The Constant Reader's Book Blog
(Reviews, Bookish Stuff and all Things literary)
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
27th May, 2020
Whoa, that was one helluva book! I loved it! It was gory, smart, sarcastic and critical towards certain social structures. A win on all accounts. But let me start over and say what the novel is actually about. Here is a synopsis from Goodreads:
Patricia Campbell had always planned for a big life, but after giving up her career as a nurse to marry an ambitious doctor and become a mother, Patricia's life has never felt smaller. The days are long, her kids are ungrateful, her husband is distant, and her to-do list is never really done. The one thing she has to look forward to is her book club, a group of Charleston mothers united only by their love for true-crime and suspenseful fiction. In these meetings, they're more likely to discuss the FBI's recent siege of Waco as much as the ups and downs of marriage and motherhood.
But when an artistic and sensitive stranger moves into the neighborhood, the book club's meetings turn into speculation about the newcomer. Patricia is initially attracted to him, but when some local children go missing, she starts to suspect the newcomer is involved. She begins her own investigation, assuming that he's a Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy. What she uncovers is far more terrifying, and soon she--and her book club--are the only people standing between the monster they've invited into their homes and their unsuspecting community.
This book has been described as a mix of Fried Green Tomatoes, Dracula and Steel Magnolias. However, I would say it's more like Pleasantville meets The Stepford Wives meets all of Anne Rice's novels. Hendrix draws on the classical vampire topos, moves it into a late 1980s/early 90s setting and throws in a critical perspective on the role of housewives and (abusive) marriages. The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires appears like an easy read at first, but it is clearly not. A lot of the things happening to the women in this book are quite gruesome and I felt myself ready to rip off their idiot husbands' heads, but it is also a novel that is very much consoling in its focus on female friendships. In the end, the women's bond and their loyaly are what makes them strong.
In parts, this read like a Stephen King novel and it was the little new ideas surrounding the whole traditional vampire theme that made the story so great and so uncanny: There is a scene with rats - lots of them - which reads like something straight out of a nightmare. The physiology of James' blood sucking is - to say it mildly - more than creepy. Also, Hendrix does a terrific job in making the reader feel the despair of the women trying to stop the monster and to save the lives of their children. There were so many passages where I thought "Yes, Patricia, you've got this!" just for her seemingly good strategy to be ruined by James' eerily clairvoyant interference. The novel builds a constantly increasing sense of suspense, and you will be dying to know whether or not (and, if yes, how) Pat, Slick, Kitty, Grace and Maryellen manage to defeat their nemesis.
The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires is the perfect read if you are looking for an entertaining, bad ass story. It's one of my favourite booksof 2020 so far, and I cannot recommend it enough.
Rating: 5/5 stars
24th May, 2020
Welcome back to Kirrinfief, the setting of two of Jenny Colgan's previous novels and the most wonderful (fictional) place in the Scottish highlands. After witnessing a traumatic crime, Londoner Lissa desperately needs a break and swaps jobs with Cormac. As both characters are thrown into environments they are very much not used to, they realise that sometimes the little things in life are the most important.
Five Hundred Miles From You is a very cute and quirky tale of two strangers being thrown into the other's everyday life. The emails and text messages between Lissa and Cormac that intersperse the regular narrative are sweet and possibly promising more (no spoilers here ;o)). What Colgan once again excels at is creating a dreamy setting: Especially in the cleverly drawn contrast to London, Scotland seems more than magical. The descriptions of the clear air, relaxing quiet and wonderfully idiosyncratic but utterly lovely people made me yearn for our little cottage in Fife, and while London is described as vibrant and cosmopolitan, it definitely loses out in comparison. Big time! I mean it - you will not want to live in a big city after reading this! We also meet well-known characters from what I'll here call the author's 'bookshop books' - Nina, Lennox, Zoe, Ramsay and many more all make an appearance, and it's great to see how Colgan weaves another plotline into her world of Kirrinfief.
