The Constant Reader's Book Blog

(Reviews, Bookish Stuff and all Things literary)

8th April, 2020

Bookish Stuff: Teaching Literature Remotely

This is a somewhat unusual article for this blog as it is neither a review nor a bookshop spotlight or some such. It still has a bookish connection though as I teach British Literature at a German university and feel like I want to reflect on the changes Covid-19 has brought to how I'm now doing my job.

Ever since our Government postponed the beginning of the summer semester by two weeks, we've been told that we'd better start revamping all our seminars so that they work as remote-learning courses. Whew! That is quite a task, especially since I had already prepared everything for regular teaching. 

I mean, compared to other disciplines, we actually are in quite a priviledged position. I'm aware of that. I don't even want to think about what it must be like for colleagues teaching in subjects like chemistry, where the use of lab space is essential for a decent learning outcome. Us literary scholars are often smiled upon by people who claim that we are only sitting in our little ivory towers where we read all day. Right now, during lockdown, it actually does feel a little like that but normally that is not what we do. Yes, we read a lot but we certainly have not lost touch with reality. Literature can teach us way more things than a lot of people are aware of... but that is another story and should be told at another time (and yes, I stole that line from one of my favourite children's books). 

But even if we don't need labs or field work etc., I find it quite challenging to suddenly gear my seminars towards remote teaching and learning. 

The main reason is that literature classes thrive from class discussions. When I step into a seminar, I never really know where we will end up by the time class finishes, simply because my students will have had diverse reactions to the texts they read and prepared at home and, while I can have a certain target goal, we can never fully tell where our debate will lead us. And this is exactly what the humanities are about - they teach students to engage critically with any sort of text, to be flexible, to be quick analytical thinkers and to be open-minded. This is something I will unfortunately not be able to fully recreate when I'm teaching them online. My classes are too big to really work well in the form of a virtual classroom. Also, not all students have access to a quick internet connection so live online classes would put certain people at a significant disadvantage. So instead, I'm providing my students with texts, guiding questions, short explanatory videos, etc. and I rely on them to be focused and disciplined in this more independent form of learning while I'm always available via email, landline phone or video calls and the occasional Zoom session if larger questions should pop up. Yes, it will work - I'm quite sure of that - and it is an interesting challenge, but it will simply not be the same as seeing and engaging with them face-to-face. I love to show them what it means to be passionate about literature, about books, about popular culture and I usually do that by geeking out myself and thereby showing them that it's okay to be geeky and ardent about something. I will try to do my best to get that across online but I'm still looking forward to finally seeing their faces again when all of this is over. :-)

How is the current situation influencing your job? Let me know in the comments. :-)

Photo Credit: Adobe Stock

31st March, 2020

Review: Malamander by Thomas Taylor (Walker  Books)

I would like to finish this month with a review of a book I read for #MiddleGradeMarch. Malamander is easily the most interesting children's book I've read in a while. The story is full of weird people, whimsical names and strange happenings, and I adored it! Herbie Lemon is the Lost-and-Founder at the Grand Nautilus Hotel and everything is "normal" up to the day that a girl appears in his basement office yelling "Hide me!" Welcome to Eerie-on-Sea!

Nobody visits this little town in the wintertime. Especially not when darkness falls and the wind howls around Maw Rocks and the wreck of the battleship Leviathan, where even now some swear they have seen the unctuous malamander creep…
Herbert Lemon knows that returning lost things to their rightful owners is not easy – especially when the lost thing is not a thing at all, but a girl. No one knows what happened to Violet Parma’s parents twelve years ago, and when she engages Herbie to help her find them, the pair discover that their disappearance might have something to do with the legendary sea-monster, the Malamander. Eerie-on-Sea has always been a mysteriously chilling place, where strange stories seem to wash up. And it just got stranger...

This book was a complete cover buy for me. I had never heard of it and also didn't know that the author was the illustrator of the first Harry Potter book (the British edition). When I saw it on the bookshop shelf and then read the synopsis, however, I was hooked immediately. And once I started reading, I was in love! 

Thomas' novel is utterly weird, well-paced and so so so imaginative. The two main characters are a wonderful blend of precociousness, charm and typical kid mischief. I loved how the author plays with words and names, and Eerie-on-Sea was simply a delightfully perfect setting for all the magic and mystery that is going on. The story was marvelously devised, it was engaging - the climax, for example, had me completely engrossed -, and it made me hungry for more so that I already preordered part two of the series. Malamander has enough hint of menace to give you goosebumps but not so much that you'd have to hide underneath the covers (after all, it's still a Middle Grade book). If you are looking for a quick, suspenseful and captivating read, I highly recommend you read this. 

Rating: 5/5 stars

25th March, 2020

Bookish Stuff: Reading in Times of Corona (Ramblings from my self-isolation book fort)

So, it is the Corocalypse, and the whole world seems to have come to something resembling a stand-still. Whole countries are under lockdown, shops are closed, people are staying home and trying to make the best of the situation. All of this is highly stressful and causing a lot of anxieties. There are tons of websites on the net speculating about what will happen, and there are just as many lists of things for people to do to relieve those nasty anxieties. 

I'm sure you've already guessed (it wasn't such a hard guess after all), but for me literature has always been a source of comfort. Whether I was feeling low because of a bad breakup or due to stress at work, books have always been my go-to "security blanket". And now as well, I find myself seeking comfort and distraction in fiction and poetry, rereading old favourites and using the time to explore new writers as well. (Of course this is just me, and I've heard from a lot of people that they have trouble concentrating right now and can't really get into a story. This is totally understandable and I think it's important to say that no reader should stress themselves if this is simply not the time for them to read. We are all unique and react to this global crisis in different ways. So this is just my personal experience that I'm sharing here.) 

Ever since we've heard on the news that shops would have to close here in Germany, I've been worried about my favourite retail places and about my local indie bookshop in particular. After all, they rely on their customers and for a lot of businesses the danger of going bankrupt is more real than ever. Thankfully, our bookshop hasn't shut down completely and is now running a contactless delivery service. Ignoring my bank account completely, I've already put in two orders this week and received the second one yesterday afternoon  - in a cute colourful bag that was hanging from my doorknob including a friendly little wave from afar from our bookseller. In these times when personal contact is limited that friendly wave meant so much, and it felt a little bit like Christmas and my birthday thrown together to get this bag of books. 

