Category Archives: Books

Bryce Courtenay’s ‘April Fool’s Day’ and a renewed perspective

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Every now and again a book comes along, that for whatever reason you read at precisely the right moment and it has the potential to affect you tremendously. Most recently I had this experience with Bryce Courtenay’s beautifully written, but heart wrenching story about his youngest son’s death at the age of 23, which I have just finished reading. The cover was familiar. I had glanced over the book hundreds of times both as an adolescent perusing my parents bookshelves for something to read and later as an adult on the same mission when visiting my mother. But for some reason, I had not picked it up to read until now. I always say you need to be in a certain frame of mind to read some books and perhaps my current state of mind was simply ripe to read April Fool’s Day.

The book brought me to tears on many occasions but it also occasioned me to laugh out loud and at other instances to feel genuine anger and disgust towards the blatant lack of empathy and consideration of the Australian medical and political communities of the time. Not since reading Shantaram or indeed Sepharad last summer in Europe, have I felt this connected and impacted by a book and even then not on this level.

Reading for me is, and always has been, a refuge, an opportunity to delve into another world and escape my own for a while. The topic of Courtenay’s book is not what you would call light reading or indeed lighthearted. The story of his son’s slow and painful demise is horrendous and Courtenay does not shun away from the details or try to hide the reality of the suffering caused by haemophilia or AIDS. But what struck me most about the book, and I believe this was one of the goals in writing it, was the sheer positivity, willpower, desire to live and unfailing love portrayed by his son Damon and the entire family, and in particular in the relationship between Damon and his girlfriend Celeste.

You really begin to question your own priorities and petty problems when confronted with a book like this. I almost felt ashamed at myself for giving my own minor grievances so much airtime and energy over the past few months.

Courtney masterfully blends raw despair and heartfelt humour, both of which make up most human lives, throughout his writing. Despite the seriousness of the book, one particular scene is simply brilliantly written and had me in absolute stiches. It is when Courtenay is describing his three son’s plunge into what he calls ‘pubescent insanity’.

‘Instead of quite liking their parents they now see them as practically mentally retarded. Everything “sucks” and nothing can be done to please them. Their angst, confusion, malice, ill-temper, thoughtlessness, despair, superiority and disinterest comes out in the form of arms locked across their chests and brows so deeply furrowed as to be practically prehensile. Their voices drop an octave and they temporarily lose the ability to speak, this faculty being replaced by a Neanderthal grunt which covers every possible situation they may confront.’

The book not only provided me with a bit of a shake up to reconsider my own priorities but oddly enough it was also a balm of sorts. Since leaving Australia four months ago after an almost four-year stint Down Under, I have only recently begun to realise how much I missed the country, the people, the way of life and my own life there. Despite being born in South Africa, Courtenay lived most of his life in Australia and in my opinion – having taught and read some Australian literature – he has developed an Australian flair for writing. Reading this quasi-Australian novel with many familiar expressions and locations was like a temporary balm on my still open wound.

I have to admit that it took me a while to appreciate Australia literature and the books and short stories of writers such as Tim Winton and Henry Lawson. They have a unique quality about them that makes them distinctly Australian, as well as possessing an uncanny ability to capture the feeling of the country and it’s people. The writing is raw and open, unlike many of the American and British authors I have read over the years, who often tend to embellish situations and skirt around the reality. There are of course many exceptions to this claim, Zadie Smith being one that immediately springs to mind. Nevertheless it took me a while before I really appreciated the writing of Australian authors. I suppose coming from a diet of largely classical books, the majority being from English authors and female, maybe I am slightly late in coming to the table in my appreciation of more modern and realist writing. However, being a high school English teacher in Australia certainly helped in broadening my literary repertoire.

Being the true geek and English teacher that I am, despite leaving Australia, I have kept abreast of the changes being made to the NSW English curriculum. I most recently perused the new list of prescribed texts for the HSC. Always on the lookout for new books myself – my amazon Wish List is almost at 200 books – I was pleasantly surprised by the many new and varied texts that have been added and indeed to the extensive number of Australian authors included. While I cannot as of yet offer an opinion on many of these authors, apart from Winton’s of course, I do plan to read a number of these over the coming months.

