Monday, September 4, 2017

Dunstan

Dunstan, Conn Iggulden

Having loved Conn Iggulden’s Wars of the Roses books and with his other series already on my ‘must read’ list, I was pleased to spot this new offering Dunstan. Charting Dunstan’s life in 10thC England, you follow his progression from Benedictine monk apprentice, to abbott of Glastonbury, to archbishop as well as instigator of the building of Canterbury cathedral. Along the way, his fortunes rise and fall with the English kings of the age; and his life span covers seven of them, from Æthelstan to Ethelred over a period of 80 years.
“Of all the estates of man in the world, the best is the born the fine, shrieking son of a king. I have seen mighty lords fall to their knees at the sight of a babe, all for a crown pained on its crib… If you can’t be born a king, be made a king, though that has thorns. When violent men secure your crown, they keep a knife at your throat ever after. Last, and not the least of these, is this: if you can’t be born a king, or made a king, you might still anoint one… I chose the Church.”
I really appreciate Iggulden’s writing. Even this though this was a period of history completely foreign to me, he’s very skilled at making it readable and accessible. He creates characters with real depth. I wasn’t sure at any point that I actually liked Dunstan, but I loved the first-person portrayal of him. He was arrogant, convinced of his own rightness, yet at times he did question his motives and some of the choices he made. You can hear the writer’s interpretation of the man coming through, and that’s a skill to do well. It’s a book that requires a bit more concentration, but it was worth it.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Dead Letters

Dead Letters, Caite Dolan-Leach

This intriguing mystery had me hooked quite early on and kept me wondering the whole way through.  Identical twin Ava gets a garbled message from her alcoholic, demented mother that her sister Zelda has died in a mysterious fire. But Ava refuses to believe it, for it’s much more likely Zelda is playing a game again, keeping her guessing as to what really occurred.

And that seems to be the case, as emails from Zelda start to appear. It seems that Zelda is leading Ava through the alphabet with clues for each letter explaining what has happened over the two years of their estrangement.

As such, their messy past is revealed. A dysfunctional, split family with financial problems. Two sisters entwined in every aspect of their lives, able to love and care completely, yet also hurt and betray absolutely. For those that prefer a warning - there is a fair amount of swearing, and a lot of references to alcohol and drug abuse.

It was a well-crafted mystery with a creative way to tell a story.  It’s an impressive first novel from Dolan-Leach, hopefully she will go on to write more.


Friday, August 25, 2017

Spiderman: Homecoming

For the first time ever, we were beaten by Mr 14 to the movies for this one. His youth group of Yr 9 boys went and bonded over superheroes and teen angst (as well as junk food and video games). Having worked his way through all the Marvel Avenger movies with Husband over the last year, he was very excited by this new release and the chance to see it on the big screen.

A few weeks later, we managed to get to the movies ourselves and had a very enjoyable time in the latest Marvel movie event. Spiderman made his debut in Captain America: Civil War, a plot line I hinted at in that review. It’s about a year later and Peter Parker is 15, a sophomore with a crush on senior Liz and regularly bullied by the cool kids along with his friend Ned. Little do they know that every afternoon Peter dons his red suit and helps out with local crime fighting, all the while waiting for Tony Stark (Iron Man) to call and invite him to rejoin the Avengers.

The Avenger movies are all good entertainment for those who like their superhero fix, yet they really did need to come up with something new, especially as the production company is now turning out 2-3 of these movies a year. Having Spiderman as a teenager adds a whole new dimension, making it a coming of age superhero movie. He can outrun baddies with ease. He’s a powerful fighter, and works to protect others; but has no idea how to interrogate someone, to talk to girls, or to stand up to the school bully when not suited up. It was a clever mix of Superhero power in a doubtful and uncertain teen body. A good movie for teens and their parents alike!

Monday, August 21, 2017

Liz Kessler Books

This review was written by Miss 12. 

I have recently discovered a great author, Liz Kessler. She’s written two series, Emily Windsnap and Philippa Fisher, as well as stand-alone books: Has anyone seen Jessica Jenkins?, A year without Autumn and North of Nowhere.

For as long as she can she can remember, twelve-year-old Emily Windsnap has lived on a boat in the harbour. Oddly enough, for just as long, her mother has kept her away from the water. When her mother allows her to have school swimming lessons, she’s thrilled, but as soon as she’s in the water, she discovers something amazing - her legs can turn in a mermaid’s tail! Find out how Emily becomes best friends with a mermaid, and the fun and danger they get into together! I enjoyed this book thoroughly, and the books 2-6 cover different adventures and new people that they meet. Emily has an exceptionally strong relationship with the mermaid, they both care for each other - and think each other is the best person (or mermaid) in the world! I enjoyed this series as it’s about friendship and magic, adventure and some interesting concepts.

