Books2Door: Box sets for kids, whatever their age

As an always avid reader I was keen to encourage my children to discover for themselves the joy to be found within books. I read stories to them from an early age, filling the shelves in their nursery bedrooms with beautiful picture books. Favourites were revisited so often I could recite the words.

Once they had mastered reading for themselves, this habit I had nurtured proved expensive to feed. Living in a rural village, visits to a public library required yet another car journey, and time fitted in around their already packed schedule of organised activities. Bookshops were visited only rarely; the choices made there too often not satisfying their still developing preferences.

Discovering The Book People catalogue (browsed in paper form, back in the day) enabled me to purchase numerous box sets of both fiction and non-fiction at a price that could be managed regularly. My children’s updated shelves soon filled with: Horrible Histories and Geographies; dinosaur and science books; fictional adventures featuring Alex Rider, Percy Jackson and many more favourites. I also purchased sets of Booker prize shortlists, or classic author collections, for myself.

Although by last year I hadn’t ordered from The Book People in quite some time, when I read that the company had filed for administration I felt a sadness for the loss to current parents of young children with voracious reading habits.

It was therefore pleasing when Levi from Books2Door contacted me last month asking if I would be interested in a collaboration. They would send me a box set of my choice from their online site in exchange for me writing about the product and their service. On visiting Books2Door I discovered a wealth of box sets and other tempting offerings – just the sort of books my children enjoyed throughout their formative years. After consulting with them – now in their twenties but still, thankfully, reading – we decided that The Witcher series was most likely to be of interest. I agreed to take it for inspection.

 

The box set arrived – cellophane wrapped and packed in a sturdy box for posting – within a couple of days of ordering. The slip case in which the books are temptingly placed is strong and has attractive artwork.

The books themselves are quality paperbacks – the same paper and font as available from other retailers (we compared them to another copy of the first book in the series that my daughter already has on her shelves). My children were pleased that the cover art is the original and not the TV show versions.

 

While I am aware that discounted books take business from high street bookshops and cut the revenue authors receive per sale, they do enable parents to provide their children with complete book collections that may not otherwise be affordable, or indeed matching (a bane when series are purchased individually over months or years).

My grown children still reread the books they most enjoyed as young adults, time and again – their boxsets have proved excellent value.  

Books2Door is a company I can happily recommend. Thank you, Levi, for sending me The Witcher series gratis.

 

Website: https://www.books2door.com/
The Witcher boxset: click here

Book Review: The Secret Life of Fungi

“fungi are all over us, around us, and in us, so this is not a world we can choose to ignore, or escape, because it’s their space just as much as it’s ours”

The Secret Life of Fungi: Discoveries from a Hidden World, by Aliya Whiteley, is a work of non fiction that reads like a series of short vignettes. It enables the author to share her lifelong interest in these extraordinary organisms, which many of us take for granted without considering their wonder. The love of her subject shines through the factual, fascinating and often playful prose. It is a book that could change readers’ perception of what exists all around them, wherever they are, in or out of the natural world.

Short chapters offer nuggets that remind how amazing nature remains, despite how it has been plundered. Take, for example, Pilobolus crystallinus, the spores of which are jettisoned from the dung heap where they feast at an acceleration equivalent to 20,000G (a bullet is fired from a shotgun at an acceleration of roughly 9000G).

“this spore release is one of the most powerful forces in nature”

A living specimen of Armillaria ostoyae in the Malheur National Forest, Oregon, has an underground network estimated to stretch for 965 hectares – you could fit 110,000 blue whales within it (although I don’t expect they would be happy with this arrangement). The fungi is a vampire, killing the trees it feasts on. It is also, for no discernable reason, bioluminescent. As the author writes, imagine coming across that in a dark forest at night…

Fungi grow in every possible environment: underground, on icy tundras, from Stonehenge to the International Space Station. Fungal spores can be carried in the wind, some causing illness such as coccidioidomycosis (Valley Fever), which can be fatal – invading its host until eventually (without treatment) vital organs fail. And yet, for every deadly variety there are others necessary for life as we know it.

