Sunday, November 02, 2008

The Rose of Sebastopol by Katherine McMahon

It’s 1854 and British troops are fighting hard in the Crimea. Mariella sits in London, sewing for the war effort and making scrapbooks whilst her cousin Rosa and fiancĂ© Henry go to Russia to help the wounded. When Henry falls ill and they loose contact with Rosa, Mariella finds herself drawn to the Crimea to find some answers. Whilst on this adventure she is forced to reflect on her relationships with Rosa, Henry and the rest of her family and realise she has been blind to the truth.

The Rose of Sebastopol is an interesting study into the relationships between Mariella and those around her. Mariella’s character is reserved, introverted and she has set herself specific boundaries. Rosa’s character is the complete reverse of this, she is outgoing and feisty. Whilst Mariella has a tendancy to start a project and see it through, Rosa, for the most part, appears to move from project to project without necessarily finishing any of them. The only two constants in Rosa’s life appear to be her desire to nurse and her love for Mariella. This character study can serve as a warning to the reader to not allow themselves to limit their lives like Mariella, but also to adopt some common sense unlike Rosa.

The book serves to show the misery of the Crimean War. Troops were under prepared, poorly equipped and were fighting a war that to many was not justified. There was tremendous loss of life, both on the battlefield and in the hospitals where medical provision was exceedingly poor and hygiene dire. References as made to Florence Nightingale in the book, as Rosa wishes to emulate her, and for those with an interest in Nightingale and nursing in the Crimea this is a book well worth reading.

The author’s use of flashbacks in the book, whilst trying to flesh out the characters and their history, does prove at times to be confusing. Readers should take great care to note the date and place at the top of each chapter (if they are noted) in order to keep track of the storyline.

The book is engaging and thought provoking, well written and well researched. However the book is not suitable for those looking for a light hearted and uplifting read. Those who want a more challenging book, a book that draws on this specific period of history and who have an interest in human nature in respect to love and faithfulness, this is the book for you.

*3 stars*

I have tried to write this review using the suggestion made by Amber in the comments to Michael Scott’s ‘The Alchemyst’ (click here to read those comments). It is not my usual style but I hope that readers find this new style of more use. I would very much welcome comment on this so please click on the post a comment button below and add them. Remember you don’t have to be a member of Blogger to do so! Alternatively you can send me an e-mail (see my profile for more details).

The reason I have only given this book 3 stars is that whilst is it well written and a good book, it wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. Although I have tried to be objective with my review I felt I had to be honest about how I rated it.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Alchemyst by Michael Scott

Twins Sophie and Josh Newman have managed to get summer jobs in San Francisco just across the road from each other. Sophie is working at a coffee shop and Josh is working in a bookshop owned by Nick and Perry Flemming. Then one afternoon a mysterious group appears at the bookshop and turns John and Sophie's worlds upside down. Nick and Perry are no ordinary people. Nick is none other than the famous 14th century alchemist Nicholas Flamel who is reputed to have discovered the secret of eternal life. Perry is his wife Perenelle, a gifted 14th century sorceress. The mysterious group is determined to wrest the secrets of eternal life from the pair and help the dangerous Dark Elders re-take the world and destroy humankind. When the twins interfere in their plans they are forced to join Nicholas on the run and it soon becomes clear that perhaps their intervention was no accident. Perhaps they are the ones spoken of in prophecy who will save humankind. Find out in this first installment of the 'Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel' series.

Its been some time since I've read a good children's fantasy book that draws on so much history, myth and legend. It is a real treat as I have always loved reading myths and legends and Scott has managed to interweave them into this story so beautifully. There are Greek/Roman gods, Egyptian Gods, Celtic gods, Norse gods, references to Arthurian legend, the Great Fire of London, a famous Elizabethan astrologer and much more besides. It really is a good book if you want to introduce children to a whole host of trivia and expand their knowledge whilst at the same time reading an enjoyable book. It would hopefully lead to them reading greek myths and Arthurian legends :)

The book has a good mix of fantasy, reality (although I do question 15 year olds knowing how to drive and not being stopped by the police....) and adventure. It is very readable and has very good pace. I found it very enjoyable and couldn't put it down.

I would definitely recommend people who like children's fantasy books (like Inkheart or Eragon or Artemis Fowl) to give this a try and I would definitely recommend adults encouraging their kids to read it.

*4 stars*

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Back after a break

Hi everyone

Well I'm back to reading after a break over the summer holidays. I don't know why it happens but I sometimes go through periods where I just don't feel like reading. The up side to this is that when I come back to reading I enjoy it so much that I think that by taking a break it increases my enjoyment.

I've posted the first of two reviews I want to do based on some of the books I've read over the last couple of weeks. Both are fantasy books. Brisingr is the third in the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini. The Hickory Staff is the first of a series of books by Robert Scott and Jay Gordon called the Eldarn Sequence. This is a similar type of fantasy to Charles Stross' Merchant Princes series, the our world and a fantasy world cross over.

