The Constant Reader's Book Blog

(Reviews, Bookish Stuff and all Things literary)

7th March, 2021

Review: Underland by Robert Macfarlane (Norton)

Robert Macfarlane takes us along on a journey below the surface of the Earth. Travelling through caves, dark sewers, mines and burial rooms, the author’s narrative swept me along easily, and I loved the mix of natural and cultural history.

The ground beneath our feet carries a multitude of secrets, secrets that can be uncanny or mesmerising, exciting or threatening. All cultures have something Macfarlane calls an Underland and all humans are equally fascinated by it. Sometimes it’s a place to protect treasure, a source for possible wealth or a dumping ground for unwanted things. The author explores all of these in three major chapters, fittingly named chambers. And he doesn’t leave out anything, navigating all kinds of places, from the Paris catacombs to a Finnish storing facility for atomic waste and to underground rivers, etc.

This is a book that will make you uncomfortable (especially if you’re claustrophobic) but it is also a treasure trove of interesting facts about a fascinating topic that is normally not a part of our everyday lives. I thoroughly enjoyed it and learned so many new things.

Robert Macfalane is a wonderful storyteller. Sometimes his descriptions are a tad lengthy but all in all his book draws an amazing portrait of the world hidden below the surface. A book that will leave you occasionally baffled. Highly recommend!

Rating: 4/5 stars

25th February, 2021

Bookish Stuff: Prepping for Middle Grade March

It’s the end of February which means one thing: Middle Grade March is fast approaching and I’d better get ready. If you have no idea what the heck I’m talking about, let me fill you in: Middle Grade March is a reading challenge that started on Instagram. In that little nerdy corner of Insta where we booklovers congreate, bookstagram, a lot of readers dedicate the month of March to reading Middle Grade Books.

Middle Grade Books are books written for a target audience of 8 to 12 year olds. However, that target audience parametre is misleading as many middle grade books have a broader appeal and are enjoyed by other readers as well, both older and younger, e.g. as read-aloud bed time stories for smaller kids.

Participating is easy. You only read a few Middle Grade Books during the month of March and that’s pretty much all there is to it. There are of course many ways to go about doing it: You can read them quietly to yourself or you can read them aloud to your children. If you want to share your reading experience, you can post pictures using the hashtag #middlegrademarch on social media.

So why should adults read Middle Grade Fiction in the first place? For me, there are various reasons. For one, I love middle grade books because they make me relive what it was like being a bookish child. Remember sneaking a torch under the covers so you could continue reading after lights out? Remember spending rainy afternoons in your favourite spot with a fabulous story? Remember carefully choosing which books to take on holiday and then arranging them neatly next to your bunk bed in your holiday cottage? That‘s the feeling I mean!

Also, Middle grade fiction can serve as a refreshing perspective, giving you a more positive outlook on a lot of social issues dealt with in these stories. Middle Grade fiction doesn’t ignore the world‘s problems but tackles them with a bit more hope because of its core audience. Especially during the pandemic I‘ve found this to be rather comforting.

Last but not least: As a mum, I find it helpful to know some of the books our son is reading. Of course, I don’t read everything he reads - I’m not monitoring his reading. But it‘s nice to share our love for certain books and to see him grow as a reader and develop his own love for literature. He adores books about ghosts and mysteries and dragons - something we have in common, and it‘s fantastic to bond over these stories. I hope this will be something he‘ll remember when he‘s older and we turn into the ‘uncool parental units’. ;-)

Are you going to participate in Middle Grade March? And if so, are there any special titles you‘ll be reading?

22nd February, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 5/5 stars

13th February, 2021

Review: The Library of the Dead by T.L. Huchu (Tor Books)

When a child goes missing in Edinburgh's darkest streets, young Ropa investigates. She'll need to call on Zimbabwean magic as well as her Scottish pragmatism to hunt down clues. But as shadows lengthen, will the hunter become the hunted? When ghosts talk, she will listen...

