Category Archives: Read The Year Challenge

RTY: I Capture The Castle – Dodie Smith

Hey Everyone!

As promised in my previous post, today I wanted to share with you my review of the book I chose for Penguin’s Read the Year Challenge. The focus for the month of September was: dive into a coming of age story you haven’t read before. I have to confess that I Capture the Castle wasn’t my first choice for this month. The first book I chose was Black Swan Green by David Mitchell but I found it really difficult to get into. So after the first couple of chapters I gave up. However, my second choice was much more fruitful. I’d heard of Dodie Smith as a little girl because I loved the story The Hundred and One Dalmatians. I really enjoyed the opportunity to read something else by this fascinating, (arguably) lesser known novelist. This coming of age story has everything, love, jealousy, frustration, upset and complete joy.

What’s it all about?

I Capture the Castle tells the adventures of the Mortmains family, struggling to life in genteel poverty in a crumbling castle during the 1930s. The novel is told through the eyes of Cassandra Mortmain, an intelligent teenager who writes everything in shorthand in her journal.

Cassandra’s father is a writer suffering from writer’s block. He hasn’t written anything since his first book, Jacob Wrestling, was published. The novel, a reference to Jacob wrestling with the angel, is an innovative and challenging modernist novel that was hugely popular. This book made Mortmain’s name huge, especially in the United States.

Ten years before the novel begins, Mortmain takes out a forty year lease on a dilapidated but beautiful castle. This is the seed of inspiration for him, or isolation! However, as Cassandra tells the story, they are having to sell the furniture to survive and buy food.

Walking down Belmotte was the oddest sensation– every step took us deeper into the mist until at last it closed over our heads. It was like being drowned in the ghost of water.

Topaz, Mortmain’s second wife, is a beautiful artist’s model who enjoys being with nature, often naked in its presence. Rose, the eldest daughter, is a classic English beauty. Her focus is to meet a wealthy young man to settle with. She tells Cassandra, who tells us, that she wants to live in a Jane Austen novel.

Cassandra has literary ambitions and spends her time writing and capturing everything around her in her beloved journal. The final characters in the household are Stephen, the handsome and loyal live in son of the late maid and Thomas, the youngest Mortmain child who is just as intelligent as Cassandra. Stephen is very much in love with Cassandra but she doesn’t really notice.

While I have been writing I have lived in the past, the light of it has been all around me…

The novel changes pace when the Cottons, a wealthy American family, inherit the nearby Scoatney Hall and become the Mortmains’ new landlords. The girls are intrigued by the two handsome, unmarried brothers, Simon and Neil Cotton. These new men give the girls something new to focus on and to investigate further. Neil was raised in California by their English father. He’s very carefree and wants to become a rancher one day.

Whereas, Simon is scholarly and serious, with a passion for the English countryside. As the eldest, Simon is the heir and is already much wealthier than Neil. Although Rose isn’t attracted to him, she decides to pursue him into marriage if she can. Rose admits she’d marry the devil if it meant she could escape poverty.

When the two families first meet, each are as intrigued as the other about them. When the Cottons visit the following day, Rose openly flirts with Simon. However, she ends up humiliating himself due to her inexperience. Both brothers are less than amused by the experience and as they walk away, Cassandra overhears them saying they will cease further acquaintance with the family.

However, after an amusing episode with a fur coat and an alleged sighting of a bear, all is forgiven between the two families and they become close friends. Rose convinced herself that she really is arrested and taken with Simon so Cassandra and Topaz devise a scheme to get Simon to propose to her. This has an excellent result for the family as he falls in love with her and proposes shortly after.

Time in the novel following this is split between the castle and London. Rose and Topaz head to the city with Mrs Cotton to purchase Rose’s wedding trousseau. Whilst everyone else is away, Cassandra and Simon spend the evening together when they inevitable kiss. Cassandra becomes obsessed with Simon; it’s all she thinks about. However, she does end up feeling incredibly guilty. Simon, is of course, Rose’s fiancé. With Rose being away, Cassandra feels more and more lonely and isolated.

It came to me that Hyde Park has never belonged to London – that it has always been , in spirit, a stretch of countryside; and that it links the Londons of all periods together most magically – by remaining forever unchanged at the heart of a ever-changing town.

Over this time, Stephen continues to copy poems for her and save his money to buy her gifts. Cassandra decides that she has to tactfully let Stephen down in terms of his offer of love. She encourages him to pursue his model and film career, which has recently taken off.

…surely I could give him–a sort of contentment... That isn’t enough to give. Not for the giver.

Cassandra decides to join forces with him and Thomas to help their father overcome his writer’s block. They lock him in one of the towers, delivering food parcels to him. He becomes quite frustrated, but eventually it seems to be for a good cause. Cassandra, meanwhile, is acutely aware that her attraction is increasing. Cassandra continues to record everything in her journal.

In the background, unknown by all the characters in the novel other than Stephen, Rose and Neil have been falling in love. To conceal their growing love, they pretend to hate each other. When they eventually elope together, Simon is left heartbroken. However, for Cassandra, this means there is a sign of hope. Before Simon leaves to go back to the United States, he visits Cassandra.

“I found it quite easy to carry on a casual conversation it was as if my real feelings were down fathoms deep in my mind and what we said was just a feathery surface spray.”

