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Top Ten Books of 2020

Having tested positive with Covid right before I was due to go back to work (close a special needs school when the local area is in Tier 4? Why no, don’t be silly!) now seems like the perfect time to wrap up my 2020 reading adventure and let you know what books have made my top ten of the year. I can’t possibly begin to put them in a numerical order – it was a struggle enough to wittle the 43 books I read this year down to 10, especially when it feels like a small breath-stealing demon is sitting on my chest – but here they are!

‘The Humans’ by Matt Haig

“Advice for a human.

  1. Dark matter is needed to hold galaxies together. Your mind is a Galaxy. More dark than light. But the light makes it worthwhile.
  2. Which is to say: don’t kill yourself. Even when the darkness is total. Always know that life is not still. Time is space. You are moving through that galaxy. Wait for the stars.”

The ‘Advice for a Human’ section in this book absolutely broke me. Matt Haig is such an incredible writer (another book of his will be appearing on this list!) and looking at the ridiculousness, complexities and magics of human life through the eyes of an alien was such a bizarre and yet neccessary thing to write about, one I never would have thought of myself.

‘Bone China’ by Laura Purcell

“Anger has ever been a failing of mine. When it surges, it sings in my veins like a dram of gin. Any action seems possible, reasonable. It is only afterwards, when the fire fades, that I see the dark soot-stain of what I have done.”

You can read my full review of ‘Bone China’ here – safe to say, Laura Purcell has done it again.

‘How To Fall in Love’ by Cecelia Ahern

“Where would we be without tomorrows? What we’d have instead are todays. And if that was the case, with you, I’d hope for the longest day for today. I’d fill today with you, doing everything I’ve ever loved. I’d laugh, I’d talk, I’d listen and learn, I’d love, I’d love, I’d love. I’d make every day today and spend them all with you, and I’d never worry about tomorrow, when I wouldn’t be with you. And when that dreaded tomorrow comes for us, please know that I didn’t want to leave you, or be left behind, that every single moment spent with you were the best times in my life.”

A beautiful book about love, loss, grief and finding the will to survive when everything seems hopeless, my boyfriend picked this up for me out of the Little Local Free Library that we have on our road. I sped through it and it had me in tears several times! Much like ‘The Humans’, it really teaches us to appreciate what we have and live in the present.

‘The Binding’ by Bridget Collins

“Which was worse? To feel nothing, or to grieve for something you no longer remembered? Surely when you forgot, you’d forget to be sad, or what was the point? And yet that numbness would take part of your self away, it would be like having pins-and-needles in your soul … I took a deep breath.”

I read this book in one go on my flight home from Barcelona in February and it definitely took away the holiday blues – I was hooked. Another book that deals strongly with themes of love and loss, the whole concept of it is so original and fascinating that I was gripped from beginning to end. There is talk of a movie, but this is one of those novels where I’m not sure the complex magic of it would translate to the big screen – has anyone else read it, and what are your thoughts on a possible movie?

‘The Confessions of Frannie Langton’ by Sara Collins

“Sometimes I picture all that reading and writing as something packed inside me. Dangerous as gunpowder. Where has it got me, in the end?”

You can read my full review of ‘The Confessions of Frannie Langton’ here – an incredible story of slavery, love and empowerment.

‘The Disappearance’ by Katherine Webb

You can read my full review of this here. Any long-term followers of this blog will know that Katherine Webb ALWAYS makes it into my Top Ten. In this novel Webb deals with dark themes like child abuse and murder with incredible sensitivity and as always, has left me impatiently waiting for her next novel.

‘Elizabeth is Missing’ by Emma Healey

“But it’s not true. I forget things—I know that—but I’m not mad. Not yet. And I’m sick of being treated as if I am. I’m tired of the sympathetic smiles and the little pats people give you when you get things confused, and I’m bloody fed up with everyone deferring to Helen rather than listening to what I have to say.”

You can read my review of ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ here. This book broke my heart; I had never really thought before about what it must be like to age, particularly whilst being ravaged by a terrible disease like Alzheimer’s. I lost count of how many times I cried while reading this, and would highly recommend it.

‘How to Fail’ and ‘Failosophy’ by Elizabeth Day

“For so long, we woman have turned our anger inwards, redirecting it towards ourselves and allowing it to manifest as shame. We have told ourselves, instead, that we are sad or hormonal or stressed, but these have been placeholder emotions. And for so long we have been encouraged to do this by a misogynistic culture that realises female anger is dangerous not because it is the product of mental imbalance but because it is fuel. Female anger is power.”

I’ve cheekily included these as one book to allow me an extra space in my Top Ten – you can read my review of ‘How to Fail’ here. The first book genuinely changed my life, and it’s sequel, outlining the seven principles of failure, was devoured before I’d even eaten my Christmas dinner when I received it on Christmas Day. While I’m tucked up in bed my resolution is to start listening to the podcasts that these books are based on.

