Magical O.W.L.S readathon TBR – April 2020

Having suddenly found myself with a lot more reading time, I decided to challenge myself this year to try the O.W.L.S readathon to fill my month of April. If you are not sure what this is, this is a readathon designed by G at BookRoast and takes inspiration from the Hogwarts examinations students had to take in their fifth year. In this readathon, the OWLS you take allow you to progress into a specific career based on the subjects you have taken (especially when combined with NEWTs later in the year). You can find more information here if you are interested.

I literally made the decision to take part in this readathon last night, meaning this morning I had to decide a career in a bit of a mid morning panic. The career I have chosen is ‘Hogwarts Professor’, which I suppose isn’t that exciting considering the fact I am literally a secondary school teacher in real life but, as the pandemic which shall not be named has presented a few hurdles, it will give me a chance to live vicariously through a Harry Potter medium. As this is my first time completing the readathon too, I thought this would be quite a good career to start with as, other than Defense against the Dark Arts, there are no essential OWLs, only that you take seven in total. Therefore, it gave me an opportunity to be fluid with the prompts that I have chosen.

Defense against the Dark Arts: Grindylows: book set at the sea/coast

For this prompt, I have selected Jojo Moyles’ ‘The Ship of Brides’. This book is a historical fiction, following the young women who had married soldiers during wartime, and now , in 1946, are en route to meet (and live with for the first time) the husbands who were forced to leave them behind. This novel follows four women as they leave Sydney, Austrailia, and are bound to the UK. This is a little nugget of history that I was unaware of before and am really looking forward to diving straight in. I am about thirty pages in and just didn’t have the energy to pick it up and read properly in the final few days of March, but I’m hoping this will change in April with the right motivation.

Care of Magical Creatures: Hippogriffs: Creature with a beak on the cover.

I am currently in lockdown at my parents which means, although I managed to take some of my bookcase with me, the majority of books in my room are a mystery to me. My bookcase here, in fact the room as a whole, has become a bit of a dumping ground. Whilst clearing the bookcase yesterday, which included rehoming two camping lanterns, an expired first aid kit, and a sandwich bag of empty battery cells, I uncovered a treasure trove of books I hadn’t seen before or forgotten about. On these shelves, I found books that hadn’t made the cut for the many housemoves I had made, as well as books my parents had just slotted into my shelves. One such book – and the only one I could find with a beak – is ‘Conspiracy’ by S.J. Parris. This is another historical fiction – no prizes for guessing my family’s favourite genre – set in Paris 1585 and, from what I can gather, is a murder mystery surrounding the increasing tensions between France and England. It is again an area of history I’m not overally familiar with so I’m looking forward to getting stuck in.

Charms: Lumos Maxima: A book with a white cover.

For this prompt, I have picked up Philip K. Dick’s ‘The Man in the High Castle’. This is a book that I have been intrigued by for years, and I think I actually bought when the Amazon series first came out, but just never picked up to read. It doesn’t seem like it will take too long to read as it is only about 250 pages long, which is good as a lot of my other reads are huge chonkers.

History of Magic: Witch hunts: Book featuring witches/wizards.

Now, this was a prompt I didn’t anticipate having difficulty with but I could not find a book that fitted into the catagory for ages. Magic I had. Ghosts, a plethora. But witches and wizards? Nada. In the end, as I didn’t just want to pick a Harry Potter book as that felt a little too on the nose, I picked up the ‘monster’ of a book, ‘Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell’ by Susanna Clarke. I vaguely remember watching this series on BBC but cannot for the life of me remember what it is about, other than there is magic of some kind. I won’t lie, the size is quite intimidating, but I’m looking forward to getting stuck in anyway.

Muggle Studdies: Book from the perspective of a muggle (contemporary).

Now, it’s no secret that I have been thoroughly enjoying Menna Van Praag’s writing recently. The last one on my shelves I have left to read is The Lost Art of Letter Writing. I’m not sure how perfectly this fits the prompt, as I’m fairly sure magical realism will be in there somewhere, but it was the best fit I could find, and from my experience reading the others it isn’t usually the humans who are magical but buildings and objects so I think I can get away with it.

Potions: Shrinking Solution: A book under 150 pages.

