Tag Archives: book review

Must-Read Monday: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

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I love a good historical fiction novel as I find it a really interesting and engaging way to learn more about periods and people in history. While The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is an historical fiction novel, it is one with a difference. There is a touch of magic in this one, which really appealed to me.

The story takes place in Victorian London in the 1880s. We are introduced to Thaniel who one day inexplicably finds an intricately and beautifully made gold pocket watch in his small rented apartment. Fast-forward six months, and this pocket watch mysteriously and inexplicably saves him from a fatal bomb blast that completely destroys Scotland Yard. Wanting answers, Thaniel goes in search of the maker of the watch. He discovers its maker is Keita Mori, a solitary Japanese immigrant. He forms a close friendship with Mori, although Thaniel feels as though Mori is deliberately keeping something from him. When Thaniel meets Grace Carrow, an eccentric physicist, he starts to question his friendship with Mori.

This novel was an absolute beauty to read. The atmosphere the author creates really puts you right into the heart of the story, and she expertly blends real historical happenings with little bits of fantasy and magic. The biggest strengths in this novel are the two main characters, Thaniel and Mori. They end up not feeling like characters, but like real people from an age gone by. Thaniel starts out as the typical polite, proper Englishman, and Mori the quirky, odd foreigner. As the story progresses, and as their relationship develops, each of them reveals more of their character, and soon they start to change and affect one another. They jump off the page with their complexities and their personalities.

I listened to this novel as an audiobook, and it was definitely they best way I could have consumed this story as it made everything seem so much more alive and realistic, despite the magical element in the tale.

This novel felt like what a steampunk-style novel done right should look like. I normally do not enjoy reading steampunk, but this book was right up my alley. A light hand and restraint from the author definitely made this a trope-free, Victorian fiction novel that has quickly become one of my favourites. Ultimately an examination of how much chance, coincidence and luck play a part in our lives, this novel is charming, beautiful, profound and simply a joy to read.

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Top Ten Tuesday: Picture Books

Picture books were my first introduction to stories, and ultimately played a big part in forming my love of books and stories. To this day, I still love a good picture book and am a firm believer that they are not just for young children! So, here are my Top Ten Picture Books.

pigcover#1 Pig the Pug – Aaron Blabey

I love all of Aaron Blabey’s picture books, but Pig the Pug has to be my favourite. In this book Pig is not willing to share his toys with his friend Trevor the sausage dog. However, Pig soon learns the hard way that sharing isn’t so bad after all! This book is great fun, with rhyming prose that kids love and a moral at the end of the story.

#2 Ida Always – Caron Levis & Charles Santosoida-always-9781481426404_hr

A beautiful and sad tale that is perfect for introducing the concept of grief to young children. Gus and Ida are polar bears who live in a zoo and are best friends. One day Ida gets sick, and Gus learns that she isn’t going to get better. Gus learns that even after Ida is gone, she will always be with him through the memories he has of her. This is a very moving book.

16101018#3 The Day the Crayons Quit – Drew Daywalt & Oliver Jeffers

One of my ’go-to’ picture book recommendations at work, this fantastic book tells the story of Duncan and his crayons. Duncan opens up his crayon box one day, only to find all of his crayons are gone! Each one has left him a note explaining why they have quit. This is a funny story that will have children and adults alike in stitches!

#4 Possum Magic – Mem Fox & Julie Vivaspossum-magic

An absolute Australian classic! Grandma Poss decides to use her bush magic to make Hush invisible in order to keep her safe. However, when Hush wants to be visable again, Grandma Poss can’t remember which specific food Hush needs to eat to break the spell. The two set out on a road trip around Australia sampling Aussie food staples such as ANZAC biscuits and Minties in an effort to find the right food item. This is a fun, whimsical story that beautifully showcases all things Australian.

9780140541120#5 Animalia – Graeme Base

Graeme Base’s books are the kind that can be enjoyed by kids of any age. Animalia is one of my favourites. Animalia creates a fun imaginary world where every letter of the alphabet has a story created out of words starting with that letter. It starts, naturally with “A is for an Armoured Armadillo Avoiding an Angry Alligator”. The fun of this book comes from finding all the hidden objects in each scene that start with the letter being showcased.

