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!