The Constant Reader's Book Blog

(Reviews, Bookish Stuff and all Things literary)

17th April, 2019

Review: Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver (Head of Zeus)

Paver's Wakenhyrst was one of my most anticipated new releases of 2019. I was giddy with excitement when I finally got my grubby little hands on a copy but unfortunately the book didn't live up to my expectations. Bummer! But let's start with a plot synopsis:

1906: A large manor house, Wake's End, sits on the edge of a bleak Fen, just outside the town of Wakenhyrst. It is the home of Edmund Stearn and his family – a historian, scholar and land-owner, he's an upstanding member of the local community. But all is not well at Wake's End. Edmund dominates his family tyrannically, in particular daughter Maud. When Maud's mother dies in childbirth and she is left alone with her strict, disciplinarian father, Maud's isolation drives her to her father's study, where she happens upon his diary.

During a walk through the local church yard, Edmund spots an eye in the undergrowth. His terror is only briefly abated when he discovers its actually a painting, a 'doom', taken from the church. It's horrifying in its depiction of hell, and Edmund wants nothing more to do with it despite his historical significance. But the doom keeps returning to his mind. The stench of the Fen permeates the house, even with the windows closed. And when he lies awake at night, he hears a scratching sound – like claws on the wooden floor...

This is what I was expecting - especially after having read and adored Paver's previous work: an creepy ghost story. Alas, what I got was an only slightly eerie tale in which the most disconcerting element was the gothic mansion it is set in. Yes, it does explore questions of the supernatural and its relation to what we perceive as real. It is also a nice twist on the stereotype of the madwoman as we here have a strong female character and a male character who is losing his wits. In a way the story was reminiscent of John Harding's Florence and Giles but it lacked its finesse and playful subtlety. I was also always waiting for really terrifying things to happen but those didn't go beyond devilish figures leering at characters from the painting. 

What I did enjoy was the setting. The mansion itself is eerie enough but the surrounding fen with its earthy smells and strange noises was equally unsettling. Some characters were better drawn than others and I liked how Maud's perception of situations differed to that of her father. The story is also an interesting exploration of psychopathic and manipulative behaviour. 

So I didn't like this book as much as I had anticipated, but it was a decent read nevertheless. If you read this as a gothic study of turn-of-the-century character relations, you'll probably enjoy it. If you are looking for a full-on horror story full of terrors as in Paver's Dark Matter, you may be disappointed. 

Rating: 2/5 stars

13th April, 2019

Review: Lanny by Max Porter (Faber & Faber)


I finished this little book within one day on a recent reading retreat. And what a strange little book it was. Lanny is a chimerical and slightly twisted tale that needs some getting used to but then it doesn't disappoint. 

Lanny is a somewhat special boy. He is sweet, inquisitive, artistic - but not like the other kids. The village he lives in is populated by all kinds of people, the new and the old, and their lives are being watched over by Dead Papa Toothwort, an ancient spirit who is stiring in the ground and who has seen it all. Dead Papa Toothwort he has a plan: lives are disrupted and everyone begins to question everything and everyone else as a race against time begins.

This novel is extremely hard to describe. It is carried by a multitude of voices and it is weird. Yes. It truly is weird. However, that is also what makes it special as it stands out, even though the topic itself is not a new (or very unique) one. At times it feels like you are listening to the chorus of a Greek tragedy, at other times the book is pure emotion. Porter's characters are wonderfully drawn, from Lanny's always slightly distracted mum to his somewhat alienated dad and to Mad Pete and Lanny himself - even though they are not described in extensive detail, we learn so much through their speech. And we feel with them and for them. 

The unusual design of the text with sentences flowing all over the page and into each other makes this book an extra bit special. I loved how it digs up the past and presents it next to the present, how light and darkness are shown so close to each other and how current social observations are woven in together with myth and folklore. 

You need to experience this book for yourself as no description will be able to give it justice. :-)

Rating: 4/5 stars

9th April, 2019

Bookish Spotlight: Gladstone's Library, Hawarden, Wales


So, imagine you could simply step through a mirror or wardrobe (or insert any other mysterious portal of your choice) and you are in a stunningly beautiful library full of impressive leather-bound tomes. And now imagine someone telling you that you can actually live there for a while. Sounds like a dream come true, doesn't it? Well, no need for magic as this place is only a good thirty-minute bus ride away from the city of Chester, situated in the wonderfully quaint village of Hawarden in North Wales (UK).

Gladstone's Library is a magnificent grade 1 listed building which pays tribute to William Gladstone, a four-time prime minister of Great Britain in the later half of the 19th century, who founded the library himself. After his death in 1898 it became a memorial to his life and work. Gladstone's is a residential library, a place for study and contemplation and a meeting place for bibliophiles from around the world. So when a friend who I had met through Litsy (a social media platform for bookworms) asked if anyone was up for a weekend reading retreat in this marvellous locationI didn't think twice and booked my room and flight within minutes.

When we arrived at the library we were all kind of giddy with excitement, on the one hand because of meeting a bunch of people you'd only so far talked to online and, on the other hand, because of the sheer beauty of the place. The reading rooms themselves are absolutely magnificent - think Disney's Beauty and the Beast and you'll get an understanding of what I mean. They are indeed a place of silence with absolutely no talking allowed. I felt that merely sitting in one of the comfortable leather armchairs with my book and enjoying the tranquility had an amazing soul-cleansing and centreing effect, because it is so far removed from the stress of our everyday lives.