This is in fact one thing I've noticed in the past few weeks: All of a sudden I find that I'm living more consciously. I appreciate everyday things a lot more and am amazed at certain developments, such as that our air seems so much fresher and crisper now that there are less cars and planes zipping around the streets and skies. Also, maybe particularly because we have the kid at home and have to try and entertain a 6-year-old all day (Someone send help!), I savour the extremely limited quiet time that I now have even more. The husband and I have agreed on each of us getting certain "free" time slots during the day when we can work undisturbed or do "our thing" while the other is playing Lego, drawing giant crayon rainbows in the driveway or other such fun kid stuff. I love my family to pieces but I'm an introvert who normally needs a bit of private time and being stuck in the house together all day for weeks can be taxing. So this is where my books come in. During my "free time" or once the kid is tucked in, I'm getting lost in my stories. It may be escapism at its finest, but - hey - all is fair in times of trouble, right? So be it Anne, the March sisters, bookwandering Tilly or the latest Ellingham Academy whodunnit - it feels good to dive into these tales where life is so different from ours right now. 

I'm sure we'll all see the world in a different light once all of this is over, and I hope we'll be able to keep some of the mindfulness and compassion that I've been witnessing all over. And until we're getting out on the other side of this, stories will keep us going. That's how it's been ever since humans invented language and that's probably how it will always be: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." (Joan Didion)

I hope you're all staying safe. Keep calm, read on, and remember that the answer to everything is always "42". :-) I'd also love to hear your strategies in these difficult times so feel free to leave something in the comments.

19th March, 2020

Review: The Scent Keeper by Erica Bauermeister (St. Martin's)

The Scent Keeper is a book that feels like a warm, fuzzy blanket. It is beautiful prose at its best and a lyrical exploration of where we come from as well as who and what determines our futures.

Emmeline lives an enchanted childhood on a remote island with her father, who teaches her about the natural world through her senses. What he won't explain are the mysterious scents stored in the drawers that line the walls of their cabin, or the origin of the machine that creates them. As Emmeline grows, however, so too does her curiosity, until one day the unforeseen happens, and Emmeline is vaulted out into the real world--a place of love, betrayal, ambition, and revenge. To understand her past, Emmeline must unlock the clues to her identity, a quest that challenges the limits of her heart and imagination.

I was initially a bit sceptical when I picked up Bauermeister's novel as I had read quite a few "remote island/ child growing up in the wilderness/ from isolation into civilisation" stories in the past few weeks (Do I detect a certain literary trend maybe?). I had heard that it was the February pick for Reese's Book Club and had seen it hyped all over social media - something that can be a very good or a very bad sign, really. As soon as I had read the first page, however, Emmeline's tale had me captured hook, line and sinker! Normally, I have several books going at the same time, but here I didn't, because I felt it wouldn't do this beautifully immersive story enough justice. So I fully concentrated on this mesmerising novel and devoured it in two days.

What did I love about it? Honestly, almost everthing! I adored the lyrical prose, Bauermeister's descriptions of relationship dynamics and nature, the fairy tale like quality of Emmeline's childhood, the different settings, and of course all of these wonderfully round characters. 

It is hard to write a more detailed review without giving too much away, so I'll stop here to avoid spoiling your fun. I only want to say that Bauermeister's writing is simply stunning. There is a touch of magic to The Scent Keeper as well as so much imagination and hope. It is the perfect book for these crazy times.

Rating: 5/5 stars

11th March, 2020

Review: Heartstopper (Volumes 1, 2, and 3) by Alice Oseman (Hodder)

I came across this series of graphic novels on Instagram and finished volumes one thru three in two short nights. Charlie and Nick's queer love story is a sweet tale of the search for acceptance and the oftentimes quite tricky lives of teenagers still trying to find their identities.I'm rev iewing the first three volumes together as the story seamlessly continues from one book into the next.

I loved the easiness between Nick and Charlie, even though both are clearly struggling to come to terms with what is happening between them. Their affection is touchingly pure and innocent. We follow them through the school year, including rugby practice, movie nights with friends, conflicts with bullying school mates and, in volume three, a school trip to Paris. This is where Nick and Charlie's relationship gains momentum and depth, where secrets and problems are revealed and where the boys eventually find more confirmation in their circle of friends than they would have anticipated. 

I tremendously enjoyed parts one and two, even though the cute making out/sweet talking scenes sometimes became a tad too cheesy. Part three was the most interesting in a way because it was about the fear of coming out and it introduced other important themes. This is, however, where I came across a few points that irked me. The eating disorder explanation was a bit too simple and textbook for me, as (like with all mental health issues) the background of disordered eating is highly complicated while the book simply pulled the standard "This is the only thing I can control in my life" card. Also, Nick's dad is French and stereotypically depicted sporting a moustache. These were things that annoyed me a little, especially in a story that talks about diversity and the dangers of stereotyping, and even though the whole story is told in a simple and somewhat fluffy way, I think that Oseman could have at least gone a bit deeper here (or, if that's not possible, maybe should have just left out these elements). 

This, though, are relatively minor points of criticism and Heartstopper is a lovely coming-of-age graphic novel full of endearing characters. I look forward to seeing how the story will continue. 

Rating: 4/5 stars

3rd March, 2020

Review: The Saturday Night Ghost Club by Craig Davidson (Penguin)

Growing up in 1980s Niagara Falls--a seedy but magical, slightly haunted place--Jake Baker spends most of his time with his uncle Calvin, a kind but eccentric enthusiast of occult artifacts and conspiracy theories. The summer Jake turns twelve, he befriends a pair of siblings new to town, and so Calvin decides to initiate them all into the "Saturday Night Ghost Club." But as the summer goes on, what begins as a seemingly lighthearted project may ultimately uncover more than any of its members had imagined.

I started this book with certain assumptions and ended up getting something quite different. From the plot synopsis I had expected certain Stand By Me meets Stranger Things vibes, and was a bit surprised when the story went in a somewhat other direction. 

Essentially, The Saturday Night Ghost Club is a tale of friendship and the vivid imagination of children. When Uncle Calvin tells Jake and his friends horrid tales of murder and mayhem, the chilly excitement and fear in the kids becomes more than palpable. This is an element I thoroughly enjoyed as it brought with ittons of warm fuzzy feelings. If you are (like me) a kid of the 80s, you will find yourself in this little book over and over again. Staying out till the streetlamps came on? Riding your bike anywhere and everywhere without anybody caring much? Finding secret hideaways in places that would nowadays be deemed too dangerous? This is exactly the atmosphere Davidson's novel depicts, and it is glorious! 

What I didn't expect when I picked up the book where the scenes in the present in which Jake details some of his experiences as a brain surgeon. And it was one of these passages that actually brought me to tears for the first time while reading the story. I cried a few more times but there is that one case of a little girl that simply broke my heart.  

