Re-Read: The Hunger Games

Finally in the school summer holidays, I got round to my planned re-read of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, the first book in Collins’ highly successful, young adult dystopian trilogy. A trilogy that went on to spawn a film franchise that was a massive box-office success. After enjoying the films a lot, I was excited to remind myself of the extra details in the books.

This first book, introduces us to the nation of Panem, which was formed from the remains of North America after a post-apocalyptic event. This is a brutal and unfair world consisting of a rich, privileged Capitol region surrounded by twelve poor, working districts. After a failed, bloody rebellion by a former thirteenth district early in its history, the Capitol now reminds and punishes the remaining districts with the Hunger Games, a barbaric and cruel annual televised event. That forces each district to yield one boy and one girl, as ‘tributes’ for the games, who will be forced to fight to the death, leaving only one survivor to claim victory.

It is on the day of the Reaping – a lottery system to choose the ‘tributes’ – in the poorest District 12 that we meet 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen as she selflessly volunteers herself, after her little sister, Prim is chosen. Katniss’ male counterpart chosen is Peeta Mellark, the baker’s son who once showed her great kindness. The games are pretty much a death sentence for them, as they will be pitted against bigger, stronger representatives from the richer districts, some of whom have trained for this their whole lives. But Katniss is a survivor and Peeta will be a better ally than she realises.

What I love about Katniss is that she is an imperfect heroine. On face value she comes across prickly and she can be naïve and fiercely independent – finding it hard to trust people. However she is also loyal, kind, brave and devoted to her little sister, which adds up to make an imperfect but realistic heroine. Peeta on the other hand is exactly how you find him: strong, kind, personable and honest. (If anyone knows where I can find a Peeta of my own please let me know?!) They are both characters you can really root for and I found myself completely invested in their blossoming, complicated relationship.

Loving these characters means, that even though I knew exactly what was coming, I still found myself gripped and on the very edge of my seat as through Katniss’ eyes we enter the arena and have front row seats to the unfolding bloody games. After escaping the opening massacre, Katniss must find food, water and shelter. Whilst always being on guard for other ‘tributes’, because everyone is a possible enemy, including Peeta as only one can win this game. If all that wasn’t bad enough, the games masters also have some horrific tricks up their sleeves: a deadly wild-fire with fireballs reigning down; killer crackerjack bees; poisonous berries; water supplies drying up overnight and finally hideous mutant beasts.

All in all The Hunger Games is a gritty, dystopian young adult adventure, full of hardship, danger, love, death, friendship and courage; that lost known of its shine on re-reading it. I look forward to continuing my re-read of the trilogy with Catching Fire soon. Great read.

Have you read this? Have you watched the films?

This was also book 5/10 for my 10 Books of Summer 2018 reading challenge.

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New Read: Hannah’s Moon

Having previously enjoyed John A. Heldt’s Indiana Belle and Class of ’59, I picked up Hannah’s Moon, the fifth and final instalment in Heldt’s American Journey series, back in July to discover how it all ends. Although there is a continuing background thread to this series each book has its own individual, time travelling adventure so you could read these as stand-alone stories too.

In 2017, after struggling for years to conceive and then suffering the tragic still-birth of their only child, Claire and Ron Rasmussen decide to turn to adoption to start their longed-for family. Just after making this difficult decision, Claire is contacted by her brother David with an extraordinary offer from their distant aunt and uncle: How would they like to travel back to a time when there was an abundance of bouncing babies available to adopt and red tape was short? Within weeks, Claire, Ron, and David unbelievably find themselves, with a suitcase of money and false documents, on a train to Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1945!

Through the alternating third person narration of Claire, Ron and David it was lovely to experience 1940s America, with its sedan cars, friendly neighbours, copious amounts of pie and a wonderful innocence, even despite the world war which is still raging. Claire, Ron and David are all likeable characters (even if they ‘chuckled’ and ‘giggled’ a little too much for my liking, as was Cameron’s wont in Indiana Belle too). So I enjoyed seeing Claire and Ron successfully adopt the angelic baby Hannah and David befriending their beautiful neighbour, Margaret. Then I felt for them when Ron is forced to join the Navy and Claire and David come under suspicion by the secret services.

As with his previous books, Heldt has stuck to his familiar time travelling formulae. A formulae which some may argue is a little far-fetched, as Heldt never really explains how the characters time travel with any realistic scientific detail. Personally I prefer the lack of scientific detail and I am happy to completely suspend belief and once you have these books make for light, escapist reads full of love, romance, hope, danger and endurance. And Hannah’s Moon is no exception.

