam of myth teased here.

The story is enchanting enough to keep you reading through info-dumping and erratic pacing; explaining the fate of the SS Stolwijk before Finn sees it play out, for instance, sucks the tension out of what would otherwise be a strong sequence. As I was reading I couldn’t help feeling that I knew there was a plot in there somewhere, but it just kept getting caught up in an ill-defined structural muddle. It needed more textured secondary characters and more developed motive for the villains. One seemed to be mainly characterised as ‘bearded’ (“Where is he off to with a beard that big, anyway?”). And, while this may be a bit niche, making more use of the Irish language could have added to the magic, as the real-life Arranmore, just off the coast of Donegal, is known for its Irish-speaking.

Still, The Storm Keeper’s Island is a fast read and practically unputdownable. I liked the focus on the relationship between Fionn and his grandfather (I’d only recently written this post about grandparents in YA and teen fiction). I was racing to get to any scenes which expanded on Fionn and his father, Cormac, one of the book’s most compelling emotional cornerstones. A dramatic, action-packed finale – always one of Doyle’s strong suits – provides hope of a series with plenty more to give.

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The Storm Keeper’s Island isn’t the most subtle of books, but it is a vivid, energetic adventure with a great setting. This is magical realism-turned-fantasy for younger fans of Martin Stewart’s Riverkeep, Dave Rudden’s Knights of the Borrowed Dark and Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor. 

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Everything All At Once by Steven Camden // a punchy, poetic week in the life

Today on the blog, I’m reviewing some POETRY.

40193883Author(s): Steven Camden
Publisher: Macmillan
Publication date: 12th July 2018
Source: I received a NetGalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Any quotes taken from this copy may be subject to changes in final editions.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

One week. One secondary school. Hundreds of teenagers. Forty-two poems.

Zooming in across a cast of characters over the course of just five days, this collection illuminates a kaleidoscope of teenage moments. From fitting in, finding friends and falling out, to lessons, losing out and losing it, to worrying, wearing it well and worshipping from afar. 

There is a mythical dream tied to writing poetry aimed at young adults, and that is to make poetry cool. Such is the raison d’etre of acclaimed spoken word poet Steven Camden’s second book for young people of the year, Everything All At Once. It’s splashed all over the book: in the shouty cover, in the slang, in the Stormzy references. There must be a powerful pull to the promise of glory that would follow if you were the one who solved, once and for all, that strange equation, defined the inscrutable, ever-shifting property that is cool poetry. If you were to convince a whole target audience, who often only encounter poetry when it seems blunted into some kind of torture device – modern but laid out for dissection in revision materials and examination papers, important but deliberately pulled from the dustiest book on the shelf – that actually, poetry can be relevant and enjoyable.

Set at a busy, mutable comprehensive – the message clearly that it could be any school, anyone’s school  – the book presents a cross-section of quickly-sketched characters, from year sevens to school-leavers (“Funny to think / I was ever / that small”). Some names recur. Some figures aren’t named. Many appear, at least identifiably, for only one poem, as in the case of Yusuf, who pretends not to speak French well in order to better fit in, despite his mother being from Toulouse. The work flits from one poem to the next, one perspective to the next, usually in first person. As if to further say: look, you could write this. A football match can be worthy of a poem. Even if you’re no good at exams or like to make things with your hands. You could read poetry, too. 

From the ordinary (“Shauna said that / Leia said that / Jordan said it’s over / He changed his status yesterday / before he even told her”) to the startling (“a gaggle of mad daggering laminate features”), the poems are energetic, rapid-fire, staccato. As it strives to capture the bizarre microcosm that is secondary school society, the language is often mundane and the imagery sometimes vague, but I imagine it sounds great out loud. Hurtling along at a breakneck 128 pages, some of my favourite pieces included “Vending Machine”, “New Guy”, and “Parting Thought”.

Everything All At Once is more of a novel-in-verse than a collection, but there isn’t much of a plot, it can sometimes be tricky to follow, and it doesn’t delve that deeply into any of the themes or issues it raises. I’m not sure that it will transform poetry, either, given its very school setting, its try-hard nature. It will go down well in classrooms or workshops; it will certainly fit projects like Sarah Crossan’s ‘We Are The Poets’ laureateship. It probably won’t have the ‘organic’ feel of contemporary poets like Rupi Kaur or Amanda Lovelace whose digital, personal strategies persuade audiences, especially young women (who are somewhat sidelined in favour of a majority-masculine cast here) that subversive poetry, cool poetry, occurs outside the school gates, but it’s a fast-paced, dynamic effort.

