The Constant Reader's Book Blog

(Reviews, Bookish Stuff and all Things literary)

8th November, 2019

Bookish Stuff: To Lend or Not To Lend - That is the question


This is a topic I've been thinking about for years and yes, for a bibliophile this is a tremendously serious question. So, do I lend my books to friends, family, acquaintances, etc.? In fact, there is no clear answer and I'd actually have to say "yes" and "no". That's due to the fact that I do lend out my books, but not all of them and certainly not to everyone. Let me explain.

The thing is: my books are precious to me. However, I'm also a bit idiosyncratic (or weird?) in a way as some books are REALLY precious to me and others I don't care about particularly much. The latter would be paperback books that are bound to be read only once. As our house is already bursting at the seams as it is I tend to give these away to my students or lend them willingly to whoever wants them. And while I used to be super strict with not bending any book spines in the past, I've become a bit more relaxed when it comes to these particular copies of books. I carry these around with me and so they do look read. And that is okay. Really it is. Deep breath... yes, it is... okay.

Then again there are other books that I protect like my own child. These are mainly hardbacks, more expensive illustrated editions and, of course, my collection of Folio Society editions. (Don't anyone dare touch my Folios with greasy fingers! The wrath of the great big Bookworm will forever be on you!) These books I usually don't lend to people or if at all, only to super close bibliophile friends whom I trust to treat them like I do.

Borrowing books then is also a tricky feat. If a colleague drops a battered "office/seminar book" (I work in an English lit department) into my hands, I don't worry much about this, but when I borrow a pristine copy from someone, I of course want to return that book in the exact same condition. And that sometimes gives me anxiety. So so much! I recently read somewhere that in these cases Sod's Law is simply bound to happen: No matter how hard you try not to smudge the pages, you feel like something is destined to happen - a dropped cup of tea, the kid running in with chocolate fingers - and so you become even more careful. It's a vicious circle that can drive you insane. :-)

So do I have a solution to this "problem"? Not really. I just wish that anyone borrowing a book would return it in the state they received it. And, of course, return it... as in at all. Because that sometimes happens as well: people don't return books and then you forget whom you lend them to and they disappear forever. Not good.

What is your take on this? Are you a bit peculiar when it comes to your books or do you just not care and lend them freely? I'm curious, so feel free to leave a comment below. :-)

(Picture Credit: readitforward.com)

5th November, 2019

Review: Dead Leaves by Kealan Patrick Burke (Independently Published)

Two brothers find themselves drawn to the only house in the neighborhood not decorated for Halloween…A man returns to his hometown to bury his overbearing mother, and finds more than memories awaiting him in the shadows of his childhood home…A young girl walks a lonely country road, recalling a rhyme that brings with it memories of death… Two brothers find themselves drawn to the only house in the neighborhood not decorated for Halloween…A man returns to his hometown to bury his overbearing mother, and finds more than memories awaiting him in the shadows of his childhood home…A young girl walks a lonely country road, recalling a rhyme that brings with it memories of death…A teenager hoping for romance gets more than he bargained for when the object of his desire introduces him to the object of hers…An aging millionaire awakes buried in a cheap coffin with only a lamp and a bell for company…The son of a woman accused of being a witch accepts the villagers' peace offering at her funeral, but all is not quite as it seems…A woman with a violent past realizes that this year's Halloween party may be coming for her…And a lonely trick-or-treater awakes in a house rumored to be a place of death.

Wow! I'm usually not a huge fan of short stories but Burke's collection blew me away. I read this on Halloween as part of All Hallow's Read and was so mesmerised that I finished the book in one sitting, accompanied by a glass of mulled wine.

Burke's writing reminds me of the early Stephen King. Some of his stories are just a bit eerie, others are terrifying and yet others will simply break your heart. I particularly liked the story about the two brothers and the one about the girl in the abandoned house (category: heart-breakers) as well as the tale about the millionaire (category: pure horror - I was getting heart palpitations while reading, but then I'm a bit claustrophobic). But really, they were all great and well-executed. Burke just knows how to make his readers' skin break out in goosebumps. Still, despite all the creepiness the author never loses sight of his characters' humanity (or what's left of it) and all tales have an intense level of empathy to them. The author clearly is a master builder of atmosphere and tension with all stories leaving a lot up to the  imagination, which is amazing as what's happening in your mind afterwards is sometimes way scarier than if it had been said explicitly on the page.

Dead Leaves is a wonderfully creepy little collection of stories and a perfect read for autumn. I'll definitely check out other works by the author and cannot recommend this one enough. 

