The Constant Reader's Book Blog

(Reviews, Bookish Stuff and all Things literary)

12th July, 2020

Bookish Stuff: The Importance of Libraries 

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

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

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

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

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

2nd July, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 1.5/5 stars

23rd June, 2020

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

14th June, 2020

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


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

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

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

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

Rating: 5/5 stars

3rd June, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 5/5 stars

27th May, 2020

Review: The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix (Quirk Books)


Whoa, that was one helluva book! I loved it! It was gory, smart, sarcastic and critical towards certain social structures. A win on all accounts. But let me start over and say what the novel is actually about. Here is a synopsis from Goodreads: 

Patricia Campbell had always planned for a big life, but after giving up her career as a nurse to marry an ambitious doctor and become a mother, Patricia's life has never felt smaller. The days are long, her kids are ungrateful, her husband is distant, and her to-do list is never really done. The one thing she has to look forward to is her book club, a group of Charleston mothers united only by their love for true-crime and suspenseful fiction. In these meetings, they're more likely to discuss the FBI's recent siege of Waco as much as the ups and downs of marriage and motherhood.

But when an artistic and sensitive stranger moves into the neighborhood, the book club's meetings turn into speculation about the newcomer. Patricia is initially attracted to him, but when some local children go missing, she starts to suspect the newcomer is involved. She begins her own investigation, assuming that he's a Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy. What she uncovers is far more terrifying, and soon she--and her book club--are the only people standing between the monster they've invited into their homes and their unsuspecting community.

This book has been described as a mix of Fried Green Tomatoes, Dracula and Steel Magnolias. However, I would say it's more like Pleasantville meets The Stepford Wives meets all of Anne Rice's novels. Hendrix draws on the classical vampire topos, moves it into a late 1980s/early 90s setting and throws in a critical perspective on the role of housewives and (abusive) marriages. The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires appears like an easy read at first, but it is clearly not. A lot of the things happening to the women in this book are quite gruesome and I felt myself ready to rip off their idiot husbands' heads, but it is also a novel that is very much consoling in its focus on female friendships. In the end, the women's bond and their loyaly are what makes them strong. 

In parts, this read like a Stephen King novel and it was the little new ideas surrounding the whole traditional vampire theme that made the story so great and so uncanny: There is a scene with rats - lots of them - which reads like something straight out of a nightmare. The physiology of James' blood sucking is - to say it mildly - more than creepy. Also, Hendrix does a terrific job in making the reader feel the despair of the women trying to stop the monster and to save the lives of their children. There were so many passages where I thought "Yes, Patricia, you've got this!" just for her seemingly good strategy to be ruined by James' eerily clairvoyant interference. The novel builds a constantly increasing sense of suspense, and you will be dying to know whether or not (and, if yes, how) Pat, Slick, Kitty, Grace and Maryellen manage to defeat their nemesis. 

The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires is the perfect read if you are looking for an entertaining, bad ass story. It's one of my favourite booksof 2020 so far, and I cannot recommend it enough. 

Rating: 5/5 stars

24th May, 2020

Review: Five Hundred Miles From You by Jenny Colgan (Sphere) 


Welcome back to Kirrinfief, the setting of two of Jenny Colgan's previous novels and the most wonderful (fictional) place in the Scottish highlands. After witnessing a traumatic crime, Londoner Lissa desperately needs a break and swaps jobs with Cormac. As both characters are thrown into environments they are very much not used to, they realise that sometimes the little things in life are the most important. 

Five Hundred Miles From You is a very cute and quirky tale of two strangers being thrown into the other's everyday life. The emails and text messages between Lissa and Cormac  that intersperse the regular narrative are sweet and possibly promising more (no spoilers here ;o)). What Colgan once again excels at is creating a dreamy setting: Especially in the cleverly drawn contrast to London, Scotland seems more than magical. The descriptions of the clear air, relaxing quiet and wonderfully idiosyncratic but utterly lovely people made me yearn for our little cottage in Fife, and while London is described as vibrant and cosmopolitan, it definitely loses out in comparison. Big time! I mean it - you will not want to live in a big city after reading this! We also meet well-known characters from what I'll here call the author's 'bookshop books' - Nina, Lennox, Zoe, Ramsay and many more all make an appearance, and it's great to see how Colgan weaves another plotline into her world of Kirrinfief.

As with all of Colgan's books, this is a refreshing read - a story that will warm your heart and make you re-evaluate some of your life decisions. It has quite a bit of depth as well, dealing with the effects of trauma and grief. Taking all of this together it is the perfect story for a balmy summer evening - maybe with a glass of chilled elderflower wine and a platter of Scottish cheese? 

Five Hundred Miles From You will be out on 28th of May with Little Brown/Sphere. A huge thank you goes to both the publisher and Netgalley for providing me with an advance readers' copy. 

