Category Archives: Reading

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – J.K. Rowling

Hi Lovelies!!

How are you all? The sunshine has been beautiful and this also means it’s the perfect weather for reading. I’ve got some reviews I really need to catch up on so I hope you’ll be patient with me whilst I get through them. I hope you have been enjoying the weather and making some lovely memories this summer. Anyway, it’s time for me to review the next book in the Harry Potter series: The Order of the Phoenix. Here goes!

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What’s it all about?

As per all the other novels, The Order of the Phoenix begins in the summer holidays where Harry is back with his Aunt and Uncle Dursley. During one day, Harry and his cousin Dudley are attacked by Dementors. Harry openly casts his patronus to save Dudley and himself. Due to performing under age magic, Harry is expelled from Hogwarts. However, this is postponed pending a hearing at the Ministry of Magic. Harry is clearly at more risk than ever so it is decided that one evening, a group of wizards would whisk him away to 12 Grimmauld Place, the childhood home of Sirius Black. Grimmauld Place has become the headquarters of the Order. These wizards are willing to risk their own life for Harry. The likes of Mad-Eye Moody, Remus Lupin, Nymphadora Tonks and Kingsley Shacklebolt are all part of the guard to move Harry safely.

Ron and Hermione explain to Harry that the Order is a secret organisation led by Albus Dumbledore dedicating to fighting Lord Voldemort and his Death Eater followers. From here, they learn that Voldemort is seeking something he did not have prior to his first defeat. The Ministry of Magic, led by Cornelius Fudge, refuses to acknowledge anything about Voldemort’s return. They don’t want people to panic and live in fear again. After all, they only have the word of Harry and his friends. Instead, the Ministry decide to launch and run a smear campaign against Harry and Dumbledore with the Daily Prophet.

The day of Harry’s trial approaches but Harry doesn’t get to speak. Dumbledore does this for him. He questions the use of magic in self-defence and probes to know why the Dementors are out lose in suburban Britain. Harry saved his cousins life, for sure. As a result of Dumbledore’s questioning, Harry is cleared of all charges.

“You know, Minister, I disagree with Dumbledore on many counts…but you cannot deny he’s got style…”

Hogwarts should be a safe place for Harry but seeing the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher is none other than Dolores Umbridge, a senior employee in the Ministry of Magic. Like Fudge, she also refuses to acknowledge the return of Voldemort. Her and Harry clash daily, with her punishing Harry by having him write ‘I must not tell lies’ into the back of his hand with a cursed quill during detention. Despite being a Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, she refuses to teach them or let them perform any defensive spells. Harry, Ron and Hermione know the need for these spells so decide to start their own group with any students willing to join if they wish to learn. Umbridge bans any clubs that are not approved by her but Dobby informs Harry about the Room of Requirement. Here they could meet in secret and practice defensive spells under Harry’s instruction. They named themselves, Dumbledore’s Army.

Whilst all of this is happening, the absence of Hagrid is ever apparent. Upon his return, Harry, Ron and Hermione learn that he was (unsuccessfully) trying to prevent the last of the giants from joining Voldemort. Umbridge continues to increase her power and influence within the school. She begins to inspect teachers with the intension of sacking them.

One night when Harry is sleeping, he dreams that he sees through the eyes of Voldemort’s snake, Nagini, who is possessed by him. What Harry sees is Nagini attacking Arthur Weasley. Harry, alarmed, heads straight for Professor McGonagall and Professor Dumbledore. As a result of this, Arthur is rescued and saved. He could have died if it wasn’t for Harry. Dumbledore is concerned that Voldemort could use Harry without him realising so organises Occlumency lessons with Professor Snape. This should mean that Harry would be able to protect his mind against any manipulation from Voldemort. Surprisingly, Snape is also a member of the Order.

Hogwarts is becoming a darker, more miserable place because of Umbridge. She makes many changes in the school. She publicly sacks Professor Trelawney, the Divination teacher. Soon after, Umbridge learns about Dumbledore’s Army after a tip off from Cho Chang’s friend, Marietta Edgecombe. To prevent Harry’s expulsion, Dumbledore takes full responsibility for the group and is forced into hiding. Umbridge then becomes headmistress but Fred and George happily cause pandemonium around the school in revenge.

Harry also struggles with his Occlumency lessons. During one lesson, Snape is called away, leaving behind Dumbledore’s Pensieve, on which he had been storing members he did not wish Harry to see. Driven by curiosity, Harry uses the Pensieve and sees a memory of Snape being bullied by his father, James Potter and Sirius. Snape catches Harry and ends the lesson furious with him. More concerning for Harry is the fact that his father wasn’t particularly nice or friendly. He needs to speak to Sirius to find out what exactly went on. He decides to sneak into Umbridge’s office to use Floo powder to speak with Lupin and Sirius in the fireplace. This wouldn’t have been possible without the help of Fred and George. The two decide that their talents are wasted at Hogwarts so decide to leave and open a joke shop in Diagon Alley.

“The mind is not a book, to be opened at will and examined at leisure. Thoughts are not etched on the inside of skulls, to be perused by an invader. The mind is a complex and many-layered thing.”

Umbridge takes a natural disliking to Hagrid due to him being half giant, and his inspection goes badly. Hagrid confides to Harry, Ron and Hermione that he has brought his giant half brother, Grawp, to Hogwarts and has hidden him in the Forbidden Forest. He’s asked the trio to look after him if Hagrid is forced to leave Hogwarts. During the student OWL exams, Umbridge attacks Hagrid one night with a pack of Aurors. Hagrid overpowers them but flees the school for his own safety. McGonagall is injured in the attack and is put in St. Mungo’s Hospital, meaning that Harry has lost two people who support and protect him.

On the last day of the OWL exams, Harry has a vision of Sirius being tortured by Voldemort in the Department of Mysteries. Once again, Harry uses the fireplace belonging to Umbridge to connect with Grimmauld Place to see if the vision was genuine. Kreacher, the house elf, confirms this. Harry is caught by Umbridge and she summons Snape, intending to use Veritaserum to question Harry. Surprisingly, Snape claims he has none left. Harry cryptically warns Snape about Sirius but Snape feigns misunderstanding.

Umbridge reveals that she ordered the Dementor attack on Harry and Dudley over the summer to silence him. She also decides to use the illegal Cruciatus Curse on Harry to interrogate him, but Hermione intervenes, convincing Umbridge that they are hiding a weapon of Dumbledore’s in the Forbidden Forest. Following Hermione’s lead, Umbridge follows Harry and Hermione to the forest which is inhabited by centaurs. Umbridge provokes them and they take her captive. With Grawp’s help, Harry and Hermione escape.

Luna, Ron, Ginny and Neville join them in the forest and they fly to the Ministry of Magic on Thestrals in order to save Sirius. Once they are at the Ministry, they cannot find him anywhere. What they do find though is a glass sphere with Harry’s and Voldemort’s name on it. Death Eaters arrive, led by Lucius Malfoy and attack in order to secure the sphere, which happens to be the object that Voldemort has been trying to locate. This sphere is a recording of a prophecy concerning the two. As the subjects of the prophecy are the only ones who can remove them, Harry is brought there under false visions planted by Voldemort. Harry and his friends are soon joined by members of the Order and battle the Death Eaters. During the battle, Neville accidentally destroys the prophecy and Bellatrix Lestrange kills Sirius.

Harry chases after her but is clearly no match. Voldemort arrives to kill Harry himself but Dumbledore also chooses this moment to come out of hiding. Voldemort, unable to kill Dumbledore, possesses Harry in an attempt to get him to kill Dumbledore. Harry fights off the possession and Voldemort escapes just as Fudge appears. Now he has seen Voldemort himself, Fudge has no choice but to accept the truth now. He is back.

Later, in his office, Dumbledore explains that Snape understood the warning from Harry and after Harry failed to return from the Forest, alerted the Order, enabling them to save Harry and his friends. Dumbledore also shares that Kreacher had informed Narcissa Malfoy, of the close relationship between Harry and Sirius. This information was crucial for Voldemort as he knew exactly what false memory to plant to make Harry do exactly what he needed.

Harry has to stay with the Dursleys for one last summer. He learns that because Aunt Petunia, Lily’s sister, took Harry into her home, she seals the protection Harry gained from his mother when she died. As long as he is at Number Four, Privet Drive, he is safe from Voldemort and his followers. Dumbledore shares the prophecy, made by Professor Trelawney, with Harry. The prophecy had foretold the birth of someone with the power to defeat Voldemort. One of Voldemort’s followers heard this and informed him. Although the prophecy pointed at either Harry or Neville, Voldemort believed it to be about Harry, which is why he tried to kill him as a baby. The rest of the prophecy hinted that Voldemort would unknowingly mark his opponent as an equal. Eventually, one would have to kill the other.

