The Constant Reader's Book Blog

(Reviews, Bookish Stuff and all Things literary)

18th October, 2020

Review: October, October by Katya Balen (Bloomsbury)

October and her dad live in the woods. They sleep in the house Dad built for them and eat the food they grow in the vegetable patches. They know the trees and the rocks and the lake and stars like best friends. They read the books they buy in town again and again until the pages are soft and yellow - until next year's town visit. They live in the woods and they are wild.
And that's the way it is.
Until the year October turns eleven. That's the year October rescues a baby owl. It's the year Dad falls out of the biggest tree in their woods. The year the woman who calls herself October's mother comes back. The year everything changes.

Let me say it straight away: I absolutely LOVED this book with my entire heart, and devoured it in a single rainy afternoon during half-term. The hubs had to entertain the kid for those few hours because I just couldn't put this story down. :-)

Balen is an extraordinary writer: Her words are beautifully lyrical, the atmosphere she creates is dazzling and, to borrow the words of one reviewer, "this book is a feast for the senses, filled with the woodsmoke smell of crisp autumn mornings and the sound of wellies squelching in river mud". Sounds good? It is! October, October basically excudes everything there is to love about autumn - truly magical. 

If you loved stories like The Scent Keeper's Daughter or Echo Mountain you will very much enjoy this tale as well. Illustrated with the stunning drawings of Angela Harding, October, October is a novel you will want to keep reading until you're finished, and then you will regret that it is over and you can never read it for that very first, mesmerising time again. It made me think about how we live our modern lives and how we should sometimes refocus on the simple things. October and her Dad make do with very little but they are happy... and wild... and free. The contrast of life in the city is an important experience for October, and just like her it makes the reader begin to wonder about our everyday rules and about the supposed need to 'fit in' and adapt. And about what maybe really matters.

This is the perfect autumn read and a true delight from start to finish. Beautiful from the inside and outside it's a novel I highly recommend to anyone who sometimes longs to 'just break out' and to every single autumn and nature lover out there. 

Rating: 5/5 stars

16th October, 2020

Review: The October Boys by Adam Millard (Bloodshot Books)

I came across this book because it was hyped on Instagram this autumn. The plot sounded like it was exactly right for my reading tastes around this time of year, so I decided to give it a go.

A gang of twelve-year-old boys are trick-or-treating in London. Off in the distance, they hear the discordant chimes of an ice-cream truck. It seems strange to hear on a cold autumnal night, but their thoughts of maximizing their candy haul soon dismissed its incongruous melody… until they saw the rusting hulk idling in the shadows at the end of the street, its driver a faceless shadow. That was the night he took one of them.

Years later, Halloween is fast approaching and Tom Craven is still haunted by the events of that dark night, especially the fact that their friend was never found. Increasingly plagued by horrific visions, Tom returns to the place where it all began, only to discover he's not the only one who can feel it. His friends have already arrived and are preparing for a battle which could get them all killed. The Ice Cream Man is back… and he’s come for the ones that got away.

I really really really wanted to love this book. The first few pages had me hooked straight away with their spine tingling eerieness, and I was reminded of Stephen King's wonderfully creepy tales. Then, however, things went downhill very quickly and I found myself being increasingly annoyed with this book. Here are the main points of what irked me:

- Inconsistency/anachronisms: This story is set in England, yet the author jumps back and forth between British and American English. I would have wished for him to be consistent and settle on one. The thing that really threw me off, however, was the sloppy research and editing. A poster of Will Smith as Ali in 1988?? That movie came out in 2001 and, honestly, that is a mistake that could have been easily prevented but one that somehow completely diminished my joy in the story. 

- Treading well-known paths: I normally enjoy books that work with intertextuality but The October Boys is basically a mixture of established Stephen King tropes. Supernatural entity haunting a bunch of kids? Check! Kids meet up again after several decades? Check! Now adults they finally have to confront that which scares and haunts them? Check! These are just some points where the story leans heavily on well-known plotlines... you get my drift. 

- A rushed and unconvincing ending (Warning: mild spoilers ahead!): After all the build-up and tension I would have expected a somewhat more convincing ending. Instead, we get a total of six pages in which the monster is quicklydefeated. The way in which the demon is vanquished is - I'm sorry to say this - so lame that I wanted to throw the book across the room. 

I feel bad for having to give this story such a bad review because it is clear that Millard is a wonderful author. He writes beautifully and knows how to chill his readers to the bone. With a lot more tweaking and editing, this could have been a really good book but unfortunately it falls short in so many aspects that I was deeply disappointed. I will check out other titles by the author, however, and hope that they work better for me.

Rating: 2/5 stars 

9th October, 2020

Review: Ghosts of Harvard by Francesca Serritella (Random House)

Cadence Archer arrives on Harvard’s campus desperate to understand why her brother, Eric, a genius who developed paranoid schizophrenia took his own life there the year before. Losing Eric has left a black hole in Cady’s life, and while her decision to follow in her brother’s footsteps threatens to break her family apart, she is haunted by questions of what she might have missed. And there’s only one place to find answers. As Cady struggles under the enormous pressure at Harvard, she investigates her brother’s final year, armed only with a blue notebook of Eric’s cryptic scribblings. With her suspicions mounting, Cady herself begins to hear voices, seemingly belonging to three ghosts who walked the university’s hallowed halls—or huddled in its slave quarters. Among them is a person whose name has been buried for centuries, and another whose name mankind will never forget.