I am going to try and read books other than my staple diet of historical crime fiction and fantasy over the coming months. One of the fans of this blog (you know who you are my friend) has suggested I should try to read some Asian books. Now I don't know if I'll be able to manage this but I have two books I'm intending to try (copies in local library permitting). They are A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth and The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. Whether this fulfils the request, I don't know but I feel its worth trying new things.

So there you go, all suggestions are welcome and very much appreciated! So feel free to drop me an e-mail or leave a message on this blog :)

I look forward to another good season of reading.

The Hickory Staff: Eldarn Sequence Book 1 by Robert Scott and Jay Gordon

In a sleepy town in Colorado Steven Taylor, assistant bank manager, has been given the thankless task of going through the safety deposit box lists and working out which are live and which have not been touched for years. What he doesn't expect to find is a box that has been left untouched for 135 years, used only once. When Steven's curiosity gets the better of him he finds a way to break into the box, landing him and his house mate Mark into a whole heap of trouble.

Meanwhile, in a land far far away, the royal families across the land of Eldarn are quickly being destroyed by disease, treachery, lunacy and grief. Only one survives and begins a reign of terror across the whole continent that will last centuries. It is the portal to this terrifying dictatorship that Steven manages to find and accidentally falls through along with Mark. Here they meet the local resistance and find themselves caught up in a plot to free all of Eldarn. Can they survive, rescue Eldarn and manage to find a way home? You'll have to read it to find out :)

I do like a good fantasty book. I thought Wizard's First Rule by Terry Goodkind was fantastic but after reading the first 6/7 books in the series got a bit bored with the recycled storyline (boy meets girl, something separates them and they spend the rest of the book trying to be with one another again). I also love kids fantasy like Harry Potter and Eragon. So when I saw this book in the Sci-fi and Fantasy section of Waterstones last year I made a mental note to borrow it from the library sometime and give it a try.

When I first started reading it, I won't lie, I found it hard going. The story kept jumping to different scenes in different places at different times. The story seems to lack any cohesion until you get to about 70 to 100 pages in. Then the story really gets going and the first bit of the book gradually starts making sense. So whatever you do, when you try this story, get 150 pages in at least before deciding whether or not to give up.

I like this book, it's a good honest bit of fantasy with all the things you want, strange new worlds, magic, an adventure, good vs evil and a little bit of romance thrown in for good measure. Characters have flaws (such as Steven's obsession with maths puzzles :) ) and not everyone has a happy ending. It is the first book in a trilogy but its good enough to have me wanting to read more, particularly as it ends on a tremendous cliff hanger and given the rest of the book you really don't know what will happen.

There are some irritating aspects to the book. The periodic references to Mark being black and the racism he does or does not encounter don't seem to make much sense. They come across as the authors having a periodic dig about racist attitudes and a need to remind the reader of Mark's origins. I can't rule out that further along in the series this will all make sense but it still comes across a little irritating at times. What relevance does it have that the character is black? Should they be singled out for that?

As well as Mark being singled out, one of the characters in this book can unexpectedly do magic. Whilst there are some clues being laid in the second book as to why this is, you do feel its a bit too much to believe and too much of a coincidence in this first book. You got along with it because you have to, but in some ways it feels as if its taken for granted. There's very little working out why or learning how to use it or anything like that. It just feels a little odd!

For fantasy fans out there who have read things like Terry Goodkind and Charles Stross' Merchant Princes saga I would definitely recommend giving this one a try.

*4 stars*

Brisingr by Christopher Paolini

*Warning: This review may contain spoilers for those who have not read Eragon or Eldest, the first two books of this series*

Brisingr directly follows on from where Eldest left off. Eragon, now half elf and half human, has to come to terms with the betrayal of Murtagh and the revelations about his parentage. Whilst struggling with this he must also assist his cousin Roran in saving his beloved Katrina, avenge his uncle, fight for the Varden, remove the curse he unwittingly bestowed on a young girl, fulfil his obligations to the dwarves and continue his training. As if that wasn't enough he needs to find a way to defeat Murtagh, Thorn and eventually Galbatorix. Having barely escaped with his life after his last encounter with Murtagh the odds are overwhelming against Eragon. With so many pledges and tasks it seems as though Eragon will have his work cut out for him, especially when his pledges conflict with one another. Follow Eragon as he continues to work his way to his ultimate task, with enough twists and turns to keep you on your toes til the final page.

I couldn't wait to pick up the next book in the Inheritance series and I was not disappointed. Paolini has once again brought Alagaesia to life with its multitude of races and varying topography. It was a delight to re-enter this world and pick up where we had left off, straight after the battle where Murtagh and Thorn defeat Eragon and Saphira.