Despite her feelings for him, Cassandra decides to deflect the conversation at the moment when she believes he may propose marriage, in the belief and understanding that he was still in love with Rose.

The novel ends on a rather ambiguous note. Cassandra reminds herself that Simon has promised to return to her. She closes her journal for good, still loving him.

I get the feeling I do on finishing a novel with a brick-wall happy ending – I mean the kind of ending when you never think any more about the characters.

Overview

This book is an excellent coming of age story. The family as absolutely fascinating and I found myself feeling many of the emotions described in the novel. Rose just wants to fall in love with the right person, Cassandra adores her sister and wants her to be happy. They each want their father to be able to write something so they can have furniture. Finally, who wouldn’t want to live in a castle? This is a charming book, perfect for everyone.

Hope you enjoy the autumn everyone! Get out there any kick up the vast array of colourful leaves.

Big love xxx

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Filed under Book review, Books, Read The Year Challenge

RTY: Exit West – Mohsin Hamid

Hey Lovelies!

Hope you’re all enjoying the August weather. Whilst it’s pouring down outside (I can’t believe it myself!) I thought I would take the time to review my August book for the Penguin Read The Year Challenge. The focus for this month was: Choose a book which tells a migration story. This is not something that I would usually pick so I relished the chance to branch out once again. I did a bit of research and found Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. I knew nothing about the author or the novel, so I read this with completely fresh eyes. I wasn’t disappointed!

What’s it all about?

The novel centres around Nadia and Saeed. They meet when they are working students in an unnamed city. The two are different, Saeed is much more conservative and still lives at home, as custom requires. Whereas, Nadia is much more independent, choosing to live alone and has been disowned by her parents for doing so. As war breaks out and militants start attacking their beautiful city, the two fall in love.

“To love is to enter into the inevitability of one day not being able to protect what is most valuable to you.”

The two are struck with devastation as a stray bullet kills Saeed’s mother whilst she’s searching for a stray earring in her car. The sense of loss, particularly for Saeed’s father is huge. Nadia moves in with Saeed and his father but she doesn’t want to marry Saeed, as propriety requires.

The militants successfully gain control of the city from the government and violence becomes a normal part of every day life. Nadia and Saeed hear rumours of doors in the city that serve as a means to get to safer places. However, these are only rumours at this stage and the doors that do exist are heavily guarded by militants. Nevertheless, they take a risk and bribe someone to let them through. Saeed’s father chooses to stay. He cannot possibly conceive of a life where he is not near his wife’s grave. He doesn’t want to be a burden to them or bring them down. He asks Nadia to promise him to never leave Saeed until they are safe and settled.

“We are all migrants through time.”

It was a risk that paid off as the couple end up in Mykonos amongst other refugees and settle in a tent city. Over time, they become friendly, Nadia in particular, with a Greek girl who feels really compassionate towards them. She helps them to further their journey, this time to a luxury home in London.

“When we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”

When they arrive in this luxury home, they settle and make it their own, not really believing their eyes or their luck. The owners are no where to be seen thus granting themselves ownership of the property.

More and more migrants arrive in London which results in increased tension and hostility between migrants and native born individuals. There are cases of threatening behaviour and mob rule. After time the migrants are sectioned off into a ghetto type place with minimal food and electricity. This is named ‘Dark London’.

“It might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class—in this case an evening class on corporate identity and product branding—but that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.”

Tensions come to a head when a raid goes horribly wrong. The natives decide to try and work together with the new migrants to clear the land for Halo London. The promise with this is that they will all receive 49 metres of space and a pipe, resulting in access to utilities. Nadia and Saeed are well aware of the distance growing between them to throw themselves into working.

Nadia and Saeed are one of the first on the list which means they will be one of the first to obtain a secure home. Despite this promise, Nadia has hopes for something more. They chance their luck through another portal, arriving in Marin County, California.

Both are welcomed there and seem to be quite happy. Nadia soon finds work at the food co-op whereas Saeed becomes even more religious. The pair realise that they have lost the spark between them, they no longer have feelings for one another. Nadia leaves Saeed and moves into a room at work, forming a new and vibrant relationship with the cook there. Meanwhile, Saeed married the native born daughter of a preacher.

“And so their memories took on potential, which is of course how our greatest nostalgias are born.”

Fast forward fifty years and Nadia returns to the country of her birth. She meets up again with Saeed who offers to take her to see the stars in Chile one day.

Overview

Despite this not being the type of book I would normally choose, I did really enjoy it. It opened my eyes to a time and a place where people had to fight for survival, where people took massive risks. It’s a short and powerful novel which does leave you grateful for what you have. It did me anyway. It’s a shame Nadia and Saeed’s relationship initially broke down. However, there was a sense of inevitability there. The ending gives me hope for the future, for their future. I’ve walked away from this novel thinking I need to take every chance I get. It’s not so easy for others in the world and it’s easy for us to forget that. Onto my next read!

Big love all xxx

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Filed under Book review, Read The Year Challenge, Reading

RTY: Cartes Postales From Greece – Victoria Hislop

Hello Campers!

Hope you’re all well and have had a spectacular July. August is upon us and the beautiful weather is set to continue. It’s been amazing!

