The Constant Reader's Book Blog
(Reviews, Bookish Stuff and all Things literary)
16th February, 2023
Review: The Republic of Motherhood by Liz Berry (Chatto Windus)
I crossed the border into the Republic of Motherhood
and found it a queendom, a wild queendom.
I handed over my clothes and took its uniform,
its dressing gown and undergarments, a cardigan
soft as a creature, smelling of birth and milk,
and I lay down in Motherhood’s bed, the bed I had made
but could not sleep in, for I was called at once to work
in the factory of Motherhood. The owl shift,
the graveyard shift. Feedingcleaninglovingfeeding.
Liz Berry herself describes this slim pamphlet as a "gathering of poems". The Republic of Motherhood is a collection of strong and highly relatable poems about pregnancy and new motherhood. It is about how motherhood affects a woman's identity and how it changes your life more than you ever expected it to.
As with all poetry, this little book needs to be read slowly, needs to be savoured, needs contemplation. Some of the poems may seem very "raw" at first, at least that was my experience in that I found several of the texts very much focused on the meaningfulness of nature, e.g. as in Mother Nature, women being natural vessels of life, etc. It was these poems that I honestly had a little trouble connecting with. Their imagery is wonderful and in some you can almost hear the mothers' moaning during labour and picture the sheer strenght of women, but somehow I found myself more drawn to the texts that addressed the issues of new motherhood. Some of these really hit home, such as those that talked about how reality is different from expectation and how a child's bright smile somehow makes up for every hour of sleep lost, of every shirt vomited on and any preconceived notion bashed.
Berry's poems are both fragile and clever, they have depth and they resonate deeply. Her smart use of language to convey emotions astonishingly captures what these most tender of times are actually like. It almost feels revelatory as Berry's texts let us look at the realities of the female body and they stunningly illustrate the beauty but also the ferocity of childbirth.
This is a book I'd recommend to all expectant or new mothers and, yes, actually to any woman in general. It's a tiny book, easy to carry around in a diaper bag, but it makes you feel connected to something greater.
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
8th February, 2023
BOOKISH STUFF: PLANNING A HOLIDAY AND A LONG-HAUL FLIGHT - A BOOKWORM'S PROBLEMS
The thing is: I'm planning a short trip to visit my former host family in California in March. I haven't seen my "second mom" in a while due to Corona, so I'm really looking forward to these few days in my former home. However, being a bookworm, planning such a trip can be quite stressful. Here is why:
So I'll be away for only seven days and, considering that I'll have a washing machine at my disposal, I don't need many clothes, i.e. a small carry-on bag should be enough. It saves you the trouble of having to wait for your bags after you arrive BUT... what about the books I want to bring? I mean, I have almost a week there and two 10-hour flights. I need reading material! And being a mood reader, I need choices!! Conundrum!
This is where I'm trying to be reasonable: "Stef, you'll visit several bookshops over there. This means you'll buy books. You don't need to take your entire library. Three to four books are more than enough." Yes, okay, sounds legit, I'll try and relax.
2) Luggage 2.0
BUT! So I'll take only a small bag, but when I'm buying books over there, will they all fit in there? I'm basically back at where I started with my argument. Damn! Again, I tell myself to be reasonable: "Books are more expensive in the US, so you won't buy too many (only like six, or seven, or ten... at most... maybe) and they'll fit. Stop worrying!!" Alright, I'll take this as an exercise in self-control. I'll take a small bag and will therefore have to restrain myself when it comes to shopping. Piece of cake. Or is it? Hmmmm…
3) Seat Selection on Plane
Good, now that the luggage question is out of the way, I need to decide which seat to book on the plane. Window is a no brainer, but which section and which side of the plane? Yes, that IS a serious problem. On my airline's webpage I can see that there is a whole block of seats already reserved in the back which probably means a larger group of travelers and, as a reader, you do NOT want to sit anywhere close to them. Most of these groups tend to be noisy and I want to make the most of the time with my books and some good movies so I'll choose a seat as far away from them as I can get to hopefully get some quiet time. Good. So left or right side of the plane? Left will give me lots of natural sunlight but then that might trigger a migraine. Right will be less bright but also maybe a little too darkish, especially if I want to take one or two pictures for Instagram. I know, first world problems, but the struggle is real!... I end up chosing the right side as this will give me a lovely view of LA when we land.
4) Which Books to Bring on the Plane
Which book is suitable for a long-haul flight? I sometimes have trouble concentrating when I'm flying so it shouldn't be too heavy stuff. At the same time I don't want it to be too fluffy. Help! Okay, I'll decide on a selection of different books so I have one for every mood. Maybe a bestselling novel, a collection of light essays and a favourite classic comfort read. I'll have a think.
5) Which Bookish Places to Visit
I lived in California for a while years ago and have visited numerous times so I don't really need to do the typically touristy stuff. There are a few places, however, I haven't seen yet and I'll try to hit at least the more bookish ones (some of which are also connected to film and TV). For one, I have a trip to Ojai's open air bookstore Bart's Books planned with my sisters. And while we're driving we could stop at that new store in Santa Monica and maybe go back to The Last Bookstore...
See? It's difficult, and these are just some of the troubles and decisions you're facing when bookworms are traveling. I'll keep you posted. :-)
27th January, 2023
Review: The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman (Berkley Books)
Do you know those books that wrap themselves around you like a warm and cosy blanket? Waxman's novel is one of those: the perfect read for any bookworm. I reread this book recently in preparation for my upcoming trip to Los Angeles and I still loved it. :-)
The only child of a single mother, Nina has her life just as she wants it: a job in a bookstore, a kick-butt trivia team, a world-class planner and a cat named Phil. If she sometimes suspects there might be more to life than reading, she just shrugs and picks up a new book. When the father Nina never knew existed suddenly dies, leaving behind innumerable sisters, brothers, nieces, and nephews, Nina is horrified. They all live close by! They're all—or mostly all—excited to meet her! She'll have to Speak. To. Strangers. It's a disaster! And as if that wasn't enough, Tom, her trivia nemesis, has turned out to be cute, funny, and deeply interested in getting to know her. Doesn't he realize what a terrible idea that is?
Nina considers her options:
1. Completely change her name and appearance. (Too drastic, plus she likes her hair.)
2. Flee to a deserted island. (Hard pass, see: coffee).
3. Hide in a corner of her apartment and rock back and forth. (Already doing it.)
It's time for Nina to come out of her comfortable shell, but she isn't convinced real life could ever live up to fiction. It's going to take a brand-new family, a persistent suitor, and the combined effects of ice cream and trivia to make her turn her own fresh page.
The Bookish Life of Nina Hill is a fun story which perfectly manages to capture the intricacies of the life of a bookworm. It is full of witty references to literature and popular culture and abounds with nerdy characters. It is an extremely gratifying read because it is so easy to relate to Nina and her anxieties as Waxman knows how to make her protagonist both a bit strange and highly likable. In parts this novel reminded me a bit of the Bridget Jones books, especially when Nina is stressing about her plans and other people.
What I also loved was the setting: Knight's sounds like the perfect bookshop in an equally perfect neighbourhood. It was almost like you could feel the vibe of this quirky community through the pages (I lived in a similar neighbourhood in California for a while so I felt this was highly relatable to me). Nina's family do tend to get a bit much at times, and in the beginning I found the sheer number of family members extremely confusing, but I guess that's a desired effect as it makes you sympathise with Nina and the situation she finds herself in.
Essentially, this book is a gigantic love letter to all the bookworms in the world. Just take this passage, for instance:
"Reading isn't the only thing in the world, Nina."
"It's one of the only five perfect things in the world."
"And the other four are?"
"Cats, dogs, Honeycrisp apples and coffee."
Best. Dialogue. Ever. ;-) So, if you love books, if you are a bit of a nerd, if you enjoy quirky characters and are looking for a comfort read, this is the book for you. I feel like I need to substract one star because sometimes it got a tiny bit too fluffy for me, but this didn't really take away any of the reading fun.
Rating: 4/5 stars
21st January, 2023
Review: The Blue Salt Road by Joanne Harris (Gollancz)
This is the perfect book to cosy up with. I read it on the stereotypical "cold and stormy night" and this added tremendously to the reading experience.
The Folk and The Selkie are stuck in an age-old conflict, and young Selkie are warned never to trust The Folk. Still, one curious young Selkie ignores the heedings of his elders and falls for a young human woman. She soon finds herself with child and, fearing that the Selkie will abandon her, steals his seal skin and spirits it away into her cedar chest. The Selkie as a result loses all memory of his old life. Unknowingly trapped as one of the Folk, he finds he has to support his family and sets out to sea on a whaler, not understanding why he constantly feels so cold and uncomfortable - until an old man tells him of the old legends and of his own fate...
The Blue Salt Road is a story of the sea, a modern fairy tale of love, loss and revenge. It is based on myth, folklore and the Child Ballads - in this case “The Great Silkie Of Sule Skerry”. Harris is a brilliant storyteller who knows how to handle her folk tale material and spin it into her own story: the atmosphere in the book is mesmerising, the characters are vividly drawn and multi-dimensional. Her writing is both eerie and hopeful.
Harris' novel focuses mainly on the narrative of one couple but the author weaves in the history of a whole community and the selkie clan. It's a story that is fundamentally human, with all of the good and bad that this entails. It's about mistakes, about history repeating itself, about remorse but also about hope. Mistakes are vindicated, yet there are new beginnings.
I was truly captivated by this book. Harris has created a story that shocks and leaves you wondering about the capabilities of man. The Blue Salt Road is a must-read for anyone who loves folklore and Celtic myth. The fabulous illustrations of Bonnie Helen Hawkins make the reading of this book even more pleasurable. Very much recommended!
Rating: 4/5 stars
11th January, 2023
Review: A Quiet Life by Ethan Joella (Scribner)
A Quiet Life is a novel that hit me straight in the guts. It brought me to tears more than once and yet, it was not only my first novel read in 2023 but also one of the best books I‘ve come across in the last few months.
The story is about three people who are grieving in different ways: Chuck has lost his wife to cancer, Ella‘s daughter was kidnapped by her own father and Kirsten must come to terms with the sudden death of her dad. Each of these characters comes across as raw and vulnerable, their lives have been upended and they don’t know how to pick up the ruins and carry on. And yet, there is always that faint glimmer of hope.
For me personally, Ella‘s story was the most devastating. As a mother, her suffering was so very hard to bear but I‘m glad I didn’t let this stop me reading. Because all three characters eventually find their way to each other, an encounter they are all benefiting from.
Joella writes in quiet undertones which is perfect for a book such as this. There are not too many things happening (at least not in the loud, action packed kind of way) but what is important is what‘s going on in the characters’ minds and in their relationships with other people.
I am glad that this was my first book of the year because it hopefully promises a good reading year in general. It was perfect for the somewhat lazy days right after the holidays and New Year‘s and it will certainly stay with me for a while.
Rating: 5/5 stars
28th December, 2022
Review: Home for Christmas by Courtney Cole (Avon)
Home for Christmas is one of those books that touched something deep in my heart and left me in a mushy pile, flooded with feelings. Oh, the feelings!
Home for Christmas starts off as a bit of a slow burn and, I must admit, it didn't fully capture me straight away. It took a little while but once Piper was mysteriously transported to the past - which is where the majority of the story is set - I began to become more interested, more so with every page turned. Cole has managed to bring WWII Alaska to life on the page, and she doesn't shy away from including the deprivations of the time. However, in the midst of all the hardships, the story also focuses on the joy that was to be found in friendship, kindness, and simple pleasures. Once I got to this part, it didn‘t take long for me to become fully immersed in both the place and the time and to fall in love with some of the characters.
Was it necessary that I suspend disbelief to lose myself in a book in which a young woman from the 21st century finds herself sharing a home with her grandmother (who is the same age in the 1940s) and the great-grandparents she never knew? Yes. Did it bother me? Not at all.
I ended up being so absorbed in the story, so invested in the characters and events of the past that I actually didn't really think about the time/space continuum problems until the protagonist did... towards the end of the book. And then I wondered how Cole could possibly come up with an ending that would make my sappy heart happy. I mean, I knew Piper would have to leave eventually. I won't give away any spoilers so I'll just say that I was quite satisfied with the sigh-worthy, unexpected ending. OK, it was a bit cheesy but who cares?
Yes, there are some anachronisms and a few issues regarding time and logic (I mean how ancient was Piper‘s grandma when she died??). But this story was simply heart warming so I‘ll just ignore these problems.
If you're in the mood for a magical feel-good story of family, love, and finding your happiness, make sure to pick up a copy of Home for Christmas.
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
15th December 2022
Review: Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing by Matthew Perry (Headline)
When it was announced that Matthew Perry would published an autobiography, I knew immediately that I'd need to read it. Back in the 1990s I had a huge crush on the actor and - when I was living in Southern California - the show Friends became a fixture in my life: Every Thursday evening my roomie insisted that we watch the latest episode and I began to love the show. Of course, I also followed Perry's journey through various addictions via the regular tabloid papers and internet pages and it made me sad to see him suffering like this. When Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing was released I was mainly interested to learn why a person who is successful and seemingly "has it all" would end up being hospitalised over and over again and not be able to ditch his self-destructive behaviour.
Perry's book is a brutally honest account of someone whose brain - as the actor puts it himself - is out to kill them. His addictions are partly grounded in early childhood fears of abandonment and a constant worry of simply not being good enough. In this memoir he opens up about all the shitty things he has done, how his behaviour has hurt others and how simply being lonely can mean a relapse for him.
Some reviewers have criticised the book, on the one hand for its alinear storyline and on the other for being misogynist. That the book is not written in chronological order is indeed a little confusing sometimes and I wish that the editors had put in some more pointers on where we are exactly in Perry's life (as often we don't get a date with these time jumps). But this was a minor inconvenience in my opinion and didn't take away much from my personal reading experience. As for the second accusation: I believe that those readers who said this about the book, have either not read it properly or simply don't understand the fundamentals of addiction stories. Yes, he did not treat a lot of these women very well and yes, he often saw them as a commodity for sex BUT this was during a time when he was way in over his head and high on alcohol, Vicodin, Xanax, OxyContin or whatever was his poison of choice at the moment. He does, however, also say a lot of positive things about these women: how smart they were, how supportive and how he basically let walk away potential life partners because his brains were fried or he was suddenly afraid.
