Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!!! White Spines: Confessions of a Book Collector by Nicholas Royle

Image description: the cover of Nicholas Royle’s White Spines showing blurred white-spined Picador classics on a bookshelf shelf, covered by orange, black and white title text and blurb

A mix of memoir and narrative non-fiction, White Spines is a book about Nicholas Royle’s passion for Picador’s fiction and non-fiction publishing from the 1970s to the end of the 1990s.

It explores the bookshops and charity shops, the books themselves, and the way a unique collection grew and became a literary obsession.

Above all a love song to books, writers and writing.

Like most book bloggers, I love a book about books – and I’ve reviewed a few on this blog since its inception, with Cathy Rentzenbrink’s Dear Reader being a recent favourite. So when a bookish memoir blurbed by Cathy (she “didn’t want it to end and would like a gargantuan infinite edition”) crossed my blogging doorstep, I wasn’t going to say no to giving it a read!

White Spines is, as its subtitle suggests, about books and book collecting. A mix of part-memoir and part narrative non-fiction – with occasional detours into bookshop conversations and various surreal dreamscapes – the book details Nicholas Royle’s love of (obsession with?) his collection of white-spined Picador fiction and non-fiction. Like all good books about books, however, White Spines is more than the sum of its apparent parts. Whilst Royle’s passion for Picadors and love of book collecting provides the backbone of the book, White Spines is also a love letter to literature more widely, and to the power of books to captivate, enthrall, and transform.

Royle talks with wit, charm and intelligence about the joy of discovering a good secondhand bookshop, or the exhilaration that the bookworm feels at discovering a pristine edition on a charity shop shelf. He also captures perfectly that bookish obsession with presentation – the frustration of a publisher changing cover design mid-series, the horror of the TV tie-in cover, and the desire to curate shelves of matching, beautiful spines. In his conversations with author and publishing friends, he brings across the inherent exuberance of conversations about books, from the discovery of new authors to the joyful dissection of a shared read.

Anyone who has ever lost themselves having a rummage through a second hand bookshop, accidentally fallen into a charity shop for a ‘quick look’, or contemplated how to fit several new purchases onto already bulging shelves, will find themselves in White Spines. Although my own reading taste is quite different to Royle’s, I found myself nodding along or smiling in agreement with so many of the incidents and experiences that he recounts.

White Spines also provides some insight into the business of publishing. Royle talks to a number of former and current Picador authors, illustrators, and staff to consider how the ‘white spine’ paperback list was built, how the covers were chosen, and why the list (which includes an impressive collection of both authors and titles) became the cultural force that it did during the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

That said, the book is not a ‘publishing memoir’, nor is it a documented history of Picador or an account of all of their titles. It is, as I said at the start, a love letter to books and, more specifically, to book collecting. To the physicality of books – to the desire to hold a physical object in your hand before putting it on your carefully curated shelf with its fellows, or the intrigue that comes with finding a letter or note left in a book by a previous reader.

White Spines is a book that spoke to the part of me that loves seeing the stripy spines of my Penguin English Library editions next to each other on the shelf, as well as the part that’s a sucker for a beautiful cover or stunning endpapers. It made me think about the times I’ve found receipts or train tickets in books and wondered about the people who put them there – and about the times I’ve given books with my name or ephemera in away and wondered what will become of them. It is, in short, an ode to the book and a journey of delight through the pleasures of being a bookworm.

White Spines by Nicholas Royle is published by Salt and is available from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery. You can also support the publisher by buying from them directly on their website.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Helen Richardson for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 20 July 2021 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content.

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Image description: blog tour banner for the White Spines blog tour showing the book cover (described above), tour dates/stops, and publisher information. Tour dates run from 15-20 July with one blogger posting per day. Tour posts can be found and followed using the #WhiteSpines.

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR REVIEW!!! The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy

A bold and uncompromising feminist manifesto that shows women and girls how to defy, disrupt, and destroy the patriarchy by embracing the qualities they’ve been trained to avoid.

Seizing upon the energy of the #MeToo movement, feminist activist Mona Eltahawy advocates a muscular, out-loud approach to teaching women and girls to harness their power through what she calls the “seven necessary sins” that women and girls are not supposed to commit: to be angry, ambitious, profane, violent, attention-seeking, lustful, and powerful. All the necessary “sins” that women and girls require to erupt.

Eltahawy knows that the patriarchy is alive and well, and she is fed up: Sexually assaulted during hajj at the age of fifteen. Groped on the dance floor of a night club in Montreal at fifty. Countless other injustices in the years between. Illuminating her call to action are stories of activists and ordinary women around the world—from South Africa to China, Nigeria to India, Bosnia to Egypt—who are tapping into their inner fury and crossing the lines of race, class, faith, and gender that make it so hard for marginalized women to be heard. Rather than teaching women and girls to survive the poisonous system they have found themselves in, Eltahawy arms them to dismantle it.

Brilliant, bold, and energetic, The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls is a manifesto for all feminists in the fight against patriarchy.