‘The Truth Pixie’ by Matt Haigh

My best friend got me this for my birthday and I can honestly say it’s one of my favourite books I’ve ever read. It’s so inspirational and heartwarming -another one where I can’t count how many times I cried!

‘Queen Camilla‘ by Sue Townsend

This was another of my boyfriend’s finds for me and absolutely loved it. I read it without realising that there was a previous book, ‘The Queen and I’, which I’m now very keen to get my hands on, but was still able to greatly enjoy it. It’s a fun, sarcastic and witty exploration of what it would be like if the royal family lived among us commoners, and it made me laugh aloud several times.

Please let me know what you think if you’ve read any of the books in my Top Ten, and share with me the books you would have included in yours!

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The Disappearance by Katherine Webb

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “When Frances’ best friend, Bronwyn, disappeared over twenty years ago, her body was never found. And in that moment Frances’s life changed forever.

Now it’s 1942 and bombs are raining down on Bath. In the chaos a little boy goes missing. Frances was meant to be looking after him and she is tortured by guilt at his disappearance. Where has he gone, and is there any chance he could have survived?

Bombs conceal, but they can also reveal – as quiet falls and the dust settles, a body is disturbed from its hiding place. What happened to Bronwyn all those years ago? And can Frances ever put right the wrongs of the past…?”

REVIEW: I’ve had a bit of a hectic time lately as will soon be moving house so have been a bit lax with posting, but after reading this book I knew I immediately had to sit down and write about just how incredible it is. Any long-term followers of this blog will know that Katherine Webb is one of my all-time favourite authors, and her novels have more than once been listed as my top book of the year. I was so excited when I found out she had released ‘The Disappearance’, and have just sat and read it in a solid three-hour block (when I probably should have been packing, oops).

The story is told from the perspective of Frances Parry, a thirty-two year old woman who has recently returned home to her parents in Bath after the breakdown of her marriage. It is 1942 and Bath is hit badly by the Blitz, as is Frances herself. A young boy named Davy, whom she looks after, goes missing after a night of bombs raining down on the town, and then the body of her best friend, missing for over twenty years, is uncovered in the wreckage.

Frances has mixed memories of the time that Bronwyn went missing, when they were both only eight years old, and the story flashes between the present day and the year of 1918 as she tries to remember what really happened. An Austrian prisoner of war, Johannes Ebner, was convicted and hanged for Bronwyn’s murder at the time of her disappearance, but as Frances delves further into her memories of the case, she becomes increasingly convinced that Johannes was innocent, and that Bronwyn’s killer still looms large. At the same time as this is going on, Frances is also desperately continuing her search for Davy, the son of Bronwyn’s alcoholic sister Carys, and finding herself rekindling past feelings for Bronwyn’s brother, Owen.

As always with Webb’s books, there are so many twists and turns that I won’t go into any more detail for fear of spoiling the climax of the novel. Hints are littered throughout the book, both in the past and present sections, as to who Bronwyn’s real killer was, but the revelation is still shocking. It is also dealt with very sensitively, as of course the abuse and murder of children is something we distressingly read about far too frequently in the news of today, and Webb is consistently mindful of this in the way she writes. The characters are written in depth, layered and very well-written, and the description of the setting  – including the way in which certain smells and sensations can evoke buried memories – was very vivid and captured the imagination. I was absolutely hooked from beginning to end, so absorbed in the book that I even felt a little fuzzy for a while afterwards! I have already recommended it to several people and commend Webb, once again, on writing such an amazing novel.

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The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

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“A man writes to separate himself from the common history.  A woman writes to try and join it”

RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “1826, and all of London is in a frenzy. Crowds gather at the gates of the Old Bailey to watch as Frannie Langton, maid to Mr and Mrs Benham, goes on trial for their murder. The testimonies against her are damning – slave, whore, seductress. And they may be the truth. But they are not the whole truth.

For the first time Frannie must tell her story. It begins with a girl learning to read on a plantation in Jamaica, and it ends in a grand house in London, where a beautiful woman waits to be freed.

But through her fevered confessions, one burning question haunts Frannie Langton – could she have murdered the only person she ever loved?”

REVIEW: This novel tells the story of Frannie Langton, a black servant girl accused of the murder of her mistress, Madame Benham. Told mostly in the first person as Frannie recounts her life story and the events leading up to Madame’s death, the writing style is beautifully descriptive and immersive; I really felt the heat of the plantation fields of Jamaica and the sweat and grime of poverty-stricken corners of London. The use of the interjection of the second-person narrative makes us feel even more immersed in the story – the noun of ‘you’ is directed towards Frannie’s lawyer, making it so that we, the reader, are in charge of judging Frannie and the only ones in control of her fate. I absolutely loved this clever little touch, and although its use in the book is relatively sparse, it has a huge impact on the way we read Frannie’s story.

