The God of All Small Boys – Review

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Childhood is a mixture of joy and trauma, and throughout the bittersweet rollercoaster it is our friends that can provide the stability that allows us to keep getting up and fighting.

So it is with James who, having lost his mother at a young age, now watches his father ship off to join the front in the Great War, and is himself whipped from a relatively privileged life to overcrowded tenement living with his cousins in Dundee.

But the God of all Small Boys, the one who lets little boys bounce when they fall out of trees, and find the perfect conker, is looking after James, and after a rocky start with a distrustful cousin, he finds himself the key to facing this avalanche of challenges; a family of friends who will last a lifetime.

Through thick and thin and a love of dens, the boys embark on a summer which will force them to grow up in ways they hadn’t bargained for.

Sprinkled with nostalgia and laughter, tragedy and sorrow, this latest book from Cranachan, is a story that makes childhood tangible again. The characters are, for the most part, a group of 11 year old boys for whom local problems, such as the school bullies, are much more real than the war raging in a far off country, but who are also waiting with bated breath for the international troubles to brush against their lives.

Some younger readers may need to talk through what happens in the book, both the (to this generation) alien freedoms and the emotional fallout from a number of events but it provides the perfect access point on issues such as war; bullying; family loss and safety in play.

Highly recommended for 7 to 11 year olds, and any age which realises that sometimes the best stories are the ones contained in children’s books.

Come back later for an interview with the author, Joseph Lamb.

The Joy of Books

I have recently become obsessed with Marie Kondo (as it seems has everyone else) and recently began working through her recommended processes. For the most part I’ve found that it seems to work for me: taking out everything and only returning the things which provide “joy” is genuinely very cathartic. However I’ve now reached the Books category, and here is where Marie and I part ways. She claims that she keeps 30 books or less (although, granted, she isn’t demanding that everyone else does the same). As a community of book lovers I think we all seem to agree that this makes her some kind of soulless monster and it has seriously damaged her reputation as an innocuous de-cluttering guru.

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Because here’s the thing: Books are not clutter. They are worlds; adventures; lifetimes full of emotional nourishment. They are tools which help us on our journeys to self-awareness. Besides that, they are just bloody good fun. Every book on my shelves provides joy, so good luck prying any of them out of my hands, but I’m certainly suspicious of someone who only finds joy in 30 books. I mean honestly, I’m decluttering to make room for MORE books!

Saying that, I’m a bibliophile and I can’t resist a book challenge so I’ve decided to play along. Grudgingly. So gun to my head, if I HAD to pick 30 books in hard copy and could no longer have any others (aside from the sneaky kindle which would obviously have all of the removed books stashed away electronically) what would they be?

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

The Colour Purple by Alice Walker

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig

1984 by George Orwell

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

The Secret Island by Enid Blyton

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

The Ocean at the end of the lane by Neil Gaiman

Soul Music by Terry Pratchett

Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay

Just One Damn Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

20190210_202547.jpgThe collected works of Shakespeare (This may seem like a cheat, BUT it is a book that I own. One binding= one book!)

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

Eric by Terry Pratchett

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by JK Rowling

Carrie by Stephen King

Matilda by Roald Dahl

I know why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett20190210_202224

Which Lie did I tell? By William Goldman

Circe by Madeline Miller

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Buddhism for beginners

Tao Te Ching by Lao-Tzu

A Million little pieces by James Frey

And

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Is there a large amount of Terry Pratchett on the list? Yes. To be honest you’re lucky the list didn’t just say “Discworld series”. And this was painful, but these are the books that I come back to again and again, or are so beautiful that I’d bite anyone that tried to remove them from my possession. What would be on your list? CAN you narrow it to 30 or do you struggle to make it up to 30? And what do you feel about the idea of decluttering books? Let me know what you think.

January Round Up

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Circe by Madeline Miller

Circe, daughter of Helios, God of the Sun is shunned by the Olympians and finds herself exiled to Aaiaia for crimes involving witchcraft. Here, her journey of growing up and growing wise begins as, despite being on the periphery, Circe finds herself becoming entangled in the games of fate that Gods play with mortals, and meets her fair share of heroes. Madeline Miller’s retelling of the Greek Myths from the viewpoint of the world’s first witch is formidable. Circe is a fully fleshed out character navigating a world that she was not born to and embarking on a cosmic journey of self-discovery. I loved it and I can’t wait to get at Miller’s other books.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong? by Jodi Taylor

No Time Like the Past by Jodi Taylor

A Trail through Time by Jodi Taylor

Lies, Damned Lies and History by Jodi Taylor

A perfect example of the exploits of St Mary’s Historians is contained in What Could Possibly go Wrong and it involves a baby mammoth. Max is the newly appointed Chief 20190111_111314Training Officer for St Mary’s, a University sponsored team of time travellers who jump around in time observing events for posterity and more than occasionally causing a little havoc while doing so.