“I DON’T CARE!” Harry yelled at them, snatching up a lunascope and throwing it into the fireplace. “I’VE HAD ENOUGH, I’VE SEEN ENOUGH, I WANT OUT, I WANT IT TO END, I DON’T CARE ANYMORE!”
“You do care,” said Dumbledore. He had not flinched or made a single move to stop Harry demolishing his office. His expression was calm, almost detached. “You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it.”

The loss of Sirius, the feeling of guilt and the weight of the prophecy results in Harry becoming quite low. At least now the wizarding community know that he was telling the truth and in turn gains him more respect. His friends and loved ones give him the motivation he needs to return to the Dursleys for one final summer.

Final Thoughts

You guys all know how much I love the Harry Potter books but what is even better now is reading them again as an adult, I appreciate things I probably didn’t notice as a young reader. The language is darker the deeper we get into the series, the threat becomes more menacing and Voldemort gets worse with age. I do firmly believe that my generation grew up with Harry. What is amazing now is that we have a whole new generation doing the same. It’s so special and so magical.

Take care all. Big love xxxx

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Filed under Book review, Books, Children's Literature, Harry Potter, Reading

The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic – Sophie Kinsella

Hello Lovelies!

Happy August. Can you believe it? All the months seem to be blurring into one very strange year. However, the sun is shining and the birds are singing and that is the most important thing. I’m making the most of my time in the garden reading, slowly forgetting the mountain I need to climb for work. I’d do a rubbish job if I’m tired anyway!

I wanted to share with you a book I read quite quickly yesterday, Sophie Kinsella’s – The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic. For my friends across the pond, you may know this book as Confessions of a Shopaholic. It’s an ongoing joke in my family that I’m such a good shopper and that the economy has been saved by me. Regardless of the humour, I love to browse the shops so this book had me hooked on all levels. (I’ve quickly learnt Rebecca Bloomwood is a whole other level of shopper to me! Wow!)

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What’s it all about?

Written twenty years ago, this book centres around the loveable Rebecca Bloomwood. She lives in a trendy flat in Fulham with her best friend Suze who seems to have significantly more luck than she does. Becky works as a financial journalist for the magazine, Successful Savings, but has no interest in the financial world at all. She happily attends conferences for catching up with her friend Elly Granger,  the champagne and free biscuits. The biggest issue for Becky is the fact that she is in debt because of her love of shopping. She’s completely out of control. She convinces herself that she needs the designer clothes, homeware and beauty products. After all, in her eyes, they are an investment. The novel is punctuated with various emails and letters from banks and lenders – he responses hilarious for the reader, less so for the business she is writing to. Her parents offer her advice: cut back spending or make more money.

Another day, another press conference this time held by Brandon Communications. Becky notices a sale sign in the window of the Denny and George shop. They NEVER have sales. She sees the scarf she has obsessed over at a 50% discount. However, she’s left her Visa card at the office. Thankfully, the shop assistant she likes lets her hold it until the end of the day. Perfect! Becky can easily make the press conference and then pick up the scarf.

“That moment. That instant when your fingers curl round the handles of a shiny, uncreased bag—and all the gorgeous new things inside it become yours. What’s it like? It’s like going hungry for days, then cramming your mouth full of warm buttered toast. It’s like waking up and realizing it’s the weekend. It’s like the better moments of sex. Everything else is blocked out of your mind. It’s pure, selfish pleasure.”

When she arrives at the press conference, she is greeted by a staff member of Brandon Communications who, prompted by the Financial Times under her arm, asks her opinion on a surprising update in the world of banking. Becky has no idea what this lady is jabbering about and nods her way through. Luke Brandon, also in attendance, realises that she has no idea what is happening tells her that one financial group recently brought another and was rumoured to that Flagstaff Life would be going the same way.

Crisis averted but Becky is then given another problem. Her boss gives her another errand to do being as she is closer in the city. What this means for Becky though is she won’t have time to go back for her Visa card in order to pay for the scarf. She also needs twenty pounds cash to reach the total. She begs her friend Elly Granger if she can borrow some money but she’s in the same state that Becky is – broke! The press conference continues to happen in the background but Luke Brandon hears the conversation about twenty pounds. He stops the conference to give it to her, once Becky has spiralled another story – this time about it being a present for her aunt in hospital.

“Your aunt must be a stylish lady.” “She is,” I say, and clear my throat. “She’s terribly creative and original.” “I’m sure she is,” says Luke, and pauses. “What’s her name?” Oh God. I should have run as soon as I saw him, while I had a chance. Now I’m paralyzed. I can’t think of a single female name. “Erm … Ermintrude,”

Another bullet dodged, more letters ignored and Suze invites Becky out for dinner with her cousins. Becky can’t really stand them but goes because Suze is a good friend. Whilst out at dinner, Becky spots Luke so goes to speak to him, not realising he is there with his step mother. She notices her scarf and compliments her on it. Luke challenges her about it being for her aunt and once again, Becky blunders her way through that conversation. Apparently her aunt gave it to her. Luke invites her shopping – now this is something she can get on board with and they end up buying luggage in Harrods. This is an all new shopping experience for Becky as she hadn’t considered luggage before. Luke picks the one Becky likes the most, surprising her. However, she has the best time until Luke reveals it’s for his girlfriend, Sacha.

“Rule of life. If you bother to ask someone’s advice, then bother to listen to it.”

Back at home, Suze and Becky happen to be flicking through a magazine and stumble across a list of eligible millionaires which include Suze’s cousin, Tarquin. Suze reveals that Tarquin has a soft spot for Becky which Becky has always ignored. Nevertheless, Becky decides to give it a go and they have a date. Whilst Tarquin is in the bathroom, Becky looks at his chequebook feeling incredibly unimpressed. Helped by alcohol, Becky decides to give up on the date as she just isn’t attracted to him. Tarquin tells Suze that it was obvious that she didn’t like him, making it a tad awkward at home too.

“Don’t think about it. Don’t think about what could have been. It’s too unbearable.”

Meanwhile, throughout the novel Becky’s bank manager, Derek Smeath is constantly trying to contact her about the money she owes and to find a way in order for her to repay it. Becky being Becky, comes up with story after story to avoid him. She claims to have broken her leg, have glandular fever, her aunt died etc. because she is afraid of the mess she is in. What is clear to the bank is that she cannot send a cheque or repay because she has no additional money. He writes to her, rings her home, rings her parents and eventually she goes into hiding at her parents house.

Whilst hiding there she learns that the neighbours made a financial decision based on advice that Becky gave. However, Becky didn’t really know what she was saying! The result of this meant that they lost twenty thousand pounds as a result of the bank take over. Becky feels distraught and horrified that people could be treated in this way and sets to make things right by writing an article that exposes the bank’s duplicity.

“They said I was a valued customer, now they send me hate mail.”

The article is a huge success, taking the financial world by storm. This leads to Becky appearing on a daytime television show, The Morning Coffee. But, what she doesn’t know is the bank is a client of Luke Brandon’s PR firm. Luke is furious with her, believing she wrote the article to get back at him. Becky and Luke end up battling it out on the show but events take a turn for the strange and unexpected. Luke admits that Becky is right and announces that Brandon Communications will no longer be representing the bank. Becky is so good she ends up taking calls and offering advice and is given a regular slot on the show. Awkwardly, she bumps into Derek Smeath. She apologises for her behaviour and finally agrees to a meeting.

More excitingly, Becky is invited for a business dinner at the Ritz Hotel with Luke. She dresses to impress but upon arrival, it is clear that business is not on the agenda. Instead they eat and laugh and end up spending the night together there. What this means though is Becky misses her appointment with the bank manager. Just in time, he writes to her to say that he enjoyed her slot on the morning television show but because her account is looking rosy, he will postpone the meeting whilst continuing to keep an eye on her account.

Final Thoughts

This book made me laugh out loud. For all her flaws – there are many, such as making up dead aunts, broken legs and illnesses, Becky is a completely lovable protagonist. She’s feisty yet flitty, passionate yet obsessive, loveable yet infuriating. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve only read a couple of the later books. I’m not sure how I missed the boat on this considering it was published twenty years ago! As you all know, I’m not very good with a series but this is one I’m definitely going to chip away at.

Take care all. Big love xxx

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Reading Challenge 2020: The Black Echo – Michael Connelly

Hey Loves!

I hope you’re enjoying your summer, regardless of how it looks. I’m trying hard to ignore the fact that I should be on a beach right now… but it’s an opportunity to read plenty, spend time with family and just recover from the very strange school year it’s been.