Her story begins when she lives as a house-girl on a plantation in Jamaica, servant to Mr Langton. She is elevated above the other slaves due to her quick talent for learning. She  reads avidly and can also write, and thereby is duped into helping Langton with cruel and secretive experiments concerning the biological make up of slaves. Frances is likeable and empathetic, and also an admirable character. She remains strong and keeps her own character despite everything that conspires to bring her down. Frances is devastated when Langton takes her to London only to give her away as a ‘gift’ to George Benham, an intellectual man who is trying to impress. Once again Frances becomes a scribe, and this time is also expected to spy on Benham’s enigmatic and maudlin wife, known as Madame. The friendship that blossoms between the two women as Frances becomes Madame’s maid is both heartwarming and believable, as is the love affair that then develops between the two of them.

The relating of Frances’ tale is punctuated by witness testimonies being given at her trial, and entries from the diaries of George Benham. This variety of narratives gives the story a multitude of layers and makes it even more absorbing. The character of Frannie herself reminded me almost of the Creature in ‘Frankenstein’ – one of the novels she reads in the book – she is made what she considers to be a monster through circumstance, not due to her own fault or character. The novel is full of constant twists and turns and, although making the reader undeniably angry, is an absolute joy to read from beginning to end. I would highly recommend it.

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How to Fail by Elizabeth Day

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB:

“This is a book for anyone who has ever failed. Which means it’s a book for everyone.

If I have learned one thing from this shockingly beautiful venture called life, it is this: failure has taught me lessons I would never otherwise have understood. I have evolved more as a result of things going wrong than when everything seemed to be going right. Out of crisis has come clarity, and sometimes even catharsis.

Part memoir, part manifesto, and including chapters on dating, work, sport, babies, families, anger and friendship, it is based on the simple premise that understanding why we fail ultimately makes us stronger. It’s a book about learning from our mistakes and about not being afraid.

Uplifting, inspiring and rich in stories from Elizabeth’s own life, How to Fail reveals that failure is not what defines us; rather it is how we respond to it that shapes us as individuals.

Because learning how to fail is actually learning how to succeed better. And everyone needs a bit of that.”

REVIEW: I haven’t written about it much on the blog (yet), but I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression for around the last eight to ten years of my life. I’ve tried lots of different things – I’m currently on the waiting list for talking therapy – but never really looked into self-help books before. This book caught my eye as it sounded like a personal story, yet one that I could still learn from. One of my biggest issues is dealing with failure. If I’ve made plans and they don’t go how I imagined them to, I consider it a failure, and get down. I’m a constant apologiser, convinced that every tiny thing I do is a problem – the result of being in a relationship that was abusive, demeaning and humiliating in every sense of the words. So when I saw this advertised I thought reading about someone else’s experiences with this aspect would certainly help me.

I was right. This book is incredibly relatable and helpful in so many ways,  but mainly in the way that Day herself hoped it would be – I no longer feel alone for feeling this way about failure, or for struggling to deal with it. I don’t feel like I’m being stupid for not knowing how to cope with it. I do, however, feel more comfortable and confident about addressing it when I do fail. There were some areas of the book that particularly resonated – the chapter on ‘How to Fail at Your Twenties’ was one of them. I’m twenty-five, and totally get what Day means about this being a really in-limbo period of your life, where you are still trying to work out who you actually are as a person. One part of this chapter in particular really connected with me; Day was talking about how she built her identity around a succession of boyfriends, to the extent where she would always defer to them about seemingly small choices like what to eat for dinner. When she was eventually single, she then realised – she could no longer choose what she wanted to eat. She had little to no concept of working out what food she fancied or where she wanted to go out to eat. My boyfriend and I recently had this exact conversation – in my previous relationship (which was also my first relationship), I was too scared to choose where to eat because my ex would throw a hissy fit if he didn’t like the food, or react against me in a physical or emotional way that could frankly put me off ever going to a restaurant again. I therefore constantly deferred to his choice, to the point that with my current boyfriend (who is so totally the opposite that he’s learnt how to make dominoes pizza from scratch, just for me) I often have absolutely no clue what I want for dinner – or, when I do, I stop myself from saying in case I sound too opinionated.