From the very first page, Mona Eltahawy demostrates that she is pulling no punches. The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls was written ‘with enough rage to fuel a rocket’ and calls for a feminism that is not only universal but that ‘should terrify the patriarchy’ and ‘put patriarchy on notice that we demand nothing short of its destruction’.

Moving between memoir and manifesto, Eltahawy has written a rally cry for feminism centred around what she terms her seven ‘sins’. Anger. Attention. Profanity. Ambition. Power. Violence. Lust. Traits that women and girls are taught to actively avoid but that, Eltahawy argues, should be embraced and utilised to their fullest. Only by doing so, can feminism respond to the global challenges posed by the #MeToo movement, by Black Lives Matter, by the growing chorus of long-unheard LGBTQI+ voices, and by the fallout from the Arab Spring.

Although I had not heard of Mona Eltahawy before, The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls appealed because it draws not only on her only experiences as an LGBTQI+ woman of Egyptian descent with dual American-Egyptian citizenship, but because it draws on the work and experiences of intersectional activists from around the world, including those within some of the larger global movements such as #MeToo. With issues as interconnected as those faced by the global feminist movement – often divided within itself about the best forms of representation, or who it is really designed to represent – it can be hard to know where to begin when it comes to getting more involved. And whilst I’ve read a number of feminist essays and memoirs, many of those have been written by straight cisgender white women based in the UK or the US – useful and important, of course, but only part of a much larger picture, especially in the wake of some of the global movements mentioned above.

Eltahawy’s ‘manifesto’ offers to unpick this, recognising the complexity of global intersectional movements – and the individuality of women’s experiences – whilst arguing that feminism, in all its forms, must recollect its goal of disrupting – nay, of destroying – the patriarchy. And what the patriarchy wants is compliance. Not anger, or attention. Or profanity or ambition. Or power or violence or lust. But these ‘undesirable’ traits are exactly what are needed and, Eltahawy argues, must be embraced in order to dismantle and reclaim the societal structures that impose them.

It’s a powerful argument and – at times – a shocking one. Eltahawy is unafraid of making bold statements and of offering challenges as much to herself and her readers as to the patriarchy she opposes. She is unapologetic in her rage and her engagingly persuasive in her argument. Reading The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls there were times when I was uncomfortable because I realised just how much I had internalised – how complicit I can be in systems designed to oppress, if not me, then women like me and, especially, women without the opportunities from which I benefit.

This isn’t to say that I agreed with every one of Eltahawy’s arguments but I felt that everything raised and discussed in this book merited attention, recognition, and debate – and I admired not only the breadth of the experiences that Eltahawy uses to illustrate her points, but her careful consideration of intersectionality and her recognition that some women face double – or even triple – oppression simply because of where they were born, or what they look like, how they identify themselves, or who they choose to love. Many of the experiences she recounts – backed always by data and ‘hard’ evidence in addition to anecdotal experiences – added to my own understanding of this intersectionality, as well as to my own anger towards the oppression women face simply because they are women trapped within male-dominated societies and systems.

Each of the essays within The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls is quite lengthy and, although there was the occasional moment when I felt that Eltahawy was repeating herself, for the most part, each one provokes, engages and offers plenty of food for thought. I found myself needing to take some time after each chapter/essay to mull over the issues Eltahawy raises, and the solutions she proposes.

The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls is a powerful and timely book that poses a fierce yet eloquent argument. For anyone already engaged with feminist discourse and activism, it is surely a must read – and it deserves to be read much more widely as a manifesto for meaningful structural change.

The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy is published by Tramp Press and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and to Helen Richardson for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 29 April 2021 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content.

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!!! Jane Austen’s Best Friend by Zöe Wheddon

All fans of Jane Austen everywhere believe themselves to be best friends with the beloved author and this book shines a light on what it meant to be exactly that.

Jane Austen’s Best Friend: The Life and Influence of Martha Lloyd offers a unique insight into Jane’s private inner circle. Through this heart-warming examination of an important and often overlooked person in Jane’s world, we uncover the life changing force of their friendship.

Each chapter details the fascinating facts and friendship forming qualities that tied Jane and Martha together. Within these pages we will relive their shared interests, the hits and misses of their romantic love lives, their passion for shopping and fashion, their family histories, their lucky breaks and their girly chats. This book offers a behind the scenes tour of the shared lives of a fascinating pair and the chance to deepen our own bonds in ‘love and friendship’ with them both.

As an avid reader of Jane Austen’s work, I have often felt myself wishing I could get that little bit closer to this somewhat enigmatic author. The lively wit that rises from each page of Austen’s novels and letters often seems wildly at odds with the modest woman depicted in many of the biographies we have of her, and in the image of the retiring ‘Aunt Jane’ that her family were so keen to promote after her death. It is easy to wonder what Jane Austen was really like – and what it would be like to take a turn about the room with her or have her as a dinner party guest.

