The Six Wives of Henry VIII

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A couple of years ago when I worked at a well known bookstore I decided it was time to read more history and so I picked up The Six Wives of Henry VIII. And so it sat on my bookshelf for a few years and it took until I added it to my TBR Pile 2014 for me to pick it up. I was a tad worried about the size of the book and whether or not the subject matter would engage me and I pinpointed this as the book I was most worried about completing. Luckily I was wrong.

I decided the best way to read this book was to mix it up with some fiction and I originally aimed to read it a wife at a time, however around wife three I decided I would just read it when I wanted and if I wanted to read about them one after another then I would. This made slightly more sense as the book is divided into different sections however these aren’t clearly cut between different wives as obviously there are periods of crossovers between wives and some wives were married much longer than others. In fact Henry VIII was married to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon for longer than the other five wives put together.

Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was never originally intended for him. Married to his older brother, Arthur and destined to become Queen of England from a young age, it was a shock when Arthur died shortly after their marriage, thus leaving Catherine, with only part of her dowry paid, captive in England under the command of Henry VII. Although six years older than Henry, they married and had, as Fraser portrays, a happy and successful marriage, just lacking the birth of a male heir. Or at least it was happy until Anne Boleyn came on the scene.

Fraser’s chapters on Catherine of Aragon provide a detailed insight into her journey to becoming Queen of England and it is fair to say she is a woman to be admired; trained to become Queen of England from a young age, she survives the death of Arthur and what is essentially seven years in isolation as Henry VII’s prisoner in all but name. However there were times when I lost interest in the narrative. It was certainly interesting to read the facts, but I feel as though I already knew a lot of this information from my reading of Philippa Gregory’s The Constant Princess and the TV programme The Tudors. I know both are highly fictionalised versions of the story, but they do make it more memorable.

Next came Anne Boleyn, the woman who changed the face of religion in England and who tempted Henry VIII away from his wife of many years. Anne Boleyn is certainly an interesting woman and one who perhaps would have been better suited living in the twentieth century. She was a very determined woman and as everyone knows she had a tragic downfall as Henry VIII got bored of waiting for a male heir and his attentions wandered elsewhere…to Jane Seymour, the wife who gave Henry his much desired legitimate son. This birth did lead to Seymour’s death and yes Henry was devastated for a while and then he started looking for his next wife. Anne of Cleves, his fourth wife, had the shortest marriage, as she wasn’t what Henry expected and his attentions soon turned to a 17 year old girl who sparked his interest and made a fat, old man feel youthful again. Unfortunately Katherine Howard didn’t stand a chance. She was a naive, foolish girl who fell in love with an attractive young man and thus had her head chopped off. Lastly, Catherine Parr, a widow who became more of a nurse than a lover to the ageing King.

That is clearly a very brief overview of what is a detailed and complex look at these women who often take a backseat to the tyrannical rule of Henry VIII. I have read a few historical novels based on this time period and have watched shows like The Tudors, which obviously portray a glamorised view of this time period, but I think it certainly helped my reading of The Six Wives of Henry VIII. It was really interesting reading more about various people who I had come across previously and to develop my understanding of these six women from a more feminist style perspective. Fraser’s writing is engaging and she has clearly researched these women in detail and this helps make this an easy read that I quickly became absorbed with every time I picked it up. There were some parts that held my attention more than others, but I think this is bound to be the case in most non fiction books and particularly ones as dense as this. However this is a fantastic narrative of the wives and one I would certainly recommend to anyone who reads a lot of historical fiction set during Tudor times.

Challenges

TBR Pile 2014

Reading the Twentieth Century – No it doesn’t as I already have a book for 1991!

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The Stranger’s Child…or a book unfinished

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The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst is a book from my TBR Pile 2014 and begins in the early 1900s, just before the outbreak of the First a World War and from there the narrative spans a century. In the first part of the novel we meet Cecil Valance, a poet and witness his impact on the Sawle family and after his death in the First World War, we meet various other characters who are all linked to Cecil in some vague way, or if not directly linked meet someone who is.