It is hard to describe the book in detail without giving too much away, but it is a wonderfully whimsical read that may bring back fond memories but that will also make you think about life, choices, the different kinds of trauma that everyone experiences at some point and our individual reactions to these. The book can be read in one sitting with its 200 pages (maybe on a Saturday night?) and it will give you both goosebumps and a warm feeling of nostalgia.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

25th February, 2020

Bookshop Spotlight: The Last Bookstore, Los Angeles (CA), USA

This place had been on my bucket list for quite a while so I was extremely happy when I finally made it to L.A.'s iconic The Last Bookstore on a sunny Sunday afternoon in mid-February. 

The shop, which is located at 453 S. Spring Street, has become a famous location in Downtown Los Angeles, openly declaring itself not only the largest seller of used, new as well as rare books but also working as something like an interior design art installation. 

The Last Bookstore is about 22,000 square feet in size and is spread over two floors. Most of the ground floor layout is quite similar to what you would find at your ‘regular’ bookseller, while the second floor is essentially what has made the shop famous. This is where you'll find the famous Labyrinth (as well as a Yarn Shop and the Spring Arts Collective gallery shops). The Labyrinth is where the Last Bookstore’s quirky character comes to the fore, and where visitors will find most of the amazing art installations, and intimate nooks with particular genres of books, including a vault for horror novels. This part is also home to the famous book tunnel and David Lovejoy's book sculpture of flying books. 

Naturally, I was very excited to finally be visiting this landmark and I did like it alright, but I must say that I was a bit wary of the superficial crowds it is drawing. Maybe I should have expected them as the shop can be found all over social media and not just posted by bookworms but by a lot of "trendy" people trying to look deep. This at least goes for the upstairs labyrinth which seemed to be nothing more than a cool photo op for many visitors. (And yes, I heard sentences like "Let me hold the book. Do I look smart? Oh wait, this is heavy. Why is it all made of paper?" - Imagine my gigantic eye roll at this moment, followed by an exasperated sigh.) I was kind of wishing for an employee to come and enforce the signs that say that you should not be disruptive to other customers. 

The downstairs, however, is a different matter and thankfully so: The clientele seems to be different, people were actually interested in books, and the shop as a whole provides an eclectic selection of new and used books for decent prices as well as rare books in the annex. The staff seemed knowledgeable and were kind and ready to help when I had a question about a particular graphic novel series. 

I left the shop with a mixture of bookwormish giddiness and a certain sense of cynicism at the superficiality of the world. Here we have such an amazing place and some people treat it as nothing but a backdrop for their own self-proclaimed coolness. Still, it is definitely a place I will visit again but maybe earlier in the morning when it isn't overrun yet. 

The Last Bookstore is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. (11 p.m. on Saturdays). The shop doesn't just sell but also buys books if you happen to want to go all Marie Kondo on your bookshelves. Please note that it also has an obligatory bag check for all bags exceeding the size of a small purse.

There is metered street parking in the area, but I suggest parking in Pershing Square and walking the two blocks to the shop. The Last Bookstore is also conveniently close to other local attractions, such as the Bradbury Building (where Blade Runner was filmed), Grand Central Market, the Public Library or the Angels Flight, so you might want to explore some more of Downtown L.A. after your visit. 

Bookshop webpage: 

25th February, 2020

Review: Creatures by Crissy van Meter (Algonquin)

Crissy van Meter's Creatures is one of these books that you embrace for their beautiful, heartbreaking prose but that are still lacking an almost undefinable tiny "something". It is still a wonderful debut and a stunningly poetic exploration of life, love and loss.

On the eve of her wedding, when Evangeline's groom may be lost at sea, her estranged mother suddenly appears on Eve's doorstep and a dead whale is blocking the entrance to the Harbour. This is Winter Island, a place steeped in myths and mystery. The story evolves through flashbacks to Eve's childhood, telling about the present alongside these jaunts into the protagonist's memories, so that the reader seamlessly drifts back and forth between both, a process that cleverly resembles the pull and push of the sea. 

What I loved about this book were van Meter's excellent descriptions of nature and island life. She draws an atmospheric picture of this fictional place just off the coast of Southern California, and the reader can't help but be pulled into the ebb and flow of Eve's narrative.

All of this could have made Creatures an outstanding novel as these elements are sometimes raw but always utterly mesmerizing. Yet, the story was lacking something for me and it's hard to clearly put a finger on what exactly it was. The book was captivating - yes - but I somehow had trouble connecting with the characters. I assume this is due to the narrative structure, so in fact it is a bit of a dilemma as that is exactly what makes Creatures work so well on other levels. Still, I would have wished for a bit more depth in the individuals populating this tale. 

However, even though I had a few issues with the story, Creatures is a promising debut that wonderfully details how our presents and futures are haunted by our pasts. I'm looking forward to seeing where this young author will go next.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

11th February, 2020

Review: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (Putnam and Sons)

For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life–until the unthinkable happens.

I started out really enjoying this book. It took me a few pages to get into Owen's specific tone of voice but then I loved it... until I didn't anymore. I know I'll be in the minority with this opinion but while Where the Crawdads Sing is surely a good book, it did not seem extraordinary to me. 

I really liked the early parts of the novel where we learn about Kya's heartbreaking childhood. I was interested in how she would deal with the situation and manage to survive, if she would eventually form connections with the outside world, and of course how her narrative would tie in with the parallel story of the 1969 murder of a young man from the close-by town. At the same time I found myself cursing her family for leaving her on her own devices like they did. 

The characters that populate the North Carolina marsh that serves as the novel's setting, are a mixture of (stereo)typical tropes. There is an abusive father figure with a drinking problem, a traumatised mother who abandons her children, privileged school kids, a kind African-American couple, all peppered with the unsettling dilemma of oscillating between sheer survival and a precarious sense of trust. This mixture of topoi, together with the dual narrative, could still have been promising, but unfortunately the author seems to aimlessly stroll amongst these elements without ever really transporting the fundamental and heart-wrenching emotions highlighted by her fabulous imagery of nature. After the first part of the novel the tone of the story changes in a somewhat weird way, and the plot becomes shallow and predictable.

While I really enjoyed the descriptions of nature and also felt deeply for Kya, all the other characters remained too one-dimensional for me. This is why I can only give this novel a three-star rating. I wanted to love it but, alas, I didn't. It wasn't bad, but just not my cuppa tea.

Rating: 3/5 stars

4th February 2020

Bookish Stuff: Second-Hand and Antiquarian Bookshops

I think it's obvious that I am part of the large endearing group of booknerds and that certainly also includes bookshops. I simply can't, and I really mean it: I cannot, walk past a bookshop without at least nipping in for a few minutes. Those minutes can easily turn into hours which means you really have to mean business if you agree on going bookshopping with me. ;-) For a long time, I didn't care very much for second-hand bookshops. While I did like the feel and smell of old books I somehow felt I had to have only brand new ones on my shelves. Don't worry, I now know better.

