The Constant Reader's Book Blog

(Reviews, Bookish Stuff and all Things literary)

19th September, 2021

Review: Burden Falls by Kat Ellis (Dial Books)

The town of Burden Falls drips with superstition, from rumors of its cursed waterfall to Dead-Eyed Sadie, the disturbing specter who haunts it. Ava Thorn grew up right beside the falls, and since a horrific accident killed her parents a year ago, she's been plagued by nightmares in which Sadie comes calling—nightmares so chilling, Ava feels as if she’ll never wake up. But when someone close to Ava is brutally murdered and she’s the primary suspect, she begins to wonder if the stories might be more than legends—and if the ghost haunting her dreams might be terrifyingly real. Whatever secrets Burden Falls is hiding, there's a killer on the loose . . . with a vendetta against the Thorns.

Kat Ellis' Burden Falls has been described as a mix of Riverdale and Stephen King, and I couldn't agree more. There is an eerie atmosphere throughout, a sense of paranoia and claustrophobia. And the ghost! Can we just mention the ghost? Ellis paints such an amazing portrait of Dead-Eyed Sadie that I found myself looking over my shoulder whenever I was walking through the house in the dark. 

The story is also full of little hints and foreshadowings. I really liked these little breadcrumbs and even though they made me guess quite early on who was behind all of the things happening, I thoroughly enjoyed the story with all its spooktacular incidents. Local legends and family mysteries plus a small town in the middle of nowhere create a fabulous plot that will give you goosebumps. 

Burden Falls is a wonderfully atmospheric read that blurs the lines between the supernatural and reality so that you find yourself questioning what is real and what is not. It's the perfect book to curl up with this Halloween season.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

6th September, 2021

Review: The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher (Titan Books)

This was my second book by T. Kingfisher after reading The Twisted Ones a few months ago. I was expecting the same kind of creepyness but this novel was a bit different. However, before I say more, let's see what the story is actually about:

Pray they are hungry.

Kara finds these words in the mysterious bunker that she’s discovered behind a hole in the wall of her uncle’s house. Freshly divorced and living back at home, Kara now becomes obsessed with these cryptic words and starts exploring the peculiar bunker—only to discover that it holds portals to countless alternate realities. But these places are haunted by creatures that seem to hear thoughts…and the more you fear them, the stronger they become.

I think it's clear why this synopsis had me intrigued. Unfortunately I found the story to be a bit all over the place which is why it didn't fully convince me. 

The plot starts out a bit slow with Kara aka Carrot moving in with her uncle after her divorce and beginning to work in his fabulously quirky "Museum of Wonders". When she discovers a hole in the wall and, behind it, a bunker that leads to an alternate reality, this immediately conveyed House of Leaves vibes as that part of the story transported the same sense of claustrophobia and foreboding as Danielewski's masterpiece. Once Carrot and Simon pass through the portal and get lost, this feeling turns into something we know from Stranger Things or the Alien movies. From here on, it was all about indescribeable monsters hiding behind the different layers of reality. We have some rather creepy passages, for example involving a school bus, and again I could feel the hopelessness and despair oozing from the pages. So thumbs up for that!

BUT, to me personally, it all seemed a bit of a hot mess. I loved how weird the book is but somehow it all felt a bit convoluted. This may have been the author's intention in order to have us share the protagonists' confusion, but with me it left the impression that at some points Kingfisher wasn't really sure herself where the story would be going. In addition, I was annoyed with Carrot for not seeing what had actually opened the portal because it was RIGHT IN HER FACE ALL THIS TIME, and she could have ended all of this a lot earlier. Eventually she realises what's happening but not before we have a supernatural stampede messing up the museum. 

All in all, I really enjoyed this book but I would have loved a bit more ... I don't know ... common sense in the main characters. Despite its "flaws", The Hollow Places is an atmospheric novel that's perfect for this time of year. If you like weird stories, give it a go. :)

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

1st September, 2021

Bookish Stuff: Falling into fall...

... or autumn, but that doesn't make for such a nice phrase. :-) Today is 1st September which means there's a certain train leaving from King's Cross at eleven o'clock, lots of kids are going back to school (if they haven't already) and autumn is just around the corner. Well, for me it's starting today which - hopefully - will bring an end to my summer reading slump (which unfortunately also affected this blog a little - sorry about that). After all, it will be spooky reading season!!! 