I must admit that I approached this book with certain expectations and was surprised to find that it didn't really fit the genre categories I had thought it would. However, I found myself tremendously enjoying Serritella's novel, despite it NOT being a typical ghost story. I would categorise the book as something like a paranormal mystery/thriller which also tells us a lot about Harvard's history, the academic world, mental illness, physics, family life and relationship dynamics. Sounds like a lot? It is, and the novel does have a few flaws, but it is still a great story that I read almost compulsively. The pacing is perfect, the descriptions of Harvard campus are magnificent and the main character is both relatable and utterly annoying. :-) 

I did mention some flaws above and would briefly like to go into what irked me a little. On one hand, this was Cady's seemingly very sudden obsession that immediately blotted out everything else and also her naivety. I sometimes felt like shouting at her to finally get a grip and to pay attention to the damn clues that were being waved in her face! I was appeased a little towards the end by the author's putting in some interesting plot twists, but still.... On the other hand, the ghosts encounters sometimes became a bit cheesy (That scene with Nikos/Whit? Please! *eyeroll*) and I was really struggling with some of these scenes. 

What the author does wonderfully, however, is to show how mental illness affects a family. Serritella shows well how families fall apart when suicide is added to an already almost unbearable situation. The emotions in this book are manifold. They are raw and real, so be prepared to get on a rollercoaster of ups and downs (with increasingly more of the latter) and a look into an obsessive mind. This book is not for the faint of heart. 

Despite this novel being marketed all wrongly (I repeat: it is NOT a ghost story per se) and despite its few minor flaws, Ghosts of Harvard is a brilliant story that you will not be able to put down. Perfect autumn reading. 

Rating: 4/5 stars

30th September, 2020

Review: The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab (Titan Books)

Addie LaRue – the name itself already makes you curious about this story. If you are also interested in sweeping, historical novels that have a strong personal focus: Voilà, V.E. Schwab’s latest novel is the right book for you.

“Never pray to the gods that answer in the dark.”

France, 1714: in a moment of desperation, a young woman makes a Faustian bargain to live forever and is cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets.

Thus begins the extraordinary life of Addie LaRue, and a dazzling adventure that will play out across centuries and continents, across history and art, as a young woman learns how far she will go to leave her mark on the world.

But everything changes when, after nearly 300 years, Addie stumbles across a young man in a hidden bookstore and he remembers her name.

Schwab’s novel is full of nods to other writers as the intertextual connections range from Shakespeare to Goethe to the classic folk tale to contemporary fiction. What the author does fabulously is connect these more or less subtle references with a loveable protagonist and a tour through European (and a bit of American) history. The story of Addie LaRue is told in two different timelines. Timeline one takes us to 17th and 18th Century France, while timeline two is centred in 2014 New York City. Addie has lived for several hundred years and she is both alone and extremely lonely. Due to a curse after striking a bargain with the devil(?), people forget her the moment she leaves their sight, so Addie is walking through cityscapes and history like an invisible flaneur.

What captured my attention here right away was Addie’s incredibly depressing isolation. That really got to me! She is a fleeting character, she leaves no trace, she lives like a ghost, she is lost and wandering, but yet she has so much depth, and you find yourself rooting for her to finally find someone who remembers her. When Henry appears he seems to be the only one who is able to anchor her, and the reader immediately realises that his showing up is working towards a climax without knowing what it will turn out to be. In a way, this topos reminded me of Audrey Niffenegger’s wonderful novel The Time Traveler’s Wife which is also about somebody lost in time who finds that one person working as a sort of fixture (also the two characters are sharing a name).

Schwab tells Addie’s life in the form of palimpsest: Life overwrites life but never fully erases anything. History keeps popping back up (see the speakeasy scene) as does the devilish creature a.k.a. Luc who initially tempted Addie to forge a pact. And this is another aspect that makes the novel so interesting: The dynamic between Addie and Luc is simply mesmerising. It is a love/hate kind of relationship, and it is particularly Luc’s simultaneous cunning and caring that captures the reader.

There is one little point of contention, however, a mistake in the ARC which I hope has been corrected for the final published version: There are some historical inaccuracies, the one about Paris’ basilica Sacré Coeur being mentioned in scenes set centuries before it was actually built being the gravest. This is something that simply mustn’t happen in a novel with such historical scope. All in all though, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is a great novel and I highly recommend to everyone.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

24th September, 2020

Review: Pages & Co 3: Tilly and the Map of Stories by Anna James (Harper Collins)

After a year of longing and waiting, Harper Collins finally published the third instalment in the fabulous bookwandering series: Tilly and the Map of Stories. As before, we follow Tilly and Oskar on many book-related adventures, and this time things become truly global as our two protagonists travel to the US to find the mysterious Archivists who, they hope, can restore order at the British Underlibrary that has been taken over by the Underwoods.

