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 fianc√©. 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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