Rating: 4.5/ 5 stars

20th May, 2020

Review: Pine by Francine Toon (Transworld publishing)


Fracine Toon’s debut novel Pine is a book that you will not forget easily. This is a book written with wonderful gothic undertones, but with a fresh take on established notions of genre. Set in a remote area of Scotland where the next supermarket is 23 miles away, it tells the story of Lauren, her dad Niall and her mother Christine who’s been missing for these last ten years. Rumours abound in this little village in the Highlands and while people are still very much in touch with their traditions and histories, they also fear the possible truth behind their myths.

This book gave me the creeps. It started out a bit slow with elaborate descriptions of how Lauren and her friend go guising on All Hallow’s Eve but it picks up soon after when Lauren and her dad meet a strange woman stumbling onto a remote country road. Mysterious events follow, people see the “white woman” but forget about her the second she disappears. Only Lauren and an old woman who many consider a witch can remember her. Houses becomes inexplicably damp, weird smells of rot pervade messy rooms that are suddenly tidied up. Then a girl goes missing and prejudices, gossip and suspicions begin to take over the small community.

I loved Toon’s ability to create an atmosphere that is both comforting and chilling at the same time. This story is about parenthood and about what it means to protect your children. At the same time, it touches on the most debased notions of humanity and drags them out of the woods – quite literally speaking, considering the branch found by a dog in the story that turned out to be a human arm. At the centre of all of this sits Lauren, wondering about her mother while her father falls apart and the village dynamics turn increasingly off kilter. The eeriness that pervades the pages is almost tangible but never quite so. You can nearly smell the pines and feel the cold, damp wind on your face while reading as Toon manages to draw the reader into the story through this strong sense of place. The setting of this book is beautiful and claustrophobic at the same time. It is a place you want to be and not want to be in. It is a place of secrets but also of community. It is a place where you think nothing bad can happen and still one where that seems entirely possible. It is a place of ambiguities.

Toon’s edgy writing and the somewhat disjointed but deliciously haunting plot kept me awake at night as I just had to know what would happen. The finale of the book then is heart wrenching but it is also simply perfect. My verdict: fresh, observant, uncanny, brilliant. I highly recommend it.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

11th May, 2020

Review: Gargantis by Thomas Taylor (Walker Books)

After reading Thomas Taylor's first book Malamander during our pre-Covid seaside holiday in March, I was over the moon when I heard that a sequel was coming out in May. Needless to say I preordered it straight away and - Yay!! - it arrived on my doorstep via contactless delivery on publication day. 

Gargantis is the second book in Taylor's Eerie-on-Sea series in which Herbert and Violet team up again to solve the mystery of the Gargantis — an ancient creature of the sea with the power to create life-threatening storms: 

Someone has woken the ancient monster, who sleeps in the watery caves beneath Eerie. Legends have a habit of coming to life here, and it seems the Gargantis is looking for something: a treasure stolen from her underwater lair. And it just might be in the Lost-and-Foundery at the Grand Nautilus Hotel, in the care of one Herbert Lemon, Lost-and-Founder. With the help of the daring Violet Parma, ever-reliable Herbie will do his best to figure out what the Gargantis wants and who stole her treasure in the first place. In a town full of suspicious, secretive characters, it could be anyone!

What a treat! This is the kind of book you wish you'd read as a kid. It's the type of story that, back then, I would have devoured within a few hours on a rainy Sunday afternoon (well, as a matter of fact I still did, even though I'm most certainly not a kid anymore, but the story brings back that wonderful feeling of easily getting lost in a book). The writing is straight out amazing, and Taylor packs his stories full of such quirky, weird and engaging characters that you can't but love them. In this book, he introduces more locals of the town which gives the story additional depth. I particularly liked the "fisherfolk" with their tight-knit community because they give us more insight into the history of the town and its traditions and legends.

Taylor excels at creating atmosphere. His descriptions of Eerie-on-Sea during the raging storm inspire a feeling of constant dread and unease. Everything just screams 'Danger!' and as a reader you simply have to rush on because you are dying to know what sinister mysteries are lurking "on the cold, dark bottom of the sea" and in the storm clouds over the town. If you can, I suggest reading this book during stormy or, at least, rainy weather as it will add perfectly to the atmosphere of the story itself.  

I love the mythical aspect in Gargantis, just like I'd adored it in its predecessor and I'm hoping that the author has a few more myths up his sleeve for future instalments in the series. We also get a few hints about Herbie's past and about what may have happened to his parents. There is definitely a lot more potential in that particular mystery as well. Please, Mr Taylor, keep writing (and please do it fast) because this reader here desperately needs to know how the story continues!   

