Two magical reads: The Disappearances and The Memory Trees

I came across both The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy and The Memory Trees by Kali Wallace through my monthly Book Box Club subscription. These boxes full of bookish loveliness are imaginative and incredibly well thought out. If you want to find out more, have a look at their website here and their blog is a great place to have a look at past unboxings.

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I read the books one after another as I’m really enjoying a themed reading approach this summer. And here the theme is magic -but not in terms of witches, wizards and spells – more of a subtle magic embedded into our world and an element of mystery thrown in for good measure.

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I adored The Disappearances in so many ways. It is the story of Aila and her younger brother Miles, who go to stay in the rather mysterious, remote town of Sterling. As their mother has recently died, and their father is called up to serve in the second world war, they go to live with their mother’s best friend and her family. Every seven years something disappears in Stirling such as people’s reflections, the stars and the ability to dream.  Aila realises that this is all somehow connected to her mother’s past and sets out to find the truth and stop any further disappearances from happening. There is a rather lovely romance too.

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…the gorgeous characters, especially Aila. Each character is individual, there isn’t a trope in sight and there is also a complexity to the characters that makes them feel very real and easy to engage with.

…the World War II setting. The period fitted into the narrative beautifully, the subtle details adding to the richness.

…the theme of searching for belonging and how it feels to be an outsider. Each of the characters searches for their place in the world in their own way; they are united in their longing for human connection. This theme was beautifully explored and really invited the reader to see events and characters from different perspectives.

…the interweaving of Shakespeare and his texts as clues for the mystery. I thought this was brilliant, using snippets from his works to guide the mystery of the disappearances. What a great way to entice young adults into reading Shakespeare!

…the exploration of how much we take for granted in the world we live in. This wasn’t done in a preachy and obvious way, more like gentle nudges to notice the world around you. Imagine not being able to see the stars at night, use colours to create or hear music.

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I had more of a mixed reading experience with The Memory Trees, absolutely loving parts of it but also feeling rather confused at times. This is the story of Sorrow Lovegood set against the background of her strong female line of ancestors, who settled in a rather unusual apple orchard many years ago. Sorrow’s mum leads a very alternative lifestyle and struggles severely with her mental health, but Sorrow has her older sister Patience to look out for her until one day Patience dies in a fire. Returning to the mysterious orchard when she is 16, having lived the intervening years with her father, Sorrow is determined to rebuild a relationship with her mother and unlock her memories to find out the truth about Patience’s death.

I loved…zinc-wire-star-garland-nkuku

…the premise of a mysterious family legacy with strong female ancestors. This really intrigued me. There is a beautiful family tree image at beginning of the book to refer to as the ancestors emerge in the book and linked with this is the presence of the orchard, almost a character in itself,  which leaves mysterious trinkets for Sorrow to find.

…the exploration of what home is. Sorrow searches for belonging, a theme I always identify with. She feels compelled to return to the orchard and her past, to the memories of her sister, yet this home is also an incredibly difficult place, full of challenges. Sorrow is also very much an outsider, looking in and this aspect was written with great insight.

…the mother/daughter relationship. This is very much influenced by her mother’s mental health and Sorrow’s response to it. The portrayal of Sorrow’s mother is incredibly well developed, she really comes across as a complex character. A character who you can see is ill and who is constantly dealing with her mental health, whose thought processes and emotions you want to understand and empathise with, yet, at the same time also feeling such anger for some of the choices she makes in her role as a mother. It is Sorrow who takes it upon herself/is forced to be the calm and rational one, she is in many ways the parent in the relationship and loses a part of herself in the process. Fantastic character dynamics!

My problem with this book was…zinc-wire-star-garland-nkuku

…that I think the author included too many themes so that many were not developed in the detail I craved. There were parts that I didn’t feel connected or that didn’t have enough information for the reader to reach her own conclusions. The stories of the ancestors for example seemed like separate inserts instead of being interwoven in the story with the contemporary characters, meaning I couldn’t quite see what their purpose was. Another example is the hint of a lesbian relationship – this fades out and almost feels like an afterthought, yet it could have added so much to both narrative and character development.

