All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Around The World In 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh

Around The World In 80 Trains
Monisha Rajesh
Bloomsbury
336, 2019
Read via my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: When Monisha Rajesh announced plans to circumnavigate the globe in eighty train journeys, she was met with wide-eyed disbelief. But it wasn’t long before she was carefully plotting a route that would cover 45,000 miles – almost twice the circumference of the earth – coasting along the world’s most remarkable railways; from the cloud-skimming heights of Tibet’s Qinghai railway to silk-sheeted splendour on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express.

Packing up her rucksack – and her fiancé, Jem – Monisha embarks on an unforgettable adventure that will take her from London’s St Pancras station to the vast expanses of Russia and Mongolia, North Korea, Canada, Kazakhstan, and beyond. The ensuing journey is one of constant movement and mayhem, as the pair strike up friendships and swap stories with the hilarious, irksome and ultimately endearing travellers they meet on board, all while taking in some of the earth’s most breathtaking views.

From the author of Around India in 80 Trains comes another witty and irreverent look at the world and a celebration of the glory of train travel. Monisha offers a wonderfully vivid account of life, history and culture in a book that will make you laugh out loud – and reflect on what it means to be a global citizen – as you whirl around the world in its pages.

This was another book I specifically chose for the 2021 Read NonFiction Challenge, hosted by Shelleyrae @ Book’d Out. I also really like trains – I’ve caught the train between Melbourne and Sydney and also used the train that runs between Sydney and Brisbane to get from both Sydney and Newcastle to where my parents live. I would love to take the Ghan, a train that runs straight up the middle of Australia from Adelaide to Darwin. I’d also like to take the Indian-Pacific, which runs east/west across the country from Sydney to Perth. However, train travel is very expensive and these are luxury do-if-you-win-Lotto type of things. There are numerous train journeys overseas that sound really interesting too, so I thought this book would be a lot of fun.

The title is a bit misleading, as there are huge portions of the world that Monisha and her fiancé Jem do not visit, including most of the Southern Hemisphere: anywhere in Africa, Australia, South America etc as well as the Middle East are not represented here but there are quite decent portions of Europe, Russia, Asia, Canada and America. It also includes the pretty surprising North Korea, which does allow tourists to travel around the country by train, but only as part of a specific tour group and they are kept mostly away from the North Korean public.

I’m the first to admit that I’m not particularly adventurous – I don’t like ‘roughing it’ and I have pretty specific dietary restrictions that mean a lot of options are removed for me so travelling as Monisha does is something I enjoy reading about but wouldn’t particularly be able to do myself! A large portion of the trains are not exactly luxurious (it seems for one they are booked onto the wrong train, the ‘locals’ Trans-Siberian rather than the one the tourists use) but they enjoy this experience, even if some of the parts it comes with (like not the cleanest of amenities) are worthy of complaint.

There are parts I enjoyed about this much more than others: I think some of the train trip through Russia, especially around Lake Baikal, was interesting and I also enjoyed Canada (but honestly, expected much more description) and found journeys into places like North Korea and Tibet as well as the portion in China where the Uyghurs are really good also as it made Monisha reflect on her contributions towards the oppression of peoples by giving money and touring, gawking at locals like animals in a zoo. She has the opportunity to talk to people, get their opinions (such as the half Tibetan, half Hans Chinese woman in Tibet) and experience the way they’ve been raised, versus what we on the outside are being told. She’s welcomed by several in Tibet because although born in Britain, she’s of Indian heritage and Tibetans are grateful for the Indians who shelter their Dalai Lama, who has been unable to return to Tibet since the 1950s. I also really enjoyed the travel through Kazakhstan, which is a country that has interested me since I read On The Trail Of Genghis Khan by Tim Cope.

But there were other parts of the story where I felt I got bogged down in names of cities and towns and trains and where it felt infinitely less interesting. The part journeying through America was disappointing and although I enjoyed what there was described of Canada, I thought it could’ve gone much deeper. Parts of the journey get glossed over and look, they spent seven months doing this, I know you cannot expect descriptions of every single thing they see but I could’ve done with less about the sitting around reading or talking about how cramped the bunks were, which got a bit tedious around the time they got to double digits in number of trains taken. The part on Japan and the railroad was a nice inclusion of history and it’s balanced out by the horror of speaking to the daughter of a survivor of both bombs. Japan also provides a nice contrast because their trains are renowned world-wide for being highly efficient, running on time to the second as well as being immaculately clean and tidy and populated by polite travellers.

I know that separating this into stories focusing on each area doesn’t have the same ring to it, but I felt like it might’ve been an idea so that it didn’t feel like so much of a blur. I only just finished this and I’m struggling to recall what happened where. It was however, a nice way to read about places I’ll never actually visit, particularly North Korea. Even though I understood the author’s conflict about it, it was incredibly interesting to get a glimpse of such a closed country.

I’d definitely read Rajesh’s other book, Around India In 80 Trains which I feel might be a little more cohesive as it is at least, confined to the one country.

7/10

Book #59 of 2021

Around The World In 80 Trains counts towards my participation in the 2021 NonFiction Reader Challenge, hosted by Shelleyrae @ Book’d Out. It’s the third book I’ve read so far and I’m using it to tick off the category of Travel.

1. Biography

2. Travel

3. Self-help

4. Essay Collection

5. Disease

6. Oceanography 

7. Hobbies

8. Indigenous Cultures

9. Food

10. Wartime Experiences

11. Inventions

12. Published in 2021

Despite getting off to a bit of a late start in this challenge, I’m doing pretty well now! I’ve read 3/6 books as I chose the middle level but like last year, if I get that completed I will do my best to complete as many of the 12 prompts as I can.

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Review: Like Mother by Cassandra Austin

Like Mother
Cassandra Austin
Penguin Random House AUS
2021, 293p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Secrets, lies and crying babies, everyone has a breaking point.

It’s 1969 and mankind has leapt up to the moon, but a young mother in small-town Australia can’t get past the kitchen door. Louise Ashland ­is exhausted – her husband, Steven, is away on the road and her mother, Gladys, won’t leave her alone. At least her baby, Dolores, has finally stopped screaming and is sweetly sleeping in her cot. Right where Louise left her. Or is she?