But I digress from my original purpose in writing this post, which was to talk about Courtenay’s April Fool’s Day. The book simply has to be read. I cannot say much more than that, it is a wonderful, heartbreaking and life-affirming book that has helped me in beginning to get back on track and refocus my priorities. But please ensure you have time to savour it, don’t rush this book, and make sure that you are in the right frame of mind to read something of this intensity.

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Europe with Antonio Muñoz Molina’s ‘Sepharad’

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Being back in Europe is like coming home. After more than three years of living in Australia, I had not forgotten the pull Europe has on me, however, it had become fainter in its intensity. As the plane descended towards Schiphol Airport, it felt like I was coming home. Then over the next few days as I wandered through the streets and grachten of Amsterdam, with various friends and family members, the scents, sounds and scenes of the city enveloped me, filling me with heady and intoxicating memories and emotions.

Sepharad

While travelling through Europe I am reading Antonio Muñoz Molina’s Sepharad (in English), which a friend lent to me. I am rarely at a loss to describe my feelings about a book and to give an overview of what it is about. The last book that left me equally at a loss was Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. With Sepharad I once again struggle to explain competently why the book is so great and what it is ultimately about. Potentially contentious for some, I would have to say that I would put Sepharad above Shantaram. Maybe it’s due to the timeliness of my reading the book, during my return to Europe after a notable absence, while travelling and as I once more immerse myself in the history and culture of Europe which I have missed so much. They are such vastly different books, yet both are equally thought provoking and inspirational. Sepharad has launched me once again into the literary world of Europe, reminding me of books and authors I have loved and had somewhat forgotten about during my sojourn on the other side of the word. My knowledge of the culture and history of this part of the continent is suddenly being refreshed, and the cities of Europe, many of which I have lived in and grown attached too over the years are once again focal points for me.

The book is an epic journey through time of history, culture, passions and literature laced with the nostalgia experienced by many travellers returning to and yearning for their homeland from far-flung places. There are loose threads evident throughout the book but many of the characters stories stand alone, linked simply by a shared yearning for their homeland. Muñoz Molina lives and breathes history, bringing memories and characters to life in this thought provoking book.

As one of Muñoz Molina’s characters says, several days before leaving on a journey the traveler has already left in their mind. Similarly the day before leaving Australia I sat at my desk at school, watching the clock, already tuned out and ready to leave. Luckily for me, and my students, I did not have to teach many classes on that last day as my distraction was palpable. Like Muñoz Molina’s character I too had already left the school and Australia in my mind.

The excitement of travelling back to loved places can hypnotize you, as Muñoz Molina aptly wrote the pull of return is like ‘the strong current of time that carries you back at a speed greater even than that of the car on the flat straight highway’. Memories are indeed a strong trigger and as I walked through Amsterdam and later sat on the train to my grandmothers village in Germany with the constant stream of travellers entering and exiting, each engrossed with their own agendas and lives, memories came flooding back. The pull of return and the transition between languages and dialects so familiar, yet at the same time slightly foreign to me after years of solely speaking English enveloped me in memories of my childhood and adolescence in these places, and of people familiar and loved.

Muñoz Molina’s book is both nostalgic and new for me, a piece of edible literature which I find hard to put down and which sees me rereading and savouring certain passages over and over for their beautifully written images, metaphors and language. The English translation by Margaret Sayers Peden is superb, I can only imagine how beautifully written the original is in Spanish. If I ever learn Spanish well I will re read it in its original form. Reading Sepharad has also encouraged me to write again, something I have struggled with over the past few years, neither finding inspiration or the right words. But through Muñoz Molina’s book and while travelling through Europe I am inspired to write again. It almost feels as if I have emerged from a cocoon that has been incasing me for a long time, I feel emotions and passions returning that I had forgotten I possessed.

I have just finished reading the last few pages of the book while sitting on my grandmother’s balcony in Germany on a balmy July evening, accompanied by a glass of red wine. I cannot even feign to try and do this wonderful book justice, but I have tried to explain in some coherent manner why I love this book and how I related with it personally.

