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

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – J.K. Rowling

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Hello Lovelies!!

Sorry there’s been a bit of a gap between this post and my last. I am back at school on a new rota system. Whilst it’s lovely to see everyone, it’s so strange remembering to be 2 metres apart and not seeing the rest of my team and fellow colleagues is really strange. Never mind! Things do seem to be getting better slowly, slowly. I hope you are all continuing to be safe and well.

As you may be aware, I am reading my beloved Harry Potter series again. It’s something on my list of things I want to do when I turn 30. Today I want to share with you my review of my favourite Harry Potter book – The Prisoner of Azkaban. I hope you enjoy reliving and following the series with me. If it’s your first experience of Harry, then I especially hope you love it as much as I do!

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What’s it all about?

Summer rolls around again and once again Harry is at the Dursleys’ having a miserable existence. Muggle television airs a report about an escaped convict, Sirius Black. If that wasn’t bad enough, Aunt Marge visits and insults Harry. In retaliation, accidentally, Harry inflates her and runs away from home with the fear of being expelled. He’s at significant risk but thankfully the Knight Bus manages to pick him up. This journey is full of strange new experiences but exciting nonetheless. Harry meets Stan Shunpike, encounters a large black dog that seems to be following him. He travels to the Leaky Cauldron where Cornelius Fudge, the Minister for Magic. He asks Harry to stay in Diagon Alley for his own protection. After time, he is reunited with Ron and Hermione.

“Don’t let the muggles get you down.”

Before their return to Hogwarts, Harry learns from Arthur Weasley that Sirius Black is a convicted murderer. Somehow, it is unknown currently, he managed to escape the wizard prison, Azkaban to kill Harry. On their journey to Hogwarts a Dementor (an Azkaban prison guard) boards the train causing Harry to relive his parents’ death before fainting. In the same carriage was Remus Lupin, the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, who saves them from the Dementor. What is more concerning is the fact that Dementors will be patrolling the school in attempts to catch Sirius Black. Everyone seems to love Lupin. All but one…Snape.

Third years do have a welcomed distraction, IF they have their parents permission. Sadly Harry doesn’t, so trips to Hogsmeade are banned. Instead, Fred and George give him a gift: the Marauder’s Map. What looks like a piece of parchment is actually enchanted to show all the passages and people on Hogwarts grounds. This means that Harry has a way of sneaking out. Sadly, Lupin catches him. What is exciting is that Lupin knows all about it as he was part of the group who made it in their school days.

“I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.”

During a Quidditch match, Harry faints and falls off his broomstick. The cause? Dementors. Dumbledore was naturally furious. As a result, Harry’s beloved Nimbus 2000 is blown away and smashed to pieces by the Whomping Willow. Professor Lupin decides that Harry needs to learn to defend themselves. Therefore, he teaches him how to achieve the Patronus charm.

“Where is Wood?” said Harry, suddenly realizing he wasn’t there.
“Still in the showers,” said Fred. “We think he’s trying to drown himself.”

Meanwhile, Ron and Hermione are at loggerheads as Ron is under the impression that Hermione’s cat, Crookshanks, has eaten his rat, Scabbers. Hermione is also incredible critical about the anonymous Christmas present Harry receives: a Firebolt broomstick. She’s worried it could have been cursed or jinxed by Sirius Black. Hermione’s stresses continue as she has many classes, some at the same time. She absolutely refuses to explain how she achieves this to Harry and Ron.

Malfoy continues to be up to his old tricks but this time his target is Hagrid. Hagrid’s hippogriff Buckbeak is in danger of being executed by the Ministry of Magic after injuring him. Malfoy did deserve it as he failed to listened to the instructions given by Hagrid. His father is pushing for punishment. Hermione and Ron work tirelessly to try and defend the hippogriff. The trio hear Buckbeak executed as they leave Hagrid’s hut. The rift between Hermione and Ron is healed when Scabbers is spotted and returned to him.

Things take a turn for the strange and Scabbers escaped again. However, this time the large black dog appears and drags Ron into a tunnel under the Whomping Willow. The others have no choice but to follow ultimately ending up in the Shrieking Shack, a haunted house in Hogsmeade. It is revealed that the dog is in fact Sirius Black. Harry feels like he has to kill him, but he can’t.

Lupin arrives but weirdly, hugs and embraces Black as a friend. We learn that the belief that Sirius betrayed the Potters was not true. It was Peter Pettigrew. Lupin admits he is a werewolf and that the Marauders (Black, Pettigrew and James Potter) learned how to transform into animals to help support Lupin. Scabbers is Pettigrew. He faked his own death, framed Black for the murders and has been hiding ever since.

