Friday, 23 October 2020

Call Me Mummy by Tina Baker - Book Review

Amanda Kennedy

Reading Call Me Mummy was like looking at the aftermath of a car crash: a visceral, intrusive glimpse into the motherhood experiences of two very different women through which I felt I should turn away but was compelled to continue.

The plot shifts between the point of view of "Mummy": an unnamed woman who steals a little girl named Tonya away from her "undeserving" mother at a shopping precinct, and Kim: Tonya's pregnant mother. Several interludes present Tonya's internal monologue and social media updates from the public watching the case unfold over the course of several months.

From the outset the tension is palpable. We are introduced to the discomforting contrast of polarised women, the first, a mother whom we may easily judge on first impression. Kim is working class, harried, pregnant, with a toddler in a stroller, paying more attention to her mobile phone than her daughter who is left to wander the shop unattended. "Mummy" is wealthy but childless: a woman who would feed a child of her own nutritious meals, deliver a rounded education and make all of the provisions needed for the development of a healthy, happy child. Which indeed she tries to do, once Tonya is safely contained in her perfect, sanitary home. It is at this point we begin to learn that appearances are so rarely indicative of a person's lived reality.

Both Kim and Mummy's background and secrets are slowly revealed through the course of this haunting (and at times, horrific) novel. Perhaps certain scenes and revelations affected me most because I am a mother myself. The ending could have been difficult to pull off, but proved very satisfying, particularly as this was Baker's debut as an author. I look forward very much to reading what she may write next!

Thank you Netgalley and Viper Books for the digital ARC!

Call Me Mummy by will be released on .

Reviewed by on . Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 19 October 2020

The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell - Book Review

Amanda Kennedy

Having read all of Purcell's previous Gothic novels, I was very excited for the opportunity to read a digital ARC of her latest offering via NetGalley.

The Shape of Darkness is Purcell's fourth novel, and I will state from the outset that it's the scariest yet! The plot revolves mostly around Agnes Darken: an older spinster, who crafts by hand the art of silhouettes, an art on the cusp of extinction as the more popular daguerreotypes are increasingly preferred. Agnes begins to realise that her patrons (sadly few and far between) are seemingly murdered after sitting for her portraiture. In parallel is Pearl Meers, "The White Sylph": a young albino girl working for her sister as a spirit guide. Pearl's gift is suddenly increasing in its intensity, causing her to experience the same symptoms of the victims of Bath's supposed serial killer.

As their paths cross, the danger intensifies building up the tension and horror to a dramatic and unexpected conclusion which I did not see coming. What an exhilarating read this turned out to be!

With The Shape of Darkness, Laura Purcell has cemented her status as the queen of modern Gothic novels, and I for one, am very much looking forward to reading anything she may choose to publish next!

The Shape of Darkness by will be released in the UK on the . You can pre-order a copy of this gorgeous hardback from Waterstones or Amazon.

Reviewed by on . Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 18 October 2020

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex - Book Review

Amanda Kennedy

I was really excited to be given the opportunity to read a digital ARC of The Lamplighters via Netgalley. This book has generated a lot of excitement, and while I hadn't previously learned much about the story behind this novel, I was intrigued by the blurb and cover to learn more.

First I should admit that I'd expected The Lamplighters to have a supernatural element to the story. In fact, there is something supernatural about this novel, a light element if you will (which I won't give away in this review) though it is not what you'd expect. Instead, this novel is more closely focused on the lives and relationships of the characters; on stories, rumour and speculation. In fact, I found these aspects far more interesting than the theme I had initially expected.

The narration of The Lamplighters has - at least for me - a strange rhythmic cadence. Chapters swing from events of the past to the present day; from the events leading up to the disappearance of the three lamplighters, to the impact on those left behind. Yet this does not feel disjointed: instead it flows smoothly, and made me think of stories told by firelight over the course of several winter nights.

