Posted in Book review, Books, Reading, Reading Challenge 2021

Reading Challenge 2021: A Double Life – Charlotte Philby

Hello!

I hope you’re all doing well. Today I need to catch up with you all regarding my reading challenge book for July. You may remember from my previous post that it was the first time this year that I didn’t read this book in the month it was from. Eek! Never mind. I made sure it was the first book I read in August so it’s not too bad…

Anyway, the focus for July was: Read a book where your name is on the cover (title or author) Now for me, there are some really obvious ones: the Charlotte Bronte novels, Charlotte’s Web by E.B.White, Charlotte by Helen Moffatt, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman etc. However, I wanted to go for one I’ve never read before and hopefully never heard of before. The whole point of the reading challenge is to push myself. My final decision was A Double Life by Charlotte Philby. I liked the cover and the blurb was intriguing so it made sense to me. Let’s get on with the review.

What’s it all about?

First of all, my review may not be as long as usual. I don’t want to ruin any surprises for you – so forgive me for the elusiveness of it! However, I’ve given you just enough to tempt you in – hopefully!

The novel centres around two very separate and very different and contrasting women: Gabriela and Isobel. These women are worlds apart but by the end of the novel, we see how there’s ‘two sides to every story’ and then we know the truth too.

Firstly, Gabriela who is a senior operator in a FCO counter terrorism unit, leading a small Whitehall based team. She’s ambitious and is desperate to be promoted and acknowledged with accolades in that field. She’s also the family breadwinner whilst her partner (an interesting character in itself – he comes across as quite feeble) Tom, a freelance architect, looks after their children.

In stark contrast to her ordered life, complicated only by the over familiar FCO creep of a boss, Emsworth, Isobel is a mess. A journalist who has failed to see just how good she could be and as a result, drifts this an alcohol and drug endured haze of an existence. She works for a local paper in Camden, writing local news stories with very little enthusiasm.

One evening Isobel witnesses a horrific attack whilst walking home from a party. She didn’t feel like she could report it because of being under the influence of alcohol and drugs. She made the assumption that no one would believe her or that her statement wouldn’t be reliable. Yet, someone knows she was there and makes themselves known to her in a number of frightening ways. The journalist in her knows there’s a story here so starts to investigate. Little did she know that she would end up in the murky waters of a dark network of human trafficking and exploitation.

‘As I talk him through the details, I feel the events of Saturday morning begin to fade, the woman’s face sweeping in and out of focus in my mind like a figure stepping in and out of the shadows, until, for the moment, she vanished altogether.’

When Gabriela returns from her seven month trip to Moscow, her life begins to fall apart at the seams. The promotion she so desperately wanted eludes her, she actually ends up losing her job instead, and it makes her completely disillusioned, questioning the value of her life and all that’s within it. She loves her children but is adamant she doesn’t want to be a stay at home mum.

Whilst working in Moscow, she meets a very charming and charismatic gentleman, Ivan. She falls for him and they start to have an intimate relationship. She barely knows anything about him and the information she gives him about herself isn’t exactly the truth… She falls pregnant and flees back to Moscow leaving her two children behind with Tom. In Moscow, she decides to have the baby, a little girl, and have a double life. Meanwhile, Isobel is getting closer to finding out what is actually happening. The links between the two women are getting clearer…

‘But she loved Ivan, that was also a fact. He was the antidote to everything she resented about her life with Tom, and so, unlikely as it might seem to some, she reasoned that moving between these two worlds was the perfect solution. As long as no one found out, and maybe they didn’t have to.’

These two women are so desperate that the novel is essentially a story of hide and seek. One is desperate to hide the truth whilst the other is desperate to reveal it. The lives of the two women converge through the auspices of Madeline, Gabriela’s former FCO mentor, now leading a unit at the National Crime Agency, investigating trafficking and prostitution. By the end of the novel, everything becomes clear and the truth is out.

‘For a moment, as Madeline had spoken, she’d felt sorry for him. All along, he was waiting for her to tell him she’d chosen him. Despite all the evidence telling him she would never leave her family, he had still chosen to believe she would.’

Final Thoughts

Well, as books go, this one was quite a good read. However, I didn’t realise it was part of a series. I’ve never read or heard of the first book so I feel like I need to go back there to see if some of the clues are given. By the end of this book, I must say I had many questions. But, it seems there is a third book coming out which I’m sure will answer them. For me, I’m not great with series – sometimes the commitment puts me off. Also, there’s nothing more disappointing than a really good start and a poor finish. (Not that I’m saying this has happened here!) I did enjoy reading this book and found myself not liking the women either way really which was an interesting reaction. You could argue that it takes a while to find out how the two are linked as it isn’t revealed until right at the end of the book but it’s questionable. I guess it’s to keep the sense of mystery. Regardless, I like the mix of Russia and London and found this really helped with the double life ideal of the novel.

All in all, this was an enjoyable read if not frustrating because I didn’t have all the information. Would I have picked this book if I’d have known? Probably not. BUT I am grateful I did because it was a worthwhile read. The writing style is good and as Charlotte’s go, Philby clearly is a talented one!

I’ll see you next time for more reviews from my sun lounger! Long live the summer! Take care all!

Big love xxxx

Posted in Book review, Reading, Reading Challenge 2021

Reading Challenge 2021: Stella – Takis Würger

Hello Lovelies!

