Posted in Book review, Books, Christmas, Reading, Reading Challenge 2020

Reading Challenge 2020: Letters From Father Christmas – J.R.R. Tolkien

Hey Loves!

Happy December! 🎅 🎄 Can you believe we are in the final month of 2020. What a strange and unique year it has been for so many reasons. Whilst the majority of this year has been spent apart, I’ve never felt closer to my blogging community. Together we’ve read and written and kept our own sense of normality going. It’s been really truly wonderful.

I must apologise for the absence. Anyone in education right now will tell you how challenging it is. I’ve been reading to keep my sane but the writing aspect has escaped me. I’ve written posts and deleted them, getting stuck half way.

However, I’m here today to share with you my book choice for the Reading Challenge 2020. The theme for this month was: Time for a festive story to close the year. The book I chose was Letters from Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien. There’s so many things I love about this book, I just couldn’t wait to tell you all about it.

What’s it all about?

First of all, I genuinely think this is one of the most beautiful editions of a book I own. This version is the centenary edition, published on the 100 year anniversary of the first letter ever sent to Tolkien’s eldest son, John, in 1920. It includes pictures of the letters, envelopes and drawings that Tolkien did for his children from 1920-1943. Every December, a envelope would arrive bearing a stamp from the North Pole and a letter from Father Christmas.

These letters are so utterly beautiful and magical that it was really hard for me not to pick them all to write about. However, that would ruin this remarkable book for everyone else. As well as writing from Father Christmas, we also see entries from the Polar Bear and one of the elves too. Each character is unique, their voice clear, their hearts pure.

“Inside you will find a magic wishing cracker: pull and wish for what you want, and see if you don’t get it next Christmas.”

Polar Bear gets himself into all sorts or antics, for he seems to be quite clumsy. The year 1925 shows us how the Polar Bear went onto the roof to collect Father Christmas’s hood that had blown off in bad weather, only to fall through the roof and into the house. Not only did the Polar Bear fall in, but vast amounts of snow did too causing the fires to go out and the cellar being flooded where all the toys were for that year.

In 1926, the reindeer broke loose and escaped. What would Father Christmas do without them? We see how they have ran away, throwing presents all around and tossing them in the air. We see worries from Father Christmas and hope that theirs aren’t broken. Christmas is a huge operation that with everyone helping out, even the Snowman.

“The Snow Man is addressing our envelopes this year. He is Father Christmas’s gardener – but we don’t get much but snowdrops and frost-ferns to grow here. He always writes in white, just with his finger.”

With each year that passes, another letter arrives and we see the acknowledgement that the children are getting older. In 1928, Father Christmas mentions John, who he believes is too old to write so guessed his presents. Chris and Michael are still sending him letters though, keeping the magic alive. We also see the reference to many more children being born with Father Christmas mentioning how different countries like England, Norway and Denmark, to name a few, have more children than previous Christmases. We see the joy and fears, the excitement and worries of Father Christmas. The writing throughout really brings him and the Polar Bear to life. 

“It is a good thing that clocks don’t tell the same time all over the world or I should never get around, although when my magic is strongest – at Christmas – I can do about a thousand stockings a minute, if I have it all planned out beforehand.”

1933 brings about a new problem: goblins. In the previous year, the goblins were severely punished for stealing all the presents. Polar Bear said he could smell something bad and as a result, became incredibly restless. One evening, the goblins had set fire to the stores and captured several gnomes in the process. They also broke into the stables and stole the reindeer! Thankfully Polar Bear was there to save the day.

 Towards the end of the book in 1936, we see the new addition of red and green elves living with Father Christmas to help with the packing. Ilbereth the elf pens a letter to tell the children all about their adventures and excitements. Unfortunately, after working quite hard Polar Bear became quite tired and fancied a bath. He fell asleep, covering the overflow, causing a huge flood in the Delivery Room. Disaster! 

“Well, there is one thing: those children at Northpole Road, Oxford (he always says that) may lose some of their presents, but they will have a letter worth hearing this year.”

Towards the end, Father Christmas is just writing to Priscilla. I found this part of the book most poignant and it made me a bit teary actually. Growing up is inevitable and it means we lose the magic of Christmas. The final letter is Father Christmas saying goodbye. 

“I suppose you will be hanging up your stocking just once more: I hope so for I still have a few little things for you. After this I shall have to say “goodbye”, more or less: I mean I shall not forget you…”

And with this, the letters stop and the novel ends. 