As the day unravels, Louise will unearth secrets her mother – and perhaps her own mind – have worked hard to keep buried. But what piece of family lore is so terrible that it has been kept hidden all this time? And what will exposing it reveal about mother and daughter?

Like Mother explores what is handed down from generation to generation, and asks us whether a woman’s home is her castle or her cage.

For a large portion of this book, I found it very engrossing. I’ve read a few books that feel like they have this sort of vibe recently: exploring those days of early new motherhood and this one is set in the 1960s so it’s kind of this in-between time. In some ways, society is evolving. The contraceptive pill is in its infancy and although (married) women now have the option to plan their families, most women are still filling traditional wife and mother roles.

Louise is one such woman. Her daughter Delores (Lolly) is only a few months old and she’s probably teething so she’s been very unsettled. Louise’s husband Steven is a refrigerator salesman who spends large portions of time on the road so she shoulders the parenting alone. Even when Steven is home, he doesn’t hear Lolly’s nighttime screams. Louise is exhausted. The emotion seeps off the page, you can actually feel the fog she’s in, her confused and as the book goes on, desperate state of mind. Louise seems to have gone several days without much sleep as Lolly cries and requires constant attention. When she falls down exhausted, she wakes to find the house deadly silent. Lolly must be sleeping in her cot….right? But when Louise checks, she isn’t there. No problem, Louise must’ve left her wherever she fell asleep, she’s done it before. No point waking her. Louise convinces herself of this and that searching the house too much will only wake her and it’s best to let Lolly sleep. She needs her sleep.

I started this in the morning before going to visit some family and was so into the early portion of it that I actually took it with me, in case I snatched some time reading after lunch. I didn’t end up doing that but I was keen to get home and get back to it. I found Louise’s portrayal very well done, her tiredness, her grief at previous instances in her life, her desperation to just leave Lolly to sleep, even though she doesn’t precisely know where her daughter is. She’s sure she’s fine and that it’s better if she doesn’t wake her and start her screaming yet again. A crying baby can be a form of torture, especially to someone who is clearly sleep-deprived and struggling so in some ways, you can understand Louise’s thought process, also to protect herself from the knowledge that if Delores isn’t in the house…..or isn’t actually asleep, then how did this occur? She’s the only one there and she’s so tired she might be hallucinating….or, she might not be.

This book is told from 3 points of view: Louise, her husband-on-the-road Steven and Louise’s mother Gladys and whilst Gladys in some ways, provided some background, where the book started to lose it for me, was switching to these other points of view. Especially because it kept delving into this story about Steven where his secretary begins to blackmail him and then this part of the story grows to encompass more people and it just….I don’t know, felt like it was derailing the story for me. It was handy for establishing that Steven was a terrible husband, but honestly, we only needed that first scene for that and yet it kept taking up more and more of the plot as the book got further on and it seems that the more it did, unfortunately the more interest I lost. I found Gladys in particular, tedious to read and her infantilising of Louise become overly frustrating and I thought it was going somewhere but to be honest, it didn’t go that way and it felt like it made even less sense because of it.

The ending was also lacklustre for me and I feel like the book would’ve been a much better read for me if it had just stuck with Louise. It excelled when it was making me query where the heck this baby was and whether or not Louise’s state of mind had gone from just incredibly tired/disorientated to actually psychotic. It builds and builds really nicely and I was in two minds during Louise’s chapters the whole time but unfortunately the grand conclusion was just…a letdown. Deflating. Also the story with Steven completely fizzles out and made me wonder what the heck the entire point of it was.

Excellent idea but for me…..got caught up in too many other things that I just couldn’t be drawn into.

6/10

Book #58 of 2021

Like Mother is the 25th book read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021

I’m also going to count this one towards my 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, as it’s set over 50 years ago. It’s the 12th book read so far for this challenge.

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Review: Voices In The Ocean by Susan Casey

Voices In The Ocean
Susan Casey
Scribe Publications
2015, 320p
Read via my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Since the dawn of history, humans have felt a kinship with dolphins. But these playful aquatic creatures are also mysterious: scientists still don’t fully understand their sophisticated navigation and communication abilities, or their complicated brains.

In 2010, following her father’s death, Susan Casey had a remarkable encounter with a pod of spinner dolphins off the coast of Maui. It inspired her on a two-year global adventure to learn about these beautiful animals. Casey visits a Hawaiian community that believes dolphins are the key to enlightenment; travels to Ireland to meet ‘the world’s most loyal dolphin’, and visits Crete to explore the ancient Minoans’ interdependence on the animals.

Yet dolphins are also the subjects of a sinister lucrative global trade. Casey’s reportage takes her to the harrowing epicentre in the Solomon Islands, and to the Japanese town of Taiji, made infamous by the Oscar–winning documentary The Cove, where she chronicles protests against the annual slaughter of dolphins.

In the tradition of Susan Orlean and Donovan Hohn, Voices in the Ocean is a thrilling, compassionate, imperative account of the other intelligent life on the planet.

This was one of the more harrowing books I’ve ever read.

I picked it up for the 2021 Non-Fiction Reader Challenge, which is hosted by Shelleyrae @ Book’d Out. Shelleyrae has hosted this challenge for a couple of years now, with 12 prompts based around non-fiction themes and for people that might be struggling for something, she writes posts with several selections for each prompt. Shelleyrae featured this book for the Oceanology prompt and my local library had it so I thought it’d be a good choice. It’s about dolphins and I adore dolphins.

I mean, who doesn’t right? They’re lovely. It looks like they’re smiling at you. They’re well known to be incredibly intelligent animals with sophisticated communication system with a high ability to learn. They’re also apparently, one of the few species that recognise themselves in a mirror. They’ve earned themselves a reputation of often being playful and even helpful to and with humans, assisting in guiding people to rescue those in trouble as well as protecting or defending humans from sharks. However, not all the stories are as positive and dolphins are capable of inflicting serious damage on humans who get too close or in situations where there is forced interaction. Because of their intelligence and ability to learn tricks, dolphins have been popular additions to marine parks where they perform for audiences and are offered up in animal interaction encounters.