I hope you’re all safe and well. As always, I am still playing catch up but that’s ok. I’ve bought a lot of books this week which is always exciting but now I just need to find the time to read them all. Evenings and weekends are not enough. If only we could have a five day weekend and a two day working week… now that would be useful!

Anyway, I am here today to share with you the book I read for the Reading Challenge for May. The focus for the month of May was: Read a book that is based on real life events. Now, in the current situation we find ourselves still living in, I wanted to avoid anything related to the pandemic. I’ve read some brilliant books centred on this during this but I think I’m just desperate for this all to be over now really. Therefore, I went for a war related story of which there are many! Stella by Takis Würger was heartbreaking in many ways but so well written it was bordering sublime. This book is dedicated to the great grandfather of the author, so it feels personal too. This novel was released back in March and I finally managed to get my hands on a copy. It fits the theme of the month perfectly being as it is a blended approach of fact and fiction, incorporating excerpts from witness statements documented at a postwar trial of the real-life Stella Goldschlag, who continued to inform for the Gestapo throughout the war. I knew little about her so really wanted to learn more from the novel and to have my eyes opened just a little bit further.

I can’t wait to share this with you now. This will probably be much shorter because I don’t want to spoil anything for you. The magic behind this book needs to be experienced when reading it, not by me now. Don’t forget, if you’d like to take part or find out more information on my reading challenge, please click here. Here goes!


What’s it all about?
Set in Berlin during World War II, the novel focuses around Friedrich, a Swiss national who is travelling through Europe. To begin with, the war seems a distant thing happening to others elsewhere and not something to be mindful of at this stage. Whilst in Berlin, Friedrich meets Tristan, an affable Berliner who takes him under his wing. He meets him in a jazz club on evening which has become illegal under the Nazi morality laws. He is obsessed with a singer at the club called Kristin. The trio then form a friendship together and start to attend a variety of different social events together. They socialise more often than not and appear to be very much a unit. Then, it is through these social events or parties that the the spectre of Nazi Germany begins to rear its ugly head. At a party attended by SS officers and other Nazi party officials, Friedrich sees both his friends joining in with anti-semitic songs and jokes. He begins to wonder who his friends are and how they can have such monstrous views.

‘Every day in Germany I had been going through this, acting as if I could live with what was happening to the Jews in Germany. I’d put up with the flags with swastikas and with the people greeting me and roaring at me with their right arms outstretched. At this moment, I felt how wrong this was.’

Over time, there is a growing sense that there is something hidden, something not quite known about Kristin. We know that she is a Jew and we know that she has to keep her identity hidden from everyone. Friedrich has fallen in love with her and couldn’t care less about her background or religion. They spend hours together but she never stays over night with him. However, there is unease throughout the whole narrative whereby we hear new rules specified by the regime as a constant reminder that war is ever approaching; coming one step closer to them each and every day. The narrative splits to give us police reports, representing a later period of time, where people are being questioned about what was happening at the time. This blended structure means that we are torn between the past and the present as the narrative evolves. Regardless, the war creeps closer and the rules become much tighter and the lives of the Jewish people are constrained further.

‘The eight commandment of Dr. Joseph Goebbel’s Ten Commandments for Every National Socialist is issued: “Don’t be a rowdy anti-Semite, but beware of the Berliner Tageblatt.”.’

It is really difficult to explore the plot further without revealing the secrets hidden within. However, we were right to feel that things are not as they seem regarding Kristin. Whilst Kristin returns Friedrich’s affection, she also disappears for days at a time with no warning or explanation. It becomes clear that she has another, hidden life where she is working for ‘undesirables’ who have some kind of hold over her. This doesn’t seem to be a choice she would make willingly, but it shows the corruption of the human soul in order to make people do atrocious things to others. We are much more used to reading books about the heroes of the war, who fight and stand up for what is right. Nevertheless, this book tells us a story which is more likely to be common which challenges a reader still today.

‘Her cheeks were sunken; she had a scarf wrapped around her head. She had bruises under both eyes. One of her eyeballs was also dark – blood had seeped into the vitreous body… “I thought you left me.” “I wasn’t careful enough,” she said again. “Not careful enough.”‘

Unfortunately, there is no happy ending in this book. That is the nature of life sometimes and especially during a period of time like this. One thing that is clear though, is that by the end of the novel all the mystery and elusive strands all come together to complete the narrative. We learn the truth about Kristin and the extent of her own story. Friedrich, Tristan and Kristin all make individual choices that lead them to very different experiences. They are tied or linked together as this trio of friends but they each ultimately have a different ending. This novel gives you a eyeopening, heartbreaking insight into what it would have been like during this period.


Final Thoughts
In many ways, this book was difficult to read and challenging to write about. I’ve made a very conscious effort to not ruin anything at all. One thing I can and will repeatedly say is that it is incredibly well written. The writer’s own personal links with this mean that, like I said at the start, it feels more real. It’s always problematic to say you enjoyed reading a book like this but the honest reaction of mine is that it was uncomfortable, unnerving and horrifying. It explores the nature of love and betrayal. It also gets us to challenge what we think is real or right. It’s a powerful piece, structured in months with an opening summary of the Nazi atrocities. When you become wrapped up in the characters, this serves as a reminder that it is built up on real life events. Friedrich serves as a moral compass – he thinks and notices – but he’s also a fool in love. To repeat, this book needs a read but it will be harrowing along the way.

