3rd Quarter in Books

Evenings have been cold, dark and dreary lately in our part of the world, good for nothing except curling up under a blanket with a cup of something warm to drink and a book to read. Earlier this month, I hit my reading target for the year ahead of schedule and thought I’d share a round up of some of the books I read between July and September.

The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

I’ll preface this review by saying that I loved Practical Magic, it was one of my favourite books last year, and at the end I wanted to know more about the aunts that raised Sally and Gillian, and more about their parents, which is exactly what The Rules of Magic is about. Unfortunately, this had a very different mood and atmosphere from Practical Magic, and I found it quite heavy as the aunts, Franny and Jet, and their brother, Vincent, try to navigate the family curse that love leads to ruin against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. I was disappointed by this prequel which lacked the charm and suspense of Practical Magic.

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

Set on board a steamboat cruising the Nile, this murder mystery seems like a simple crime of passion with the jilted ex-lover murdering the rich, beautiful and charming rival who stole her man, except that the most obvious suspect also has the most solid alibi and the victim had other enemies among the passengers. One by one the murderer picks off the witnesses before they can expose them, but the retired Detective Hercule Poirot is there to investigate. I thoroughly enjoyed this clever mystery that kept me guessing until the end with plenty of clues and misdirection.

This Poison Heart by Kaylynn Bayron

A young adult fantasy about a girl with the ability to grow plants and a natural immunity to almost all poisons finds herself caught up in a family legacy to prevent a very rare plant falling into the hands of people who would use it for their own nefarious purposes. This Poison Heart was like a cross between The Secret Garden and Poison Ivy and a dollop of Greek mythology thrown in too, I enjoyed the mystery but found it too slow paced and I probably won’t read the sequel.

Redemptor by Jordan Ifueko

Raybearer is very likely to be one of my Top 10 favourite reads this year, and I read the sequel as soon as it came out to find out if Tarisai succeeded in annointing her own council as the first Empress Raybearer and survived her journey through the underworld to end the sacrifice of hundreds of children to appease the spirits who threaten to bring war, disease and chaos to their lands if they don’t. I found Redemptor a little bit too meandering in places and I missed some of the supporting characters from Raybearer who drop in and out of the sequel, although I enjoyed getting to know a few new characters too. Tarisai’s journey through the underworld was the highlight of the story, a true physical, mental and spiritual challenge with sacrifices and betrayals that me gripped up to the very satisfying conclusion.

Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

I’ve been a fan of Brene Brown since watching her TED talk on shame several years ago, and have been working my way through her books ever since. Daring Greatly is a book about how to recognise and overcome shame, and practice vulnerability in different spheres of our lives in order to cultivate connection, creativity and integrity. I didn’t think this is one of her best works, and it didn’t have the profound effect on me that I Thought It Was Just Me or Rising Strong did but I did appreciate the blend of research and personal experience, and how Brene practises and models vulnerability, courage and empathy for her children and in her family were the highlights for me.

Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim

Spin the Dawn is the most charming and captivating story about a young woman, Maia, who pretends to be her brother in order to become the Emperor’s new tailor – a role forbidden to women. At court, Maia finds herself drawn into the political intrigues between the young Emperor, the Lord Enchanter and the Warlord’s daughter reluctantly betrothed to the Emperor in order to restore peace between the North and South following the Five Winters War. With the gift of her grandmother’s enchanted scissors, Maia embarks on the Warlord’s daughter’s seemingly impossible challenge to create three wedding dresses made from the laughter of the Sun, the tears of the Moon and the blood of the Stars. I simply adored this story that is as much a romance as a coming-of-age quest, though unfortunately I didn’t find the sequel, Unravel the Dusk, as charming or gripping.

The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

The Inheritance Games is a fast paced and gripping YA mystery about a seemingly ordinary girl, Avery, grieving her mum and trying to get the money and grades to get into a good college whose life is turned upside down when Tobias Hawthorne – a billionaire she’s never met – disowns his entire family and leaves his fortune and estate to her instead. This reminded me of Knives Out and Rebecca as Avery tries to solve the mystery of why Tobias Hawthorne chose her and finds herself caught up in the scheming Hawthorne family, working with and against Tobias’ four charming and clever grandsons to solve an elaborate treasure hunt with a few assassination attempts along the way. The only thing that let this story down for me was the fairly predictable love triangle between Avery and two of the Hawthorne brothers, but this was a fun mystery with plenty of suspense and I’ll definitely be reading the rest of the trilogy.

Have a lovely week. X

Happy 6th Anniversary to Mara

Our family has been enjoying a little celebration this evening as it was six years ago today we adopted our cat, Mara. As she was an adult when we adopted her, we know almost nothing about her life before she came to live with us, we don’t know when her birthday is or even her age, but I always like to mark the anniversary.