Ropa dropped out of school to become a ghostalker. Now she speaks to Edinburgh's dead, carrying messages to the living. A girl's gotta earn a living, and it seems harmless enough. Until, that is, the dead whisper that someone's bewitching children--leaving them husks, empty of joy and life. It's on Ropa's patch, so she feels honor-bound to investigate. But what she learns will change her world.

She'll dice with death (not part of her life plan...), discovering an occult library and a taste for hidden magic. She'll also experience dark times. For Edinburgh hides a wealth of secrets, and Ropa's gonna hunt them all down.

This is a novel the release date of which I could hardly wait for. I counted down the days and kept checking if maybe they'd release it a bit early (stupid, I know ;o)). When I finally got my hands on it, I began reading immediately, and I was not disappointed. In fact, even though I first thought I'd finish the story in one or two sittings, I found myself dividing it into little "helpings" and savouring it. When I got towards the end, I simply didn't want the book to end, so I read the last fifty pages over a period of three days, trying to make it last as long as possible.

The Library of the Dead definitely has echoes of Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series. At first, I was a bit worried that the parallels would be too strong, but it soon turned out that this is not the case. Huchu's portrayal of an alternative or post-apocalyptic Edinburgh is mesmerising. We never really learn what has actually happened, only that it was an event commonly known as "the catastrophe". Since then, Edinburgh's city centre has become a dodgy place full of criminals, prostitutes and... an occult library. World building = A+! 

I very much enjoyed the characters and their unique voices: Ropa is tough but caring, Gran is the quintessential grandmother figure radiating warmth and love, Priya has both brains and a certain level of spunk, Jomo is kind of dorky but loveable. And Ropa has a pet fox called River - two thumbs up for that wonderful idea. The characters all work brilliantly together and, combined with the similarly fascinating villains of the story, make this a fast-paced read full of little surprises. 

You'll get most out of the story if you're at least slightly familiar with Edinburgh, so in case you're not, it might help to have a map next to you while reading. The book is full of little nods to the Auld Reekie's history (e.g. there is a new Loch covering Princes Street Gardens which used to be a lake in the olden days - history repeating itself, eh?) and when Ropa walks the streets between Haymarket and Arthur's Seat, she takes the reader along on her journeys through this recognisable but still different urban space. In parts, her descriptions reminded me a bit of those of a flaneur, only that she has a purpose when she's navigating the city and its ghostly planes. There are other references made to popular culture (e.g. The Martian, Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, etc.) which I enjoyed just as much as the general plot and the characters. 

I full-heartedly recommend this wonderful book to anyone who is looking for an exciting and clever read. It will be extremely hard to wait for book 2 in the series. I'm already looking forward to seeing how Ropa's story will continue. 

Rating: 5/5 stars

3rd February, 2021

Review: Gerta by Kateřina Tučková (Amazon Crossing)

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that history is usually written by the victors. It’s therefore no surprise that this novel took its time to come into being and also for it to be translated into other languages.

1945. Allied forces liberate Nazi-occupied Brno, Moravia. For Gerta Schnirch, daughter of a Czech mother and a German father aligned with Hitler, it’s not deliverance; it’s a sentence. She has been branded an enemy of the state. Caught in the changing tides of a war that shattered her family—and her innocence—Gerta must obey the official order: she, along with all ethnic Germans, is to be expelled from Czechoslovakia. With nothing but the clothes on her back and an infant daughter, she’s herded among thousands, driven from the only home she’s ever known. But the injustice only makes Gerta stronger, more empowered, and more resolved to seek justice. Her journey is a relentless quest for a seemingly impossible forgiveness. And one day, she will return.

Gerta tells the story of a young girl, who faces a serious conflict: her father and brother are followers of the Nazi regime because they identify as German while Gerta and her mother feel that they are Czech. In a straightforward way with no embellishments the author writes about Gerta‘s childhood, about the loss of both her brother and mother and about the horrible relationship with her father, an alcoholic who rapes his own daughter and leaves her pregnant.