And that’s all I can tell you about the book. According to my kindle I have read 65% of the novel, however I have decided l am giving up. It isn’t often I give up on books and I am a little sad to give up on a book from one of my reading challenges but then I reasoned, what is the point if I’m not enjoying the book? Why should I force myself to read the remaining 35% of the book when I genuinely don’t care and I know I am only going to take forever to finish reading it as I’m not enjoying it, therefore I won’t pick up the kindle. Why do I feel this obligation to complete every book I start? I shouldn’t see giving up on The Stranger’s Child as a failure, but more as a realisation that I shouldn’t waste my time on something I am not enjoying and this is good as it will ensure I read what I truly enjoy. Besides as long as I don’t do this with every book I own I’ll be fine.

That’s not to say The Stranger’s Child is a terrible book, this is purely my opinion. I know there are people who have enjoyed this book, but for me it was just too much effort and not in a good way. As soon as I felt I knew a group of characters the narrative jumped decades and I felt I had to work out how everyone was connected and the links back to Valance. I’m not sure if I just picked this book up at the wrong time (a school trip to Disneyland including a ten hour coach trip and the end of the term) or if I would have felt this way regardless of when I read it.

Challenges

I was in two minds as to whether or not this counted towards my TBR Pile 2014 however I read over half of the book and I have written a post about it, so it counts in my eyes. >

TBR Pile Update

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Hopefully this works as I am writing this on Saturday with the intention for the post to miraculously appear on my blog on the 15th. I have come back home to Dorset to chill out for the weekend and collect a suitcase as in the small hours of Monday morning I am off to Disneyland on a school trip! On the ridiculous coach trip there I am hoping to begin another book from my TBR Pile, but on the whole this reading challenge is going pretty well.

I have currently read seven books from my list; this does include my extra book incase I decided against one of the original twelve. So far this year I have read:

Patience by John Coates
Regeneration by Pat Barker
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence
World Without End by Ken Follett
Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

Alongside by fictional reading I have been mixing it up with some non-fiction and slowly reading The Six Wives of Henry VIII. This is the book I saw as my weak point of the original TBR list, mainly because I was worried about the length of such an intense non-fiction read, however I have really enjoyed it so far and find Antonia Fraser’s writing engaging. I think it was a good idea to alternate the reading of this book, focusing on one wife at a time and then reading something else in between as it means I wasn’t focusing so much on this one book.

Overall I have enjoyed every book I have read so far and as I don’t feel pressure to meet any looming deadlines I am pretty relaxed about this reading challenge and glad I decided to join.
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Love in a Cold Climate

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I’m not sure when I first discovered The Mitfords; I have a feeling it could have been 5/6 years ago when I was still at university but who knows for sure. I can remember coming across a copy of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love in a London bookstore and wanting to buy it purely because the main character is called Linda, but I really don’t know when I actually first started reading books about them and by them. I have read several books about this extraordinary family of six sisters and have been fascinated by their glamorous and complicated lifestyles set against the backdrop of some of the twentieth century’s most memorable events since my first reading.

Having read The Pursuit of Love a couple of years ago I have had Love in a Cold Climate on my shelf for a while now. In fact I have read the book that follows this – Don’t Tell Alfred so I’m not sure why I missed this one out. Love in a Cold Climate is told from the perspective of Fanny and is seen as the follow-up to The Pursuit of Love, with the attention moving away from Linda and instead to Polly, another young girl from an aristocratic family who have just returned from India. Polly’s mother, Lady Montdore is desperate for her daughter to make a successful marriage and having thrown a ball for Polly to come out in society she is keen for any hint of love on the horizon. Unfortunately for Lady M, Polly falls desperately in love with her uncle (no blood relation), the Lecherous Lecturer and as soon as she can she elopes to the Continent with him.

I love Nancy Mitford. Her humour is so dry and it comes across in her writing. There are so many examples of hilarious and awkward situations and just subtle – or not so subtle – underhand comments masked as flattery.

