Category: BookLove

re:View – The 2016 Bookshelf –
May: From Disturbia to Delight

May 2016: quite possibly my month of the fewest books ever. I managed just three, and one of them is a German book from my hometown that will never be translated, so this month’s bookshelf remains very short indeed.


The Birds and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier
Another recommendation from a colleague and a book I probably wouldn’t have picked up otherwise. I wasn’t blown away by the title story, but some of the lesser known short stories in this collection really got to me – particularly Monte Verita, about two men’s lifelong search for a women spirited away by a mysterious mountain sect, and The Little Photorapher, which explores the darker side of romantic obsession. Most of these stories are quite disturbing in an uncomfortable, somebody-get-her-a-therapist kind of way and all shine a revealing light on the depths of the human psyche. Overall a very enjoyable and captivating collection that definitely made me want to dig deeper into the work of Daphne du Maurier.
Pens: 4 out of 5

The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson
Another hilarious and totally incredible story from the genius behind The Hundred-Year-Old-Man…, this time about a girl born in a shack in South Africa who goes on to become a figure of significant influence behind the scenes of international politics. As always with Jonasson, it works if you’re prepared to go along on a ridiculous rollercoaster ride without questioning any of the plot twists. If you can do that (and it took me about the first half of the first book to get into the right state of mind), it’s a wonderful story about an improbable heroine, a guy who doesn’t exist, an atomic bomb which technically doesn’t exist either but nevertheless causes serious mayhem around the world, and a loveable cast of royalists, revolutionaries and general weirdos. Jonasson writes with wit and a whole lot of heart, and has once again produced a book that feels like a road trip with a good friend – a delightfully Swedish good friend.
Pens: 3 out of 5

re:View – The 2016 Bookshelf
April: The World of Edith Wharton

My reading progress this year continues to be irritatingly slow, but I’ve been working loads as well as making major life changes, so there just wasn’t enough time. And as always in difficult times, I turned to the comfort of Edith Wharton’s brilliant, beautiful writing.


The Reckoning by Edith Wharton
This is a little Penguin Little Black Classic that includes two of Wharton’s short stories on the topic of marriage. Mrs Manstey’s View is a short but deeply moving glimpse into the life of a lonely widow that shines with vivid descriptions of New York as seen through the lady’s window. I honestly believe nobody has even described the flowering of a magnolia tree more beautifully than Wharton does in this story. The Reckoning is a moral tale – I would argue – about an unconventional marriage and the dangers of double standards. I found this one a bit uncharacteristic for Wharton, given that she always took a very liberal view on marriage – certainly for her time – and in this story almost seems to backtrack on her ideals. However, as always, she looks deep into the human heart and writes with captivating urgency about the emotional stages we go through when a relationship falls apart.
Pens: 3 out of 5

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re:View – The 2016 Bookshelf
March: Myths, Magic, Aliens and Killer Ants

This year’s March bookshelf was filled with surprises (both pleasant and nasty), some disappointments, a cast of weird creatures and a bit of a song and dance. From dead semi-goddesses to talking war cats, from magicians travelling between worlds to plant-based alien TV executives, this is certainly a mixed bag of books. And mostly wonderful.


The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

“It’s always an imprudence to step between a man and the reflection of his own cleverness.”

After reading this book I love Margaret Atwood more than ever. She basically takes Homer’s Iliad and lets Penelope tell her version from the underworld, thousands of years later, to set the record straight. Penelope’s down-to-earth, delightfully no-nonsense style is at the same time hilarious and tragic, describing her father’s attempt to drown her as a child, her arranged marriage, the long years of waiting for Odysseus and her loneliness among the hostile members of his court, the struggle of fighting off the suitors trying to wriggle their way into her husband’s, and earning nothing but suspicion and scorn for remaining faithful all these years. If you think Odysseus had a hard time, try being a woman in his story. A particularly morbid and wonderful device in Atwood’s storytelling is the chorus line of Penelope’s twelve dead teenage maids, who were cruelly murdered for no apparent reason after Odysseus’ return, and share their version of events here in a number of interludes, from mournful poems to naughty songs and anthropological lectures analysing their own significance. Basically, this is a wickedly clever celebration of feminism and womanhood told by the master of her genre with a ton of wit and soul.
Pens: ELEVEN out of 5!

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re:View – The 2016 Bookshelf
February: Sherlock and the Beautiful Apocalypse

I wish that was the title of an actual book! This headline sums up my reading in February: More Sherlock Holmes & Mary Russell mysteries, and more Ballard. I was already hooked on him after reading The Drowned World [review] and High Rise [review] last year, but Hello America has finally catapulted him right to the top of my favourite authors shelf.