As you can tell I thoroughly enjoyed this book, but some may find this latest installment not what they expected. It is a little slower than previous books, with somewhat less action. However the book does deepen our knowledge of the characters and provides us with some interesting insights. Paolini explores the themes of power, obedience, justice and family in this book. There are several points at which characters are forced to make decisions that affect our notions of these ideas. For example one character is forced to have another punished for disobeying orders, despite the fact that by doing so the character saved lives and made the mission a success. Paolini is forcing us and the characters to see the wider picture. There is definitely a sense of 'every action has a consequence' and some of the actions from previous books, like the blessing of Elva and his promise to undo the curse. There is a feeling of wrapping up loose ends as Eragon begins to fulfil some of his promises which I think is a great thing and leaves the way open for the final book to concentrate on his quest to defeat Galbatorix.

For those who were hoping to find out what would happen in the end, obviously this book does not give the answer. In some ways it can be seen as a bit of a filler to stave off the main event, but I didn't feel it was any less enjoyable for this. I still couldn't put the book down and had at least two nights when I looked at the clock, swore and raced off to bed :)

For people looking for something original and new, perhaps this isn't the series for you. What I love about this series is that it combines some standard fantasy ideas like dragons and elves and quests and battles, in a comfortable and engaging way. It takes me back to the sort of books I read as a child and the films I grew to love. They are exactly the sort of books I would curl up on the sofa with when I'm feeling down and just escape to.

So if you want fantasy that is light, enjoyable and interesting, I would definitely recommend the Inheritance cyle.

*4 stars*

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Butcher of Smithfield by Susanna Gregory

Chaloner has finally returned to London after a dangerous mission in Spain and Portugal. Yet in only a few months there have been many changes. In particular the editor of the official printed newsletter has been replaced and a tax has been placed on all printed material. The ousted editor has set up a rival in the form of handwritten newsletters, which are exempt from this new tax. The coffee houses are buzzing with the feud and accusations of espionage and theft abound. If that wasn't enough his dear friend Maylord has died of eating green cucumbers.
Yet Chaloner has no time to grieve as the Lord Chancellor is keen for him to uncover the truth behind the death of a solicitor named Newburne. With ties to the crime lord of Smithfield, known as the Butcher, and a man who made no friends in any quarter Chaloner has more suspects than clues. What's more, Newburne also seems to have conveniently died of eating green cucumbers....
With at least two suspicious deaths, apparently unlinked, a wardrobe full of moths, no pay and a lucky hat, Chaloner sets off to solve his friend's death, the death of Newburne and hopefully get paid.

This is the third book of the Chaloner series set in Restoration London following the fortunes of an ex-Cromwellian spy under the new Royalist regime. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and really felt as if I was wandering the late 17th century streets of London. As always Gregory has done her research, the plot involving the cucumbers was particularly clever. At the time green fruit and vegetables were treated with such mistrust that for someone to die having eaten green cucumbers would seem perfectly possible. Other good historically accurate touches include the fear of Catholics and those that supported the old Cromwellian government. People like this were felt to undermine the Church and King and the very fabric of daily life. On top of this the popularity of the coffee houses and censorship of the press are also extremely accurate.

The plot has plenty of twists and turns to keep you guessing how the whole picture fits together right till the end. Just when you think you know what's happening a new thread will interrupt and throw off your conclusions. I for one did not see the ending coming!

The problem that Gregory faces is that when we think of spies, we think of James Bond and all the gadgets he uses. Chaloner has no access to special equipment and apart from one special item he owns, he has to make to with whatever he has to hand and his wits. It means that so much more thought has to be put into the plot so that it can be exhilarating, fast-paced and sufficiently clever to give the reader a thrill when reading it. I for one feel that Gregory achieves this. Added to that her characters are not flat, two-dimensional creatures, but well rounded, flawed, normal human beings.

I would definitely recommend this book, and indeed the whole series thus far, to anyone who wants to try and spy story without flashy gadgets and incredible amounts of good fortune for the lead character. It is also highly recommended for anyone with a passion 17th century. If you like intrigue, politics and action, this book has it all.

*4 stars*

Other books by Susanna Gregory include:
*A Conspiracy of Violence: First book in the Thomas Chaloner series
*Blood on the Strand: Second book in the Thomas Chaloner series
*The Westminster Poisoner: Fourth book in the Thomas Chaloner series

The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams

Ginny is upstairs, watching out the window for the return of her sister Vivi. It has been years since Vivi has come home, and now that their parents are dead and they are both in the autumns of their lives Vivi has decided to come home. As Ginny waits she remembers their childhood, the highs, the lows and the moths. Ginny like so many of her forefathers is a lepidopterist, whilst Vivi has never been interested. Once Vivi arrives, Ginny finds her whole world turned upside down and in the space of one weekend a myraid of dark family secrets unravels into a dramatic climax.