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Educated: Tara Westover

This memoir deserves all the praise and attention it is being given. I’m actually finding it hard to find the words for the impact this book has had on me.

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Let me start with a brief(ish) synopsis:

Tara grew up in the mountains of Idaho, her parents were survivalists, believing in the End of Days. Her father had such a distrust of society, education and medicine that the family lived in very isolated circumstances; Tara didn’t attend school and even the most severe injuries were only treated at home. An intense man with undiagnosed mental health problems and an extreme belief system, his influence on Tara’s life was immense. Her mother, a midwife, herbalist and healer, comes across as a woman who could stand her ground, who could have moments of great insight, yet who could also be blind to what was happening in her family and ultimately stood by her husband. Because of the isolation from mainstream society, there was no one to intervene when Tara’s older brother became increasingly violent towards her. When another of Tara’s brothers managed to go to college, her view of the world began to change; she educated herself at home and learned enough to achieve a place at a local university, leading to places at Harvard and Cambridge.Westover-imagewith-book-articleLarge

I need to say here that I came to this book with my own experiences of childhood trauma and that I found a kindred spirit in Tara. Though our circumstances and geography differ, there was so much in this book, that made it feel like I was reading about myself: that feeling of being totally alone and that no one would believe you even if you did speak up; the essence of surviving; finding escape and purpose through education; the continuous coming to terms with who I am; the darkness and detachment that at times prevails; forever trying to figure out how I feel about what happened in the past and those who should have been the nurturing, responsible adults in my life; always trying to figure out how I fit into the world now…

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A further reason why I loved this book is the style in which it is written. It could so easily have been a sensationalised piece, it could so easily have been a platform to voice blame and bitterness and portray only the dark side of her upbringing and all the consequences she has faced since leaving that life behind. But she doesn’t. Instead she reminds us that she can only write from her own memories, that memories are personal and can be subjective. She talked to family members about what they could remember to add further perspective. She also shows such a deep understanding of how complex family relationships can be. That there are, despite it all, some moments of tenderness, that it is ok to have happy childhood memories amongst the darkness, and that it is easier said than done to close your heart and cut off contact.  Her emotional honesty shines.

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The strength it took for Tara to explore her story, write it down and share it with an audience is awe -inspiring to be honest. What I will take away from this book is how remarkable women can be in the most challenging of environments, how vital education is and how there are so very many shades of grey when it comes to the people we love.

I shall leave you with a newspaper article and a couple of short videos that I found most interesting – just click the links below:

An interview in The Guardian

A Random House video where Tara speaks on the topic of estrangement

A CNN interview with Christiane Amanpour

 

New Zealand: Chappy, by Patricia Grace

So, I’ll be honest and admit that I’ve been dipping in and out of the Read Around the World Book Club these last few months. I’m beginning to realise that there is a difference between stretching my reading boundaries/widening my knowledge of the world and forcing myself to read a book because I feel I ‘should’. Not that you have to read all the books in the book club – it is just a pressure I put on myself (no surprise there then). However, when I read the blurb for Chappy, I knew that this was a story I wanted to explore further:

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“Uprooted from his privileged European life and sent to New Zealand to sort himself out, twenty-one-year-old Daniel pieces together the history of his Māori family. As his relatives revisit their past, Daniel learns of a remarkable love story between his Māori grandmother Oriwia and his Japanese grandfather Chappy. The more Daniel hears about his deceased grandfather, the more intriguing – and elusive – Chappy becomes.”

This is most definitely a character piece; the pace is very slow, fluid and gentle. I loved Grace’s style very much, but I also know some of the group found it frustrating and found it difficult to engage with.

