Blog Tours Book Reviews

The Porcelain Doll by Kristen Loesch

About the book

In a faraway kingdom, in a long-ago land … … Rosie lived peacefully in Moscow and her mother told her fairy tales. One summer night, all that came abruptly to an end when her father and sister were gunned down. Now, Rosie’s only inheritance from her reclusive mother is a notebook full of eerie, handwritten tales, but there is another story lurking between the lines. Currently studying at Oxford University, Rosie has a fiance who knows nothing of her former life. Desperate for answers to the questions that have tormented her, Rosie returns to her homeland and uncovers a devastating family history which spans the 1917 Revolution, the siege of Leningrad, Stalin’s purges and beyond. At the heart of those answers stands a young noblewoman, Tonya, as pretty as a porcelain doll, whose actions reverberate across the century …

My review

How does one strike a balance between past and present? Is it worth the risk to delve into pain passed down from one family member to another, to uncover stories previously concealed? It’s often a Pandora’s Box that will force whoever confronts them to face a well of consequences far deeper than expected. In this case, it’s a journey you’ll want to be on.

Loesch tells this intergenerational story with skill and finesse. The book’s two storylines hit two significant points in Russian history: the Russian Revolution and the fall of the Soviet Union. It’s a testament to Loesch’s knowledge and dexterous storytelling that this doesn’t overwhelm the reader. I sometimes find it difficult to switch between two different timelines and storylines while reading because I feel jerked away from one and plunged into the other before I’m ready. In this book, I was so equally gripped by each strand of the story that I wanted to keep reading no matter what. They’re woven together with purpose, richly told, and yet both storylines are immersive in their own right. 

There are many special things about this book, but I especially loved the countless lines that struck me as I was reading, that I wanted to underline and come back to because they stayed with me. Loesch’s layered sentences compelled me to reread the same line over and over, ready to find something different each time.  

When I first saw The Porcelain Doll’s title, it reminded me of one of my favourite fairytales as a child: Vasilisa the Beautiful, the story of a girl and her doll (and the infamous Baba Yaga). The author names this very story in her ending note, and mentions her own lifelong interest in fairytales and myths. It was a delight to step into The Porcelain Doll’s pages, which evoke modern fairytale and Russian literature fused. 

In honour of The Porcelain Doll’s publication day – and of a story about mothers, daughters, and granddaughters – I’ve included in the photo above a doll given to me by my nonna. She’s been perched in various spots in my bedroom for so many years, so it was great fun to break her out and give her a little photoshoot. The Porcelain Doll has gifted me a striking reminder of family history carried through generations, and the weight it can carry. 

I actually discovered, thanks to this book, that under my doll’s hair there is a hole, and her head is hollow. To find out what that relates to … the book is just a click away. 

Blog Tours Book Reviews

Blog Tour: Lying with Lions by Annabel Fielding

About the book

Edwardian England. Agnes Ashford knows that her duty is threefold: she needs to work on cataloguing the archive of the titled Bryant family, she needs to keep the wounds of her past tightly under wraps, and she needs to be quietly grateful to her employers for taking her up in her hour of need. However, a dark secret she uncovers due to her work thrusts her into the Bryants’ brilliant orbit – and into the clutch of their ambitions.

They are prepared to take the new century head-on and fight for their preeminent position and political survival tooth and nail – and not just to the first blood. With a mix of loyalty, competence, and well-judged silence Agnes rises to the position of a right-hand woman to the family matriarch – the cunning and glamorous Lady Helen. But Lady Helen’s plans to hold on to power through her son are as bold as they are cynical, and one day Agnes is going to face an impossible choice…

My review

As a story alone, this book is captivating: filled to the brim with family politics, conflict, and drama, it has an intricate plot, morally questionable characters, and an LGBTQ+ romance – all set against the backdrop of a mysterious, gothic castle in Edwardian England. When I found out it was actually based on real events from history, I was even more intrigued. The book is incredibly well-researched, full of little details that make all the difference in historical fiction.

I love a morally grey, flawed protagonist, so I enjoyed following Agnes and her climb to power within the Bryant household immensely. Her relationship with Lady Helen, particularly the power struggle between them, was one of the most gripping parts of the book.

Fielding’s gift for transporting description shines not only in her depiction of Edwardian England, but also in her illustration of Italy when the characters take a trip there. A major plus point of this book is its power to completely immerse the reader in its setting.

Thank you to Annabel Fielding for asking me to be on this blog tour, and for the ARC via NetGalley!

