Things in Jars by Jess Kidd

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Things in Jars atop a Piano in Lews Castle

Somehow or other I’ve read 3 mermaid or “people of the sea” stories this year. It’s not a genre I specifically seek out, but I guess coincidences happen. After the first two: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock and Pisces, I decided that maybe I just didn’t like mermaid stories, cause I HATED those two. (To be fair they both contained some pretty atrocious sex scenes and a lot of very unlikeable characters.)

Then along came Things in Jars to prove me wrong.

Bridie Devine is a Victorian era detective, interested in figuring out how things work and helping people that most would overlook. Having risen from an Irish Street rat to a doctor’s apprentice and now an independent woman who advocates for the less privileged, Bridie’s reputation is still recovering from her last case. Which is why a Baron with something…fishy to hide feels confident that she’ll keep his case confidential. So Bridie and her 7 foot tall ferocious maid, Cora get drafted in to find Christabel Berwick; a missing child that no one was supposed to know even existed, and who has a little something of Kirstin Dunst’s “butter wouldn’t melt/oh so vicious” character from Interview with a Vampire about her. Oh and Bridie absolutely doesn’t believe in anything inexplainable or supernatural. She DEFINITELY doesn’t believe in ghosts, and definitely isn’t developing feelings for the really handsome half dressed spectre from her past who just so happens to be following her everywhere.

What Jess Kidd has produced here is a book full of warmth, heart and genuinely hilarious quirks. It’s a Victorian detective story, but with a folklore twist and loveable characters. So loveable that I found myself digging my heels in as I neared the ending (which fair warning, is inevitably bittersweet) and desperate for the ability to spend more time with Bridie and Cora. The fact that these characters aren’t in a series is a travesty and if I’m ever fortunate enough to meet Kidd I’ll be on my knees begging for more of them.

The plot is mesmerising while you try and fit all the inricate pieces together. There is a little violence and some gore but it’s generally treated very sensitively, what’s more likely to leave you shaken is the emotional resonance and implications of past events on present (in book timeline) events.

An absolute must read: this is how a historical folklore mystery should be done!

Things in Jars by Jess Kidd is out now and is published by Canongate Books.

Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Demon by James Lovegrove

With humor set to wry, hypocrisies abounding and the usual great assumptive leaps masked as logic, Holmes and his world weary and slightly befuddled friend Watson are back for a new seasonal adventure.

Having been approached in a coffee shop by Eve Allerthorpe, eldest daughter of a wealthy and entirely batshit crazy Yorkshire family who live in a gothic black castle in the middle of a lake, Holmes and Watson are engaged to investigate the mysterious myth of the Black Thurrick; an evil side kick to Father Christmas who likes to leave bunches of Birch sticks around and snack on naughty children.

Eve’s interest in the myth is in part thanks to re-gailings of the myth from her recently deceased mother and to some weird goings on and supernatural sightings around her creepy and not at all cosy home. Of course she’s due a substantial inheritance on her 21st birthday on Christmas Eve, on one condition; that she has managed to retain control of her mental faculties by then. But while investigating out of curiosity, a far more serious crime occurs almost in front of Holmes and Watson.
So has local folklore come to life or is someone trying to drive Eve mad? Who would dare try and pull the wool over Holmes and Watson’s eyes? And can the grumpiest and most eccentric family in England make it through a holiday season in one piece?

This is a highly entertaining and enjoyably ludicrous Tale. Holme’s eccentricity and Watson’s sarcasm are set off perfectly by being surrounded by like-minded and similarly oddball members of the upper classes. There a moments of slapstick and exquisite arguments of the absurd where Holmes again proves his ability to always be right is pure luck, but is nothing compared to his unparalleled confidence in himself. And beneath it all the story and central mystery is beautifully written and imagined.

The book is stunning as well and has one of those covers you can’t stop running your hands over – it really would be a great addition in anyone’s stocking.

Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Demon is on sale from 22nd October 2019 and is published by Titan Books.

Dark Designs – Book Review

Dark Designs by Stefan Petrucha

It’s 2005 and Captain America has finally gotten some semblance of a life back, but following routine tests after a mission, it’s discovered that within his body Cap carries an extinction level virus. Why it’s not currently active, and what might trigger it is anyone’s guess, but to protect humanity Rogers has to head back to the deep freeze until a cure can be found.

captain-america.jpgHowever, old nemesis Red Skull is back, in a body cloned from Captain America himself, so he also carries the virus, except that he has become symptomatic. Knowing the end is insight, and without the selfless gene that is sending Rogers into cryogenic sleep, Red Skull sets about fulfilling his bucket list; specifically ending Captain America, with the aid of some hidden old Nazi Tech. Can Rogers fight off giant killer Nazi robots and a psychopathic enemy with a bug that makes Ebola look like a cold all while he’s technically in quarantine?