The rest of the building is certainly just as attractive as the library proper. Many of the rooms come with beautiful book wallpaper and all of them have old-timey Roberts radios and mullioned windows. Something they explicitly do not have are TVs because of Gladstone's Library seeing itself as a place for research, study and debate. And this is precisely what I appreciate about it: Three days of peaceful tranquility, hours of reading, good food and bookish conversations in the lounge or over meals left me so incredibly refreshed and regrounded that it actually surprised me how relaxed I felt afterwards. It is the perfect sanctuary in a time where distraction is everywhere, and I found myself thinking that this must surely be what the characters in Thomas Mann's famous novel The Magic Mountain must have felt.

We started our first day of the retreat with a scrumptious Afternoon Tea in the library cafe and food somehow became a constant entity, either in the form of lovely pub lunches and dinners or as nibbles, cake and candy as reading accompaniment in front of the fire place in the cosy guest lounge. (Thank goodness, we walked some of it off on a brisk country walk on day two - haha.) And of course it was also the wonderful people who were with me on this retreat that made it such a success. It felt good to be surrounded by book people, people who are comfortable with sitting together in silence with their nose in a book but who also love to have inspiring conversations in-between.

Gladstone's Library is a truly stunning place and I didn't want to leave. The next retreat is already planned so I'm looking forward to coming back and staying a bit longer next time around. If you'd like more information, you'll find it all on their webpage: https://www.gladstoneslibrary.org/

7th April, 2019

Review: Spring by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)

"Spring will come. The leaves on its trees will open after blossom. Before it arrives, a hundred years of empire-making. The dawn breaks cold and still but, deep in the earth, things are growing."

Ali Smith is simply the goddess of slightly weird and disjointed but deeply meaningful storytelling. I finished this book in a single day on a Reading Retreat at Gladstone's Library in Wales (more on this in my next post!!) and absolutely loved it. Commenting on politics, literature and life‘s greatest questions, the seasons (and especially spring) carry a special role in this book.

As many of Smith's novels, this story needs some "getting into" due to the many voices that are speaking. Some chapters appear quite fragmented and experimental, but eventually plotlines merge and everything falls into place. I particularly admired how Smith uses wonderfully lyrical language which yet has a very current feel to it. Her take on contemporary politics (Brexit, Trump, migrant detention centres, etc.) is spot-on as are her rather philosophical ponderings on life (How to die? Who to be?) and literature (e.g. on truth vs. the worth of fabricated (auto)biographies). 

Spring breaks and plays with linear storytelling: past, present and future are mere entities that don't need to be treated in chronological order, which is indeed what makes this author's writing so unique. Her book is another masterpiece in the Seasonal Quartet and my personal second-favourite so far. Smith cleverly weaves the seasons into her stories without necessarily putting them centre stage.  They function more like structuring principles and, as with the plotlines in this novel, they often come together in the story before drifting apart again. A beguiling bunch of characters, some of which are a bit out-of-this-world, hold everything together.

If you're not one to shy away from postmodern narrative techniques, I highly recommend you read this book. It will leave you wondering about life, including its injustices. It's a book that leaves an impression.

Rating: 5/5 stars

4th April, 2019

Review: Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson (Mariner Books)

Lighthousekeeping tells the story of Silver ("My mother called me Silver. I was born part precious metal, part pirate."), an orphan girl who is taken into foster care by blind Mr. Pew, the enigmatic and strangely old keeper of a lighthouse on the Scottish coast. Pew tells Silver stories of Babel Dark, a nineteenth-century clergyman who lived two lives: a public one mired in darkness and deceit and a private one bathed in the light of passionate love. For Silver, Dark's life becomes a map through her own darkness, into her own story, and, finally, into love.

I had heard about this book before, sometime during my student days, but it was one of the few Winterson novels I hadn't read yet. I was therefore pleasantly surprised when I picked this novel as a "Blind Date with a Book" at the local bookshop when we recently visited Scotland.  

As with all of Winterson's writing you need to suspend disbelief as her stories are full of magical realism. This, however, is exactly what makes her books so wonderful. Yes, this tale is full of weird and surreal moments: I mean, how wonderfully bonkers is the idea that you need to harness yourself in in order to enter your lopsided house on a hill? Also, don't expect any linear plot strands. Lighthousekeeping jumps back and forth between narratives, weaving them into Silver's own while Pew's stories consistently blend fact and fiction. In the lyrical and powerful style of Winterson's writing, historical characters appear and disappear and their presences and absences perfectly illustrate how tangled our own lives really are. There is quite a bit of philosophical and metafictional pondering going on in this novel but it is never overwhelming. 

This book is an example of marvelous storytelling. As one reviewer has so fittingly put it: "Nobody writes like Jeanette Winterson". Lighthousekeeping is about love, about hope and memory, and about the stories that shape our lives. It's a magical read that I cannot recommend enough.

Rating: 5/5 stars

1st April, 2019

Bookish Stuff: Comfort Reads

It's a glorious spring day today and I ... am down with the creeping crud. Meh! Feeling somewhat crappy with this stupid cold, however, has made me think about comfort reading. I mean, if you're like me any kind of reading will essentially be comfort reading. Reading is simply something I need in order to balance my life. Yet, there are some books that I put into the category of comfort reads.