Rating: 5/5 stars

29th October, 2019

REVIEW: Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman (Bloomsbury)

"There was a boy called Odd, and there was nothing strange or unusual about that, not in that time or place. Odd meant the tip of a blade, and it was a lucky name.

He was odd, though. At least, the other villagers thought so. But if there was one thing that he wasn`t, it was lucky." (Gaiman, p. 1)

This is obviously not a new publication but it is definitely one of my favourite reads for the holiday/winter season. It is simply a treat to follow the story of Odd, who has run away from home, even though he is disabled and barely able to walk. In the woods he encounters a bear, a fox, and an eagle (who turn out to be Loki, Thor, and Odin in their animal form) - a meeting that will lead Odd on an even weirder journey. He has to save Asgard from the Frost Giants in order to rescue the Norse Gods.

Odd and the Frost Giants is a shortish and magical tale that presents a "child-friendly" version of the Norse and Viking myths. Loki is his usual trickster self, Odin is as inscrutable as always but what I found particularly endearing was Gaiman's depiction of the Frost Giant. The edition pictured above is the illustrated version with drawings by Chris Riddell and what can I say? Gaiman's books always gain that little bit of extra value when they are illustrated by this fabulous artist. The book is easily readable in one sitting and perfect for those cold winter nights when the frosty wind is howling around the house.

Rating: 5/5 stars

22nd October, 2019

Review: Oligarchy by Scarlett Thomas (Canongate Books)

I've been a huge fan of Thomas' work ever since I coincidentally picked up The End of Mr Y and found myself drawn in immediately. This book here, however, is a bit different from the author's other writings: When Tash, daughter of a Russian oligarch, arrives for her first day at an English girls-only boarding school, she finds herself thrown into a world of fierce pecking orders, eating disorders and Instagram angst, the synopsis reads. Then one of the girls, Bianca, mysteriously vanishes, and the world of the school gets ever darker and stranger.

So far so good. The setting and plot synopsis sounded right up my alley. And I must say that I did enjoy the story. However, it did not blow me away.

What Thomas does wonderfully is to evoke the suffocating atmosphere of the boarding school setting. It becomes clear early on that this is not your dream school with communal experiences that make you a better person. Instead, this school is deeply corrupted on several levels. Competition among the pupils is strong and it finds outlets that are extremely unhealthy and dangerous. At this point, I should say that people with a history of eating disorders should probably approach this book with caution. Thomas manages to describe the anorexic's/bulimic's mindset extremely well, something that may be triggering for some people (and the fact that I'm saying this even though I'm not a fan of "trigger warnings" in general should be an extra warning here). The characters are versatile and some you can begin to hate quite easily. In-between the extreme dieting and bitching about girls "with bad hair", we have the mystery of Bianca's death, followed by other worrying disappearances. I have to say that this enigma, however, fell short for me. There were just too many in-your-face hints early on that I already knew what was happening after but a few chapters. 

One of the reasons for being able to guess the story's outcome so early may be attributed to the writing style of this book. I've always admired the author for her way with words, so this book drove me crazy with its endless sequences of main clause after main clause after main clause. I've been thinking about why Thomas may have chosen this very neutral sounding style: maybe to illustrate the superficiality of these social circles? But these could have been described better in other ways?  

Oligarchy is a good story with a lot of potential. It just didn't really work for me. Sorry, Ms Thomas, I'm still very much looking forward to reading your next novel though! :-)

Rating: 3/5 stars

18th October, 2019

Review: The Book of Boy by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (Greenwillow)

Boy has always been relegated to the outskirts of his small village. With a large hump on his back, a mysterious past, and a tendency to talk to animals, he is often mocked and abused by the other kids in his town. Until the arrival of a shadowy pilgrim named Secondus. Impressed with Boy’s climbing and jumping abilities, Secondus engages Boy as his servant, pulling him into an expedition across Europe to gather the seven precious relics of Saint Peter. Boy quickly realizes this journey is not an innocent one. They are stealing the relics, and gaining dangerous enemies in the process. But Boy is determined to see this pilgrimage through until the end—for what if St. Peter can make Boy’s hump go away?

This is how the publisher describes Murdock's novel of bravery and adventure. Set in Europe in the Middle Ages we follow Boy's quest for becoming a "normal boy" and Secundus' mission to gather seven holy relics.

For me, the story was, on the one hand, an enjoyable read, and I found Boy to be a genuinely endearing character that sticks with you. In fact, I believe that characterisation is indeed one of the strong points of the book. Murdock has truly done a wonderful job of making Boy a memorable protagonist. As a reader you immediately sympathise with him, even though he remains somewhat mysterious till the end of the book.

