Thursday, 31 December 2015

Books of the Year 2015

It's hard to believe that this blog has been going for a whole year. When I started this blog back in January, my aim was to focus more on my reading time and thereby reduce my ever expanding TBR pile. I've certainly achieved one of those goals and have read some excellent books during the course of 2015,the best of which I want to highlight here and encourage you yet again to go and out and read them if you have not already done so!

Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St John Mandel

I read this one right back at the start of the year (read my full review here) and knew right then that it was going to be a favourite. A post-apocalypse story with a difference, this engrossing novel follows a group of travelling actors and musicians as they roam America performing Shakespeare to a world ravaged by a deadly flu virus. Alternating between the days leading up to the flu outbreak and the years following, the multiple narratives combine effortlessly to make up a compelling and unusual take on a well worn genre. Even if post-apocalyptic or 'genre' fiction isn't usually your thing, check this one out because it's amazing.

Ready Player One by Ernest Kline

Ready Player OneA love letter to all things geek, I adored this book when I read and reviewed it in February. Whilst it's not super original or amazingly clever or even the best written of novels, it is a Grade A geek-fest, filled to bursting with retro 1980s video game and TV references. Ready Player One has everything I could ask for in a book - an epic battle of good versus evil, an intriguing quest narrative, a sense of fun, a bit of romance and a underlying message about the little things that really matter in life. When my book club read this one in October, everyone enjoyed it - even those who weren't into computer games and didn't usually like genre fiction - so I'd urge anyone to check Ready Player One out. 

Reasons to Stay AliveReasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

Almost certainly my non-fiction book of this year, this account of author Matt Haig's battle with depression and crippling anxiety is brave, honest and inspirational (full review here). As someone whose own life has been affected by anxiety, this was a really important book for me this year. It teaches you that it's okay to have bad days and that normal is subjective and that life has so many beautiful ways of surprising you, even when you least expect it. This is a beautifully written book with an intensity of feeling that just blows you away as you read. Which would be amazing in and of itself. Given that an estimated one in four UK adults suffer from a mental health problem each year however, this book is also vitally important in promoting better discussion of mental health issues and in challenging many of the negative assumptions society makes about sufferers of mental disorders. Go and read it now, this blog post will still be waiting for you when you get back. 

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

An epic story, beautifully told. I listened to this on audiobook (reviewed here) but I'm hoping to get chance to settle down and indulge in the paperback this year in order to really appreciate the slow, gentle pacing of this beautiful, lyrical novel. Set during and in the run up to the Second World War, the novel follows two children - a blind French girl called Marie-Laure and a German boy, Werner, skilled at fixing radios - as they are gradually drawn together by events in the world around them. The attention to detail in this novel is just fabulous, especially when you get to 'see' the world from Marie-Laure's perspective with her heightened senses of smell, taste and sound. Each distinctive voice in this book tells a powerful story and, despite the meditative pacing, it has a page-turning quality from beginning to end. 

The Versions of UsVersions of Us by Laura Barnett

A relationship novel with a twist, this fabulous debut follows one couple - Eva & Jim - across three different versions of their lives which alter depending on the choices they make during one fateful afternoon in Cambridge. The premise, which could easily have fallen into the 'one-trick pony' trap, is handled with great skill so that you never lose track of each narrative, or get confused as to which timeline you are following. I loved that each timeline has it's highs and lows - there is no 'good' or 'bad' version of Eva & Jim's relationship and Barnett cleverly plays with the notions of 'happily ever after' as we follow their lives together. Definitely more than your standard relationship novel, this is an intricate and cleverly woven tale of love, life and personal aspirations. A great choice for a reading group, with it's multiple versions of one story making for excellent discussion, this also gets my vote for cover design of the year and, if that's not enough to convince you of it's merits, I reviewed this book in full here earlier in the year.

A Little LifeA Little Life by Hanya Yanigahara

I waxed lyrical about this amazing novel in a rather lengthy blog post in August. Basically, this book knocked me over the head, dragged me back to it's cave and took over the entirety of the month until I'd finished it. Beautiful and terrible in equal measure, it's impossible to summarise this massive novel in just a paragraph. Suffice to say that the plain prose style belies an incredibly complex tale of life in all it's messy glory as it takes us into the lives of four friends, JB, Malcolm, William and Jude. It's been one of the most talked about books of 2015 and is quite deserving of every single piece of praise. By no means a perfect book, and most certainly not an easy read, A Little Life remains compelling fiction at its finest and most definitely one of the strongest contenders for my personal book of 2015. 

The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the MediaThe Vagenda by Holly Baxter & Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

More than just another feminist manifesto to emerge in the wake of Caitlin Moran's 'How To Be A Woman', this is a timely look at women in the media and a scathing examination of the women's magazine industry, journalistic standards and lad culture. Based on the successful blog of the same name, 'The Vagenda' is a witty and insightful call to arms for the modern woman. When I wasn't laughing out loud at the ludicrous depths that companies will stoop to in order to sell women products, I was raging at the worrying ignorance that pervades some elements of the media. Amusing and educational, this is a must read for any men and women alike and completely altered my perception of media culture. A full review can be found here.

Levels of LifeLevels of Life by Julian Barnes

A slim, emotional memoir by the prize-winning author that takes two seemingly disconnected subjects (in this case ballooning and grief) and weaves them together in unflinchingly honest prose. It's hard to explain exactly how this book works - on the surface it sounds completely surreal - but all I can say is that Levels of Life packs an emotional punch that belies it's 128 pages. This is a book that lingers long after the final page has been turned and one that my thoughts turn back to even now. 

So that was it, my books of the year 2015. To be honest, there were so many great books that I read this year that this list could be double the length it is if I just listed the ones I'd enjoyed the most. These 8 books however are the ones that I both enjoyed reading at the time and which have stayed with me in the months that followed. I therefore see them as books that have a great deal to give to a reader, both during the course of initially reading them and in terms of provoking thoughts and topics for discussion afterwards. 

And as for 2016? Well, there's always the goal of reducing my TBR but, given all the great books scheduled for release this year, I doubt that's going to happen! So let's just say that my aim is to keep reading and to keep blogging and leave it at that. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank you for continuing to read my blog. As always, if you have any suggestions for improving the blog or for posts you'd like to see, or if you just want to have a bit of a book chat with me, let me know by leaving a comment down below or tweeting me @amyinstaffs. In the meantime, have a wonderful New Year, I will see you in 2016 and, as always...

