19 December 2015

Two Wintery Tales


By complete coincidence, this year I've read two books set in Alaska. I just last night finished Eowyn Ivey's The Snow Child and earlier in the year I read The Quality of Silence by Rosamund Lupton; I would highly recommend them. Both are beautifully written and I thought both authors wonderfully described the harsh weather conditions of an Alaskan winter. It was so easy for me as the reader to imagine the wilderness of the tundra where both stories take place, I'm sure I actually shivered a couple of times!

The two stories are quite different in style. The Quality of Silence is an atmospheric thriller and quite fast paced. It has a real sense of urgency to it which I expected from the description. In contrast, The Snow Child has the much gentler pace of a fairytale and is quite whimsical in its tone. I loved the sense of magic in Eowyn Ivey's story about a childless couple who are visited by a mysterious little girl in the winter. The sense of mystery is also present in Rosamund Lupton's novel but is much more threatening - our main characters, Yasmin and Ruby, are being followed by someone unknown to them as they travel across Alaska searching for Ruby's father, presumed dead following an accident in the remote village where he worked.

Of the two, I thought The Quality of Silence had the better ending. As you would expect from a thriller, the tension gradually builds until the ending and it's always satisfying when all loose ends are tied up. With The Snow Child there is less of a definite ending and the story comes to a close more gradually. A few things are left unanswered, which might be disappointing to some, but not necessarily a bad thing. If you asked me to name my favourite reads this year, both of these wintery tales would be high up on the list!
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15 December 2015

Jolabokaflod


In Iceland, people traditionally exchange books on Christmas Eve, and then spend the rest of the night reading. It's the busiest time of year for Icelandic publishers: the majority of new books are published during the festive period for this reason, resulting in Jolabokaflod - a 'Christmas book flood.'

Anyone else contemplating a move to Iceland..?

Image via weheartit
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3 December 2015

Not In My Name


Today I want to talk about the outcome of the parliamentary debate on UK airstrikes in Syria. If you are not interested, or politics isn't your thing, feel free to give this one a miss - regularly (ish) scheduled programming will resume shortly. But this is something I feel very strongly about, and I feel that a blog is as good a place as any, even the best place, to air your views. 

Before I start, I want to say one thing - I am not an expert in politics, or the inner workings of government and foreign policy. What I am is a human being, a UK citizen who is utterly ashamed of a decision made last night by a government proclaiming to represent my views and the views of those around me. I can't promise that this will be a very eloquent post, because I am angry.

Last night, 397 MPs voted in favour of UK air strikes in Syria, essentially sanctioned the murder of innocent men, women and children, and I cannot fathom for one second how anyone can think this is the right thing to do. It makes us no better than the terrorists we are supposedly trying to fight. Nowhere have I seen a compelling argument for fighting fire with fire in this way - least of all David Cameron's remark about those opposing military action being terrorist sympathisers. Put your dummy back in, Dave. The MPs who voted against have two things you don't - a conscience, and apparently a firm grasp on what the British public stand for.

Even harder to swallow for me is the news that the outcome of the vote was met with laughter and applause. If deciding to go ahead with the air strikes is such a necessity, I would expect it to be a decision made with nothing less than solemnity, heavy hearts and even guilt. I saw something on Twitter last night which perfectly summed this up - when ISIS use these air strikes to recruit more people, they will show those scenes of clapping and laughing in the Commons. We are playing directly into their hands; this is exactly what they want. The threat of terrorism will always be present - no amount of bombing can eradicate an ideology - and of course we should stand up to terrorists. But we should be doing that by showing them that we are not the same. We stand for compassion, and we are above wishing harm upon innocent people, or people who are not innocent for that matter. Justice, maybe, but not harm. As it is, we now pose the same threat to civilians in Syria that we fear from ISIS.

I'm so scared for the future of our world if things carry on the way they are. Terrified, and so sad. Another quote I came across recently that struck a chord with me is 'we do not inherit the world from our ancestors, but borrow it from our children.' What kind of world are we creating for future generations? I'm ashamed that our government has chosen to carry out these actions that seem to be so widely opposed across the country, if my social media feeds are anything to go by (although I am very aware that these are the same feeds that led me to believe there was little support for a Tory government, yet here we are). This government certainly does not speak for me, and I'm particularly ashamed to learn that the man who received my vote in the election, Labour MP Hilary Benn, so passionately agreed with this course of action. He does not represent me.

Because I strongly believe that for every terrorist and scare-mongering MP there are thousands of people who stand for goodness and compassion, and because the outcome of the vote left me feeling so powerless, below are some suggestions for how we can help:

Use your voice: Sign petitions (I've signed this one tonight), tweet, protest if you want to, write to your MP, anything. Don't stop being angry about this and make it known that you don't feel represented by your government. They need to know.

Donate: Charities such as The British Red Cross and Oxfam need donations to provide essential food, shelter and medical care in Syria. You can even donate if you can't spare much money -the organisation Help Refugees UK has set up this Amazon wishlist of things that will help the refugees in Calais and the rest of Europe, particularly in the cold winter months.

Volunteer: There are lots of things you can actively do if you have time to give. Hand In Hand For Syria have lots of volunteering opportunities available and details of how you can apply to help.

If anyone has any other ideas, please share them here, leave links etc. as I think even if you don't have the means to donate or volunteer, spreading awareness to others is equally as important. I hope one day humanity will learn its lesson but until then, there is something to be said for trying to be the good you want to see, even in the smallest way.

#NotInMyName
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28 October 2015

Pumpkin Carving


These are the results of this year's pumpkin carving efforts. We don't really go in for scary or jack o'lanterns as you can see, but it's a fun thing to do in autumn, and any excuse for pretty lights!

Paul's are always so much more artistic than mine - I was feeling pretty proud of my cat face until I saw he'd carved Pikachu and the alien from Toy Story! I put it down to him having been a professional chef, he's got the knife skills. As for me, I think I'll stick to the basics!
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26 October 2015

Feuillemort


Feuillemort (n.) [French]: the colour of a dying leaf.
I happen to think leaves look beautiful when they're dying.
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23 October 2015

An A-Z of Unread Books


In the interests of reminding myself why I shouldn't be buying any books right now, here are the all the books I currently have sitting at home waiting for their turn. And I'll still tell you I have nothing to read...

