Category: book reviews

Review: Dunstan by Conn Iggulden

Following my post on Thursday, written in all haste in the last ten minutes of my lunch hour, I announced that to celebrate reaching 100 followers I was going to post an extra review this week!

I was fishing for an excuse really. It had already crossed my mind that I was going to be falling behind if I didn’t throw some extras in. Nevertheless, today I am posting the review, as promised!

Dunstan
GoodReads – Dunstan

The year is 937. England is a nation divided, ruled by minor kings and Viking lords. Each vies for land and power. The Wessex king Æthelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, readies himself to throw a spear into the north.

As would-be kings line up to claim the throne, one man stands in their way.

Dunstan, a fatherless child raised by monks on the moors of Glastonbury Tor, has learned that real power comes not from God, but from discovering one’s true place on Earth. Fearless in pursuit of his own interests, his ambition will take him from the courts of princes to the fields of battle, from exile to exaltation.

For if you cannot be born a king, or made a king, you can still anoint a king.

Under Dunstan’s hand, England may come together as one country – or fall apart in anarchy . . .

From Conn Iggulden, one of our finest historical writers, Dunstan is an intimate portrait of a priest and murderer, liar and visionary, traitor and kingmaker – the man who changed the fate of England.

 

I originally decided I was going to read this book as I was introduced to this particular period of history by a work colleague, in the form of another series of books by Bernard Cornwell. Maybe this particular period of history is new to you. Perhaps you had the opportunity to watch “The Last Kingdom”, which aired on BBC Two here in the UK. I am also assured by other sources on the world-wide-web that it was shown on BBC America and the first season is also available on Netflix. If historical dramas are of interest to you – I really recommend it!

Dunstan picks up a little after the reign of Alfred the Great, whose reign and resistance to the Viking invasion features in the aforementioned series. Having loved this particular set of books so far I wanted to see how history panned out after the invasion.

Turns out, whilst England was under one rule, much of the struggles faced by King Alfred the Great live on past his reign.

Some slaves are kings and some kings, slaves, but that is because the world is corrupt and in ruins, no matter how high we build. – Dunstan

The history and turbulence within the monarchy following King Æthelstan’s death is narrated by Dunstan, who dedicated his life to the restoration of the Abbey at Glastonbury. You would expect a man in this position to be a humble one, serving God through his position as Abbot. Think again. He is far from honest: he cheats, he lies and he is a murderer. He’s a manipulator. At one point he saves his brother from death by performing a risky surgical procedure on him and succeeds. The fact that he then later emotionally blackmails Wulfric and puts him in the position of committing treason for his own gain, well, I think that tells you everything about our MC. There is only one person Dunstan will truly look out for, and that’s Dunstan.

Naturally, I didn’t like our far from humble and backstabbing narrator, but the narration from his perspective was not completely spoiled by this brat of a human being. We get to experience first hand the repelling of the Scots and the Danes in Ireland, as well as the reformation of the Royal Mint.

Dunstan finds himself serving many Kings following Æthelstan’s death. He had very clear ideas about who he liked and who he disliked. Of course, those in his favour were either his friends or people he felt he could influence with his affiliation to God. I found it laughable at Dunstan’s distaste for Prince Edwy. In my humble opinion, he was very much like Dunstan and their clash is probably as a result of having similar personalities!! Dunstan favoured Edwy’s younger brother to be King, voted for at a Witten (a meeting of influential lords, landowners etc).

I am not going to turn this review into a history lesson. In my experience, you are either interested or you are not, so I’m not going to be that person to throw facts and figures at you. If you are interested, I would recommend the book to you. Whilst exploring the history of the English monarchy, it is still an entertaining read. Please note that my opinions are my own – let them cloud your judgement. You may have a different opinion. The only way you will know is if you find out for yourself. If anyone has read this book – I would love to hear your thoughts!!
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Review: Pet Sematary – Stephen King

I don’t wish to tempt fate and speak too early on the matter – but with this book I think Stephen King has made a fantastic introduction of the horror genre to me.

