Tuesday, 31 December 2019

End of a decade

What a decade!

In shamelessly using a popular music CD series I am cunningly going to talk about the past decade in books. This is of course in no way a distraction so I don't have to decide which were the best books of the past year you understand!

On looking back through my reading journals I have discovered that I have been keeping a pretty thorough record of my reading since 2009, however as this is an end of decade summing up I will only take the books I've read since January 2010. It is my blog after all and no matter the arguments put forward by Mr Norfolkbookworm as to when the decade actually runs I am going with Jan 1st 2010-December 31st 2019.

In that time I have recorded I've read 3103 books 😲 Or 310 books a year 😲😲

When you take into account that I don't think I've included all of the picture books I've read to my nephew in this list, or the day I spent at the Booktrust helping select books for the packs given to pre-school aged children this is staggering, even for me.
It also covers the 3 years I spent studying for an MA and the time since my brain haemorrhage which severely cut back on what I was able to read.

I do include all of my re-reads/comfort reads in my lists so this isn't actually 3103 unique books but regardless this is a vast number that has left me feeling a bit flabbergasted...

I will spend some more time looking at the lists and definitely produce my 'best of 2019' list in the next day or so, but I will also look through the entire list and try and pick my highlights of the decade too.

I think that my reading highlight of this year has been sharing books as a family, especially with Kentishbookboy. In early 2010, before he was even born, I took my sister on a book buying trip to start his library and now it has paid off as we get to share books properly now.

For this year his favourite book we've shared was Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (mine and his mum's was The Umbrella Mouse and Mr Norfolkbookworm can't decide between these two!)

As a book memory from the decade it has to be one that Kentishbookboy and I share and that is the wonderful Thud by Nick Butterworth as we've had years of fun acting that out between us.

Wishing all of my readers a very Happy (and book filled) New Year and here's to another decade of good books!

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Review Six: book group at a distance

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J. K. Rowling

These books have been a huge part of my adult life, I started book selling just after the second book in the series came out, but at that time there wasn't a lot of fuss around the books, I don't recall anyone coming in to the shop asking for them particularly. In a bid to become a specialist Children's Bookseller I was reading as much as possible that was coming out and both Mr Norfolkbookworm and I really enjoyed the first two and I know that I was recommending them long before they were the huge hit they later became.

I was involved in the launch parties for all of the remaining books of the initial series, and I know that I missed my sister's hen night because I was working on the midnight launch of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It has to be said that she was never a fan of the books but I do wonder if this has anything to do with her antipathy...

However this year Kentishbookboy expressed an interest in trying at least the first book in the series and so my poor sister had to grit her teeth and give the book a go.  I'd reread the whole series as a reward for finishing my MA a few years back and Mr Norfolkbookworm also decided that it was a good time for a reread...

As before Kentishbookboy's thoughts are in purple and mine are in brown.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Harry Potter has never event heard of Hogwarts when the letters start dropping on the doormat at number four, Privet Drive. Addressed in green ink on yellowish parchment with a purple seal, they are swiftly confiscated by his grisly aunt and uncle. Then, on Harry's eleventh birthday, a great beetle-eyed giant of a man called Rubeus Hagrid bursts in with some astonishing news: Harry Potter is a wizard, and he has a place at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He has to make new friends, as well as learning about his past.

Harry Potter lives with his aunt, uncle and cousin and believes that his parents died in a car crash (that was their fault) and has left him with a distinctive scar - which his family insist remains hidden.  Strange things have often happened around Harry but until his eleventh birthday he had no idea just how magical these things really were.
Once Harry gets to Hogwarts he has to learn about his history whilst making his own way in a new world.

Harry Potter lived a tough life living with his Aunt Petunia, Uncle Vernon and their son, Dudley. From having to sleep in a cupboard under the stairs, to trying to stay out of the way, life was just too hard. Learning about his past brings lots of danger to him and his friends during their adventures that they must overcome together whilst at Hogwarts.

Harry's main dilemma in this book is learning who he is, who is friends are and what is right and wrong. He also has to learn that even magic can't always give him what he wants the most.

Courage, loyalty and friendship are great themes for the book. It symbolises to always have trust in your friends, no matter what.

As this is the first part of a series the morals and themes that feature in this book are all laying the foundation stones for future adventures (which I can see as I have had the pleasure of reading the books before) but learning who to trust, and who your friends are is an important part of this book, as is learning when to follow rules and when to trust your instincts.

This book is a really good adventure story and is really interesting book to read. I think J.K. Rowling is a talented author and turns ideas in to an action packed story! I would highly recommend it and give it five stars.

I agree with the Kentishbookboy, this is a great story and if as an adult I can see where her influences come from it doesn't spoil the story at all - it is a real page turner. I think that I'd give it four stars now but I know that on my first read I thought it was a great new voice/addition to the Kidlt area. I also enjoy a lot of the wordplay and puns.

I know that Mr Norfolkbookworm really enjoyed his reread of the book, and like he said the writing might not have been the greatest but the plot and story are and they are what count.  I think that the biggest surprise is knowing that Kentishbookboy's mum is also intrigued enough to want to know what happens to the characters in book two...

We're hoping to fit in one more non-festive shared book before we pick a Christmas book to enjoy.