Those who have read my recent round ups know that I am entirely obsessed with this series and have been tearing my way through it. Sadly I am nearing the end of the published works, but some of the best of the series have been this month. Instead of running out of steam, Taylor keeps finding new and exciting ways to keep the pace going. But be warned, she comes from the George R R Martin school of character treatment, and every so often a character will rip your heart out and stomp on it. If you haven’t read this series, you really really should.

This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart

Struggling actress Lucy Waring decides to get some well-earned R and R when her sister 20190110_153108invites her for a family holiday on the island of Corfu. Also staying on the family estate are the enigmatic Godfrey Manning and Father and son Julian and Max Gale, who lead a reclusive life away from prying eyes. Suddenly everyone’s peace is disturbed with the death of Spiro, a local fisherman with close ties to all of them, and secrets and intrigue are inevitably unravelled.

Although the twists and turns are inevitably predictable, the 1960s setting and accompanying manners of its characters add layers of charm to an engaging story. The characters are likeable, if a little patronising of the hospitality and kindness of the Greek people, and there is just enough uncertainty over allegiances to be intriguing.

Big Damn Hero by James Lovegrove

Just as the crew of Serenity is about to embark on a reputation restoring delivery with an extra possibility of explosiveness (Thanks for that Badger), Mal disappears and the crew is left trying to decide which danger to run from and which one to run too. Mal despite facing his fair share of dangers finds himself facing the most personal, and the most serious series of events in his life.

I love Firefly and I loved this. I’ve been starved of Firefly since it was cancelled unforgivably early, and this story instantly made me want to go back and rewatch the season again. The characters were vividly recognisable and it added some much craved backstory, particularly for Shepherd Book. I usually measure a books worth by whether I want more. With this one I can’t wait for the next two due out later this year.

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The God of all small boys by Joseph Lamb

A book for 8 to 11 year olds, this is being published on 14 February and my full Review will be up alongside a review with an interview with some fantastic answers from the author on the 26th.

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

In 60s New York 4 siblings, Daniel, Simon, Klara and Varya, are enjoying a languid summer when news reaches them of a travelling fortune teller set up in the immediate vicinity. Except that this fortune teller specialises in telling people the date of their death. Daring each other with innocent naivete to visit her, the family are given widely different fortunes, with lifelong repercussions. We then follow each sibling over the years and see the consequences of the visit, providing both inspiring and cautionary tales.

I knew nothing of this book going in and I was surprised at the beauty that was found in the minutiae of everyday lives. Each story had a very different feel and it was enjoyable, if a little pedestrian in the story beats in places. A solid read but pretty forgettable.

If Cats Disappeared From the World by Genki Kawamura

Following a terminal diagnosis, our unnamed narrator is then visited by the devil, with a bargain that, predictably, is too good to be true. Steadily he learns what matters most to him in life, and how the seemingly little things can have a profound impact.

A modern Japanese fable, this contains all the life affirming elements set in strange hypothetical situations which you can expect from a storytelling culture which revels in nudging home it’s life lessons via the most surreal avenue possible. But it was not as engaging as the premise promised to be. The Narrator was a little two dimensional for me to invest in his journey of self-discovery, and I didn’t find him any more likeable at the end than at the beginning, which made it hard for me to invest in his tale.

Selected Poems by T.S. Eliot

No. Just no. I feel like a Philistine saying this because Eliot is held up as such a literary classic, and I went in with such high hopes, but knowing very little about Eliot and I loathed it. I persevered, and I did find one poem I liked: The Hippopotamus, but I had to fight through too much self-indulgent, racist and misogynistic tripe to find it. Eliot is clearly poetic marmite: his fans will fight to the ends of the earth to justify him and his viewpoints claiming it is done as satire. My feeling is it’s not and the man was a prick.

Pick of the month: Circe by Madeline Miller

Dud of the Month: Selected Poems by T.S. Eliot

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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.