We saw at the start the hostility between Lupin and Snape. This continued – Snape hates Harry remember? Snape arrives to apprehend Black but is knocked out by Harry, Ron and Hermione, who now know Sirius is innocent. Lupin and Black transform Pettigrew into human form and prepare to kill him. Harry stops them. He knows his father would not have wanted that. What is fair and right is to send him back to Azkaban.

“You think the dead we loved truly ever leave us? You think that we don’t recall them more clearly in times of great trouble?”

Pettigrew, slimy as ever, manages to escape and the full moon transforms Lupin into a wolf. The problems continue for Harry, Ron, Hermione and Black as they are chased to the shore of the lake. Here, waiting for them is the Dementors. Just as hope was feeling lost, a Patronus charm saves them, cast by Harry’s dad, he believes.

“Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”

Harry awoke later in the hospital wing full of panic and confusion. Harry and Hermione are told that Black has been sentenced to the Dementor’s Kiss. This is where the Dementor’s suck out the soul of their prisoner. Pettigrew’s escape means that Black is still a convicted murderer. Professor Dumbledore tells Harry and Hermione that there is a way to save many innocent lives in one evening. Hermione has a way of attending classes that seem to be on at the same time: a time-turner. The two set off on a mission to go back in time to save Buckbeak and Sirius.

Whilst on this mission, Harry sees himself at the side of the lake. Harry learns that it wasn’t his father who summoned the Patronus charm, it was him. Buckbeak escapes with Sirius on his back. The two are saved. Time ticks away but thankfully Harry and Hermione return to the hospital wing to close the timeline. Snape is furious with Lupin and reveals to all that he is a werewolf, resulting in Lupin’s resignation. Harry returns to Kings Cross with his friends. What is different this year, is a letter from Sirius, giving him permission to visit Hogsmeade next year.

“He was my mum and dad’s best friend. He’s a convicted murderer, but he’s broken out of wizard prison and he’s on the run. He likes to keep in touch with me, though…keep up with my news…check if I’m happy…”

Final Thoughts

I think the reason why I like this book the most is because we have two brilliant characters: Lupin and Black. I love his misunderstood Black is and the fact that he has been in prison, a hell, for years for something one of his friends did, not him. As the trio get older, the magic gets darker. I also like this because it’s really good to see Hermione centre stage. She is the one with the knowledge and the history but here we saw her put that into action. After all, she is the only one with a time-turner. I think it is also good to see niggles and fallings out between the trio – it is reminiscent of real life in that sense. I’m absolutely loving re-reading these. They do get bigger and darker now too which is great.

I hope you’ve enjoyed Book Three! Here’s to the next: The Goblet of Fire. See you next time for the Reading Challenge Book Review for June and hopefully more cakes! Stay safe everyone!!

Big love all. xx

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

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – J.K. Rowling

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Hello Loves!

How are we all? I hope we continue to be safe and well. The weather here has taken a bit of a turn so I thought I would use the time to review the second book in the Harry Potter series: The Chamber of Secrets. Considering I am a huge Potter fan, you’ll probably be surprised to know that I’ve only ever read the books once – the year they were released. I was very much part of the Potter generation – the ones who queued up to buy the latest book and read it through the night so when you got to school the next day no one could spoil it for you. I decided I wanted to re-read them. At times of great change, I find it is always lovely to look back on some classic reads and relive them. So here goes!

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What’s it all about?

The book opens on Harry’s twelfth birthday where the Dursley family are hosting a dinner party for a potential client of Vernon’s drill manufacturing company. Naturally, Harry isn’t invited but he is happy to spend the evening in his bedroom. His thoughts drift to his friends, Ron and Hermione and why they haven’t been in touch with him. It is during his thinking that Dobby, a house elf, turns up in his bedroom. This is far from ordinary and Harry has a problem on his hands.

Dobby reveals that he has been intercepting Harry’s post from his friends and warns him not to return to Hogwarts because it is unsafe for him. Harry refuses to budge. After all, he loves Hogwarts and hates being at Privet Drive – there really is no chance that he would stay there. So Dobby continues to take matters into his own hands. He attempts to get Harry expelled for using magic by framing him smashing Aunt Petunia’s dessert to the floor. As a result, Uncle Vernon’s business deal collapses but Harry is given a second chance. The Ministry of Magic allows Harry to return to Hogwarts for the start of the school year.