I wanted to share with you my book choice and review for my reading challenge. The theme for July was: murder and intrigue about this month. For more information on my reading challenge click here. I’m a huge fan of thrillers and crime fiction so I went for a very popular writer that I know absolutely nothing about: Michael Connelly’s The Black Echo. Written in 1992, it’s the first in a series featuring the protagonist Harry Bosch. I was completely hooked. It was awesome.

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What’s it all about?

Starting in Vietnam, we meet Harry Bosch in the midst of his police career. Having recently been promoted to the division that handles robberies and homicides things seem good. However, after an accidentally killing the primary suspect in a serial killing spree, the force demotes him to the “Hollywood Division” which handles more trivial, less important crimes. He gets himself a new partner too, detective Jerry Edgar.

“Sunsets did that here. Made you forget it was the smog that made their colors so brilliant, that behind every pretty picture there could be an ugly story.”

The first investigation involves a young graffiti artist calling the police after seeing a body being taken from a Jeep and put into a water pipe. During the investigation in these water conduits underneath Los Angeles, Bosch finds the body of Billy Meadows, another tunnel rat and a friend from his wartime experience. Bosch uncovers evidence that connects Meadows to an unsolved bank robbery in the city. He decides to contact the FBI, asking to work in unison with each other. But, he is stopped during each attempt by a special agent, Eleanor Wish. Eventually, Wish’s boss, John Rourke, sends a complaint to the IAD, a legal entity that dislikes Bosch with a passion because he refused to join it’s club, the “Family”.

The following day brings the IAD closer to successfully getting Bosch suspended from the force. Bosch is well aware that his time is running out so decides to find the identity of the anonymous witness of the crime. He discovers that it is a young man named Sharkey. Sharkey himself is a shady character being involved with gang assaults and robbery of gay men. His horrific upbringing does evoke sympathy from Bosch, albeit momentarily. After locating Sharkey, the FBI rescinds its complaint but the IAD continues with their campaign to suspend Bosch.

Wish tries to distract Bosch from the case, hinting at an ulterior motive for her persistent antagonism. Bosch argues and disagrees with Rourke over which different leads they should follow on the case. They clash with Wish over who should have the privilege of hypnotizing Sharkey to extract information. That night, Wish appears at Bosch’s houses to apologise for how she has been. They decide to end the friction and collaborate more from that moment on.

The next day with their new working together plan in action, Bosch and Wish visit a halfway house where Meadows had stayed. They manage to unearth leads to various murders and criminal partners Meadows may have had some involvement with. The lines blur between professional and personal. Meanwhile, Sharkey runs into a stranger who picks him up, unaware of the danger he is about to walk into.

“Lean in, invade that foot and a half that is all theirs, their own space. Lean back when you get what you want. It’s subliminal. Most of what goes on in a police interrogation has nothing to do with what is said.”

Early on the fifth morning of the investigation, Bosch is summoned to a murder scene, finding it is Sharkey’s. He hypothesizes that Sharkey’s death is the result of an insider on the force sharing details of the investigation to criminals in the network. Ultimately, Bosch feels responsible. Rourke tips Bosch about the IAD’s progress to tail the case in order to get him suspended. Bosch interrogates the IAD about an unauthorised wiretap he found on his phone. Bosch and Wish meet up again and find out the identities of two involved Vietnamese gangsters who are plotting their next bank heist. When they go to Wish’s apartment, they are nearly hit by a speeding car. Bosch is certain this is not a coincidence. They spend the whole day being interrogated but are released to go home. Naturally, they are emotionally and physically exhausted.

Bosch follows the natural lead and starts to track the Vietnamese gangsters the next morning. Using the IAD’s technology, he buys a phone off a man named Binh. Using his call history, they track down the other member, Tran. From here, they follow him into Little Saigon and then to Beverley Hills. What the see is him moving diamonds into a briefcase and then vanishing suddenly. Rouke starts planning how to intercept these tunnels whilst Bosch grows increasingly suspicious about their investigation and why it is seemingly so easy for them. The Vietnamese criminals and the hit and run trouble Wish. Her connection with Vietnam still raw for her. Wish visits a war vigil, renewing her belief and commitment to justice.

“Out of the blue and into the black is what they called going into a tunnel. Each one was a black echo. Nothing but death in there. But, still, they went.”

Arguably a little too late, Bosch realises that Rourke is complicit in the robberies. The IAD raids the tunnels and most are shot and killed during the ambush. Bosch goes in alone to find Rourke and is shot. Bosch knows now that he is in quite a difficult situation and time is desperately running out. However, whilst in and out of consciousness, he sees Wish in the tunnel. She takes matters into her own hands. Eventually, he wakes up in hospital where Wish visits him. The IAD also pay him a visit, threatening to throw him off the force completely if he leaks the story. Bosch decides to leave hospital against medical advice and sneaks back into the police station. There he spends time reviewing Sharkey’s tape. As a result, he learns who is actually behind the heist. He attends Meadows’s funeral in the background and meets a reporter to give him the information he needs in order to stumble across the case himself. The case is solved and ultimately the novel ends.

“We want the truth, Detective. You are confusing that with what we choose to tell the public.”

Final Thoughts

I thought this book was pacey, gritty and full of twists and turns. I didn’t work out who was really at the core of the plot until it was revealed at the end. This for me is a sign that you’re reading a brilliant book. The plot is woven and intricate. The characters strong. Harry Bosch is an excellent protagonist with characteristics that I found compelling. I always find book series quite a commitment but I will definitely be keeping an eye out for anymore Connelly books I see on my travels. I was completely hooked with this one!

I am also chuffed that it’s month seven of the challenge and so far I haven’t missed one! The focus for August is: a summer read to an exotic place. As I said at the start, I’m ignoring the fact that I should be on a beach. Thankfully this gives me the perfect opportunity to travel mentally, at least.

Continue to stay safe and well all.

Big love! xxx

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Filed under Book review, Books, Reading, Reading Challenge 2020

Sweet Bean Paste – Durian Sukegawa

Hey Loves!

How are you all? Hope everyone is enjoying July. This year has been so strange you know. I can’t believe we finish for summer this week but it doesn’t feel right. Anyway, it’s completely out of our control. I am looking forward to a break. I’ve got lots of reading planned and a HUGE pile of books to get through. I love that though!

Today I want to share with you a book I read in one sitting. It’s just utterly beautiful and I know you’d love it. I just had to share it with you! It’s criminal not to. I’m talking about Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa. This book is a translation but it’s strikingly beautiful. I hope you enjoy!

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What’s it about?

Set in the beautiful Japanese cherry blossom, the novel centres around Sentaro, a middle aged man with a criminal record, a habit of drinking too much and a dream of becoming a writer. The reality is he spends his time watching the blossom come and go making and selling dorayaki – a type of pancake with a sweet bean paste. The mundane reality of his life is getting to him; he longs for more. One day whilst he was working in the confectionary shop, he notices a woman looking at him. He politely nods. This image repeats over time, he recognises her and she seems to spend a long time watching from afar under the Japanese blossom. She approaches the shop after reading a sign asking for workers. Despite her age, seventy six, she wants the job. She offers to work for less but is still rejected. However, she seems to know plenty about the bean paste and wishes to share that knowledge. With over fifty years experience, the reader sees that she clearly has a life before that has led her to this moment and persistency in returning to the shop.

“I couldn’t tell anything about the feelings of the person who made it.”

Little did he know, this little old lady, Tokue, would change his world for the better. Deeply in touch with nature, Tokue watches the trees and their movement. She is certain that feelings make food better. She wants to impart this knowledge to Sentaro because he clearly needs saving from the situation he finds himself. He needs saving from himself. There is one major problem: her hands. Nevertheless, after tasting her sweet bean paste he offers her a job there. He has to learn how she does it to help the business. He is well aware that he only has the job because he has a debt to repay to the owner. At first, his motivation was this.

“Sentaro didn’t really care where she made it. He didn’t care who she was, either. All that concerned him was if she could make a good-quality, sweet bean paste to draw in the customers and help him get away from this shop as soon as possible.”

Tokue begins to make the paste by teaching Sentaro what she knows and her technique for creating something so utterly divine: like nothing he has ever tasted. Over time, the two become close. They talk, make bean paste and see an improvement in the confectionary store. Because of the earlier concern about her hands, Tokue tried incredibly hard to stay in the back and out of the way. She does have an Achilles heel: babies. If any young children or babies come into the shop, she naturally gravitated towards them. She seemed to grow and blossom around her. With the success of the product, the increased sales and therefore increased production, Sentaro became more positive and more exhausted. There is no time for drinking! Eventually, this catches up with him and he ends up unable to work. The following day he learns that Tokue creates and opens the shop on her own. She manages the money and writes everything down to help him. Sentaro is completely shell shocked.

