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Book twenty-six: The Roper Twins: Bath-Time Battles with nan #Thomas-Brown

Regular readers of my blog will notice that this is not my usual genre of fiction.  Whilst I often do a throwback review of books of my childhood they tend to be aimed at aged 10+ rather than ages 0-5, but with my own little cub due in 15 weeks I should probably get use to this style.

Whilst they say don’t judge a book by its cover, I know it’s something I’m guilty of.  The Roper Twins has an eye catching bright and colourful cover.  You can tell immediately that the story is going to be full of mischief and fun just by the look on the girls’ faces.

The fun and creative design continues throughout the book.  I really liked the use of shaped word bubbles for the text, especially those that were reflective of words in the story.  If reading with your children is as much about advancement as enjoyment looking at the shapes and words seems like a great learning experience to me.  The only downside of the shapes in my opinion is that sometimes the words feel a little squashed and some of the great imagery behind them gets lost.

As far as the story goes, it’s simple and as expected full of mischief.  I’m sure any little ones having this read to them will giggle away as they relate to idea of running away, hiding and screaming when they don’t get their own way.   A fun story I’m sure lots of children will enjoy having read to them.

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Book twenty-three: London Lies Beneath #Duffy

Inspired by real events, this is the story of three friends, and a tragedy that will change them forever.  Set in the working class streets of Walworth South London in the early 1900s the book concentrates on Tom, Jimmy, Itzhak and their families.

If you’re familiar with London and in particular the Walworth area this book is so much more than a story of friendship, it is a story of south London, a history of the streets and the families that made it such a complex place.  Despite progression over the last 100 years or so this book is an echo of life now, families crammed into small houses, parents working all hours to provide for their families, children with dreams of doing something different, not following the same path as their parents, making more of their life, seeing more, doing more, having adventures beyond the streets of Walworth.  Aspirations every child should have and be encouraged to have.

This is the first book I’ve read by Stella Duffy and I’ll certainly be looking up some of her older work.  She is a beautiful writer, crafting the world her characters live in and opening each of them up to us so that we connect with their inner soul.  This book is nothing without the people, although there is one major tragedy towards the end of the book within the rest of it very little happens and yet Duffy keeps you entranced.  The depth and history given to her characters is fantastic and slowly throughout the book she opens up them up to us, sharing their insecurities with us, allowing us to see the last troubling worries before they sleep and the hope and optimism for the future that wakes them each morning.

Life for the families of Walworth was hard, working 6 days a week most of the time, always wondering if they had earned enough to put food on the table, clothe the children, educate them.  The struggles of the families contrasting with the dreams of the boys is an important part of this story which is handled very well by Duffy.  It would have been easy to over dramatize the poverty but she successfully paints a realistic picture whilst also showing us the wealth held within the families.  Close-knit communities where children are cherished and raised by all, where no one goes without in a time of tragedy, where there is always a chair by a warm fire and someone to share the burden.

At the heart of the book are Tom, Jimmy and Itzhak, best friends and partners in crime. When not in school or helping with work and household chores the boys are found exploring south London.  From Clapham to Nunhead every street, park and waterside path offers them a new world to explore.  Always looking for the next adventure the boys are over the moon when a new Scout troop is established in Walworth and they’re given permission to join.  Each boy finds his own strength through the scouts, knot tying, map making, swimming, and leadership and together they prepare to embark on the biggest adventure of their young life a boat trip along the Thames to a summer scout camp in Sheppey.  A Thames boat trip might not seem like much of an adventure to a reader today but when you picture the river of the time, a bustling waterway filled with cargo ships and passenger ships taking people to unimaginable lands, a vast stretch of water which the boys would have rarely crossed never mind travelled upon then you can begin to understand the caution and worry of their parents and the sheer excitement of the boys.

The lives of the people of Walworth were forever changed after the boat trip.  In today’s age we are touched, more often than we’d like, by tragedies that impact entire communities and Duffy details wonderfully the conflict between a families private grief and a community’s need to mourn and commemorate.

This a slow moving book with wonderful stories within the story and it is an absolute pleasure to spend time amongst the families of Walworth.

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Venturing into the world of the graphic novel

As a child I never really read comics.  The closest I came was reading two bumper books of Asterix the Gaul stories which I think were probably originally bought for my brother.   I must admit I loved those stories and continued to re-read them well into my teenage years.

