Sonny and Me by Ross Sayers

Book Review

After spending a week of my life immersed in my new favourite novel I picked up Sonny and Me by Ross Sayers to review, stealing myself that it just wasn’t going to be as good but “I’d better give it a chance”. And something amazing happened; it completely blew me over and stormed into my heart.

Set in Battlefield High in Stirlingshire, Sonny and Me follows two teenage boys; Sonny and Billy Daughter, best friends just trying to make it through secondary school with their dignity intact, when Daughter’s favourite school teacher, Miss Baird, is summarily20190521_183953 (1) kicked out of school and his hopes of making it through his Maths National 5 are dashed. Being a good Scots lad, Daughter is not willing to let this stand and he and Billy set about sticking their noses in and trying to unravel the web of gossip and intrigue that permeates their school. Is Miss Baird a home-wrecking villain, or is something more sinister going on?

The description of Sonny and Me doesn’t begin to touch on the warmth and humour that characterise this book. Sonny and Daughter are so well drawn, so recognisable and relatable, that I would willingly read about them watching paint dry; because I guarantee that their take on it would make me laugh. From the first time Sonny opens his beautifully naive mouth on page 1 I was laughing. These are two young boys who may not always have everything sorted, but deal with unrequited love, coming out and criminals with the same compassion, twinkle of wit and groan inducing jokes. Who express their “wokeness” with moral integrity but also a strong sense of Scottish mischief. Who, if my sons grew to be anything like them, I would be intensely proud; even while pulling my hair out with stress and despair. They feel like a true and honest depiction of kind and full of trouble teenage boys.

Around them the plot flows, always grounded in believability, even as it weaves its way through its mad cap revelations at the end (perhaps the one exception is the headmistress who feels a little pantomime villain in her boo-hiss evilness, but that is real nit picking.). Every step and choice the boys make is logical and relatable and often hilariously funny.

Maybe it’s because I spent four years in Stirling and so the geographical references made me feel like I’d come home, but Sonny and Me is so full of heart, humour and a rollicking good plot that reading it feels like hanging out with your best friends. This is a story targeted at young adults but endlessly enjoyable and highly recommended for everyone. Mature, thoughtful and genuinely laugh out loud funny.

April showers allow reading for hours

April Reading Round-Up

This is a bit of an unfair month; nothing I read was a particular DUD, although there were a lot of “average” reads. However nothing fell below 3 stars (out of 5). That said, there were a lot of very specialised genre books, so bare in mind that although I enjoyed them all, they are definitely not all for everyone.

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The Library Book by Susan Orlean

This was my surprise of the month. An impulse pick up from the Library display, it felt like Kismet and it was. Orlean is a staff writer for the New Yorker, who previously wrote the Orchid Thief, which I’ve heard of but yet to read. In The Library Book she re-discovers her love of libraries through her son’s school project and sets her journalistic eye on the history and depths of the Los Angeles Central Library which suffered a cataclysmic fire in 1986.

Part History book, part mystery investigation and part sociology study of the Microcosm of the Library’s clientele, no description can do this book justice. Try and tell someone what it’s about and it just sounds archaic, but like the libraries it waxes lyrical about, it 20190411_085121has hidden fathoms. It’s beautiful; atmosphere and quotes dripping from every page, and not only have I not stopped talking about it since I read it, but I’ve immediately had to go out and buy my own copy. Seriously, give it a try, if you love books I dare you not to fall further in love with libraries and librarians after reading this.

Feminists Don’t Wear Pink and other lies, curated by Scarlett Curtis

A collection of essays from activists, actresses, and women wanting to shout their autonomy from the hills, FDWP is a must read for anyone beginning their Feminist journey, or simply wanting to shore up their battle weary heart after another day of fighting the patriarchy. As with all essays, you may not agree with everything written here, but the book makes clear that you don’t have too. Everyone’s interpretation of Feminism is going to be slightly different, and each is equally valid. It’s about listening to all view points, educating yourself on experiences you may not directly 20190404_152104have had and supporting other women in their own battlefields, and all the proceeds go to Girl Up a United Nations Foundation Initiative, so you’re helping others while reading!