‘Sentaro felt like sitting down in shock. How had she managed it? What was her pancake batter like? She had handled all the money with those gnarled fingers…? What had the customers thought of that?’

One of the younger customers, Wakana, takes a liking to Tokue and finds the courage to question her about her life, with a particular focus on her hands and fingers. This image is recurring and we are constantly reminded as a reader that there is a tale to be told here. Tokue is very reserved about it, holding the majority of the story to herself. We learn that she wanted to be a teacher, hence the appreciation and excitement towards children, but an illness when she was younger meant that she was never able to fulfil her dream. Whilst things had been incredibly good, like the seasons and the weather, time brings about change. There is a rumour about a cursed lady working at the shop causing customers to stay away. In his naivety, he accepted the illness story. What he didn’t realise what the extent of that illness or what that illness was. It turns out that as a child Tokue had leprosy. Tokue is old enough and wise enough to know that the drop in sales and the rumours are down to her, so decides to quit. As if beautifully timed, the trees have lost their blossom too…

“There was a time when I’d given up all hope of ever going outside those gates into the world again. But look at me. I could come here. I met so many people. All because you gave me a job.”

As a result of this, Sentaro finds himself back in bleak sadness. He feels as though he has sent his own mother away. Over time, he decides he needs to go back and see her. He takes Wakana with him and they bring a canary for her to look after. It is clear that they all need each other so the gap between them has meant that they’ve missed each other terribly. Yet, he had to make the business work in order to repay his debt. The quality dropped again following Tokue’s departure but Sentaro took his lessons seriously. Because of his huge amount of feeling, this was in the bean paste. It really does change the taste. During the winter months, Tokue sent a letter as a reminder and a shove that Sentaro needs. She felt something in the wind that told her to contact him. Beautifully, she know that something wasn’t quite right. She was correct.

“It’s important to be bold and decisive. When you can say with certainty that you have found your style of dorayaki, that will be the start of a new day for you. I firmly believe this. Please have the courage to go your own way. I know that you can do it.”

More time passed, more letters sent and received and more pressure from the owner to make the shop more profitable. Eventually, Sentaro decides to quit and move onto something else. However, the calling of dorayaki and everything he gained from Tokue called to him. Seeing the vision of Tokue and hearing her words gave him the shove again he so desperately needed. It just so happened that this time he was too late to tell her. The novel closes with one last beautiful letter, a death and a new beginning. Sentaro will never forget the impact that Tokue had on him.

‘Sentaro and Wakana stood close, gazing in silence at the trees all around them. The forest murmured with every ripple of wind that rustled its branches and leaves. As if Tokue was somewhere close nearby, telling them to open their ears and listen.’

Final Thoughts

I’ve used the word beautiful copious amounts in this review because it absolutely is. It moved me in ways I didn’t expect. I was worried regarding the translation and if it would lose its eloquence but its simplicity makes it elegantly sublime. By noticing nature and listening to the messages in the wind, we can all learn to live differently. Tokue’s character showed us that when times are incredibly difficult, we always have hope. Her hope was young people and babies. They animated her and brought light to her. They showed her that she wasn’t foolish to have those dreams. The illness may have taken her opportunity as a young adult, but she had a different opportunity in that shop as an elderly lady. The bond between the older generation is a gift. Like Sentaro, we can always learn something and better ourselves. There is always light, even in the darkest of times.

I genuinely loved this book. I’d say, so far, that this is my favourite book this year. It was blown away by its simplicity, it’s tenderness and love. I highly recommend to absolutely everyone. Everywhere.

Big love all xxxx

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Reading Challenge 2020: My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologies – Fredrik Backman

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Hello Loves!

I hope you are all well. I can’t believe we are approaching the end of June. I don’t feel like I’ve been outside properly in months and I’ve kind of lost a sense of what is normal. Weird… Anyway, I’m back into school (we never really closed!) so I’m feeling all kinds of tired. However, I wanted to share with you the book I read for June’s theme: Find a novel with a child narrator. You can find out more about the Reading Challenge here!

For this month, I picked My Grandmother Sends Her Regards And Apologies by Fredrik Backman. You may have heard of this book under a different title if you’re one of my friends abroad: My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry. Backman is arguably most famous for his hilarious and moving book: A Man Called Ove so I had high hopes for this one. Thankfully, it did not disappoint!

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What’s it all about?

The story is told through the eyes of Elsa who is seven, nearly eight. Her granny is the central figure in her life but Elsa has a secret: her granny is a superhero because every seven year old deserves a superhero. The novel revolves around their setting – a group of flats with a range of residents. Whilst this is physically there, it is a secret world created by Granny that is of most importance to Elsa. The secret kingdom of Miamas, in the Land-of-Almost-Awake.

As a knight of Miamas, Elsa is sent upon a quest following her Granny’s dying wish. One by one she encounters the residents of the house where she lives, each unique and quirky in their own way. Elsa begins to realise how many lives her Granny touched even though her flaws become ever more apparent, something that Elsa didn’t see before. Granny is at the least eccentric, or maybe she’s a genius, a crackpot genius. She revels in rule breaking, thumbing her nose at the world and saying those things that wouldn’t be said in polite society. Elsa adores her granny, who leads her into all sorts of scrapes and thinks that Elsa is the cleverest seven, almost eight year old she knows.

‘Granny lives at the top, of opposite Mum, Elsa and George. Granny’s flat is exactly like Mum’s except much messier, because Granny’s flat is like Granny and Mum’s flat is like Mum.’

Elsa lives at the top of the house in a flat with her mum and George. Elsa’s mum (Urika) is highly organised, married to her job and can sort out, find and categorise anything. It’s her superpower. Elsa’s mum and Granny, despite being flesh and blood are polar opposites. Arguably, Elsa’s mum is saddened by the closeness by her daughter and her mother – something that she does not have.

Elsa’s quest takes her into the lives of the other people who live in the house and she constantly finds parallels between them and the Land-Of-Almost-Awake. This book is written from the unique perspective of a child. Not just any child, Elsa is different. But as Granny says, all the superheroes are different. Spiderman and Wolverine are not like normal people and neither is Elsa. Elsa constantly interprets the world around her by using superheroes to understand how to act, along with a healthy dose of Harry Potter!

The story lurches from the make believe world of Miamas, which overlays the real world with a strange symmetry. Elsa is highly literate, thanks often to Wikipedia and delights in showing her wide vocabulary and the inability to resist making corrections in red pen to public signs that contain errors.

‘You don’t need to close your eyes to get the Land-of-Almost-Awake. In those last few seconds when you’re eyes are closing, when the mists come rolling in across the boundary between what you think and what you just know, that’s when you set off.’ You ride into the Land-of-Almost-Awake on the back of cloud animals, because that’s the only way of getting there.’

Two of Elsa’s most constant companions in her quest are the Wurse and Alf. A Wurse is a large, hairy animal that comes from Miamas and helped win the War-Without-End. Alf is a taxi driver. These two unlikely suspects become the best of friends with Elsa, she needs them to help fulfil her Granny’s wishes.

By the end of her quest, Elsa has followed a thread that is woven through the lives of every resident in the house. A thread that her Granny left behind but has taken her whole life to complete. She has made new friends, defeated an frightening dragon, found the truth about her mother leading to a deeper connection and even reaches out to her estranged father. Quite an accomplishment for a child, even one as different as Elsa!

‘Most likely they told her [Granny] a whole lot of damned things she wasn’t allowed to do, for a range of different reasons. But she damned well did them all the same. A few years after she was born they were still telling girls they couldn’t vote in the bleeding elections but now, the girls do it all the same. That’s damned well how you stand up to bastards who tell you what you can and can’t do. You bloody do those things all the bloody same.’


Final Thoughts

To read this book is to read through the eyes of a child. To experience the confusions, frustrations and delights of a seven, nearly eight year old. This book reads like an adult fairy tale, despite being narrated by a child. It is a blur between childlike innocence and a path being laid by a beloved family member. It addresses the regrets of an adult that has lived her life to the full regardless of what impact it has had on others around them. For some characters, Elsa is there to right the wrongs her Granny made towards some. Whilst she does this, she learns more about her Granny and about her closer family. As a child the immediate family can cause nothing but frustration when you’re growing up. Here, Elsa learns the importance of all family, not just her Granny.

I think this book will make you question your own childhood, as it did me. It’s well worth a read and completely different to anything else I’ve read recently. I’m sure you’ll enjoy being transported as much as I did.

‘Epilogues in fairy tales are also difficult. Even more difficult than endings. Because although they aren’t necessarily supposed to give you all the answers, it can be a bit unsatisfying if they stir up even more questions. Because life, once the story has ended, can be both very simple and very complicated.’