People used to gaze before my beard grew, like mad, even in Nova Scotia. You are so fortunate not to be a beauty, Fanny, you’ll never know the agony of losing your looks. ‘

How do you go back to enjoy your afternoon tea after a comment like that?

As I was reading this novel I also noticed the lack of sentimentality some of the characters had for vervain situations, especially as far as death is concerned; I almost wonder if that is quite a British trait as my sister readily admitted last night that she feels more sympathy when animals are hurt or die and much more anger when they are abused that she does for people sometimes. I promise you she isn’t heartless and certainly doesn’t go around kicking small children, but I see that attitude in Mitford’s writing and especially in the real life depictions of their family life.

Love in a Cold Climate is a fantastic read full of dry humour and such bizarre social situations. It is set in a world that seems so far from the modern day, despite it being less than 100 years ago. It is a world of debutante balls, marrying for status and where the male relative rules the roost, leaving poor women with only marriage as an aspiration. Having read about The Mitford sisters it is clear that Nancy Mitford’s novels are inspired by her own life and those around her, especially her own parents who are depicted in the form of Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie. Their eccentricities are hilarious; I love that Uncle Matthew writes down the name of anyone he hates and puts it away in a drawer convinced that said person will die within the year and although this death rarely happens he is always slightly guilty if anyone in a drawer actually dies. Sometimes I think a world without technology and the hustle and bustle of modern life would be quite fun, especially as you would have to be imaginative and make up these little quirks. Maybe that makes sense, maybe it doesn’t. All I know is that I enjoyed this book and I almost feel as though I need a reread of some of my other Mitford books.

Challenges

TBR Pile 2014

Reading the Twentieth Century

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My Cousin Rachel

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Since the death of his parents when he was a young boy, Philip Ashley has been raised by his uncle, Ambrose. The two of them spent many happy years together, creating something of a bachelor pad in the Cornish mansion they inhabit. As Ambrose reaches middle age he finds the harsh Cornish winters too much and so spends these months on the continent. This arrangement works well until one spring Ambrose doesn’t return. Instead he marries Rachel, a woman who has family links to Cornwall but who has spent the majority of her life in Italy. Everything seems fine until Philip starts receiving confusing and accusatory letters from Ambrose and so sets off to Italy, only to find out on his arrival that his uncle has passed away and Rachel has fled. And so the stage is set for Daphne du Maurier's My Cousin Rachel.

The recent, although arguably disastrous, BBC production of Jamaica Inn sparked my interest in du Maurier and since My Cousin Rachel is on my TBR Pile I thought now was the perfect time to pick it up. I’m glad I did. I have only read one other du Maurier novel (Rebecca) and I vividly remember the slow burning tension throughout the novel and the hints at a mystery I just had to solve and I’m pleased to say this was the case for My Cousin Rachel. . After Philip’s arrival back in Cornwall he is full of hatred for Rachel and yet as soon as she arrives for a short visit he is captured under her spell and so infatuated he is unwilling to see her flaws and the potential danger of too close a relationship with her.

It is difficult to write about this novel without giving away too many spoilers and I don’t want to do that as it is the mystery that makes My Cousin Rachel such a fantastic read. I love how du Maurier drops subtle hints, leaving the reader eager to solve the mystery of Ambrose’s death and the role, if any, that Rachel played. I found the character of Philip infuriating in places; even when all the facts/clues were in front of him he continued to make excuses for Rachel, going against everything he had been taught or believed throughout his life. But then maybe this is what makes it such a great read, the reader knows something must be going on, but in the face of all these clues and hints Philip just refuses to see it.

Overall My Cousin Rachel is a great read, full of suspense, mystery and some beautiful descriptions of the Cornish scenery and the changing seasons. Although I have only read one other du Maurier novel, I like how both the novels I have read have an element of mystery and not in the ‘who dunnit’ kind of way that I usually enjoy, but in a more subtle and intriguing way. Even though I finished the novel yesterday, the ending is still with me, and I am sure those who have read My Cousin Rachel will know exactly what I am talking about.