I hope you enjoyed this review. I apologise that I didn’t manage to get this done in May but I’ve been sitting on it and the uncomfortable nature of it. I’ve also been battling with what to reveal and what not to.

I’ll be back next time to share with you the book I read for June and hopefully sharing some other excellent reads along the way too! Stay safe and well everyone!

Big love xxx

Posted in Books, Reading, Reading Challenge 2021

2021!

Hello Lovelies!

Happy New Year to you all. We can all agree that 2020 challenged us in so many different ways – ways that we just didn’t expect. What 2020 did give us was time to read some amazing books. I know last year gave me the opportunity to really lose myself in books. I read more than I think I’ve ever done before. It gave me the release from the real world that I know we all found necessary at times. When my school closed and we went into a lockdown, I felt really lost for a while. I’d gone from seeing hundreds of people every day to seeing no one. It had been a really surreal year but one I doubt we’ll ever forget. Regardless, there’s nothing I love more than reading a good book and then sharing it with you amazing people. 📚

2020 was also the first year I wrote my own reading challenge and I’m so proud to say that I completed it too! A different theme each month really encouraged me to broaden my horizons and read things that had either been sat on my shelf for years or branch out into new writers and genres I’d never considered or knew about. I joined various book subscriptions which also gave me new and exciting reads. I’m so chuffed with it that I’ve written a fresh new challenge for 2021 which I am exceptionally excited about.

Naturally, 2020 wouldn’t have been the same without you. I say it regularly but the blogging community is the gift that keeps giving. You’re all so inspiring and lovely. It’s such a privilege to be a part of it. 💖 I’m sure I’m not the only one who really felt that despite the world being in isolation, we were really more together than ever before. Thank you.

So, let’s round up 2020 and launch the reading challenge for 2021!

2020 – Books read: 148

Dr. Nick Edwards – In Stitches: The Highs and Lows of Being an A&E Doctor
Gillian Flynn- The Grownup
Mark Haddon -The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Lee Child – Past Tense
Meg Rosoff – There Is No Dog
Nicci French – Beneath the Skin
Antoine de Sait-Exupery – The Little Prince 
Ruth Sepetrys – Between Shades of Gray
Lindsay McCrae – My Penguin Year – Living with Emperors – A Journey of Discovery
Mitch Albom – For One More Day
Vanessa Curtis – Zelah Green – One More Little Problem
David Walliams – The Midnight Gang
Terence Frisby – Kisses on a Postcard
Annie Spence – Dear Fahrenheit 451
Greta Thunberg – No One is Too Small to Make a Difference
Val Emmich – Dear Evan Hansen
Sara Pennypacker – Pax
Tayari Jones – An American Marriage
Onjali Q Rauf – The Day We Met the Queen
JP Delaney – Believe Me
Laure Ellen Anderson – Amelia Fang and the Bookworm Gang
Mona Awad – 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl
Jack London – The Call of the Wild
Kate DiCamillo – The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane
Graeme Simsion – The Rosie Project
Hazel Prior – Away with the Penguins
Harlen Coben – The Stranger
Margarita Montimore – The Rearrange Life of Oona Lockhart
Peter James – The Secret of Cold Hill
Claire Pooley – The Authenticity Project
David Walliams – Slime
Beth O’Leary – The Flat Share
Isabella Wilding – Wilding
Lia Louis – Somewhere Close to Happy
Chloe Coles – Bookshop Girl
Brian Bilston – Diary of a Somebody
Jo Middleton – Play Groups & Prosecco
Harper Lee – Go Set a Watchman
Michelle Harrison – A Sprinkle of Sorcery
Rory Dunlop – What We Didn’t Say 
Beth O’Leary – The Switch
Katharine Arden – The Winter of the Witch
J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
Phil Earle – Mind the Gap
Nick Spalding – Fat Chance
Alice Munroe – Queenie
J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Freya Lewis – What Makes us Stronger
Graeme Simsion – The Rosie Effect
Claire Hutson – Art & Soul
Chloe Coles – Life’s a Beach
E Lockhart – Again, Again
Emma Carroll – Letters from the Lighthouse
Fredrik Backman – My Grandmother Sends her Regards and Apologies
J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Graeme Simsion – The Rosie Result
David Foenkinos – The Mystery of Henri Pick
Stephanie Green – The Heathrow Doctor
Sophie Kinsella – Finding Audrey
Beatrix Potter – The World of Peter Rabbit (1-23)
Annika Perry – Oscar’s Quest
J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Durian Sukegawa – Sweet Bean Paste
J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Elisa Shua Dusapin – Winter in Sokcho
Claire Chambers – Small Pleasures
Michael Connelly – The Black Echo
Patrick Hoffman – Clean Hands
Zoe Folbigg – The Distance
Katherine Heiny – Standard Deviation
Nadia Marks – One Summer in Crete
Holly Seddon – Love Will Tear us Apart
J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Sophie Kinsella – The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic
Robin Sloan – Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore
Sophie Kinsella – Shopaholic Abroad
Laura Imai Messina – The Phonebox at the Edge of the World
Rose Black – The Unforgetting
Dorothy Strachey – Olivia
Mhairi McFarlane – If I Never Met You
Sophie Kinsella – Shopaholic Ties the Knot
Taylor Jenkins Reid – Evidence of the Affair
Lynda Le Plante – Buried
Olivia Beirne – The Accidental Love Letter
Sarah J Naughton – Mothers
Phaedra Patrick – The Secrets of Sunshine
Kate Bradley – I Took You to Keep You Safe
Alex Quigley – Closing the Reading Gap
Katerina Diamond – The Heatwave
Sanjida Kay – One Year Later
Ayisha Malik – Sofia Khan is Not Obliged
Helen Moffett – Charlotte
Michelle Campbell – The Wife Who Knew Too Much
Sam Carrington – One Little Lie
Jessica Jarlvi – When I Wake Up
Christian White – The Nowhere Child
Johnathan Swift – Gulliver’s Travels
Jim Dwyer & Kevin Flynn – 102 Minutes
Matt Haig – The Midnight Library
Ayisha Malik – The Other Half of Happiness
Dominic Pimenta – Duty of Care
Lisa Unger – Confessions on the 7:45
Gill Sims – Why Mummy Drinks
Hong Ying – K: The Art of Love
John Boyne – The Boy at the Top of the Mountain
William Shakespeare – Macbeth
Chris & Rosie Ramsey – Sh**ged. Married. Annoyed.
Nicola Yoon – Everything Everything
Ferdinand von Schirach – The Girl Who Wasn’t There
Deryn Mansell – Tiger Stone
Gill Sims – Why Mummy’s Sloshed
Anton du Beke – A Christmas to Remember
Stacey Halls – The Familiars
Christopher Skaife – The Ravenmaster
Carmel Harrinton – The Woman at 72 Derry Lane
Vanessa Tait – The Pharmacist’s Wife
Karen Dionne – Home
Vicky Zimmerman – The Woman Who Wanted More
Mark Roberts – Blood Mist
Romesh Ranganathan – As Good as it Gets
Chan Ho-Kei – The Borrowed
S.J. Bennett – The Windsor Knot
Heather Morris – Cilka’s Journey
Brad Parks – The Last Act
Shaun Bythell – Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops
Maria Timon – City of Spies
Deborah Bee – Every Move You Make
Marilyn Shimon – First One In, Last One Out
Anton du Beke – One Enchanted Evening
Anton du Beke – Moonlight Over Mayfair
J.R.R. Tolkien – Letters From Father Christmas
Helley Acton – The Shelf
Charles Dickens – A Christmas Carol
Dr Seuss – How the Grinch Stole Christmas
Giovanna Fletcher – You’re the One I Want
Peter Swanson – All the Beautiful Lies
Grace Dent – Hungry
Andreas Pfluger – In the Dark
Katharine Kirlalea – Ok, Mr Field
Sarah Franklin – How to Belong
Elly Griffiths – The Postscript Murders
Gill Sims – Why Mummy Swears
B.A. Paris – Behind Closed Doors
Tara Moore – Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories 
Tom Allen – No Shame
Christopher de Vinck – Ashes 
Richard Osman – The Thursday Murder Club