“Beds empty! No note! Car gone — could have crashed — out of my mind with worry — did you care? — never, as long as I’ve lived — you wait until your father gets home, we never had trouble like this from Bill or Charlie or Percy —”

But the start of the school year wasn’t for some time. Uncle Vernon punishes Harry, fitting locks to his bedroom door and bars to the windows. One evening, Ron arrives with his brothers, Fred and George in their father’s enchanted Ford Anglia. They rescue Harry who then stays at the Weasley home, The Burrow. The Weasley’s and Harry travel to Diagon Alley where they are reunited with Hermione, introduced to Lucius Malfoy and Gilderoy Lockhart. Lockhart is a conceited autobiographer and the newly appointed Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, following the death of Professor Quirrell. When Harry and Ron approach Platform 9¾, it refuses to let them pass, resulting in them missing the train. They decide to fly the enchanted car to Hogwarts but crash into the Whomping Willow on the grounds. The year is not starting off smoothly for Harry at all.

Harry and Ron end up in trouble. As punishment, Ron has to clean the school trophies and Harry has to help Professor Lockhart with addressing his fan mail. Whilst he is doing this, he learns about the wizards’ prejudice about blood status – pure blood (only wizarding heritage) and Muggle (non magical) parentage. More alarmingly, Harry can hear an unnerving voice, seemingly coming from the walls of the castle. Things get stranger still. Following a deathday party for Nearly Headless Nick, the Gryffindor House ghost Harry, Ron and Hermione run into Filch and his cat, Mrs Norris, who has been petrified. A warning was scrawled on the wall.

“The Chamber of Secrets has been opened. Enemies of the heir, beware.”

Because Harry was there when Mrs Norris was discovered, rumours quickly fly around the school regarding the Chamber of Secrets’ history. The rumour seems to be that Harry is the next heir. After some investigating Harry, Ron and Hermione discover from Cuthbert Binns, the ghostly professor of the History of Magic, that there was a terrible monster created by Salazar Slytherin after a disagreement with the other founders – Godric Gryffindor, Helga Hufflepuff and Rowena Ravenclaw. Slytherin believed that students of non magic parentage should be refused entry to Hogwarts and only the pureblood be educated. He built a chamber to finish the mission. Only the heir could open it and control the monster inside.

Later, during a seasonal game of Quidditch, a Bludger ends up chasing after Harry. It appears to be rogue, zigzagging around any player it can hit. Unfortunately, it ends up breaking Harry’s arm. To make matters worse, when trying to repair the bones, Lockhart ends up removing all of them instead. Whilst in the hospital wing, Dobby visits Harry in the dead of night, revealing that it was he who charmed the Bludger and sealed the gateway to the train. He also tells Harry that the Chamber of Secrets was opened before.

Another attack happens, this time on a first year Gryffindor student. Colin Creevey, a huge fan of Harry’s is the victim. The school takes on a sense of panic. In response to this, a duelling class is set up for the students, led by Lockhart and Snape, in order to prepare them. It is during this that Harry learns he is a Parselmouth, meaning he can speak to snakes and understand them. This is incredibly rare and again adds to the rumours flying around school that Harry is the heir. Salazar Slytherin was also a Parselmouth.

“Hearing voices no one else can hear isn’t a good sign, even in the wizarding world.”

A third attack happened, this time on a second year Hufflepuff, Justin Finch-Fletchley. Hermione, Ron and Harry began to suspect Draco Malfoy. His family history firmly rooted within Slytherin. They were also openly hostile towards Muggle born students. The three decide to use Hermione’s talents to create Polyjuice Potion. This will enable them to turn into Malfoy’s friends, Crabb and Goyle, and hope that Malfoy says something incriminating. Sadly, they learn nothing.

Moaning Myrtle, a very miserable and whiny ghost that haunts the girls’ bathroom, unwittingly provides the trio with a new clue: a diary which had been deposited in her stall. The trio discover the diary belonged to Tom Riddle, a student who knows all too well about the Chamber, having been witness to a fellow student’s death while the Chamber was opened fifty years ago. Riddle reveals the culprit to Harry, Rubeus Hagrid. Another attack takes place, this time Hermione and a Ravenclaw prefect, the school is put on lockdown. Dumbledore and Hagrid are forced to leave.

What Hagrid did do was leave a set of instructions for them: follow the spiders that are currently fleeing into the Forbidden Forest. Here they meet Aragog, who tells them that the real monster is one that the spiders fear above all others. When Ron and Harry try to leave, Aragog says they can’t because his sons and daughters haven’t eaten for a long time and they’re hungry. At this point, the enchanted Ford Anglia arrives to rescue them. Hermione then solves the mystery of what the monster is: a basilisk. This explains why Harry can understand it. It kills by a stare. The current victims haven’t seen it’s stare – it’s by a reflection which is why they are only petrified. It isn’t long until they realise that the student that was previously killed was Myrtle. When Ginny, Ron’s youngster sister, was taken by the monster into the Chamber, Harry and Ron discover that the entrance to the Chamber is through the girls’ bathroom. The boys, with Lockhart, enter the Chamber.