It was already a while ago that I began to frequent second-hand or antiquarian bookshops more often, but it only really started when I began collecting a certain luxury edition of books. The publisher of this collection has recently changed their pricing policy to one I can no longer agree with, i.e. I've basically stopped buying directly from them and now hunt for older but fine/like new editions. And I have found that this actually adds a lot to the pleasure of collecting these books because I never really know what I will find and many copies have interesting inscriptions, dedications, etc.  It's lovely to trace the history of a book and its former owner(s) through these. I recently acquired an old copy of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse which was previously gifted to a lady called Marge for her 75th birthday. I wonder what happened to Marge, if she simply got bored of the book and sold it on or if (probably more likely) she passed away and the copy ended as part of her inheritance and was sold to the bookshop by her family. 

There are of course thousands of wonderful second-hand and antiquarian bookshops out there and some of these are definite bullet points on my bucket list, such as Shaun Bythell's The Bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland. Others have become favourites for when I'm travelling and I make it a priority to at least stop for a quick browse. Here I introduce two of them - both located in the UK:

One of these shops is Barter Books in Alnwick (England) which is located in an old Victorian railway station and run by Mary and Stuart Manley. The shop feels like a booklover's version of falling into Wonderland. And between all the bookshelves stacked with treasures and wonderful murals on the wall there are little toy trains making their rounds above the customers' heads. There is a warm fire, an honesty coffee bar and a small cafe, and you can even barter for credit for future purchases. My son adores this place just as much as I do, though I believe it is more the trains for him but hey, whatever buys me a few minutes to buy some books. 

Another favourite is Bouquiniste in St Andrews (Scotland) - a lovely tiny shop tucked away at the end of Market Street. It has a small but wonderful collection and chatting with the owner is always a delight. The shop opened in 1982 and trades in all kinds of printed material. Rumour has it though that you won't find anything on mathematics here, but I haven't checked. :-) Books fill all four sides of the shop from floor to ceiling while beautiful sketches of scenes from the town decorate the wall behind the cashier’s desk. If you ever find yourself in Scotland's "little grey toon" make sure to nip in here. Make sure to check for their opening hourse beforehand though.

(Photo Credit: Beate Felten-Leidel)

29th January, 2020

Review: The Island Child by Molly Aitken (Canongate Books)

This is a book of the sea, of motherhood, and of identity. It's a story that will stick with you for days and it will make you think about family, traditions, and womanhood. 

The Island Child tells the story of Oona, born on the island of Inis, a place were old beliefs and superstition still reign. The men go fishing to provide for their families while the women's place is in the home. In this small community rumours spread like wildfire and people who are different quickly become outsiders. Even though Oona left the island twenty years ago, she still can't escape its pull.

Aitken's novel is written in the form of a dual narrative and we follow Oona's life both as a child on the island and as an adult who has to return. The Island Child is a book full of pain and heartbreak - it covers difficult topics such as abortion, rape, death, mental and physical abuse, and suicide. Yet, it is also a stunningly beautiful novel. I loved Aitken's voice and her way of describing landscape. I adored how she draws characters. They are all complex and deeply flawed, which makes them utterly believable. 

The story is full of little mysteries that develop perfectly due to the author's choice of narrative structure. Aitken's tale negotiates topoi such as womanhood and motherhood, and the author doesn't shy away from highlighting both the positive AND negative sides. It also explores religion and fanaticism, illuminating the harrowing effects both can have on an individual. All of this is supported by a subtle but constant underlying melancholy that creates the perfect atmosphere for this kind of story. 

Last but not least, Aitken's book raises the question whether one can really ever be completely free. Oona manages to leave the island but she has struggled with the trauma of her childhood all her life, and eventually she has to confront her own past and the history of her family. 

The Island Child is a powerful novel by an extremely promising young writer. It is raw and beautiful and heart-wrenching, all in one. Highly recommended!

Rating: 5/5 stars

(The Island Child will be out on 30th January!)

24th January, 2020

Review: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo (Flatiron Books)

Alex Stern (hardly anyone knows that her real name is Galaxy) has made it to one of the world's most prestigious universities. Born and raised in the "valley" of Los Angeles by her hippie mom, Alex has a history in drugs and dead-end jobs. She dropped out of high school early and is now the sole survivor of a terribly brutal multiple homicide. However, she is given a second chance. Alex is offered a place at Yale on a full ride, but there is a catch: She has to work for Lethe, an organization that keeps the activities of Yale's secret societies, places of magic and the playground for the future elite, in check. 

This book was amazing! It managed to drag me out of an oncoming reading slump because it was just so so good. 

Ninth House is simply the ideal mixture. It is a campus novel and in some ways reminded me of Donna Tartt's The Secret History. It is also a fantasy novel and a somewhat gruesome and gory murder mystery, all rolled into one. And this is exactly what made it so perfect for me. It kept me wondering throughout and even though I had a little hunch about how things might pan out, the ending surprised me and I was reading on the edge of my seat up until the very last page. Not many stories make me do that. 

The setting of this novel is almost like a protagonist in itself. New Haven - a place where town and gown clash maybe a little bit more than elsewhere - was a wonderful backdrop for the mixture of entitlement and grittiness that the novel conveys. Bardugo's characters are utterly convincing and most of them kick ass, but are deeply flawed - they have troubled pasts, questionable motifs, and sometimes weird and inexplicable ambitions. I loved how the author made use of ghosts and spirits ("grays") and how the fact that Alex is the only one who can see them, without ingesting a specific substance first, influences perceptions within the story. Some of the ghostly scenes were deliciously eerie and I loved the dynamics between Alex and the Bridegroom. 

I've heard some readers complain about the jumping back and forth in time between chapters but I must say that this didn't bother me at all. In fact, I found that it made perfect sense in the end and contributed to the overall mystery. I am very much looking forward to the sequel and, hopefully, many Alex Stern novels after that. 

Rating: 5/5 stars

17th January, 2020

Bookish Stuff: Planning a Holiday and a Long-Haul Flight - A Bookworm's Problems

The thing is: I'm planning a short trip to visit my former host family in California in February. I haven't seen my "second mom" in ages, so I'm really looking forward to these five days in my former home. However, being a bookworm, planning such a trip can be quite stressful. Here is why:

1) Luggage 
So I'll be away for only six days and, considering that I'll have a washing machine at my disposal, I don't need many clothes, i.e. a small carry-on bag should be enough. It saves you the trouble of having to wait for your bags after you arrive BUT... what about the books I want to bring? I mean, I have four whole days there and two 10-hour flights. I need reading material! And being a mood reader, I need choices!! Conundrum! 
This is where I'm trying to be reasonable: "Stef, you'll visit several bookshops over there. This means you'll buy books. You don't need to take your entire library. Three to four books are more than enough." Yes, okay, sounds legit, I'll try and relax.