Happy Reading! x

Monday, 28 December 2015

REVIEW: In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park

In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to FreedomI have to admit to not being the greatest fan of biography, autobiography and memoir. Too many of the people who get published or written about seem to have done little more in their lives than been famous for five minutes or starred in a popular TV show. And too often ‘memoirs’ seem to have been written to eradicate all trace of a personality or a life, resulting in a stilted and clinical narrative in which any occurrence which might reflect badly upon the writer is erased or glossed over. Obviously a memoir is a recollection, subject to the vagaries of the writer’s memory and their own interpretation of their life, but I have read many where I feel that the real story has been carefully hidden behind the words that ended up on the page.

Not so in Yeonmi Park’s memoir ‘In Order to Live’, subtitled ‘A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom’, which is a brave and insightful examination of the realities of life in the secretive state and the fate that awaits many who try to flee the regime. Yeonmi was only 21 when she wrote the book, younger than I am now, but has lived so many unimaginable lives already that it’s extraordinary that she still has the presence and grace to write such a book. I expected the segments about life in North Korea to be tough but was totally taken aback by the helplessness and brutality involved in Yeonmi’s ‘escape’ through China and her subsequent re-settlement in Seoul.

Told in a very simple style, Yeonmi’s prose has real force. She doesn’t beat around the bush when relating her experiences, which include near-starvation, rape, sexual slavery, kidnap and a constant fear of being caught and returned into the hands of a regime she has given everything to escape. What really surprised me was the way in which North Korean defectors are treated like pawns in a political game and how often their desperate circumstances are used as an excuse to treat them as lesser human beings. The brutal reality of Yeonmi’s story is that so many of the defectors we hear about in The West are likely to have suffered at the hands of human traffickers, been forced into prostitution or slave labor or have sold everything that have in order to survive long enough to make the journey south.

This does make for bleak reading at times. The segment in China is especially hard to comprehend, particularly when you realise that many of the events Yeonmi relates take place in the run up to and course of the 2008 Beijing Olympics when the world was apparently watching the country. In spite of the difficult subject matter and the frank narrative however, this remains a memoir filled with hope and affection. Yeonmi’s deep and abiding love for her family shines through and, despite everything, she retains an abiding affection for her homeland and for the North Korean people. Now based in Seoul as a human rights advocate, Yeonmi’s desire for her people and her homeland to be united is the abiding message of this book.

Whilst researching this review, I came across a number of people who doubted the veracity of Yeonmi’s account of her escape and her subsequent life in China and Seoul. All I can say to that is that, as with any memoir or biography, the narrative is probably subject to the memories and to the wishes of the person telling the story. Personally, I don’t feel that Yeonmi shies away from difficult sections of her memoir and she doesn’t always recount her own actions in the best light either. Everyone in Yeonmi’s account felt real to me, from her father whose love for his family is sometimes in sharp contrast to the danger his actions place them all in; to her Chinese ‘husband’ Hongwei, a human trafficker with a surprising sense of honor. Yeonmi doesn’t deal in heroes and villains – the people in her account are just that, people, with all their good and bad traits on display. To me, that gave an honesty to the narrative which is the best I think you can hope for in a memoir.

Personally, I felt this book was brave and inspirational. It clearly took great courage and strength of character for Yeonmi to have come this far with her life and I hope that she carries on with her advocacy and with raising awareness about the plight of North Korean refugees. This isn’t the most amazingly written book I’ve read this year, nor is it the most groundbreaking or original, but I do think it’s probably one of the most important. As Yeonmi herself says “I have seen the horrors that humans can inflict on one another, but I’ve also witnessed acts of tenderness and kindness and sacrifice in the worse imaginable circumstances. I know that it is possible to lose part of humanity in order to survive. But I also know that the spark of human dignity is never completely extinguished, and given the oxygen of freedom and the power of love, it can grow again.” Inspirational words from a book that is well worth giving some time and attention to.

In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey toFreedom’ by Yeonmi Park is out now in hardback, priced £18.99, from Fig Tree (Penguin Group UK) and is available from all good book retailers. My thanks go to Anna Ridley at Penguin UK for providing a review copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

Monday, 21 December 2015

INTERVIEW with Sarah Ward: Author of 'In Bitter Chill'

Last month I had the pleasure of attending a reading and Q&A at my local bookshop with Sarah Ward, blogger and reviewer at and now crime author, whose debut 'In Bitter Chill' is now available in paperback from Faber & Faber (in the UK) and Minotaur Books (in the US). 

Set in the Derbyshire Peak District, 'In Bitter Chill' is a tightly plotted police procedural that examines the repercussions of one January day in 1978 when schoolgirls Rachel Jones and Sophie Jenkins, are abducted on their way to school. Only Rachel returns home, confused and semi-conscious and with no memory of what happened to her friend. Over thirty years later, Sophie's mother commits suicide and Sophie's case is re-opened. For the local police team, headed up by the enigmatic DI Francis Sadler, the cold case starts out as a frustrating distraction. For Rachel Jones, now a genealogist, it opens old wounds. But both the police and Rachel soon begin to realise that the past holds many secrets and  that the only way for Rachel to have a future, is to discover what really happened all those years ago. 

As a lover of a good crime novel, I really enjoyed 'In Bitter Chill' which has that page-turning quality that grips a reader from the first page to the last. Skillfully plotted, the central mystery had me guessing until the end and the family history element was both interesting and unusual. The cover quote allies the novel with Scandinavian crime fiction but, whilst the strong characterisation and plotting do certainly have a resemblance to the Nordic Noir of authors such as Camilla Lackburg and Jussi Adler Olsen (as does the decidedly chilly January setting!), there is definitely less of the violence that sometimes puts readers (myself included) off Scandi crime. Whilst 'In Bitter Chill' is by no means 'cosy' crime, I'd put it more on par with the tense and meticulous police procedurals of Elizabeth George and P D James, with a focus on the often complex inner psychology of the characters. 

imageFollowing her reading, Sarah kindly agreed to answer a few questions about the writing of the book, the inspiration for her work and what the future holds for her work:

The Shelf of Unread Books: Firstly, I'd be really grateful if you could provide a little background on your writing. You run an established crime blog, Crimepieces, and are a judge for the Petrona Award  for Scandinavian translated crime fiction, so was it this that inspired you to start writing or had you always had the urge to write?And was 'In Bitter Chill' your first attempt at a novel?

