Saturday 25 February 2017

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King - Book Review (What's in a Name 2017 Challenge)

I picked up a copy of The Bazaar of Bad Dreams for a couple of reasons:

1) it would fit nicely as part of my 2017 Reading Challenge - the 'What's in a Name' challenge as set by Charlie over on The Worm Hole (
2) I don't read a lot of short stories and I thought that it would be an interesting change from novels
3) I hadn't read any Stephen King for a long time - must have been at least 25 years since I finished 'It' and 'The Shining'. I'm sure I've read more but, in all honesty, whilst I've enjoyed them, I can't say that I've been enthused enough to pick King's books up on a regular basis (or remember them it seems!).

All in all I must say that I enjoyed this collection of stories - some have a horror-theme, some are genuinely moving and others are downright weird (in a good way!). I found myself chuckling regularly at King's black humour that is evident throughout. Whilst there were a couple that maybe didn't draw me in as much (weirdly enough Mile 81, the first story in the collection, was one of these) the vast majority hit the spot more accurately (Summer Thunder and Morality being a couple of good examples.)

Another aspect of the book that I really enjoyed was King's introduction to each story. Each introduction adds a extra dimension to the story as the author allows us a glimpse into his creative process.

Maybe I won't leave it so long before I read another of Mr King's pieces of work ;)

4 stars out of 5

Sunday 5 February 2017

Beating the January blues in the LRC

It must be said that January is not my favourite month of the year. What with the 'six weeks-between-paydays' barren wasteland of a bank account, the short days and the general post-Christmas malaise I am pretty grateful when January has been and gone.

Having said that we've been busy bees in the LRC, which has helped to make the month fly by. That being the case, I thought I would actually write something about what we've been doing in the LRC (given that this blog's called 'gemslibrary' might be nice once in a while, eh?).

First and foremost we ran a couple of Love Your Library 'loyalty schemes'. The first scheme was linked to our 'Books into Films' display.

I was lucky enough to win a POS (point of sale) set of promotional posters, bookmarks and 'A' displays for A Monster Calls so was able to use these (thank you CILIP Youth Libraries Group newsletter!). I also received a large Rogue One poster free with my January edition of Empire magazine, so that went up too. The Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them posters were purchased for the princely sum of £2.99 from Amazon (the poster book is also available from Scholastic - so, if you have any Scholastic Rewards to spend it might be worth a buy). 

 A couple of rather lovely Year 12's helped me to pick out titles in our library stock which had been (or were going to be) made into films (or which were linked to films in some way). We printed out some pictures of clapperboards and stuck them on to the front covers of the selected books. If and when students wanted to borrow any books with the clapperboard stickers on them they were able to choose a 'free gift' (pencils, pens, rubbers etc).

Our second 'loyalty scheme' was a library loan raffle - every time a student borrowed a book from the library in January they received a raffle ticket and were entered into the prize draw to win a goody bag. The goody bag was filled with a selection of pens/pencils, bookmark, free book (I keep a stash specifically for this kind of thing!) and a few sweets - otherwise how would it be a goody bag?! :)

Now, we have a number of screens around our campus, including a large videowall in the main Atrium/dining area and I am lucky enough to be the person who updates these screens. Needless-to-say information about each of the 'loyalty screens' was displayed on screens around our campus! The screens are also a very handy way of letting competition/prize draw winners know that they can come and collect their prize from the LRC. In January I also started including 2/3 'At the Moment I am Reading...' slides a week on screens around the site using information that different staff members had given me. I have started with just staff reads but am going to broaden this out to include books that students are reading/would recommend.

A small team of student librarians in Years 7 and 8 work in the LRC during breaks and lunchtimes. The younger students are mentored and supported by a group of Year 12s. Whilst the team works well together I decided that I was going to shake things up a bit this term by putting them into teams and setting them some challenges. For each challenge the winning team would receive merit stickers and achievement points and, at the end of this term, the overall winners will receive a prize (as yet to be determined!). I wasn't sure how they'd respond to this...but so far they appear to be relishing the tasks!