Zöe Wheddon is equally captivated by this and, in Jane Austen’s Best Friend, has turned to an overlooked figure in Jane’s life to help bring us closer to the author and her world. Martha Lloyd was Jane’s lifelong friend and who, Wheddon argues, may have known the writer as well as – and in some ways better than – Jane’s sister Cassandra, her more acknowledged confidant. Starting with Martha and Jane’s childhood, Wheddon moves through the lives of these two women, using surviving correspondence, diaries, and other archival records to depict a lasting and deeply important friendship that had a lasting and meaningful impact on both parties involved in it.

It is clear that Wheddon has done her research and, despite the occasional lack of concrete evidence (not all of Martha and Jane’s letters have survived), she examines what is there in almost forensic detail, connecting the small, seemingly trivial, moments of Jane and Martha’s lives into the wider picture of their life and times, including the impact and influence that this may have had upon Jane’s beloved novels. Wheddon’s enthusiasm for her subject really comes across in the book which is, for the most part, told in a lively and accessible way despite the wealth of both time and material covered.

Despite reading several biographies of Austen, I’d never really heard much about Martha Lloyd before. The role of friendship is often overlooked in biographies – especially of pioneering female writers – and Jane Austen is often portrayed as a writer bereft of friends, immersed wholly in the life of her family and a few close family acquaintances. It was therefore both heartening and interesting to see this reframed and to discover the impact that a close and long-lasting female friendship had upon the lives of these two women.

In fact if I had one quibble about the book it was that the focus was, at times, too much on Jane and not enough on Martha. Martha Lloyd appears to have been a lively and fascinating woman in her own right and I sometimes felt that this was explored only in so much as it accounted for development or influence in Jane’s life or writing. I understand that many readers will be attracted to this book because of the Austen connection but, for me, I’d have liked more chapters like the final one, which examines Martha’s life after Jane’s death. I also found some of the connections Wheddon makes between Martha and specific elements or incidents within Jane’s writing slightly tentative although I found her overall argument in favour of Martha’s influence to be a strong and compelling one.

Because of the Austen focus, it’s unlikely that this biography will appeal to those not already interested in Austen herself. And I’d probably recommend reading a biography of Austen (my preference is for Lucy Worsley’s excellent Jane Austen at Home, but there are many others) in order to get the most out of this book. For Austen aficionados however, Jane Austen’s Best Friend offers an interesting new way of navigating well-trodden territory, spotlights an overlooked figure within Jane’s life (and an interesting woman in her right!) and convincingly argues that we should consider the lasting influence of such a significant friendship when we read and appreciate Jane Austen’s work.

Jane Austen’s Best Friend by Zöe Wheddon is published by Pen & Sword and is available from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Bookshop.org, Waterstones, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher for providing an copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Rachel from Rachel’s Random Resources for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 06 March so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Blog Tours · Festive · Reviews · Seasonal Reads

BLOG TOUR!!! How Love Actually Ruined Christmas (or Colourful Narcotics) by Gary Raymond

RARELY HAS THE POWER OF CINEMA BEEN FELT BY SO MANY, IN SUCH OPPOSING WAYS…

“Love Actually dulls the critical senses, making those susceptible to its hallucinogenic powers think they’ve seen a funny, warm-hearted, romantic film about the many complex manifestations of love. Colourful Narcotics. A perfect description of a bafflingly popular film.”

By any reasonable measurement, Love Actually is a bad movie. There are plenty of bad movies out there, but what gets under Gary Raymond’s skin here is that it seems to have tricked so many people into thinking it’s a good movie.

In this hilarious, scene-by-scene analysis of the Christmas monolith that is Love Actually, Gary Raymond takes us through a suffocating quagmire of badly drawn characters, nonsensical plotlines, and open bigotry, to a climax of ill-conceived schmaltz. How Love Actually Ruined Christmas (or Colourful Narcotics) is the definitive case against a terrible movie.

Okay, confession time.

I KNOW that Richard Curtis’ Love Actually is a terrible movie.

I knew it was a terrible movie the first time I watched it – long before Lindy West’s infamous (and hilarious) take down of it for Jezebel, and long before I was old enough to truly appreciate the sheer depth of the misogyny, fat-shaming, and sheer smugness of it. And that’s before we even get onto the dodgy timeline, the numerous plot holes, and the fact that some of the actors were mostly definitely phoning it in for this one. I know all of this.

And yet, come Christmas, will I watch Love Actually? Will I crack a smile at Hugh Grant dancing around Downing Street to the sound of Girls Aloud?

Almost certainly.

I mean, look at that CAST! The fabulous soundtrack! All of the FEELS!!

This inexplainable appeal is at the heart of Gary Raymond’s How Love Actually Ruined Christmas (or Colourful Narcotics). Raymond, a presenter on the BBC Radio Wales’s The Review Show and editor for Wales Arts Review, likens Love Actually to being under the effect of some kind of narcotic substance. We know it’s bad for us, but we’re addicted to it anyway because of the feels.

His scene-by-scene account of the film is both thought-provoking and hilarious, mixing the astute eye of a film critic (Raymond really does make you realise how incredibly skewed the timeline is – Liam Neeson’s character goes from his wife’s funeral to dating Claudia Schiffer in the space of about 10 weeks), with a laugh-inducing blend of wry observation, cynical commentary, and downright frustration. His skewering of Curtis’ terrible characterisation and schmaltzy dialogue stays on the right side of witty, whilst his frustration with the film’s tone-deaf messaging is something that I share.

