Sunday, 25 January 2015

The Comfort and Solace of Books

So my real world life has been a bit fraught this week. It started with birds in my loft, followed swiftly by a bird in my landing (long story) and then ended with me pranging my car in a foolish and stupid fashion. No one was hurt fortunately but the car is a bit poorly and my pride (along with the front of the car) has been dented somewhat. As for the birds, they have now been evicted so no more squatters in my roof space. 

Anyhoo, sorting the above alongside the day job and other commitments has made for a bit of a week. None of which has anything to do with books per se but it did get me to thinking about the solace and comfort we can find in books when life gets a little tough. Because what really surprised me this week was how little the chaos of my real world life interfered with my continuing enjoyment of my bookish one.

I think it's because you really can find a book for any occasion. My current read, Catherynne M Valente's 'The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making' is a case in point. There have been times this week when I've really not felt in the right mood for reading but, because I read every night before bed, I've picked up my book anyway and been sucked into the weird and wonderful adventures of September and her Wyverary (a cross between a Wyvern and a Library and one of many reasons why this particular book is amazing) and, before I know it, I'm having an adventure instead of worrying about paying the roofer's invoice or counting how much my car insurance is going to increase by.

Poetry is another solace for me. I don't read a lot of poetry as a rule but I do turn to it in times of crisis. There's something about poetry which often gets to the heart of a matter - be it life, death, relationships or even a job crisis. I have a couple of anthologies edited by Daisy Goodwin which I often turn to, especially 'Poetry To Last A Lifetime', which is helpfully broken down into sections that cover most of life's major events. The section on Theme Songs contains two of my favourite poems - 'Invictus' by William Ernest Henley (read the poem here) and 'Say not the Struggle Nought availeth' by Arthur Hugh Clough (again, you can read it here) - which I return to time and again when I'm feeling less than positive.

And I don't think I'm alone. I think a lot of people find books to be a help in times of crisis. There are even books about the solace of books in times of crisis! One of my favourites is 'The End of Your Life Book Club' by Will Schwalbe, which is about the author's last months with his mother following her terminal cancer diagnosis and all of the books that they read and enjoy together during this time. It's a remarkable book and,despite the subject matter, very life-affirming. 

So what are your 'crisis' books? Do you have an old favourite you return to and read again or a particular genre that you turn to for a pick-me-up? Or do you avoid reading altogether unless you're in your happy place? Drop me a comment below and let me know what you think. In the meantime, I'll be back next time with a wrap up of my January reading and a look forward at my TBRs for February. And until then....

Happy Reading!

Links for books mentioned above:

Daisy Goodwin - 'Poems to Last A Lifetime' sadly seems to be out of print but she does have a recent anthology 100 Poems To See You Through, which seems to have been put together on similar lines.

Monday, 19 January 2015

REVIEW: 'The Invisible Library' by Genevieve Cogman

Thanks to a friend of mine who works in a bookshop (definitely one of the best kind of friends that you can have), I was lucky enough to get my mitts on an advance reader's copy of this book so I actually read it over Christmas but, as the book only came out this week, have delayed my review until release. I'm going to keep the review spoiler-free for those who haven't yet read the book and, as usual, I'll include a link at the end to the Waterstones website, or you can go hunt a copy down from a friendly local bookseller or librarian. 

Irene works for the mysterious Library which harvests fiction from different realities. Along with her enigmatic new assistant Kai, Irene is tasked with retrieving a unique copy of The Brothers Grimm from an alternative, chaos-infested London. As if dangerous fae, supernatural creatures and unpredictable magic aren't enough to contend with, the Grimm is stolen before Irene and Kai can retrieve it - and it looks as if every underground faction is London is trying to find it before they do. Before long, the duo are up to their necks in danger and, if they don't secure the book before their enemies, the very nature of The Library - and even of  reality itself - will be at stake.