Rating: 5/5 stars

29th April, 2020

Bookish Stuff: Favourite Reading Spots

I suppose everyone has a favourite reading spot, or probably several. One or two will most likely be in you home. They could be your bed, the couch or that cosy conservatory where you can hear the rain patter on the roof while you're travelling through the pages of your current story. The latter would definitely be my favourite - if we only had a conservatory. So I think my favourite reading spot in our house is in fact the living room sofa.

In the last few weeks I've spent  A LOT of time there for obvious reasons and I'm beginning to long for some of my favourite spots outside our own four walls. For example, I love to read at Starbucks. There is this perfect coffee house close to where I work and when I was still a student I used to spend hour after hour in one of those lush armchairs with a book. I don't really have the time to do that anymore but occasionally I treat myself to an hour in that cosy environment. Now that we are all in lockdown, I miss being able to do that. It would be lovely to have a little bit of 'me time' in that place but I assume we'll still have to wait a little longer for these things to be possible again. 

Another favourite reading spot is a certain bench in the park. That would be possible for a limited amount of time, even during times of Corona, BUT... allergies. Spring is beautiful and all that, but it is hell on my hay fever. So that option is, unfortunately, not  in the cards either. 

So what is left? The library? Closed. The bookshop with the little reading nook? Open but with limited access for only two customers at the time so: not possible. Our little cottage in rural Scotland? Only if travelling is allowed, so right now that is another no. Ultimately, I guess I'll just have to bide my time like everyone else and, in the meantime, reminisce and dream about these places. One day we'll be able to move around freely again and I hope we'll then remember to be more grateful about the freedom we normally enjoy. Until then I'll explore the world through stories - which, if you think about it, isn't bad at all. So hang in there, everyone, read a good book and enjoy the comforts of your own home. I've heard it's where the heart is. ;-)

22nd April, 2020

Review: Not Forgetting the Whale by John Ironmonger (WN Publishing)


I came across this book by accident and, considering the current Covid-19 pandemic, was immeditely intrigued. Here was a novel published in 2015 that basically talks about what we are living right now? Weird! And eerily prescient. But also extremely interesting. Needless to say I ordered it right away. But before I tell you about my opinion, first a synopsis:

When a young man washes up, naked, on the sands of St Piran, he is quickly rescued by the villagers. From the retired village doctor and the schoolteacher, to the beachcomber and the owner of the local bar, the priest's wife and the romantic novelist, they take this lost soul into their midst. But what the villagers don't know is that Joe Haak worked as an analyst and has fled the City amid fears of a worldwide banking collapse caused by a computer program he invented. But is the end of the world really nigh? And what of the whale that lurks in the bay?

After admiring the beautiful cover, I started reading the first sentence: ”In the village of St. Piran they still speak of the day when the naked man washed up on Piran Sands. It was the same day Kenny Kennet saw the whale. Some say it was a Wednesday. Others seem sure it was Thursday. It was early October. Unless it was late September; but almost half a century has passed since the events of that day, and the turmoil of the days and weeks that followed, and no one, at that time or since, thought to write it all down. So memory is all we have, fragile though this may be.”

And with this amazing beginning, Ladies and Gentleman, I was hooked. The story of Joe Haak and this wonderful Cornish community simply swept me away. It started with the giant joint effort of rescuing first Joe and then the whale. It continued with the "feel" of St. Pirran, a village that is so remote that you almost drive by without noticing it's there at all. It was simply a place you'd want to live and a community you'd want to be a part of in times of trouble. There is an economic crash caused by a global flue pandemic and Joe wants to help feed the people of St. Pirran. I suppose it was just the perfect time to read this book which, in our current situation, hit very close to home. 

The story is often endearing, frequently amusing, sometimes upsetting, occasionally even alarming, and always uplifting. It conveys hope! Yes, it talks about humanity and about how no computer programme can predict what people are capable of in unforeseen crises. The writing and storytelling are just wonderful.  Even though Not Forgetting the Whale deals with very serious issues, their narration begins very artfully and only becomes more weighty or grave as the book progresses. Ironmonger's novel is full of amazing, multi-faceted characters and beautiful descriptions of natural beauty. I'm sure the story will stick with me for quite a while, and as I'm finishing this review I'm heading over to the website of my local bookshop to order the other titles written by this amazing writer. 

Rating: 5/5 stars

13th April, 2020

Review: Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley (Alfred Knopf)

It is simple: This book was plain beautiful.....

This is a love story.
It's the story of Howling Books, where readers write letters to strangers, to lovers, to poets.
It's the story of Henry Jones and Rachel Sweetie. They were best friends once, before Rachel moved to the sea.
Now, she's back, working at the bookstore, grieving for her brother Cal and looking for the future in the books people love, and the words they leave behind.
 