Sarah Ward: I've been a reader of crime fiction from a teenager and had been reviewing for about ten years. I always wanted to write  a crime novel but it wasn't until I was living in Athens, Greece that I felt I had the time to dedicate to a book. In Bitter Chill was my second attempt. I have a manuscript in my 'drawer' that contained the police characters of DI Sadler and DC Connie Childs but I felt that the story needed more work. So I started again.

TSoUB: 'In Bitter Chill' is set in a fictional Derbyshire town called Bampton and, I feel, is very routed in the place and has a real sense of the surroundings. I'm aware that you currently live in Derbyshire yourself so what was it about the county that made you want to set a crime novel there?

SW: I live in the Peak District which is very beautiful but at the mercy of the elements. I like novels where the landscape plays a pivotal role in the narrative and therefore Derbyshire seemed perfect. I like the fact it's not a rural idyll but also has elements of its industrial revolution heritage and also changes with the seasons. Summer is packed with tourists whereas in winter it is much quieter.

TSoUB: I enjoyed the alternating narrative, switching between Rachel in one chapter and the police investigation in the next. What made you choose this method of telling the story, as opposed to a straight police procedural or just sticking to Rachel's viewpoint?

SW: I like reading police procedurals (Peter Robinson and so on) but I also like standalone novels where the protagonist's story comes to a conclusion at the end of the book. I tried to combine the two in In Bitter Chill.

TSoUB: Rachel and Sophie's abduction takes place in 1978 but the main story is set in the present day. Did you deliberately choose to have the original crime set in the past? And what made you choose the late 1970s as the initial setting for the story?

SW: I made Rachel exactly the same age as me as I wanted to use my own memories of the 1970s through a child's eyes rather than rely on research. I also wanted the crime to have taken place in the past because I think old cases can still have a resonance on a small community especially where it involves a child. 

TSoUB: Your novel has been compared to Scandinavian crime fiction and I can definitely see the resemblance in style and tone to the work of say, Camilla Lackberg. Were you specifically influenced by Scandi crime fiction and are there any other influences behind your work?

SW: I suspect that I have been influenced by lots of crime novels that I've read over the years. My favourite writers are PD James and Ruth Rendell and I have read so many of their books over the years they must have influenced my writing.

TSoUB: You mentioned that Saddler, Palmer and Connie will all feature in your next novel, which will also be set in Bampton. Can you tell us a little more about the next book and your plans for the characters in the future? And will there be any more returning characters - Rachel and Richard for example? 

SW: My next book is about a woman who goes to prison for the murder of her husband who then subsequently turns up dead twelve years later. It's again about secrets but this time ones we don't share at all. You'll see all the police characters but there will be new protagonists and a new mystery to solve. I feel Rachel's story has been told in In Bitter Chill! 

TSoUB: Finally, do you have any recommendations for readers who have enjoyed 'In Bitter Chill'? I always like asking people what they've recently read and enjoyed! 

SW: I've recently read Hans Olav Lahlum's 'The Catalyst Killing' a Norwegian crime novel with a classic feel set in 1970. He's one of my favourite writers at the moment.

I'd highly recommend taking some time out to curl up with 'In Bitter Chill' over the Christmas break - given the wintery setting and title, it's the perfect novel for this time of the year and and ideal last minute Christmas present for the crime fiction fan in your life. I was also delighted to learn that Sarah hopes to write three further novels set in Bampton and, whilst Rachel's story is completed at the end of 'In Bitter Chill', DI Sadler, DS Damian Palmer and DC Connie Childs will return in 'A Fragile Spring', which is currently scheduled for publication in 2016. 

Many thanks again to Sarah for answering my questions. You can find out more about Sarah on her website, and by following her on Twitter @sarahrward1. 'In Bitter Chill' is published as a paperback by Faber & Faber, priced £7.99, and is available now from all good book retailers (links below): 

Monday, 7 December 2015

November Wrap Up

November was a month of flitting. After the reading slump that befell me in October, I picked up the pace again in November but did find it hard to settle into any one book. As a consequence, I've often had a few books on the go at any given time this month and some of them, inevitably, have carried over into December so will be wrapped up next month when I have finished them.

Slade HouseSlade House by David Mitchell

Confession time. Before being given a proof of Slade House by a bookseller friend, I had never finished a David Mitchell novel. Which is not to say I've never read one. I got three chapters into 'Cloud Atlas', got confused, gave us and picked up something with a linear sense of narrative. Since then Mitchell, with his meandering plots and 'high' writing style, has been consigned to my 'literary authors to avoid' category (a category also occupied, until 'The Children Act', by Ian McEwan. Sebastian Faulks and Jonathon Franzen remain in residence) so I never attempted 'The Bone Clocks', to which 'Slade House' is a companion piece. Having finished 'Slade House' I might now give it a go however because I thoroughly enjoyed this one. A creepy literary ghost story, 'Slade House' follows sinister twins Jonah and Norah Grayer as they lure 'guests' into their trans-dimensional home - the titular Slade House - in order to steal their souls and thereby extend their own lifespans. Told over the course of 40 years and 5 narrators, this does feel more like a set of interconnected short stories as opposed to a novel but I felt that this made it more digestible and offset the complexity of the overarching plot. The characterisation is particularly good, with each narrative voice sounding unique - particularly important as the plot becomes repetitive at times. The ending would probably make more sense if I had read 'The Bone Clocks' but it stood on its own well enough and was sufficiently intriguing to get me to add 'The Bone Clocks' to my TBR. Overall, this changed my mind about Mitchell - there was more to this novel than beautiful writing and the complexity was intriguing rather than frustrating, making it an ideal starting point for anyone similarly put off by 'Cloud Atlas' but wishing to give the author another go. 