For this prompt, I have picked ‘The Castle of Otranto’ by Horace Walpole. As an English teacher, I have used so many extracts from this novella to act as unseen fiction that the students need to analyse, but have never actually read the book in full. At only 105 pages, I can’t wait to get stuck in! The book is acclaimed to be the first superanatural English novel and takes inspiration from a mysterious medieval Italian tale about a devilish prince who forces his son’s bride to marry him. Taking heavy inspiration from Bluebeard, I am thoroughly intrigued to see what this novella involves.

Divination: Third eye: assign numbers to your TBR and use a ranom number generator to pick your read.

For this, I picked a series of books off my shelf that either intrigued me, or that I hadn’t read in a while, and then followed the generator to pick a book. The book selected was ‘Switched’ by Amanda Hocking, which is YA fantasy novel about a girl who finds out she belongs to a mystical race of beings called the Trylle. It is the first book in a series and I’m really looking forward to rereading it.

Seminars and Courses

I’ve also made the ‘somewhat’ adventurous decision to have a go at ‘Merpeople Linguistics’ which meant I needed to complete the Herbology OWL too. For this, I needed to complete a book whose title begins with the letter M, and I have decided to read ‘Me’ by Elton John. I recieved this at chrsitmas and has been really looking forward to starting it, but just couldn’t find the right now. And this gives me the perfect opportunity.

I think I have been quite ambitious with my TBR for this month but, like I say, as my days are now filled wiht a lot more free time as I am only required to set work remotely, it shouldhopefully be manageable if still challenging. I may swithc out some of the reads but I am determined to get those OWLs.

If you’re taking part, what books are you reading and what career did you pick?

The Dress Shop of Dreams by Menna Van Praag

Great love only comes once in a lifetime, if you’re lucky.”

Menna Van Praag is fast becoming one of my favourite writers. I reviewed her ‘The House at the End of Hope Street” recently and am honestly still reeling from the after effects of such a masterpiece. Now currently lockdown-ed at my parents, it wasn’t long until my mum was urging me to read another of her great works: The Dress Shop of Dreams.

Set in dreamy Cambridge again, this novel follows Etta, the owner of the magical clothes shop ‘A Stitch in Time’, as she tries to help the women who come into her shop, many who do not even know they need help. One such woman is her granddaughter Cora who, after the death of her parents twenty years ago, cut herself off from her emotions. With one little stitch, Etta demands that Cora feels again, and feel she does. With a world of emotions crashing around her, Cora sees the world anew, but with new mysteries coming to light, can she stay above it all?

The Dress Shop of Dreams ~ Menna Van Praag

Once again, for me, the shining feature of this piece is Menna Van Praag’s writing style. Mixing multiple narratives and timelines with magical realism, you are met with a world that is completely intoxicating and all-consuming. With each page, you feel yourself being immersed further as you attach yourself to the characters, willingly drowning yourself in their lives. I desperately tore through this book simply because there is something so special held in each word. I have never quite encountered a writing style like Praag’s but I think it is honestly one of the most magical in the world.

Like with her previous book, the plot of this novel is made up of a patchwork of characters who, although seemingly unrelated, crash into each other, leaving repercussions with shake the narratives. You find yourself yearning for characters to meet, to confess themselves and their darkest secrets. For me, the two characters that particularly conjured these feelings were Father Sebastian and Dylan, though I shan’t spoil it and say why! Each character was written in a way that it genuinely felt as though you were absorbing some part of them, wishing desperately that you could guide them on the right path.

I will say that this novel focuses much more on love than The House at the End of Hope Street. I liked the previous read because it felt as though life was taking centre stage, as though the characters were trying to work out who they were for themselves alone. In this read, it is clear from the beginning that love will be the determining factor of success for the characters. Whilst I didn’t completely dislike this, I did find that is made some moments predictable and a little cliche, but it was also the reason why I squealed and blushed when some many characters found their happy ending.

If you are looking for a bit of escapism at the moment, which I am sure many of us are, I cannot recommend this book enough. It is a delightful read and truly is a piece of magic.

Comfort Reads – #Bookedin

The world is in a very odd place right now and, with all crisises, we are busy trying to find a way to escape and find some sort of normalcy. When I saw on twitter that Emma (@Nverjudgeabook) was holding a blog series as a way to have some fun, I just knew I had to jump on board. The first list was ‘Comfort reads’ and you can read Emma’s post here.

