Review: Penguin Year by Lindsay McCrae

44781468.jpgThe genre of nature writing often combines memoir with nature observations, which can bring out the best in an author. There are however times when this very mixing is what fails the book, and Penguin Year by Lindsay McCrae sadly falls into that category. This book is the memoir of a camera-man getting the amazing opportunity to film emperor penguins for 11 months, in Antarctica – everything is taken care of; food, living situation, equipment, the whole package; as long as he accepts the offer. Coming at perhaps the worst possible timing as he finds out his wife, Becky, is pregnant with their first child and their time living together is still freshly begun. In the end, he takes the leap – a very understanding Becky gives the okay for this adventure of his, leaving her behind in the last few months of pregnancy and the first months of their son’s life. McCrae spends some time worrying about what he is leaving behind but quickly realises it is the opportunity of a lifetime, a dream come true. Soon he is off to chase that dream – a cold, long, at times isolated, challenging, stunning and distant dream. The book chronicles that year in the making of a documentary – the episode on emperor penguins in “Dynasties” – filming, living in Antarctica, his day-to-day mixed with his observations of the life that can prosper at the bottom of the earth.

The main problem comes down to the author himself. He whines from the first few pages down to the last, about anything and everything: what he is missing back home, that Becky is having a nice time in a warmer climate, missing birds and biking, boring food, nothing to film, panic at nothing to film, can’t the penguins just get down to business – who cares if it’s too cold for them to be out and about, if I can’t see them I can’t bloody do my filming job. There’s a stronger focus on his work and everything surrounding the filming than the penguins themselves, the latter being the better part of the book. The observations of the penguins are often clear-eyed and close-up, which is of course lovely as the animal is one not many of us can ever see in such a location. It’s fascinating to read about what the landscape of an emperor penguin actually looks like, throughout a year and the seasons; what stages make up its life, what challenges comes with each such passage, and how they prosper is such challenging living circumstances. One of the downsides to a book like this with a strong personal perspective is that the very eyes you are seeing the story through contaminates what you are seeing. As we’re standing beside a camera-man, we look at the penguins as the star of a show – and if nothing much happens, or too much of the same, his irritation shines through the shot. In the text there’s at times a distinct lack of understanding and genuine interest for the penguin’s well-being. There’s only one memorable instance where this is clearly not the case, as he helps the penguins in a rough turn and it’s one of the best parts of the book; where there’s true feeling for another’s life separate from ones own agenda.

There’s another aspect to the writing that cuts down its potential, it is the lack of skill this writer has in the craft itself. Rather than thrilling, transporting and nerve-tingling – as it could easily be with this premise – it is ineffectual in the conveyance of experience and emotion. In an attempt at getting across the strength of his feelings, he repeats himself over and over, arguing in a circle – rather than conveying that strength of emotion through sharp and well-selected words. There’s lack of power to his prose, missing the point of adventure and high-stakes, making for tedious reading. Looking at his documentary I can see from a second his talent in filmmaking but unfortunately this does not translate into the book.

When the days are coming to an end and he is getting ready to leave, hindsight seems to make him more appreciative of everything he has been able to observe first-hand and the unique experience he has been given – which also made the book end on a fairly positive note. Overall, I felt disappointed by what could have been a moving and vibrant book on life of any form living at the furthest south-point of the earth; I have yet to watch the full episode that was the harvest of this year-long experience and hope to see more compassion and insight through this lens than came through Penguin Year. 

Thanks to the publisher who kindly gave me a digital review copy of this book!

Title: Penguin Year – Life Among the Emperors
Author: Lindsay McCrae
Publisher: William Morrow
Publishing Year: 2019 (November 12)
Genre: nonfiction, memoir