The GrownupThe Grownup by Gillian Flynn

A second confession. I didn't enjoy Gillian Flynn's phenomenal bestseller 'Gone Girl'. Whilst I appreciated the skill it took to create them, I found the two lead characters completely hateful and struggled to stay with either of them to the end of the book. That said, I had no issue with Flynn's style - her writing is sharp, direct, witty and with a deliciously dark twist, so I had no hesitation in picking up her novella 'The Grownup', just published as a slender, stylish paperback. This delightfully sinister little thriller, first published in the George R R Martin anthology 'Rogues', follows a young woman faking it as a cut-price psychic following an early career in soft-core sex work. When Susan Burke walks into her shop, our narrator is all to ready to follow her usual script and tell Susan what she wants to hear. But then Susan relates her story. A story that involves a malevolent spirit, a haunted house and a sinister 15 year old stepson. What unfolds is a chilling, snarky short that is perfectly poised between supernatural chills and psychological thrills. Perfect for curling up with by the fire for an afternoon, this is thriller writing at its best with a convincing sting in the tale waiting at the end.  

Ink in the BloodInk in the Blood by Stephanie Hochet

Another creepy little book, this time from a selection of European novellas selected by small press publishers Dedalus Books. The anonymous narrator of 'Ink in the Blood' has long been fascinated by tattoos and begins to draw designs for expert tattoo artist Dimitri. Eventually he goes under the needle himself, choosing a Latin phrase in the form of a cross, 'vulnerant omnes, ultima necat': 'They (the hours) all wound, the last one kills'. At first delighted with his new tattoo, the narrator soon begins to notice that his 'vulnerant' is disappearing, leaving only 'ultima necat' on his skin. As the words fade, he begins to find himself changing in attitude, disposition and outlook as his tattoo gradually becomes a threat to his life. I loved the premise of this one but, alas, the story did fail to live up to the promise in my opinion. Some of the ideas raised in the early chapters don't get fleshed out as much as I felt they could have been and I thought the ending was rather vague, without any resolution - very frustrating given how much tension had been built into earlier chapters. That said, the narrator was deliciously creepy, with gradual shifts in character that tip him from slightly odd to full blown weird as the novella progresses. And I liked the unreliability of his narrative, the fact that the reader has to find other interpretations of what the narrator is experiencing and decide for themselves what the truth is. This is an ambitious little book and one that does many things well but unfortunately, for me at least, it overreaches itself in places and the resolution failed to match up to the promise of what came before.

Black Cairn PointBlack Cairn Point by Claire McFall 

Hot Key Books are rapidly becoming one of my favourite YA publishers - their list is varied, lively and definitely worth checking out if you enjoy YA fiction. Black Cairn Point is one of their books for older teens, a spooky slice of psychological horror set in Scotland. Heather agrees to go on a camping holiday with Dougie and his friends because she's desperate to get closer to him. But when the two of them disturb a pagan burial site above the beach, she becomes convinced they have awoken a malevolent spirit intent on doing the group harm. Alternating between the events on the beach and one year later, when Heather is in a mental institution waiting for Dougie to wake from a coma, this is a haunting thriller with a killer twist at the end. To say too much more would be to ruin the story but I loved McFall's sense of atmosphere and foreboding and I thought she captured the joys and pitfalls of teen group dynamics very well. Some of the characters are a little stereotypical - there's the nerdy girl, the quiet guy, the jock, the loner and the popular girl all present and correct - but they blend together nicely and the plot generally avoids falling into well-worn horror movie territory. And the ending...well, let's just say the ending is cleverly done and leave it at that. Definitely one to check out if you like your YA with a slice of the supernatural. 

I did read one other book in November but I'll be doing a separate post and author interview for that one so watch this space! For December, I am taking part in Jen Campbell and Holly Dunn's 'His Dark Materials' read along to FINALLY finish Phillip Pullman's epic trilogy before the year is out. I'm halfway through 'Northern Lights' at the moment and loving every minute. In contrast to the magic of Lyra's Oxford, I'm also reading Yeonmi Park's memoir 'In Order to Live' about her escape from North Korea and her extraordinary struggle to survive. It's a harrowing read but absolutely fascinating and told with such honesty - I'll do a full review as soon as I've finished but I can already say it's well worth checking out. I'm going to try and fit a few other books in over the Christmas hols as well - I saved some of my annual leave for the week before Christmas so I'm planning to set a day or two aside amidst the festive madness for some quality reading time. As always, do let me know what you are reading either by leaving a comment below or by tweeting me @amyinstaffs. And, until next time...

Happy Reading! x

Monday, 23 November 2015

Bookish Christmas Gift Guide

Yes folks, that time of year is upon us once again. Tis nearly the season to eat, drink, be merry and, of course, read books. And whilst it might still be a mite too early to start wishing anyone a 'Merry Christmas', I suspect many of you will have already begun Christmas shopping for you nearest and dearest. Books make wonderful Christmas presents for loved ones of all ages so I thought I'd put together some of my favourites into a little bookish Christmas gift guide for the book lovers in your life! 

There are many books out there to choose from that I could go on an on with this guide but, rather than recommend a book per genre or age group, I've tried to focus on books and bookish gifts that I think are just a little bit special and are therefore unlikely to have already been bought by a book-lover for themselves! 

Harry Potter and Philosopher's Stone

This gorgeous illustrated edition of the first in the 'Harry Potter' series is sure to delight old fans and bring joy to new ones. Filled with beautiful drawings by illustrator Jim Kay, it's a lovely hardback edition that really brings out the magic of J K Rowling's story. A perfect way of introducing a new generation to the magic of the Harry Potter story, this would also make a fantastic present for existing fans who want to re-read this modern classic in a brand new format. It's on my Christmas list! 

The Fox and the StarThe Fox and the Star by Coralie Bickford-Smith

This beautiful cloth-bound hardback has just been shortlisted as one of Waterstones' Books of the Year. It tells the story of a lonely fox and the star that guides him through the forest night. Until one day Star goes missing and Fox must embark on a wonder-filled journey to find his friend. If you have little ones to buy for this is an absolute treat - a gentle little fable accompanied by the most beautiful Arts and Crafts inspired illustrations, making it a perfect book to read out loud whilst little eyes look at the pictures. And for any big kids in your life, the stunning presentation of this book makes it a lovely gift for the young at heart! Again, this is on my own Christmas list!