There are also, of course, the many varieties that are tasty to eat and pleasingly nutritious – although don’t forage unless you know what you’re doing.

The author offers up many interesting facts and musings. Fungi can: bring down a giant ants’ nest; help the depressed or those facing death; aid decomposition of a plethora of substances, including plastic. Without fungi, there would be no orchids.

As we approach the fifth mass extinction on our planet it is worth remembering that fungi have survived and thrived. They are amazing opportunists, growing with equal enthusiasm in graveyards and volcanic ash as in woods, fields or when cultivated.

“We are insignificant as individuals, even as a species. If we were to disappear tomorrow, we would not be missed for long, if at all. The cathedrals might stand for a while, as stones do. The microbes will remain in motion and the light of the stars will still shine.”

The writing flows and engages, making clear why the author has developed and retained her interest in these wondrous organisms that grow and then die back so quickly and reliably. I challenge any reader to finish this book without immediately wanting to go outside and look more closely at the fungi growing where the natural world has not yet been sanitised.

“We are not the giants of this world, but the caretakers.”

“Let’s all go on a long walk and replace words with experience. Let’s go now.”

 
Photos taken by Jackie

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Elliott and Thompson.

Book Review: A Jealous Tide

A Jealous Tide, by Anna MacDonald, is an elusory and richly evocative tale of people whose anchors to their small worlds prove inadequate for the shifting tides they face as life progresses. Narrated by an academic based in Melbourne, who is looking back on a winter spent in London, the prose is deeply embedded in her sense of place. Family, friends and other acquaintances are occasionally mentioned but mostly the story focuses on the narrator’s reaction to the stimuli of her surroundings – both immediate and awash with memory. 

Opening in Melbourne, the first few chapters set the scene. She feels a ‘familiar restlessness’ so books a flight to Heathrow. There follow several months during which she prepares for her extended break. She shares significant events from her backstory. She walks to calm unease, often by a river or down to the sea. Water is a recurring theme, both the comfort it offers and the danger it brings.

Enmeshed within the academic’s personal story is that of an RAF Lieutenant who died in the winter of 1919 from injuries sustained rescuing a woman from the River Thames. He had survived the war. The narrator speculates that the woman was broken by grief due to the conflict.

The narrator sets out to explore how lives are affected by trauma, especially those saved from suicide attempts. Starting with studies into shipwrecks – those who drowned and those rescued – she becomes engrossed in finding out what effect this has on the remaining years before death.

“I wanted to know what happened to these men who had been made strangers to the known world by their time cast away.”

In London, the narrator bases herself in Hammersmith – as she has done on previous visits. She walks the streets and along the Thames. She indulges in mudlarking, taking items found back to her bedsit to clean and examine before returning many to the river. In her turbulent imagination she gives these fragments stories, augmented by the research she undertakes at the British Library and Wellcome Collection.


Plaque to the Lieutenant on Hammersmith Bridge (currently closed)

The imagined story of the soldier who died and the woman he rescued add tension to the present day narrative. The characters are imbued with unsettling emotions, similar to those sometimes felt by the narrator.

“struggling for breath in the tourniquet of surrounding streets”

“the woman draws her two arms across the empty cavity of her chest”   

The impact on soldiers of being sent to war – the horrific actions and experiences they must accept there – segue with those who have survived shipwreck. 

“These men have been adrift in an inhumane place. But their real misfortune, it seemed, was to return from there.”

The many ‘stories of the drowned’ she collects leave the narrator feeling unanchored – a ‘sense of loss’ and a ‘creeping calcification’. She copes by introducing strict routines to her days. She considers her life as that which has

“already passed: the places already passed through, the people already passed by”

“the present could be felt only as the varying weather on my shoulders, as a shifting breeze or the welcome warmth of the sun.”

Water was where man came from and, in the narrator’s research, to which many will return. The small items collected from the Thames mud are all that now remain of those who once passed through the city. She is drawn especially to a fragment that bears markings resembling a map – reminding her of the streets she walks repeatedly and the life lines on her palm.

