Well, wow!

I had forgotten I even owned this blog! In fact, over the past few years I have forgotten quite a few things; how much I love reading, how reading keeps me sane, how much I miss reading and how much I enjoy reviewing books and talking about them – even if I am talking to myself.

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Since I wrote my last entry, I have had another child, my eldest has started school, I have changed jobs and I’ve also read a lot of books!

My youngest little man is now 19 weeks old and I’ve finally got over the tiredness from the night wakings and the illness from surgery and I’m finally full of  enough energy to get stuck into another great book, although I don’t get enough time to complete them as quickly as I would like!

I’m currently reading ‘The Life She Was Given’ by Ellen Marie Wiseman, one of my favourite authors. If you love historical fiction I would highly recommend her writing. I first discovered Ellen’s work when I read ‘The Plum Tree’ a number of years ago now. I would love to share my thoughts on both of these novels and hopefully will get around to it.

Hopefully, I won’t find myself leaving it so long to wrote another review! Let me know in the comments if you have recently read anything great, I always love a recommendation.

 

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The Book Thief : Thoughts

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World War II is a very interesting subject for me, living in Britain this is a subject which I have heard about, read about and spoken about for as long as I can remember.  I have visited museums, read books and written essays about World War II, about the brave men who fought for our independence, the ones who returned and the ones who did not.  We have celebrated the anniversary of VE Day by way of street parties and barbecues all of my life.  My Nan, my paternal grandmother, who was just a young girl at the time, has told me of her experiences living in the City of Liverpool at the time war broke out, about buildings exploding in her neighbourhood and the competitions she would have with her friends to see who would be first to find the shell.  She has spoken fondly of her memories of being a young evacuee in the Welsh countryside and about the people she met and the wonderful experiences she had.  I have learned about the struggles on The Home Front, the women bringing up the babies and looking after the home, driving buses and ambulances, building weapons and ammunition in our factories whilst desperately waiting to hear news of their sweetheart.

Every November 11th I proudly place my money in the tins that line the checkout of every supermarket and street corner and I pin a blood red poppy to my lapel.  At 11am this day, the nation falls silent.  So silent you could hear a pin drop.  Everybody, whether or old or young takes two minutes to reflect on the events of all those years ago.  Young children who catch a glimpse of their friends, eyes twinkling with nervous laughter and feel the corners of their own mouths twitching as they desperately try to stifle the bubble of inappropriate laughter threatening to escape too young and innocent yet to truly understand what this moment stands for.  Old men, with weathered faces and hands, hands that worked hard and eyes that have known love, laughter and tragedy, silent tears streaking down their ragged faces as they remember their experiences, their comrades who made it home and those who will remain forever young on the battlefields of war.  These men are like my Grandfather, a man whose experiences from 1939 to 1945 were so harrowing that, although the pain and memories were etched all over his face, he never spoke of them for the rest of his life.

But what about that one forbidden question?  The one our history teacher would rebuke and would refuse to enter into discussion about.  What of the enemy, the Germans?  By this I don’t mean Hitler and his Nazis, we all know what happened to them.  I mean the the regular working class Germans, and their children, living under Hitlers regime.  Innocent victims of the Nazis, other than those who died in the concentration camps.

I studied a poem many years ago when I was working towards my GCSE in English, it was about an English lady working away in her kitchen one peaceful afternoon listening to the merry chirp of birdsong, the sounds of war seeming a million miles away, when she hears an almighty crash coming from the woods behind her home.  She throws down her apron and takes off to investigate.  What she comes across is an enemy plane lying wrecked among the bluebells, with the Swastika glaring out at her from among the wreckage she turns to walk away when a hand reaches out to grab hers.  She looks into the eyes of the soldier who is no older than her own son, as the life ebbs away from him he takes a ragged breath and clings to her hand as he whispers “Muta”, the German word for mother.  I remember clearly, the tears pooling in my eyes as I thought about that young man, dying scared and alone in a strange country, fighting for a cause he most likely never believed in in the first place.  What was it about him that was really any different from our own young men, dying scared and alone all over the world?  Now, I could talk about this forever the brutalities of war, the politics, the rights, wrongs, ins and outs but this not a history paper or a political discussion and I am not the kind of person who looks at things like that anyway.  I like to think of people, of how intrinsically we are all the same.  I wish I could remember the name of that poem, such was the profound effect it had on me at that time.

Marketed as Children’s Fiction”, The Book Thief is much more than that.  This is a clever book.  An important book.  The subject matter is one I have been interested in for a long time; the Nazification of Germany.  I believe that as human beings, to truly understand our history and more importantly, to learn from it, we need to hear both sides of the story and sometimes, a fictional interpretation is exactly what we need to gain a true understanding of historical events and the human emotion surrounding those events.