Stories in the Stars: An Atlas of ConstellationsStories in the Stars: An Atlas of the Constellations by Susanna Hislop (Illustrated by Hannah Waldron)

I received this gorgeous book for my birthday and can therefore attest to it being the most fabulous gift for anyone interested in star-gazing and the mythology behind the night sky. This beautifully illustrated book examines each of the 88 constellations and jumps between centuries, continents and cultures to tell the story behind the patterns in the night sky. Perfect for picking up and dipping in and out of, this is a lovely gift for star-gazers, historians and mythology lovers alike! 

I always think that a special version of a favourite book makes a lovely gift. And some of the nicest versions out there, in my opinion at least, are these gorgeous cloth-bound classics produced by Penguin which, at about £15 a book, are reasonably priced also. There's a fair selection of titles, including Jane Austen's major novels (which are also available in a very nice boxed set if you really want to treat an Austen lover!) and works by the Bronte sisters, Wilkie Collins, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens as well as childhood classics such as 'Treasure Island' and 'The Jungle Book'. My personal recommendation for the season is this lovely snowflake-covered edition of Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol', which also includes his other Christmas writings. Perfect for curling up by the fireplace with on a cold winter's evening, it's a book that I re-read every Christmas season (and, whisper it, the only Dickens' I've ever managed to finish!) 

Pride and Prejudice  bookAnother producer of special edition books is The Folio Society, who offer a wide range of classics and modern classics, both fiction and non-fiction, in beautifully illustrated hardback editions, all of which come in hard-case slipcovers. They are a little pricier than the Clothbound Classics - most books start from about £25.00 but some editions can be more than that - but the production values are excellent. The Folio Society are also offering a free set of illustrated Christmas cards with any order and, if you order more than two books, you get an illustrated hardback Folio Diary 2016, which is so gorgeous it's practically a present in itself! 

All that is gold bronze pendant picScribbelicious Jewellery & Gifts

If the book lover in your life already has a TBR that threatens to topple over and bury them, why not buy them some book-related jewellery. Scribbelicious is a literary gift company based in North Wales who make gorgeous silver and bronze plated pedants, bangles, key rings, book marks and earrings which feature a range of bookish quotes. They have recently added mugs and travel mugs to their range of gift items, as well as some original page fragment Christmas baubles. The range is really varied and jewellery comes presented in a lovely box inside a little bag - all ready for giving to your loved one! I've got a couple of Scribbelicious pieces now but could easily add more to my collection because all of their stuff is gorgeous!

Adult colouring books have been the craze of 2015 and Johanna Basford was the lady that started it all. Her three books, 'Enchanted Forest', 'Secret Garden' and 'Lost Ocean' are all full to brimming with richly detailed scenes ready for colouring in to your heart's content. I really like the production values of Johanna's books but there are hundreds of adult colouring books out there to choose from this Christmas, including ones that offer geometric designs and mindfulness tips - you can even get 'Game of Thrones' and 'Doctor Who' themed ones! Add in a packet of pencils or pens and you've got a fantastic present that will provide an excuse for some welcome peace and quiet for the receiver on Boxing Day!

As I said at the start of this post, there really are so many lovely books available this Christmas and a trip to your local bookstore will reap rewards when it comes to Christmas shopping. Whilst most of the above can be found online, at Christmas, local bookshops often have some beautiful gift editions and gift sets in branch, as well as author signed copies of the latest hardbacks so it's well worth venturing onto the high street to take a look. In fact, why not head over to your local bookshop this coming Saturday (28 November) to take part in the #CivilisedSaturday, a Books Are My Bag campaign designed to counter the madness of Black Friday! 

That's it for my bookish Christmas Gift Guide. I'll be back soon with a reading update and my November wrap up but, in the meantime, happy Christmas shopping and...

Happy Reading!

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

October Wrap Up

I should get myself a pocket watch because, just like Alice's White Rabbit, I'm late again with my wrap up post. You'll have to excuse me again - the day job has been mentally exhausting for the last month or so and then there was the small matter of my 30th birthday celebrations to distract me so I've not booted up the laptop for a little while. To be honest, October's not been the best reading month for me. The aforementioned busy day job has left little energy for getting into anything too taxing so, whilst I have some great books in my TBR (I'm looking at you, 'A Brief History of Seven Killings') that I'm really looking forward to reading, I've just not had the little grey cells to spare. I've still managed two novels and two novellas this month though, so not bad going - although one is a bit of a cheat seeing as I read the majority of it last month but forgot to put it into September's Wrap Up post!

This Man Booker Prize 2015 long-listed novel popped up on a few podcasts and Booktube channels and sounded really intriguing so, when I saw a copy at my local library, I decided to check it out. On the eve of her daughter's wedding, June Reid's life is devastated when house fire robs her of her daughter, her future son-in-law, her ex-husband and her boyfriend Luke. Grief-stricken and alone, June flees across the country to a small motel on the Pacific Ocean. In her wake, the residents of her small Connecticut home town and the people she meets along the way begin to emerge, each telling their own story of the family, the fire and the secrets that lie behind both. 

I'm not always a fan of novels with multiple narrators - they can easily become disjointed and I often find myself feeling as if I'm reading a series of connected short stories as opposed to a novel. With this book however, the narrative is extremely well handled and each new voice (some of which recur numerous times) adds something to the overall story, which keeps the impulsion in the plot. The subject matter is rather depressing - there are a lot of mistakes and missed chances in this book and many of the characters are carrying around a heady mixture of guilt and regret - but it's beautifully realised and there is a heart-warming (and heart-wrenching) sense of redemption in the closing chapters, as June and her fellow townsfolk come to terms with what has happened and start to look to the future. I'm actually really surprised that this didn't make the Booker shortlist - it has very similar themes to 'A Spool of Blue Thread' (my review of which can be found here) but, personally, I found it to have more depth than Tyler's novel, and with a greater sense of resolution and purpose to the narrative. Beautifully written and carefully crafted, this is a reflective look at love, loss and the many ways in which a family can be created. 

This one has had quite a bit of attention on Booktube and in the literary press over the last month or so. Part novella, part fable, part poetry-collection and part essay, this debut tells the tale of two young boys and their father, a Ted Hughes scholar, left bereft by the death of their beloved mother and wife. In addition to the expected well meaning visitors, they are visited by Crow - antagonist, trickster, foul-mouthed guest and unexpected healer - who threatens to stay until he is no longer needed. As time passes, and Crow's visit continues, the three begin to heal and the grief begins to pass. 