For me, Raymond’s dissection of Love Actually really comes into its own when he’s examining the motivations of the characters. Because you really do start to realise that none of the tropes that the movie wants you to invest in – that Andrew Lincoln’s Mark is a nice guy, that Alan Rickman’s Harry is a heartless husband and Emma Thompson’s Karen a long-suffering wife, and that Kris Marshall’s Colin is hilarious – really work the moment that you think about them for more than two seconds.

He also blows apart the notion that Love Actually is a Christmas movie by pointing out, quite correctly, that the central idea that you ‘have to tell the truth at Christmas’ is, at best, a misnomer and, at worse, an excuse to be particularly selfish at a time that really should be about others. Which, I have to admit, did come as a bitter pill to swallow for me. The one thing I thought I could say about Love Actually was that it fulfilled the requirements of being a Christmas film – the entire thing is, after all, overflowing with tinsel – but, alas, Raymond shows that not even a nativity play full of octopuses can give this film Christmas spirit.

So, having read Raymond’s brutal (and brutally funny) takedown of Love Actually, will I be watching it this Christmas? Well, never say never. Rowan Atkinson’s cameo as the over-attentive salesperson will always make me smile. And Emma Thompson remains a delight despite how little she gets to work with. But it’ll probably be further down the list than it has on previous years – well below A Muppet Christmas Carol and Arthur Christmas. And if I do watch it, it’ll be with the knowledge in the back of my mind that it really IS a terrible movie.

How Love Actually Ruined Christmas (or Colourful Narcotics) by Gary Raymond is published by Parthian and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Bookshop.org, Hive, Waterstones, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Emma from DampPebbles Blog Tours for organising and inviting me onto this tour. The tour continues until 5th December so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Reviews · Seasonal Reads

REVIEW!! The Haunting of Alma Fielding: A True Ghost Story by Kate Summerscale

London, 1938.

In the suburbs of the city, an ordinary young housewife has become the eye in a storm of chaos. In Alma Fielding’s modest home, china flies off the shelves, eggs fly through the air; stolen jewellery appears on her fingers, white mice crawl out of her handbag, beetles appear from under her gloves; in the middle of a car journey, a terrapin materialises on her lap.

Nandor Fodor – a Jewish-Hungarian refugee and chief ghost hunter for the International Institute for Psychical Research – reads of the case, and hastens to the scene of the haunting. But when Fodor starts his scrupulous investigation, he discovers that the case is even stranger than it seems.

By unravelling Alma’s peculiar history, he finds a different and darker type of haunting: trauma, alienation, loss – and the foreshadowing of a nation’s worst fears. As the spectre of Fascism lengthens over Europe, and as Fodor’s obsession with the case deepens, Alma becomes ever more disturbed.

With rigour, daring and insight, the award-winning pioneer of non-fiction writing Kate Summerscale shadows Fodor’s enquiry, delving into long-hidden archives to find the human story behind a very modern haunting.

In The Haunting of Alma Fielding, Kate Summerscale moves away from the hidden secrets of Victorian drawing rooms and into the middle-class suburbs of 1930s London.

The peace of a quiet family home has been shattered – crockery has started flying off the shelves, objects throw themselves at the husband of the house, and wardrobes appear to move on their own. At the centre of it all is suburban housewife Alma Fielding, an apparently quiet and unassuming woman who is both confused and terrified by the strange goings on in her home. Desperate to find some rationale behind the apparent hauntings, she calls on the local press and they, in turn, attract the attention of Nandor Fodor, chief ghost hunter for the International Institute for Psychical Research.

Starting with a bang (quite literally given the amount of broken china that Fodor finds in the Fielding’s home), Summerscale’s latest work of narrative non-fiction follows Fodor’s investigation of Alma as he moves from observing incidences in her home to asking her to sit for seances at the Institute. As the investigation continues, Alma’s powers seem to increase – she manifests live animals, speaks in strange voices, and begins to develop physical scratches on her body. But is Alma really being haunted? And if so, is it by a ghost or by something much darker, hidden deep within her past?

As you would expect with Kate Summerscale, this is a thoroughly researched and comprehensive account of an unusual and little-known tale. Despite having read a number of books about the research activities of twentieth-century ‘ghost hunters’ such as Harry Price, I’d never heard of Nandor Fodor or of the International Institute, and I was fascinated by the fine balance they had to maintain between being open-minded towards their subjects and scientific in their pursuit of proof of the supernatural.

Summerscale does an excellent job of conveying both the popularity of spiritualism and psychical research at the time and the reasons behind this and, despite some of the Institute’s practices seeming far from ‘scientific’ by today’s standards, I was fascinated by how their thinking about psychic abilities and the supernatural paved the way for modern psychological thinking and techniques – especially in the field of parapsychology – today. Fodor certainly seemed to be a man ahead of him time in many ways, although his treatment of Alma is, at times, quite disturbing and the latter part of the book really does get you thinking about the ethics of treating a real person – and their past traumas – as a scientific subject.