Why this book spoke to me:

Daniel pieces himself together though discovering his family history, he finds his roots and purpose. He becomes a storyteller.  I think this is such a wonderful concept and one I very much identify with. I love how important traditions and ancestors are in this story:

“These are the moments when all time becomes present and you understand that you are merely a bead on an unbroken necklace which is without beginning or end.”

I love how connected to the land the characters are, especially Daniel’s uncle Akai:

“But not to worry, there’s singing in the mountains, laughter in the trees, dancing in the light of evening fires. There’s whispering in hearts and minds and shadows. That’s enough for me.”

The characters are just wonderful. Warmhearted, passionate, plain speaking, resilient Oriwia. Gentle, sweet, damaged and displaced Chappy. Quirky, nature loving, rooted, spirited Akai.

The importance Grace gives to storytelling, be Daniel’s own, his family’s or that of the Māori people.

The theme of community, which runs fiercely throughout. Everyone has value, everyone has a contribution to make. People take care of each other. People are genuinely interested in each other.

The exploration of what it means to be an immigrant is most poignant and is just as relevant today as it was in the time the book was set. The fear of the unknown, and consequently racism, causes such horrendous consequence – why are human beings not able to learn from past mistakes?

The portrayal of how the Māori people were treated in New Zealand in the 40s and 50s was incredibly thought provoking. I knew so little: the taking away of land, the everyday discrimination, the poverty, the segregation.

To finish, something I loved the most was how Daniel’s great grandfather defines belonging:

“Who he’s mountain? Who he’s river? Who he’s ancestors? Who he’s name? Who he is?”

 

Dear Body: poems on identity, disability and finding your place in the world

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Usually I jump straight into my reviews, but this post is a little different. I want to begin by telling you a bit about Hannah, the author of an incredible poetry pamphlet I have just devoured.

I came across Hannah on Youtube a while back (find her here), through a bookish review she had put up on her channel and I’ve been watching ever since. She is a warm, genuine young woman and has an immense passion for life- one of those people who remind you that there is good to be found in this often-overwhelming world. And her resilience is astounding as she was diagnosed with a life limiting condition as a teenager and has to deal with challenging additional illnesses as a matter of course. Though she could let disability stop her, she doesn’t. She reaches out, shares her experiences, embraces life regardless, questions society’s views on disability and is such a positive voice for other young people. Plus, she writes awesome poetry too!

In her poetry collection, Dear Body, she explores the relationship between her personal identity, her body and how she fits into the world. Her poetry is honest, powerful and accessible as well as just being beautifully written. I felt all the emotions as I read, and they are the kind of poems that stay with you long after you have finished. I certainly feel richer having read Hannah’s collection.

I of course strongly recommend you purchase a copy of Dear Body on her website (easy Paypal purchase) and have a read of her blog while you are there too. Click here for Hannah’s blog and shop.

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Hannah was also part of a recent article in The Guardian about the positive role that social media can play for people with both physical and mental disabilities. I can relate to this from personal experience. Though I am aware of the many negatives, social media can indeed be a life line and I certainly wouldn’t have known about Hannah otherwise!

 

Feminist Orchestra book 1: Feminism is for Everybody

I’ve been reading at a much slower pace this month, partly due a stupid number of headaches and partly because of the books I have been reading.  I have been really enjoying taking my time reading Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, which I haven’t read since my late teens- more on this soon. However, the book that has taken me quite some time to get into and digest is bell hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody. I am just one of the slowest non-fiction readers ever, as I don’t read it very often, I find it hard to keep focused and I choose subject matter that I need time to process.

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Feminism is for Everybody is March/April’s book choice for the Feminist Orchestra. This is a book club created by the lovely booktuber Jean, over at Jean Bookish Thoughts and this year Lauren from Reads and Daydreams is hosting too. You can find the Feminist Orchestra here on Goodreads and here is an intro video on Jean’s channel. The idea of this group is to explore feminism and different types of feminist writing within a community environment. The idea of it being like an an orchestra is wonderful;  all the ideas and discussions and connection that will be created by members, working together to shape a feminist online community.