What follows is a rollicking good adventure which explores the extremes of Steve’s moral code, and what sets him apart from other heroes. Philosophical questions are thrown into the mix like challenges which Steve side steps with ease.

What’s really interesting however is that aside from Steve and red skull there is a second good/evil battle going on that you won’t even spot. The real villain of the piece is signposted quite early on, and you’ll see them coming, as you’re meant to, but the real hero of the piece is a genuine surprise which you won’t realise until the epilogue, and in true hero form it’s one which you’ve been underestimating all along.

A good addition to the Marvel novel universe. Not quite as intriguing as the stand alone Thanos title which was released earlier this year, but definitely worth a read.

Thanks to @titanbooks for the review copy in exchange for an honest review. Dark Designs is out tomorrow (15 October 2019)

A Titanic story for young readers

The Titanic Detective Agency – Book Review

Trembling with excitement, Bertha Watt sets out on the adventure of a lifetime: her and her mother leaving behind their old life in Aberdeen to meet up with her father in Oregon and start a new life full of promise and opportunity and, if she behaves herself, a 20190417_172015.jpgpony.

Facing several boring days crossing the Atlantic onboard a ship, she and her new friend, Madge, decide to emulate Holmes and Watson and set up The Collyer-Watt Detective Agency. They quickly stumble across two intriguing mysteries, one involving treasure and another involving a mysterious family with a shady father. Along the way, Bertha befriends Johan, a 3rd class passenger with a desperate passion to reunite his family. But something even more ominous is lurking over the horizon: It’s April 1912 and Bertha, her family and her friends are sailing to America aboard the Titanic’s maiden voyage.

The Titanic Detective Agency by Lindsay Littleson is a tale of two halves. The first; a look at the innocent and nostalgic childhood from the early twentieth century – both that of the privileged, and the heavier responsibilities of those in poverty. The second half is wrought with tangible horror and heartbreak, as the ending that you almost forgot was looming comes to fruition.

Littleson has done her research, and although the narrative is fiction, all the characters are based on true-life passengers aboard the doomed Ocean liner with some of the more out there twists and turns being based on fact – truth is often stranger than fiction after all.

It’s a challenging introduction for its target audience of 8 to 11 year olds. One which focuses on the humanity involved in the maritime tragedy, but it’s all the more worthwhile for this focus, The Titanic Detective Agency doesn’t shy away from the horror and lasting impact the accident had on the few survivors.

It’s well written, engaging and doesn’t talk down to younger readers. More than that it brings a hundred and seven year old tragedy to life. And just look at that cover – it’s beautiful!

 

February Reading Round Up

One of these days I will get one of these out on time…For now, I count four days into March pretty good going (I’ve just started TWO new jobs, so the fact I remember any of my passwords for this site, let alone what I read last month, is a bloody miracle!)

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When they call you a terrorist : A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele

Patrisse Khan Cullors grew up in a poor neighbourhood in Los Angeles and witnessed first-hand the structural oppression and institutional racism upon which America, and most western countries are built on. It’s no wonder that she grew up inflamed and ready to fight for freedoms that the privileged take for granted, such as the right to support, care and love and the right not to be removed from your bed in the middle of the night by police teams in full riot gear on a fishing expedition.

What is surprising is that she grew up fighting for these things from a place of love rather than hatred. The atrocities to which she, her family and her community have been subjected, which she details in searing, harrowing detail, would be enough to fill up anyone’s fuel tank with anger, but Khan-Cullors has found ways in which she can process. This then forms the basis and the ethos of the Black Lives Matter movement, a movement which she co-founded and which believes that until everyone has equality, no one has equality.

When They Call you a terrorist is a memoir of two halves, albeit they flow together seemlessly. In the first, Khan-Cullors details her experiences growing up, from kind and loving parents who were fighting simply to keep their heads above water against overwhelming forces trying to push them under, to a brother punished horrifically for daring to be a black man with a mental illness. In the second, she describes the rolling snowball that became the Black Lives Matter movement and all it stands for. This is an absolute must read.