Beautiful Apocalypse, by the way, is a song from the latest Kamelot album, Haven – the best metal album of the past year with a gloriously dystopian concept running through it.

But back to books: Here’s the February bookshelf.


A Monstrous Regiment of Women (Mary Russell #2) by Laurie R. King
As I mentioned recently, I was converted from sceptic to fan within a few pages of the first Mary Russell book [review] so of course I dived straight into the second volume. While the first book was collection of different cases, which saw Mary learning the ropes, this book is focused on one case: Mary gets drawn into a religious/feminist/political cult led by a charismatic but mysterious woman. When a few too many members fall victim to deadly accidents just weeks after changing their wills to benefit their “church”, Mary suspects that not all is as godly as it seems, and soon find her own life in danger. I enjoyed this even more than the first book because the case is more coherent, creating a pretty exciting page-turner. Mary has become a proficient detective in her own right while building an ambitious academic career in Oxford, which makes her so much more than Sherlock’s sidekick. I’m starting to think, actually, that Holmes is becoming the sidekick in this series – and I have to say I like it!
Pens: 4 out of 5

A Letter of Mary by Laurie R. King
An old archaeologist friend of Mary’s from the first book returns from Palestine with an ancient scroll that may or may not be a letter from Mary Magdalene that could turn Christianity on its head, and is promptly murdered in London. Mary and Holmes, now happily married after their awkward courtship during the second book, go undercover to investigate the potential suspects. For Mary, this means posing as a helpless and naive secretary in the house of a predatory, misogynist colonel and his equally repulsive son. The transformation Mary has to undergo, both in appearance and in character, as she assumes this role really keeps this book going. The attention to detail that King puts into the creation of Mary’s alter ego easily lives up to any disguise Doyle ever came up with for the original Sherlock, and Mary’s internal struggle to stay in character – in which she succeeds brilliantly – prove her to be more than an equal match for the great detective himself. Otherwise, this book drags on a little bit and is probably the weakest in the series so far, but by now Holmes, Russell and their world have become so familiar that the lack of excitement is made up for by the comfort of spending reading time in their company.
Pens: 3 out of 5

The Day of Forever by J.G. Ballard
I got my hands on an original 1967 paperback edition of this and it’s beautiful – a collection of early Ballard short stories ranging from the furthest reaches of outer space to the depths of the human psyche. There’s a slightly depressing undercurrent running through these, giving you a feeling that, no matter whether you’re cast away on a distant planet with no hope of escape, or sitting in our house in a posh London neighbourhood, you’re inevitably doomed anyway. But I like doom, so that’s all right. And the worlds and landscapes of this book, whether in this world our out of it, are gorgeously imagined as is to be expected from Ballard. Overall a very enjoyable read.
Pens: 4 out of 5

Hello America by J.G. Ballard
This book is basically a cross of some of my favourite obsessions: dystopia, apocalypse and the America Dream. Ballard envisions the collapse of the US as a consequence of fossil fuel shortages and climate change in the early 2000s – which, in itself is close enough to home to be terrifying. Then, some hundred years later, he sends an exploration party out of a barely surviving Europe to check on some worrying radiation readings from the American continent, now a largely deserted and barren desert. This group of sailors, scientists and adventurers arrives in a gorgeously devastated New York City and heads west, much like the pioneers centuries before them, following in the traces of the original frontier. As they fight to survive in the grotesque post-civilisation landscape, each of them lives their own version of the American Dream. Soon they find they are not entirely alone there, and giant holograms of all-American heroes in the sky lead them to a glittering skeleton of Las Vegas overgrown by rainforest, where a President who calls himself Charles Manson rules over army of Mexican children and an arsenal of vintage nuclear weapons… I found myself completely hypnotised by this book. Ballard’s vision of this dead continent reverting to primal deserts and jungles is immensely visual; it turns the concept of America into a goddess that lies decaying in the debris of a shattered civilisation and leaves you grieving for everything you’ve ever loved about this country and what it stands for. In my case, that’s a lot – ever since I can remember I’ve been obsessed with America and its pop culture. From vintage cars and skyscrapers to neon signs and Hollywood heroes, Ballard pays tribute to all the little and big ideas we associate with America in a beautiful and disturbing obituary to an icon of our time.
Pens: 5 out of 5

re:View – The 2016 Bookshelf
January: Crime, Charms and Cyberspace

A new year, a new bookshelf and already I’m behind on the reviews. I blame a busy January…that, and my new Netflix subscription. So here it is: the January 2016 bookshelf. Remind me to read more again.