On the surface level this book seems to be about Henry and Rachel and how they are trying to reconcile after spending years apart, but truly it was a lot more than only that. Words in Deep Blue is a book about love and grief, life and death, and the wonderful and magical power of words - especially those of the people we've lost.

The main characters are wonderfully drawn: They are relatable and you immediately find yourself rooting for them. I liked the switching back and forth between Rachel's and Henry's point of view and even though some resulting repetitions may have been unnecessary, this choice of narration helps to see the motifs between both teenagers' behaviour. The rest of the cast then is convincingly connected through the Jones' family business. One thing I really enjoyed was that the romance doesn't eclipse the rest of what is happening. It is there and it is central, but it is so skilfully thrown in with the rest of the plot that it doesn't become the only prominent layer of the story. And that is great because this book has so much more to tell than the tale of two star-crossed lovers.

I can say that every single element of this book perfectly adds to the overall theme. And I simply loved the setting. Most of the story takes place in a small secondhand bookshop located somewhere in a mid-sized Australian city. It is almost ridiculously easy to imagine yourself at Howling Books. The shop is definitely the kind of place I would love to visit and get lost in, especially the Letter Library  where people are allowed to write in the margins of the books they love or where they can leave anonymous letters to other readers between the pages. In truth, this was the best idea of the entire story because it was heartwarming and brought everything and everyone together. 

If you are looking for an enchanting read with all the feels, Crowley's novel may just be the right book for you. 

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

8th April, 2020

Bookish Stuff: Teaching Literature Remotely

This is a somewhat unusual article for this blog as it is neither a review nor a bookshop spotlight or some such. It still has a bookish connection though as I teach British Literature at a German university and feel like I want to reflect on the changes Covid-19 has brought to how I'm now doing my job.

Ever since our Government postponed the beginning of the summer semester by two weeks, we've been told that we'd better start revamping all our seminars so that they work as remote-learning courses. Whew! That is quite a task, especially since I had already prepared everything for regular teaching. 

I mean, compared to other disciplines, we actually are in quite a priviledged position. I'm aware of that. I don't even want to think about what it must be like for colleagues teaching in subjects like chemistry, where the use of lab space is essential for a decent learning outcome. Us literary scholars are often smiled upon by people who claim that we are only sitting in our little ivory towers where we read all day. Right now, during lockdown, it actually does feel a little like that but normally that is not what we do. Yes, we read a lot but we certainly have not lost touch with reality. Literature can teach us way more things than a lot of people are aware of... but that is another story and should be told at another time (and yes, I stole that line from one of my favourite children's books). 

But even if we don't need labs or field work etc., I find it quite challenging to suddenly gear my seminars towards remote teaching and learning. 

The main reason is that literature classes thrive from class discussions. When I step into a seminar, I never really know where we will end up by the time class finishes, simply because my students will have had diverse reactions to the texts they read and prepared at home and, while I can have a certain target goal, we can never fully tell where our debate will lead us. And this is exactly what the humanities are about - they teach students to engage critically with any sort of text, to be flexible, to be quick analytical thinkers and to be open-minded. This is something I will unfortunately not be able to fully recreate when I'm teaching them online. My classes are too big to really work well in the form of a virtual classroom. Also, not all students have access to a quick internet connection so live online classes would put certain people at a significant disadvantage. So instead, I'm providing my students with texts, guiding questions, short explanatory videos, etc. and I rely on them to be focused and disciplined in this more independent form of learning while I'm always available via email, landline phone or video calls and the occasional Zoom session if larger questions should pop up. Yes, it will work - I'm quite sure of that - and it is an interesting challenge, but it will simply not be the same as seeing and engaging with them face-to-face. I love to show them what it means to be passionate about literature, about books, about popular culture and I usually do that by geeking out myself and thereby showing them that it's okay to be geeky and ardent about something. I will try to do my best to get that across online but I'm still looking forward to finally seeing their faces again when all of this is over. :-)

How is the current situation influencing your job? Let me know in the comments. :-)

Photo Credit: Adobe Stock

31st March, 2020

Review: Malamander by Thomas Taylor (Walker  Books)

I would like to finish this month with a review of a book I read for #MiddleGradeMarch. Malamander is easily the most interesting children's book I've read in a while. The story is full of weird people, whimsical names and strange happenings, and I adored it! Herbie Lemon is the Lost-and-Founder at the Grand Nautilus Hotel and everything is "normal" up to the day that a girl appears in his basement office yelling "Hide me!" Welcome to Eerie-on-Sea!

