Review: Bill Bryson At Home

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I love Bill Bryson. I thought his Notes from a Small Island was witty, biting and showed an endearing love of Britain with all its flaws. Its American equivalent was just as interesting, given his propensity for going off on a seeming tangent to dump a load of fascinating facts that you want to share with other people and then coming back, pages later, to his original point. So I was predisposed to like this book.

It’s set up as a history of private life – the reasons we have more than one floor in our house, the development of everyday household items like the telephone and electricity (some gorgeous analysis of the fact that it’s simply because Edison was more organised and could get the New York glitterati involved that we remember him as the inventor of the light bulb rather than several others who did the same thing). This does make it fascinating, and gives him space to roam widely – but sometimes a little too widely for me.

I loved the facts. I loved the sheer wealth of information (the list of vicars who invented thing, for example, is stunning, as is the section on Crystal Palace and the Great Exhibition) but I felt sometimes it wasn’t quite focused enough for its own good. Mid-way through a chapter that started off about the hallway, I’d be wondering why we were discussing the American propensity for colonnades, for example. When there’s so much material in a single room, going too far off course makes it feel more like a wasted opportunity than a seizing of one.

That said, Bryson’s always a very readable writer (I frequently use his books as examples when teaching students how to write non-fiction!) with a dry sarcasm and wit, and I always love the new facts that I want to tell everyone when I’ve finished reading.

Review: The Cousin’s War series

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The Cousins’ War series by Philippa Gregory has formed a major part of my summer reading. Spoilers ahead, but mostly of the history involved, so if you know the history there won’t be much to surprise you.

It’s a five-book series focusing on the war between the House of York and the House of Lancaster, as told through the women involved as major players. If you know about the war, also known as the Wars of the Roses because of the white and red symbols of the houses, you’ll know the names of the English kings involved – Edward IV, Richard III, the princes who went into the Tower of London and disappeared, Henry VII who started the Tudor dynasty on which a lot of Gregory’s previous books are focused.  Sometimes the history can get complex, but it’s handled very deftly so that it’s never confusing.

Gregory’s very good at bringing the female perspective to these events – the women in her novels are usually very well-realised, interesting characters who simply don’t have a historical voice because they lacked official power although through their influences – on husbands, children etc – actually had incredible influence which comes through here.


The Lady of the Rivers is chronologically first, focusing on Jacquetta, whose daughter later married Edward IV. I found this one particularly interesting because of Jacquetta’s reported belief in and use of witchcraft, in particular the fact that her house believed the women were descended from the river goddess Melusina, and that fact threads through all these books in various ways. I think Jacquetta’s an interesting character, whose desire for power is often at odds with what she claims to love – her husband, her family, her home. While I think it’s undoubtable that she did love these things, she does also come across as being someone who is incredibly ambitious and if she had stayed at home with her husband, she wouldn’t have been that happy with her lot. She thrives on the intrigue and being close to power.

Next comes The White Queen, The Red Queen and The Kingmaker’s Daughter, which as a trio formed the BBC series The White Queen which was on recently.

     

What’s enjoyable about these from a reading perspective is that they cover the same time period. We see the marriage of Edward IV to Elizabeth, the ‘commoner queen’ (who wasn’t a royal marriage but a marriage of choice who, by all accounts, was genuinely in love with and loved by her husband – probably a rarity in royal marriages), through the war against the king he threw off the throne trying to regain his territory, and the continuation of the line to Edward’s brother Richard III. The White Queen focuses on Elizabeth, The Red Queen is Margaret, a lady in waiting for a lot of the novels but who is always focused on getting her son Henry Tudor into power as an alternative line, and The Kingmaker’s Daughter Anne who is daughter of Warwick (instrumental in getting Edward to the throne) and later becomes wife of Richard III. I loved that you saw the same events from different perspectives in each book, picking up different nuances and seeing how the houses saw themselves.

I enjoyed these three varyingly, though I think the least favourite was The Red Queen simply because I find Margaret a very unsympathetic character. She’s heavily featured in The White Princess too, and I disliked some of that for the same reason. Margaret’s obsession with rising her son to the throne is understandable but I find it very difficult to empathise with her religious beliefs; it was hard sometimes to know whether she genuinely believed that she and her son were destined by God for the throne of England, or whether she was using this as justification for her actions. The White Queen was probably my favourite of the three because Elizabeth is such a likable character and I loved the romance between Edward and Elizabeth, sap that I am! While other marriages are conducted for political reasons and generally don’t seem to have much affection, there’s something impressive about this couple marrying for love and retaining their loyalty to one another no matter what. In The Kingmaker’s Daughter, Anne is an interesting character because she’s thrown from one man to another constantly – her father marries her to the old Prince of Wales when King Edward won’t do as he’s told, then she marries Richard as a cry for independence and self-determination. I like this idea, but it really is the only independent action Anne ever makes and while this is probably historically accurate, it makes for a frustrating character! It’s also worth noting that although you’re seeing the same events, they don’t become repetitive because of the different influences and motivations.