My husband and I had just returned from our honeymoon when we decided to ask our then landlord for permission to add a pet to our household. Both having grown up with cats, there was never really any doubt what animal we’d choose, and as I’d only had rescue cats (some quite literally rescued from a sack abandoned on a building site) I was determined to give a cat a second chance to have a safe and loving home. As it happened, Mara’s previous owner had just passed away and she’d only been in the rehoming centre for a week, but she was so happy when we brought her home and every bit as eager to bond with us as we were to get to know her. It feels like we’ve been through a lot together in the last six years, we’ve moved out of our little rented flat and into our own house, Mara’s survived cancer and our daughter’s birth to mention just a few of the biggest changes, but Mara’s adjusted to everything without any fuss, seemingly content as long as we’re all together.

I often feel very lucky that we found Mara before anyone else claimed her, she’s always been the most affectionate, gentle and playful companion, who follows us around the house curious to see what we’re doing, keeps me company when I’m working from home (often waltzing across the screen while I’m on videocalls), snaffling for scraps at dinnertime and loves to snuggle up while I’m reading in the evening before curling up at the bottom of our bed to sleep every night. Yet I also realise how lucky Mara was that we adopted her as we found the cancerous lump on her tail so early that none of the vets who treated her had seen one at that stage before, and we’ve always been quick to notice and react when she seems out of sorts. I’m relieved that Mara appears to be back to her normal, happy and hungry self after her mystery illness a few months ago.

This evening has been spent at home spoiling Mara with treats, and appreciating all the love, affection and fun she’s brought to our family. Have a lovely week. X

Autumn in the Garden

Blogging has fallen by the wayside over the last few weeks as we’ve all been off but not really enjoying much of a rest or holiday as our daughter caught hand, foot and mouth at nursery, and we’ve spent the last wee while taking care of her and pottering around the home and garden.

We’ve not managed to do much gardening this year as it was turned into a temporary building site while we were doing some home improvements. Nevertheless, it’s not looking too bad for this time of year. We’ve trimmed the bamboo, which has “clumped” since we planted it three years ago, and the climbing rose Crown Princess Margaret has been providing beautiful bouquets of peachy roses all summer. Hardy perennials like Crocosmia, Scabiosa, Asters and Geraniums are all still providing bursts of colour in the main flower bed.

The only thing I grew from seed this year is Crown Prince Pumpkins, which I trained to grow up over a frame my husband made to save space and protect them from slugs. This week I harvested three blue-ish pumpkins, the smallest weighing just over 2kg and the largest 5.1kg.

We’ve always enjoyed the wildlife that inhabits and visits our garden (with the exception of the slugs) but the upheaval and extra human presences during our renovations caused a temporary exodus, but over the last couple of months, the sparrows, blue tits and great tits have all returned. We’ve also had some bold grey squirrels coming right up to the window demanding nuts – much to our daughter’s delight. At the end of the summer, we also had a hedgehog wombling around the garden in the evenings.

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll know that I love light shows and I’ve added a few solar lights to enchant our little garden (though my husband thinks I’m at risk of causing pollution if I add anymore). As daylight fades and the city begins to quiet, the lights flicker on one by one, and the garden starts to feel more peaceful and mysterious.

No sooner had our daughter started to recover than the tell-tale spots and blisters appeared on my hands and feet, but I’m hoping I’ll recover quickly so we can all get back into our routine and out for some autumnal adventures. Have a lovely weekend. X

Becoming by Michelle Obama

I’ve been binge-reading lately, finishing one book and immediately starting another, but a little while ago in the midst of a reading slump, I decided to try listening to the audiobook of Michelle Obama’s autobiography, Becoming. I found it really easy to dip in an out of while washing the dishes or cooking dinner, and giving it my full attention at other times. At 19 hours in length it did feel like quite a commitment, but I found it so easy to listen to Michelle Obama narrating her story, from her wry comments (usually poking fun at herself or Barack) to the way her voice cracks slightly when describing her father’s death.

Unsurprisingly, Michelle manages to combine the personal and political describing the discrimination and racism that limited the educational, housing and employment opportunities of her parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents that were mirrored for black people all across the United States. Although there’s no doubt that her own determination, courage and work ethic helped her rise above her humble beginnings, she’s keen to acknowledge and full of gratitude for her parents, teachers and friends who supported and enouraged her every step of the way. Becoming is highly informative, inspiring and relatable and there’s so many themes running through this memoir about race, sexism, disability, poverty and social class but also about family, community, hard-work, determination and ambition.