The Haunting of Alma Fielding is also quite dense in places. For the most part Summerscale wears her research lightly but, in parts, she packs in huge amounts of detail – some of which felt extraneous, or seemed to relate to some side-character or event that wasn’t directly connected with Fodor, Alma or the investigation. Sometimes it felt as if this information was being repeated and, at times, the pace of the book seemed to slow to a crawl as a result. After a brisk and exciting start, I found myself really struggling to stay interested during the middle section before the book picked back up for the end.

If you’re expecting a true life ghost story similar to Harry Price’s account of the haunting at Borley Rectory, or the memoirs of various ‘ghost hunters’ then you’ll probably find The Haunting of Alma Fielding a little disappointing. For all the supernatural phenomena that is centred on Alma, there is very little that goes bump in the night here. However if you’re looking for a thorough and well-researched examination of the early days of para-psychological investigations, and of the fluid boundaries between science, the self, and the supernatural, Summerscale’s latest is sure to prove an enlightening read.

The Haunting of Alma Fielding by Kate Summerscale is published by Bloomsbury and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, and Wordery.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

My thanks go to the publisher and to Netgalley UK for allowing me to read an ecopy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Reviews

REVIEW!! Dear Reader by Cathy Rentzenbrink

‘Reading has saved my life, again and again, and has held my hand through every difficult time’

For as long as she can remember, Cathy Rentzenbrink has lost and found herself in stories. Growing up she was rarely seen without her nose in a book and read in secret long after lights out.

When tragedy struck, books kept her afloat. Eventually they lit the way to a new path, first as a bookseller and then as a writer.

No matter what the future holds, reading will always help.

If you’re reading a book blog, it’s probably a safe bet for me to assume that you are a bit of a book lover or, at the very least, a fairly regular reader. If so then let me assure you that Dear Reader is most definitely a book for you.

Part memoir, part ode to the joy of books and reading, Cathy Rentzenbrink has written a book that will resonate, in some way, to all readers. Whether it’s the way in which early encounters with books enrapture us, to the power of stories to transport us away at the times when we need that break most, Dear Reader is a love letter to the power of the written word.

Rentzenbrick has previously written movingly about the death of her brother in her earlier memoir, The Last Act of Love. Here she turns her attention to the books that supported and comforted her in the aftermath of that tragedy, and examines the way in which the act of reading itself encouraged her to see a future for herself beyond the one that grief had sucked her into.

Coming in at just over 200 pages, Dear Reader is a slim volume but is packed to brimming with bookish reminiscences. From young Cathy being told off for reading books that were too advanced for her age (been there) to the sheer joy of losing yourself in a gloriously trashy novel and the delight in discovering a new favourite read, the pages are packed with anecdotes and readerly experiences.

I particularly enjoyed reading Rentzenbrink’s anecdotes about her life as a bookseller, first in the Waterstones outlet at Harrods then later in stores at Oxford Street and Piccadilly before moving to that most venerable of book-selling establishments, Hatchards. Whilst she’s careful to name very few names, her tales of demanding customers and spoilt celebrity authors make for darkly comic reading.

There was also great joy to be found in Cathy’s recollections of her father, a born storyteller whose early exit from education left him illiterate into adult life. His new-found joy at discovering books leaps off the page and Dear Reader is at its most passionate and heartfelt when describing the reading shared between father and daughter, as well as Cathy’s later work with the ‘Quick Reads’ initiative that supports adult literacy programmes.

Interspersed throughout the memoir are selections of themed reading recommendations. From Children’s Books that can be re-read throughout adulthood, to novels about Posh People Behaving Badly, there’s sure to be something to catch the eye of every reader – my own TBR certainly got a little longer as a result!

Beautifully written, Dear Reader is by turns poignant and passionate, joyful and comforting. As an ode to books and reading, it’s up there with Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm, Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris and Will Schwalbe’s Books for Living and would make the perfect present for the bookworm in your life – or the perfect treat for yourself!

Dear Reader by Cathy Rentzenbrink is published by Picador and is available now from all good booksellers including Hive, Waterstones, and Book Depository.

If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green BookshopSam Read BooksellersBook-ishScarthin Books, and Berts Books

Reviews on The Shelf are free, honest, and unbiased and I don’t use affiliate links on my posts. However if you enjoy the blog please consider buying me a coffee on Ko-Fi!

Reviews

REVIEW!! Dead Famous by Greg Jenner

Dead FamousCelebrity, with its neon glow and selfie pout, strikes us as hypermodern. But the famous and infamous have been thrilling, titillating, and outraging us for much longer than we might realise.

Whether it was the scandalous Lord Byron, whose poetry sent female fans into an erotic frenzy; or the cheetah-owning, coffin-sleeping, one-legged French actress Sarah Bernhardt, who launched a violent feud with her former best friend; or Edmund Kean, the dazzling Shakespearean actor whose monstrous ego and terrible alcoholism saw him nearly murdered by his own audience – the list of stars whose careers burned bright before the Age of Television is extensive and thrillingly varied.