Thursday, 28 November 2019

World Reading

Challenging my world views

I love reading books that are set in locations that I've never visited (and probably will never visit) whether the books are fiction or non fiction and regardless as to if they are in translation or not. Just lately two books have really challenged what I thought I knew about two countries.

The first was a non fiction book, called Two Trees Make a Forest.

This is a book that ticked many of my personal interests: travel, nature writing and family history. It was also about Taiwan, a country that I had always thought was a relatively liberal place and a definite alternative to China. I was very surprised to discover that it was subject to martial law for so long, and as repressive as mainland China in its way, just not a communist country.

I think that some of my preconceptions come about because in the time that I've been news/politically aware it has moved away from a one party, repressive system and become more liberal  - unconsciously I had thought that this was always the case.  Always good to learn more and this was a fascinating book about reconnecting with your roots.

The second book that really opened my eyes recently also comes from the far east, as it is set in South Korea, Kim Jeyung, Born 1982 (by Chi Nam-Joo, trans. Jamie Chang)

This is a book that is all about the pressures that South Koreans around my age/my sister's age face in society today, and especially how women are treated. It was truly horrifying and eye-opening, despite nothing truly horrific actually taking place.  The publisher blurb gives a hint of the subject matter:
Kim Jiyoung is a girl born to a mother whose in-laws wanted a boy.
Kim Jiyoung is a sister made to share a room while her brother gets one of his own.
Kim Jiyoung is a female preyed upon by male teachers at school. Kim Jiyoung is a daughter whose father blames her when she is harassed late at night.  
Kim Jiyoung is a good student who doesn’t get put forward for internships. Kim Jiyoung is a model employee but gets overlooked for promotion. Kim Jiyoung is a wife who gives up her career and independence for a life of domesticity.
This doesn't quite warn you just what a punch this book packs, especially at the end. Although fiction all of the statistical claims, figures and news stories are given footnotes that allow you to see that this is real and not exaggerated for a novel.

Again I had the idea that South Korea was a 'good guy' - that it was progressive and to be held up as a beacon for showing how a country can heal from a traumatic recent past.

A film has been made of the book, and it is a best seller in Korea. This translation will be published in February 2020 and I hope that it is as well received in English as it has been in Korean - it is an important read, and always good to remember that there is a lot of work to do world wide on equality.

With thanks to Norfolk Libraries & Net Galley for these two books.

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Travelogue or memoir? Or Both?

Between the Stops: The View of My Life from the Top of the Number 12 Bus by Sandi Toksvig

As a fan of both Toksvig's earlier books and her work on the TV I've been very excited about this book since I heard it was coming and my cup nearly ran over when I was granted an early review copy by Net Galley.

While Toksvig has had an interesting and varied life which would have made a straight autobiography an enjoyable read this book moved away from that and we follow Sandi as she takes the Number 12 bus from her home to the BBC building in central London.

Like the bus this lets the book unfold in a slower, more meandering way as Toksvig talks about her life and the sights she sees from the bus, intertwining these with thoughts on modern life and politics.

The talent in the book is to know how much information to give from each area and how to stop it becoming a travelogue or a 'show off' tome. Toksivg is clearly incredibly knowledgeable and curious (which is why she makes such a great host of QI) but she also knows how to stop the book becoming a book of facts with her use of comedy and self deprecation while she never apologises for her intelligence or her views.

There are a lot of celebrity biographies to read but this one is a cut above the rest, the personal is mixed so well with the rest that I really do feel that I got to sit next to Sandi on the bus and hear all about her life and the history of the areas we were passing.

I do also want to take the Number 12 bus now and see these sites for myself - I'm obviously a real sucker for books that are entertaining and can be used as a travel guide, after all my last review was for the same style of book!

(Reviews from Kentishbookboy will resume soon - he, Mr Norfolkbookworm and I are all enjoying Harry Potter although I'm not so sure his mum is!)

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Norfolk settings

Redshank's Warning by Malcolm Saville

I used to be an avid collector of children's books from the 1920s/30s/40s but in recent years this has changed from an indiscriminate 'try everything' hobby to my only collecting books by a specific few authors. The exception to this rule is books set in locations I am familiar with.

It was with great excitement this week that a new to me kidlit book was waiting on the doorstep when I got in from work. I knew the name Malcolm Saville but I'd not read anything by him however as Redshank's Warning has a Norfolk setting I just knew I had to give it a go.

Not only is the book a Norfolk story, it is also set in Blakeney up on the North Norfolk Coast - an area I know pretty well. As it would seem the author did, for unlike so many books that have a Norfolk setting Saville barely plays around with geography and you could still walk around the village using the novel as a travel guide.

The sea has changed a little of the geography when the protagonists leave the village and go out to the Point and the marshes but it is still all incredibly recognisable - and the main hotel talked about is still reasonably posh even 70 years on! Knowing two people who work in the modern day Post Office added another (unintentional) layer of amusement for me as I read the parts of the book set there. I also now want to explore the church more, taking care not to get locked into the tower!

To be honest the thriller-esque plot left me a little cold but I really wasn't reading the book for this at all, just the wonderful descriptions of Blakeney, the marshes and the wildlife.
I'm not sure I'll seek out the following books in this series (unless they too have a Norfolk setting) but this has joined two of my other favourite Norfolk-set kidlit books -When Marnie Was There and The Great Gale.
Blakeney village from the marsh

looking towards the point from near the Quay

Friday, 25 October 2019

Review Five: bookgroup at a distance

I Believe in Unicorns - Michael Morpurgo

I love many of Michael Morpurgo's books - if you read too many in a row then they can become a little samey but the writing always make them a satisfying read. He also manages to cover some very serious topics in a way that isn't sensationalist in anyway.