Nevertheless, summer for me is a time to rest and read. I wanted to share with you all today my review of the book I chose for July’s Read The Year theme which was: Travel anywhere in (or out of) the world with a book. I couldn’t think of a better choice than Cartes Postales From Greece. I absolutely loved this book! I was like being on holiday and the stunning coloured pictures really helped me to immerse myself there.

What’s it all about?

Ellie Thomas received a number of postcards in the post, each showing a glorious picturesque image of Greece. She came to obsess about them and when the next would arrive. However, she was not S. Ibbotson, the intended reader and the tone was always rather sad. Yet, this did not stop her from reading them, pinning them up and admiring them. Feeling the ever increasing need to get away and explore the places being shown to her, she booked a flight. On the morning of her departure to Greece, she finds a package. Little does she know how much this will shape her whole trip.

“Even though she was an hour later than intended, she felt compelled to retrieve it. The package had more than a dozen stamps stuck on it at different angles and was the size of a hardback…She recognises the writing straightaway and her heart beat a little faster.”

This package, a blue book full of Greek adventures, creates an episodic narrative. Whatever the author of the postcards saw is what Ellie and we see as a reader. The two marry together: the postcards and the notebook. We learn that the author was meeting S. Ibbotson but she failed to appear at the airport. Despite shock and disbelief, the author, only knows as A, continues to travel on his journey.

“The waves were wild, endlessly rolling in and crashing on the sand, their mood reflecting the turmoil that I felt inside. It did not seem to subside. I could not eat or speak. Men are meant to be the stronger sex, but I have never felt so powerless.”

The stories shared in this novel are all part of A’s healing process (later revealed as Anthony.) It starts with a story about heartache and the effects of this. We learn about a vendetta between two families due to a bride fleeing on her wedding day. Consequently, revenge is sought after and people live in constant fear. The author finds it ironic that this is the story he has been told after he himself has been jilted. However, he doesn’t feel revenge is the correct answer.

“Even if I had been brought up with the culture of revenge, I wouldn’t have the energy to lift a gun, let alone fire one, sorrow weighed me down so heavily.”

Yet, despite the start being so forlorn, the novel does change its tone. The scenery helps him heal, it’s just so beautiful. The tales divulged are often positive and enjoyable. The recount of Antoni, the violin player, is rather special. The soulful playing attracted men, women and children all around to listen and feel the music. One of those women was Magda. She too was attracted by the music and the effect it had on her. Because she was alone, she was regarded with suspicion but not the player. He reveals the story of the violin and who it belongs to. He shares the knowledge and passion. After an unforgettable evening together, a change comes. The next morning, he has gone.

“Now the stillness of the sea seemed to magnify the music and, even when the violin ‘whispered’, its voice could be heard across the space. When it rose to a crescendo, the notes burst through conversation like an explosion.”

As we travel around the different islands of Greece, we meet a number of different characters, each with a story to tell. Messolonghi had its own story to tell regarding a celebrity: Byron. Crowds gathered to catch a glimpse of this charismatic man. Unfortunately, he was unwell after such a long journey. Nevertheless, this did not stop everyone, particularly Despina, a sprinted young woman who was full of admiration for him. Byron’s health was deteriorating. His servant believed it was the ‘eye’, the evil eye. Someone has cast this upon him. His health deteriorated, he became increasingly worse. Sadly, Byron was not going to see this trip completed as he sadly died. Again the crowds formed but this time with melancholy.

“Once again, he was surrounded by a crowd, though now they were mourning his departure rather than celebrating his arrival. His closed eyes could no longer charm.”

Four days into her Grecian trip, Ellie continues living and breathing the island and the notebook. It evoked a feeling of complete calm and serenity. She continued to read on in the evenings, waiting to see what other wonders lay ahead such as the unveiling of a sublime statue. Costas was unhappy at home, his wife seemed to stop paying any attention or care and he was becoming distracted. He spent time at his allotment planting when he found something in the ground. He returned repeatedly in the evenings to unearth what he had discovered. Over time he unearthed a whole body. He spent time carefully brushing the dust away from this masterpiece. However, once the statue of Aphrodite was revealed, Costas felt aches and pains. He’d suffered a heart attack but died with a smile on his face.

“I have an image of Costas, happy and fulfilled at the moment of death. Maybe this is what really matters. I think that, for those few weeks, his feelings for Aphrodite gave him a zest for life that he had lost.”

Towards the end of the novel we have that inevitable sense of something coming to an end. Anthony met Athina, a young girl from Greece had returned to her home after working in Düsseldorf. Each day blurred together and she only felt a sense of existing rather than living. She felt homesick and a longing to be back there. So she returned and went to the Temple of Apollo. Walking the steps of thousands before her, she was searching for some form of enlightenment. As time continued; her exploration did also. Evening drew on and she saw the most beautiful sunset. At that moment she felt like she had been set free. She knew exactly what she needed to do.

“Her eyes showed that she sympathised with what I had gone through. For both of us, Delphi was a turning point.”

But what about Ellie and Anthony? Would they ever meet? He’s shaped her holiday dramatically and as a reader I was desperate for them to meet. But how could that happen? The back of the notebook provided the answer: an address. She decided, being as it was her last day, she would find him and return the book. The result of this is completely charming; a new opportunity arises from this. Ellie and Anthony would continue to be in each other’s lives.