There are references to literature and films (I had to use Google) along with mentions of places of historic interest in the Hammersmith area (I am familiar with the location so could enjoy these). Mostly though the prose is a lavish array of imagery – never cloying, at times disturbing due to the ever present riptide of death.

This is an impressive piece of writing that pulls together a story of displacement and the struggle to survive life’s challenges. An intense but deeply satisfying read.  

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Splice.

Book Review: Waiting for Nothing

“Everything else has been taken away from him, or might be taken at any minute: work, money, food, a place to sleep, friends, lovers, freedom, life. None of these things can be assured. All are at the mercy of the economic system”

Waiting for Nothing, by Tom Kromer, was first published in 1935, republished in 1968, and is now the first novel to come out from a new imprint – the common breath. You may find out more here about why they are ‘bringing a neglected work, a “genuine literary classic”, back to at least some form of prominence in this country’.

The story follows a man, Tom, who has been left destitute by America’s Great Depression. It is a stark and deeply affecting tale of a life devoid of hope, and yet the narrator  – it is written in the first person – struggles on, fighting against the odds to survive. Each chapter chronicles one aspect of Tom’s daily, troubling experiences over the course of several years.

The voice adopted has a vernacular that serves to set the down and outs – the ‘stiffs’ – apart from those who can still afford food, shelter, and clothing that keeps them warm and dry.

The stiffs spend their time trying to acquire the few cents needed to pay for a meagre meal and a dirty bunk in a flop house. The parks are full of those who fail in this endeavour and must bed down, whatever the weather, on a newspaper covered bench. Many turn to the ‘missions’ – churches that serve bad stew, made from going off food, and a lice ridden bed in exchange for attendance at a lengthy religious service where the starving will be exhorted to turn to Jesus Christ. Anyone complaining will be told they harbour Satan and then banished to the streets.

What is being presented is a graphic picture of the life Tom is leading, with no prospect of change. He is hungry and cold – carrying an ache in his empty belly on feet barely covered by falling apart shoes. He exists on the margins of a society that chooses to turn away from the discomfort of the destitute in their midst. Many blame the vagrants for their predicament, ignoring the fact that not enough jobs exist for them to earn their keep.

Tom reaches a point where he can see no way forward other than to break the law – planning an attack on a man with money in his wallet, or holding up a bank. Should Tom be caught he may be killed by the police, which would, he considers, at least be an end to his suffering. It is clear that a man in such circumstances places little value on life. And yet the deaths he observes – the starved, hypothermic, suicidal – still affect him.

The police treat the ‘stiffs’ with violence and contempt. On a cold wet night, when several are sleeping in an empty building, the police arrest them for trespass. Wherever the desperate and hungry gather they are moved on, despite having nowhere they can go that is more acceptable.

Long lines of grey and sunken people, kept queuing for hours outside a mission, are gawped at by passers by – a dehumanised spectacle that serves to make the church appear compassionate.

Both men and women offer sexual favours for the chance of a warm meal and a bed. Sometimes the vagrants help each other when they have found food or shelter, but there are also those who will take even the few cents available via force and threats.

The breaks Tom tells of are few: a friend offering a space on the floor of his room on a cold night, a woman offering to cook the scant food they have bartered and will share. Attacks feature more regularly – from both the authorities and the unhinged. Tom goes begging in restaurants and from those who look to have plenty. Mostly he is rejected – a pest people wish to eradicate from their vicinity.

Tom travels by jumping on board moving, freezing trains – a dangerous pursuit but the only way to try for better elsewhere. Wherever he stops there is rejection.

The writing is taut and visceral – somehow vividly detached yet also deeply personal. There is deliberate repetition in the narration that brings home how desperate Tom’s situation remains. The events he recounts are horrific in the cruelty inflicted and threats faced. Given the times we are currently living through I can only hope this tale is not prescient.

A powerful evocation of life amongst those most damaged by a widespread economic downturn. It is a timely reminder to treat others as we would wish to be treated ourselves if reduced to similar circumstances – a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, the common breath

Book Review: Chaos

Chaos, edited by Anna Johnson, is the most recent poetry anthology published by Patrician Press. Many of the entries have been included in previous collections but have been brought together here as a reaction to various events affecting the UK over the past five years. These include attitudes to: immigration, Brexit, climate change, the current pandemic.