But as this book delves into, humans have been responsible for some horrific treatment of cetaceans, from experiments in poking at their brains in the 1960s to keeping them in filthy tanks to herding them in the wild and slaughtering them relentlessly to subjecting them to underwater sonar that some people believe might be the equivalent of torture for beings of their development and sensitivity. This book details some of the many atrocities committed by humans against many species of dolphins and at times, it’s traumatising reading. To think of these lovely creatures being herded into a bay in Japan and slaughtered, despite the fact that it’s generally regarded that they are too high in mercury for human consumption, or to be sold to marine parks around the world that comply with no regulations, is very distressing. Likewise, the Solomon Islands were responsible for the slaughter of almost 1000 animals a day – parts of the country use dolphin teeth as currency for things like bride prices.

The author has a fascination with dolphins, developed after an experience where she swam with them and she seeks out other people who seem to feel the same as well. As well as information on the bad things done by humans to dolphins in certain situations, there’s also stories of those that love the creatures and fight for them in various ways, such as the dedication by a man who was a former trainer for Flipper. Since that, he “saw the light” so to speak and changed his focus to conservation, awareness and protection and he travels to globe, including to the places like the bay in Japan (the focus of an award-winning documentary called The Cove which in many places, can be found on Netflix). As well as focusing on more popular dolphins that people are aware of, like the bottlenose, the book showcases the plight of other species’ as well, including those like the Orca whale and the Beluga, both of which do not do so well in captivity. Part of this is probably their sheer size, it’s very difficult to build an environment that replicates the ocean and these animals cover thousands of kilometres in their travels. I think most people are aware of Blackfish, the documentary focusing on the Orca Tikilum, who over the course of his lifetime, was responsible for the death of three people: two keepers at two separate aquariums and a third person, a man who evaded leaving the park after closing time and for some unknown reason, climbed into his tank. It’s hard to lay blame at the foot of a creature but what I found astounding was the fact that after the death of Dawn Brancheau, OSHA restricted the contact between orcas and their trainers to what was necessary for their care and medical needs. Sea World sued OSHA to continue trainer-orca shows/interactions (they lost). Although they later claimed to be phasing out orca shows, as of 2020 they were apparently still doing them. In a time where a lot of places have moved away from performing animal shows and heavy keeper/public interaction with animals, it doesn’t really feel like Sea World are embracing the changing tides.

There are some sections of this book that I didn’t enjoy or found bizarre, such as the sections on Joan Ocean and her crew who have some very out there beliefs. To be honest I found those parts a bit boring and even though it showcases the different responses dolphins evoke in people…some are honestly just not really worth reading about. Some of the stories were hard to read, such as the Taiji dolphin hunt in Japan, the experiments done on dolphins in years gone by (featuring such anecdotes as dolphins who died after being dropped on concrete, who were taught to jab a buzzer to be stimulated in the pleasure part of their brain and did it so often until they seized and died, as well as countless other depressing things) and other stories such as dolphins who died after 16hr rave was held next to their place of captivity in Europe. It seems there’s a lot we do not understand about their sonar capabilities and at one stage, the author visits a park in the Dominican Republic, which plays relentless pounding techno music. So much so that Casey finds it intolerable and she wonders how the dolphins and other sea creatures must feel.

This made me examine my own hypocrisies as well, because I have witnessed dolphin shows in the past and have wanted to swim with them. After reading this, I’d never pay to swim with dolphins at a marine park, nor would I be interested in seeing them perform for human entertainment. But I’ve also visited zoos and it makes me realise that in terms of zoos, it’s easier to create environments for them that more closely match their real life habitats. For the most part, most zoos contain animals born in captivity with strict breeding programs that require international cooperation and participation, to preserve their species, or ones who are rescued from the wild without chance of release. A large portion of large marine animals in captivity (such as dolphins, belugas, orcas, etc) seem to be captured in the wild as babies as they do not tend toward long lives nor are breeding programs always successful. And when they teach animals to do tricks – are they breeding them because they want to preserve them, or because they want to continue to make money out of them?

An eye-opening read.

8/10

Book #57 of 2021

Voices In The Ocean is the second book read for the 2021 NonFiction Reader Challenge. I’m using it to tick off the category of Oceanography

1. Biography

2. Travel

3. Self-help

4. Essay Collection

5. Disease

6. Oceanography 

7. Hobbies

8. Indigenous Cultures

9. Food

10. Wartime Experiences

11. Inventions

12. Published in 2021

2/6 books complete for the challenge. Progress!

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Audiobook Review: The Little Book Of Hygge by Meik Wiking

The Little Book Of Hygge: The Danish Way To Live Well
Meik Wiking
Narrated by the author
Penguin Audio
2015, 3hrs 13m
Listened to via my local library/Borrow Box

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Denmark is often said to be the happiest country in the world. That’s down to one thing: hygge. ‘Hygge has been translated as everything from the art of creating intimacy to cosiness of the soul to taking pleasure from the presence of soothing things. My personal favourite is cocoa by candlelight…’

You know hygge when you feel it. It is when you are cuddled up on a sofa with a loved one, or sharing comfort food with your closest friends. It is those crisp blue mornings when the light through your window is just right. Who better than Meik Wiking to be your guide to all things hygge? Meik is CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen and has spent years studying the magic of Danish life. In this beautiful, inspiring book he will help you be more hygge: from picking the right lighting and planning a dinner party through to creating an emergency hygge kit and even how to dress. Meik Wiking is the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen. He is committed to finding out what makes people happy and has concluded that hygge is the magic ingredient that makes Danes the happiest nation in the world. 

The more I read about hygge the more I’m convinced I should’ve been born in Denmark. This was the book most recommended to me about the concept, but when I requested it from my local library, I noticed that their copy was due back over a year ago and hadn’t been returned, so was probably not likely to ever be. So I got the audio version, read by the author, from Borrow Box. It’s quite short, only 3 hours, so it took pretty much no time at all.

Meik Wiking is the CEO of Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen. It’s literally his job to research why people are happier in certain parts of the world (Denmark is often regarded as having the happiest citizens in the world) and what can be done to improve happiness levels. It sounds like a dream job and given their role, care is taken to make their workplace comfortable and a great advertisement for hygge.

