Book Reviews





Mental images come to life

Last weekend, I went exploring in my new city and came across a beautiful mansion. I thought I would feature it on the blog, as it reminded me of the kind of place described in so many of the books I like to read. It was a little bit "Austen". A little bit... whimsical. We had stumbled across Ashton Court; a mansion house settled in a 850 acre estate of deer parks, woodland and gardens (including 2 pitch and putt golf courses!)

We had ventured out of the city centre into the country on a brilliant, very Autumnal day. The colours were gorgeously rich as we made our way through the trees - bright evergreen and oranges and reds that burnt brightly againt a crisp sapphire sky. We climbed a few hills, navigated a few fences and then suddenly we came across this view:

In an instant I knew exactly where I wanted to be - On the doorstep of that house, overlooking the whole of Bristol! The place reminded me of Downton Abbey - or how I had envisioned Pemberley the first time I read Pride and Prejudice before seeing the BBC adaptation.

It was a really lovely building, and I'll definitely be visiting again. There's a cute cafe inside, and a market held in the grounds at weekends. I know that I will see this house in my mind the next time a pick up a period novel. Perhaps if I make my way here on Halloween it can also become my go-to mental image for haunted houses too?!

Here's a picture of me getting a little bit silly in the gardens. *Queue hair "swish" moment!*


Spooks and Scares for Halloween

Planning to scare your friends around the campfire this Halloween? Well then, how about some inspiration for creating your spookiest ghost story yet?

Ghost stories are my favourite genre of book, and ever since my first sleepover at a friends house - where we scared ourselves silly with tales of murderous possessed dolls, killers in the attic and phantom escasped convicts -  I have delighted in the spine-chilling paranoia a well-told ghost story can bring. (Especially when there are torch-in-face type situations to be telling them in!)

There have been many great ghost stories through literature: The Turn of the Screw, A Christmas Carol, The Woman in Black.. even Macbeth had a few ghosts pop up. Though not all of the ghosts in them are terrifying, blood-thirsty, revenge fuelled apparitions, they do leave a trace of their supernatural upon you. A well told ghost story is not necessarily a horror... it is a creeping, lingering, seemingly innocent tale with undertones that don't quite make themselves known to you until you are alone.. in the dark... and left with nothing but your own imagination. Suddenly the tragedy of a girl with an infectious smile becomes a force of its own. The smile is manic, you notice teeth are missing, her hair is just far too perfect to be right!

So, when you take the torch and focus the beam of light onto your own face this October 31st; as you launch into your own tale of spookiness... do so with these tips gleaned from some of my favourite ghost stories:
  • Children are scary. They just are. Double up the spookiness and make them identical twins ;) 
  • Avoid the cliches but dont ignore the established standards! A haunted house = standard. Doors closing of their own accord = cliche. It's a fine line!
  • There doesn't have to be blood. Create the right atmosphere and build the suspense, and a sneeze will have your audience screaming!
  • "And it turns out they were dead all along" has been killed by The Sixth Sense. Avoid, avoid, avoid.
  • Bring an element of truth to the story. Anchor it into a world people relate to and the scares will seem far more real in those "alone in the dark" moments. Think "my grandad once told me..." etc.
Have fun scaring, and leave your own top tips in the comments if you have some!

(All photos are my own)



Hands up everyone, who's up for an insane, near-impossible challenge? 50,000 words in a month.

Ok, that's more than a little melodramatic, I'll admit, but my previous experience of National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo) is exactly what you just imagined it to be like!  It's something a writer will put themselves through because somewhere deep inside, they want that challenge. They want to prove to themselves, to the world no less, that they can do it. But, actually, doing it is the hardest, most hand-wrenching, head-banging process you can imagine... and you spend they entire month going "WHY, GOD, WHY? WHY DID I THINK I COULD DO THIS?!" as you stare at the miles of 50,000 words left to go and the glaring white screen of a blank page in Microsoft Word. You write, you curse, you write more, you drink another 2 cups of coffee, and write even more. You go to work, you spend the time thinking about the day's word target you've yet to meet (plus the target from yesterday you missed and carried over to today), you go home, rush a sandwich, write, curse, write, coffee, write, work... so on, so on... Then you reach December... and you start planning for the next one!

