Book Review: Owl Manor – The Dawning by Zita Harrison

Owl Manor – The Dawning is the first in Zita Harrison’s new series of Gothic suspense novels set in 19th century America.

Owl Manor – The Dawning focuses on the protagonist, Eva, a strong-willed woman dissatisfied with her life because she is trapped in a loveless marriage and regularly downtrodden by men. 19th century society is not merely oppressive though; it is dangerous – women mysteriously vanish and are found dead in the streets. In search of financial security and safety, Eva seeks employment at Owl Manor in the Rocky Mountains, a dark place said to harbour dark secrets. However, Eva’s actions may have placed herself and her daughter in even greater danger.

The book begins with some beautifully vivid descriptions in order to set the scene, and these descriptions were a pleasure to read.

At first, I thought the characters’ sightings of owls was a just a coincidental and tenuous link to the title but, as the story developed, the supernatural and sinister reason behind the presence of owls became clear, which I liked.

I also liked the Victorian setting and style of the book, which reminded me of classic Gothic novels such as Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. Whilst the dialogue was occasionally anachronistic for the 1850s, I didn’t find this to be a major problem because I enjoyed the story and the characters so much that these anachronisms didn’t “spoil” the book.

Eva is a rational and sympathetic character who is mostly well-described. However, some of her actions and thoughts didn’t seem consistent with what I’d been to lead to understand about her. For example, Eva sees and accepts ghosts and apparitions without a second glance. We are not told Eva anywhere is a particularly spiritual or superstitious person, so the fact she accepts the presence of ghosts without the slightest hesitation or disbelief seems unrealistic. Furthermore, much like Jane Eyre, Eve becomes a servant in Owl Manor, where the master takes an interest in her and demands she stay with him as his companion. When this happens, Eva suddenly becomes subservient and submissive. I found this to be an inconsistency because, until this point, Eva actively complained about, and challenged, any man who attempted to oppress or abuse women. Consequently, Eva’s behavioural change just doesn’t seem right – especially when the book foregrounds so emphatically what society was like for women in this period.

Despite my (hopefully) constructive criticism however, I still greatly enjoyed reading Owl Manor – The Dawning and finished it in just a few days. The ending was unexpected and, as Harrison is planning to write more books in this series, I am intrigued because I do not know what will happen next.

Star Rating: 3.5/5

Owl Manor – The Dawning is available to buy as a paperback or an e-book from Amazon UK or Amazon.com.

– Judith

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Book Review: Around the World in Eighty Days

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne is a quirky French adventure novel – although I read an English translation – from the 19th century. It’s about an eccentric old man, Phileas Fogg, who attempts to travel across the world in 80 days in order to win a £20,000 bet.

Mostly, I enjoyed Around the World in Eighty Days. It feels like quite a long time since I’ve reviewed a classic novel on my blog.

Phileas Fogg is very eccentric; he reminded me of Sherlock Holmes, though with less drugtaking. However, I thought Fogg was a less likeable character than Sherlock Holmes because, whilst he behaved like the perfect Victorian gentleman, he came across as quite aloof, self-absorbed and less personable.

The narrative voice was quirky and sarcastic, which I particularly enjoyed. The plot is quite fun too, mostly because Fogg’s valet Passepartout finds himself in all kinds of difficult and amusing situations.

However, for a travel narrative, it’s ironic that Fogg isn’t the slightest bit interested in his surroundings. I was expecting some  exquisite descriptions of beautiful and exotic landscapes, but that was hardly the focus of the novel.

Instead, the focus was on money – how much Fogg bets, spends, and loses as he travels the globe. Personally, I found it quite uncomfortable that Fogg just threw money at every situation he found himself in.

Around the World in Eighty Days is also obviously a novel of its period.

For example, it focuses on the grandeur and excitement of a white British man travelling to parts of the world colonised by Britain, and using money to get what he wants. Furthermore, there are quite a few problematic racial stereotypes, and the new cultures that Fogg and his companions experience are often described as odd and unusual, in comparison to British culture.

Also, Mrs Aouda is weakly characterised – she may as well not be there. I can only recall her being rescued, crying or falling in love because I suppose that’s what Victorian women do?

I still enjoyed Around the World in Eighty Days a great deal and I think it’s a fun novel. However, there are also some interesting points of contention to be made about it.

– Judith

Book Review: Secret Water

Secret Water is the eighth novel in the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome. There are 12 books in the series in total.

Secret Water focuses on just the Walker children, as they are “marooned” in Hamford Water, which is an area of tidal salt marshes and low-lying islands. It is the first book where Bridget – formally known as Fat Vicky, the baby in Swallows and Amazons, is old enough to join in on the adventures.

I think Bridget is my new favourite character; everything she said put a smile on my face, and the interactions between her and Roger are so sweet and funny.

In my review of Pigeon Post, the sixth book in the series, I said:

Pigeon Post is Ransome’s funniest book yet.’

However, I no longer think this is the case.

Ransome’s light-hearted narration, paired with the humour of Bridget and Roger is just fantastic. As he is no longer the youngest, Roger tries to model more grownup behaviour for Bridget (and fails). Bridget is teased for her babylike innocence, because she is so new to the Walkers’ games. For example, she is so excitable and keen to be a human sacrifice for the children’s game – even though she has no idea what a sacrifice is!

Secret Water is a new kind of adventure for the Walker children as they are left “marooned” on an island and they are forbidden to sail anywhere by their parents. This is an understandable decision, after the chaos that arose when the children were last left unsupervised in a sailing boat in We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea. I liked this, as it meant the book was  more focused on exploring territory and describing the surrounding scenery, unlike some of the other books, which contain a lot more technical language about sailing that I just don’t understand.

As well as the new setting, another new addition to Secret Water are the new children the Walkers meet and make friends with: Don, Daisy, Dum and Dee. I wasn’t particularly bothered about these new characters, as I think the eight book in a series is quite late to be introducing new characters, and I didn’t think there was anything particularly interesting or exciting about them.

Nonetheless, I still greatly enjoyed Secret Water and it’s definitely one of my favourites in the series.

– Judith