As with all of Colgan's books, this is a refreshing read - a story that will warm your heart and make you re-evaluate some of your life decisions. It has quite a bit of depth as well, dealing with the effects of trauma and grief. Taking all of this together it is the perfect story for a balmy summer evening - maybe with a glass of chilled elderflower wine and a platter of Scottish cheese?
Five Hundred Miles From You will be out on 28th of May with Little Brown/Sphere. A huge thank you goes to both the publisher and Netgalley for providing me with an advance readers' copy.
Rating: 4.5/ 5 stars
20th May, 2020
Fracine Toon’s debut novel Pine is a book that you will not forget easily. This is a book written with wonderful gothic undertones, but with a fresh take on established notions of genre. Set in a remote area of Scotland where the next supermarket is 23 miles away, it tells the story of Lauren, her dad Niall and her mother Christine who’s been missing for these last ten years. Rumours abound in this little village in the Highlands and while people are still very much in touch with their traditions and histories, they also fear the possible truth behind their myths.
This book gave me the creeps. It started out a bit slow with elaborate descriptions of how Lauren and her friend go guising on All Hallow’s Eve but it picks up soon after when Lauren and her dad meet a strange woman stumbling onto a remote country road. Mysterious events follow, people see the “white woman” but forget about her the second she disappears. Only Lauren and an old woman who many consider a witch can remember her. Houses becomes inexplicably damp, weird smells of rot pervade messy rooms that are suddenly tidied up. Then a girl goes missing and prejudices, gossip and suspicions begin to take over the small community.
I loved Toon’s ability to create an atmosphere that is both comforting and chilling at the same time. This story is about parenthood and about what it means to protect your children. At the same time, it touches on the most debased notions of humanity and drags them out of the woods – quite literally speaking, considering the branch found by a dog in the story that turned out to be a human arm. At the centre of all of this sits Lauren, wondering about her mother while her father falls apart and the village dynamics turn increasingly off kilter. The eeriness that pervades the pages is almost tangible but never quite so. You can nearly smell the pines and feel the cold, damp wind on your face while reading as Toon manages to draw the reader into the story through this strong sense of place. The setting of this book is beautiful and claustrophobic at the same time. It is a place you want to be and not want to be in. It is a place of secrets but also of community. It is a place where you think nothing bad can happen and still one where that seems entirely possible. It is a place of ambiguities.
Toon’s edgy writing and the somewhat disjointed but deliciously haunting plot kept me awake at night as I just had to know what would happen. The finale of the book then is heart wrenching but it is also simply perfect. My verdict: fresh, observant, uncanny, brilliant. I highly recommend it.
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
11th May, 2020
After reading Thomas Taylor's first book Malamander during our pre-Covid seaside holiday in March, I was over the moon when I heard that a sequel was coming out in May. Needless to say I preordered it straight away and - Yay!! - it arrived on my doorstep via contactless delivery on publication day.
Gargantis is the second book in Taylor's Eerie-on-Sea series in which Herbert and Violet team up again to solve the mystery of the Gargantis — an ancient creature of the sea with the power to create life-threatening storms:
Someone has woken the ancient monster, who sleeps in the watery caves beneath Eerie. Legends have a habit of coming to life here, and it seems the Gargantis is looking for something: a treasure stolen from her underwater lair. And it just might be in the Lost-and-Foundery at the Grand Nautilus Hotel, in the care of one Herbert Lemon, Lost-and-Founder. With the help of the daring Violet Parma, ever-reliable Herbie will do his best to figure out what the Gargantis wants and who stole her treasure in the first place. In a town full of suspicious, secretive characters, it could be anyone!
What a treat! This is the kind of book you wish you'd read as a kid. It's the type of story that, back then, I would have devoured within a few hours on a rainy Sunday afternoon (well, as a matter of fact I still did, even though I'm most certainly not a kid anymore, but the story brings back that wonderful feeling of easily getting lost in a book). The writing is straight out amazing, and Taylor packs his stories full of such quirky, weird and engaging characters that you can't but love them. In this book, he introduces more locals of the town which gives the story additional depth. I particularly liked the "fisherfolk" with their tight-knit community because they give us more insight into the history of the town and its traditions and legends.