On the other hand, the quest element that is of course a very central motif in the story was a bit too formulaic for me. This experience might be very subjective and is possibly based on my academic background in literary studies, but I had the feeling like someone had essentially brushed a story over Joseph Campbell's idea of the monomyth.* This part of the story also felt very slow at times and I never truly found myself being pulled in.

Another aspect I stumbled across was the density of theological background. The Book of Boy is essentially historical fiction, mixed with a bit of fantasy but none of the Christian belief elements were truly explained, and I find that quite critical in a book for middle grade readers. There are some interesting heists and thefts happening in the story, and Boy and Secundus have to wriggle their way out of several close scrapes, but I imagine that this isn't enough for young readers who don't necessarily have a lot of background knowledge in Medieval theology. And I felt that you really needed that knowledge in order to appreciate the many layers of the story. And then the ending - well, that was a bit of a twist but not a true surprise after Murdock's many hints throughout the narrative.

All in all, a nice tale but nothing that blew me away. It's definitely geared more towards young adults than children, and even those will probably need some guidance/background info in order to fully enjoy the story.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

(If anyone is interested in Campbell's theory, check out his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces).

16th October, 2019

Review: The Institute by Stephen King (Scribner)


I've been a fan of Stephen King ever since I picked up Pet Sematary at the tender age of 14. It was scary as hell and thrilling and a bit of a test of courage, but I ended up devouring all of his works that had already been published by the early 1990s. I then continued to follow his work whenever a new book came out. For a while (around the late nineties to late noughties) I had the feelings that his stories were deteriorating a little and that they had lost their spunk. In recent years, however, I feel that King has been delivering again and his latest novel, The Institute, is no exception. Here is how Goodreads describes the plot: 

In the middle of the night, in a house on a quiet street in suburban Minneapolis, intruders silently murder Luke Ellis’s parents and load him into a black SUV. The operation takes less than two minutes. Luke will wake up at The Institute, in a room that looks just like his own, except there’s no window. And outside his door are other doors, behind which are other kids with special talents—telekinesis and telepathy—who got to this place the same way Luke did: Kalisha, Nick, George, Iris, and ten-year-old Avery Dixon. They are all in Front Half. Others, Luke learns, graduated to Back Half, “like the roach motel,” Kalisha says. “You check in, but you don’t check out.”

In this most sinister of institutions, the director, Mrs. Sigsby, and her staff are ruthlessly dedicated to extracting from these children the force of their extranormal gifts. There are no scruples here. If you go along, you get tokens for the vending machines. If you don’t, punishment is brutal. As each new victim disappears to Back Half, Luke becomes more and more desperate to get out and get help. But no one has ever escaped from the Institute.

Someone recently said that King is simply at his best when he is writing kids and that is definitely perceivable here. His descriptions of the Institute and what's happening behind closed doors are spot-on and brilliant, but it's really his characters that he brings to life and it is also them who make the story as amazing as it is. This is simply where his strength lies: characterisation and the depiction of the iniquitous sides of humanity.

The Institute is a story of good and evil and all things in-between. It's a tale of having to grow up fast and of the power of friendship.  The book also has many nods to other King titles: There are somewhat creepy, hand-holding twins who are reminiscent of the two sisters in The Shining.  We have a ton of extraordinary psychic abilities as in Firestarter and Carrie, and in a rather touching scene one of the kids says that they are all a bunch of losers (cf. It and The Body). This is something that I really loved about this novel as these tropes cater to a sense of nostalgia in King fans, yet without confusing readers who are not familiar with his other stories.

The Institute is not a horror shocker in its traditional sense. There are no eerie clowns that pull people into the sewers, no zombies hiding in basements and no sentient cars that are determined to kill everyone. Instead, this novel instils a more subtle kind of horror in its readers: It triggers your paranoia, makes you a bit claustrophobic and lets you question the motifs of the authorities. And even though it's a bit of a chunkster with over 500 pages, it's a very quick read because it keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Highly recommend!

Rating: 5/5 stars

15th October, 2019

Bookish Stuff: The Beginning of Term - A Booklover's Dream and Nightmare


In case you were wondering: I have not fallen off the face of the earth. But it's the start of term here in Germany and even though I'm only teaching classes I've already taught a zillion times before, it has somehow caught me off-guard.