November Reading Round Up

Bit quicker of the mark this month, hopefully that’s a good sign. I’ve enjoyed most of my books this month, bar one. I have a ridiculously large pile to read for December, the sooner the holidays the come the better! As always, let me know what you thought of any of these, or of any recommendations you may have based on the below.  Anyway, let’s Dig in:

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Spoiler alert: Eleanor is not completely fine; She is a lonely, traumatised young woman thumbnail_20181110_211459who is the product of a deeply abusive childhood. But try telling her that. Her level of trauma is only superseded by her level of denial. And then slowly, and totally against her carefully mapped out routines, she begins to form connections. People come into her life who chip away at her carefully constructed walls and as her life begins to look a little messier and a little more joyful she begins to discover all the things she hadn’t even realised she was missing.

Equal parts absurdly funny and painfully visceral this book is a must read. It is optimistic and heartbreaking, empowering and full of love, and it perfectly highlights the impact a little kindness can have as well as the repercussions of casual cruelty. Yes, it’s everywhere, but don’t let that put you off – there’s a reason and there are elements of it which are much darker than I was expecting, despite the pervading sense of fun.

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

Following the death of her mother, Sophia and her Father move in with her Grandmother and establish a new family routine. The family spends its winters in town on the mainland and summers on a private island in the Gulf of Finland; a quiet, isolated existence where small joys become momentous and relationships count for everything.

The Summer Book hinges on Sophia’s relationship with her grandmother, while her father remains a faceless object on the periphery, preoccupied with work and hard graft to keep the family self-sufficient. Meanwhile Sophia and her Grandmother push and pull at each other as their relationship shifts and reforms over the years.thumbnail_IMG_20181117_212222_476 They fight, they make up and they explore their immediate surroundings, finding endless adventures in the tiny and unpredictable environment and a deep bond.

From the author of the Moomins, The Summer Book is a touching story with a predictably strong focus on the importance and warmth of family relationships. Its’ style is reminiscent of the Little House books (minus the problematic racism and sense of privilege). It’s beautifully atmospheric, resulting in a tangible sense of island life and the importance of different family relationships.

The Truth Pixie by Matt Haig

The Truth Pixie has been cursed since birth, unable to utter anything except the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, even when it causes no end of discomfort, hurt and offence to the magical creatures around her. With such an affliction she feels she has no choice but to lock herself away and engage with people as little as possible and only when absolutely necessary, until one day, when it all comes crashing down in an encounter with a Troll. But this seeming disaster quickly leads to the Truth Pixie making her first real friends who teach her to accept and value her curse as a gift.

This one was so short I almost feel like I’m cheating including it, but its message of being yourself and you will eventually find your people is important. And it’s Matt Haig who is quickly becoming my must read author of 2018.

One of our Thursday’s is Missing

Yes, I’m still ploughing my way through this series. Despite some of its ideological complexity it is highly entertaining in its Meta assessments of the written word. A Detective series set inside a Bookworld inside an alternative Universe (Head spinning yet?), where Thursday Next can jump between reality and the settings of any written word, this is a typical mystery series set inside a very atypical world. And just as you feel you’ve got a grip on things, Jasper Fforde has a bit of fun and throws a spanner in the works with One of our Thursday’s is Missing.

This is the first book to be told from the perspective of someone other than the “real” Thursday, instead switching to the viewpoint of her fictional counterpoint, the ‘written’ who has a very different set of motivations, is treated as inferior by just about everybody but is similar enough to the original that her curiosity is not entirely under control, making her the only one trustworthy enough to track down the real Thursday and unravel the conspiracies threatening both the real and the book world. One of Our Thursday’s is Missing is as good as the best in the series and better than many of them, but if you reach this far in the series it’s safe to say that I’m preaching to the choir.

Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughn

I do enjoy Crime Fiction, but it’s not my go to genre. I struggle with the predictability of it; I often feel like it’s trying incredibly hard to illicit an emotional reaction or deliver a shock and it very rarely does, despite stories being beautifully crafted and the obvious narrative skill from the author. thumbnail_20181129_085510I struggle with the voyeuristic nature of it; I am drawn into rooting for increasingly terrible things to happen, simply to provide me with entertainment which I sometimes find unsettling. And yet, I tear through crime fiction books fast. They seem to be light palate cleansers, endlessly readable, but leaving me ready to consume something more substantial.