The fear of expressing opinions is something  Day also writes about in her book, attributing it partly to the everyday sexism we experience as women, particularly in our twenties and in the workplace. My workplace is actually very female-dominated so I’m lucky enough not to face that problem, but everyday sexism is a thing that I don’t think any woman is ever free of  – mansplaining is a particular pet peeve of mine. Once again, reading about other people’s experiences of this is frustrating, but also reassuring, as we know that we are not alone. I also particularly enjoyed Day’s emphasis on the importance of friendship, particularly between women – I’ve had several events in the last four years particularly that made me realise just how much I depend on my friends, and the lockdown has compounded that even further; I’d go mad without the daily  exchange of memes, moaning about friends, pampering tips, book recommendations, confidence boosters and the frequent encouragements to online shop.

Overall, Day’s book is both relatable and helpful, and I’ll definitely be looking into the podcast that inspired this book. Day includes the tales of people that she interviewed for the podcast in the book, and its nice to read about celebrities, writers, etc having similar experiences to ourselves. I’ve already posted it off to one friend to read and will be buying it for several more for Christmas!

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Lockdown Life

Finding ways to amuse ourselves in lockdown is probably at the forefront of most of our minds at the moment, and it can definitely be tricky to occupy ourselves after this long stuck indoors. We’re all missing our families, our friends and our social lives – I’m very glad that I have my partner with me during this time, even though we’ve had to implement some changes to our daily routines in order not to get under each other’s feet and have a bit of our own space (VERY difficult when you live in a tiny studio flat). So here are a few of the things I’ve been doing in order to keep busy and try and keep my spirits up.

My boyfriend and I both really enjoy cooking, so now we take it in turns to cook dinner each night (he’s currently in the process of making a tagine for tonight’s dinner). We’ve both tried out some new recipes, and I am now a Sunday Roast pro. I’ve also always loved baking so have been doing lots of that too – I made a lemon drizzle cake which I dropped on the doorstep of a nearby family I work with, and a marble loaf cake that I dropped off at my Grandad’s house. Some of the recipes I’ve tried recently have been for a spicy prawn linguine (turned out AMAZING) and chicken katsu curry (needs work!).

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In our borough, Waltham Forest, we have a great scheme called Little Free Library. Houses in the area can opt to have small book boxes out the front of their house where you can take and donate books. The boxes are always beautifully decorated and I’ve been incorporating them into my daily walk, swapping the books that I’ve read (I’ve been speeding through them recently) for new ones. Trips to the book boxes definitely brighten up my day; it might be worth seeing if your local community has any book-swapping or trading schemes that could be useful to you.

Street art has also become a big part of my lockdown life, as I’ve found so many beautiful artworks while on my daily walks. Paintings, graffiti and mosaics brighten up the wanderings and are fun to share with friends and family.

Planning holidays is something I’ve been doing too, though it is more of a futile task as of course none of us know when a holiday will be possible! I’m hoping we will be able to manage a few days away somewhere in the October half term, but of course that might not happen. My top three potential destinations are Sicily (they are offering to pay half of everyone’s flight and hotel costs this Autumn to give a boost to the economy), Prague (I’ve been but my partner hasn’t and I think he will love it) and Budapest. We’ve also been chatting with some friends about a group holiday to Ibiza next summer!

Walks in general have been a massive help to me during this time. I’ve definitely noticed that on days when I don’t go out for a little walk, my mood dips massively. Luckily our local park is really lovely and has remained open. I’ve also been walking to my Mum’s house, getting her to pass the dog to me, and taking him for walks in the forest before dropping him back home. This gives me some time for dog cuddles too – I think pets are an absolute godsend at a time like this – and allows me to appreciate the blossom and blue skies (though there hasn’t been much of that the last couple of days!).

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Reading and re-organising my books has also been a great help at the moment and has definitely kept me sane. I’m an avid reader anyway and am really enjoying having time to get back into it again. I’ve read some great books during the lockdown – I’ve got lots of reviews to catch up on! My personal favourites would have to be ‘The Mirror and the Light’ by Hilary Mantel and ‘Bone China‘ by Laura Purcell.

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Pampering has been a big thing for both of us during the lockdown too. We’ve been using face masks weekly – the Mad Beauty Disney face masks are a god send, making it even more fun to pamper; we’ve got Cheshire Cat and Tigger ones for this week. I’ve even gotten my partner to paint my nails (I’m way too shaky when it comes to painting my right hand) and we’ve been having foot massages too. It’s nice to treat yourself with a glass of wine and a little pamper session in the evenings, usually before unwinding with a movie.

Binge watching TV series has been a major part of lockdown for most of us I expect. We’re currently watching ‘The Witcher’, which I’m really enjoying so far. Of the shows we’ve watched during lockdown so far I’d definitely recommend ‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’, ‘Ozark’, ‘After Life’ and ‘Atypical’. We’ve also been watching the weekly plays screened by the National Theatre and the Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals (both available on YouTube).