I really appreciated this memoir (you can't possibly say "enjoyed" with a tragic and raw account such as this) and I'm sure it will stick with me for a while. It has definitely made me look at Friends with a slightly more critical eye. I hope that Perry is now finally grounded enough to leave all the drug/alcohol madness behind and live a fulfilled life.
Rating: 5/5 stars
4th December, 2022
Bookish Stuff: Advent calendar books
Do you have an advent calendar? Which kind? As a kid I used to love the chocolate ones and couldn't wait to pop that tiny piece of sugary bliss into my mouth every morning. I then transitioned via calendars with little gadgets or beauty products to the nerdier version: the book advent calendar. I mean, I do still enjoy chocolate and I love gadgets etc. but there is something so laid back and peaceful to the book calendars that I no longer want to miss them.
The kid has also jumped on the bandwaggon this year and insisted on such a calendar - well, as an addition to his regular one, I should add. There is no way in the world an 8yo would forego candy. ;-) So this is how we do it:
Every morning, the offspring comes over to our bedroom and we snuggle underneath the covers while reading his advent calendar about a spider who has caught a fly for his Christmas roast but is - how inconvenient! - beginning to befriend it. We take turns: One day he reads a chapter, the next I do, and sometimes dad gets to read one as well. After this little ritual we're getting ready for the day.
My calendar has to be fitted into the day however. So on the days I work from home, I drop the kid off at school, take the dog for a walk and then settle down with a cuppa and my daily chapter for a few minutes before turning on the computer. On the days I'm actually at uni teaching my seminars, I either take the book with me in the morning for those little breaks in-between or I read it in the evening when things have calmed down. My calendar tells the story of a woman who opens a book cafe/yarn shop/tea shop in a wintery village in southern Germany. One day she finds a half written letter abandoned on one of the tables and leaves a short answer. What then develops is a sort of scavenger hunt for hidden letters and clues with the mysterious author of the initial note. The calendar is beautifully illustrated with old-timey drawings and reminds me of my childhood when collecting these old fashioned pictures was all the rage (some had glitter on them!).
Either way, I find that only taking these few precious minutes each day to enjoy a short chapter and to thereby make the story last for 24 days has something very edifying to it. Life is hectic, and scary, and unpredictable enough at the moment, so having that tiny bit of control over five minutes every day is strangely rewarding.
18th November, 2022
Review: Amelia Unabridged by Ashley Schumacher (Wednesday Books)
Eighteen-year-old Amelia Griffin is obsessed with the famous Orman Chronicles, written by the young and reclusive prodigy N. E. Endsley. They’re the books that brought her and her best friend Jenna together after Amelia’s father left and her family imploded. So when Amelia and Jenna get the opportunity to attend a book festival with Endsley in attendance, Amelia is ecstatic. It’s the perfect way to start off their last summer before college.
In a heartbeat, everything goes horribly wrong. When Jenna gets a chance to meet the author and Amelia doesn’t, the two have a blowout fight like they’ve never experienced. And before Amelia has a chance to mend things, Jenna is killed in a freak car accident. Grief-stricken, and without her best friend to guide her, Amelia questions everything she had planned for the future.
When a mysterious, rare edition of the Orman Chronicles arrives, Amelia is convinced that it somehow came from Jenna. Tracking the book to an obscure but enchanting bookstore in Michigan, Amelia is shocked to find herself face-to-face with the enigmatic and handsome N. E. Endsley himself, the reason for Amelia’s and Jenna’s fight and perhaps the clue to what Jenna wanted to tell her all along.
This book was hyped on several book pages for its "perfect depiction of what it means to love books" which, quite honestly, is the main reason I picked it up. And I enjoyed reading it a lot, even though I did have a few issues with the writing itself. But let's talk about the good things first:
I relished Schumacher's take on bookworms. She describes us well with all our quirks and faults and I loved the many literary references scattered throughout the book. Val's bookshop is essentially paradise on earth. The way the shop is talked about in the book immediately gave me a cosy and - yes - safe kind of feeling. It's a bit like a sanctuary and through the vivid details you can very easily picture the shop in your mind and feel like you're wandering through its many idiosyncratic rooms.
I also liked most of the main characters, even if - in my humble opinion - the "traumatised teen" trope has been used a bit too much in recent years. In a few passages Amelia seemed a lot younger than her 18 years to me though and some of her actions left me baffled. Nolan reminded me a bit of Jess from Gilmore Girls, representing the wounded boy who uses his creativity to deal with his grief. I also liked Alex while finding the Williamses and Amelia's mum a) slightly weird and b) extremely frustrating.
So here is what actually bothered me about this book: On the above mentioned bookish websites readers were gushing about the "poetic language" of the author. The thing is that yes, Schumacher uses rather flowery language throughout the book, making ample use of metaphors and similes. However, and this is a big however and something that truly irked me as a literary scholar, these metaphors and similes only work part of the time. On the one hand, there are simply too many so that they stem the flow of the story. On the other hand - and I'm sorry to say it this bluntly - a lot of them don't make any bloody sense. They were the kind of metaphors and similes and aphorisms I myself adored as a teen without thinking too much about what their true connotations were and that's exactly the problem here. Superficially, they may sound poetic but frequently they are just empty phrases. That's a bit of a shame as, with fewer of these, this book would have been amazing.
It is still a very very good book with important messages and a feeling of hope, and I'd definitely recommend to it teenage bookworms who will find a lot of themselves in these pages.
Rating: 3.5/5 stars
10th November, 2022
Bookish Stuff: "Bookshelf Tourism"
Do you know the situation? You're at another person's house, may it be a friend or merely an aquaintance, your eye falls on their bookshelf and immediately you can feel your neck making that characteristic turn to the side that enables you to read the titles on the spines. It could just be something that automatically happens without you meaning to, and sometimes that can be a bit embarassing, especially when you don't know the person well and you can see in their eyes that they are beginning to wonder about your sanity. In those case, however, you'll know that you don't have a true book lover in front of you, because - let's be honest - anyone who's a booknerd would totally understand and recognize that motion from experience.
Sometimes you very deliberately visit people to have a look at their bookshelves. Some of the people I've met through bookish social media sites (mainly Bookstagram and Litsy) and who I've then met in real life have at some point suggested something like "Why don't we have breakfast at my place? Then you can have a browse through my shelves." One of these friends was actually also the one who introduced me to the term "bookshelf tourism", and I think that phrase perfectly describes this phenomenon: visiting a fellow bookworm to check out their shelves.
It is something very personal to give someone access to your library. They are going to witness a part of your own history, books that have had an impact on your life at a certain point in time and of course they might handle some of your precious literary treasures. My friend (the one I mentioned above) and I have in common that we are very particular about who gets to borrow books from us. Call me finicky but I hate it when people just brutally grab my books off the shelves. Maybe even with greasy fingers because they've been eating the snacks I put on the table. I hate it when they open them randomly - maybe even breaking the spine (The horror, the horror!!) - and then shove them back with that slightly raised eyebrow. Yes, I'm aware of the fact that others might find my reaction weird, but I think the true booklover will understand.
So what my friend and I share is that we handle our books lovingly, like we would an infant baby, that we admire them for works of art and that we take care of them. With her I can trust that my books are in good hands and that I won't get them back with ear-marked pages, coffee stains or tattered covers. And yes, all of that has happened with other people I lent books to in the past. So yes, call me strange but I will only let you borrow my books when I know you'll handle them like I would. That's just the way things are in this house and even my son already understands the value of books. To finish off with the wise words of an 8yo: "Books are precious because they make you think awesome stories in your head. And they are pretty so that you must carry them carefully." There? It's that easy. :-)
31st October, 2022
Review: The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna (Hodder & Stoughton)
Happy All Hallows Eve, everyone! Just in time for Halloween, I have a lovely recommendation for your. While my previous reviews this months were of books of the sinister and creepy kind, Sangu Mandanna's novel is witchy but endearing and uplifting:
As one of the few witches in Britain, Mika Moon knows she has to hide her magic, keep her head down, and stay away from other witches so their powers don’t mingle and draw attention. And as an orphan who lost her parents at a young age and was raised by strangers, she’s used to being alone and she follows the rules...with one exception: an online account, where she posts videos "pretending" to be a witch. She thinks no one will take it seriously.
But someone does. An unexpected message arrives, begging her to travel to the remote and mysterious Nowhere House to teach three young witches how to control their magic. It breaks all of the rules, but Mika goes anyway, and is immediately tangled up in the lives and secrets of not only her three charges, but also an absent archaeologist, a retired actor, two long-suffering caretakers, and…Jamie. The handsome and prickly librarian of Nowhere House would do anything to protect the children, and as far as he’s concerned, a stranger like Mika is a threat. An irritatingly appealing threat.
As Mika begins to find her place at Nowhere House, the thought of belonging somewhere begins to feel like a real possibility. But magic isn't the only danger in the world, and when a threat comes knocking at their door, Mika will need to decide whether to risk everything to protect a found family she didn’t know she was looking for....
This book was like an autumnal hug: warm, enchanting, comforting. It gave me Practical Magic vibes throughout (well, early Practical Magic before the whole dead body shenanigans ;-)) and I absolutely adored the characters. Mika was an amazing protagonist, Ian and his 'entourage' were deliciously quirky, Jamie was simply mind bogglingly sexy and the girls... *sigh* the girl were just about perfect.
Of course, the plot itself is a bit predictable, but what I loved about Mandanna's story was the simple beauty of it. Yes, there is conflict but it's solvable (even if it might not seem like it to the characters at first), and what is more important in this novel is the development of relationships. It was the perfect book for these uncertain times because it gives hope and joy. It's about the simple things in life and about the little bits that matter most.
If you would like a seasonal read with lots of heart, do pick up The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches. Prepare to be enchanted though. ;-)
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
27th October, 2022
Review: The Ghost Woods by C.J. Cooke (Harper)
A curse, a remote mansion and a creepy wood? This book sounded right up my alley so I was excited when I got my grubby little hands on a review copy. I did save it for spooky season though as I figured that October is the perfect time of year for this read. And I wasn't mistaken. :)
In the midst of the woods stands a house called Lichen Hall.
This place is shrouded in folklore – old stories of ghosts, of witches, of a child who was not quite a child. Now the woods are creeping closer, and something has been unleashed.
Pearl Gorham arrives in 1965, one of a string of young women sent to Lichen Hall to give birth. And she soon suspects the proprietors are hiding something. Then she meets the mysterious mother and young boy who live in the grounds – and together they begin to unpick the secrets of this place.
As the truth comes to the surface and the darkness moves in, Pearl must rethink everything she knew – and risk what she holds most dear.
At first, I had a bit of trouble keeping the two timelines separate, as both of the two main characters' voices seemed quite similar to me. However, once I'd gotten used to the dual plotlines, I enjoyed this book tremendously. It was creepy but went easy on the jump scares. Instead, there is this continuous sense of foreboding and dread that works on you and builds up an almost unbearable tension. I actually found myself making excuses for certain commitments (like chores) because I simply HAD TO find out what the heck was going on at Lichen Hall.
I must say that I did have a hunch quite early on as the answer to everything is basically "right there" but that didn't take away any of the fun or the suspense. Cooke is an expert in building amazing settings and Lichen Hall was just the perfect backdrop for this story.
So, if you are looking for an atmospheric read this autumn, Cooke's latest novel may be just the thing for you.
Rating: 5/5 stars
20th October, 2022
Review: The Watchers by A.M. Shine (Head of Zeus)
It is spooky season so time to get out those creepy and ghostly reads you've been saving for this time of year. I recently found A.M. Shine's The Watchers at the bookshop and was immediately intrigued. Here is a synopsis:
This forest isn't charted on any map. Every car breaks down at its treeline. Mina's is no different. Left stranded, she is forced into the dark woodland only to find a woman shouting, urging Mina to run to a concrete bunker. As the door slams behind her, the building is besieged by screams.
Mina finds herself in a room with a wall of glass, and an electric light that activates at nightfall, when the Watchers come above ground. These creatures emerge to observe their captive humans—and terrible things happen to anyone who doesn't reach the bunker in time. Afraid and trapped among strangers, Mina is desperate for answers. Who are the Watchers? Why are these creatures keeping them imprisoned? And, most importantly, how can she escape?
Whoa! This was one massive ride of suspense, surprise and eerieness. I was left guessing throughout the story, and I swear I had NOT seen those final twists coming at all.
Shine manages to build a slowly creeping feeling of unease. Especially in the beginning you find yourself screaming at the main character, wondering why the heck she is so stupid as to walk into the woods when this is exactly the kind of thing your parents (and every single ranger on Earth) have been warning you about forever. But obviously, characters in these kinds of novels need to do idiotic things or otherwise the story would be boring. And The Watchers is everything but boring.
I breezed through this book in two sittings as I was eager to find out what was happening and, eventually, because I was thrilled by Shine's fabulous ideas. The story seems to end about two thirds into the book but this is only when the nightmare truly begins. I can't say more here without spoiling things so you'll need to read this book for yourself. And I highly recommend you doing so because it is really really good.
The perfect read for spooky season with a simultaneously old and new plot idea (you'll see what I mean when you read it). I enjoyed every single page and will make sure to check out the author's new book soon.
Rating: 5/5 stars
11th October, 2022
Review: Fairy Tale by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton)
As with every new King publication, this one was eagerly awaited by fans. I saved it for a weekend reading retreat because several of our group were planning on reading it and we decided to turn this into a buddy read.
Charlie Reade looks like a regular high school kid, great at baseball and football, a decent student. But he carries a heavy load. His mom was killed in a hit-and-run accident when he was ten, and grief drove his dad to drink. Charlie learned how to take care of himself—and his dad. Then, when Charlie is seventeen, he meets Howard Bowditch, a recluse with a big dog in a big house at the top of a big hill. In the backyard is a locked shed from which strange sounds emerge, as if some creature is trying to escape. When Mr. Bowditch dies, he leaves Charlie the house, a massive amount of gold, a cassette tape telling a story that is impossible to believe, and a responsibility far too massive for a boy to shoulder.
Because within the shed is a portal to another world—one whose denizens are in peril and whose monstrous leaders may destroy their own world, and ours. In this parallel universe, where two moons race across the sky, and the grand towers of a sprawling palace pierce the clouds, there are exiled princesses and princes who suffer horrific punishments; there are dungeons; there are games in which men and women must fight each other to the death for the amusement of the “Fair One.” And there is a magic sundial that can turn back time.
One thing to start with: This is not your typical King novel, neither the old nor the new King. In a way this book moves into the direction of novels such as The Eyes of the Dragon but it is really unlike any King book I've read so far (and I've read almost all of them :)).