The Book Thief is not a gory story about the atrocities of war, quite the contrary.  It is a story that follows the day to day lives of the inhabitants of a small German town from a time when war seems to be a million miles away until the very moment it arrives, unannounced and deeply unwelcome, to their front doors.  Narrated by Death, we follow the story of Liesel, a young girl who has been placed with foster parents in Munich following the death of her younger brother.  Throughout the course of the story we are introduced to a myriad of characters, including Liesels foster family The Hubermanns.  Mr. Hubermann is a wonderful character, a man of great strength and unwavering kindness who displays the kind of bravery and integrity that most of us could only ever dream of possessing.  His wife Rosa, we come to learn is much softer than she first appears.  For me, the character I most fell in love with was Rudy Steiner, Liesel’s friend.  We first meet Rudy as an impetuous young boy, painting his face black and taking off around the local running track pretending to be Jesse Owens, when his father drags him home and warns him not to pretend to be black or Jewish because of the Nazis.  It is made clear to us that whilst Mr. Steiner is a member of the Nazi Party, he is not a racist, just a man who is prepared to do anything in order to protect and provide for his family.  Throughout the novel we see Rudy’s character grow up and become more hardened toward the cold realities of death and war.

However, it is with the introduction of Max Vanderburg, a 23 year old Jew who takes shelter from the Nazis in the Hubermann’s basement, that we witness some truly harrowing scenes.  As we see the friendship between Max and Liesel grow, Max is forced to leave the safety of the Hubermann’s basement and is later seen by Liesel among a procession of Jews being marched to Dachau Concentration Camp.  What the author achieves is to give us a gut wrenching empathy for these characters, struggling with the dilemma as to whether they should help the Jews, as they know they should, or to turn their backs in order to protect themselves and their children from the wrath of the Nazis.  We witness also, the reluctance of the Jewish characters to accept help from their friends and neighbours for a fear of endangering their lives.  Mr. Hubermann, witnessing a procession of malnourished Jews, throws them a scrap of bread, as a Jewish prisoner falls at Mr. Hubermann’s feet crying and thanking him, he and Mr. Hubermann are whipped by the soldiers.  We witness the heartbreaking account of a mother, woken in the middle of the night by the Nazis banging down her front door in order to recruit her young son and finding herself powerless to stop them.

The novel plods along at something of a meandering pace at first, much like the lives of its characters at a time when you they would have been hard pressed to believe that there was a raging battle taking place not far from your own, comfortable little world.  Until, with the arrival of Max and the Nazis on their front doorsteps, we begin to understand a little about the people struggling through the Nazi regime and striving to hold their lives together.

“Did they deserve any better, these people? How many had actively persecuted others, high on the scent of Hitler’s gaze, repeating his sentences, his paragraphs, his opus? Was Rosa Hubermann responsible? The hider of a Jew? Or Hans? Did they all deserve to die? The children?”

Whilst all of the characters we meet are citizens of a nation in the process of killing millions of innocent people, Death and the readers alike, wonder just how culpable our characters are for the ongoing Holocaust when some, like Hans and Rosa, have quietly defied Hitler by protecting a Jew, and others, only children who could not possibly be held responsible for crimes planned by Hitler, before they were even born.

Marcus Zusak was born to an Austrian father and a German mother, and as such grew up hearing stories of wartime Munich and Vienna and it was these stories that inspired him to write The Book Thief.  His writing is fluid and his characters strong and likable and what results is a book which made me cry, ponder and debate with myself.  This is an eloquently written novel which tells of how our lives can alter in merely the blink of an eye.  This is a portrait of resilience, of hope and of the strength of the human spirit and I would implore you to read it.

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Before I Met You by Lisa Jewell – review

Firstly, I should apologise for not having posted an entry in such a long time.  Unfortunately, with life, work and family I have not found the time to be able to sit down and write something worthwhile.  Luckily, I have had time to read and as soon as I finished Before I Met You by Lisa Jewell, I wanted to tell you about it.

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Lisa Jewell is an author I have ignored for quite some time.  Thinking of her as a “fluffy, chic lit” author I have always been far too quick to dismiss her works as well, fluffy chic lit!  I am more than happy to admit after finishing the gem of a novel that I was sorely mistaken!  I came across Before I Met You whilst grocery shopping and was attracted first by the beautiful cover, so I flipped it over to have a quick glance at the synopsis and as soon as I realised it was set in the 1920’s I knew I had to read it.  1920’s London, the days of jazz music, smoking, flapper girls and Bright Young Things.  Youngsters, who following the turbulent and traumatic days of the war found themselves seduced by the glamour, opulence and electrifying nightlife of London and in particular, the sexy, smoky jazz clubs of Soho.