For anyone who has read the The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox I thoroughly recommend that you read this. Although in some ways a similar theme, this is far more accessible yet with more twists and turns. It is beautifully written and Poppy Adams has a superb knack of lulling you into a false sense of security and leading you up the garden path before finally revealing all. I am surprised this is her first book but I will definitely be looking out for her next one.

This is definitely a meaty book exploring the relationships of parent and child and siblings in an era when you didn't talk about private things. This creates many secrets and lies and you're never sure who knows what because no one is really talking to each other. As the book unfolds you begin to realise that things that you assume only one or two people knew, in fact was a secret shared by many. It also illustrates how secrets and lies will all unravel and that the consequences are not always anticipated.

I really don't want to spoil this book for potential readers so I won't go into the themes the book covers in more detail than this. Suffice to say, I wouldn't call it a light hearted read but at the same time it didn't feel constantly bleak (like Eastenders makes you feel if you watch a few episodes and realise that in fact most of the families are there to suffer because nothing goes right in the end for anyone). I found that how I imagined the family and how it worked constantly changed as more and more flashbacks occurred and as Ginny and Vivi interacted. The good news is the bits about the moths are not offputting for those of us with no interest in the subject. It adds another beautiful layer to this book that adds to the storyline rather than existing as a separate theme.

I would definitely recommend this book to others and especially to book groups as there are plenty of topics for discussion.

*5 stars*

If you enjoyed this why not try 'The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox' by Maggie O'Farrell?

Friday, May 09, 2008

What to read next

Hi everyone who reads this blog :)
I'm sending out a plea for help finding new books to read. I really really need new suggestions. So please, don't be shy and either add your suggestions to the bottom of this post (you don't have to be a member to post remember) or e-mail me at .
I'm finally going through a reading phase after finding it difficult to pick up a book for the last few months. Please help! What have you enjoyed reading lately and why???

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Soldier of Fortune by Edward Marston

Captain Daniel Rawson, spy, soldier, ladies man and the Duke of Marlborough's right hand man is in trouble. The son of a Somerset rebel, who fled to the Netherlands with his mother after killing a soldier, Daniel has returned to England as a member of the Dutch Army to serve in the Spanish Wars of Succession. However a recent mission has earned him an enemy who will stop at nothing to get his revenge. With both an assassin and an admirer chasing him across Europe's battlefields, can Daniel survive and save the girl?

Marston is easliy one of my favourite authors. I was very much looking forward to this book and in some ways it did not disapoint. Captain Rawson is an out and out hero, courageous, foolhardy, gallant, charming and intelligent. He is a skilled swordsman and linguist and has many other talents to his name. Marston has created a likeable character to whisk us through the trials and tribulationsof late 17th/early 18th century Europe. The only problem is that sometimes Rawson is too perfect, with only his confirmed batcherlorhood a possible negative to his character.

The battle scenes are well written and in some ways mercifully to the point for those who do not want to get too entrenched in the minute details. I often find this a problem with Simon Scarrow's Roman Army books for example. That is not to say that Marston skimps on these scenes but I didn't feel as if I was reading a detailed report of several battles with the occasional storyline between. It certainly makes the book far more accessible to the average reader.

As always, Marston has researched his period well and I found no glaring inaccuracies. It was particularly interesting to see that he included scenes from the Monmouth Rebellion and I look forward to this aspect of Rawsons history playing a part in future books. Its a good introduction to Daniel's character, particularly his notion of honour and family. For those with in-depth knowledge of this period the book may not be as accurate as you would hope for, but its not as bad as some I have read.

Despite all of this though, I did not enjoy the book fully. The storyline involving Abigail Piper, the young lady with an infatuation for our hero, I found tedious and irritating. It reads almost like some tame historical Mills and Boon with swooning, two dimensional women and a hero fighting for their honour. Although I like a good love story plot, what Marston provided is not what I am looking for. I was left feeling like Abigail needed a good slap and that Rawson is a confirmed batchelor who enjoys female attention. The whole plot seemed to be thrown in for good measure to try and fill a gap. Perhaps Marston should avoid this type of plot in future or work on his female characters.

Otherwise this was a good light hearted romp that shouldn't be taken seriously. Ideal as a holiday read.

*3 stars*

Saturday, March 01, 2008

An evening with Terry Pratchett

Recently I was lucky enough to acquire tickets to see Terry Pratchett talk at the Bath Literature Festival. With the tickets being reasonably priced and Bath a place I can get to fairly easily I felt it was a win win situation. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect but hoped, given the joy the Discworld novels have given me over the years, that it would be good. I was wrong.... it was absolutely fantastic!

This year Pratchett is celebrating two milestones, his 60th birthday and the 25th year of Discworld. As I turn 25 later this year it might explain why I have no recollection of a time before Discworld! With over 30 Discworld novels under his belt, not to mention all the extra books giving us further insight into the Discworld and the non-Discworld related books like Good Omens, one cannot fail to be impressed. Some of us can only dream of managing to write one novel, let alone turn out over 30.