Only after finishing The Lamplighters did I set out to explore the true-life story on which it was based. Then I realised how cleverly Emma Stonex had crafted this remarkable retelling, which lingered in my thoughts long after I'd turned the final page. The temporal setting was transported form the turn of the 20th century to a more contemporary decade, at the point which manned lighthouses were on the cusp of being replaced with automation. I found this added a great richness to the story, and more potential for each of the lamplighter's backstory, in addition to the clever twists and turns of the mystery which kept me guessing until the very end.

Do search this book out at your favourite bookstore when it is released next year! I'm sure this novel will be enjoyed by readers who crave well-crafted stories with realistic characters and an element of mystery.

The Lamplighters by will be released in the UK on .

Reviewed by on . Rating: 4 out of 4 stars.

Wednesday, 7 October 2020

Free Bookish Planner Printables

Amanda Kennedy

 


Back when I first began book blogging, I designed this set of planner printables to sell in my Etsy shop. Since 2020 has been a tough year for us all, I've decided to release these for free for anyone who would like to use them.

The Book Lover's Compendium is a complete set of printable inserts for those who love literature, or simply want to keep track of their reading habits. These planner printables were designed for the Personal Size Filofax, though may be suitable for other brands of a similar size. 

I designed this set with the theme of antiquarian bookstores in mind, using fonts and decorative elements you might find in a beautiful old book. 

This set includes everything you might want or need to take notes of your reading habits, including:

  • Four personalisable dividers, with the appearance of decorative antique book covers
  • Two-sided Book Review sheets, including space for your notes, star ratings and dates.
  • Book store sheets, for contact, location, website addresses and notes
  • E-books, to detail your downloads
  • Library logs, to keep track of what you borrow
  • Blank notepaper, for your thoughts and scribbles, designed to accompany the design theme of other inserts
  • Quotes, for jotting down those all-important details you want to remember later
  • Reading logs
  • Recommended reads, for those books you might want to read later

Once downloaded, you can print as many of the pages you need, as many times as you like!

I've also included a bonus set of book lists you might want to keep to hand, for suggested reading or to complete a favoured book collection:

  • - Amazon's "100 Books to Read in a Lifetime"
  • - Amazon's "100 Books for Children"
  • - A complete list of Penguin's Clothbound Classics series
  • - A list of all Barnes and Noble leather bound "Collectible Editions"

I designed this set in answer to my endless searching for suitable inserts for my own Filofax. Being a book lover, I do prefer to keep all my literary notes all in one place. As a planner addict, I also wanted them to be beautiful. I hope you will find them as useful in your forays into the world of literature as I do!

These inserts are designed to be printed on A4 sized paper/card (210 x 297mm / 8.27 x 11.69 inches). You will need Adobe Reader (or other PDF reader) to open the files. Additionally, to customise the text on the personalisable dividers, you will need to download and install the FREE font, Linux Libertine. Full details and instructions are included in the documentation for this set. 

The PDF files are contained two Zip folders which you can "unzip" to your computer. Complete instructions for printing these inserts are included in the download.

Download these bookish planner printables:

Please note that these files have not been updated in some time. I've checked to make sure everything is included and works as it should, however the links in the instruction file refer to my old Tumblr blog and not to this updated site. Should you encounter any issues, feel free to drop me a line or leave a comment below.

Feel free to share these bookish planner printables with anyone who may enjoy them!

I'd appreciate a link back to All My Pretty Books if you share on your own website, and ask that you do not sell these printables as that would not be in the spirit of sharing!

Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Spooky Stories from BBC Sounds

Amanda Kennedy

 


October is the best month for spooky stories and ghostly goings-on! As BBC Sounds has a great selection of seasonal audio-drama for Halloween, I thought it would be timely to showcase my favourites for your aural pleasure.

All of these audio dramas are available to listen online from the BBC Sounds website (I've linked the titles to their appropriate page), or you can listen/download to your digital device using the BBC Sounds App.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

I'm currently listening to this serialised drama of James' gothic classic in preparation for the release of The Haunting of Bly Manor on Netflix!