Every autumn I drift even more towards gothic books than I usually do anyways. It's one of my favourite genres but nothing calls for eerie stories more than rainy autumn days spent with tea and a steaming bowl of pumpkin soup. I already have a nice TBR piled up for this year and I actually finished one book early so keep your eyes peeled for a review of T. Kingfisher's The Hollow Places in the next few days. 

In the last few weeks I've seen a lot of polls on bookish social media channels asking people what their favourite season was. Interestingly enough, it seems like we readers tend to love autumn and winter while most of us don't care much for summer. A friend who doesn't read much recently asked me why that is and it took me a while to come up with a possible answer, but  I believe it has a lot to do with getting cosy. I mean, just look at this image: warm colours, a hot drink, a soft scarf - who wouldn't want to bury themselves in this picture? For me personally, autumn has also always had a sort of studious vibe to it. Maybe it's the college film and series I used to watch as a teenager (best example: Class of '96) but I always want to roam old university halls and sit on a campus lawn with a book (I do have access to the campus lawn but my university is unfortunately anything but old hallowed halls - haha).

So happy September and happy spooky reading season - if you're doing it. If not, then happy whatever floats your book boat. :)  

(Picture credit: Shutterstock)

21st August, 2021

Review: Billy Summers by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton)

Reliable as he is, King just published another novel this month. Billy Summers is closer to some of his other not-really-horror books than to the classics but it is an amazing story about identity, friendship and moral outrage. 

Billy Summers is a man in a room with a gun. He's a killer for hire and the best in the business. But he'll do the job only if the target is a truly bad guy. And now Billy wants out. But first there is one last hit. Billy is among the best snipers in the world, a decorated Iraq war vet, a Houdini when it comes to vanishing after the job is done. So what could possibly go wrong?

I was waiting impatiently for this novel, picking it up on publication day and starting right away. It is part war story, part love letter to small town America and the people who live there, and it's about the little things that happen for large streches of the plot that make the first section so compelling, before the story really picks up speed about halfway through. I very much enjoyed the first half of the book with its book-in-a-book structure but I also had a blast with the second part when Billy forms an unlikely friendship and hunts down the people who wronged him. 

As usual, we have a few references to other King books, here a nice little nod to The Shining, which immediately made me want to reread that particular novel. :) Billy Summers, however, is - as said before, not a horror novel. The creepiest thing that happens is the appearance of a weird photograph hanging in a remote cabin. Other than that this novel is full of "bad people": rapists, murderers, pedophiles, and conmen. The main protagonist is actually a "bad man" himself, working as a hitman, but you can't help but root for him. I really liked both Billy and Bucky a lot. And I very much appreciated how the story ended which was a bit unexpected but nicely done. 

This is definitely a "different" King but the man knows how to tell a story, so never mind that there isn't much horror in here. Definitely a recommended read. 

Rating: 5/5 stars

15th August, 2021

Review: Beach Read by Emily Henry (Berkley)

Augustus Everett is an acclaimed author of literary fiction. January Andrews writes bestselling romance. When she pens a happily ever after, he kills off his entire cast. They're polar opposites. In fact, the only thing they have in common is that for the next three months, they're living in neighboring beach houses, broke, and bogged down with writer's block.

Until, one hazy evening, one thing leads to another and they strike a deal designed to force them out of their creative ruts: Augustus will spend the summer writing something happy, and January will pen the next Great American Novel. She'll take him on field trips worthy of any rom-com montage, and he'll take her to interview surviving members of a backwoods death cult (obviously). Everyone will finish a book and no one will fall in love. Really.

I enjoyed the story of Gus and January. It was the perfect "beach read" ;-) and I found myself quickly beginning to really like the characters. The premise, of course, was great: a story about two writers - that's usually a winner. And as I said, I did like the book, it was a cute rom-com with lots of meta commentaries and a quick holiday read. But... and I'm so sorry to say that there is a but involved... but the story started out great and then somehow petered out for me. In the beginning I laughed out loud at the quirky comments and the hilarious, genre-typical scenes - starting with January standing on the deck, shouting obscenities into her phone and Gus overhearing them. Cute. Funny. But also kind of tropey. As the novel was self-reflectively commenting so much on the rom-com genre (as well as that of literary fiction), I was hoping that Henry would play more with the conventions in her story. However, everything still felt sort of schematic, there were far too many coincidences and, without giving too much away, I found Gus' explanations about why he was so hesitant about him and January a bit far-fetched. I can't really explain it but for me there were simply a few contradictions in the given reasons of why he was so traumatised by what had happened in the past.