I found it inspirational and funny and I think if you come to it willing to learn then you’ll definitely gain something from it.

Snakeskins by Tim Major

I’m not going to say much about this, because I have book giveaway and fuller review coming later in the month – but it’s definitely worth it. An excellent and intriguing Sci-fi novel which deals with themes of humanity, empathy and power and which I could not predict even down to the last couple of chapters.

Death Sentence by Stuart Moore (Published 2 May 2019)

I have an Avengers itch that needs scratched (It’s not on in the cinema here until the 24th of May. Avoiding spoilers is HARD), so this came along at the right time. Thanos is my Ultimate villain right now and so getting a book looking at his internal motivations has the same feel as reading a serial killer psychological study…who says Marvel fans take things too seriously?

This book is NOT set in the cinematic universe, but it is close enough to scratch that itch for me. Having suffered a final defeat at the hands of the Avengers Thanos begs his beloved Mistress Death for a final chance to prove his devotion and she puts him through an afterlife walkabout that steadily reveals hidden depths to Thanos and his motivations, as well as some welcome cameos from more heroic characters.

The Titanic Detective Agency by Lindsay Littleson (Published 15 May 2019)

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 pony. Facing several boring days crossing the Atlantic onboard a ship, she and her new friend, Madge, decide to set up The Collyer-Watt Detective Agency. 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.

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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. An excellent introduction to the Titanic for younger readers.

The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Macarenhas

In the 60s four female scientists make a landmark breakthrough that will transform the world – Time travel. But their paths soon diverge as one of them has a shakey temporary reaction and is unashamedly pushed out in order not to tarnish the project. Meanwhile, in the present a mysterious and unidentified dead body appears in a locked room, but without any way to identify it how can the case be solved.

I am a SUCKER for Time Travel. It doesn’t need to make sense for me, I just love the different narrative options it can open up for a story – it feels like a sandbox of possibilities for me. So when this fell through my letterbox courtesy of my monthly book subscription I was giddy. It was a dark exploration of how power corrupts and that we should be careful what we wish for, alongside a healthy dose or mystery thriller, and female lead to boot. My only complaint was that it felt a little like it was playing it safe to appeal to the mainstream market and that it could have let loose and gone even darker.

Blood Orange by Harriet Tyce

Alison is a high flying London Barrister deep in a guilt ridden affair and who’s family life is falling apart, her husband Carl systematically pulling away and taking their daughter with him. When Alison is handed her first murder by her lover, things start to come to a head. But who is really manipulating who and can Alison find her way back from the brink to the life she really wants?

It’s a typical mystery thriller, well-written but fairly predictable, and with a messy alcoholic female protaganist. A must read for anyone who loved Girl on a train and Anatomy of a Murder, but still a mystery thriller by numbers.

The Farm by Joanne Ramos (Published 7 June 2019)

Le Sigh. I enjoyed The Farm; it was a good read but it simply didn’t live up to expectations. It was sold as a feminist almost dystopian tale, and while all the main characters are complex women, it is much more focused on current world issues which we’re grappling with and moral and ethical questions around surrogacy and potential exploitation. While these are interesting and prescient topics and the characters were engaging and well written, the ending felt like a cop out. I’m not sure it ever really reached a conclusion. I was happy for the outcome for most characters, but it felt like it dodged the overarching issues and complexities in order to wrap everything up in a nice little bow, without ever truly delving that deeply into the issues of exploitation and racism that it hinted at.
A good read but not as world shattering as had been implied.

Supernatural – Children of Anubis by Tim Waggoner

I’m a Supernatural Fan. For a brief period I was even part of the Fandom. I’m on my third full rewatch and I will absolutely feel like something is missing when the show ends next year (God help me, those boys BETTER get a happy ending!..although I’m not holding out much hope), so I jumped up and down with excitement when I was offered this for a preview, and I did enjoy it. But it did not feel like a Sam and Dean story.