In this ambitious history, that spans the Bronze Age to the coming of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Greg Jenner assembles a vibrant cast of over 125 actors, singers, dancers, sportspeople, freaks, demigods, ruffians, and more, in search of celebrity’s historical roots. He reveals why celebrity burst into life in the early eighteenth century, how it differs to ancient ideas of fame, the techniques through which it was acquired, how it was maintained, the effect it had on public tastes, and the psychological burden stardom could place on those in the glaring limelight.

You may recognise Greg Jenner as the host of BBC comedy podcast You’re Dead To Me!, or as the public historian whose work behind the scenes on the series Horrible Histories has been part of making history fun, interesting, and accessible for children and adults alike. If you don’t, I highly recommend hunting down both (the podcast is a delightful mix of the fascinating and the obscure, whilst Horrible Histories is an absolute riot to watch – I can highly recommend the ‘Kings and Queens’ song).

Dead Famous or, to give it its full title, Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity from Bronze Age to Silver Screen is not Jenner’s first foray into authorship. His previous book, A Million Years in a Day: A Curious History of Ordinary Life, From Stone Age to Phone Age was a wide-ranging and fascinating look at the history of the everyday. Dead Famous is a little narrower in its scope, zoning in on the history of ‘Celebrity’ which, as Jenner explains, is still a relatively new field of historical enquiry. Indeed the field is so new that it’s still debating exactly what ‘Celebrity’ entails, let alone when it came into being. Jenner, therefore, spends an early chapter considering the various definitions of the term before moving on to consider when ‘Celebrity’ culture really began.

Whilst the book’s subtitle is billed as covering ‘Bronze Age to Silver Screen’, the majority of the content focuses on the period from around 1750 – 1950. This, as Jenner explains, his because his definition of the ‘Celebrity’ places the start of the phenomenon (as we know it today) firmly in the 1700s. However, he does make the occasional foray back to earlier centuries, and even to the Ancient World, to consider individuals who benefited from both fame and renown. Considering the differences between the famous, the infamous, the renowned, and the celebrity is, in itself, a fascinating topic – and that’s before Jenner even starts on the tales of seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth-century publicity-seeking celebs, scandalous money-making schemes, and crazed fans.

As a scholar of the long eighteenth-century (the period from 1660 – 1820, because us eighteenth-century scholars like to steal a bit of the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries for kicks), I was particularly interested to discover how early stars of the London stage such as David Garrick and Sarah Siddons curated and managed their own image, and was fascinated to learn that so many of the facets of celebrity that we consider to be ‘modern’ – such as product endorsements, celebrity souvenirs, and appearance fees – originated in the very early days of celebrity and fan culture.

In addition to be extremely interesting, Dead Famous is also wildly funny. Jenner has a real gift for a wry turn of phrase and had me laughing out loud on more than one occasion. His witty style makes his topic instantly accessible without sacrificing any of the scholarly rigour or intelligence required to consider such a vast topic at length. Dead Famous is clearly extensively researched but it wears that research lightly, each fact and anecdote recounted with a richness and a relish that makes for extremely enjoyable reading.

As you can probably tell, I absolutely LOVED Dead Famous. To be fair, a book combining humour, history, sociology and the eighteenth-century was always going to be reading-catnip for me. But I genuinely think a lot of other readers will love this too. If you have even a passing interest in celebrity or fan culture, or have ever been gripped by news from your latest fandom or the gossip columns of magazines, Dead Famous is packed to brimming with facts that are sure to fascinate and amuse in equal measure.

Dead Famous by Greg Jenner is published by W&N and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon.

And don’t forget that, whilst high street bookshops might be closed at the moment, many of your local indies are still delivering – personal favourites include Booka Bookshop and The Big Green Bookshop!

 

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!! There’s Something About Darcy by Gabrielle Malcolm

9781911445562For some, Colin Firth emerging from a lake in that clinging wet shirt is one of the most iconic moments in television. But what is it about the two-hundred-year-old hero that we so ardently admire and love?

Dr Gabrielle Malcolm examines Jane Austen’s influences in creating Darcy’s potent mix of brooding Gothic hero, aristocratic elitist and romantic Regency man of action. She investigates how he paved the way for later characters like Heathcliff, Rochester and even Dracula, and what his impact has been on popular culture over the past two centuries.

For twenty-first century readers the world over have their idea of the ‘perfect’ Darcy in mind when they read the novel, and will defend their choice passionately.

In this insightful and entertaining study, every variety of Darcy jostles for attention: vampire Darcy, digital Darcy, Mormon Darcy and gay Darcy.

Who does it best and how did a clergyman’s daughter from Hampshire create such an enduring character?

Proud, aloof, and emotionally distant. Any modern woman in her right mind would, you think, reject Mr Darcy  – and his ten thousand a year – quicker than Lizzie Bennet turns down Mr Collins. And yet we (and I include myself in this collective ‘we’) seem to adore the man more than ever.