I really don't know what to think about this book. It's beautifully written and there are paragraphs and sentences throughout which nearly had me in tears. The grief that Porter describes is raw, unflinching, selfish, angry and tender all at the same time and he often manages to convey both great rage and great tenderness within just a few sentences. However I really disliked the more 'meta' elements of the book - the inter-textuality with Ted Hughes' 'Crow' and the work of Emily Dickinson, for example, and with the choppy, ever-changing style which sometimes felt, for me at least, more like artifice than art. There were certainly times when this book was both very beautiful and very clever but there were also times when I thought it knew that and was deliberately pointing it out to the reader, like the aforementioned Crow preening his feathers for all to see. That said, I would still recommend it to a friend - I think this is one of those books that everyone will have a different response to and it certainly challenges preconceptions and leaves you with plenty to think about as a reader. It's definitely not a book you can put in a box and is unlike anything else I think I have ever read but overall, this left me a little cold unfortunately.

DollyDolly by Susan Hill

As mentioned in my last post, I love a good ghost story around Halloween and, in previous years, I have especially enjoyed Susan Hill's particular brand of chilling tale. So imagine my delight when I found 'Dolly' in the library, a Susan Hill ghost story that I hadn't yet read! So I drew the curtains, popped the lamp on, grabbed a mug of tea and settled down to read.....a thoroughly disappointing ghost story. Oh dear. 

It starts off well, with two young cousins - Edward and Leonora - being sent to the remote and chilling Iyot House to stay with their maiden aunt Kestrel for the summer. The setting is sufficiently creepy and, as always, Hill has an attentive eye to natural detail, creating a real sense of the forlorn beauty of the Fens and the desolate atmosphere of Iyot House. Spoilt, petty Leonora is an unusual companion for quiet, reserved Edward but the two of them muddle along relatively well until Leonora is not given the specific dolly that she requests for her birthday. Her fit of rage and the damage that it causes have terrible, life-altering consequences for the cousins that will haunt both them and Iyot for the rest of their lives. And this is where I have the issue. Granted, Leonora is a horrific brat of a nine year old - the product of an indifferent absent father and a inattentive, capricious mother - but, in this case, the punishment doesn't seem to fit the crime. Most of the children I've ever met are prone to fits of pique and selfish temper tantrums but, annoying as that is, I've never felt the need to curse them from beyond the grave so the fact that the up-till-then seemingly pleasant Aunt Kestrel chooses to do just such a thing seems both baffling and out of character. And why the heck does cousin Edward get punished as well? For most of the story, he's far too boring to have ever done anything that warrants otherworldly vengeance. 

It's such a shame because, as always, Hill's writing is excellent and she has a real knack for characterisation (although Edward really is a terminally dull narrator) and atmosphere. But it's no use having smoke without fire and, with any close examination, the already dubious plot loses all credibility which makes it rather unconvincing as a chilling tale. Don't let it put you off reading any other of Hill's ghost stories however - all of the others are sinister little slices of pleasure that I've greatly enjoyed. All of which made 'Dolly' all the more disappointing.

Northanger AbbeyNorthanger Abbey by Jane Austen

And so to something I knew I'd enjoy, made all the more pleasurable by being able to read the gorgeous new Penguin English Library edition I'd purchased (the spine is stripey and has this lovely ruby red cover, as pictured). I love nearly all of Jane Austen's work ('Mansfield Park' being the notable exception owing to Fanny Price being as dull as dishwater) and I struggle to choose a favourite but I think 'Northanger Abbey' is pretty high on the list. 

The story of naive 'heroine' Catherine Morland, who is pretty without being beautiful and has learnt most of life's important lessons from reading sensational Gothic novels, is a witty pastiche of Gothic writing in addition to be infused with Austen's usual brand of social satire. I am a particular fan of hero Henry Tilney, who spends most of the novel gently laughing at Catherine (and inviting the reader to laugh along with him), as she stumbles her inexperienced way through her first season in society. Some critics (and readers) dislike the pairing, claiming that intellectual, witty Henry will soon tire of Catherine's naive innocence, but I think they spark off each other as a couple. I like the fact that Henry lets Catherine make her own mistakes and encourages her to reflect and learn from them, allowing her to develop her own judgement and character. He stands in contrast to the novel's antagonists, social-climbing schemers Isabella and John Thorpe, who are constantly telling Catherine what to do and how to think. Quite the modern hero, given the time of writing!

It's true that some of Austen's later novels ('Northanger' was the first book she ever wrote, although it was published posthumously) are more skilled and accomplished, as her plots become tighter and her satire gets sharper, but I remain extremely fond of Northanger Abbey. As an introduction to Austen, I'd certainly recommend it as it's the shortest of her novels and, I think, has the simplest plot structure and a compact cast of characters. It's also perfect for dark autumnal evenings when you need a reminder that not all things that go bump in the night are of sinister origin!

And so ends October, a bit of a mixed month really. Re-reading 'Northanger Abbey' shook me out of the reading slump I fell into mid-month and helped shake off the disappointment of 'Dolly' and I've got a couple of books I'm really looking forward to reading lined up for November, including a debut crime novel by a local author who is giving a talk at my local bookshop. I'm also gearing up for a 'His Dark Materials' readalong that Jen Campbell and Holly Dunn are running on Booktube (find out more here) in December to finally make good on my resolution to read the whole trilogy by the end of the year. As always, do tell me what your reading and what you think of any of the books mentioned by either leaving me a comment down below or sending me a tweet @amyinstaffs. And, until next time....

Happy Reading!


Sunday, 25 October 2015

Chilling Autumn Reads

Ah, Autumn. The season of falling leaves, golden colours, chill mornings and darkening nights; the dying of the year. A perfect time for curling up by the fireplace with a hot beverage and a good book. And, whilst I'm not a big believer in Halloween (I find the most horrifying thing about it the rampant commercialism), I do think the last days of Autumn are the perfect time for settling down with a good old-fashioned ghost story - something to send the shivers up your spine whilst you sit by the fireside and watch the night roll in from your armchair. So, pull up a chair, dim the lights and grab a mug of hot cocoa, as I introduce you to some of my favourite chilling autumn reads...