Taylor excels at creating atmosphere. His descriptions of Eerie-on-Sea during the raging storm inspire a feeling of constant dread and unease. Everything just screams 'Danger!' and as a reader you simply have to rush on because you are dying to know what sinister mysteries are lurking "on the cold, dark bottom of the sea" and in the storm clouds over the town. If you can, I suggest reading this book during stormy or, at least, rainy weather as it will add perfectly to the atmosphere of the story itself.
I love the mythical aspect in Gargantis, just like I'd adored it in its predecessor and I'm hoping that the author has a few more myths up his sleeve for future instalments in the series. We also get a few hints about Herbie's past and about what may have happened to his parents. There is definitely a lot more potential in that particular mystery as well. Please, Mr Taylor, keep writing (and please do it fast) because this reader here desperately needs to know how the story continues!
Rating: 5/5 stars
29th April, 2020
I suppose everyone has a favourite reading spot, or probably several. One or two will most likely be in you home. They could be your bed, the couch or that cosy conservatory where you can hear the rain patter on the roof while you're travelling through the pages of your current story. The latter would definitely be my favourite - if we only had a conservatory. So I think my favourite reading spot in our house is in fact the living room sofa.
In the last few weeks I've spent A LOT of time there for obvious reasons and I'm beginning to long for some of my favourite spots outside our own four walls. For example, I love to read at Starbucks. There is this perfect coffee house close to where I work and when I was still a student I used to spend hour after hour in one of those lush armchairs with a book. I don't really have the time to do that anymore but occasionally I treat myself to an hour in that cosy environment. Now that we are all in lockdown, I miss being able to do that. It would be lovely to have a little bit of 'me time' in that place but I assume we'll still have to wait a little longer for these things to be possible again.
Another favourite reading spot is a certain bench in the park. That would be possible for a limited amount of time, even during times of Corona, BUT... allergies. Spring is beautiful and all that, but it is hell on my hay fever. So that option is, unfortunately, not in the cards either.
So what is left? The library? Closed. The bookshop with the little reading nook? Open but with limited access for only two customers at the time so: not possible. Our little cottage in rural Scotland? Only if travelling is allowed, so right now that is another no. Ultimately, I guess I'll just have to bide my time like everyone else and, in the meantime, reminisce and dream about these places. One day we'll be able to move around freely again and I hope we'll then remember to be more grateful about the freedom we normally enjoy. Until then I'll explore the world through stories - which, if you think about it, isn't bad at all. So hang in there, everyone, read a good book and enjoy the comforts of your own home. I've heard it's where the heart is. ;-)
22nd April, 2020
I came across this book by accident and, considering the current Covid-19 pandemic, was immeditely intrigued. Here was a novel published in 2015 that basically talks about what we are living right now? Weird! And eerily prescient. But also extremely interesting. Needless to say I ordered it right away. But before I tell you about my opinion, first a synopsis:
When a young man washes up, naked, on the sands of St Piran, he is quickly rescued by the villagers. From the retired village doctor and the schoolteacher, to the beachcomber and the owner of the local bar, the priest's wife and the romantic novelist, they take this lost soul into their midst. But what the villagers don't know is that Joe Haak worked as an analyst and has fled the City amid fears of a worldwide banking collapse caused by a computer program he invented. But is the end of the world really nigh? And what of the whale that lurks in the bay?
After admiring the beautiful cover, I started reading the first sentence: ”In the village of St. Piran they still speak of the day when the naked man washed up on Piran Sands. It was the same day Kenny Kennet saw the whale. Some say it was a Wednesday. Others seem sure it was Thursday. It was early October. Unless it was late September; but almost half a century has passed since the events of that day, and the turmoil of the days and weeks that followed, and no one, at that time or since, thought to write it all down. So memory is all we have, fragile though this may be.”