'The Invisible Library' is Genevieve Cogman's first novel and seems to be the first in a series set around the mysterious library of the title. At least, I hope it's part of a series, because the world and characters created could definitely span a number of books plus there are a few loose ends at the novel's conclusion that I hope a sequel will pick up on. Cogman lists Tolkien and Sherlock Holmes amongst her early reading, and has also previously worked as a freelance role-playing game writer. All three influences show in her work, especially the latter two  with one of my favourite characters in the book being an obvious homage to Holmes himself. 

I have to say I really enjoyed this book, although at the beginning I wasn't sure that I would. Many of the usual fantasy and sci-fi cliches are present and correct - a feisty heroine, a handsome and mysterious sidekick, a steam-punk version of Victorian London and a host of supernatural creatures. So at first I assumed I'd end up reading a version of something I'd read before. What made 'The Invisible Library' different for me however was the way in which Cogman combined these elements. All of the pieces that make up her world are nothing new in themselves, however the way in which she has combined them makes for a unique and interesting world. Using the Library as a link between these worlds also allows for a myriad of possible universes in future books, which should prevent the world from going stale as the series progresses. 

The characters are a little more cliche but they all have plenty of personality and the dialogue - especially between leads Irene and Kai - is quick and often witty. Irene is a likable lead - confident without being overly self-assured - and the supporting cast are all distinct and well-rounded, even if they appear only briefly. My only criticism is that I felt the attraction between Irene and Kai was a little forced - there's a somewhat awkward scene early on in the book that sets up some romantic tension which is, I think, meant to develop into softer feelings by the novel's end. Me? I just didn't feel it. That element of their relationship seemed forced - as if it had been shoe-horned in afterwards. Maybe this is something that will develop as the series progresses but, personally, I would have found it a bit more original if Irene and Kai had developed as friends and colleagues rather than having the beginnings of a romantic subplot forced upon them. 

That said however, I otherwise really enjoyed 'The Invisible Library'. It's a well-conceived, fast-paced adventure tale which I think will appeal to non-fantasy fans as well a those of us who already enjoy the genre and I will definitely be keeping an eye out for future books in the series. 

If you've already read 'The Invisible Library', or if you decide to read it as a result of this review, I'd love to know what you think so please post a comment below. I'd also happily accept recommendations of similar books you think might interest me, or of books that you've recently read or are looking forwards to reading. Otherwise, until next time, much love and happy reading!


Sunday, 11 January 2015

Favourite Books of 2014

Okay, so I'm late to the party with a 2014 list - most of my favorite Booktubers and podcasters published theirs just after Christmas when I was still wandering around in a fug of wine, cheese and leftovers. 

But hey, being late to the party doesn't mean you can't still have a good time! However, rather than do a list of 5 or 10 books of 2014, I thought that I'd talk in-depth about just two books (one fiction and one non-fiction) which I really enjoyed and that I think more people should read. This is partly because I struggle with brevity when discussing books I have read - which would result in a very long blog post if I covered more than a couple. And it's partly because I've been somewhat lapse in keeping track of my reading over  the last twelve months and genuinely can't remember all of the books I read this year - something I aim to rectify for 2015 by re-starting use of my Reading Journal. 

That said, by virtue of being the books I remember, these are the two books that stuck with me the most from my reading of the last 12 months so probably deserve the accolades of being my personal books of the year 2014 anyway. I have included links to the Waterstones website in case any of them pique your interest enough to want to buy them - or you could go support a local library and add them to your 'To Borrow' list. 

The Amber Fury by Natalie Haynes

My absolute favorite random-library-find of the year. I picked this one up because the title and the arresting cover art caught my eye and borrowed it because it sounded a bit like Donna Tartt's 'The Secret History' (one of my all-time favorite novels). 

The novel follows a young woman, Alex, who has taken a job at a Pupil Referral Unit in Edinburgh following a personal tragedy. Initially terrified by the troubled, difficult kids she encounters at the unit - especially one group of five intimidating older teens, Alex gradually builds a rapport with this group via her teaching of Greek tragedies, finding them to be fascinated by the ancient tales of bloody revenge and twists of fate. But have these teens taken Alex's lessons to much to heart? And as a result, is a whole new tragedy about to be played out in front of her? 