As in the first two books of the series, Pages & Co 3 caters to every book lover's passion. We travel through famous libraries, through the very fabric of "Story" itself and we meet various iconic characters - this time more in the form of famous writers than as characters from books. It is clear that these novels are written by someone who loves books,... and bookshops,... and libraries - a real treat. As for some of the literary references, I'm not 100% sure if middle grade readers will truly get all of them; some of these references seem to be more targeted towards adult readers. On the other hand, this provides some extra fun for parents who are reading this together with their children and if those references make young readers check out these writers, even better. :-)

I loved returning to the enchanting world of bookwandering. James' novels always manage to give me a warm and fuzzy feeling as they remind us of the power of stories. As with books one and two, the plot is fast-paced and follows a certain quest motif. Additionally, the author is my own personal heroine when it comes to world-building. I haven't read many novels in which the backdrop is as amazing as in the Pages & Co books. James' settings are like an entry drug to reading, and Tilly's brilliant adventures whisk the reader away in a whirlwind of bookwandering fun, playing with the magic of stories. 

If you haven't read this series yet, do yourself a favour and make sure to curl up with it this autumn. You can thank me later. :)

Rating: 5/5 stars

15th September, 2020

REVIEW: I'd rather be reading by Anne Bogel (Baker Publishing)

"For so many people, reading isn’t just a hobby or a way to pass the time — it’s a lifestyle."

If a book could be my best friend, this short collection of essays by Anne Bogel would be a prime contender. If you are an avid reader this is the perfect little book for you: Bogel writes about typical bookworm problems (be prepared to get a crick in your neck because you had to nod throughout the entire chapter), about the books that find you, the way you evolve as a reader, which books first got you hooked on reading, etc. Each chapter is full of little anecdotes and the reader of this wonderful literary companion begins to feel that they are in fact part of a big community of like-minded people. 

I read this book in one single sitting on a blustery September afternoon and absolutely loved it. It was highly relatable as well as utterly charming and will be my go-to stocking filler for the next few holiday seasons. If you have a bibliophile in your life, this is a perfect gift for them. Or you could just not miss out and get it for yourself. :-)

This beautiful small volume is an absolute delight and I'm sure I will be rereading it again and again. I must admit, however, that I had never heard of Anne Bogel, her blog ‘Modern Mrs Darcy’ or her popular podcast ‘What should I read next?’ (I KNOW! Which rock have I been hiding under??) but I’ll make sure to remedy that lack of knowledge immediately. :-)

In the meantime, you read this awesome book and let me know what you think!

Rating: 5/5 stars

8th September, 2020

Bookish Stuff: Why poetry is important (and good for your soul)

“Turning to poetry, poetry gives rhythm to silence, light to darkness. In poetry we find the magic of metaphor, compactness of expression, use of the five senses, and simplicity or complexity of meaning in a few lines.” (P. Klein)

My students always moan when I make them read poetry. Most of them have had bad experiences with poetry and the way it was taught in school, so when they get to university a large number of students is loath to study the genre in detail. They often think that there is just one "solution" to a poem, that they have to find that one deeper meaning. And normally they are surprised when I tell them to just enjoy the text and to then think about what it means TO THEM. Because what they fail to see is that poetry can be a lot of fun and that there are no clear-cut, formulaic ways to approach (and also to analyse) it. Poetry is not scary at all, and a positive side effect is that it is good for your soul. 

Particularly in a time when digital forms of media are omnipresent and when we can feel our attention spans shrinking, poetry has a very centreing and comforting effect. It is also great to develop verbal and written skills. Here are a few aspects that show the benefits of engaging with poetry:

1) Poetry can be therapeutic for the reader

Reading poetry can have a very soothing effect on the reader. Getting lost in beautiful language is comforting in itself, but reading poetry also allows one to see into the soul of another person, and can open doors to emotions that have frequently been suppressed until that door is opened. If you have trouble reading poetry by yourself because you don't know how to catch the rhythm or something else, try listening to others read it out loud. There are wonderful podcasts and apps out there where actors such as Tom Hiddleston or Helena Bonham Carter recite poetry and trust me: It's a treat! 

2) Poetry can be therapeutic for the writer

Poetry Therapy is a creative arts therapy using the written word to understand, and eventually communicate, feelings and thoughts. As poetry is normally short yet emotional, writers get in touch with feelings they might not have been aware of having until they put them down on paper. Depression and anxiety are among the top two mental illnesses being treated with poetry-therapy. Expressing how one feels can be extremely difficult, and poetry has proven to be one of the best outlets. Even if you are not suffering from a mental illness, poetry can help you overcome the everyday struggles of life. Just think back to your teenage years when everything seemed weird and uncertain and somehow unfair - I'm sure a lot of you wrote poems back then, didn't you?

3) Poetry makes you think about language and helps to understand it better

As poetry consists of short, but strategic sentences or phrases, it helps us to really think about the significance of every single word. The placement of a single word can completely alter the feel and meaning of a poem. Creating or reading poetry forces the writer or reader to consider and reconsider each verse. 