Their initial challenge was to imagine that the Year 12s and I were the brothers Grimm and that we were putting together a new collection of fairy tales. However, we only have space left for one more story in our new collection. Each team of librarians had to come up with their own idea for a new fairy tale and then pitch it to the Year 12s who would decide which they would use in their new book. Each member of the team had to say something during their 2 minute pitch. In that time they needed to include their ideas of character and plot and convince the Year 12s to choose their story. Both teams came up with very original ideas and each pitch was carefully thought through and well-presented (neither team went over the time limit) - I was very impressed (as were the Year 12s)!

They've now been set their next challenge - they have 2 weeks to come up with a story sack that they could use to bring their fairy tale to life. Each team must either use recycled items, or items they have created - they should not buy items to go in the story sack. To say that our little team of librarians is enthusiastic would be an understatement...they are already busy coming up with ideas!

One last thing that we've been encouraging students to contribute to is our Wish Tree for 2017. Some time ago I was given a 5 foot artificial Christmas tree by one of our assistant principals (an English teacher) and we have endeavoured to get as much use out of it as possible!

It has been:

1) a novel tree (students write a book they recommend on a tag and tie it on the tree),

2) a poet tree (students choose or write a poem and tie it on the tree)

3) human-i-tree (this tied in with Human Rights Day in December. Students had to design a person with a human rights message and...well, you get the picture >> )

So now we have a Wish Tree in the LRC. The idea came from an assembly given by the same teacher who donated the treeto me. In the assembly she asked students to consider what their wishes for 2017 would be. I can honestly say that some of the wishes placed on our tree are incredibly moving. Let's hope that, by the end of 2017, they might have come true.

Saturday 21 January 2017

Book Review - The House of Smoke by Sam Christer ('What's in a Name' Challenge #2)

'Sherlock Holmes' greatest nemesis unleashes Victorian London's deadliest assassin...'

I'm going to have to be honest here...until about 1/2 way through this book I wasn't sure I liked it. It's not that I found it heavy going (it's not), it's not that it doesn't immediately grab your attention (I mean, holy smokes, it begins by the aforementioned assassin honestly describing himself as 'the manservant of Death' and beginning the countdown to his execution!) it's just, well, something wasn't sitting right with me.

The author does a great job of evoking Newgate Gaol at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century. I could really sense the damp, cold, dark and stench of the gaol.

Simeon Lynch, the novel's central character, is also effectively portrayed and I think this is part of the problem I initially had with this book. By this I mean that I think I was having a hard time dredging up empathy for a self-confessed murderer and this was perhaps colouring my 'enjoyment' of the novel. Having said that, as the plot progresses we do indeed learn more about Simeon's background (the story is told in flashbacks - not necessarily in chronological order) and are able to build up a fuller picture of this 'manservant of Death' and are able to understand how he ended up on a path to become an assassin. We can, at times, sympathise with him and, at other times, be disgusted with him.

I do not want to give away too much of the plot here so will attempt to give you some of the basics. 
We start the novel knowing Simeon has a murder conviction and is to hang for it in 17 days time...but we do not know, until a good way into the story, who he is convicted of killing. We then, in flashbacks, follow Simeon's path from workhouse child, through his recruitment by Brogan Moriarty (brother of Sherlock Holmes' nemesis, James Moriarty) to his career as Moriarty's 'protector' and assassin. The flashbacks are interspersed with Simeon's narrative of his final days in Newgate Gaol, including a couple of visits by the great detective himself, Sherlock Holmes.

All in all I did enjoy this book (if enjoy is the right word when reading about a trained assassin!), in particular the last third of the book when things seemed to rev up speed towards the conclusion. Definitely worth a read if you like fiction with a Victorian-era crime theme.

I would probably award this book 3/5.