It's pretty masochistic. And guess what - I'm giving it another go! (hahaaa) My last attempt didn't quite meet the heady heights of 50,000 words, so in that respect I failed. However, what I did hit December with was a collection of 36,000-something words of an actual story. And that felt good!

Although I will be going in with a target of 50,000 words in the spirit of Nanowrimo, I think I'm going to remove any pressure from myself to hit daily word counts this time round. Worrying just made my writing worse. I'm going to write something every day of November, and if it's just a sentence, it's just a sentence. So what? The next day, I might write the "target" and more! Nanowrimo 2012 is going to be a more of a "flow" for me than 2011. I hope I'll beat last year's word count at the end of the event, but mostly I hope I'll be even happier with what I've produced.

Last year, I ended up writing mush that I didn't even recognise as my own, just so that I wrote 2000 words a day. So, having learnt from the experience, here are my new guidelines for 2013. Why don't you join me in this madness and see how we all do?

  • Write every day (it is nanowrimo, after all)
  • Have a PLAN (big mistake from last year = writing on a whim)
  • Sequence doesn't matter (I fell into the trap of writing in a linear way last year, and just hit blocks constantly. If I want to write the last scene when I'm only just done with the first, I will)
  • Be a bit of a hippy (sometimes, a bullet point list, a poem or a letter will seem more attractive than yet another pargagraph of prose. As long as it tells the story, I'm going to take whatever I fancy. I can align it all into one format in the 11 months of editing I've got coming up!)
  • Enjoy it! (if I start resenting the screen, the pen, the characters, I'll stop. It's not worth slowly beginning to hate the thing I enjoy the most)
So that's it. Thats my prelim. Is anyone else taking part in NANOWRIMO this year? Have you got any tips?!

The Prisoner of Heaven - Review

This weekend, I treated myself to something I knew would be worth the wait: I read the third installment of Carlos Ruiz Zafon's "Barcelona Quartet": The Prisoner of Heaven.

I had pre-ordered this book back in June, and although it arrived on release day I put it on a shelf, and I waited... I waited until I reached a stage in the "reading cycle" where I had lost all hope in ever finding a beautiful book. Frequent readers are probably familiar with this slump. The fact is, not all books are going to be as good as the last... and sometimes the downward spiral seems like it might never end. At that point, I suggest to each and every one of you that you keep a Zafon novel on stand by, to rescue you from these dark times.

It was in such a moment that I decided that the weekend would be THE weekend.

The Prisoner Of Heaven is a sequel to The Shadow Of The Wind and a prequel and sequel to The Angel's Game (yes I know, just go with it...) It once again sees the reader reunited with the Sempere family and their bookshop, and their quick-witted friend Fermin. Daniel Sempere is now grown - married to Bea and father to a child - and Fermin is planning his own wedding to Bernarda. However, he is in uncharacteristicly low spirits about it. When a sinsiter stranger with one hand buys the most expensive edition of The Count of Monte Cristo from the bookshop, and inscribes it with a cryptic message to Fermin, Daniel starts to investigate his friend's bitter mood. As Daniel prys the truth from Fermin, the story of the Prisoner of Heaven is revealed...

Fermin recounts to Daniel a dark part of his (previously witheld) history, and confides in him a reason as to why he feels he cannot marry Bernarda. Having spent years in Monjuic Prison under a false identity, he was certified dead after a daring stunt. "Fermin" doesn't exist to the world, but it is the man his wife is in love with.

To say anything more about the story of The Prisoner Of Heaven, would be to ruin it for those who haven't yet read it, so I will leave the synopsis there. However, without spoiling the narrative, I can tell you that there are no end of "ohhhh!" moments as plot lines from the previous two novels begin to weave together. And they do so deliciously! I would wholly recommend refreshing yourself on The Shadow of The Wind, and in particular The Angel's Game, before reading The Prisoner of Heaven. It will make those "ohhhh!" moments all the more revealing!

As with all of Zafon's novels, the writing style is beautiful, lyrical and unpretentious. The author has an eerie talent for giving you a complete roundup of a character in a single paragraph, at which point you feel like you know them completely. Valls is a prime example. I read a paragraph of no more than 6 sentences about his "Sunday sermons" and I instantly disliked him, knew his arrogance and was a little bit fearful of his power. It's an incredible art, really...