#6 Each Peach Pear Plum – Janet & Allan Ahlberg6193c55pyhl

This book has been a favourite of mine from a very young age. This beautiful rhyming book encourages young children to interact with various nursery rhyme and storybook characters, as they try to spy the different characters in each of the gorgeous illustrations. This book is an absolute classic that never gets old!

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#7 The Very Hungry Caterpillar – Eric Carle

Another absolute classic is The Very Hungry Caterpillar. This beautiful counting book is a hit with children due to its brightly coloured illustrations and the finger-sized holes for exploring. This book also shows children the life cycle of a caterpillar.

#8 Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy – Lynley Doddcover

This is another classic rhyming story that has long been a favourite of mine. Hairy Maclary decides to go for a walk through town. At each house he passes, one of his canine friends comes out and joins him. Eventually they all encounter Scarface Claw, the toughest, roughest cat in town, and this is where things get interesting. The terrific illustrations really cap off an engaging story.

the-fantastic-flying-books-of-mr-morris-lessmore-9780857079459_hr#9 The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore – William Joyce

This picture book speaks deeply to the booklover in me. It is a beautiful allegory about the healing and curative power of books, and that those who care for them will reap the benefits of them. This is a wonderful story that can be read at face value as a magical, fun story, or can be read with deeper meaning and metaphorical life lessons.

#10 Magic Beach – Alison Lester9781741144888

This book is another childhood favourite of mine. The illustrations are my favourite part of this book, and the story shows the power of the imagination of a child. The rhymes and make-believe stories within the book are lots of fun as well, and the depiction of life by the sea is very typically Australian.

Must-Read Monday: Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin

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In Mao’s Last Dancer Li Cunxin tells us the story of his life in China under the Communist regime of Chairman Mao. At a young age he is taken from his poor village and relocated to Beijing in order to study ballet as part of the Mao Cultural Revolution. As part of a cultural exchange trip, Li visits America in the late 1970s and begins to realise that the anti-American propaganda fed to them by the Chinese Communist Party may not in fact be true. He eventually defects to America – although not without drama – and later moves to and settles in Australia.

Much like Forty Autumns, one of the things that I think makes this a must-read is the fact that we don’t really know what life was like under these cruel regimes until you hear about it from a person who lived through it. We all know about these periods in history, and often study them in school, but you never really comprehend how it was until you read books like this one.

One of the themes that really struck a chord with me in this book was the struggle between individuality and conformity that Li experiences throughout his life. Often times, these struggles are illustrated through confronting scenes that Li witnesses, such as the public executions of counter–revolutionaries by firing squad. The turning point for Li is when he is initially denied permission to return to America to further improve his ballet training. He says “My beliefs were now completely altered after my experience with the ministry of culture and after having time to think about what I had seen in the West. Now I knew with absolute certainty, that I had been manipulated by Chairman Mao’s communist propaganda for many years.”

Having visited China myself, this book has had a particular impact on me. Even though things in China have vastly improved since Chairman Mao’s reign, there is still an element of terror, control and conformity imposed by the current Chinese Communist Party leaders. For example, when we visited Tiananmen Square, we were told not to mention anything about the 1989 Massacre when we were in the square because the government has cameras and microphones installed in order to deter any potential repeat of 1989. We were also told that if we mentioned it and were caught, we would likely be arrested, as the Chinese government still publicly maintain that the 1989 massacre never happened.

The book is emotional, heart-breaking, eye opening and inspiring. To have lived the life Li has, and to have ended up where he did is absolutely astounding. There were many times through my reading of the book where I got so angry at the treatment of the Chinese people by their leaders, and many more where I got goose bumps. This is one of the most evocative books I have ever read.

Sentimental Sunday: Murder on the Orient Express

Agatha Christie is undoubtedly the Queen of Crime. She wrote 66 detective novels, 14 short story collections, wrote the world’s longest-running play, and is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the best-selling novelist of all time. These are all monumental and incredibly significant achievements. And luckily for me, an Agatha Christie novel was my first introduction to the wonderful world of crime fiction.