Anatomy of Scandal is such a book. Kate Woodcroft is a Crown Prosecutor with a particular taste for prosecuting sex crimes. James Whitehouse is the rising star politician who finds himself on trial for rape. Taking a unique angle of a crime mystery by viewing it from the court trial as opposed to initial investigation, the twists and turns were still clear from very early on. This book is clearly a product of the Me Too movement. Entitled powerful white men benefiting from a system that gives them the benefit of the doubt potentially facing their comeuppance, and there are some wonderfully crafted moments and characters, but it never quite feels like it manages to break out of the generic crime fiction boundaries. Enjoyable and readable popcorn for the soul.

Sled Zepplin

Elma the Elf is new to Santa’s toy factory. She’s full of enthusiasm and initiative; two qualities that are firmly discouraged in elves. It quickly becomes clear why as Elma discovers a conspiracy of MI5 proportions:  Santa is missing, and has been for years, which as a mangy farting and forgotten Comet explains, is why Parents have taken to giving out cheap nasty toys and dressing up as Santa. (Beware of this depending on what level of belief your child is at as it may lead to awkward questions).

I was eager to read this as it’s the first book I was given for an honest review and who doesn’t love free books? But for a long time I couldn’t because the day it arrived and I read the opening sentence  (which is a corker of an opening sentence) to my 6 year old he disappeared with it into his room and refused to emerge until he’d read the whole thing. I’m not sure I can provide a better review than that – he devoured it and loved it. My one caveat would be that Cranachan Books is advertising this as an “advent book”, one chapter a night in the lead up to Christmas. It will never last that long because your kids won’t want to stop.

Elevation by Stephen Kingthumbnail_20181115_184640

The latest Novella from King is a strange affair. It tells the story of Scott Corey who has discovered that he is exponentially losing weight without losing any mass, a terminal illness that only leaves him with months to craft some sort of positive impact to leave behind on his small Maine hometown.

On the surface it’s a pretty hamfisted story of equality, homophobia and and prejudices, however it is intricately woven with the importance of kindness and neighbourliness overcoming perceived differences and bringing out the best in people. Given its length, it has to do its job in a very small space and manages to be intriguing and optimistic if a little preachy. On top of all that, it has the page turning readability of all Stephen King stories. The man could describe Government Policy and probably make it compelling.

Darke by Rick Geckoski

Dr James Darke is a dick. There’s no way round it. He is a pompous, selfish, cruel, racist dick and even as an understanding for his present day actions develops in graphic detail it doesn’t combat the fact that he was a dick before his more recent traumas. As a character study it is somewhat interesting. Seeing the difference between his thought processes as he freely writes in his journal and the more restrained version he presents to the world, including his loved ones, is a jarring contrast but yeesh; This was a struggle. It felt like being stuck in the brain of a psychopath.thumbnail_20181201_230313

The novel opens with Darke sealing himself away from life and while you begin to understand the reasons for this about half way through (and I don’t want to spoil this because as hard as it was to read what he and Suzy go through on a human level, this was the only thing that gave me any semblance of sympathy for Darke and kept me going until the end) you have to make it through too many instances of blatant cruelty and casually racist attitudes to get there.  I believe in the author’s note he refers to Darke as “Curmudgeonly” but that suggests some level of grumpy charm which he simply doesn’t possess. Darke clearly has a way of viewing the world that it’s tempting to dismiss as unique, but then his wife displays some questionable views as well and it’s hard not to believe that these are just hateful people. It’s a very ‘worthy’ book but not an enjoyable one.

 

Pick of the month: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Dud of the Month: Darke by Rick Geckoski

The Life of a Reader in the Outer Hebrides

IMG_0039It’s been a while since I’ve posted, in large part because it’s been a busy month and completing a thought has been an achievement, let alone managing to write with anything resembling creativity or coherence. But, as always, reading has provided me with a respite.

Living in the Hebrides, reading is a no brainer for me. It’s often like living on a full time book retreat, even with the franticness of everyday life; the work life balance allows an extraordinary amount of time to read in comfort. Hygge existed here long before they starting charging extortionate fees for books telling you to buy blankets and more books.

For those of you that don’t know, the Outer Hebrides is a group of islands off the North West coast of Scotland with a population of around 27,000. It’s a windswept stunning place that on a nice day could stand in for the Caribbean and on gloomy days could reasonably host an adaptation of Wuthering Heights. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFull of winding roads leading to hidden nooks and crannies, it’s an area that, despite living here my whole life, I’m still finding places where I’ve never been before and which surprise me.