I feel like this book covers hygge a lot more comprehensively than the others I’ve read and mixes how deeply ingrained in the Danish culture it is with examples of creating hygge spaces in the home, alone or with others. Basically everything he describes is my ideal living environment – soft, cosy spaces with mellow light (I hate overhead lights, I’m forever turning off lights in my house as it seems the other occupants do not share my dislike!), lots of textures, little things of comfort. In one section, there’s an entire ‘kit’ suggested, which is a box with things described as hygge – a blanket, book, chocolate, favourite tea, soft socks, a cushion, a new notebook, a favourite pen, among other things.

I find the concept of a happy society really interesting, especially with what is considered as markers of happiness. Quite often you hear about countries like Denmark and other Nordic countries being regarded as the happiness in the world, rotating around the top few spots and a lot of this is also attributed to the excellent services the countries provide: ie, they are what is known as ‘welfare states’ with free education, a generous and wide ranging welfare system that supports its unemployed, studying or lower earning citizens and also provides things like free medical care. According to the World Happiness Report, these are the top 10 happiest countries for 2021:

  1. Finland (for the 4th year in a row)
  2. Iceland
  3. Denmark
  4. Switzerland
  5. The Netherlands
  6. Sweden
  7. Germany (jumped 10 places)
  8. Norway
  9. New Zealand
  10. Austria

Apart from New Zealand, which also shares a lot of the same traits such as free education and medical care, a welfare system, etc as well as a high level of trust in its government, pretty much all of these countries are confined to the same part of the map in Western Europe and Scandinavia. Another thing that’s quite heavily supported in some of these countries, Denmark and Finland specifically (but probably others that I haven’t read as much about) is the work-life balance and this book touches upon that as well. In Denmark, this balance is very important and Danes keep quite strict (but flexible) work hours. Those with children often leave at 4 to pick them up from school or daycare and apparently, you won’t find them staying back after hours or popping into the office on weekends to catch up. A lot of these countries also promote an outdoor lifestyle in downtimes as well – in parts of Sweden, summer island homes are popular, skiing is a winter pastime in many of these countries. Many of them are bicycle and public transport friendly. Also – the more participation citizens have in representative government decision making, the happier they tend to be. My country, Australia, ranks 12th in this index.

Now, I don’t think it’s as simple as the fact that Danish people own a lot of candles/have fireplaces/fluffy blankets/enjoy warm drinks after a bracing afternoon hiking or skiing or something similar. But to be honest, it seems like a pretty good place to start.

I really enjoyed listening to this!

8/10

Book #56 of 2021

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Review: The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna

The Gilded Ones (Deathless #1)
Namina Forna
Usborne Publishing Ltd
2021, 400p
Read via my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Sixteen-year-old Deka lives in fear and anticipation of the blood ceremony that will determine whether she will become a member of her village. Already different from everyone else because of her unnatural intuition, Deka prays for red blood so she can finally feel like she belongs.

But on the day of the ceremony, her blood runs gold, the color of impurity–and Deka knows she will face a consequence worse than death.

Then a mysterious woman comes to her with a choice: stay in the village and submit to her fate, or leave to fight for the emperor in an army of girls just like her. They are called alaki–near-immortals with rare gifts. And they are the only ones who can stop the empire’s greatest threat.

Knowing the dangers that lie ahead yet yearning for acceptance, Deka decides to leave the only life she’s ever known. But as she journeys to the capital to train for the biggest battle of her life, she will discover that the great walled city holds many surprises. Nothing and no one are quite what they seem to be–not even Deka herself.

I cannot remember how I heard about this book now – maybe one of Goodreads’ highlight posts, maybe a blog, maybe a newsletter but I knew that I wanted to read it well before it was published. The cover is so eye-catching and it feels like it’s been a while since I’ve found a new, interesting series to read. I’ve been reading a lot of stand-alone books lately.

Deka lives in a small village where she’s borderline ostracised due to the taint of her father’s family a generation or two back and also the fact that her mother was from another part of the world. In her land, girls undergo a ritual at fifteen or sixteen to determine their ‘purity’ and if they can become part of the village. If they bleed red, all is well but if they do not…..horrors await. To Deka’s devastation her blood runs gold, the colour of impurity and she endures horrific torture before a woman intervenes and gives Deka a choice: join an army for the Emperor, killing the deathshrieks that terrorise the lands or stay and suffer continued torture before they determine her Final Death. For Deka, it’s not much of a choice but the promise of purity after 20 years of service sways her. She is desperate to escape the taint of being declared impure, of the look in her father’s eyes when he realised what she was.

The training is brutal and Deka is different from the others rounded up and herded to the capital to undergo training to go on raids. She has different gifts and it makes her valuable but it also makes her a target. The more she learns about her gifts, the more she also begins to wonder about what it is she’s doing and whether or not what she’s always believed is the truth.

This was so interesting! The story has a huge amount of depth to it in regards to the treatment of women and the role they play in society. In this world they are veiled, forced to undergo a ritual in public to determine their ‘purity’ and those that do not pass are subjected to the most horrific of treatment by men in the name of a God who demands it. They are blamed for many things, shoehorned into roles of subservience and demure behaviour, allowing men to shine. When Deka and the others deemed to be ‘impure’ are trained as warriors and sent to fight creatures they face disrespect from the male soldiers until they earn it and are attacked, belittled and abused by men in the streets when they ride out. They are considered useful enough to train, fight and die, probably because they’re seen as expendable, not necessarily valuable to society as a whole. To outsiders, they are worthy only of criticism from those not brave enough to step into their shoes.

I enjoyed the way the story developed – some of the developments, it was quite easy to guess in what direction the story was going, others were a little more of a surprise. Despite the patriarchal society that dominates this book, by going on her journey, Deka becomes exposed to strong women and is able to develop true friendships for the first time in her life. She is exposed to people of a variety of different backgrounds, she learns more about her mother and the mysterious White Hands guides her along developing her power/skill and creating an awareness within her that means she seeks answers to questions, learns that all is not how it seems. She’s also created a strong sense of loyalty within her group of friends, which means that when the time comes for them to make a choice, the choice they make, is Deka.

There’s so much in this – an intriguing world ripe for overthrow, a story that makes you want to know more, a main character that’s learning and growing and assuming a most important role, a group of offsides that are as appealing as they are different and the tiniest hint of romance. I really liked this and I can’t wait to read the second book.