“In difficult times, then, we turn to Art; poetry, in particular, is one of the pithiest ways to process events that seem extreme.”

Many of the poems are provocative – understandable given that the issues being written about have generated controversy yet little in the way of balanced debate. There appears to be an assumption that readers will agree with the points of view of the book’s creators. There is limited exploration of why these views are not held by everyone.

In their introduction, the editor writes

“I hope there is enough in these pages to console, entertain and feed the spirit.”

Sadly, this was not my reaction. While I am appalled by the selfish and insular actions of too many politicians – lining their pockets along with those of their financial supporters and powerful advisors rather than working to help constituents – the issues are more complex than is suggested within these pages. Solutions are rarely as simple as they are made to appear.

Refuge is a Taxi features an immigrant, Basim, who is obviously intelligent and willing to work hard in order to realise his quiet ambitions. His past still gives him nightmares – of the horrific experiences escaped from. He regards his new home as a ‘land of opportunity.’

I found no poems exploring the messier side of immigration – of those who demand the retention of oppressive culture and damaging familial traditions that break the laws of their new homeland. I’m thinking of such practices as: FGM, ‘honour’ killings, forced marriage, rejection of homosexuality. Freedom and safety are not just the rights of heterosexual men.

It is possible to agree with the headline – show compassion, seek understanding – without accepting behaviour that damages those who also deserve protection.

Closed borders are the subject of several poems. In Something Human the freedom offered by a red passport is compared to the plight of refugees.

“I’ve never pleaded with strangers
to let me in to a cold and foreign nation
where I feel unwelcome,
derided and despised for trying
to save my life.”

Ride the Waves explores the removal of freedom that we are currently experiencing within the UK – how it has been so submissively accepted.

“Running away from each other in public
Get back!
We’re too close!
6-foot rule, or 6-foot under!”

The poet ponders if we have already said goodbye to our rights by accepting the ‘sanitised lies’.

Although there are a number of poems focusing on climate change – blame and fear more than a call to appreciate the still beautiful world – I enjoyed the images of nature in Wild Isolation. Birds and mammals continue their daily existence, even amongst the abandoned litter and other human detritus – while people fearfully isolate themselves from the current plague.

“All left in the lurch   to besmirch green and brown –
While squirrels   maintain their slight sordidness
Without being thought – sweet”

Climate change can be hard to discuss pithily. The need to respect the health of the planet – the life support system of all species – may be incontrovertible. How this is currently being approached, especially given man’s innate behaviour, creates unpalatable reverberations. As examples, wind farms kill birds and are a blight on the landscape. They and solar farms – with their tax funded subsidies – add wealth to already wealthy landowners. These poems suggest we may help with small, personal changes. Advocating for these is worthwhile but also of limited impact.

I have found this review hard to write as I fear opprobrium for not always agreeing with good and honourable intentions without reservation.

The writing within the anthology is mixed, as may be expected from a variety of contributors. Some of the poems have a simplistic structure; others require a number of rereads to unpack meaning. Together they are certainly thought-provoking. The issues explored deserve attention and careful consideration.

It is, perhaps, because humans and their behaviour are the focus of these poems that I did not find the consolation the editor hoped to offer. Instead, I found too much polemic – sad reminders of the misnomers now surrounding ‘fact’ or ‘expert’. We undoubtedly need more kindness, generosity and acceptance. We may also benefit from listening more attentively to those outside our echo chambers.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Patrician Press.

Book Review: Real Life

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“Affection always feels this way for him, like an undue burden, like putting weight and expectation onto someone else.”

The protagonist of Real Life, Wallace, is four years into a graduate degree in biochemistry at a university in the Midwest of America. He grew up in Alabama and had been trying for a long time to leave. He wishes to put his former self behind him – to reinvent how he is perceived. The group he connected with online before arrival at the university – as part of organised orientation – became his closest friends, although still at a remove. He describes them as attractive and, unlike him, pale skinned. Race is an ongoing issue and one he believes they cannot understand. He resents their lack of empathy and interest in this.