To be honest, I'm not entirely sure how much I liked this book. I didn't hate it, but I also didn't love it. At first I thought that the part playing in the "real world" was slightly tedious and found myself impatiently waiting for the "fairy tale" part to begin. When it did though, I started to really appreciate the first third of the novel with its fascinating character dynamics, etc. The fairy tale section seemed a bit too generic for me with clear structural echoes of YA stories such as The Hunger Games or The Maze Runner. I loved the mythical creatures as well as the Lovecraftian baddies but something seemed to be missing from this part of the novel. All in all, I found it a bit predictable and underwhelming.
What I did enjoy were the many nerdy references to other books, such as The Wizard of Oz, Something Wicked This Way Comes or The Call of Cthullu. It was fun recognising these and wonder about their implications for this particular tale. I also absolutely loved Charlie's canine sidekick Radar - who wouldn't be rooting for such an amazing dog?
Fairy Tale isn't a perfect book by far, but it was good entertainment indeed and I'm glad I got to share it with my friends.
Rating: 3/5 stars
30th September, 2022
Bookish Stuff: Reading Retreat - Do it at Home Version
As I'm writing this, I'm on my way to Hawarden in Wales to join my friends for our annual reading retreat at the fabulous Gladstone's Library. And because I obviously can't take all of you with me, I thought I'd share some tips so that you can set up your own one-day bookish retreat at home instead.
We're living in difficult and scary times and often feel like we need to escape for while. A home reading retreat comes with the additional perks of being cheap, comfortable and there being no time wasted on travel or checking in.
WHAT EXACTLY IS A READING RETREAT?
Quite simply put, it’s time set away from all chores and duties to read without distraction, an opportunity to hide from the real world for a few hours.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO ORGANIZE A DAY TO ESCAPE WITH BOOKS?
You can of course do this all year round, but I personally prefer an autumn retreat. The autumn months just add this extra level of cosyness for me.
IS IT BETTER TO DO A READING RETREAT ALONE OR WITH OTHER PEOPLE?
If you only have half a day then I’d suggest doing it on your own. However, if you have a whole day or a weekend then sharing your bookish retreat with another bibliophile could really enrich the day. You could even read the same book and discuss it afterwards.
DO I NEED TO BUDGET FOR A READING RETREAT?
Creating a bookish sanctuary at home can be as low-cost or as expensive as you want it to be. The three essentials you need are:
- A book
- A place where you won’t be distracted
You can add to this as you see fit and I’ve added some suggestions in the 5 steps below:
STEP ONE: RESERVE TIME TO READ
This seems obvious, but how many of us actually gift ourselves time to enjoy reading without interruption? There’s usually always something else to do, especially when you have a family. Weekends can be the best time, but taking a day off work for your bookish retreat can be extra-special. If you live with other people then the second option is also often a safer bet for peace and quiet because they'll be at work or school and you'll have the house to yourself.
Once you’ve made a decision, put your date in the diary and stick to it. Let friends and family know you’ll be busy on that day.
STEP TWO: CHOOSE TITLES FOR YOUR RETREAT
To reduce the chances of a book slump on the actual day, we recommend lining up a few reading options. These could be books from your TBR, a new publication, shorter books to give you a sense of achievement, etc. Go and have a browse at the bookshop or your local library.
Don’t worry about finishing your books either. The main thing here is that you have time to read and relax.
STEP THREE: PREPARE YOUR READING NOOK
You don’t have to rearrange your house for your bookish retreat,
but setting up a small book nook will add to the experience. Add cushions and blankets to make the space more comfortable and re-arrange lighting to suit.
STEP FOUR: STOCK UP ON SUPPLIES
The sole aim of your reading retreat is to block out time for bookish pursuits so make sure you have everything on hand a few days beforehand. Here’s what to consider:
- Snacks, food and drink (as easy to make as possible). Takeaways is certainly also an option.
- A notepad and pen to record ideas
- Sticky tabs to annotate pages
- A scented candle for mood
- Playlists if you like to listen to music while you read
STEP FIVE: BLOCK OUT DISTRACTIONS IN YOUR BOOK SANCTUARY
Blocking out all distractions during your reading retreat is vitally important if you’re going to get the most out of your time to read. So switch off that phone of yours!
Other distractions to avoid include:
- Laptops, PCs, tablets – anything with an internet connection (if you’re reading an e-book then disconnect the Wi-Fi)
- People who dont share your need for time to read!
And now - enjoy! Happy reading!
28th September, 2022
Review: Pages & Co 5 - The Treehouse Library by Anna James (Harper Collins)
Those of you who've been following this blog for a while now, know that I'm a huge fan of the Pages & Co series. Every year I can hardly wait for September to arrive so I can get my hands on the latest instalment and this year was no different. The Treehouse Library is the penultimate novel in the bookwanderer series:
Milo Bolt is ready to be the hero of his own story. With Uncle Horatio trapped in an enchanted sleep by the power-hungry Alchemist, he sets off with his new friend Alessia to find a cure and save them all. Their journey leads them to the magical treehouse - home of the Botanist, the Alchemist's sworn enemy. Against the clock, they hunt for the cure: foraging in the Secret Garden, challenging Robin Hood and confronting the mighty Jabberwock.
But the Alchemist will stop at nothing to unlock the powerful secrets of The Book of Books, and Tilly, Pages & Co. and the whole world of imagination are under threat as a battle for the fate of bookwandering is set in motion . . .
As its predecessors, this instalment is full of whimsy and loving nods to some of the most popular works in childrens literature. I adored the treehouse library - what a fabulous setting and so imaginative!
At the same time, this felt a little like an "in-between book" for me, sharing the fate of so many other "middle" books in a trilogy. (Don't get confused - it's called Pages & Co 5 but is in fact the second book in a spin off trilogy.) Throughout the story I was hoping for a bit more action which eventually came, but only after a lot of discussions amongst the characters and towards the end of the novel, i.e. as a transition to the final instalment. But this is okay as I'm sure that the last book in the series will be fabulous and make up for the somewhat slow pace of this one.
One character I'm not sure about is Rosa - she seems too perfect for me, too all goody goody and I'm looking forward to finding out if my gut feeling is right that there is something going on with her that we are not aware of yet. So here's to 2023 when we'll find out how bookwandering can be saved.
Rating: 3.5/5 stars
15th September, 2022
Review: The People on Platform 5 by Clare Pooley (Viking)
As a reader I obviously frequent our local bookshop and it has gotten to a point that I'm on a first name basis with the booksellers. One of them recommended Clare Pooley's novel to me and actually lent me her own copy. And what a treat this book turned out to be! It was the perfect book at the perfect time:
Nobody ever talks to strangers on the train. It's a rule. But what would happen if they did? Every day Iona, a larger-than-life magazine advice columnist, travels the ten stops from Hampton Court to Waterloo Station by train, accompanied by her dog, Lulu. Every day she sees the same people, whom she knows only by nickname: Impossibly-Pretty-Constant-Reader and Terribly-Lonely-Teenager. Of course, they never speak. Seasoned commuters never do.
Then one morning, the man she calls Smart-But-Sexist-Manspreader chokes on a grape right in front of her. He'd have died were it not for the timely intervention of Sanjay, a nurse, who gives him the Heimlich maneuver. This single event starts a chain reaction, and an eclectic group of people with almost nothing in common except their commute discover that a chance encounter can blossom into much more.
The People on Platform 5 is the kind of novel that makes you believe again that there is indeed something good in the world. In fact, it is the perfect book for our rather trying times. Not because it's fluffy - because it isn't - or because it doesn't speak about controversial topics - because it does - but because it addresses the fact that there may be connections in places you wouldn't expect and that unexpected friendships can be the most rewarding ones. It's a book that feels like a warm hug. I love how Pooley introduces this group of quirky but endearing commuters and manages to flesh out every single one of them so that they all seem unique and real.
The humour in this book is spot-on and is mixed perfectly with the more contemplative passages. I felt myself rooting for Iona as well as for Emmie and Sanjay while feeling deeply with Martha and the others. This novel has a good chance of becoming one of my 2022 picks of the year.
Rating: 5/5 stars
(Photo Credit: Amazon)
5th September, 2022
Review: The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean (Tor Books)
Sunyi Dean's The Book Eaters is a novel that I was waiting for rather impatiently. I mean, which bookworm wouldn't with a title like this? It did turn out to be a bit different to what I had expected. Not in a negative way but just... different.
The Book Eaters begins with a twenty-nine-year-old being denied the purchase of booze at a corner shop because she does not have ID. Nothing extraordinary here. People get carded all the time. However, Devon isn't an ordinary woman. She is a book eater. Book eaters are humanoid, though not human, and they devour books as sustenance. Needless to say this was a plot element that made my little book-fanatic heart jump with excitement.
There are six book eater families in the UK, with Devon belonging to the rather traditionally inclined Fairweathers. Family is the central element in this story, and everything Devon does is driven by her role as a mother, both taking care of her son Cai and in a more abstract role with her daughter Salem, who was taken away to be raised by her father's family. Essentially, it is a tale of how far we go for the ones we love. Devon wants a different life than the one dictated by tradition for Cai, who is a mind eater rather than a book eater: Cai is denied a name by his father. He is shunned because he is different. He is hunted because he's considered a threat.
The story is told with lots and lots of dry wit and clever banter between the characters. I didn't expect it to be as slow-paced as it was, especially because there is so much underlying conflict. It is abundant in its character exploration but I would have liked it to either be a bit quicker in pace or to go into greater detail about the history and origins of book eating (i.e. to cater to my nerdy fascination with all things "book").
The Book Eaters is very much a book for book lovers, with each chapter being introduced by a different epigraph from (mostly fictional) literature as well as lush descriptions of libraries and other bookish places. I really enjoyed it but - probably because I had certain expectations - I didn't love it quiteas much as I wanted to.
Rating: 4/5 stars
THE CONSTANT READER BLOG IS TAKING A SHORT SUMMER HIATUS FOR THE MONTH OF AUGUST TO DEAL WITH A FEW FAMILY MATTERS AND TO RECHARGE OUR BATTERIES.
WE'LL BE BACK IN SEPTEMBER WITH LOTS OF NEW BOOKS READ AND REVIEWED. STAY TUNED AND ENJOY THE REST OF YOUR SUMMER!
30th July, 2022
Review: Hex by Jenni Fagan (Polygon)
This was a weird little book but a very good and thought provoking one at that.
IT'S THE 4TH OF DECEMBER 1591.
On this, the last night of her life, in a prison cell several floors below Edinburgh's High Street, convicted witch Geillis Duncan receives a mysterious visitor - Iris, who says she comes from a future where women are still persecuted for who they are and what they believe.
As the hours pass and dawn approaches, Geillis recounts the circumstances of her arrest, brutal torture, confession and trial, while Iris offers support, solace - and the tantalising prospect of escape.
Hex takes places during a time when superstition and fear were still consuming society and when one tiny misstep would lead you to the gallows or the pyre. It literally made me cry for all of these women who were considered to be strange or who had become "uncomfortable" to men and were therefore easily discarded, simply by accusing them of witchcraft. At the same time it made me realise how women today are still being treated pretty much the same in many ways. Iris and Geillis offer female perspectives from different time periods but their experiences have shocking similarities.
Fagan has a very postmodern take on the subject matter and it took me a while to get into the double narrative that spans voices over 500 years in time. While some of the imagery was quite distressing, I very much liked how this novella draws attention to the female predicament without becoming preachy. It made me see a few things in a different light and taught me a bit more about a very dark time in Scottish history.
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
25th July, 2022
Review: An Island Wedding by Jenny Colgan (Sphere)
This is the (supposedly) last installment in Jenny Colgan's Mure series but ... well, you never know. I personally hope that this won't be the last we've seen of the loveable characters living on a windswept Scottish island.
On the little Scottish island of Mure--halfway between Scotland and Norway--Flora MacKenzie and her fiancé Joel are planning the smallest of "sweetheart weddings," a high summer celebration surrounded only by those very dearest to them.
Not everyone on the island is happy about being excluded, though. The temperature rises even further when beautiful Olivia MacDonald--who left Mure ten years ago for bigger and brighter things--returns with a wedding planner in tow. Her fiancé has oodles of family money, and Olivia is determined to throw the biggest, most extravagant, most Instagrammable wedding possible. And she wants to do it at Flora's hotel, the same weekend as Flora's carefully planned micro-wedding.
I really enjoyed this latest volume surrounding Flora and her family and friends, but it felt a bit more stagnant than the previous books in the series to me. As always it was fun and light-hearted while also touching on some serious topics, and I can't really pinpoint what it was that "bothered" me (bothered really being a too negative term for what I felt). Maybe it was that it all felt a tad predictable, maybe it was that it followed the typical romcom trope of adults simply not talking to each other a bit too much. There were so many moments in the story where I was wondering why these grown-up people do not just say what is on their mind. I know, I know - tension and complications etc. But it just became a bit too much sometimes.
All in all though, I did like the book and felt deeply with some of the characters. I really hope there will be further installments in the future as I'm just not ready to say good-bye to Mure just yet, especially since I was not a fan of how Lorna and Saif's story was wrapped up.
Rating: 3.5/ 5 stars
13th July, 2022
Review: The Sentence by Louise Erdrich (Corsair)
Again, this is a book that was recommended to me by a fellow book lover and they did so for a good reason: Erdrich's novel is a wonderful exploration of hauntings and identity:
A small independent bookstore in Minneapolis is haunted from November 2019 to November 2020 by the store's most annoying customer. Flora dies on All Souls' Day, but she simply won't leave the store. Tookie, who has landed a job selling books after years of incarceration that she survived by reading with murderous attention, must solve the mystery of this haunting while at the same time trying to understand all that occurs in Minneapolis during a year of grief, astonishment, isolation, and furious reckoning.
Just as with the previously reviewed title, I learned a lot while reading The Sentence, particularly about Native culture but also about the Black Lives Matter movement. At the same time the story was not just educational but also very entertaining. I found myself keen to learn why Flora was hauting the bookshop, what the fateful sentence in the mysterious book coulds possibly have been (don't worry: no spoilers). The descriptions of the bookshop itself were already great but when Erdrich describes how Flora's grumpy ghost is roaming through the various sections, I found myself immediately intrigued. This is not a cosy, feel-good kind of story. Instead this novel will make you think about life, police brutality, justice, white supremacy, racism, and parenthood.