8/10

Book #53 of 2021

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Blog Tour Review: Sunflower Sisters by Martha Hall Kelly

Sunflower Sisters (Lilac Girls #3)
Martha Hall Kelly
Penguin Random House AUS
2021, 518p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Lilac Girls, the 1.7-million-copy bestselling novel by Martha Hall Kelly, introduced readers to Caroline Ferriday, an American philanthropist who helped young girls released from Ravensbruck concentration camp. Now, in Sunflower Sisters, Kelly tells the story of her ancestor Georgeanna Woolsey, a Union nurse who joins the war effort during the Civil War, and how her calling leads her to cross paths with Jemma, a young enslaved girl who is sold off and conscripted into the army, and Ann-May Wilson, a southern plantation mistress whose husband enlists.

Georgeanne “Georgey” Woolsey isn’t meant for the world of lavish parties and demure attitudes of women of her stature. So when the war ignites the nation, Georgey follows her passion for nursing during a time when doctors considered women a bother on the battlefront. In proving them wrong, she and her sister Eliza venture from New York to Washington, D.C., to Gettysburg and witness the unparalleled horrors of slavery as they become involved in the war effort.

In the South, Jemma is enslaved on the Peeler Plantation in Maryland, where she lives with her mother and father. Her sister, Patience, is enslaved on the plantation next door and both live in fear of LeBaron, an abusive overseer who tracks their every move. When Jemma is sold by the cruel plantation mistress Anne-May at the same time the Union army comes through, she sees a chance to finally escape–but only by abandoning the family she loves.

Anne-May is left behind to run Peeler Planation when her husband joins the Union Army and her cherished brother enlists with the Confederates. In charge of the household, she uses the opportunity to follow her own ambitions and is drawn into a secret Southern network of spies, finally exposing herself to the fate she deserves.

Inspired by true accounts, Sunflower Sisters provides a vivid, detailed look at the Civil War experience, from the barbaric and inhumane plantations, to a war-torn New York City to the horrors of the battlefield. It’s a sweeping story of women caught in a country on the brink of collapse, in a society grappling with nationalism and unthinkable racial cruelty, a story still so relevant today. 

I read a lot of historical fiction, but it’s very rarely American historical fiction and I’m the first to admit that my American history knowledge is patchy. I know the bare basics of the Civil War background, why it came about and how it still plays into the current landscape of America. This is the third in a series about a remarkable family but each volume can be read standalone as they feature different characters and take place in different timelines.

In this book we have three main protagonists: Georgy Woolsey of a quite well to do New York family who longs for more than just making a good match and having babies. She joins the war effort as a nurse and faces tough situations not just because of the horrific injuries she witnesses but also the attitudes of the male doctors and nurses she works alongside. Anne-May is from Louisiana but inherited a tobacco plantation in Maryland from her deceased aunt and she intends to make sure that she keeps to the Southern way. She treats her slaves abominably, beating and starving them, expecting long days of work. Jemma is a teenager, owned by Anne-May and her life is not an easy one. LaBaron is ever lurking and everyone knows about his more dangerous proclivities. For Jemma and her family, escape and freedom is a longing inside of them but it will take cunning and sacrifice.

This is not easy reading – Jemma’s sections in particular are wrought with violence, dehumanisation and an overall impending feeling of doom centred around LaBaron, the vicious overseer charged with keeping the slaves in line. It’s hard to read about people being whipped senseless, about women barely into their 20s pregnant with their fifth baby, having had all the ones before taken immediately and sold. The violence is one thing, the inner dialogue of people like Anne-May might be worse. The way they view their slaves, the possession they guard so close, the willingness of them to die on the hill of owning others. Despite Jemma’s sections often being the hardest to read, I enjoyed her immensely as a character, her stoic nature, love of her parents and sister Patience, her strength and determination. Jemma’s story was one I was incredibly invested in.

The author’s note at the end of this one provides a lot of interesting information on the real family upon which this is based. The story mimics their real life movements and a lot of the correspondence comes from letters that have survived from this time. It adds another element of interest, to think of these characters as real people, taking part in nursing during the war or raising money or collecting donations. This was a war that I think people expected to be over quite quickly but it dragged out for four years and ended up collecting a huge amount of casualties. Some of the battle scenes in this are quite brutal, as doctors have to determine which men are “worth” saving and for many, there’s simply no resources. The estimation is somewhere between 1,000,000 dead overall in the four years and given the population of America was around 32 million at the time, they are massive numbers. So much infrastructure was destroyed as well and then of course, the President Abraham Lincoln, was assassinated by a Southern sympathiser. This book is obviously researched so well and does an amazing job at showcasing this tumultuous time, even finding time to weave in stories of compassion during the most ugly of conflicts.

As I mentioned, there’s a lot of ways in which this was not an easy read but it was definitely an engrossing one. I found both Jemma and Georgy wonderful to read and Anne-May disturbing. It’s crazy to me, that there were (probably are) people who think like that, who treated people like that, who didn’t even believe that their slaves were people. She’s quite a disturbing portrayal of wealthy, white Louisiana 1800s.

I haven’t read the two other books by this author as yet but after finishing this, they’re going straight to the top of my wishlist.

9/10

Book #55 of 2021

Sunflower Sisters is the 11th book read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

This post is part of the Sunflower Sisters blog tour! Be sure to check out some of the other stops on the tour and find out what they thought of this novel.

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Review: Welcome To Nowhere River by Meg Bignell

Welcome To Nowhere River
Meg Bignell
Penguin Random House AUS
2021, 380p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Long past its heyday and deep in drought, the riverside hamlet of Nowhere River is slowly fading into a ghost town. It’s a place populated by those who are beholden to it, those who were born to it and those who took a wrong turn while trying to go somewhere else.

City-born Carra married into Nowhere River, Lucie was brought to it by tragedy, Josie is root-bound and Florence knows nowhere else. All of them, though familiar with every inch of their tiny hometown, are as lost as the place itself.

The town’s social cornerstone — St Margery’s Ladies’ Club — launches a rescue plan that turns everything around and upside down, then shakes it until all sorts of things come floating to the surface. And none of its inhabitants will ever be the same again.