Philippa Fisher is a girl around the same age, with crazy, wacky parents who embarrass her so much. What with the going-away of her best friend, she becomes lonely and depressed. That is, until a magical fairy named Daisy comes and grants her three wishes. At first, Philippa and Daisy don’t get along, but when something goes wrong, they must work together to solve a problem caused by Philippa’s wishes. In the second and third books, Philippa must rescue Daisy from a captor and travel into time itself. They both risk their lives for each other, and their relationship leads to a problem only they can solve; because of the exceptionally strong friendship between a human and a fairy. This series (especially book 3) involved a lot of thinking to understand, but overall, I loved these books. They’re all about differences and how to overcome them, and powerful friendships between a girl and a mythical being.

Has anyone seen Jessica Jenkins? is about having super-powers, being able to turn invisible, stop time, fly, read minds and more, all because of Jessica’s mum’s midwife! This book has some tricky scientific words, and some strange concepts, but it was a great read. I very much enjoyed it and I wish there was a sequel.

A year without Autumn is about a girl called Jenni, who finds that she’s lost a year of her life and doesn’t know how it happened. Jenni and Autumn were the closest of friends, before time tore them apart. It was a bit scary at times, but overall I really liked this book.

North of Nowhere is about time travel and a teenager called Mia. It’s about travelling back in time 50 years without realising and facing the consequences, and the bizarre things that happen. What would happen if your grandmother travelled forward in time 50 years? I liked this book, and it also was about a friendship that didn’t start well, but ended up strong (even though the two girls never meet!). I’d recommend this book to girls and boys around the same age as Mia, from 11 to about 14/15, as it involves interesting adventure and the scary thought of a family member leaving you.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Hidden Figures

We had a very enjoyable family movie night watching this offering. Chronicling the years of NASA’s attempts to get man into space, and the exceptional maths required to be computed by hand, it also charts the issues of race relations at the time. Three remarkable African-American women’s lives are included:

  • Katherine Johnson who calculated the flight and landing trajectories for various missions,
  • Dorothy Vaughan, trying to be recognised as the supervisor she already is and to be paid for it, and
  • Mary Jackson, fighting to be allowed to train as an engineer.

There are strong overtones of the tensions of being African-American at the time, and the challenges for women in the workforce. The story is uplifting as you watch each woman challenge societal norms and use their exceptional intelligence in the service of their country. The people who did the math were called computers, and you also see the beginnings of the takeover of technology as the first IBM is slowly built at NASA. Some of the women trained themselves to program the computer, and ensured their job security for longer. For anyone who likes technology, maths and space, this will really interest as well as open up discussion about how quickly things have changed.

As we watched Apollo 13 last year, everyone already had some understanding of the space element. All of us really enjoyed it, and it opened the kids’ eyes (age 10-14) a little more to some of the challenges and issues of the sixties.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Tawny Man

The Tawny Man, Robin Hobb

I devoured this third trilogy of Robin Hobb’s. Back to the world of the Bingtown and the Six Duchies, the timing is about 15 years after the end of the Farseer Trilogy. Fitz has been living the life of a hermit, with his wolf companion Nighteyes. A few friends know of his survival, but most have assumed him dead many years previously. His heroic acts of self-sacrifice have never been openly acknowledged by the Farseer Realm, but Queen Kettricken, Chade and the Fool know the truth of what Fitz once did. Slowly Fitz (who goes by the name of Tom Badgerlock) is drawn back into court life, under the guise of being servant to Lord Golden (the Fool’s alter ego). Because I grew to love these characters in the first series, I enjoyed seeing what happened to them all. 

Verity and Kettricken’s son, Prince Dutiful is coming into manhood and there are those who would both threaten him and use him for their own political gain. The main story revolves around the Fool and Fitz, and the depth of their friendship is fully tested. 

There is one moment when a key character is revealed to be something different than what you thought, linking them to The Liveship Traders. I never saw it coming and sat in disbelief for some time, realising, that now I will have to re-read them all sometime to reanalyse it now with the new information. So, definitely a series I will end up reading more than once!

You really need to read these books in order to get the full benefit of these types of revelations, and there are allusions to the second series in both the first and the third, even though at a surface level they don’t appear to be related. 

