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Saturday, 26 January 2019

Book Review: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Apparently I love reading books set in the circus, who knew? The Night Circus was one of my favourite books from early last year and now Water for Elephants has joined it on my LOVE list!

“Life is the most spectacular show on earth.”

I’m a sucker for stories that weave back and forth between the past and present day, it might just be one of my favourite literary techniques. Jacob Jankowski, who is in his 90s and currently residing in a nursing home, recounts the memories of his youth when he joined the circus following a tragic event in his life. Elderly Jacob is hilarious, there’s still some fight left in him as he loses his temper when a new resident claims to have carried water for elephants in the circus many years ago. Which if you had actually worked as part of a circus, you would know to be practically impossible!

There’s just so many great characters I don’t know where to begin. But a special shoutout must go to the character with the biggest personality - Rosie the elephant. I loved her!! And it really reminded me of when I visited an elephant sanctuary in Thailand. They really do seem to have their own mischievous personalities - AND it has one of the cutest doggos ever, Queenie!

I found the love story slightly unrealistic... it seemed to fall into the category of “love at first sight” and I just can’t abide those stories. Marlena herself just felt a little bland too, but this is really only a minor complaint. Luckily the circus had plenty of other interesting characters to make up for her - Camel and Walter, for example.

Certain events are heartbreaking - trigger warnings for some animal abuse :( - but the book is mostly wonderfully atmospheric and a lot of fun! I’d consider this to be the first real success in my "30 books to read before 30" challenge AND my first 5 star read of the year!

Johann
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Friday, 25 January 2019

New England Trip - Boston and Providence

I promised I would write a blog post on my road trip around New England so that others could avail of my excellent organisation and planning skills..… I promise I’ll be less smug from here on out ;) 

Planning New England was originally quite stressful, because there’s SO much in that area of America and I felt like I wanted to do it all incase I never got the chance to go back (spoiler alert: I FULLY intend on going back). We had a restricted window of 2 weeks and there’s only so much driving you can do before you feel like you spent your entire holiday in a car. My top tip is to make a shortlist of what you feel like you MUST see. Plan the holiday around that and then you’ll find you can easily slot things in along the way.

I thought the best way to format these blog posts would be to cover the holiday in chronological order, noting where we stayed/what we did in each place. As I began writing I realised how much I wanted to cover, so I'll split this journey over a few blog posts. This first post will cover Boston, Massachusetts and Providence, Rhode Island.

Boston, Massachusetts (2 nights)
We arrived in Boston around lunchtime on the first day and our hotel was the Westin Copley Hotel down in the Back Bay area. I would highly recommend staying in this area (and in this hotel if funds allow). It’s pretty central and easy walking distance to all the points of interest. Our hotel in Boston at the end of the trip was a bit of a nuisance, but I’ll cover that when I get to it.


View from hotel room in Westin Copley Hotel
We spent the afternoon/evening walking around the area close to our hotel, Newbury street was a particular highlight. Lots of cool little bookshops and the Newbury Comics store there was HUGE and I could have spent every last penny I had in that one shop. Lots of horror figurines and comics and funkos and general pop culture merch.

Newbury Street, Boston
The next day we dedicated to the Freedom Trail. This is a really useful way to cover a lot of Boston. You follow the red brick trail through lots of different historical spots at your own leisure. Of course you can take a guided tour, but neither Matthew nor myself are particular history buffs, so I wasn’t that bothered. Taking your own self-guided tour means you can just walk off to random spots you locate along the way (like really cool bookstores or Starbucks – one great secondhand shop was Books & Old Prints). Another bookshop you must visit is Brattle Book Shop, one of America’s oldest and largest antiquarian book shops. When I was there they had a white board where customers could write down the scariest book they’d ever read. I added Dan Simmons’ Summer of Night to the list.

Boston Common is a park right in the middle of Boston and this is beside where you start the Freedom Trail. It’s absolutely gorgeous with lots of little squirrels running around, and we had really amazing cookies from one of the stands in the park. Boston’s Public Garden is another beautiful park worth checking out. Boston Common is also very close to the Cheers bar, which is usually quite busy but if you’re a fan it’s a must-see. And obviously the Boston Public Library needs to be on your list as well!