4) Poetry fosters compassion and helps us to better understand others

Understanding each other is and has always been a problem in societies, and miscommunication and resulting misunderstandings cause frustration. Reading and writing poetry has shown to give people an improved ability to understand others. Poetry gives us the opportunity to look into someone else’s mind and to develop compassion for another person. It makes us more sensitive in a way, which is a good thing. The world has enough tough people. What it needs is people who are not afraid to feel and who are able to empathise with others. 

5) Poetry helps you to find yourself

I've already mentioned the writing of poetry during the years of being a teenager. But of course this aspect applies to all stages of life. We all feel lost sometimes. We all can't seem to wrap our head around stuff at times. Poetry is a great way to tackle that inner turmoil. It slows you down and it slows down the world around you. It helps you organise your thoughts and to sooth your mind. Try reading one poem a day and you will feel more centred. 

6) Poetry fosters learning and helps to develop certain skills

Especially for children, a fun way to engage with poetry can be extremely beneficial. Poetry teaches rhyme and rhythm. Also, it teaches children creative expression, and provides them with a great tool for developing their personalities. Writing and speaking skills can be greatly influenced by the use of poetry. Learning rules for writing, and then breaking them with poetry, is fun. Speaking poetry while focussing on its beat, rhyme, and rhythm can improve verbal communication. Learning to understand poetry also provides kids with the mental capacity to understand complex written communication - something we all need on a daily basis.

So, even if you haven't been a fan of poetry until now, try and give it a go. You might be surprised by the positive effects it can have on you. :-) Last but not least: here is one of my favourite poems for you to enjoy:

Wendell Berry: The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

31st August, 2020

Review: Harrow Lake by Kat Ellis (Penguin)

Lola is the daughter of a famous horror film maker Nolan Nox and has so far led a very protected life away from the public eye. When one night her father becomes victim to a brutal attack, Lola is packed off to her grandmother's place in Harrow Lake, the setting for her dad's most iconic piece Nightjar. Here, Nolan met Lola's mother Lorelei who was the star of the film and who disappeared when Lola was five. The little town seems to be weirdly obsessed with the film, and people here have a habit of disappearing, especially young girls. While Lola is haunted by visions from her own past, she can't shake the feeling that someone or something is watching her from the shadows.

Harrow Lake is a book that will give you the creeps. It's no bloody shocker that works with jump scares but instead the eerieness slowly builds up and surprises you when you least expect it. Particularly the Mr. Jitters passages (leaning on an old local legend that is closely connected to the town's mining history) are wonderfully chilling. And don't even get me started on the tree in the woods from which people hang actual teeth to pacify the monster. Yikes!  

The novel started out a bit slow for me. I couldn't really connect with Lola as a protagonist at first but eventually I warmed up to her and began to understand why she is the way she is. The plot picked up as well and at some point I couldn't put the book down anymore. A lot of reviewers have commented on and criticised the fact that there are some loose ends. However, I believe those actually serve a purpose as they increase the reader's uncertainty and it's exactly this feeling of "not quite knowing" that makes the story work so well. The same goes for the frame narrative of Nolan being interviewed. Let me just say that I did not see that ending coming.

I can't really say more without giving too much away, but if you are into creepy novels that aren't only blood and gore but work more on a psychological level, Harrow Lake will be a great read for you. It is categorised as YA because the protagonist is a teenager, but adults will have fun with this story as well... and will be equally spooked. A perfect autumn read!

Rating: 4/5 stars

20th August, 2020

Bookish Stuff: Book vs. Film

I suppose most of us bookish people are the same in that, when we plan to watch a film adaptation, we prefer to read the book first. It is a common contention that the book is always and inevitably better than the movie. That the source text is holy and should always come first. That screen adaptations always leave something out and that this is bad. 

However, there are cases where this doesn't hold true. Of course, opinions are a highly subjective issue, but I have had several occassions when, even as a die-hard defender of the printed word, I had to grudgingly admit that the screen version was actually better. This can happen due to a multitude of factors: it's possible that I just didn't connect with the author's general style of writing or that I had trouble getting into the story because of the way the first scenes were introduced. Anything, really. And then, sometimes, the film version captures my attention in a fashion that the book didn't manage to do. One example for this would be the Game of Thrones series (even though that's TV and not film). I know many people who adore the books but I just couldn't read them and I can't even exactly explain why. 

Then there are the occasions where you watch a film and you absolutely adore it, and then you realise that it's actually a novel. You promise yourself to read the book as well because it MUST be great, right? But then said book sits on your shelf for years and years... and years, and you just can't seem to pick it up. Is it fear that you might be disappointed? Is it weariness because, after all, you already know the story?

This phenomenom has happened to me with the film adaptation of Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys, a brilliant movie from 2000, starring Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire, Katie Holmes and Robert Downey Jr. I came across the film by accident, zapping through channels late one night and stumbling over this undeservedly underrated gem (a synopis of the story can be found here: Wonder Boys). I immediately wanted to read the book and yet it took me 15(!!!) years to finally order it. It has now been sitting on my shelf for the past year and I haven't touched it yet. Have I rewatched the film in this time? Yes! Weird, I know. Will I ever get to the book eventually? I honestly don't know. I plan to, but I don't know. 

What is your experience with this? Do you always read the book first or are there instances where you prefered the screen version? Let me know in the comments! 