I realise I was wrong to exclude the genre from my reading preferences. Truth be told – I didn’t think I would enjoy it. I have mentioned on several occasions now how I dislike poorly made horror films made with an awful plot just to get you to jump out of your skin and hide behind the sofa. My dislike of these films is not because they scare me… in fact the problem is just the opposite. They are so predictable it’s not even funny.

If I ever watch anything remotely in the genre of horror, I prefer a psychological thriller with sophisticated plot twists. As it happens I don’t really watch much TV at the moment anyway – much less films.

I should have known I would be getting better than the equivalent of a budget blockbuster with Stephen King. I openly apologise now and admit I was wrong – this book was fantastic!

Pet Sematary

GoodReads – Pet Sematary

When the Creeds move into a beautiful old house in rural Maine, it all seems too good to be true: physician father, beautiful wife, charming little daughter, adorable infant son-and now an idyllic home. As a family, they’ve got it all…right down to the friendly car. But the nearby woods hide a blood-chilling truth-more terrifying than death itself-and hideously more powerful. The Creeds are going to learn that sometimes dead is better.

 

My Thoughts…

Death is always going to be a difficult topic to discuss – yet inevitably a fact of life is that one day it comes to an end. As to when that day is, I pray I never have to know when my time is up. I have had my fair share of experience with grief. I am only young, yet in my lifetime I have watched five family members make their final journey. Almost all of those were premature. At the age of 22 I have no living grandparents – the first of which died when I was 8. I barely had anytime to get to know her. Equally, my great-grandmother passed away at the age of 99 and didn’t want to make it to her 100th birthday. How different we all are.

When the Creed’s moved to Maine, little did they know what lay in the woods nearby. After welcoming them to the town their neighbour Jud leads them up the tended path to the cemetery. Little did the Creed’s realise the power it had.

On his first day at work as a physician at the local university, Louis loses his first patient within minutes…but that’s not the last he sees of Victor, however. The cemetery and Victor haunt his dreams with a foreboding warning – never to go beyond the deadfall.

During the Christmas period whilst Rachel, Ellie and Gage are away visiting family, the family cat has an unfortunate accident. Knowing how devastated Ellie would be, Louis ignores Victor’s warning received months before and follows Jud beyond the “Pet Sematary” tended by the generations of children of Ludlow and Winston Churchill, or Church for short, is buried in the darkness of night.

The next day and much to the surprise of Louis, Church comes back… though not quite the same as before. Cats can be creepy anyway, but imagine having an undead cat stalking around your house like it owns the place…

As it happens, the cat turns out to be the last of the Creed’s worries.

As the plot begins to unfold with the book, you realise what is going to happen. I cannot dispute that as much as this is my pet peeve with some other exhibits within the horror genre, this was written exceedingly well and very delicately. I’m not going to spoil it for anyone who has neither read the book or seen the film adaptation made, but what was more important was how events were going to play out. The pace of the book throughout suited the narration. As the plot unravels the suspension builds to the end yet doesn’t drag beyond necessary. It could be very easy to make a reader impatient waiting for the big moment, the make or break; the do or die.

Louis’ perspective was remarkably believable. It was easy to slip into his shoes and see the world from his point of view. Even though he is an unreliable narrator, his perspective is relevant to his circumstances. It is easy to justify his actions, almost to the point of reason. Almost. Equally chilling to me is Ellie’s awareness of what is going on. She dreams of Church’s death the night it happens. Victor also visits Ellie’s nightmares when his warning is ignored and Louis is on the path to destruction. The poor child can do nothing about it. They say that children are more perceptive and some can see ghosts. That thought currently isn’t making me feel any better.

I think Stephen King handled the theme very well. Is death easier to cope with if you knew that things would never be the same? Would it be worth the risk? Having read this I certainly wouldn’t meddle with it – even if coping with such a loss is heartbreaking, it is better to keep your memories sacrosanct and untarnished.