Looking at that list, I feel immensely proud. Reading the titles again where some jump out at me – gifts from friends, amazing stories that I’ve finally read etc. Whatever the context, I’m so glad I’ve got books. 📖

Time to look to 2021! I’ve thought hard about this reading challenge. They’re meant to be fun and achievable and that’s exactly what I’ve gone for. If you’ve got any book suggestions based on these themes let me know!

January – Read a book that is set anywhere in the world you want to visit. 
February – Read a book by an author who was born in this month. 
March – Read a book that was gifted to you. 
April – Read a book with a one word title. 
May – Read a book that is based on real life events. 
June – Read a debut novel this month. 
July – Read a book where your name is on the cover (title or author)
August – Read a book which takes you to the beach. 
September – Read a traditional fairy tale. 
October – Read a book with an orange cover. 
November – Read a book by an author who died more than 100 years ago. 
December – Read a book with a beautiful cover. 

Ta-da! And there it is in all its glory. I didn’t want to repeat previous themes and I wanted it to be as open as it could be so I could read plenty. I hope you accompany me on the reading journey of 2021.

Have an amazing 2021. I’ll be right there with you!

As always, big love to you all. xxx

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

Reading Challenge 2020: Gulliver’s Travels – Johnathan Swift

Hey Lovelies!!

I hope you’re all okay. I’ve been trying really hard to keep up with you beautiful people but daily life is very full on. School is busy but we are doing well. That’s all that matters. For me personally, I’m absolutely exhausted but reading has been a really good relief for me. I’ve enjoyed being able to float off into different worlds.

For this month, the topic for the reading challenge was: a tale that leads to adventure and excitement. I wanted to tap into the classics for this because, despite doing many of these at university, I had clear gaps in my classic knowledge. Therefore, I decided to read Gulliver’s Travels by Johnathan Swift. I knew very little about it so went into this with fresh eyes. It absolutely fitted this months focus. Here goes!

What’s it all about?