I guess what a comfort read is is a highly subjective issue. Every reader will have their personal list of titles or genres that they come back to when times are going - well - not so great. For me, a comfort read could either be a well-written chick-lit-kind-of-novel, one that isn't too cheesy but warms the heart, or it could be a particular classic. For example, I have a few childhood reads that I love to come back to when I'm not feeling well.

One of these is Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. I remember reading this in my teenage years and being utterly mesmerised by the character of Jo March. Back then I desperately wanted to become a writer. I was also clumsy and had a bit of a temper - just like my heroine from the book. Little Women meant so very much to me at that time and it still is the book I mention most often when people ask me what my favourite novel is. I know, it is far from perfect but it always lifts my mood and that's what counts. 

Another all-time favourite is Frances Hogson Burnett's The Secret Garden. This is a story that I first experienced as a film. (Yeah, I know. Psst, don't tell anyone.) But that most certainly didn't take away any of the pleasure of reading the book afterwards. The mystery of that hidden garden and the lush imagery is just a perfect remedy for anything.

A book I only discovered about two years ago but one that has become a favourite comfort read is E. Nesbit's The Railway Children. Yes, it is a bit naive but that's exactly what I love about it. The quiet and peacefulness of the remote countryside even in horrible times of war always works for me. It reminds me of the carefreeness of childhood and of times when you could just roam free until dark fell without any obligations whatsoever. 

Last but not least, as I'm sitting here with an annoyingly persistent headache and supporting the tissue industry, I'm self-medicating with William Sieghart's The Poetry Pharmacy. This little gem of a collection I came across last year when I travelled to London with a group of friends and we went to an event where Sieghart was interviewed by Jeanette Winterson. His poems were then read by four celebrities, among them the dashing Jason Isaacs and the marvellous Helena Bonham Carter. The book provides poetry for any situation in life and has emotionally helped me out in many tight spots. It also made me discover Wendell Berry, so I'll be forever grateful to Sieghart for that anyway. :-)

So this is my little list of comfort reads that I like to come back to over and over again. As I said before, this is highly subjective and obviously linked to certain moments in my past that made these books so important to me. But what are your go-to comfort reads?? I'd love to know so feel free to share in the comments!!

27th March, 2019

Review: The Republic of Motherhood by Liz Berry (Chatto Windus)


I crossed the border into the Republic of Motherhood
and found it a queendom, a wild queendom.
I handed over my clothes and took its uniform,
its dressing gown and undergarments, a cardigan
soft as a creature, smelling of birth and milk,
and I lay down in Motherhood’s bed, the bed I had made
but could not sleep in, for I was called at once to work
in the factory of Motherhood. The owl shift,
the graveyard shift. Feedingcleaninglovingfeeding.

Liz Berry herself describes this slim pamphlet a "gathering of poems". The Republic of Motherhood is a collection of strong and highly relatable poems about pregnancy and new motherhood. It is about how motherhood affects a woman's identity and how it changes your life more than you ever expected it to.

As with all poetry, this little book needs to be read slowly, needs to be savoured, needs contemplation. Some of the poems may seem very "raw" at first, at least that was my experience in that I found several of the texts very much focused on the meaningfulness of nature, e.g. as in Mother Nature, women being natural vessels of life, etc. It was these poems that I honestly had a little trouble connecting with. Their imagery is wonderful and in some you can almost hear the mothers' moaning during labour and picture the sheer strenght of women, but somehow I found myself more drawn to the texts that addressed the issues of new motherhood. Some of these really hit home, such as those that talked about how reality is different from expectation and how a child's bright smile somehow makes up for every hour of sleep lost, of every shirt vomited on and any preconceived notion bashed. 

Berry's poems are both fragile and clever, they have depth and they resonate deeply. Her smart use of language to convey emotions astonishingly captures what these most tender of times are actually like. It almost feels revelatory as Berry's texts let us look at the realities of female bodies and they stunninglyillustrate the beauty but also the ferocity of childbirth.

This is a book I'd recommend to all expectant or new mothers and, yes, actually to any woman in general. It's a tiny book, easy to carry around in a diaper bag, but it makes you feel connected to something greater.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

24th March, 2019

Review: Things in Jars by Jess Kidd (Canongate Books)

In Things in Jars we follow feisty and intelligent protagonist Bridget (Bridie) Devine, the finest female detective of her age who has taken on her toughest case yet.  Reeling from her last job and with her reputation in tatters, a remarkable puzzle has come her way. Christabel Berwick has been kidnapped, but Christabel is no ordinary child. With out-of-this-world abilities, a tendency to influence people's memories, eyes that change colour, and pike's teeth that can do horrible damage, Christabel might just be the spectacle that Victorian society desires. Bridie promises herself not to fail another child and enters a world of fanatical anatomists, mercenary showmen and crooked doctors in order to recover the stolen girl.

There are two things you have to simply love about this book: the characters and the beguilingly vivid setting. Kidd's story is full of stellar women who are not willing to conform to what Victorian decorum tells them to be, and the reader follows these powerful characters throughout increasingly weird and sometimes eerie situations. Kidd's wonderful portrayal of the Victorian Age had me hooked early on. In lyrical prose she arrestingly describes the sights, sounds and smells of London in the 1800s. It is particularly in these passages that her amazing talent becomes obvious. 