Final Thoughts
Well, what a way to finish and complete my Reading Challenge 2020! What a beautiful, magical, sublime little book. It made me value the traditions I made with my own family at Christmas. I also really wished that I had something like this as a little girl too. Imagine being fortunate enough to grow up with this. Sadly, as we all know, growing up means we lose the magic of Christmas. However, for me, a little part of it has remained alive because of this book. I love Christmas and this book has got me right in the festive mood. Two weeks of school left…

Continue to keep safe and well everyone.

As always, big love to you all. xx

Posted in Book review, Books, Historical Fiction, Reading, Reading Challenge 2020

Reading Challenge 2020: Cilka’s Journey – Heather Morris

Happy Sunday Lovelies!!

I hope you’re all well. This post comes a bit later than I anticipated really. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this utterly shattered and defeated really. It’s hard at the moment but to keep myself going I’ve just been reading and buying plenty of books! I mean, who wouldn’t? Today I want to share with you a book I have had sat on my shelf since the day it was published: Cilka’s Journey by Heather Morris. There’s no particular reason as to why this has sat on my bookcase for a little over a year. It’s more of a case of having to be prepared to read about such sadness and resilience. You’ve got to feel strong enough.

The theme and focus of this month for the reading challenge was: November: Something that has been sat on your bookshelf / TBR list that casts a backwards glance. Well, this book certainly does that! If you’ve been keeping an eye on my reading challenge or would like some more information, click here. For those of you who have been around for a while, you’ll remember my post on Morris’s first novel The Tattooist of Auschwitz (click here!) Anyway, I just had to be prepared for another emotional and potentially heart breaking story.

This book is beautiful in so many ways. I really hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

What’s it all about?
This book is the sequel to The Tattooist of Auschwitz, this time based on the true story of a person who survived Auschwitz Birkenau and ten years in a Russian Gulag in Siberia. Cilka Klein is introduced to us in the first book where we hear Lale Sokolov’s story. Sokolov knew Klein at Auschwitz where she was sent in 1942. She was only sixteen years of age. The tale is retold using research and interviews. Some characters are naturally fiction or an amalgamation of many faces and people she met. The most important and poignant factor is that the story is real. This is a story of survival.

“She is just surviving, Cilka has often thought. There is no one way to do it.”

Cilka quickly learnt that survival meant that she had to give the men in the camp exactly what they wanted. Two Nazi officers take a shining to her and they repeatedly rape her. She stays alive by allowing constant and repeated humiliation and abuse whilst in her role as the Jewish guard in the building in which Jewish women are sent to their death. It is here that she sees her own mother led and killed.

“She hopes she will be able to explain to Josie later that he can have her body and that is all; he cannot have her mind, her heart, her soul.”

From here she is sent to the Siberian Gulag because the Russians see her as a German collaborator because of the ‘relations’ she has had with the two Nazi officers. It is here she spends the next ten years of her life. There’s further rape, hard labour and complete and utter despair. What shines through the book though, more importantly, is friendship, courage, beauty and her will to keep the women in her block alive, as well as herself. Their hut is remarkable. The woman mostly work together to try and make it homely, stitching fabric and putting flowers from outside in a broken cup. Her closest friend, Josie, burns her hand and Cilka acts fast to save her by putting her hand in the snow. It is here that she learns about the hospital wing and meets the woman who will help save her life. Never forget the name Yelena Georgiyevna.

As Cilka learns how to be a nurse we see the narrative split into the past and present. Cilka has regular flashbacks to her life at the concentration camp. These are weaved with what events of the Siberian camp to show us exactly the horrors that Cilka experienced. It’s utterly harrowing. I had to keep reminding myself of her age when I was reading. Her whole youth taken from her.

“She didn’t choose it. It just happened.”

Yelena can clearly see that there’s plenty on this girls mind. But she is a good nurse and in demand from the patients. She experiences life on the main ward, the maternity ward where she learns to deliver babies and ultimately changes how the nursery is ran. She spends time in the ambulance, going to various calls outs where mines have collapsed. She faces these challenges head on, only to really think about what she has achieved later. Cilka opens up to her mentor, Yelena and it is here we learn her true story.

“The first day I saw you I felt there was something about you, a strength, a sense of self-knowledge that I rarely see. And now, with the little you told me, I don’t know what to say except that you are very brave.”

