February 16

The Rats and the Ruling Sea by Robert V.S. Redick

9780575081802Sometimes a book comes in for review that I just want to savour. Like a fine meal, I know that it will be luscious, exciting, and satisfying. I have waited for this second volume in the Chathrand trilogy for over a year and I saved it until I had a weekend where nothing was going to interfere.

If you haven’t read the story so far, then Why Not? I have a brief summary/review located elsewhere on this blog, but that will in no way compensate for the pleasure to be gained in reading book 1. Anyway book 2 opens with the marriage of the Treaty Bride, well kind of. After a Juliet moment (and you have to read the book to find out what I mean) our heroes are back together on the great ship protecting the Nilstone. Gradually, oh so gradually, their fighting strength increases, through training and increasing numbers. Ramachni gets a message to Thasha that there are 7 marked by the Red Wolf and she must find them all to help her. Under the influence of Arunis, Rose is determined to sail across the Ruling Sea, uncharted waters to unknown lands. The book closes just as they arrive at the first village, and the punchline is great.

I do have one objection. Doesn’t Redick know that an author is not allowed to kill off one of the core characters in a fantasy? Especially one of my favourites!

But yes, this book met my high expectations. My husband wanted to take me out to dinner for Valentine’s Day, but just before we left the house – the rats attacked!!! How was I supposed to make pleasant conversation when I was worrying about Hercol, Pazel and Neeps.

Needless to say, I am hanging on until the grand finale, I just hope I don’t have to wait too long.

February 16

Pocahontas by Caroline Corby

1245194378574When I first saw this series, I was interested in it. The whole idea of looking at the lives of famous figures from history as children has appeal, especially since I really enjoy reading historical fiction. So I was very happy to see this book arrive in a review bundle last year. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as good as it first appeared.

Pocahontas is a very famous Native American who helped the original colonists in Jamestown survive during their first years. She later married one of the settlers and traveled to England. There she died of a lung infection. Disney has made much of her famous story so now almost everyone across the world knows her name. Corby has taken the few historical facts and constructed a wholly imaginary tale.

My problem is in the character of Pocahontas. She is very much a 20th century girl trapped in 17th century society. Somehow I have difficulty believing that in Native American culture of the time, young girls were allowed to wander freely through’enemy’ territory. The chief’s favourite daughter was supposedly totally unsupervised, and I have some difficulty with that concept.

There are some interesting snapshots of the Powhatan culture like their coming of age ritual for boys. And I found the links between the names of the local tribes and the modern geography interesting, but then I grew up in the country so these words mean something. For an Australian child, these are just impossible to pronounce big words.

I am not encouraged to read the others after this disappointment.

February 16

Finding Freia Lockhart by Aimee Said

1256536261055It seems a long time since I have read a chick lit novel without vampires, werewolves or ghosts. For that reason alone this book was going to be a refreshing read. And then it turned out to be even better.

Freia is a year 9/10 student in an all girls private school. Her parents are not young and Freia feels their conservative rules are unfair and destroying her social life. Her best friend is Katy, and Katy is on the brink of becoming one of the ‘in crowd’ at school. But Freia is not really interested in becoming part of the ‘Bs’. She isn’t comfortable with their shallow life and their general bitchiness. But the problem is whether Freia can really survive as a loner? Will she be forced to spend time with the weirds?

I liked the fact that this book was not centred around some big family trauma. Mum and Dad were still together, and even happy. The younger brother was silly, but honestly fond of his big sister and trying to help her wherever he could. There wasn’t even the trauma of changing schools. It was Freia herself who changed, gently and comfortably, into a much nicer person.

And I also liked the literary allusions. Freia is studying Pride and Prejudice, but failing to see how she is living a parallel story. She raves on about how the Bennetts are obsessed by balls, but she is equally obsessed with the ‘Bs’. And the obvious connections between Darcy and Daniel are just subtle enough not to get in the way of the story. And somehow I think there is a connection between this story and ‘My Fair Lady’, but I haven’t worked it out yet.

Unusually this is chick lit that will stand up to a second reading.

February 12

Lord Sunday by Garth Nix

resized_9781741145915_224_297_FitSquareHow long have I been reading the Keys to the Kingdom? It seems like forever. And with each book, I think, now where was I up to – and very quickly everything becomes clear and I am caught up in the adventure again.

This, the final episode of Arthur’s adventures, is a worthy finale. The House is crumbling to Nothing and everyone is fighting Lord Sunday for the remaining space. Early in the book, Arthur is captured by Lord Sunday, chained and tortured. Suzy is mustering troups under the control of Dame Primus and Leaf is desperately trying to rescue the living from the bombing. As you can see all our favourite heroes and villians are back. But I won’t say much more for fear of spoiling the climax.