Tuesday 17 January 2017

Book Review - '2am at the Cat's Pajamas' by Marie-Helene Bertino ('What's in a Name' Challenge #1)

'Madeleine Altimari is a sassy, smart-mouthed nine-year-old and an aspiring jazz singer, inwardly mourning the recent death of her mother. Little does she know that she is about to have the most extraordinary day - and night - of her life.'

I received '2am at the Cat's Pajamas' in my Book and A Brew subscription box for December 2016 and, whilst I didn't manage to get around to reading it before Christmas (it is set during a Christmas Eve Eve), it proved to be a most enjoyable read to start 2017 with.

Now, before I get around to reviewing the book, I must confess that I cannot get on with jazz. Apologies to all of you who appreciate this musical style but, to me, the majority of jazz is as impenetrable as a maximum security prison. So let's just say I had some slight misgivings on reading the book's blurb. Having said that, whilst the book is peppered with references to jazz musicians/songs, this did not make the book any less readable for a non-jazz bod like myself. 
As the blurb suggests the story revolves around a day in the life of 9 year-old Madeleine who is desperate to be given the opportunity to sing in public. Unfortunately she is consistently denied her time in the spotlight due to 'an unfortunate incident at the Winter Assembly'. Madeleine is not your typical cute 9 year-old - she's had (and has) a lot to deal with at home and is not afraid of doling out the odd curse word (or several!). Can't say as I blame her though, to be honest! 

Madeleine's narrative is complemented by narratives by:
* her teacher, Miss Greene,
* Lorca, owner of The Cat's Pajamas - a once famous jazz club which is struggling due to the music's decline in popularity and its owner's flouting of city codes
* Ben, Miss Greene's disastrous prom date of yesteryear (& who still holds a torch for her)
* as well a several other characters whose story/location intersect with these narratives 

Each narrative is distinct but come together in the finale at The Cat's Pajamas.

If I had one slightly negative criticism it would be that, occasionally, within a narrative the voice would skip to a completely different person - at times even to one who we had not been introduced to - and then back to the narrative we'd been following and this had a jarring effect whilst I was reading. Overall though this was a great little read to start the year with. I would give it 3/5.

You can also read my reviews on Goodreads!

I've written this review as part of The Worm Hole's 'What's in a Name 2017 Challenge' - why not check it?

2017 Reading Challenge - What's in a name?

When my friend Jen forwarded me a master list of reading challenges (as compiled by my initial thought was 'There. Are. So. Many. Brain. Cannot. Cope.' After rebooting myself with a nice cuppa I set about selecting one to work my way through during 2017.

 Now, I know some of you out there might be reading purists who shun the idea of a manufactured challenge when it comes to the books you read - and I must confess to having had leanings towards this way of thinking - however, over the past couple of years I've made a concerted effort to try and read outside of my comfort zone (e.g. crime/thriller/mystery types) and I like the idea something that will encourage me to continue to do that. Last year I took out a Book and a Brew subscription precisely to aid in my quest for new reading pastures (you can read about my initial impressions of the subscription here) and I fancied supplementing this with an additional challenge.

After having a peruse of the list my friend sent m
e I plumped for the 'What's in a Name' challenge courtesy of The Worm Hole. The idea is that people taking part in the challenge need to register over on The Worm Hole and then read books which fall into the following categories and then post links to reviews on the special 'What's in a Name' gateway post:

  • A number in numbers (84, Charing Cross Road; 12 Years A Slave; 31 Dream Street)
  • A building (The Old Curiosity Shop; I Capture The Castle; House Of Shadows; The Invisible Library; Jamaica Inn)
  • A title which has an ‘X’ somewhere in it (The Girl Next Door; The Running Vixen)
  • A compass direction (North and South; Guardians Of The West; The Shadow In The North; NW)
  • An item/items of cutlery (The Subtle Knife; Our Spoons Came From Woolworths)
  • A title in which at least two words share the same first letter – alliteration! (The Great Gatsby; The Luminous Life Of Lilly Aphrodite; Gone Girl; The Cuckoo’s Calling)
    This text is taken from

I really like this because the challenges are all so random! I've already started to line up this year's reads...and, yes, I am  even managing to include a few which have been hanging around on my backlist/TBR pile for a bit :) Stay tuned for my first review. 