Last but not least, I loved how the book plays with the different connotations of the word "sentence" - I'm not giving anything moreaway here, but rest assured that it will be explored from different angles in the story. And it's also a book about books, packed full with referenced to other titles including a handy bibliography at the end.
Rating: 4/5 stars
6th July, 2022
Review: True Biz by Sara Novic (Random House)
I picked up True Biz as a sort of bookclub read because people on Litsy were discussing it as part of a summer reading group called Camp Litsy. And I'm glad I was made aware of this book via this route as I believe I might not have chosen it by myself had I seen it at the bookshop without knowing about it.
True biz? The students at the River Valley School for the Deaf just want to hook up, pass their history final, and have doctors, politicians, and their parents stop telling them what to do with their bodies. This revelatory novel plunges readers into the halls of a residential school for the deaf, where they'll meet Charlie, a rebellious transfer student who's never met another deaf person before; Austin, the school's golden boy, whose world is rocked when his baby sister is born hearing; and February, the headmistress, who is fighting to keep her school open and her marriage intact, but might not be able to do both.
As a series of crises both personal and political threaten to unravel each of them, Charlie, Austin, and February find their lives inextricable from one another--and changed forever.
The first thing: I learned A LOT while reading this book. I personally don't know anyone belonging to the deaf community and while I have always been fascinated by sign language, I didn't know much about any of it. True Biz made me realise a lot of things - some of these were shocking insights into how deaf people were/are treated, even by their own parents and how medical companies are still selling faulty equipment for their own gain. I also loved the interesting facts about sign language in general and the tutorials the print version provides.
The story itself was a tender coming-of-age narrative that does become a wee bit melodramatic at times but hey, we are talking about teenagers here. I'm also not sure whether or not the book is possibly geared towards a YA audience, so I'm not going to complain about this aspect too much as I may not really be representing the target readership. Others will probably not mind a bit of talk about teenage angst.
This book examines the ways language can both include and exclude at the same time. It also shows what it means to carve out a place for yourself in a world that sees you as other. True Biz is "a story of sign language and lip-reading, cochlear implants and civil rights, isolation and injustice, first love and loss, and, above all, great persistence, daring, and joy." It will teach you and make you rethink assumptions you may have about disability and identity. And that, my friends, is a good thing. :-)
Rating: 4/5 stars
(Photo Credit: https://sara-novic.com/true-biz)
30th June, 2022
Review: All the Murmuring Bones by A.G. Slatter (Titan Books)
Long ago Miren O'Malley's family prospered due to a deal struck with the Mer: safety for their ships in return for a child of each generation. But for many years the family have been unable to keep their side of the bargain and have fallen into decline. Miren's grandmother is determined to restore their glory, even at the price of Miren's freedom.
This is a book that started a bit slow for me and I was almost ready to give up on it. I'm grateful that I decided to keep going "for just a few more pages" because it was then that the story captured me hook, line and sinker.
I particularly loved all the folkloric elements and stories within the story. Slatter draws on many different myths and weaves them into something utterly new. The O'Malley family does not seem very likeable in all of this but I did find myself rooting for Miren. Even though she isn't a purely "good" character herself, she is ultimately the victim of her family's curse and she is bound to take revenge. And boy, did I love the revenge trope in this book!
This is in fact something readers should be aware of: This book is dark and sometimes it can be quite brutal. There is murder, sacrifice, betrayal. But also friendship, trust and enchantment. In parts the story borders on gothic horror with its creepy merpeople, cunning kelpies and crumbling manors.
If you are looking for a unique story about peculiar women and eldritch manifestations of mythological creatures, I highly recommend that you pick up this novel. It is dark, it is lyrical, it draws you in (well, you do need to have a bit of patience in the beginning but it's worth it).
I am eager to pick up Slatter's new book set in the same world as All the Murmuring Bones now. :-)
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
26th June, 2022
Review: A Place to Hang the Moon by Kate Albus (Margaret Ferguson Books)
Time's are rather bleak right now, but don't you fear cause I've got you covered. If you are looking for a heartwarming read in the fashion of The Railway Children, do give Kate Albus' novel a try.
It is 1940 and Anna, 9, Edmund, 11, and William, 12, have just lost their grandmother. Unfortunately, she left no provision for their guardianship in her will. Her solicitor comes up with a preposterous plan: he will arrange for the children to join a group of schoolchildren who are being evacuated to a village in the country, where they will live with families for the duration of the war. He also hopes that whoever takes the children on might end up willing to adopt them and become their new family--providing, of course, that the children can agree on the choice.
Moving from one family to another, the children suffer the cruel trickery of foster brothers, the cold realities of outdoor toilets, and the hollowness of empty tummies. They seek comfort in the village lending library, whose kind librarian, Nora Muller, seems an excellent candidate--except that she has a German husband whose whereabouts are currently unknown.
A Place to Hang the Moon is the kind of book you want to make last for as long as possible and then hug it to your chest once you're finished before you start reading it again. As I said above, it reminded me a lot of stories such as The Railway Children and the Narnia books - well, minus the magical parallel world. This probably had to do with the general premise of the story (and the fact that Edmund is actually named after a Narnia character) but Albus makes a well-used trope entirely her own after only a few pages.
I absolutely loved the three siblings and their little "preposterous plan". But I loved Nora and her little village library even more. Many of the scenes happening in the library, and later at Nora's cottage, were so superbly described that reading them felt like wrapping yourself in a warm, soft blanket. Even after many decades of being an avid reader, it still amazes me how words can conjure an atmosphere so well that you feel like you're right there in the story. But Albus does this effortlessly which is one of the reasons why this book has the potential to become a new classic.
This is the perfect feel-good read that will bring back memories of what reading was like as a child. It is already one of my favourite books of 2022 and I hope you'll love it as much as I did.
Rating: 5/5 stars
11th June, 2022
Review: Book Lovers by Emily Henry (Penguin)
Nora and Charlie: She is a tough literary agent, he is a moody editor. They once had a work lunch and ended up being each other’s work nemeses. Now, Nora has been swept away to Sunshine Falls for a month-long holiday by her sister. As the cover blurb suggests: “It’s a small town straight out of a romcom novel, but instead of meeting sexy lumberjacks or handsome country doctors, Nora keeps bumping into Charlie.”
This was my second book by Emily Henry and it was by far the better of the two. If you are looking for a quirky but not shallow summer read, look no further. Book Lovers is a cute romcom but also an exploration of what it means to be a family and of what really matters in life. Yes, it is a bit cheesy but it will also warm your heart.
What I loved about this novel was the funny meta commentaries on the small town romcom trope. If you’ve read a few books in the romance genre or watched a couple of Hallmark movies, you’ll know that it’s a common – almost overused – plot device. And it is a device here as well, but with a nice little, sort of self-conscious twist, playing with the well-known stereotypes. It was a real treat to see Nora and Charlie tiptoeing around each other, including a few mildly steamy scenes. And can we please shortly mention the bookshop that is run by Charlie’s family and that – surprise, surprise – needs saving. What a fabulous place full of (eventually) cosy nooks and crannies. The shop, together with the cottage Nora and her sister are staying in, made me want to dive into the book and visit Sunshine Fall immediately.
But what makes this novel so good are really the characters themselves. They are flawed but instantly loveable and you find yourself rooting for them in even the stupidest situations. Besides the connection between Nora and Charlie, I loved the relationship of the two sisters that is a bit strained when they first start their holiday. Things will eventually be revealed of course, but I really enjoyed the dynamics between the two women before they really start talking.
Book Lovers is all over social media and that’s because it is a beautiful story. Grab yourselves a copy!
Rating: 5/5 stars
8th June, 2022
Review: The Mad women's Ball by Victoria Mas (Penguin)
The Mad Women‘s Ball is a relatively short but extremely well-written story, showing how horribly unfair women were treated in the late 19th century. However, it never turns polemic and instead invites us to get to know the women institutionalised at the Paris Salpêtrière.
The book has a rather simple plot that isn’t overly sensational but that is exactly what makes it such a great story. Mas’ novel shows the reader how women were punished for having an opinion: It was an easy time to get rid of uncomfortable women by declaring them hysterical and locking them away.
Although the novel’s protagonist is horrified at the idea of being held within the confines of the asylum, for many of the women, the poorer ones in particular, the asylum offers a certain safety. It is the only place where anyone has ever shown concern for their well-being and it is a place of liberation from the subjugation to the oppression and sexual violence of men that they suffered on the outside. For them, the asylum has become a sanctuary. Still, the women are obviously subject to the control and exploitation of the doctors (who are all male, of course) who treat the patients as fascinating medical cases rather than real human beings with feelings and wishes.
The ball itself then brings up highly conflicting emotions. For the reader it seems appalling to see these poor women shown off as a sort of freak show for the Paris elite, but the women themselves look forward to the ball and spend weeks preparing for it, picking and altering dresses and chatting about the possible illustruous guests.
The Mad Women‘s Ball is a great insight into a time when women were far from having the rights we have today. At the same time, it’s a book that makes you think about different perspectives and about how things don’t always come in black and white categories. Highly recommended.
Rating: 5/5 stars
25th May, 2022
Review: Scritch Scratch by Lindsay Currie (Sourcebooks)
In Scritch Scratch, we are following Claire whose father owns a ghost tour business. Early on in the book Claire has to help her father run his ghost tour one night, and not only does Claire meet a ghost - it follows her home. Yikes!
I was excited about reading this books because it was marketed extremely well as a middle grade horror novel. Even if it's not exactly the typical "gothic book reading time" I was craving a bit of an uncanny story and Scritch Scratch seemed to embrace the creepy ghost story genre whole-heartedly.
Unfortunately it did not turn out to be such a great read after all. I did enjoy all of the scary scenes that quickly begin to happen around Claire. Hauntings are a traditional but still great trope, and I think it's a perfect way to pull young readers into loving horror. I did not, however, like Claire. Her attitude was simply annoying and I found myself not caring about her plight at some point.
In a way, this book seems like it's having a bit of an genre crisis. It does have some deliciously creepy ghost moments. But then there's also friendship and silly fights, crushes and weirdness, family dynamics... it is just so much for such a short book. While I really appreciate the author's effort to capture chicago's history and all the obvious research she has put into the book, for me, Scritch Scratch just tried to do too much.
I really don't want to bash this book, as I am certain that a lot of people will like it - there are many who have actually given it five-star reviews on Goodreads - and I think especially younger readers will enjoy this story a lot. It simply didn't work for me.
Rating: 2/5 stars
18th May, 2022
Bookish Stuff: Bookshop Tourism
My latest review of Bookshop Tours of Britain has made me think. Do many readers go on bookshop tours? I know that I do but sometimes I wonder if this is a bit over the top and other people might think I'm a little bonkers. ;-)
I mean, most of us will probably, at some point, have travelled to a place we know from our books. Maybe you visited the house of a famous author, or you rode the Glenfinnan Express because it made you feel like you were going to Hogwarts. Maybe you visited a place that inspired a writer to start their famous story. But did you ever travel to a town/city/village only to visit its bookshops?
Many cities offer so-called bookshop crawls so this might be a good chance to tackle a number of shops in one go. Or you can do your own "crawl". It's actually a lot of fun and I've giving up caring what non-readers might think about my little obsession. A friend of mine once organised a bookshop crawl in her hometown and we all, i.e. our group of Litsy friends, went there for the day. I also happened to be in London during the official bookshop crawl day once and obviously took advantage of that coincidence. :-) Next Saturday I'm going back to the British capital to meet some of the ladies I usually go on a reading retreat with, and we're on a mission! We've compiled a list of ten or twelve bookshops that we want to visit on that day. Will we manage to get to all of them? Doubtful. Do we care? Well, a little bit as we DO want to go to all the shops but there is only so much time in a day. Will my back be sore from a day of lugging around my new treasures? Certainly.
There are still many bookish places on my list. At some point I hope to have gotten to all of them. Because book places are just magical. Have you travelled anywhere extraordinarily bookish? Send us a message and share your experience.
(Photo Credit: The Shopkeepers)
9th May, 2022
Review: Bookshop Tours of Britain by Louise Boland (Fairlight Books)
Do you like to explore bookshops? Are you always on the hunt for a cute place to buy books when you're travelling? Then I've got the perfect book for you!
Bookshop Tours of Britain is a slow-travel guide to Britain, navigating bookshop to bookshop. Across 18 bookshop tours, the reader journeys from the Jurassic Coast of southwest England, over the mountains of Wales, through England's industrial heartland, up to the Scottish Highlands and back via Whitby, the Norfolk Broads, central London, the South Downs and Hardy's Wessex. On their way, the tours visit beaches, castles, head down coal mines, go to whiskey distilleries, bird watching, hiking, canoeing, to stately homes and the houses of some of Britain's best-loved historic writers - and last but not least, a host of fantastic bookshops.
This is indeed a book all booklovers need. I personally love travelling to bookish places, for example to see the places an author writes about or where the characters live, but what I love most is doing a tour of ALL THE BOOKSHOPS!
Louise Boland has put together a wonderful book full of beauty and wonder in these troubled times and there are stunningpictures and pictures galore of bookshops inside and out. Perfect for exploring the many cute and whimsical bookshops of Britain even when you're sitting on your own couch. Bookshop Tours of Britain is a delightful book with beautiful illustrations and photographs that are immediately going to make you want to visit the bookshops you haven't been to yet as well as revisit the ones you have been to. We all know that allure that a bookshop has and Bolan's collection captures that magic wonderfully. There are a lot of literary snippets throughout as well, such as info on classic writers and fictional settings. There's an interesting bit about Thomas Hardy's Wessex for example – a real plus for all fans of classic fiction.
This book captures the magic and wonder of everything that books are. Travelling around the UK and seeing what delights can be found is the perfect bookish dream! This book will accompany me on all my travels of the British Isles from now on.
Rating: 5/5 stars
27th April, 2022
Review: The Book of Cold Cases by Simone St. James (Berkley)
The Book of Cold Cases was my first Simone St. James novel. I’d heard great things about her and this story sounded like the perfect fit for me. It started out well, but then somehow fell flat. First things first, though. So what is this book about?
In 1977, Claire Lake, Oregon, was shaken by the Lady Killer Murders: Two men, seemingly randomly, were murdered with the same gun, with strange notes left behind. Beth Greer was the perfect suspect--a rich, eccentric twenty-three-year-old woman, seen fleeing one of the crimes. But she was acquitted, and she retreated to the isolation of her mansion.