Nobody visits this little town in the wintertime. Especially not when darkness falls and the wind howls around Maw Rocks and the wreck of the battleship Leviathan, where even now some swear they have seen the unctuous malamander creep…
Herbert Lemon knows that returning lost things to their rightful owners is not easy – especially when the lost thing is not a thing at all, but a girl. No one knows what happened to Violet Parma’s parents twelve years ago, and when she engages Herbie to help her find them, the pair discover that their disappearance might have something to do with the legendary sea-monster, the Malamander. Eerie-on-Sea has always been a mysteriously chilling place, where strange stories seem to wash up. And it just got stranger...

This book was a complete cover buy for me. I had never heard of it and also didn't know that the author was the illustrator of the first Harry Potter book (the British edition). When I saw it on the bookshop shelf and then read the synopsis, however, I was hooked immediately. And once I started reading, I was in love! 

Thomas' novel is utterly weird, well-paced and so so so imaginative. The two main characters are a wonderful blend of precociousness, charm and typical kid mischief. I loved how the author plays with words and names, and Eerie-on-Sea was simply a delightfully perfect setting for all the magic and mystery that is going on. The story was marvelously devised, it was engaging - the climax, for example, had me completely engrossed -, and it made me hungry for more so that I already preordered part two of the series. Malamander has enough hint of menace to give you goosebumps but not so much that you'd have to hide underneath the covers (after all, it's still a Middle Grade book). If you are looking for a quick, suspenseful and captivating read, I highly recommend you read this. 

Rating: 5/5 stars

25th March, 2020

Bookish Stuff: Reading in Times of Corona (Ramblings from my self-isolation book fort)

So, it is the Corocalypse, and the whole world seems to have come to something resembling a stand-still. Whole countries are under lockdown, shops are closed, people are staying home and trying to make the best of the situation. All of this is highly stressful and causing a lot of anxieties. There are tons of websites on the net speculating about what will happen, and there are just as many lists of things for people to do to relieve those nasty anxieties. 

I'm sure you've already guessed (it wasn't such a hard guess after all), but for me literature has always been a source of comfort. Whether I was feeling low because of a bad breakup or due to stress at work, books have always been my go-to "security blanket". And now as well, I find myself seeking comfort and distraction in fiction and poetry, rereading old favourites and using the time to explore new writers as well. (Of course this is just me, and I've heard from a lot of people that they have trouble concentrating right now and can't really get into a story. This is totally understandable and I think it's important to say that no reader should stress themselves if this is simply not the time for them to read. We are all unique and react to this global crisis in different ways. So this is just my personal experience that I'm sharing here.) 

Ever since we've heard on the news that shops would have to close here in Germany, I've been worried about my favourite retail places and about my local indie bookshop in particular. After all, they rely on their customers and for a lot of businesses the danger of going bankrupt is more real than ever. Thankfully, our bookshop hasn't shut down completely and is now running a contactless delivery service. Ignoring my bank account completely, I've already put in two orders this week and received the second one yesterday afternoon  - in a cute colourful bag that was hanging from my doorknob including a friendly little wave from afar from our bookseller. In these times when personal contact is limited that friendly wave meant so much, and it felt a little bit like Christmas and my birthday thrown together to get this bag of books. 

This is in fact one thing I've noticed in the past few weeks: All of a sudden I find that I'm living more consciously. I appreciate everyday things a lot more and am amazed at certain developments, such as that our air seems so much fresher and crisper now that there are less cars and planes zipping around the streets and skies. Also, maybe particularly because we have the kid at home and have to try and entertain a 6-year-old all day (Someone send help!), I savour the extremely limited quiet time that I now have even more. The husband and I have agreed on each of us getting certain "free" time slots during the day when we can work undisturbed or do "our thing" while the other is playing Lego, drawing giant crayon rainbows in the driveway or other such fun kid stuff. I love my family to pieces but I'm an introvert who normally needs a bit of private time and being stuck in the house together all day for weeks can be taxing. So this is where my books come in. During my "free time" or once the kid is tucked in, I'm getting lost in my stories. It may be escapism at its finest, but - hey - all is fair in times of trouble, right? So be it Anne, the March sisters, bookwandering Tilly or the latest Ellingham Academy whodunnit - it feels good to dive into these tales where life is so different from ours right now. 

I'm sure we'll all see the world in a different light once all of this is over, and I hope we'll be able to keep some of the mindfulness and compassion that I've been witnessing all over. And until we're getting out on the other side of this, stories will keep us going. That's how it's been ever since humans invented language and that's probably how it will always be: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." (Joan Didion)

I hope you're all staying safe. Keep calm, read on, and remember that the answer to everything is always "42". :-) I'd also love to hear your strategies in these difficult times so feel free to leave something in the comments.

19th March, 2020

Review: The Scent Keeper by Erica Bauermeister (St. Martin's)
 

The Scent Keeper is a book that feels like a warm, fuzzy blanket. It is beautiful prose at its best and a lyrical exploration of where we come from as well as who and what determines our futures.