Follow Annabel Fielding

Twitter: @DearestAnnabel


Blog Tours Book Reviews

Blog Tour: Secrets and Showgirls by Catherine McCullagh

About the book:

Le Prix d’Amour, a vibrant Paris cabaret, is caught in the crossfire of the occupation. Everyone is being watched, and some of Le Prix’s colourful performers are hiding dangerous secrets. Monsieur Maurice manages Le Prix d’Amour, a successful Parisian cabaret, which boasts glitzy performers and sassy showgirls. But with the German occupation in June 1940, Maurice treads a fine line between his German patrons, the French police and the Gestapo as he hides the dark secrets of his performers. Two of his lively showgirls, Lily and Poppy, soon join Maurice in the hunt for an informer who threatens to betray them. With the Allied landings, the tension builds, and Maurice is pushed to his limits as his performers finally take the fight to the invader in their own flamboyant way. Secrets and Showgirls portrays an occupied Paris in which exotic cabarets existed uneasily under the heel of the invader. It follows the antics of Maurice, Lily and a glittering array of characters, but never loses sight of the battle to survive that characterised the life of the everyday Parisian.

My review:

Secrets and Showgirls piqued my interest instantly – the glitz and glamour of the cabaret intertwined with the tense backdrop of Paris under German occupation.  

The book skims over darker plotlines in favour of humour, camaraderie, and vivacious characters as colourful as their cabaret setting. I enjoyed the birds-eye view of the group rather than a focus on one protagonist. Watching them form a family and band together to survive occupied Paris was one of my favourite things about the book. Other highlights were the details that made Secrets and Showgirls a fantastic glimpse into the life in 1940s Paris. Despite possessing a more plentiful supply of cognac than the average Parisian, The Le Prix d’Amour family still felt the brunt of food shortages, leading to some culinary challenges with hedgehogs and badgers…

Spirited and atmospheric, Secrets and Showgirls is an entertaining escape into a dynamic wartime Paris cabaret – one I could easily imagine on the screen.

Author Bio

Catherine McCullagh completed a Bachelor of Arts (Asian Studies) at the Australian National University in Canberra and taught English, History and languages at secondary and pre-tertiary level. She then embarked on a military career spending twenty years as an officer in the Australian Army as a teacher and linguist. On leaving the Army she established herself as a freelance editor, working primarily with military history volumes published by the Australian Army History Unit. She has two published non-fiction works to her name, Willingly into the Fray, a narrative history of Australian Army nursing which she compiled and edited, and War Child, the poignant memoir of a woman who grew up in pre-war Germany, which she ghost-wrote for Annette Janic, whose mother is the subject of the story. Catherine’s first novel, Dancing with Deception, a historical fiction novel based in World War II, was published in 2017. Secrets and Showgirls is her second historical fiction novel and is also based in World War II, exploring the world of the cabaret in occupied Paris.

Purchase links

Waterstones |  Amazon 

Follow Catherine McCullagh

Instagram: @catherinemccullaghauthor

Follow Big Sky Publishing

Twitter: @BigSkyPub

Instagram: @bigskypub


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Book Reviews

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

The cover of this book is so stunning that despite the novel winning the Women’s Prize for Fiction, I wondered if the content could live up to the exterior. Naturally, this turned out to be a completely unfounded fear. The novel is based on the short life of William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, but focuses on the playwright’s wife Agnes (more commonly known as Anne Hathaway). Shakespeare himself is unnamed throughout the book. It’s an incredibly heartbreaking story of grief, loss, and mourning.

The world O’Farrell constructs is uniquely bewitching, entwining the earthiness of 16th-century Stratford-upon-Avon with Agnes’ ethereality. The author’s immersive language recalls the era the book is set in, but avoids being dull or stodgy. Instead, it has a poetic clarity, skilfully binding the plot together and inviting the reader to follow. The plot itself is not fast-paced; the focus is on the emotions of Hamnet’s mother, his twin Judith, and even – before his death – his own.

The book jumps between two points in time. One is Agnes and Shakespeare’s meeting and marriage. The other is Hamnet’s death and its aftermath. The hope of the earlier story contrasted against the anguish of the latter is almost unbearable to read. Agnes is the antithesis to her bookish husband, her world rooted in plants, herbs, and animals. She possesses unusual insight and intuition. But Death throws red herrings in her path, evades her sixth sense, and steals her son away.

I didn’t anticipate how thoroughly this book would rip my heart out. O’Farrell dives into the pain of loss and pulls the reader under the surface with her. I would recommend Hamnet to absolutely everyone, but be warned: it is not light reading.

Book Reviews

Medici ~ Supremacy: 2 (Masters of Florence)

It’s 1469, 13 years since the end of Ascendancy (Book 1), and Lorenzo, Piero de Medici’s son, rules over Florence. At his side – for the time being – he has his lover Lucrezia and his friend Leonardo da Vinci. 

Although Lorenzo is the focus of the book, for me Leonardo da Vinci is the highlight. Despite the weapons he creates, Leonardo is a pacifist and insists that Lorenzo only use his designs for defence. Modern scholars actually believe he put flaws into his designs on purpose to prevent them being used for violence! I love his commitment to his principles, his refusal to be blinded by money or glory, and his drive to constantly innovate and go where no one has been before.

Lorenzo, on the other hand, is confined by his own destiny. His duty drains him of any idealism he once possessed, and his arranged marriage to the Roman Clarice Orsini spreads more unhappiness, leaving her lonely and neglected. The sack of Volterra is an utterly heartbreaking chapter, and shows how power can corrupt even the best of intentions. 