The next day we were leaving for Providence in Rhode Island, but before we left we made a stop over at Harvard. If you’re staying in central Boston the easiest way to get over to Harvard/MIT is via the subway, which was really easy to use and nagivate. The campus grounds of Harvard are stunning and it’s just a really nice little area of restaurants and cafes. The Harvard Book Store is also worth a visit.


Harvard University
My memory of where we ate in Boston is vague, there’s an abundance of great restaurants no doubt, but for breakfast I would highly recommend South Street Diner. Their milkshakes were freakin’ INSANE. 


Rhode Island, Providence (2 nights)
We picked up our rental car at Logan Airport in Boston and then we were on the road! The first stop was Rhode Island, Providence. Admittedly, this may not have been on my original list, but when I was talking about my road trip, my Instagram friend Robin asked if I was planning to head to Providence, since I’m such a big HP Lovecraft fan. So all of a sudden, it was on the list!

It was only about an hour drive down to Providence, where we stayed in the Dean Hotel. It’s a boutique hotel, so has a very modern style, but the hotel rooms were a tad small. The bed in particular was an issue for Matthew as he’s 6 feet tall and his feet were hanging over the edge… but the shower was incredible, as was the coffee in the little coffee shop located downstairs. It was also quite central to all the spots I wanted to see, so there was pros and cons. 

We arrived in Providence quite late in the afternoon so we decided we’d just walk down around town and explore. My initial overriding impression was that I was in some Lovecraftian story, as the city was SO quiet, but being a national holiday this made sense, as the next day was much more lively. Even though it was on my list of places to visit (lovingly curated by Robin), we randomly stumbled across Lovecraft Arts and Sciences – a store that is pretty much dedicated to Lovecraft himself, although I also found a rare King book amongst a lot of other authors. It was incredible and I was fangirling so hard inside that store – it has books, clothing, memorabilia, totes, everything! So definitely visit it if you get the chance.

Lovecraft Arts and Sciences
The next day we went on our Lovecraft tour! A tour where I was the guide (with Robin’s instructions) – lucky Matthew. Let me tell you though… Providence has got some hills!!! It was unseasonably warm and I was wearing black jeans, and I was on the brink of death. So it was a sweaty affair. We got to see the house that inspired his story “The Shunned House”, we also got to see where he lived when he wrote “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and another residence he lived in etc. A special mention must go to The Providence Athenaeum, one of the most incredible libraries I’ve ever seen. This is a place that Lovecraft frequented and is also where Poe courted his “Annabel Lee”, Sarah Whitman. It also has a stunning Lovecraft bust as you walk in the entrance. MUST-SEE.


The Providence Athenaeum
The next day we were heading up towards Salem, but before we left we want to Swan Point Cemetery to visit Lovecraft’s grave. Interesting fact: Lovecraft was buried in the family plot, and originally his name was just included on the Phillips family monument, but a number of fans actually pitched in together to buy him a headstone of his own. It includes the iconic phrase “I AM PROVIDENCE”, a line from one of his personal letters. He is not actually buried under this headstone, but amongst his family (which is right beside this), something a potential grave robber found out when they tried to dig up his body and found nothing there!


Lovecraft's Grave in Swan Point Cemetery
So that's Boston and Providence! Next up, I will be covering the Lizzie Borden B&B in Fall River, as well as Salem.

Johann
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Book Review: Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

The story of how Matt Haig came through crisis, triumphed over a mental illness that almost destroyed him and learned to live again.

“There is this idea that you either read to escape or you read to find yourself. I don’t really see the difference. We find ourselves through the process of escaping.”

I wouldn’t say this book was revolutionary in any way, nor did it teach me anything I didn’t already know about depression and anxiety. However, Matt Haig writes in such an inspiring and hopeful way that I still thoroughly enjoyed this book.

These “self-help” or memoir books can begin to become boring or feel tedious if they are written in a certain way - if there’s walls and walls of texts for example. But Haig has laid his book out in a really easy to read format, he flits back and forth between his past and present and there’s sections that simply consist of lists of things like “ways to live” or “things that make me feel worse” to tweets from different people describing what depression feels like to them. It keeps the book fresh and interesting, and very easy to devour.

