The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

I am not always one that selects prize-winning titles, but this is a well-deserving winner of the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize 2017.

The art work on the cover of this book is absolutely stunning and immediately catches your eye, even before you reach the magical sounding title. This is a story that takes you on a real adventure and, most importantly, there is wonderfully strong and independent female lead character in Isabella. She is a girl who will fight with real courage and fierce loyalty for the people she loves and the beliefs that are important to her.

When Lupe, Isabella’s best friend, goes missing, it is Isabella who uses her great knowledge of the stars and maps to support the search party. As you follow the characters on their adventures, there is a great use of myths and stories to influence the decisions made by those living on the island. It really reflects on how the ideas that can be with a nation of people for as long as they can remember, passed on to each generation, can lead some to have fear and misunderstanding and others to have the courage to fight for what they care for. You see the characters really form as each part of their adventure influences them personally.

You are on the edge of your seat throughout the story, never sure what is going to come next. You feel the danger and excitement as you turn each page; it is impossible to put this novel down. It may be a children’s book, but it is one that adults will enjoy just as much.

The Bookshop Girl by Sylvia Bishop

I was once lucky enough to be a bookshop girl for one year between studying. Therefore, I was instantly drawn to this book – and even more so because of the stunning cover courtesy of the very talented Ashley King.

There is something about this magical tale that reminded me of the favourite stories of my childhood. There is something almost Roald Dahl-like about this adventure, with its wonderful characters. They are colourful and instantly spark your imagination, and are brought to life throughout the book with beautiful illustrations.

The main setting of ‘The Great Montgomery Book Emporium’ is somewhere that I would absolutely love to visit. So many books and so many adventures facing anybody who sets foot in there – it’s delightful. It also emphasises the real pleasure that books can bring an
ybody that is around them. However, the bookshop at the start of the story, ‘The White Hart Bookshop’ (it was a pub in the previous life, after all), is full of charm too.

From the moment you start this charming tale by Sylvia Bishop, it is so difficult to put down, as you are just rooting for the Jones family to have a happy ending.

The Breakdown by B A Paris

I love a book title that is clever and, for me, this is one of those. ‘The Breakdown’ can refer to the car in the lay-by at the start of the novel (and, in fact, the crime scene), and the mental state of the central character as the story develops.

It can be difficult to talk about thrillers, as part of the enjoyment is not knowing. The pace of the story sets the scene and reflects the ‘breakdown’, however the book becomes ever more fascinating as it hurtles towards the conclusion and you revisit all your thoughts and ideas about the story.

Cassie, the main character, is someone you feel both empathy and sympathy for, although I was not sure some of her actions accurately reflected the educated woman she had been presented as. Although, this could be due to the ‘breakdown’ concept of the story – it certainly makes you wonder how you would behave if ‘fear’ was always with you. Despite the thriller side of the book, I think the fear Cassie has of her family history is more pivotal to the whole story.

Overall, it was a satisfying read – but a story I would only think works as a one-off.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

The ever-so-lovely fellow bookworm Hayley From Home sent me this absolutely wonderful little book. It is a title I have been aware of for a while but, as I always have a ‘to read’ pile that is sky high, it had just not quite ever made it onto it. However, I wish I had discovered it sooner!

This tale is told in the sweetest collection of letters. Snail mail is such a romantic idea in this crazy world of technology; there is such a dreamy notion about people’s feelings being put down on paper. The characters are all so wonderfully portrayed through the letters. The style of each letter and telegram is unique to each character and, therefore, you don’t really need them described to you in any other way. The letters even bring the ‘absent’ character, Elizabeth, to life and the reader learns about her just as Juliet does.

The historical setting of the story is Guernsey just after the occupation in WWII. It allows the characters to reflect on their experiences and relationships with each other and the Germans. The thing that stands out for me the most in this novel is the question ‘does being on the other side automatically make you the enemy?’ It’s something I’m still contemplating now.

This treasure of a book has left me wanting to develop my knowledge of this period in Guernsey’s history, and even make a visit to the island.

So, always share your favourite reads with your friends because you never know what treasures you may uncover.

Antony and Cleopatra

After the bar had been set by Julius Caesar, I had very high hopes for Antony and Cleopatra and…it did not disappoint. Antony and Cleopatra is a gorgeous, golden production and is still flying the flag high for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Rome season.

The settings for this production are the ancient civilisations of the Roman Empire and Cleopatra’s Egypt. The scenery is amazing as it seamlessly moves between kingdoms and the action. It, also, clearly connects to the Caesar production in the current Rome season. The music fully supports in creating the atmosphere for the destinations and the story as it unfolds.