A Vanishing World? | Vanishing Fleece – Clara Parkes

C1519385In Vanishing Fleece Clara Parkes takes us through a journey of wool. She sets out, as she puts it, to get her “Masters” in wool making – from the animal to the human use of this fiber, how is it being made? And who are the people involved in making that happen? The book covers the stages from shearing the sheep, to cleaning and combing the wool, to the handling of that wool into a useful material – either as textile and the like, going in one direction, or as yarn – with several following steps before it lands into the customers (knitters) hands. Not only is this book doing something unprecedented, lifting the curtain of a fairly cloaked industry and history, but it tells the very human and engaging stories of a long history of a craft and of skilful work that is almost dying out in the country – in these changing times of globalisation and the older generation on the brink of retirement having no new generations to take their place to keep the companies going. In part it’s a sad story, of everything that has already been lost – all of the companies that went bankrupt, whose role in a community no longer had purpose or hands to get the job done, to family legacies lost in the fog of the past. But it is also in part, a story of hope – of so many actors within the field who have managed to stay afloat despite the shifting soil underneath their feet, who have adapted to fit better with the new century and who are even growing in demand in recent years with interests for sustainable and high quality materials from the consumers point of view growing. But what this book mainly means, to me as a knitter, is an invaluable overview of the journey from the animal to what I hold in my hands – what I’ve taken for granted in the years I’ve been knitting and all of the work that goes into creating that unassuming bundle. A better understanding and awareness of the process – both in the human, animal, and industry level of involvement – also means that as a consumer of these products, knitters and non-knitters alike, we can make more informed choices about who and how we support people in this industry, to make our money and our support stand with those whose work we want to help staying strong, to make it count.

This book is not just a human story though, I mean – you can’t go very far in any direction of the process without stumbling upon an animal of the four-legged or two-legged kind but it’s also filled with technical marvels and chemistry. From the natural dyeing of fabrics with its own precision required to use natural ingredients of the earth to get a particular hue, one that has likely been in use for hundreds of years – as long as the practice of the dyeing has existed – to the exacting weight of wool into the machines that turn unmanageable bales of fluff into something recognisably wool-y. The use of machines like a spinning wheel you can picture from a fairy tale – to the modern equivalents in a world that doesn’t slow down – this book is as much a history of an industry in its machine parts as it is its living hands (and feet). I’ll admit much of the details of the processes steps went over my head. It’s a bit like being thrown into a world of metaphysics, where everything you thought you knew is not quite what is really there – so it’s overwhelming, fascinating but overwhelming – in the best way. I felt myself a bit blinded by the many new things I got to learn, but I am also aware this is a book I’ll have to return to over the years in order to fully understand how this whole wool thing works.

Ultimately, I cannot recommend this highly enough for anyone who loves the fiber, who knits, who are interested in American industry history, or wants to read a living testament to the generational story of family legacies and secrets, successes and failures, in the pursuit for making wool part of our human fabric.

Thanks to Abrams Press for kindly giving be a net-galley of this book!

Title: Vanishing Fleece – Adventures in American Wool
Author: Clara Parkes
Publisher: Abrams Press
Publishing Year: 2019 (October 1st)
Genre: non-fiction, history, knitting

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A Long Search for Truth | I’m Telling the Truth, But I’m Lying – Bassey Ikpi

y648In I’m Telling the Truth, But I’m Lying Bassey Ikpi tells her life-story of growing up with an increasingly splintered mind, from the early days of living in Nigeria and being confused at the turmoil within to the growing fear in losing control and being hospitalised for ‘severe depression and suicidality’. While the book is described as an essay collection, it’s more suitably put as a memoir of a woman trying to piece together the various strands of her story and making sense of it, for others perhaps but more likely for herself. The structure of the book takes a non-linear chaotic direction in a fragmentary style, much like its author describes her own memory as being moment and emotion and moment rather than a clear chronology. She questions her own memories and the details within them, wondering if they’re true or part of the useful narrative she and others have made to make the pieces fall into a logical order. But in reality, there is no such clarity or structure to the lived experience – the further Ikpi moves through life and takes us along the ride, the more she comes face to face with the lack of order she is in fact experiencing. Sometimes things are good, sometimes they’re not – sometimes everything is good, sometimes everything is bad. The extremes of the bipolar II disorder she is later in life diagnosed with, sends her to the highest highs and the lowest lows without any apparent patterns to predict future turns. It’s enough work trying to stay in the boat, rather than attempting navigation of the waves. But she does and through the haze, which she describes her depression as, she tells a truth that pounds at you, scratches and screams and pounds at you. It’s undeniably real and illogical and chaotic and violent and tough, and sad and sometimes there’s a light but then there’s darkness and it’s hard, and it’s pointless, and it’s good, and it’s impossible – on and on, through every turn you’re tumbled along with Ikpi’s narrative, blindly running along searching for the end of it all. The way this book is written and structured, to force you to go along with the way her mind makes sense of the puzzle pieces it is given, it allows you to get a glimpse into her particular experience of growing up and living with mental illness. For that purpose alone, this book is worth its weight in gold.