But growing up here was, and still is, difficult in a very unique way. It’s a close-knit place where everyone knows your business, or if they don’t they assume they do and judge accordingly. It’s a restrained stoic community, which a lot of national media likes to hype as being a Sabbath obsessed oddity and is a completely unfair and unbalanced portrayal. At times it can be unbearably claustrophobic, particularly if you stand out in any way. However the people are fiercely loyal and protective of their communities. Being a historically sea-faring community, it is possible to find someone with Lewis, Harris, Uist or Barra connections in every corner of the world, and if you find them you’ve found an ally. It can be a difficult community to break your way into (the term “incomers” is used often enough to be an ongoing bone of contention) but once you do, you have a home for life, and a family of 27,000 along with it.

thumbnail_20181126_123615So it was, that growing up as an introvert in this environment I dived into books very early on and unearthed new worlds to explore. I found solace through a difficult teen period in the school library which was a much better option than the town streets given the temperamental Scottish weather. Wherever I went I had my nose in a book and a spare book in my bag. Through bullying and bad break ups, leaving home and growing up, reading has not only been my constant but has often shaped my direction of travel and who I’ve become.

As I grew up there were no grand bookshops on the islands, but charity shop finds fuelled my tastes and the library, tucked away in a souped-up porta cabin for years before finally getting a dedicated building, supported my growth. Briefly a book order service was available at a local shop where I had a regular account, and I poured over Scholastic book catalogues from the school. (I still do whenever the children, very occasionally, bring them home).

We still don’t have a dedicated bookshop, one of the newsagents has a small section, but it’s by no means extensive, or particularly affordable. Our library is excellent but is under constant threat of having its legs cut out from beneath it. And I wonder how the children who are currently suffering bullying cope with it? Where do they find theirGrounds 1.1.14 refuge from the constant bombardment of modern life, where missiles can come at you from all directions and at all times of day or night?

Finding books in the islands became my quest as a child, one which gave me a purpose, a distraction and a world education and one which I still follow with fervour as an adult. More than once being able to escape into a book has saved me. But that passion was shaped by an environment that encouraged me to read while hunkering down through storms and lying on the machair in the sunshine.  Despite the hardships and the constant pressures, it is a privileged and idyllic life and I feel exceptionally lucky. But dear God, someone open a bookshop!

Sled Zepplin by Camilla Victoria Storm and Nick Simons

I was provided with a copy of Sled Zepplin in exchange for my honest review.

Elma the Elf is new to Santa’s toy factory. She’s full of enthusiasm and initiative; two qualities that are firmly discouraged in elves. It quickly becomes clear why, as Elma discovers a conspiracy of MI5 proportions: Santa is missing, and has been for years! Which as a mangy, farting and forgotten Comet explains, is why Parents have taken to giving out cheap nasty toys and dressing up as Santa. (Beware of this depending on what level of belief your child is at, as it may lead to awkward questions. Ours was told that there was no Santa by his grandfather at age 4. I’m very bitter about it). Elma is having none of it and so she and Comet set off on an adventure to get the reindeer band back together, find Santa and save Christmas.

Cranachan books is a relatively new publisher on the Scottish book scene, so the book isn’t necessarily as polished as the output from the larger publishers (there’s a few typos and sentences occasionally feel a little disjointed or hurried) but the story is a breathless romp with a great heroine, some great ideas and some genuinely fantastic lines which will have your kids giggling and begging for more. There’s certainly enough wit to keep you entertained as well, with wry little asides and comedic timing that translate well. McScrump’s accent is so well written that his character immediately leaps off the page.

I was eager to read this as it’s the first book I was given for review and who doesn’t love free books? But for a long time I couldn’t because the day it arrived and I read the opening sentence, which is a corker of an opening sentence, my 6 year old disappeared with it into his room and refused to emerge until he’d read the whole thing. I caught him reading it under his duvet at 10pm one night. I’m not sure I can provide a better review than that – he devoured it and loved it. My one caveat would be that, brilliantly, Cranachan Books is advertising this as an “advent book”; one chapter a night in the lead up to Christmas. It will never last that long because your kids won’t want to stop.