Blogging is obviously something that I would recommend to – even if no one reads it, it’s nice just to be able to spill out and organise your thoughts. Let me know if you have any advice for things that I haven’t tried or things that you think I could do differently! I’m open to any and all ideas at this point…

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Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

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“I feel rather drab and shy for a few minutes. But then I remember that I am old and nobody is looking at me.”
RATING: 5/5
BLURB: “Maud is forgetful. She makes a cup of tea and doesn’t remember to drink it. She goes to the shops and forgets why she went. Sometimes her home is unrecognizable – or her daughter Helen seems a total stranger.

But there’s one thing Maud is sure of: her friend Elizabeth is missing. The note in her pocket tells her so. And no matter who tells her to stop going on about it, to leave it alone, to shut up, Maud will get to the bottom of it.

Because somewhere in Maud’s damaged mind lies the answer to an unsolved seventy-year-old mystery. One everyone has forgotten about.

Everyone, except Maud . .”

REVIEW: My Mum recommended this to me and it’s taken me a long time to get around to it, but I’m so glad I did. This novel is heartbreaking and emotional to read; I spent most of it either in tears or close to it. Healey somehow manages to write so that we both become a part of Maud’s jumbled thoughts and that we are also able to see how her life is from the outside, witnessing her sadness and confusion as well as her daughter’s frustration. Maud is convinced that her friend Elizabeth is missing, and her daughter Helen is becoming increasingly frustrated both with her mother’s forgetfulness and her dogged determination to find Elizabeth. When Maud tries to reach out to people to seek their help is when I found the book most heartbreaking to read; they turn away from her, seem embarrassed by her talking to them, or just completely misunderstand her. For example, when she tries to talk to other people at the church – where you would expect people to be the most understanding and considerate – and is left feeling upset and humiliated,  I couldn’t stop crying.

This is a hard novel to review without giving spoilers, which I really don’t wish to do as the way in which Maud’s past and present lives collide is such a fantastic and shocking twist that ruining it would be a crime. So I will say no more, other than to emphasise what a fantastically written and incredibly important book this is. The last line of the book made me sob, and I would very highly recommend it.

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Re-Reading

As an avid reader, I’ve often noticed that other bookworms can often be divided in their attitudes to re-reading books. Some people will never read the same book twice, no matter how much they’ve enjoyed it. Others re-read so frequently that I wonder how they ever manage to fit new books in. I’m somewhere in the middle, as I imagine most people are; I have a select few ultimate favourite books that I have re-read countless times and will probably continue to do so. However, I only have selected times that I will allow myself to re-read books; either as a treat when I’ve accomplished something tricky (when I was at university this was usually after an exam) or when I’m going through a difficult time (the amount of times I’ve run back to the comfort of Hogwarts during a bout of depression or a time of grief is countless). It’s a big deal if a book makes it on to my re-read list, so I thought I’d share those books with you here (I’m sure I’ve probably forgotten some!) and talk a bit about why I love them so much.

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Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

“It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another.”

I studied Frankenstein at A-Level and absolutely fell in love with it. The fact that Mary Shelley was only eighteen years old when she penned this in a ghost-story contest with literary greats (but massive dickheads) Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron will never fail to blow my mind. I don’t feel that the story will ever lose its relevance; the line between life and death is something that all of us, to some extent and for whatever reason, wish that we could control . The Creature also remains, to me, at least the most empathetic – and, ironically, the most human – character that has ever been written. Plus, the novel in itself is pretty short – less than 200 pages if you buy the original 1818 text (which you MUST DO because the 1821 edition published by most companies was edited by Percy Shelley in the biggest example of  arrogant mansplaining I can think of ), so can be read in an afternoon if desired.

 

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Harry Potter by J.K.Rowling

“Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light”

I’m sure the Harry Potter books are on the lists of many people! Re-reading Harry Potter was a treat for when I finished my GCSE’s, AS Levels and A-Levels, and they were the first books I turned to when I was grieving for my Nan and couldn’t really cope with life at all. I always do feel like, in the words of Rowling herself, Hogwarts has always been here to welcome me home, no matter what I’m going through in the real world. It gives the escapism of magic whilst still making me feel understood, and preventing me from feeling alone in dark times.

 

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The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

“I have hated words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.”

Never has a book broken my heart into quite so many pieces as ‘The Book Thief’ did, and continues to do every time I read it. The writing style is something I’ve never encountered before or since, and having the book be narrated by death is just so different and overwhelming. Probably not to be recommended when you are going through a down time – unless you need something to provoke you into having a good cry – but definitely highly recommended in any other instance.

 

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The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

“She herself is a haunted house. She does not possess herself; her ancestors sometimes come and peer out of the windows of her eyes and that is very frightening.”

