Can I have a Top 6?

Yesterday, as an introductory post I presented a list and some brief reviews of my Top 5 all-time favourite books.  Since then, I have been suffering from an attack of conscience with regards to my number 5 choice.  My Top 5 books have been cemented for some time, the top 3 for over a decade and it would take quite some special book to replace any of them!  However, at the end of 2012 I came across one such book.  A book which thrilled and engaged me to such an extent that it has taken up a permanent residence in my subconscious mind, honestly I have even dreamed about it!  That book is “The Girl You Left Behind” by Jojo Moyes.

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Now you may have figured out by this point that not only do I love reading but equally, I am obsessed with history.  They are my two most favourite things in the whole world and when they come together it makes me very happy!  The Girl You Left Behind is the gripping story of Sophie Lefevre and her family living in German occupied France during World War One.  Sophie’s husband Edouard is an artist, and before he left for war he painted a portrait of Sophie and presented it to her as a gift, he called that painting “The Girl I Left Behind”.  Sophie is busy running her family inn, Le Coq Rouge when one day enters a German Kommandent who insists that Sophie and her sister begin cooking for him and his men.  Sophie, needless to say is horrified but feels as though she has little choice, so she welcomes the German enemy into her home night after night.  Before long it becomes clear that not only has the Kommandent become fascinated by the portrait but by the woman in it.  Sophie begins to wonder can she use the mans fascination with her to extract information about the whereabouts of her beloved husband?  Needless to say, this dangerous game leads to no end of trouble for Sophie and her family.

The action switches midway through the book to present day London.  Liv Halston has lost her young husband David, before his death David presented his wife with a gift.  A portrait of an unknown woman.  The portrait now hangs on Liv’s wall, a reminder of her husband and of their honeymoon.  Sadly for Liv, the artists family have been trying to retrieve the portrait and have enlisted the help of an agency which tracks down paintings looted by the Germans during wartime.  A grieving Liv is stubbornly determined to hang onto the painting, one may wonder why when she discovers the tragic history of the painting, would she be so desperate to hang onto it but it soon becomes clear that not everything is as it seems and not everybody’s intentions are as honorable as they would have you believe.

I often find “dual time” stories can be confusing and difficult to follow but I believe that Jojo Moyes has really nailed this genre.  I will be honest and say that I definitely enjoyed the first part of the book more than the second, so much so that I was literally bereft when I turned over the page and realised that Sophie’s story had come to an end.  The author really captures the hardships, the struggles and the desperation felt by Sophie, her sister Helene and the rest of the sad, starving villagers who are buckling under the pressure of German command.  The world she has created is so vivid that having been so engrossed in it, I would look up from the book and actually find myself surprised to be sitting in my own living room and not in the bar of Le Coq Rouge.  I could almost hear the conversation, smell the food and feel the fear and desperation hanging in the air.  I could quite happily have read an entire novel based around Sophie and was so disappointed when her story came to an end that I almost didn’t continue to read, almost!  It was only that I was so desperate to find out what became of Sophie and Edouard that I carried on turning those pages and boy am I glad I did.  I soon found myself as immersed in Liv’s story as I was in Sophie’s.

Without giving anything of the story away there are many comparisons to be drawn between Sophie and Liv and their stories, not least the loss of the loves of their lives and their strength and resilience when life pushes them to and beyond their limits.  Having forced this book on many of my friends, none of whom have regretted it, I have largely found myself alone in my sympathy toward the Kommandent but I was left feeling as though he genuinely loved Sophie.  I think his character showed how even the most evil of enemies is just a person underneath, and how even the most gentle of souls can be twisted and destroyed by the evil of war.

This is a story that progresses at a rocketing pace, which tugs at your emotions and will have you hooked from the very first page.  It is tense, dramatic, heartbreaking and poignant.  I highly recommend this book to anybody, however I would advise that you only pick it up if you know that you have at least one clear day in front of you as you will not be able to put it down until you have finished.

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Walking Disaster by Jamie McGuire – Review!!!

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Let me start by saying that I did enjoy reading this book. It was nicely written, flowed well and it was certainly not a struggle to reach the end. However, I did feel as though for the most part it was a rewrite of Beautiful Disaster and nothing more. I didn’t feel as though I learned anything about Travis that I did not know before, or the other characters for that matter. I really enjoyed the prologue showing Travis as a young child at the bedside of his dying mother and must admit to having the glisten of a tear in my eye! For me, this small section of the book showed what the author is capable of and it was a shame that it did not carry on in this vein. Given that the author justifies the flaws in her leading mans character with the death of his mother at such a young age I felt as though she could have had a much bigger voice in this version of the novel. It seemed as though she was used as a justification for Travis’ behaviour and then quickly forgotten about. I would also like to have seen the author explore more of the relationship between Travis and his elder brothers.