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Viewing the events of the Trojan wars and Odysseus’ adventures from Penelope’s point of view, Atwood’s re-examination of the myths of ancient Greece is a clear influencer on the more recent Circe by Madeline Miller. The novel gives ancient myth a feminist slant as the ‘quiet’ and ‘obedient’ trope of Penelope as the doting wife is flipped on its head and she is given agency over the events which have historically been done to her as well as a modern critique of the crimes waged against women by men trying to protect their egos. It provides a fantastic and interesting new entry point to well known tales which allow you to engage critically in the classics.

Bookshop memories by Patrick Bruskiewich

A very short play based on an equally short story from George Orwell about his memories of working in a bookshop. Sardonic and insightful, you will either recognise the customers Orwell describes, or identify with them. An entertaining and thoughtful assessment which will hopefully provide you with a little more empathy for your own local book wranglers, in particular second hand bookshop owners.

And the Rest is History by Jodi Taylor

An Argumentation of historians by Jodi Taylor

The Long and Short of it by Jodi Taylor

I am now up to date on this series, including all the short stories, so those of you that are not interested in the St Mary’s Chronicles series will be relieved to know that these will not be appearing on any further round up lists (until the next one is published or I decide to re-read them that is!)

But for this last grouping I have one description – OUCH. And the Rest is History is a brutal entry into the series whereby it opens with a glimmer of hope as Ronan approaches St Mary’s with the offer of a truce and then everything rapidly goes downhill from there, leading to long lasting and heartbreaking repercussions. I’m not sure I can stand much more heartbreak for Max, and in the author’s note for An Argumentation of Historians, even Taylor jokes that her publishers begged for something a little cheerier; which thankfully she delivers. It is still tinged with sadness after the events of And the Rest is History, but it is a much happier edition and a return to more of the carefree spirit exhibited in earlier books.

And the Long and Short of it is a lovely series of, mostly, comedic one shots which generally happen around Christmas time and should be read interspersed with the full length novels (there are helpful guides online to show where to read them in the series). There is no requirement to read them, but events in these stories are occasionally referred to in the novels so they do fill in some blanks.

Nemesis by Jo Nesbo

Detective Harry Hole is your typical grumpy, anti-social detective struggling with personal and professional issues which are exacerbated by alcoholism. In some ways it’s as though Nesbo got a list of detective story clichés and ensured he ticked off every last one of them, but Hole is still entertaining.

In Nemesis Hole is assigned to the investigation team for a series of bank robberies which include the death of a bank teller (hence Harry’s presence despite specialising in 20190224_123903murders). At the same time, an old girlfriend who recently made contact is found dead on the very night that she and Harry meet up and he blacks out. After her death is ruled a suicide, Harry sets out on his own private investigation, as much to reassure himself that he didn’t do it as to find the true culprit.

Nothing is truly surprising in Nemesis, although it is a decent read and I’ll certainly continue to read Jo Nesbo books, but it feels rather like brain popcorn: light but moreish.

 

 

The Librarian by Salley Vickers

Sylvia Blackwell is starting out on her career as a Librarian and accepts the post of Children’s Librarian in East Mole. She is young, enthusiastic, and eager to set out on the adventure of life. Unfortunately, at the same time as she has life-changing impacts on the children of the village, she also begins a passionate and ill-advised affair with the local married Doctor. Both Sylvia and her lover seriously underestimate the power of small town gossip.

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There was nothing offensive about The Librarian. Perhaps that was the problem, it felt very safe and a little twee. The characters were not particularly endearing, either for their virtues or their transgressions and I found myself rather underwhelmed by the whole thing. The doctor that Sylvia begins her affair with is completely unlikeable, and so Sylvia becomes unsympathetic as it becomes hard to identify what she sees in him to risk so much. Even she doesn’t seem that keen on him most of the time, and seems to find the idea of an affair more enticing that the actual event. This shakes the foundations for sympathy which might have existed otherwise.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

Mr Hancock is a small shipping merchant. Angelica Neal is a London Escort who is trying to maintain her independence and resist the lure back into her Madam’s house. One night in 1775 one of Hancock’s captains returns having exchanged his boat for the corpse of a mermaid which Hancock is forced to begin displaying in an attempt to recoup his 20190204_132623.jpgloses. Finding himself in London social circles which he has never experienced, and which make him feel deeply uncomfortable, Hancock and Neal are thrown together and begin a friendship and, eventually, a romance which is shaken to the core when Hancock brings the curse of a second mermaid down on them.