The character of Gerta represents an entire generation of people who tried to defy both a regime and the effects of a war and still ended up as a ‘lost generation’. The incredible hopelessness Gerta is facing, the debasement she has to endure, the disrespect for human life - all of these aspects are skilfully woven into this somber narrative. Tučková manages to make graspable a time that has largely been ignored in history books, and she does it without moralising about what happened. Instead, she focuses on the lives of Gerta and the people who surround her, narrating the stories of both individuals and the guilt of the collective, told through the eyes of a strong, charismatic female protagonist. The death march that makes up the prologue is merely our entry into a story that is far-reaching, delineating the struggles of displaced groups as well as the stigma carried by those ‘Germans’ who decided to remain in Czechoslovakia, a stigma which was palpable far into the following generations.

Tučková has tackled one the most difficult chapters in European history, one that has been influencing the relationship between two nations for decades. It’s a tale of prejudice, of exclusion and collective shame.Gerta is both a disturbing novel and a wonderful piece of literature that could easily become a classic.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

28th January, 2021

Review: The Crooked Mask by Rachel Burge (Hot Key Books)

I very much enjoyed Rachel Burge's The Twisted Tree (link to my review of this title here) when I read it two years ago. I was therefore thrilled when I was asked to be part of the bookstagram tour and review the sequel: The Crooked Mask.

Deep in a forest in Northern Norway lies the Circus of Myth & Mayhem. Martha is certain that unsolved mysteries are hidden there - and talks her way into getting a job as a psychic. She soon learns there's something very strange about the circus. Costumed performers re-enact stories of the Norse gods wearing masks, which move and change expression, yet no one notices but her. And then there's the creepy jester who invites her to 'play'.

When an old friend shows up at the circus Martha is thrown into turmoil. Is he there because he misses her or because he wants to stop her discovering the truth? And he isn't the only liar she has to worry about. Loki has taken an interest in the circus and Martha finds herself drawn into a dangerous game of the gods. She must look behind the mask and see what's really happening . . . before it's too late.

As in book one, the author has a tremendous talent for creating atmosphere. We have an enchanting but slightly eerie circus, we have scheeming gods and a possible murder that needs to be solved. The way Burge describes the setting, had me hooked immediately. The black and gold stripes of the circus tents, the lights that span between the big top and the stalls/smaller tents, all located in the middle of a wintry forest - what's not to love about that? 

This is YA but it is not for the faint of heart. There are some rather creepy passages in the book that gave me goosebumps. I loved this sinister atmosphere and it contributed perfectly to what is happening in the story. The masks that the performers use to reenact the myths of the gods seem to come alive, the dead are swarming the circus grounds and the gruesome figure of the jester becomes even more disconcerting as the narrative continues. The story is fast-paced, the tension keeps building and building and I found myself unable  to put the book down. 

Martha is a wonderful character. I love how she is both vulnerable and strong while also believably representing someone who has to live with disfigurement and visual impairment after an accident.  But I also adored a lot of the new side characters. Ruth, for instance, was deeply fascinating and I would have loved to learn even more about her. Burge manages to make all these characters come alive on the page. Martha has limited time to win the wager and defeat the trickster god Loki and as the plot climaxes, the reader is swept along with the crowd of spectators and captivating host of performers in mythical costumes in a fiery reenactment of Ragnarok - the end of the world(s). 

This is a beguiling and riveting read. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a slightly spooky tale as well as all readers interested in Norse mythology. If you haven't read The Twisted Tree yet, however, I suggest that you read this first as - after all - The Crooked Mask is a sequel and picks up a lot of strands from book one. 

Rating: 5/5 stars

23rd January, 2021

Review: The Readers' Room by Antoine Lauraine (Gallic Books)

When the manuscript of a debut crime novel arrives at a Parisian publishing house, everyone in the readers’ room is convinced it’s something special. And the committee for France’s highest literary honour, the Prix Goncourt, agrees.

But when the shortlist is announced, there’s a problem for editor Violaine Lepage: she has no idea of the author’s identity. As the police begin to investigate a series of murders strangely reminiscent of those recounted in the book, Violaine is not the only one looking for answers. And, suffering memory blanks following an aeroplane accident, she’s beginning to wonder what role she might play in the story …

I'm usually not a huge fan of mysteries but in this case, I couldn't put the book down before I had finished it. Lauraine's slim novel The Readers' Room is about books and their authors. It's about loving literature and about how novels are marketed. Full of the intrigues happening in the publishing world, the story also crosses the borderline between reality and fiction. As Violaine Lepage is trying to find out who is the mysterious author of a brilliant manuscript, it quickly becomes clear that something is not right as life seemingly begins to imitate art.