Emmeline lives an enchanted childhood on a remote island with her father, who teaches her about the natural world through her senses. What he won't explain are the mysterious scents stored in the drawers that line the walls of their cabin, or the origin of the machine that creates them. As Emmeline grows, however, so too does her curiosity, until one day the unforeseen happens, and Emmeline is vaulted out into the real world--a place of love, betrayal, ambition, and revenge. To understand her past, Emmeline must unlock the clues to her identity, a quest that challenges the limits of her heart and imagination.

I was initially a bit sceptical when I picked up Bauermeister's novel as I had read quite a few "remote island/ child growing up in the wilderness/ from isolation into civilisation" stories in the past few weeks (Do I detect a certain literary trend maybe?). I had heard that it was the February pick for Reese's Book Club and had seen it hyped all over social media - something that can be a very good or a very bad sign, really. As soon as I had read the first page, however, Emmeline's tale had me captured hook, line and sinker! Normally, I have several books going at the same time, but here I didn't, because I felt it wouldn't do this beautifully immersive story enough justice. So I fully concentrated on this mesmerising novel and devoured it in two days.

What did I love about it? Honestly, almost everthing! I adored the lyrical prose, Bauermeister's descriptions of relationship dynamics and nature, the fairy tale like quality of Emmeline's childhood, the different settings, and of course all of these wonderfully round characters. 

It is hard to write a more detailed review without giving too much away, so I'll stop here to avoid spoiling your fun. I only want to say that Bauermeister's writing is simply stunning. There is a touch of magic to The Scent Keeper as well as so much imagination and hope. It is the perfect book for these crazy times.

Rating: 5/5 stars

11th March, 2020

Review: Heartstopper (Volumes 1, 2, and 3) by Alice Oseman (Hodder)


I came across this series of graphic novels on Instagram and finished volumes one thru three in two short nights. Charlie and Nick's queer love story is a sweet tale of the search for acceptance and the oftentimes quite tricky lives of teenagers still trying to find their identities.I'm rev iewing the first three volumes together as the story seamlessly continues from one book into the next.

I loved the easiness between Nick and Charlie, even though both are clearly struggling to come to terms with what is happening between them. Their affection is touchingly pure and innocent. We follow them through the school year, including rugby practice, movie nights with friends, conflicts with bullying school mates and, in volume three, a school trip to Paris. This is where Nick and Charlie's relationship gains momentum and depth, where secrets and problems are revealed and where the boys eventually find more confirmation in their circle of friends than they would have anticipated. 

I tremendously enjoyed parts one and two, even though the cute making out/sweet talking scenes sometimes became a tad too cheesy. Part three was the most interesting in a way because it was about the fear of coming out and it introduced other important themes. This is, however, where I came across a few points that irked me. The eating disorder explanation was a bit too simple and textbook for me, as (like with all mental health issues) the background of disordered eating is highly complicated while the book simply pulled the standard "This is the only thing I can control in my life" card. Also, Nick's dad is French and stereotypically depicted sporting a moustache. These were things that annoyed me a little, especially in a story that talks about diversity and the dangers of stereotyping, and even though the whole story is told in a simple and somewhat fluffy way, I think that Oseman could have at least gone a bit deeper here (or, if that's not possible, maybe should have just left out these elements). 

This, though, are relatively minor points of criticism and Heartstopper is a lovely coming-of-age graphic novel full of endearing characters. I look forward to seeing how the story will continue. 

Rating: 4/5 stars

3rd March, 2020

Review: The Saturday Night Ghost Club by Craig Davidson (Penguin)

Growing up in 1980s Niagara Falls--a seedy but magical, slightly haunted place--Jake Baker spends most of his time with his uncle Calvin, a kind but eccentric enthusiast of occult artifacts and conspiracy theories. The summer Jake turns twelve, he befriends a pair of siblings new to town, and so Calvin decides to initiate them all into the "Saturday Night Ghost Club." But as the summer goes on, what begins as a seemingly lighthearted project may ultimately uncover more than any of its members had imagined.

I started this book with certain assumptions and ended up getting something quite different. From the plot synopsis I had expected certain Stand By Me meets Stranger Things vibes, and was a bit surprised when the story went in a somewhat other direction. 

Essentially, The Saturday Night Ghost Club is a tale of friendship and the vivid imagination of children. When Uncle Calvin tells Jake and his friends horrid tales of murder and mayhem, the chilly excitement and fear in the kids becomes more than palpable. This is an element I thoroughly enjoyed as it brought with ittons of warm fuzzy feelings. If you are (like me) a kid of the 80s, you will find yourself in this little book over and over again. Staying out till the streetlamps came on? Riding your bike anywhere and everywhere without anybody caring much? Finding secret hideaways in places that would nowadays be deemed too dangerous? This is exactly the atmosphere Davidson's novel depicts, and it is glorious! 