I was so looking forward to this. For a long time. And I really struggled with it. So much of the book is told from Angelica’s point of view, and until about three quarters of the way through she is pretty shallow and unlikeable. Hancock, while nice is bumbling and naïve. The writing is fantastic and the atmosphere is tangible, but it’s not always a pleasant atmosphere to be so immersed in. Characters are well drawn, but rarely sympathetic. The last quarter when Angelica and John finally start communicating is a little more enjoyable, but it takes effort to get there.

The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch

In a dystopian future, where the elite and last survivors of humanity have moved to a resource sucking Earth-orbiting Space Station operated by the shady CIEL and it’s once-a-celebrity leader Jean de Men, Christine is a Skin Graft artist who has become disenchanted with humanity and idolises the rebel and heretic Joan de Dirt. Meanwhile Joan and her soul mate have survived the geocatastrophes that destroyed Earth and now roam its barren landscape trying to survive.

I love Sci-fi. I love dystopian sci-fi. And I LOVED the concept of this book, but I was so lost with this. I  felt like I was reading a really complex poem in glass in a hall of mirrors. I glimmered snatches of plot and bits of character, especially around Joan (everyone else was pretty obscure) but mostly it was filled with grandiose motifs and ruminations on philosophical lessons in snatches and grabs making it very hard to hang my interest on any one thing. I’m not totally beyond metaphysical books, but this one felt fairly incomprehensible and rather nightmarish. By reviews online it seems to be a bit of a marmite book, either getting 5 stars or scoring lowly, so it’s a book that some will love, but I loathed.

 

Pick of the month: When They call you a Terrorist

Dud of the Month: The Book of Joan

Thank you to Canongate books for When They call you a Terrorist and The Book of Joan which I was sent in exchange for an honest review.

Do you believe in fairies?

What I don’t know about the online Book Community could, I suspect, fill a small country, but I’m learning. Slowly but surely, I’m learning. And the thing I have learnt about in the last couple of weeks has made me giddily excited – Book Fairies.20190120_214820.jpg

The Book Fairy movement combines two things that I think there should always be more of in the world: books and random acts of kindness and generosity.

The Book Fairy initiative launched in March 2017 and currently boasts nearly 9000 book fairies in over 100 countries. Book Fairies gather up books which they’ve enjoyed and then set about sharing the book love by hiding them in places to be discovered. I learnt about it quite by accident when the Western Isles Book Fairy account (@bookfairies_eileansiar) followed me on Instagram and as I snooped around their page I squealed with delight, free books and a community intent on sharing some happiness around? Sign me up!

So I did. Sign up I mean. And I hid my first book earlier this week (It was very hard not to hide behind a car and wait until someone found it, but I decided that might be a smidge too creepy.)

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Anyone can become a book fairy and you don’t need anything special to do it. You can package up a book you think would give someone pleasure and hide it as a surprise for someone to come across, usually with a note to assure whoever finds it that it’s a free book for them to take away and enjoy. But you can also order official stickers, among other things, off the website if you want that little extra glimmer of officialdom to get you started.

I have yet to be lucky enough to find one of the books hidden by the official Book Fairies Eilean Siar account, but I’m going to be keeping my eyes peeled, and now I’ve found an exciting new way to make room on my shelves for more books without feeling like I’m just abandoning books I love – sharing them out to hopefully give someone a little boost on a gloomy winter’s day.

If you want to find out more about Book Fairies go to www.ibelieveinbookfairies.com

All I want for Christmas…

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…is more books! The best present I have ever received was a book subscription.  Over the years I have had every kind of subscription there is: Magazines to Baby gift boxes, food to Lootcrates and a wide variety in between.  Living on the periphery of civilisation it’s a great way to get your hands on products that you don’t always have access to, but it’s also a great way to fill up your house with tat very very quickly. I found that, on average, I used or wanted only about half of what I received in boxes and so each eventually fell by the wayside. But then I discovered the book subscription. A book gift every month? Yes please! I will never run out of space for books. (Husband disagrees, but what does he know?) It’s the one subscription service I can see myself keeping long term. But it’s so hard to pick from the variety of products that are out there and unless you’re a multi-millionaire a choice has to be made (Still haven’t won the lottery for those keeping track).

So in the lead up to Christmas, here is my round up of book subscription services available to bibliophiles in the UK. If your nearest and dearest love books and haven’t yet discovered the wonder of book subscriptions then this is what you need to get for them. Immediately.

There are two types of Book Subscription; the mystery subscription and the curated subscription and some companies offer both. Here is a small selection of some of the best ones I’ve found.