Spooktober reading

Yes, I know, it is a week since the end of October and I’m only just doing a monthly round up now, but in all fairness; I’ve only just decided that this is something I want to do, so consider this a practice run.

This has been a big reading month for me, so I promise that there won’t be this amount of content in every monthly round up, but in October I managed 12 books. Phew, no wonder I’m tired! A lot of this level of reading has something to do with an ongoing bout of insomnia: and a lot of my insomnia might have something to do with picking up books way too close to bedtime. Whoever advised that you should read before going to sleep at night to help relax was clearly reading very different sorts of books.

Anyway, moving on.  At the end of each month I plan to rank the books I’ve read that month – best at the top. I’m really shocked to notice that my two best books from October are non-fiction as I’m normally purely a fiction kind of girl (Real life has too many sharp edges).

The Guilty Feminist: From our noble goals to our worst hypocrisies by Deborah Frances WhiteIMG_20181028_162325_812

Anyone who uses podcasts should be listening to the Guilty Feminist podcast. Thought-provoking, educational, intersectional and always striving to be better while admitting to those little niggles that might undermine your best intentions, the Guilty Feminist community is a glorious community filled with laughter, hope and righteous anger when it’s required. It’s fair to say I love it, so when a friend sent me a signed copy of Deborah Frances White’s new book, which deals with the same themes, I immediately promoted her to best friend and gave her my children in my will. (I didn’t do that; She would never have forgiven me. She’s getting the cat.)

I am also stealing her review of the book because I haven’t thought of anything better and I’m shameless: “It’s a self-help book for people who hate self-help books.” And it is. I found it empowering, inspirational, funny and challenging. If you want to know how and why you should check your privilege, why you take every opportunity to make your voice heard or even why it’s ok to like Say Yes to the Dress and how Dirty Dancing is a feminist text, then this is the book for you. Bugger that, this is a book for everyone and everyone should read it now.

As you Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride by Cary Ewles, Joe Layden and Rob Reiner

Look there’s no getting round it, I am a MASSIVE fan of the Princess Bride and have been for a very long time so picking this book to read was a no-brainer for me. An account of the Princess Bride from the perspective of a very young and green Cary Ewles with contributions from every other major player who is currently still alive, this book is as charming, innocent and full of love and nostalgia as the film itself. In fact it made me desperate to go and watch it again – which is what all good accounts should do. It feels a little bit too lovey at times, and the dismissive way everyone just accepts Robin Wright’s role boosting the male characters despite being the titular character is a little disappointing, but If you like the Princess Bride, this is a must read.

The Humans by Matt Haig IMG_20181015_215007_152

Matt Haig has been a bit of a discovery for me this year. I know he’s been around and doing his thing for ages, but I’ve only  just fallen in love with his style and imagination. The Humans feels like a mix between non-fiction and high fantasy. Ostensibly the story of an alien assassin sent to earth to impersonate a mathematician and remove any and all evidence of his latest groundbreaking discovery (seriously, what’s not to love about that concept?), the tale is actually a study of what makes us human, what connects us and how, given all our apparent cruelty, barbarism and hypocrisies, do we retain our optimism and earn our place in the Universe. It’s a lovely story full of heart in the face of apparent darkness. You will need to be able to suspend your cynicism and allow yourself to be swept along in the story, as Matt Haig’s writing works best on the emotive level.

First Among Sequels, Something Rotten and The Well of Lost Plots by Jasper Fforde

Somewhat unfairly I am writing a review for all three of these books together as they are all part of the same “Thursday Next” Series, which is suitably intricate so I would recommend starting at the beginning and working your way through. Even then you may find some of the more fantastical mechanics of how the bookworld operates confusing but the rollicking adventure more than makes up for it, and as Fforde points out through his characters “Some people like the technical stuff”.

Thursday Next is a literary detective for the Swindon division of Spec Ops in an alternate world where Dodos, Mammoths and time travel are all prevalent. Not only that but Thursday has discovered the ability to jump in and out of the “bookworld” which consists of any type of writing. Including washing instructions. If you are still with me then this is definitely a series to pick up. I’ve enjoyed them all so far, even the bits I didn’t fully follow. The world building is suitably whimsical and meta that it probably covers no end of narrative sins. Some characters are jarring, but few stick around for long and there’s endless fun to be had with spotting all the literary references.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Mia Warren and her 15 year old daughter Pearl live a nomadic lifestyle, but as they arrive in Shaker Heights they intend to bring that to an end, allowing Pearl to invest in making friends and hopes for the future for the first time. Their arrival however sends ripples throughout the rigid suburban community and particularly the tidy life of their IMG_20181018_183028_411landlady Mrs Richardson.