What I didn't expect when I picked up the book where the scenes in the present in which Jake details some of his experiences as a brain surgeon. And it was one of these passages that actually brought me to tears for the first time while reading the story. I cried a few more times but there is that one case of a little girl that simply broke my heart.  

It is hard to describe the book in detail without giving too much away, but it is a wonderfully whimsical read that may bring back fond memories but that will also make you think about life, choices, the different kinds of trauma that everyone experiences at some point and our individual reactions to these. The book can be read in one sitting with its 200 pages (maybe on a Saturday night?) and it will give you both goosebumps and a warm feeling of nostalgia.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

25th February, 2020

Bookshop Spotlight: The Last Bookstore, Los Angeles (CA), USA

This place had been on my bucket list for quite a while so I was extremely happy when I finally made it to L.A.'s iconic The Last Bookstore on a sunny Sunday afternoon in mid-February. 

The shop, which is located at 453 S. Spring Street, has become a famous location in Downtown Los Angeles, openly declaring itself not only the largest seller of used, new as well as rare books but also working as something like an interior design art installation. 

The Last Bookstore is about 22,000 square feet in size and is spread over two floors. Most of the ground floor layout is quite similar to what you would find at your ‘regular’ bookseller, while the second floor is essentially what has made the shop famous. This is where you'll find the famous Labyrinth (as well as a Yarn Shop and the Spring Arts Collective gallery shops). The Labyrinth is where the Last Bookstore’s quirky character comes to the fore, and where visitors will find most of the amazing art installations, and intimate nooks with particular genres of books, including a vault for horror novels. This part is also home to the famous book tunnel and David Lovejoy's book sculpture of flying books. 

Naturally, I was very excited to finally be visiting this landmark and I did like it alright, but I must say that I was a bit wary of the superficial crowds it is drawing. Maybe I should have expected them as the shop can be found all over social media and not just posted by bookworms but by a lot of "trendy" people trying to look deep. This at least goes for the upstairs labyrinth which seemed to be nothing more than a cool photo op for many visitors. (And yes, I heard sentences like "Let me hold the book. Do I look smart? Oh wait, this is heavy. Why is it all made of paper?" - Imagine my gigantic eye roll at this moment, followed by an exasperated sigh.) I was kind of wishing for an employee to come and enforce the signs that say that you should not be disruptive to other customers. 

The downstairs, however, is a different matter and thankfully so: The clientele seems to be different, people were actually interested in books, and the shop as a whole provides an eclectic selection of new and used books for decent prices as well as rare books in the annex. The staff seemed knowledgeable and were kind and ready to help when I had a question about a particular graphic novel series. 

I left the shop with a mixture of bookwormish giddiness and a certain sense of cynicism at the superficiality of the world. Here we have such an amazing place and some people treat it as nothing but a backdrop for their own self-proclaimed coolness. Still, it is definitely a place I will visit again but maybe earlier in the morning when it isn't overrun yet. 

The Last Bookstore is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. (11 p.m. on Saturdays). The shop doesn't just sell but also buys books if you happen to want to go all Marie Kondo on your bookshelves. Please note that it also has an obligatory bag check for all bags exceeding the size of a small purse.

There is metered street parking in the area, but I suggest parking in Pershing Square and walking the two blocks to the shop. The Last Bookstore is also conveniently close to other local attractions, such as the Bradbury Building (where Blade Runner was filmed), Grand Central Market, the Public Library or the Angels Flight, so you might want to explore some more of Downtown L.A. after your visit. 

Bookshop webpage: www.lastbookstorela.com 

25th February, 2020

Review: Creatures by Crissy van Meter (Algonquin)

Crissy van Meter's Creatures is one of these books that you embrace for their beautiful, heartbreaking prose but that are still lacking an almost undefinable tiny "something". It is still a wonderful debut and a stunningly poetic exploration of life, love and loss.

On the eve of her wedding, when Evangeline's groom may be lost at sea, her estranged mother suddenly appears on Eve's doorstep and a dead whale is blocking the entrance to the Harbour. This is Winter Island, a place steeped in myths and mystery. The story evolves through flashbacks to Eve's childhood, telling about the present alongside these jaunts into the protagonist's memories, so that the reader seamlessly drifts back and forth between both, a process that cleverly resembles the pull and push of the sea. 

What I loved about this book were van Meter's excellent descriptions of nature and island life. She draws an atmospheric picture of this fictional place just off the coast of Southern California, and the reader can't help but be pulled into the ebb and flow of Eve's narrative.