The novel is structured into four parts which represent different places Lemuel Gulliver travelled to. The first part is all about his journey to Lilliput from May 4th 1969 – 13th April 1702. He ends up here because Gulliver is washed ashore after a shipwreck and finds himself taken prisoner. His captives are a race of tiny, tiny people, less than 6 inches tall. They are the residents of the island of Lilliput. Because of his normal human size, they’re naturally cautious of him. He promises them that he will behave admirably and as a result, is given residency of the island. He becomes a favourite of the Royal Court and is given different permissions. An example of this is that he is to allowed go around the city as long as he doesn’t hurt any of the inhabitants.

To begin with, the Lilliputians are friendly and hospitable. However, his size continually causes them fear and concern. Gulliver also learns that they place great emphasis on trivial matters which clearly mean a lot to them. An example of this is, which end of an egg a person cracks becomes the basis of a deep political rift within that nation.

‘The tiny Lilliputians surmise that Gulliver’s watch may be his god, because it is that which, he admits, he seldom does anything without consulting.’

The people are ones who revel in displays of authority and performances of power. Gulliver assists the Lilliputians by stealing a fleet that belongs to the Blefuscudians. The King and his company are deeply unhappy with him. Therefore, they decide to charge him with treason even though he was helping them. He is convicted and sentenced to be blinded.

Amazingly, he decides that he has to escape and manages to do so with a little help. He spots an abandoned boat and sails out to be rescued by a passing ship. He manages to return home.

Part Two is a voyage to Brobdingnag from 20th June 1702 – 3rd June 1706. Gulliver sets sail but his ship is blown off course by storms. As a result, he’s forced to sail for land in search of fresh water. Gulliver is abandoned by his friends and left on the peninsular on the western coast of the North American continent.

Unlike the previous island, this island is the complete opposite. The grass is as tall as a tree. He is found by a farmer who seems to be a complete giant to him. He takes Gulliver home and his daughter cares for her. The farmer is curious about him and decides to exhibit him to make himself some money.

Sometime after doing this, he becomes quite sick and the farmer decides to sell him to the Queen of the realm. Glumdalclitch (the daughter) is taken into the Queen’s service to take care of the tiny man. Gulliver is much too small to use their huge furniture, the Queen commissions a house for him.

‘Difference in opinions has cost many millions of lives: for instance, whether flesh be bread, or bread be flesh; whether the juice of a certain berry be blood or wine.’

Gulliver experiences plenty of different adventures on this strange island. He spends time with the King of the island and he shares stories of Europe which leaves the King less than pleased. He doesn’t like the use of guns and cannons.

On a trip to the seaside, Gulliver ends up losing his small house as it’s been seized by a giant eagle which drops the house and Gulliver into the sea. Here he is picked up by sailors who return him to England.

The penultimate part spans from 5th August 1706 – 16 April 1710. This voyage was to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib and Japan. Upon setting out for the voyage, Gulliver’s ship is attacked by pirates and he is marooned near a rocky, deserted island in India. He is eventually rescued by the flying island of Laputa, a kingdom devoted to the arts of music, mathematics and astronomy. What’s different here is instead of using armies, they throw rocks down at rebellious cities on the ground.

Whilst there, Gulliver explores Balnibarbi, the kingdom ruled from Laputa, as a guest of a courtier. He learns a range of things here but continues to move on to Maldonado to await a trader who can take him on to Japan.

Whilst waiting for this, Gulliver takes the opportunity for a short trip to Glubbdubdrib. Here, he visit is a magician’s dwelling and discusses history with ghosts of historical figures such as Julius Caesar, Homer and Aristotle, to name a few.

Finally, Gulliver reaches Japan but asks the Emperor to help him, which he does. At this point, Gulliver returns home with a promise to himself that that is where he shall remain.

The final part of the novel is a voyage to the Land of Houyhnhnms. This voyage was from 7th September 1710 – 5th December 1715. Gulliver decides to ignore his earlier promise to himself of staying at home and decides to head back to sea. This time he is the captain of a merchantman who needs additional crew members. It is his belief that his crew have turned against him. Predictably, his crew commits a mutiny.

They hold him for a period of time but decide to leave him on the first piece of land they come across in order for them to continue as pirates. Gulliver is abandoned in a landing boat and finds himself among a deformed savage race of humanoid creatures which he conceives a violent antipathy. He meets the Houyhnhnms, a race of talking horses. These rules the deformed creatures he previously met.

Gulliver is accepted and becomes a member of a horse’s household. He learns to admire and appreciate how they are and their way of life. There is a problem though, they see him as a threat and as someone that poses danger to them. They demand that he swim back to the land he came from.

The initial Houyhnhnm who took him in decides to help him by giving him time to build a canoe to make the departure easier. However, this journey is also a disaster. Luckily, he is picked up by a Portuguese boat and returns to England. To home.

This made me reflect, how vain an attempt it is for a man to endeavor to do himself honor among those who are out of all degree of equality or comparison with him.

This isn’t as simple as it may seem. Gulliver is unable to reconcile himself and inevitably becomes a recluse, avoiding his family and remaining at home. He only spends his time with his horses.

Final Thoughts

This book was unlike anything I’ve read before. I’ve previously avoided these types of classics because I had this preconceived idea that I just wouldn’t enjoy them. I found that this book was actually quite masculine, just because of the history associated with sailing. I won’t be running to get another classic like this, but I absolutely have no regrets about reading it.