Saturday 25 June 2016

Book and a Brew (book subscription box) - initial impressions

A couple of years ago I stumbled upon the idea of 'subscription boxes' whilst shopping for Christmas presents. Whilst the box I gifted wasn't a book subscription (it was a very well received Curry Night subscription box from The Spicery) it did pique my curiosity enough to see what else was out there. I was somewhat amazed to discover that you can buy subscription boxes for all sorts of things including cheese (?), socks (??), scarves (???), geeky gear (????) and, yes, books (hoorah!). 

A number of companies offer book subscription boxes that deliver to/within the UK and each of them offer something slightly different. I'm not going to describe the differences here but a list of some of the companies that offer this type of subscription is given at the end of this blog post in case you'd like to check them out for yourselves. After having a bit of a look around I decided to take the plunge and subscribe to Book and a Brew for 2 reasons:

1) Their choice of books each month seemed quite intriguing - they were titles that I was generally unfamiliar with but that sounded genuinely interesting,
2) I drink a lot of tea!

The subscription costs £12.99 a month and for that I receive a hardback book and a 'drinkable delight' (to quote their website!). Boxes are sent out from the 15th of each month and, sure enough, my first box arrived on the 17th (I think).

Here's my first box. It arrived safe and sound courtesy of the postman. The contents were all well packed - and i loved the fact that they were wrapped neatly in tissue paper which was secured by a cute 'Book and a Brew' sticker.  So, let's talk about the contents. First of all, the book - The Incorruptibles by John Hornor Jacobs. Now, this is definitely not a book I had come across before but I was immediately drawn to it's simple, almost monochrome cover which suggests something of a journey into the unknown. I love the woodcut-style of the cover illustration and the use of the colour gold to highlight the fire, the shooting star and the title. Does its use suggest themes of hope (the star) or danger (the fire)?

Another intriguing little detail is the inclusion of the latin phrase 'in girum imus nocte et consumimur igni' on one of the first few pages before the start of the novel. Not being an expert in latin (I recognised the words 'night' and 'fire') I undertook a quick Google search and discovered that:

a) the phrase is a palindrome - that's to say it's a series of words, numbers or characters which reads the same backward and forward.

b) it means 'we go wandering at night and are consumed by fire'.

This seems to fit really nicely with the cover illustration and left me eager to find out what the book is actually about!

Here's the blurb:

In the contested and unexplored territories at the edge of the Empire, a boat is making its laborious way up stream. Riding along the banks are the mercenaries hired to protect it—from raiders, bandits, and, most of all, the stretchers, elf-like natives who kill any intruders into their territory. The mercenaries know this is dangerous, deadly work. But it is what they do. In the boat the drunk governor of the territories and his sons and daughters make merry. They believe that their status makes them untouchable. They are wrong. And with them is a mysterious, beautiful young woman, who is the key to peace between warring nations and survival for the Empire. When a callow mercenary saves the life of the Governor on an ill-fated hunting party, the two groups are thrown together. For Fisk and Shoe—two tough, honorable mercenaries surrounded by corruption, who know they can always and only rely on each other—their young companion appears to be playing with fire. The nobles have the power, and crossing them is always risky. And although love is a wonderful thing, sometimes the best decision is to walk away. Because no matter how untouchable or deadly you may be, the stretchers have other plans.

After my initial positive thoughts about the book cover and the mysterious little latin phrase i am glad to say that the blurb has only increased my anticipation! I am most definitely looking forward to reading this book!

On to my impressions of the second part of the subscription - the tea!