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The Queen of Crime herself; Dame Agatha Christie

I remember when I was about 13 or 14 we were staying at my grandparents’ place down the South Coast of New South Wales. Every Saturday morning there is a market at Moruya, and like we did every time we were at my grandparents’ place, we visited the markets. Being a bookworm from a young age, I have always been drawn to the second-hand bookstalls at markets. This particular time, I remember my Mum picked up a thin, battered old book and showed it to me, saying that she had loved this author at my age. Seeing as the book was only $3, I bought it. That book was Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie. I had never really read books that weren’t specifically written for kids before, nor had I read a crime novel.

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Hercule Poirot as portrayed by David Suchet

At that age, I have to admit it did take me a little while to get used to the language of the books and the very proper way the characters speak – I mean, it was originally written in the 1930s! With Poirot being Belgian – not French, if you please! – I found the occasional French words and French phrases frustrating, as I didn’t understand them. And the strange abbreviations I hadn’t come across before; Mlle, M, and Mme! What were these strange combinations of letters! I eventually figured it all out and adjusted to the language, and could finally focus myself on the story being told.

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Murder on the Orient Express and the odd little character of Hercule Poirot absolutely blew me away! The attention to detail and precision of all the facts was astounding. All the red herrings, the twists and when you finally find out who the murderer is… wow! My mind was blown! I didn’t know that books like this existed! It absolutely revolutionised reading for me, and began my love of a good crime novel. Since being introduced to the Queen of Crime and her most famous detective, I have devoured many Hercule Poirot novels and continue to scour second-hand bookstalls at markets for more of these golden oldies.

Screen Version Saturday: The Book Thief

The Book Thief by Australian author Markus Zusak tells the story of Liesel, a girl who is sent to live with a foster family near Munich during the Second World War. With the guidance of her foster father, she learns to read and develops an intense love of books and stories. They become irresistible to her, and whenever the opportunity presents itself she steals books from around her small town. She shares her stories with Max, a Jewish man that her foster parents are hiding from the Nazis. The book itself was brilliant and has been a best seller all over the world. I especially loved the fact that the novel itself is told from the point of view of Death and not from the point of view of Liesel, the main character. This creates a sense of foreboding and darkness in the novel, balanced out by the innocence and guileless morality of Liesel.

The 2013 film, starring Sophie Nélisse, Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, was welcomed with a very split response from critics. Regardless, I really enjoyed the film version. This was another book-to-film adaptation that I think was done really well. Geoffrey Rush was excellent in the role of Liesel’s foster father and, in my opinion, stole the show. I thought Liesel’s foster mother in the books came across as rougher, more forbidding and more disgruntled than she did in the film. In the film I thought she seemed positively cuddly in comparison to her book character. The character of Death still narrates the film, but I felt he doesn’t have the same presence in the film that he has in the book. These are minor issues that I have with the film, and it is still a great adaptation of the book. I loved both the book and film for the fact that while the setting of Germany during WWII was important in the telling of the story, it wasn’t the central storyline itself, which is unusual for stories set in this historical period. I highly recommend everyone see this film.

 

Rating: Book screen-shot-2017-01-07-at-1-24-07-pm/ Movie screen-shot-2017-01-07-at-1-24-14-pm

Wishlist Wednesday: Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

This book will be the first in a new duology from best-selling author Laini Taylor. I absolutely ADORED her Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, so naturally I am very excited about new material from her.

One of the things I loved most about Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone series was the way she writes and her use of language. It is so beautiful to read, and her descriptions are very vivid and very realistic (when it came to the real world locations!).

Much like The Song Rising, Strange the Dreamer had a delayed publication date. It was originally slated for a September 2016 release, but it then got pushed back to March 2017, the reasons for which are outlined here. Naturally, as soon as someone says I can have something and then makes me wait even longer for it, the more I want that item!

Mostly, I am putting this book on my wishlist because it has intrigued me. The title itself had grabbed me; Is ‘Strange’ a name? Is it just an artistic, incomplete sentence? What meaning does the title hold to the story? And then there is the plot summary on Goodreads:

Strange the Dreamer is the story of:

the aftermath of a war between gods and men
a mysterious city stripped of its name
a mythic hero with blood on his hands
a young librarian with a singular dream
a girl every bit as perilous as she is imperiled
alchemy and blood candy, nightmares and godspawn, moths and monsters, friendship and treachery, love and carnage.