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For fans of Sarah Crossan, Phil Earle and Benjamin Zephaniah, this novel-in-verse delivers on its premise. It lacks plot, but there are some energetic poems within its pages.

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I Was Born For This by Alice Oseman // a sharp, serious take on teen fame and fandom

Today on the blog, another addition to the phenomenon that is boyband lit in YA…

34325090Author(s): Alice Oseman
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication date: 3rd May 2018
Series or standalone?: standalone
Source: I received an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

For Angel Rahimi, there’s only one thing that matters: The Ark, a teenage pop-rock trio. The Ark’s fandom has given her everything – her dreams, her place in the world, a sense of belonging. 

Jimmy Kaga-Ricci owes everything to The Ark, too. He’s the frontman of one of the world’s most famous bands – but recently, his gilded lifestyle has started to seem more like a nightmare. 

That’s the problem with dreaming – eventually, inevitably, real life arrives with a wake-up call. And when Angel and Jimmy are unexpectedly thrown together, they will discover just how strange facing up to reality can be.

Having written this discussion post on the trend, I still occasionally poke my head round the door of boyband lit – and I Was Born For This really piqued my interest. A contemporary from the perspective of both fan and boyband? A hijab-wearing fangirl and transgender boy as narrators? A super striking cover? Consider me intrigued.

I’ll admit right off the bat that I really didn’t like Alice Oseman’s début novel, Solitaire (there’s a reason we use the term ‘in exchange for an honest review’!). But not every book is to everyone’s taste, and when I spotted this premise, I figured it was worth giving a shot. Perhaps there is something to the idea that publishing’s emphasis on make-or-break débuts is at best dubious, because I enjoyed this standalone (Oseman’s third) much more than I expected. There’s a vast improvement at play here. I Was Born For This is, in many ways, absorbing and dynamic and nuanced.

Angel is a devoted fan of The Ark. She’s the conspiracy theorist to her friend and fellow fan Juliet’s cutting romantic, though they both spend hours hypothesising and shipping ‘their’ boys: handsome Lister, lyricist Rowan, and lead singer Jimmy Kaga-Ricci. Jimmy is Angel’s favourite – charismatic, elfin, perfect. In less than a week, she’ll be going to their meet-and-greet and seeing them perform live, and then she’ll be happy. Won’t she?

Unbeknownst to Angel, the band’s skyrocketing public fame is overlapping with a downward personal spiral. Jimmy feels surrounded by grabbing hands and unseen dangers. Rowan’s relationship with his girlfriend, who he’s had to keep secret from the press, is suffering. Lister’s drinking is becoming a problem. Their manager wants them to a sign a new contract so they can break America, and that means hitting the road for years. This is all Jimmy’s ever wanted. Isn’t it?

Oseman nails her hook in I Was Born For This. Fuelled by Angel and Jimmy’s distinct alternate narration and plenty of interwoven, character-focused subplots, it makes for compelling contemporary. The short timeframe is intense and chaotic, but it is mostly engaging and readable – the book gets you on side and I read it in one sitting. By turns glitzy and serious, Oseman’s straightforward prose takes a sharp, unromanticised look at boyband culture, wealth and fame. Angel and Jimmy are two of the more likeable characters in a flawed, imperfect cast, which includes multiple LGBTQ+ characters. The best – certainly the most well-rounded – character was sweary, ambitious, vibrant Bliss, though Jimmy’s kind-hearted grandfather Piero should get a nod too.

I Was Born For This is an unexpectedly thematic book. It explores modern fandom, the perils of idealisation, and what happens when obsession blinds people to their own potential. Sometimes it’s subtle as a spider’s web and sometimes it’s about as subtle as being hit over the head with a frying pan, but both are, to be fair, effective in their own way. I was particularly surprised by the prominence of different faiths and prayer. There’s a Joan of Arc motif (taken a bit out of context, but still) and an attempt to explore fandom as a kind of substitute for or relative of religion. There’s only one minor romance in the book, but I actually didn’t notice until I’d finished, as Oseman finds plenty to mine from friendships and family relationships.

Admittedly, there are too many rhetorical questions in the latter half where an author could be attempting to provide answers, and for a book all about bands and music, we hear more about The Ark’s fame than the music behind it. Some major incidents happen and are then never explored again, probably due to a constrained timeline. Even when highlighting fandom’s positive effects, on balance the book is still ultimately fan-negative. The dialogue is stylised and, along with the many social media references, will mean the book will date quickly. Its confused closing stages see characters kept in close proximity for inexplicable reasons. However, I can see what Oseman was trying to do, and if you’re looking for boyband lit that keeps you reading while getting its thinking cap on, this may be the book for you.