As some of you may know from my "About" page, I teach English Literature and Culture, which is awesome. It's an amazing job that lets me gab about my all-time favourite thing in the world. The admin, however, is excrutiating and has only gotten worse in recent years. While this work consisted mostly of teaching and research ten years ago, about half of it is now pure admin. But anyway, no whining. I just wanted to explain why October is a bit of a slow month on this blog. I promise to do better soon with, for example, a review of Stephen King's latest novel The Institute coming up later this week. Till then, be good and behave, kids. ;-)

8th October, 2019

Review: In the Night Wood by Dale Bailey (Harper Voyager)

This is a book that left me wondering at night. It's been a while since I've read such a brilliant combination of rich imagery and heartwrenching grief.

Erin and Charles have fled to the UK from the States after the tragic death of their six year old daughter Lissa. As a result of their loss the marriage is in shambles and both characters have drawn back into their own little worlds. Charles hopes to find solace in the writing of a biography of Caedmon Hollow, an obscure Victorian author, whose book Charles first came across as a child and for whom he has held a strong fascination ever since.

The couple settles in at Hollow House, a remote Yorkshire mansion, but soon things become positively creepy. Ancient powers are stirring, both Charles and Erin see the ghost of their daughter and are haunted by the horned figure of the fairy king in their dreams, while the woods seem to be growing denser and drawing nearer by the day. 

In the Night Wood is essentially a fairy tale but it is also full of raw, gut-twisting grief. Even though I had obviously read the synopsis before starting the book I was not entirely prepared for the debilitating emotions that are cursing through its pages. I'm aware that this is probably because our son is of a similiar age as the protagonists' daughter. As a parent, experiencing even just a fictional portrayal of such pure despair is hard to stomach. So take this as fair warning and be prepared for "all the feels". 

What I loved about the story were the rather traditional folkloric and mythical elements. As someone who grew up with stories of 'Herne, the Hunter' I found Bailey's book to be an interesting take on the legend. The setting may be a bit of a stereotype (partly derelict, haunted house and all that jazz) but at the same time Bailey does such a wonderful job in evoking the landscape around Hollow House that it is near impossible not to be drawn in. You can almost hear the wind rustling through the leaves and smell the moss on early summer mornings. Even though the characters are not exactly likeable, I found myself feeling deeply for them. I also did want to slap them, however, and not infrequently.  ;-)

Another perk of the book are the numerous intertextual references and allusions. Some of them are directly connected to their source but others are simply strewn in. I'm a nerd, so I loved this little "spot the quotation" aspect of the story. 

The ending becomes somewhat predictable as the narrative progresses but even that didn't take much away from my enjoying it. This is a quick read full of atmosphere, perfect for a stormy night. 

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

2nd October, 2019

Review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (Chatto & Windus)

Highly anticipated by everyone, Atwood's The Testaments was published last month, almost thirty years after The Handmaid's Tale. While a lot of reviews were and are very positive, almost raving about the book's qualities, there have been quite a few mixed voices on social media. I was therefore both excited and anxious to get my hands on this novel and dipped into it with one eye closed, praying for it to be brilliant. 

But I don't want to keep up the suspense. My opinion? I liked it. A lot. I think I even loved it. What I did: I made it last as long as I could, reading a 400 page book that I'd normally finish in two or three days over a period of two weeks. And I honestly believe that this is one of the reasons why I ended up liking it so much, because it made me look closer at the details. Yes, The Testaments is very different from The Handmaid's Tale - it's not focused on one perspective and voice, and it also details events outside of Gilead. Yes, in parts it reads a bit like a thriller, it's not a slow burn that gradually evokes dread but more fast-paced and looking at the "greater picture". So yes, it does not really have the same tone or atmosphere of its predecessor. However, it is also very clever!

A lot of people have complained that The Testaments brings both the Handmaid book and the TV show together, functioning as a sequel to both. I can see why some readers would see this critically, but as I love the original book but also tremendously enjoy the TV adaptation (and continuation of the story), I actually appreciated exactly that about this novel. Yes, everything is nicely wrapped up in the end and maybe this seems a bit far fetched but I somehow found this extremely gratifying as well. We get a satisfying end to the overarching narrative of Offred, Hannah/Agnes, Baby Nicole et al., but we also learn so much more about other characters, some of whom turned out to be much more subversive than they originally seemed (I have had a hunch about a certain character, however, and was glad to see it confirmed). I liked how we get three different voices of very different but important characters and how these voices are eventually merged. I liked how the passages taking place outside of Gilead in parts seemed more oppressive than those happening within. The only thing I didn't like was how Atwood tried to be vague about the speakers' identities in the beginning, even though it was blatantly obvious who they were. 

All in all, a worthy sequel to a fabulous book and a gratifying read. 

Rating: 5/5 stars

25th September, 2019

Bookish Stuff: Autumn is here! What are your autumn reading traditions?