Reading it during a crossroads in my own life and on my return to Europe after a notable absence has been both a balm as well as an awakening of senses. Will the next stage of my life be governed by the passions I have constrained for so many years or will my pragmatic logic continue to persevere?

It is now so dark outside that I can only make out the silhouettes of the plants on the balcony and the peaked roofs of houses beyond the garden. It is time to finish up and retire for the evening. For those literary, culture, history and travelling enthusiasts, Sepharad is an absolute MUST! Just make sure to read it slowly, savouring each and every word.

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Book Review; The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

My favourite books

For those of you who have already seen this post in draft format, apologies, it decided to publish itself, clearly too eager to wait for me to finish it!

On a trip to Bathurst recently I renewed my love of secondhand bookstores, purchasing eleven new books in the process, that’s my winter reading sorted. I just adore the rows and row of books; that old and worn book smell, the intrigue as to who the books former owner was and who else has thumbing through its pages deciding whether or not to give it a home. One of these eleven books that I picked up was Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Borrows’ The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Now I’d seen this book in London and the title had always intrigued me, but for some unfathomable and shameful reason I never bought it!

At the weekend, with the wind howling outside and the rain beating against the windows I sat inside curled up in front of an ope fire, with a cup of green tea, an Anzac cookie and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society in hand. In my opinion, the absolutely perfect reading conditions!

The book is an epistolary novel, which is not a format I’ve read since reading Evelina by Francis Burney at University. The correspondence is between the main character Juliet Ashton and a range of characters from friends, to acquaintances, her publisher and a suitor.

It is the most delightful, witty, well written, captivating and beautifully descriptive book that I have read in a long time. I had heard nothing but praise for it and now I know why. Mary Ann was clearly an avid reader with a love for literature and reading. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is like taking the things you love the most about your favourite books and rolling them into one marvellous novel.

At times I was reminded of Anne of Green Gables, when Juliet writes to Sophie and tells her that she is going to ‘run through the wild-flower meadow outside my door and up to the cliff as fast as I can. Then I”m going to lie down and look at the sky, which is shimmering like a pear this afternoon, and breath in the warm scent of grass’.

The game ‘Dead Bride’ which Juliet and Kit play, could easily have been something Lucy Maud Montgomery might have had Diana and Anne play at in Anne of Green Gables. The description is very Anne like; ‘The bride veils herself in a lace curtain and stuffs herself into a laundry basket, where she lies as though dead while the anguished bridegroom hunts for her. When he finally discovers her entombed in the laundry basket, he breaks into loud wails’.

I got glimpses of the Secret Garden when Kit and Dawsey watch a blackbird tug a worm out of the ground. And the description of how the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was founded and the roast pig saga is almost Wodehousian in it’s description and humour.

Juliet’s London suitor Mark Rynolds is like a modern day version of Mr Willoughby from Sense and Sensibility; handsome, proud, fickle and vivacious, while Dawsey is a Mr Rochester like character; mysterious, brooding and hiding a ‘secret sorrow’.

Mary Ann’s fabulously vivid imagery really brings her characters to life and I found myself laughing aloud as well as close to tears at a number of points throughout the book. I particularly liked when she describes Isola as being ‘better than a stalking horse’, her language is so full of luscious words, images and quirky sayings.

The book mentions many loved authors and well known books, poems and plays. The Brontë sisters, in particular Anne Brontë are mentioned extensively as well as Charles Lamb, Shakespeare, Gone with the Wind, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and there is an entire Oscar Wilde section, as well as many more favourites.

Mary Ann’s novel has also got a serious historical side to it through it’s setting in post World War II Europe and its focuses on the German Occupation of Guernsey. I have to say I was ignorant of the fact that Guernsey had been occupied during the war, so it was equally intriguing to read about this from a historical point of view. The book mentions the Todt workers, the German prisoners of war who were sent to Guernsey to work during the Occupation and the inhumane way they were treated. Two of the characters are sent to Concentration Camps in Germany, and the Islanders experience of the Occupation is detailed and harrowing in it’s description.