The Girl Who Chased The Moon - Sarah Addison Allen
A Man Called Ove - Fredrik Backman
A Song For Issy Bradley - Carys Bray
The Skeleton Cupboard - Tanya Byron
All The Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr
Dream A Little Dream - Giovanna Fletcher
Sister Noon - Karen Joy Fowler
Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
The Girl Who Just Appeared - Jonathan Harvey
Etta and Otto and Russell and James - Emma Hooper
The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly - Sun Mi Hwang
The Snow Child - Eowyn Ivey
The Tea Planter's Wife - Dinah Jeffries
The Beginner's Guide to Acting English - Shappi Khorsandi
Summertime - Vanessa Lafaye
I Let You Go - Clare Mackintosh
The Land of Decoration - Grace McClean
The Infatuations - Javier Marias
Big Little Lies - Liane Moriarty
Her Fearful Symmetry - Audrey Niffenegger
Touch - Claire North
The Storyteller / Nineteen Minutes - Jodi Picoult
Secrets of the Tides - Hannah Ritchell
The Rosie Effect - Graeme Simsion
Breakfast of Champions - Kurt Vonnegut

Have you read any of these titles? Because I'm gonna need some help deciding where to start!
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22 October 2015

The Girl on the Train


Rachel catches the same commuter train every morning. She knows it will wait at the same signal each time, overlooking a row of back gardens. She's even started to feel like she knows the people who live in one of the houses. 'Jess and Jason', she calls them. Their life - as she sees it - is perfect. If only Rachel could be that happy. And then she sees something shocking. It's only a minute until the train moves on, but it's enough. Now everything's changed. Now Rachel has a chance to become a part of the lives she's only watched from afar. Now they'll see: she's much more than just the girl on the train.

Rating: ★★★★

I've wanted to read this for ages and I finally borrowed it from my local library a couple of weeks ago. I was quite surprised I moved up the reservation list so quickly because I was quite a way down when I joined the queue, but that was before I read it. Now I can only assume all the previous readers raced through it in the same way I did! In case you're wondering, I didn't buy it only because I don't really like to have hardback books, but the paperback doesn't come out for a while yet...

I'm sometimes a little wary of a book that's had so much hype in case it doesn't live up to my expectations but I can definitely see why The Girl on The Train has been such a hit. It's been a few weeks since I read a book that I wanted to pick up every chance I got! It was an unpredictable story with plenty of twists and turns that kept me guessing all the way through.

None of the characters are remotely likeable, which I think was the real strength of the book. They're all completely horrible and definitely not the sort of people you'd like to know in real life, but as characters they were all so complex and well developed, they were really interesting to read about and I still really wanted to know what happened to them. The story jumps between past and present and the narration is shared by three female characters, none of whom are at all reliable. I didn't know who to believe or trust, which meant it wasn't so easy to spot the red herrings. I liked that - for me, the fun of reading a thriller comes from the guessing, but not necessarily figuring it all out before the end.

One thing I'm unsure about is why The Girl on the Train has been so closely compared to Gone Girl. For me, Gone Girl was a lot darker, more tense and more of a psychological thriller. There are some aspects of psychology involved in TGOTT, particularly memory, but I didn't feel like it was quite on the same level. Having said that, I would definitely recommend this if you're looking for a page turner!
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19 October 2015

5 Favourite Disney Songs

If there's one thing guaranteed to put a smile on my face, it's a Disney singalong. I can often be found walking to work with my carefully curated Disney playlist in my ears so today, I've done the impossible and narrowed it down to just 5 of my all time favourite Disney tracks. In ascending order...

Poor Unfortunate Souls (The Little Mermaid)
This one is so much fun to sing along to! I often think that actually, the villains get some of the best numbers.

Zero to Hero (Hercules)
Altogether... 'Who put the glad in gladiaaaator?' LOVE The Muses.

I Just Can't Wait To Be King (The Lion King)
The Lion King arguably has some of the best Disney music going but this one is definitely my favourite of them all.

Friend Like Me (Aladdin)
I'll always feel a little bit sad listening to this now that Robin Williams is no longer with us, but I think it's because he sings it that I love it so much. It's so full of his personality!

I'll Make a Man Out of You (Mulan)
Mulan is one of the most underrated Disney films in my opinion and this is without a doubt my favourite ever Disney song. It's also excellent motivation in the gym... BE A MAN!

Special mention must also go to Be Our Guest, Under The Sea and Prince Ali, I practically shed a tear leaving them off the list! If you're in the mood for a Disney singalong, below is my full playlist. Enjoy!


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17 October 2015

Yesterday

Yesterday, I caught up with a friend I haven't seen for a while and had a little cuddle with her beautiful new baby girl. Then in the evening, I had dinner with my best friend to celebrate her birthday, washed down with a couple of glasses of yummy sangria, and we went to see The Intern, which was lovely.

Yesterday was pretty good.
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15 October 2015

Look Who's Back

The blurb: Berlin, Summer 2011. Adolf Hitler wakes up on a patch of open ground, alive and well. Things have changed – no Eva Braun, no Nazi party, no war. Hitler barely recognises his beloved Fatherland, filled with immigrants and run by a woman.

People certainly recognise him, albeit as a flawless impersonator who refuses to break character. The unthinkable, the inevitable happens, and the ranting Hitler goes viral, becomes a YouTube star, gets his own T.V. show, and people begin to listen. But the Führer has another programme with even greater ambition – to set the country he finds a shambles back to rights.


Look Who’s Back stunned and then thrilled 1.5 million German readers with its fearless approach to the most taboo of subjects. Naive yet insightful, repellent yet strangely sympathetic, the revived Hitler unquestionably has a spring in his step.