Neuromancer (Sprawl #1) by William Gibson
This was my secret Santa gift last year, chosen by the combined powers of my book-loving team members. I have to admit Gibson’s style took some getting used to. I always struggle a bit to get my head around sci-fi and cyberspace, so this cyberspace sci-fi thriller, in combination with Gibson’s way of throwing in off-hand concepts without elaborating, challenged me for a while before I started to enjoy it. But once I realised that not getting it had nothing to do with my lack of sci-fi knowledge, and that I was just supposed to go with it regardless of what made sense and what didn’t, it ended up being quite a fun ride. And although this is the kind of book where you don’t really care what happens to any of the characters – we’re all doomed anyway – I really enjoyed this trip through futuristic cityscapes, weird space communities and creepy cyber avenues.
Pens: 4 out of 5

Charmed Life (Crestomanci #1) by Diana Wynne Jones
This book came to me through a colleague who rediscovered it years and years after reading it in school. It’s a wonderful children’s book about two orphans, teenage girl Gewndolen who has a strong potential for magic and her little brother cat, who has no magic at all. When they come to live in the castle of the powerful enchanter Crestomanci (whose collection of extravagant dressing gowns has given me a new life goal), Gwendolen is banned from using her powers, causing the rebellious teen witch to conjure up a storm that threatens the lives of the siblings and the foundations of the world they live in, and Cat makes an incredible discovery about his own powers. This is a beautiful story about finding one’s own strength when faced with adversity, filled with colourful characters and all those wonderful little details that make your imagination fly and bring a magical world to life. Another one of the many books I wish I’d read as a child.
Pens: 4 out of 5

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (Mary Russell #1) by Laurie R. King
I’m a fan of Doyle and I don’t generally like people messing with the original Sherlock Holmes – the BBC series being the only exception so far. So when a friend sent me a surprise parcel full of books about Sherlock Holmes and a female sidekick, that were not written by Doyle, I was veeery sceptical. But that friend gives good book recommendations so I gave the first volume a chance. And actually, Laurie R. King has done something very clever with this. Far from being a sidekick, Mary Russell actually takes the lead in her universe. As a highly intelligent, educated, feminist, cross-dressing and generally pretty badass young woman, she’s more than a match to an older, wiser Holmes, who may have retired to the countryside to keep bees, but nevertheless stays true to the original character. And when Holmes takes 15-year-old Russell on as an apprentice (detective, not beekeeper), the cases soon start rolling in. Yes, it’s different from the original. It’s more modern, more witty, probably not as technical in the crime-solving, but adding a very enjoyable personal dimension to the character and the world of Sherlock Holmes. And Mary Russell very quickly earned herself a spot among my favourite book heroines. I’m so signed up for the next 13 books…
Pens: 4 out of 5

re:View – The 2015 Bookshelf
December: A life less ordinary

December came and went and I was so busy working ridiculous overtime that I just made my 2015 Goodreads reading challenge by squeezing in a couple of graphic novels and short reads. So here’s the final batch of the 2015 Bookshelf. More dystopia, more Sin City and more cats.


The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
I love dystopia so of course I picked this one up. Set in the the what-if scenario of Germany and Japan winning the Second World War and splitting up the US between them as occupied territory, this book follows a cast of characters from each side of the fence. There’s the American art dealer living in oppression, the Jewish US citizen just trying to survive, a range of German political leaders locked in a bitter power struggle, a Japanese government official struggling to stomach the doctrine of his Nazi allies, and a few shady characters of dubious allegiance working their various plots to stir up the system. I enjoyed this in much the same way as I enjoyed Nineteen Eighty-Four, hooked by the story but impatiently skimming through the lengthy political and philosophical ramblings. It’s a good book with a very clever meta level; the eponymous man in the high castle and the outrage he causes with his book speculating on what had happened if America had won the war is endlessly delightful in its irony. Obviously a classic of modern literature.
Pens: 4 out of 5