For those interested, the continuing background thread revolves around Geoffrey and Jeanette Belle, through whose time tunnel (powered by gypsum crystals in their basement) all the characters in this series have gone off on their time travelling adventures. If you hadn’t already guessed it, the Belles are Claire’s distant aunt and uncle. And the last few chapters of this final book are dedicated to a reunion of all the characters from the series (some were unfamiliar to me as I haven’t read the earlier books but this wasn’t an issue as Heldt introduces them all to each other) for a poignant resolution.

Overall, I thought Hannah’s Moon was a nostalgic, time travelling adventure with touches of romance and drama. I enjoyed it more than Class of ’59 but not as much as Indiana Belle, the latter is definitely still my favourite. Now this series has come to an end, I look forward to trying Heldt’s newer Carson Chronicles series. Okay read.

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

Have you read this? Any recommendations of other books set in the 1940s?

This is book 4/10 for my 10 Books of Summer 2018 reading challenge.

New Read: Charles II

All the way back in March, I picked up the weighty Charles II, Biography of an Infamous King by new-to-me author John Miller (originally published in 1991), a republication of which I snapped up for free via Endeavour Press’ weekly e-newsletter. I dipped in and out of this hefty tome over several months – Finally completing it at the end of July.

In this biography, based on extensive research in the UK, France and the US, Miller delves into the age in which Charles lived and unravels Charles’ complicated and often contradictory personality. On one hand he is seen as a shrewd, intelligent and resourceful king, but on the other hand as a man of great indolence, indulgence and frivolity. Miller suggests that, while Charles was intelligent, his impatience with administrative protocol and a certain weakness of character, made it easy for others to manipulate him. Also that perhaps much of his indolence was only a façade to buy him time to vacillate over important decisions and to lull his detractors.

To understand him better we need to look at the time period. Between 1642-1651 the land was ripped apart by the English Civil War that resulted in his father, Charles I being deposed and executed in 1649. Which forced Charles into nine years of exile. After the death of Oliver Cromwell, Charles was invited back and the monarchy restored in 1660. However his experience of the wars left him indecisive – vacillating uncertainly between policies as he tried to please everybody. It also left him reluctant to trust his subjects and led him into policies which seriously damaged the good will of his people.

Now this wasn’t really the read I was expecting. From the subtitle ‘Biography of an Infamous King’ I was looking forward to the juicy details of Charles’ many mistresses… but there is none of that! Instead this is a purely political biography. Told through long, detailed tracts of the numerous bills, acts and declarations that were discussed, argued, passed and thrown out by parliament. Including the Act of Uniformity (to conform the English Church), the Test Act (to prevent Catholics holding office) and the defeated Exclusion Bill (to exclude Charles’ brother James from the throne).

So very like Charles himself, I slowly struggled through swathes of minute political detail – I had little interest in – to find those impressive gems of historical fact and insight that I craved. Fortunately Charles and I did manage to reach the end. In his last few years, Charles did find some resolution, defeated his enemies and left the Stuart monarchy more powerful than it had ever been before or after. While I was left feeling I had really accomplished something and gained a new understanding of a much (I feel a little unfairly) disregarded king.

Overall Charles II, Biography of an Infamous King is an extremely detailed and an impeccably well researched political history. The only problem was a political history wasn’t really what I wanted. However if politics is your cup of tea, you might love this. Okay read.

Have you read this? Can you recommend a personal history of Charles II?

New Read: Sandokan, The Pirates of Malaysia

After I enjoyed the swashbuckling classic, Sandokan, The Tigers of Mompracem by Italian author Emilio Salgari, last year, I was thrilled to be offered the chance to read another, Sandokan, The Pirates of Malaysia, by its translator Nico Lorenzutti. First published in 1896 this edition was translated by Lorenzutti in 2007.

Some years after the last adventure and the destruction of their home, Sandokan, the feared ‘Tiger of Malaysia’; his faithful friend Yanez and his loyal band of rebel pirates are back with a vengeance. On one such raid, Yanez spares the life of a young Indian man, Kammamuri, who is attempting to rescues his poor master, Tremal-Naik, who has been wrongfully sentenced to life in a notorious British penal colony. Kammamuri enlists the help of Sandokan and Yanez, but in order to succeed they must lead their men against the forces of James Brooke, ‘The Exterminator’, the dreaded White Rajah of Sarawak.