The Woman In BlackThe Woman in Black by Susan Hill

Without a doubt the creepiest book I've ever read. It might only clock in at 160 pages but Susan Hill's classic ghost story packs in enough creeping terror to keep you starting a shadows for a good few days. The story follows junior solicitor Arthur Kipps, sent by his employers to attend the funeral of Mrs Alice Drablow and to sort through the papers she kept at the dreary and desolate Eel Marsh House. Whilst attending Mrs Drablow's funeral, Arthur catches sight of a pale and wasted young woman, standing to one side. A woman whose very name terrifies the local townsfolk. A woman who is dressed all in black...

The real charm of this book lies in the atmosphere that Hill creates. The desolate marshland surrounding Eel Marsh House is vividly described - you get a real feel for its Gothic eeriness and can almost see the rolling fog that envelops the house when tide draws in. Into this oppressive atmosphere, Hill drops a ghost who is felt more than seen; caught in shadows and noises and as a face at the window. This isn't a book for fans of jump scares - you won't find any axe-wielding maniacs or bloody apparitions - but, if you like quiet, spine-tingling chills, this is perfect for devouring in one sitting. And then there is the ending. Oh the ending. Never have I been more chilled by a final sentence or left with such a lingering sense of disquiet. One to read by candlelight, as the wind howls round the house.

Dark MatterDark Matter by Michelle Paver

Paver is probably best known for her YA 'Chronicles of Ancient Darkness' series but this perfectly-executed and, in my opinion at least, under-rated ghost story, proves that she is more than capable of writing adult fiction that can chill the bones and send a shiver down the spine. Set in the unending darkness of an Arctic winter, the novel follows twenty-eight year old Jack who hopes to change his life by embarking on the expedition of a lifetime. Lead by the charismatic Gus, the team sets out in high spirits for the isolated bay of Gruhuken, where they will make camp and see out the winter. But Gruhuken is not as uninhabited as it seems. And, as one by one his companions are forced to leave, Jack is faced with a stark choice: go back to civilization with the mission in tatters or stay and face the thing that walks in the polar dark.

This is another story that revels in atmosphere. Paver is familiar with the Arctic and this really shows in her writing, which captures the desolate beauty and isolation of Jack's snow-bound base camp. Again, there's no shock-horror here and no violence or gore but Paver understands the rules of the classic ghost story - the oppressive atmosphere, the slow building of tension, the way in which the smallest of incidents can create the most fear. Add in the psychological make-up of lonely, awkward Jack and you've got a small masterpiece of suspenseful writing that doesn't let go until the creeping, inevitable end is realised. Read it fresh from the cold of an Autumn day, while you de-frost with a mug of something hot, black and strong. 

The Historian
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

'To you, perceptive reader, I bequeath my history..."

Show me a book-lover who wouldn't be drawn in by that tag-line and I'll find you a pig flying somewhere. I picked this up as soon as I read the lines under the cover, and started reading it as soon as I got home. The story concerns a young woman who stumbles across a cache of letters and documents when exploring her father's library late one night. Letters ominously addressed to "my dear and unfortunate successor." When her father subsequently goes missing, she is plunged into a quest for the truth about his past and about her mother's mysterious fate - a fate that is entwined with an ancient evil that goes by the name Dracula. 

Mixing Dracula lore with a globe-trotting trip worthy of Indiana Jones, this is a full-speed ahead adventure tale that has been saturated in ancient history and mixed with a pinch of Gothic horror. I love the richly described settings, from the magical exoticism of ancient Istanbul to the isolated churches and ancient libraries of eastern Europe. This is a vampire story of the highest order, re-claiming Dracula from twinkly 'Twilight' territory and returning him to his rightful place at the top of the gothic horror pile. Having read Bram Stoker's classic horror novel, to which this clearly owes a debt, I feel knowledge of the original does add depth to Kostova's story but you can manage perfectly well without. It's a bit schlocky in places and there are times when the plot goes a little 'Da Vinci Code' on you but, overall, 'The Historian' is a great pastiche of the Victorian Gothic and is sure to raise a hair or two on the back of your neck (and leave you in fear of finding strange books in the library) long after you've turned the final page. Pick it up when you need reminding that book-lovers can save the world. 

The Thirteenth TaleThe Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

I don't know if this is chilling so much as it has a real sense of atmosphere that, I feel, makes it best read at this time of year. This is a novel about secrets and the damage that they do. And about time and how it always catches up with you in the end. Biographer Margaret Lee leads an unassuming life with her antiquarian bookseller father until a letter lands on her doorstep inviting her to write the life of one of Britain's most prolific and well-loved storytellers. Vida Winter has told her life story many times but it has never been the real one. She has twisted her tale as much as she twists her novels, folding fiction into reality and creating a myth of her own existence. Now she is dying and she wants to tell the truth. A truth that includes two sisters, a fire-ravaged country mansion and a secret that has lasted generations. 

I have a real love for nineteenth century Gothic novels and this is a modern-day tribute to them, with echoes of 'Jane Eyre', 'The Turn of the Screw' and 'Wuthering Heights'. It revels in creating an oppressive atmosphere, weaving a tangled web of inter-connected stories with characters capable of both great love and great evil. Vida Winter is the spider sitting at the heart of this web, seducing and manipulating both Margaret and the reader with her words and her tales. By the time I finished this book, I desperately wanted to go and read a Vida Winter novel, she was so convincing as a character. Add in enough skeletons to fill a whole raft of cupboards, and you've got a book to curl up by the fireside with when you want a little magic in your life again. 

So those are a few of my favourite chilling Autumn reads that I would recommend as the nights draw in. There are other Gothic favourites I haven't had chance to mention here - classics of the genre such as Wilkie Collins' 'The Woman in White' - and fantastic short stories such as those by M R James and Edgar Allen Poe. All worth checking out - as are "Jane Eyre" and "Dracula" if you've never read them. For anyone wanting to mix a bit of humour with their horror, 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' also comes highly recommended. And, when you've finished indulging in all that Gothic melodrama, I thoroughly recommend Jane Austen's classic pastiche of the genre, 'Northanger Abbey', as a reminder that it's usually the machinations of living you need to watch out for, rather than those of the dead.