Challenges

TBR Pile

Reading the Twentieth Century

TBR Pile Check In

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I can’t remember if I started off writing monthly check in posts or if I dreamt it, but it decided that now we are in May and I am currently reading one of the books on the list I might as well write a little check in post. My original list is here.

I am pleased with my progress so far on this challenge and I am somewhat amazed I have been able to stick to my roughly a book a month quota in order to achieve my goal. My current completion list looks like this:

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H.Lawrence

Patience by John Coates

Regeneration by Pat Barker

World Without End by Ken Follett

I have started on book six this month: The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser. This is the book I am most worried about as it is non fiction and is about a part of history I don’t usually discover through non fiction, choosing instead the novels of Phillippa Gregory or TV programmes such as The Tudors. Instead of reading the whole book in one go, I am planning to do a wife at a time and read something else in between each wife. I am hoping this encourages me to stick with it until the end and although I have only read Catherine of Aragon so far I am enjoying it. I find I have to alter my reading habits for non fiction and dedicate time to just sitting and reading as it is hard to pick the book and up, read a page and put it down again.

Overall I am enjoying this challenge and I am glad that I don’t feel pressurised into completing a certain book by a certain date and that although I have a list I still have a choice. I’m already thinking of books for next year’s list! >

World Without End

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World Without End is a beast of a book and as I have been lugging it around for the past fortnight I think I am justified in saying this. Set in Britain of the 1300s it begins with four very different children who witness two murders in the forest and follows them throughout theirs lives, detailing their loves, losses and the various trails and tribulations set to challenge them. The reader discovers how they cope with prosperous times and hard times, with war and with the merciless devastation of the plague. It is a large novel, with over 1000 pages, but it is gripping and compelling throughout.

It is always difficult when discussing such an epic tome to know where to begin or what parts in particular to focus on. If I were to write about everything I enjoyed I would be here forever, so I am going to focus on one character: Caris. Caris is one of the children who witnesses the murders and it is clear from the beginning that she doesn’t fit the stereotypically image of a medieval girl/woman. Caris dreams of being a doctor, something that a woman in that era would never achieve, however through sheer hardwork and determination she is able to defy expectations. From a pioneering tradeswoman to a reluctant nun, Caris’ journey throughout the novel particularly struck me for several reasons. Despite being deeply in love with Merthin – another of the four children – she refuses to conform to society and the expectation that she should marry, have children and become her husband’s property. I have had a few discussions recently about the whole idea of what is expected from a woman when she marries and how a traditional church service can sometimes be skewed, given the impression that women are still the inferior sex. I know that there have been changes to the vows and the archaic wedding values don’t hold much stead in modern society, but it is interesting to think about how these changes have come about.

World Without End is set in the fictional city of Kingsbridge, a city that was the focus for Follett’s early novel The Pillars of the Earth, although the latter is set two centuries earlier and focuses on the building of the cathedral. In places some characters from this earlier novel are mentioned but this is often in passing so it certainly isn’t necessary to have read The Pillars of the Earth, although I would recommend it as I read it a few summers ago and it was brilliant. This is a period in history I don’t know a great deal about and as always I love the opportunity to read something that broadens my understanding but does so in an exciting and easy to follow way, although I’m sure there are dedicated medieval historians who might quibble over the accuracy of some historical novels, I don’t care.

Both World Without End and The Pillars of the Earth have been made into TV programmes and I can remember watching World Without End each weekend without fail not long after I had moved in to my current flat. It was well made and I found the more I read, the more I remembered of the programme. Luckily both seem to be available on Lovefilm so I hope to get round to watching both of them soon.

Challenges

TBR Pile 2014>

Regeneration

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When I was applying for my PGCE I did some voluntary work experience at a local school, focusing on A Level teaching in particular and the AS students were focusing on a World War One unit, looking at various literature written during or at least set in the era. The novel they were reading was Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road. This is the final book in the Regeneration Trilogy and although I hadn’t read the first two books I read it anyway. A year or so later I picked up a copy of Regeneration at a charity shop and it languished on my shelves for a good 24 months before I finally put it on my TBR Pile 2014 and got round to reading it this month.