For me, comfort reads means anything that I can curl myself up and lose myself in. They don’t necessarily need to be happy and light- though often are – but something that is so immersive and tantalizing that you just can’t help but devour. I have also chosen books that I find myself returning to, as surely that’s the definition of a comfort?

Now, I’m the kind of person who never keeps books. Once I have read something it is either gifted to someone else to read or sent on to be loved by someone else. It takes a very rare and special kind of book for me to keep. As the UK is currently in a lockdown and, when the news was announced, I decided to stay with my parents and, more importantly, their massive and well-stocked kitchen, this gave me an opportunity to see which books had survived the many house changes, the clear out, and frustrated discardings. The books that survived these troublesome times are the books that are truly special to me, and books I am certain can be special to you too.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

I’ve included this on my list because it is one of the first books I can remember ever truly loving. The first time I picked up this book, having been told we were studying in class, I felt my heart absorb the characters, my heartstrings playing with in every dilemma they faced. I couldn’t imagine being so torn and obsessed with characters until I read this book.

The novel follows a 14 year old boy named Ponyboy Curtis as he struggles to understand right and wrong in a society which believes he does not belong, that he is an outside. There are two kinds of people in Ponyboy’s world: greaser and socs. The Socs have money and get away with anything while the greasers are outsiders and look down upon by society. Ponyboy, as a greaser, is involved in all kinds of mischief but, one terrible night, his best friend Johnny kills a soc. Stuck on the run, Ponyboy’s deals with acceptance and tolerance.

Something to tell you by Lucy Diamond

This book is one of the most immersive and intoxicating books I have ever read. I have written a more detailed review for this book here, so I’ll just dwell on the most important bits here as to why I love it. The novel follows Frankie as she searched to find her birth father, but explores the repurcussions of this secret being shared on the whole of his family. Although seemingly about this one secret, every character in this novel is trying to hide something and you can’t help but be so desperate that the share it. The characters are so complex and complicated that it just makes this the most wonderful read.

Things Half in Shadow by Alan Finn

The reason that this book is so special to me is because it was one of the books I read for my dissertation. As a result, I have devoured it over and over again, littering every page with minute notes. I absolutely adore this book because it combines my two favourite things: history and mystery. I’ve written a full review here, but let’s just have a quick summary! Set in 1869 America, the novel follows Edward Clark who is still tormented with images of the civil war and he deals with his trauma. Set to uncover the city’s fradulent spiritualist, Edward is entangled in the murder of Lenora Grimes Pastor. In order to clear his name, Edward must uncover the real murderer, before secrets best hidden consume him whole.

Where the Light Gets in by Lucy Dillion

It’s a rather rubbish kept secret that I adore Lucy Dillion’s writing. I have recently reviewed her latest novel – Unexpected Lessons in Love – and have written a review of this read here. What I love about Lucy’s writing is that, although love features in the stories somewhere, they tend to be narratives about life, where love is an addition and not an absolute. The characters are always so fully complex that you are instantly attracted to each one. This novel follows Lorna as she returns home to Longhampton, determined to be brave and fullfill a life long dream. However, as always life get in the way and her own secrets start to come to light.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

One of my favourite classics has to be Pride and Prejudice and therefore it seemed remiss not to include this. This particular copy is my favourite – I have three! – and I have turned its pages more times that I can count. This is a story I always find myself turning back to, no matter how many times I say I’m going to read her other books first. For me, this is the ultimate comfort read.

And there you have it. My five comfort reads. I know times are scary at the moment but, with a good book in tow, we can accomplish anything.

The House at the End of Hope Street by Menna Van Praag

Continuing with my book buying ban this year, I decided to pick up this beautiful novel with its captivatingly enticing cover at the recommendation from my Mum. My Mum and I often differ in our reading choices, with hers normally centering around non-fiction and true crime, and mine strongly sat in the realms of historical fiction. However, her passion for both this book and the assurance that I would love it meant that, last time I was at my parents, I just had to take it home. And my goodness! This book was the perfect thing to welcome spring in with, to curl up with during the storms, and to lose myself in with the delightful and simply magical narrative.