2) Luggage 2.0
BUT! So I'll take only a small bag, but when I'm buying books over there, will they all fit in there? I'm basically back at where I started with my argument. Damn! Again, I tell myself to be reasonable: "Books are more expensive in the US, so you won't buy too many (only like six, or seven, or ten... at most... maybe) and they'll fit. Stop worrying!!" Alright, I'll take this as an exercise in self-control. I'll take a small bag and will therefore have to restrain myself when it comes to shopping. Piece of cake. Or is it? Hmmmm…

3) Seat Selection on Plane
Good, now that the luggage question is out of the way, I need to decide which seat to book on the plane. Window is a no brainer, but which section and which side of the plane? Yes, that IS a serious problem. On my airline's webpage I can see that there is a whole block of seats already reserved in the back which probably means a larger group of travelers and, as a reader, you do NOT want to sit anywhere close to them. Most of these groups tend to be noisy and I want to make the most of the time with my books and some good movies so I'll choose a seat as far away from them as I can get to hopefully get some quiet time. Good. So left or right side of the plane? Left will give me lots of natural sunlight but then that might trigger a migraine. Right will be less bright but also maybe a little too darkish, especially if I want to take one or two pictures for Instagram. I know, first world problems, but the struggle is real!

4) Which Books to Bring on the Plane
Which book is suitable for a long-haul flight? I sometimes have trouble concentrating when I'm flying so it shouldn't be too heavy stuff. At the same time I don't want it to be too fluffy. Help! Okay, I'll decide on a selection of different books so I have one for every mood. Maybe a bestselling novel, a collection of light essays and a favourite classic comfort read. I'll have a think.

5) Which Bookish Places to Visit
I lived in California for a while years ago and have visited numerous times so I don't really need to do the typically touristy stuff. There are a few places, however, I haven't seen yet and I'll try to hit at least the more bookish ones (some of which are also connected to film and TV). For one, I have a trip to L.A.'s The Last Bookstore planned with my former host sister. And while we're in the neighbourhood I think I'd want to visit the Bradbury Building as well which is were Blade Runner was filmed, the film version of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Then the L.A. Central Library is supposed to be beautiful and it's just around the corner.
Also, and this is something I've been dying to do for ages, I've decided to go on the Warner Bros. Studio Tour for the sole reason that it will take me to Stars Hollow, the town from Gilmore Girls. I want to sit in the town square (aka studio backlot) where Rory was reading her books. I guess she's been someone a lot of us bookworms are identifying with and I'm excited about seeing the set of the show. 

See? It's difficult, and these are just some of the troubles and decisions you're facing when bookworms are traveling. I'll keep you posted. :-)

10th January, 2020

Review: The Lost Ones by Anita Frank (HQ Publishing)

The Lost Ones is Anita Frank's debut novel, an eerie gothic tale full of atmosphere and restless ghosts. We follow Stella Marcham in the last years of WW I as she returns from service in France. Stella is devastated about the recent death of her fiancé and, after finding it hard to cope with the loss, a trip to Greyswick Hall to visit her pregnant sister Madeleine seems to be the only way to try and break out of her depressive state. When she arrives at Greyswick Stella realises that appearances can be quite deceiving and that Madeleine is not the radiant mother-to-be she had expected to find. Instead Stella's sister seems to be apprehensive and afraid of something she's initially hesitant to reveal. Supernatural incidents abound, e.g. mysterious toy soldiers appear in Stella's bed covers, the women hear a child sobbing even though there is no child living at Greyswick.

Greyswick Hall was the perfect setting for this book. It immediately comes across as a house with many secrets, feeling oppressive and disconcerting with its dark staircases (Stella is told they have to save electricity) and weird characters (kudos to the author for inventing a character like creepy maid Annie). This is not a story that works through sudden scares but one which makes fine use of how the subtle eerie atmosphere slowly builds up to something terrifying.

What Frank excels at is writing characters: I liked Stella but also hated her in a way, which - I guess - was the intention. The fact that you really want to identify with the protagonist and then have trouble to actually do that perfectly adds to the sinister tone of the story. For me and as already hinted above, it is maid Annie who is the best character of the entire story. She is both haunting and haunted, somebody who makes you feel strange but who is ultimately a victim. And then, Stella and Annie actually have more in common than they think as they are both women suffering under social restrains and prejudices. 

In the second half of the book the story takes a shocking turn: Dark secrets are revealed and everything comes together in a quite shocking and emotional way. The only criticism I would have here is that I found it relatively easy to guess where things were going early on. Maybe this has to do with the rather traditional formula of the ghost story that Frank adopts, but it was something that took away a bit of pleasure for me. The Lost Ones does show, however, that Anita Frank is a wonderful and promising writer and I'm looking forward to seeing what she comes up with next.

Rating: 4/5 stars

7th January, 2020

Review: Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities and the Pleasures of Solitude by Stephanie Rosenbloom (Viking Books)

As our daily lives are growing increasingly hectic,  a lot of people are deeply afraid of being alone. However, there is scientific evidence that solitude can be both rewarding and soul centreing, especially when we are travelling. In her travelogue journalist Rosenbloom considers how being alone as a traveller helps us become genuinely aware of the beautiful details of the world. The reader follows Rosenbloom through four cities, the last of which being the author's home, and experiences the sounds, smells and sights of these places through the lens of the solitary traveller.

Alone Time consists of four sections, each set in a different city, a different season. The locations - Paris, Istanbul, Florence, New York - are all "walkable", turning the solitary traveller into a flaneur.  Rosenbloom includes scientific insights on the relationship between hapiness and solitude from experts such as psychologists and sociologists and discusses topics like the joys of going to a restaurant alone, learning to delight in the mundanest of activities, (re)discovering places and interests, and finding silent spaces in busy metropoles. Alone Time is an extremely heart-warming and intimate account of how important it is to savour solitude from time to time, and it will make you want to start your own solitary journey.

What I liked particularly about Rosenbloom's book was the way that individual moments are relished. As someone who tremendously enjoys spending time alone and who has gone on many journeys by herself, I found myself in so many of these pages. Rosenbloom’s book is an homage to the feeling of enjoying the solitary moment, and it is truly revelatory in its wonderful talk of the joys of anticipation: "To anticipate is to court joy, to fall in love with a place the way it is in a book or a movie or an Eartha Kitt song. But to stay open to the unexpected is to embrace anticipation - to know that it serves its purpose before the journey begins and must then be set aside for reality, for whatever beautiful, strange, unpredictable thing awaits when we step off the ferry." Perfect!

If you are an introvert and enjoy the blissful state of solitude, you will want to read this book. It is a very calm read and I also recommend it to anyone who's planning on travelling alone or is maybe still struggling to find the courage to go solo. 