And with this amazing beginning, Ladies and Gentleman, I was hooked. The story of Joe Haak and this wonderful Cornish community simply swept me away. It started with the giant joint effort of rescuing first Joe and then the whale. It continued with the "feel" of St. Pirran, a village that is so remote that you almost drive by without noticing it's there at all. It was simply a place you'd want to live and a community you'd want to be a part of in times of trouble. There is an economic crash caused by a global flue pandemic and Joe wants to help feed the people of St. Pirran. I suppose it was just the perfect time to read this book which, in our current situation, hit very close to home.
The story is often endearing, frequently amusing, sometimes upsetting, occasionally even alarming, and always uplifting. It conveys hope! Yes, it talks about humanity and about how no computer programme can predict what people are capable of in unforeseen crises. The writing and storytelling are just wonderful. Even though Not Forgetting the Whale deals with very serious issues, their narration begins very artfully and only becomes more weighty or grave as the book progresses. Ironmonger's novel is full of amazing, multi-faceted characters and beautiful descriptions of natural beauty. I'm sure the story will stick with me for quite a while, and as I'm finishing this review I'm heading over to the website of my local bookshop to order the other titles written by this amazing writer.
Rating: 5/5 stars
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20th March, 2019
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.
So, imagine you could simply step through a mirror or wardrobe (or insert any other mysterious portal of your choice) and you are in a stunningly beautiful library full of impressive leather-bound tomes. And now imagine someone telling you that you can actually live there for a while. Sounds like a dream come true, doesn't it? Well, no need for magic as this place is only a good thirty-minute bus ride away from the city of Chester, situated in the wonderfully quaint village of Hawarden in North Wales (UK).
Gladstone's Library is a magnificent grade 1 listed building which pays tribute to William Gladstone, a four-time prime minister of Great Britain in the later half of the 19th century, who founded the library himself. After his death in 1898 it became a memorial to his life and work. Gladstone's is a residential library, a place for study and contemplation and a meeting place for bibliophiles from around the world. So when a friend who I had met through Litsy (a social media platform for bookworms) asked if anyone was up for a weekend reading retreat in this marvellous locationI didn't think twice and booked my room and flight within minutes.
When we arrived at the library we were all kind of giddy with excitement, on the one hand because of meeting a bunch of people you'd only so far talked to online and, on the other hand, because of the sheer beauty of the place. The reading rooms themselves are absolutely magnificent - think Disney's Beauty and the Beast and you'll get an understanding of what I mean. They are indeed a place of silence with absolutely no talking allowed. I felt that merely sitting in one of the comfortable leather armchairs with my book and enjoying the tranquility had an amazing soul-cleansing and centreing effect, because it is so far removed from the stress of our everyday lives.
The rest of the building is certainly just as attractive as the library proper. Many of the rooms come with beautiful book wallpaper and all of them have old-timey Roberts radios and mullioned windows. Something they explicitly do not have are TVs because of Gladstone's Library seeing itself as a place for research, study and debate. And this is precisely what I appreciate about it: Three days of peaceful tranquility, hours of reading, good food and bookish conversations in the lounge or over meals left me so incredibly refreshed and regrounded that it actually surprised me how relaxed I felt afterwards. It is the perfect sanctuary in a time where distraction is everywhere, and I found myself thinking that this must surely be what the characters in Thomas Mann's famous novel The Magic Mountain must have felt.
We started our first day of the retreat with a scrumptious Afternoon Tea in the library cafe and food somehow became a constant entity, either in the form of lovely pub lunches and dinners or as nibbles, cake and candy as reading accompaniment in front of the fire place in the cosy guest lounge. (Thank goodness, we walked some of it off on a brisk country walk on day two - haha.) And of course it was also the wonderful people who were with me on this retreat that made it such a success. It felt good to be surrounded by book people, people who are comfortable with sitting together in silence with their nose in a book but who also love to have inspiring conversations in-between.
Gladstone's Library is a truly stunning place and I didn't want to leave. The next retreat is already planned so I'm looking forward to coming back and staying a bit longer next time around. If you'd like more information, you'll find it all on their webpage: https://www.gladstoneslibrary.org/
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