20190422_163153Introducing a new monster after so many seasons is impressive, and this story, which is set during season 12 introduces a family of Jackals, a monster that has generally stayed off the radar of hunters by not rocking the boat and only harvesting after natural deaths. However they do rub Werewolves up the wrong way, and this unfortunate pack find themselves in a town already marked as the territory of a particularly aggressive pack of werewolves. So begins a turf war which is essentially a bloodier version of Westside Story, or Romeo and Juliet to go back to the original. And Turf wars Definitely attract the attention of hunters. So enter Sam and Dean and a couple of other fan favourites, but the story still belongs to the Jackals. And it’s engaging, and the characters are excellent so I’d definitely pick up another one. But that still doesn’t mask the disappointment that this wasn’t a story focused on Sam and Dean, despite some illuminating flashbacks.

All My Colours by David Quantick (Published 16 May 2019)

Todd Milstead is a jackass; barely tolerated by a few close friends who love his whiskey more than him and loathed by almost everybody else, his arrogance and self-satisfaction mark him for a comeuppance well overdue. Until one night when he discovers that he can recall a book, word for word, that no one else has ever heard of – the titular All My Colors. Being a wannabe writer who, until this moment hasn’t managed to construct enough narrative to fit on a napkin, Todd decides that this is his chance, and while fending off an acrimonious divorce sets about writing the next Great American Novel.

All My Colors is the latest novel from David Quantick, who this time takes a twisty look at the Publishing industry and the pain of trying to write something, sometimes anything, that might help you leave a mark. In this case it comes with a high price for Todd and his long suffering friends, proving a cautionary tale at chasing your dreams at any cost, and serving up an end reminiscent of an episode of Tales from the Crypt – weird but deserved and with a cackley twinkle.

All My Colors is dark and twisty and has a horrible protagonist, even in his nicer moments and so-called reformation. While the end feels a little bit too rushed and the atmosphere is all over the place, it carries enough threads of curiosity through it to keep you turning the pages and wondering how they can all be tied together.

 

 

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!

 

All My Colors – Review

Todd Milstead is a jackass; barely tolerated by a few close friends who love his whiskey more than him and loathed by almost everybody else, his arrogance and self-satisfaction mark him for a comeuppance well overdue. Until one night when he discovers that he can recall a book, word for word, that no one else has ever heard of – the titular All My Colors. Being a wannabe writer who, until this moment hasn’t managed to construct enough narrative to fit on a napkin, Todd decides that this is his chance, and while fending off an acrimonious divorce sets about writing the next Great American Novel.

After all, if no one else can remember the book, then surely it’s his for the taking? And that’s when the weird starts.

IMG_20190416_205803_984All My Colors is the latest novel from the writer of Veep and The Thick of It, David Quantick, who this time takes a twisty look at the Publishing industry and the pain of trying to write something, sometimes anything, that might help you leave a mark. In this case it comes with a high price for Todd and his long suffering friends, proving a cautionary tale at chasing your dreams at any cost, and serving up an end reminiscent of an episode of Tales from the Crypt – weird but deserved and with a cackley twinkle.

Titan Books is promoting this to fans of Chuck Palahniuck and I can’t think of a more appropriate comparison. All My Colors is dark and twisty and has a horrible protagonist, even in his nicer moments and so-called reformation. While the end feels a little bit too rushed and the atmosphere is all over the place, it carries enough threads of curiosity through it to keep you turning the pages and wondering how they can all be tied together. Has Todd really witnessed what he thought he witnessed? Is he going mad? Or is something more malevolent at work? And will it all be worth it in the end?

I was provided a copy of All My Colors for a fair and honest review. I’d give it about 3 and a half stars (out of 5). It’s not average, but it’s not shot to the top of my must read lists either.

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.

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.

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!

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