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

18th December, 2019

Review: Winterwood by Shea Ernshaw (Simon Pulse)

This is a book I was really looking forward to. The premise sounded amazing and I had very much enjoyed Ernshaw's previous novel. However, I have to say that Winterwood sadly didn't do it for me. But before I go into details, here is a synopsis from Goodreads:

Especially the woods surrounding the town of Fir Haven. Some say these woods are magical. Haunted, even. Rumored to be a witch, only Nora Walker knows the truth. She and the Walker women before her have always shared a special connection with the woods. And it’s this special connection that leads Nora to Oliver Huntsman—the same boy who disappeared from the Camp for Wayward Boys weeks ago—and in the middle of the worst snowstorm in years. He should be dead, but here he is alive, and left in the woods with no memory of the time he’d been missing.

But Nora can feel an uneasy shift in the woods at Oliver’s presence. And it’s not too long after that Nora realizes she has no choice but to unearth the truth behind how the boy she has come to care so deeply about survived his time in the forest, and what led him there in the first place. What Nora doesn’t know, though, is that Oliver has secrets of his own—secrets he’ll do anything to keep buried, because as it turns out, he wasn’t the only one to have gone missing on that fateful night all those weeks ago.

Sounds fab so far, but unfortunately the book didn't live up to its promise. One thing that irked me were the characters. For me, they all remained kind of bland and one-dimensional. We learn about Nora's family background, which was interesting, but I still had the feeling that I never really formed any sort of connection with her as a protagonist. Oliver was mysterious but drove me insane with his evasiveness. There is a reason for his behaviour which I'm not going to give away here as that would spoil the story twist for you, but it somehow made me guess very early on what was actually happening. The plot twist then didn't come as a surprise and while I appreciated this particular idea, it simply wasn't anything new for me. 

Another thing that I didn't like, even though it was probably intended to cause that reaction (at least I'm giving it that in dubio pro reo interpretation) was the treatment of time. Especially early on in the story I think that time could have been handled a bit more carefully. The day after Nora finds Oliver in the woods, she basically leaves the house at sunrise, then walks to the camp a little way down the shore of the lake, stays for what feels like 10 minutes and then walks home to find that it is turning dark again. I'm sorry but even in the North Pacific area days aren't that short in winter time. I know this is just a minor thing but as I had trouble getting into the story in the first place, this little aspect annoyed me even more. 

I really really really wanted to love or at least like this book. I tried to. I really did, but unfortunately it was only a two star read for me for the above mentioned reasons. The "surprise" in the end was just to underwhelming for me. But who knows, others will probably enjoy this book a lot more than I did (well, I know there are a lot of readers who do as I've talked to them). I, on the other hand, am just going to wait for Ernshaw's next book and hope that I'll like it better.

Rating: 2/5 stars

13th December, 2019

Review: The Christmasaurus by Tom Fletcher (Penguin)

I don't review children's books very often, but this one just had to go in here. We bought this novel on a whim last weekend with me thinking "Ah well, we'll see if this isn't too long for a 5yo. If it is, we'll keep it for next year." Little did I know that I could have stuffed those thoughts right where the sun doesn't shine. Four words: The kid ADORED it!

The Christmasaurus is a story about a boy named William Trundle, and a dinosaur, the Christmasaurus. It's about how they meet one Christmas Eve and have a magical adventure. It's about friendship and families, sleigh bells and Santa, singing elves and flying reindeer, music and magic. It's about discovering your heart's true desire, and learning that the impossible might just be possible. (Goodreads)

This is a story that will warm your hearts this winter. It will mesmerise and fascinate you, even if you're what people consider to be an adult (the age recommendation is for 7-99, so I guess everyone will be save -- you can also read it if you're 103 though, I won't tell). ;-) So what is so amazing about Fletcher's book?

It's diverse without any visible effort. William is in a wheelchair after an accident, a fact that is mentioned about a third into the book with the narrator saying "Oh, sorry, didn't I tell you before? Well, anyway, that's just the way it is." The kid loved this as it introduces disability as something completely normal, and while the story still obviously points out problems that William is facing in everyday situations, such as stairs, it never seems strained. The book has families in which one parent has died, it has families in which parents have split up and it has characters who develop from nasty meanies into better persons. So yes, it does touch on some sad topics but in that way it depicts life like it is, and I think children will appreciate that. Ours surely did.

The imagery and whimsical ideas are just lovely. Fletcher puts his own individual spin on the story of Santa and his elves, so kids will recognize a lot while also finding many new ideas about how Christmas presents are actually created (no spoilers here). The Christmasaurus as a character is too cute, and the relationship between him and William is touching. We also enjoyed the narrator's tone of voice with his questions and little side comments and, of course, the illustrations were a huge hit. They are absolutely stunning and go perfectly with the story.

This is a story about the power of belief. As William's father says, if noone believes then things can't become true. That seems a perfect message for this time of year. The Christmasaurus comes highly recommended by 5yo Noah (and me, of course) with whom I devoured these 400 pages within four days. We'll be picking up the sequel The Christmasaurus and the Winter Witch from our local indie tomorrow.

Rating: 5/5 stars

10th December, 2019

Bookish Stuff: Ghost Stories at Christmas Time - A Victorian Tradition

I'm currently participating in a book group on Instagram that is dedicated to reading one Victorian ghost story per week during the month of December. In fact, reading ghost stories at Christmas time is an old tradition that has been almost forgotten:

When we look at all the modern holiday traditions that we either borrowed from pagan winter rituals or that were invented by the English during the 1800s, it's interesting how little Christmas has changed during the past two centuries. We still send Christmas cards to friends and family, we decorate fir trees, and in some parts of the world people go caroling and stuff stockings with candy. All of this is actually - who would have thought - a product of Victorian England.

One of the most interesting Victorian Christmas traditions has been almost lost from memory, however. The practice of sitting together around a fire on Christmas Eve to tell ghost stories was as much a part of Christmas for the Victorian English as Santa Claus is for us. If you look closely you can find traces of this tradition in popular culture such as the line, “There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago” in the popular song by Andy Williams. 

Some historians claim that it was Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol -with its ghosts of Christmas past, present and future - that prevented the holiday from dying out during the times of the Industrial Revolution. Dickens reintroduced many age-old traditions with his holiday classic. But why were ghosts so popular in the Victorian Age and why at Christmas? Nowadays we would probably say that ghosts belong with Halloween, but in Victorian England Christmas time and ghosts went together like hot chocolate and whipped cream. And this has to do with the country's history:  

In the mid-17th century, Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell (the Lord Protector) tried to completely abolish the celebration of Christmas. He claimed that there is no passage in the Bible that asks us to celebrate Jesus' birth at this time of year, and it doesn't even mention any “holy day” other than the Sabbath. In addition, the 24th/25th was a date that was chosen due to its connection with pagan festivals like Yule and Sol Invictus, both of which celebrated the winter solstice or the longest night of the year. These festivals commemorated the death of light and its following rebirth. It was for their obvious symbolic connotations that early Christians adopted dates important to pagan Romans and Northern Europeans.