This is the highly original and heartfelt story of a place where everybody knows everything, but no one really knows anyone at all. Brimming with heart and humour, this is a delightful novel that celebrates the country people and towns of Australia.

I think a lot of people in Australia have known a town like Nowhere River, a fictional town in Tasmania which is struggling. Once a thriving community, the numbers have slowly dwindled due to many factors. The local show, which used to be the highlight for many, hasn’t been put on in years. The drought is impacting on the local farmers and it’s severe. The St Margery’s Ladies’ Club is facing its lowest ever numbers and so the President, a rather formidable lady, launches an initiative to both drive up membership as well as rejuvenate the town. Entrants must come up with and implement a project for a year and the winner will get $100,000 to both fund their idea ongoing as well as provide themselves with a stipend for time spent on it if it takes away from their regular paid work.

There are many entries, whittled down to a few considered to be promising. Each of the women behind the ideas have been brought to Nowhere River by different means and each of them are struggling with different challenges. For Lucie, she feels tied to Nowhere River by heartbreak, she can’t leave because of what she lost and her belief of hope or dream that it might somehow be returned to her. Lucie’s daughter-in-law Carra came to Nowhere River because she married the town’s dreamboat Duncan, the local GP and most eligible of bachelors before he chose Carra. Now a mother to 10 month old twins, she finds herself isolated and alone as her dedicated husband works his long hours and contributes almost nothing to parenting. For Florence, she was born here and at her tender age of 16, already knows that this place is in her blood and she wants to remain. If the family farm doesn’t improve in fortune, the choice may be taken away from her.

I really enjoyed this. It’s told from a variety of different perspectives by characters of differing ages: Lucie has a grown up son and is in a retirement-type of age, her daughter-in-law Carra is probably late twenties, Flo is still a teenager and her mother Josie around 40. Each of them have different issues, different things in their lives that they are dealing with. For Carra, it’s isolation, the monotony of taking care of her twins and doing so with very little assistance. The days all blur together as her husband rushes off from one commitment to another, doctoring to the entire town and lending his voice here and there, being the perfect son and community member. But for Carra, despite everyone telling her how lucky she is to be married to such a specimen, she’s not feeling it. Poor Carra! I honestly felt for her so much, she’s got very little in the way of friends in Nowhere River and the friend she did have she has let fall aside, due to the struggle of newborn twin life. A lot of people keep giving Carra postnatal depression quizzes and she seems to pass but honestly, Carra felt so in need of real, genuine help. She has a lot of lament for the life she envisaged for herself and spends time stalking someone she went to university with online who seems to be living the life Carra longs for. She wants fulfilment outside of nap time and washing and the never ending cycle of broken sleep. Lucie, her mother-in-law, has a very raw sort of grief, the sort that never goes away, the sort that one never recovers from. It leapt off the page, the hopelessness, guilt, agony and kind of frozen inability to really speak of it, the automatic hunching whenever it’s mentioned. I also really liked the character of Flo, who hasn’t let bullying and awful behaviour from her peers dampen her love of her home and her connection she feels to it. Flo goes through quite a lot in this book but she grows in strength and confidence, shouldering responsibility of something quite huge for her mother, when tragedy strikes and her mother’s attention is focused elsewhere.

The hot, dusty drought is something I don’t really associate that much with Tasmania, with how far south it is and how often you hear it rains. I loved the setting, the struggle to save the town, so many towns like this must be dotted around the country, once thriving but as society changes and evolves, there are less opportunities for the younger members, who leave for bigger cities to further their education, get jobs. People like Duncan return but there must be many who do not and sometimes, measures are needed such as the one here, to try and rejuvenate the town, create outside interest, bring people there once again. I also really loved the little interviews at the end of the chapter, for Lucie’s History project, which focused on the stories of people from the town, the ones from all walks of life. Those were really interesting and a fun little addition to the story, which fleshed out the town nicely.

A lovely read.

8/10

Book #52 of 2021

This is book #24 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: How To Fake Being Tidy by Fenella Souter

How To Fake Being Tidy
Fenella Souter
Allen & Unwin
2021, 280p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Funny true stories about the everyday dramas that can make or break friendships, cooking, housekeeping and the domestic chaos that always threatens to get the upper hand, written in the tradition of Nora Ephron.

My mother wasn’t much of a housekeeper. She wasn’t much of a cook either, although she tried. She longed to live a more unconventional life. Admirably high-minded, but it meant I never learnt to fold a towel. 

In these funny, sometimes poignant, stories, award-winning feature writer Fenella Souter celebrates the highs and lows of domestic life – from her attempts to run the house like a grown-up, to lessons in good cooking; from accidentally killing her wisteria, divorcing the cat and shirt-fronting bossy tradies, to wondering if the ‘hostess gift’ is still a thing or why some people have impeccable taste. 

With their distinctive wit, they will leave you smiling with recognition at the everyday dramas and dilemmas that can make or break friendships and marriages, turn a house into a home, or let chaos get the upper hand.

If ever I could relate to a book from the title, this one is probably it!

When I was younger, I was super messy. My bedroom was always a pigsty as a teen (although it was just mess, not food or plates or anything like that, my dad was super strict and no food was ever to be consumed in our rooms!) and I enjoyed the mess. Same with my university dorm, same with my first few houses. But the older I get, the less I find I enjoy mess. I really love the look of a clean and tidy house and a clean and tidy bedroom. But I hate housework, so it’s a bit of a dilemma. And there just seems to always be so much of it. My carpet is dark grey, my cat is white and he sheds. A lot. So I’m forever vacuuming. The tiles in our entryway, dining room and kitchen are pale coloured and show everything. My kids are messy – more food seems to regularly end up on the floor than is consumed. It feels like they forever need doing. Also the bathrooms – I knew I had to clean showers and sinks but I never knew how dusty they got. It’s very annoying.

So this seemed like a fun way to learn to appear tidy, even as you have a lot of stuff. And I do have a lot of stuff, my home is definitely not showroom type. I admire those people who never have visible cords and chargers or stray socks or notes home from school lying about the place. My place is not like that! It’s what I like to fondly call ‘well lived in’. Four people live here and a quick glance around the main living room and you can identify each one based on what they’ve left behind!