This spine-tingling novella about a governess and two children on a haunted estate is read by Sam Dale and Clare Corbett.

Weird Tales

Weird Tales is an ongoing series of intimate and chilling plays. Currently there are three seasons, with a handful of serialised plays in each. The most recent is Night Terrors by Lizzie Nunnery:

The pressure's getting too much for clever clogs Victoria. She can't sleep at night. She has nightmares. But it's okay because they're just bad dreams.

Until one day the dreams become terrifyingly real...

The Whisperer in Darkness

Inspired by Lovecraft's novella of the same name, this audio drama blends horror and sci-fi in a modern re-telling:

Henry Akeley, an ex-student from Dr Eleanor Peck’s folklore and witchcraft course, has gone missing, and Heawood and Kennedy decide whether or not to investigate. But first, there are threads to tie up from their last mystery podcast 'The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward.'

All ten episodes are currently available, plus additional content including the duo's previous adventure: The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

The classic Gothic masterpiece, based on the novella by Robert Louis Stevenson,  in which a doctor experiments with the duality of human nature, and in doing so creates a monster.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

The original Gothic monster story, which I'm sure needs no introduction! 

This complete audiobook contains 24 chapters and is narrated by Shaun Mason.

The Hotel

The Hotel is a series of interlinked short stories by Daisy Johnson (author of Sisters and Everything Under). At the time of writing, only the first three (of fifteen) short episodes have been released, with a new episode available each Monday.

By far, this series is my favourite! The Hotel is creepy, unsettling, and deeply delicious!

What are your favourite spooky audio stories?

Do you have a favourite spooky story on BBC Sounds or elsewhere? Be sure to let us know in the comments section or tag me on Twitter to share your choices with further readers!

Friday, 2 October 2020

Magic Lessons by Alice Hoffman - Book Review

Amanda Kennedy

 


Magic Lessons is a prequel to her other books chronicling the Owen's witches in the vein of an origin story. 

Having previously read and loved Practical Magic and The Rules of Magic, I was keen to learn more and was not disappointed. 

Hoffman's style of writing reads to me like a warm hug. That's not to say there is no peril in these novels, there certainly is, but these stories make me feel as though they are being read to me by someone friendly and familiar, in front of a warm fire on an autumn evening. 

Familiarity with the history of witchcraft in both Europe and America is certainly present in Magic Lessons, as we follow Maria Owens, adopted by Hannah to the family name, seek out her fate across two Essex counties separated by oceans. Maria is a bloodline witch, therefore her powers are innate and strong. We learn of her familiar, a beautiful black crow; the heartbreak which sets her on her path of tragedy and destruction towards that fateful curse which prevents her descendants from ever experiencing true love.

Interspersed with the story are the titular "magic lessons": recipes and instructions for spells, relevant to the passage of text they proceed. I rather liked these sections, which remind us that in times past women were tried as witches simply for using herbs and simple tinctures to cure ailments (whereas men were praised as doctors and healers for doing exactly the same). Feminism is also a theme through this story, warning us that women were not always equal to men. 

Although readers may already be familiar with the women of Owens lineage, I don't wish to spoil the story by saying too much in this review. It is a calm and tender read, full of love, heartbreak, revenge and loss, but whose final lines provide us with a mantra to help us live life well. 

Magic Lessons by Alice Hoffman will be published on October 6th, 2020.

Reviewed by Amanda Kennedy on October 1st, 2020. Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale - Book Review

Amanda Kennedy


 

Dinsdale's previous novel, The Toymakers, is a particular favourite of mine, which I read in the lead up to Christmas as the magic contained within is of that particular type.

His new novel, Paris by Starlight, is written in the same vein. No particular time in history is offered for the setting, though I would suspect it's before the advent of smartphones and portable technology. 

There are two main protagonists: a young woman who finds herself drawn to Paris in search of her father, and a young man:  refugee from an unnamed country which no longer exists. The couple find each other in Paris and are drawn together by their parallel themes of family and loss.