The story switches back and forth in time to tell us about Bridie's childhood, such as her coming over from Ireland, her early years of 'acquiring' corpses with Gan, and her eventually becoming laboratory apprentice to Dr John Eames. Bridie's past weaves itself through the narrative and not only in these flashbacks. There are stomach-turning killings, quite a bit of betrayal, and eventually Bridie's life is threatened as a vengeful enemy returns. All of this is peppered with curious but also creepy stories of walled-in children and women, of strange sea creatures and maybe the most stunning curiosity of them all: "the Winter Mermaid".

Jess Kidd clearly has a marvellous way with words. She is a sublime storyteller and her prose is always spot-on. The only thing I would criticise is that, for me, the story could have been a bit more 'pacey'. While I loved all the little details I sometimes wished that the narrative would move on a bit. The end, in contrast, then seemed a little rushed. This might just be my personal problem with Kidd's novels, however, as I experienced the same with her two previous books The Hoarder and Himself: I usually love the plot, the details and the characters but seemingly tend to have a bit of an issue with her stories' pacing.

All in all, Things in Jars is a great novel for anyone who likes a good Victorian story with gothic elements, characters with quite a bit of agency and a mixture of folklore with the ordinary. 

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

20th March, 2019

Bookshop Spotlight: Topping & Co., St Andrews, Scotland

I know I've let drop comments about this shop before, both here and on Instagram and Litsy, but today I think it's time that this wonderful place gets its own "Bookshop Spotlight". 

The independent bookshop Topping & Co. in St Andrews opened in 2015 after branches in Bath and Ely had already been highly successful. The first shop (in Ely) was founded by Robert and Louise Topping in 2003. A fourth branch is going to open its doors in Edinburgh in the summer/early autumn. And who knows what more is to come in the future? 

What makes me love Topping & Co. so much is its atmosphere: It's a bibliophile's heaven with honey-coloured bookshelves from floor to ceiling and sliding library ladders that help you reach the upper shelves. Also, it's clear quite quickly that the people who work here love books and I mean: LOVE books - in capital letters and with an exclamation mark. Almost every time I visit, I find myself having a wee chat with one of them. They are not just employees but true booksellers who know their wares and are passionate about their job. 

Another quirky benefit is that you are offered free tea or coffee while you are browsing the more than 50,000 titles. And I mean: what goes better together than a good brew and literature? Exactly! Nothing. Well, maybe chocolate, but that always poses the danger of nasty stains on the pages. The horror, the horror! So yes, better have a cuppa instead while you're perusing the shelves for your next read. And if you are looking for people to talk books with, the shop offers several book groups, such as "The Literary Odyssey Book Group" or the "Galley Book Club" (the latter of which is geared towards children between 7 and 11). There are also numerous literary events throughout the year. Just a few names that are lined up for the next few months: Ian McEwan, Ali Smith, Shaun Bythell, John Connolly, Mary Beard, etc.

What you will find a lot of at Topping & Co. is signed editions. There is a "Signed Editions" subscription service but while that is of course great for people who live further away, it's even more fun to hunt for treasures on the shelves directly. I've amassed quite a number of signed books this way without exactly meaning to, but hey - if I have the choice between a signed first edition and the regular one, the decision isn't such a tough one. And in general, I have found that Toppings seems to have pretty much everything in stock. I don't remember ever having to order in a title as one of the booksellers has always managed to somehow conjure up what I was looking for. 

One more aspect that I adore about the shop is its "Blind Date with a Book" shelf. I'm a total sucker for these kinds of things so, lo and behold, I find myself buying at least one of these wrapped mystery packages every time I visit. So far, I have never been disappointed. There was one book last year that wasn't really my cup of tea but this time I was very lucky and scored an edition of Jeannette Winterson's wonderfully atmospheric Lighthousekeeping and one of Vladimir Nabokov's ingenious Pale Fire. Sure, I already owned the latter but while I could have easily exchanged the book for something else, I'm just going to give it away as a present. 

This is a bookshop that any true bookworm will immediately want to move into. Especially in the colder months the mix of books, tea or coffee and a cosy wood fire will make you want to while away an hour... or two or three. It makes me extremely happy to see that independent bookshops seem to be thriving again and Topping & Co. is definitely one of places that make people fall in love with bookshops over and over again. 

17th March, 2019

Review: A Pinch of Magic by Michelle Harrison (Simon and Schuster)

On the mysterious, marsh-bound isle of Crowstone, three sisters - Betty, Fliss and Charlie - live imprisoned by a curse that has trapped their family for generations. But each of the sisters holds a secret, three magical objects passed down to them, each with a different enchanted property: an old traveling bag, a nest of dolls and a gilt-framed mirror. Together they hope to use their inheritance to defeat the curse upon them.

This is the type of daring and dainty story I would have absolutely gone crazy over as a child. Michelle Harrison is a wonderful and talented writer as well as an expert in creating atmosphere. This book is a quest for survival, including magical objects, brave heroines and cunning plotting and it is simply a middle grade gem of a story: beautifully written by an author who knows how to make every sentence and phrase count. The reader is quickly swept up in the mystery surrounding the Widdershins family (what a name! <3 ) and breathlessly follows the three sisters' fate. 