Time to consider July’s book (as if it is nearly July!!) and the theme for this one is: Murder and intrigue abound this month. For this I have chosen a writer I know absolutely nothing about: Michael Connelly. Wish me luck!

Take care everyone. Big love xx

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Reading Challenge 2020: Go Set A Watchman – Harper Lee

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Hello Lovelies!

May is gifting us with some glorious sunshine right now so I wanted to take this opportunity to share with you the book I read for the Reading Challenge: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. This book was perfect for the focus of this month: Read a book about hope and growth. Feel free to remind yourself of the different themes for each month here. Harper Lee was an exceptional writer. Like many others, To Kill A Mockingbird was a book I read for GCSE and it has stayed with me ever since. I’ve had the privilege of teaching this too which provides another way of looking at things. I remember when this book came out and the hype and media attention around it. You are probably aware that it was initially promoted as a sequel to TKAM but it is now being seen as a first draft. Regardless, being older now, obviously, I wanted to see whether my opinions changed on the characters and themes being presented. It’s left me thinking I need to read TKAM again really! Let’s see how it goes!

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What’s it all about?

Told through the eyes of Jean Louise Finch, or “Scout” as we also know her, the novel opens with her arrival to her hometown Maycomb, Alabama from New York. This is her annual fortnight long visit to see her father Atticus her Uncle Jay and Aunt Alexandra, the latter replacing Calpurnia’s place following her retirement. We learn that Jem, her brother, died of a heart condition which also killed their mother. Jean Louise is met by her childhood sweetheart, Henry “Hank” Clinton who is working for her father.

“She was almost in love with him. No, that’s impossible, she thought: either you are or you aren’t. Love’s the only thing in this world that is unequivocal. There are different kinds of love, certainly, but it’s a you-do or you-don’t proposition with them all.”

When returning from Finch’s Landing, Jean Louise and Henry are overtaken by a car full of black men, travelling at a frantic speed. This example of dangerous driving leads Hank to tell Jean Louise that many black people now are driving around without insurance and licences. As a result, this leads to Jean Louise reflecting upon this and dealing with the minor scandal that it causes in the community.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) are introduced as sources of great controversy in the community. Whilst at home, Jean Louise finds a leaflet entitled “The Black Plague” among her father’s papers. Naturally outraged, Jean Louise decides to follow her father to a Citizens’ Council meeting. Here, Atticus introduces a man who delivers an incredible racist speech. Horrified from the balcony, Jean Louise listens, outraged. She’s unable to forgive her father for betraying her and flees the hall.

“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious.”

That night, Jean Louise dreams of Calpurnia, her family’s black maid and mother figure to her and Jem for most of their lives. Over breakfast with her father, Jean Louise learns that Calpurnia’s grandson killed a drunk pedestrian the previous night whilst speeding in his car. Atticus agrees to take the legal case to prevent the NAACP from getting involved. It is following this that Jean Louise decides to visit Calpurnia. Whilst retaining their manners, Calpurnia and her family are polite but cold. As a result, Jean Louise leaves utterly devastated.

Deep down this is eating away at Jean Louise. She has to know what her father was doing at that meeting. Uncle Jack tells her that that Atticus hasn’t become a racist but he is trying to slow down federal government interaction into state politics. Following this, Jean Louise receives a lengthy lecture about race, politics and the history of the South. His aim is to get her to reach a conclusion that she struggles to grasp.

Jean Louise then has a flashback to her teenage years and recalls an incident where Atticus plants the seed for an idea in Henry’s brain and left him to come to the right conclusion independently. Jean Louise exclaims that she doesn’t love Henry and won’t ever marry him. She’s incredibly vocal at her disgust at seeing him and her father at that council meeting. In reaction to this, Henry explains that sometimes people have to do things that they just don’t want to. This is a fact of life that we can all relate to!

“Remember this also: it’s always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see what we are. If you can master that trick, you’ll get along.”

Henry defends his case by saying that the reason he is part of the Citizens’ Council is because he wants to use his intelligence to make an impact and a difference on Maycomb, the hometown where he wants to make money and raise a family. Jean Louise screams that she could never live with a hypocrite, only to then notice her father standing behind her, smiling.

During a heated discussion with Jean Louise, Atticus argues that the blacks of the South are not ready for full civil rights and the Supreme Court’s decision was unconstitutional and irresponsible. Reluctantly, Jean Louise does agree that the South is not ready to be fully integrated, she believes that the court was pushed into a corner by the NAACP and had to act. Jean Louise is confused and still devastated by her father. He is behaving in a way that is contrasting to how she was brought up and what he has taught her growing up. She returns to the family home and furiously packs her things. Just as she was about to leave, her uncle comes home.

“The only thing I’m afraid of about this country is that its government will someday become so monstrous that the smallest person in it will be trampled underfoot, and then it wouldn’t be worth living in.”

Angrily, she complains to him and he slaps her around the face. He wants her to consider what has happened over the last two days and how she has processed them. Slowly, slowly, she decides that she can stand them. It is bearable because she is absolutely her own person. As a youngster, she fastened her conscience to her father’s, assuming that her answers would be his answers. Atticus wanted to break her idols so she could reduce him to the status of human being – a very difficult lesson to learn and experience.

Jean Louise then goes back to the office and makes a date with Henry. She reflects that Maycomb has taught him things she had never known. She goes to apologise to her father, but he tells her of his pride for her. As a father, he wants her to stand up for what she thinks is right. Jean Louise didn’t want her world disturbed but she tried to crush the man who was trying to preserve it for her. Telling him that she loves him, she silently welcomes him to the human race. For the first time ever, she sees him as literally, just a man. Not an idol.

 “You wouldn’t have listened to him. You couldn’t have listened. Our gods are remote from us, Jean Louise. They must never descend to human level.”

Final Thoughts

This book is exceptional in every sense of the word. I loved seeing an older Jean Louise and to watch the lessons she learns at her age. She is inevitably changed by the big city of New York but her lessons clearly are vital for her home background too. I do naturally want to call her Scout, but we must remember she is an adult here! It’s always jarring when reading about race because it’s naturally a difficult subject to discuss. However, it’s representation here is delicate. I said at the start that I think Harper Lee is an excellent writer! This didn’t disappoint but just remind yourself, this is not To Kill A Mockingbird. I found myself naturally trying to make links and connections which is very natural. I missed Jem, but the links Jean Louise made helped with this. Overall, a great book!

Big Love all xx

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Reading Challenge 2020: Wilding – Isabella Tree

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Hey Lovelies!

Happy May 1st. Part of me is really shocked that it is May and another part of me feels like each day is becoming a blur. One thing I do take comfort in is that each day that passes means that we are a day closer to our old sense of normality. We’ve all embraced the new normal but I for one would really like to see my family some time soon!

The book for this month came at just the right time. The theme for the Reading Challenge for April was: Focus on a story of nature and / or the spring season. You can remind yourself of the theme for each month in my earlier post: here. One thing that is a constant is that time is passing and that brings with it the beauty of the natural world around us which seems to be excelling at the moment. Wilding is the perfect book for this season.

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What’s it all about?

Told through the eyes of Charlie and Isabella, two young farmers who are breaking convention and challenging the norm with regard to their land. The book is fascinating and rich with depth and detail. Charlie and Isabella are working hard on their farm, investing in the latest technology, intensively farming every possible part of the land to maximise productivity because, truth be told, their land isn’t good farmland for cash crops. Even with subsidies, they are struggling to make it work. Determined and ambitious, two qualities they both epitomize, the writing is very much on the wall for them.

Set in the heart of the south of England, the farm is stunningly beautiful. It’s criss-crossed with roads and public footpaths. There is an abandoned castle on the land and it has been in their family for hundreds of years. It’s more than a commercial enterprise, it is part of them and part of the surrounding community. But, it is dying. The land is exhausted, the yields are just not there. Even the ancient oaks are dying.

The narrative opens with Ted Green, a former custodian of royal oaks at Windsor Great Parks. He can see the illness in these proud old men and women of Knepp estate. They have seen kings and queens come and go, half a millennium of history has passed them. The civil war passed by, maybe they provided shade to weary soldiers on the march. As the world wars shook Britain, they heard bi planes pass overhead followed by Spitfires and Lancasters. The land around them was ploughed to answer the call to ‘Dig for Victory’, to feed a nation that would starve without it. But this is the death knell.

“The majority of a tree’s roots are found in the top 12 inches and are vulnerable to ploughing and compaction…delicate mycorrhizae (fine hair like filaments that attach themselves to roots and create a vast network) are destroyed by the churning blades of ploughs and are highly susceptible to agricultural chemicals.”