Welcome to Weep.

 

WELL! If that isn’t mysteriously tantalising enough to grab your interest, then I don’t know what is. Personally, the addition of a librarian just increased my interest! This sounds to me like more fabulous YA fantasy goodness!

 

The Australian publication date for Strange the Dreamer is 28th March 2017.

Top Ten Tuesday: #LoveOzYA

When I was in high school, I didn’t read much young adult fiction. This was largely due to the fact that there wasn’t a huge amount of it around. Even more disappointing, very little of it was by Australian authors. Thankfully, times have changed and Australian young adult authors are gaining a lot of recognition, not just in Oz but also on an international stage. Check out the #LoveOzYA hashtag on social media for more Aussie YA goodness!

N.B. The following list is in no particular order.

illuminae-files#1 The Illuminae Files Series by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

So, this trilogy currently only has two of the books published, but if the first two are anything to go by, the third is going to me AMAZING! Each book in this series focuses on a different teenage duo (male/female) who are living through and experiencing the same invasion in outer space, but from a different aspect. This series, apart from having an amazing story with lots of twists, is brilliant because it is not told in the traditional narrative format – each book is a report/dossier that is made up of various documents, dossiers, pictures and transcripts. In this way, the story is told in a very unique and engaging way.

#2 Frankie by Shivaun Plozza27193294

As I previously outlined in last weeks Top Ten Tuesday post, this book follows the story of its titular character, Frankie. She is a sassy, bad-ass character who isn’t afraid to stand up for herself and the people she loves. The story itself is a real page-turner as Frankie tries to track down her missing half-brother. The characters felt real and the whole story felt uniquely Australian. A brilliant Oz YA read!

the-sidekicks#3 The Sidekicks by Will Kostakis

I loved the idea of this story – three main characters who share a best friend, Isaac, but who aren’t really friends themselves. So what happens to them when Isaac dies? How do they cope when they don’t have anyone else apart from each other? Just like Frankie, this novel felt very Australian. There were many aspects of Sydney school life portrayed in the book that I remembered experiencing myself in high school. At the age of 27, I finally found a young adult book that I felt like I could relate to on a personal level.

#4 The Things I Didn’t Say by Kylie Fornasier26891896

This gorgeous book tells the story of Piper and West. Piper is the new girl at school and has Selective Mutism. West is the popular, sporty school captain. Whilst going through all the struggles of teenagers in their final year of high school, West and Piper fall in love. But how can you have a relationship with someone when you’ve never spoken a single word to them? Set in the Blue Mountains, and area not far from me, this book was just so beautiful to read. Very relatable and wonderfully packed with emotion!

y450-293#5 The Yearbook Committee by Sarah Ayoub

Five very different Year 12 teens, each feeling left behind or overlooked in their own way, are forced to work together on their school yearbook committee. Set in a western Sydney school, this novel explores many issues that teens face during their last year of school — the pressures of final exams, friendships, family issues, peer pressure and bullying — just to name a few. An extremely relevant and relatable book that I highly recommend for all teens.

#6 Green Valentine by Lili Wilkinson9781760110277

This is a gorgeous contemporary YA novel that I absolutely loved! Astrid is pretty, smart, one of the most popular girls in school and a keen environmental activist. Hiro is an outcast with a pessimistic life outlook. However, when they accidentally meet at the local shopping centre, they find that they are able to bring out the best in each other. Full of comic book references, comedic moments and great environmental/life messages, this is a great Aussie read for fans of John Green & Rainbow Rowell.

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#7 The Spark Series – Rachael Craw

So TECHNICALLY Rachael Craw is a New Zealander, but I am invoking the right to partake in the age-old Australian tradition of adopting anything amazing that comes from NZ as being Australian. In an age where there is a saturation of young adult books where the protagonists have amazing abilities, this series is refreshingly original and gripping. Revolving around genetic engineering and predetermined genetic abilities, this is a suspenseful and action packed series!