There is a danger when you meet famous people who you feel positively about (whether you idolise or just admire them) that they will fail to meet up to your expectations. I recently got to see Tony Robinson for example and to be honest he kept himself to himself and wouldn't talk to anyone. With Terry I doubt this could ever be the case. He is down to earth, chatty, funny and perfectly open about his work and his life. He is a joy to listen to and the 75 minutes we got of him seemed to pass in the blink of an eye. He makes no bones of where he's come from and that now he has a pile of money. In some ways he models Sam Vime's rise on his own, citing how odd it was that his grandfather was a gardener and now he himself employs two! When asked how he deals with fans who feel they know him and have made a connection with him through his books he responded that he usually thanks them, and then asks them to buy him a drink! Fame hasn't turned him into an aloof diva.

Terry got into reading and writing at a young age and he talked fondly of his time working in the local library on Saturdays. They couldn't pay him but, as his motive was to acquire as many reader tickets as possible so that he could borrow as many books as possible, this didn't deter him. By the time he left the library he had acquired 156 reader tickets! He also talked fondly of the Penn Second Hand Bookshop, a second hand bookshop as it is supposed to be, that also fuelled his love for books. Perhaps paradoxically to us he owns a fairly small fiction collection and instead chooses to read a vast array of non-fiction books.

In fact one thing you quickly pick up on is just how frighteningly intelligent he is. He is mine of information and I for one would be incredibly happy to have him on my team at a pub quiz. His interests are many and varied and it would be impossible to get them all across. One of his interests though is ways in which people have died, particularly if they're gruesome. He talked about a young Victorian girl who died of arsenic poison she ingested from flakes from her new green shoes that she was wearing at a dance. The room wasn't ventilated so she managed to inhale them and spent the next two days dying. This was just one of many annecdotes he shared with us.

For those of you who can't wait for the next book (which is released in September in the UK and does seem to be called Nation after all), we were given a sneak preview of a couple of pages. Nation is all about the aftermath of a great tsunami and Pratchett has used his fascination with Krakatoa and everything he's learnt about the more recent Asian Tsunami to create this work. It revolves mainly around a boy, in a loin cloth, and a shipwrecked high class girl (presumably therefore not in a loin cloth). They are the only survivors of the tragedy. It is set in a Victorian type time according to Pratchett and I get the impression it is different again from other books he's written. He and brought with him a scene involving Captain Roberts and the wrecking of his ship on the island, which meant we got to hear Terry sing. I won't spoil it by giving any more detail than that, but it does sound as if the book is going to be good.

As many Pratchett fans know towards the end of last year Terry was diagnosed with a rare form of Alzheimer's. Unlike many who would seek to conceal their aliments he has chosen to be open and frank about his condition. As he said himself 'Should you apologise for being hit by a meterorite??'. He won't go down without a fight. Apparently the type of Alzheimer's he has means that he will remain himself until he dies but already he is having problems writing and typing but will move over to dictating his work if he has to. He apologised profusely for being unable to dedicate the books he was signing to people because of his condition. Although he can manage when the group is signficantly smaller, with several hundred people he finds it impossible to keep focussed. I for one felt no apology was necessary but was moved that he felt sorry about this. He is clearly a man who embraces his fans.

He's also no afraid to use his fame to support Alzheimer's charities and last night decided to auction the pages of the new book he'd brought with him, that he would sign and dedicate to the highest bidder. Amazingly the total got up to £475. Long may he continue to do things like this and highlight this dreadful disease.

After my evening listening to the great man I feel my recent review of Making Money may have been a little harsh. I very much want to re-read the book as I have a greater understanding of the man behind the books. In fact I feel I want to re-read all the Discworld books. I hope that Terry will be able to continue writing for many years and will to look forward to each new book he writes. If you ever get the chance to listen to him speak, grab it with both hands.

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Friday, February 08, 2008

Making Money by Terry Pratchett

Moist von Lipwig is bored...... very bored. He has turned around the Post Office to such an extent it can run without him and his girlfriend is off rescuing Golems. Even dabbling in his old thieving skills has not take the edge off his boredom. At the same time Lord Vetinari has a problem. He needs someone to run the Royal Mint, and the bank next door. Lipwig seems to be the very man for the job but as always, the path never runs smooth for the dashing conman. The Mint is running at a loss, the chief Cashier may be a vampire and there's a mad scientist in the basement. If that's not enough the Assassins Guild, the family of the previous chairman and an old business associate are out to kill him. Oh and he must find time to take the chairman for his daily walkies. Can the Discworld's most likeable conman turn things around or will he finally be on the end of a noose and a short sharp drop?