Oregon, 2017. Shea Collins is a receptionist, but by night, she runs a true crime website, the Book of Cold Cases--a passion fueled by the attempted abduction she escaped as a child. When she meets Beth by chance, Shea asks her for an interview. To Shea's surprise, Beth says yes.
They meet regularly at Beth's mansion, though Shea is never comfortable there. Items move when she's not looking, and she could swear she's seen a girl outside the window. The allure of learning the truth about the case from the smart, charming Beth is too much to resist, but even as they grow closer, Shea senses something isn't right.
I can’t fully explain why St. James‘ novel didn’t work for me. There were a lot of elements that I liked. The passages that describe the haunted mansion, for example, were amazing and gave me plenty of goose bumps. I could almost see the house and the view from the cliff and feel the ominous presences within its walls. I also liked Beth’s character and the fact that you can’t see through her for most of the book.
However, there were also several aspects that bothered me: For one, I felt that – except for Shea and Beth – the rest of the cast were very flat characters that somehow drifted in and out of the plot but they never really “got a face” in my imagination. They just weren’t fully formed and seemed like puppets that were used whenever another human being was needed in the story (T.S. Eliot said in Prufrock: “I’m an attendant lord, one that will do to swell a scene or two” and that covers exactly what these minor characters felt like to me.)
Also, what really irked me were the numerous repetitions. We learn about Shea’s traumatic childhood experience over and over again. We continuously hear how Beth’s father died, etc. This is a problem that may have to do with the parallel storylines or it may be a conscious narrative device – whatever it is: it sometimes made me loath to actually continue with the story. And finally, there is the ending. I’m not going to post any spoilers but oh please! Really? I must admit I didn’t see this ending coming but not because it’s good but because I felt it was kind of lazy. And it was this that eventually contributed a lot to my not-so-great rating of The Book of Cold Cases. It’s a shame because the author writes wonderfully, her prose itself is great and so I was sad that the plotting seemed like it wasn’t completely thought through. I will definitely give the author another chance though and will pick up one of her other books.
Rating: 2/5 stars
21st April, 2022
Review: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus (Doubleday)
Chemist Elizabeth Zott is not your average woman. In fact, Elizabeth Zott would be the first to point out that there is no such thing as an average woman. But it's the early 1960s and her all-male team at Hastings Research Institute takes a very unscientific view of equality. Except for one: Calvin Evans; the lonely, brilliant, Nobel-prize nominated grudge-holder who falls in love with--of all things--her mind. True chemistry results.
But like science, life is unpredictable. Which is why a few years later Elizabeth Zott finds herself not only a single mother, but the reluctant star of America's most beloved cooking show Supper at Six. Elizabeth's unusual approach to cooking ("combine one tablespoon acetic acid with a pinch of sodium chloride") proves revolutionary. But as her following grows, not everyone is happy. Because as it turns out, Elizabeth Zott isn't just teaching women to cook. She's daring them to change the status quo.
Lessons in Chemistry is a book I had been awaiting patiently. My bookclub friends and I had been gushing over the beautiful Waterstones special edition for weeks. I still ended up getting only a "regular" copy but I enjoyed the story a lot.
On the one hand, the general idea isn't new: It's a story about women in the 1960s who are hindered by society to live to their full potential: If you got pregnant out of wedlock, it was your fault alone. If you wanted to pursue a career, men thought you were somehow defective. In this way, Garmus' book is reminiscent of stories such as Hidden Figures. On the other hand, the author adopts such a unique narrative voice that the book does stand out amongst similar titles. Elisabeth Zott is quirky, slightly obnoxious but extremely loveable. The way she weathers all the tragedies in her life is truly inspiring. Over and over again, the narration shifts to Elisabeth's dog though and this is were it becomes really interesting. Weirdly enough, my previously reviewed book had a cat narrator for some parts of the story, so I'm not sure if this was a coincidence or if this is a trope that's becoming fashionable in contemporary literature. :-) Whatever it may be, I tremendously enjoyed the parts told by Six-Thirty (what a cool name!) as they were full of wisdom - he is a failed bomb detection dog of amazing emotional intelligence. And who doesn't love a dog who knows the best of world literature?
Lessons in Chemistry is a narrative of emancipation, a story about family and a tale of fighting for what is rightfully yours. It's a book full of humour and extremely witty dialogues. I loved it!
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
12th April, 2022
Review: The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward (Viper)
I'd been meaning to read The Last House on Needless Street for quite a while but for some reason it got left on my TBR over and over again. And I don't know why because this was one hell of a thrilling ride and I kind of wish I had read it sooner. Be prepared for an utterly weird but fabulous story.
I think it's best to go into this book knowing nothing about the plot, because even if you have a general idea what it's about it will still confuse you. Tremendously so. There were times when I had no clue whatsoever what was going on as the author does an amazing job in manipulating the reader's view on the events described. The characters are all deeply flawed and throughout you are left with the question who is actually the good guy and who is the baddie and - most confusing of all - if all of it is in fact really happening.
I must admit - without giving anything away - I did NOT see this resolution coming! Not at all, not in a million years. Imagine a We were Liars type of smack in the face overturning all of your previous assumptions and making you want to revisit passages to find out what you've been missing and how. Kudos to Catriona Ward - hardly any book has been able to do that to me in the last few years. What this story definitely did: It left me gutted, particularly for the children in this story (those past and present). It was a deeply emotional rollercoaster that surprised me which is a reason why I'm keeping this review short so as not to spoil anything for other readers. :) Just trust me: it's so good and you will not want to miss it!
Rating: 5/5 stars
1st April, 2022
Review: Gallant by V.E. Schwab (Greenwillow Books)
V.E. Schwab's novels are usually a bit tricky for me as I either end up loving or completely disliking them (I still haven't come across one that fell inbetween). Therefore, I'm always a bit worried how a new book will work for me. Gallant definitely falls into the first category and I loved almost everything about it.
Gallant is a vibrant gothic read full of ghosts (or ghouls, as they are called here), a haunted mansion, a parallel world of darkness and decay, and a family curse. Now, if that hasn't gotten you all giddy and excited something is wrong with you. ;-P
The setting of this book is amazing and felt like Coraline meets Silent Hill meets Pan's Labyrinth to me. You can almost see and smell Gallant because it's so vividly drawn. Olivia's character was great and I found that her muteness added tremendously to the story. There were so many scenes that would have been less complicated (and less thrilling) if she was able to speak. It showed me once more how important communication is and how tough things can become if it's hindered in some way.
Ultimately, we have a lot of familiar tropes that don't exactly present something brand new but that's alright because it is the combination of these elements that makes the story amazing. Schwab manages to weave everything into a dreamlike narrative that sweeps you right along.
Gallant is the perfect book to curl up with on a rainy day. It is suspenseful, highly atmospheric and beautifully told (there are also stunning illustrations). Thumbs up and definitely recommended.
Rating: 5/5 stars
27th March, 2022
Review: A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver (Penguin)
Today I’m reviewing a genre that you normally don’t often find on this blog. I don’t really know why I don't often talk about verse here because I do love good poetry and - as Plato once said - “Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.” Mary Oliver’s collection is a great example of that:
I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.
Mary Oliver’s poems are both simple (in a positive way) and touching. “I go down to the shore” was the first text of hers that I ever came across and it hooked me immediately. As a result, I bought myself this collection and I must say that I enjoyed every single poem. Some texts are a bit like affirmations or aphorisms, others are more along the lines of traditional poetry but all of them are calming and soothing.
Oliver writes about the little moments, the small intricacies of life, the seemingly mundane that has so much effect on our being without us noticing. A lot of the poems in A Thousand Mornings make you reevaluate how you approach these ordinary everyday events - to enjoy the moment, to not sweat the small stuff, to consider issues within the greater whole. I found them equally touching, encouraging and inspiring.
If you are looking to include more poetry in your life, Mary Oliver may be a good start, especially if you happen to have “poetry phobia” from your school days. These poems are for everyone, they don’t require elaborate decoding of metaphors but they speak from and to the heart.
Rating: 5/5 stars
14th March, 2022
Review: The Mother-Daughter Book Club by Heather Vogel Frederick (Simon Schuster)
Sorry for my long absence. The current political climate had me knocked over backwards for a while but now I'm back and I missed you. :-) I haven't been able to read a whole lot in the past few weeks, but audiobooks worked alright, so today I have an audiobook recommendation for you. Of course, you can also read the regular, physical book. :)
If you like quirky contemporary stories and if you like Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, then The Mother-Daughter Book Club may be just the thing for you:
Even if Megan would rather be at the mall, Cassidy is late for hockey practice, Emma's already read every book in existence, and Jess is missing her mother too much to care, the new book club is scheduled to meet every month.
But what begins as a mom-imposed ritual of reading Little Women soon helps four unlikely friends navigate the drama of middle school. From stolen journals, to secret crushes, to a fashion-fiasco first dance, the girls are up to their Wellie boots in drama. They can't help but wonder: What would Jo March do?
For some reason, this story reminded me a lot of the Sistershood of the Traveling Pants book. Maybe it was because the characters were all so different, but a fact is that I really liked the dynamics between them. Of course, the ending is quite predictable but I found that the getting there was what made this book special. Each of the girls has special character traits that contribute to the group, once they actually realise that they are all valuable persons in their own ways.
I wasn't overly keen on the mums though. One of them was described in a very stereotypical way and I didn't really like the poking fun at her environmental concerns. As the parents in this book are always going on about being accepting and polite and are keen on teaching their daughters to become good people, this was one of the plot strands that seemed a bit unbelievable to me. All in all, I believe that the adults in this story are way more flawed than the kids: They are over-protective, or snobby, or have literally abandoned their family. And they judge each other, even though they claim that they are not.
All the typecasting aside, this was a cute read that touched on a number of serious topics but wasn't too gloomy. I breezed through it on Audible and particulaly enjoyed the connections and references to Little Women.
Rating: 3.5/5 stars
18th February, 2022
Review: Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson (Michael Joseph)
In present-day California, Eleanor Bennett's death leaves behind a puzzling inheritance for her two children, Byron and Benny: a traditional Caribbean black cake, made from a family recipe with a long history, and a voice recording. In her message, Eleanor shares a tumultuous story about a headstrong young swimmer who escapes her island home under suspicion of murder. The heartbreaking tale Eleanor unfolds, the secrets she still holds back, and the mystery of a long-lost child, challenge everything the siblings thought they knew about their lineage, and themselves.
Black Cake was a book that I didn't really have on my radar until a Bookstagram friend pointed it out to me to me and I decided to read it with a group of other people. And let me say, I was very glad to have found it because I enjoyed every single page.
Essentially, this is a sweeping family history full of of twists and turns that I often didn't see coming. I loved how the author manages to slowly develop the story and makes us experience it along with Byron and Benny. As the tale moves from the Carribean to the UK to the US (both East and West coast), the reader is swept along and needs to pay close attention to catch all the intricate connections. This is an aspect I found particularly fascinating: There are so many different plot strands that eventually come back together perfectly and as a reader I loved connecting the dots.
The book is a very personal tale of love, loss, identity and heritage but it also functions on a more universal level in that it talks openly about black lives, hybridity, institutionalised racism as well as ecocriticism. Again, Wilkerson does a great job in incorporating these topics effortlessly so that they are constantly there but don't become overbearing, i.e. the main plot is never pushed into the background.
Black Cake is a wonderful story of families and their secrets, it's about having to reconcile drastic lies with the truth and coming out on the other side of trauma. I can't recommend this book enough, so do yourself a favour and pick it up from your nearest bookshop or library.
Rating: 5/5 stars
14th February, 2022
Bookish Stuff: Raising Readers - How to motivate kids to read
Reading is an important skill and the basis for participating in all kinds of social aspects of life. It’s not just about being able to decipher street signs or the menu of your closest take-away, reading is necessary to succeed in school and at work. It’s no wonder therefore that we all would like our kids to become competent readers. But what can you do if your child is reluctant? Here are a few tips for raising readers that I recently discussed with fellow colleagues and other mums.
Very important: Before you force your kid to read or establish firm reading times, ask yourself where the child’s unwillingness to pick up a book may come from. As adults we are so used to the printed word that we easily forget what a complex process learning to read actually is. Reading is exhausting if you’re not used to it!! If a child still has to painstakingly decipher every letter, syllable, word and sentence, it’s no wonder that reading loses its fun quickly. Until a child is able to read fluently and to make sense of what they are reading, there is a lot of practice and patience needed.
It’s vital that the kid’s motivation is kept up during this time. And reading should always be fun – as soon as the activity is connected with pressure or even force by the child, they’ll lose interest quickly. All in all, especially for beginning readers, it helps if the book has large print and lots of pictures. This way, the kid will feel like they are making progress.
At the same time, it’s crucial that we function as role models. If a parent never touches a book or magazine and never talks to their kids about what was read, the kid won’t either. A good strategy here would be to get comfortable with a book and to let the child see how much you’re enjoying it. Reading together is equally important. Let the child pick the book and let them dive into the story with you. Get cosy, cuddle and enjoy the story together.
There is a prejudice that boys don’t like to read. This is something I can’t really confirm. In our son’s class, the three most voracious readers are all boys. Of course, finding the right book is crucial – which is the case for both boys and girls – and of course it helps if the boy's father also serves as a role model so that reading isn’t subconsciously associated with being a “girl thing”. Our son loves to read in bed before lights out and it’s the perfect ending to the day when he can wind down and relax. First one of us reads to him, then he has about half an hour in which he reads by himself.
With reluctant readers, it sometimes helps to stop reading to them during a particularly exciting passage and let them continue themselves. This is how our son transitioned to longer texts with fewer pictures. His dad had been reading to him when he received an important phone call he couldn’t ignore. Our son couldn’t wait to learn how the story would continue and by the time his dad had ended the phone call, he had finished the rest of the chapter.
All in all, I think the main message is: make it fun! Make it exciting! Show your kid what an adventure reading is, and let them choose their own reading material (even if it’s “just” the kind of comic books you personally hate). It will foster their love of stories and will set them on the right path to becoming a book lover. And always keep books in easy reach. Have them lying around the house and trust me, there will come a moment of boredom when they'll pick one up. And if it's the right story at the right time, they'll be hooked. :-)
3rd February, 2022
Review: The Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher (Headline Review)
One hundred years ago a small bookshop on the Paris left bank published James Joyce's Ulysses, a novel that would become a Modernist classic. It is quite fitting that, just in time for the centenary, Kerri Maher's novel came out earlier this year. The Paris Bookseller tells the story of Sylvia Beach who opened an English bookshop in Paris in 1919. Little did she know then that her shop Shakespeare and Company would become a hub for the so-called Lost Generation of writers.