It is whilst they are in the Chamber that they realise Lockhart is a fraud. A rockfall happens whilst Lockhart tries to erase the memories of the boys, something he’s done previously for his books. This time, he manages to erase his own memory. Harry becomes separated from Ron and enters the Chamber of Secrets to find an unconscious and barely alive Ginny. Tom Riddle is also in attendance and reveals that his memory has been preserved in his diary. The diary that both Harry and Ginny have been using. Riddle shows Harry his full name: Tom Marvolo Riddle. This is an anagram for He Who Shall Not Be Named. It was he who opened the Chamber fifty years ago and framed Hagrid.

“I am Lord Voldemort.”

Riddle is the true Heir of Slytherin. By possessing Ginny through his diary, Riddle has been continuing his work he started fifty years before. This time was different: Harry. Throughout the battle, Harry remains loyal to Dumbledore. This results in Fawkes, his phoenix, arriving in the Chamber with the Sorting Hat. Fawkes blinds the basilisk, allowing Harry to remove the Sword of Godric Gryffindor from the Sorting Hat. Harry slays the creature and uses a fang, poisoned by the basilisk, to stab the middle of the diary. Riddle and his diary are destroyed and Ginny survives.

Harry, Ron, Ginny and Lockhart return to the main castle and reunite with Professor McGonagall, Dumbledore and Mr and Mrs Weasley. Ginny is given a reprieve by Dumbledore. After all, many a wizard had been persuaded and duped by Voldemort. Lucius Malfoy stormed into the meeting demanding to know why Dumbledore is back. He is accompanied by Dobby, revealing that Dobby is enslaved to the Malfoy family. How did the diary come into Ginny’s hand? Lucius Malfoy had slipped it into her books whilst in Diagon Alley, enabling the Chamber to be opened again.

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Harry decides to return the diary. However this time, it includes a sock which frees Dobby from the Malfoy’s employment. This results in an attack on Harry but Dobby jumps to save him. The petrified students are cured, Gryffindor wins the house cup again by earning 400 more points, Harry and Ron both receive the Special Services to School award and the end of year exams are cancelled. Hagrid returns during the final feast. Lockhart, now openly useless is dismissed from his teaching post. Like the novel opens, Harry returns to Privet Drive for another summer with the Dursleys.

Final Thoughts

I love The Chamber of Secrets because we are introduced to a range of new characters. My favourite is Dobby. I immediately felt great sympathy when I learnt he was the house elf for the Malfoys. Whilst on the surface, he comes across to Harry and the reader as a great menace, he only ever wanted to protect Harry. The second book in the series was just as good as the first and just as good this second time of reading. I genuinely love it. Having a little magic in our lives is really important and I’m so thrilled to be reading these again. Onto MY favourite book next: The Prisoner of Askaban.

Big love all! xx

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Filed under Book review, Books, Children's Laureate, Harry Potter

What Makes Us Stronger – Freya Lewis

Hey Loves!

How are you all? I hope you’re all enjoying the incredible sunshine we are getting at the moment. I must say, I do feel quite lucky to be living near a little park to enjoy it. I wanted to share a review with you today about a book I read recently. I finished it in a few hours and I finished it thinking, wow what a girl. I’m talking about What Makes Us Stronger by Freya Lewis. I remember the reading the news before I left for school. It was a very strange day for me, because I saw students in front of me that were the same age. It puts things into perspective completely.

Monday 22nd May 2017. Ariana Grande was performing in Manchester to a packed arena. Freya Lewis was there with her best friend Nell. At the end of the show a bomb went off. This is her story.

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What’s it all about?

The book opens with Freya talking about what her life was like before the concert. Freya was just a normal, fourteen year old school girl with a loving family around her feeling excited about her upcoming concert. This one was different: she could take a friend. She knew just the girl to take – Nell, her beautiful best friend. Freya wanted it to be a surprise so played along with the notion that she was unable to get tickets, until Nell’s birthday.

“For the rest of the day I basked in a halo of happiness as Nell jumped up and down telling everyone at school that we were going to see Ariana. It was the first concert she’d ever get to go to, which made it all the more special.”

Each chapter splits between before and after the concert. The following days were a strange haze for Freya. No part of her body had escaped injury from the explosion. However, the kindness and strength from those around her helped her to recover. In the early days Freya felt like she was recovering at a snail’s pace. Yet, slowly slowly, over time she did make some huge leaps. Her family visited and continued to give her the courage she needed, especially her sister, Georgia. The NHS professionals around her motivated her to believe she could and would get better. Eventually, Freya felt like she was beginning to make progress starting with scratching her head.