“Of all the moments she had lived, this was the one in which Ellie felt most peaceful, but most alive. Above them all, swallows ducked and dived on the evening air.”

Overview

There are not enough superlatives to describe this book. I’ve absolutely loved it. The highs, the lows, the experiences that shaped both Anthony and Ellie also had a resounding effect on me too. As I was reading, I too felt like I was travelling around Greece. The description was breathtaking, the stories admirable. For me, this book has been a suitable and extraordinary summer read. I must investigate more Hislop novels now for more Grecian adventures from my sofa!

Enjoy summer everyone! Don’t forget your factor 30!

Big love xxx

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Filed under Book review, Read The Year Challenge

RTY: The Shadow Of The Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafron

Hi guys!

Amazingly, I have a spare couple of hours now whilst I’m sitting on a train, so I thought I would post my review of my choice of book for June for the Read The Year Challenge. I wholeheartedly promise that I did read it in June, I just didn’t quite get around to posting it in time. But it’s here now!

This month proved slightly challenging as the topic was ‘Pick up a book that delves into the experience of fatherhood’. Now I have some clear limitations here, obviously, but I think I found a book that fits. The Shadow of the Wind. Whilst not explicitly being centred around fatherhood, there are a number of fathers and/or father figures in it. The beauty of this reading challenge means that I have read something I’ve never even heard of. The bigger present – I enjoyed it!

What’s it all about?

Set in Barcelona, the novel centres around a young boy, Daniel Sempere. Just after the Spanish Civil War, Daniel’s father takes him to the secret Cemetery of Forgotten Books. This is a place where old, forgotten books are loving preserved by a select few people. According to tradition, everyone initiated into this secret place is allowed to take one book and must protect it for life. The book Daniel chooses: The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax.

He takes the book home and reads it cover to cover. This sparks the need in Daniel to try and find other books by this unknown author but can’t find any. What he does discover are strange narratives of a man calling himself Laín Coubert. What is extraordinary about this is that name is the name of one of the characters in the book – the Devil, who has been finding Carax’s books for decades, buying and burning them.

“Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you.”

Structured as a story within a story, Daniel starts a quest to find Julian’s other works. In turn, he becomes involved in tracing the entire history of Carax. One of the father figures in the novel is Fermin Romero de Torres. He was imprisoned and tortured in Montjuic Castle for his involvement in an espionage against the Anarchists during the war. His background in government intelligent helps Daniel in numerous days. However, their probing into he past of people who are long dead or forgotten takes him to the path of Inspector Fumero, whom he had dealings with previously.

“Fools talk, cowards are silent, wise men listen.”

This narrative has long since been buried. However Daniel starts unravelling it, clue by clue. Daniel and Fermin find a love story, the beautiful yet tragic story of Julián and Penélope, both of whom have been missing since 1919, thirty years earlier. Julián, the son of a hatter, Antoni Fortuny and his wife Sophie Carax and Penélope Aldaya, the only daughter of the extremely weather Don Ricardo Aldaya and his narcissistic American wife developed an instant love for each other and lived a clandestine relationship, only through faint smiles and few glances for around four years. After this time they decided to elope to Paris. They were completely unaware that the shadows of misfortune had been creeping their way upon them ever since they met.

“Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.”

Miquel Moliner, also the son of a wealthy father, was Julián’s best friend. He helped meticulously plan their elopement. It is eventually revealed that the loved Julián more than any brother and finally sacrificed his life for him. Julián eventually got to Paris. Penélope did not.

“Destiny is usually just around the corner. Like a thief, a hooker, or a lottery vendor: its three most common personifications. But what destiny does not do is home visits. You have to go for it.”

The memory of Penélope burns inside Julian’s heart and eventually this forces him to return to Barcelona in the mid 1930s. What greets him is nothing less than heartbreaking. She was nothing more than a memory. She had never been seen or heard of again by anyone after 1919. Daniel discovers from the note left for him by Nuria Monfort, that Julián and Penélope were actually half brother and sister. Her father had had an affair win his mother and Julián was the result. Tragically, after he had left Barcelona, it is revealed that Penélope’s parents imprisoned her because they were full of shame about her commuting incest with him. She was also pregnant with his child. The child, named David Aldaya, was stillborn. Penélope died during childbirth because her parents ignored her screams. Her body was placed in a family crypt along with her child’s.

“Memories are worse than bullets.”

When returning to Aldaya Mansion, Julián is bitter and angry by the news of his love’s death along with their child. He hates everyone and everything. Every second feels wasted; his books pointless. So he sets upon burning them all. Thus, the adventure of then and now is joined. Along the way. Fermin and Daniel know they’re in trouble with Inspector Fumero. They’re followed, they’re beaten up. Yet still their quest continues.

“A story is a letter that the author writes to himself, to tell himself things that he would be unable to discover otherwise.”

After Daniel finishes reading the book, he marries Beatriz ‘Bea’ Aguilar. He’s loved her for a long time, since 1956. Shortly after Bea gives birth to a son. They name him Julián Sempere, in honour of Julián Carax. 10 years later, Daniel takes his son to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books where the copy of The Shadow of the Wind is kept.