Harrison's characters are for the most part multi-dimensional and believeable. The only issue I had was with Fliss, who - compared to Betty and Charlie - comes across as rather flat. She's shown as the stereotypical vain, slightly less intelligent village beauty, which I found didn't do her justice. While I understand that the story at some point needs to put its focus on one of the sisters - and I do love that this was Betty - I think that at least Fliss could have been developed a bit better (hence, my detracting of half a star). Charlie, on the other hand, is just adorable and feisty - a character you cannot but adore. 

What had me hooked in this story was the wonderful atmosphere. The scene on the water when Colton and Betty trick Fingerty was pure gold and with Harrison's knack for painting a vivid image of night on the marshes, I was constantly waiting for things to appear in the mist. So two thumbs up for giving me a few goosebumps. Also, the elements of betrayal and revenge sweep the reader along in this spellbinding tale. It is an enticing and dark story with a finely crafted plot. 

So put away your mobile phones and jump into an adventure. Crowstone and the Widdershins are waiting for you. 

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

15th March, 2019

Review: Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid (Hutchinson)

I feel like I have to warn you before you keep reading on as my review of this book will be an example of an unpopular opinion. Daisy Jones & The Six has been going viral on social media in the past few months. It is one of these Bookstagram hits that everybody seems to love which makes you feel that you just HAVE TO read and like it, too. Alas, I didn't. Well, the first I obviously did but I simply didn't feel the story. 

Reid's book comes along as a pseudo-real chronicle of an iconic (but fictional) 70s rock/pop band. It is written in interview format with many different voices coming together to tell the story of how Daisy Jones came to join The Six and of the events that eventually led to the band's break-up. This is a story of sex, drugs and music, of the problems of building a family in this fast-paced industry and of people's individual demons. Peering beyond the glitz and glamour, the reader finds that not all is as glittery as it looks on the surface. 

Sounds interesting, doesn't it? And yes, to a certain extent it is. So what was my issue with this book? It's quite simple: the narrative form and its resulting lack of character depth. I first found the format intriguing but the problem is that (at least for me) the different members of the band remain flat and dry husks of what they could have been if the story had been told in a more traditional form. And, mind you, this is coming from a reader who absolutely loves postmodern ways of storytelling. Yet, sometimes the form cannot do justice to the content and that's what has happened here. I really wanted to get a deeper understanding of many of the characters: Karen, Billy, Daisy - they all are beguiling protagonists. However, as the narrative was forever jumping back and forth, it was difficult to really connect with them.

In addition, I don't really understand why there is such a hype about the plot itself. Essentially we are merely following a bunch of musicians getting drunk, getting stoned, getting laid. At times the book reminded me of the TV show Californication, only with music and set in the 70s. As a result, I kept wondering if I'm actually caring enough about this fictional band to continue reading. I did but this is definitely not one of those books that will stick with me. 

I heard the other day that the book is going to be turned into a mini series and maybe I will give that one a try. Possibly, this is one of the few books that work better for me on screen than on the page. As for the novel itself: if you are into 70s bands and the whole music industry, this may be the book for you. It is unique in its format and has quite a few interesting scenes and only because it didn't work for me, doesn't mean that others won't like it . In fact, as I said before, it seems to be very popular, so give it a go if the topic interests you. :-)

Rating: 1.5/5 stars

12th March, 2019

Review: The Girl Who Couldn't Read by John Harding (Borough Press)

This book is a standalone sequel to Harding's amazingly clever Florence & Giles which was a reworking of The Turn of the Screw. You can easily read it on its own but it's even more fun when you have read the first book. Here is how Goodreads describes the novel:

New England, the 1890s. A man calling himself Doctor John Shepherd arrives at an isolated women's mental hospital to begin work as assistant to the owner Dr Morgan. As Shepherd struggles to conceal his own dark secrets, he finds the asylum has plenty of its own. Who is the woman who wanders the corridors by night with murderous intent? Why does the chief nurse hate him? And why is he not allowed to visit the hospital's top floor? Shocked by Morgan's harsh treatment of the patients, and intrigued by one of them, Jane Dove, a strange amnesiac girl who is fascinated by books but cannot read, Shepherd embarks upon an experiment to help her. As he attempts to solve the mystery of Jane's past his own troubled history begins to catch up with him and she becomes his only hope of escape, as he is hers. In this chilling literary thriller everyone has something to hide and no one is what he or she seems. 

Harding's novel is a thrilling read that keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout. It has echoes of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca and even reminded me a bit of the film Shutter Island. It is quite clear early on that all characters a are hiding big secrets and are not who they claim to be. It's even more interesting then that you automatically find yourself rooting for the bad guy. He is such a wonderfully dark protagonist that you can't be but fascinated. This sympathy then however quickly shifts to the young girl who is using a weird, idiosyncratic language and claims she cannot read - she's wonderful, eerie, cunning, terrible and clever. Other characters lend tension and a creepy atmosphere to the story, such as the nasty Mrs O'Reilley and tragically clingy Caroline Adams. 