Included in this month's box is a pack of Teapigs Chilli Chai tea which, according to the information sheet included 'is a twist on traditional chai. Alongside assam tea, cardamom pods, chunks of ginger, cinnamon and vanilla there's added flakes of chilli to give it quite the kick.' I don't know about you but, being a bit of a chai fan, this sounds amazing to me! I also love the simple Teapigs packaging, which includes the image of a fire extinguisher :) as well as the fact that they call their teabags 'tea temples'. Cute! I am also seriously considering trying the pack's suggestion to try one of the 'tea temples' as a latte. Yum yum indeed.

To sum up, I think I can safely say that I am very pleased with my first Book and a Brew box and I am glad that i took the plunge and subscribed.

NB: as promided here is a list of some other companies who offer book subscription boxes to customers in the UK

The Willoughby Book Club

The Beautiful Book Company
Glenogle and Bell
Daunt Books

Mrs B's Reading Year
Persephone Books

Sunday 5 June 2016

Book Reviews - Flawed & Finding Audrey

After my recent trips to local charity shops and the supermarket resulted in a decent-sized book haul for the library, I figured it was probably a good idea to have a sneaky read of one or two of them before adding them to the catalogue ;) 

Here is the latest book haul - seriously, I'm not safe to be left alone near book shelves!

I decided to try Flawed by Cecelia Ahern first.

Here’s the blurb.
Celestine North lives a perfect life. She’s a model daughter and sister, she’s well-liked by her classmates and teachers, and she’s dating the impossibly charming Art Crevan. But then Celestine encounters a situation in which she makes an instinctive decision. She breaks a rule and now faces life-changing repercussions. She could be imprisoned. She could be branded. She could be FLAWED.         

Now, I have a confession to make. I have never read a Cecelia Ahern book before. I know, I know…this is a terrible admission. However, I spotted the ‘Heart-stopping Young Adult debut’ sticker on the cover of Flawed     and figured it might be a good time to start. Turns out, I was right. Whilst Flawed isn’t perfect it is an engaging and pacy read. I was quickly drawn into the dystopian world that Ahern creates and, whilst the central character Celestine can be a little cloying at times I did find myself swept along by the plot which hinges upon a decision of conscience that she makes. The story gives a nod to many issues pertinent today including:
* media ownership – the implications of a single company (or family in the case of Flawed) owning/controlling most of a country’s communications,
* the role of the media in controlling/managing society,
* discrimination and prejudice faced by marginalised groups,
* checks and balances – what do you do when power over the many is held in the hands of the few?
* at what point does fear compromise a human’s nature to be compassionate/to aide another person who is suffering?
* at what point does state and society draw a line between what is legal and what is acceptable behaviour? How and who should ‘police’ this? (The plot is littered with examples - there’s even a not-so-veiled reference to the Ashya King case)

The sequel to Flawed, Perfect, will be published in Spring 2017. I will definitely be picking up a copy.

The second book I chose to read from my haul was Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella. 

Here’s the blurb.
Audrey can’t leave the house. She can’t even take off her dark glasses inside the house. Then her brother’s friend Linus stumbles into her life. With his smile and his funny notes, he starts to entice Audrey out again – well, Starbucks is a start. Laugh, dream and hope with Audrey as she learns that even when you feel like you have lost yourself, love can still find you.

 I was drawn to this book primarily because of the subject matter – one girl’s experience of anxiety disorder. Now, this is not a subject to be taken lightly and I wondered how Kinsella, well known for her humorous Shopaholic series, would approach it.

Audrey makes for an engaging narrator: she gives us a hilarious introduction to her family during the first chapter (I won’t spoil anything except to say that it involves her Daily Mail reading mother and her concerns about Audrey’s suspected video-game addicted brother) and her day-to-day struggles with what she refers to as her ‘lizard brain’ which makes even simple interactions with unfamiliar people/situations are very touching. The relationship that Audrey’s family has with each other and with her is both comic and genuinely moving. Audrey’s growing relationship with her brother’s friend, Linus, is touchingly sweet.

I really enjoyed this book and it even made me chuckle out loud in places.