I can barely contain myself for the release of the final novel of this quartet. So many questions hang in the air at the close of Prisoner of Heaven, and I am sure there will be answers to them all at the end of the wait. However, I'm yet to finda predicted publish date for the finale, I can only hope that it is not too far away!

Carlos Ruiz Zafon is an author I always find a joy to read, and I hope that many of you will be tempted by one of his novels and dicover the same. I cannot recommend The Prisoner of Heaven enough, but I wouldn't recommend that you start here. Newbies to Zafon should grab a copy of The Shadow Of The Wind and spend a Winter weekend with nothing but the lush vision of Barcelona Zafon creates. Once you're under the spell, I'm sure I'll meet you at the end of Prisoner Of Heaven, desperate for the final part!


VIII - the review

Another Tudor novel! Woohoo! And this time, there's demons involved...

VIII is a young adult novel that tells the story of Henry VIII's life from his childhood to his death. However, what makes this story different from the rest is that Henry is haunted by the vision of a deathly thin boy with pools of black for eyes, who quivers, cries and begs for comfort. Henry begins to see this boy as an omen - one who warns of still born children, who warns him of witchcraft and who, ultimately, claims him to death.

I thought the premise of the book was really interesting. I liked that for much of the book, Henry was "Hal". This made you as the reader forget what you already knew of Henry VIII, and see him as a "new" character. I also liked the supernatural element as an inventive way of explaining many of Henry's famously documented actions that remain, in the most part, unexplained.

The author, H M Castor, is a historian, and as such there are great descriptions of jousting and sword-fight tournaments, in-depth political positionings and squeamish accounts of Henry's leg wound. There is also, I noticed, a lot of attentioned paid to cloth, which is actually a bit strange!

VIII is an unchallenging read that I very much enjoyed, but I couldn't help but feel Henry's visions were just not enough to really set this novel apart fom others in the genre. I liked that Henry was the main focus of the book, not his wives, and Castor's interpretation of him from an over-loved child to a heartless King was well concieved. BUT, it followed a path we all know, at a pace that left little room for anticipation. It was a little off-kilter to say the least. 80% of the book surrounds the marraige periods of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn (undoubtedly the most prolific wives, it's true) but then 4 more marraiges are crammed into 20% - and it feels a bit rushed. For instance, Henry is married and divorced from Anne of Cleves, and already married again to Katherine Howard, in all of 4 pages!

All in all, VIII is well worth a read for fans of the Tudor court genre - if only for an insight into Henry's childhood, which was very much the best part of the book for me. Considering this was another 99p bargain on Kindle, it was much more than I expected it to be and definitely worth the price paid!

The art of bookmarks - an endangered species!

E-readers are great. They're efficient: light, small, adaptable, and now pretty cheap to boot. As more and more people buy Kindles, Kobos and the like, however, I do wonder the fate of reading "accessories". Bookmarks, for example.

I love bookmarks. Over my reading years, I have built up quite a collection - I've even kept and used the free bookmarks sent with charity marketing letters (you know the ones, they came with free pens too!)  I've had card ones, leather ones, lenticular ones (my favourite of these being an "Animorphs" bookmark - remember those?!) metal ones, paper-clippy ones... The list goes on. Every book I owned had its own unique placeholder! My most favourite bookmark is one I still use today: a Mucha print bookmark I bought in Prague.

Obviously, e-readers remove the need for placeholders. I think it's quite a shame, as accessorising the pages of a book with a little slip of art was quite satisfying...However! The are situations where an ebook is not practical (to me, anyway!) and a bookmark may be needed. Marking recipes in cookbooks for later... highlighting products that catch your eye in catalogues... marking photos/pictures for reference or inspiration in an art book... There is still life for these creations!

If you feel the same, and want to continue prettifying your reads with beautiful bookmarks, then I would like to show you some wonderful options currently available to buy from around the internet. If someone you know already has an e-reader, why not surprise them with a "vintage" gift? Pop down to your local market an find a gorgeous, peeling, faded hardback novel and give it new life by accessorising it with a lovely bookmark.

Let's not let the bookmark become extinct!

These wonderful festive bookmarks will be sold by Jules just in time for Christmas.

Beautiful Kimono designs by Rena Callan will brighten any page, available on Etsy.

Adorable personalised Harry Potter bookmarks givea special touch, by PaintedbyRenee

This quirky Mad Hatter protects your place - from Beth Yates

and... This bookmark was just too true to leave out! From BookFiend