‘The Bloody Chamber‘ is another text I studied for my A-levels and one that has always stayed with me. As well as being a bookworm I’m a huge Disney fan, and as such, love fairytales. The twisted fairytales of Angela Carter aren’t for the faint-hearted (particularly ‘The Snow Child‘) but they do put a beautifully feminist spin on traditional fairytales like ‘Sleeping Beauty‘ and ‘Red Riding Hood‘. My favourites in the collection are the title story,  ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon‘, and ‘The Lady of the House of Love‘ (which the above quote is from).

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North Child by Edith Pattou

“That’s the trouble with loving a wild thing: You’re always left watching the door.”

North Child‘ is a young adult novel that I read when I was about thirteen and have continued to re-read ever since. A beautifully written fantasy and adventure story based loosely on ‘Beauty and the Beast‘, this novel is perfect escapism. Rose, the protagonist, is also a feisty, intelligent and imaginative role model for young girls, and continues to inspire me as a reader now.

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The Princess and the Captain by Anne-Laure Bondoux

I read this at about the same time as I read North Child, and love it for precisely the same reason – it offers an inspirational female heroine and the perfect blend of fantasy and adventure. It is, however, a much sadder story and has never failed to make me cry. Yet it also has such hope that it never fails to make my heart feel lighter.

The Black Magician Trilogy by Trudi Canavan

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The Black Magician Trilogy by Trudi Canavan

“He had given her too much. He had given her everything

It is usually the third installment in the trilogy, ‘The High Lord‘ that I tend to re-read, but this whole trilogy is incredible. Sonea is a fantastic protagonist, but the accompanying characters, have personalities and storylines that are just as fascinating, and means that none of the books ever become dull. They are written in such a way that, despite being about magic, the stories feel very realistic and believable.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

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“Why didn’t you tell me there was danger? Why didn’t you warn me? Ladies know what to guard against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks; but I never had the chance of discovering in that way; and you did not help me!”

‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ is one of my favourite classic novels because, much like ‘Frankenstein‘, it is so ahead of its time. The men in this novel are AWFUL, and the brave heroine Tess faces defeat after defeat without ever losing her sense of self or where she has come from. I admire Tess tremendously, and also love Hardy’s writing and the fact that he did not shy away from writing strong women.

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The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

“You can smile when your heart is breaking because you’re a woman.”

Despite its inaccuracies, I have a lot to thank this book for, as it was what set me on the course to studying History, with a specialism in the Tudors and Early Modern Europe, at university. The story of the sisterly rivalry between Mary and Anne Boleyn in the tumultuous world of the Tudor court is gripping and never fails to entertain me,as well as break my heart.

 

So, there you have it –  my ultimate re-reads! What are the books that you would re-read? Are there any particular books you turn to in times of difficulty? Let me know in the comments section!

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Emerald Star by Jacqueline Wilson

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Since leaving the Foundling Hospital, Hetty has seen her fair share of drama, excitement, tragedy and loss. After the death of her beloved mama, she sets off to find a real home at last – starting with the search for her father.

But Hetty is no longer a simple country girl, and begins to fear she’ll never truly belong anywhere. And even when she is reunited with her beloved childhood sweetheart Jem, Hetty still longs for adventure – especially when an enchanting figure from her past makes an unexpected reappearance. Could a more exciting future lie ahead for Hetty?”

REVIEW: I was eager to read the next Hetty Feather novel after ‘Sapphire Battersea’, and ‘Emerald Star’ did not disappoint. It followed smoothly on from the previous novel and was just as witty and engaging from the start.

Following the death of her mother and her new employment as a seaside oddity, Emerald the Pocket-Sized Mermaid, Hetty begins to sense the voice of her mother within her, urging her to find the father she never knew. Bolstered by this, Hetty sets off to a small fishing town and finds her long-lost father there. He welcomes her with open arms and fond memories of her mother, but his wife and two children are far less forthcoming. Hetty doesn’t fit in with the other girls and hates her new job gutting fish, so when she receives a letter from her beloved foster-brother Jem telling her that her foster father has died, she is determined to make it back to her old countryside home for the funeral. Leaving her father behind, Hetty returns to her childhood foster home. She is met with delight by Jem, but her foster sisters are far more wary, and her foster mother has had a severe stroke and is in need of round-the-clock care. As Jem becomes the man of the house, Hetty acts as her mother’s nurse, and despite the attentions of lovely local girl Jemima, Jem soon makes his intentions towards Hetty very clear. Feeling trapped in the mundane routine of farm living, Hetty is torn – until the arrival of the circus, and her beloved childhood hero Madame Adelaide, makes the decision to escape yet again the only obvious choice.