It was great fun to be re-united with our righteously angry, princely pirate Sandokan and his friend, my personal favourite, Yanez, the charming Portuguese adventurer. However it was sad to learn that Marianna, ‘The Pearl of Labuan’, the woman Sandokan moved heaven and earth to possess, has tragically died in the few intervening years. But this does help to show a softer, more human side to Sandokan, especially when he discovers that Kammamuri has in his protection his master’s fiancée Ada Corishant; who is the very image of her beautiful cousin… Sandokan’s very own, dear Marianna!

Sadly Ada plays an equally small, passive role in the adventure, as Marianna did in the previous book. However Ada is by far a more interesting character: having been snatched from her father and fiancée in India by the terrible Thuggee cult. This shocking event and the violence she witnesses during her time with them have shockingly sent her quite mad, which is the main reason she plays such an understandably passive role. Seeing the sad state this beautiful, young woman has been brought to only resolves Sandokan and his pirates to see her fiancée, Tremal-Naik free and reunited with her.

While it was nice to have a more interesting female character and through her a more touching, realistic romance, what I really picked this book up for was adventure! And boy did Salgari deliver more of that! With battles at sea, deadly traps, shipwrecks, cannibals, jungle hideouts and a fetid convict ship, Salgari takes us on another fast paced, roller coaster ride. Also Lorenzutti’s translation is so smooth and seamless it means we never miss a beat or flow of the all the twists and turns.

Overall, I thought Sandokan, The Pirates of Malaysia was another rip-roaring adventure (with a touch of romance) that swept me back in time and across the seas. I look forward to reading more by this author. Good read.

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

Have you read this? Or any of Sandokan’s other adventures?

This is also book 3/50 off my Classics Club II list.

New Read: Sourcery

A few years ago now, I started to work my way through the books from Terry Pratchett’s epic Discworld series, which my father and I already own or as we get our hands on them. My last foray into this series was the Egyptian-inspired Pyramids, however for my next read I had to go back a little in the series. After getting my hands on a copy of Sourcery, the fourth published Discworld novel, last year.

In Sourcery, we return to Pratchett’s magic, weird and fantastical Discworld, as summer thunder rolls over sandy cliffs and the banished Ipslore the Red sits among the sea grasses, with his baby son, Coin awaiting Death. Now Ipslore was the eighth son of an eighth son, so, quite naturally, he was a wizard. But quite unnaturally he went and had seven sons, and then he had Coin: an eighth son… a wizard squared… a source of magic… a Sourcerer! Fast forward a few years to Coin – now an extremely powerful little boy – as he and his enchanted staff arrive at the Unseen University. Creating chaos as pure, raw magic flows from him into the old fusty wizards and building.

What ensues is the upheaval of the old, the traditional, the normal! As through the staff Ipslore controls Coin to enact revenge over the wizards, that banished him, and the world, which has side-lined magic as irrelevant. In steps Rincewind, an insufferably inept wizard and his fiercely loyal but maniacal Luggage to the rather reluctant rescue! (For those who don’t know, the Luggage is a large, iron-bound chest made of magical Sapient Pearwood, which has legs and can move very fast if the need arises). They are joined by the beautiful but deadly Conina, daughter of Conan the Barbarian in a hair-brain scheme led by a hat to save the world. Yes, I said a hat!

I love Terry Pratchett and this is now my tenth Discworld novel I have read. It is the fourth instalment in the series, first published back in 1988 (a great year). 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 we see the return of old favourites Rincewind, the Luggage and the banana loving Librarian, as well as a host of new, colourful characters. So while I don’t think this is perhaps the funniest or most memorable of those I have read, there is definitely something here for existing, diehard Discworld fans and new readers alike.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Sourcery by Terry Pratchett. Although not one of my favourites from the series, it is another slice of madcap, fantasy fun, which helped me relax and escape the madness of the end of term at work. I look forward to reading more and I have plenty to choose from on my TBR. Good read.

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

This is book 3/10 for my 10 Books of Summer 2018 reading challenge.

New Read: The Return of the Prodigal Son

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 June, we read and discussed Vanishing Grace by Philip Yancey. The group takes a break over summer, but I thought I would get ahead by reading The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri J.M. Nouwen; believing it had replaced But Is It Real? by Amy Orr-Ewing as our September book… however it turns out the books have been switched back round! Oh well – I had almost finished this when I found out and I still have plenty of time to read Orr-Ewing’s book as well before our meeting in September.