What I loved about this book was the little glimpse into the French publishing world. For one, I didn't know much about the Prix Goncourt and how much of a media phenomenon it really is. The book has the typical charm of French writing while also playing with expectations and preconceived notions about literature as such. It is not so much a typical whodunnit but rather a story about a woman who is running from her own past and taking her life into her own hands. Despite it's shortness, the story brings across an atmosphere that is utterlycaptivating. 

The ending was a tad predictable. At some point in the story I had a hunch about who could have written the mysterious manuscript, and it turned out I was right. However, if that should happen to you as well, rest assured that it doesn't take much away from the enjoyment this little book provides. It's a quick read and a satisfying and engaging story, and I'm looking forward to exploring the author's other works as well.

Rating: 4/5 stars

16th January, 2021

Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury)

Are you looking for a Kafkaesque tale that will keep you wondering and guessing until being well into the story? Then the wild ride of Susanna Clarke's Piranesi may be the right book for you.

Piranesi's house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house.

There is one other person in the house—a man called The Other, who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.

It is difficult to write a review about this book without giving too much away, and my personal experience was that it's best to simply dive into the text without knowing too much about it. Susanna Clarke's Piranesi is a puzzling masterpiece full of nods to other literary texts and the visual arts. For the first half, the reader is left with no idea of what is happening. It was during this part of the book that I kept texting a friend who had already read it, dumping my theories on her and asking "WTH am I reading here?". :-) At first, the uncertainty was slightly irritating but it was also what kept me reading because I just wanted to KNOW. With the second half of the book, things begin to fall into place and oh my, was I wrong with my previously formed assumptions. 

Clarke clearly refers to magical stories such as the Narnia books as well as to 18th Century Italian art. The 'House', consisting of neverending halls full of fabled statues (fauns, minotaurs, etc.), is like an imaginary prison. The half-drowned lower levels carry the enigmatic connotations of a mythological underworld. As a reader we follow Piranesi in his awed descriptions of a place that is so far removed from everything we know and still distantly reminds us of stories we have read and paintings we have seen.

The author clearly excels in building a world that leaves us fascinated. While the reader may find the crumbling labyrinth of the House disconcerting, Piranesi calls it home. He knows his way around the halls and has come up with a clever way to map the individual rooms and the tides. As the story progresses, both he and the reader slowly begin to learn what has happened - yet we still don't know whether to feel sorry for Piranesi or to admire him. Maybe both. 

Piranesi is a relatively slim book which, however, is full to the brim with brilliant ideas. It's a book that will stick with you for quite some time and make you think about life in general, identiy and the borderline between reality and illusion. Highly recommended!  

Rating: 5/5 stars

9th January, 2021

Review: The Lost and Found Bookshop by Susan Wiggs (William Morrow)

I received The Lost and Found Bookshop as a Christmas present and immediately thought it would be the perfect read for the time between Christmas Eve and New Year's. And guess what: it was! But what is the novel about?

In the wake of a shocking tragedy, Natalie Harper inherits her mother’s charming but financially strapped bookshop in San Francisco. She also becomes caretaker for her ailing grandfather Andrew, her only living relative—not counting her scoundrel father. But the gruff, deeply kind Andrew has begun displaying signs of decline. Natalie thinks it’s best to move him to an assisted living facility to ensure the care he needs. To pay for it, she plans to close the bookstore and sell the derelict but valuable building on historic Perdita Street, which is in need of constant fixing. There’s only one problem–Grandpa Andrew owns the building and refuses to sell. Natalie adores her grandfather; she’ll do whatever it takes to make his final years happy. Besides, she loves the store and its books provide welcome solace for her overwhelming grief.
After she moves into the small studio apartment above the shop, Natalie carries out her grandfather’s request and hires contractor Peach Gallagher to do the necessary and ongoing repairs. His young daughter, Dorothy, also becomes a regular at the store, and she and Natalie begin reading together while Peach works.
To Natalie’s surprise, her sorrow begins to dissipate as her life becomes an unexpected journey of new connections, discoveries and revelations, from unearthing artifacts hidden in the bookshop’s walls, to discovering the truth about her family, her future, and her own heart.