I am now at the age of 34, thanks to my husband, expanding my reading to include graphic novels.  No longer associated with socially awkward teenagers graphic novels have emerged and are quickly becoming a part of mainstream literature.  In starting to write this blog I did a little bit of research about what constitutes a graphic novel, according to my findings “to be considered a graphic novel, rather than a picture book or illustrated novel, the story is told using a combination of words and pictures in a sequence across the page.  They can be any genre, tell any kind of story, it’s the format that makes the story a graphic novel – text, images, word balloons, sound effects and panels. “

Having only read a couple of chapters of The Watchmen, I can immediately see why this style of book can be appealing to readers, and in particular boys.  Whilst they are rich with complex plots and narrative structures they are easily accessible, often vibrant with colour and offering a visual experience similar to that of computer games and animated TV.  They’ve also made the jump across to film adaptions easily, the most mainstream one probably being the 2005 film Sin City.  A stranger to the genre I was incredibly taken with this film.  The cinematography was striking, the use of colour to highlight certain objects against the main black and white was something I hadn’t seen before.  I felt like I was watching a comic played out.

But back to the paper copies.   For those not familiar with the style it definitely takes time to become comfortable with it. Naturally the character development is a little slower, the conversations shorter and normally there are few sections of long prose setting a scene.  I say normally because The Watchmen comic strip sections are broken up with extracts from an autobiography written by one of the characters.  This has really helped me to get my head around the background and the context of the main storyline and being a format I am more familiar with it has helped bridge a gap.

I’m not far enough into the novel to say for certain if I would read another one but I am enjoying trying something new and expanding my literary boundaries.

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Book eleven: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe #Lewis

Originally published in 1950, although second in the sequential stories, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was the first of the Chronicles to be published and is probably the best known of the seven novels.

Set 40 years after The Magician’s Nephew The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe see 4 siblings, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, evacuated from London to stay with the now grown up Professor Digory Kirke.  There through a wardrobe they find a doorway to another land, Narnia.  The land is in the clutches of an evil White Witch and the children find themselves key players in a battle between good and bad.

Re-reading this book was like taking a time machine back to my childhood, it was always one of my favourite books and I adored the BBC adaption.  Sunday evenings curled up in front of the fire eating sardines on toast I was convinced I could be as brave and courageous as Lucy given the chance to visit a magical world.  Obviously as a child I was unaware of some of the deeper Christian symbols and themes within Lewis’ writing.  Whether you choose to explore the Christian themes or not this is a magical book and a joy to read.

As previously mentioned, I will do a more thorough review once I’ve completed the series.

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Book ten: Wolf Hall #Mantel

Wolf Hall has been an absolute pleasure to read and I am only sorry that I have not been able to dedicate more time to it.  It’s the sort of book you just want to curl up on the sofa with, a log fire crackling in the background and a glass of red wine in your hand.  Instead, I’ve been reading snippets on my commute and during a rare lunch break where I’m left alone by my colleagues.

Here’s a tip, if your colleague is sat reading they probably don’t want to talk avoid the urge to start a conversation with them forcing them to put their book aside.

Despite the awards and general furore about Mantel’s Wolf Hall I was a little sceptical about how engaging it would be.  I’ve often found historical books to be laboured, lost in the language and lacking a real exposure to the characters.  Wolf Hall could not be further from that.  Mantel’s prose is flowing and so accessible you truly do get lost in the pages.

For the one person living under a rock who doesn’t know what it is about, Wolf Hall presents a fictional portrayal of the court of Henry VIII leading up to and during his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and eventual split from the Roman Catholic Church.  The story is told through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith who rose to become a lawyer and chief aid to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and eventually confidant and minister to Henry VIII.

Wolf Hall has two great things going for it.  A plot full of adultery, treason, secrecy, blackmail, weddings, births and deaths; and characters that we love and loathe in equal measure at different times.

Mantel brings to life the world of Henry VIII with such vividness and detail it is easy to feel you are watching the story play out.  She has diligently spent time developing and understanding each character, no matter how small a role they play in the book and this depth of character allows us to immerse ourselves in their lives.  The choice of Thomas Cromwell as protagonist is fantastic, from the silent man who watches and knows everything we see him rise.  Wolf Hall has a dark undertone, throughout the book there is a sense of foreboding, we all know how the story ends and yet in reading it I still felt on edge, feeling like I was a co-conspirator with Cromwell as he manipulated and steered the world of the court to the King’s and his liking.

With a vast array of Dukes, Lords, Knights, Ladies in Waiting, English Royal families, French Royal families and Spanish Royal families it is easy I must admit to get a little lost remembering who everyone is related to and what value or leverage they have to Cromwell.  But this complexity comes from history, from the every changing allegiance of the time rather than Mantel’s writing.