This is Pratchett's second adventure starring Moist von Lipwig and is the third in his series of books that seem to be based on inventions (the newspaper, the postage stamp and the bank note respectively). All in all this is the 31st Discworld novel. I have immensely enjoy Pratchett's take on the world and his humour and am a fan of his work. Unfortunately the downside to Pratchett's talent is my high expectations of his work, which this book failed to live up to.

Don't get me wrong, this is a perfectly readable book and has some absolutely superb moments (I don't think anyone will forget the scene involving Mr Fusspot and the secret room). Yet I found these moments were strung out by some pretty boring storylines and dialogue. I can remember after the first few chapters wondering when the story would get going as it seemed to take forever to set up the various parts of the plot. In some ways it was a little too much like 'Going Postal', in the sense that Lipwig has to invent a new concept to keep the institution afloat, previously the postage stamp and in this case the bank note. I felt there was a bit too much of Vetinari in the book which made appear less omnipotent and mysterious. Some of the plot points made my head hurt (I still don't understand quite how the golems were able to save Lipwig's bacon). There were glimmers of the Pratchett I know but sadly not enough for me.

It was the minor characters in the book that really made it for me like Topsy, Mr Fusspot, Gladys, the wizards and the guards. The minor characters are the staples of many a good Discworld novel. We know most of the minor characters through previous books and so Pratchett isn't required to build up their character through the book as we already know it. It is definitely one of the strengths of the series.

It hasn't put me off Discworld in the slightest and I look forward to the publication of his next book in later this year (codenamed ‘Nation’ I believe and out in the UK in September). I wouldn't recommend this to anyone who is trying Pratchett for the first time and would instead suggest Colour of Magic, Guards! Guards! or Soul Music. It is worth reading if you are a Discworld fan as there is a likelihood that some of the plot points will effect plots in his future Discworld novels. Readable but not a book I'd be bothered about reading again.

*3 stars*

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom

The Five People You Meet in Heaven – by Mitch Albom

Eddie's 83rd birthday began like most days, he went to work as usual. Alone with no family and no friends Eddie's whole life is Ruby Pier, as it has been since his youth. Yet a freak accident on one of the rides causes Eddie to risk his life trying to save a little girl. In his final moments he feels two small hands.

When Eddie awakes he finds Heaven is not the Garden of Eden as promised in the Bible. Instead he has to meet with five people who have helped shaped his life. Some he knows, some are strangers, but they all have wisdom to impart. As Eddie visits each of these people's chosen Heaven he slowly begins to understand his life on earth and how it ended.

Not everyone is comfortable with death and the thought of what comes after. I admit to being one of those people who seem to think about death and am interested in thoughts and cultural reactions to death. I remember writing a paper at university about death using both anthropological and archaeological examples of how people deal with death. I also remember my tutor commenting that the paper was so well researched and explored that they felt I had an unhealthy obsession with the topic! So for me, this book was right up my street.

There are so many different ideas about what happens after you die from those that believe there is no life after death, to various ideas about heaven and finally reincarnation. Life after death can be a really good topic for an author as the ideas they can explore are many and varied. Yet it can also be fraught with difficulties. It can be too easy to write a life after death story which doesn't challenge the read and is just a story that happens to be set in an afterlife rather than another country or on another planet. Sometimes authors can get too caught up in the philosophical and forget the storyline altogether. Albom is guilty of neither of these. The book is extremely readable, has a clear story but it manages to be thought provoking.

This is an excellent book to read if you have recently lost a loved one. It makes you realise that their life will have touched so many others, some of which you'll know about and others that you won't. It made me realise that everything has a purpose, and that even the tiniest actions have lasting effect. It also left me with the hope that no life is a wasted life and that even if you feel you don't understand your life and why things happen that it will all eventually become clear to you. It could be a wonderful source of discussion which might help you through your grief.

Albom doesn't push 'God' too much in the book, which as an atheist I was grateful for. Instead the story hangs on Eddie and the five people he meets and the reader is not required to embrace Christian ideology. Don't get me wrong, there are references made to God from time to time, but he is not a central character by any means.

There are many themes which Albom explores in this book other than life, death and fate. Family, war, work, prejudice, and love are all explored along with the concepts of punishment and redemption. As you reach the end of the book you, like Eddie, are beginning to understand why many of the aspects of his life ended up the way they did. You also find out whether or not Eddie managed to save the girl, a fact he needs to know if he is to gain ultimate peace.
This book is not meant as a light hearted holiday read and shouldn't be relegated to that pile of books. Instead you should make the time for it and be prepared to read something that will challenge you as much as it entertains you. It will certainly draw you in, I almost got off at the wrong stop when I was reading this because I was so engrossed! I would definitely recommend this to anyone who feels ready to explore the themes of this book.

*4 stars*

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Book Award & 7 things you didn't know

Thank you for your award Sarah!!! It's really nice to get one :)

I understand though as a recipient of this award I have to write seven weird and wonderful facts that people don't know about me. So... here goes!