“I’m telling the truth, but I’m lying” I think first and foremost refers to the effort of appearing/being ‘normal’. It’s about telling the truth you think everyone around you want to hear, the ‘I’m fine’ and the ‘it’s going to be okay’ – the smoothing of edges and silencing of doubts and worries, ghosts and hurt; the carrying of personal burden on your own to not weigh down others, to not have to live with shame, to not shame others, to not give up the game of breaking apart, to not be ‘crazy’. Ikpi starts the book with showing this act of ‘normalcy’ in her childhood, how she walks around the cracks in her heart to not burden her parents – to avoid adding to their load, unhappy as they both appear to be much of the time and increasingly so when they move from Nigeria to America. Her parents both carry their own grief and disappointments of life, so heavy are their emotional burdens that their baggage shape Ikpi’s early life too. From being hit to being frightened of their silences, their sorrow – this book therefor explores too the idea of family heritage or ancestry, what is passed down through the generations particularly in terms of trauma, grief and history – through the biological strands of DNA but more importantly, through the emotions we live and share with the ones we hold dear. The meaning of family is also explored in regard to the truth – aside from Ikpi herself telling her story in the way she expects is wanted or required of her, she is trying to sort through the family’s stories as they are told and retold, shaping her parents narratives and their parents before them; how much of a personal narrative is in fact myth making, of ordering something that can never be put into a perfect arrangement because that’s not what life tends to be or do – blurring boundaries or erasing unwanted shards, re-fining the past into a story that becomes the truth but is also a lie. How will you ever really know your family’s history and their stories’ truth, if all you’re getting is the (re)constructed reality of aging photographs and mouth-to-mouth smoothing of pearls carefully turned over and over until they are supple and smooth? Until none of the original cracks can be found, how will you know? The answer is you won’t. Much like no one will truly know your personal truth, who is not inside your head and even then can we trust our own minds not to make lies that feels like truths, even to ourselves?

The other part of the title is that it in some ways reflects the contents of the book as well, aside from its obvious thematic purpose. There are particular stories or chapters of this book that realistically cannot have been true, because of the details they contain. To clarify: when particular details of an experience is given, especially linked to a specific time or day, they could only be memorialised for this book in two ways: she was writing the pieces down as she was living them, like the thought or the feeling of the time; or she was remembering them and writing them down retrospectively. Both are flawed, as she herself writes in the book, that she wasn’t writing things down at the time nor could she likely have been in the midsts of a break-down or while in the shower. It’s also hard to trust her memory, as she also points out – her memory is part of what she doesn’t trust herself, as it’s chaos and disorder and lack of chronology of events. Then how can these parts of the book have come about? One possibility is of course that she wrote them down after the fact, as she imagines it would’ve been. Or based on the little pieces she does remember. As such – it is in a way true and not true, telling the truth but lying at the same time, telling truth but not necessarily the lived one – telling a truth that makes sense to her in the knowledge she has of her experiences, but also possibly lying to make sense of something she cannot make sense of. So it’s perhaps up to the reader to make of these truths what you will, but it was in any case a part of the book that took me out of it. Questioning the truth of the writing perhaps is not an issue with a book like this, as the whole book is a search and making of the truth but also a deconstructing of it.

In many ways I think I’m telling the truth but I’m lying is Bassey Ikpi’s attempt to find the one point of her life or world that feels safe and unquestionably real – searching for this place in her family, her relationships with men, the world, herself. Honestly portrayed, this book is a must-read for anyone trying to understand what it’s like to be at a life-long battle with your mind and ultimately trying to find a way to accept this reality.

Thanks to Harper Perennial for kindly giving be a review copy of this book!