I found the book the perfect read to snuggle up with on a cold winter's day. Of course, you can read it anytime and anywhere you want, but for me there was something about the hearwarming story and the cosyness of the bookshop descriptions that simply called for hot cocoa and a fluffy blanket. 

Yes, the story is a bit predictable: It is relatively clear how the love triangle will be resolved in the end, and the vibe of the story simply wouldn't allow an ending in which Natalie and Andrew actually lose the bookshop, BUT that didn't bother me at all. Normally, I can't stand predictable plots but here I found that I didn't care. For me, the story was less about the plot but about the characters - it was about the dynamics between them, about the love and caring within the Harper family and between Peach and his daughter, and about how characters deal with loss and grief and unexpected circumstances. The Lost and Found Bookshop is simply an uplifting story full of heart and hope. It's a story that (again) made me want to open my own bookshop despite all the economic problems these may be facing in our times.  I loved the descriptions of the shop and the old building it is housed in. 

Another aspect I very much enjoyed was the slowly revealed family history which was neatly woven into the history of San Francisco itself. As family secrets were discovered, I found that I also learned a bit more about both the city's history and its architecture. :-)

If you are looking for an emotional family story that includes a to-die-for bookshop and a bit of sweet romance, The Lost and Found Bookshop is the perfect choice and you should make sure to pick it up.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

31st December, 2020

Review: A Place Called Perfect by Helena Duggan (Usborne Books)

Happy New Year's Eve! Happy Hogmanay! Let‘s finish the year off with a review of a middle grade book, shall we? :) I read an interesting novel for younger readers over the holidays. How does a sort of Stepford Wives kind of book for kids sound to you? Here is the cover blurb:

They've got their eyes on you. Violet hates living in Perfect. Why does everyone have to wear special glasses to stop them going blind? What are the strange noises in the night and why is Mum acting so weird? Then Dad disappears and Violet is determined to uncover the truth with the help of the mysterious Boy. But returning normality to Perfect is a battle they never imagined...

I did enjoy this little book which I got for Christmas but I didn't love it. The world building is great and the general idea creative and something I haven’t read much before. The cover is absolutely stunning and the story has definite nods to Neil Gaiman and Roald Dahl. However,...

I can’t really put my finger on what irked me about this story. Maybe it was a bit too predictable, maybe it was the few inconsistencies that kept popping up - fact is that I had expected more. A Place Called Perfect had a very promising start and the premise caught my interest immediately. After a while, however, I was getting increasingly bored and began to struggle to continue about halfway into the story. This may have had to do with the above mentioned "hints" in the story that made both me and our son guess early on what was going to happen. At this halfway point we were both thinking that we'd like things to be moved forward a little faster in order to check if we were right in our assumptions (if you want to know: we were). I first thought this might be an age-problem as I am not exactly the target audience for middle grade fiction but our almost 7yo son unfortunately felt the same way. 

This is a pity really as the writing itself is great and Duggan has created some wonderfully quirky characters. I also liked that the book focuses so much on the importance of friendships and family.

I'm thinking that this book might have been better targeted at kids aged 5-6 than the usual middle grade audience or to new bookworms in general, because slightly more experienced readers will likely connect the dots rather quickly. Then again, it may be a bit too gloomy (and sometimes slightly creepy) for this younger age group. :-/ I have heard that many kids love the series, so maybe it just didn't work for us at this specific moment in time. We may revisit the series at a later time and give the second instalment another try. :)

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

21st December, 2020

Bookish Stuff: Jólabókaflóð - An Icelandic tradition or a bookworm's dream

I've recently talked about a certain Icelandic tradition which has been a ritual in our house for years, even though we initially didn't know it was a cultural 'thing' somewhere in the world. As so many of you were interested in learning more about Jólabókaflóð, I decided it was time for a blog post dedicated to this wonderful custom. 

