New Read: Guards! Guards!

If you are a regular reader, you will know that I have been working my way through Terry Pratchett’s epic Discworld series: reading the books we already own or as we get our hands on them. Recently, my dad picked up a copy of Guards! Guards!, the eighth instalment in Pratchett’s fantastical Discworld series, but I had to wait patiently for him to slowly read it, before I could get my hands on it in mid-April.

In Guards! Guards!, we return to Pratchett’s magic, weird and fantastical Discworld, as the denizens of the ancient, sprawling, stinking twin-city of Ankh-Morpork are plagued by the reappearance of a fine specimen of the, long believed extinct, draco nobilis (“noble dragon” for those of us, who don’t understand italics). However not only does this unwelcome visitor have a nasty habit of charbroiling, indiscriminately people, buildings and anything else that gets in its path, it soon sets its sights on becoming king, hoarding the great city’s wealth in one giant pile and eating virgins…

To the unlikely rescue comes the drunken Captain Samuel Vimes, the new and overenthusiastic Constable Carrot, and the rest of the incompetent Night Watch. Who, along with the Unseen University’s orangutan librarian, the formidable Lady Sybil Ramkin and a small swamp dragon, risk everything –  including a good roasting – to try to stop this flying menace and restore order to the city, before it and them are burned to a crisp! What unfolds is a riotous adventure, with magic, a secret society, a dangerous theft, a couple of bar brawls, mysterious goings-on, incompetent policing and dragons… really, what is there not to love?!

This has got to be one of my new favourites from the series, although not quite great enough to topple the madcap, Macbeth parody, Wyrd Sisters from its top spot, but maybe equal to the wacky, Egyptian-inspired Pyramids. I have now read eleven of Pratchett’s Discworld novels, of which this is the eighth instalment published back in 1989. However this is a series I don’t feel you necessarily have to read in order, as the stories often follow various different groups of characters. In this case, this is the first book following Captain Vimes and the Night’s Watch, who I know are favourite characters for many. This is my first adventure with them and I look forward to more.

Overall, I thought Guards! Guards! was another excellent slice of fun and adventure, that shows how even the smallest, stupidest or commonest man or creature can make a difference, and it had me laughing-out-loud. The next instalment we currently own is Reaper Man. Great read.

Have you read this? What other Discworld novels have you read?

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New Read: Love Wins

As a practicing Christian, I like to read Christian literature to help with the growth of my faith and I am very lucky that my church has it’s own book club to help me with this. In April, we read The Death of Western Christianity by Patrick Sookhdeo, although I was unable to make the club’s meeting to discuss it, it was still an important read for me. Next up to read was Love Wins by megachurch pastor Rob Bell.

In Love Wins, Bell ambitiously addresses one of the most controversial issues of faith: hell and the afterlife. In doing so he challenges many long-held beliefs and tries to answer some big, troubling questions, which have long troubled millions of Christians – troubled so deeply that in many cases they have lost their faith. For example, would a loving God send people to eternal torment forever? I would say no and so does Bell, who with searing insight, puts hell on trial with the hopeful message of eternal life doesn’t start when we die, it starts right now and that ultimately, love wins.

Bell, as an author, pastor, and innovative teacher, uses his considerable bible knowledge and charisma to present his distinctive thoughts on heaven, hell, God, Jesus, salvation, and repentance. Personally, while I didn’t agree with everything, I did find Bell’s arguments refreshing and thought-provoking, but I could also see how his ideas have courted controversy in more orthodox Christian quarters. In particular, his thoughts on no fiery pit of hell or heaven in the clouds, and instead we can start building heaven right here on Earth and there are people living in hells of their own making right now, rang very true to me.

There were other ideas that I found difficult to get my head around completely. Now the reason for this was two-fold: 1. Bell is offering up some pretty big, radical ideas, but also 2. the style Bell uses isn’t always the easiest follow. In his passion, he loses himself in longer, racing sweeps of detail, which gives us swathes of ideas and evidence to process. While – in stark contrast – he also uses bullet point style lists of short, sharp words and phrases, which hit home his key ideas. Both are great techniques if you are on board and keeping up with him, sometimes though I got a little lost in it all and found I needed to go back and re-read sections.