In The Return of the Prodigal Son, the bestselling writer and pastor, Henri Nouwen chronicles how a chance encounter with a poster of Rembrandt’s painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son, catapulted him into a long spiritual adventure. That saw him making a pilgrimage to the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg to see the original in the flesh and undertaking deep, personal meditation; that led him to discover the place within which God has chosen to dwell.

Inspired by Rembrandt’s powerful depiction of the Gospel story, Nouwen probed the several elements to the parable: the younger son’s return, the father’s restoration of sonship, the elder son’s resentment and the father’s compassion. Broken down into three parts with three short chapters each, Nouwen describes and discusses concisely each element and how he feels about them. With this lay out it meant I was able to take my time and easily dip in and out of this book, which gave me plenty of time to think and reflect.

The themes of homecoming, affirmation and reconciliation contained in this book will resonate with all of us who have ever experienced loneliness, dejection, jealousy or anger. I was also interested in how Nouwen felt that he and many of us have probably been both the younger and elder son at some point in our lives; even if you initially feel sympathy for one or the other. But the point is not which son we are, instead the challenge is to be able to love like the father and to be loved as the son, which Nouwen believed was the ultimate revelation of this parable.

Overall I thought The Return of the Prodigal Son was an inspiring guide that helped me to look at this well-known parable with fresh eyes, and I think it should make for an interesting discussion point. My church’s book club should meet sometime in October to discuss this – I think I will repost this review then, with the extra thoughts from the group for you. Good read.

Have you read this? Or anything else by Henri Nouwen?

I am also including this book towards my What’s in a Name 2018 reading challenge, as a title with the word ‘the’ used twice (3/6).

New Read: Eleanor of Aquitaine

Back at the beginning of July, I continued my summer reading with the first in a historical saga, Eleanor of Aquitaine by new-to-me author Christopher Nicole. Originally published in 1995 under the pen name of Alan Savage – I came across this, Endeavour Press’ 2016 republication, on Netgalley.

This book took me back to 1135 to meet Eleanor, the beautiful thirteen-year-old heiress to the Duchy of Aquitaine and the most eligible bride in Europe. Negotiations are in progress for her marriage to the Dauphin, Louis of France when her father dies suddenly giving her no choice but to rush the wedding ahead. Thus in a space of a few short months Eleanor transforms from heiress to duchess, to Dauphine, to Queen of France at only fifteen years old. With her marriage comes the end of her girlhood dreams of romance however her burning desire for love and adventure remains.

While her adventurous streak is fed by taking up the cross and travelling to Jerusalem with her husband during the disastrous Second Crusade, her burning desire for love is not sated by the pious Louis; who as the younger son was initially destined for a monastic life before the sudden death of his older brother, Philip. Even before the Crusade, Eleanor and Louis were becoming estranged, and their differences were only exacerbated while they were abroad. After returning to France and the birth of a second daughter, Louis finally agreed to an annulment of their fifteen year marriage.

Immediately Eleanor escapes and makes for Poitiers – on the way evading two attempts to kidnap and marry her. Only on arriving to be claimed by the much younger Henry, Duke of Normandy and the future King Henry II of England. And this is where my prior knowledge of Eleanor begins, so it was really interesting in this book to read about her life with her first husband. Nicole portrays Eleanor as a precocious young woman, who grows into a strong-willed, passionate queen. Which fits well with the rebellious wife and formidable dowager queen I knew she went on to be in later life.

My only problem with this book was the sex. Okay, I get it Eleanor is famed to be the ‘queen of love’ or in other circles defamed as a worldly harlot. Also I knew the rumours of her ‘excessive affection’ for her uncle Raymond, prince of Antioch, who she was reunited with during the Crusade. So I knew love affairs would probably be involved in this story, however I was not prepared for the numerous amount and/or the erotic detail they would described in. According to Nicole neither man, boy or woman was safe around Eleanor!

Fortunately, overall I found Eleanor of Aquitaine to be such a gripping historical soap opera, that I was able to skim quickly over those pesky sex scenes and continue on undeterred. I have book two in the saga, Queen of Love, ready and waiting on my Kindle. 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 any other fiction about Eleanor?

This is book 2/10 for my 10 Books of Summer 2018 reading challenge.