Now, I am not new to feminism, far from it, but I am rather new to feminist writing and also reading texts from a focused, specifically feminist angle. So ,this book club is perfect for me and I’m looking forward to making some friends along the way too.

Bell hooks was an influential member of the feminist movement in America in the late 1960s onwards  and is still very much politically active today. This book is intended to be a go-to introduction to what she believes feminism was, is and could be in America. It was written back in 2000, something to bear in mind. Find more about bell hooks here.

I loved…

She tackles racism, classism and gender discrimination head on. She is fierce and passionate and brave.

I learned a lot about the history of feminist movement in the USA; its motivation, its origins, its successes and failures, how it has been perceived, its structure and divisions within. It made me realise that I have never read anything like this about the British movement. I would love your recommendations.

I enjoyed learning a little about Hooks’ own background and experiences. As I struggle with non-fiction, I wish there would have been a bit more of this as it helped me to engage with the text on a more personal level. I know the point of the book is to be a brief exploration and not a memoir, about a movement rather than individuals. But still. Her story made me think how easy it is these days, to forget that not that long ago, being a woman and a woman of colour dropped you to the bottom of the social justice scale and if you added working class to that too, the challenges were horrendous. What an exciting time the feminist movement must have been for women with all that energy and potential, with the opportunity to find your voice. I am fully aware that there were deep divides, conflict and many things that did not in fact change but wow, what a beginning.

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I thought the focus on bringing feminism back into the community, making it accessible and relevant for everyday  life was brilliant. I also utterly value her belief that language and education has to be accessible beyond academic debate. She makes the point that right wing movements makes their writing a lot more accessible to a wider range of readers. She highlights the need for talking and discussion, for audio tapes and radio and tv so that different ways of learning and communicating reach more people. I think that social media in the present day has such potential to reach out, inform, invite discussion and unite.

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In my opinion, hooks writes very perceptively about young women of today. She describes a complacency, a taking for granted, when it comes to equality. I see this so often and if you are complacent, things can change in a heartbeat.  She writes that so often young women don’t have the knowledge of the past nor the awareness of how discrimination works. I agree.

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A theme running throughout the book, which I agree with whole heartedly, is that criticising a system is vital but it can only have a positive impact if there is something there as a viable alternative otherwise there is nothing fundamental and solid to work with.

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I found the discussion on whether the ‘right’ to work really does mean self-actualisation and freedom most interesting and inspiring. There are just so many layers to this and I look forward to reading more on this topic.

The section on how being a woman was and still often is defined by the ability to bear a child was very relevant to me personally. I have chosen not to have children and believe that there is still such stigma attached to this in western society. Who are you when that definition is taken away?

I had problems with…

It is hard to criticise a book that has been so instrumental in feminist writing and which was written by such an incredible woman. But opinions and discussion matter so here we go regardless:

There are lots of sweeping, general statements. This is partly because of its aim to be a short introduction and I understand this. However, it is so often the generalisations voiced in society that cause so much conflict and fear.  At times, the generalisation came across as a stereotypical in my opinion, especially when lesbianism was focused on.

I am part of the white privileged class. I am aware that there is a horrific amount of discrimination that I have never faced and most likely won’t face personally in the future. I am aware of racism and classism inherent in society and that I cannot fully understand what I have not experienced myself. I am aware of the ignorance and the injustice and am often overwhelmed by it all. It isn’t the reading and feeling uncomfortable that is my issue because often this is exactly what is needed. What I do have a problem with is, that to me, it sometimes came across like the white privileged class of women were a uniform enemy within, with only the odd exception. In short, I read some bias in content, however natural and true to experience and I’m not sure how constructive that was in including ‘everybody’.  