Yes! Autumn is finally here - my very favourite of all the seasons. I love the smells of leaves, earth and bonfires. I adore the colours, and I'm particularly partial to stormy nights, preferably with a hot drink and a book by my side. 

I'm not really a "seasonal" reader, meaning I don't necessarily read typical beach reads in the summer or Christmassy books in December. What I do like though is putting lots of creepy books on my October TBR. I'm not even sure what it is, possibly the fact that Halloween is just around the corner, but October is simply my go-to scary book month. I do read horror novels throughout the year, but not just Goodreads and Litsy tell me that in October the number of these book spikes. 

By now, I have a few favourites that I like to return to every year: Hocus Pocus, Katherine Arden's Small Spaces, and (as said in my recent review and even though it's not scary) Rainbow Rowell's Pumpkin Heads. However, there is also a large number of books on my TBR that I haven't gotten to yet and that I plan to tackle next month. One of them is Stephen King's latest publication The Institute, another Audrey Niffenegger's collection Ghostly. I'm also looking forward to finding even more new titles through fellow bookworms on social media. Bookstagram and Litsy are brimming with October/Halloween hashtags at this time of year. From #spooktober to #allhallowsread  - effectively, the list is endless. 

All Hallow's Read, in fact, is a wonderful tradition started by fantasy author Neil Gaiman. Instead of candy, the idea is to give someone a scary book for Halloween. Ideally, the person will then read it that evening. Here is Gaiman's own suggestion:

You can give out scary books or comics to trick or treaters on Hallowe’en. We recommend looking the child in the eye and saying, “Take it. Read it. Trust me… around here… a book can be… safer than candy.” Then chuckling to yourself, as if remembering something unfortunate that happened to some of the local children only last year. (www.allhallowsread.com)

I've done it in the past with some of my colleagues and it was a lot of fun. I even converted one or the other sensitive reader into a horror fan. ;-) 

But it doesn't really matter if you are into the scarier or Halloweeny reads, autumn is just such a perfect season for curling up with a good book. The nights are drawing in and it's time to get out those cosy blankets again that you had stashed away over the summer. For me, there is nothing more relaxing than a walk in the brisk autumn air and then coming home to hot chocolate or cider and my current read. Light a candle and I'm even happier. Light a fire and I'm blissfully contend and your friend forever. 

Do you have any particular autumn reading traditions? Do you prefer scary or "normal" books at this time of year? What's your favourite drink while reading? I'd love to know so feel free to share in the comments. 

(Graphics Credit: Tumblr)
24th September, 2019

Review: Pages & Co - Tilly and the Lost Fairytales by Anna James (Harper Collins)

Tilly and Oskar are back! In this second instalment of the Pages & Co series the two young bookwanderers are traveling to Paris. However, what is supposed to be a quiet Christmas trip to visit Oskar's family turns into another quest. When Tilly and Oskar bookwander into the world of fairytales they find that characters are mysteriously getting lost and even disappearing completely, stories are all tangled up and scary plot holes are opening without prior warning. Book magic is leaking and the two children have to stop the fairytales from collapsing. 

I very much enjoyed this sequel to Tilly and the Bookwanderers, even though I'm not a huge fan of traditional fairytales. And I have to admit that this was indeed something that made me hesitate initially. However, James manages to put a new twist to the old stories so that everything soon becomes rather weird and the tales you know from your childhood quickly are turned into something completely different. 

One minor point of criticism would be the beginning of the book which, for me, didn't have the same magical feel to it as its predecessor. We follow a somewhat tedious discussion about who is going to be the next head of the Underlibrary, including speeches of the candidates, etc. It might just be me, but the first twenty pages or so felt a bit lacking. Book one had these wonderful descriptions of the cosy bookshop in the beginning, and I was yearning for something similar. However, the story picks up and I was appeased again. :-) 

The book takes up plot threads of the first one, while also introducing new intrigues. What I loved was that James doesn't shy away from throwing in references to the current political situation in the UK and beyond. Brexit is mentioned as well as the problem of keeping the population uninformed. Kudos to the author for tackling these topics in a book for younger readers - it's important that children are made aware of people misusing power and, though that, are taught to think critically.

As I said in my review of book one a year ago, it is obvious that these novels are written by someone with a deep love of literature. Pages & Co keeps up a middle grade level of adventure and danger, paired with likeable characters and an expanding fictional world full of mysteries to discover. It has a lot of twists and turns and leaves you yearning for more. The wintry/Chrismassy setting (including the beautiful snow crystal illustrations) makes it the perfect read for the colder months. So snuggle up with some tea and a blanket and get lost in a book (well, in the traditional way, not through bookwandering, though it would be great if that was possible).