For me, this was a fun historical novel. Having a long-standing fond attachment to today's Shakespeare & Co. (which is an entirely different shop but built on the tenets of Beach's original store) and being a fan and teacher of Modernist literature, I enjoyed the story a lot, even if as a fictional text it - of course - takes certain liberties and adds facts and conversations etc. to the plot that may never have happened. But that's okay because we know this is not a biography and Maher clearly says so herself in a "notes" section.
Maher nicely captures the atmosphere of Paris in the 1920s as well as the relationships between all the creative people who made Beach's shop their meeting place. I loved how the author details the liberal mindset and various homosexual relationships. Sylvia's long relationship to Adrienne Monier is here described in great detail and I very much enjoyed getting a glimpse into sapphic life one hundred years ago. At times the focus on this part of the story became a tad much though and I had the feeling that a few sex scenes were simply thrown in to spice up the story whenever the plot became a bit slower. It's a minor thing but it bothered me because it was simply unnecessary.
The Paris Bookseller is a great fictional take on one of the most interesting literary times in Europe. Highly recommended!
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
25th January, 2022
Review: Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments by T.L. Huchu (Tor Books)
Ropa Moyo is back in the house! After I devoured the first book in the Edinburgh Nights series last year, I was thrilled to get access to an ARC of its sequel from the publisher. And boy, it surely did not disappoint. Here is a short synopsis:
When Ropa Moyo discovered an occult underground library, she expected great things. She’s really into Edinburgh’s secret societies – but turns out they are less into her. So instead of getting paid to work magic, she’s had to accept a crummy unpaid internship. And her with bills to pay and a pet fox to feed.
Then her friend Priya offers her a job on the side. Priya works at Our Lady of Mysterious Maladies, a very specialized hospital, where a new illness is resisting magical and medical remedies alike. The first patient was a teenage boy, Max Wu, and his healers are baffled. If Ropa can solve the case, she might earn as she learns – and impress her mentor, Sir Callander.
Oftentimes, second books in a series tend to flounder, but I am happy to report that this is definitely not the case here. We do get slightly fewer breathtaking action scenes compared to The Library of the Dead though. Instead, we dive deeper into the library/society's history which I found interesting, even if occasionally the amount of information became a bit much to process. I do love how the author connects the history of a fictional secret society with the real life history of Edinburgh as a city.
Even though we get a little less "gothicness" in terms of haunted houses, deranged milk men and wandering ghosts, we still witness Ropa battling malevolent spirits of course. She is her old self with a unique voice that mingles references to pop culture with "youthspeak" and a certain level of endearing sass and hubris. You can't but love her, even if you sometimes want to slap her for doing something that is clearly a stupid idea. I also loved that Huchu expands the stories of some other loveable minor characters like Priya and Jomo and the Rooster.
The story flows well as we follow Ropa trying to solve the mysterious case of priviledged school boys falling ill. As in the last book, Edinburgh is the secret second protagonist in this novel. References to the illusive "catastrophe" pop up again as well as a kind of prophesy that threatens even darker times to come. Huchu does a great job here in keeping the reader engaged and thirsting for future instalments.
The Edinburgh Nights series has captured my heart and I can't wait to see what Ropa will be doing next. If you are looking for a clever story set in a Scotland that is still recognisable but also utterly changed, if you love stories about ghosts and magic - this is a series to keep on your radar.
Our Lady of Mysterious Ailments will be out with Tor Books on 3rd March!
Rating: 5/5 stars
19th January, 2022
Review: The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley (Penguin)
Competition is always fierce, and particularly in our times it seems that the way we compare ourselves to others has become even more critical. So we make up stories about our life in order to look better, to have a better standing, to find admiration. But ultimately... we're not just lying to everyone else but most of all to ourselves. This is where Clare Pooley's novel The Authenticity Project cuts in:
Julian Jessop, an eccentric, lonely artist and septuagenarian believes that most people aren't really honest with each other. But what if they were? And so he writes--in a plain, green journal--the truth about his own life and leaves it in his local café. It's run by the incredibly tidy and efficient Monica, who furtively adds her own entry and leaves the book in the wine bar across the street. Before long, the others who find the green notebook add the truths about their own deepest selves--and soon find each other in real life at Monica's café.
What I liked about this book was the quirky mix of characters: artist Julian, Monica the cafe owner, addict Hazard, fabulous social media mummy Alice, etc. All of them are hiding something and all of them need to learn to be happy again. I thought this was a cute take and I liked how they all realise that they need to change something in their lives. The leaving-behind-a-journal idea, of course, isn't a new one though and that did take away a bit of the fun for me.
I think I might have enjoyed this story more if I had read it at a different time. Somehow it wasn't the right moment and I found it hard to really connect with any of the characters, as interesting as they all are. They are all flawed and, in different degrees, more or less unlikeable which is good really because they are not cast as black and white husks of people. BUT... they do eventually become stereotypes as the situations and coincidences they find themselves in are so ridiculously unbelievable. Finally, the characters are all revealed as being truly good people who, deep down, mean well. That was a bit too much for my taste and I wish that Pooley had stuck with the idea of varied personalities that the book starts out with as that would have been... well, more authentic. To be honest, I eventually had to push myself to finish reading the story. That's a shame because I did like the general plot idea. However, it simply wasn't my cup of tea.
Rating: 2.5/5 stars
9th January, 2022
Review: Wintering by Katherine May (Riverhead Books)
As Forrest Gump already said: "Life is like a box of chocolate. You never know what you're gonna get." Or as the synopsis of Katherine May's books explains: "Sometimes you slip through the cracks: unforeseen circumstances like an abrupt illness, the death of a loved one, a break up, or a job loss can derail a life. These periods of dislocation can be lonely and unexpected. For May, her husband fell ill, her son stopped attending school, and her own medical issues led her to leave a demanding job. Wintering explores how she not only endured this painful time, but embraced the singular opportunities it offered."
I began reading this book in late November so, even though it is only 250 pages long, it took me a while to finish it. I took my time on purpose, because I wanted to give this memoir the attention it deserves while also trying to already implement some of May's basic ideas into my own life. The concept of wintering is generally described as an involuntary dark time in life when everything slows down out of necessity - a time that can be challenging and even depressing. However, as May explores the many ways in which we can take the good out of times like these, I started thinking about selfcare and the little things that we often take for granted. What I took away from this wonderful book was not just the thought that life is a cyclical journey from bad to good to bad to good times over and over again. I also took away the lesson to be more mindful of the good things in general, to appreciate them more, to enjoy the tiny moments of bliss - even if they are just somethings as banal as a warm ray of sunshine on your face on an otherwise rainy day. May refers to ideas from literature, mythology, and the natural world, offering instruction on the transformative power of rest and retreat. From solstice celebrations and dormice hibernation, C.S. Lewis and Sylvia Plath, swimming in icy waters and sailing arctic seas - May finds illumination in many different ways.
Wintering is a book that will make you think about your own strategies of dealing with fallow times. In our world, where it is expected to always "push through" and where most people tend to find distraction from their real problems, May's memoir invites us to change how we relate to our own tough times: "May models an active acceptance of sadness and finds nourishment in deep retreat, joy in the hushed beauty of winter, and encouragement in understanding life as cyclical, not linear."
Rating: 5/5 stars
3rd January, 2022
Review: Christmas by the Book by Anne Marie Ryan (Putnam)
I hope you all had lovely holidays with those near and dear to you. I wish you all the best for the new year. May 2022 bring us all a bit more "normality". That said, I read the cosiest of Christmas books over the holidays which I would like to share with you. Yes, it's very predictable and there are a few too many coincidences but it still warmed my heart tremendously.
Nora and her husband, Simon, have run the beautiful oak-beamed book shop in their small British village for thirty years. But times are tough and the shop is under threat of closure--this Christmas season will really decide their fate. When an elderly man visits the store and buys the one book they've never been able to sell, saying it's the perfect gift for his sick grandson, it gives Nora an idea. She and Simon will send out books to those feeling down this Christmas. Maybe they can't save their bookstore, but at least they'll have one final chance to lift people's spirits through the power of reading.
After gathering nominations online, Nora and Simon quietly deliver books to six residents of the village in need of some festive cheer, including a single dad of twins who is working hard to make ends meet, a teenage boy grieving for his big sister, a local Member of Parliament who is battling depression, and a teacher who's newly retired and living on her own. As the town prepares for a white Christmas, the books begin to give the recipients hope, one by one. But with the future of the bookshop still up in the air, Nora and Simon will need a Christmas miracle--or perhaps a little help from the people whose lives they've touched--to find a happy ending of their own....
Christmas by the Book is essentially a Hallmark movie in novel form. We have a beautiful English village with lots of interesting and quirky characters and we have the loveliest of little bookshops which was really the best part of the whole story. I wanted to move in there immediately and spend my days selling books to the villagers. Ryan draws such a wonderful image of this special place that it makes you all warm and fuzzy.
I also loved the many different characters who all have their own problems and traumas to deal with and who are eventually all brought together through the power of stories. As I said before, the book relies a little too heavily on coincidence which, in my opinion, wasn't really necessary. As Nora and Simon learn from the messages coming in why each individual could do with a surprise book, they could have just send specific stories to specific people. Instead, they send them out as "blind dates" and, still, every grieving/traumatised/struggling character receives just the book they need. Meh! However, the overall story is so uplifting and hopeful and beautiful that you can easily see past this sloppy plot bit. :-)
I loved this book a lot as it ticked almost all boxes for me as the perfect winter read.
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
27th December, 2021
Review: The Nesting by C.J. Cooke (Harper Collins)
A few days ago, I posted on social media that I had found the perfect book for the winter solstice. It's this one and it was indeed the most fitting read for the longest night of the year.
Architect Tom Faraday is determined to finish the high-concept, environmentally friendly home he's building in Norway – in the same place where he lost his wife, Aurelia, to suicide. It was their dream house, and he wants to honor her with it. Lexi Ellis takes a job as his nanny and immediately falls in love with his two young daughters, especially Gaia. But something feels off in the isolated house nestled in the forest along the fjord. Lexi sees mysterious muddy footprints inside the home. Aurelia's diary appears in Lexi's room one day. And Gaia keeps telling her about seeing the terrifying Sad Lady… Soon Lexi suspects that Aurelia didn't kill herself and that they are all in danger from something far more sinister lurking around them.
The Nesting is a mix of Norse folklore, gothic thriller vibes and the traditional ghost story. At first I thought this would drift into a retelling of The Turn of the Screw or Jane Eyre but I quickly realised that this was something else entirely and, in fact, so much more.
The use of imagery was stunning, the folkloric elements had me hooked immediately. A wandering elk, an ancient river that shouldn't be tempered with, nature punishing those who don't treat her with respect - I loved it all. Cooke's writing is captivating, and she truly is a master of creating an eerie atmosphere that is deeply connected with the landscape. The characters were all interesting and while I didn't care very much for Lexi, I absolutely adored Gaia and found myself worrying about her safety. I enjoyed how the reader is left guessing what is real and what is imagination. The only thing I wasn't completely convinced by was the resolution - it's a bit weird because I did really appreciate the twist but wasn't fully sure of certain individuals' motivations. But this is just a minor point as it didn't take away any of the fun and suspense of the story.
If you are into gothic horror, this will be the perfect book for you. I've been an avid horror reader for thirty years but Cooke still gave me goosebumps and made me want to keep a light on at night with lines like these: "It's the Sad Lady. She lives in our basement. And she doesn't have eyes, just holes." Yikes! So if this is your jam, make sure to go and get yourself this wonderful book. :-)
Rating: 5/5 stars
17th December, 2021
Bookish Stuff: Christmas books
I recently heard about a great idea that I plan to "appropriate" for our own home. It’s about Christmas and it’s about books. The perfect combination if you ask me, so this will be a great addition to our already established tradition of Jolabokflod.
The gist of it all is that each year you buy your child a Christmas or holiday themed book, and you write them a note inside with the year as well as a short personal message. You also buy a so-called "house" book, into which you also jot the year. The idea is that when the kid is grown up and has a family of their own, they will take their collection of Christmas books to their own home to share with their family, and the house books will be at your house to enjoy with your grandchildren (if we have some). If you do this for a few years you will have a lot of beautiful and special books to enjoy throughout the holiday season.
I love this idea! The Christmas books are supposed to come out the evening of the day the Christmas tree goes up. And they should go back into storage once the tree is taken down. This way they are clearly marked as special and will be treated as such. Christmas book night, i.e. the evening the books are brought out again, may then become one of your kid’s favourite nights of the year. They will love browsing through the stacks of books and reminiscing about Christmas past. When choosing the books, you can try to match them with something special about the year, or simply an interest the kid has at the time. Looking at them together in the following years will be like walking back in time with them.
I wish I had read about this brilliant idea earlier because now I'm unfortunately seven years behind, but I believe it's still a great tradition to establish at any time. A happy bookish Christmas!
(Photo credit: GettyImages)
8th December, 2021
Review: The Haunting Season by Bridget Collins et al. (Sphere)
Winter is here, a season that has for generations been a popular time for gathering by the bright flame of a candle, or the warm crackling of a fire, and telling stories of ghostly encounters and strange happenings. In The Haunting Season, eight bestselling writers bring this tradition to life in a wonderful collection of spooky tales.
"From a bustling Covent Garden Christmas market to the frosty moors of Yorkshire, from a country estate with a dreadful secret, to a London mansion where a beautiful girl lies frozen in death, these are stories to make your hair stand on end, send shivers down your spine":
- A Study in Black and White (Bridget Collins) - A man rents a strange house with topiaries in the form of chess pieces. People in the village, however, say that previous tenants were never seen again.
- Thwaite's Tenant (Imogen Hermes Gowar) - An ominous house and a malevolent spirit: While society clearly expects it of her, Lucinda can't imagine returning to her cruel husband.
- The Eel Singers (Natasha Pulley) - Featuring characters from Pulley's earlier work, we are confronted with a memory-eating village.
- Lily Wilt (Jess Kidd) - An infatuated photographer brings a gorgeous dead girl back to life. However, there are some rather unpleasant consequences.
- The Chillingham Chair (Laura Purcell) - A haunted wheelchair and a family with lots of secrets: Evelyn Lennox uncovers the deadly truth about her in-laws.
- The Hanging of the Greens (Michael Hurley) - A man attends a church meeting seeking forgiveness, and leaves a lasting impression on a member of the parish.