Anyhow our third joint read was something completely different, being a hugely popular contemporary read. Kentishbookboy's thoughts are purple and mine are in brown.

I Believe in Unicorns

Eight-year-old Tomas hates school, hates books and hates stories. Forced to visit the library by his mother, he stops to listen to the magical tales that the Unicorn Lady spins - tales that draw him in, making themselves part of him. But things are changing in the world, as the distant rumble of war is suddenly brought close to home both events change the course of his life forever.

Tomas lives in an unidentified rural location and would far rather be spending time out in the fresh air, learning about country life, with his dad rather than in school or sharing hobbies with his mum. However a visit to the library and the story lady and her unicorn changes this and when war comes to the area the power of words to bring a community together really shine through. 

Tomas is forced to go to the public library (during the rain) while his mother goes shopping and he doesn't want to. The war is also exploding around him, changing his life completely.

Tomas is taken to the library unwillingly but slowly falls in love with the power of words, when war and violence come to the village will the community stay together and cope with events?

Moral: Believe in the impossible.
Themes: Books have the power to transform lives, as Tomas becomes more confident at each library visit.

This is all about the importance of words and in a way is a book form of the rhyme 'sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me' and indeed it is words that can heal.

I would recommend the book because it is lovely to read and it teaches people that you can find happiness in a book. 4 stars

I really enjoyed this short read, by not mentioning any countries or time frames then the book is simultaneously modern and a fable that could be from any point in the past 100 years - in fact only the illustrations give it anything like a fixed historical point.
The story could very easily have been twee and saccharine but for me it was just right and I am sad that it has taken me so long to read this one!

The telling of hard to cope with ideas through fiction is a fine line to tread - books have to be realistic but not overwhelming but also not so opaque that any serious points are trivialised and I think that this books manages it perfectly. I love the way that Kentishbookboy picks out the similar themes to me although as yet he doesn't have the world experiences to pick on quite the same allegories as me. I found it interesting that both my sister and I were trying to pin the book down to a specific time / geographical setting but that we couldn't didn't ruin the book.

The next book review may be a little longer in appearing as our next read is Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and it is approaching half term.  Potter will be an interesting book to review as Kentishbookboy's mum has steadfastly refused to read these books or see these films!

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Review Four - book group at a distance

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Longer chapters made keeping apace on reading this book a little more challenging than our recent books but we did all manage to finish the book this weekend.

Mixing up our book genres is a great way to keep reading a fun activity and although I know I've read Alice more than once in the past it was like coming to a completely new story.

Kentishbookboy's thoughts are purple and mine (with interjections from Mr Norfolkbookworm this time) are in brown.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Alice is spending time with her sister, and gets very bored listening to her read, so she begins to daydream. Alice's adventures lead her down a rabbit hole into Wonderland, where she meets an array of curious and strange characters - including the Mad Hatter, the Mock Turtle and the grinning Cheshire Cat.

Alice is sitting with her sister, who is reading quietly, and is bored - the book doesn't seem to have pictures or illustrations and so Alice isn't interested. All of a sudden Alice notices a white rabbit wearing a waistcoat and looking at a pocket watch, run by. Alice follows the rabbit down a rabbit hole and falls into a weird and wonderful world.

Alice lands in a world where everything is utter nonsense. From always being tea time, to talking animals, and playing card soldiers, Wonderland is completely unique and confusing!

Alice is in a world where nothing makes sense, however familiar it looks. Cats grin, babies turn into pigs and Alice can't stay the same size. How is she going to survive her adventures, keep her head and return to her own world?

Morals: Believe in yourself what you can achieve
Themes: Try to make sense of the world around you.

It is a quite hard to pick out a moral or theme from this book. You could say that don't eat or drink anything you are unsure of (and checking it doesn't say poison isn't quite enough!) is a good lesson to take. That it is ok to be curious is potentially another one, as is being open minded to anything out of the ordinary.

I'm not sure whether to recommend this book because even though it's complete nonsense, it can also be quite difficult to understand in places. 3 1/2 stars

Hard to put into words how I feel about this book, the story is great and magical but it did feel a little bit of a slog at times. I can't say that children's literature has 'dumbed down' since Alice was published - you only have to look at The Umbrella Mouse to see that hard topics are covered - but something has definitely changed, and to be honest I think for the better.
I can't really say that my opinions are formed because I am more familiar with the Disney adaptation of the story - the Cheshire cat in that terrified me as a child and I will still switch over if I see the cartoon on!
I think I give the book 4 stars overall as so much of the book does remain in our consciousness today, even if the prose was hard work!

What I find most interesting is that Kentishbookboy highlights that the story is a dream/daydream from the very start, but when chatting to Mr Norfolkbookworm he was talking about the abrupt ending to the book - not even thinking that this was simply because Alice wakes up!

We're back to something more contemporary with our next book as it is the Michael Morpurgo novella I Believe in Unicorns.