“A week ago, the mere suggestion that I’d be able to make such a tiny movement had seemed impossible. I’d achieved two big small things in one day: sitting up and scratching my head. They were definitely steps forward. And having Dad and the nurses celebrating with me in that moment, at this crazy house of four o’clock in the morning, made it all the more special.”

Ariana made the decision to visit the hospital in Manchester to see those who had been injured. I remember this being documented on the news. Reading Freya’s experience of this shows how innocent these victims all were. They were just out, listening to the music that they loved, watching their idol on stage, living their lives. The fact that their hero then went to visit them was something else. Freya admits it is something that she will never forget. I doubt anyone would! Ariana is presented in this as humble and dedicated to her fans. It is Freya’s mother that evoked the strongest emotion from me. The words of a mother.

‘As she turned to leave, Mum was hovering by the bed. She and Ariana looked at each other for a moment, then Mum’s face went serious. “Don’t worry, it wasn’t your fault”.’

Whilst her recovery was slow and steady, Freya was consumed by guilt. She knew she would putting her parents under significant strain. She knew that she was alive and her best friend wasn’t. She wondered how Nell’s family were and if they hated her for surviving. The same thoughts were had about school. Would they hate her for surviving? After these thoughts, Freya decided she was going to be positive and recovery quickly to help the pressure on her family. Knowing that the whole world was sending her cards, gifts and get well messages meant that it wasn’t just her family and friends that were willing her on. It was the public too. She would do it for all of them. Whilst her dad continued to update the world on her progress with his blog, Freya knew that if she gave up, the terrorist would win. She wouldn’t let that happen.

“The love those cards contained was really beyond words, and I wished with all my heart that Nell, who had been so loving and caring herself, was here to see it.”

Writing became therapy for Freya and thankfully, for us, that means that this book was born. We hear through Freya’s own words what the concert was like and immediately after. We see the people who went out of their way to stay with her until help came – the incredible Kim and Phil. We learn about the professionals who were there at the time, keeping her safe and alive. I don’t think any of us can imagine what the people that night saw, felt and experienced. It is here that Freya’s narrative splits so we hear her Dad and her Mum’s experience. It was her Dad that went to pick them up from the concert only to be greeted with chaos and destruction.

“In total, Freya was missing and in our minds probably dead for almost exactly one hour. The depth of pain that we felt during this hour, which was the longest of our lives, is indescribable. If I then reflect upon the situation for the families of those who were lost in this tragedy, including Nell, many of whom were uncertain of the fate of their loved ones for up to forty-eight hours in some cases, I simply become numb.”

Freya’s mother was at home waiting for her husband and daughter to return. Her experience is one of waiting and waiting. There was absolutely nothing she could do and no where to go. What really broke me was the fact that she was completely alone. She sat and cried silent tears, not wanting to wake Georgina as she had an exam at school the very next day. It is unimaginable to think how time felt at that moment: never ending I guess, but that is putting it lightly. Eventually, she receives news and heads to hospital. What is waiting for her there is similar to what greeted Freya’s father. Utter despair and carnage.

“We were able to observe her injuries and see just what a terrible state she was in; it was like a scene from the worst horror movie you could imagine. When they cut her clothes, they were recovered very carefully and placed in plastic bags which were then labelled. We were told that they were being sent to Forensics and would be used as evidence.”

Hearing the narratives of her parents inspired Freya further to make as much progress as quick as possible. Her parents were exhausted and she still felt bad for putting people out. However, the realisation of that night on them, spurred her on further. She started to feel hungry and begged for her mother’s spaghetti bolognaise. She was desperate to improve further and get herself into a wheelchair. Whilst physically she was recovering nicely, the emotional trauma was still something that she was struggling with. Missing her friends funeral also caused her upset. What is beautiful, is we do hear Nell’s voice throughout this narrative. It is dedicated to her and closes with a poem for her so this means that she is the first and last mention in the book.

“I think that the strength and bravery that I have now was passed on from Nell, because I always admired her courage and determination in life.”

Freya was now able to go home and this in itself created new challenges. But, with love, tough love and support she was able to succeed. Freya gave a speech at school, went out for lunch with her family and became exceptionally close to her sister. Freya had the opportunity to meet another idol, Harry Styles, at a concert where he dedicated a song to her and the new normal seemed to be falling into place. Jack, her personal trainer was helping her to build her strength at home and eventually she was able to walk again. This meant that it was also time to go back to school – after all, there was still learning to be had. Lastly, after all the fundraising, Freya won the NHS Hero Young Fundraiser Award. Freya’s attention was firmly on giving back to those who had helped her.