With a little space from this book I’m now torn. I enjoyed it while I was reading it, and the characters were well drawn. I didn’t spot a lot of the twists and turns or how well some of the sub-plot characters would connect with me and the “little fires” that are lit are absolutely needed to subvert the suppression. But I’m not jumping up and down with excitement about it. I’m glad I read it but I’m not rushing to recommend it to anyone as a must read, although I suspect it would make some people question their life choices.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson and Laura Miller

I picked this up because I was looking for something with a spooky atmosphere.  I loved the film from the 1960s and along with half the world’s population it seems, I’m currently hiding behind pillows watching the new TV show on Netflix (Which has very little to do with the book except for a few name checks and nods.). Focused on 4 people: 2 women with varying supernatural experiences, a young man who is set to inherit the house and Dr Montague who invites them to stay one summer and see what they can uncover within the supposedly haunted house, the narrative stays pretty close to Eleanor’s viewpoint. It does so so subtly that it is only as the book itself decends into madness alongside Eleanor that you realise how linked you are to her perspective. A nice read with plenty of atmosphere, it feels tame in comparison to even the 1960s film, let alone the current series.

False Lights by K.J. Whittaker

I received this book as part of my book subscription and absolutely would not have chosen this by myself, so going into it with fairly low expectations meant I was pleasantly surprised.  Set in an alternate universe where Napoleon won the battle of waterloo and England is now under occupation by the French, this historical romance novel follows the adventures of Hester Harewood. The daughter of a black sea captain and a disowned aristocrat, she has to avenge the murder of her father, tame her new husband who is suffering from PTSD and save her home, the Duke of Wellington and England itself, all while carrying the weight of society’s haughty disdain fuelled by racism. It’s a pretty heavy load, but luckily she’s a compelling heroine. So why so low on the list? I think because it feels so niche and while I was interested in what happened I don’t think I actually emotionally connected with anyone. For a start I loathed Jack Crowlas and so the fact that Hester was so drawn to him held me back from committing to her totally. If you like historical romance I think you’d love this. If you don’t, maybe steer clear.

The end we start from by Megan Hunter

In the near future London floods catastrophically, resulting in a mass exodus of refugees into the rest of Britain. On the same day, a London woman gives birth to a baby and she and her family have to flee the disaster area, suddenly displaced and lost. The narrative unfolds in short flashes of memory from the mother’s point of view as she tries to not only survive, but create some semblance of a life for her new child. This story was an odd one. I finished it in about 2 hours: I couldn’t put it down but the characters annoyed me so much with their choices, particularly towards the end that I was just left frustrated. It’s an unusual book, and certainly a memorable exploration of the “What if” dystopia scenario but beware feeling an anger that the protagonist is all too willing to forgive a pretty big wrong done to her.

Can you Hear Me? By Elena Varvello

An Italian man reflects on his 16th summer in a sleepy rural town where he started to discover some of life’s pleasures courtesy of his best friend’s mother, while his father spirals into a mental health breakdown that has catastrophic repercussions for his family. I found this to be a tough read, not simply because of the looming foreboding of Elia’s father. His mother suffers horrifically and has her efforts to protect Elia and hold her family together largely ignored. There are secrets hinted at and never revealed and the whole tale ends on a note of despondent acceptance. It was an effective story but I definitely needed something cheerier to read afterwards!

Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters by Mike Grell Lurene Haines

Yeah not a fan. The artwork was lovely, Oliver and Dinah were great. The story even had an emotional dimension that I welcome in my superhero stories.  But I have a real problem with how they chose to victimise Dinah without giving her a substantial story (Other than the repercussions of her investigation, her story is mainly conducted off panel) all for a pay off in future comics. Word to the wise, if you have to dedicate a section in your intro as to WHY you feel you had to abuse the female lead then you’re writing your female characters wrong. Moreover Oliver felt like a passenger in his own Green Arrow story. It’s all set up and very little pay off, and in a graphic novel that is considered a classic I expect more.

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Pick of the month: The Guilty Feminist: From our noble goals to our worst hypocrisies by Deborah Frances White

Dud of the month: Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters by Mike Grell and Lurene Haines et all