9th August, 2020

Review: The Printed Letter Bookshop by Katherine Reay (Thomas Nelson)

Do you know those days when nothing seems right and everything is getting on your nerves? I have found the perfect remedy: Katherine Reay's novel The Printed Letter Bookshop. This little gem had me captured hook, line and sinker, and  I found myself trying to make it last for as long as possible because I didn't want the story to end. 

One of Madeline Cullen’s happiest childhood memories is of working with her Aunt Maddie in the quaint and cozy Printed Letter Bookshop. But by the time Madeline inherits the shop nearly twenty years later, family troubles and her own bitter losses have hardened Madeline’s heart toward her once-treasured aunt—and the now struggling bookshop left in her care.

While Madeline intends to sell the shop as quickly as possible, the Printed Letter’s two employees have other ideas. Reeling from a recent divorce, Janet finds sanctuary within the books and within the decadent window displays she creates. Claire, though quieter than the acerbic Janet, feels equally drawn to the daily rhythms of the shop and its loyal clientele, finding a renewed purpose within its walls. When Madeline’s professional life takes an unexpected turn, and when a handsome gardener upends all her preconceived notions, she questions her plans and her heart. She begins to envision a new path for herself and for her aunt’s beloved shop—provided the women’s best combined efforts are not too little, too late.

A lot of reviewers have described this book as a testament to friendship and new beginnings and I couldn't agree more. When I started Reay's story, I was expecting a somewhat fluffy read about nerdy bookworms trying to break out of their shell - you know, the stereotypical bookshop novel. Boy, I couldn't have been more mistaken! The Printed Letter Bookshop is a novel about powerful and empowering women. Yes, they all have their flaws and their issues with self-esteem, etc. but it's the combination of the three female characters (and the ghost of a fourth one) running the shop that makes this story such a gem. Each of them is fighting their very own obstacles but their friendship makes them overcome them eventually. Each of them is in the process of starting something new, including all the insecurities normally involved, and each of them grows through this process. 

And then there is the shop and Aunt Maddie's lists of books that she passed on to each of the women. These books are meant to guide them through difficult times, and this is the part where true book lovers will begin to swoon. Maddie was a true bookseller, always finding the right title for the right person at the right time - and that holds true for the kind of self-care book lists she created for her friends and niece as well. In this respect the book isn't very good for your own bank account so be warned. ;-) I, at least, jotted down a number of titles for myself.

One thing I particularly appreciated about The Printed Letter Bookshop was that the love stoy plot is there but it isn't overwhelming. A lot of books in this genre are simply too cheesy but not this one. The love story is subtle enought that it doesn't drown out the rest of the story. The bookshop doesn't just function as a backdrop for matters of the heart but it is an atmospheric setting with lots of character. You almost feel like you are walking among the shelves yourself, and while there are personal tragedies, love and economic difficulties, the shop always remains the true protagonist of the story. 

Rating: 5/5 stars

5th August, 2020

Bookish Stuff: Summer Reading or How the Heat is Slowing me Down

When I think of summer, I immediately think of holidays on the beach, lazy days by the pool and, of course, lots of good reading material. My reading tastes vary quite widely and that also - or maybe even more so - goes for my summer reading. One day I prefer that typical fluffy beach read, while on another day I might grab a horror novel that would be more suitable for Halloween. I'm definitely a mood reader.

These last few years, summers in Germany have become quite intense with long stretches of horrible heat and drought. As someone who has never really been a fan of hot weather ("Sweater weather over sweaty weather," is my opinion on the matter!) I find that this is really taking a toll on me. Maybe it's also because I'm older now but the heat is definitely slowing me down as well as making me lose precious reading time. I simply have difficulty concentrating on a story when I feel like my skin is melting off my body. And I hate that as there are so many books out there that I want to get to, so many amazing new publications this summer. Luckily I've so far managed to tackle most of the latter - yet, I am most definitely looking forward to September and October.

What do you do to stay cool during the summer heat? Here are a few things I've been resorting to:

- Read with my feet in the kiddy pool

This is actually working quite well. The kid is happy when he can play in the water, he is supervised as I'm sitting right there, and I can read a few pages while staying (relatively) cool.

- Read in a bathtub full of luke warm water

This is even better than the kiddy pool as it's almost like a mini pool of my own. The luke warm water cools you down without making you freeze to death and you end up both clean and refreshed. With both this and the above, however, there is always the hazard of dropping your book in the water. Yikes!

- Move to the basement

Our basement is so heavenly cool during the summer that I'd almost want to sleep there at night - if only it wasn't for those creepy critters that seem to sneak in no matter what you do to keep them out. I've made myself a cosy reading spot down there so whenever I'm alone in the house (i.e. there is no need to watch an active 6 yo) this is my ultimate escape.

- Read at night with the windows wide open

That's of course another option I've tried because once the sun goes down it obviously gets cooler and oftentimes there is a slight breeze. However, if you are also a parent you will probably be familiar with the problem this poses: As soon as my head touches the pillow, I'm OUT! *rotfl* So yeah, that didn't work so well.

So, how are you keeping up with your reading during the heat? Do the temperatures disturb you at all or do you just not mind being scorched? Do you read as much in the summer as you do in autumn and winter? Do you have secret strategies for keeping cool that I'm unaware of?  Let me know in the comments.