Set over an intense and hot weekend, the story told has the vibe of A Little Life. It opens just after Wallace discovers that the lab experiment he has been working on through the summer months has been contaminated, possibly maliciously. Reacting to this, he breaks a habit of keeping his distance, going out to socialise by a nearby lake. Here he admits to his friends that his father died some weeks ago. Although they were estranged, the undercurrent of grief Wallace must process cuts through how he behaves: “people don’t know what to do with your shit, with the reality of other people’s feelings”

There is toxicity in the various relationships described that is brutal in its honesty – biased towards negative aspects. Wallace’s observations of the crowd gathered by the lake are almost cruel – “faces tight in the sort of mean way that fit people carry”, “older people, their bodies and lives gone soft, here to recapture some bit of the past like coaxing fireflies into a jar.”

It is, however, refreshing to read of a group of American students in their twenties rather than of more typical high school or college age – an acknowledgement that learning and personal development continue. The setting is still closed and protected, something that Wallace is growing ever more aware of. In striving to be here, but then not finding the happiness and acceptance he expected, he is struggling with what may come next. He sees racism in how he is treated but cannot articulate this: “people can be unpredictable in their cruelty”

Wallace is gay and, over the course of the weekend, hooks up with one of the men from his friendship group. The sex they indulge in is vividly described – and repeatedly brutal. Despite this, Wallace ponders the possibility of a loving relationship, “an inoculation against the uncertainty of the future.”

Wallace appears incapable of giving anything of himself except as a vessel to be used and abused. He then struggles to contain the internal anger generated. The reader will come to understand this better as more of Wallace’s backstory is revealed. “Memory is not about facts. Memory is an inconsistent measurement of the pain in one’s life.”

Much of the action described involves people brushing up against each other, never really knowing the other, translating interactions vaguely. Friends who believe they are close grow irritated when behaviour is not as anticipated. Wallace’s view of friendship is grimly tainted, “a pantomime of intimacy, a cult of happiness”

Personal dramas – the issues they raise – are explored through dialogue and the dissection of responses to what is being said. There are repeated references to the senses, particularly how Wallace perceives the smell and taste of people and place. His friends accuse him of being selfish while he regards himself as always giving – behaving in a way that will make his dark skin more acceptable.

The writing style is rich and evocative but the relentless savagery in thought and behaviour remains disturbing. Settings feel claustrophobic. Characters seek personal happiness amidst thwarted expectations. Although well structured and paced, I did not find the story compelling. I learned lessons on the sociology of academia, and on the challenges faced by someone who looks obviously different to those he mixes with, but the lives of all the characters are portrayed as lonely and facing little prospect of improvement given described attitudes.

Any Cop?: I can understand why this made the Booker shortlist and would be neither surprised nor disappointed if it were to win. I would, however, think carefully before recommending such a dark depiction of life to certain readers.

Book Review: Orfeia

“There’s wisdom in an old wives’ tale, and magic in a story.”

Orfeia, by Joanne M. Harris, is the third of the author’s folklore-inspired novellas. Like the previous two – A Pocketful of Crows and The Blue Salt Road – it is beautifully illustrated throughout by Bonnie Helen Hawkins. Based on two Child Ballads – Ballad 2: The Elphin Knight, and Ballad 19: King Orfeo – it is also a reworking of the Orpheus myth.

The protagonist is Fay, a widowed mother who is now grieving the death of her daughter, Daisy. The story tells of her journey through modern London to London Beyond and then London Beneath. She seeks an audience with the Hallowe’en King.

While out running one evening, Fay is shown a vision of her daughter, asleep in a bed of bluebells. She enters a liminal world, where strange songs seem familiar and guises change. Whatever the warnings, she will risk all to travel to the Kingdom of Death to barter for Daisy’s release.

The gossamer world created is both fabulous and fearsome. Fay cannot know who to trust, nor what price must be paid for the answers she seeks. There is beauty in abundance, to delight each of the senses, but it is used as a distraction by those whose aim is manipulation. The Kings Fay encounters may not be entirely cold-hearted but their aims remain selfish.