1. I love almonds, and just about anything made of almonds. I have a particular weakness for almond croissants and marzipan. No idea why I'm so addicted but if I eat out and see a pudding containing almonds, that's the dessert sorted!!!! I even go for dishes with almonds in when I'm eating Indian food.

2. I occasionally do needlework. I come from a family who do an awful lot of crafts. There are a lot of quilter's in the family, and my Mum has over the years dabbled in everything from lace making to dying fabric. So its no surprise that despite every effort to avoid these things I do do some sort of craft work. I've even been known to do a bit of knitting on very very rare occasions. At the moment I'm working on a cushion cover and am about to pluck up the courage to work on a large piece of cross stitch of a Samurai warrior.

3. Also, despite claiming to be the artisticly deficient member of the family, I took A-Level photography

4. I love Italy. I fell in love with Rome the first time I visited and have been there four times in total. I've seen the ruins at Pomepii and Herculaneum, been to see the Oracle's caves at Cumae and the museums in Naples. A few years ago I was lucky enough to work on a survey project to the north of Rome near a place called Otricoli. Back in September I started Italian lessons for the first time (as I started visiting Italy back in 1997 it's been a long time coming!). Best thing about Italy is the ice-cream. The variety, the gorgeous tastes! You've never had real chocolate ice-cream until you've been over there and had real Italian chocolate ice-cream.

5. I'm a re-enactor. Last year I joined a well known British group and have been to a couple of events. What many people find amusing is what I've chosen to do re-enactment wise. I seem to manage to evoke a need to look after me in people (is it because I'm short, pale, delicate looking???). So the last place they expect me to be is working the cannons :) Yep, I help man the artillery and yes, we do use real black powder so the bangs are real! Don't worry we use grass rather than cannon balls.

6. I love playing Mah-jong. Not that game you play on the computer where you attempt to match tiles to remove them until there are none left. No, I mean the proper 4 player game. I learnt how to play when I was at university and sadly I've not been able to really play much since I graduated. I wasn't too bad, in fact sometimes people would complain I was too good when I was having a lucky streak! I've tried to play on Yahoo a few times but people come and go so much that you're lucky to be able to play a few hands before having to abandon the game due to lack of players. I'd love to have my own set and enough friends who wanted to play round here!

7. When I bother to sit down and think about it I have a rather diverse set of interests from reading and needlework to playing with cannons. However one hobby which people never peg me for is computer games. I don't have many but I love things like Sid Meier's Civilization and Caesar III. I hadn't played any for ages but my sister bought me Civilization IV for Christmas and before I went back to work in the New Year I lost one or two days completely just playing Civ IV :)

There you go seven things you probably didn't know about me (or want to know for that matter!!!).

Remember guys, keep reading :)

The Last Days of Newgate - by Andrew Pepper

London, 1829. Pyke is one of these dying breed. The Bow Street Runners are about to be replaced by the Metropolitan Police. In the dark, vice ridden alleys of the city Pyke attempts to bring villains to justice. Yet like many of the Runners, Pyke is also involved in criminal activities of his own. With the lines between right and wrong so blurred it's no wonder that Peel wants to see the Bow Street Runners disbanded. Yet is he above using criminal methods himself to see them thoroughly discredited? Pyke is drawn into a plot to remove the Bow Street Runners altogether, inflame tensions between Protestants and Catholics and bring the city to its knees. Can Pyke get to the bottom of this mystery? With every conceivable spanner thrown into the works, including being framed for murder, the pressure is on and Pyke must get to the truth before the Hangman puts the noose around his neck.

Pyke is definitely an anti-hero. Despite supposedly bringing law and order to the city he is not above thieving and swindling. Out to get what ever he can and always putting himself first. At the start of the book you see him being offered a private commission, something that would be considered completely and utterly corrupt in today's society. He is certainly not the first person you would expect to be so appalled by the gruesome murder towards the beginning of the book that he feels compelled to investigate it. Yet as the story unfolds we begin to realise that despite his many flaws there is a flicker of human decency and compassion. You find yourself wanting Pyke to succeed, despite hating what he gets up to.

This is a very dark book and not for the faint hearted. There's lots of murder, highway robbery, sex with prostitutes, the realities of Newgate Prison, fighting and filth. The very graphic murder of a young family in the first few chapters really is horrific and even Pyke, who has seen it all, is made ill by it. I don't think this book could ever be made into a tea time drama for the BBC! I have to say that I don't normally go in for books this dark, but I felt I needed to find out what on earth was going on!

I don't know if I want to read the next book though. I found Pyke's various relationships and his problems with women difficult to sympathise with. If I'm honest he's the sort of man I would hope never to fall in love with. His loveless relationship with Lizzie is heart breaking and you keep wishing he could just be honest with her and himself.

Pyke is a well constructed, complex character. No one is ever squeaky clean and you can forgive some of what Pyke gets up to because of his circumstances. He's a very real character, it's almost as if Andrew Pepper could be writing his biography.