Rating: 2/5 stars

I started reading this book not really sure what to expect. It's a brave choice of topic but I wasn't put off, as some others have been, because I knew it was supposed to be a satire. I thought it sounded quite interesting, but I did wonder what on earth could be funny about Hitler. It was funny, but I felt only in the way it would have been funny to see what kinds of observations anyone who was used to life in the 1940s would make about modern society, technology and lifestyle. One of the funniest parts to read sees a secretary trying to teach Hitler - who everyone thinks is an excellent method actor, definitely not the real thing - how to use email. Apart from that, I didn't find much to laugh about.

Quite often while reading I had the feeling that Vermes just wanted to write about Hitler in the modern world, maybe just wanted to write something a bit shocking, but didn't really have a plot to go with it. Hitler finds himself the subject of a lot of media attention and this was an interesting look at 'celebrity', highlighting how easy it for potentially dangerous individuals to gain an audience in today's society, especially due to the media. Unfortunately, the story didn't really develop past this point and by the end, I was struggling to stay interested.

The author did a good job of capturing Hitler's sense of self-importance, however his inner monologue forms most of the book - this contains quite a lot of racist thought which wasn't the easiest to read. I didn't find it uncomfortable to read as such, as I can appreciate that it was probably exactly what Hitler's opinions of society would be and it's important to remember that the author isn't championing these views. However, I think the same effect could have been achieved with only a few such comments in discussion with other characters, rather than pages and pages of thought process.

Overall, I can see why this book has achieved controversial status and it's definitely an interesting concept, but I wasn't overly impressed. In fact, I'm a little annoyed I spent so much time on it.
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14 October 2015

Happy birthday Winnie the Pooh!

The more it snows (tiddely pom),
The more it goes (tiddely pom),
The more it goes (tiddely pom),
On snowing. 
And nobody knows (tiddely pom),
How cold my toes (tiddely pom),
How cold my toes (tiddely pom),
Are growing.

- The House at Pooh Corner (1928)

Today's post is dedicated to a very special literary birthday. A.A. Milne's classic children's book Winnie the Pooh was first published on this day in 1926, which makes that silly old bear the grand age of 89! To celebrate, here are a few of my favourite quotes from the Bear of Very Little Brain, who knows that all you need to make a song more 'hummy' is a few tiddely-poms.
  • "Just because an animal is large, it doesn't mean he doesn't want kindess; however big Tigger seems to be, remember that he wants as much kindness as Roo."
  • "Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold rather a large amount of Gratitude."
  • "If ever there is a tomorrow when we're not together, there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we're apart, I'll always be with you."
  • "It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn't use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like 'What about lunch?'"
Have you read any Winnie the Pooh recently? I used to have an audiobook that was voiced by Stephen Fry and Judi Dench amongst others, I remember that I loved listening to the Outdoor Hum for Snowy Weather! I love Disney, but I definitely prefer the traditional illustrations by E. H. Shepard. What about you?
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10 October 2015

The One Where We've Got A Whole Week Off

I practically skipped out of work yesterday because I now have a whole week off! Paul is also off at the same time which has been practically unheard of in the past when we did shift work. Here are some of the things I want to tick off my to do list while I've got this free time. I'm listing them here on the blog to help me get my priorities in order, along with a few other fun things we're getting up to:

Sort out my iTunes: My iPod hasn't been updated in about three years because all my music is stuck on my old dinosaur laptop, and I haven't wanted to plug my iPod into my new one because it will erase the whole thing. I haven't moved any music across to my newer laptop because I think that's what essentially broke the last one. Last week I bought a hard drive, so this week off is the perfect time to move all the songs over to external storage and finally start using my iPod more! I get a bit tired of Spotify cutting out all the time depending on signal and I can fit so much more on there anyway.

Draft a book: I don't want to make too much of this, or shout from the rooftops 'I'm writing a book!' because I don't know that I definitely am yet but basically, as I mentioned in this post, I've had an idea for something that I think could maybe turn into a nice little children's story. This week should hopefully give me time to think about it in a bit more detail and see if I can actually make it into anything. You never know unless you try!

Venue viewings: We have a couple of appointments with potential wedding venues this week which I'm really excited about! One of them we actually visited once before, but we had accidentally been put in the diary for a day when another wedding was taking place so we didn't get to see it all. Fingers crossed the parts we haven't seen before don't disappoint!

Apart from that, I'll mostly be catching up on sleep and reading as much as I can. I've just borrowed The Girl on The Train from my local library after being on the reservation list for weeks, which happens to coincide nicely with October's Olive Fox book club, so I'm looking forward to getting stuck in to that. I'm also visiting my sister at university and hopefully catching up with a few friends I haven't seen for a while. I can't wait!
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8 October 2015

Happy List #2


Using my best handwriting on the first page of a brand new notebook. Hot chocolate with marshmallows. Baby elephants. Catching up with Coronation Street on a Sunday morning. Tidiness. Flannel pyjamas. Finding new music I love. Adding memories to my scrapbook. Fairy lights. Train journeys. Afternoon naps. Getting home just before the rain starts. Spending time with friends. The smell of baking. A nearly complete Disney animated classics collection!
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7 October 2015

A Children's Literature Wishlist


I'd really like to read more children's literature. I'm currently making my way through the Mary Poppins collection, but there are a lot of other classic children stories that, for one reason or another, passed me by when I was younger. Plus, there are some absolutely beautiful editions around! Here are some of the titles I'd like to add to my collection not just for me, but for my children to enjoy in the future (with supervision!)

1. Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
This book was also featured in my Banned Books Week post. While putting that post together I came across this beautiful Penguin Threads edition.

2. The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen
I was introduced to Andersen's fairy tales earlier this year when I read The Tinder Box, one of Penguin's Little Black Classics collection, which I really enjoyed. I'm familiar with the story of The Snow Queen as I had an audio tape of it when I was younger (yes, a tape!) but I've never owned a copy of the book.

3. The Winnie-the-Pooh Collection by A.A. Milne
I love the Winnie the Pooh stories and there are so many beautiful treasury editions to choose from. The classic illustrations by E.H. Shepard are among my favourites.

4. Grimm's Fairytales by The Brothers Grimm
I haven't really read any of the original versions of Grimm's fairytales, even though they are the inspiration behind more than a few Disney films. I understand that some of them are not for the faint hearted!

5. Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling [Bloomsbury Illustrated Edition]
Obviously my collection of Harry Potter books already takes pride of place on my bookshelf, but the new illustrated edition of The Philosopher's Stone, illustrated by Jim Kay, just looks beautiful and I would love to own a copy. I'm asking Santa very nicely!

6. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
Like Mary Poppins, The Wizard of Oz is one of my favourite films, but I've never read the original story.

7. Carrie's War by Nina Bawden
A book I read countless times during primary school but sadly have never had my own copy of!

8. A Children's Treasury of Milligan by Spike Milligan
This is something I would absolutely love to share with my children in the future! We had a copy at home when I was younger and it's wonderfully silly, full of nonsense mostly but I remember it making me giggle! Sir Nobonk and the Terrible Dreadful Awful Naughty Nasty Dragon is particularly memorable. It's also just a lovely hardback book with glossy pages and colour illustrations.

I think I will have to start collecting children's treasury editions!

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4 October 2015

September 2015 Book Haul

To say that I'm trying to not really buy any books at the moment, I'm still doing quite well at accumulating new reads. These are September's new additions to my shelf. The majority of my new reads were sent to me by Penguin UK, so a big thank you to them!







Of them all, I think I'm most excited to read Claire North's newest book, Touch. I really enjoyed The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August which was her debut novel, so I'm expecting good things!
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2 October 2015

Currently Reading - Mary Poppins


Mary Poppins has always been one of my favourite films, but after watching Saving Mr Banks, I decided I really should read the original stories. This beautiful collection by P.L. Travers, which contains all 7 stories, has been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years now and I'm finally getting around to reading it! It's quite a big book, so I've decided to read one of the stories in between each of my other reads until I've finished the whole collection. They come in at around 150 pages each, which is the perfect length for this!

So far I've read the first in the collection, and I enjoyed it. The stories have quite a different tone to them than the film - there is a lot of magic involved, but some of it seems quite sinister in places which I didn't expect! Mary Poppins is also a lot harsher, and very full of herself too - she is always admiring her reflection in shop windows! Still, I'm enjoying reading about the adventures she takes Jane & Michael on that weren't featured in the film as well as the more familiar ones. Speaking of things not featured in the films, did you know there are actually 4 children in the Banks family?

Have you read any of the Mary Poppins stories?
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28 September 2015

5 Banned Books on my TBR


This week is Banned Books Week, an annual event from the American Library Association. Banned Books Week aims to highlight the problem of censorship in literature and celebrate the freedom to read. I think the freedom to read and the right to choose the things you read are really important so to celebrate, I've put together a list of banned books that I'd love to read - some of the reasons they were banned might surprise you!

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
If you're familiar with the story of Alice in Wonderland, you might think that a certain caterpillar's recreational drug habit is a fairly logical reason for the banning of Lewis Carroll's children's classic. However, this isn't what Governor Ho Chien of Hunan province, China, objected to when he banned the book in 1931 - it was the talking animals. He feared that this would teach children to think of humans and animals on the same level - a 'disastrous' insult to humans.
I actually picked up a really pretty editon recently, to celebrate Alice's 150th birthday!

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
Banned in South Africa during apartheid, simply because of the two words in the title. It was assumed to be a book about civil rights without even being read - a real lesson in never judging a book by its cover!
One of my goals is to read some classic children's literature which, for one reason or another, passed me by when I was younger (you might sense that theme in this post). I have a vivid memory of being shown the film when I was in Year 5 or 6 at school and being moved to tears!

All Quiet on The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
I recently read Birdsong and I'd love to read more WW1 fiction. All Quiet on the Western Front is a widely respected novel, and only around 300 pages so a nice short read. It was banned in Nazi Germany as it didn't look too kindly on the German forces.

The Wonderful Wizard of OZ by L. Frank Baum
This classic children's book was banned across 1930s America, and then again in the 1950s, for promoting 'unwholesome values.' What unwholesome values, you ask? Many took issue with Dorothy's independent nature - not a desirable trait in a woman back then. There was also the subject of witches and flying monkeys which, let's face it, are pretty scary!

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret AtwoodThe novel is set in a dystopian, anti-feminist future in which women have gradually lost all freedoms afforded to them by equal rights. Although I haven't read it, I know that it draws scarily accurate parallels with today's society where women's rights are still contested in a lot of ways. Meant to offend and make you think, it was actually first banned in Texas as it was viewed as disrespectful to Christianity.

Have you read any banned books, or are you planning on reading any? If you've read any of the above, I'd love to know what you thought! Find out more about on the Banned Books Week website or follow on Twitter!
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25 September 2015

A Year of Love


'I've planned a year of awesome dates
Treats and trips, fun and f
êtes...'

2nd September marked 4 years that Paul and I have been together. To celebrate, he planned something really special! Every month for the next year, Paul has organised a date for us. I have no idea what sort of things he's planned - each date is inside a sealed envelope that I'm not allowed to open until the first day of the month. Every envelope has a little rhyme on the front and I'm supposed to use that to guess before I open it. I'm so excited to see what adventures are in store!

I'll be writing little posts about each surprise. This month, we're visiting a big wedding fair in Harrogate, followed by afternoon tea at Betty's. It's the first one we've been to so I'm not sure what to expect, but I'm excited!

Image via Stokpic
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23 September 2015

Birdsong


The blurb: A novel of overwhelming emotional power, Birdsong is a story of love, death, sex and survival. Stephen Wraysford, a young Englishman, arrives in Amiens in norther France in 1910 to stay with the Azaire family, and falls in love with unhappily married Isabelle. But, with the world on the brink of war, the relationship falters, and Stephen volunteers to fight on the Western Front. His love for Isabelle forever engraved on his heart, he experiences the unprecedented horrors of that conflict - from which neither he nor any reader of this book can emerge unchanged.

Rating: ★★★★★

"It was not his death that mattered; it was the way the world had been dislocated. It was not all the tens of thousands of deaths that mattered; it was the way they had proved that you could be human yet act in a way that was beyond nature."