Friday, 4 October 2019

Excuses, excuses

Time for me to post a confession - please don't think that the slow down in book related posts has anything to do with the Kentishbookboy - he's as busy reading as much as a busy nine year old can. The slow down has all been me.

I've just started a new round of my secret reviewing work which comes with deadlines that I find harder to meet now. I've also been out and about making the most of the nice autumn weather when possible - I'm not sure if you can store up sunshine and vitamin D against the winter but I'm certainly trying!

Finally I've also been doing more recently - there was the excellent trip to the O2 for the 2nd Space Rocks day (oh and book browsing after with Kentishbookboy as we look for our next contemporary read), I've been to a great author talk with Armistead Maupin and then this weekend Mr Norfolkbookworm and I are back off to Pontefract to meet astronaut Jack Lousma.

I will try to catch up with some of our reviews in the next week or so - there's a couple of books we've both read a while ago, and then there will be out thoughts on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

For now here's a couple of my pictures from the past few weeks - I love the wildlife and landscapes of East Anglia!

Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Review Three - book group at a distance

The Boy in the Dress by David Walliams

I know that it is a really obvious thing to say but making sure you read three chapters a night of a book is a great way to read more! It has been quite a while since I've read this much fiction in such a short space of time, and in addition to loving the shared reading experience. I am also finding that I am also reading more of my own books too - a regular reading habit is a great thing!

Anyhow our third joint read was something completely different, being a hugely popular contemporary read. Kentishbookboy's thoughts are purple and mine (with interjections from my sister!) are in brown.

The Boy in the Dress

Dennis lives in a boring town, in a boring street, in a boring town. But he's about to find out that when you open your mind, life becomes anything but boring! Life has a way of surprising you with events and opinions.

Dennis is a normal boy, he mostly keeps his head down at school and at home although he is something of a star on the football pitch. Inside he feels different - an interest in fashion isn't normal for a boy, is it?

Dennis lives a tough life in his home with his brother and dad. He struggles with his feelings, regarding his love of fashion and dressing up in a feminine way. The family don't share their feelings, which leads Dennis to hiding his secret.

Dennis' mother has left the family leaving a big hole in house - both physically and emotionally. Dennis' dad tries to stamp out anything feminine which leaves Dennis feeling alone and bewildered. Not being allowed to share his feelings, and always having to 'man up' causes Dennis lots of problems.

The friendships between Dennis, Darvesh, and Lisa is an important feature in the story because it brings people closer together.
Dennis' love for dresses teaches people it is ok to be different, something that his dad and brother learn by the end.

Friendship is a strong theme in the book as is accepting that people are all different. Standing up for your beliefs is also touched on, as well as knowing how to apologise.

I'm not sure I would recommend the book since it includes rudeness towards the beginning of the book, and blackmailing at the end. Four stars.

I also agree with the Kentishbookboy in that I don't think I'd recommend this book either (and neither would his mum!). Our problems with the book also match his but we'd also like to add that we weren't impressed with Walliams' self referential mention of Little Britain. The whole idea of accepting people can be different (and that boys can wear dresses if they like) is a good one, but the writing style just didn't hit the spot for us and by the end it wasn't actually clear that this applied to everyone and not just the book's hero. 
I'm also not sure that the message that it is okay for boys to have feelings was carried through - Dennis' dad only came round slightly when Dennis had a sporting success, and even then the idea of hugging between boys/men as the norm was not accepted.  

Like the Kentishbookboy I also thought the whole ending, with blackmail was inappropriate. A grudging three stars from me!

We always knew that we wouldn't love all the books we read but going from Dahl and the Umbrella Mouse to this was a real shock. I was pleased that we tried a Walliams, I do like to stay in touch with what is popular in the kidlit world but for the life of me (apart from the short chapters) I can't see why Walliams is as popular as he is, and the view of one nine year old backs this up!

Another shock to the system next as we're moving on to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Mr Norfolkbookworm is going to join in with our read as well!

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Review Two - book group at a distance

The Umbrella Mouse by Anna Fargher

This was the first book that the Norfolkbookworm and the Kentishbookboy read simultaneously. For me this was a new way to read, usually if a book hooks me in then I read it from cover to cover in as short time as possible. Reading a small amount each night could have felt like the purgatory of a class book but instead for me it was great - this was a really tense book and reading in small chunks was one way to cope with this. It was also dramatic enough that I wanted to pick it up each night!

Again Kentishbookboy's thoughts are in purple and mine in brown.

The Umbrella Mouse.

1944, and London is under attack. The umbrella shop that a young mouse, Pip Hanway has called her home all her life, is destroyed by a bomb, forcing her to begin a perilous quest to find a new home.

Pip is mouse who lives in an umbrella at a London umbrella shop. It is 1944 and bombing raids on London destroy her home and kill her parents. Pip is saved by a rescue dog and on realising that she is now an orphan decides that she has to get to her mothers relatives, who live in Italy. Through a series of adventures and misadventures she finds herself in Normandy, just after D-Day, working with the animal resistance - Noah's Ark.


Should young Pip just go straight to the umbrella museum in Gignese, Italy, or should she stay and help Noah's Ark in France?

Pip has to learn to cope as an orphan in wartime London and then also has to decide if she is brave enough to help in some of the Noah's Ark missions. She also has to learn who she can trust and who she can't.