Overall, I thought Love Wins was an in-depth, insightful examination of some of the more challenging aspects of the Christian faith. Many of Bell’s ideas chimed with my own inklings and others really got me thinking! My group will be meeting later this month and I think this is shaping up to be a very interesting discussion. Good read.

Have you read this? Have you read anything else by Rob Bell?

New Read: The Tudor Crown

I absolutely loved Joanna Hickson’s brilliant First of the Tudors, about the often neglected Jasper Tudor, but I was left wanting more! So I have been looking forward to this second historical fiction, The Tudor Crown by Joanna Hickson, which continues the same story from the point-of-view of Jasper’s nephew, Henry Tudor.

In September 1471, we join the fourteen-year-old Henry Tudor, as he flees for his life across the channel to seek asylum in France, with his uncle Jasper Tudor and Lord Jasper’s young half-brother Davy, his mistress Jane Hywel and their youngest daughter Sian. Henry is the only son of Lancastrian heiress, Lady Margaret Beaufort, which – with the return of the Yorkist king, Edward IV to his throne after the dubious deaths of Henry VI and his son, Edward – puts Henry’s life in danger, because he is now one of only two remaining Lancastrian male heirs.

Blown seriously off course, in a perilous crossing, they eventually land safely in Brittany, where Henry is promised the protection of Duke Francis II. He then spends the next 14 years being raised in a style befitting a lord, but always as a relative prisoner. These years give us plenty of time to get to know Henry and see him grow into a strong, pragmatic man. Like Jasper in the previous novel, I had never read a novel solely about Henry – in Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen, Henry is portrayed as an old, fickle and penny-pinching king – so it was interesting to see him as a young man in exile.

Through all these years his young half-uncle Davy becomes his constant companion, when he is sadly separated from his uncle Jasper and his childhood governess, Jane is sent back to England with her daughter. Again Hickson has cleverly pieced together the little that is known about Henry’s exile and believably filled in the gaps. Even creating a love interest for Henry in the form of the mysterious Catherine de Belleville, based on the historic fact that once king, Henry granted a position and pension to an unknown Roland de Belleville (which caused suspicion he was his illegitimate son).

Meanwhile the real drama is unfolding back in England with the sudden death of Edward IV, Richard III usurping the throne and the princes in the Tower. All of which we learn about through the eyes and letters of Henry’s mother, Margaret. Hickson continues her more sympathetic portrayal of Margaret – very different to that in The Red Queen – even showing the love and care she had for her ‘nestlings’: young wards she took in and raised in her own household. While this was an interesting, new side of her for me to see, I am not sure I completely believed this softer Margaret could have survived, thrived and ultimately put her son on the throne in this turbulent time.

All in all, I thought The Tudor Crown was a fascinating glimpse into the lost history of Henry Tudor’s exile, but sadly I just didn’t love or believe in Henry and Margaret like I had Jasper and Jane in the previous book. Good read.

Thank you to the publishers for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

Have you read this? Or read anything else about Henry Tudor?

New Read: The Death of Western Christianity

As a practicing Christian, I like to read Christian literature to help with the growth of my faith and I am very lucky that my church has it’s own book club to help me with this. In February, we met to discuss The Story of Reality by Gregory Koukl. Next up was non-fiction The Death of Western Christianity by Patrick Sookhdeo, which the group met to discuss at the beginning of the month. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend as I was away on a school residential trip.

As the title suggests, The Death of Western Christianity is quite a stark look into how the Church in the West has gone from being the backbone of Western society, morals and laws, and being a vast missionary movement that once went out across the world, to now being in a state of terminal decline. Ironically abroad, where once Western missionaries worked, there is still a living, thriving Christian faith, but other than pockets overall the fire of Western faith is sadly growing dim. Not only that but in Western society, Christianity is increasingly despised, marginalised and coming under attack.

Fortunately, for me, I am in a warm, welcoming, multi-aged church that is growing. However in my wider community, I am in the minority with my faith and I have witnessed the deploring lack of knowledge of Christianity, with a depressingly, growing number of children that do not even know that Christmas and Easter are Christian festivals. And while I know that the church is increasingly being ignored, marginalised and mocked, thankfully my friends and myself have never been targeted or persecuted for our faith. Unlike some of the terribly sad cases that Sookhdeo shares from across Europe and the USA.