Our story begins over half a century later, in the mid 90’s.  Ten year old Betty Dean has been uprooted from her comfortable existence and deposited on the windswept island of Guernsey to live with her mum’s new boyfriend and his aging mother, Arlette.

“Elizabeth lifted her gaze to the woman in front of her, but not before noticing, with some surprise, that the woman was wearing red silk shoes, adorned with matching rosettes.  Elizabeth’s gaze also took in black lacy tights over shapely calves, and then a coat of full, luxuriant mink that hung from throat to mid-shin, and a face, round and elfin, like the face of a child, pink lips, pearly blue eyelids and a matching mink hat.  On each earlobe a small chunk of diamond shone dully in the muted candlelight.” 

From the moment I met Arlette, I had a sense that she was not your average twin set and pearls wearing Nana.  This was a woman whose beauty and elegance had once shone as brightly as the diamonds still twinkling in her ears, a woman who had grown up around a kind of glamour and prestige that those of us who came of age in the grungy 1990’s could only ever dream about and read about between the pages of a novel.  Like Betty, I was enthralled by Arlette and desperate to know her, to hear of her adventures, her romances and the loves and losses that sent her fleeing from London, never to return.  Betty is fascinated with Arlette and we see a tender, loving relationship develop between the pair as Betty nurses her elderly grandmother through the last years of her life.  When Arlette dies, her will reveals a mysterious benefactor by the name of Clara Pickle.  Who is Clara and what does she have to do with Arlette?  Betty, by now in her early twenties, sets off to London to find out.

Betty arrives in Soho and meets a variety of interesting characters including the handsome market trader, John Brightly and disgraced Brit Pop star Dom Jones.  Betty is a wonderful character, sweet, pretty and fun and does not fail to attract a number of love interests of her own.  Told in dual time, the reader is able to draw on a number of comparisons between Arlette and Betty’s lives.  Arlette of course, growing up in the 1920’s an era famous for its jazz bands, Betty in the 1990’s when Brit Pop ruled the world.  We see both women, torn between two men, unsure of whether to follow their hearts or their heads

“Here she was, torn between the man who kept her safe and the man who made her feel mad with wanting.”

As with any dual time novel, there is always one voice that stands out and although I was fond of Betty, Arlette completely stole the show.  Her story is so captivating that I wanted to dive straight into the pages, into the vividly painted picture of 1920’s London, it made me want to bob my hair, throw on some jazz, smoke cigarettes and dance the night away.

Early in her story, we see Arlette meet Gideon, an eccentric artist who finds himself taken with Arlette and her beauty and begs to paint her portrait.  Arlette and Gideon strike up a close friendship immediately and the reader would be forgiven for thinking it is Gideon who is to steal her heart.  I was sceptical.  To me, Gideon did not seem special enough to enrapture a lady such as Arlette, I found him to be weak, flaky and somewhat annoying and struggled to see what Arlette could love about him.  It is Gideon who introduces Arlette to the jazz scene and before long another love interest quite literally sails into her life and steals her heart.  Godfrey Pickle is an exceptional character, he is handsome, strong and talented and I could see immediately how Arlette could fall madly in love with him.

“He beamed at her, then sauntered, slow as a snail, towards the pouffe where he arranged himself in such a way that he looked for all the world as if he were waiting to have his portrait painted.

It is important to remember that whilst there was never racial segregation in London, inter-racial relationships would have been heavily frowned upon during this time and a West Indian gentleman sauntering through the halls of an upmarket department store with a beautiful, middle class English girl on his arm would have been something of an unusual and perhaps to some, alarming sight.  A lesser character than Godfrey may have hidden away, would not have dared to romance an English Rose in the broad light of day and sass an elderly lady who presumed his only reason to be in such a place was to polish her shoes.  But then Godfrey is no ordinary character, Godfrey is a world famous clarinettist, the greatest clarinettist of his generation and member of the world famous Southern Syncopated Orchestra

 “He was not a boss-eyed sailor.  Or a rapist.  He was a legend.”

 And indeed he was.  It was Arlette and Godfrey who kept me turning the pages, desperate to see whether they would get their happy ever after.  Their chemistry sizzles right off the pages and Arlette, like any young girl hopelessly in love, thinks her love is strong enough to survive the prejudice of the time, to change the world around her.  But is it?  And how does Little Miss Pickle fit into the story?  Who is she to Arlette that she would leave her entire estate to her, when nobody in her family even knows of her existence?  Well folks that would be telling.