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The fame, fandom and boyband lit of Zan Romanoff’s Grace and The Fever meets an unravelling of flaws reminiscent of Sara Barnard’s Goodbye, Perfect in this gripping, diverse contemporary standalone. Busy, serious and biting, I Was Born For This isn’t without fault, but I appreciated its surprisingly thematic approach and fast-paced alternate narration.

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Unveiling Venus by Sophia Bennett // contemporary queen ventures back to historical fiction

Today on the blog, I’m reviewing some historical fiction! (Warning: this review will contain one (1) spoiler for the previous book in the series, Following Ophelia).

34483827Author(s): Sophia Bennett
Publisher: Stripes
Publication date: 8th February 2018
Category: YA
Genre(s): historical fiction
Series or standalone?: series (#2)
Source: I received a Netgalley copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Find on Goodreads and The Book Depository

Mary Adams, once a scullery maid, has swapped daily drudgery for the glamourous existence of her much-admired alter ego, Persephone Lavelle. From lavish Venetian balls to luxurious Mayfair townhouses, she’s been let into the most fashionable – and enviable – lives of the age.

But somehow she can’t seem to forget those she’s left behind below stairs. In mysterious Venice and pristine Mayfair, she has the chance to rise to the very top – but will she risk her friendships to take it? And if she rose, could she fall?

Following Ophelia, Sophia Bennett’s first foray into historical fiction – after making her name with warm, chatty contemporary teen fiction like Threads and Love Song – was a pleasant surprise in my reading last year. Charming, confident and draped in the allure of the Pre-Raphaelites, I was pleased the book was slated for a sequel.

Flame-haired maid turned artist’s model Mary has found her way into high society – but her hold there is precarious. Her dalliance in the bohemian art world and reliance on admirer Rupert to keep herself off the streets has generated scandal in fashionable social circles, though her closest friend Kitty seems blessedly oblivious. Accepting gregarious, elegant Kitty’s invitation to join her at the family palazzo in Venice, she embraces her disguise as Persephone and indeed is referred to as such for the rest of the book.

Bennett’s accessible style and vivid descriptions return here, and Venice in particular shines. She evokes a hugely realistic sense of wide-eyed awe in the face of the city’s soaring patchwork of old buildings and extraordinary pieces of art, as well as the world-famous canals. Persephone’s brief time there is so believably rendered as that of an awed outsider that readers may perhaps feel that it acts more as set dressing than an exploration of its storytelling potential, but it’s the most memorable part of Unveiling Venus.

Bennett always manages to pack an amount of excitement and plot into her books. Much of the conflict emerges when it’s revealed that Kitty is about to become engaged to charismatic young viscount Arthur Malmesbury. His indulgent lifestyle and wandering eye prove troublesome. There are also appearances from friends Persephone met as a scullery maid, and I actually found myself enjoying some of those subplots most. There are servants Harriet and Annie, and the latter’s brother, Eddie, an Irish stableboy and boxer caught in the web of a Whitechapel gang’s match fixing. Previous love interest Felix is rather swiftly done away with through a handful of scenes in this sequel, so there’s a really likeable touch of romance for Persephone and Eddie, too.

While Persephone is briefly seen sitting for people like John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and new figure James Whistler, these moments are flourishes rather than rich canvases; the Pre-Raphaelite world which was so crucial to Following Ophelia is  essentially only given lip-service here. The painting of the title, Titian’s fabulously scandalous portrait of a nude and reclining woman, known as the Venus of Urbino (probably painted for a Medici after he was reluctantly made a cardinal and continued to do things like spend the night in Venice with a famous courtesan) is never viewed on the page, only talked about. As a result, there’s a lack of depth and pay-off to the book’s artistic references.

Stripped of the mercurial underground of eighteenth century artistry, much of Unveiling Venus reads more as a conventional grand house or society story – sort of like a Regency novel that’s been left a bit behind on the times with some YA thrown in. Persephone’s somewhat spontaneous talent for sewing (so amazing it’s literally described as her ‘magic hands’ at one point) also grates, as does the disparate feel of plot events and dissatisfying pacing. Still, I’m curious to see what happens if there’s another book in the series, where it looks like Persephone will be heading to another famous city.

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Well-researched, incredibly vivid and ultimately enjoyable, Sophia Bennett’s Unveiling Venus is a book of two worlds: wealthy high society and grimy Victorian London. It needed better plotting and more artistic richness, but its character-focused conflict is effective and its Venetian scenes shine.

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