Matter-of-factly and succinctly Sookhdeo surveys in-depth the current state of Christianity in the West, looking in particular at how Western culture has influenced and weakened the Church, with the growth in materialism, different faiths and worldviews, and a change in morality. He also discusses the loss of Christian identity, which he sees as the heart of the problem. You may be thinking this sounds a depressing read and in many respects it is. On the other hand, Sookhdeo does advise and offer means to how Christians should go forward. And if the Church in the West could start to fix itself, then maybe it could be a force for good in society again in the future.

Overall The Death of Western Christianity is not the sort of book you enjoy reading, instead I think for a practising Christian in the West it is an important book to read. Sadly I wasn’t able to attend the meeting of my church’s book club to discuss this. Nevertheless this was a very relevant read for me, as my church is currently undertaking a year of exploration into what our vision should be for the next five years – There are nuggets of advice from this that will be of value for me with this in mind. Our club’s next read is Love Wins by Rob Bell. Good read.

Have you read this? Or any other books on the decline of Christianity?

New Read: Little Men

After quite a heavy first year (2018) into my new Classics Club list, with some long and/or difficult classics tackled, I thought I needed to go easier on myself this year by reading some more of the children’s classics I have on my list. And, first up, I decided to read Little Men by Louisa May Alcott, the 1869 sequel to Alcott’s utterly charming Little Women.

Set several, unspecified years after the original, Little Men begins with the arrival of ‘Nat’ Blake – an orphaned street musician discovered by Mr Laurence in a cellar – to Jo and her husband’s school, which they have set up at Plumfield after inheriting the estate off Jo’s Aunt March. As one would imagine of Jo, it is an unconventional school, where children have their own gardens and pets; are encouraged to start their own businesses and follow their passions; and pillow fights are permitted on Saturdays, subject to a time limit, of course.

Through Nat’s eyes we are introduced to the other boys at the school, which includes: Jo’s sweet, innocent nephew ‘Demi’ Brooke; the well-meaning but troublesome ‘Tommy’ Bangs; the over-indulged ‘Stuffy’ Cole; the mentally challenged Billy Ward; and Mr Bhaer’s strapping nephews, Emil and Franz Hoffman. Later they are joined by ‘Nan’ Harding, a wild tomboy, brought in as a companion for Demi’s twin sister Daisy and Nat’s troubled, free-spirited friend ‘Dan’ Kean, who struggles to settle in.

Each and every one of them is welcomed to Plumfield with warmth and affection, and is treated as an individual. However boys (and girls) have a habit of getting into scrapes, and so what follows is a charming series of troubles and adventures that the children get themselves into. I particularly enjoyed their berry picking trip, which ends with two children missing into the night; Daisy and Nan’s rather disastrous dinner party; the creation of their own natural history museum; and Dan’s terrible struggles and redemption. There is also the surprising and poignant death of a beloved character from Little Women.

If you weren’t a fan of the slow, steady pace or the moralistic tone of Little Women, then you won’t be a big fan of this either, as they are just replicated here. However if you loved the original and in particular loved the wilful tomboy Jo March in it, then you may still not love this because Jo has now grown-up into a sensible, caring mother of two small boys. There is no remnant of her former self really, except for the almost imperceptible twinkle in her eye when she deals with young Nan’s antics. This wasn’t really an issue for me though, as Jo wasn’t my favourite March sister, especially after she broke lovely Laurie’s heart.

So overall, I thought Little Men was a lovely, easy-going read, with a delightful collection of characters and adventures. Its only downfall – which is probably why it is unfairly overlooked – is that, well, it’s just not Little Women! I look forward to reading its sequel Jo’s Boys in the near future. Good read.

Have you read this? Have you read Little Women or Jo’s Boys?

This is book 7/50 for my Classics Club II reading challenge.

New Read: Lives of Notorious Cooks

At the start of March, having tackled some big and/or challenging books in the previous two months, I decided that I needed to treat myself to some shorter, lighter reads. With that in mind, I finally picked up the Lives of Notorious Cooks by Brendan Connell, a fictionalised collection of biographies of famous cooks. Which was published back in 2012 and embarrassingly not long after that, I realise now, I must have received a copy from the author.