Title: I’m Telling the Truth, But I’m Lying
Author: Bassey Ikpi
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Publishing Year: 2019 (August, 20)
Genre: nonfiction, memoir

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Paradise on Earth: Waterfalls of Stars by Rosanne Alexander

33852135._SY475_In Waterfalls of Stars Rosanne Alexander shares the life-changing story of living on the island of Skomer for an entire decade. She recounts, as if there in mind and spirit, the journey to the island for the first time and becoming acquainted with it as someone with no previous familiarity with the place or true understanding of what it would mean to live in a place so isolated as to be barely reachable for several months of the year. While studying at college she meets her then boyfriend, Mike, who she has a relationship with for the duration of their studies. When he finds out about the advertisement for a warden-job at Skomer, his life’s dream, he persuades Rosanne to go with him as the job requires a couple to apply. They are ultimately accepted and get married in the spur of things (another requirement), hastily leaving everything behind to take on this new life and adventure ahead. Living on Skomer means their only connection with the rest of the world is a boat to travel from the island to the mainland, which can only travel with decent weather conditions. Their job itself entails taking care of and monitoring the natural life of the island, but also ends up busy with various tasks demanded by the harsh weather and rough reality of Skomer. They’re not well paid nor do they have access to food very easily and there was no electricity in the house then (which has changed by this point, but not so during the 1980s that Alexander lived on Skomer), so there’s many challenges in living in such a place – particularly when something goes wrong, like food supplies running out or Mike getting caught in a storm. In many ways then, this book is the testament of living in direct connection with nature in all of its faucets; often harsh and dangerous, at other times absolutely magical.

The way Rosanne Alexander narrates the book, you feel as if you’re reading her immediate thoughts in the time that she is recounting. In all likelihood, she wrote plentiful of journals that the memoir is based on – as it feels so present. And yet, with the benefit of hindsight she can also discuss the larger picture and the long-term perspective in how she changed over the ten years, how her relationship with the island changed but also with the rest of the world – increasingly uneasy with the mainland’s speed when living on the island could be so free from the stressors of modern life, you could almost forget you were living in the 20th century. Some of the things she writes about is her personal journey of falling in love with the place and increasingly needing the connection of living in a place always feeling like you’re part of the natural world around you, with each day feeling like you’ve lived it in the truest way possible. With such a strong connection to nature there’s inevitably going to be sorrows to be had too, from oil spills drowning seals and sea birds to missing divers finally washing up on the shore – ghosts haunting a place so remote, there’s no escaping them. Oftentimes Alexander spent completely alone on the island, at least alone for human companions as Mike frequently went off to the mainland in various island-related business and so she writes too about the feeling of being so utterly alone in a place so devoid of connections with the ‘outside’ world and how, while it can highten fears and anxiety of things going wrong or shadows lurking, it can also mean peace and true contemplation.

There are many sections that are entirely given over to narrating what is happening on the island in terms of wildlife, from the seabirds nesting to the seal pups separating from their mothers to the goat they adopt making mischief or the rabbits making their way through their plantation. As she moves through the years in chronological order we move through the seasons too and see how the island changes with the transitions from autumn to winter, winter to spring, and then summer – so bright it almost blinds the eyes, so sweet and filled with life, only to die away leaving the island bare and dark in the colder months to come. At times it seems the winter’s can be harsh and grizzly, almost unpleasant payments for the sweeter months of summer and spring. But then a winter’s storm can bring its own rewards, depending on the way you look at things. There’s at least no way to underestimate the power of mother nature in this place, a feeling Alexander so elegantly imbues in the reader through her vibrant prose that it’s like waking up from a dream when you’re closing the pages of this book.

For a transportive reading experience, you can hardly do better than Waterfalls of Stars – I dare say it’ll be an experience you won’t forget in a hurry.

About this Book

Title: Waterfalls of Stars
Author: Rosanne Alexander
Publisher: Seren
Org. Publish Year: 2017
Genre: nonfiction, nature, memoir
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A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings by Helen Jukes [Review]

38527252In A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings Helen Jukes chronicles one year during which she decides to take up beekeeping, and takes us along for the ride. Interspersed with lessons about beekeeping and the nature of the honeybee, are observations on Jukes’s own life and how the two parts so often seem to feed off of each other. The more she learns about the hive and the bees, the more she understands about herself too and what she had been missing from her life. A job that brings nothing but exhaustion and frustration, wanting to be more resilient to the stress of it but not being able to untangle the intensifying knots in the neck or in the heart; she takes up beekeeping as something to pour her heart into. ‘The idea arrives’, she tells us, on a day like all others, but she is attracted by the possibility of it. Researching about hive constructions and historical beekeeping, she eventually decides to take the leap which leads her onto exciting new paths and meeting new people, as well as many discoveries of the world along the way.