While following a traditional topos the backdrop is marvellous: a rambling lunatic asylum on an island in the middle of a river? Hell yeah! The gothic building is the perfect setting for mysterious goings on, including sinister looking corridors and creaking stairs. And being on an island obviously complicates things as people can't just walk away and are instead bound to a tightly regulated ferry schedule. It's a highly evocative setting that captures the reader immediately. 

The Girl Who Couldn't Read is a literary thriller with many intertextual references (just like Florence & Giles) with nods to Shakespeare, the Brontes, and many other writers and literary concepts. It's a beguiling read that you will just breeze through because you'll want to know how things turn out. Loved it! 

Rating: 5/5 stars

9th March, 2019

Review: The Blue Salt Road by Joanne Harris (Gollancz)

This is the perfect book for a stormy night. I read it on an overnight ferry trip and that backdrop added tremendously to the reading experience.

The Folk and The Selkie are stuck in an age-old conflict, and young Selkie are warned never to trust The Folk. Still, one curious young Selkie ignores the heedings of his elders and falls for a young human woman. She soon finds herself with child and, fearing that the Selkie will abandon her, steals his seal skin and spirits it away into her cedar chest. The Selkie as a result loses all memory of his old life. Unknowingly trapped as one of the Folk, he finds he has to support his family and sets out to sea on a whaler, not understanding why he constantly feels so cold and uncomfortable - until an old man tells him of the old legends and of his own fate... 

The Blue Salt Road is a story of the sea, a modern fairy tale of love, loss and revenge. It is based on myth, folklore and the Child Ballads - in this case “The Great Silkie Of Sule Skerry”. Harris is a brilliant storyteller who knows how to handle her folk tale material and spin it into her own story: the atmosphere in the book is mesmerising, the characters are vividly drawn and multi-dimensional. Her writing is both eerie and hopeful.

Harris' novel focuses mainly on the narrative of one couple but the author weaves in the history of a whole community and the selkie clan. It's a story that is fundamentally human, with all of the good and bad that this entails. It's about mistakes, about history repeating itself, about remorse but also about hope. Mistakes are vindicated, yet there are new beginnings.

I was truly captivated by this book. Harris has created a story that shocks and leaves you wondering about the capabilities of man. The Blue Salt Road is a must-read for anyone who loves folklore and Celtic myth. The fabulous illustrations of Bonnie Helen Hawkins make the reading of this book even more pleasurable. Very much recommended!

Rating: 4/5 stars

6th March, 2019

Review: The Valley at the Centre of the World by Malachy Tallack (Canongate Books)

This, ladies and gentlemen, is prose at its best. Tallack draws a simultaneously vivid and lyrical image of a small valley on the rugged west coast of Shetland and its few inhabitants. The Valley at the Centre of the World is a story of family and old ways of living, of love and grief, and of the intrusion of modernity into old traditions. 

"The thing he felt ending was not just one person, or even one generation; it was older, and had, in truth, been ending for a long time . . . It was a chain of stories clinging to stories, of love clinging to love. It was an inheritance he did not know how to pass on.'"

In Tallack's debut novel we meet David, a man who has lived in the valley all his life, and his wife Mary who is still struggling with the fact that both their daughters have moved away. Sandy is a newcomer to the valley but already a crofter. Alice has fled here after the death of her husband and is now trying to fight her demons by compiling a history of the region. 

The setting is marvellous: a place of harsh elements, sheep, crofts and old customs. Shetland is a place of tradition but as times are changing, David is worried that no young people will take over when he - the last person left who was actually born in the valley - is gone. Who will take care of this place and who will remember and pass on the age-old stories? Tallack's novel brilliantly tackles these questions and, in the process, draws us into this wonderful  place of sun and wind and the feeling of salt on your skin. It's a story about "community and isolation, about what is passed down, and what is lost between the cracks." 

The title itself is already cleverly chosen. The contrast of the valley quite obviously not being the centre of everything when we look at the big picture while actually being exactly that for its few inhabitants already shows perfectly what the novel is about: contrasts, change, perceptions. The valley in many ways represents a microcosm of the outside world, where increasing forces of change are ubiquitous. Just like Heaney appropriated layers of history in his poetry, Tallack also negotiates the past through questions of ancestral inheritance, creating a strong feeling of nostalgia. The inhabitants' desire to hold on as strongly as possible to the old ways is heart-breaking.

A definite strong point of this book is indeed its characters. Not all of them have honest motifs for what they are doing or are conflicted in other ways: from Ryan who is only looking for an opportunity to increase the balance in his bank account, via Terry, an alcoholic who is destroying his family and his own life, to Sandy who struggles with his feelings for another man's partner. Tallack, however, manages to well-balance his cast of characters and it is very easy for readers to become attached to quite a few of them. This is in fact one thing that really surprised me about The Valley at the Centre of the World:  not really much actually happens and still you find yourself rushing through the book because you want to know how things will pan out for everyone. In a way, the story was very much like a Virginia Woolf novel - it was more about underlying structures of tradition and the inner workings of the mind than any fast-paced action. 

I'm substracting half a star from my rating because some story threads seemed to just trundle along without being really resolved in the end. Apart from that, the book gets two thumbs up!!

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

3rd March, 2019

Review: In the Night Wood by Dale Bailey (Harper Voyager)

This is a book that left me wondering at night. It's been a while since I've read such a brilliant combination of rich imagery and heartwrenching grief.