The White Princess picks up after Richard III has been killed and Henry Tudor seized the throne. Elizabeth’s daughter (also called Elizabeth) was in love with Richard but is forced to marry Henry to seal the alliance between Lancaster and York in an attempt to end the civil wars. This was better again, partly because Elizabeth (2) was a sympathetic character for the most part who showed genuine development which sometimes the others lacked a little; some of the earlier characters seemed to arrive fully formed, whereas Elizabeth’s reactions to her husband and mother in law did change. Sadly, there wasn’t a point where she really came in to her own but again, I think this is historical.

With the Tudor books I always thought Gregory’s strength was in the characters who aren’t as much in the historical record – I prefer her story of Mary Boleyn (The Other Boleyn Girl) to Queen Anne, for example, and the voice of Amy Dudley in The Virgin’s Lover to Queen Elizabeth. In part this is probably because she has some more freedom to invent and those women can be a bit more individual. This is the same here, I think – I much preferred the story of Jacquetta as it threaded through all the books. I did enjoy the first Elizabeth character more as well.

 The other thing I enjoyed was how Gregory threads the myth of Melusina through the novels, when she’s focused on the Rivers household of Jacquetta and the two Elizabeths. It seems like a perfect symbol for feminine power, the female river goddess who agrees to become more or less mortal for love, provided she is allowed some authority by transforming every so often, in secret, into her female self. It’s a brilliant encapsulation of female experience in many ways, and I love that it’s apparently based on a genuine belief of the house that they were descended from this woman. It’s details like that which give novels like this a richness and symbolic resonance that I really enjoy.

Review: The Passage (Justin Cronin) 5/5

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This is an absolutely stunning novel.

I loved it, every moment of it. I was given it by a colleague who thought it would be exactly my kind of thing, knowing that I love thick, gothic, supernatural fiction, and she was absolutely right.

It’s amazing, a book I literally couldn’t stop reading – every spare moment – and I pretty much picked up the second one immediately. Definitely go and read it now.

Spoilers below.

It’s told in such an interesting way – starting off with a series of medical experiments, designed as a combination of ways to extend human life and possibly bring an end to death (the scientist’s goal) and a way to create a super-soldier (once the army starts funding the research). What I loved about this is that where this book starts off feels like a fairly normal post-apocalyptic novel, in that I expected to see a little bit of the world before, and then the aftermath of what was inevitably going to go horribly wrong (science fiction, of course, being littered with novels and stories of scientists trying to do good and accidentally ending humanity). But this isn’t really what happens. After the first third or so, the World Before is over, and we’re into the World After, but instead of being simply a story of survival, Cronin moves us about 100 years after the outbreak, and that is what I found fascinating. So many apocalyptic novels either focus on immediate survival and aftermath, within a couple of years, or they are so far in the future that the reasons for the apocalypse are vague and lost and new societies have already been formed, usually along some kind of feudal lines.

Cronin’s novel, for the most part, takes place where the event itself is just far enough away that the characters can’t really explain what happened but as third or fourth generation, they know enough of the world before to understand. They find food and fuel in buildings which have smashed windows and some dereliction, but which aren’t crumbling around them. The landscape has gone to seed, but roads still exist, some cars still work, tinned food is still edible. I found it fascinating to have the event and the world before as something that was still, just, in living memory, but something that the main characters have never experienced, about as far away (I think, thinking about the time frame) as World War I for us now. Imagine that. We know so much about it, understand it logically and can imagine it, but it’s another world to our current experience.

The other thing I loved about this was that the language is stunning. I found myself occasionally stopping to write down or photograph a sentence because they were just amazing; so descriptive and evocative, and well put together. Plot wise, Cronin’s timing is almost perfect – he knows exactly where to leave a scene and move to something else, leaving a cliffhanger that’s almost tv-end-of-series frustrating, and how to bring you to tears at times. There are moments when you think you’ve guessed, moments before it does, what is about to happen, and he pulls the rug from under you and you’re as stunned as the characters he’s describing.

It’s a brilliant novel. Just amazing.