“Once, in my father’s bookshop, I heard a regular customer say that few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memory to which, sooner or later—no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover, or how much we learn or forget—we will return.”

Overview

The role of fathers or father figures in this book is paramount. Daniel’s father is a strong and quiet character. He doesn’t push Daniel to discuss what is going on. He’s quietly there for him.

Fermin takes a natural role of a father figure, becoming that partner in crime person for Daniel. He even sacrifices his life to help find out what he wants to know about Carax. Daniel and his father took him in and saved him from his past. He sees fatherhood as part of his future with his blossoming love and romance.

Julián’s loss of fatherhood is all the more tragic. You can tell he’s been grief stricken ever since Penélope failed to arrive. When he learns the truth he is a broken man.

Daniel too is a father at the end of the novel and how these role models have shaped him, lead us to know that he will be an excellent father to his own child.

This book was a complete surprise for me. I’d never heard of it before and I didn’t know anything about the author. However, I’ve really enjoyed it. Sometimes stories within a story can be quite confusing but this was weaved together seamlessly. I’m so glad I found it.

Enjoy the sunshine all!!

 

Big love xx

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RTY: The Wood (The Life & Times of Cockshutt Wood) – John Lewis Stempel

Hello Lovelies!!

Today I want to share with you my review of my book choice for Penguin’s Read The Year Challenge. The topic for May was use a book to get closer to nature. I chose to read The Wood – The Life and Times of Cockshutt Wood. This book was a perfect choice for me because I’ve been wanting to branch out into reading more non fiction.

The novel, told in diary format by John Lewis-Stempel, focuses on his final year of working at Cockshutt Wood and tending to the three and a half acres of woodland. After four years, Stempel coppiced the trees, raised cows and pigs who roamed there. He knows the land like the back of his hand, it is a part of him. It’s a blissful sanctuary.

“Cockshutt was a sanctuary for me too; a place of ceaseless seasonal wonder where I withdrew into tranquility. No one comes looking for you in a wood.”

What’s it all about?

Following the last twelve months, we see Cockshutt Wood change through the seasons. The novel starts in December where we read vivid descriptions of the robin singing, the trees standing naked and the snow gently falling. It’s picturesque, peaceful, beautiful. Man and nature becoming one.

“There is always the sense of the unexpected in a wood, a constant feeling that, around the next bend in the path, behind the bole of the next tree, there will be a surprise.”

As a reader, we are invited into Stempel’s life during December’s chapter. We learn about his background in this profession, stemming from his grandfather, the farm animals they had and how traditions have continued, such as holly. Yet, what I have never given thought to before is how on the surface, winter seems to signal the end. It’s a time when plants wither, the weather drops and it becomes a chore to be outside. Nevertheless, nature is working hard behind the scenes to look after us. Mother Nature is waiting for a sign just like we do, for that moment when we all wake up ready to face the world; to start again.

“Oddly aware, walking through the wood this afternoon, that it is dormant rather than dead. How the seeds, the trees and hibernating animals…are locked in a safe sleep against the cold and wet.”

January’s entries provide something I get quite excited about: snowdrops. The description of the weather is still cold, crisp and glittered with snow. The songs of robins sing through the wood. I personally always admire the snowdrop. I feel a thrill of excitement whenever I see them. Every year I look for them, for the sign. They are so delicate and beautiful, yet the survive the harshest of conditions in winter. They represent that spring will come, we’ve nearly made it.

“If snowdrops are appearing, then the earth must be wakening. Of all our wild flowers the white bells are the purest, the most ethereal, the most chaste… Whatever; the snowdrop says that winter is not forever.”

Spring has sprung in the wood and we hear the songs of the birds and the plants are all starting to wake. Spring also provides a sense of renewal in Stempel as he feels he has a spring in his step. The wood continues to create a sense of awe and amazement. References to different poems by John Clare, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning and Edward Thomas embody this sense of new life that spring brings. This lyrical way of writing means that the wood appears to be magical. For Stempel, it enables him to feel like he is a child again. I completely relate to this, being outside in the lush greenery makes me feel quite at peace. There’s a feeling that absolutely nobody can get to you.

“…the possibility of adventure in its secluded spaces. I’m still that boy. I cannot walk through a wood without a sense of wonder. And there is a relaxing privacy to a wood… A wood is an escape.”

Now we are in May, we have beautiful flowers, birdsong in abundance and longer, lighter evenings. It is the same for the wood. There’s a ‘blizzard of blossom’ and everything is growing at an enormous rate, a rate which Stempel (and every gardener too) only just about manages to keep a hold on. The new animals are appearing and finding their feet. It’s the best time of year and this lyrical narrative made me so excited and blissfully happy. If you close your eyes, you can imagine it, with the whole of your being.

“Dawn chorus II: starts with robin, then blackbird, song thrush, chiffchaff, willow warbler, wood warbler. They merge into a stream of song; I cannot distinguish their individual voices. They sing as one.”

Time rolls by and the summer months are passing like the gentle breeze being described. Trees are standing proud and tall, providing a home for a variety of insects and birds. The bees are working hard to provide for their own hive as well as us humans. Their buzz hums in the air. The does walk around the walk, their home with calm ease. Yet there is a sense of time passing, of seasons changing. The apples are swelling, nearly ready for picking. The fox cubs are sent into the wild to fend and find the way for themselves. Autumn is approaching.