This is the first time either of them had realised the cost to the land of farming and it is completely shocking. They decided to make a change. They decide to re-wild the land. To return it nature and let go and the ‘land management’ they have been brought up revere. The sheer scope of what then occurs is beyond description in a review. The thrilling rebirth that takes place. They re-introduce some ‘wild’ species to the land. Old English Longhorn cattle, fallow deer, Exmoor ponies, Tamworth pigs. These are not farmed, they are left to be wild within the confines of the land. Nature is very much going to do its own thing.

The effect on the land is startling. As the agricultural chemicals drain away, the browsing, grazing and rooting animals transform the landscape in a few short years. They discover how the different animals compliment each other, grass that the ponies can’t metabolise is perfect for the long horns. The pigs churn up the soil and leave a perfect habit behind them for all sorts of invertebrates which in turn attract birds and then raptors. The eco system is transforming at a rate far beyond anything they had anticipated. Change was in front of them and it was a success!

“We were dismayed at first to observe their (the pigs) capacity for damage, particularly in the wet. But the land’s ability to regenerate was equally astonishing and in the growing season it was only a matter of days before a patchwork of pioneer plants would appear.”

The book progresses chronologically but each chapter tends to focus on a particular element of the wilding process. It could be birdlife, the grazing animals or butterflies. They encounter significant opposition from the surrounding residents, some of whom are aghast at the neat farmland becoming wild and unkept. Whilst I have some sympathy for this, we do all judge things on how they look at least some of the time, but it was a case of perseverance. They refuse to back down. There is a resurgence in the wild life, the rebirth of the land and the huge increase in biodiversity, some of which is now extremely rare and threatened. It goes beyond their expectations and everyone else’s it seems.

“Interviewed anonymously, a cross-section of local villagers vented their anger… I love wildlife, I love the countryside. But it’s turning into quite a mess… a fair old mess really. I don’t believe in this scheme, not in the south-east of England.”

The gradual revealing of the symbiotic relationship between the different elements of nature is beguiling. One Jay can plant 750 acorns in one summer. The tangled thorny scrub that it likes to plant in provides the perfect nursery to stop the oak sapling being eaten by the browsing cattle that keep the scrub in check. The cracked and dry clay by the side of the river provides a habit for endangered insects that need exactly those cracks to nest in. The utter connectedness of all of us, our total dependence on these natural processes shines though this book. It’s personally given me a grounding that I so desperately need right now in times of great uncertainty.

I’ve never understood the real meaning of organic, never realised the difference it might be making to me and us all to be eating intensively farmed meat, cereal and vegetables. This book lifts the veil on a past which is more connected and much, much, more healthy. Darker, yes, less controlled and dominated, but ultimately more productive, more beneficial for all of us. From the fungi that live in the soil, the painted lady butterflies and nightingales, through to the majestic raptors that glide above us dependent on the whole connected chain of life below them.

“If the beat of a single butterfly’s wings can raise a hurricane on the other side of the world, one wonders, what might tens of thousands do in your own backyard?”

This is a book that is full of hope, full of wonder at the resilience of nature but it sounds a warning note at the end. The turtle dove, once common in England, is critically endangered. Knepp is the only part of the country where numbers are growing but it is too little too late. We cannot run the risk of losing another beautiful thing from our landscape due to our own actions again. History repeats…

“As we skirt the blackthorn thickets with an ear out for turtle doves Charlie and I count mixed blessings. The joy at hearing the bird here, and hearing it now is counterbalanced by the sands of time charging down to that single pinprick of loss. The turtle dove is a reminder that Knepp is an island, only a tiny scrap of the carpet – powerless, on its own, to save a species on a trajectory to extinction.”

Final Thoughts

This book is a gem but it is so dense and thick with information, research, findings and results. I really enjoyed reading the characteristics of the animals that they get to see on a daily basis, the pigs being a particular favourite. Nature is thriving there and this is proof that it can continue to thrive if we just change what we do. It also reminded me that we shouldn’t judge based on how things look. At some stage, this project looked ‘messy’ to several onlookers, but look at the beauty it produced. The lasting effect means much more than the appearance.

Now it’s May, the theme of the reading challenge for this month is: Read a book about hope and growth. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. These categories seem to be fairly apt at the moment.

Big love all. Continue to stay safe.

xxx

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The Flatshare – Beth O’Leary

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Hello Lovelies!

Another week in lockdown has passed and I’m hopeful that we are finding our way around this new normal. I know I’ve said it before but I am grateful for the time to read and watch plenty! Today I want to share with you a hilarious read that I know you’ll all love just as much as I did.

The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary was everything that I needed it to be and more: funny, sensitive, full of hope and some really incredibly characters. I hope you love it!

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What’s it all about?

The novel opens with Tiffy looking around a grim, disgusting yet affordable flat in London with her friends Mo and Gerty. Her previous living arrangement is no longer available since Justin broke up with her, again. As an Assistant Editor of craft books earning below minimum wage means that Tiffy lacks options and opportunities currently. She is caught between a rock and a hard place, for sure. However, it doesn’t have to be this shabby flat. There is an interesting advert for a flat share of a different sort – the same flat, the same bed but at different hours in the day. Bottom line: it is affordable. Tiffy goes for it, knowing she doesn’t really have an option.

“You’d be sleeping with him, Tiffany! Everyone knows the first rule of flatsharing is don’t sleep with your flatmate.”

But who is the new flat mate? Leon, a palliative nurse who Tiffy has Facebook stalked and convinced herself that he doesn’t look like a murderer so it’s pretty much a done deal. Leon’s current girlfriend, Kay is unbelievably angry about this arrangement. She wants to take complete control so Leon never meets this girl. Communication is done through her with Leon seemingly being kept in the dark. Vetted and cleared, Tiffy moves herself and her copious amounts of stuff in. There’s clothes, blankets, crafting books EVERYWHERE. There’s barely any room left. However, Leon needs that extra £350 a month if he is going to help his brother Richie…

‘This woman owns more clothes than a respectably sized shop would stock. Has clearly not been able to manage with half of wardrobe I freed up for her, so has hung dresses on back of door, all along wall – from picture rail, actually quite resourceful – and over back of now-almost-invisible chair under window.’

The two settle into their new living routine with their specific hours in place. The two start to leave little notes for each other and thus a beautiful relationship is formed. Each leave baked goods and left over meals for each other. Tiffy notices a huge bag of scarves at the end of the bed. Not in a snoopy way. However, they could be really useful to Tiffy, especially with Katherin’s new crochet book release pending. The scarves are created by a patient at Leon’s work, Mr Prior, and produce some much needed revenue for Leon. One day at home, Richie calls his brother, only to hear Tiffy on the other end of the phone. It is here that we learn the story about Richie – he is in prison for armed robbery, a crime that he didn’t do. Naturally, Tiffy’s good nature means that she feels immediate empathy for him, something that Leon’s current girlfriend doesn’t embody. Tiffy wants to help and knows who to call.

‘The next morning I reread the letter in bed, the duvet pulled up around me like a nest. I’m all cold in my stomach, and my skin has gone kind of prickly. I want to cry for this man. I don’t know why this is hitting me so hard, but whatever it is, this letter has woken me up at half five on a Saturday morning. That is how much I cannot bear it. It is so unfair.’

Gerty agrees to look into Richie’s case for Tiffy but with no promises. Letters between them seem to reveal gaps in the evidence which become of interest to Gerty. There’s clearly something they can do to help Richie unlike his current solicitor. The kindness and support from Tiffy causes problems for Leon and Kay. Tensions reach a peak when she discloses that she does not believe that Richie is innocent. As a result, the pair split up. This is noticed immediately by Tiffy as Leon’s notes change. As of yet, the two haven’t met. After a boozy night with Justin making an appearance at a work party, Tiffy wakes up the following day with a horrific hangover and minutes to get ready to work. What this does mean, however, is Tiffy and Leon finally meet, naked in the shower…

‘In a sudden panic I swivel to look at myself in the mirror, wiping the condensation from its surface to reveal my pale, gaunt face. My lipstick has ingrained itself into the dry skin of my lips, and my eyeshadow and eyeliner have blurred into a black mess around each eye. I look like a toddler who’s attempted to use it’s mother’s make up.’

Following the initial awkwardness, the two resolve to move on and continue with their living arrangement. The past six months have flown by and their contract has now been extended by another six months. This means that there’s many more notes to be written and chocolate tiffin to be eaten. Richie still needs both of them and Gerty. Tiffy has numerous books that need editing. There’s plenty of unfinished business between the two of them. They decide to meet, properly this time, but Tiffy can’t seem to stop talking about Justin. He’s caused much more damage than she initially realised. What this does mean though is that Leon becomes the stereotypical knight in shining armour. The two are becoming closer but Justin still seems to have a hold on her.