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

18th September, 2019

Review: Pumpkin Heads by Rainbow Rowell and Faith erin hicks (first second)


If you are looking for a cute graphic novel that will get you into the spirit for autumn, Rainbow Rowell's Pumpkin Heads will be just right. It has a sweet story about friendship and the changes that inevitably happen as we grow up, illustrated beautifully by the amazingly talented Faith Erin Hicks. 

Deja and Josiah are seasonal best friends. Every Halloween season, for three years, they’ve worked together at the  pumpkin patch. This Halloween, however, is different as Josiah and Deja are finally seniors, and this is their last season at the pumpkin patch. Their last shift together. Their last good-bye.

Josiah’s ready to spend the whole night feeling melancholy about it. Deja isn’t ready to let him. She’s got a plan: What if—instead of moping and the usual slinging lima beans down at the Succotash Hut—they went out with a bang? They could see all the sights! Taste all the snacks! And Josiah could finally talk to that cute girl he’s been mooning over for three years...

I read this book within a couple of hours on a rainy autumn afternoon. And then I read it again. And I still want to read it again. I'll probably do so before Halloween but it will also most definitely become one of my seasonal rereads. It's just perfect in so many different ways and honestly, I want to be in this story. I want to experience the smells of kettle korn and succotash and find a shortcut through the corn maze.

The atmosphere of the pumpkin patch perfectly came through. Hicks' art is stunning and blends flawlessly with Rowell's story, and through this both artists created a wonderful narrative that is funny, moving and mesmerising - all at the same time. It's essentially autumn banned on the pages of a book.

Deja and Josiah are lovely characters, both distinct and extremely endearing. I also enjoyed how Deja's dating both boys and girls was handled very casually and as something that is perfectly normal (which it obviously is). The way the two main characters convey the sadness of spending their last night in the place they both love from the bottom of their hearts is enchanting, and the reader is immediately drawn into the story, joining the characters in theirshenanigans. We follow Josiah on his quest to finally talk to "fudge girl" and, in the process, get to meet all kinds of weird and interesting people as well as a marauding goat and an annoying, thieving muppet of a kid. (Oh, and I've learned about the most scrumptious sounding icecream creation in the world.)

Sillyness meets philosophical ponderings, mixed with emotion galore. This is where Rowell and Hicks' art thrillingly works together: the dialogues of the first are perfectly supported by the artwork of the latter. And I loved that there was a positive outlook in the end with potential for a sequel. Yes, Rainbow and Faith, please please please do a Christmas book together. We want to know more about Deja and Josiah!

Rating: 5/5 stars

17th September, 2019

Review: Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson (Vintage)


In Brexit Britain, a young transgender doctor called Ry is falling in love – against their better judgement – with Victor Stein, a celebrated professor leading the public debate around AI.

Meanwhile, Ron Lord, just divorced and living with Mum again, is set to make his fortune launching a new generation of sex dolls for lonely men everywhere.

Across the Atlantic, in Phoenix, Arizona, a cryogenics facility houses dozens of bodies of men and women who are medically and legally dead… but waiting to return to life.

But the scene is set in 1816, when nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley writes a story about creating a non-biological life-form. ‘Beware, for I am fearless and therefore powerful.'

What will happen when homo sapiens is no longer the smartest being on the planet?

To cut a long story short: I was disappointed in Winterson's latest novel. I had expected so much, wanted to like this book so badly, but what I got just didn't do for me. Bummer!

But let me explain. I feel that Frankissstein is an example of how fiction can be exploited for didactic reasons, and this is exactly what we have here: a book that is supposed to instruct its reader. Which is an okay thing to do if it doesn't become too obvious. While to a certain degree all fiction has educational aspects, some books do this more skilfully than others ... and unfortunately Frankissstein isn't one of them. Winterson's message seemed very much "in-your-face" throughout and therefore became too inane.

Frankissstein is narrated in two parallel plot strands: one follows young author Mary Shelley in the early 19th century thinking up the story that would eventually become her novel Frankenstein, the other follows trans doctor Ry Shelley in a not-too-distant-future, where they are involved with AI research. Both strands show distinct similarities with characters being mirrored in both timelines, etc.