- Confinement (Kiran Milwood Hargrave) - Alone during her postpartum recovery, Catherine Blake is haunted by an evil witch.
- Monster (Elizabeth MacNeal) - Aspiring paleontologist Victor Crisp sets out to make a geological discovery that will finally best his brother's success.
All in all, I loved this book - particularly so, because I read most of it on a cold stormy night in an old library building. And hey, there is no better place and time to read this book really. I am not going to go into greater detail about the merit of individual stories because it might give too much away about the plot of these short tales, but I definitely did like Kiran Milwood Hargrave's "Confinement" best. One or two of the other stories seemed a bit convuluted or had too much backstory of the authors' other books that I didn't become particularly invested. The rest of the stories made up for these though. I liked how each of these tales draws on basic human fears, may they be of things coming alive, somebody snatching away your child, dying too young or losing control over your own life. Wonderfully atmospheric, this was a rewarding read, even though I'm usually not a big fan of short stories.
The Hauting Season is the perfect companion for this cosy yet sinister time of year, so snuggle up with a warm drink and enjoy these spellbinding tales of ghosts, family secrets and weird incidents.
Rating: 4/5 stars
30th November, 2021
Review: The Cat Who Saved Books by Sosuke Natsukawa (Picador)
The Cat Who Saved Books is a heartwarming, whimsical fable about the power of books. It talks about how books have the power to heal and addresses the importance of being able to use your imagination.
Bookish high school student Rintaro Natsuki has to close the secondhand bookshop he inherited from his grandfather. Rintaro's grandfather raised him after the death of his mother, and now that he's gone, Rintaro has to learn to live without his words of wisdom. The bookshop was his grandfather's project of love and is considered too much of a responsibility for a teenage boy. However, when a talking cat named Tiger appears, the two go on a mystical journey to save books that have been imprisoned, destroyed or unloved. This marks the beginning of a strange friendship and an "adventure that will lead them to travel through four different labyrinths to resolve as many existential questions on the importance of reading and on the infinite and inscrutable strength of love as they can".
I read this book on a cold day while a gale was blowing around the house, rattling the windows. In a way, this was the perfect setting for reading such a whimsical story. The Cat Who Saved Books is quirky tale which - over and over - stresses the importance of books, human relationships and the necessity to believe in yourself. It is a simple story that heavily leans on books such as The Little Prince with the protagonist philosophising about the most important topics of life.
I liked this cute blend of fairy tale with magical realism, but wasn't blown away by it. It is a book that will surely appeal to book- and catlovers as well as readers interesting in Japan and its culture. For me, it was a beautiful palate cleanser with interesting ideas.
Rating: 3/5 stars
24th November, 2021
Review: The Bookshop of Dust and Dreams by Mindy Thompson (Viking)
If you are looking for a magical read that is going to touch you deeply, look no further because this book has got you covered.
It's 1944 Sutton, NY, and Poppy's family owns and runs, Rhyme and Reason, a magical bookshop that caters to people from all different places and time periods. Though her family's world is ravaged by World War II, their customers hail from their past and their future, infusing the shop with a delightful mix of ideas and experiences. The shop runs on a set of rules handed down from one generation of bookseller to the next, with their cardinal rule their most strict: shopkeepers must never use the magic for themselves.
But then Poppy's brother's best friend is killed in the war and her brother wants to use the magic to save him. Young Poppy is caught between her love for her brother and loyalty to her family, all the while knowing that her brother's actions could have devastating consequences that reach far beyond the bookshop, feeding an insidious, growing darkness.
The setting of Thompson's novel is magical in itself. I immediately fell in love with "Rhyme and Reason" and its idiosyncrasies. The descriptions of the bookshop simply gave me warm and fuzzy feelings and I wish places like these actually existed.
The characters were lovely. Poppy is fierce and strong, even if she doesn't know that at first. The conflicts she and her brother are going through were convincingly drawn and even though Al's reaction might seem a big strong at first, there is an explanation later on that worked for me. The most interesting characters besides the protagonist, however, are the shop's regulars. I loved Bibine and her grandchildren, and I found myself particularly fond of apprentice courier Ollie.
In essence, this is a story about darkness and light, about good and evil and about the things we do out of grief. It is a tale about overcoming adversity and doing everything we can for the ones we love. And last but not least, it's a story about the power of stories and about the narratives that make up our lives. It's the perfect book to curl up with this winter.
Rating: 5/5 stars
17th November, 2021
Bookish Stuff: Hectic times and the classics
It's mid-November and I don't know about you, but I've already felt the holiday rush in the past few weeks. It's only 5.5 weeks till Christmas and suddenly there are so many things to think about that it can drive you mad. I always try to stay calm and take in the Christmas spirit at this time of year but some years this seems to work better than others. What I do like to do in these times, is read either old favourites or explore a classic that I haven't read yet. There is something about the old-timey language that I find strangely soothing and the often slow-paced narratives make you lean back and relax.
Because I teach literature at university, some people tend to assume that I've read everything. Obviously I haven't! For one, because that is simply not possible to achieve in a lifetime and also because some texts simply aren't up my alley. There, I said it: even lecturers or teachers "hate" certain texts or writers. :-)
There are some classic writers with whom I have a love/hate relationship. Take the Brontë sisters, for example. I love Charlotte and Anne, but am definitely not a huge fan of Emily. Or Dickens. I love some of his books but utterly detest others. And that's alright! It's a matter of personal taste and you can still appreciate a text's significance, even if you don't love it. It's also something I tell my students: "Just because it's canon, it doesn't mean you have to adore it. Give it a go - yes. If you like it, good. If you don't, then you can at least argue why you didn't enjoy it because you know what you're talking about."
Another writer I have a weird relationship with is Jane Austen. It might have to do with her being a favourite topic with a lot of my students (please don't make me read another term paper on marriage in Pride and Prejudice!). I don't really know, but it's a little like I said above: I really like some of her novels (Northhanger Abbey, for example, is amazing) while not being overly keen on others. There are also one or two I haven't even read yet, so this is my plan for the next few weeks until Christmas. I am finally going to read Persuasion which, I have heard recently, is by many considered to be her best book. We'll see how it goes. I will keep you posted. :-)
6th November, 2021
Review: The Christmas Bookshop by Jenny Colgan (Little Brown)
It's going on Christmas time and, once again, Jenny Colgan does not disappoint. Just in time for the holidays, she has published this gem of a Christmas story that, I'm not ashamed to say it, I have fallen head over heels in love with.
When the department store she works in closes for good, Carmen has perilously little cash and few options. She doesn’t want to move in with her perfect sister Sofia, in Sofia’s perfect house with her perfect children and her perfectly ordered Edinburgh life.
Frankly, Sofia doesn’t exactly want Carmen there either. Her sister has always been sarcastic and difficult. But Sofia has yet another baby on the way, a mother desperate to see her daughters get along, and a client who needs a retail assistant for his ailing bookshop, so welcoming Carmen might still have some benefits for everyone.
At Sofia’s behest, Carmen is thrown into the daily workings of old Mr. McCredie’s ancient bookshop on the streets of the old dark city. Can she use her design skills to revamp the store and bring it back to popularity in time to benefit from Christmas shopping traffic? Can she choose between bad boy literary rock star Blair and quiet Quaker student Oke? And will she heal the rift with the most important people of all: her family?
I basically loved everything about his book, so be prepared for some gushing praise. :-)
Let me start with the setting: Christmassy Edinburgh is marvelous in itself but add Victoria Street and a strange little bookshop into the mix and you've got me - hook, line and sinker. Mr McCredie as a somewhat incompetent shop owner immediately touched a soft spot in me and I adored how Carmen, by and by, falls in love with the place. The way the street's shop owners stick together and arrange decorations and parties for each other touched me deeply. The shop itself is simply a wonderful place and the house a hodgepodge of weirdly connected rooms. I could easily picture it in my mind and instantly wanted to be there to help Carmen vamp up the window display and rearrange the shelves.
The characters were all great as well. I already mentioned Mr McCredie and Carmen, but I also loved seemingly perfect Sofia and the kids (Oh Phoebe, you are so amazing). Skylar made me snort laugh more than once because she is so darn ridiculous all the time including the way she speaks, and don't even get me started on Blair Pfenning. What an eejit. Oke immediately caught my interest and I loved his quiet reservedness. All in all, this was the perfect mix of idiosyncratic characters.
The romance part didn't really start before half of the book and I really liked that. Yes, there is the typical love triangle with lots of misunderstandings and it's all a bit foreseeable but that's alright because it is all so tenderly and beautifully done that I didn't mind the few somewhat stereotypical tropes. After all, it's not just about romance, it is also about the relationships between two sisters and between an aunt and her nieces and nephew. The story gave me warm and fuzzy feelings as it spoke about the time we spend with our loved ones (even though we might hate them occasionally).
The Christmas Bookshop is the perfect feel-good read for this holiday season so I advise you (no, I'm begging you) to get yourself a copy. Trust me, you will not regret it. :-)
Rating: 6/5 stars (Yes, I loved it THAT much.)
27th October, 2021
Review: The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig (Del Rey)
Long ago, Nathan lived in a house in the country with his abusive father—and has never told his family what happened there. Long ago, Maddie was a little girl making dolls in her bedroom when she saw something she shouldn’t have—and is trying to remember that lost trauma by making haunting sculptures. Long ago, something sinister, something hungry, walked in the tunnels and the mountains and the coal mines of their hometown in rural Pennsylvania.
Now, Nate and Maddie Graves are married, and they have moved back to their hometown with their son, Oliver. And now what happened long ago is happening again . . . and it is happening to Oliver. He meets a strange boy who becomes his best friend, a boy with secrets of his own and a taste for dark magic. This dark magic puts them at the heart of a battle of good versus evil and a fight for the soul of the family—and perhaps for all of the world. But the Graves family has a secret weapon in this battle: their love for one another.
When I read the synopsis of Wendig's book, it didn't take long for me to double click on that little basket icon as the story seemed right up my alley: a spooky house, a vengeful ghost, murder, magic, ... of course I was intrigued! Because it is a bit of a chunkster, I saved it for a particularly rainy weekend and it was blissful when I finally started reading it. The story starts out strong - with a bang, one could say - and once I had gotten the characters straight in the next few chapters, I thought "This could really be something".
Then, however, trope after trope happened and I didn't really like any of them because they seemed like a pick and mix of other stories: a bit of King here, a spritz of Koontz there and some Hendrix sprinkled on top. The thing is: There is a great idea lurking somewhere in here, but to me it seemed like the author simply wanted to pack too much into this book so that it has become - in my humble opinion - a bit of a convoluted mess. The Book of Accidents has elements of old-timey horror novels and sci-fi. It has parallel worlds and creepy woods, lost children, murdered children, abused children. It has a haunted house and magical creatures. It is about trauma, grief, alienation and terror. Yes, a bit much, innit?
Do take my criticism with a grain of salt though because - after all - this is a very subjective viewpoint. I'm sure readers who are into mixed genres will like this better than I did and horror lovers should definitely give it a try. It is a crazy and creepy ride with lots of brilliant ideas. For me, throwing them all together just didn't really work.
Rating: 3/5 stars
25th October, 2021
Bookish Stuff: Bookish Autumn
It is no secret that I love autumn, and it is also no secret that this has to do with cosy sweaters, the crisp air, the colourful leaves on the trees and that this time is the perfect reason to coorie in with a cuppa tea and a book at night. Yes, stereotypes... but nice stereotypes. Cosy stereotypes. Comfy stereotypes. ;)
As I said in one of my previous posts, every year around Halloween I tend to read gothic stories and horror novels because... well... spooky season. This year, however, I also found myself more drawn to cosy books, books that already make you anticipate Christmas time in a way because they are somewhat wintry and festive. That was a rather weird development for me but I've been trying to embrace it because if I didn't, I'd just end up in another reading slump. And I've definitely had enough of those this year. So I've been reading some romcoms, some literary fiction and some classics while also throwing in my share of creepy tales, and it's been a beautiful mixture!
What I'm enjoying most, however, is that the kid is really and truly getting into reading himself. He has always been a bookworm and reading to him has always been a fixture in our lives. He has also read quite a few books by himself but somehow he used to be a bit hesitant, preferring to have us read to him. This year, this has improved a lot! I often find him wrapped in a blanket, reading his book and then saying that he wants to keep reading for as long as he can. He's really gotten into chapter books now but he's also become a fan of the Amulet graphic novel series by Kazu Kibuishi.
So now we have evenings when we all read together and it's definitely precious quality time. We've also been watching quite a few Halloween films - Hocus Pocus even had to be watched twice this weekend. :-) I can't believe that Halloween will be over again by this time next week but I'm definitely looking forward to reading all the new Christmas titles coming out in the next few days and weeks, and watching lots of cheesy Christmas movies.
12th October, 2021
Review: The Lighthouse Witches by C.J. Cooke (Harper Collins)
When single mother Liv is commissioned to paint a mural in a 100-year-old lighthouse on a remote Scottish island, it's an opportunity to start over with her three daughters--Luna, Sapphire, and Clover. When two of her daughters go missing, she's frantic. She learns that the cave beneath the lighthouse was once a prison for women accused of witchcraft. The locals warn her about wildlings, supernatural beings who mimic human children, created by witches for revenge. Liv is told wildlings are dangerous and must be killed.
Twenty-two years later, Luna has been searching for her missing sisters and mother. When she receives a call about her youngest sister, Clover, she's initially ecstatic. Clover is the sister she remembers--except she's still seven years old, the age she was when she vanished. Luna is worried Clover is a wildling. Luna has few memories of her time on the island, but she'll have to return to find the truth of what happened to her family. But she doesn't realize just how much the truth will change her.
This is a novel I was really looking forward to: the title alone had me intrigued and the cover looks absolutely stunning. I received an ARC via Netgalley but was so smitten with the plot (and the cover) that I ordered a physical hardcover copy as well.
In general, I really loved the story. I've heard other reviewers describe it as chaotic but that wasn't my impression at all. Instead, I liked the multitude of voices and levels of time that eventually blend together and then make absolute sense. I adored the setting of Lón Haven and The Longing and a community that's steeped in superstition and a deep belief in the supernatural. I also loved the characters, even slightly annoying Saffy. What I found particularly intriguing were the speculations about the wildlings and how folklore still has such a strong impact in some areas today. I didn't have any idea how to explain the phenomenon that occurs in the story until shortly before the end, and that's great! Oftentimes, I have a hunch very early on which can take the fun away but here I was guessing throughout.