There is no mistaking the Queen of Egypt in her stunning, shimmering costumes. Josette Simon plays Cleopatra with real elegance and perfect humour. Antony Byrne is a commanding Mark Antony and together they play out the true passion between the two lead characters. The rest of the cast perfectly support the central characters as the plot picks up pace. It is always wonderful seeing the ensemble of actors move from one play to another demonstrating their true versatility.

For one of the longer of Shakespeare’s plays, you are hooked from the moment the stage erupts into life with a dance scene in Egypt until the tragedy of the final closing scene, played out beautifully by all those involved.  The intense applause was well deserved for all involved (on the stage and behind the scenes) as the lights signalled the end of the performance.

The next stop will be Titus Andronicus and, if the first two plays are anything to go by, I absolutely can not wait.

March means The March Family

As a lover of all things books, BookishlyUK instantly caught my eye on social media. They just seem to have an amazing collection of all things books, including one of my favourite book accessories: the bookmark.

So, when I saw they did a monthly Bookishly crate that you could order, I had to give it a go, especially as March was ‘Little Women’ by Louisa May Alcott; a book that I have very fond memories of growing up.

The crate arrives promptly after ordering, and it is really exciting opening the box and finding what is inside. The items have clearly been placed lovingly in the box, and it is very well packaged (we all love some bubble wrap). There is a copy of Little Women, which has the lovely sleeve designed by BookishlyUK – they have a lovely page and marble style to them. The matching bookmark has the best rule for life – ‘Eat, Sleep, Read, Repeat’ – and matches the sleeve of the book beautifully.

As a lover of all things books, there is a great collection of other goodies that allow you to share your love of books in other ways. There is a framed book page print with a lovely quote to bring a smile on even the dullest of days – this is a piece of home decor I have always been a fan of. I love being able to display literature and positivity in different ways.

For me, snail mail is another way to share the love of words. The two greetings cards included, again with quotes from the book, are perfect to pop a note in the post to friends who have a similar passion for books. They are well designed and can be used for any number of occasions.

To top it all off, there is a tote bag – and you can never have too many tote bags! This is another brilliant use of a quote from Little Women. It cleverly references another passion of mine, coffee, which again proves how well thought out the crate is, as the final little treat it contains is ‘Perk-u-latte’ coffee. For me, there is not a better combination than a good book and a coffee – but I have been good and am saving it until I can really set aside the time to reread Little Women and savour every sip.

This little crate, for me, cannot be faulted. The fact that you can order it as you fancy and don’t have to subscribe means you can keep an eye out for the books that you love. They would also make a lovely gift for someone you know who loves reading.

I will certainly be keeping an eagle eye out for other titles that may make the crate.

I’m Travelling Alone by Samuel Bjork

The wonderful thing about a book club is that it encourages you to read titles that you would not usually select. #BookClub140 by Parker and Me has been a really great way for me discover new titles and feel part of a book club, even when I am struggling with time. This month’s book has been another great read.

I have not really embraced ‘Scandi Crime’ – I think it has just passed me by. However, this book had me hooked from the moment I read the first page. Short, sharp chapters are used to keep the pace of the story and have you constantly wanting to find out what happens next. It is a complex, clever story with many twists and turns, and you’re always guessing what will happen next.

The two lead characters, Holger Munch and Mia Kruger, are interesting people, and you very easily empathise with their situations. As with many great detective stories, they have their own demons and a complex relationship with each other, but you root for them throughout the novel, hoping that it is going to be a happy ending. (Although, you may occasionally question some of their very stubborn decisions…).

In this story, you are never really sure what is going to happen next and your imagination has you constantly trying to work out where the crossover in the stories may come. It is a tale that you really become invested in as you become suspicious of pretty much everyone, and Samuel Bjork uses minor characters with skill to really bring great depth to the plot.

I would really recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a well-constructed crime thriller, and I am intrigued to see where the second encounter with Munch and Kruger will take us.

 

Who Let the Gods Out by Maz Evans

I picked up this little treat when it was the Waterstones Book of the Month for Children. I was got by those wonderful words ‘half price.’ The book had caught my eye every visit, as it is has the most fabulous orange-edged pages with a lighting bolt in white, and there is something very cool about the sophisticated cartoon style of the characters on the cover. Once you open the book, the little Pegasus that runs along the bottom of the page to form a little flip book illustration is good fun.

The story is a great little adventure with a colourful collection of characters inspired by the gods and beliefs of Ancient Greece. They may not be as you expect, though: Zeus the ladies man with a penchant for crazy shirts, and Aphrodite and her dating agency are just two of the larger-than-life figures that help Elliot keep his family home from the grasp of the local ‘lady of the manor’ figure.

The themes of the book are certainly adventure and friendship, and it makes you realise that sometimes both of these can exist in the most unlikely of places – and you have to put your faith in the most unusual people. You can certainly warm to the characters and hope for good to rule in the end.