This is a page-turning psychological thriller with a literary bent and I raced through it.The book isn't without it's flaws - I guessed the ending about three quarters of the way through - but these didn't detract from my enjoyment of reading it and I cannot recommend it enough. 

How to be a Heroine: Or, What I've Learned from Reading Too Much
How to be a Heroine: Or, What I've Learned from Reading Too Much by Samantha Ellis

I have a real fondness for books about books and I love reading about other book-lovers literary experiences and journeys. This memoir combines light-heated bookish discussion with a dash of Caitlin Moran's 'How to be a Woman' and examines how the heroines we read when we're little help to form us into the women we become as grown-ups.

During an argument with a friend about whether Catherine Earnshaw or Jane Eyre made a better heroine, Samantha Ellis realises that she's been living her whole life wrong. All her life she's been trying to be passionate, willful Cathy when she should have been trying to be independent, courageous Jane. So Samantha decides to re-visit her childhood heroines and re-evaluate the literary women who shaped her early life. Some of them stand up to scrutiny and some fall by the wayside and, along the way, Samantha shares her revelations, memories and experiences.

Sometimes literary memoirs of this type can be a little po-faced but Samantha Ellis has a wonderful conversational style that makes reading this book rather like having a conversation with a bookish friend. I really enjoyed reading about her re-discovery and re-evaluation of her favourite books, even when she was discussing books that I myself hadn't read. As a result of reading this, I added a few books to my TBR pile and it really got me thinking about some of my own favourite childhood reads and whether my own personal heroines would stand the test of time. As a result, I enjoyed some re-reads this year too. Lizzie Bennet still rocks. 

So that's almost it from me for another post. I would love to know what your favourite books of 2014 were and, if you've read either of mine (or decide to read them as a result of this post), I would love to know what you thought of them so please post me a comment below.

As for me, I'm about to start a book that has cropped up on so many of my favourite podcasts and Booktube channels called 'The Book of Strange New Things' by Michael Faber - it's been recommended by so many people whose book choices I respect and admire so I'm really looking forward to it. It is a bit of a tome (hardback, weighing in at 584 pages) so I'll let you know how I'm getting on in my next post! 

Until then, happy reading!


Monday, 5 January 2015

An Introduction of Sorts

Welcome to The Shelf of Unread Books! 

Firstly, thank you for choosing to visit my shiny new blog! Secondly, a short introduction of sorts is probably in order.

My name is Amy. I am a slightly-mad book nerd at the wrong end of my twenties and I live in a little village in the middle of England with my long-suffering husband, my pesky cat and a LOT of unread books.  

I've made a couple of (failed) attempts to blog before but I've previously avoided blogging about books, despite them being one of my major passions (alongside tea, cake and shooting things on my Xbox). I guess I always thought that there are so many book bloggers already out there, what could I possibly add into the mix? 

Recently however I concluded that blogs and vlogs are just another way of sharing the bookish love and I feel I can join in with that. I love books and I love talking about books - and as my long-suffering husband must get sick of hearing me ramble on about them, I might as well share my book-geekery here with some (hopefully) like-minded individuals. 

So this blog will (primarily) be about books. It will also be about my quest to conquer The Shelf of Unread Books - the shelf in my study so daunting that it requires capital letters. This is the shelf where my 'To Be Read' (TBR) pile lives. Recently the shelf became two shelves. Plus a few books on top of another shelf. Plus the pile of books under my bed. Basically, the unread books are breeding and I'm beginning to worry that, left to grow unfettered, they'll become like the letters in Terry Pratchett's 'Going Postal' and start talking to me in my dreams until I read them. 

So I'll be blogging about my efforts to conquer my TBR shelves, reviewing some of the books I read over the course of the year and updating on my book hauls and bookshop visits. I'm also thinking of maybe doing a readathon at some point this year and I'm also sure there will be some general book chat and book-geekery as well. If that sounds like something you'd like to read about, please follow my blog. 

A note on updates: Unfortunately I can't spend all day, every day reading books (although if anyone wants to pay me to do that, please get in touch!) so I do have a day job which I will have to blog around but I'm aiming to update at least fortnightly (making good use of my alternate Mondays off!) to keep in the groove.