I really wanted to love this book because I had heard so many great reviews all over social media but somehow it didn't fully work for me. It was a sweet and entertaining read but unfortunately not much more. I did, however, thoroughly enjoy all the meta passages and very much liked the two main characters. A cute read for the summer holidays. 

Rating: 3/5 stars

6th August, 2021

Review: The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman (Scribner)

After returning home from the Great War, Tom Sherbourne begins to work as a lighthousekeeper. The solitude, the rules and routine and the closeness to nature and the ocean are a perfect antitode to his troubled, traumatised mind. His latest post is Janus Rock, a small island hundreds of miles off the Australian coast. Tom falls in love with this outpost and he also falls in love with Isabel who eventually becomes his wife and joins him on the lighthouse. The only thing weighing heavy on the young couple is that Isabel keeps losing her baby everytime she falls pregnant. 

One day, a boat  strands on the island. In it: a dead man and a crying baby. As per regulations, Tom wants to report the incident but Isabel sees the baby's arrival as a sign of fate and convinces Tom to keep the little girl. However, the baby's mother is still alive and is frantically searching for her daughter. What is Tom going to do?

This was truly a wonderful book! I already loved the setting and the premise of the story, but this was perfectly rounded off by Stedman's poetic language, words that never become cheesy but manage to quietly touch on the deepest of emotions.

The story sheds light on both sides: We learn about Tom and Isabel's dreams and hopes but we also get to know Lucy's mother, who has almost gone insane over the loss of her husband and daughter. I liked that Lucy's unusual destiny is being examined from different perspectives as it quickly becomes clear that everyone only wants the best for the little girl. The dilemma that ensues is heartbreaking and hard to bear because it means that one person needs to "lose". And this might also be Lucy herself. 

This is a book like the ocean, taking the reader along on a slow drift and dragging him through the stormy waves a few minutes later. It is a touching story of yearning and dreaming, of disappointment and loss, grief, rage, the war and the many facets of love.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

30th July, 2021

Review: The Asylum by Karen Cross (Welbeck)

1906: Being a woman is dangerous, being different is deadly.

Maud Lovell has been at Angelton Lunatic Asylum for five years. She is not sure how she came to be there and knows nothing beyond its four walls. She is hysterical, distressed, untrustworthy. Badly unstable and prone to violence. Or so she has been told.

When a new doctor arrives, keen to experiment with the revolutionary practice of medical hypnosis, Maud's lack of history makes her the perfect case study. But as Doctor Dimmond delves deeper into the past, it becomes clear that confinement and high doses are there to keep her silent. When Maud finally remembers what has been done to her, and by whom, her mind turns to her past and to revenge.

I thoroughly enjoyed this somewhat slow-burning read (slow-burning meant in a positive way). Karen Cross' The Asylum is sinister and, if not full-blown creepy, it is grim and eerie. The story develops slowly as we experience the revelations about Maud's life along with her. Her stunning voice takes you right along - at least I was hooked immediately. I did have a hunch early on about how the book was going to unfold and this hunch was confirmed but that didn't take away anything from this wonderful tale. Maud is such an interesting character and I loved Dr Dimmond whose advocacy for the incarcerated heroine was simply touching.

Cross creates a stunning atmosphere of dread that becomes properly claustrophic in some scenes. She also has a wonderful eye for detail, describing the texture of the mist over the marshes or the intricacies of the quite unpleasant smells of the asylum. And all this time the reader feels like they are there with Maud and desperately wanting to find out what happened that got the protagonist stranded at the mental hospital. Some scenes about drastic methods of "treatment" are quite harrowing and will definitely make you thankful for being born now and not a good century ago. 

If you would like an emotional, gothic read, The Asylum may just be the right pick for you. You will feel despair for Maud's situation, be angry for her, and want to take revenge for what's been done to her. I highly recommend this fabulous book.