In Iceland, a few things are omnipresent at Christmas time: the cold, the extremely short days, snow, hot rice pudding with an almond hidden inside and ... books. The tradition that so many readers around the world admire began about 80 years ago: In 1940, Iceland was occupied by the Allied Forces. Importing goods was near impossible in these times so the country became creative: The country improved and extended its publishing/book industry.  Whenever someone was looking for a way to pass their time or searching for a present, books were the go-to solution. And this is when Jólabókaflóð - the Christmas book flood - was born. 

Today, the people of Iceland still gift a lot of books on Christmas Eve - books and chocolate, to be precise. The afternoon and evening are usually spent together with family and friends, eating and chatting, but after gifts are exchanged, the rest of the night belongs to the books!

In general, winter is a time of books in Iceland. Almost all new books are published between early October and mid-November. In order to give its citizens an overview of the new titles, the country prints an annual catalogue called the Bókatíðindi. And every Icelandic household gets a copy of this catalogue in the post - for free! At Christmas time then the whole thing is brought to the next level: In early December the nominees for the National Book Award are announced, and writers are kept quite busy because it's common to have author readings at Christmas parties. Eventually, Christmas Eve is the ultimate highlight. There are books, and books, and books, and chocolate, and books. Perfect for that lazy week between Christmas and New Year's. 

What about you? Do you usually gift or get books for Christmas? Are you maybe already celebrating the Jólabókaflóð? Let me know in the comments.

Merry Christmas!!!! 

(Photo credit: Freepik)

18th December, 2020

Review: Summerwater by Sarah Moss (Pan McMillan)

On the longest day of the summer, twelve people sit cooped up with their families in a faded Scottish cabin park. The endless rain leaves them with little to do but watch the other residents.

A woman goes running up the Ben as if fleeing; a retired couple reminisce about neighbours long since moved on; a teenage boy braves the dark waters of the loch in his red kayak. Each person is wrapped in their own cares but increasingly alert to the makeshift community around them. One particular family, a mother and daughter without the right clothes or the right manners, starts to draw the attention of the others. Tensions rise and all watch on, unaware of the tragedy that lies ahead as night finally falls.

Sarah Moss' latest book is a slim novella, easily readable in one sitting. We follow the lives of twelve people holidaying in a set Scottish cabins, and if you think that the weather is the only thing that is bleak, think again. Each section of the story follows a different guest, focusing on their inner lives and the secrets they hide from their loved ones and from the other residents. Some of these secrets are minor, like a sneaked cigarette, while others lead to life-changing decisions. All chapters, however, have one thing in common: They perfectly capture a very unique kind of boredom - that of being on holiday in the middle of nowhere while it is constantly raining.

Moss' writing had me fascinated immediately. As in Ghost Wall, it is straightforward and unpretentious. The story flows along well, though I was longing for a return to certain characters while not caring too much about others. The author's choice of perspective lends itself perfectly to giving the reader a glimpse into the various characters' minds, and I  found the depiction of mothers particularly convincing and relatable. Especially the chapter on a young mum who, suddenly having some unexpected and well-deserved time to herself, wastes this precious hour by first contemplating what to do (Tea? Bath? Laundry?) for most of it and eventually spending the rest of the time on household chores. Been there, done that. :-)

Some readers have compared Moss' writing to that of Virginia Woolf, and in a way this story follows a lot of Woolf's aesthetic tenets. It is all about introspection and not much happens, at least all the way up to the end of the book when a shocking event draws our attention to the fact that we haven't really learned anything about one particular family. Moss is fabulous at connecting her character studies with a landscape full of metaphors. In just a few pages she manages to get to the core of every individual's invisible self, while Scotland and the loch themselves are characters silently lurking in the background. 