“Colour change escalation, for the worse; most trees have lost vibrant hues in favour of a muddy brown mixed by a toddler let loose on a paintbox of watercolours.”

The novel ends by going full circle. We see the trees loose their leaves, squirrels nut collecting ready for hibernation, animals fighting one another for the berries on the bushes. It is inevitable; time moves on and seasons work together to change and nurture. This also means the end of Stempel’s time at Cockshutt Wood. During his four years here, he has become at one with the wood and the wood is at one with him.

“I thought the trees and the birds belonged to me. But now I realize that I belonged to them.”

Overview

This book is beautiful in its purest form. It’s lyrical, it oozes soul and it was a massive surprise for me. I am the first to admit I am not a great lover of non fiction. However, this has changed me. I went on a three mile walk with my dad and this book was all I could think about. It provides descriptions, poetry, recipes and tales of the inhabitants of the wood. It’s profound and I felt genuinely moved. I recommend it to anyone who wants to feel closer to nature, to have a moment of peace and tranquility. I’m off to find more of Stempel’s books.

If anyone has any suggestions for the next few months, please let me know! Topics can be found here.

Big love all! Enjoy the last day of May. Summer is approaching. Xx

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RTY: Letters To A Young Poet – Rainer Maria Rilke

Hi Everyone!

This sunny weather has been a complete joy. I’m so grateful it’s here! Gone are the dark days, hello to sunglasses and summer wardrobes. This increased amount of daylight also means more reading time. Finally!! I hope you’ve all been soaking up the sun and making time for yourselves, you lovely people, you.

I’m going to review my book choice for Penguin’s Read The Year theme for April today. I’d read this at the start of the month but work is so demanding (exam season is fast approaching) so I haven’t had chance, but I’m here now! The topic for April was: Grab a book that will help you explore your creativity. I thought this book would be perfect because it’s all about a journey into writing poetry.

 

What’s it all about?

Firstly, this little book needs some context to it. These letters were collected three years after the death of Rainer Maria Rilke by the recipient, Franz Xaver Kappus. He was 19 at the time and at a military university when he first wrote to the poet to ask whether he believed his poems were any good and to see whether he should proceed any further. These letters formed a beautiful friendship.

These ten letters span over a two year period, with each starting with the various locations Rilke was writing from. Rilke wrote them when he was 27, stopping just before he was 30. These letters provide advice about being honest to yourself and the encouragement to continue in pursuing a creative career. Despite such support and praise, the men never met.

Each of the men attended the same university, so their grounds of their communication was born. The first letter is from Paris on February 17th, 1903. He writes about how he doesn’t believe in criticism and that the best thing a creative mind can do is listen to himself. A poem is good when the poet feels that it derives from necessity. It is at that point that the poet won’t feel the need to ask others for their opinions.

He writes that Franz’s poems are good but they are heavily influenced by Germany’s leading contemporary poets. The advice he offers is to look deeper into oneself. He explains how a good poem comes from connecting with one’s deepest and truest sui generis nature. This is most difficult to find in poems like love poems and is advised to stay away. Therefore, Franz would be better writing about his personal surroundings, even when it may seem the images aren’t exceptional enough to be in a poem.

“If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.”

The second letter in the collection is from Italy. Rilke begins by apologising for the delay in response and reveals he has been fighting an illness. Having read Franz’s work, Rilke offers two pieces of practical advice: don’t over use irony and whilst composing a poem, have some inspiring works near by e.g The Bible which he uses whenever he has writer’s block. These inspirations will help with any stoppages in writing as it provides a change in focus.

“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart…live in the question.”

One of the most famous letters is where the poet shares his angst about love, sex and his future careers which can all be used as inspiration for his poetry. Franz reveals his complete and utter loneliness. The advice is to produce something amazing. It is only in loneliness that one can be uncomfortably honest with oneself. Use it to flourish and grow.

“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”

Throughout these letters we are also privy to some beautiful descriptions of foreign lands. Rome is described as a beautiful city and we see Rilke’s reaction to being here. Rome is full of beautiful paintings and astounding architecture. Despite this, Rilke is certain that if one can not find beauty in wherever they are, then one can only blame himself. The world is infinitely beautiful and if one is ever bored, it is because the individual is unwilling to exert some energy in seeing the world for what it really is. Go out and breathe it!

“Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away… and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast…. be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don’t torment them with your doubts and don’t frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn’t be able to comprehend.”

The following letter contains some lovely praise. He says there has been significant improvement in the young poet’s work. It is evident that Franz is deepening the personal knowledge he possesses and his work is something that only Franz could create. Of course, this is the real aim of writing poetry – expressing ones truest self. To show his appreciation and this movement to revealing oneself, Rilke transcribes the sonnet onto a blank sheet of paper. He claims this is often a useful tool for enhancing ones self awareness. I imagine you couldn’t get a higher form of praise in those days.

“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”

Letter eight deals with loss. From Sweden, Rilke writes that whenever one is sad, one should use the time to reflect on reasons why they are sad. Usually, it is due to some form of loss. We are able to recognise the nature of that loss and we create room for something new to enter our lives. Again, this can be used to create beautiful pieces of work. Channel those experiences into something wonderfully written.

“Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change.”

The next letter is arguably the most profound in its dealings as it is how to handle doubt during the creative process. Whether you are a poet or painter, any creative person would have experienced this. Rilke encourages the young poet it see doubt as an opportunity for further creative explorations, to enhance and develop. Even when one experiences such negative emotions, as long as they as intense, they are beneficial to the poet’s writing endeavours. They can be used to inspire more meaningful writing.

“Don’t be too quick to draw conclusions from what happens to you; simply let it happen. Otherwise it will be too easy for you to look with blame… at your past, which naturally has a share with everything that now meets you.”

The final letter holds deep congratulations as the young writer has decided to avoid a career in journalism and criticism. He writes that Franz seems more courageous and hope that these qualities only deepen in the years to come. He has grown as a writer and can now truly be himself.

 

Overview

What is fascinating is that these letters are probably the ‘truest’ thing I’ve read. Each of the emotions we probably have all felt. Self doubt is one of the hardest battles one can face and this advice is so reassuring. It’s really incredible to watch this young poet flourish over the course of these letters. Sometimes we all need a little reassurance and guidance to excel. This little book is so insightful. I believe it fits the criteria for Read The Year this month beautifully. It something I enjoyed reading and can take my lessons from it into my own life. I hope you can too.

Enjoy the sunshine everyone!

Big love xx

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Filed under Book review, Little Black Classics, Read The Year Challenge

RTY: The Bear and the Nightingale – Katherine Arden

Hey Everyone!

I hope you’re all well and getting excited for Easter. As we are approaching the end of March, I am well aware I haven’t posted about my choice of book for March’s instalment of Read The Year. The criteria for March was: Read a book about a woman you hadn’t previously heard of. The suggestions were all non fiction. However, I was inspired by a fellow blogging friends review of The Bear and the Nightingale. Thank you so much Orangutan Librarian! I’ve never heard of it, didn’t know about the characters and I didn’t know the writer. Without you, I probably wouldn’t have known about it. The author is female as is the protagonist. Therefore, it fits the criteria perfectly.

 

What’s it all about?

The novel opens in the middle of a cold night in the home of Marina and Pyotr Vladimirovich. The setting made me feel incredibly cold (helped by the description and the snow on the ground here whilst I was reading it!)

The family’s Nurse, Dunya, is telling the children a tale about a girl sent to marry the frost demon (Morozko). The tale shows how the girl was incredibly brave when the frost demon came to her. He rewards this by sending her back to her family with a large dowry.

The reader also learns that Marina is frail and pregnant once again. Whilst this causes concern, she decides she will have the baby as she knows this daughter will be special. Sadly, Marina dies in childbirth. As prophesied, Vasya is a special girl and she has the ability to see and speak to a number of spirits who live in her house and the surrounding forest. My favourite is the spirit who lives in the oven. These sprints embody helpfulness, mischievousness and also danger. For example, the water nymph likes to lure men to their death so she can feast on their death.

Vasya is a wild girl who lives to run away from her chores to be outside. When she is a child of 6 years, she gets lost in the forest and stumbles upon a sleeping man. She awakes him and asks for help. Whilst doing this she notices he only has one eye. She is naturally quite frightened. To save her, another man appears on a white horse.

“Wild birds die in cages.”

Pyotr knows he needs someone to bring his daughter into line; she needs a mother figure. He travels to Moscow to find another bride for himself and a husband for his daughter, Olga.

More descriptions of a freezing, bitterly cold Russia envelope Pyotr’s time there. The current Prince wants to make sure his son, who is still a child, will be safe to rule the land when he dies and that no one will try and derail him. He decides to marry off one such potential to Olga. After a scuffle. Pyotr returns with a necklace.

“I do not understand “damned.” You are. And because you are, you can walk where you will, into peace, oblivion, or pits of fire, but you will always choose.”

The prince also decides to marry off his daughter Anna. She is a slightly obscure character who comes across as quite cold. It is revealed that she is considered mad. She can also see the spirits but she’s convinced they are demons. By marrying Anna off, she will be hidden away.

Pyotr marries Anna and they return home. But, Anna is much worse because there are even more spirits there. She spends most of her time crying and alone. She is constantly seen praying or looking for the church. Olga is married off and goes to Moscow. Anna decides that Vasya can join her when she’s grown up, something that Vasya takes great comfort from.

The necklace from before is given from Pyotr to Dunya, to pass onto Vasya. Dunya recognises it as a talisman and is immediately afraid. She decides to keep it hidden. Yet in her dream, the strange man, we later learn to be Frost (or the frost demon) comes to her quite upset. She bargains with him to wait for the necklace to be passed on.

Much to Anna’s distaste, life continues as it was. Vasya continues to give offerings to the spirits and communicate with them. She continued to be happier outside exploring, rather than inside.

There is a new visitor to the community, a priest, Konstantin. His deployment at first bothers him as he views it as being dumped in the middle of nowhere. When he meets Anna, she reveals all about seeing demons. Konstantin decides God has sent him there to save everyone from their wicked ways. He feeds off their fears to convince and persuade them to give up the offerings to the sprints.

As a result of the decline in offerings, they start to weaken and call on Vasya to help feed them. There are much larger problems though. The weather is colder, the logs are burning faster and people are seriously struggling. Many beasts start to roam the village and people die in mysterious ways.