This is a wonderful, gripping novel which gets better and better with the more pages your turn.  So good that I found myself carrying it with me everywhere, just in case I had a spare few seconds to read the next line.  This is not just a book about Betty on a journey to find out who Clara is; it is Betty and Arlette on a journey to find out who they are and where they fit in the world.  It is a novel which has you questioning how well you really know the people around you, how well do you really know your grandparents and who they were before you?

I was hooked right from the start of this beautiful, poignant and at times, humorous novel and ever since turning the last page, whilst wiping the tear from my eye, I have been berating myself for not giving Lisa Jewell a chance much earlier!

Southern Syncopated Orchestra, Jazz Legends:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/london/content/articles/2006/10/09/orchestra_feature.shtml

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Around The World In Books – 1. Australia

Summer is the perfect time for a holiday but don’t fret if you haven’t the means to escape to blue skies and golden sands, your imagination can take you just as far as any plane or boat.  One of  the things I love about reading is that you can travel all over the world, without ever having to pack a suitcase and you will never be disappointed with where you end up.  Every town, city, country and continent has a story to tell, a good book can pick you up and place you right in the middle of another place or time.  I have been everywhere with my books, from Germany to China, Japan and beyond.  Most recently, I visited the Australian Outback with Lucy Christopher.

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Stolen by Lucy Christopher

“You saw me, before I saw you”

Sounds intriguing, right?   From the opening line of this stunning, gritty, emotionally gripping novel, I was hooked.

Gemma is 16 when she is kidnapped from Bangkok Airport and taken to the Australian Outback.  Her captor, Ty, has been planning this “trip” for years and when he finally takes his opportunity to snatch Gemma and spirit her away to the wilderness, it is in the hope that he can make her love him, as he loves her.  Written in the form of a letter from Gemma to Ty, this wholly absorbing novel reflects on the months they have spent together under the glare of the brutal, unforgiving Australian sun as Gemma struggles against her stubborn, hot tempered but strangely alluring, captor.

Whilst this novel is marketed as the YA (Young Adult) genre, Gemma is not your stereotypical angst-ridden, whiny, teenage protagonist.  She is strong willed, determined and, even after numerous futile attempts at escape, she never stops trying to survive. Given that the book is written in the form of a letter from Gemma to Ty, you really get to know and understand this character and experience every one of her emotions with her.  I experienced her anger, her panic and her anxiety.  The fear is palpable.  Gemma is quite possibly one of the only literary characters I have felt complete and utter empathy for.  It is her powerful, compelling narrative which pulls you into the story and renders you completely incapable of letting go.

Essentially, Stolen is an investigation into the psychological phenomena that is Stockholm Syndrome.  Lucy Christopher writes in such a way that you as the reader begin to experience symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome yourself.  I found myself sympathising with Ty, trying to understand him and even feeling sorry for him.  Ty is a complex character, a master of emotional manipulation he is damaged having been forcibly removed from his family as a child, and has decided to go back to basics and live off the land according to the teachings of the Aboriginals who helped to raise him.  Ty is a fascinating character, he is not intrinsically evil but without a doubt he is a troubled soul trying to find a place in life where he belongs.  The desert is his “safe place”, a place where he feels at one with the world around him.  Ty is a man on the outside, but on the inside he is a child, lost and lonely in the vast expanse of the desert, and life.

“You told me once of the plants that lie dormant through the drought, that wait, half-dead, deep in the earth. The plants that wait for the rain. You said they’d wait for years, if they had to; that they’d almost kill themselves before they grew again. But as soon as those first drops of water fall, those plants begin to stretch and spread their roots. They travel up through the soil and sand to reach the surface. There’s a chance for them again.” 

Lucy Christopher’s narrative is so descriptive and real, the wild and desolate landscape of The Outback it is almost a character within itself.  So vividly is it described, I could almost feel the unforgiving, intrusive heat of the sun beating down upon me.  The plants are alive, real and breathing underneath Ty and Gemma’s feet.  This is not a book which is filled with edge of your seat action and suspense but for me, the emotional intensity was enough to keep me hooked until the very last page.

The question Lucy Christopher wanted her readers to be asking is did Gemma have Stockholm Syndrome or where her feelings for Ty real?  Did we as the reader, experience symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome or are we seeing the character for how he really is?  Well, you will have to read and decide for yourself.

“Lets face it, you did steal me. But you saved my life too. And somewhere in the middle, you showed me a place so different and beautiful, I can never get it out of my mind. And I can’t get you out of there either. You’re stuck in my brain like my own blood vessels.” 

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