26th July, 2020

Review: The Many Lives of Heloise Starchild by John Ironmonger (Orion)

John Ironmonger's latest novel is both a history of Europe from the French Revolution through the Prague Spring and post Brextit Britain to beyond and a future in space as well as a story women, about their power(s) and adventures and about the curiosities of life. 

On the day the comet came, a girl named Heloise was born. She would live a fine life, and inherit a fortune, but would meet a cruel, untimely death.

Years later, strange dreams plague Katya Nemcová, a teenager burdened with a rare and curious gift. Memories come to Katya in her dreams - images and stories from a past that isn't her own. Are these ghosts real? And what of the memory she seems to have of Heloise's treasures, two centuries old?

The premise of The Many Lives of Heloise Starchild is fascinating: We follow the lives of generations of a family of women whose memories are passed on from mother to daughter. The result is a mix of memories and recollections of historical events, social relationships and personal tragedies. Our main protagonist, the one who brings all strands together, is Katya living behind the iron curtain in Czechoslovakia with her father, and it is through her dreams that we live through centuries of European (and a bit of American) history: starting with Heloise, a French lady whose life is ended on the scaffold during the Revolution and following her long line of her female ancestors. 

The book is ambitious in its scope but Ironmonger, for most of the time, pulls it off wonderfully. Sometimes I would have wished for a bit more coherence as the story jumps back and forth in time - it occassionally seemed a little chaotic which, however, may have been a desired effect. It does go nicely with the confusions the protagonists experience during their rather eventful lives so maybe this was just me. I also loved the historical aspects of the novel with its glimpses into the past that often brought with them new perspectives on history as a concept as such. In particular, I chuckled throughout the post Brexit passages, wondering how much of a clairvoyant the author will turn out to be (after all, his Not Forgetting the Whale basically predicted our current pandemic). ;-) 

The Many Lives of Heloise Starchild thus ebbs and flows through time, introducing us to a number of quirky and believable characters and bringing these together into a greater narrative of a family through layer upon layer of new plotstrands. As with Ironmonger's other books, this is a unique story that will leave you discovering something new on every single page. 

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Many Lives of Heloise Starchild will be out with Orion Books on 6th August. Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a review copy.  

23rd July, 2020

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (Algonquin)

This is one of these books that used to be a bestseller and was hyped for months on end when it was published in 2007. It's also one of these books that somehow managed to pass me by and which I now picked up, wondering what took me so long to read it. 

When Jacob Jankowski, recently orphaned and suddenly adrift, jumps onto a passing train, he enters a world of freaks, drifters, and misfits, a second-rate circus struggling to survive during the Great Depression, making one-night stands in town after endless town. A veterinary student who almost earned his degree, Jacob is put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It is there that he meets Marlena, the beautiful young star of the equestrian act, who is married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer. He also meets Rosie, an elephant who seems untrainable until he discovers a way to reach her.

I was in quite a reading slump when I started Water for Elephants. No book really pleased me and I didn't finish about every second title I picked up. But then I got my little hands on Sara Gruen's wonderful novel and was blown away from page one. I had craved a read about a circus or carnival after watching a certain TV show where the latter was a major setting that season, so Water for Elephants seemed perfect. And it was. 

I loved the dual timelines of young and old Jacob and adored how they blended into each other. Next to being almost a historical treatise on the fate of the circus world during the depression, the book is also a (somewhat sad) story of what it means to grow old. The love story between Jacob and Marlena follows some stereotypical tropes but that was okay, because the setting and atmosphere and surrounding circumstances are multi-faceted and simply perfect. The first chapter with the stampede drew me right in and I was dying to know how the plot developed. I immediately fell in love with some of the characters while loathing others deeply which led to my total investment in the story. Any reader's bliss! I didn't want the book to end because I loved it so very much. If you haven't read it yet, I highly recommend it. Sara Gruen is a born storyteller and her beautiful prose will leave you enthralled. 

Rating: 5/5 stars

12th July, 2020

Bookish Stuff: The Importance of Libraries 

I know, I know: I am basically preaching to the converted here, but I think this cannot be said often enough: Libraries are a vital part of any community and we need to protect them!

Ever since Covid-19 hit the world our local library, which is conveniently located just across the street, has been closed. And we miss it. A lot! We are in a very priviledged position that we were able to make up for the library's closure by buying a ton of books to tide us over, but this is obviously not something that everyone can afford. 

I have been a member of the library since I was a little kid.  I have fond memories of riding to my hometown's branch on my bike as a kid and on my Vespa scooter as a teenager every week and checking out as many books as I could carry (thankfully, there is no limit to the number of books you can borrow here). Our son got his own library card when he turned three and he was so proud of it that he showed it to every single kid in kindergarten. 