“Later, when we all gathered around the computer at home to look at our JustGiving page, we couldn’t believe the figure staring back at us: £40,000. In two days time, it would be the one-year anniversary of the attack – and the day our lives changed for ever… it gave me strength to know that, out of our heartbreak, we would be giving hope to others.”

The book ends with the closing reflective remarks from Freya. The lessons she’s learnt at such a young age, how she has had to rebuild her life despite the fact that is has been completely changed forever. Freya is honest about her up and down days but now knows that this is absolutely normal. What is especially lovely is the book ends with her thank yous to those who have been there from the moment she was found on the floor following the explosion, to those who helped her move and walk again. The book closes with a poem for her best friend.

“I will, and always will love you, my gorgeous Nell Jones.”

Final Thoughts 

There were a lot of tears from me when I read this book. It is always very refreshing and shocking to read a child’s perspective. Whilst showing maturity beyond her years, Freya and her family faced unimaginable challenges. Not only did they come out the other end stronger, they have used this to do so much good. This book obviously means so much to Freya and I genuinely enjoyed it. It makes you reflect upon just how lucky we really are. This book was an emotional rollercoaster but it was an excellent gift from a teenage girl. Hope will always win. Good will defeat evil. I urge you all to read this.

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.

Wilding

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

Reading Challenge 2020: Between Shades of Gray – Ruta Sepetys

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Hey Lovelies!

I can’t believe we are deep into February which means I’ve survived my first half term as Head of Department. Also, I’m quite proud of my progress so far too because I’ve read 16 books so far this year which I think is pretty good. I’m waiting for the slump to hit me though. I did have high hopes for half term but I’ve spent most of it with a lingering cold and dodging the relentless rain. Regardless, I hope you’re all well and staying safe in this weather. I am looking forward to catching up with you all!

You may remember from a previous post that I created my own reading challenge for 2020 (click here for a recap) and today I wanted to share with you the book I read for January: Between Shades of Gray – Ruta Sepetys. This book completely took my breath away. It is exquisitely written, moving, powerful and evocative. Get yourselves a copy as soon as possible.

What’s it all about?

Firstly, the criteria for January was a tale that represents a new beginning. When I first started reading this book, I wasn’t really sure it fit the criteria but I continued because the book was just so bloody good. Regardless, this book absolutely represents the grit and determination of people wanting to survive in some of the cruelest places on earth. There’s love, kindness, compassion and hope, even when on the surface it appears to have completely gone.

The book is based on true historical events that took place following the expansion of the Soviet Union into the surrounding countries, prior to the Second World War. The novel starts in Lithuania, in the house of Lina. There’s a ominous boom at the door which brings fear and trepidation. Lina, her younger brother Jonas and her mother Elena are taken one night by the NKVD (a forerunner for the KGB) and placed on a goods train along with many other ‘criminals’. Their crime? Unknown. No court, no charge. Just a journey in a train with ‘thieves and prostitutes’ painted on the side. 

“Three NKVD officers had Mother encircled. ‘We need more time, we’ll be ready in the morning.’ ‘You have twenty minutes or you won’t live to see morning,’ said the officer. He threw his burning cigarette onto our clean living room floor and ground it into the wood with his boot. We were about to become cigarettes.”

Lina’s father is absent for this as he never returned home. At this stage we can only assume or guess why. Has he spoken out against Stalin?

From Lithuania the train travels into Siberia, a long cold, dangerous journey. Siberia does not sound like a place I’d ever want to be to be honest. Overcrowded, with no food or sanitation the cattle trucks soon become filthy and disease ridden. One by one the dead bodies begin to mount up.

Lina’s mother becomes a ray of hope amongst the devastation as she takes charge and tries to forge a purpose and unity from the scared, hungry and increasingly weak companions in their cattle truck. Her unflagging, unrelenting spirit drives them on. Lina loves to draw but in this desperate place all she can do is draw in the filth on the floor.

“I counted the people – forty-six packed in a cage on wheels, maybe a rolling coffin. I used my fingers to sketch the image in a layer of dirt on the floor near the front of the train car, wiping the drawings away and starting over, again and again.”

During this journey she meets Andrius and together they manage to make contact with people on some other trains heading into Siberia. They find Lani’s father, imprisoned on a different train but alive! He will escape, they will be together as a family again…

42 days of travelling in a cattle car and Lina arrives at Altai Labour Farm inside Siberia. They’ve had to travel with dead bodies, endure the taunting and brutality of their guards, even had a to shower in cold water with leering guards looking on.