If you love books, reading and literature, you will adore The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I don’t know how and why but this book makes you feel so good but it does. It also makes me want to re read all my favourite books again. I have to say, I’m really missing all my books at the moment, they give such a homely touch to a place and I just want to be able to get up, browse through them and re read all my favourites. One day I’ll get them all from London, and line a bookshelf with my old and trusted friends.

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The Giver, a great movie and hopefully an equally good read!

The-Giver

Memories, we all have them but most of the time we take them for granted. Imagine living in a world where you have no memories, where everything is good, there is no bad, no jealousy and no hatred. In theory it sounds pretty good and if you didn’t know any better I guess it would be a perfect situation. This is the world Jonas and his friends grow up in The Giver, a 1993 children’s novel written by Lois Lowry and recently made into a movie.

I watched the movie the other night and I have to say I was hooked from the start. Very briefly and without going into too much detail or spoiling the story, the movie follows Jonas and his friends who are about to graduate from high school and receive their role in the community. The role that Jonas is assigned is that of ‘receiver of memories’ for the community. He has to visits ‘the giver’ each day, where he receives memories from the outside world, something neither he or anyone in the community knew existed.

The movie starts in black and white but as Jonas receives memories and learns about the world, and begins to feel emotions he starts to see in colour. His life becomes more enriched, from the memories of both the bad and the good in the world, and he starts to realise that their ‘perfect’ community is not so perfect after all, and he yearns for more and for things to change.

Some very valid points are raised throughout the movie, including the fact that no matter what we do there is evil and bad things going on in the world. We cannot simply shut out the rest of the world and pretend it doesn’t exist. Yes, people can be brainwashed and made believe certain things, however, we are humans and as a race we are flawed no matter what we do in order to protect ourselves. It also makes you think about all the things in life that we take for granted and without which our lives would be very poor.

Now I’m sure you’ve realised by now that among many other types of books, I have a soft spot for teen fiction. But I do wonder about one thing, why is it that all recent teenage fiction or futuristic novels portray such a morbid and dark view of the world. The Hunger Games, The Giver and the Divergent trilogy to name but a few, they all portray a world that has basically gone made. In The Hunger Games the Capital has created a game where people have to kill each other in order to win and survive, The Giver sees a select few people create a ‘perfect’ community where nothing bad happens and people are happy to live their lives that with no memories, and the Divergent trilogy, a dystopian novel set in post-apocalyptic Chicago where people are divided into factions based on their human virtues.

Aside from the undesirable settings, what all these novels have in common are teenage protagonists who grow up in a world where they don’t fit in, each of them struggling to find their identity and in doing so they try to make their world better for their family and friends.

I’m usually one to read the book first and then watch the movie, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie and wanted to read the book afterwards, so this is a first for me. It’s a fascinating story and I highly recommend watching it. I’m very much hoping the books is as good, if not better than the movie!

 

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Robert Jordan, The Wheel of Time series

Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time series

Robert Jordan, Wheel of Time series

Wow! Are the first words that came to mind last night after a solid four and a half hour stint of reading to finish A Memory of Light, the fourteenth and final book in Robert Jordan’s epic fantasy series, The Wheel of Time.

I started the series a year ago when I moved to Australia on my flight from London. It has taken me an entire year to read through the fourteen books, which equal to more than 12,000 pages, not a poor feat if I may say so myself. Throughout the year I came across other books I wanted to read, I downloaded some of these to my Kindle, others were given to me as gifts. However, I have not read a single page of another book in the past year, my attention was fully concentrated on Jordan’s series.

American author James Oliver Rigney, Jr. or Robert Jordan, his pen name which he is better known by, had originally planned a six book series, of which the first book, The Eye of the World, was published in 1990. The series now spans fourteen books and they are hugely popular the world over.

Sadly Jordan died in 2007 while working on the final volume of the series. Before his death he prepared extensive notes so another author could complete the book according to his vision, a smart move if you ask me. Fellow fantasy author and fan of the series, Brandon Sanderson, was asked to complete the series after the authors death. During the writing process, the book proved to be too long and was instead published in three volumes; The Gathering Storm, Towers of Midnight and the final book, A Memory of Light which was published last year.