Fay’s nebulous grasp of how to navigate through the world of Fae is made more difficult when her memories start to fade. To conclude her quest she must answer riddles, harness the power of music, and unravel dreams. The concepts of time and reality grow ever more equivocal.

The writing style is perfectly calibrated to weave the world of a modern fairy tale whilst retaining the darkness inherent in the genre’s long history. Unlike many contemporary equivalents, moralising is limited to understated warnings over consequences. The language is rich with a plot that remains compelling.

The book is beautifully bound and contains artwork that deserves full attention.

Imaginative and uncanny, this is a tale of a mother’s love – and its cost – from a consistently adept storyteller.

Orfeia is published by Gollancz. 

Book Review: London Incognita

London Incognita, by Gary Budden, is a collection of interlinked short stories that explore the revenants and mythical beings that lurk in the shadows of our capital city. The people populating each tale conjure up nightmares of strange beasts that appear in a reality only they may be able to experience. Although rarely talked of, these creatures – in a variety of forms – have long existed.

When woven together, the collection is also a story of friends who frequented the underground music scene – rebelling against a culture of money making and populism, yet revelling in their inverted elitist clique. The stories explore the inevitable descent (or should that be ascent?) from youthful conviction, and the fiction of memory.

“Alex wondered when he and Sally’s experiences became memories, when those memories became myths, and when those myths would be forgotten.”

The book opens with a short tale that introduces the reader to the author’s tenebrous writing style. This is followed by Judderman – previously released as a novella published by The Eden Book Society and reviewed here. Set in the 1970s, the protagonists, Gary and Danny Eider, are relatives of Melissa – an artist and author who features in several of the following stories, many with contemporary settings. She, her musician brother, and the group of friends they have hung out with, from two decades previously, form the core of the collection. Not all survive.

Each of these characters has an interest in what they refer to as London Incognita, ‘a place half-seen, misunderstood but very real’. In describing the creatures they encounter – always unsettling experiences – there are references to fictional authors and their legendary works. This blending of what exists and what is from Budden’s imagination adds depth to the foundations on which these stories are built. The reader is encouraged to accept a shaded world beneath the widely accepted reality in which we, the faceless masses, are assumed to exist.

In their youth, the friends came together in support of the underground music scene, believing themselves arbiters of taste beyond popular appeal.

“music that endured the decades, music that was too weird or too aggressive for the current fashions that found their inspiration in arch irony and depressed hedonism.”

Decades later, after battling addictions and hollowly surviving, one of the men in the group is trying to recapture the time when his interest in this music felt authentic.

“PK needed to redocument himself, pin down what he loved and why”

The London portrayed is home to the homeless – druggies and ghosts. Graffiti and rubbish abut closed off building sites, keeping the discarded from areas now shiny and gentrified. Beneath are the sewers, where giant rats gorge on fatburgs, and a mythical queen lures urban explorers.

My Queen is a brilliantly grotesque account of a man seeking the fantasy of the old city – the dark energy being drained by ‘the vampires of capitalism’. He desires a connection with history, albeit one played out for clicks on social media.

“At times, he feels he’s nothing better than a high risk Instagrammer; what’s the difference between his photos of a sluice gate beneath the streets of Bruce Grove and some idiot’s selfie in front of a popular London tourist attraction? Nothing. All there is is the burning and futile desire to prove we exist.”

Melissa created a zine when she was nineteen, initially chronicling the music scene her brother was a part of, then going on to include works of fiction. The zine grew in popularity, becoming a classic, with early copies now sought by collectors. The final story, You’re Already Dead, is a multi faceted tale, set as she prepares an artistic retrospective focusing on the zine’s history – and, deliciously, promoting a book she has written. It neatly pulls the threads of each tale in the collection together.

“two decades documenting the world I inhabit, or perhaps the fish tank I swim in”

“These days there are zines about pretty much anything, most of them twee and pretty dreadful in my opinion […] but, like with anything, the good stuff survives and persists while the chaff falls away. This is what distorts our view of the past, I realise.”

There is a poignancy to the contemporary characters as they look back on their younger selves, when they were so contemptuous of the type of people they have inevitably become.