Winter solstice, however, was not only the longest night of the year, but was also traditionally considered to be the most haunted because of its association with the death of the sun. It was held the one night of the year when the barrier between the worlds of the living and the deceased was thinnest. On Christmas Eve, ghosts could walk the earth and take care of unfinished business, best known through the apparition of Marley in Dickens' Christmas story.

In short, the Victorian Christmas celebration, which drew heavily on pagan symbols like yule logs, holly berries and Father Christmas himself, also embraced the winter holiday’s associations with the supernatural to create one of its most popular annual traditions. Unfortunately, of all the traditions and rituals that have survived through the generations, the Victorian custom of recounting blood-curdling ghost stories with friends and family around the fire on Christmas Eve has been almost completely forgotten.

Yet, there are a lot of readers out there who are trying to bring back that wonderful tradition. The hashtag #bringbackchristmasghoststories has been going strong on social media this December. And who knows, maybe people will rediscover the joys of eerie stories during the longest nights of the year. 

6th December, 2019

Bookish Stuff: Books for Christmas

I can't believe how time has flown in the past few months. The nights are still drawing in but we are a mere two weeks away from the solstice, so we've almost made it through the shortest days of the year already. It's funny how I used to hate winter in the past, but ever since our son was born I've been enjoying the season tremendously. Maybe it's the childish wonder that you suddenly experience again when your perspective changes as a parent. 

Last night I asked the kid if he also put books on his Christmas list. He's at an age when life is all about Lego and Hot Wheels and Playmobil, so I was touched when his answer was a clear "Of course, mum." In fact he pretty much said it in a way that was questioning my sanity for asking such a stupid question. Hahaha! Looks we've done something right. The little human calls our family "the book people" and fervently declares in preschool every chance he gets that there isn't a room in our house that doesn't have a book (yes, even the loo! ;-)). It's cute and it makes me happy to see that he loves stories as much as we do. 

So yes, the kid has books on his wish list and so do we. As I mentioned in a previous post, Christmas Eve at our house always resembles the Icelandic tradition of Jolabókaflod, in which people give each other books and chocolate on the evening of the 24th and then spend the night in bed reading. At our house we sit together in the snug but the rest is pretty much the same. It's just so cosy with all the lights, the Christmas tree, a fire (unfortunately of the Youtube kind as we don't have a fireplace but it still creates a certain atmosphere), soft Christmas music in the background and yummy treats. And honestly, I can't remember a time in my life when books didn't factor in highly on Christmas. I remember being made fun of by kids in school when we told each other what we'd gotten after the holidays and I said "books", I remember snide comments from former colleagues about "Ah, so yet another book." But I don't remember a Christmas without books. And I treasure that, despite what non-readers might say. I mean, I am not judging them for wanting yet another PS4 game or yet another piece of jewelry so I simply expect the same from them. So yes, I know I'll get a pile of books this Christmas and I'm very much looking forward to that as it is what makes me happy.  

Happy holidays!!

(Photo Credit: Topping & Co, St Andrews)

4th December, 2019

Review: The Lost Coast by Amy Rose Capetta (Candlewick Press)

The Lost Coast is the mesmerising tale of six queer witches forging their own paths, shrouded in the mist, magic, and secrets of the ancient California redwoods.

Danny didn't know what she was looking for when she and her mother spread out a map of the United States and Danny put her finger down on Tempest, California. What she finds are the Grays: a group of friends who throw around terms like queer and witch like they're ordinary and everyday, though they feel like an earthquake to Danny. But Danny didn't just find the Grays. They cast a spell that calls her halfway across the country, because she has something they need: she can bring back Imogen, the most powerful of the Grays, missing since the summer night she wandered into the woods alone. But before Danny can find Imogen, she finds a dead boy with a redwood branch through his heart. Something is very wrong amid the trees and fog of the Lost Coast, and whatever it is, it can kill. Lush, eerie, and imaginative, Amy Rose Capetta's tale overflows with the perils and power of discovery — and what it means to find your home, yourself, and your way forward.

I came across this book after I saw a friend post about it on Instagram. I was immediately drawn to the cover and the synopsis as it came at a time when I was a) a little homesick for California and b) feeling that I should start reading more LGBTQ+ literature. Et voilá, this seemed to be the perfect book to do just that.

There are many aspects I loved about this novel, number one being the setting and the "vibe" of the redwood forests of Northern California. Capetta's writing is lyrical and spellbinding: some sentences read just like poetry and it's easy to get drawn into the story's atmosphere. The majestic nature of the giant trees just lends itself to a tale about witchcraft.

Number two: the multitude of voices! In this way, The Lost Coast almost resembles a Greek tragedy. We have individual characters speaking in past and present and we have voices that resemble a chorus. Some reviewers complained about this narrative strategy but I really enjoyed it and found that it contributed to the overall feel of the book. 

Another thing I really liked was the diversity: we have queer characters, characters of various ethnicities and different social backgrounds. The only thing that irked me a little here was that I sometimes had the feeling that the characters' queerness is mentioned a fraction too often. It's great how Capetta contrasts regional differences in levels of acceptance of people's sexual orientation but I would have found it better if - at least at some point into the story - being queer had been treated as something normal (as that's what it is).  Instead I had the impression that the author felt the need to repeatedly put her finger on it again and again and again: Oh, by the way, they are queer. Did we mention that they embrace their queerness? They do as they are witches and they are queer. That is exaggerating a little but it's a factor that ultimately took away a lot of the story for me. Capetta gets so caught up in perfectly describing the atmosphere and landscape and in mentioning the protagonists' sexual orientation that the plot gets burried under all of this. This book could have been amazing but when we look closely at the actual "meat" of the story, there isn't really that much left over once we leave out all the gloss. And that is a pity as there was so much potential. :( 

Yet, this is a solidly good read and I still recommend it despite its few flaws. 

Rating: 3/5 stars

19th November, 2019

Review: The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern (Doubleday)

This book will definitely be among my Top 5 reads of the year, and it may even become my number one for 2019. I absolutely adored every single page and tried to make it last as long as possible. It is a masterpiece and if you haven't done so yet, you should read it. Now. :-)

Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a graduate student in Vermont when he discovers a mysterious book hidden in the stacks. As he turns the pages, entranced by tales of lovelorn prisoners, key collectors, and nameless acolytes, he reads something strange: a story from his own childhood. Bewildered by this inexplicable book and desperate to make sense of how his own life came to be recorded, Zachary uncovers a series of clues--a bee, a key, and a sword--that lead him to a masquerade party in New York, to a secret club, and through a doorway to an ancient library, hidden far below the surface of the earth.