Catch up with you all soon. Keep safe and warm!

Big love xx

Posted in Book review, Books, Reading Challenge 2020

Reading Challenge 2020: One Year Later – Sanjida Kay

Hey Lovelies!

How are you all doing? Well, the first week back to school was a bit of a shock to the system, I can’t lie. It’s very difficult to maintain two metres distancing and teach or move around the building. We’ll get there. As long as we are all safe, that’s all that matters really.

I apologise for my absence but I’m here now to share with you my book for August which I did read in August but didn’t get round to reviewing for you all. The topic for the reading challenge that month was: a summer read to an exotic place. (For more information on my reading challenge click here.)

Very few of us got to visit the countries we wanted to this year so this was the perfect opportunity to drift off someplace good. However, I didn’t want it to just be a holiday romance type book. I decided to read One Year Later by Sanjida Kay. I’d found this by pure chance on my travels. I have to say, I really enjoyed it!

What’s it all about?

The novel opens with a date night between Amy and Matt. However, this isn’t just any date night. The history between them is difficult and challenging. Something doesn’t quite seem right. The pair are coexisting together but are barely living. Sadly, date night doesn’t even happy due to the arrival of Amy’s brother, Nick, is late for his baby sitting duties.

The death of Ruby-May is apparent right from the start. She’s a shadow over the entire plot but is never present. (Hence the title, One Year Later). The parents clearly are trying to function and cope with the circumstances for her death but ultimately they haunt the lives of everyone within the family unit.

To mark the upcoming one year anniversary, they make the brave decision to leave the country and head to Tuscany where, as a family, they will honour the event as one. Amy and Matt are joined by Nick, Bethany (Amy’s sister), Chloe (Matt’s other daughter) and the two super little ones, Lotte and Theo. Luca (nanny come child psychologist) and Bethany’s personal trainer. The only person not invited, rather awkwardly, is Amy’s dad. The blame for Ruby-May’s death lies firmly at his door in the eyes of Amy and Matt.

They arrive to beautiful Italy, the setting restoring some inner peace. They settle in for the evening as a group and chat idly. The following morning the first bomb shell happens… Nick arrives with their father. It is obviously clear that no one is pleased about this.

‘Amy feels as if she can’t breathe. She holds onto the table to stop herself from folding in two. Bethany pours them both prosecco and takes a long drink. She regards her father coldly. “Dad, why are you here?”‘

Begrudgingly, their father is allowed to stay and so begins a family holiday with the unusual amount of walking on egg shells.

Meanwhile, the narration changes and we head back to the past where we see a snapshot of what life was like before, with Ruby-May at the heart of it. The novel follows the structure throughout: we hear different voices at different times to create one story. The central figure being Ruby-May.

Over the next few days, the reader gains an image of a family that has been devastated and shattered beyond repair. They’re each trying to desperately hold onto their own little piece but it’s tinged by bursts of anger and grief. Amy is a shadow, clouded by wind. Everything is internal and living means going through the motions. Whereas husband Matt is full of rage and anger at all times. He seems to have a much better relationship with his ex wife than with Amy, something that Amy is all to aware of.

‘Amy continues to dunk her teabag, in and out, in and out, staring at a spot a foot or so in front of her. She’s still, a part from the small, mechanical movement of her wrist. The two pale children, fixated on their whey-faced mother, with her hacked off blonde hair and her dead eyes.’

Bethany is self obsessed and insensitive, possibly because of her career choice of being on TV. There is a feeling that this is a defence mechanism on her part, a way of distracting herself. Nick is desperately trying to hold it all together and please everything, often at the detriment to himself. His goal is to try and mend the family, help it heal. He too is carrying his own emotional scars which impact his every day life. These truths are revealed to us as the plot develops and unfolds.

Theo and Lotte provide the refreshing innocence that this book needs to prevent it from becoming too heavy and emotive. They’re happy go lucky and love life. They don’t really understand what’s happened but talk about Ruby-May as if she’s next door. They have a naivety to them that makes my heart melt. One of the most poignant scenes in the novel for me is where Nick, Lotte and Theo hold their own funeral for Ruby-May, using her doll.

“One day we all had a bath together – me, Lotte and Ruby-May. And I got out, because I didn’t want to be in the bath with two girls, and then Ruby-May did a poo. In the bath!” He collapsed with laughter. Lotte starts giggling too… abruptly they both stop. “She’s dead now,” says Lotte.

The novel has plenty of twists and turns and I don’t want to ruin them for you. However, the different perspectives create the full narrative as to what really happened the day Ruby-May was taken from them.

This book is a clear, poignant portrayal of grief and the devastation that the loss of a child would bring to a family. The hope of the beautiful Italian setting to try and calm them does become cathartic. As the sea laps the shore, time still passes and the family can learn to forgive and live as best as they can, taking Ruby-May in their hearts every single day.

Final Thoughts

I love this book for so many reasons. The split narratives are crucial for making the plot work. I felt like I knew and adored Ruby-May as much as the characters. The twists and turns mean that you never really know what’s coming next. I got my head around something but then another thing would happen which would call it all into question again. It kept me gripped until the last page because, like Amy and Matt, I needed to know what actually happened. I felt like I needed closure as much as they did.