Another problem I had with the book was when hooks wrote of how negative academicisation was and is for feminism. I agree with the point made but this book is marketed as an accessible introduction, yet I found both content and language quite academic at times. It didn’t reach out to me and I have an academic background!

Hooks’ viewpoint is very anti lifestyle-feminism i.e. a feminism that has developed away from the political arena and is very individual in nature. To me the message was that unless you are an activist you are not enough of a feminist, you can’t be a true feminist.  I realise I am rather a lifestyle feminist, I compile my own beliefs and access feminism in this way. My feminism is the everyday stuff, it is not political parties and conflict and open declarations. While I want to look at my own approach, I do not see my thoughts and actions as having a negative impact on the feminist movement.

A further issue I had, was that though race and class are tackled head on, sexual orientation or gender does not go beyond general statements. The time context of course plays a factor here but even the section on lesbian women felt dated for the time period of publication. And what about those in society who see themselves as gender fluid or trans? Feminism isn’t just about those that live with clear, socially accepted definitions of man and woman.

To conclude, this is a thought provoking book with so many key areas addressed; it is perfect for discussion. In my opinion, it should be read with a questioning mind and readers need to be aware of the at times sweeping statements. It worries me how much of this book is still very relevant today e.g. the power of conservative fundamentalists. At one point, hooks reminds us how easy it still is to take rights away – it astounds me that this is still so true.

I will leave you with one of my favourite quotes from the book:

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See What I Have Done: pushing my reading boundaries

I enjoy a good horror film, the darker and more psychological the better, however, when it comes to books I am more of a scaredy-cat. Weird but true. I think it is because I process things more intensely when I read and because I have a well-developed imagination, so the words conjure up more powerful images than a film might. Over the last year and a half, I’ve made a conscious commitment to expanding my reading horizons and a part of that is pushing myself to read books that challenge me in some shape or form.

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I don’t do things by half, so I chose See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt, which reimagines the story of Lizzie Borden (an alleged murderess, said to have viciously killed her stepmother and her father with an axe, and whose murder trial at the beginning of the 20th century, became the sensation of the time). It is told from the viewpoint of four main characters, each potential suspect with their own axe to grind (yes, I know, I had to go there): Lizzie, her sister Emma, the maid Bridget and a young man hired by Lizzie’s creepy uncle John to threaten her father, Andrew Borden.

My main thoughts on reading See What I Have Done:

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The harsh, vivid and minute details: Sarah Schmidt can write! The description is gory, intimate, shocking and stomach turning. The writing style certainly had a powerful impact on me. Though it made me feel uncomfortable, sometimes to the point of not wanting to read more, it fully immersed me in the narrative at the same time so that I simply had to read on.flourishes

The claustrophobic atmosphere and setting, which feel wrong from the very beginning: At times I had to put the book down to have a breather, to put some distance between me and the intensity. As I read, I felt I was there in that hot, airless house; the darkness and tension wrapping themselves around me.

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The warped, twisted relationships: These were crafted wonderfully, Schmidt really gets into the headspace of her characters and thoroughly explores the dynamics at play in the Borden House. I really got a strong sense of the toxic mixture of resentment, confusion, jealousy, authority and abandonment.

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Lizzie herself: Above all, what stayed with me was Lizzie’s complex character; her mental instability, the sense that though the family may have tried to protect this erratic, confused, often wild, sometimes childlike and equally sinister woman, they couldn’t meet her needs. Lizzie’s narrative jumps from childlike language to sinister to needy in a heartbeat, you never quite know where you stand or what you should believe- very cleverly written and utterly disturbing.

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In an afterword, Sarah Schmidt explains how she came to write about Lizzie, or rather how Lizzie found her! For me, this added another delicious layer to the narrative and I loved hearing about Schmidt’s experiences at the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast Museum. Yes, you can actually stay in the Borden house where the interiors are modelled on the original crime scene photos!