The end of the novel gives the reader hope. Cilka falls in love, escapes and does get to live a life outside of a prison camp. As heart warming as that is, for me it isn’t the most important part of the story. It’s the fact that she is given a voice. She shows how at such a young age she knew she had what it takes to survive. We see her sacrifice herself on so many occasions. She doesn’t harden or become cruel. Quite the opposite. She is given the opportunity to be free: she nominates Josie and her baby. She saves lives. She talks to very sick patients and gives them a soft exit from this world. She cares and she fights and ultimately it saves her life.

“It’s time to live now, Cilka,” he says. “Without fear, and with the miracle of love.” “Is that a poem?” she asks him, smiling through her tears. “It is the beginning of one.”

I hope we never have to live through events like this again. What is just as important is that these heroes, these young people, have a voice today to share their stories which at the time probably didn’t mean anything to them. It was just the daily grind to get through. Now we can share the stories and humbly reflect on how lucky we truly are.

“Stories like Cilka’s deserve to be told, and I’m humbled and honored to bring it to you. She was just a girl, who became a woman, who was the bravest person Lale Sokolov ever met.”

Final Thoughts
This book is moving, beautiful, poignant and utterly compelling. I read it in one sitting because I literally just couldn’t go to sleep without knowing what happened. You can tell Morris researches the historical details yet this doesn’t turn into a heavy book. The beauty of friendship and sisterhood is something that relates to today. All of us have a fight or flight instinct. Cilka’s was definitely to fight and boy, what a fight she gives. Like many, I did wonder if this book would be as good as the first. However, enough time has passed between the two for me to be able to make a fair judgement. It is just as good, if not better. Morris really has created a masterpiece.

Continue to look after yourselves everyone. Stay safe.

Big love all xx

Posted in Book review, Books, Halloween, Reading, Reading Challenge 2020

Reading Challenge 2020: The Familiars – Stacey Halls

Hey lovelies!

I hope you’re all well. For me, I’m so grateful to see half term. Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as exhausted as I do now. Working in a school through the pandemic is a challenge itself. I keep thinking I should write a book about it! Thankfully I’ve been reading plenty, ranging from fiction to non fiction. It’s the writing side of things that seems to have fallen away from me… I can only apologise for my absence. I’ve tried to keep in touch with you all but I know it’s been a while.

Now I’m on half term, it’s time to catch up with all those posts I should have written and comments I should have left to you beautiful people. I also want to make a few tweaks to my blog to keep it fresh and updated. It’s a work in progress I think!

Anyway, today’s post is a review of the book I chose for the October theme of my reading challenge: a spooky story that reflects the Halloween season. I went for The Familiars because I’ve seen so many positive comments and reviews, I just had to read it for myself! It really was a brilliant read. I picked it up yesterday morning and finished it last night. Here goes!

What’s it all about?

The novel is set over 400 years ago at the time of the great Pendle Witch Trials in Lancashire. We meet our heroine, the wonderfully named Fleetwood Shuttleworth. 17 years old, married to Richard, a nobleman of Gawthorpe Hall.

Fleetwood carries a burden, she is pregnant. Yet, she hasn’t had much luck with any of her previous pregnancies. Her duty is to bear her husband an heir. She has failed before, miscarriages and still births. Her value is intrinsically linked to a successful pregnancy, a baby may be worth her life in her husband’s eyes. She’s bordering obsessed with having a child, believing that that is all she is meant to do in life.

Fleetwood is desperate to be the mother Richard wants but she has read a doctor’s letter saying she will die if she gets pregnant again. Why hasn’t Richard told her? Does he want a child more than her wants her? Suffering with her pregnancy and plagued with doubts Fleetwood engages Alice, a young midwife that she met on their land. Alice is a mystery but becomes a very close friend to Fleetwood.

“Loyalty is earned, not demanded.”

Alice knows the uses of herbs and poultices which help Fleetwood and restore her health. But her learning and knowledge has the ring of witchcraft, of the ‘wise women’ who are now feared and reviled by the church and state. Roger, the magistrate and Richard’s mentor is leading the prosecution against the Pendle witches. Accused of cursing a peddler over some metal needles Roger has arrested Alizon Device and is using the testimony of a child, Jennet Device, to arrest others. Alice is implicated by Jennet and a warrant is issued for her arrest.

In a shock discovery Fleetwood finds out that Richard is keeping a mistress at her childhood home and that this lady is also pregnant. She feels sure that she is going to die in childbirth and be replaced. Part of her insecurities tell her she’s already been replaced anyway.

“If the Devil is poverty, and hunger, and grief, then yes, I think they know the Devil.”