So, all in all this was an amazing story and a stunningly beautiful book about family, belonging, and the horrible consequences of superstition. BUT... and I'm so sorry to say there is a but... the book was full of typos and grammatical errors where it was clear that the text had been changed but the grammar hadn't been "adjusted" (e.g. "she pleased", "she wasn't can't", etc). Also, there were some logical discrepancies (e.g. birds being described as black with white heads and then called black-headed birds a few lines later; the way that the social workers just send Clover home with Luna without seemingly checking the missing case files, etc.). I must say that these things almost put me off the book and I only continued because I was so very much invested in the story. I have no idea what went wrong during the editing process but it almost seemed like possibly the wrong file was sent to the printers(??). This is such a shame and I simply feel sorry for the author because it's something that could have been prevented easily, yet it will probably negatively affect the way readers will react to this book. It is definitely the reason why I'm deducting one star from what would otherwise have been a five star rating. Sorry, C.J.! :(
However, if you don't mind the above points of critique and are looking for an atmospheric read full of folkloric elements, go and pick up this book. You'll feel like you're right there on a remote Scottish island with Luna, Saffy, Clover and Liv.
Rating: 4/5 stars
6th October, 2021
Review: Pages & Co - The Book Smugglers by Anna James (Harper Collins)
Like every September, I eagerly awaited the publication of a new Pages & Co book and was utterly happy when I finally held it in my hands. Book four in the mesmerising series about bookwanderers takes us away from Tilly as the main protagonist and moves on to Milo:
Milo lives on board the Sesquipedalian, or “Quip” – a magical train that uses the power of imagination to travel through both Story and the real world. The train is owned by Milo’s uncle, Horatio, and Milo has witnessed many of his uncle’s dodgy dealings as a book smuggler trading in rare books.
When Horatio takes on a dangerous new job, he needs the help of Tilly Pages. And Tilly owes Horatio a favour. But when poisoned copies of The Wizard of Oz are sent to Horatio and Tilly's grandfather, sending them both into deep sleeps, Milo and Tilly find themselves racing against time to save them – and to figure out what is going on.
I thoroughly enjoyed this new instalment. The series has become a modern classic for me and I keep recommending it to everyone and giving it away as birthday and Christmas presents. While book three hadn't hooked me as much as the first two novels - which was weird because it was much more fast-paced - I found myself thoroughly invested again with this story, even though I was a bit worried at first because the Pages family's marvellous bookshop wouldn't be at the centre anymore. I shouldn't have worried though, as the story did hold up well.
The children's magical journey takes them to the Emerald City with Dorothy and Toto, bumping along on the unruly Quip, and finally to Venice, where they pursue the mysterious Alchemist because "the very essence of imagination, story itself, may be in danger."
As always, you'll get the most out of these books if you know the texts that they are referencing, in this case The Wizard of Oz. I liked how the characters pointed out differences between the original novel by L. Frank Baum and the more widely know film version - little geeky moments of pleasure. :-)
The new villain is amazing and even though this book sets up a lot of elements and plot strands that will likely be important in the next instalments, this still felt like a story in its own. The ending promises new adventures to come and while I'm still undecided about Milo's new sidekick, I'm very muchlooking forward to seeing where the series will take us.
Rating: 5/5 stars
29th September, 2021
Review: Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead (Knopf)
Normally, the Booker Prize judges and I don't necessarily share reading tastes, but this year I found one book from the shortlist that I really liked. I read it together with some Litsy friends as part of our inofficial bookclub and it was, so far, the only novel that we all enjoyed. That in itself has to count for something. :-) But it really is an outstanding book!
After being rescued as infants from a sinking ocean liner in 1914, Marian and Jamie Graves are raised by their dissolute uncle in Missoula, Montana. There—after encountering a pair of barnstorming pilots passing through town in beat-up biplanes—Marian commences her lifelong love affair with flight. At fourteen she drops out of school and finds an unexpected and dangerous patron in a wealthy bootlegger who provides a plane and subsidizes her lessons, an arrangement that will haunt her for the rest of her life, even as it allows her to fulfill her destiny: circumnavigating the globe by flying over the North and South Poles.
A century later, Hadley Baxter is cast to play Marian in a film that centers on Marian's disappearance in Antarctica. Vibrant, canny, disgusted with the claustrophobia of Hollywood, Hadley is eager to redefine herself after a romantic film franchise has imprisoned her in the grip of cult celebrity. Her immersion into the character of Marian unfolds, thrillingly, alongside Marian's own story, as the two women's fates—and their hunger for self-determination in vastly different geographies and times—collide.
The plot synopsis itself already sounds epic and this is indeed THE word I would use to describe this novel. It is a sweeping tale of two women trying to make their way. Two women, two timelines (from early 1900s Montana to present day LA) - this is such a gorgeously written book that you won't even mind that it's a bit of a chunkster at a little over 600 pages. I adored Marian's story and found myself becoming really invested in her narrative. I also enjoyed the Hadley part of the novel, even though her character was driving me insane with her sense of entitlement of a child spoilt by too early success.
Great Circle is simply brimming with loving attention to detail and especially Marian is so well-written that I actually believed she was a historical character for about half of the book. You can tell that Shipstead did meticulous research for the aviation passages and that effort really pays off. This is a book that will steal quite a bit of your time, not because it's long but because you'll want to make it last. So if you are in the mood for an encompassing, beautifully composed mammoth of a story that is worth every single second of your reading time, Great Circle is the right book for you. Make yourself a cuppa and curl up with it sometime this autumn and winter - you won't regret it.
Rating: 5/5 stars
19th September, 2021
Review: Burden Falls by Kat Ellis (Dial Books)
The town of Burden Falls drips with superstition, from rumors of its cursed waterfall to Dead-Eyed Sadie, the disturbing specter who haunts it. Ava Thorn grew up right beside the falls, and since a horrific accident killed her parents a year ago, she's been plagued by nightmares in which Sadie comes calling—nightmares so chilling, Ava feels as if she’ll never wake up. But when someone close to Ava is brutally murdered and she’s the primary suspect, she begins to wonder if the stories might be more than legends—and if the ghost haunting her dreams might be terrifyingly real. Whatever secrets Burden Falls is hiding, there's a killer on the loose . . . with a vendetta against the Thorns.
Kat Ellis' Burden Falls has been described as a mix of Riverdale and Stephen King, and I couldn't agree more. There is an eerie atmosphere throughout, a sense of paranoia and claustrophobia. And the ghost! Can we just mention the ghost? Ellis paints such an amazing portrait of Dead-Eyed Sadie that I found myself looking over my shoulder whenever I was walking through the house in the dark.
The story is also full of little hints and foreshadowings. I really liked these little breadcrumbs and even though they made me guess quite early on who was behind all of the things happening, I thoroughly enjoyed the story with all its spooktacular incidents. Local legends and family mysteries plus a small town in the middle of nowhere create a fabulous plot that will give you goosebumps.
Burden Falls is a wonderfully atmospheric read that blurs the lines between the supernatural and reality so that you find yourself questioning what is real and what is not. It's the perfect book to curl up with this Halloween season.
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
6th September, 2021
Review: The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher (Titan Books)
This was my second book by T. Kingfisher after reading The Twisted Ones a few months ago. I was expecting the same kind of creepyness but this novel was a bit different. However, before I say more, let's see what the story is actually about:
Pray they are hungry.
Kara finds these words in the mysterious bunker that she’s discovered behind a hole in the wall of her uncle’s house. Freshly divorced and living back at home, Kara now becomes obsessed with these cryptic words and starts exploring the peculiar bunker—only to discover that it holds portals to countless alternate realities. But these places are haunted by creatures that seem to hear thoughts…and the more you fear them, the stronger they become.
I think it's clear why this synopsis had me intrigued. Unfortunately I found the story to be a bit all over the place which is why it didn't fully convince me.
The plot starts out a bit slow with Kara aka Carrot moving in with her uncle after her divorce and beginning to work in his fabulously quirky "Museum of Wonders". When she discovers a hole in the wall and, behind it, a bunker that leads to an alternate reality, this immediately conveyed House of Leaves vibes as that part of the story transported the same sense of claustrophobia and foreboding as Danielewski's masterpiece. Once Carrot and Simon pass through the portal and get lost, this feeling turns into something we know from Stranger Things or the Alien movies. From here on, it was all about indescribeable monsters hiding behind the different layers of reality. We have some rather creepy passages, for example involving a school bus, and again I could feel the hopelessness and despair oozing from the pages. So thumbs up for that!
BUT, to me personally, it all seemed a bit of a hot mess. I loved how weird the book is but somehow it all felt a bit convoluted. This may have been the author's intention in order to have us share the protagonists' confusion, but with me it left the impression that at some points Kingfisher wasn't really sure herself where the story would be going. In addition, I was annoyed with Carrot for not seeing what had actually opened the portal because it was RIGHT IN HER FACE ALL THIS TIME, and she could have ended all of this a lot earlier. Eventually she realises what's happening but not before we have a supernatural stampede messing up the museum.
All in all, I really enjoyed this book but I would have loved a bit more ... I don't know ... common sense in the main characters. Despite its "flaws", The Hollow Places is an atmospheric novel that's perfect for this time of year. If you like weird stories, give it a go. :)
Rating: 3.5/5 stars
1st September, 2021
Bookish Stuff: Falling into fall...
... or autumn, but that doesn't make for such a nice phrase. :-) Today is 1st September which means there's a certain train leaving from King's Cross at eleven o'clock, lots of kids are going back to school (if they haven't already) and autumn is just around the corner. Well, for me it's starting today which - hopefully - will bring an end to my summer reading slump (which unfortunately also affected this blog a little - sorry about that). After all, it will be spooky reading season!!!
Every autumn I drift even more towards gothic books than I usually do anyways. It's one of my favourite genres but nothing calls for eerie stories more than rainy autumn days spent with tea and a steaming bowl of pumpkin soup. I already have a nice TBR piled up for this year and I actually finished one book early so keep your eyes peeled for a review of T. Kingfisher's The Hollow Places in the next few days.
In the last few weeks I've seen a lot of polls on bookish social media channels asking people what their favourite season was. Interestingly enough, it seems like we readers tend to love autumn and winter while most of us don't care much for summer. A friend who doesn't read much recently asked me why that is and it took me a while to come up with a possible answer, but I believe it has a lot to do with getting cosy. I mean, just look at this image: warm colours, a hot drink, a soft scarf - who wouldn't want to bury themselves in this picture? For me personally, autumn has also always had a sort of studious vibe to it. Maybe it's the college film and series I used to watch as a teenager (best example: Class of '96) but I always want to roam old university halls and sit on a campus lawn with a book (I do have access to the campus lawn but my university is unfortunately anything but old hallowed halls - haha).
So happy September and happy spooky reading season - if you're doing it. If not, then happy whatever floats your book boat. :)
(Picture credit: Shutterstock)
21st August, 2021
Review: Billy Summers by Stephen King (Hodder & Stoughton)
Reliable as he is, King just published another novel this month. Billy Summers is closer to some of his other not-really-horror books than to the classics but it is an amazing story about identity, friendship and moral outrage.
Billy Summers is a man in a room with a gun. He's a killer for hire and the best in the business. But he'll do the job only if the target is a truly bad guy. And now Billy wants out. But first there is one last hit. Billy is among the best snipers in the world, a decorated Iraq war vet, a Houdini when it comes to vanishing after the job is done. So what could possibly go wrong?
I was waiting impatiently for this novel, picking it up on publication day and starting right away. It is part war story, part love letter to small town America and the people who live there, and it's about the little things that happen for large streches of the plot that make the first section so compelling, before the story really picks up speed about halfway through. I very much enjoyed the first half of the book with its book-in-a-book structure but I also had a blast with the second part when Billy forms an unlikely friendship and hunts down the people who wronged him.
As usual, we have a few references to other King books, here a nice little nod to The Shining, which immediately made me want to reread that particular novel. :) Billy Summers, however, is - as said before, not a horror novel. The creepiest thing that happens is the appearance of a weird photograph hanging in a remote cabin. Other than that this novel is full of "bad people": rapists, murderers, pedophiles, and conmen. The main protagonist is actually a "bad man" himself, working as a hitman, but you can't help but root for him. I really liked both Billy and Bucky a lot. And I very much appreciated how the story ended which was a bit unexpected but nicely done.
This is definitely a "different" King but the man knows how to tell a story, so never mind that there isn't much horror in here. Definitely a recommended read.
Rating: 5/5 stars
15th August, 2021
Review: Beach Read by Emily Henry (Berkley)
Augustus Everett is an acclaimed author of literary fiction. January Andrews writes bestselling romance. When she pens a happily ever after, he kills off his entire cast. They're polar opposites. In fact, the only thing they have in common is that for the next three months, they're living in neighboring beach houses, broke, and bogged down with writer's block.
Until, one hazy evening, one thing leads to another and they strike a deal designed to force them out of their creative ruts: Augustus will spend the summer writing something happy, and January will pen the next Great American Novel. She'll take him on field trips worthy of any rom-com montage, and he'll take her to interview surviving members of a backwoods death cult (obviously). Everyone will finish a book and no one will fall in love. Really.
I enjoyed the story of Gus and January. It was the perfect "beach read" ;-) and I found myself quickly beginning to really like the characters. The premise, of course, was great: a story about two writers - that's usually a winner. And as I said, I did like the book, it was a cute rom-com with lots of meta commentaries and a quick holiday read. But... and I'm so sorry to say that there is a but involved... but the story started out great and then somehow petered out for me. In the beginning I laughed out loud at the quirky comments and the hilarious, genre-typical scenes - starting with January standing on the deck, shouting obscenities into her phone and Gus overhearing them. Cute. Funny. But also kind of tropey. As the novel was self-reflectively commenting so much on the rom-com genre (as well as that of literary fiction), I was hoping that Henry would play more with the conventions in her story. However, everything still felt sort of schematic, there were far too many coincidences and, without giving too much away, I found Gus' explanations about why he was so hesitant about him and January a bit far-fetched. I can't really explain it but for me there were simply a few contradictions in the given reasons of why he was so traumatised by what had happened in the past.
I really wanted to love this book because I had heard so many great reviews all over social media but somehow it didn't fully work for me. It was a sweet and entertaining read but unfortunately not much more. I did, however, thoroughly enjoy all the meta passages and very much liked the two main characters. A cute read for the summer holidays.
Rating: 3/5 stars
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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: https://www.gladstoneslibrary.org/
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