Regeneration focuses on Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland and the work of Dr Rivers, a psychiatrist working with men who have been wounded and thus traumatised by their experiences in the trenches. It is 1917 and among his patients are the poet Siegfried Sassoon, who has been sent to Craiglockhart after his anti war protest letter to Parliament and Wilfred Owen, who has yet to publish any of his poems and hero worships Sassoon. Although these characters are based on real life they are interwoven with fictional characters and a fictional narrative, making this a novel that merges both genres and explores the impact of the war in numerous interesting ways. Through Barker’s novel we learn about a variety of war time experiences that had a profound effect on those who lived through them, as well as the types of treatment used to ‘cure’ these men of their illnesses and thus ensure they return to the front and to fight for their country as quickly as possible.

I really feel as though my reading has taken a back seat in the past few months, especially as I am finding it difficult to have a work/life balance at times. Despite feeling as though I have taken forever to read this book (and 250 pages is hardly an epic read) I thoroughly enjoyed Regeneration. Those who know me or read my blog regularly will know that I have a keen interest in the First World War, most specifically the image of the soldier hero and how men coped with the horrific conditions they were faced with throughout the course of these four years. I loved how Barker mixed reality and fiction and explored some of the different mental effects the war had and the treatments used to ‘cure’ these. I was particularly interested/horrified at the use of electric shocks to cure mutism. One incident focused on the doctor refusing to let a patient leave the room until he could speak properly again; it is incredible to think how far treatments and understanding has come since then.

As I was reading I did highlight several quotation that struck me; I won’t share all of them, but I will include a few favourites.

‘They’d been trained to identify emotional repression as the essence of manliness. Men who broke down, or cried, or admitted to feeling fear, were sissies, weaklings, failures. Not men.’ Rivers is contemplating the work he does and I feel it sums up how men thought and were viewed at the time. There was only one acceptable form of manliness and if you didn’t adhere to it you clearly weren’t a man. You can imagine how this ideal had a profound effect on the men of the era and their decision as to whether or not they should fight for their country. What would society think if they didn’t? An idea that links to ‘the war had promised so much in the way of ‘manly’ activity had actually delivered ‘feminine’ passivity.’

Way back when I was choosing a topic for my MA dissertation I toyed with the idea of focusing on shell shock and the treatment of those suffering from physical and mental injuries after the war. As I was researching the topic I came across the notion that society essentially ignored these men after the war and that little was done to support them, which is why they resorted to begging in the streets. There were some hospitals specifically for war injuries, however these were few and far between. But of course the country didn’t need a constant reminder of the sacrifice a whole generation of men had made for them and this is clear when one of the characters leaves a hospital via the back exit and comes across a group of men horrifically mutilated ‘they’d been pushed out here to get sun, but not right outside, and not at the front of the hospital where their mutilations might have been seen by passers-by.’ What a horrible feeling to know that you have given your all for your country only to be hidden away where no one can see you.

Overall I really enjoyed reading Regeneration and I can highly recommend it to anyone interested in this period of history. I do want to read the next book in the trilogy and reread the last, but I feel it may be a while as I have an awful lot of books on the shelf.

Regeneration has contributed towards three challenges:
TBR Pile 2014
Reading the Twentieth Century
Filling in the Gaps
(which I am rubbish at remembering to do)
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Patience

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I have become addicted to Persephone Books and am very much looking forward to a visit to the shop when I visit London next week. I love their beautiful dove grey covers; they match my DIY painted dining room table and chairs perfectly and they just look so beautiful. To get me all excited about my bookshop trip I picked up Patience by John Coates. It is a book I was given for Christmas 2012 and one I added it to my TBR Pile 2014 to ensure I definitely picked it up this year.