#8 Tomorrow When The War Began Series – John Marsdentomorrow-when-the-war-began-series

An absolutely classic Australian young adult series! I remember my grade nine English teacher getting me onto this series, and I will be forever grateful. The series follows Ellie and her friends as they return from a bush camping trip to discover that their country has been invaded and everyone in their town taken prisoner. Gripping and action packed, this series is almost a right of passage for Australian teen readers.

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#9 The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

Now famous the world over, I am going to sound completely hipster and say that I read this book before it was cool. The fact that a novel could be written from the point-of-view of someone who wasn’t the protagonist was a revelation for me. And when that someone’s point-of-view is Death… well, WOW! The use of language is elegant and refreshing, and the story itself is engaging, emotional and educational. The perfect homage to booklovers everywhere.

#10 Risk – Fleur Ferris24973955

This is a very important book. I really do feel it should be incorporated into the Australian National Curriculum as a prescribed text. It follows two best friends, Taylor and Sierra. They start chatting to a mystery guy on the Internet, and Sierra decided to meet him. Alone. Taylor covers for her, but when Sierra never comes back from the meeting, Taylor knows something is very, very wrong. A cautionary tale that is very topical and terrifyingly realistic.

Must-Read Monday: Forty Autumns by Nina Willner

forty-autumns

In this memoir, Nina Willner tells the true story of her family who were separated from each other by the Iron Curtain for over forty years, and who were reunited upon the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Hanna, the author’s mother, left her parents and seven (later, eight) siblings and escaped from East Germany into the West at the age of twenty. Eventually Hanna married and moved to America, where she had her own children, including Nina. Nina joined the intelligence services and, in a twist of fate, was posted to West Berlin as the first female Army Intelligence officer to lead intelligence operations into East Berlin at the height of the Cold War.

I am not a big reader of non-fiction or biographical books. I may read one or two a year, and often I find them average at best. But I found this story a captivating read. I know it’s only early January, but I feel like it may make it to my Top 5 Books Read in 2017.

The story would be heartbreaking as a work of fiction, but is absolutely devastating as a recount of fact. The depth of description of the events and horrors that were experienced by the author’s East German family during the Cold War was absolutely chilling to read about. The black and white family photographs that appear throughout the book also make the story that much more real, and that much more enthralling. The author gives us the big picture world events that were happening both in the West and in the Eastern Bloc throughout the decades of the Cold War.

I felt every single emotion this family felt. I felt like I had lived it with them. And in a rather roundabout way, I have.

My own grandparents, my Oma and Opa, along with my aunt and uncle (then in their early teens), fled East Germany in the mid 1950s before eventually emigrating to Australia. Through Nina Willner’s recounting of her family’s struggle living in the East and her mother’s frightening escape to the West, I feel like I now better understand my grandparents and their experiences in East Germany at that time, as well as the reasons for their terrifying escape into the West. I think this emotional connection to the story definitely enhanced my reading of the book. However, regardless, I still think this is a book that is a must-read. I haven’t before come across this level of factual detail and first hand account of life in East Germany during this time. This is an excellent novel that really hits home as to how things really were for the people who lived through this period of history.

Sentimental Sunday: Harry Potter

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Like every child who grew up in the 1990s, Harry Potter defined my reading habits, and was the centre of my reading world for 7 years. I was 10 or 11 years old and I remember a couple of my friends talking about it, and I remember seeing a lot of kids at school reading it. So, naturally wanting to fit in, I begged my mum to buy it for me. As there was no special occasion such as a birthday or Christmas coming up, my mum said no. I kept begging for an entire school term and finally, at the start of the school holidays when we were heading on vacation to Queensland, she finally bought the first book for me.

Suddenly, I was nervous. What if I didn’t like it? What if I didn’t finish it? What if all of the hype was for nothing? I think it took me a few days to actually build up the nerve to crack it open and start reading. I remember thinking that the first page was pretty boring, thank you very much (see what I did there?), but I kept going, and like everyone around the world, I was hooked. It took me two weeks to finish the book, keeping in mind that I was only about 11, and this was in the year 2000 during the Sydney Olympics, so most evenings were spent cheering on Australia. After I finished the first one, I HAD to have the second. I even used my very own pocket money to buy it. As a kid who only earned $3 a week, this was a big deal.