The magic in this book comes from the young man's ancestry, and the legendary stories his family share from The Nocturne, a volume of fairy tales. As the refugees settle in Paris, they retell stories from the Nocturne of times past when the country lived by starlight and magical flowers bloomed and glowed in the evening light. Soon these stories begin to come to life, first around their new-found home, then spreading outwards across the whole city.

At first, the native Parisians find the nighttime blooms enchanting, but as more seek refuge and to live by Starlight in their city, Paris finds it's inhabitants divided, and so do the star-crossed couple...

Paris by Starlight is certainly an enchanting book, with themes we may find parallel to our own experience and feelings towards real-life asylum seekers who seek safety at our shores. Love and magic are the prevalent themes here, and while I don't find this novel quite as unforgettable as The Toymakers, it is certainly a beautiful novel in which to lose oneself in the depths of imagination.

Paris by Starlight by Robert Dinsdale will be published on 5th November, 2020.

Reviewed by Amanda Kennedy on 30th September 2020. Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 26 September 2020

My favourite spooky reads for Autumn

Amanda Kennedy

As the nights draw in and we move closer to Halloween, my TBR pile fills up with spooky novels to suit the season. My preference for horror falls on the supernatural spectrum: demons, ghosts and vampires are common themes. While I'm always on the lookout for new fiction, there are several novels I turn to again and again for that satisfying spookiness. 

Here then are my favourite supernatural horror novels, in no particular order:

NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

This 700-page tome remains one of my favourite books of all time, and one which I've re-read several times now. The basics of this story revolve around a girl/young woman with extraordinary powers in her attempt to stop a vampiric immortal named Charlie Manx who tempts children to Christmasland in order to kill them. 

Whether or not you've already watched the highly rated AMC series of the same name, I highly recommend you read NOS4A2 if you enjoy a great horror story!

Slade House by David Mitchell

This short book provides a very different take on the "Haunted House" story. Including several shorter stories which are linked by the titular house, this is unlike Mitchell's lengthier works but includes a character cameo who may be familiar to fans. 

The Historian By Elizabeth Kostova

Another classic which deserves periodic re-reading, The Historian is inspired by Stoker's legend of Dracula, following a young woman who tracks her father across Gothic landscapes while striving to solve the mystery of her mother's disappearance. Glorious descriptions and a creeping sense of unease ensure this is a must-read for fans of vampire fiction.

The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp


This book was recommended to me on a forum thread about truly terrifying reads. I can confirm without hesitation that The Last Days of Jack Sparks truly deserves this reputation! Containing found footage, demonic possession, extreme witticism and a protagonist you'll love to hate, this could well prove to be one of your all-time favourite horror novels!

My review of The Last Days of Jack Sparks can be read here.

Dracul by Dacre Stoker and J.D. Barker


This prequel to Dracula was inspired by the notes and documents Bram Stoker left behind, and is a wonderfully written vampire novel in it's own right. Read this if you enjoy your vampire literature with a Gothic twist!

Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

Paver is most widely known for her masterpiece, Dark Matter; however I prefer her more recent novel, Wakenhyrst, which is set in the gothic landscape of Edwardian England. 

The setting of a haunted manor house, surrounded by atmospheric fens and doused in folklore make this a perfect read for gloomy evenings by candlelight.

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

If a book invokes the spooky atmosphere of October, it is Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes!

It is a beautifully written, coming of age tale featuring a true battle between good and evil when the circus comes to a sleepy American town. An absolute must-read for autumn, preferably out loud while sat around a camp fire at night. 

Rawblood by Catriona Ward

If there is one book in this list I recommend above all others, it is Rawblood by Catriona Ward. 

This masterful novel follows the life and decline of main protagonist, Iris, as she struggles against the disease (or curse) of her family line. Deeply gothic, at times disturbing, with an all-encompassing sense of dread, the story culminates in a perfectly executed and satisfying ending which horror rarely can. 

What are your favourite spooky reads?