The House at the End of Hope Street – Menna Van Praag

“Distraught that her academic career has stalled, Alba is walking through her hometown of Cambridge, England, when she finds herself in front of a house she’s never seen before, 11 Hope Street. A beautiful older woman named Peggy greets her and invites her to stay, on the house’s usual conditions: she has ninety-nine nights to turn her life around. With nothing left to lose, Alba takes a chance and moves in.

She soon discovers that this is no ordinary house. Past residents have included Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Parker, who, after receiving the assistance they needed, hung around to help newcomers – literally, in talking portraits on the wall. As she escapes into this new world, Alba begins a journey that will heal her wounds – and maybe even save her life.” – Good Reads

It would be remiss of me to begin this review without further mentioning just how wonderful the writing style of this novel is. As the book began, no sooner had I finished the first page, did I know that this was a book I was going to fall in love with. The world created by Praag is so detailed and whimsical that you can feel yourself being pulled into the page, a nameless character observing the actions of those within. Her use of language was so unique and creative that I was captivated at every word, desperate to find out what would happen next. I keep a record on my phone of fantastic examples of writing that I can show my somewhat disillusioned students (they are teenagers – do I need to say more?) and this, I feel, should definitely go first. I always find that I need the first chapter to fully appreciate a book, often making note of the correlation between books I love and how ill-frequently I am disrupted reading that first chapter, but as I curled up with the book in front of me, I couldn’t help but devour it.

Building upon this, the narrative is heavily reliant on magical realism and it truly brings an element to the cliched ‘finding yourself’ story. The house that Alba stumbles upon is anthropomorphised, somehow managing to know what the characters need before they even know themselves. As the characters work their way towards their destiny, they are coached by the former residents of the house, all famous female figures throughout history. I thought this might be cliched and jarring, but Praag handles each figure in such a beautiful manner that they seem individual and as complex as the ‘real’ characters too. The magical realism turns this novel into something astounding, and I simply can’t imagine it without it.

Of course, the true ‘make-or-break’ of a novel is the characters. If they are too ‘cardboard-cutout’, I often find myself resenting the read and cannot wait to DNF it. However, the characters that this novel circulates around are all so complex and gorgeous that you find yourself drowning in their stories, truly invested in the lives they lead. I laughed, I cried, I smiled. It was though every emotion the characters felt, I felt twofold. Every character felt like a true individual, their backstories so developed and detailed that you lose yourself in the narrative, waiting to see if it is possible for them to reach their true purpose and their true happiness. Each somehow outside of their lives looking in, you could not help but empathise with them, desperate to see them rejoin, either rebuilding those connections that had become tainted or finding some way, or someone, to create something new.

This is one of those reads that you find yourself thinking about long after you have closed the final page. I connected with the characters so much and genuinely feel like I am carrying them around with me still. If you are looking for something to lose yourself in, something light-hearted but complex, you simply must pick this read up. I promise you will not regret it!

Unexpected Lessons in Love by Lucy Dillon

What happens when ‘I do’ … turns into ‘I don’t know’?

Unexpected Lessons in Love by Lucy Dillon is a book of surprises, a book that makes you think you know exactly how it should go, only to turn you assumptions on their head and present you with something completely brand new. It was a completely refreshing read and I absolutely adored it from page to page.

Jeannie always wanted to fall in love, an she’s finally got the whirlwind romance she dreamed of. But now she’s on her way to the wedding she can’t shake off the tight sensation crushing her chest. Is it just nerves … or is this all happening a bit too fast?

Jeannie has one last chance to shout, ‘Stop!’ But just as she grabs it, a twist of fate throws everything she knows into the air like confetti. What JEannie learns about her fiance Dan, about her own heart, and about the power of love itself, will change her world for ever …

As I opened to book on the first chapter, I felt I knew exactly what would happen. I mean, bride has second thoughts on the wedding day? An ultimate cliche. However, the ending to the first chapter drops a complete curve ball that knocked me, and the main character Jeannie, for six. In a matter of pages, Jeannie’s identity changes from the character causing the chaos to the character left in the middle of it as an unforeseen catasprophe which she cannot work out if she caused.