Book and a Brew

This is a gross generalisation, but one I’m reasonably confident in making: If you like reading and you live in the UK, chances are high that you probably like curling up with a cup of tea as well; so I think Book and a Brew is fairly ingenious. Every month you receive a fantastic Book (for a pot luck subscription service Book and a Brew has one of the best general book selections I’ve seen) and a packet of intriguing and often unusual tea to tantalise your taste buds. It’s £12.99 a month, but you can also buy older boxes (with the ability to choose from available texts) as a one off for £9.99 which is a nice way to either test if it’s for you or give a single month gift. Check it out at www.bookandabrew.com

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The Willoughby Book Club has been going since 2012 and is partnered with Book Aid International, so for every subscription sold a book is donated, allowing you to share your love of reading with partner libraries across Africa. Willoughby Book Club has one of the largest selection of different subscription options available, including babies, toddlers and young adults, Contemporary fiction and cookery book subscriptions and all come with the options of 3, 6 or 12 month subscriptions. Their most popular club is the Bespoke club where the team picks books based on recipients personal reading tastes. If you can’t find what you want here you even have the option of tailoring your own themed package under the Anything Else category. It really is a one stop shop for your book subscription needs! Prices start at £29.99 for a 3 month subscription. Check out www.willoughbybookclub.co.uk for more information.

Big Green Bookshop

The Big Green Bookshop is an independent bookshop based in London which offers either a children’s or adult’s bespoke book subscription. The owners have a brilliant sense of humour (this was the bunch that invested in tweeting the whole of Harry Potter to Piers Morgan when he made a snarky comment about it.) and fantastic customer service. A survey asking about your top 3 books and anything you’ve struggled to read is sent out for either you or your gift recipient to complete and as soon as you’ve returned it your choices will begin being sent to you. This service offers different options for length of subscription as well which makes it a great option for smaller gifts, short term affordability and simply just testing if a book subscription is for you. I have bought a 3 month subscription from here for a friend before and it went down a treat. Find them at www.biggreenbookshop.com Prices start at £30 for a 3 month children’s subscription.

Heywood Hill

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I’ve been very spoilt and was lucky enough to receive the Heywood Hill ‘A Year in Books’ subscription for my birthday this year. It is one of the more expensive on the list, but luxury oozes out of every molecule of it; unwrapping each beautifully wrapped book is a gift in itself. Based in Mayfair, Heywood Hill is an independent bookshop where booksellers are some of the best in the business, and have been offering this service for longer than most others. On selecting a Book Subscription, choosing from Paperback or Hardback alternatives and whether you want them monthly or bi-monthly (there’s also an option for children’s books), you are sent a beautiful voucher inviting the recipient to complete a questionnaire, either online or over the phone. You are then assigned your own personal bookseller who selects your books for you, and mine has yet to put a foot wrong. I have been sent books which I would never have picked up myself and at least two out of the 6 have set me on a frantic reading frenzy of previously undiscovered series (If Heywood Hill are reading this and they can track down a copy of the second in the St Mary’s Chronicles series I’d be very grateful!)Bookmarks-and-Books and the monthly book marks have allowed me to finally ditch my hodgepodge of receipts and post its that I used previously. And if you already have the book you can arrange a certain number of swaps each year. This is the epitome of a Bibliophile’s dream gift. Prices start at £125 for a 6 book children’s subscription. You can find out more at www.heywoodhill.com

The Abominable Book Club

If Horror is your thing then the Abominable Book Blub sends out crates with three reads in each, including a new book and a second hand classic. On alternate months a bi-monthly magazine subscription is included and on the months without a magazine, they include an ebook from an independent author. Based in Wales the company also includes locally sourced treats and bonuses. This is a reasonably new venture compared to others, but the horror community is a supportive one and horror is a seriously underserved genre in book subscription land, so I hope it will go from strength to strength. The Club can be found at https://theabominablebookclub.cratejoy.com and prices start at £22.

Chocolate and a Book

Need I say more than the title of this subscription? The genre choices on this site are what really sell it to me, with the ability to pick between Romance and Sci-fi/fantasy (which is a rare genre subscription to come across) among others. Books are selected from the last 12 months and are carefully matched with chocolate and a hot beverage. Vegetarian and Vegan options are available and they try to cater for any allergies you may have. Prices start at £14.99 a month and more information can be found at http://www.chocolateandbook.com

 

Whatever your taste in books, there is a subscription service available out there for you and most offer additional perks. It’s completely worth it: they will have to wrench my subscription from my cold dead hands!

 

 

 

I have not been paid or asked to write this.