I'm always looking out for recommendations to add to my ever-growing TBR list. Personal recommendations are far more meaningful than Google and Goodreads search lists, so please feel free to share your own favourites by leaving a comment below.

How I manage my book blog for £10 a year (including domain and email)

Amanda Kennedy

Most of the book bloggers I know are inspired by a love of books. We are a passionate community who write to share our love of the written word rather than to earn a living. Precious few bloggers are able to generate a living wage from their passion, so for many of us, it is imperative to keep the costs of running our sites to a minimum.

It is entirely possible to maintain a book blog at zero cost: indeed many successful book bloggers host their sites on a subdomain provided by Blogspot.com, Wordpress.com, Tumblr or Instagram, and use Gmail (or a similar email provider) for communicating with the book community. 

My own preference is to maintain a custom domain and email address, which I manage to do for just £10 a year. This includes my domain name, email, blog and file hosting with virtually no limitations

I use Blogger for my platform

I've been book blogging since 2015 and blogging in general for much longer still. During this time, I've worked on many different platforms and gained enough experience to work as a freelance designer for several years. Yet the platform I always drift back to is Blogger. Let me explain why.

  • Blogger is completely free, forever. No matter how many blog posts you write, how many pictures you upload, or how many people visit your site, there is no charge for hosting your blog. 
  • It is safe, secure and robust. I've had no problems with any of the sites I host with Blogger in the 16 or so years I've been using it. Even when one of my posts went viral, attracting close to 3 million page hits in a day, the site did not go down, not even for a moment!
  • Customization options are limitless! Blogger allows complete customisation of our blog templates. We are not limited to the default template styles (which themselves can be easily tweaked). There are many, many third-party templates available to upload, a large percentage of which are free more on this later)while those with knowledge of web design could choose to design their own template from scratch.
  • Blogger is SEO optimised. Little if any tweaking needs to be done for Blogger-hosted sites to rank highly in search engines. Just be sure to use "keywords" in your titles and posts.
  • Use your Google account for your blog, and easily integrate other Google services. Blogger is owned and operated by Google, which makes it very easy to access and manage lots of useful and relevant services with the same account. Such as Gmail (as I'll explain later), Feedburner, for email updates, Adsense, should you wish to monetize your blog, and of course Webmaster Tools, to help optimise your site and keep track of your blog statistics.
To create a blog with Blogger, simply sign up using your Google login at the Blogger website.  You can get started in just a few clicks!

I use a free, third-party Blogger theme

Whether you are reading this post on a desktop PC or your mobile phone, you'll likely notice that my blog's theme is not a standard Blogger one! 

This particular theme is called Milano and is available to download for free from Templatism, though I have modified it slightly to suit my personal preferences. 

If you're not content with Blogger's standard themes, you can easily find a new template from third-party designers. Take a look at one of the following articles to get started:

A lot of Blogger templates are based on the "magazine" or "portfolio" style. This is generally because blog templates are produced by designers, for designers, if you see what I mean. Personally, I prefer to look at book blogs with a simpler, clean layout, where I can easily see book reviews and access posts which interest me. Here are a few of the themes I considered before settling on my current theme (all of which are free):

Couture by OddThemes


Voux by CopyBlogger Themes


Johny Casia


Plate Blogger Template by Gooyaabi Templates


File Hosting for Book Bloggers

In the course of book blogging, you may find the need to host files for downloads (such as my Kids Reading Log and Printable List of Clothbound Classics).

I tackle this by making use of the free 15 gigs Google Drive storage linked to my Google Account. To ensure links in my post point to a direct download, I use the Google Drive Direct Link generator which creates a user-friendly link. While a little clumsy, this workaround helps me to keep all of my important files in one place. 

Other options frequently used by bloggers include DropBox and MediaFire.

Setting up email updates

Feedburner is also under Google's umbrella of services, and as such is integrated seamlessly with Blogger. You can add an email subscription form to your sidebar or layout directly within the Layout section of your Google dashboard. 