Libraries are important: as a place to find information, as a provider of free books (and therefore education) and as a meeting place for a lot of people who might otherwise be lonely. Yet, some politicians still seem to think that libraries have become less essential, arguing that the internet is available everywhere nowadays. Ignoring the fact that this is not true for everyone, these people are also completely missing the point about what libraries do and what they are for: They can be a valuable source for citizens who don't have the financial means to buy books for themselves. For but a small annual fee, you can borrow as many titles as you want, including the latest bestsellers - and I must say that our library is always surprisingly up to date on new publications. Readers also come across books or genres they maybe wouldn't have found otherwise which helps widen people's horizon. And last but not least: The atmosphere of a room full of printed books and the weight of one of these in your hands simply cannot be experienced on the internet. 

It's a shame that so many libraries are being closed all over the world due to cuts in funding. The fact that our branch has been closed for more than three months now has made us painfully aware how significant the work of of these wonderful places really is. We've been missing it deeply and hope that it can reopen after the summer holidays. We'd never want to imagine our community without our library, and we hope that politicians will eventually see sense and support these valuablecommunity hubs. 

2nd July, 2020

Review: The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune (Tor Books)

This is a good example of a book that has been hyped extensively on social media: for its beautiful cover, its general premise, etc. However, for me this is also a book that doesn't live up to the hype and which is, in fact, quite problematic in several aspects. I really wanted to love The House in the Cerulean Sea - I mean, the title alone is swoon worthy - but that is unfortunately not what happened. But first, a quick synopsis: 

A magical island. A dangerous task. A burning secret.

Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.

When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management he's given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears and determine whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days.

But the children aren’t the only secret the island keeps. Their caretaker is the charming and enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, who will do anything to keep his wards safe. As Arthur and Linus grow closer, long-held secrets are exposed, and Linus must make a choice: destroy a home or watch the world burn.

So what is it that I didn't like about Klune's book? It was quite a few things actually, all of which added up to me almost throwing the book across the room at some point. Don't worry, I didn't! No books were harmed in any way in the process of reading but this novel left me so damn frustrated, it's not even funny anymore. Warning: The following contains mild spoilers. 

1. From the description I was expecting a story in the tradition of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. I was expecting interesting and multi-dimensional characters, some of whom would be a bit flawed. The characters in Klune's novel are all quirky and whimsical and definitely not generic in their appearance, BUT they are all so damn perfect! I know this is something that other reviewers have already criticised about the book and I couldn't agree more. Everybody on the island has a good heart. Some characters have a sort of "don't touch this" attitude at first, but are ultimately... well, perfect. The kids were supposed to be charming but I only found them boring and simply couldn't get invested. The whole thing is way to black and white for my taste - the ministry people are bad as are the villagers, while Arthur and his kids are the purely good guys, despite having the Antichrist among them. 

2. It's pretty clear from the early chapters onwards how the story is going to unfurl. Linus is looking for a family and - spoiler alert - he ends up getting one. There is something mysterious about Arthur and it turns out he is quite special. Why that particular "peculiarity" had to be in the book, I can only guess, as it doesn't do much for the overall story arc. So yes, this is a book that is very straightforward about questioning preconceived notions and becoming an (even) better person. It's an ancient trope and still could have been done well if the plot hadn't been too full of platitudes, too sweet, too cloying.  

3. Logic! Oh my goodness. This is something that was driving me insane. There is this whole dramatic "danger" of the evil village people threatening the children and their home and you're thinking "Wow, this could really go downhill. Why does nobody interfere?" And then it turns out that the mayor of the village is in fact quite partial to Arthur and the children. This is obviously a person with power so why the heck didn't she appear earlier and why didn't she use her influence? The whole conflict between village and island thus seems extremely constructed and unnecessary. 

4. Preachy tone: Klune's novel is quite preachy in the beginning about the importance of acceptance, inclusion and equality. Then, however, you have a passage where Linus reads Sal's poem and kind of appropriates the text when he has a sort of epiphany about himself (while Sal remains quite a static character even though he had the most potential). Somehow, this scene made me cringe. I'm fairly sure it was supposed to be geared toward the "you're not just the sum of your parts" idea and meant to illustrate that everyone is equal... but it didn't. It pushes the most vulnerable character further into the background and turns him into a mere tool for the main character's self discovery. But maybe that is just me. Is it just me? Let me know what you think in the comments. :)

This all sounds rather harsh, I know, but the book simply felt slapped together for me with its stereotypical tropes, its focus on telling over showing and its one-dimensional characters. T.J. Klune isn't a bad writer - far from it - his prose as such is wonderful, but this particular story could have done with a bit more developing/outlining/editing. I've heard that his other novels are great, so I will definitely give him another chance and read one of those. 

Rating: 1.5/5 stars

23rd June, 2020

Review: Anne of Green Gables: A Graphic Novel by Mariah Marsden & Brenna Thummler (Andrews McMeel)

You know how they say that in times of trouble you turn to old comfort reads? That's exactly what I did last week. It was a bit of a rough time (no worries, everything is well now) and I felt the need to go back to Green Gables. As I had reread the novel not too long ago, I found myself wanting something slightly different though. And this is how I came across Marden and Thummler's wonderful graphic novel adaptation of L.M. Montgomery's wonderful classic Anne of Green Gables

Just in case anyone doesn't know what the original book is about, here is a quick synopsis: 

Anne Shirley, a young orphan is sent to live with Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, siblings in their fifties and sixties, after a childhood spent in strangers' homes and orphanages. Marilla and Matthew had originally decided to adopt a boy from the orphanage to help Matthew run their farm at Green Gables, which is set in the fictional town of Avonlea (based on the community of Cavendish on Prince Edward Island). Through a misunderstanding, the orphanage sends Anne instead.