Jeannie was a character I instantly fell in love with. Her honesty and authenticity left me completely engaged with her storyline, desperate to find out what would happen next. Caught between being true to herself and being the version of herself that those around her need her to be, Jeannie’s narrative is filled with such raw emotion that you cannot help but connect with her.

Lucy Dillon’s creation of characters is something that I have absolutely adored in her writing before, and it certainly wasn’t amiss here. Every character you encounter, from her mother, to her neighbour, to her fiance’s best friend, are created with such a rich and complex background that her writing becomes instantly immersive.

As with Lucy Dillon’s Where the Light Gets In, what truly made this a book that I not just loved but adored, was that this is a story not about love but about life. The romance acts as an addition to the story but not the be all or end all. Instead, the narrative is much more focused on characters discoverying their true selves, shapening their idnentity for themselves rather than the role they are expected to play. Unlike most female heroine’s, Jeannie’s life lives outside the main guy, and instead is about her recovery and how she aids the recovery of those around her. She acts as a beacon of hope and transformation both for the others characters, and for the reader themselves.

This truly is a book that stays with you. I was in awe of Lucy Dillon’s writing yet again and Jeannie’s journey was so unique yet inspiring that it really resonated with me. Plus, the book has lots of dogs in it – what’s better than that?

A Day Out: Scotney Castle

There is nothing quite like a day out exploring some of Britain’s beauties. And that was exactly how I found myself at wonderful Scotney Castle. It was the first time I driven a significant distance on a family outing but, with my sister and nan in tow, we’ve bravely made our way down many a treacherous country road in search for the place my nan had had cut out on her fridge for several months. We had decided to treat nan to a day out for her birthday present, though I must admit I didn’t really know anything about the place, and certainly not why she was so desperate to go. However, I have to say that the moment I arrived I was blown away with how spectacular the whole estate was, and what an amazing day out it was.

Scotney Castle is run by the National Trust, and consists of the main house, a castle, a walled garden, and a magnificient estate. Entry cost £14.90 (without gift aid) and that includes a time entry ticket to visit the house. Initially I thought this was a bit steep, mainly biased due to my previous encounters with the National Trust, who in my eyes always seemed to be very expensive places with not a lot of information but run by people who often had an over inflated sense of importance. It’s why I’ve avoided going to National Trust places recently, as there’s always that sense that you’re intruding, but I have to say that the staff at Scotney Castle. We only encountered one lady who I would say was peak ‘National Trust’, but once we actually made it past the reception, everyone was so kind and friendly.

Before we set off exploring the estate, we stopped in the tearoom for a quick cuppa. That is another reservation I, like a lot of you I’m sure, have about visiting places with the National Trust- the prices are normally extorionate. However, that was not the case at all. We got three coffees and two cakes for just over ten pounds and it was absolutely delicious. We later returned for dinner and that was equally scrummy and low cost. Definitely something to bear in mind if you fancy a visit.

Our first stop was the house which was very impressive. Every room was filled with hundreds of marvels to stare at, and was always accompanied by a helpful member of staff. The helpful layout and one way system meant it didn’t feel as though you were being herded about the place but also that you could take all the time you wanted to.

We then moved onto the estate, making our way down the (very steep) hill to the castle. I think this was my favourite part of the whole trip. Looking as though it had just walked out of a Romantic painting, you couldn’t help but fall in love with it. With the sun beaming and the birds singing, you could really imagine just sitting on the lawn with a good book and watching the world pass by.

Having thoroughly explored the place, and before the weather turned, we made our way back to the car and ventured home. I had such an amazing time and definitely want to go back in the summer to see it in full swing. If you are looking for a brilliant day out that is also fantastic value for money, I cannot recommend this place enough!

What I got up to in Edinburgh

Just before Christmas, I was lucky enough to go to Edinburgh, one of my favourite cities in the world, to embrace some festive joy. I have been to Edinburgh once before during Fringe, and have been dying to go back ever since. When my boyfriend and I were thinking about where to spend a couple of festive days before Christmas, my heart immediately went to Edinburgh.

We managed to get the trip for a really good price, opting for those early bird flights through Easyjet and spending weeks trailing the internet for the perfect accomodation meaning the trip was just over £200 each for four days, which I think is a bargain.