Erin and Charles have fled to the UK from the States after the tragic death of their six year old daughter Lissa. As a result of their loss the marriage is in shambles and both characters have drawn back into their own little worlds. Charles hopes to find solace in the writing of a biography of Caedmon Hollow, an obscure Victorian author, whose book Charles first came across as a child and for whom he has held a strong fascination ever since.

The couple settles in at Hollow House, a remote Yorkshire mansion, but soon things become positively creepy. Ancient powers are stirring, both Charles and Erin see the ghost of their daughter and are haunted by the horned figure of the fairy king in their dreams, while the woods seem to be growing denser and drawing nearer by the day. 

In the Night Wood is essentially a fairy tale but it is also full of raw, gut-twisting grief. Even though I had obviously read the synopsis before starting the book I was not entirely prepared for the debilitating emotions that are cursing through its pages. I'm aware that this is probably because our son is of a similiar age as the protagonists' daughter. As a parent, experiencing even just a fictional portrayal of such pure despair is hard to stomach. So take this as fair warning and be prepared for "all the feels". 

What I loved about the story were the rather traditional folkloric and mythical elements. As someone who grew up with stories of 'Herne, the Hunter' I found Bailey's book to be an interesting take on the legend. The setting may be a bit of a stereotype (partly derelict, haunted house and all that jazz) but at the same time Bailey does such a wonderful job in evoking the landscape around Hollow House that it is near impossible not to be drawn in. You can almost hear the wind rustling through the leaves and smell the moss on early summer mornings. Even though the characters are not exactly likeable, I found myself feeling deeply for them. I also did want to slap them, however, and not infrequently.  ;-)

Another perk of the book are the numerous intertextual references and allusions. Some of them are directly connected to their source but others are simply strewn in. I'm a nerd, so I loved this little "spot the quotation" aspect of the story. 

The ending becomes somewhat predictable as the narrative progresses but even that didn't take much away from my enjoying it. This is a quick read full of atmosphere, perfect for a stormy night. 

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

28th February, 2019

bOOKISH STUFF: REREADING FAVOURITE BOOKS

So recently I was feeling a reading slump coming up. You know this weird annoying, slightly tingly feeling when all of a sudden your reading spree begins to falter and every book you pick up simply cannot satisfy you? A while ago I posted a blog entry on ways to overcome such a slump (here is the link if you are interested) and one of my strategies is going back to one of my favourite reads.

Which is how I picked up Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane again and finished it in two days. This novel is one of my favourite Gaiman stories and I can't even exactly pinpoint why. Maybe it reminds me of childhood and those days when you could just roam free during the holidays and only had to be home when it became dark (something that is somewhat unheard of nowadays but I grew up in the 80s/early 90s ;-)). Maybe it is because it's a simultaneously simple and multi-layered story with a fairy tale twist. Maybe it's for different nostalgic reasons as I remember the giddy excitement of getting my copy signed by Neil at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2013 when I was pregnant with my son. I was starstruck and happy and anxious - all at the same time.

And in fact it doesn't really matter because for everyone the choice will be different for equally different reasons, be they simply because you liked the story, or you love the author, or you have certain memories attached to previous readings of the book.

When I reread Ocean I was amazed by how much of the story I had forgotten. Not the general plot or some of the more dramatic scenes but the little details. I really enjoyed experiencing these small facets of the story again or - as it felt at times - like for the first time. And I believe it's exactly this experience that makes rereading your favourite books so worthwhile and frequently manages to clear your head for other stories again. It really is a bit like a cleansing. You don't need to have any anticipations because you already know that you like the story, you can focus on the minute details that make the story work and look at "why" something happens and not at "what" happens. Trust me, Shakespeare did have a point when he basically gave away the ending of Romeo and Juliet in the prologue in order for his audience to be able to look at the intricacies of the plot.

I haven't fully shaken the reading slump feeling yet but with the right stories on my TBR stack, I hope to get back in the swing soon. There are so many great books coming out this year and I still have a few review copies that look promising waiting for my attention. So begone, reading slump, begone. :-)

26th February, 2019

Review: The Truth Pixie by Matt Haig (Canongate Books)

This will be a rather short book review but after all The Truth Pixie is a very very short book. Still, I wanted to share my thoughts with you as I loved this little book so much.

"Wherever she is, whatever the day, She only has one kind of thing to say. Just as cats go miaow and cows go moo, The Truth Pixie can only say things that are true."


You can already tell that our little protagonist is going to be in trouble. Her problem is that, simply because she can only tell the truth, the truth pixie offends everyone and, as a result, is completely alone. The only companion she has left is a little brown mouse called Martha wholives in the pixie's hair.

This is a truly heartwarming story and it had me giggle throughout. Well, at least until the last bit where the story becomes a bit philosophical when the truth pixie helps out a little girl who isn't feeling so brilliantly. I really liked that last part though as it hold so much - well - truth! The Truth Pixie is essentially a lesson in braving the struggles of life and finding something positive to look forward to, even in the bleakest of times.

"There will be people you love,
Who can't stay for ever,
And there will be things you can't fix,
Although you are clever.
Sure, life isn't always one big smile,
But things turn out fine, when you wait a while."