5/5

 

Review: Light by Michael Grant

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Light

Light

Light is the final book in Grant’s series, which I’ve reviewed as I’ve been reading them. Despite a dip in the middle, I think this final book was superb – the characters all came together, action was fast paced and exciting, and it was a good ending to the series.

Starting the novel with the statement that “the best bit about any story is its ending” smacks a little of arrogance – and certainly sets himself a high target to achieve! I wouldn’t say this is necessarily the best of the books, but it is a fitting ending. Each of the characters comes to an appropriate ending, which is always a difficult task to pull off.

Using a mixture of inside and outside the Fayz adds an extra dimension to this – the fact that the bubble surrounding the Fayz has now become transparent brings an added horror, making us see the adults’ response to what their children have done – without any actual understanding of how horrific it has been inside the Fayz – and the children inside who now can see their parents but, in what is actually one of the most tragic scenes in the book, can’t touch or communicate with them, just sitting to see them instead. With the gaiaphage growing up and ready to move on, the final showdown finally will be the endgame. Characters we’ve seen since the beginning are called on and continue to develop, having to either prove themselves or turn away from everyone else. There’s plenty of the violence and action that has characterised these books.

There were a few things I found unsatisfactory – the connection of Little Pete, the gaiaphage and video games was never quite fully explained. The gaiaphage’s origins are dealt with in a brief way that seems to suggest that’s all we need to know, without really exploring anything further. It feels a little like we’re being told simply to accept something without it being proven. The very ending is a little rushed at times, again glossing over details which wouldn’t hold up to closer scrutiny.

Overall, a thoroughly enjoyable series that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend, especially to older teens.

 

4/5

Review: Fear (Michael Grant)

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Fear

Fear

Despite a slight disappointment in Plague, the fourth book in this series, I read Fear straight after it – and Grant definitely got his writing mojo back!!

The FAYZ is still as deadly as ever, but this book focuses on the way the FAYZ is changing rather than the people in it. Nobody’s developing new powers except the gaiaphage, the creature that seems to have been taking advantage of the FAYZ to grow, take over and destroy. There’s an uneasy sense of peace between Perdido Beach and the lake, and the changing relationship between Sam and Caine is fascinating – they’re forced to work together and collaborate but how can they ever trust one another? There’s also some great moments for other characters such as Quinn, who started the series with potential but was left alone for quite a while in the other books.

Things that annoyed me in Plague have also changed – Astrid has grown up and learned to get on with the business of survival, whatever the cost. There’s less of the irritating phrases, too. Sadly there has crept in some of the ‘Astrid was always known as a genius’ phrasing which tends to arrive after three or four books, when a writer seems to think they need to add in helpful backstory to anyone lazy enough not to have read the first three!! Still, Grant doesn’t belabour it too much, so I can forgive him that, I guess 🙂

This book sees the FAYZ gradually going dark as the barrier between it and the outside world turns black instead of the reflection it’s been so far – and Grant starts the book in quite a surprising way – by giving us Connie Temple’s reaction to the FAYZ. Connie’s from outside the barrier, Sam and Caine’s mother, and the first voice we’ve heard from outside. It’s a brave move at this point in the game to change the dynamic so significantly, but it feels right to do it at this moment and certainly builds up the tension and conflict heading for the moment when the two must – surely – come together.

Online there’s all sorts of rumours, from the past couple of years by the look of it, about adapting this series into a film or tv show. I’m not convinced it would translate well, and I think it would be tricky for anyone trying. As YA novel, this is really being aimed at 14+, I would imagine. There is some incredible violence – whipping people to death, cutting them apart, cannibalism etc – (although ironically, and leaving me in a constant state of despair over priorities, the sex is remarkably tame and discreet). It is, however, an integral part of the series and demonstrates the violence that children (people generally) are capable of, and the way that society can disintegrate so completely. Again, it’s the Lord of the Flies only this time it’s lost its public school veneer of civilisation that Ralph tried so hard to create (I really hope at the end of Light, some army officer comes up to Sam and tries to tell him the modern American equivalent of ‘jolly good show’). Without that violence, it loses a lot of what it’s about, thematically, yet I think that violence would render it an 18, looking at the rating of The Walking Dead, for example, which strikes me as a similar level. An interesting dilemma for anyone who tries to take it on. It also raises the perennial question of age ratings on books, something I am firmly against, but I do have some sympathy for parents who are trying to protect their children and feel like they’re struggling.

A very strong book, racing through – definitely a series when you should have all the books to dive into the next one as you close the cover!

5/5

Review: Hunger, Lies and Plague by Michael Grant

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HungerAs I read these in quick succession, I thought I’d review them all at once.