Should you like more control of how your email updates appear, simply log into Feedburner and tweak the settings. 

P.S. You don't need to have a Blogger site to use Feedburner! So long as your blog has an RSS or XML feed, you can use Feedburner (which is 100% FREE!) to provide email updates from your blog.

Buying a domain

Up until this point, everything I've mentioned that I use for my blog is provided for free. Purchasing the domain name (and renewing each year) is the only cost I need to pay to maintain my book blog.

I purchase my domains from GoDaddy, though this is from habit rather than simplicity. If you plan to start (and keep) a Blogger site, I would strongly suggest you purchase your domain name through Google Domains as it makes set-up (and email forwarding, which I'll explain further down) much easier. Wherever you choose to purchase your domain from, be sure you will have access to the DNS settings and - preferably - that it provides email forwarding (or better still, free domain-based email). 

At the time of writing this post, GoDaddy are offering new dot.com (and other domain extension) registrations for just 99p the first year!

Since I've owned the domain, AllMyPrettyBooks.com for several years, I pay the yearly renewal fee. When I receive the renewal reminder, I check for GoDaddy voucher codes to reduce the yearly cost (which is usually around £10 or less). If you are purchasing a domain for the first time, you may well find the cost of your chosen domain name is even less than this for the first year: a promotional hook which is likely to lead on to your continued custom. 

Google Domains have a fixed yearly fee, which depends on your preferred domain extension. Check here to see how much your preferred domain may cost


To learn how to connect your domain to a Blogger blog, you'll need to follow the instructions on this page in Blogger Help

Unfortunately, the instructions are a little confusing at first glance, so allow me to clarify:

  • If you want to purchase a domain through Google, perform the actions in Step 1, followed by "Connect to your Google Domain from Blogger" in Step 2.
  • If you have purchased a domain elsewhere, ignore Step 1 completely, then perform the actions under "Connect to your non-Google domain from Blogger" in Step 2. This will require adding two distinct CNAMEs to the DNS records in the settings/dashboard of your domain provider.
Once you've set up your custom domain with Blogger, all links to the old *.blogspot.com posts and pages will automatically redirect to your updated domain name. 

Free forwarding, to create domain-based email 

I've been able to set up my domain-based email address, amanda@allmyprettybooks.com, using Gmail and email forwarding. This means that I don't have to pay any additional fees for a professional-looking email address.

To do this, you will need a Gmail account and access to your domain's DNS settings. Also, as mentioned earlier, your domain provider needs to offer free email forwarding. A quick search tells me that most domain providers offer this, though may not publicise it well or make the settings difficult to locate. After all, they earn more by encouraging us to sign up for their own email services...

The tutorial I used to set up email forwarding with GoDaddy was written by Sean Newman Maoni for Medium. It is comprehensive and very easy to follow., so I won't reproduce the steps here.

The only snag I encountered was when testing seemed to fail - this was because I was sending emails from within the same Gmail dashboard, and my emails were being automatically archived. Be sure to test by asking a friend to send an email to your newly set up address instead!

If you're using Google domains, the process is even easier! A comprehensive tutorial can be found on this Google Help page.

To summarise...

This is how I set up All My Pretty Books:

  • I use Blogger for free, unlimited hosting.
  • A free non-standard theme ensures my site works well and looks professional.
  • Free file hosting means I can provide downloads when needed.
  • Visitors can sign up for free email updates, courtesy of Feedburner.
  • I purchased a custom domain so readers can easily find my website.
  • Using this domain and Gmail, I set up my custom email address.
All of this costs only around £10 a year, and may be much cheaper still if you are registering your domain for the first time!

I realise that my methods may not suit everyone. To set things up so cheaply requires a fair bit of work and some technical knowledge. Though I do hope it may prove useful for those looking to set up their book blog for the first time, or perhaps who are looking for a cost-effective way to upgrade an existing book blog site.

Please feel free to leave your comments, or any questions you may have below, and be sure to subscribe for email updates for future articles and news about the books I read!

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