Michelle’s story covers everything from her childhood in South Chicago in the 1960s, through her awkward adolescent years, her first romances, studying at Princeton University, her career choices, meeting and falling in love with Barack Obama, their struggles with infertility, motherhood, and entering the maelstrom of public scrutiny as he campaigned for and won the Presidency. I really appreaciated how open and honest she is about the resentment she felt about when Barack’s political aspirations interfered with their family’s life, and the compromises they made to find a balance for their family as well as the huge adjustment to life under the spotlight, it’s a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes into their marriage, family life and the inner workings of the White House.

Becoming is an informative and inspiring autobiography, full of humility, humour, vulnerability and candour, and I’d thoroughly recommend the audiobook. Have a lovely weekend. X

Summer into Autumn

Summer into Autumn

The sun seems to be rising a little later and setting a little earlier every day, and though the weather is still mild most days, there’s a chill creeping into the mornings and evenings as summer slips into autumn.

This summer has been a memorable one for us full of family adventures from trips to the beach, zoo and aquarium, as well as local toddler sensory classes (full of themed activities and songs), and a summer block of wheelie tots, where our daughter got to try balance bikes, skateboards and scooters which were such a hit that we bought her a scooter soon after. Apart from daytrips and toddler groups, the rest of our time together is usually spent at the local parks or pottering around at home filling our days with nursery rhymes, scribbling with crayons, building blocks, lots of rough and tumble play, or letting her help me with some housework like loading the washing machine, watering the plants, refilling the bird feeder or feeding our cat, Mara.

Our little girl is so curious and adventurous, she’s on-the-go from the moment she wakes up until bedtime, and I wouldn’t have her any other way. She started talking in July, her first proper word was “cracker” (her favourite snack), quickly followed by cat, car, shoes, bubble, bee, more and no, and she’s been adding words to her vocabularly every day.

Mara-cat gave us quite a scare a few months ago when she suddenly became ill with a fever – and we still don’t know what caused it – but she seems to have recovered and is back to her usual cuddly, playful self. During the heatwave, she spent most of her days alternating between sunbathing and trying to cool down, but now that the temperatures have dropped again, she’s been back to snuggling up with me in the evenings, which is always one of the highlights of my day.

Though this has been a good one, summer is my least favourite season, it’s as often hot, humid and wet as it is warm and sunny with blue skies, and I’m already looking forward to the transient beauty of autumn and the cosy times ahead. Have a lovely week. X

The Strawberry Thief by Joanne Harris

Set 17 years after Chocolat (reviewed here), The Strawberry Thief is the fourth book in the series; Vianne and her youngest daughter, Rosette, are still living above their chocolaterie in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes (while her oldest daughter, Anouk, lives in Paris with her boyfriend) and the local florist, Narcisse, causes a stir in the village when he dies and leaves part of his estate to Rosette. Lansquenet is still the same town full of gossip, secrets and simmering resentments, but there’s a new witch in town who threatens Vianne by bringing the winds of change with her and challenging her to face her fears.

The narrative switches between Vianne, Rosette, the priest Francis Renaud and Narcisse who leaves his final confession to Reynaud – though it changes hands a few times through the story. I love returning to these characters to see how they’ve grown and changed, both Vianne and her former nemesis Reynaud, have been humbled by their experiences over the years, and have forged a friendship with one another.

I especially appreciated Vianne’s perspective on motherhood, and that bittersweet mix of emotions between her fierce desire to protect her daughters and the sweet sorrow of watching them grow up and outgrow their need for their parents. Yet as Vianne realises that her fear of commitment is rooted in her fear of loss, her daughters teach her that change can be liberating, and that the past can’t be changed, nor the future controlled but the only time that really matters is now.

I’ve enjoyed all of these stories, finding them all so absorbing, easy to read, full of humour and wisdom, and as comforting as a cup of rich, spiced hot chocolate, yet they’re not without tension or conflict. The Strawberry Thief is a story of secrets and confessions, guilt and forgiveness, parents and children, friends and lovers, fear, loss, love and change. Have a lovely week. X

High and Low Tide at the Beach

With the exception of a week of thunderstorms and torrential rain, we’ve had a wonderful summer of blue skies, sunshine and warmth, and we’ve been making the most of the good weather and our freedom after all the travel restrictions and lockdowns last year. We’ve had a couple of very different trips to our favourite beach recently, arriving at low tide one day, then high tide just a few days later, something we always forget to check before visiting.

When our visit coincided with low tide, we had a quick picnic lunch before exploring the rock pools that are normally submerged while the tide is in. My husband (an astrological crab) set about trying to find the biggest crabs he could, and found a couple of very aptly-named, red-eyed and fairly hostile, Devil Crabs, while I searched for starfish. Our daughter was fascinated by it all, pointing at rocks for us to turn over and giggling whenever we held up the aquatic critters we’d found for her to look at.