Rating: 5/5 stars

23rd July, 2021

Review: The Bookshop of Second Chances by Jackie Fraser (Ballantine Books)

Thea Mottram is having a bad month. Her husband of nearly twenty years has just left her for one of her friends, and she is let go from her office job--on Valentine's Day, of all days. Bewildered and completely lost, Thea doesn't know what to do. But when she learns that a distant great uncle in Scotland has passed away, leaving her his home and a hefty antique book collection, she decides to leave Sussex for a few weeks. Escaping to a small coastal town where no one knows her seems to be exactly what she needs.

I was immediately hooked by the plot of this novel. Scotland, a bookshop - of course Jackie Fraser would pick exactly those things that I can't resist. Needless to say I ordered this book right away. 

And maybe this is where my main problem lies: I believe I may have had too many expectations. Yes, I suppose I was looking for a certain kind of story that - alas - didn't exactly happen. Don't get me wrong. I really really enjoyed this book and liked particularly the main protagonist a lot. There is also a lot of beautiful Scotland in here as well as idiosyncratic, bookish characters and lots of bookish chat, etc. So I can't really explain why I only very much liked but did not love this book. I sure wanted to, but somehow that final spark didn't catch. 

Maybe it was that the book was a bit cliché: a woman has the sudden opportunity to run away from all of her problems, there are two handsome strangers whom she, of course, would never ever consider getting together with and all that jazz. This was definitely an aspect that I would have liked to see handled differently maybe. Still, The Bookshop of Second Chances is a lovely read and a book that makes a good comfort read. If you can look beyond all the "somehow it's fate and everything is going to be fine in the end" elements, it is a very cute story. 

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

11th July, 2021

Wild by Kristin Hannah (PanMacmillan)

Family dynamics are something we can find in almost any Kristin Hannah novel. And sisterhood seems to be particularly close to the author's heart: She has written several books that focus on the complex feelings that drive sisters apart, that keep them separate and that - sometimes - reunite them. 

Wild, which is a republication of Hannah's 2016 novel Magic Hour, centres on two sisters who are brought back together by rather unusual circumstances. 

Julia is a successful, well-known child psychiatrist. When one of her patients runs amok killing several children, the press and the bereaved parents blame Julia for not recognizing the danger. With her career in shatters and at an emotional low point, Julia answers the phone and hears her sister’s voice. Although the two women haven’t spoken in years, Ellie, chief of police for an isolated rural community, needs her big-city sister’s help. Now.

A little girl has wandered out of the Olympic peninsula rain forest and into Ellie’s town. She’s like an animal, unable to communicate in any normal human way. While Ellie searches for the girl’s identity, she enlists Julia to help with the “wild child’s” damaged psyche. Together, the two sisters will work to bring the nameless soul back to normalcy. If they can.

Once more, Kristin Hannah writes wonderfully about how the family dynamics of our childhood are carried over into adulthood, and about how these patterns might be overcome. Wild has multiple storylines: Plot one dwells on Julia, and the ways she regains her professional confidence while working with the traumatised child. Plot two centers on the old family patterns that resurface when Julia and Ellie begin living together in their late parents’ house. The two women, now in their late thirties, are fundamentally different. Ellie, the eldest, was prom queen material in her youth. Two marriages (to prom king material) have failed. Lanky and slightly awkward Julia was the brainy sister. She always thought their father loved Ellie the best, while Ellie always thought their mother preferred Julia. As the story progresses, we see clearly how their upbringing damaged both women’s abilities to forge enduring relationships with men.

All this sisterhood byplay, however, is pushed into the background as first Julia and then Ellie grow increasingly attached to the “wild child”, the mute little girl they name Alice.  Alice isn’t autistic as everyone initially believed, but a victim of a hideous crime. Someone has kept her tied up, somewhere in the wilderness of the Olympic peninsula. When the girl's biological father shows up to claim her, things become really complicated. 

Hannah has a real knack for creating intuitive characters who grow and mature through the course of a story.  This one is particularly shrewd, both for its sisterhood connections and for its psychiatric perceptions of childhood development. Wild is emotionally gripping, but it’s also clever, one of those novels that keep you up at night, one of those novels not easily forgotten. 

Rating: 4.5/5 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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