Through all of this Lina’s mother has kept her safe, bribing guards with jewellery and money she had hidden in her clothing. For the moment however, the travelling was over. However, they were not greeted with warmth or kindness. Yet more hostility presented itself.

“ ‘What’s she saying?’ asked Jonas. ‘She says she has no room for filthy criminals,’ said Mother. The woman grabbed my hair and pulled it, yanking me towards the door to throw me out. Mother yelled and ripped the woman’s hand from my head, slapped her, and pushed her away. Jonas kicked her in the shin. The Altaian woman stared at us with angled black eyes.”

At this point the characters are forced now to work on a farm, given the bare minimum food to survive with their ration docked for any infringement of the rules, life gets worse and worse. (There is a clear link to the theme for this monthI promise!!)

The NKVD want them to sign a confession and agree to a sentence of 25 years, in return they will give them more food and permission to visit the nearby village. In an act of solidarity the prisoners refuse to sign, the only act of defiance they can muster.

Their solidarity does not last, (did it ever begin?) and the NKVD find some who will inform on the others, find some who will serve them in other even lesssavoury ways. The prisoners turn on each other, not knowing who to trust. Some sign, then more. They stop being a people and become a collection of individuals desperate to live one more day, desperate to find any ray of hope in order to survive. This was the key. Not living.Surviving.

“ ‘Mother, will there be potatoes for us tonight?” When we asked we were told we had to work to earn food. ‘If you worked for the NKVD, Mother, would they give you food?’ asked Jonas. ‘No my dear, they would give me empty promises,’ she replied, ‘which is worse than an empty belly.’”

 

Through all the brutality of the labour camp Lina continues to draw. This is a means of escape for the young girl, a sense of her old normal life. She manages to get paper and hides her drawings. She holds onto the dream of getting a message to her father, so he can come and rescue them.

Even though the prisoners are divided and manipulated by the NKVD, some sense of solidarity and humanity prevails. They celebrate birthdays, they find reasons to smile and sometimes they can help lift each other a little way out of the horror they are enduring. Illness comes, Jonas falls very ill. The NKVD refuse to feed him or provide a doctor. Elena manages again to protect her children, the fierce mother that she is. Amazingly, against all the odds, Jonas recovers.

Then, without warning, a number of them are selected. Herded again onto another train. Lina, Jonas and Elena are among those taken but Andrius is left behind. The journey leads them to a river and barges. They travel further and further north. Eventually they reach Trefimovsk, inside the Arctic circle. The conditions here make the farm seem like a luxury spa, freezing cold there are not even huts or shacks for shelter. The only buildings are for the guards, they are expected to build their own shelter from whatever is on the ground.

“It was completely uninhabited, not a single bush or tree, just barren dirt to a shore of endless water. We were surrounded by nothing but the polar tundra and the Laptev sea. ‘What you don’t like it? You think you are too good for this? Facist pig. Pigs sleep in the mud. Didn’t you know that?’ He moved closer to Mother. His corroded teeth protruded from under his top lip. ‘You pigs disgust me.’”

 

From here, life gets increasingly desperate. The prisoners are stick thin and fall ill easily. Elena’s indomitable spirit is finally crushed by the desperation of this place, by the brutality of their guards and most of all by the news that her husband has been shot. She slips into illness and her body slowly shuts down. Her only hope has been cruelty taken from her.

Winter comes and in this barren place on the edge of the world it is a terrible thing to endure. Especially when you are living in a makeshift shack with barely any food. The incrediable resilience of these wrongly accused people shines though. Desperate and down trodden though they are, the fact that they can still show compassion and still feel hope is remarkable.

The ending is a surprise for you! However, I will say it moved me to tears. It was the silent tears that you don’t even realise you’re spilling. That kind of emotion. So, in the words of the writer, I’ll end with this:

“Some wars are about bombing. For the people of the Baltics, this war was about believing. In 1991, after fifty years of brutal occupation, three Baltic countries regained their independence, peacefully and with dignity. They chose hope over hate, and showed the world that even through the darkest night, there is light.”

 

Final thoughts

This book is just incredible, in ever sense of the word. New beginnings were created by a sense of never ending hope for these people. The fact that it’s based on history means that I feel an overwhelming sense of loss when characters died, their pain was my pain and I desperately wanted them to survive. It’s the perfect book to start my reading challenge with.

February – Read a book that tells the story of love: good, bad or otherwise. For this I’ve chosen to read An American Marriage – Tayari Jones. I don’t know anything about it and I’ve not seen many reviews (haven’t looked to be fair!) so let’s see what this brings for the month of love! Obama and Oprah recommend it so that’s enough for me!

More to catch up on soon.