Birdsong has been on my list of books I need to read for the longest time, so when I spotted this WW1 Centenary edition a few months ago I finally picked it up. I'm so glad that I did, because this has to be one of the most intense, most moving and most memorable books I've ever read. It's no surprise to me that it now forms part of both History and English syllabuses because it's an amazing piece of literature.

Anyone who has studied history will know a little about the experiences of the soldiers who fought but Sebastian Faulks brings this to life in a whole different way. It's a strong, emotive story, in which the harsh realities of battle and trench warfare are described so vividly that I was easily able to imagine being there alongside the characters. Faulks doesn't pull any punches and it's very shocking in places, with some parts hard to digest. I liked that the book is inclusive of all different kinds of experience of war, from the soldiers going 'over the top' to those who served underground, digging tunnels for mines and shells. I actually felt quite claustrophobic reading those parts, which just goes to show Faulks' skill as a writer. In fact, I probably held my breath for at least the last 50 pages, and more than once before that point!

The book is split into three parts and is both a tragic love story and an epic tale of war. The first part is all about Stephen's life in France before war broke out and his affair with Madame Azaire. Once the war has started, the story alternates between the front line and England in the 1970s, concentrating on Stephen's granddaughter trying to piece together his story. I think this was a great way to link to the present day and also broke up the narrative quite nicely where otherwise it might have been too heavy a read.

Overall I came away from reading this with a general feeling of awe, a new understanding of the total senselessness of war, and even more respect for those who fought than I had before. I think this is a very important book and one that will definitely stay with me for a long time.

Too long, didn't read? Here's my Goodreads review:

BirdsongBirdsong by Sebastian Faulks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A tense and deeply affecting story of the atrocities of WW1, with an important message about the senseless nature of war. This book will stay with you long after you finish reading.

View all my reviews
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16 September 2015

The Girl With All The Gifts



The blurb: Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don't like her. She jokes that she won't bite. But they don't laugh. 

As you can see, this book's description leaves quite a lot to the imagination! Sometimes I find that if the subject matter of the book is unknown and really vague, it puts me off reading, but in this case I was intrigued. Had I known more about the book beforehand I might not have picked it up, as it's different to anything I've read before or would normally choose. I definitely enjoyed it more than I thought I would enjoy a story of this kind, so I'm glad I read it, but it hasn't made it as a favourite.

The beginning of the book was the strongest part for me. I think it's best to go into this without any knowledge of the plot as the strength of the story at first comes from the suspense this brings, so I'm really trying not to give away any spoilers here! The reader finds out along with Melanie the reason for her treatment which gives the story a good pace. I did struggle a little to stay interested after the point where all becomes clear - again, I haven't read anything else of this particular type of post-apocalyptic fiction, but the rest of the book's plot is what I imagine to be the usual for the genre it is.

Have you read this one?
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12 September 2015

Our Engagement Story - as told by Paul!


Hello internet! I’m Paul, Holly’s fiancé. I’m doing a little guest post on her blog, telling our engagement story from my point of view.

Last September, Holly and I went to Orlando, to celebrate our 3rd anniversary. Shortly after we came back to Leeds, we were looking in jewellery store windows whilst out shopping. After we had been going out a significant amount of time, Holly started showing me rings in windows of jewellers and getting me to pick out the one I think she’d like most for fun. I’d pretty much got it down to an art. It had to be a single stone, no bigger than 0.3 carat, round cut diamond, with a thin platinum or silver band. She wanted a straight band, no tapers. Anyway, last September, we were looking in windows and I picked out what I thought she would like. Another ring caught her eye though, a three stoned ring, with square cut diamonds, on a platinum band with a tapered edge. Completely the opposite of what she’d liked until this point! But her words were that it was the prettiest ring she’d ever seen (and we’d seen a LOT at this point!) so once I’d dropped her off at work, I doubled back and put the deposit on it down.

My next step was to work out how and when to pop the question. We’re both quite big Disney fans, hence our trip to Orlando and Disney World, and we’ve both commented on how happy Disney parks make you feel. But I couldn’t jet us both back to Orlando so soon without making her suspicious so I decided on Disneyland Paris. I told her to book a week off work, but refused to tell her where we were going. About 8 weeks prior to flying, I met with her Dad to ask for his blessing, which he gave!

As the holiday began, I like to think Holly was impressed. I’d booked us in a first class train carriage from Leeds to Manchester Airport, and we were well looked after by the Air France staff on the flight over. After a minor hiccup at Charles de Gaulle Airport with our private transfer (the guy didn’t arrive to pick us up till about half an hour to an hour after we landed), we settled into our hotel room quite nicely and had a wander around Disney Village for food.

Then, the big day came. Safe to say I was nervous, even more than when I met her Dad. I spent the morning before we set off running through what I was going to say to her. After talking to some of our friends, I had decided not to plan out some huge speech, but not to wing it either. I had a few things I wanted to mention about when we first started going out, and the adventures we’d had, along with how much I love her and couldn’t wait to spend the rest of my life with her. Anyway, I kept running through that, and there were times, such as in the bathroom the morning of, where she overheard me muttering to myself and asked me what I was saying. Somehow, I don’t think she believed me when I said ‘nothing!’ I’ll be honest, the trip to Disneyland from the hotel was a blur, I remember none of it. I just remember getting into the park, seeing the castle and smiling. There’s something about being in a Disney park that makes you instantly happy.

As we approached the castle, I was looking out for someone to take a picture of the two of us. When we were in Orlando, there were about a dozen Disney photographers ready to take your photo. In Paris, there were none. So I started looking for a tourist who wouldn’t mind taking photos of us for a bit longer than normal.

As I was looking, a young Spanish couple approached us asking us to take a photo of them, and in return they would take one of us. I couldn’t propose in front of another couple! What was the happiest day of my life, could cause that couple arguments about why they aren’t engaged yet. It probably wouldn’t, or they could already be engaged or married or not even wanting to get married, but I wasn’t thinking about that! After they took a lovely photo of us, Holly wanted to move on. I knew I wanted to propose in front of the castle and didn’t want to wait, but I needed to psyche myself up again after I had chickened out in front of the couple. Holly, getting a bit annoyed at me delaying moving on as I wanted to find another photographer, decided she wanted to eat, so we walked back to the entrance. Holly was fed, and I wasn’t hungry.