“I burned with nostalgia for times that never really happened. This older London we fetishised.”

What Never Was is a beautifully rendered tale of futures that might have been, and pasts forgotten – moulding photographs consigned to a skip.

Sky City pulls together characters who pass by briefly. It is not just imagined creatures lurking in shadows that affect lives.

Bookended by Judderman and You’re Already Dead, the collection also contains Staples Corner, and How We Can Know It, which was published as part of An Unreliable Guide to London – reviewed here. This is written from the point of view of the author, thereby adding himself to the cast of characters. These meta aspects, scattered throughout, work well.

There is a great deal of drug taking. Younger characters regard themselves as outside accepted society, better than the office workers who appraise them with equal disdain. Two decades later they can acknowledge what was conformity to a type – punk as a fashion statement.

“the pretentiousness and certainty and self-centred seriousness of young adults who think they have found an answer to the world. It’s painful when you realise the solution is not a solution at all.”

All of this is told in tales redolent with a darkness that can stalk anyone – predators threatening mostly through imagined dangers. When the Judderman and the Commare are unmasked towards the end, after what I feared would be some, perhaps ironically, twee development, it felt like a punch in the gut – all credit to the author for pulling that off.

I have read several, excellent non fiction books about urban explorers and psychogeographers seeking out the mostly unregarded aspects of well traversed spaces. This short story collection does this masterfully, with the addition of melancholy wraiths and the Londoners whose lives they change. It is a dark love story to the city – chilling tales to curl up with as the nights draw in. It is also an acceptance that time cannot be halted, even by death. People and places change.

“London is never finished”

“Build and destroy and repeat”

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dead Ink Books.

Monthly Roundup – September 2020

Six months into lockdown and I remain amazed at how readily so many have adapted to imposed restrictions. September started with what looked to be a relaxation of mandated measures but ended with threats of hefty fines for non-compliance with stricter rules – rushed through laws applied without balanced debate. I have needed to be outside regularly to remind myself that the world is still a beautiful place.

With the passing of the autumn equinox the changing colours on the trees can be admired. I crunch through fallen acorns and horse chestnuts on many of the local trails I frequent. I have continued my thrice weekly gym visits for strength training – cycling to town and back whatever the weather. I was grateful for our Indian Summer, although the marked increase in car traffic suggested others were going further afield to enjoy the sunny days.

Daughter came home for a short visit at the beginning of the month, when we were still hopeful of a return to greater freedom. We ate out at the Prezzo in our local market town and had a pleasant evening, despite the restaurant greeter’s demand that we sanitise our hands on entering. At least there were no ‘masked bandits’, as my son refers to them. Food and service were good and we talked of returning. Our options have been reduced with business closures increasingly prevalent – and now, of course, only likely to accelerate. We will not be going out to eat while masks must be worn between door and table – I’m at a loss as to what that new rule is intended to achieve.

The promise of cooler weather made it clear that I needed a few additions to my wardrobe. Goods were ordered online with delivery to a town outlet – the only way to achieve free delivery and returns for the various sizes and styles I wished to try on before choosing what, if anything, to keep. Thus I had to enter a shop wearing my mask exemption lanyard – stressful, but the staff were lovely and I suffered none of the feared abuse from customers, who I ensured I distanced from.

Confidence boosted, I decided to shop for a new bookcase at a store owned by a local family – I like to support their business. Here the staff wore masks, which felt strange as I regularly pass them in our village. I still find these face coverings disturbing but, thankfully, I was able to choose what I needed quickly and leave. I am pleased with all my purchases but shopping has become an anxiety inducing activity and will remain limited.

I suffered a foot injury when I accidently bashed my toes into furniture mid month. This has made walking any distance painful – my stout boots press against the swollen digit. I continue to run, perhaps foolishly as the foot is not healing as quickly as expected. There seems little point seeking medical advice with current restrictions on contact. I’m not sure what we are expected to do if we require the expertise of doctor, dentist or optician – services previously taken for granted. I fear lockdown will be the catalyst for a significant increase in the privatisation of healthcare.