One of the things I really like about the book is the way she very genuinely narrates her own life’s changes when they appear in the larger narrative of the book. The things she experiences as someone engaging with nature shapes her interactions with other human beings, and the other way around. It’s quite common for memoirs with a nature focus to use nature as a way to delve into emotional experiences or to explore them in writing; it can often be very effective. But in this book, Helen Jukes doesn’t really use her nature observations to examine her life – she narrates them both, they’re parallel to each other and at the same time they’re one and the same. There is less boundaries between them, not the usual distancing between external and internal life, wildlife and human society, nature encounters and daily life – rather she appears to enjoy the very intermingling of the two ‘stories’ – one small and buzzing, the other expansive and loud.

It took me a while to get into the flow of this book and I’m not quite sure what it was that held me off. Perhaps Jukes is more reserved in the beginning of the book, or perhaps I was just not connecting with her based on first impressions. In any rate, it took me a good few chapters to feel like I was reading about a life that mattered to me –  someone whose story I wanted to hear. On the other hand, the writing on bees is fascinating from the start. I’ve been afraid of bees (of all kinds) since childhood so I haven’t had many close encounters with them if I could help it, this book has been such a wonderful view into their world and some of their characteristics, individually and as a group. How they communicate, by sound and vibrations and scent, and how they decide how big the hive should be and when to split it or when to size down. How honey is made, how damaging human activity has been for the honeybees and where the problem lies. In all nature aspects of the book, I was pretty on board. As far as Jukes herself goes, I warmed to over time.

It’s not exactly a natural history of honeybees, nor is it truly a nature memoir through and through. Mostly it is contemplation of honey, bees, history, life, environment, language, senses, etc. – all through the little buzzing creatures and often through the words on them by others before her, as she dives into books on the topic and often references historical people to contrast our understanding of the world and how much it has changed with time.


About the Book
Title: A Honeybee Heart has Five Openings
Author: Helen Jukes
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publishing Year: 2018
Genre: nonfiction, nature, memoir

The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

24568234The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters is a bit of an odd book. Reading the synopsis, you’re informed that there will be a crime within the pages of this book. However, the first half of it (300 pages) does not include that crime and so while you have the knowledge of this terrible thing that is going to happen right from the start, by the time it happens it comes truly out of the blue. It feels jarring, what was the story I was reading up until now? A love story, between two women, a lot of it quite sensual and electric but also romantic, plagued, struggling, tender, hurried. It’s a bit of a messy affair but it fits with the story of these two women meeting – one, the daughter of the woman who owns the house that the other woman lodges in together with her husband.

The lodgers, also called ‘the paying guests’ by a fancier term, move in as the book opens and we’re shown a truly awkward tip-toeing between strangers as Frances and her mother Mrs Wray (the owners of the house) receive Lillian and her husband Leonard as they move their things into the house, and the two pairs interactions of utter stiffness and unnaturalness. We are then watching the relationships between the four characters build and evolve, in particular Frances and Lillian, and as mentioned before – it transforms into a love story. The tone of the book abruptly shifts when the crime takes place, and the second half of the book is then the repercussions reverberating throughout the household and surrounding community.

It’s a story of love and desperation, despair and the feeling of being trapped, fear and anxiety, hunger and sexuality, hopelessness and more. A jumble of emotions really, which should make a book like this an absolute ride – which is partly true but also not thoroughly so. While the first half of the story took me by surprise both in Waters’ wonderful prose and character portraits, the relationships building and the tension between each of them – Frances and Leonard, Leonard and Lillian, Frances’s mother and the lodgers, Frances and her mother; I was particularly impressed by the explicit nature of the romantic relationship between Lillian and Frances, particularly for a historical fiction rather than specifically lgbtq romance.