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwoood
Being a massive Atwood fan I almost feel like a traitor saying this, but I’m seriously underwhelmed by her latest novel. It starts out so promising: A young couple living in a post-financial crash landscape of unemployment and poverty gets a chance to improve its desperate circumstances by signing up to a social experiment. The twin city of Positron/Consilience works on the principle that every resident alternates each month between living and working in the community and doing time in the town’s prison. The promise is a life in comfort and security; the price is total commitment for life: the city is sealed off from the rest of the world, and surveillance is everywhere. This highly regulated life soon takes its toll on Charmaine and Stan’s relationship, and as they start breaking the rules they uncover a sinister underworld in their perfect town, where disruption is dealt with silently and absolutely, where life-like robots are created in secret labs and where their friends disappear and come back not quite the same…or quite human. So far, it has all the elements of a breathtaking Atwood dystopia, very much along the lines of The Handmaid’s Tale. The problem is, you just don’t care. Stan’s a bit of an arse, Charmaine’s a bit of a bitch, there’s not a single character I actually felt for in this book, which meant I really couldn’t care less what happened to them. And all the dystopian elements just feel a little bit sold under value – there are a lot of very good ideas in this book, they just aren’t developed to the point where they become really spectacular. Instead the plot just kind of fizzles out. I wanted it to strike me and leave my head spinning, like when I read Handmaid. Instead I closed the book and went: Meh.
Pens: 3 out of 5 (More like 2.5, and only because there are so many good ideas hidden in there! Argh!)

Sin City, Vol. 4: That Yellow Bastard by Frank Miller
This is by far my favourite Sin City story, probably because it features so prominently in the first movie (one of my absolute favourites) and also because John Hartigan is just the most heartbreaking character in the entire series. On the last day of his career in the police department, Hartigan saves Little Nancy Callahan from a deranged killer who operates under police immunity, and spends the rest of his life paying for it. And then, just because he cares for what’s become of her, he ends up paying a little more. So, there’s the heart-wrenching story of those tow and their fragile relationship, plus the artwork in this volume is the absolute highlight of the entire series – especially Nancy’s iconic dance routine. Seriously one of the most gorgeous graphic novels and one I keep coming back to again and again.
Pens: 5 out of 5

Sin City, Vol. 5: Family Values by Frank Miller
A very short volume of much smaller scale than the previous stories, this book basically follows Dwight and Miho on a revenge killing spree. It’s fast paced and full of delightfully choreographed and captured fights – but what else would you expect when Deadly Little Miho goes to battle. More of a snapshot than a story, this volume may lack the depth of the other books, but it’s a quick and entertaining read for when you’ve got an hour to kill and are feeling a bit noir.
Pens: 3 out of 5

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide
I tried. I really tired! I love Japanese literature and I love cats, but I really struggled through this little book. It’s basically a story of a couple living in a little house and a neighbour’s cat who comes to visit. Now, while this sounds promising to a Japanophile cat lady, sadly the story stops there. Aside from endless, slightly repetitive descriptions of the house and its surroundings, and the progression of the cat from “peeking through the window” to “owning the place” there’s very little here in terms of story or character development, or anything actually happening. (Until the end, which is sad and then a little less sad.) This book is currently being hyped as “poetic” by the booksellers, so maybe it’s poetry and I’m just not getting it. But overall, I feel I would have been better off snoozing for two hours with the cats than spending my time on reading it.
Pens: 1 out of 5

re:View – The 2015 Bookshelf
November: A world of wonders

I can’t believe I’d never read His Dark Materials. It’s one of those books that, reading them as an adult, makes you think, ‘If only I’d had that in my childhood; I’d have had a friend for life!’ This trilogy finally came to me by recommendation of a colleague and fellow bookworm, who basically ordered me to read it immediately when she found out I didn’t know anything by Pullman. So I did, and I found a new favourite.


His Dark Materials (Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass) by Philip Pullman

In a time a little bit like ours and yet very different, young orphan Lyra Belacqua and her reluctant companion Will Parry get tangled up in a great adventure that leads them across a multiverse of different worlds, where they find themselves cast into the central roles in the final fight between good and evil. (That’s the extremely condensed version – to go into any greater detail in the plot would mean spoilers, and you absolutely have to experience for yourself just how magnificently this story evolves!)

Pullman sets his re-imagining of Milton’s epic Paradise Lost in a series of worlds populated with all sorts of wonders, where humans carry their soul on the outside in the shape of a daemon, where animals talk, armoured bears roam the lands and clans of witches rule the skies. While the story in itself is all kinds of wonderful – a breathtaking adventure of two children facing the forces of heaven and earth – it’s the characters who truly create the magic. Lyra, a smart and brave pre-teen with a mind very much of her own, and her daemon Pantalaimon have a bond that makes your heart ache with love, while her budding relationship with Will has all the bittersweet glory of innocent young love. The creatures they meet and the battles they fight on their long journey across the multiverse help to create a rich and utterly credible alternative reality in which you can completely lose yourself. (It’s one of these realities – much like Pratchett’s Discworld – that has been brought to life by the author to the point where, at least in my mind, it really and truly exists.)