Younger son should have been preparing to leave for university but what they will want him to do remains uncertain. This lack of clarity means he has had to keep paying for the expensive accommodation he hasn’t used since March – alongside tuition fees for a course that may remain entirely online. With the current media tales of students confined to their tiny flats, unable to socialise or attend teaching, he would now prefer to stay home and access remote learning. What is needed is a decision for the academic year – and a get out clause if rental contracts are no longer needed through no fault of the students. I realise this is unlikely as landlords will want their income.

When not out exercising I am still reading, albeit slowly as I struggle to concentrate amidst so much uncertainty. I posted reviews for 6 books (2 novels, 1 short story collection, 1 poetry collection, 2 works of non fiction). Happily, all were good reads although I would say the weakest was my choice from the Booker longlist – so much for major literary prizes offering worthwhile recommendations. It is, however, pleasing to note that every book I reviewed this month was published by an independent press.

Robyn continues to read voraciously and contributed 15 reviews. These included one for Mordew by Alex Pheby, a book I have previously posted my thoughts on but wished her to read as it is her favoured genre – fantasy fiction. I was interested in her views, and hope other readers will be too.

You may click on the title below to read the review, and on the cover to find out more about each book.

 

Fiction


The Nacullians by Craig Jordan-Baker, published by époque press
The New Wilderness by Diane Cook, published by OneWorld

 

Short stories


Postcard Stories 2 by Jan Carson, published by The Emma Press

 

Poetry


London Undercurrents by Joolz Sparks and Hilaire, published by Holland Park Press

 

Non fiction


Unofficial Britain by Gareth E. Rees, published by Elliott and Thompson
Dead Girls by Selva Almada (translated by Annie McDermott), published by Charco Press

 

Robyn Reviews


Where Dreams Descend by Janella Angeles, published by Wednesday Books
Queen of Volts by Amanda Foody, published by HQ


A Girl Made of Air by Nydia Hetherington, published by Quercus
Divine Heretic by Jaime Lee Moyer, published by Quercus

 
The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas, published by Macmillan Children’s
The Living Dead by George A. Romero and Daniel Kraus, published by Transworld


The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart, published by Orbit
Five Little Liars by Amanda K Morgan, published by Simon & Schuster


The Ghost Tree by Christina Henry, published by Titan Books
La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman, published by David Fickling Books


The Empire of Gold by S.A. Chakraborty, published by HarperVoyager
How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, published by Bodley Head


The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix, published by Gollancz
Mordew by Alex Pheby, published by Galley Beggar Press


A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik, published by Del Rey

 

Sourcing the books

Robyn is on Netgalley and is grateful for all approvals of titles requested. She also purchased or received a number of hard copies – including a surprise copy of a book she is now offering as a giveaway (do check her Twitter feed).

I also made several purchases to add to the review copies publishers kindly sent. These included another Booker Prize contender – will it be more impressive?

I was a guest on Shelf Absorption, a blog that enables readers to check out other people’s shelves. I reblogged the post here. The stack of books pictured on the floor now fills my newly purchased bookcase.

 

As ever I wish to thank all the publishers who send me their titles to review – the arrival of a book parcel remains a cheering event in my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. Your continuing support is always appreciated.

And to everyone reading this, I wish you and yours good health and as much mental stability as can be mustered in these challenging times. May we strive, at all times, to be kind  xx

to be read

Last week I was over at Shelf Absorption answering their questions about my books and how I organise my shelves.

shelf absorption

Jackie Law
Wiltshire, England

Tell us about your bookcases
A number of years ago we had an extension built at the back of our house and I took over what had been the dining room as ‘a room of my own’. It’s actually a bit of a cave off the family room – there are no windows – but it has my desk, piano, comfy chair and, initially, a random assortment of bookcases that were always surrounded by stacks of books on the floor. Eventually it was decided that I could have custom built floor to ceiling shelves to house my ever growing collection (I am fortunate to receive a lot of book post) the idea being that this would remove the need to store books on the floor. Ha! The one thing I’d like to add is a ladder as I’m not tall enough to reach the top shelves…

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