Next on to the fourth series The Rain Wild Traders – with four books not three!  I’m hoping all the books will merge together even more.  Hobb is fast becoming my favourite author, on a par with Diana Gabaldon, though with a very different style.


Monday, August 7, 2017

The Inheritance Cycle

This review was written by Mr 14 (with some edits by me!)

The Inheritance Cycle, Christopher Paolini

I wonder what you would find on your regular morning walk. I suspect you probably wouldn’t be carrying the bow that Eragon is holding. Nor would you be likely to have a quiver of razor-sharp arrows slung over your shoulder. I really don’t think that you would find a dragon’s egg, just lying in your path. And I especially don’t think mysterious men would start appearing around your town of Carvahall co-incidentally at the same time that you’d found that egg…

Meet Eragon. A small, wiry boy living with a father and brother (and now a dragon). A 15 year-old boy required to provide food for his family, because there is just no-one else to do it. A 15 year-old boy who has to look after a dragon, because there is just no-one else to do it. The Dragon Riders are dead. There is no hope for anyone, because the tyrant Galbatorix has conquered them all, with his army of Urgals. Now all the hope of the land of Alagaesia rests on the shoulders of Eragon, the dwarves, and the elves (who no-one has seen for a millennia). Eragon must learn to control and use his powers before Galbatorix takes them from him.

Some of my favourite parts are the friendships shown between Eragon and his friends, as they bond in remarkable ways. I also liked it because it shows how much Eragon changes when he was required to, needing be stronger, faster, and smarter than he ever had before.

I didn’t really like the elves’ idealism and how they do whatever they want regardless of consequence or morals. I also didn’t like how the dwarves worship stone as their god.

I really enjoyed this series, I couldn’t put any of them down throughout the four weeks it took me to read them! Made up of four (quite large) books, each one details a different part of Eragon’s journey throughout Alagesia. The books are written in the third person, and do have a difficult and extensive vocabulary. I would recommend these book for boys and girls interested in fantasy/action/thriller books that are 12 or above. Competent readers may also enjoy them from age 10, although they may not pick up on all the sub-plots. I rate the series 4.5 out of 5 stars.


Books are titled: Eragon, Eldest, Brisingr, and Inheritance.  You can read a sample chapter here.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Born to Run

Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen

Considering the fan base in this house, it was pretty certain we were going to read this autobiography of Bruce Springsteen’s.

Born to Run chronicles the 65+ years of Springsteen’s life to date, starting with his rather odd childhood in Freehold, New Jersey. Born as many were in that neighbourhood, to a mix of Irish and Italian blood and seeped in Catholicism; he had a completely overprotective and controlling grandmother, a mother who had to give way, and a complicated relationship with his mentally unwell, alcohol laden and distant father. It was a working class life, with real poverty and grind, yet joy and happiness at times as well.

Inspired by Elvis and the Beatles; he wanted to play guitar and be in a band from very early on.
“…we’d been born at exactly the right moment. We were teenagers in the sixties, when rock and radio had their golden age, when the best pop music was also the most popular, when a new language was being formed and spoken to young people all across the world, when it remained an alien dialect to most parents, when it defined a community of souls wrapped in the ecstasy and confusions of their time but connected in a blood brotherhoods by the disciples; voice of their local deejay” (p429)
By his mid-teens he was doing exactly that. Self-taught, unable to read music, but persistent in learning, practicing and copying, he would play for hours and hours to perfect a song. A succession of band groups followed, with him ending up lead singer.
“I was twenty-three and I was making a living playing music! Friends, there’s a reason they don’t call it “working”, it’s called PLAYING … It’s a life-giving, joyful, sweat-drenched, muscle-aching, voice-blowing, mind-clearing, exhausting, soul-invigorating, cathartic pleasure and privilege every night” (p186)
He charts the formation of various bands and their members, including the definitive E Street Band. Numerous songs are explained along the way including the classics Born to Run, Born in the USA and the Ghost of Tom Joad. I would often go back and listen to the songs again to hear what he was explaining. Sadly for me (!), there’s no explanation of who Wendy is in Born to Run, but what was interesting was how both that song and Born in the USA were defining songs of his career and led to super-stardom:
“Onstage, this music swept over my audience with joyful abandon. We had hit after hit and in 1985, along with Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson and the stars of disco, I was a bona fide mainstream radio “superstar”… Born in the USA changed my life, gave me my largest audience, forced me to think harder about the way I presented my music, and set me briefly at the centre of the pop world.” (p317)
Each album is chronicled and enabled me to appreciate the overarching theme developed for each. I came late to the fan club, not until The Rising album, released after September 11, and I enjoyed reading the story behind that and the later albums. Telling the story of people’s lives was often the impetus for songs, and many reflect on working class realities, the American way of life, struggles for war veterans and race inequality.