Teamwork, friendship and courage all show that no matter your size, you can have an impact on the world. The author is clever to use the hardship of the animals to parallel the same hardships faces by the human resistance during WW2 and can express the characters' feelings clearly.

This book packs a mighty wallop for a middle-grade novel. The main theme is survival in wartime and also the decisions that you have to make in testing situations. The book does not shy away from any aspect of World War Two history but yet makes them accessible to a younger age range by making the characters animals rather than humans (although there are some humans who have their own tragic story arc).


The book was great. there are tons of tense moments which encouraged us to read on...Pip is a wonderful chracter in the story, very adventurous and inspirational. Can't wait for book number two! Five stars.
I enjoyed this book, it was certainly tense and action packed, and for the most part credible (if you can handle talking mice!) but I didn't quite connect emotionally with it and unlike other children's books about WW2 I've read I wasn't moved to tears. I am pleased that the ending wasn't rushed and I will be reading any other books about Pip as soon as they are available. A solid 4 stars from me.

I was pleased that Fargher added in a nice author's note after the book proper to show just how based on real events it was - I was happy that my thoughts on one of the very first human characters to appear were right!

I've also enjoyed messaging and tweeting with family (and the author) as we read through the book. Highlights included

We don't trust xxxx 
Book is still very tense in the 3 chapters we read tonight 
Its not good for the blood pressure is it? 
If this was a film or TV show I'd be hiding behind the sofa by now

We know that we won't always agree on the books we read together, but I think that we'll definitely be reading more books this way as the year progresses - I think the next book up is going to be a totally different read as we try a David Walliams book.

As an aside Nanny and Grandad have both now finished this books and they both enjoyed it too - although they are lamenting the fact that Kentishbookboy is growing up so fast and tackling books with such grown up themes!

Friday, 13 September 2019

Review One - book group at a distance

Matilda by Roald Dahl

The postman brought me a wonderful envelope this morning - a note from my nephew, his chosen nickname for these posts and also his first three book reviews.

By lucky coincidence some of the reviews were for Roald Dahl books and today, 13th September, is #RoaldDahlDay so what better time to post?

The Kentishbookboy has a guideline from school on how they'd like him to write book reviews and so I will keep that format for his contributions on, and also try to tailor my reviews of our shared books to the same format. (His thoughts are in purple and mine in brown.)

First up Matilda:

Matilda's parents are rather mean to her. But, she is a genius and has some extraordinary plans up her sleeve to prove them wrong.

Matilda is the second (and unwanted) child in the Wormwood family and she really doesn't fit in with them. Books are her saviour and at home she quickly learns how to use her knowledge to get the better of her family. School also comes with its own problems but a good teacher and Matilda's brain come together to a great solution.

Matilda had to deal with a terrifying Trunchbull, mean parents and an ignorant brother.

Matilda has to learn how to cope with her terrible family and bullying (from a teacher) at school.

Family is an important theme in Matilda. Both Matilda and Miss Honey had been living tough lives in their homes.
Education is another important feature in this book. Matilda and Miss Honey both realise that reading is key to their knowledge.

I think the big theme here is the importance of books, reading and education and how the things you learn from them are more than just school lessons. I also think that the idea of family can be more than blood relatives is important.

First of all, I really enjoyed the book. I think Roald Dahl has a unique way of storytelling. Out of 5 stars, I would rate it 5 stars. I totally recommend Matilda to other people.

I agree with Kentishbookboy - this is a 5 star book and one that I think should be on all recommended reading lists - child or adult!

I am really pleased that Kentishbookboy loved this book as much as I do.  I came across Roald Dahl during a holiday to the Channel Islands as a child *but* only by stealing borrowing my sister's books. Before this summer she hadn't been an enthusiastic reader but fell in love with Dahl's books on holiday and we both raced through them!

I think that Matilda is either my favourite or 2nd favourite Dahl book and while I wasn't so keen on the RSC musical back in 2011 it was wonderful to revisit it earlier this year with my sister and the Kentishbookboy. I've come to terms with the plot changes and this time was totally swept away by the whole thing - something that I think is true for the others!

As for The Umbrella Mouse - we all finished it last night (with only 5 chapters left it was a longer read but we *couldn't* stop! We're all thinking about the book and the review will be coming soon!

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Adaptations and different versions of the same tale

Matthew Bourne's Romeo+Juliet

It has been a while since I've posted about the theatre on the blog, I haven't given up going but I am going a lot less - I find the days in London (or late nights in Norwich) incredibly tiring since the brain haemorrhage and so I am being a lot more discerning!

Past reviews on here show how many versions of Romeo and Juliet I've seen and also how much I enjoy Matthew Bourne's ballets.

Initially I thought that this might be the ballet that destroyed my love of Bourne's work and had the potential be worse than the dire 2017 Romeo and Juliet.

This is a very liberal retelling of the story and at first I really couldn't handle the changes in the plot - I couldn't see where the original story was. I couldn't work out who was representing the Montague family and who were supposed to be the Capulets. In fact the only characters I could name were Romeo and Juliet!

I'm not going to talk about how the plot works as I don't want to spoil this for people still to see the performance but I will say that you should stick with it - by the end of the ballet all of the threads are pulled together and all of the story telling choices do make sense.  This is definitely Matthew Bourne's Romeo+Juliet and emphatically not Shakespeare's! However as Shakespeare already "repurposed" an earlier version to create his play I'm not that fussed about the story changes as ultimately they do all work.