‘There’s nothing like a man in a novelty T-shirt to brighten up your morning – especially when he’s holding a very promising paper bag with Patisserie Valerie written on the side.’

What is clear is that Tiffy and Leon are utterly adorable and they are liking each other more and more. With that comes a natural nervousness that they both have too. Just as Tiffy starts to relax into it, Justin makes an appearance at their flat. Leon sends him away but feels uneasy. He knows Tiffy enough to know that she wouldn’t have shared the information that he quoted. The two have commitments which mean they have a weekend where they are not together. Tiffy is away with work when a very outrageous thing happens. I won’t spoil it for you but it has the potential to ruin everything Tiffy and Leon currently have. However, Tiffy has some excellent friends that won’t let this happen. After some painful days, plenty of interference and some explaining it is resolved. Tiffy and Leon are now officially together. Yay! Richie is freed from prison and things seem to be settled. Tiffy was correct to think that Justin kept turning up where she was. She was absolutely right! He was being tipped off with her every move. The last visit from Justin is at the flat, but thankfully Richie and the police intercept it.

‘We inspect the door. He’s dented the wood with kicking, and chipped off chunks of paint with his fists. There’s blood too. Tiffy turns her head aside as she sees it. I wonder what it can possibly feel like, seeing that, after everything she’s been through. Knowing that she loved this man, and he loved her, in his way.’

The novel ends two years in the future where Tiffy and Leon are as loved up as ever. One evening after returning from work, Tiffy finds a note on the door. In it are a set of instructions for one last adventure together with the love of her life, Leon. The ending filled me with nothing but joy. It was JUST what we need right now.

“You are home… The bed, the flat… It was never home until you were there, Tiffy.”

Final Thoughts

This book was like a good hug. I appreciate the neat tied up ending, where each character has the ending they need and deserve. This book gave me everything I wanted. I laughed and I was desperate for Tiffy to break free from Justin. I SO wanted a happy ending and that was exactly what I got. Despite this, there are real issues being explored here, namely controlling relationships. Tiffy’s friends let her find out for herself whilst always being there for her. It took time for Tiffy to work out exactly what Justin was like. Leon was the perfect gentleman shown through his work, his love of his brother and his notes to Tiffy. I especially loved the use of post it messages in the novel – there’s nothing sweeter than a cute love note. I will definitely be reading the next book from O’Leary – after this, I have high expectations!

Stay safe all. Big love xx

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Away With The Penguins – Hazel Prior

 

Hi Guys!

How are we all? I hope we’re all safe and well. I also hope that any keyworkers amongst us as taking the time to rest and recharge too. One thing I’m really appreciative of is the time I’ve now got because I’m working from home. It’s given me chance to catch up with you all and meet new fellow bloggers. I’ve also been working on the curriculum for my department for 2020/2021 which is exciting. I think we can all agree that we’d like to get back to a sense of normality. The new normal is a bit strange really!

Today I wanted to share with you a book I’ve recently read and absolutely loved. It’s a feel good read that I think we will all appreciate right now. Away with the Penguins is a funny, charming and utterly irresistible novel.

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What’s it all about? 

Set in Ayrshire, Scotland, the novel centres around the assertive and headstrong Veronica McCreedy. Eileen, her general helper, looks after Veronica’s huge house and undertakes day to day tasks at Veronica’s request. Veronica is not the easiest person to work for or spend time with, so there is an element of sympathy for Eileen here. Veronica loves Darjeeling tea, a wildlife documentary and collects litter from the beach. Despite her age, she trusts her memory because she knows she can recite Hamlet speeches. One evening she discovers her favourite TV show, Earth Matters, has ended. She stumbles across another programme: The Plight of Penguins. She only agrees to watch it because of the presenter, Robert Saddlebow. The programme will follow a different group of penguins each week. This week: emperors. Veronica is completely transfixed. She’s devastated that these beautiful animals are at risk of extinction and an idea starts to form in her head.

‘It is perhaps feasible that my demise might be useful in some way. Unless it is proved otherwise, I must work on the assumption that I have no blood ties at all. It would be pleasing if I could make some small difference to the planet. The more I think about it, the more I am attracted to the idea.’

Throughout the novel, there are entries from ‘Terry’s Penguin Blog’ which share facts and discoveries from the team of Scientists who are working in the Antarctic observing and monitoring the penguins. Sooty, an Adelie penguin, steals my heart for sure! We’re introduced to him in the first entry that features in the novel and I found myself immediately drawn to him.

‘…he’s almost entirely black. Just a few paler feathers in a patch under his chin. His mate, a normal black-and-whiter, was with him for the last four seasons. But where is she? Did she fail to get through the Antarctic winter? Was she eaten by a leopard seal? Or do we have a rare case of penguin infidelity? We’ll never know.’

The novel also features Patrick, a broken hearted, weed smoking, messed up young adult. He is the complete opposite to Veronica but amazingly he is her grandson. Veronica was under the impression that she had no living relatives but after a DNA investigation, Patrick turned out to be a blood relative. These two could not be more different from one another. However legal documentation confirms their blood line. This new knowledge of Patrick raises more questions than answers! Veronica writes to her grandson to inform him of her new knowledge and to arrange a meeting. We learn that Veronica had a son but had given him up as a baby.  With little notice, Veronica turns up on Patrick’s doorstep. Their meeting is anything but positive or heart warming.

‘How is it possible that this disgraceful, smeary, drug-befuddled creature could be my grandson? Doesn’t he know about the existence of soap and water? And his bedsit! I simply do not understand how anyone could live in this squalor.’

Following this, both parties appear quite disappointed. Naturally, neither like each other very much. Veronica decides that there is absolutely no way that Patrick is going to get her money. We learn that Veronica has a substantial amount of money, millions in fact. It is this that she wants to create a plan for the future for. The penguins then enter her mind, helped by a reminder in pencil on the mirror! Here, she creates a plan. She is going to use her money to help the penguins. However, before she commits she wants to see them and meet the scientists in Antarctica. Veronica isn’t someone that you can easily say no to. After a few emails between Veronica and Dietrich from the science team and a reluctance from Veronica to back down at all, flights and boats are all booked. Veronica is off to the Antarctic, waved off by Eileen and more surprisingly, Patrick.

“Mrs McCreedy is very set on the idea of going to see you and your penguins. I can’t change her mind, I’m afraid. She’s really quite independent and stubborn. When you meet her you’ll see. I’m sure everything will be fine.’

The team have other ideas though. Upon her arrival there is a mixture of warmth and worry and frank hostility from Mike. It is clear that Veronica has forced her way in and in their eyes, is very unprepared for the realities of what living in this climate is really like. Terry is the only one who embodies warmth at this stage. Surprisingly, a girl, but we finally have a face to match the blog entries we have been seeing within the narrative.  Aware of a boat leaving the island, they show Veronica around the camp and try and send her on her merry way. However, the walk back for Veronica proves more difficult than originally anticipated and she is late back. Therefore, she misses the boat and consequently has to stay there for three weeks. Veronica’s plan to remain there has worked! The team are not particularly happy about it though. Terry is the unsung heroine at this point.

‘”Come on, give her a bit longer, will you?” pleads Terry. “We can’t send her away yet. She’s only just arrived and – ”
“- And we already hate her,” says Mike.’

In the meantime, Veronica has sent a box to her grandson. It’s locked with the promise of the code coming at another time. Patrick, still fairly messed up by this new news and his break up, shoves it under the bed for another day. Back at camp, Veronica makes herself at home as best she can. Yet she finds herself quite emotional. She pushes that deep down and continues with her visit. She loves spending time with the penguins and learning their ways and characteristics. As time goes by, Patrick has this overwhelming niggle to check on his Granny V and read the emails from the science team and Eileen. Soon, he receives the code to open the box that was sent to him. Inside, it includes diaries from Veronica when she was younger. Her childhood, teenage years and the story of her son is revealed. Consequently, Patrick has completely thawed towards his grandmother and is even particularly fond of her. The emotions she displays in her diary entries, he feels with her. A bond between the two is finally formed.

“I’ll never be happy again. I’d give anything to be back there, stuck in yesterday for ever. How can I face anything? How can I go on? This happens to other people. Not me. God oh God.”