He also refers to Stephen King on a number of occasions which obviously made me very happy! You can tell Haig loves reading and there’s some really beautifully written sections where he talks about the influence books can have on our lives and mental health. He even includes a list of books that he turns to on his darker days.

The book focuses a lot more on depression than anxiety, and as someone who has (fortunately) never suffered from depression, I couldn’t personally relate to large chunks, however I could certainly understand and empathise. I would therefore strongly recommend this to those who are battling depression - or even to those who love someone battling depression. The more we try to understand each other, the more we can tackle the stigma surrounding mental health.

Thanks for gifting me this and the buddy read Madalina @thereaderswardrobe! 4 stars!

Johann
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Thursday, 17 January 2019

Book Review: The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

Sixteen year old Holden Caulfield leaves his prep school in Pennsylvania and finds himself going underground in New York City for three days.

“I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”

The Catcher in the Rye is one of those books that I probably would have benefited from studying in school. I’m sure there were plenty of themes and hidden meanings that were just going SWOOSH over my head, however the unignorable themes of teenage angst and rebellion are present from the very first page.

Holden himself is... complex. I felt quite sorry for him at points throughout the book, yet every time he said that something “killed him” how I wish I COULD kill him!! Repetitive phrases quickly become very irritating for me and that occurs in abundance in this book.

The plot itself is also very meandering... if I had to describe what happened, I would struggle. It actually reminded me a lot of American Psycho. The crazy narrative from our protagonist, repetitive sequences... but I absolutely LOVED American Psycho and found Patrick Bateman to be highly entertaining!

Holden clearly suffers from some mental health problems, I’m not a psychiatrist so I can’t diagnose, but there seems to be signs of depression as well as ADHD - potentially other issues too? And I can only feel sympathetic when a character demonstrates such struggles with their mental health. A particular scene towards the end - involving his sister - did make me feel very sad.

But at the same time, it was a slog to get through certain sections. So I feel very conflicted overall. I’m glad I read it though, I’m just not sure I’d ever pick it up again unfortunately! However the longer I sit and think about it... the more I find myself almost liking the book? I DON’T KNOW. It’s difficult - this review is a mess...

2.5 stars seems about fair!!

Johann
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Saturday, 12 January 2019

Book Review: The Gunslinger by Stephen King

Roland Deschain, the last of the Gunslingers, is after the Man in Black. Along the way he meets a young boy named Jake, who appears to be from a world that is different to Roland’s.


“I don’t like people. They fuck me up.”

Ah, Roland. I had forgotten how difficult it was to like you in The Gunslinger. Some of your decisions are questionable, but that is the price of obsession.

The Gunslinger is so unlike King’s usual style of writing; the prose is beautifully poetic as we are introduced to a world that is starkly different to ours, yet some similarities remain. The differences in language and terms used, as well as the general workings of this world, are a bit jarring on the first read, but a reread is really so satisfying and rewarding!

The Gunslinger works perfectly as a prologue to the series itself. It’s an introduction to this other world, and Roland himself - we get glimpses into his past, his present, and even a few subtle hints into what his future may hold. Roland is initially portrayed as the strong silent Clint Eastwood type (thinking of Tony Soprano here LOL), but over the course of the series he becomes so much more than this, and evolves into one of the most complex characters I’ve ever encountered in literature. Thank you, King, for such a fantastic character.

I will never cease to be amazed and intrigued by the world that the Dark Tower series is set in. And although I feel like The Gunslinger works as a pretty great prologue and sets the scene for the series, there are still a huge number of parts that are iconic to the story itself. We have Roland's past in Gilead with his mother and friends, we also have an epic demonstration of his gunslinging abilities in Tull, and of course, our introduction to Jake Chambers and his journey with Roland through the mountains, which is eventful in itself! And then the book culminates with the Man in Black having a palaver with Roland, where he is told his future. This part in particular is so enjoyable on a reread, picking up on the different predictions mades and ALLLL the foreshadowing. It's fantastic.

On my first journey to the Dark Tower, and also on this one, I read the revised edition of The Gunslinger, as King went back to the original and made some some amendments to make it both an easier read and to fix some consistencies. I really want to get my hands on a copy of the original version so that I can compare!

Such incredible world-building and I feel like King intrigues you enough to make you want to pick up the next book right away. But I won’t be... as I am waiting until February - like the good readalong host that I am! *Yes I deserve some credit*

I’m giving this rating only because I know what is yet to come... can't wait to carry on with my reread of my most favourite book series. 4 stars.