All of this could have made Creatures an outstanding novel as these elements are sometimes raw but always utterly mesmerizing. Yet, the story was lacking something for me and it's hard to clearly put a finger on what exactly it was. The book was captivating - yes - but I somehow had trouble connecting with the characters. I assume this is due to the narrative structure, so in fact it is a bit of a dilemma as that is exactly what makes Creatures work so well on other levels. Still, I would have wished for a bit more depth in the individuals populating this tale. 

However, even though I had a few issues with the story, Creatures is a promising debut that wonderfully details how our presents and futures are haunted by our pasts. I'm looking forward to seeing where this young author will go next.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

11th February, 2020

Review: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (Putnam and Sons)

For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life–until the unthinkable happens.

I started out really enjoying this book. It took me a few pages to get into Owen's specific tone of voice but then I loved it... until I didn't anymore. I know I'll be in the minority with this opinion but while Where the Crawdads Sing is surely a good book, it did not seem extraordinary to me. 

I really liked the early parts of the novel where we learn about Kya's heartbreaking childhood. I was interested in how she would deal with the situation and manage to survive, if she would eventually form connections with the outside world, and of course how her narrative would tie in with the parallel story of the 1969 murder of a young man from the close-by town. At the same time I found myself cursing her family for leaving her on her own devices like they did. 

The characters that populate the North Carolina marsh that serves as the novel's setting, are a mixture of (stereo)typical tropes. There is an abusive father figure with a drinking problem, a traumatised mother who abandons her children, privileged school kids, a kind African-American couple, all peppered with the unsettling dilemma of oscillating between sheer survival and a precarious sense of trust. This mixture of topoi, together with the dual narrative, could still have been promising, but unfortunately the author seems to aimlessly stroll amongst these elements without ever really transporting the fundamental and heart-wrenching emotions highlighted by her fabulous imagery of nature. After the first part of the novel the tone of the story changes in a somewhat weird way, and the plot becomes shallow and predictable.

While I really enjoyed the descriptions of nature and also felt deeply for Kya, all the other characters remained too one-dimensional for me. This is why I can only give this novel a three-star rating. I wanted to love it but, alas, I didn't. It wasn't bad, but just not my cuppa tea.

Rating: 3/5 stars

4th February 2020

Bookish Stuff: Second-Hand and Antiquarian Bookshops

I think it's obvious that I am part of the large endearing group of booknerds and that certainly also includes bookshops. I simply can't, and I really mean it: I cannot, walk past a bookshop without at least nipping in for a few minutes. Those minutes can easily turn into hours which means you really have to mean business if you agree on going bookshopping with me. ;-) For a long time, I didn't care very much for second-hand bookshops. While I did like the feel and smell of old books I somehow felt I had to have only brand new ones on my shelves. Don't worry, I now know better.

It was already a while ago that I began to frequent second-hand or antiquarian bookshops more often, but it only really started when I began collecting a certain luxury edition of books. The publisher of this collection has recently changed their pricing policy to one I can no longer agree with, i.e. I've basically stopped buying directly from them and now hunt for older but fine/like new editions. And I have found that this actually adds a lot to the pleasure of collecting these books because I never really know what I will find and many copies have interesting inscriptions, dedications, etc.  It's lovely to trace the history of a book and its former owner(s) through these. I recently acquired an old copy of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse which was previously gifted to a lady called Marge for her 75th birthday. I wonder what happened to Marge, if she simply got bored of the book and sold it on or if (probably more likely) she passed away and the copy ended as part of her inheritance and was sold to the bookshop by her family. 

There are of course thousands of wonderful second-hand and antiquarian bookshops out there and some of these are definite bullet points on my bucket list, such as Shaun Bythell's The Bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland. Others have become favourites for when I'm travelling and I make it a priority to at least stop for a quick browse. Here I introduce two of them - both located in the UK:

One of these shops is Barter Books in Alnwick (England) which is located in an old Victorian railway station and run by Mary and Stuart Manley. The shop feels like a booklover's version of falling into Wonderland. And between all the bookshelves stacked with treasures and wonderful murals on the wall there are little toy trains making their rounds above the customers' heads. There is a warm fire, an honesty coffee bar and a small cafe, and you can even barter for credit for future purchases. My son adores this place just as much as I do, though I believe it is more the trains for him but hey, whatever buys me a few minutes to buy some books. 

Another favourite is Bouquiniste in St Andrews (Scotland) - a lovely tiny shop tucked away at the end of Market Street. It has a small but wonderful collection and chatting with the owner is always a delight. The shop opened in 1982 and trades in all kinds of printed material. Rumour has it though that you won't find anything on mathematics here, but I haven't checked. :-) Books fill all four sides of the shop from floor to ceiling while beautiful sketches of scenes from the town decorate the wall behind the cashier’s desk. If you ever find yourself in Scotland's "little grey toon" make sure to nip in here. Make sure to check for their opening hourse beforehand though.

(Photo Credit: Beate Felten-Leidel)

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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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