However, the crime story was a different matter. First of all as I mentioned previously the shift felt jarring to me despite being pre-warned that it was going to happen. I’m not sure I ever fully got settled into it in the end. While the first half felt nuanced, emotional and exciting – the unfolding of the crime showed only the indecisiveness of the characters, their ugliest sides and their own frustration and tiredness of the whole story. As a reader, this very tiresome attitude shaped my own reading experience of it. While details in the crime story are interesting as far as the historical and social setting as well as the perspective (particularly from the criminal’s point of view) the turn from one story to another never quite fits together, by the end of the book I had started to lose interest and was glad to have reached the end. The book stretched the characters (and my patience) thin and closed off with a remarkably unsatisfying ending – leaving little resolved or even questions worth pondering beyond the page.

All in all I enjoyed parts of the book so much that I am quite certain I shall go on to explore and enjoy Sarah Water’s other works, but as it is this book stands strong mostly for the romance and less so for the mystery. I would mainly recommend the book as a whole if you’re interested in the criminal’s perspective set within a 1920s context.

About the Book
Title: The Paying Guests
Author: Sarah Waters
Publisher: Virago
Publishing Year: 2014
Genre: mystery, historical fiction

Remarkable Creatures – Tracy Chevalier

6457081I’ve been on a historical fiction kick lately with titles like I was Anastasia and The Trouble with Goats and Sheep so it was only right I got to one of the masters of the genre, Tracy Chevalier. Remarkable Creatures tells the story of Mary Anning, famed fossil hunter, in a fictionalized account of her life. The book follow her coming into her own, figuring out what she’s good at and becoming famous for her findings; falling in and out of love, making friends with a woman of higher class, Elizabeth, whose brother sent off her and her sisters to Lyme when he got married to make place for his own family. This book is of the quiet, ruminating sort – looking less at one specific life-changing event – although there’s a bit of that too – but it’s more a part of a life in flux; in the midst of transformation. Mary Anning, having grown up in a worker’s family and having to collect ‘curies’ that the family could sell to make a living and feed the household is an unglamorous heroine. While the setting, early 1800s, reminds me of Jane Austen and the expansive fields and flowing muslin dresses of her books; there’s little of the romanticism of Austen’s works in the story of Anning or her friend, Elizabeth. Instead this book follows characters who are constrained by their circumstances but manage to make the most of it and push beyond them, despite having everything speaking against them. Two women exploring the male-dominated field of science, they’re not exactly welcome among the upper class learned men who believe women cannot possibly understand such complicated things as God’s creatures or their anatomies for that matter. Mary and Elizabeth challenge these assumptions by being passionate and hard-working, curious and questioning of everything they encounter.

One of the interesting things about the particular time period that this book follows, starting with the early years of Mary Anning when Elizabeth and her sisters move to Lyme going forward many years until Anning’s adult years; it is a time of real historical discoveries that changed perceptions about animals and in particular extinction going against contemporary settled ideas about God and the creation of the earth. If animals had died out, then God must have made a mistake – is a common refrain in this book, and as a reader you get a little taste for how utterly ground-breaking and unsettling it must have been to have everything you hold as steady and solid to be turned upside down. It’s the dawn of a new Age and it’s no wonder there were people who pushed against the total shift of the era in everything they knew to be true, frightening as it is. Through this change in ideas we see these women both struggle with the contradictions and gaps of the things they know, as well as take delight in making discoveries and widening their worldview. There’s something quite inspiring in that journey.

The setting as it is is quite charming, aside from the historical context of the scientific discoveries the actual Lyme area is a picturesque place to settle down in for a few hundred pages. Following the characters walking along the beach, looking for curies, it felt like a true comfort to me. But the main draw for me was the characters and in particular the friendship between Elizabeth and Mary Anning. Rarely have I read such a thorough look at women’s friendships, with all of its ups and downs and petty grudges and strains and rewards. As I mentioned before, there’s nothing much outstanding in this book in terms of plot – since there’s not one single point in the story where the characters are completely turned around, rather it’s a gradual thing and you can tell that they’re not finished growing by the end of the book. Because of that, it’s hard to quite pinpoint what the book is about other than a close character study of a time and a friendship. In great deal I enjoyed this because of the setting, the calm atmosphere of it, the friendship, and not the least because of the narration – done fantastically by Hattie Morahan. I would strongly recommend the audiobook if you’re interested in this one! I’m glad to have found a new historical fiction author to dive into.

About the Book
Title: Remarkable Creatures
Author: Tracy Chevalier
Narrator: Hattie Morahan
Publishing Year: 2009
Genre: historical fiction