I listened to the audiobook which is narrated by the amazing Olivia Coleman who does a marvellous job in bringing the truth pixie to life. The print edition is just as fab and beautifully illustrated throughout by Chris Mould. This is a wonderful book that you should read to your children. I'm serious, don't miss out on this gem!

Rating: 5/5 stars

23rd February, 2019

Review: The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (Greenwillow)

Boy has always been relegated to the outskirts of his small village. With a large hump on his back, a mysterious past, and a tendency to talk to animals, he is often mocked and abused by the other kids in his town. Until the arrival of a shadowy pilgrim named Secondus. Impressed with Boy’s climbing and jumping abilities, Secondus engages Boy as his servant, pulling him into an expedition across Europe to gather the seven precious relics of Saint Peter. Boy quickly realizes this journey is not an innocent one. They are stealing the relics, and gaining dangerous enemies in the process. But Boy is determined to see this pilgrimage through until the end—for what if St. Peter can make Boy’s hump go away?

This is how the publisher describes Murdock's novel of bravery and adventure. Set in Europe in the Middle Ages we follow Boy's quest for becoming a "normal boy" and Secundus' mission to gather seven holy relics.

For me, the story was, on the one hand, an enjoyable read, and I found Boy to be a genuinely endearing character that sticks with you. In fact, I believe that characterisation is indeed one of the strong points of the book. Murdock has truly done a wonderful job of making Boy a memorable protagonist. As a reader you immediately sympathise with him, even though he remains somewhat mysterious till the end of the book.

On the other hand, the quest element that is of course a very central motif in the story was a bit too formulaic for me. This experience might be very subjective and is possibly based on my academic background in literary studies, but I had the feeling like someone had essentially brushed a story over Joseph Campbell's idea of the monomyth.* This part of the story also felt very slow at times and I never truly found myself being pulled in.

Another aspect I stumbled across was the density of theological background. The Book of Boy is essentially historical fiction, mixed with a bit of fantasy but none of the Christian belief elements were truly explained, and I find that quite critical in a book for middle grade readers. There are some interesting heists and thefts happening in the story, and Boy and Secundus have to wriggle their way out of several close scrapes, but I imagine that this isn't enough for young readers who don't necessarily have a lot of background knowledge in Medieval theology. And I felt that you really needed that knowledge in order to appreciate the many layers of the story. And then the ending - well, that was a bit of a twist but not a true surprise after Murdock's many hints throughout the narrative.

All in all, a nice tale but nothing that blew me away. It's definitely geared more towards young adults than children, and even those will probably need some guidance/background info in order to fully enjoy the story.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

(If anyone is interested in Campbell's theory, check out his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces).

21st February, 2019

Review: The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi (Wednesday Books)

Meh! Is that even a word? Well, it certainly does summarise perfectly how I felt about this book. This was another of these hyped YA novels – the ones that get a lot of attention on social media and which everybody seems to love. Alas, I didn’t. But before I tell you why, here is the synopsis:

It's 1889. The city is on the cusp of industry and power, and the Exposition Universelle has breathed new life into the streets and dredged up ancient secrets. Here, no one keeps tabs on dark truths better than treasure-hunter and wealthy hotelier Séverin Montagnet-Alarie. When the elite, ever-powerful Order of Babel coerces him to help them on a mission, Séverin is offered a treasure that he never imagined: his true inheritance.

To hunt down the ancient artifact the Order seeks, Séverin calls upon a band of unlikely experts: An engineer with a debt to pay. A historian banished from his home. A dancer with a sinister past. And a brother in arms if not blood. Together, they will join Séverin as he explores the dark, glittering heart of Paris. What they find might change the course of history—but only if they can stay alive.

Sexy heists, diverse protagonists, 19th century Paris? Hell yeah! BUT… while I did enjoy the first few chapters, the book quickly lost me. The characterisation was extremely weak, the setting definitely did NOT have the feel of fin de siecle France and the switching between different voices was more of an annoyance than a positive feature of the story. And this is exactly what bugs me: the book had so much promise that it simply didn’t fulfil. I was literally in tears over so much wasted potential.

Additionally, I am of course aware of the fact that this is a young adult novel but does that mean that the characters have to be so childish while pretending to be grown-ups? Clearly not, as many other YA books have shown. While the author could have done so much with the characters in all their glorious diversity, all we get is boring teenager banter and only little snippets of background story. The chapters of the book jump between the different protagonists’ viewpoints, but they all felt very interchangeable to me. I sometimes drifted off and then couldn’t really remember which character I’m actually following right now as they all sounded so alike. Yes, they do have different backgrounds and… well… psychological problems, but their voices aren’t distinct enough.

And then the setting – the basic idea was amazing and I absolutely adored the whole steampunky atmosphere and the general idea of Forging. What I didn’t believe for one second was that this was supposed to be late 19th century France. Except for the backdrop of the Exhibition Universelle, the entire story felt very futuristic. Maybe I wouldn’t have stumbled over this if the blurbs hadn’t advertised the book as being set in historical Paris. It is definitely more of an alternative history kind of narrative.

Unfortunately the book wasn’t for me and I’m yet undecided whether I should be mad at myself because it simply didn’t connect with me or mad at the author because the story didn’t live up to its potential. Oh well, I guess that’s the quandary of subjective perspectives and personal taste.

Rating: 1.5/5 stars

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