The choreography, energy and in fact the whole performance by the dancers was wonderful - my main issue with this was the liberties taken with Prokofiev's score. This is so clever in the original but here was chopped about and reordered so much that it didn't seem to actually be helping tell the story - it could have been any music that the dancers were using. The original builds the tension, shows the romance and then the tragedy - here it is just noise and doesn't move the plot along.

I am pleased that I saw this, overall I enjoyed it, and it was so much better than the 2017 version but mum will be pleased when I say that so far no version of Romeo and Juliet I've seen comes close to being as good as the Kenneth Macmillan version of the ballet and I'd see that again at the drop of a hat!

Saturday, 7 September 2019

Book group at a distance

Sharing books as a family.

While I use the nickname Norfolkbookworm a lot it seems that I've managed to share this love of the written word with my nephew in Kent and as he gets older we are sharing more and more books.

Since before he was born we've indulged in book splurges on a fairly regular basis. These are great fun - we set a budget and then spend *ages* in a bookshop looking at all the shelves making piles of all the books that appeal. Once we've done this we find a cosy corner/table/sofa in the shop and carefully read the book blurbs and first pages to make our final lists. The books not selected are added to a list and looked for in the library or added to birthday or Christmas lists. My sister also tries to take him to as many events with his favourite authors as possible - highlights here have been Andy Griffiths, Tim Peake and Steve Backshall.

Last summer he recommended the 13 Storey Treehouse (and sequels) to me and I've spent many happy afternoons enjoying the craziness and imagination of the tales.

This autumn he enters Year 5 and his school sees reading as really important (hurrah!) and his class teacher has set a reading challenge - a list of 22 books has been drawn up and the children are encouraged to read 12 of the books during the school year.

This was such a coincidence as over the summer we'd discovered the wonderful lists created by the Books for Topics team - these have 50 books on them suitable for each year group and are a wonderful mix of fiction, non fiction and poetry titles.

As a family we've looked at these lists and have decided that although I'm in Norfolk and they are in Kent we're all going to read the same books and then either phone each other to talk about them or use social media.

Term started this week and so we've started the first book - The Umbrella Mouse by Anna Fargher. (Typically this book isn't on any of the lists but something drew my sister and nephew to it, and now that nanny has finished it and returned it with a thumbs up review, it seemed a good starting point!)

'Above all, we must be brave'
1944, and London is under attack. The umbrella shop that young mouse, Pip Hanway has called home all her life, is destroyed by a bomb, forcing her to begin a perilous quest to find a new home.
 But the only way to get there is by joining Noah's Ark, a secret gang of animals fighting with the resistance in France, operating beneath the feet of human soldiers. Danger is everywhere and as the enemy closes in, Pip must risk everything to save her new friends.
With my love of fiction set in wartime this book really appealed to me and using animals to tell a true story is a clever way to introduce deeper topics and history to my nephew. There are beautiful illustrations scattered through the text really which are really adding to the tale.

The Kent contingent of the book group are reading three chapters a night, with each member of the family reading a chapter aloud, and I am also limiting myself to the same pace so that we can share the story fully.  We may only have just finished chapter 6 but all of agree that the writing is so good that we really think we are in wartime London - my sister and I agree that we could almost smell the setting as we were reading.

We'll keep you posted on how the group reading goes and I hope to feature book reviews from my nephew as we go along - once he picks the nickname he wants to publish under!

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Nature Writing

The Wainwright Book Prize 2019

Over the past 18 months we've been spending a lot more time outside walking and nature watching. At the same time I've also really enjoyed reading a lot more nature writing and when it comes to finding new books in this genre the Wainwright has been indispensable.

The longlist was great this year and I started to pick and choose books from it to dip into, I was really pleased that many of the books I'd really enjoyed made the cut to the shortlist.

Three of the books have strong links to East Anglia but my absolute standout (so far - I have 2 still to read!) has been The Easternmost House by Juliet Blaxland.

As the title suggests this is a book about the easternmost house in England. However pleasant this sounds it comes with a huge caveat - the house is perched on a cliff that is eroding away incredibly fast.

The book is split into 12 chapters, one for each month of the year, and is a meditation on country/coastal life in the twenty-first century. Knowing the area being talked about I am sure added a lot to my reading as it became illustrated in my mind as I turned the pages.

A lovely touch to the book was the chapter end page, in this Blaxland lists all of the produce that is in season as well as charting the erosion of the coast and the position of the house in relation to the sea.

I wouldn't be upset if any of the books on the list wins the prize but I will be crossing my fingers hard that others love this book as much as I do when it comes to the final announcement tomorrow.

Friday, 9 August 2019


I had no idea that it was nearly 2 months since my last update - it has been a busy time but I think that I blame the heat/humidity since our return mostly for this big gap.

We had an amazing time on holiday, we were incredibly lazy while there and spent 13 out of the 14 days lounging around catching up on sleep, reading and sampling the wonderful local food & wine.

While by no means reaching pre-haemorrhage book totals I had made the right choice in saving up some of the fiction releases from the past few months and I think that these two in particular will feature highly on my end of the year round ups...