The hotel we chose was the New Town Guest House and was simply divine. The staff were wonderfully friendly and helpful, making the stay perfect. Breakfast is included in the price of the room and consists of a continental breakfast. It was quite freshing to not be offered the traditional ‘fry up’ that accompanies most B&Bs (and yes, you don’t have to choose it, but come on), opting instead for fresh fruit and cold meats. The hotel is a recently rennovated town house and you can really see the magic of its Victorian history peeking through.

The one thing I will say is that our room was tiny. We had chosen to book the small double room but I didn’t quite realise how small it was going to be. To put it in context, three sides of the bed were touching walls! However, as we weren’t planning on spending much time actually in the room it was perfect as it was incredibly cosy and I loved the view out the window each morning.

New Town Guest House
Our room – I did say it was small!
I loved waking up to this view

Like I say, the hotel was based in the New town which is such a lovely location and pretty central. However, we had managed to plan activities which were all in the old town, but this just meant we got to enjoy a lovely half an hour walk to various parts of the city. The one thing I will warn you is that Edinburgh involves a lot of up. Now, I know this shouldn’t be a shock, but having grown up in the notoriously flat Kent, my lungs certainly weren’t prepared. There was one part of the journey that marked the peak of the hill and everytime we reached it we did a little cheer, knowing we were going to be enjoying a lot of down hill. I only mention it because, if you are thinking of visiting and doing lots of walking around the city, it is something to bear in mind. I will say though, public transport in Edinburgh is marvellous.

On the first day we enjoyed an open top bus tour around the city. I really recommend this because I think it is the ideal way to get your bearing in a new location and gives you an idea of where you might like to visit. The tour buses tend to begin opposite Waverly train station, and the beauty of them is that most of them sel 24hr tickets. This meant we got to use ours the next day to get to the castle – avoiding another hill!

Nothing quite like an open bus tour
Edinburgh Christmas Market

After that, we enjoyed a walk around the Christmas market. We went on a Thursday and it was the perfect level of bustling. We did try to go again on the Saturday and – my goodness – it would have been a headache. I love walking around Christmas market and we enjoyed many treats, including a Yorkshire Pudding wrap! It was utterly delicious but completely messy. We even completed the Christmas tree maze like absolute children – though we did slightly cheat as a little girl told us the word on the way in.

Edinburgh Christmas Market
Edinburgh Christmas Market
Edinburgh Christmas Market

In the evening, we went to the Royal Botanical Gardens to enjoy their light show. This was something I discovered by chance when I was trying to work out what was near the hotel, and it was absolutely wonderful. We easily spent an hour and half in the gardens and each exhibit was simply breath taking. I would definitely recommend it!

Royal Botanical Gardens

The next day we went to the Castle and Edinburgh Dungeons, both of which I did when I was here last time. My one criticism of when I went to the Castle last time was how disorganised it was considering how busy it was. Well, this time I absolutely adored it! I’m not sure if it was because it was a lot quieter, or because our tour guide was so much more useful, but I enjoyed every moment.

Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle

The Dungeons were fantastic and I would thoroughly recommend them if you are looking for something that is equally interesting and hilarious. In the evening, I was spoilt to a night in the theatre, going to see a performance of A Christmas Carol which was marvellous. It was so hilarious and so sweet that it was the perfect addition to our festive trip.

The next day I think was my favourite day. Being absolutely huge Harry Potter nerds, I knew we had to do a Harry Potter tour. However, I couldn’t find a paid tour that did everything I wanted to visit, so I decided to design my own. And it was so much fun! Doing it ourselves meant that we could go at our own pace and enjoy every moment. I would definitely recommend it and would happily share our route if people are interested.

Dean’s Village
Tom Riddle’s Grave Stone
JK Rowling’s hand prints
The Elephant House Cafe – We even managed to eat here, on the table where JK is pictured sitting!
The view from the Camera Obscura

We also visited the Camera Obscura which I have to say that was a bit of a let down. Not a waste of time but one of those things that once you’ve done it, you’ve done it. I have to say though that the views we got from the top were stunning and almost worth the entire trip.

And there you have it – the highlights from our trip to Edinburgh. It was such a special trip and I know it will have a special place in my heart forever. Have you visited this magical city?