As readers who strongly connect and empathise with Hetty, we are happy when she finds her father but feel a sense of unease, in the same way we do when she returns to her foster family’s home. The sense of not belonging and the need for adventure really shines through in Wilson’s writing, so that we can feel Hetty’s restlessness and longing leaping off of the page. It also teaches the lesson that the grass isn’t always greener, and that we often remember the past in a way that makes it more romantic, exciting and loving than it perhaps once was. The ending of the novel, however, is lovely, and leaves us looking forward to the next installment of the series as Hetty begins her new life in the circus.

UPCOMING: A blog post about the local art and graffiti I’ve been finding on my daily walks…plus some tips to gain food and save money while walking!

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Barcelona Travel Diary

I am very fortunate in that before lockdown began and it became impossible to fly anywhere, my boyfriend and I had a few days’ holiday in Barcelona, Spain, over the February half term. Although we didn’t get to do everything we planned, we had a great trip and were lucky enough to have amazing weather too. I thought I would write up an account of our trip in the form of a travel diary, filled with photos and recommendations of places to see, eat and graffiti spot. Hope you enjoy!

Day 1 – 17/02/20

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Our day started off with a trip on the Gatwick Express and a delicious breakfast at Sonoma once we reached Gatwick Airport. I’d highly recommend eating there; the food was delicious (as was their coconut, oat and vanilla smoothie) and they guarantee to serve all meals within fifteen minutes – which is great for both if you’re running late and for giving you more time to look round duty free. Our flight was slightly delayed due to Storm Dennis (which gave us dangerous amounts of time to explore duty free) but we were finally on our way by about 2:30pm and arrived in Barcelona around 4:30pm.

Our Airbnb was located near Poblenou station, less than five minutes walk from Poblenou beach and in a lovely new build apartment complex designed specifically for tourists. These were called Feel at Home apartments and I would highly recommend them; as well as the great location the staff were incredibly helpful and easy to contact, and the apartments themselves were beautiful, airy and modern. I paid £180 for the three nights which I felt was very reasonable.

After unpacking we went a did a small food shop at Mercadona, a really cheap supermarket that was also located less than five minutes from the apartment. We had a quick meal and then caught the bus to the Erotic Museum of Barcelona. The transport system, made up of the metro, buses and trams, is really efficient and easy to use – it helps that Barcelona is also registered on the Citymapper app so the route can be planned for you. We bought a five day travel card, which covers all these forms of transport at an unlimited rate, for 30 Euros, which was well worth the money.

We always visit the sex museum of each country we go to, and the Erotic Museum of Barcelona was my favourite of these since our trip to Amsterdam. It contained lots of laughs but also some genuinely interesting facts regarding the history of pornography within the Spanish royal family. The gift shop was also amazing, and if you leave a Trip Advisor review you get free gift (the fridge magnet we got will definitely have to be hidden from our future children).

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We decided to walk back to our apartment through central Barcelona and found some great hidden gems, including an independent art gallery full of cats, a shop that sold the most amazing fruit tea I’ve ever tasted (I came home with three bags) and some really cool graffiti. We got an early night, tired from all the travelling and in preparation for the next day.

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Day 2  – 18/02/20

The next day we got the metro to Barcelona Zoo, which was absolutely incredible. When I visited Prague in October 2018 I was blown away by the huge enclosures and how well it seemed the animals were looked after; especially in comparison with London Zoo, which I find quite upsetting as it is so cramped and in such a pollouted area. Barcelona Zoo matched Prague Zoo for me in terms of its openness and natural look. We spent the whole day there, and aside from the extortionate price of the food it was a fantastic day. The highlights for me were the kangaroos (one of which had a baby in her pouch!) and the other was a brown bear, as I had never seen either of these before.

 

After a long day we returned home with aching feet to enjoy our favourite discovery from the Spanish supermarket, a 5 litre bottle of red wine which cost only 3 Euros. It had to be heavily watered with lemonade to make it drinkable, but we still got very pleasantly drunk and became very amused over Spanish voiceover episodes of ‘Friends’.

Day 3 – 19/02/20

Our plan for the third day of our trip was to go to Park Guell, which I’d heard a lot about from friends and which looks absolutely stunning in photos. Unfortunately the queue was at three hours long when we trekked up the hill to get there, so we concluded that rather than lose so much of our final full day in waiting, we would go on to our next planned destination, the CosmoCaixa museum.

CosmoCaixa is the science museum of Barcelona, and I’d chosen it more for my partner’s interest than mine, as I prefer history and art galleries. However, it turned out to be without doubt the best museum I have ever been to, right up there with Amsterdam’s Van Gogh museum. The highlight for me was an indoor rainforest constructed on the ground floor of the museum with the trees stretching up to the top. It’s absolutely incredible.  From the basement you can view the underwater wildlife, which includes piranhas, stingrays and a huge variety of fish. By going up to the next floor you can enter ground level of the rainforest itself, which is full of tropical plants, exotic birds and even capybaras casually wandering around. It was the most awe-inspiring thing; my partner and I were blown away at how beautiful it was.