Big love to you all. Xx

 

 

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Filed under Book review, Historical Fiction, Reading, Reading Challenge 2020

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Mark Haddon

Hey Lovelies!

Hope you’re all well. January is racing by isn’t it? I can’t believe it’s the end of the month. I’m not entirely sure where that month has gone but I’ve been in a crazy blur of school. Would you believe me if I said I’ve been writing this post all week? Sigh. Anyway, today I’m here to review a book that I’ve recently re-read and that is the amazing The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. This book is so awesome in so many ways. Here goes!

What’s it all about?

Told through the eyes of fifteen year old Christopher John Francis Boone, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time tells the story of the discovery of a slain dog. Set in Swindon, Christopher discovers the neighbour’s poodle, Wellington, dead on the lawn. Christopher decides he is going to investigate this and find out exactly what happened to Wellington. Who is the murderer?

However, Christopher doesn’t have an easy life. As a reader we are given an insight into his life and how he copes with being autistic. Following an incident with a policeman, it is decided that Christopher should be taken into custody. They release him with a stern warning under one condition: he promises not to investigate the murder of Wellington.

Christopher writes his novel as part of a school project. He ignores regular pleas from his father and continues to investigate the murder more. He goes to the crime scene and conducts door to door interviews with the residents of his neighbourhood.

“All the other children at my school are stupid. Except I’m not meant to call them stupid, even though that is what they are.”

Whilst doing this, Christopher untangles more of a separate plot which involves his father and the owner of the slain dog, Mrs Shears, had a romantic affair. This relationship is as a consequence of his mother’s affair with Mr Shears. Naturally, this becomes quite messy and difficult for an autistic boy to handle. What is worse, Christopher’s mother is not part of the narrative at this point and hasn’t been in his life for a while.

Back at school, Christopher prepares himself for an A level Maths exam that he is absolutely certain to pass. This will give him the pathway he needs to go to university. This has not been achieved by any other student in his school. Meanwhile, he continues to work on his book and his investigating. Following his return home from school one day, Christopher finds his father incredibly answer. He realises he left his book open on the kitchen table.

His father had read the book and as a result was incredibly angry at Christopher for continuing to investigate when he was told not to. His father takes his book and hides it.

This then leads to Christopher’s next mini investigation. Where is the book? Perseverance pays off and eventually he finds it in his father‘s closet. Along with it, he finds letters addressed to him from his supposedly dead mother.

“…and there was nothing to do except to wait and to hurt.”

 

In these letters his mother tells stories of her life that she has continued to lead with Mr Shears. They live in London together after wanting a fresh start. One common thing within each letter is the repeated requests for Christopher to respond. In complete shock, Christopher passes out in his bedroom surrounded by the evidence of his father’s deception.

When his father comes home and realises what has happened, he breaks down in tears. He apologises for his lies and trying to explain the rationale behind his decisions. He basically wanted to keep the truth of his mother’s affair from him as this resulted in her abandonment. Following this, Christopher’s father admits to killing Wellington after an argument with Mrs Shears.

Christopher becomes terrified of his father. All previous trust has gone. Therefore, he decides he has to leave and go off in search of his mother. This journey is full of obstacles and challenges for Christopher. He’s surrounded by social fears and limitations of his condition means that this is exasperated. He dodges police and almost gets hit by a train. Eventually, he makes it to London and more specially his mother’s flat.

His arrival there causes shock and surprise to his mother. After all, this has come out of the blue following the wall of silence. Over the next few days, Christopher settles in for a time but it does begin to cause tensions with her and Mr Shears. There is a lack of space and a lack of compassion and understanding from Mr Shears. A decision is made by Christopher‘s mother – she is going to return to Swindon.

Christopher moves into a new apartment with his mother and begins a new life. He does eventually have visits from his father. When his pet rat, Toby, dies, Christopher’s father gives him a puppy.

At school, Christopher sits his Maths A Level and receives an A grade – the best possible score he could get. He plans to take more A Level exams in Physics and Further Maths the following year. After this, he wants to attend university in another town. He knows that he can do all of this because he was the one that solved the mystery of Wellington’s murder. He was brave and faced many fears. He found his mother. He wrote his book and this is the book that we are reading now.

I think prime numbers are like life. They are very logical but you could never work out the rules, even if you spent all your time thinking about it.”

 

Final Thoughts

I love so many things about this book. I love Christopher. I completely sympathise with his autism. I love the routines he has and how he feels when things disrupt the routine. For anyone that knows me, Maths and numbers are not an enjoyment of mine but I love the fact that the chapters are all prime numbers. The language is honest and relatable – the swearing makes it all the more authentic. This book is an absolute gem and one of my favourites.

Have an excellent weekend!

Big love xx

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