We went back to the castle and just hung around again. I spotted many families and couples, but didn’t want to pull them away from their day. Finally, I spotted a couple of Irish girls and asked them to take a photo of us. They happily obliged, so I got Holly to wait in front of the castle, whilst I explained to one of them “how to use the camera”. The girl unfortunately wasn’t listening properly as I explained in hush whispers that I was going to propose so had to repeat myself a few times. She eventually heard me and got excited for us. I asked her just to keep taking pictures through it all and walked back to Holly.

I reached Holly, and faced her… The Irish Girl came running up to me, she forgot which button to press to take the photos! I showed her how to use the camera again and then she went back to her position and I turned to face Holly once more.

I reached into my bag to get the ring, remembering the words I wanted to say, and looked at Holly as I got on one knee. I managed to blurt out “Holly, I love you, will you marry me?” No big speech, no throwbacks to the start of our relationship, I’d forgotten everything I had thought of saying. But in doing so, I kept it short, sweet and to the exact words she needed to hear. She said yes (thankfully) and we both began hugging, kissing and crying.

We thanked the lovely Irish girls for our photos and started to take some photos ourselves with the ring and the castle. We then tried to get hold of our parents. Holly’s mum: no answer. Holly’s dad: no answer. My mum: no answer. We managed to get through to my Dad though, who wished us congratulations and then tried my Mum again, who was at work at the time and started cheering!


 As we went to move on, Holly asked for tissues. All that meticulous planning and I forgot tissues! And no matter how many people I said “Papier! Papier pour le nez!” to, no one understood I wanted tissues or “papers for your nose”. Holly nipped to the bathroom to find some and we moved on to a ride. Just before we got in the queue, Holly’s dad rang. 3 out of 4 down!

It was another 2 or 3 hours before we heard back from Holly’s mum. Holly spent that time between rides, grilling me about how long I had been planning it, what her dad had said, who knew before we came, etc. The phonecall with her mum was short and sweet as she started to cry! A quick message to our siblings and we made it Facebook official. Holly’s oldest sister sent me a lovely message about how happy I’ve made Holly which meant a lot. We didn’t know until later but Holly’s brother didn’t see his message like we thought and didn’t know until he’d seen it on Facebook!

We spent a lovely first day engaged enjoying Disneyland in the sun, it was roasting! Then we ended the day watching Disneyland’s fireworks show, which made our special day just that little bit more magic.

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9 September 2015

Leaving Time


The blurb: Jenna Metcalf was with her mother the night she disappeared, but she remembers nothing. In the wake of those tragic events, she has lost not one parent, but two: her father is in an asylum, and now she lives with her grandmother - who finds it too painful to talk about what happened. Ten years on, Jenna is the only one who still seems to care. And she is determined to seek the truth, no matter how shocking and life-changing it might be...

Rating: 3/5 stars

I want to start by saying that Jodi Picoult is one of my favourite authors. Every one of her books I've read in the past has been not only enjoyable, but emotionally gripping as well as educational. I always come away feeling like I've learned a lot, or formed a new opinion, as the majority of Jodi's books involve a moral dilemma or social issue, and are usually centered around a court case. Leaving Time wasn't an exception to this - in this case, I learned a lot about elephants which just happen to be my favourite animal! During her investigations, our main character Jenna looks for clues as to what happened in her mother's academic journals of her research into how elephants grieve. Jodi's books always seem to be impeccably researched and I would say the same about Leaving Time, but I don't think this was woven into the story quite as neatly as usual. Most of this background came in big chunks in the chapters written from the point of view of Alice, Jenna's mother. Large parts of the book read like non-fiction because of this which, if you don't love elephants as much as I do, could be quite tedious.

Another reason I don't think this is Jodi's strongest work is because, put simply, it's a very strange read. From the description you'd be forgiven for thinking it was your average mystery story, but it's also about a number of other things, including psychics and the supernatural. All perfectly good themes, but I'm not sure they really fit together and it was quite difficult to stay interested in places - had it not been for the elephants, I might have given up long before reaching the end. The twist really didn't wow me at all, although I will admit that I didn't see it coming!

I've never had to suspend belief to read any of Jodi's books before, and she's not an author I turn to for a fantasy or supernatural story - the reason she is a favourite of mine is because she can usually make me think, inspire a debate or offer me a different perspective. Unfortunately I can't say the same for Leaving Time, and I think she would be better off sticking to the real world for her next book.

Have you read Leaving Time, or anything else by Jodi Picoult?
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8 September 2015

Etta and Otto and Russell and James - Extract & Giveaway!



Today is a first for my little blog, as I'm taking part in my first ever book blog tour! I was so excited to have been contacted, and I'm so pleased to be playing host to Etta and Otto and Russell and James, the debut novel from writer and musician Emma Hooper.

So, what is the book about?

Synopsis:
I've gone. I've never seen the water, so I've gone there. I will try to remember to come back.

Etta's greatest unfulfilled wish, living in the rolling farmland of Saskatchewan, is to see the sea. And so, at the age of eighty-two she gets up very early one morning, takes a rifle, some chocolate, and her best boots, and begins walking the 2,000 miles to water. Meanwhile her husband Otto waits patiently at home, left only with his memories. Their neighbour Russell remembers too, but differently - and he still loves Etta as much as he did more than fifty years ago, before she married Otto.


To celebrate the book's publication, the lovely people at Penguin have given me the opportunity to publish the opening chapter here on my blog for you to enjoy. Here it is!

Otto,
the letter began, in blue ink.
I’ve gone. I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there. Don’t worry, I’ve left you the truck. I can walk. I will try to remember to come back.
Yours (always), Etta.
 
Underneath the letter she had left a pile of recipe cards. All the things she had always made. Also in blue ink. So he would know what and how to eat while she was away. Otto sat down at the table and arranged them so no two were overlapping. Columns and rows. He thought about putting on his coat and shoes and going out to try and find her, maybe asking neighbours if they had seen which way she went, but he didn’t. He just sat at the table with the letter and the cards. His hands trembled. He laid one on top of the other to calm them.