I was introduced to the series by my brother-in-law, with whom I share an affinity for fantasy books. It took me a while to start reading them; however, once I started I was hooked. Whenever people have asked me in the past year what I was reading, I always struggled to explain the plot of the books without rambling on for hours and getting them completely baffled. I’ll give it a try though and hopefully I don’t lose you along the way.

The books – like many fantasy novels – is fundamentally a battle between light and dark, good and evil or more specifically to the series; the “Creator” and “The Dark One” or Shai’tan. Set in an imaginary world where magic is commonplace and all sorts of strange creatures roam, Rand al’Thor, born a humble shepherds son, is destined to become the Dragon Reborn, whose role is to unite the nations of the world and lead them to the Last Battle where he will face The Dark One in a final attempt to save the world.

The Wheel of Time series has an extensive plot and multiple sub-plots as well as a huge range of characters – the series has more than 1,800 named characters – many of whom have become so lifelike to me over the past year that I now feel like I’ll be losing touch with friends with no more of the books to read. The novels are written from the different characters perspectives, which means it can get quite complex at times. Among many topics the series focuses on the strife’s of monarchs and nations, the everyday life of the characters, battles and the tensions between the male and female Aes Sedai; people born with the Power or ability to channel, which is essentially the force or energy the Creator made to turn the wheel of time – in other words these peaople have magical capabilities.

Have I lost you yet? As I said the series is quite complex but if you are a fantasy fan you have to read these books. On occasion it can be a bit long winded, political or male versus female orientated but you just have to persevere, trust me it’s definitely worthwhile, a real page turner.

I have to admit, I’ve been very unsociable the past fortnight while devouring the last two books. I pretty much spent every waking moment when I wasn’t eating or working, curled up on the couch, oblivious to the world around me, completely engrossed. Although I have to say I still haven’t decided to think of the ending, that said I had no idea how the books were going to end. Give me a few days and I’ll have digested it enough to know what to make of the finale.

I’m going to grant myself a few days respite before launching into my next book. As I mentioned earlier I’ve got a list of books – non fantasy – to get through before I launch into another series. As always I’m open to reading suggestions, especially good fantasy novels, I love the escapism and other worlds the genre sweeps you away into.

My final word on The Wheel of Time series is, READ IT!

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The Spy’s Wife by Janet Coggin; my 2013 World Book Day celebration

World Book Day is about celebrating books and authors. So in light of this I’ve decided to write about an author and her book, both of which mean a lot to me personally. The book is The Spy’s Wife and the author, who passed away in 2010, is Janet Coggin.

It’s strange in life how you may know someone for years, yet not really know them properly or at all. I’m saying this both from my personal experience and also as it is a big part of this book.

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When I was a child living in the beautiful Irish countryside in the community where my sister and I grew up and my parents lived and worked, we shared a house in a stunning old estate with about 15 other people. The other inhabitants were a mixture of the people with disabilities that my parents worked with and their live-in carers, both long and short-term, my parents being the former. For many years during my childhood and adolescence a lovely lady by the name of Janet Coggin lived on the floor above us. During her free time we could always hear her typing away upstairs, her manual typewriter – which I sometimes borrowed to write my own short stories on – clacking away.

Janet Coggin

Janet Coggin

She was one of the most caring, unselfish, interesting and truly inspirational and amazing women I have ever met in my life. Janet was the one who first got me  into writing.  She believed in me, encouraging me to write and when I wrote my first short story at the age of 12 she read it, critiqued it and then gave me her typewriter to type it up on – a laborious task seeing it was a manual and each and every error unchangeable.

We used to spend hours chatting in the larder after supper or sitting outside on the patio in the gorgeous evening sunshine. She told me about her childhood in Devon with her sister and their horses and all the fun things they got up to. We talked about books and horses, shared passions for both of us as well as many other things.

Like her childhood, mine was idyllic but it was not till much later that I found out about the unbelievable secret and burden she was forced to carry around with her for most of her adult life. She was still living with us when her book, The Spy’s Wife, a true account of her life, was published. At first my parents wouldn’t let me read it but finally when I was a bit older they consented.