Whether it’s Matthew Macfadyen strolling through a misty field, Colin Firth emerging from a lake, or Bridget Jones’ very own Mark Darcy bringing Regency romance to modern-day London, there really is something about Darcy. And Gabrielle Malcolm is determined to find out what.

There’s Something About Darcy is an extensive examination of the enduring appeal of Austen’s most famous aristocratic hero. Written with a scholar’s eye for detail whilst retaining a light and engaging tone throughout, Dr Malcolm breaks down and analyses the various portrayals of Mr Darcy on screen, as well as the inventive directions that Austenesque writers have taken the character.

From Bollywood hero to vampire slayer (and even vampire!) Darcy has been re-imagined in every possible way and it was fascinating to consider the impact of these portrayals on our perception of the character – and how they might have added to the endurance of his appeal.

I would, however, have liked a little more discussion about the modern adaptations that reinterpret Darcy through the lens of another culture, and more consideration of why we continue to seek out romantic heroes who exhibit such problematic character traits.

In the latter portion of the book, Dr Malcolm also considers the relationship between Darcy and other popular romantic heroes – Mr Rochester, Heathcliff, Edward Cullen, Dracula, Christian Grey – as well as the heroes of some lesser-known (by modern audiences at least) Regency romances written by Austen’s contemporaries.

Whilst I felt that these chapters provided an interesting insight into the way in which various societies and eras construct and interpret ‘heroes’, I wasn’t sure that the discussions always succeeded in shedding new light upon Austen’s hero and this section of the book, for me anyway, wasn’t quite as successful as the chapters that focus primarily on Austen’s hero.

That said, considering other examples of ‘Darcy-like’ characters did illustrate how the prevalence of the Darcy archetype became established in popular culture – and how the numerous adaptations and reinterpretations of the character, both in print and on the screen, have allowed Darcy to take precedence over other romantic leads who exhibit similar traits.

Although literary scholars and die-hard Janeites may find themselves wanting a bit more meat on the bones in some places, for most readers who have a soft spot for Austen’s aloof heroine, There’s Something About Darcy is sure to both entertain and inform in equal measure.

Written with a scholar’s eye for detail whilst retaining the explanations of key plots and characters needed to hold the interest of a general reader, There’s Something About Darcy is a lively, informative and engrossing read.

There’s Something About Darcy by Gabrielle Malcolm is published by Endeavour Media and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon

My thanks go to Hannah Groves from Endeavour Media for providing an advanced copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and for inviting me onto and organising this blog tour. The tour continues until 20 November so do check out the other stops along the way for more reviews and content!

Darcy Blog Tour Schedule

 

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!! Brando’s Bride by Sarah Broughton

Brando's Bride CoverIn October 1957 Marlon Brando married a young studio actress called Anna Kashfi. He was thirty-three and at the pinnacle of his beautiful fame having recently won an Oscar for ‘On the Waterfront’.

The wedding was front-page news around the world. His new bride was twenty-three, claimed to be an Indian princess and was pregnant.

The day after the wedding a factory worker living in Wales, William O’Callaghan, revealed that Brando’s bride was, in fact, his daughter, Joan O’Callaghan. He said she had been a butcher’s assistant in Cardiff.

Who was telling the truth and who was lying? And, perhaps most importantly, why?

I have, I’ll admit, a slight fascination with the so-called ‘golden age’ of Hollywood. I’m a fan of the podcast, You Must Remember This?, and I find it both endlessly fascinating and achingly sad to discover the complex and often troubled nature of the real lives being led behind the facades the studios and the media so carefully curated.

The life of Anna Kashfi, the ‘forgotten’ first wife of Hollywood star Marlon Brando, is one such troubled life, and her story is given the treatment it deserves in Brando’s Bride, a biography by writer and researcher Sarah Broughton.

According to her studio biography, and the story she would most often relate about her own life, the ‘exotic’ Anna Kashfi was the daughter of Indian parents Devi Kashfi and Selma Ghose. Born and raised in India, she moved to Wales only when her mother met and married an Englishman, William Patrick O’Callaghan, living there briefly before setting off to London, where she came to the attention of a Hollywood producer and landed her first film role in The Mountain (1955), staring alongside Robert Wagner and Spencer Tracy.

According to Patrick O’Callaghan, his daughter was an English woman called Joan and was the daughter of his wife, Phoebe. Neither of them was Indian. In fact, they didn’t have a drop of Indian blood in the family at all. Phoebe’s family were, in fact, French.

So who was telling the truth?

As with most stories, the truth lies somewhere in the middle of these two accounts, a complex tale of Anglo-Indian heritage, personal shame, and Hollywood gloss. Broughton carefully fits together these pieces, picking apart the motivations behind the studios’ portrayal of Kashfi as an ‘exotic’ young actress, and examining why her parents; now assimilated into life in a Cardiff suburb, would distance themselves from their Anglo-Indian heritage – and why their daughter might wish to reclaim it.

It’s a fascinating tale even before Anna’s involvement with Marlon Brando. In fact, I preferred the book when the focus was on Anna. Whilst her tempestuous and short-lived marriage to Brando might be what she is most famous for, it is, in many ways, the least interesting thing about her.