Whilst not a conventional holiday novel, I’m so glad I read this. Italy’s serenity and sublime beauty was described so I felt like I was there. I loved the juxtaposition between this idyllic setting and the utter devastation they all feel.

This book is arguably one of my favourite this year. It’s utterly devastatingly real.

I’m off to prepare for another week of marathon running (meaning teaching!!). Stay safe all.

Big love xxx

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

Reading Challenge 2020: The Black Echo – Michael Connelly

Hey Loves!

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

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

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What’s it all about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

Continue to stay safe and well all.

Big love! xxx

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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 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

Posted in Book review, Reading, Waterstones Book of the Month

The Way of all Flesh – Ambrose Parry

Hey Lovelies!

August is running away with us again but thankfully for me it has been a summer of reading. I literally haven’t stopped. I even ran out of books on my holiday – thank goodness the hotel had a bookshelf completely filled by the guests.

I did promise to catch up with blog posts from the past few months and today is the first. I read The Way of all Flesh in May. I’d chose it for the Waterstones Book of the Month and it did not disappoint. Time to share my review with you all but without any spoilers. You’ll just have to read it to find out more! I hope you enjoy it.

What’s it all about?

Set and beginning in 1847 Edinburgh, Raven, a young and aspiring student doctor, is living in a less than desirable part of time. He discovers a friend, a lady of the night, is dead. At the same time, Raven is also being pursued for money by the local underworld, a Mr Flint. Previously, Raven borrowed the money to give to his now dead prostitute friend. It was never disclosed as to why she needed it.

Following a good beating in the street for failing to pay Mr Flint back, Raven arrives at the house and surgery of Dr Simpson, a wealth medical man with an excellent reputation. Despite Raven’s battered face, he is taken on as an apprentice which also provides him with the perfect opportunity to leave his lodgings and the insalubrious Old Town area. Naturally, this also could mean that Mr Flint’s debt collectors would be left behind too.

“He hoped the Simpson family appreciated how privileged they were to live in this place, safe not only from cold and hunger, but from the world of danger, anxiety and suspicion that he had grown used to.”

In his new lodgings Raven doesn’t quite have the best start with Sarah, a housemaid with a keen and unusual interest in medicine. She is a product of her time however, she has a wealth of experience in dealing with patients. Raven, initially makes himself look like a complete fool in front of her, alienating her at the same time. To make matters worse, Sarah discovers that all is not what it seems with regard to his deeply hidden past. There is a secret lurking deep beneath the surface…

Over a period of time within this incredible house, he is introduced to a number of other doctors, both established and new to the profession. At this time medicine is a frontier science and people were daily making new discoveries. After dinner, a common pastime was to imbibe new and untested chemical mixtures in order to see if they made a good anaesthetic.

“She found Raven, crouched over Dr Simpson, who lay face-down upon the floor. The bodies of Dr Keith and Captain Petrie motionless alongside. “He breathes” he announced.”

Raven makes a new acquaintance, John Beattie, who invites Raven to accompany him on a house visit. He needs Raven to assist whilst he performs a simple operation. Hoping that he will be paid well, Raven agrees. (This was how doctors made their money in 1847!) Unfortunately, the operation goes badly wrong and Raven is left believing that he is responsible for the death of the patient by mis-administering the ether.

Over time and throughout his duties, Raven has become deeply suspicious about a similar death to the one at the beginning of the novel. The way in which the body is contorted is identical and he begin to suspects foul play. Matters just are not adding up correctly in his mind. As a result, he decides to investigate these matters further. As the story unfolds, Raven makes an unlikely ally who helps him to research these deaths. They begin to discover and uncover a series of similar cases. Raven sets a trap, which fails… and the rest is for you to find out for yourselves!

The novel finishes with an array of events – good and bad – that shed new light on each of the characters. As suspected, no one can be trusted and no one is really who they say they are.

“As he stepped through the front door, the coat swirling about him like a cloak, a number of disparate fragments swirling at the forefront of his thoughts coalesced at once into a visible whole.”

Final Thoughts

This novel contains everything you want from a good book – murder, misadventure, tension, drama. It is packed! The pace is relentless and so it naturally becomes one of those ‘unputdownable’ reads. The time period of the 1840s appeals to me and it was fascinating to see this perspective of Edinburgh. I can’t wait to read the next book by Ambrose Parry – The Art of Dying. I expect it will contain the same trails and tribulations as this novel. Let me know if you’ve read it and your thoughts.

Enjoy the rest of August!! See you next time.

Big love xx

Posted in Book review, Children's Literature, Waterstones Book of the Month

The Boy at the Back of the Class – Onjali Q. Raúf

Happy April Everyone!

What a beautiful start to the year it has been. The spring flowers are much to be celebrated and the light nights are ever increasing. Today I want to share with you the absolute joy that is, The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Raúf. Not only is this one of the books of the month for April, but this book also won the overall prize for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2019. It’s current, relevant and an incredible read. I thought I’d take the photo in my garden with this little guy. The protagonist reminded me of him a bit. Look at his cute little face!

What’s it all about?

Told through the eyes of a group of friends, Tom, Josie and Michael, this novel is something we can all relate to in so many ways.