What I really enjoyed and loved in Winterson's book was the historical narrative strand which seemed like an homage to Gothic literature and Romantic traditions. I tremendously enjoyed reading this fictional account of the famous rainy summer by Lake Geneva and the story telling competition that was supposed to while away the bored travellers' time. Ry's story, on the other hand, can unfortunately only be described as a hot mess. For me, it was too repetitive in its focus on in-betweenness and the benefits/dangers of artifical intelligence. I basically had the same problem with this plot strand that I had with McEwan's most recent novel Machines Like Me: both books are trying too hard to drive their message home and, in the process, become too ineffectual for me. We are supposed to philosophise about topics such as AI, transhumanism, sex bots, etc. but the characters addressing these issues almost seem like soulless robots themselves. I don't know, maybe that was the desired effect on Winterson's part but for me it was too much and I found myself drifting off in these passages. Also Ry simply didn't work as a character for me. While I appreciate the author having a non-binary protagonist in her story, their narrative was too stereotypical in many ways (the dutifully included bathroom attack just being one example).

I am very sorry for giving this book such a bad rating, because I ususally love Winterson's writing but in this case I have the impression that she was in over her head, ambitiously stuffing too much into a text that consequently veers all over the place without any anchor points.

Rating: 2/5 stars

8th September, 2019

Review: A House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig (Delacorte)


Annaleigh lives a sheltered life at Highmoor, a manor by the sea, with her sisters, their father, and stepmother. Once they were twelve, but loneliness fills the grand halls now that four of the girls' lives have been cut short. Each death was more tragic than the last—the plague, a plummeting fall, a drowning, a slippery plunge—and there are whispers throughout the surrounding villages that the family is cursed by the gods.

Disturbed by a series of ghostly visions, Annaleigh becomes increasingly suspicious that the deaths were no accidents. When Annaleigh's involvement with a mysterious stranger who has secrets of his own intensifies, it's a race to unravel the darkness that has fallen over her family—before it claims her next.

I was utterly and totally in love with this book from the very beginning. I was only losely familiar with the fairy tale that parts of the book are based on which, maybe, made me enjoy it even more, because I didn't have any expectations. The story was a bit trippy towards the end (which is good!) and a lot creepier than I expected (which is even better!). 

What had me mesmerised was the mystical seaside setting. I loved the descriptions of Highmoor and Old Maude, and at times it felt like you could almost feel the wind on your face and smell the brine on the air while reading. I also loved how Craig manages to weave different strands of folklore and fairy tales together to create something new. The book is extremely atmospheric and has you guessing throughout. I only figured out what was happening towards the very end, i.e. the author did a great job in playing with her readers' expectations and overthrowing them again and again. 

A lot of people die in this book and at times it almost tore out my heart. Without giving any spoilers: Be prepared for some serious G.R.R. Martin-esque character disposals. Yes, it's shocking and heart-wrenching but these scenes help along the story and character development tremendously, so they are needed ... even if that means you'll possibly be using up a packet of tissues.

I read this book during a holiday by the sea, mostly on very stormy nights - if you are able to read it in a similar surrounding, I highly recommend it. It will make you feel like you're right inside the story. :-) If you don't have the sea close to you, a blustery autumn day will of course do as well. But really, this book is so good that it probably works anywhere. 

Final verdict: A perfect eerie read with wonderful characters and mesmerising atmosphere. Highly recommended!

Rating: 5/5 stars

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20th March, 2019

Bookshop Spotlight: Topping & Co., St Andrews, Scotland

I know I've let drop comments about this shop before, both here and on Instagram and Litsy, but today I think it's time that this wonderful place gets its own "Bookshop Spotlight". 

The independent bookshop Topping & Co. in St Andrews opened in 2015 after branches in Bath and Ely had already been highly successful. The first shop (in Ely) was founded by Robert and Louise Topping in 2003. A fourth branch is going to open its doors in Edinburgh in the summer/early autumn. And who knows what more is to come in the future? 

What makes me love Topping & Co. so much is its atmosphere: It's a bibliophile's heaven with honey-coloured bookshelves from floor to ceiling and sliding library ladders that help you reach the upper shelves. Also, it's clear quite quickly that the people who work here love books and I mean: LOVE books - in capital letters and with an exclamation mark. Almost every time I visit, I find myself having a wee chat with one of them. They are not just employees but true booksellers who know their wares and are passionate about their job. 

Another quirky benefit is that you are offered free tea or coffee while you are browsing the more than 50,000 titles. And I mean: what goes better together than a good brew and literature? Exactly! Nothing. Well, maybe chocolate, but that always poses the danger of nasty stains on the pages. The horror, the horror! So yes, better have a cuppa instead while you're perusing the shelves for your next read. And if you are looking for people to talk books with, the shop offers several book groups, such as "The Literary Odyssey Book Group" or the "Galley Book Club" (the latter of which is geared towards children between 7 and 11). There are also numerous literary events throughout the year. Just a few names that are lined up for the next few months: Ian McEwan, Ali Smith, Shaun Bythell, John Connolly, Mary Beard, etc.