Rating: 4/5 stars

13th December, 2020

Review: Christmas: A Biography by Judith Flanders (Thomas Dunne Books)

"It's the most wonderful time of the year" - that's what a famous Christmas song tells us. Most people will agree, unless they have tendencies towards Scrooge- or Grinchdom. But what do you really know about this holiday? Yes, baby Jesus is a good start but there is definitely more to Christmas. Thirty years after the first recorded Christmas, one archbishop was already complaining that his flock was spending the day, not in worship, but in dancing and feasting to excess. By 1616, the playwright Ben Jonson was nostalgically remembering the Christmases of the old days, certain that they had been better then.

Flanders' book reads like a story, but it is grounded in extensive research and facts gathered from historical sources, both old and new. There are anecdotes that will make you chuckle and facts that I'm sure you will not have known before. I particularly loved to hear about how winter solstice was moved from what we now call Christmas Day to the 21st (spoiler alert: it happened due to the introduction of leap years). Other sections of the book detail how Christmas has its origin in the Roman Empire, or talk about what the deal with Christmas trees is, and explain how Santa Claus first entered the scene. 

Christmas: A Biography is a treasure trove of information on the evolution of the most popular of Christian holidays. What is the symbolism behind the traditional Christmas greenery (holly, mistletoe,...)? What's the story behind the different kinds of ornaments popular in different cultures? How did Christmas cookies and crackers revolutionise the food industry? How was Christmas celebrated in times of war? How did the media and commercialism influence the holiday? etc. etc. 

This book is a wonderful look into ancient traditions, religious and folkloric origins, and modern cultural change. In some parts I would have wished for it to go even deeper into certain aspects of my favourite holiday. Christmas: A Biography  makes for a great stocking filler and is a perfect book to dip in and out of during the holidays. I highly recommend it and promise you that you will have some of your preconceived notions blown. :)

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

8th December, 2020

Bookish Stuff: When your partner becomes your reading buddy

I met my husband at uni when we were both working towards a PhD and part of the attraction between us was obviously also a mutual love for literature. We are both teaching English lit, and we both have a vast interest in all things literary. Our personal reading tastes, however, are somewhat different. He loves to read biographies, historical non-fiction and poetry. I prefer literary fiction, a bit of fantasy and the occasional romcom. Occasionally, however, our tastes overlap and we'll find a book we are both interested in. In years past this was Ian McEwan's Atonement and Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife - both of which we eventually even spun into academic articles. Why not combine work and fun, right?

Right before the pandemic started, I tried to get him to read The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern - a novel that I had enjoyed tremendously. He wanted to, but then Covid happened and life got in the way: teaching had to be switched to remote in a matter of weeks, admin took forever to adjust to people working from home and made lots of normally easy processes a living hell, etc. To cut a long story short, work became a bit overbearing. 

Recently then we started talking about the new Dune movie that is coming out next year, and my husband was mortified to learn that I had a) neither read any of the books nor b) seen the old film or the mini series. To put it into a cheesy outdated metaphor: I was a total Dune virgin. He then said that one of his best friends was planning on rereading the book before the film comes out, and - caution: another lame metaphor coming up - an idea war born. I suggested reading the book together. So I ordered two copies at our local indie because the two of us decided we don't want to fight over one single copy when we both want to read at the same time but are in different sections of the story. Bookworm problems 101, I know. And thus, we turned this month into #Dunecember.

So what are my thoughts on the book? After a few difficulties of getting into the story because of a gazillion names and complicated political dynamics in the plot, I'm finding myself enjoying the book more and more. It's kind of Game-of-Thronesy and I love the intrigues and mix of action and rhetorical perfection. I am not sure I am going to read the sequels as I've heard they are not as good as part one, but I am now really looking forward to the release date of the movie while being glad that I let the story develop in my imagination first before overloading my brain with film images. As for reading a book together and talking about it - I think this can bring so much additional joy to the normally lonely process of reading. I wouldn't want to do it with every single book but from time to time I do enjoy a read along or buddy read. The ones I've participated in online were wonderful, but sitting togetheron the couch in the evening and chatting about the chapters you just read is even more amazing. Like your own mini book club, in a way. I'm wondering which book we are going to tackle together next and when that will be. It's lovely to have another reader so close to you, and I'm already fantasising about the times we can have a family read along together with our son. :-)

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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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