Making up for lost time, I went into this not really knowing what to expect and the blurb wasn’t much help either, as it simply told me I would ‘Learn of the outrageous and sometimes dubious lives of Peng Zu and fifty other notorious cooks from the pages of history and legend, in a picaresque dictionary of delicious and playful story-telling’. Well it certainly sounded interesting, if a little mysterious too. On reading the book, what I discovered was a collection of very short biographies of fifty cooks, known of whom I can claim to have heard of before, which were written in a surreal prose style.

These cooks included: Peng Zu, a legendary Chinese figure known for cooking excellent soup; Marie-Antione Carême, an early exponent of the elaborate French grande cuisine; Joseph Cooper, a cook to Charles 1, in 1654; Coroebus (Koroibos) of Elis, an Ancient Greek baker and athlete; Lala Sukh Lal Jain, founder of the Ghantewala sweet shop in Delhi, India in 1790; Robert May, author of The Accomplisht Cook (1660); Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces – a Roman baker, whose tomb can still be seen today in Rome; and Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq, compiler of the earliest known Arabic cookbook, in the tenth century.

As you can see, Connell’s has included a wide range of interesting figures, from across history and the world in his collection: spanning the cultures of Ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt, China, Japan, Europe and the Middle East. Having not heard of any of them before it meant I learnt a fair bit, even with most of the biographies being very brief. The unusual style in which they were written reminded me of poetry, and so the collection did have a nice flow to it, but at the same time it wasn’t always clear if the cooks were legendary or real. I did find myself looking up the figures on the internet to find out more and to better understand what I was reading.

Overall, I found the Lives of Notorious Cooks to be an interesting collection of  surreal, succinct biographies of cooks from across the globe and throughout history. Not the type of book I would usually go for, however it made a nice change and I was able to dip in and out whenever I liked, thus making it the lighter, shorter read I was looking for. Okay read.

Thank you to the author for providing a review copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

Have you read this? Have you read any biographies of famous chefs, past or present?

New Read: Origin

Knowing how much I had loved Angels & Demons, The Da Vinci Code and Inferno, my dad bought me a paperback copy of Origin by Dan Brown for Christmas. So excited was I to find out what Robert Langdon would possibly get up to next, I bumped this straight to the top of my to-be-read pile.

This new, thrilling adventure starts as Robert Langdon, Harvard professor of symbology and religious iconology, arrives at the ultramodern Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain to attend the unveiling of a controversial scientific discovery. The evening’s host is one of Langdon’s former students, Edmond Kirsch, who is now a dazzling high-tech billionaire and futurist. But before Kirsch’s precious discovery can be revealed, the meticulously orchestrated evening erupts into chaos. Reeling with shock and fearing imminent danger, Langdon flees with Ambra Vidal, the elegant museum director, to Barcelona on a perilous quest to locate a cryptic password that will unlock Kirsch’s secret.

Gripped, I was borne along the dark corridors of hidden history and extreme religion, as Langdon and Vidal follow a trail of modern art and enigmatic symbols, which will take them from the Guggenheim Museum, to Gaudí’s Casa Milà and Sagrada Família, and Barcelona’s Supercomputing Center. All the whilst trying to evade an eerily, all-knowing enemy, who seems to emanate from Spain’s Royal Palace and who will stop at nothing to silence Kirsch’s discovery forever. Racing around fascinating locations is one of my favourite, quintessential elements of Langdon’s adventures, and this one was no exception, although the locations were of a more modern nature than I usually prefer.

Another quintessential element of these books is controversy! After uncovering all the clues, Langdon and Vidal are able to reveal Kirsch’s shocking discovery and the breath-taking truth that has long eluded us: Where did we come from? Where are we going? A truth that Brown builds us up, throughout the novel, to believe will shake the major religions to their core… However for me, who is happy to have science and God, it wasn’t really that Earth-shattering, although I did find it very interesting. There was also an absolutely spine-chilling twist at the end – Unfortunately I had already guessed at it about half way through, but had put it to the back of my mind!

So while Origin was another thrilling adventure, that gripped and fascinated me in parts, it is sadly not to become one of my favourites of the Langdon series. Although it was very good, escapist fun and I did enjoy it more than The Lost Symbol. Good read.

Have you read this? Or other books from the Langdon series?