Johann
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Thursday, 10 January 2019

Book Review: Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

A much-loathed man is found murdered with multiple stab wounds on the luxurious Orient Express with 13 potential suspects. Who did it?

“If you will forgive me for being personal - I do not like your face.”

If you will forgive me for being personal... but I do not like YOUR face, Poirot. I’m sorry, Christie... it’s not you, it’s me. I can fully appreciate that Agatha Christie is the Queen of Crime - the level of detail and planning that obviously goes into constructing such complex crime scenes and investigation work is impressive, but it’s really not to my personal taste.

The premise is exciting enough - all these strangers stuck on a train that has been sidelined by heavy snow and one of them is found murdered in his compartment - but that’s really where the intrigue ends for me. It felt very formulaic, which if all Christies are like this, I don’t think I could face another. The middle section in particular where Poirot interviews each of the passengers had me bored out of my skull! And the ending... I hated it so much, I rolled my eyes so hard I went partially blind!

As for Poirot himself, I cannot abide him! So self-congratulatory and smug at times. I also don’t like to have to work this hard when I’m reading FOR FUN. I felt like I was back in the lab searching through data and trying to keep the details straight in my head of who was where at what time and for how long.

I feel like I might be exiled from bookstagram/goodreads by all the Christie lovers, so please accept my sincerest apologies... Christie is clearly great at what she does, but it’s not my cup of tea. 2 stars.

Johann
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Monday, 7 January 2019

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling

Talk about an emotional rollercoaster! Deathly Hallows is certainly the most dark book in the series, but Rowling injects enough humour and warmth to bring us some fuzzy feels, whilst dealing with all the emotional turmoil!


"You'll stay with me?" "Until the very end," said James.

And here upon shall commence my random fangirling over all the things I love about this one... Neville Longbottom and his unabashed braver... Molly Weasley screaming the iconic “NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!” (Everyone needs a mother like Molly!)... Snape’s backstory... Hagrid carrying Harry at that crucial moment... A special mention must go to the following part, which CRACKED me up:

“Our Headmaster is taking a short break,” said Professor McGonagall, pointing at the Snape-shaped hole in the window.

Complaints... I have a few. Don’t get me wrong, the crazy amounts of twists and turns surrounding the horcruxes and hallows are enthralling but at times I do find myself pausing to think - especially when it comes to the ownership of the elder wand - but I think that’s just me?! I also find this book has a different feel to the others since we’re not really in Hogwarts... which makes me sad :(

Although a major complaint I have is that such an important and crucial character, and one that I love, has an off-page death (I’m trying not to be spoilery here... just incase). WHAT THE HECK! It’s just kinda mentioned in passing and I’m sure on my first read my eyes were just bugging outta my head!!

However such complaints can’t take away from what I find to be a fitting end to the series. Sure, you feel like Rowling is pummelling your heart to a bloody pulp... but would you have it any other way? I’m missing my reread already, and I'm considering rewatching the movies as I’m just not ready to leave Hogwarts just yet.

All was well. 5 stars!


Johann
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Friday, 4 January 2019

Book Review: Krampus: The Yule Lord by Brom

Aspiring musician Jesse is caught up in the war between Krampus the Yule Lord and Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.

“Then let us go and be terrible.”

Well, colour me impressed. I’m not entirely sure what I had expected from this book, but I certainly didn’t think Krampus would be such a complex, well-developed and, at times, sympathetic character! Brom effortlessly blends his storytelling capabilities with a lot of the mythology that surrounds the origins and history of Yuletide and Father Christmas. I learnt a lot about Norse mythology and Brom even includes a little section towards the end where he details some of the research he came upon whilst writing Krampus.

It’s a fun read! And for the most part, it moves along at a consistent pace. Some parts did feel like they dragged on a tad, but I wonder if this is because I read it over quite a busy time and so I just felt like I was reading it forever? Brom is not only a talented writer, but also a fantastic illustrator and each chapter is accompanied with a delightfully devilish illustration.