After a while Otto stood and went to get their globe. It had a light in the middle, on the inside, that shone through the latitude and longitude lines. He turned it on and turned off the regular kitchen lights. He put it on the far side of the table, away from the letter and cards, and traced a path with his finger. Halifax. If she went east, Etta would have 3,232 kilometres to cross. If west, to Vancouver, 1,201 kilometres. But she would go east, Otto knew. He could feel the tightness in the skin across his chest pulling that way. He noticed his rifle was missing from the front closet. It would still be an hour or so until the sun rose.

Growing up, Otto had fourteen brothers and sisters. Fifteen altogether, including him. This was when the flu came and wouldn’t go, and the soil was even drier than usual, and the banks had all turned inside out and all the farmers’ wives were losing more children than they were keeping. So families were trying and trying, for every five pregnancies, three babies, and for every three babies, one child. Most of the farmers’ wives were pregnant most of the time. The silhouette of a beautiful woman, then, was a silhouette rounded with potential. Otto’s mother was no different. Beautiful. Always round.

Still, the other farmers and their wives were wary of her. She was cursed, or blessed; supernatural, they said to one another across mailboxes. Because Otto’s mother, Grace, lost none of her children. Not one. Every robust pregnancy running smoothly into a ruddy infant and every infant to a barrel-eared child, lined up between siblings in grey and off-grey nightclothes, some holding babies, some holding hands, leaning into the door to their parents’ room, listening fixedly to the moaning from within.

Would you like to read Etta and Otto and Russell and James? Penguin have very kindly given me a copy to give away to one of you! If you'd like to have a go, all you have to do is enter below. Good luck, and happy reading!


a Rafflecopter giveaway
Big thanks to Catherine at Penguin General for getting in touch and for sending me a copy of the book!
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2 September 2015

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August



The blurb: No matter what he does or the decisions he makes, every time Harry dies, he always returns to where he began, a child with all the knowledge of a life lived a dozen times before. Nothing ever changes - until now. As Harry nears the end of his eleventh life, a little girl appears at his bedside. 'I nearly missed you Doctor August,' she says. 'I need to send a message.' This is the story of what Harry does next, and what he did before, and how he tries to save a past he cannot change and a future he cannot allow.

Rating: 5/5

This is one of those books that, while reading it, you're constantly marvelling at how clever the author is. Although time travel isn't a brand new concept, this story is a great reinvention. Imagine being born again and living as a young child already knowing everything bad that will ever happen to you? It's not surprising that the first few times this happens to Harry, he struggles to adjust.

The first part of the book is mostly covering Harry's background, and the story of those like him, collectively known as kalachakra, so expect a bit of a slow start. The real story doesn't kick in until a bit later on when, on his eleventh death bed, Harry is visited by a young girl who tells him the world is ending, more quickly with each life, and he must find out how to stop it. The narrative does jump around quite a lot as you can expect from a time travel story, but because the concept is explained quite thoroughly in the first part, I found it was quite easy to keep up with. The story covers a lot of interesting themes too, such as the acceleration of technology and it's effect on the planet, and the difference between right and wrong, a good or a bad life. It's most definitely a thriller, as Harry races against time to stop destruction, using each of his next lives to further investigate the threat. If you're looking for a real escape of a book, I would definitely recommend this.
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29 August 2015

Our Engagement Story

As days go, 2nd July 2015 was a pretty special one. The title of this post is obviously a giveaway, as is the above picture, but let's start from the beginning...

Way back in October or November time last year, Paul asked me to book some time off work. He wouldn't tell me where we were going, or if we were even going away, just that it was a surprise. I kept trying to get it out of him, but he wasn't having any of it! He kept it a secret from me until one day in March when I asked him to give me a clue about the surprise. He mentioned padlocks, which straight away made me think of Paris, as we went a couple of years ago and attached a love lock to the bridge. I wondered out loud if we were going to Disneyland while we were there, as we'd been to Disneyworld Florida in September and it's safe to say we were both looking forward to our next dose of magic - so I was really excited when Paul told me that's what he had planned!
That was the full extent of the surprise as far as I knew. Fast forward a few months...

We flew to Paris on 1st July after travelling to the airport in First Class on the train - free tea, yay! On our first night we just went to get some food and settled in. We only had tickets for one day so we'd planned to get up nice and early to make the most of it, and we were there pretty much in time for the park opening. There were quite a few people around but because it was just before the school holidays, it wasn't super busy. Minnie Mouse ears already firmly in place, we wandered down Main Street and looked in a few shops before stopping in front of Sleeping Beauty's castle for photos.

Paul took a few photos of me and then we swapped cameras so I could take some of him before we started looking around for someone to take one of both of us with the castle in the background. We milled around in front of the castle for a while and he would occasionally point out people who might be able to take our photo, but didn't really approach anyone to ask them. It wasn't my camera and I was just happy to be there so I just kind of left him to it and took a few of my own photos of the castle while we were waiting. Eventually, a couple approached us to take their photo for them which Paul did, and I took the opportunity and asked them to take ours.

After that, I was satisfied that we'd got all the photos we needed and we could wander off and explore the rest of the park, but Paul was really reluctant to move away from the castle. I think it was at this point that I started noticing him acting a bit strangely, still looking around for someone to take another photo of us even though the couple had taken some good ones. After a few minutes still hanging around, I decided that I was actually pretty hungry as we hadn't really eaten before we left the hotel, so we wandered back down Main Street and picked up a croissant. Paul said he wasn't hungry despite having no breakfast - that's when I should have really known something was going on!

We walked back to the castle and I assumed we were heading for the rest of the park, but Paul was still hanging around. I actually started to get a bit impatient (I really wanted to start going on rides, poor Paul!) Eventually, he asked me to stand by one of the railings in front of the castle and he approached a nearby girl to ask her to take our picture. Now, he was talking to a her for what seemed like a really long time, definitely far too long to just be asking her to take a picture, so at this point I had more than an inkling that he was up to something.