The bond between grandmother and grandson is also forming for Veronica, despite being thousands of miles away. When out observing the penguins, Terry probs and asks for more information about Veronica’s life. Gradually, over time her character does thaw and starts to divulge information to her. They discuss the war and Veronica finds again that she becomes increasingly emotional. The true identity of Patrick’s father is revealed: Giovanni who disappeared during the war. Yet, Veronica doesn’t stop thinking about him or lose memory of him. Naturally, she wonders where he is, if he survived, if he even thinks of her still. Like the penguins, Veronica is naturally curious. This in turn leads her to think about her grandson and why he is facing the problems he has. It is during this conversation that Veronica spots a bedraggled and lonely penguin. Her heart melts but it is the scientists policy to not get involved with nature. Veronica has another battle on her hands. The motherly instinct in her wants to help and save this penguin. After a heated discussion, Veronica wins and little baby penguin Patrick joins the fold.

‘Even more astonishing is the fact that my baby penguin seems to have taken a liking to me. If I lift him on to the bed he will crawl into the crook of my arm and press up against me. I am aware that any baby creature will seek something warm to cuddle up to, but I cannot help but be wholly delighted that the something, in this instance, is me.’

The friendship between Veronica and Terry strengthens. The two have plenty in common. I’d go as far as saying, Terry is very much a younger embodiment of Veronica. Veronica opens up about her son and what happened. I won’t ruin this for you but it is incredibly moving. As it happens, Veronica takes a turn for the worst and becomes desperately ill. Terry nurses her and spends time with her, as does the little penguin who because of Veronica’s hand rearing, is becoming stronger every day. It’s touch and go with Veronica. Patrick arrives to the scientists camp with more questions than answers. However, the overwhelming emotion he feels is concern. After all, he’s only just got his Granny V into his life and now he was at risk of losing her. Patrick gets renamed: Pip following the reading of Great Expectations by Dietrich. Over time, Veronica gains strength, Terry and Patrick become close and Pip is showing signs that he will be safe in the wild with the other penguins there.

‘I have ventured out to the rookery with the scientists, Patrick and Pip several times over the past two weeks. I am both joyous and emotional to observe how well my little chick gets on with his penguin mates. It may be my imagination, but I could swear he examines his human family in a new way, as if debating with himself whether we are massive, gangly penguins with strange markings.’

The novel ends with Veronica sponsoring Patrick so he can join the team of scientists and continue to be with Terry. Their relationship is clearly blossoming and neither party want to lose that. Also, Terry’s blog is going from strength to strength. The use of social media accurately showing the modern world. We have all seen how a good social media campaign can change things. Rather happily, I was pleased to see that Sooty and his partner were back together around the nest! Patrick and Veronica are close, cemented more by Terry. Most poignantly and arguably most importantly, we finally hear the voice of Giovanni as the novel closes. Veronica and us as a reader, get to hear the answers to those questions Veronica was asking earlier in the novel. I end with the feeling that that relationship could have continued to be a beautiful thing.

‘Veronica: true, headstrong and gloriously vivid. How she shines! No matter what life throws at her, she will defy the odds. Whatever she does, she will be extraordinary.’

Final Thoughts

Sometimes we all just need to read a book that feels like we are getting a good hug. For me, this was that book. I fell in love with Veronica’s character. Terry is such a beautiful girl too. I felt for Patrick and saw that the reason why he was so angry at the world was because he had many unanswered questions. The additional of penguins was just amazing. I thought it was incredibly clever to use the baby penguin for Veronica to try being a mother for. It showed us exactly what she would have been like for the child she wasn’t allowed to keep. I thoroughly loved this book for so many reasons. It came to me at the right time and I was completely carried away with it.

Stay safe everyone. Keep in touch.

Big love to you all. x

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Reading Challenge 2020: An American Marriage – Tayari Jones

Hello Loves!

I hope you’re all well and keeping safe and isolated. The world seems to be in a complete mess at the moment so I hope we can keep each other company and spread a little kindness and good books to read to keep us distracted and busy during this difficult time.

I wanted to share with you today the book I read for February for my reading challenge. You can catch up with my reading challenge here. The book I read for February was An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.

What’s it about?

The focus for February was Read a book that tells the story of love: good, bad or otherwise. For the month of love I thought this was the perfect topic and this book the perfect fit. Oprah and Obama rate it so I had high hopes. I wasn’t disappointed! This was a great read, honest and truthful. I hope you love it as much as I do!

To start in Atlanta, the novel centres around Roy, a sales rep for a textbook company and Celestial, an artist specialising in custom made baby dolls. They’re newlyweds and ready to start their new lives together. After their first year of marriage, they decide to travel to Eloe in Louisiana. Roy’s parents live there and a visit is well overdue.

‘Marriage is between two people. There is no studio audience.’

They spend the night at the local Motel 6 where they argue after Roy tells Celestial that his father isn’t his biological father. In the middle of their fight, they usually take 15 minutes to cool off. During this time, Roy leaves their room and meets a woman around his mother’s age. She’s got a broken arm so he helps her to his room. Later that evening, the woman is raped and calls the police. She believes it’s Roy who has raped her. Roy is sent to jail. Whilst he awaits his trail, Celestial discovers that she is pregnant. The two decide that she should have an abortion because of their circumstances. At the trial, Roy is sentenced to 12 years in prison.

For the first few years of Roy’s sentence, he and Celestial keep in touch regularly. However cracks do start to show when Roy gets frustrated at Celestial’s career as an artist. Her increasing popularity means the gaps between letters grow longer. There’s nothing Roy can do about this but wait.

‘A marriage is more than your heart, it is your life. And we are not sharing ours.’

It is also during this period that Roy discovers who his real father is – his cell mate, Walter. Roy informs Celestial with conflicting consequences. Sadly, during this period, Roy’s mother, Olive, dies.

‘But how you feel love and understand love are two different things.’

After three years, Celestial tells Roy that she no longer wants to be his wife. Roy naturally takes this quite badly and refuses communication with her for the next two years. During this time, Roy’s case gets overturned on an appeal basis. The local DA decides not to pursue the case and Roy optimistically reaches out to Celestial. There’s been no contact for two years BUT she hasn’t divorced him. In Roy’s eyes, this is a sign that there is still hope for their marriage.

Meanwhile, unbeknown to Roy, Celestial has fallen in love with another man. Andre. Her childhood friend, the one who has always been there. The night that Roy learns he will be a free man, Andre proposes and Celestial accepts. Despite feeling consumed with guilt, she knows that divorcing Roy and marrying Andre is the right thing to do. Her family also see this as a good decision too all apart from her father.

Roy is released from prison early and is collected by the man who has always been the father figure, Roy Senior. He’s well aware that Celestial has plans to have Andre pick him up, but Roy decides to leave for Atlanta just as Andre is leaving to collect him. This way, it ensures that he will have some alone time with his wife to talk to her.

‘There should be a word to for this, the way it feels to steal something that’s already yours.’

Before he leaves, Roy runs into a former classmate, Davina, who invites him over for dinner. She shows him compassion and attention. It’s been a while since Roy has had this level of intimacy also. The couple have sex and Roy knows it’s meaningful but his pull towards Atlanta is too strong.

Upon his arrival in Atlanta, Roy is surprised and relieved to learn that his key still works in the house. He surprises Celestial by being back home when she comes home from her doll shop. Roy tries to have sex with her, she’s fairly passive but asks if he has protection, which he does not.

‘A woman doesn’t always have a choice, not in a meaningful way. Sometimes there is a debt that must be paid, a comfort that she is obliged to provide, a safe passage that must be secured. Every one of us has lain down for a reason that was not love.’

The next day, Andre returns home and an argument all breaks out. Roy wants to know exactly what’s been going on whilst he was rotting away in prison for something he didn’t do. They fight on Celestial’s lawn. The police are called but Celestial managed to diffuse the situation. Finally, she returns to Roy to her house and the following morning tells Andre that she has to remain with him. That night, Roy confesses to Celestial about his night with Davina. Celestial has absolutely no reaction whatsoever. This tells Roy she truly no longer has any romantic feelings towards him. She is willing to have sex with him but Roy declines, saying he never has and never will be a rapist.

In the epilogue, Roy and Celestial exchange more letters, each informing the other of their lives. Celestial and Andre are going to have a baby but have no plans of marrying. Roy plans to marry Davina – the woman who saved him.

‘Much of life is timing and circumstance, I see that now.”

Final Thoughts

I found this book to be a really compelling read. It was one of those where you really struggle to put it down because you become so invested in the characters, you have to know what happens. I do think the ending is perfect and accurate. I did feel incredibly sorry for Roy but prison and the length of time was a barrier they could not overcome. I think it was the perfect choice for February’s read!

Next month, March. The theme for March is: Try a book with a non human narrator. For this, I picked The Call of the Wild by Jack London. The main animal in this: dogs! Let’s see what this brings.

In the meantime I wish you all health and peace during such strange times. I’m here if you need to branch out. Take care everyone.

Big love xx

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Filed under Book review, Books, Reading, Reading Challenge 2020