I suspect that many fans won’t like Arthur’s final fate. It may seem like a safe option that will make child readers feel secure about their future. The traditional fantasy fans will want a classic god/hero/immortal finale. But personally I liked the end of Arthur’s story. To me it just felt right.

And if you haven’t ever read any of the books, now is the time to start. There is no more waiting for months for the next part of the story. So although it will take you far more than a week to get through Arthur’s week, the time will be well spent.

February 6

La’s Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith

9780349122052I have reviewed selections from Smith’s wonderful No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, and someday I am going to have the time to read the whole series, but this is a stand alone novel set in England at the time of the Second World War. Smith has been Botswana’s No 1 tourism promoter, but will his picture of life at home be equally as engaging. The answer – yes!

Like many women, La (short for Lavender) rushes into marriage with the first young man who asks her. In the 20s and 30s, women were supposed to be married, it was about their only career option. But La was educated, she had been to Cambridge and gained a degree. How would she find life as a housewife? In a word, boring. But family and friends all assured her that the boredom would end when the children arrived. But before the children arrived, her husband ran off to France with another woman. La is left wealthy but alone and her in-laws suggest that she move to their country home in a small village in Suffolk. She hardly arrives and is settled when war is declared.

Naturally, La wants to help the war effort. But what can she do? The War Office suggests that she join the Women’s Land Army and gives her a job at a farm in her village. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t seem enough. Then La meets a supply officer from the local airbase and they become friends. He discovers that she has some musical training and suggests that she organise a village orchestra, inviting men stationed at the base to participate as well as others from local villages. Tim makes it happen, and La’s Orchestra is born.

While all this is happening, a wounded Polish officer is appointed to work on the same farm where she does. They become friends and when she discovers that he is an accomplished flautist, she buys him a flute so that he can be part of the Orchestra. Over the years her friendship with Feliks deepens, and she begins to fancy that she is once again in love. But love during wartime is difficult and as soon as the military discover that Feliks speaks English, Polish, and German, he is taken away to work as a translator. In the society of the day, it is inappropriate for La to express how she feels, and Feliks is gone before he feels he has anything to offer this wealthy English widow. But the orchestra continues, raising morale, and providing a touch of normality until the final Victory Concert. Feliks arrives just in time to play, but is gone again before La can say anything more than thank you.

Fast forward to the 1960s. La is now middle aged and deeply upset by the atomic bomb. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, she decides to assemble her orchestra again to play a concert for peace.

I have gone on about the plot far more than is usual. Normally I avoid giving away the details simply because that would spoil the book, and I hate spoilers. But this book is worth reading simply because of the wonderful people that can be found within its pages. I loved La, Tim, Feliks, Agg and all the rest. I would love to visit this little village in Suffolk, but you just know that it couldn’t now resemble the images in the book.

This is truly another wonderful gift from Alexander McCall Smith.

February 6

The Shakespeare Curse by J L Carrell

9781847442772How long has it been since you read Macbeth? Might I suggest that you pause now and dig out your Cliff Notes as a refresher before you go on? Certainly you need them at hand as you begin to read.

Everyone knows that The Scottish Play is unlucky. Regular theatre-goers will all have tales about this Shakespeare favourite. I’ve seen broken swords that caused Macbeth to hand his sword to McDuff, an act that had the audience giggling all the way out of the theatre. But how many of us remember the witches, or much beyond the quote ‘Boil, Boil, toil and trouble.’ Carrell plays with the idea of this curse and its origins in this engaging murder mystery.

Lady Nairn is a retired actress who married into British gentry. Her husband owned Dunsinane and here she plans to sponsor a production of Macbeth to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the original production. But bizarre ritual objects begin to turn up at rehearsals. And cast members begin to disappear, some turning up later as bodies. Is it truly the ancient curse, an echo of ancient magic, or a very modern hand at work. Kate, our heroine, must use her understanding of Shakespeare and Elizabethan sorcery to solve the mystery and rescue a kidnapped boy.

I found this a fascinating read. Like many others I studied Macbeth at school. But I found Carrell’s underlying hypothesis credible. He/she claims that Shakespeare, as a young traveling actor, witnessed a real witches conjuring and wrote it into his play. The actual lines were later changed to the cauldron scene we now know so well. In fact I found the whole book made me think, and not just about who-dun-it.

Another great mystery/thriller that is far more than simple entertainment.

February 6

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

graveyard-bookThere are times when I just wish I had the time to read a story aloud. There is something about the chapter title and first line of this book that screams – read me to an audience. “How Nobody Came to the Graveyard’ – There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. But alas, I deal with teenagers, and scary stories are no longer ‘cool’.