I recently finished reread her book, feeling much more keenly the emotions and trials of her life than I did as a teenager. In her early twenties, Janet, or Lilian as she is called in the book, married a South African naval officer and moved with him and their children to Simonstown in South Africa where they lived for a number of years. Over time her husband, who was often away at sea, became increasingly neurotic until finally one day he told her that he was a KGB master spy running a spy network in Europe, and would she become a spy and work as his partner.

Needless to say she didn’t have to think twice about it, but her decision had major consequences on her life and those of her children for years to come. She moved with her children to Dublin where they had to make a new life for themselves. She lived in daily fear of putting a foot wrong and the KGB network ending her life. Her husband had told her on parting that if she ever told anyone or made any bad moves, her life would be ended, ‘as it it were an accident.’

During these years she often returned to visit her father and her family home in Devonshire, which she describes as ‘a place where time stood still, a place where my childhood, adulthood and motherhood were all one.’ Not even to her father, who died before her ex husband was captured and she was free to talk, could she unburden and share her secret with as it would have put his life in danger.

The book is an account of a woman, a wife, a mother  and a daughter who unwittingly enters into a union with a man whose life choices were to have a lasting impact on her life. Throughout the books she narrates calmly and with clarity, soul searching and trying to answer many questions. Even when her ex husband is caught by the FBI and carrying out a life sentence in prison in Pretoria, she is haunted by the repercussions of his choices and actions. She is always under surveillance and monitored, this time by governments and the secret service wherever she goes, she cannot get away from it.  Yet through all of this she keeps going, keeping a sense of normality for her children and her father and in turn for herself. 

When Janet finally left Ireland and moved back to England, we maintained a written correspondence for a number of years. I really missed her when she had gone, she was such an amazing person and as a child I never in a million years could have imagined the life this gentle and kind woman had experienced and the hardship and fear she had lived in for so many years.

So it is in the memory of this extraordinary woman and her life that I would like to celebrate this World Book Day.

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Reacquainting myself with my childhood friends

Anne of Green Gables series

Anne of Green Gables series

As a child I was forever in a corner glued to a book and my sister used to constantly bemoan the fact that I preferred reading to playing with her. When we were on family holidays my mum used to ration me to one book a day, her rational was that I’d go goggle eyed from reading too much. In short, ever since I learnt to read there were and still are very few things that make me happier than reading.

Prince Edward Island, Canada

Prince Edward Island, Canada

Every few years I reread my favourite and most loved books, and one of my most beloved childhood books are the Anne of Green Gables books, which I adore to bits and pieces. I was first acquainted with them when my grandmother bought me Anne of Green Gables, after which I saved every penny of pocket money I got to buy the rest of the series, one at a time. Each and every time I read them I enjoy it just as much as the first time and with every reread I can identify with different stages of Anne’s life. Without a doubt red headed Anne Shirley is one of my all time favourite heroins. Her vivacious spirit, delightful imagination and romantic notions take me back to my childhood and I get lost in the pages.

Prince Edward Island, Canada

Prince Edward Island, Canada

L.M. Mongomery so tenderly describes her heroine, her beloved Green Gables, Prince Edward Island and Avonlea along with all the fabulous characters the books are littered with. In under a month I had reread all of the Anne books. During which time I became a recluse,  preferring an evening in with a cup of tea and my book, to going out or watching TV. And as always I was sad to be finished Anne of Ingleside and to return the books to my bookshelf for another few years.

I’ve visited Canada before, but I’ve always wanted to go to PE Island, to travel around the beautiful island that has been the scene of so many fantastic flights of imagination over the years. Maybe one day, I’ll find myself there.

My books have always been one of my most coveted possessions and among these are all the books of my childhood. Include the Anne of Green Gables and the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, National Velvet, The Borrowers, the Narnia series, Swallows and Amazons and a whole host of other equally well loved books.

Laura Ingles Wilder

Laura Ingles Wilder

Opening up one of these books is almost like revisiting a loved friend who I haven’t seen in a long time. Old feelings and emotions, joys and sadness’s come rushing back as I leaf through the pages and with the adult and older perspective come new emotions and feelings.

Whatever mood or frame of mind I’m in my books always manage to transport me away, and for a while I’m lost in their pages in a completely different world where my imagination and mind is free to wonder at will.

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