The next part is kind of a blur, actually! As he came back over to me he was pulling his rucksack off his shoulder, and instead of putting his arm around me or posing for a picture, he got down on one knee and asked me to marry him. We both started crying pretty much before he'd even got the question out, and then I cried even more when I saw the ring! I didn't say yes, I said 'of course I will!' and there was lots of hugging and crying and a very nervous Irish girl who wished us congratulations after having nearly crumbled under the pressure of capturing our special moment for us!


I couldn't stop crying happy tears for ages and of course I had left all my pocket tissues at the hotel, so the next few minutes was a fun game of trying to locate some in Disneyland, where none of the staff knew what we were talking about - the French for tissues is not 'papier pour le nez' but Paul repeating this to the bemused guest relations lady definitely gave me the giggles. We spoke to both of Paul's parents on the phone pretty much straight away, but getting hold of my family was a different story entirely. Neither of my parents would answer their phone, and I wanted to tell them first before I put anything on any social media. Of course my Dad already knew as Paul had been to ask his blessing which I think is lovely, and eventually we managed to get hold of everyone important. I spent the rest of the day in Disneyland questioning Paul incessantly, I wanted to know everything - when did you plan it, how long have you had the ring, who did you tell first, what did they say, did this person cry, were they happy, etc. etc. but we had a really fun day and it was finished off perfectly with the fireworks display above the castle in the evening.

The next day we went into Paris which was lovely too. Our first stop was Lover's Bridge where, after some pretty frantic searching on Paul's part, we found our padlock that we had attached almost exactly two years before! We were so happy it was still there, as we'd seen in the news about the decision to cut them all off. We might not be so lucky another time, but it was pretty special to see it on this trip. Then we visited one of my favourite spots, Shakespeare & Company book shop, where we met Luke who makes a living writing stories for passersby while they wait. He wrote a story for us about our engagement, which is such a lovely, unique keepsake, it was good luck he was there on the same day as us!



So we've been engaged for nearly 2 months, and so far I haven't been able to stop admiring my ring every chance I get. It's so beautiful! It's actually one that I pointed out in the window of the jewellery shop and declared to be the prettiest ring I'd ever seen, and I know now that he went back the same day to pay the deposit. But that's another story, one which I'm going to let Paul tell in his own post! As for the proposal itself, I couldn't think of anywhere more perfect than Disneyland. It really was magical, and I can't wait to be Mrs Dickenson.
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24 June 2015

Us


The blurb: Douglas and Connie: scientist and artist, and for more than twenty years, husband and wife until suddenly, their marriage seems over. But Douglas is going to win back the love of his wife and the respect of Albie, their teenage son, by organising the holiday of a lifetime. He has booked the hotels, bought the train tickets, planned and printed the itinerary for a 'grand tour' of the great art galleries of Europe. What could possibly go wrong?

Rating: 4/5 stars

This book was a welcome change of pace from some other things I've been reading lately! Similar to One Day, it's a simple story about ordinary people. I think David Nicholls always manages to perfectly capture and describe human behaviour, thoughts and emotions and I really enjoyed reading Douglas and Connie's story.

The structure of the book makes it really easy to read and dip in and out of - split into sections, one for each country visited during the 'Grand Tour' of Europe, and then written in a series of paragraphs each with its own heading rather than chapters. I really liked reading about the different settings and following the family on their trip around Europe. The narrative moves back and forth between past and present meaning the reader is able to get a full picture of Douglas' relationship with Connie and their lives together, including the birth of their son Albie. The story is as much about the way in which relationships and families can change over time as much as Douglas' present day quest to win back the affections of his wife and son, and I think David Nicholls writes both so well.

Douglas himself is a character who can infuriate you and inspire sympathy at the same time and makes a wonderful protagonist. He reminded me a little of Don Tillman from The Rosie Project - as a scientist, he has no appreciation for Albie's preference for creative pursuits over the academic, and though you can see a lot of his actions come from a desire to share his interest in science with his son and build a relationship with him that way, he does sometimes make you roll your eyes as a reader, but I was really rooting for him too. The supporting characters of Connie, Albie and a few others met along the way are all equally great and I could picture them all really well.

Equal parts funny, moving and sad, I would recommend this to anyone looking for a slightly different take on a love story. It would make a great beach read!
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10 June 2015

The Miniaturist




The blurb: On an autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives at a grand house in Amsterdam to begin her new life as the wife of wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt. Though curiously distant, he presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. It is to be furnished by an elusive miniaturist, whose tiny creations ring eerily true. As Nella uncovers the secrets of her new household she realizes the escalating dangers they face. The miniaturist seems to hold their fate in her hands – but does she plan to save or destroy them?

Rating: 4/5

I’ve wanted to read this book for such a long time! I finally picked it up last month and I liked it, despite it taking me a while to get into. I’m glad I persevered as I think it’s definitely one of the most original stories I’ve read and beautifully written. I haven’t read much historical fiction before so it was quite interesting to read something set in 17th century Amsterdam and the social context of the time. Quite a lot of issues are touched upon including women’s rights, homosexuality and racism. I wasn’t necessarily expecting this from the description and I have seen it mentioned by others that Jessie Burton tries to include too much. I think that’s a valid point and fans of historical fiction might look for a lot more detail, but for me it was enough to provide a backdrop for the plot if not a full in-depth social commentary of the time.

There was one aspect of the book that I felt let down by, and that is that the mystery of the miniaturist is never fully explained. The reason the book had appealed to me so much was because of this character and wanting to find out who they were, and why their miniatures behave the way they do; in actual fact, I don’t think the book is really about the miniaturist or Nella’s cabinet. The detailed descriptions of the packages Nella receives from the miniaturist were lovely to read, but the questions posed in the description above are not answered as you might expect - the reader never finds out how the miniaturist is able to know what goes on in Nella’s home or the motives behind their actions. I was left feeling like the mystery of the miniaturist was just a device to add a whimsical feel where otherwise the plot would have been fairly linear. However, I did still enjoy the rest of the story, so I’ve chosen to only take one star from my rating for this.

Are you thinking of reading The Miniaturist?
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