If they let me get past the first chapter, where 3 members of a family are brutally murdered, to follow the 4th member who decides to escape from his crib and toddle down the road as the murderer is busy, then my imaginary audience would be caught up like I was in the story of little Bod (short for Nobody because nobody knows his name) and his life in the graveyard. Of course he has a family, and teachers and friends, it just so happens that they are all ghosts, well, almost all. This is the story of Bod, his friends, and the day he realises that he needs to leave the safety and security of his graveyard to meet the big wide world.

A couple years ago I attended a conference with Neil Gaiman. For most of the three days the hall seemed empty with a scattering of people throughout. But Sunday morning, 9 am Neil was to take the stage and it was standing room only. At that stage, I hadn’t read anything by this man. But now after Coraline and Stardust, I was expecting a gem. The Graveyard Book did not disappoint.

This is quality literature for children. But it will be read and enjoyed by all ages. I was pleased to see that it won the Newbery Award. For once, well deserved.

February 6

The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse

9781409115625Interesting concept, a ghost story written by a ‘serious’ writer. Most of the time ghost stories are told to entertain children, not dressed up as fact or myth.

The setting is France, 1928. Freddie is driving around the country seeking to understand why his beloved brother had to die in the trenches to preserve this way of life. He is involved in a car crash, and inevitably it will take days before the car can be repaired. So while he waits, he hikes into the surrounding mountains where he meets Marie, whose family has taken refuge in caves in the area. They fall in love, but their relationship is doomed.

I had real problems with this book. It didn’t help that I really couldn’t stand Freddie. He seems like a useless soul with too much money and no purpose in life. And stupid? Rarely have I encountered any book where the main character behaves with such innocence and naivete. The whole ‘romance’ with Marie was silly! Maybe Mosse was trying to recreate a more innocent time, but really, it has to be convincing for modern readers.

Sorry, but sometimes I think those that review books should stick to reviewing, and leave real authors to get on with their work.

February 6

Betrayed by PC and Kristin Cast

BetrayedA few weeks ago I reviewed the first book in the House of Night series, and then I gave the background to Zoey’s story. If you haven’t read the series, or the first review, I recommend that you follow the link.

In book 2, Zoey is adapting to her new life. She is starting to learn to manage her new powers and the fact that they set her apart from her classmates. Her friends are wonderfully supportive and everything is going well. Well we all know that can’t last! Somehow, her life before will not leave her alone. Heath, Zoey’s ex, refuses to understand that she is happy in her new life and he is determined to rescue her. And her human friends are being murdered. The evidence points to The House of Night. Zoey, as leader of the Dark Daughters, must find out which of her classmates, or even teachers, is the killer. And she thought choosing between a variety of boyfriends was going to be her biggest problem this year.

I like this series, and this book, because the voices of the young men and women seem very real. In many ways this is a typical adolescent/school story full of friends, lovers and bitchy girls. But the edge of danger and mystical power gives the book a fascination. Just like a soap opera, you want to know what is happening to all the people, but also like a thriller, there is action and danger for the main characters. Personally, I am really sick of Heath. I wish the killers would get him. And I am sorry, Stevie Rae has to come back!!

February 6

An Empty Death by Laura Wilson

9780752876269I rarely have good things to say about a book cover. But this one is perfect. Black and white, just slightly out of focus, but appearing to be a perfectly normal moment in a quiet city. And the characters are just like that, caught in a life without colour, where each many are unsure of their own identity, struggling to live normal lives in a city that is anything but normal.

The place, London, summer 1944. Hitler’s V-I bombs are landing randomly around the city. One night a bomb falls near the home of Detective Stratton and he is instrumental in rescuing the woman buried in the rubble. But she can’t remember who she is or anything about her normal life. Jenny, Stratton’s wife, and her sister offer this woman a home until her relatives can be found. At about the same time a doctor is found murdered and the case is given to Stratton. But why would anyone murder a doctor. And someone at the hospital is not what they appear to be. Stratton needs to find the killer before more people die.

This is truly a book about the search for identity. The reader is introduced to the murderer early in the book while watching this man take on the persona of the murdered doctor. And during war documentation is scarce and the need for trust is important, this man systematically moves through life changing identity and abusing the trust given. On the other hand, there is poor Mrs Ingram, who is convinced that everyone, including her husband, is not who they appear to be. She trusts no one, to an equally tragic end.

Wilson has done a wonderful job creating the atmosphere of war-time London. She is sensitive to the fact that people under pressure rely on their routine. So Jenny’s charity work is very important to her. She truly wants to help the poor lost woman find something of her own normality, but without success. Stratton needs to establish a corner of normality by doing his job in the best way he can, in spite of the war. So each are tied securely to the threads of their normal life. And when death invades that normality, the impact on the reader is shattering.

But don’t get me wrong, this is a classic mystery/thriller. It is just very unusual in that there are many more layers below the simple who-dun-it.