The series picked up pace in Hunger and Lies; Grant’s world continues to be horrific after everyone aged 15 and over disappears suddenly one day, and the showdown between Sam and Caine has resulted in a divided group of children who don’t know what to do next.

Things just go from bad to so unbelievably worse in the FAYZ. In these three books, there’s famine because the kids were disorganised at first and ate everything processed and sweet before the veg now rotting in the fields. The Darkness continues to grow, infecting and mutating insects, snakes, dogs and kids with all sorts of different powers and abilities.

I really enjoyed the first two but I think the pace dipped a little bit in Plague. In the first two characters are developed interestingly; Sam continues to grow, Edilio becomes more responsibility but the loose council set up to manage resources starts falling apart.

I’m not sure I actually like many of the characters after Plague, which is a shame. The ones I did, Grant doesn’t seem to be developing any more in favour of Albert, who’s frustrating because he always puts personal gain over the good of the community. In particular Astrid was irritating me – her Christian beliefs just seem even more untenable in the face of everything going on, and I found her to be very unsympathetic. To be fair, Grant is developing her own sense of confusion and the difficulty she has maintaining these beliefs, but I’m not feeling her plight really. Grant’s use of ‘mouthparts’ instead of ‘teeth’ and ‘mouth’ is also a bit of an irritating quirk of his writing.

That said, the story races on at a steady pace – I’m hoping that in Fear and Light the Sam/Caine storyline is sidelined in favour of finding out what actually is going on, especially having access to some decent research about the mutations. With any series this long – they’re thick books – I think there’s going to be some dip, and I think it’s Plague in this series, partly because the very plague of the title barely happens.

I still think this is most closely identified with the Lord of the Flies; these lack the pathos of that novel, which I thought the first one was getting towards, but I look forward to seeing what the next two books hold.

 

Hunger 4/5

Lies 4/5

Plague 3/5

Review: Gone by Michael Grant

Gone
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Gone

Gone

The short opening chapter of Goneis great – sitting in class, Sam’s staring out of the window dreaming about surfing rather than paying attention. Then, without warning, the teacher vanishes. Along with every other adult and child over the age of 15 in their town.

It’s a gripping, bold start, which I loved. Major characters are introduced very early on and while they are pretty stereotypical, there’s a few more unusual ones to keep things fresh. The children left, all under 14, at first are completely bewildered – torn between mourning their parents and enjoying the sudden all-you-can-eat candy or the ability to stay up all night playing Xbox with nobody telling them what to do.

Michael Grant’s prose style is fairly plain – quite typical of YA fiction which, actually, I find a bit of a shame! One of the major things I often notice about teenagers is that their vocabulary is less advanced than I would expect. While there’s some things we can do about that, there really is no better way to improve your vocabulary than reading (learning lists of words just isn’t the same!) and when teenagers just read YA fiction like this, they’re not going to be expanding their vocab which is a shame. Someone like John Green, however, has a much broader range.

Anyway. What his style does do is make it incredibly easy to race through these novels which, at 556 pages, are not insubstantial! The Lord of the Fliesis 320 – and that’s the novel to compare this too, on all counts. Cover of "Lord of the Flies"It is the Lord oft he Flies set in the modern era; children isolated from parents, split into two camps – Jack and Ralph in Golding’s novel, with the town kids in Gone coming up against the kids from Coates Academy, a boarding school for ‘troubled’ (read: violent and psychotic) rich kids. Anyone who’s read The Lord of the Flies at school, and in my opinion it improves on study, will recognise the parallels but Grant’s gone further in this novel by giving some of the kids mutated superpowers – they can shoot light from their hands, suspend gravity, move really fast – all sorts.

Sam, played by Ralph, is just trying to get on with things. He’s helped by Quinn, his best friend who’s having a hard time realising his friend has developed the power of shooting light from his hands, and Astrid, who’s pushing Sam to take control of the town for everybody’s sake. Then we’ve got the Coates Kids lef by Caine, who’s a little bit crazy and wants control, Drake who’s a raging psychopath, and Diana, who’s a sociopath along for the ride.

Grant also goes much further in the violence he’s willing to show on the page. Golding gets pretty brutal at times with his deaths but he also tempers it by shying away from showing every one – the ones that are shown are shocking as a result. Grant here imagines a world of children quickly turned feral, and turning on each other. Contrary to some Amazon reviews I did find the descriptions of violence quite graphic (and they worsen in later books in the series): it’s incredibly disturbing at times. There’s also inevitable comparisons with the Hunger Games; while I found Katniss and Gale far more compelling characters than many in this book, the raw visceral nature of this was more than enough to pull me along into the series.

5/5