Unfortunately I know very little about the pre-Victorian 19th century. I've come across the Bow Street Runners before in Deryn Lake's John Rawling's series set in the late 18th century. The author has pulled upon some well known historic facts such as the awful conditions of Newgate prison and the work of Elizabeth Fry. The introduction of the Metropolitan Police Force is also based on fact. The religious tensions are probably very accurate too, as even today there are still tensions between Catholics and Protestants in some parts of Ireland. I think it's harder for authors to get away without researching the period they set their historical fiction in nowadays so they are less likely to be inaccurate.
If you enjoy historical crime fiction it is definitely worth giving this book a try, particularly if you are wanting to expand your tastes. It is a dark book and there is a lot of trials and tribulations so its best avoided if you're looking for an easy, light hearted read. I still don't know quite how I feel about the book (which will be reflected in my rating), but I would still urge people to give it a go.

*3 stars*

Farewell Britannia - by Simon Young

It's 430 A.D. in Britain. The Romans have left twenty years previously and the barbarian raids are becoming more and more frequent. For the last surviving members of the Atrebates family preparations are under way for a funeral. At the funeral will be the parade of ancestors, carrying relics of the past. For one of the family members this gives them the idea to put all these people's stories on paper. From one ancestor's trip to Britain with Caesar's troops in 55 BC right up to the fate of the writer's own brother, over 400 years of Romano-British history is covered in this exciting and innovative book.

For anyone with an interest in Roman Britain or who wants an introduction to the topic this book is a definite must read. It is an ambitious project, trying to cover over 400 years of history through snap shots. Each chapter is dedicated to a different person or event. As if that wasn't enough at the end of every chapter is Young's explanation of the known facts behind that chapter. The real genius lies in the fact that the author manages to keep the book together by using the history of one family as the story. Towards the end of the book the links become more tenuous but they're still made to work. Without this the book would seem more like a collection of scenes from different films, put together because they're all Roman but nothing else links them and they don't make much sense out of the context of the whole film they're from.

I must admit I was drawn to this book because Roman Britain is one of my specialist areas (or at least I like to think so!). Despite that this book managed to bring alive several events of the period that I knew of. I loved the chapter set in AD 61 because it showed the revolt from a completely different angle than anything I've read before. The later chapters were also extremely interesting, although they may cause offence to some as they portray some over zealous Christian worshippers attacking pagans and pagan temples. We forget that this sort of thing would have happened, there's even archaeological evidence to back this up. It really is a fascinating book and well worth reading.

It's greatest strength can also be its one weakness. In some ways its a collection of short stories rather than a novel and this could put some people off. I would however say, give it a chance. I tend not to read collections of small stories but I am extremely glad I read this.

As to the historical accuracy of this book, it is very well researched by Simon Young and he is at pains to point out where he has sourced his information from. At the end of the book, arranged by chapter, is a bibliography so that you can do further readings on any of the topics that interest you. At times Young does use artistic licence but this is fiction, not non-fiction!

As mentioned above if you have an interest in the period this book is well worth reading. It is also worth trying if you want to read something a bit different or you can always dip into it if there's a particular chapter that catches your fancy (Caesar's invasion or Boudicca's revolt perhaps?).

*4 stars*

If you are interested in fictional accounts of Roman Britain why not try:
*Medicus and the Disappearing Dancing Girls by R.S. Downie
*A Roman Ransom by Rosemary Rowe
*The Horse Coin by David Wishart

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

An update

I think the first thing to say is a huge thank you to Sarah! I've
never won a web award of any sort so this is a real honour.
I realise I have to at some point post my crazy list of 7 facts
you didn't know about me and don't worry, I will! This is just
a quick post via e-mail to keep things ticking over.
I can't get to a proper internet connection until next week so
no reviews until then but you can look forward to the following
Farewell Britannia by Simon Young - a fictional account of a
British family under Roman rule. Spans four centuries so is
quite ambitious!
The Last Days of Newgate by Andrew Pepper - a murder
mystery/thriller set in the early 19th century. Quite dark.
Also if you're lucky I may get round to writing up a book I'll be
finishing in the next couple of days, The Dark Flight Down by
Marcus Sedgwick. It's a follow up to The Book of Dead Days
by the same author.
I've noticed of late more and more people are visiting this
site. I am so pleased that so many people out there are
reading. Please feel free to contact me about any of these
reviews or if there are any books you'd like to see me review.
All suggestions/criticisms/praise gratefully received :) The
A great many people who wander here via search engines
are searching for info about C J Sansom. Well, for those of
you in the UK the good news is that his next book in the
Matthew Shardlake series will be available from 4th April!
It's called Revelation and is set towards the end of Henry
VIII's reign, following on from the last book. I think those of
you in the US may have to wait until November
In the meantime, happy reading!
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