Although I didn’t struggle too much to enjoy this book I did find my myself a little bored as having read BD I knew exactly what was going to happen at the end of every scene, scenes that we have already become familiar with in the previous novel. Perhaps the author could have written some brand new “unseen” interactions between Travis and Abby rather than relying on the retelling of scenes and situations from BD. The novel does however redeem itself somewhat during the epilogue, this was the first time during the story when I felt myself wanting to turn the page to find out what would happen next.

Given the phenomenal success of Beautiful Disaster and the hysteria surrounding Travis Maddox as a literary hero (or a book boyfriend as I have recently heard him referred to as) I am not surprised that the author, or more likely her publishers would want to capitalise on this and make as much money as they can, which is fair enough! Nobody forced me to purchase it! Unfortunately, I do feel as though Ms. Maguire would have done herself much more justice as a writer by creating some brand new material. Perhaps she could have written fresh material telling us what happened in the 11 years that we missed between the end of BD and the epilogue of WD? I’m not sure whether there will be another book in this series at this point however there do still seem to be some loose ends, for example does Travis succeed in bringing down Mick Abernathy? I would also have loved to see more interaction between Travis and his children. How did Travis react to becoming a father? Given how damaged his character is, did he feel worthy of his kids? Was he worried about his abilities as a parent having not had his mother around? Was he scared and vulnerable as he was when he first fell in love with Abby? Or did he take it immediately in his stride? I do feel as though there is a lot more that could have been explored here and that simply writing the retelling of the novel might have been something of a cop out (sorry!!)

I very much enjoyed the relationship between Shepley and America. For me, they are much more real as a couple than Travis and Abby and I have to admit that I hugely preferred the character of America to that of Abby. She is strong and fiesty and takes no messing around. Unlike Abby, who I felt was needy, whingey and too much of a game player. For example, when she told Travis that she would have taken him back at Thanksgiving had he said the right things to her. Instead she made him suffer even when he begged on his hand knees outside the cafeteria for her to take him back, and continued to mope around herself instead of being honest. Although admittedly had she been immediately honest the book would have been a lot shorter! Abby is one minute insisting that she can’t be with Travis even though she loves him but in the next breath she is falling into bed with him and declaring her undying love! I just couldn’t figure her out! The notion of “I love you but I can’t be with you because (insert stupid reason here) always falls a little bit flat for me because in my experience if you love somebody there is no reason good enough to not want to be with them, right? You accept somebody flaws and all. Abby and Travis’ relationship seems to be based on a distinct lack of honesty and a lot of game playing (it started with a bet remember) which is why I feel that perhaps theirs is a relationship based on little more than sexual attraction rather than being a deep and sustainable love that will last a life time. To me, the real love story here is between Shepley and America and I would have dearly loved to see their story wrapped up in the epilogue also. We don’t even know if they are still together, whether they married and had children. Perhaps we will be hearing more from them in the future.

I felt Travis is a passionate, fiery and fiercely loving character who needed taking care of not messing around and I honestly didn’t think Abby was good enough for him!! She would have been better off with somebody as simpery and annoying as she, like Parker Hayes. Now Travis and America, they would make an incredible and passionate couple!!! Overall, I didn’t hate this book but I certainly did not enjoy it as much as the original. I will however, look out for Ms. Maguires next project.

 

My Top 5

Welcome to my blog, I’m glad you stopped by!  I was always a keen reader, according to my mum before I could even speak I was picking up books and babbling to myself. But it wasn’t until I was 10 years old and lying in a hospital bed when my Nan came to visit me bearing the greatest gift I have ever received – Matilda by Roald Dahl. I was enthralled and devoured it page by page, I was lost and my life would never be the same again. From that day on I was a bona fide book worm! My love of books has been the subject of everything from admiration to ridicule but I cannot be swayed, with my books I have travelled deserts, climbed mountains and sailed the seven seas. I have fallen in love, out of love and made friends that will last a lifetime. As any true reader will know, a good book needs talking about. It needs to be discussed, pulled apart and analysed by other book lovers. That is why I have started this page, so I can meet other book lovers from anywhere in the world, no matter what language you speak the language of a really great book will transcend any space and time!

By way of introduction, I thought I would introduce you to my Top 5 – the 5 best books I have ever read!  Let me know what you think and tell me what your favourite books are, I would love to hear from you ❤

5.  Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen

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I remember clearly the day I came across this book, it was dark and miserable and I was in the middle of a thoroughly horrible day in work.  To cheer myself up I decided to take a lunchtime stroll to Waterstones, one of my favourite places in the whole world!  The branch I was visiting was new and houses a Costa Coffee, so armed with my steaming Caramel Latte I set about trawling through the shelves to find something just to make my mind off the office politics and complaining clients that had so far blighted my day.  I remember catching sight of the title staring out at me from the shelf and thinking to myself how unusual it was, nestled in between so many other generic and uninspiring offerings along the lines of “Millie’s Mistake” and “Forever Love”.  I reached over and took the book off the shelf and as soon as I set eyes on the gorgeous cover (anything with a hint of glamour and sparkle will always catch my eye!), I was a goner!