I absolutely loved the portrayal of Santa Claus as an evil character and the battle between himself and Krampus was quite enthralling. Brom creates a fantastic backstory explaining the antagonism between the two. It was sad when Krampus was trying to understand why Yuletide traditions have died out - but also fucking awesome when he goes on a gruesome killing rampage... didn’t I say he was complex?!

All in all, a lot of fun, and one I’d suggest for reading over the festive period if you’re into mythology, fantasy and horror! What a combination of all three! 3.5 stars!

Johann
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Thursday, 3 January 2019

Book Review: NOS4R2 by Joe Hill

Vic McQueen has a special gift for finding lost things. All she has to do is jump on her bike and the Shorter Way Bridge will guide her to whatever she is looking for. Until one day she finds trouble in the form of Charlie Manx - a vampiric old man who feeds on the souls of children.



“Gold don’t come off. What’s good stays good no matter how much of a beating it takes.”

I have this terrible habit where if I don’t read Joe Hill for a prolonged period of time I forget how amazing Joe Hill is and then when I read some of his work I’m thinking to myself “omg Joe Hill, you are literally ranked just under your father in my faves list, I love you” well... this is a habit I need to BREAK.

My initial review for NOS4A2 when I first read it back in July 2016 just HEAPS praise on Hill and how original and inventive and unlike anything else this book was. I was worried a reread would change my opinion. But no... if anything I love this book even more! This book is 700+ pages but it doesn’t feel like it, and that to me, is the sign of a fantastic read where you simply can’t stop yourself from turning the pages. It's difficult not to make comparisons with Stephen King, and although I can see some similarities, make no mistake about it, Joe Hill has his own unique voice and with some pretty amazing unique ideas. This book was like no other book I've read before, very original and it captivated me from the very first page. It was thrilling, fascinating, touching, scary, gruesome...the list goes on.

Our heroine, Vic McQueen, isn’t all that likeable when we first meet her as an adult, but she grows on you and Hill fully develops her into a character that you really root for. And sweet sweet Lou - he deserves the world. Charlie Manx is one of the BEST villains I’ve ever had the pleasure of coming across. He’s absolutely hilarious whilst being incredibly fucking terrifying at the same time. But even more horrifying than Manx is his little helper, Bing. Bing is the lowest of the low... he’s sick and twisted and much more of a human monster than the supernatural Manx. He gives me the heebie jeebies!

NOS4A2 simply doesn’t fit into one genre box, it ticks a lot of them - horror, fantasy, suspense, humour, a little bit of romance... it has everything! And those Stephen King Easter eggs fill me with such joy.

This book is firmly in my top 5 books of ALL TIME! Christmasland is one of my favourite fictional places and I’ve no doubt I’ll be paying another visit. It really holds up on a reread. 5 stars!

Johann
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Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Book Review: Blaze by Stephen King/Richard Bachman

If you love Of Mice and Men, then this would be a great King to pick up! Both feature a couple of guys just trying to make ends meet, one of which is the “brains” of the two and the other is this 6 foot 7 gentle giant that isn’t too bright due to the beatings he took as a kid (poor Blaze!)

"It was a dirty world, and the longer you lived, the dirtier you got."

The story unfolds with two separate timelines: we have current day where Blaze is trying to kidnap a baby in order to make some money, and then we have the past which details Blaze’s childhood and friendship/partnership with George. Blaze has been dealt a bad hand in life, you can’t help but wonder what kind of life he might have had if things had been different. King does a terrific job of making you sympathise with this tragic character - I may have shed a few tears! I much preferred the flashbacks to Blaze’s past than the present events though. King is well known for his sprawling epic books that can really give your biceps a workout, but in Blaze he shows that he is capable of a wham-bam-thank-you-mam story. There's no real filler, the story moves along at a moderate pace and nothing feels wasted.

King issues an apology at the beginning in a little introduction and explains how he initially thought it wasn’t a great book. Apparently he wrote it around the same time as Carrie but it was left on the back burner until years later when he decided to realise it as Richard Bachman’s final novel. It fits into the Bachman style in terms of the ending (the Bachman books tend to have distinctively dark endings that lack any semblance of hope), but it also felt a lot like a King novel to me. We actually had a likeable character to root for! Blaze is great, he’s just like Lennie :(

All in all, one of the better Bachman books in my opinion. Probably second best after The Long Walk. Worth a read!

Johann
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