Anne is fanciful, imaginative, eager to please, and dramatic. However, she is defensive about her appearance, despising her red hair, freckles and pale, thin frame, but liking her nose. She is talkative, especially when it comes to describing her fantasies and dreams. At first, stern Marilla says Anne must return to the orphanage, but after much observation and consideration, along with kind, quiet Matthew's encouragement, Marilla decides to let her stay.

Of course, a graphic novel can only capture parts of a narrative source text but Marsden does a great job in boiling this little book down to the most important scenes and passages from Montgomery's novel. Thummler's art then is a real treat! Her illustrations are stunningly beautiful throughout and they transported me right back to Avonlea. The colour scheme may take a bit getting used to, but after a while you realise it makes a lot of sense and underlines the story perfectly with its whimsy.  

The book has all the iconic scenes, from Anne giving Diana alcohol instead of cordial to her cracking her slate over Gilbert Blythe's head. Sometimes, I only whished that some passages had been explored a bit more in depth. Still, this graphic novel is a brilliant rendition and does the original material justice. It's beautiful and magical and perfect for when you need something to pick you up from the chaos of life - in fact, it's like a warm hug. 

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

14th June, 2020

Review: A Sprinkle of Sorcery by Michelle Harrison (Simon & Schuster)

Meddling magpies! How I love Michelle Harrison's writing! A Sprinkle of Sorcery is the sequel to the wonderful A Pinch of Magic and thus forms part 2 in the Widdershins series. It not only picks up the wonderful world of Crowstone and the Sorrow Isles again but actually surpasses the brilliant first book in a variety of ways. And yes, it also expands the setting to new islands, some of them just mysterious, others even invisible and only accessible through magic. 

A Sprinkle of Sorcery is both action packed and whimsical. We are thrown right back into the story of the three sisters. As in the first instalment, Harrison does an outstanding job in developing her characters further. I simply adore the sisters: they have spunk and loyalty, and don't shy away from helping those in need. It was great to see them grow with the challenges that were put in their way.

The sisters' adventure is thrilling, sometimes a bit creepy, and it had me on the edge of my seat throughout. If you are looking for a story that has pirates, secret islands, talking ravens, meddling witches and wisps - Harrison's book will not disappoint.  I particularly loved the folkloric elements: The story of the will-o-the-wisps was heartwrenching and beautiful. There is also a new fable introduced which eventually turns out to be not just a simple fairytale but also provides some deep wisdom that helps the Widdershins sisters in their quest.

A Sprinkle of Sorcery  is a real treat. Its strong sisterly bond is extremely moving while the swashbuckling adventure Fliss, Betty and Charlie are experiencing grips the reader right from the beginning. There was one element that was supposed to be surprising in the end but which, instead, I saw coming early on, but this doesn't take away from the story as such. Harrison's book is storytelling at its best and I highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for a fast-paced read full of magic.

Rating: 5/5 stars

3rd June, 2020

Review: The Midnight Library by Matt Haig (Canongate Books)

"Between life and death there is a library, and within that library, the shelves go on forever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices... Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?"

Warning: This book will make you think! About your life, about your life choices and everything in-between. Matt Haig, an author who openly admits to struggling with mental health issues himself and advocating awareness of depression and other mental illnesses, has created a masterpiece that is deep, philosophical and utterly moving. 

It is a tough time for Nora: she has lost her job, her cat just died, nobody seems to need her, years of depression have worn her down, ... and so she decides to die. However, instead of achieving oblivion she wakes up in the Midnight Library, a place between life and death where all your possible, alternative lives are stored. Nora is given the chance to try out different versions of her life with the promise that she may eventually stay in one that she finds 100% desirable. 

You can already guess where this is going. Everyone who has ever asked themselves the famous "What if?" question - and, honestly, who hasn't? - will find themselves in this beautiful novel. Even when the grass at first seems to be greener on the other side of the fence, it hardly ever is. And this is something that Nora has to learn as she explores the books on the shelves. By and by, she moves through her own Book of Regrets, and realises that things are not as easily mended as she maybe initially assumed.

It is clear that this book was written by someone who knows what he is talking about. The Midnight Library is compassionate and emphatic. Haig's inspiring observations are wonderfully nuanced, touching the reader deep in the core of their souls. (Yes, I'm aware that this sounds cheesy but it's the truth, so deal with it. ;o)) This is a book that starts of as a sad story but ultimately turns into a narrative of the joys of life, however small they may be or how insignificant they may appear. 

I very much loved the many references to philosophy, and particularly to Thoreau's Walden, as they gave the story even more depth. For me, it put a lot of things into perspective, and I had to contemplate the book for several days before being able to put my thoughts into this review. “Sometimes the only way to learn is to live.” - I guess, that is the main message of The Midnight Library and I highly recommend it (both the life motto and the novel)!

The Midnight Library will be out with Canongate Books in October. 

Rating: 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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