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The year 2000 was defined for me by Harry Potter and the Sydney Olympics

I’ve always loved books, stories and reading, but before Harry Potter, I cannot actually remember being completely drawn into any fictional story or any fictional world in the same, obsessive way that I had been with Harry Potter. It was like an awakening. Stories can be this amazing? Books can actually be this engaging and wonderful? Characters can have well-defined, relatable personalities? It was an utter revelation! Like everyone else during the peak period of Harry Potter mania (BEFORE the films, for all you young ‘uns!) it became the centre of my world. I had to have all the merchandise. Unfortunately, most of it was only readily available in the States, but luckily for me, in 2001 our family vacation took us to the West Coast of the USA, and boy did I have my Harry Potter shopping list ready! Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans? Check! Chocolate Frogs? Check! Harry Potter Trivia Board Game? Check! Harry Potter Trading Cards? Check!

In 2002, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was published. I had not been a part of the craze when Prisoner of Azkaban had come out, so this was my first experience at actually pre-ordering the new book! Mum wouldn’t let me do any of the subsequent midnight launches for any of the books 4 through 7 (boo!), but I always carefully shopped around before pre-ordering to see which department store or book store was offering the best add-on incentive to pre-order with them. Usually Dymocks bookstores had the best Harry Potter swag, usually in the form of the (now vintage) metal Harry Potter bookmarks.

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The now-vintage, metal Harry Potter bookmarks

To this day, I am still a massive fan of EVERYTHING Harry Potter. I have been done the Harry Potter studio tour in London, I saw all eight movies as they were released in the cinemas, I have visited various filming locations around the UK from the movies, I own LOTS of Harry Potter merchandise and companion guide books, I have embraced the new world of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Working in a bookstore, on the launch day in July 2016 for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, I did a full costume dress-up as Hermione. For me, this book has and continues to define my reading habits. It defined an entire generation. If it weren’t for J.K. Rowling and her wonderful series of books about an orphaned boy who discovers he is a wizard, I don’t know if I would have been the same person that I am today.

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The Diagon Alley set at the Warner Bros. Studios in London, UK

Screen Version Saturday: The Time Traveler’s Wife

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger tells the story of Henry and Clare. Henry has a genetic condition that causes him to spontaneously and uncontrollably time travel. Clare is Henry’s wife who is left to worry about him and his frequent absences. Due to his time travelling, Clare first meets Henry when she is 6 years old, and he is 43. Henry, on the other hand, first meets Clare when he is 28 years old and she is 20. The book alternates between the first-person perspectives of these two characters, and due to the jumps in time (and ages) it can be, at first, a bit of an effort to follow and comprehend. While the book divided critics, I absolutely loved it. It was an original premise and made for an intriguing and unconventional love story. This is one of those books that I have re-read multiple times over the years. When I first heard it was being made into a movie, I was a bit worried because I loved the book so much, and the movies are NEVER as good as the books.

The 2009 film of the same name stars Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams as Henry and Clare. Much as the book did, the film also divided critics, but I actually really enjoyed it. It was a very close adaptation of the novel, and one of the better book-to-film movies I have seen. All the major and important scenes from the book are present in the film, and very few are changed or adjusted in any way for the big screen. The only major difference between the book and film is the very final scene, and while it is different, it still does the same job that the scene in the book accomplished. Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana do a fantastic job at portraying the characters of Henry and Clare, and look eerily similar to how I pictured them in my head while reading the book. Regardless of whether you have read the book or not, you will need to have tissues handy for the end of the film. I first saw this movie with two friends, one of whom had read the book, and by the end of the film all three of us were in tears. All in all, this movie is great chick flick that has emotional depth and an engaging storyline. That being said, if you are not a fan of the book, you may not be a fan of the film.

 

Rating: Book screen-shot-2017-01-07-at-1-24-14-pm/ Movie screen-shot-2017-01-07-at-1-24-14-pm