The conclusion of the story has been left open for the adventure to continue, and it would be interesting to see what happens next.

 

Creative Calligraphy

As a lover of words, it is only natural to be a lover of lovely writing too. With that in mind, my dear friend Miss W and I decided to give a calligraphy class a go.

We attended one run by Feather and Flourish – a creator of stationery for special occasions. The class was in Birmingham city centre at the rather cool Lost and Found. You arrive to a beautifully laid-out table with lovely place settings. There is a lovely pack of goodies, with everything that you need to have a go at calligraphy: ink, nib, pen, paper and a handy set of help sheets.

After a brief introduction of handy hints, you are able to get stuck right in and have a go. This does take the fear out of the situation, as everyone is so absorbed that you know nobody is going to notice if you actually have any talent for the creative…

You start by practising the common strokes and getting the lines you want, either thick or thin. Letters are a little more of a challenge but there is something very therapeutic about the flow of calligraphy. Capital letters are really fun topractice and it is great to develop your individual style; lower case is a little harder,as some do not seem to be the letter, but do make a lot of sense once you attempt words. It is great fun to develop your own individual style and Heather is always on hand to offer helpful hints – but it is nice to not feel pressured as you practice.

The giggles for myself and Miss W certainly came with the practice of words. The confidence you have built on the individual letters does need a little rebuilding as you try to form words. The key seems to be to remember to flourish (and not miss out letters…oops).

We both really enjoyed the workshop and feel that we have learnt a new skill we can not wait to practice. It is also fantastic that the little batch of goodies is yours to keep and continue your adventures in letters and words.

Fancy learning a new skill? Check out Feather and Flourish for all the information on upcoming workshops.

Five Fabulous Females in Fiction

International Women’s Day first really came to my attention when I was living in Italy, as they celebrate Women’s Day every year. Beautiful yellow flowers are handed out to the women and families celebrate the women in their lives. It was such a lovely tradition.

As I have thought back and remembered that day, I have decided to think about the females in fiction that I have loved, as I have grown up reading so many wonderful books. They need a little bit of celebrating too.

  1. Matilda (Matilda by Roald Dahl)

I was an enormous Roald Dahl fan as a child and, to be honest, I still am. I do not believe that he wrote books that were only to be enjoyed by children. I can remember the birthday that I was given three Roald Dahl titles as a gift and Matilda was in the collection. She is already ideal to me because she loves books and she does not let being a little girl stop her from achieving exactly what she wants. She may not feel that she always fits in, but she has so much character and is a great role model for fans of her story.

2. Beatrice (Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing)

I first met Beatrice as I studied A-Level English Language and Literature. She is someone who appealed to me straight away, as she is not your typical heroine. Beatrice is a witty and independent figure, and seems very different to many characters of the time – she may appear cynical about happy endings but, in fact, desires them more than most. She is someone that I would love to have as a friend; she would cheer up any situation and would certainly tell you to ‘get over it’.

3. Emma Woodhouse (Emma by Jane Austen)

Now, let us all be honest: there could have been any number of characters that could have been plucked from the pages of Austen’s works; however, for me it has always been Emma. I am not entirely sure what appeals so much about Emma, as I can totally recognise that to some she may be a little irritating and misguided. Yet, when I first met Emma on the pages of Jane Austen’s novel, there was something that I found charming. She wears her heart on her sleeve and all her actions are, she believes (most of the time), to benefit others. Emma may get a bit carried away and does not always go about things in the right way, but she still is a lovely heroine and learns her lesson. Even reimagined in the recent retelling by Alexandar McCall Smith, I thought Emma was great!

4. Hermione Granger (Harry Potter novels by J.K. Rowling)

Hermione may be one that many of you expect but she has been a female character that I have learnt to love as my love for these books has increased. I am not going to lie – at the start, I had a similar reaction to her Ron Weasley but, as he did, I learned to love her. Hermione is a strong, independent young woman who (very much like Matilda) does not let anything stand in her way. She is one of the bravest female characters I think you can find in fiction, and the most fiercely loyal. The friendship between her, Ron and Harry is inspiring and shows that gender should never stand in the way of true friendship and adventure.

5. Mrs Hudson (The Sherlock Holmes novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

Great female characters don’t always have to be central to the stories they appear in. In fact, many have an important supporting role too, and Mrs Hudson is one of those characters. As the long-suffering landlady of Mr Holmes, she must have seen all sorts treading the famous stairs of 221b Baker Street. Mrs Hudson may not always have a voice, but she has nothing but affection for Holmes and Watson, and offers them great support – even if it is as simple as a cup of tea.

Who are your favourite females in fiction?

Happy International Women’s Day!