The rest of the museum is almost as incredible. There are lots of little mini science experiments around, which is SO MUCH FUN, especially if you’re big kids like we are. The museum was also holding an exhibition on mirrors, which was really cool and created lots of illusions that were both funny and fascinating. The museum as a whole is interactive, inspiring and highly instagrammable; it’s the place I would most recommend visiting from our trip to Barcelona.

 

On our way home we had some delicious tacos at an independent restaurant called Tequila, near Poblenau station, before heading home to pack and get ready for our departure the next day.

Day 4 – 20/02/20

For our last day the staff running Feel at Home apartments were kind enough to let us leave our luggage at their office close by the apartment as our flight wasn’t until later in the evening. We decided to spend our last day chilling on the beach with the remainder of our bottle of wine and the books we had taken with us (I was reading ‘The Binding by Bridget Collins, which I’ll soon be reviewing). We had a lovely relaxed morning enjoying the sunshine and a paddle in the sea.

 

The journey back to the airport was a little complicated – make sure you research it thoroughly if you are planning to use public transport to get there as we nearly caught the wrong train twice! – and we were glad to finally get on the flight home (which was, yet again, delayed). It was a lovely break, perfect for a few days’ getaway, with lots to explore, and everything was good value for money.

Let me know if you’ve ever been to Barcelona or have any recommendations of places to visit there, as I’d definitely like to go again!

UPCOMING: A review of ‘Emerald Star’ by Jacqueline Wilson

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Sapphire Battersea by Jacqueline Wilson

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“We all must one day lose the ones we love the most

RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Hetty Feather is a Foundling Hospital girl and was given her name when she was left there as a baby. When she is reunited with her mother, she hopes her beautiful new name, Sapphire Battersea, will also mean a new life! But things don’t always go as planned…

Follow the twists and turns of Hetty’s adventure as she goes out to work as a maid for a wealthy man. She longs to be reunited with her childhood sweetheart Jem – but also finds a new sweetheart, Bertie the butcher’s boy, who whisks her away from her chores to experience the delights of the funfair!

But Hetty’s life may also take a darker path. Can she cope with the trials ahead?”

 

REVIEW: I was always a huge fan of Jacqueline Wilson as a child and young adult, and would speed through every new release with complete absorption. Now as an adult I still love reading her novels, and particularly enjoy her more recent releases which are works of historical fiction. I studied History at both undergraduate and MA level, so for me I turn to these books as light reads that also connect over to my background in history. ‘Sapphire Battersea’, the sequel to Wilson’s ‘Hetty Feather‘ is one such read.

The novel opens after Hetty’s discovery that the maid Ida at the Foundling Hospital is, in fact, her mother, and that her own true name is Sapphire Battersea. Boosted by this knowledge Hetty finds new strength to deal with life at the Foundling Hospital, and is even able to spend some nights cuddled up with her mother in the servants’ quarters. Upon being discovered by one of the other girls, however, Hetty and Ida are both disgraced and cruelly separated. The kindly Miss Smith finds employment for both of them, Hetty at the household of a crotchety London writer and Ida as the companion of an old lady by the sea. Hetty settles into her new life, despite missing her mother terribly, as the cook and the maid warm to her and she starts a courtship with Bertie the Butcher’s boy. Bertie is fun, warm and witty, and like Hetty shares aspirations to be so much more than his roots will allow. Upon discovering that her employer is a charlatan, Hetty is turned out onto the streets, and decides to start a new life with her mother by the sea. When she arrives it becomes clear that her mother is gravely unwell, and poor Hetty is forced to confront the loss of the only family she has ever truly known, and make her own way in the world…

‘Sapphire Battersea’ is instantly engaging, and both heartwarming and bittersweet. It is easy to read whilst still capturing the time period in which it is set, which some historical fiction novels often seem to struggle with. We as readers feel instant empathy and liking for Hetty, as much as the wide cast of characters in the book do. Despite being such a witty and fiery character, most definitely ahead of her time, Hetty is so ambitious, bright and full of emotion that is impossible not to develop a love and care for her. The part of the novel where Hetty loses her mother is beautifully written, both sensitive and heartbreaking; I was reminded of when I lost my Nan, who was my best friend and the most important person in the world to me, and found myself very touched by Wilson’s writing of this experience. Despite it being slightly uncomfortable as an adult reader to read about Hetty’s subsequent adventures as a half-naked mermaid performer with tourists and older men leering over her, the novel still ends with a sense of hope and Hetty retains her sense of self. The reader is left ready for a sequel and full of warmth.

UPCOMING: Barcelona Travel Diary!