Just a few days later, we returned while the tide was in and spent an afternoon walking barefoot in the sand, paddling in the waves and letting the little one dig in the sand. We’re used to having the beach to ourselves most of the time, but this was the busiest we’d ever seen it with dog-walkers, swimmers and paddle-boarders, families picnicking and even someone trying their luck with a metal detector.

Whatever the weather, and regardless of the the tide being in or out, Croy Shore is always one of my favourite places to visit, and it’s been lovely to spend a few days there this summer. Have a lovely week. X

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko

Sharing a review of the young adult fantasy novel Raybearer today to refresh my memory of events before starting the concluding part, Redemptor, which came out this week. Raybearer follows Tarisai, the daughter of the mysterious Lady who has been training her daughter since birth to infiltrate the Council of Eleven and murder the Crown Prince, but joining the Council means being connected to the Prince and his Council by his telepathic Ray.

I really loved Tarisai as she was raised in relative comfort and wealth yet lacked family, warmth or affection, which she craves deeply, and she’s torn between seeking her mother’s love and approval, and the family she could have as part of the Raybearer’s Council. Tarisai also struggles with her devotion and loyalty to the well-meaning but often naive Crown Prince, and the injustices she sees across the Arit Empire, which is steeped in tradition, such as the Treaty of the Underworld that demands the sacrifice of 300 children every year to prevent the spirits of the underworld from cursing the Empire with plagues, famine and war.

I found the West-African inspired Arit Empire really refreshing, the world was vivid and vibrant full of culture, history, mythology and folklore.

Raybearer is a captivating and enchanting story about family, friendship, love and courage, full of twists, suspense and moral dilemmas, and I’m really excited to find out what happens next in the sequel. Have a lovely week. X

Five Sisters Zoo

Five Sisters Zoo in West Lothian was on my list of places to visit for a while but due to lockdowns and travel restrictions we didn’t have an opportunity to visit until recently, but it was absolutely worth the wait, turning out to be much bigger and with a greater range of animals than I expected from a family run zoo with a focus on animal welfare.

Five Sisters Zoo was founded by a couple who originally bought the land to open their own garden centre with a little animal rehoming centre for pets and rescued animals. While the independent garden centre struggled and eventually closed, the little animal collection, which started with rabbits, guinea pigs, goats and pigs, continued to expand until the local council granted them a zoo license in 2005.

I really appreciated the ethos of this family run zoo that has taken in animals from other zoos that have closed down, rescued and retired bears and lions from circuses and various other animals with injuries, illnesses and disabilities that would be unable to live in the wild.

We were really lucky and saw most of the animals during our visit with the exceptions of the rescued bears, the snow leopard and the wolves – all of whom were hidden away in their large enclosures. Our animal-loving daughter loved the otters, lemurs and meerkats best of all, and eventually had to be carried out of the zoo howling in protest after we’d spent a good three hours wandering around; while I was delighted to catch a glimpse of Rufio the red panda – a relatively new addition who arrived at the zoo in May.

We all thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the zoo and it’s definitely somewhere we’d return to. Have a lovely week. X

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

The weather has turned in our part of the country, and I’ve spent the last few evenings curled up on the couch reading while raindrops drummed against the windows and thunder rumbled. I’ve been reading a lot of YA fantasy this year, and have found some really original and captivating stories, one of my favourites so far is Legendborn.

The story follows 16-year-old Briana ‘Bree’ Matthews as she atempts to infilitrate a secret society at university that she suspects may have had something to do with her mother’s death. I did struggle to suspend my disbelief a little bit that the direct descendents of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (the Legendborn) are fighting demons (shadowborn) in North Carolina but this turned out to be a really refreshing and modern retelling of Arthurian folklore.

I adored the protagonist, Bree, and really appreciated her observations about race, privilege and grief. Legendborn does feature a love triangle between Bree and two rival members of the secret society, Selwyn and Nick, which is one of my least favourite YA tropes as there’s always a risk that readers will be disappointed if their preferred pairing don’t end up together but it does fit with Arthurian legend, the love interests are very different from one another and it’s not at all obvious who Bree will end up with. There are a lot of supporting characters some of which I found quite unremarkable but others I’m really looking forward to seeing more of such as Bree’s gay Taiwainese-American bestfriend, a non-binary member of the secret society, the secret society’s healer and Bree’s dad.

I found the first half of the story a bit too heavy on exposition explaining the history and hierarchy of the scions, squires, pages, vassals and regents that make up the Order of the Legendborn which did slow down the plot. I also found the mastermind manipulating the order towards war with the shadowborn fairly obvious, but this story still packed a few clever twists and I raced through the second half, and the sequel (hopefully due out in 2022) is one of my most eagerly anticipated books. Legendborn is an orignal twist on Arthurian lore with a great cast of characters, plenty of humour, romance, mystery, magic and action. Have a lovely week. X