These are a collection of pieces, some of which have been published previously as a column in a newspaper but I hadn’t ready any before receiving this book. Some of them revolve around how the author didn’t really learn domestic skills or routines etc, from her mother and this I can also relate to. My mother did all her housework weekly, vacuumed and mopped and scrubbed the bathroom, changed the sheets etc, without fail. She cooked and put meals on the table every night but she is an indifferent cook at best and most of her meals were either things heated up in the oven or meat and three vegetables. Her mother, my nan, is a wonderful home cook and baker, a woman who both worked in a time when many women her age did not and also fulfilled the role of homemaker. As a teen, I should’ve asked her to teach me how to cook (she did provide many of her recipes for baking, which I do use now) but I wasn’t interested. I muddled along teaching myself easy things at university and beyond and am now married to a man who does 99% of the cooking because he enjoys it. Which means that I basically do not have to. But it meant I never really developed a rhythm or taste for cooking and did it only so I did not starve. Likewise it’s taken me until the last year or so, to really develop a housework schedule that works for me. And I am not shouldering the entire load either, my husband pitches in a lot, apart from doing the cooking he also does a lot of the washing, folding and putting away of things as well as various other jobs.

Whilst this was a well needed break from some more serious reads, (although there are pieces in there that are also have a bit of a serious tilt, particularly ones where the author talks about the loss of her mother at a relatively young age) I’m not sure it does what it actually suggests in the title. There’s a lot of random stories, some of which I enjoyed and some of which the point of kind of passed me by, but I didn’t learn anything about how to actually make my house appear tidier or how to even actually tidy it! But there’s a lot of gentle humour, some relatable things about busy lives and the time, care and attention houses need to maintain some sort of order. The sort of book where so many times you are nodding your head and recalling a moment from your own life where you’ve experienced something really similar.

This was fine – it was a fun way to pass some time on the Easter long weekend.

6/10

Book #51 of 2021

How To Fake Being Tidy is book #23 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: Last Night by Mhairi McFarlane

Last Night
Mhairi McFarlane
Harper Collins AUS
2021, 416p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Eve, Justin, Susie, and Ed have been friends since they were teenagers. Now in their thirties, the four are as close as ever, Thursday night bar trivia is sacred, and Eve is still secretly in love with Ed. Maybe she should have moved on by now, but she can’t stop thinking about what could have been. And she knows Ed still thinks about it, too.

But then, in an instant, their lives are changed forever.

In the aftermath, Eve’s world is upended. As stunning secrets are revealed, she begins to wonder if she really knew her friends as well as she thought. And when someone from the past comes back into her life, Eve’s future veers in a surprising new direction…

They say every love story starts with a single moment. What if it was just last night? 

Mhairi McFarlane is one of my favourite authors and books like this are why. She is remarkably consistent in writing things that I just adore and this was one of my most anticipated releases of 2021. I received a copy for review and I honestly consider myself to have exercised such restraint in waiting until just before the release date to devour it.

Eve is in her 30s and she has a core group of friends that she’s been tight with for many years. She and Susie have been friends since they were children, they added Justin and Ed in high school. Separate universities couldn’t divide them and now they are still as close as ever, meeting up regularly for trivia nights. Eve has been in love with Ed since the summer before university and in a sliding-doors type of moment, her chance was lost. But she still cannot help but think that they might make it….until Ed’s girlfriend proposes.

This is a book that deals primarily with soul-wrenching, unexpected, sharp grief. Eve is blindsided by a shocking trauma and her disbelief and heartbreak is amazingly raw. She’s bewildered, struggling to grasp how something like this could happen and what it means for her. At her age, the shock of losing a contemporary is often hard enough, when it’s someone you’re so close to, it shakes everything on its foundations. I have not experienced the loss of someone so close to me but I know the shock of losing people your own age in your 30s, people who make you feel your own mortality as well as make you mourn all that is lost, that they will never experience.

But it’s also about more than that. It’s about friendships and the bonds you form with people and how those friendships change and evolve…and also, how they don’t. I think a lot of people have that ‘one that got away’ like Ed and Eve. It’s this kind of missed communication/star crossed lovers type thing….but it’s been a long time and Eve still hasn’t moved on. Not really. She’s had relationships but they haven’t gone anywhere, she’s still living in the same place she grew up in, doing a job that doesn’t fulfil her. However it’s a comfortable life, her friends around her, the same routine over and over and it’s not until the tragedy does it feel like that might be the catalyst for her, in many ways.

Sometimes we are forced to see people we know and love in a different light and realise that the way they have presented themselves to us is not the way that they have presented themselves to others. And that other people might have very valid reasons for feeling different about them. This is something that Eve definitely learns as after the terrible trauma that she experiences, she learns something that was kept from her and it absolutely tilts her whole world, changes her viewpoint on so many things. She cannot wrap her head around it, cannot see why a) these people did this thing to her and b) why they chose to keep it from her, to make that deliberate decision that it would never be spoken of to her or mentioned in front of her. I honestly felt like all of Eve’s thought processes, her devastation and anger and grief and resentment and bewilderment, were just portrayed so well. You can feel her every emotion and ride it along with her as she tries to piece together why this event occurred and why no one told her. What it meant about her friendship and what other secrets were being kept? She has a lot of questions and needs answers but one person isn’t there anymore and she doesn’t know how to bring it up with the other.

I loved this book – every page. Eve is on a quest to understand a senseless thing and pick up the pieces it has made of her life and she undergoes a big journey, I think. It’s a way for her to reassess where her life is and what she wants. There’s so much happening to Eve in this book, it’s a lot to take in and she finds an ally to muddle her way through it in the most unlikely place and I really loved the way that developed. I found their evolution really appealing and their conversations definitely enlightening – and I think an outsider’s perspective gave Eve a little bit of an idea about how stuck in a rut she had become. It’s not bad to continue spending time with your closest friends but Eve had very rarely struck outside that group and had missed opportunities and not taken chances because of them. You could argue that she hadn’t found the right opportunity and when one came along (like this one) she’d take it but I still think only the fact that there was the tragedy and she discovered the secret, that made Eve realise that she could want more than what she had and that there was someone out there who was willing to give it to her. Who would treat her like she was a priority and not a convenience.

This is my favourite book of 2021 so far.