Wolf Hall ends in 1535 with the death of Sir Thomas More.  The next book in the series is Bringing Up the Bodies which carries us through the collapse of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and his subsequent 3rd marriage to Jane Seymour, masterly orchestrated by Cromwell.   You just know it’s going to be juicy and I can’t wait to read it!

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Book eight: Tooth and Nail #Rankin

The 3rd novel in the Detective Rebus series sees our lead seconded to London to assist with a hunt for a cannibalistic serial killer nicknamed the Wolfman.  With his London colleagues less than pleased with his interference and distant connections between the case and his daughter Sammy’s new boyfriend Rebus needs to act quickly before the Wolfman’s taste for blood develops.

Having lived and worked in London for nearly a decade seeing Rebus work the boroughs and streets I’m more familiar with brought this story to life for me.  In particular his description of the troubled no go housing estates in East London and the vibrant but faceless streets of Soho and Piccadilly.  His grasp of places and ability to breathe life into them is a true literary skill.

This is the first of Rankin’s books where he starts to really explore the psychological make-up of his killer both through Rebus’s musings and more obviously through the assistance offered to the case by Lisa Frazer a student psychologist masking as a qualified Doctor who unintentionally marks herself out as a target for the crazed serial killer.  Rankin also gives us the reader a deeper insight to the Wolfman through chapters dedicated to thekiller’s narrative.  Exposed to the confused and tangled thoughts and actions of our serial killer Rankin is a master at making us think we know more than Rebus and yet leaving us completely in the dark as to the true nature, gender and identity of the Wolfman.

Tooth and Nail is also noted for the first reference of Morris Gerald Cafferty.  Initially just a cameo role he will go on to become Rebus’s chief adversary and major league gangster in Edinburgh.  I wonder if Rankin knew when Rebus went back to Scotland, in Tooth and Nail, to give evidence against Cafferty, that he would become such a major character in the subsequent books.

This is a fantastic mystery and like his previous novels Rankin has you turning page after page as your day just passes you by.  Don’t start this if you have a to-do list because believe me you won’t get the chores done.

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Book seven: The Buried Giant #Ishiguro

Set in an undefined part of England where Britons and Saxons are living in peace with each other an old Briton couple Axl and Beatrice set out upon a journey to visit their son. The history of the couple and their lives before this day are unclear, lost within a mist that sweeps across the land. On the way to visit their son, they meet a number of mysterious people, including Wistan a Saxon warrior, Gawain a night of King Arthur and a Saxon child, Edwin, who has been forced to flee his village after they believe him to be bitten by an ogre.

During the course of their travels Axl and Beatrice find out what is behind the memory clouding mist and must face the reality of remembering things they may have preferred to have left forgotten.

I thought this was a beautiful book. Like man of his other books Kazuo Ishiguro has an almost poetic tone to his writing, slowly moving us through the story. As referred to in my previous post there is definitely a haunting theme to this book. Each of the characters is haunted by their past, memories are eclipsed breaking through in small moments of light. When reading you cannot help but reflect on your events in your own life that haunt you. Do we remember them as they were? Or do we cast a favourable light even on our worst memories?

There are also a lot of secrets in the book. We are often held in the perspective of Axl and Beatrice unsure as to what is happening and whether we are being told the truth. From the mysterious animal that bit Edwin to the behaviour of the monks we are often left lost and guessing, caught up in the cloud of mist. As the truth unfolds it commits us more to the story, to the journey that Axl and Beatrice are on and to the task that lies before all our characters. Even the ending of the book is shrouded in haunting images and secrecy as Axl and Beatrice meet once again with the boatman.

Reading other reviews of the book on Goodreads I was shocked by how many people felt to connection to the characters, did not care for them and were not engaged by the book. I cherished the main couple on the story admiring their love for each other and hoping that in our later years my husband will still call me princess and look out for me on our adventures. I also find the more mysterious and deep characters of Wistan and Gawain compelling. Both warriors clearly carry a heavy weight upon their shoulders and their loyalty to the leaders is admirable. When their individual tasks bring them face to face it is difficult to accept although by that stage in the story you know the outcome is inevitable.

Those that have become caught up in the idea of this as a fantasy novel are I believe completely missing the point of Ishiguro’s writing. A scene has been painted in 6th century Britain and colour is given with reference to ogres and dragons but this is ultimately a book about relationships and memories. Through Axl and Beatrice we must face some stark questions about humanity. Who are we without memories? Can we create a future without knowing the past? Is love strong enough to forgive the past?

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