The story starts with an empty chair in a classroom following the absence of a student who had moved to Wales. A group of friends are naturally inquisitive and want to know why Mrs Sanders (the head of the school) and Mrs Khan (the teacher) are whispering at the front of the class. After a short amount of time, a young boy walks in behind Mrs Sanders. Ahmet became the focus of everyone’s attention. He looks very sad indeed.

‘I made a secret promise to myself right there and then that I would be friends with the new boy. I happened to have some lemon sherbets in my bag that morning and I thought I would try and give him one…’

Outside of lessons, Ahmet is nowhere to be found. After all, from the children’s point of view. it’s hard to make friends with someone when you rarely see them. However, one thing that is described so beautifully are his eyes. It’s the one thing that the character of Alexa (the story teller whose name we do not learn until the final chapter of the book) focuses on. The children wait until the end of the day and eventually they see him! They’re over the moon, but it doesn’t quite go as planned, despite having the lemon sherbets.

‘But the new boy grabbed her hand and hid his face behind her arm. I didn’t know what to do because I’ve never really scared anyone so much before that they wanted to hide from me.’

As days went by, the group of friends continually waited for Ahmet to give him gifts of sweets, chocolates and fruit. Over time, Ahmet started to make improvements with them. A smile here and a wink there. All signs he wanted to be their friends. After overhearing comments about how Ahmet is a ‘Refugee Kid’ the storyteller decides she doesn’t care and it really doesn’t matter. Finally, she gets a nod from Ahmet. A sign to her that it doesn’t matter that he’s a ‘Refugee Kid’.

‘I wish he had smiled back, because you can only ever know that a person’s really your friend when they like you enough to smile back. But it was OK because the nod felt like a promise, and I knew that I wouldn’t have to wait too long before the smile followed.’

What is beautiful in this novel is the storyteller clearly has an amazing mum. Working in the local library, books and knowledge centre their world. Naturally curious, the storyteller asks her mum questions about these children and their backgrounds. It all rings so true with the images we have all seen in the media. However, the child friendly language used makes it seem relatable by everyone; young and old.

Ahmet joining the class raises more questions than answers. Yet, the children are focused on being his friend and learning more about him. They had learnt that he was from Syria and had to flee from war. The storyteller and her mum decide to go off in search for pomegranate in the hopes that Ahmet would like this reminder from his home.

‘The new boy fell quiet. And then, for the first time since we met him, he smiled… a real, proper smile that went from one cheek to the other.’

One part of the novel that absolutely had my heart breaking was Ahmet telling his story, with pictures, to show the class what had happened and where he had come from. Story time is something so common in every classroom in the country. This one created a lump in my throat.

Ahmet tells his class all about his home in Syria, his mum and dad, as well as his sister and their cat. The war in Syria had led him to flee on a boat (like those seen on our television screens) to some form of safety. He went from Greece to the setting of the novel and his new school. To a new beginning. After telling his story hands shoot up around the classroom with yet more questions. The storyteller extends friendship further by offering her beloved Tintin comic to share together. We learn the truth about Ahmet’s family – his sister, mother, father and cat and why he is all alone.

‘I waited to see if Ahmet would show them the pictures and tell them about Syrah and the sea and his mum too. But, he didn’t, and I knew that he wanted me to keep it a secret.’

Then something happened that changed everything. Whilst travelling on the bus, the group overhear a conversation about the refugees. Again, it is a conversation we have all heard over time with some sympathetic views in comparison to the more judgemental views. Nevertheless, the children hear that the border is about to be shut, meaning Ahmet won’t see his family ever again. Despite telling their teachers, the group feel slightly fobbed off. It’s time to make a plan, or three, just to be on the safe side. These include writing to the Prime Minister or creating a Special Appeal. But, that wasn’t the greatest plan of all. The greatest plan in the world involved writing to our one and only Queen of England. They even create an emergency plan, just in case!

Time was plodding a long and the children were well aware about the discussion about the borders being closed. Therefore, it was time for them to work together and head for a London adventure! They had to help Ahmet and his family before it was too late. After navigating the trains and making their way around London, they need to get to the palace. They had presents for the Queen too! The first character they meet is Stan the Taxi driver. He’s a hit straight away!

Following Stan they then meet two Cold Stream Guards: Chris Taylor and Walter Kungu. After a mini adventure in itself, the guards promise to give another letter to the Queen and the presents they brought for the Queen too.

‘Getting into the back seat of the police car, we waved back. Lots of people began cheering and waving at us from all along the palace walls, so we waved back at them too, even though we didn’t really know why.’

As you can imagine, what came next was complete stardom. The children were in the news and causing a stir around the whole world! They even had a reply from the Queen. Finally, the children and Ahmet had some good news. Alexa also had her birthday. In fact, it is here that we finally learn her name! Her birthday was a complete surprise but the best gift wasn’t for her at all. It was for Ahmet, her best friend.

‘I know that afternoon was one of the best afternoons I will ever have. Not because it was my birthday, but because it was an end to one of the best adventures a brand new ten-year-old could ever have…’

Final thoughts

This book should be read by absolutely everyone. I mentioned throughout about comments we would have all heard in the media or even in our every day lives. However, this novel brings a voice to so many children and families who have been in this situation. It’s about friendship and kindness and the fact that we can always do more to help. The childlike innocence throughout is endearing and beautiful. This book is a deserving winner and an excellent read. It stands for something so much more than we ever could realise.

Big love all. Xxx