Patience is the story of Patience Gathorne-Galley, a 28 year old woman married to Edward, living in a beautiful house in London with three young girls. Set after the Second World War, Patience is an innocent, somewhat naive wife, who despite having children, finds no pleasure in intimacy with her husband and sees it as more of a wifely duty than an enjoyable act. Patience can be seen as a product of her time in this sense, but at a time when women were arguably beginning to explore their freedom, she is also hindered by her religion and the strong sense of Catholic guilt; a guilt that is fuelled by her sanctimonious brother, Lionel. Patience’s sister, Helen is much more liberal, living in sin with her new husband and it is through Helen that Patience meets Philip and is awakened to what her life could be like.

I loved Patience. In the modern day when novels are often action, action, action, it is always refreshing to read something that goes at a leisurely pace, yet still grabs your attention. It is a novel that explores the difficulties of marriage and divorce, especially for women. and how these can be made so much more difficult when religion and social expectations are thrown into the mix. I enjoyed how quickly I become engaged with the characters’ lives, even though their problems could be seen as slightly trivial in comparison to some of the complicated plots and romances you find in modern literature. I liked the innocence and naivety of the novel, even though the subjects it dealt with weren’t necessarily innocent, Patience certainly was and I found this made her more endearing.

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One of the main reasons I love Persephone Books, and no I’m not back to the beautiful physical aspect again, is how nostalgic and innocent they seem. Yes, people have affairs and marriages end, but it is not the sordid and outrageous controversy that it can become in some fiction. It seems a much simpler time, without the evils of social networking and pointless celebrities to rule the lives of our characters.

Overall a lovely read and one that I thoroughly enjoyed, especially as I have been off work ill for the past few days and was in need of comfort. If this post makes very little sense I will blame the medication I’m taking!

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings

During The Classics Club Readathon a few weekends ago, I started reading The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings. I have watched the films on numerous occasions and have had this book on my shelf/in the wardrobe of books for months. I originally attempted to read this book when the first film came out. I was about 13/14 and reached roughly page 100 and I gave up (shocker!) The language was too dense for me and not what I anticipated. A few summers ago I picked up a copy of The Hobbit at a Vintage Fair and one hot summer’s day I sat on the sun lounger and barely moved until I finished it later that evening. I absolutely loved it and became entranced with the world of Middle Earth. After such a positive reading experience I was determined to give The Lord of the Rings Trilogy another chance.

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You probably have to have been living under a rock not to have at least some awareness of Tolkien’s work and the storyline, but just in case I will give you a very brief summary. Frodo Baggins lives peacefully in The Shire until he is given a ring by his uncle, Bilbo. This ring is no ordinary ring, it is inscribed with the following:

‘One Ring to rule them all, One ring to find them; One ring to bring them all
and in the darkness bind them’.

And so begins the biggest adventure of Frodo’s life; a journey that takes him to meet elves, dwarves and men; to the depths of Moria and to Elven lands; along great rivers and through dark and magical forests.

As I have mentioned I have seen the film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings several times and I watched the trilogy recently. Luckily for me this enhanced my reading of the novel and I am pleased to say that not only did I get to the end oft he novel this time, but I actually really enjoyed it. I found it easy to visualise the different descriptions and environments and this in turn made the novel an easier read and also an enjoyable one. Although I knew the outcome of the novel, there were still many sections within it that surprised me, such as the character of Tom Bombadil. I fully understand that film makers cannot include everything within the film, so it is lovely to read the novel and experience the bits that didn’t quite make the cut.

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Tom Bombadil

I think it would be difficult to choose a favourite character from the novel; I liked Tom Bombadil for his cheerfulness and of course Gandalf is an infamous character synonymous with the mere mention of LOTR.

Overall, reading The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings was an enjoyable experience and I am very glad I picked it up again and also that I picked it up when I was a bit older and fully able to appreciate the mastery of Tolkien’s writing. For me it is not quite as engaging or easy to read as The Hobbit and I still think I prefer The Hobbit overall as it is a book I can imagine recommending to children, teenagers and adults alike, whereas I think you have to be a voracious reader to fully appreciate The Lord of the Rings.

I read this book for both The Classics Club and as a reserve for my TBR Pile 2014.