Instead, I enjoyed the parts of Brando’s Bride that focused upon Anna’s acclimatisation into Hollywood, examining the creation and maintenance of identity within the studio system. The intense control that the studio’s maintained over their stars and starlets – and the carefully crafted versions of themselves that they wanted portraying – is really quite frightening, and it’s easy to see why so many young stars became deeply troubled figures in later life. The chapter on Anna’s contemporaries Pier Angeli, Belinda Lee, and Gia Scala, is both fascinating and poignant, as are glimpses into Brando and Anna’s own addictions, and the impact of these upon their son, Christian.

Broughton has clearly spent a great deal of time researching Anna’s life, although her prose wears this research lightly and Brando’s Bride benefits from this investigative, personal style. Whilst the book is largely sympathetic to Anna, Broughton also manages to maintain enough distance from her subject to cast a critical eye on the less salubrious aspects of her life, such as her continuing refusal to speak to, see, or even acknowledge her parents, and the bitterness that followed in the wake of her divorce from Brando.

Told with empathy, warmth, and insight, Brando’s Bride casts light onto one of the hidden histories of Hollywood. Although I had never heard of Anna Kashfi before – and cannot even claim to be a particular fan of Brando and his work – I found this to be a fascinating glimpse into the world that lies behind the glamour.

Brando’s Bride by Sarah Broughton is published by Parthian and is available now from all good bookshops and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon.

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, as well as to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 20 October 2019 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

Brandos Bride BT Poster

Blog Tours · Reviews

BLOG TOUR!! Fuck Yeah, Video Games by Daniel Hardcastle

Fuck Yeah CoverAs Daniel Hardcastle careers towards thirty, he looks back on what has really made him happy in life: the friends, the romances… the video games.

Told through encounters with the most remarkable – and the most mind-boggling – games of the last thirty-odd years, Fuck Yeah, Video Games is also a love letter to the greatest hobby in the world.

From God of War to Tomb Raider, Pokémon to The Sims, Daniel relives each game with countless in-jokes, obscure references and his signature wit, as well as intricate, original illustrations by Rebecca Maughan.

Alongside this march of merriment are chapters dedicated to the hardware behind the games: a veritable history of Sony, Nintendo, Sega and Atari consoles.

Joyous, absurd, personal and at times sweary, Daniel’s memoir is a celebration of the sheer brilliance of video games.

Confession Time. In addition to being a postgraduate student, book blogger, home owner, cat lady, wife, responsible employee and Fully Paid Up Adult (with a capital ‘A’), I am also a HUGE video game nerd. Ever since I got my tiny little mitts on a Sega Mega Drive and discovered that an interactive (and rock solidly hard) version of Disney’s The Lion King existed, I’ve been hooked.

As such, Dan Hardcastle’s Fuck Yeah, Video Games might have well have been written for me. I’m just a tad older than Dan but we were both introduced to games in the same era and at a similar age. So many of the games that Dan covers in his memoir/love-letter to video games are personal favourites of my own (SSX3, BloodborneAnimal Crossing, Tomb Raider – though personally I preferred TRII to TRIII, sorry Dan), and I can recollect many of the frustrations and failures that Dan touches on in his hardware overview chapters.

Dan is a professional YouTube gamer (his channel, Official Nerd Cubed has more than 2.6 million subscribers and more than 4,000 videos) so he’s well qualified to wax lyrical on video games, and does a brilliant job of conveying his passion for gaming as he takes a wander through some of his favourite gaming memories.

Combining sharp, often sweary, humour with personal anecdotes, Dan’s style is both amusing and insightful – he really does manage to capture what makes these games special, especially when talking about multiplayer and couch co-op games. I genuinely snorted out loud with laughter on more than one occasion, and frequently interrupted my reading to read out particularly funny sections to my long-suffering (and slightly less nerdy) husband.

I am, of course, writing this review from the perspective of the target audience. This is, as the title would suggest, a book about video games written by a gamer and for fellow gamers. For those who don’t get gaming, I doubt there will be much here that will be either of interest or entirely understandable (although Dan does provide a brilliant glossary at the back of the book for those who don’t yet fully speak Nerd).

But for video game fans, whether old or young, Fuck Yeah, Video Games is an absolute riot.

Combining short, sharp chapters with witty illustrations by Dan’s partner Rebecca, Fuck Yeah, Video Games will be immediately relatable to anyone who has broken a controller out of sheer frustration (my Tekken 3 years were rough on the old controllers), spent work/school days contemplating exactly how to defeat that bastard of a boss (I’m looking at you Dark Souls), or severely damaged a thumb through a combination of intense button mashing and the non-ergonomic nature of an N64 controller (yeah…that happened). I loved it and, if you love video games, I think you might too.

Fuck Yeah, Video Games by Daniel Hardcastle is published by Unbound and is available now from all good bookstores and online retailers including Unbound, Hive, Waterstones, and Amazon.

My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in this tour and, as always, being a fantastic tour organiser. The tour continues until 29 September 2019 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content!

Fuck Yeah BT Poster