Laura Ricci from the previous book reprises her antagonistic role. Although Strukul sparked sympathy for her in Ascendancy, any compassion I once felt for her completely dissipates once she sexually abuses her son. 
As before, Strukul brings each character and scene to life with floods of colour and excitement. I had to keep Googling certain scenes to check if they had really happened – and they had! It’s such a wonderfully rich and fascinating time in history that I am now determined to pick up some non-fiction on it. 

I’m eagerly awaiting the publication of Medici ~ Legacy, the third book of the series, which will be out in August 2021 (see my list of Top 10 Books I Can’t Wait For in 2021!) It will concentrate on Catherine de Medici – the most intriguing character of all – and promises to be an exciting dive into her life.

Book Reviews

Medici ~ Ascendancy: 1 (Masters of Florence)

You would be hard-pressed to find a more exciting time in history than the many years the Medici were in power. Matteo Strukul’s fast-paced novel matches the urgency of the times, keeping the reader feverishly page-turning. I actually missed my stop at the train station reading it!

The book opens with the death of Giovanni de Medici in 1429. His sons Cosimo and Lorenzo must now step up and carry the Medici through the violence, plotting, and desperate struggle for power the family endures, set against the stunning city of Florence.

Florence is a major character in the book, its presence threaded beautifully through the pages by Strukul. I was lucky enough to spend a month there two years ago, and the city made an impression on me like no other. Enhanced by Strukul’s atmospheric descriptions, vivid in my mind were images of Brunelleschi’s Dome rising like the moon from cobbled streets, and the imposing Palazzo della Signoria. It was wonderful to read about the seemingly impossible construction of the Dome, and indeed to encounter the tunnel-visioned Brunelleschi himself.

I enjoyed the variety of perspectives the book brings us. Although it’s focused on Cosimo, we also get to see inside into the thoughts of Laura Ricci, Reinhardt Schwartz, and Cosimo’s brother Lorenzo. Laura was a character who especially touched me. Although she is an enemy of the Medici, her villainy is nuanced. With a heartbreaking backstory, Laura hardens her heart and turns the few advantages she’s been given in life to her favour. Strukul injects such pathos into her and Schwartz’s story that we are compelled to sympathise with them.

Perhaps the most heartwarming bond between characters is the one between Cosimo and Lorenzo. Utterly and unquestionably loyal, they stick together through everything; and everything, they endure together.

I absolutely loved this book. It is translated by Richard McKenna, and reads wonderfully. I hope that one day when my Italian skills have progressed far enough, I may read it in its original language.

Book Reviews

The Wolf Hall Trilogy by Hilary Mantel

I am deeply obsessed with Tudor history. Historical fiction, non-fiction, art – absolutely anything Tudor-related. I first read Wolf Hall after it won the Booker Prize in 2009. Even at a young age, I was immediately drawn into Hilary Mantel’s skilful portrayal of Cromwell and the Tudor court. I continued to be enthralled by it throughout her followings books, Bring Up the Bodies, and (finally!) The Mirror and the Light.

This series truly has everything. Compelling characters, sharp, witty prose, and a gripping, high-stakes setting. The Tudor period has undeniably been done to death in all forms of historical fiction, but Hilary Mantel breathed new life into it with her unique take on the previously much-maligned Cromwell.

Once I’d managed to extricate myself from the whirlpool of ‘he saids,’ and ascertain that ‘he’ ALWAYS refers to Cromwell, I couldn’t get enough of Hilary Mantel’s sharp, dialogue-dominant prose. She avoids being laden down by old-style phrasing, resulting in a reading experience that is as urgent and exciting as Cromwell’s own life.

Mantel transforms Cromwell from a figure once seen as unglamorously unpleasant to one who is not only human, but dryly humorous and intelligent. This is a huge asset as we navigate the Tudor court through Cromwell’s observant and somewhat sardonic eyes. Like him, we enter it as outsiders, but by the end of the book – like him – it is impossible for us not to have become thoroughly embroiled in it.

Cromwell’s ending may be common knowledge, but Mantel still managed to maintain both her readers’ and the critics’ enthusiasm for his story over a period of 11 years. I actually got chills when I saw the billboard in Leicester Square with the Tudor Rose and the words ‘So now get up.’ I was so excited to get my hands on The Mirror and the Light after 8 years of waiting!

I was lucky enough to see the Wolf Hall & Bring Up the Bodies stage adaptation by the RSC at the Aldwych Theatre in London. It would be wonderful if they released recordings, or even did another for The Mirror and the Light post-pandemic.

The BBC series with Mark Rylance and Claire Foy was also brilliant. To those who haven’t seen it yet, this is a great time to do it – especially if you’re looking for another excellent historical series to binge after Bridgerton or The Crown.

I couldn’t recommend this trilogy enough to those who haven’t yet picked it up, but if the first two books taking the Booker Prize isn’t convincing enough, I’m not sure what is!