What Zachary finds in this curious place is more than just a buried home for books and their guardians--it is a place of lost cities and seas, lovers who pass notes under doors and across time, and of stories whispered by the dead. Zachary learns of those who have sacrificed much to protect this realm, relinquishing their sight and their tongues to preserve this archive, and also those who are intent on its destruction.

When I first saw the synopsis of this novel I felt like somebody had read my mind and distilled everything I could ever possibly have wanted from a story onto the pages of one book. Still, I was a bit loathe to becoming too excited as I did not really enjoy Morgenstern's first novel. The synopsis of that one was amazing as well but I did have trouble with the author's writing. Needless to say I was simultanously hopeful and anxious for The Starless Sea.

I shouldn't have worried too much though as I was immediately drawn into the story and fell head over heels in love with its lyrical prose. Morgenstern's words are meandering over the pages, dragging you along in their wake and leaving you with a feeling of awe.

The setting itself is already worth five stars and it is everything any bookworm could possibly ever desire. It reminded me a lof of Walter Moers' City of Dreaming Books with its labyrinthine tunnels full of shelves and books. And then there are the interwoven stories which present a multitude of layers, all of which are somehow connected and eventually contribute to the greater whole of the plot. I loved the individual tales and how they were picked up again in the main plotstrand. Time and Fate's love story gave me all the feels, and Zachary is such a wonderful protagonist that you can't but feel and suffer for and with him.

The Starless Sea is about metaphors in various forms whether they be pirates or the Moon, owls or bees, or beginnings and endings. It consists of an abundance of different voices and perspectives, and it will probably need one or two rereadings to fully grasp this gem of a book in all its marvelous complexities. At least I can't wait to read it again. I actually loved it so much that I bought it in different formats: paperback to carry around, hardback to display on my shelf as well as audio so I can listen to it when I'm travelling (yes, I know: I'm weird :-)).

If you are looking for a perfect winter read, this is the book for you. It is extremely clever and wonderfully dreamy. 

Rating: 5/5 stars

15th November, 2019

bookish stuff: holiday season OR WHAt am I reading this December

Christmas is one of my favourite times of the year, coming in at a close second after Halloween. What I like about it is that it's not just a time to snuggle up at home but also one when everything looks festive and particularly pretty. The Christmas markets here are world-famous and all the yummy seasonal treats always make me have to be careful not to gain ten pounds within four weeks. Oh my.

Being a bookworm, Christmas also means extra reading time. Especially during the days between Christmas and New Year's but also on Christmas Eve itself, which is when everyone opens their presents here in Germany. Before I ever heard about the Icelandic tradition of jolabokaflod (which basically means giving each other books and chocolate on Christmas Eve and spending the rest of the evening in bed with both), our house has always been one where books are sort of a go-to present. So once the hussle and bussle is over and the kid is eventually tucked in, we adults always sit together browsing our new reads. It's super cosy and always makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. With the tree in the background and soft music playing it truly makes Christmas Eve a magical night for me. 

But of course it is still more than a month till Christmas itself, which means that I've spruced up my office a bit like I do every year in order to get in the mood. My office book tree seems to be growing with every holiday season and it's lovely to have students and colleagues come in saying that they've been waiting to see this year's tree. :-) 

I've also begun to compile a (tentative because it's bound to still change) rest-of-the-year TBR. These are the books I plan to read before the year ends. There will probably be a few more additions on Christmas Eve but all of these books kind of say "festive season" to me for various reasons. It's a rather eclectic selection but that's perfectly fine as I'm a big mood reader. 

I am particularly looking forward to Christmas Shopaholic because Kinsella's series has followed me for more than a decade now and I'm dying to know what havoc Becky is going to cause this time. On my shelf I also have a slim volume of holiday themed short stories by Kate Atkinson which will be perfect for those few minutes of reading time between running errands, driving the kid to kindergarten or other chores. I think it's also high time that I finally pick up the Erin Hilderbrand Xmas series. Everyone has been raving about these books for years and I've never gotten to them, so I'll at least have a look at the first one this holiday season. A quite different genre is Kealan Patrick Burke's Dead Winter, a collection of chilling horror short stories. I've read some of Burke's stories before and they were perfect so I'm really looking forward to that book. Also, I have to admit that I've never watched A Nightmare  Before Christmas before. Yes, I know, I'm super late to the party. I've read the book but never actually see the movie so I will remedy that this year. And who knows? Watching this film might become a new family Christmas tradition. If I'm not distracted by too many newer books, I might also give Krampus a reread - it's full of eerie myth and perfect for when you've had enough of somewhat cheesy holiday reads.

What about you? Do you have any bookish holiday traditions? Which books are you looking forward to reading this season?

(Photo credit:

12th November, 2019

Review: Shelf Respect by Annie Austen (Little, Brown Book Group)

Going Marie Kondo is all the rage, but what if your preferred style of interior decor is miles of overstuffed bookshelves? If you can't bring yourself to declutter your collection, Annie Austen's volume will come to the rescue and validate your life choices. It is a celebration of the humble but worshipped bookshelf: whether Billy case or oak librarywith rolling ladders - Shelf Respect is an endearing defence of towering TBR piles and idiosyncratic shelf organisation.  

As any bibliophile would have been, I was delighted when I found this little book. Another collection of readers' anecdotes and book loving geekiness? Oh yes! You can't have enough of these. 

Shelf Respect follows in the fashion of titles such as Bookworm or I'd rather be reading. It is essentially a variety of mini essays and lists (such as "10 books found on Marilyn Monroe's bookshelf") and it's both humorous and entertaining. There are chapters that reveal what your book collection tells others about your character, chapters that talk about fictional books in stories or the slightly more macabre question whether or not 'death by bookcase' is a desirable way to perish (I guess the answer is obvious. Yes! Duh?).   

I really enjoyed this book. However, while the included lists are interesting, they unfortunately take up too much space, in my opinion. At times it feels like Austen needed more material to bring her collection up to book length and that's a pity because those chapters that really are about the daily trials of bibliophiles are extremely well-written and entertaining. I would have wished for more of these sections as they make up the true heart of the collection and any book lover will easily find themselves in these. 

I still recommend this slim volume on all things "book love". It's a bit like dessert, maybe a warm apple pie with custard: You can finish it quickly or savour it, but in any case it will give you a warm feeling of happiness. 

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

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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. 

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:

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All texts and photographs are mine, unless indicated otherwise.

Header Background Picture Credit: Janko Felic