And on that note, dear readers, I shall leave you. Don't have nightmares and, until next time....

Happy Reading!


Monday, 12 October 2015

September Wrap Up

Before anyone says anything, I am aware that we are 12 days into October when I write this wrap up. All I can say by way of apology is that, following on from 10 blissful days of holiday, the return to the world of work and home has been...well, let's just say rather busy and leave it at that shall we. Needless to say, I didn't get too many books read when I got back from hols but I did read a couple before I went that weren't included in my last wrap up and finished one on my return. So without further ado, we begin with...

Arsenic for Tea (Wells and Wong, #2)Arsenic For Tea by Robyn Stevens

The second in the 'Wells and Wong' YA mystery series (the first being 'Murder Most Unladylike', which I reviewed here) is another enjoyable romp into the 1930s, this time taking place in the classic country house setting of Fallingford Hall, Daisy Wells' home. Unfortunately for schoolgirl detective Daisy and her best friend Hazel Wong, murder seems to have a habit of following them around and it isn't long before they are embroiled in another mystery when one of their tea guests takes an unexpected turn for the worst. And, to make matters more complicated, it looks as if a member of Daisy's family might be one of the perpetrators...

Like the first book in the series, this was another fast-paced and fun read, although with some slightly darker undertones and a little more character development this time around. For those who have read 'Murder Most Unladylike', this is more of the same - definitely no bad thing when a series is this much fun. Whilst 'Arsenic For Tea' does a good job of introducing unfamiliar readers to the characters, I'd still recommend starting with 'Murder Most Unladylike' if you can - you'll have a better feel for the background and setting and enjoy this one more. A third in the series, 'First Class Murder', is on my too read pile and I hope there will be more to follow from this dynamic duo.

The Dumb HouseThe Dumb House by John Burnside

There has been a great deal of talk about this novel on Booktube of late, with two of my favourite booktubers - Jen Campbell and Jean from Jean's Bookish Thoughts - raving about it. The premise is certainly intriguing - as a young boy Luke becomes obsessed with the story of the dumb house, an isolated mansion where babies are raised only by mute servants in an effort to discover whether language is innate. Determined to try and recreate the experiment himself, he becomes entwined with a strange woman and her mute son before taking in a young homeless girl, setting of a chain of events that eventually leads to murder, death and madness.

This is a difficult novel to love - it's dark and twisted in the extreme and Luke's head is an extremely unpleasant place to be most of the time. His attitude towards women is particularly abhorrent although, in fairness, he seems to view most creatures as being tools of his own whims and desires. That said, the writing in this is absolutely gorgeous, in sharp contrast to some of the content. Burnside has an expressive, poetic prose style that lingers in the brain and draws you back into his twisted tale like a moth to the flame. This is a dark and difficult book, filled with complicated morality and twisted actions but it is guaranteed to keep you thinking long after the final page has turned. If you like you beautiful literature to come with a shade of darkness and your morality tinted with shades of grey, this is one to check out.

And now for something completely different! My book group read for the month was light-hearted, funny and irreverent from beginning to end. Led by the reliably un-insightful Binder, a team of seven men set out to tackle to unconquered summit of Mount Rum Doodle. They have navigator who is constantly getting lost, a doctor who is perpetually ill and a diplomat who can't issue an instruction without starting a fight so what could possibly go wrong?

A parody of the classic mountaineering journals of the golden age of exploration, this is a gently humorous novel; albeit one that is starting to show its age somewhat. Written in the 1950s, some of the humour in the book is rather dated, especially that which relates to the native people who act as guides for the expedition who are given comedic names that, to modern readers, might seem in rather poor taste.  Allowing for these few exceptions however, this book has the gentle humour of a classic Ealing comedy, good-natured and gently piercing. I wouldn't say I loved it but it certainly made me chortle more than once and I can honestly say I'm glad to have read it. Anyone who enjoys classic comedy would do well to check this out and, for anyone who enjoys climbing or mountaineering, the extra depth would probably add to the laughs to be had.

The Heart Goes LastThe Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

I adore Margaret Atwood's writing and 'The Handmaid's Tale' is one of my all-time favourite novels. So imagine my delight to win a proof copy of this, her latest standalone novel and her first dystopian standalone since that illustrious book. Living in an America bought low by an all-too realistic economic crisis, Stan and Charmaine are reduced to living off scraps and sleeping in their car. So when they hear about the Positron Project, a utopian community that offers housing, food and work; it's like a dream come true. The catch? For each month that they spend in the community, they must spend a month in prison whilst another couple - their 'alternates' live in their house and go to their jobs. But when Stan and Charmaine become unwittingly embroiled with the lives of their alternates, the dark underbelly of Positron becomes exposed. 

The inevitable comparisons to 'The Handmaid's Tale' do this novel little good. Whilst it is a dystopian novel from the same pen, this is an very different book in both tone and style. Shot through with dark humour (there's a series of prostitute Elvis robots, I kid you not) and her trademark wit, this is Atwood at her most wicked. She plays with her readers expectations as much as she plays with her characters, constantly twisting the narrative and melding the story into something new. Is this a cautionary morality tale? A meditation on the perils of greed? An examination of the nature of love? Having read it, I think it might be a little of all of them, shot through with twisted humour and a wicked sense of the absurd. At times I admit that there may be a little too much going in - Atwood gives her narrative too much of a free rein at times - and the plot can become a little slippery at times, without a sense of purpose to drive it forwards. But Atwood remains a masterful storyteller and soon rests control again, tightening things back up towards the end and leaving this reader satisfied and longing for more. Fans of Atwood will love this novel as long as they aren't expecting too much - go in looking for 'The Handmaid's Tale 2' and you will end up disappointed. But go in hoping for a bit of Atwood's trademark magic and a story to whisk you away and you will find an enjoyable, though-provoking novel with much to offer.

So that was September. A little late but we got there in the end. And with October's reading well underway, I should be back in the not-too-distant future with some more book-based banter, including some recommendations for spooky Halloween reads. Until then, you can find me @amyinstaffs on Twitter, or leave me a comment down below with any thoughts, recommendations and general bookish chat.

Happy Reading!