She confronts Richard and leaves Gawthorpe Hall to go back to her mother. She takes Alice with her and calls her by another name to keep her safe from arrest. Fleetwood is sure that Alice can keep her alive and healthy throughout the pregnancy. The bond between the two ever tightening.

Eventually Richard persuades her to return to Gawthorpe Hall and she does so but on her arrival, Alice is arrested and taken to Lancaster Castle to be imprisoned. Fleetwood is devastated and begs Roger, as a family friend, as her friend, to relent and release Alice to her custody. Roger has no time for her pleas, he sees only his career and reputation at court. The prattling of a silly girl carries no weight and the life of her midwife, a commoner and a woman is beneath his concern.

“Alice Gray saved my life, not just once but many times. When I itched, she brought me plants to rub on my skin. When I was sick, she made me tinctures. She kept me company when I was at my lowest. She planted a garden for my health.’
‘Sounds like a witch to me, Richard said bitterly.”

The novel ends in such an unexpecting way that I really don’t want to ruin it. All I will say is both the female characters here are incredibly courageous. I was thrilled with the ending and the final chapter being five years later gave me the resolve I desperately wanted.

Final Thoughts

I didn’t expect to read this book in a day. I didn’t expect to open it and be transported back 400 years into a time of fictionalised history. Halls changed some details but the fact that this is real history intrigues me. I will absolutely be reading her next book, The Foundling. Oh, and how beautiful is the cover?!

With regard to the reading challenge, the focus for November is: Something that has been sat on your bookshelf / TBR list that casts a backwards glance. Come back to see what I’ve got planned for this.

Keep safe and well everyone.

Big love

Posted in Book review, Books, Reading, Reading Challenge 2020

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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Posted in American Literature, Book review, Literature, Reading, Reading Challenge 2020

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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Posted in Book review, Nature, Reading, Reading Challenge 2020

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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Posted in Book review, Books, Reading, Reading Challenge 2020

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

Posted in Book review, Historical Fiction, 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

 

 

Posted in Books, Reading, Reading Challenge 2020

Reading Challenge 2020

Hello Everyone!

Happy January and equally, happy 2020! A new decade is upon us to make our mark and do the things we love. Where have the last 10 years gone though..?

You may remember from a previous post that I was frantically researching for a reading challenge for this year. There’s plenty out there but each had bits to them I wasn’t really keen on. I also didn’t want to use The Book of the Month from Waterstones either because that was too rigid and a slight problem if there was something I didn’t quite fancy. Therefore, whilst having lunch with a friend, I decided to try and create one.

The categories are as follows:

January- A tale that represents a new beginning

February – Read a book that tells the story of love: good, bad or otherwise

March – Try a book with a non human narrator

April – Focus on a story of nature and/or the spring season

May – Read a book about hope and growth

June – Find a novel with a child narrator

July – Murder and intrigue abound this month

August – A summer read to an exotic place

September – A tale that leads to adventure and excitement

October – A spooky story that reflects the Halloween season

November – Something that has been sat on your bookshelf / TBR list that casts a backwards glance

December – Time for a festive story to close the year.

That’s it! I wanted to keep it seasonal and also provide the scope for variety too. I believe there’s room to branch out into different books I wouldn’t normally have thought of too as well as the flexibility to finally read those books that have been sat on my shelf for a year or five. (Please tell me it’s not just me who has this issue…) Each of these will be accompanied by a review on here too.

This month: new beginnings. Just a quick Google search brings up a fair few ideas for this one. January is the time for resolutions and changes after all. After some extensive research, I’ve decided to go for this:

Synopsis:

One night fifteen-year-old Lina, her mother and young brother are hauled from their home by Soviet guards, thrown into cattle cars and sent away. They are being deported to Siberia. 

An unimaginable and harrowing journey has begun. Lina doesn’t know if she’ll ever see her father or her friends again. But she refuses to give up hope.

Lina hopes for her family.
For her country.
For her future.
For love – first love, with the boy she barely knows but knows she does not want to lose . . .

Will hope keep Lina alive?

Set in 1941, Between Shades of Gray, is an extraordinary and haunting story based on first-hand family accounts and memories from survivors.

I’ve never heard of the book or the film before so I’m starting the year with something new and exciting. I like the blurb too so here’s hoping that it will be a good book to start the reading challenge with. I can’t wait to get going!

What about you, my lovely blogging friends? Are you taking part in any reading challenges? Feel free to dip into this one if you like! Regardless, let me know how you’re getting on. After all, you guys are the reason why my shelves are overflowing!

Wishing you all the best for 2020! Until next time. Happy reading. 📚

Big love xx