Those Who Were Loved by Victoria Hislop

Hislop has returned to modern Greek history for this book, and it charts the story of one Athenian family through the turbulent twentieth century. I knew that Greece had swung from right to left politically as well as from monarchy to junta but not a lot of the detail.
Hislop has told this tale through the story of four siblings and their grandmother and this allows all sides of the political spectrum to be explored as each character has different ideals.

My one reservation with the book is that I found the ending a little rushed, I wish that it was a two-parter. I wanted to spend more time with all of the characters!

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

This is another Greek book but this one took me back to the end of the Trojan War and was everything that Pat Barker's Silence of the Girls wasn't.  The premise in this retelling is that the poet Homer is trying to compose his epic tales but is a little stuck for inspiration, he has called on a muse to help and she is telling him the tale but from the viewpoint of all the women swept up in the chaos. 

This was a great retelling of the Iliad and Odyssey and I liked the way the stories wove themselves together in a way that was utterly modern (and very funny at times) and yet reminiscent of the classics from Homer onwards. I'm loving this vogue for retelling the classics and hope that there are lots more to come.

Now we're back home a lot of my reservations from the library have come in, and I'm reading for one of my non-bloggable projects, so hopefully I'll have more books to talk about soon.

Friday, 21 June 2019

A familiar refrain...

...well to be honest at the moment I seem to have more of a fiction reader's block rather than a full on block.

I don't seem to be alone in this as a member of the online book group I'm a part of has also said the same recently, which was nice and reassuring.

I'm taking this as a sign of just how good non fiction books are right now rather than thinking that fiction isn't in a good place. Some of this problem settling on novels is also self inflicted, Mr Norfolkbookworm and I are off on our holidays soon and I've been stockpiling books I do want to read ready for two weeks in the sun (well shade - I burn too easily!). My most eagerly anticipated books are out reach for another few weeks...

The exception to this was the third instalment from Gill Sims in her Why Mummy... series. I'm not sure why these appeal to me, I'm not a parent and my husband very definitely shares the housework with me and our families are nowhere near as dysfunctional as Ellen's.

There's just something about these books that I can lose myself in. On the surface they are light hearted books which take everyday events and humorously exaggerate them to great comic effect but you quickly realise that this is very much surface and that underneath there are some very serious issues that are handled incredibly sensitively.

This is especially true for the third book in the series Why Mummy Doesn't Give a **** which I've just finished. I'm not sure that reading this on a train was my brightest idea as I found myself snorting with laughter and crying, well at least I had a seat to myself...

I discovered the books before the hilarious Peter and Jane facebook page https://www.facebook.com/peterandjaneandmummytoo/ and while, obviously, the humour is very similar between the page and the books don't think that you've read the books if you follow the webpage - they are very different and on balance I prefer the books.

The book is published on 27th June, and it will make a lot more sense if you've read the other two - the story is a continuation.

Many thanks to Net Galley for the electronic proof.

Monday, 3 June 2019

The nature cure and volunteering

Since early 2018, when I started to recover from the brain hemorrhage, Mr Norfolkbookworm and I have spent a lot of time outdoors whenever the weather has been half way decent. We generally go out and about in Norfolk or Suffolk, usually taking the camera and binoculars, and just spend time in the fresh air walking, taking pictures and generally just looking around.

I am sure that this has helped my recovery to some extent, for us being out in the natural world has meant we are becoming far more observant and we are definitely far more connected with the seasons and the wildlife around the county. The rare weekends that haven't been nice enough to get out really do have an impact on my mood for the following week so there is surely something in the idea of a nature cure.

June is the Wildlife Trusts #30DaysWild, where people are encouraged to sign up and connect in someway to the natural world. We had a busy weekend - we walked at Ranworth Broad, Strumpshaw Fen and Cley Marshes, and we were lucky enough to see one of Norfolk's rarities - the swallowtail butterfly.

While seeing a special breed is nice we had just as much fun watching the domestic dramas of the avocets and wagtails from the inside of a hide and sharing these things with other people.

However we can't get out and about like this every day (work gets in the way!) but connecting with nature is still possible even in our city house. This morning while hanging out the laundry I was watching the swifts wheel about over the house, dozens of bees feeding on the privet hedge and a ladybird exploring the cornflowers - nature really is everywhere and taking just a moment to look at every day is so easy and something I intend to carry on doing after June is over.

Another activity that has kept me as sane as I can be is volunteering. Before I fell ill I had just started volunteering at the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum, and once I was well enough going back to this was a real boost. The museum was responsible for curating the main Armistice exhibition in the main city museum and the wonderful curator, Kate, was brave enough to allow a lot of this to be written and illustrated by volunteers. My areas included agriculture, POWs and conscientious objectors and to be trusted with the research and writing for the exhibition despite a broken brain was a real boost.

There have been many upheavals with my paid employment in the past 6 months but the one good thing with a different job and fewer hours is that I have some more time to myself. I have recently started a new volunteer role within the Norfolk Wildlife Trust - which links back in nicely to #30DaysWild and our passion for the outdoors!

I mention this now because the first week of June is also #VolunteersWeek and I wanted to share just how much being a volunteer has given me. We often hear a lot about what volunteers offer to organisations but I'd just like to say thank you to those who have given me so much by letting me volunteer with them.