This is a book that gets under your skin and which continues to play with your mind long after you’ve finished reading it. It hooked me completely and produced strong emotions within. I can’t say I loved it or that I will read it again, yet I can with certainty say that it is an original, superbly written book.

P.S.  If you fancy exploring further on the web (as I felt compelled to) then I can recommend: http://lizzieandrewborden.com/

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine; how small acts of kindness can be life – changing

Every now and again a book comes into your life that has such a profound effect, that reaches deep into your soul and changes you for the better. Eleanor Oliphant is such a book. I’m actually finding it difficult to find adequate words for my thoughts and emotions about this debut novel, so bear with me.

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Eleanor is a woman in her thirties, she has crafted a carefully ordered life for herself without genuine human connection. She is a survivor of severe childhood trauma, which we learn more about as the story develops; this trauma has locked so many doors in Eleanor’s emotional and mental development. She is an outsider and doesn’t understand society’s rules; she is one of the loneliest characters I have ever come across. This all sounds very bleak and parts of the story are so very sad but, at the same time, this is the story of how Eleanor learns to open herself up to the world, to find meaning in her life and to allow love in. It is a story of so much courage as she tries to navigate a world, which feels alien to her and tries to come to terms with the dark experiences of her past.

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I’ve seen Eleanor Oliphant marketed as a ‘funny book full of humour’. I agree that there are many such brilliant moments as Eleanor’s perspective is so honest, her observations delightfully plain speaking and often childlike in honesty. There is a wonderful section where she is on a quest to look more socially acceptable, to look like the other women she sees as being normal. Her bewildered observations when she has her nails done and when she wants to buy trendy clothes in a department store, really did make me laugh, largely because I can totally identify with the bewilderment! When having makeup applied, the beautician asks her whether she likes a smoky eye look, Eleanor replies that she doesn’t like anything to do with smoking. When asked whether she likes the finished effect, she say in all seriousness,

“I look like a small Madagascan primate, or perhaps a North American raccoon. It’s charming!”heart hands

However, selling it primarily as a comedy doesn’t sit right with me. I went into reading this book not knowing a lot about it but having the expectation of a Bridget Jones style narrative – this doesn’t begin to do Honeyman’s writing justice. Eleanor drinks two bottles of vodka at the weekend to make time pass quickly as there is nothing and nobody to fill the days when she is not working. Her mind becomes so dark at one point that she doesn’t know if life is worth living. This darkness is so well written, her mental health incredibly sensitively explored. I cried. Lots.

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Another thing I absolutely loved, is how Eleanor has moments of deep understanding, precisely because she doesn’t conform to what society expects; she doesn’t play by the social rules. For example, there is a scene in a café, where she is waiting for the rather wonderful Raymond, her first real friend. She attempts general conversation with a member of café staff and finds out he is leaving his job as his wife is terminally ill. Instead of shying away, finding a polite response, she tells him that she understands he would rather spend the short time left with his dying wife rather than serving random strangers.

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The friendships Eleanor develops are just so very lovely in their honesty and acceptance. This book shouts from the rooftops that there are good people out there and I love it for that. I shan’t say much more as they are for you to discover (but I hope you love Raymond as much as I do!) I will mention the cat that comes into her life though – because, you know, me and cats! Eleanor takes in this traumatised, scrappy little cat and allows her to become the centre of her long empty life. There is a special, tender moment when they first meet, remarkably, Eleanor has so much love to give:

‘I held her like a baby, close against my chest, and felt, rather than heard, her deep, sonorous purring. Oh, the warm weight of her! I buried my faced in what remained of her fur and felt her gently turn her head towards me as she gently sniffed my hairline.’heart hands

I read Eleanor Oliphant just before reading Joanna Cannon’s Three Things About Elsie (see my review here) and these two books together have played a huge part in restoring my hope in humanity. They have both reminded me how those small acts of everyday kindness can change someone’s world and that we humans are capable of so much compassion, care and indeed love, if we only put our minds to it.