Vasya is warned by the spirits that there are vague evils that are coming because people have ceased to leave the offerings. The dead are signs of how it is worsening.

Dunya is visited again by the strange man (Morozko) pushing for the talisman to be given to Vasya. As before, Dunya bargains for one more year as she believes Vasya isn’t ready yet. Meanwhile, Anna believes and decides that all these problems are caused by Vasya. She is aware that she still speaks to the spirits and is stubborn and will not give up the old ways. Anna wants to marry her off to rid them of this problem. Both Pyotr and Dunya are fretful about the talisman and what it means. They know from the tales of the frost demon are always centred about maidens. Therefore, if she is married, he will lose interest in her.

Pyotr finds a suitable match for his daughter, in his opinion, and celebrations start in preparation for the wedding. However, Vasya doesn’t trust her fiancée because she can tell her horse does not like him and is scared of him. Trouble is foreshadowed as following this, Vasya’s nephew tries to ride her pony. The pony gets spooked when she sees a demon shadow and bolts. Vasya jumps onto the nearest gore and goes after them, saving the nephew. Despite, or because of her valiant efforts, her fiancée is embarrassed, sees that all is not what it seems (after all she isn’t your bog standard woman) and calls off the wedding. The only other option for women at this time was to be sent to a convent. Anna is all for this! She wishes she herself had been so lucky…

“Married! Not to retreat, but to be the mistress of a lord’s domain; not to be safe in a convent, but to live as some lord’s breeding sow.”

Once again Dunya is visited by another time, however this time it is Pyotr’s dead children because she continues to not give the talisman to Vasya. Her hand freezes when she wakes up and she grabs the necklace. She begins to die. She protects Vasya until the end. Just before she passes, she passes the talisman to her. Little does Vasya know what it holds for her.

Konstantin becomes besotted, almost obsessed with Vasya. It is his belief that she is a temptress, sent to seduce him from his holy art. He’s attacked several times by the spirits by Vasya saves him. He’s under the impression that this was her fault anyway.

He then starts to hear a voice quite frequently; his belief being that it is God. He urges all villagers to fear and despise Vasya in the hope that she is driven away. Konstantin convinces Anna to send Vasya to a convent now, her father can wait and will understand. Vasya obviously doesn’t wish to go. They have to tie her up ready for the departure the next day.

But Vasya is wise and is able to escape. She flees to the woods and ends up lost, exhausted and freezing. She stumbles again onto the one eyed man from her childhood (Medved) and is almost attacked by Dunya whom has been turned into a vampire. Morozko shows up just in the crack of time to save her and take her to his magical abode.

Vasya slowly recovers and she is told by Morozko that his brother needs her in order to escape the bounds placed upon him. The consequences would be disastrous if he ever did become free as he would cause war and feed on people’s fear. Vasya is given her own magical horse, Solovey, who follows her around. It is clear that these two care for each other. But, she wants to return home, despite how they behaved towards her.

“You are too attached to things as they are,” said Morozko, combing the mare’s withers. He glanced down idly. “You must allow things to be what best suits your purpose. And then they will.”

Konstantin discovers that the voice talking to him isn’t God but it is Medved. He is told that the voice will leave him in peace if he brings him someone who can hear the spirits. He realises that Anna would be perfect so he ticks her. Anna goes into the forest to meet her demise.

It is for the best was on the tip of the priest’s tongue. But he thought again of years, of childbearing and exhaustion. The wildness gone, the hawk’s grace chained up… He swallowed. It is for the best. The wildness was sinful.”

Vasya returns in the nick of time to discover that Anna is missing. She enlists the help of her brother Alyosha to help. Vasya knows that Medved can use Anna to free himself. When she finds Anna, she sees a zombie attacking her. Anna dies and a battle breaks out between the spirits. They each take sides between Morozko and his brother, who has now turned into a bear.

Amazingly, Vasya is able to speak to the actual Dunya. She gets her to remember her past life and asks Morozko is take her to die properly. He does so, leaving the battle. This leads Vasya and her brother to fight the bear on their own. Her father turns up to save the day. Medved says if Pyotr let’s him have Vasya, he will leave everyone else alone but her father will not and can not do it. He sacrifices himself for his daughter. He does this without fear meaning Medved becomes bound once again and transforms back to the one eyed man.

Vasya realises she is now completely isolated and alone and that she must leave the village. No one trusts her, they all think she is still a witch. She decides she must leave but before she does she goes and warns Konstantin. She flies away on her horse with plans to see the world. Her first visit: Morozko’s house, where she is welcomed in from the relentless cold.

“Solovey will take me to the ends of the earth if I ask it. I am going into the world, Alyosha. I will be no one’s bride, neither of man nor of God. I am going to Kiev and Sarai and Tsargrad, and I will look upon the sun on the sea.”

 

 

Overview

I really enjoyed this book. It was magical on every page, but an adult magic. The characters are compelling. I loved the little spirits, especially the one who lived in the oven. I could feel the cold from the descriptions and I could feel the fear from the villagers when things were going wrong. At the back of my copy is a little sample from the next novel. More magic awaits.

Big love xxx

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Filed under Book review, Books, Read The Year Challenge