Pullan also weaves an astonishing number of philosophical issues into his narrative – from questions surrounding the concepts of God, good and evil and life after death to the struggles between science and religion and the theory of parallel universe and alternative civilisations. And underneath all these big ideas there’s a beautiful story of growing up, going out into the world, discovering love and finding your place in life. I honestly don’t think a children’s book could be more wonderful than this.

Pens: 5 out of 5, and a place on my special shelf of favourite books!

re:View – The 2015 Bookshelf
August + September: slow progress

The 2015 bookshelf continues to grow slowly. I haven’t really had a lot of time to read over the summer as I spent my time raising six kittens. More on that later. First, it’s time to catch up on some reviewing while I still remember what I’ve read. My summer reading has been quite random so no major themes going on this time…


Carpet Diem: Or…How to Save the World by Accident by Justin Lee Anderson
The first book I ever picked up because the author followed me on Twitter. Good promotion strategy, really. I guess he found me because I tweet about books, fantasy, Pratchett and Gaiman. This book tries to position itself as “a spiritual successor to Good Omens”. Well, let’s start with a reality check: It’s not Good Omens, nor does it play int he league of Gaiman and Pratchett in terms of depth, literary achievement or legacy. And just the fact that it has an angel and a demon bitch-fighting over who wins the apocalypse doesn’t quite make it a successor to the great classic. However, it is a bloody good, funny fantasy novel that sees a cast of absolutely loveable characters going on a mad adventure to save the world. I like that kind of stuff, so I breezed through this thoroughly enjoyable book in a matter of days. And I sincerely hope there will be a sequel. I just don’t agree with the publisher pushing it from the Good Omens angle, but then that’s a sales strategy and has no impact on my rating of the book itself. (And as someone whose life was changed by reading Good Omens, I am really hard to please on that front…)
Pens: 4 out of 5

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
I don’t tend to pick up over-hyped books, but a friend recommended this one (and I mean by putting the actual book into my hands) so I gave it a go. Turns out the hype is justified – this is a wonderful, sad but uplifting story about life and death and getting a second chance long after you’ve given up hoping for it. Harold Fry is one of the most loveable characters I’ve ever met in a book and with every step he takes on his impossible walk across the length of England, you feel more empathy with him, until his journey pretty much becomes your own. I laughed and cried and cried some more, and closed the book with a smile and the feeling that people maybe aren’t all as bad as I like to think. What more could you want from a book…
Pens: 4 out of 5

The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett
The anticipated, the dreaded, the devastating final book of Discworld. I know a lot of people who haven’t been able – for various reasons – to read this yet, so I’ll keep it spoiler free. Whether Pratchett wrote this book knowing it would be his last or not, I don’t know. But I can see him tying up a lot of loose ends, as well as opening new doors – which will now lead to the forever unknown as his daughter has announced the series will not continue. When Pratchett passed away this year and it was revealed that he’d left behind a manuscript for another Tiffany Aching book, I felt immensely comforted, because she was one of the characters who got me hooked on Discworld in the first place and her storyline will always have a special place in my heart and on my bookshelf. However, when the book arrived, it turned out that the end was bittersweet. While I don’t agree with the direction Pratchett decided to take with the characters in The Shepherd’s Crown, I can also see that it was necessary and how the circle has been closed. But that doesn’t mean I will ever get over it. And neither will I get over the fact that this most gifted of storytellers is no longer among us, because he clearly had so many stories left to tell.
Pens: 4 out of 5

What Milo Saw by Virginia Macgregor
This book came through as a free review copy from NetGalley at a moment when I needed something light and sweet, and for that kind of mood it is spot-on. It reminded me a lot of Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, in that it’s mainly told from the perspective of a little boy who tackles the big problems of a grow-up world. Milo is an absolutely adorable little boy who wont’ let his difficult family life and debilitating eye condition prevent him from uncovering a misuse scandal in the local retirement home while helping a Syrian refugee and sorting out his mother’s love life. It’s one of those innocent, feel-good stories for a Sunday afernoon when the world just needs to be put right.
Pens: 3 out of 5

re:View – The 2015 Bookshelf
June + July: It’s been a slow summer

Here’s a confession you won’t hear a lot from me: I haven’t been reading a lot lately.

The reasons are plenty – I’ve started some new workout classes, I’ve been busy with my food blog, I took in a pregnant cat that just had kittens…and somehow the books just didn’t pick themselves up. It may also have to do with the fact that I got stuck on Tom Holt’s J.W. Wells series, loving it at first and then getting bored very quickly. I hate to ditch books halfway through so I soldiered on through three volumes, but it took me an absolute age.

So here are the contents of this summer’s very slim (so far at least) bookshelf. I can’t wait for long autumn evenings on the sofa with a book and a tea…


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