He is honest about his relationship with band members and management, including his missteps and idiosyncrasies. He honestly chronicles his first brief marriage and his failings in it. After this it becomes patently clear that his wife Patti is his true partner, confidante and love:
“We could fight, surprise, disappoint, raise up, bring down, withhold, surrender, hurt, heal, fight again, love, refit, then go at it one more time. We were both broken in a lot of ways but we hoped, with work, our broken pieces might fit together in a way that would create something workable, wonderful. They did.” (p372)
He speaks with love and affection for each of his three children and the way they have made their way in the world, creating names for themselves in their own area (his daughter is a champion show jumper).
“Making life fills you with humility, balls, arrogance, a mighty manliness, confidence, terror, joy, dread, love, and sense of calm and reckless adventure. Isn’t anything possible now? … The endorphin high of birth will fade, but its trace remains with you forever, its fingerprints indelible proof of love’s presence and daily grandeur… Whatever the morrow brings, these things, these people, will be with you always” (p368-9)
In the final chapters, he grieves the loss of band members, including saxophonist Clarence Clemons. He opens up about episodes of depression, both in his thirties and, more debilitating, in his sixties. He attributes years of speaking to his doctor as the heart of the book.

Too often, autobiographies are written too early (eg most political and showbusiness tomes). Here, you are glad he has waited to this age (67) to write the book, and took seven years doing so. His writing is poetic and lyrical at times, which shouldn’t be surprising considering the number of great lyrics he’s written over the years. Even so, it was more descriptive, overflowing with emotion, and had more insight and self-analysis than I was expecting. The most poignant and returned-to theme throughout is his relationship with his father, it overrides the book, his music and clearly his life:
“We honour our parents by not accepting as the final equation the most troubling characteristics of our relationship. I decided between my father and me that the sum of our troubles would not be the summation of our lives together. In analysis you work to turn the ghosts that haunt you into ancestors who accompany you. That takes hard work and a lot of love, but it’s the way we lessen the burdens our children have to carry.” (p503)
This is not just the story of a rock and roll life, although as that it’s a good read. But it’s much more – the analysis of a life through the lens of the people that raise us, the opportunities that we are both given and that we take, and the chance we have to write a new script for ourselves and those who come after us. A very enjoyable and informative read.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Liveship Traders

The Liveship Traders, Robin Hobb

This second trilogy by Robin Hobb was very different to the Farseer Trilogy, for while set in the same world, it’s located in completely different lands. There's no overlap with the Farseer Trilogy, except for hints that this takes place after those events. To me it felt more like what I expect classical ‘fantasy’ to be, a much more different world with less links to our own. Based around the community of traders at Bingtown, we learn that a Liveship is quickened (essentially comes to life), when the 3rd generation of its owners has died. The ownership of a Liveship is a remarkable privilege, bringing the opportunity of great wealth to a family, but also comes at great cost with debt owed to its makers upriver (the Wild River folk) until that is realised.

Althea Vestrit’s family awaits the quickening of their ship Vivacia. Althea has grown up on her father’s ship and assumes Vivacia will one day be hers. Her family is making other plans, with the brother in law due to inherit. At the same time, pirate Kennit desires to be king of the pirate isles, controlling the trade and slave ships in the region, and what better way to do it than by acquiring his own liveship?

This series grew on me. I struggled with the first half of the first book and then I got drawn in. There's  an extensive list of characters, who early on seem unconnected but of course, you come to see how they all intertwine. You start to see the threads of plots as Hobb weaves them together and how they come to overlap. Hints along the way suggest where things must be heading, but she gives away the story so carefully that you feel you are figuring out the links yourself, where in fact, it’s just when she has clearly planned to reveal them.

While I was very happy to recommend the Farseer Trilogy to Mr 14 and did indeed get one of his friends hooked on it, this one I pause to recommend to the same age. There is more swearing and romance as well as general and some sexual violence.  But those are my hesitations, others may not have them.

I have now moved on again to the third trilogy – The Tawny Man, which picks up about a decade after The Farseer Trilogy ends, again with Fitz – yeah!