To bring this back to books just for a moment - if you are looking for some simple ways to get back in touch with the natural world then can I suggest Rewild Yourself: 23 spellbinding ways to make nature more visible by Simon Barnes. A friends recommended it to me and so I'd like to pass this on. It is full of simple ways to take more notice of the world around you, and each chapter starts with a quote from some wonderful children's books!

Rewild Yourself

Friday, 31 May 2019

Rewriting the classics

Katy by Jacqueline Wilson and Becoming Jo by Sophie McKenzie

Classic children's books have long been a passion of mine, and to the disgust of several of my friends I list Little Women/Good Wives as two of my favourite books of all time.

I agree that after almost 150 years that these possibly aren't as up-to-date and modern as they were originally. Enter these two new retellings of What Katy Did and Little Women.

Katy sticks very firmly to the original novel for the first half, right up until Katy is injured I could have been reading the original and not a new version. However after this point I think that Jacqueline Wilson makes a good attempt at rewriting the story with modern medical advances and sensibilities. The original novel is very dated now and this was a clever way to make it more relevant but I question why an entirely new novel couldn't have been published (and why not by a disabled person when we come to that) rather than a reworking of book that has a terrible message for people, both disabled and non disabled.

Becoming Jo did a better job of updating a classic novel, although I did internally wince as it opened using exactly the same words as the original. Alcott's original story worked well as a frame work for a modern story and the girls' aspirations for the future definitely were more inclusive and modern.  I was surprised how much I liked this book, tampering with my favourites usually doesn't go well! I'm also looking forward to sharing this one with one of my most anti-Little Women friends to see what she makes of it.

Thursday, 23 May 2019

Dipping in and out

My reading has become a little disorganised of late for three main reasons: a lot of my non fiction reservations arrived in one go at the library, I've been doing some more reading & reviewing for various projects and I've lost my fiction mojo.

This all means that I've not had a lot to say about my reading lately, however thanks to a trip to the theatre I've realised that I do have a book theme to talk about!

A little while ago we went to the Chichester Festival Theatre and saw Shadowlands, the play about C.S. Lewis' friendship with, and subsequent marriage to,  Joy Gresham and then her unexpected illness and death.  The play itself was magnificent, and the cast uniformly good. It was incredibly moving by the end, but shot through with humour meaning that it all felt very natural.

Between booking our tickets and seeing the play I had also read a new novel Becoming Mrs Lewis by Patti Callahan thanks to Net Galley and Harper Collins.  This told the more or less the same story as Shadowlands but from Joy's perspective, it of course is also fiction inspired by fact and I very much enjoyed seeing the dual perspective.  For a full rounding out of the story I am now waiting for Lewis' own version of the story Surprised by Joy to arrive at the library.

In the meantime I am reading Inklings, the biography of the writing group that Lewis started, along with Tolkien, in the late 1930s.  I've always been a fan of C.S. Lewis' work and still own the Chronicles of Narnia book set that I was given for Christmas when I was 7 or 8, but I only read Tolkien as an adult, and to be honest his tales never captivated me in the same way.

However reading Inklings I think that I would have preferred to be in Tolkien's company more than Lewis - like me they greatly enjoyed being out in the countryside walking. Lewis was a serious walker - far more about the distance covered and the conversations had while walking whereas Tolkien much preferred a walk with plenty of time to look at nature and the views rather than covering the miles!
It is all a moot point however as women were not included in either the meetings of the Inklings or on the walks!

I definitely recommend Shadowlands and if you like novels imagining real people then Becoming Mrs Lewis is a good read.

Thursday, 25 April 2019

The nature cure

As the days have lengthened and the weather improved we've been spending a lot more time outside in beautiful Norfolk (and Yorkshire). Rather than just reading about natural wonders we've actually been seeing them first hand.

Recent trips have included seeing the nesting seabirds at Bempton Cliffs - including dozens of puffins, and then also the wader spectacular in the Wash. We've also explored 'secret' gardens closer to home and taken a boat trip out on the Broads.

Even allowing for pub lunches in sunny gardens all of this fresh air has been exhausting and by the time everything is sorted and I can curl up with a good book I'm finding I'm dozing off.  My reading has definitely slowed down again - although for the healthier reasons!

One book that really did capture my imagination recently was The Girl from Yamhill by Beverley Cleary. I can't remember who or where this was recommended but I am so glad that I got a copy from the library with ease.

Cleary wrote the Ramona books which I enjoyed these as a child indeed when I flicked through a few of the books recently I was surprised at how much I remembered from them. The Girl from Yamhill is an autobiography of Cleary's childhood and was utterly wonderful - I think that it was written for a younger audience but it didn't shy away from some harder hitting plot lines, nor did it wrap everything up with happy endings.

Cleary was born in 1916 and so this is very much a book about America post WW1 and during the Great Depression. I think it taught me more about this era than any other history book has done. Cleary also grew up in an area of America that we have visited so I think that made it even more visual for me. The culture clash of moving from a rural life to a city one is also very well shown.

The book has echoes of both the Little House on the Prairie and Betsy Tacy books, although these series are set earlier than Yamhill, and as these are longtime favourites of mine it is easy to see why this one appealed so readily.

It isn't particularly profound, just very human and full of happiness, wonder and sadness all in the right proportions.

Now it looks as if the weather is returning to more normal conditions I expect I will have more time for reading again - although I will miss the fresh air. I think that my tbr piles from NetGalley and the library will appreciate the attention however.