10/10

Book #50 of 2021

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Top 10 Tuesday 6th April

Hello everyone and welcome back to another edition of Top 10 Tuesday, hosted by Jana @ That Artsy Reader Girl. Each week features a different bookish related theme and this week we are talking….

Top 10 12 Books I’d Happily Toss Into The Ocean

  1. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

I hate this book. Just going to leave a quote from the previous time I included this book in a TTT post: All sorts wandering around misty and rainy moors lamenting bad decisions and lost loves. A cast of people that make you want to murder them for being such self-involved and moronic twits who somehow all have combinations of the same three names. I know a lot of people love this but basically, kill it with fire.

2. In The Skin Of A Lion by Michael Ondaatje

Look, this book might be brilliant. But I had to read it at 17 years of age for my year 12 text and I hated it. It honestly made me so miserable, having to pick it apart and I hated everyone and the exam questions were a nightmare. I remember telling someone about it not that long ago and I said maybe I should try reading it as an adult. It’s 22 years later, my literary tastes and abilities to understand text have evolved a lot since then. But I just can’t bear to. It turned me off anything to do with Michael Ondaatje for life.

3. Seven Sons by Lili St Germain.

My brief review, on GR: I read this as it was only 100p and it was an attempt to find out quickly what happened to Mariana from Cartel without having to read the rest of the books in that series. I didn’t find out what happened to Mariana and this is even more of a clusterfuck than Cartel.

4. The Sweet Spot by Stephanie Evanovich

I really, really did not like this book. A guy into D/S type stuff who inflicts it on his partner without a conversation, without getting her permission, etc…..Gross. Just gross. Chase was the actual worst, from ignoring Amanda turning him down and showing up at her restaurant night after night, to spanking her without her permission, his refusal to see that this behaviour was wrong, to how he is when it’s accidentally made public. Awful.

5. The Gift Of A Lifetime by Melissa Hill.

This book made me super mad. I realised part-way through reading it the manipulation and that I was being guided carefully to think one thing and I remember thinking to myself “I bet it’s X and if so, I am going to toss this at the wall”. It was of course, X. I ended up thinking a huge portion of this book was just a shitty thing to do by someone and really, really resented it by the end.

6. Undead & Unwed by Mary Janice Davidson.

I remember someone recommended this to me and I thought it sounded like fun but I ended up just…really hating it. Every stereotype and cliche from “chick lit” done badly. The obsession with shoes and designer clothing was the actual worst, plus it mixed in the paranormal “special one” trope. This is apparently quite a long series but after this one I had zero interest in reading anything else about Betsy, or whatever her name was and would happily pitch this one into the nearest sea.

7. Fearless by Diana Palmer

I remember wanting to fire this into the sun when I read it. It’s a “romance” of the pretty misogynous variety where the “hero” blatantly is embarrassed by the heroine’s “dowdy” looks (after he’s already slept with her, mind you). And even though he knows she has a heart condition, he berates her so brutally when she’s in hospital after she told him she was pregnant to him, that she almost has a heart attack. He’s a DEA undercover and she’s actually a prosecutor in witness protection but he thinks she’s some sort of farm hick. His internal thoughts about her and even after they are married (for reasons I cannot remember now), the way he talks about her to other people is horrific. I’m sworn off this author for life.

8. Temptation by K.M. Golland

Honestly, the guy in this makes Christian Grey look like the most amateur of creeps. It’s some sort of Australian version that sprang up after Fifty Shades exploded and every second book contained wealthy billionaires who simply had to have some woman they came across and would stop at nothing to shower her with attention until she acquiesced. Yawn. This one was particularly bland. And speaking of which….

9. Fifty Shades Of Grey by E.L. James

Look, Fifty Shades is a bit of an easy target. I read it wayyyy back when, during it’s first publication when it was some small press before one of the bigger ones picked it up. And it was just…..bewildering. Like I just didn’t really see the point of it. It wasn’t well written, the characters were not at all interesting to me, the BDSM stuff was just meh. But the thing that really made me resent the book, was because everyone who knew I was a reader, was like, “oh my god, have you read Fifty Shades, how amazing is it? I don’t even read books and I devoured it! You have to read it.” And I was like…okay? Why? There are a million other books like that one out there, many of them much better written and with better sex scenes, if that’s what’s intriguing you, what is it about this one that gets you so excited? People that had never spoken to me about books before, who considered my reading habit boring and/or lame and not worth their time, were suddenly like “oh you love books, let’s talk about Fifty Shades.”

Please. Let’s not.

10. Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi

I know this is a very popular series but honestly, reading it hurt my brain. I couldn’t wait for it to be other and I had zero interest in picking up the next book in the series, especially if it was going to be structured the same way. Plus I have spoilers and what I know makes me want to continue it even less.

11 {bonus book}. As She Fades by Abbi Glines

Aka the straw that broke the camel’s back with me and Abbi Glines books. I was never a huge fan, but I’d read a few that were okay. There was a time where I just got SO MANY of them as ARCs. This I think, was the last one I received and I just found so many things about this incredibly problematic, especially the way characters think, speak about and treat women (except the heroine of course, who is different). Also the people in this book are named Vale and Slate and what?

12 {bonus}. Othello by William Shakespeare

Yes, I’m a Philistine. Actually, all Shakespearean tragedies. Starting in year 9, I did Romeo & Juliet, MacBeth, Hamlet, Othello & MacBeth again. I think Shakespeare is supposed to be seen, not read or forced upon generations of school students. Like a lot of things, they’re probably best enjoyed when come upon them naturally, organically, rather than be shoehorned down our throats until we can’t stand it anymore. In year 12, I did both Othello and MacBeth and it was a bridge too far, especially as I’d already done MacBeth in year 10. Also I was doing extension English and in that, we also were doing 2 of the comedies, which I do enjoy more than the tragedies but still. It was a lot of Shakespeare in a small amount of time.

So these are books that I didn’t like but I understand that people reading these may have different opinions and no offence is meant! I’m sure I’m going to read some posts today containing books I enjoyed as well, but I actually quite like reading negative reviews of books, because it makes me think of things that I might’ve overlooked or that don’t bother me, but bother other people. It’s interesting, all the different opinions out there. So I’m sorry if I want to fire one of your favourite books into the sun 😉

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