The book is set during The Great Depression and being a history geek as well as a book lover the time period appealed to me immediately.  The story centres around our main character and romantic hero Jacob Janowski, a veterinary student studying for his final exams when he is delivered the devastating news that both of his parents have been killed leaving him in dire straits.  He finds himself wandering, lonely and confused he by chance jumps onto a circus train and so begins his journey with The Benzini Brothers Circus  – the greatest show on Earth!  Sara Gruen really has done a wonderful job of creating a world that is so believable you can almost smell the menagerie, I was so lost in the world of The Benzini Brother Circus that I could almost feel the rocking of the train and hear the roar of the circus animals.  Ms. Gruen has created a world of characters that will enthrall you, you will love to hate the eccentric Walter aka Kinko the Clown, August is truly terrifying and of course you will adore the beautiful Marlena and her Elephant, Rosie.  This is a truly rare and special read which is almost a modern fairy story.  Essentially it is a love story between Marlena and Jacob, but not only does this book show us how love can be found in the most unusual places, it shows us what animals can teach us about love, friendship and tenderness.  This is an enthralling read which should really not be missed.

4. The Hunger Games (Trilogy) by Suzanne Collins

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I was something of a late starter when it comes to The Hunger Games, many of my book loving friends and relatives were asking me over and over if I had read it yet, but I resisted.  Let me explain; many a time I have fallen victim to a “craze”, diving head first into something because everybody else was telling me how great it was, only to be left disappointed, deflated and feeling as though I had lost valuable reading time (50 Shades anybody…!!!) so I was determined I wasn’t going to be falling for that one again.  It was only when my 11 year old cousin came to visit with her trilogy in tow, eager to discuss it with me (was I team Peeta or Team Gale? Peeta by the way), that I caved in.  How glad I am that I gave it a chance!

The Hunger Games (if you didn’t know about it by now!) is set in the fictional city of Panem, the post-apocalyptic nation where the countries of North America once stood, and its surrounding districts.  As a punishment  for a past rebellion, District 13 has been destroyed.  As a reminder to all residents of the remaining 12 districts of the power The Capitol holds over them, every year they are required to sacrifice one boy and one girl as tributes to participate in The Hunger Games – a televised game show in which tributes must fight to the death.  The story is narrated in the voice of 16 year old Katniss Everdeen, who has volunteered as a tribute to save her younger sister, Prim.  In some ways, the premise of this trilogy is brutal and horrific so much so that I have wondered about its suitability for anybody under the age of 15 but what it also shows us is the strength of human nature, our ability to fight back against atrocities, to fight for and protect for those we love and to form friendships and fall in love in the most unusual of circumstances.  The human heart is a strong one and the instincts of human nature are first and foremost to love, protect and be peaceful and happy.  To some these books can be taken as shallow, adventurous reads about something that sounds as though it could be a sci-fi movie or a computer game but they are so much more than that.   The author, Suzanne Collins explains that she wrote this book as a condemnation of reality TV and the Iraq War and I do believe that she has succeeded.  More than that, these novels illustrate how governments can control the lives of their people, about the excesses of the rich whilst the poor are in need, how the powers that be can shape and rule our existences and how we as the people should always be prepared to pull together and fight back.

3. Matilda by Roald Dahl

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For me, Roald Dahl is truly the greatest story teller of all time.  His books often involve difficult and cruel situations faced by a child at the hands of adults, possibly a reference to the abuse the author is said to have suffered in boarding school.  Many adults feel that his books promote rebellion and a disrespect for adults but to put it bluntly, this is rubbish!  Roald Dahl is one of the only children’s authors who treats his young readers with the respect and understanding they deserve, he teaches them about the bad in the world and that there are always going to be adults who will not treat you as you should be treated and that it is always important to stand up to them.   In turn, the worlds he creates with his writing may sometimes be daunting and scary but are at the same time utterly magical.

This particular book revolves around a little girl whose intelligence goes unnoticed by her parents.

“I’m right and you’re wrong, I’m big and you’re small, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Matilda finds her escape in books and eventually learns to exact her mishevious revenge against the adults who treat her badly including her parents and her evil headmistress, Agatha Trunchbull.  For example, lining her fathers hat with superglue and lacing her fathers hair styling tonic with her mothers peroxide!  It is not until she attends school and meets the wonderful Miss Honey that her brilliance is noticed and her mind nurtured.  Before long, Matilda realises that she has magical powers.  We follow Matilda as she learns how to cope with loneliness and cruelty and discovers how to use her powers to exact revenge on the adults in her life.  Every time I pick up this book I am transported back to my childhood.  Matilda really is Roald Dahl at his best and quite simply, this book changed my life.

2. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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“Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird”

I first discovered this book when I was 15 and studying for my GCSE in English Literature.  Whilst the rest of the class moaned and groaned about having to spend their weekends and evenings analysing something so “boring” I just could not wait to get it home and get started!

Set in Alambama during the Great Depression, the story is narrated by 6 year old Scout whose father, Atticus is a lawyer and is defending a black man accused of raping a white woman; much to the consternation of the racist white community of Maycomb. Atticus is a single father, struggling to raise his children with the correct morals and values in a society where racism and prejudice is so deeply ingrained.  This book really shows a dark side to human nature; prejudice and mob rule, but among the darkness and evil shines the innocence of children.

This book has so many levels it really could be talked about and dissected all day, the most important theme being the exploration of the moral nature of human beings and the raising of the question, are people essentially good or essentially evil?  Harper Lee explores this question with the dramatisation of Scout and her brother Jems’ transition from childhood to adulthood and the evils they encounter along the way.  As children, Jem and Scout assume that all people are good as they have not yet seen or experienced evil.  That all changes as the book progress through the trial and the victimisation of Tom Robinson and Boo Radley, driven by hatred, ignorance and prejudice.  Jem is disgusted by the outcome of the Tom Robinson trial and loses all his faith in human nature whereas Scout, despite her experiences still maintains the basic faith that all people are essentially good.

This book addresses so many themes that are still prevalent in society today and addresses the prejudices that we all have inside of us, it literally left me so angry and emotional that I wanted to hurl it across the room in sheer frustration with the characters.  Most importantly, this novel reminds us of the importance of moral education in our children and I believe it is as relevant today as it was the day that Harper Lee put pen to paper.  It is little wonder that To Kill a Mockingbird is the only book that Harper Lee ever wrote as I doubt she could ever have topped it!  For me, I truly believe this book has altered my view of the world, changed the way I view people and has played a definite part in shaping the adult I have become.  It really is THAT important and should be read by everyone for generations to come.

1. Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell

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Whenever I am asked by somebody to recommend a book, my first suggestion is always Gone With The Wind.  The reaction is always depressingly similar, normally a groan and a roll of the eyes.  As much as I love the film adaptation I honestly don’t think it did the book any favours at all, it is viewed as a Mills and Boon throw away romance with a spoiled and thoroughly unlikable heroine.  The star of the story is without a doubt the fabulously strong and determined Scarlett O’Hara.  Margaret Mitchell paints her female lead as spoiled, selfish, immature and at times undoubtedly cruel but as the story progresses we see Scarlett become a strong, courageous and utterly engaging heroine.

Gone With The Wind is set in Georgia during the American Civil War and depicts the experiences of a wealthy plantation owners daughter who find herself plunged into poverty at the outbreak of Civil War.  Scarlett is madly in love with her neighbour Ashley Wilkes,  and on discovering at a party that he is engaged to his cousin Melanie, Scarlett is heartbroken and accepts a proposal of marriage from Melanies brother, Charles Hamilton.  Before long, the menfolk are called up to fight for the Confederate Army and take off on horseback to the battlefields of war.

Two weeks after they are married, Scarlett’s husband dies of measles and Melanie invites Scarlett to live with her and Aunt Pitty Pat in Atlanta.  It is here that we see her form a deeper relationship with blockade runner, Rhett Butler.  The war is not going well for the Confederacy and we soon see the city of Atlanta come under siege, Melanie without her husband Ashley gives birth to a baby boy.  With the city in tatters and soldiers lying dead or wounded in the street it is up to Scarlett to get Melanie and her baby back to the relative safety of her fathers plantation, Tara.  She enlists the help of Rhett Butler but half way there he has a change of heart and decides to sign up to the war effort, leaving Scarlett alone.  On arriving back at Tara, Scarlett is welcomed back by her father Gerald who, it soon becomes clear, has lost his mind.  It is from Tara that we see Scarlett begin to pick up the pieces and feed her hungry family on little or no food.  Just as we think Scarlett is surviving a new threat appears in the form of taxes on Tara and Scarlett knows only one man with enough money to help her –  Rhett Butler.

The book undoubtedly centres around Scarlett but also deals with many other important themes such as racism and slavery and the effect it has on people and their behaviour when power is taken away.  This is not a Mills and Boon style “bodice ripper” as it is so often portrayed but is a deep and insightful story which can be enjoyed by anybody, male or female.  I would not describe Gone With The Wind as romance at all but as historical fiction full of action and passion.  This is truly a ripping yarn, one that I have enjoyed many times and will continue to read over and over again.