What you will find a lot of at Topping & Co. is signed editions. There is a "Signed Editions" subscription service but while that is of course great for people who live further away, it's even more fun to hunt for treasures on the shelves directly. I've amassed quite a number of signed books this way without exactly meaning to, but hey - if I have the choice between a signed first edition and the regular one, the decision isn't such a tough one. And in general, I have found that Toppings seems to have pretty much everything in stock. I don't remember ever having to order in a title as one of the booksellers has always managed to somehow conjure up what I was looking for. 

One more aspect that I adore about the shop is its "Blind Date with a Book" shelf. I'm a total sucker for these kinds of things so, lo and behold, I find myself buying at least one of these wrapped mystery packages every time I visit. So far, I have never been disappointed. There was one book last year that wasn't really my cup of tea but this time I was very lucky and scored an edition of Jeannette Winterson's wonderfully atmospheric Lighthousekeeping and one of Vladimir Nabokov's ingenious Pale Fire. Sure, I already owned the latter but while I could have easily exchanged the book for something else, I'm just going to give it away as a present. 

This is a bookshop that any true bookworm will immediately want to move into. Especially in the colder months the mix of books, tea or coffee and a cosy wood fire will make you want to while away an hour... or two or three. It makes me extremely happy to see that independent bookshops seem to be thriving again and Topping & Co. is definitely one of places that make people fall in love with bookshops over and over again. 

9th April, 2019

Bookish Spotlight: Gladstone's Library, Hawarden, Wales


So, imagine you could simply step through a mirror or wardrobe (or insert any other mysterious portal of your choice) and you are in a stunningly beautiful library full of impressive leather-bound tomes. And now imagine someone telling you that you can actually live there for a while. Sounds like a dream come true, doesn't it? Well, no need for magic as this place is only a good thirty-minute bus ride away from the city of Chester, situated in the wonderfully quaint village of Hawarden in North Wales (UK).

Gladstone's Library is a magnificent grade 1 listed building which pays tribute to William Gladstone, a four-time prime minister of Great Britain in the later half of the 19th century, who founded the library himself. After his death in 1898 it became a memorial to his life and work. Gladstone's is a residential library, a place for study and contemplation and a meeting place for bibliophiles from around the world. So when a friend who I had met through Litsy (a social media platform for bookworms) asked if anyone was up for a weekend reading retreat in this marvellous locationI didn't think twice and booked my room and flight within minutes.

When we arrived at the library we were all kind of giddy with excitement, on the one hand because of meeting a bunch of people you'd only so far talked to online and, on the other hand, because of the sheer beauty of the place. The reading rooms themselves are absolutely magnificent - think Disney's Beauty and the Beast and you'll get an understanding of what I mean. They are indeed a place of silence with absolutely no talking allowed. I felt that merely sitting in one of the comfortable leather armchairs with my book and enjoying the tranquility had an amazing soul-cleansing and centreing effect, because it is so far removed from the stress of our everyday lives.

The rest of the building is certainly just as attractive as the library proper. Many of the rooms come with beautiful book wallpaper and all of them have old-timey Roberts radios and mullioned windows. Something they explicitly do not have are TVs because of Gladstone's Library seeing itself as a place for research, study and debate. And this is precisely what I appreciate about it: Three days of peaceful tranquility, hours of reading, good food and bookish conversations in the lounge or over meals left me so incredibly refreshed and regrounded that it actually surprised me how relaxed I felt afterwards. It is the perfect sanctuary in a time where distraction is everywhere, and I found myself thinking that this must surely be what the characters in Thomas Mann's famous novel The Magic Mountain must have felt.

We started our first day of the retreat with a scrumptious Afternoon Tea in the library cafe and food somehow became a constant entity, either in the form of lovely pub lunches and dinners or as nibbles, cake and candy as reading accompaniment in front of the fire place in the cosy guest lounge. (Thank goodness, we walked some of it off on a brisk country walk on day two - haha.) And of course it was also the wonderful people who were with me on this retreat that made it such a success. It felt good to be surrounded by book people, people who are comfortable with sitting together in silence with their nose in a book but who also love to have inspiring conversations in-between.

Gladstone's Library is a truly stunning place and I didn't want to leave. The next retreat is already planned so I'm looking forward to coming back and staying a bit longer next time around. If you'd like more information, you'll find it all on their webpage: https://www.gladstoneslibrary.org/

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