Review: Extracted – R R Haywood

Further to my Sunday Summary post, today I am reviewing Extracted by R R Haywood!



GoodReads – Extracted

In 2061, a young scientist invents a time machine to fix a tragedy in his past. But his good intentions turn catastrophic when an early test reveals something unexpected: the end of the world.

A desperate plan is formed. Recruit three heroes, ordinary humans capable of extraordinary things, and change the future.

Safa Patel is an elite police officer, on duty when Downing Street comes under terrorist attack. As armed men storm through the breach, she dispatches them all.

‘Mad’ Harry Madden is a legend of the Second World War. Not only did he complete an impossible mission—to plant charges on a heavily defended submarine base—but he also escaped with his life.

Ben Ryder is just an insurance investigator. But as a young man he witnessed a gang assaulting a woman and her child. He went to their rescue, and killed all five.

Can these three heroes, extracted from their timelines at the point of death, save the world?

 

In 2061 the time machine is created. During testing it is discovered if time is allowed to follow its course, the world will end in 2111.

In order to save the world three of the best human beings ever to have existed are extracted from the point of their death; Mad Harry Madden is rescued from his mission during the Second World War in 1943, Ben Calshott is extracted during an attack on the London Underground in 2015 and Safa Patel is retrieved whilst defending the Prime Minister in 2020.

It was refreshing to read a completely different genre for a change. I think the last time I read a true science fiction book was when I read War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. That also happens to be the first book I downloaded on my first Kindle, ever. To my mind time travel is a subject that can get very complicated very quickly, and thankfully, so far this book was not difficult to follow. Equally there were elements of this book that I found disappointing, which I will go further into below.

I prefer books written in third person by default, but I found the perspectives between the three characters switched sporadically. I understand that during times of action you want the narration to be punchy and have impact, and of course all three characters will have their own perspective of what is going on, but I feel more structure could have been applied so that the point of view of the text didn’t change so frequently and unexpectedly.

I also found the book lacked the amount of progress I was expecting from it. In essence, our three heroes are tasked with locating the point in time at which the end of the world was made inevitable and have to change it. If you don’t mind me saying, this is a pretty big task. To my mind this first book spent too much time focusing on the personal developments of the characters following their extraction and as a consequence the plot was underdeveloped.

That isn’t to say I won’t be continuing to read the trilogy. What has been written is perfectly readable, if not the finest piece of literature I have ever read. This series has a lot of potential and now I have invested into the characters so much, I want to see how they achieve this seemingly impossible task.

What I will say of R R Haywood’s writing is that the time travel element is explained well. I always knew who was where and when, and even when there are a couple of overlaps I was clear as to who is where and what their purpose is at that time. As I mentioned before, it is a subject that can get very confusing very quickly, but I felt this was handled very well.

 

Review: River God – Wilbur Smith

Hi everybody!!

It’s finally the weekend and we can all breathe a sigh of relief that another week is done. Today I am bringing to you a review of Wilbur Smith’s River God, the first in the series set in Egypt and narrated by Taita, a slave.

I was first introduced to Wilbur Smith as I stumbled across “Pharaoh” in one of my local bookshops with mum and dad. My grandad used to read Wilbur Smith, I was told as I pored over the book for the synopsis on the back cover. I knew at that point I wanted to read his books – and this series in particular.

To tell you a little of me, only one of my grandparents saw me grow to adulthood and even then only just. Just over three months past my eighteenth birthday my last surviving grandparent died suddenly.

I have known and loved all my grandparents equally, but in hindsight, I wish I had gotten to know some of them better. I had never contemplated that one day sooner than we would all like, they wouldn’t be here anymore. That being said, now I make the effort to do little things that they enjoyed and I use that time to remember them, whether it be completing the puzzles they taught me the rules of, listening to music they liked or even reading the books they enjoyed. It is the little things that count. They may not be with us here and now, but they are with me in spirit. I am a firm believer that whilst a person or their deeds are remembered by the living, they are never truly gone from the world.

River God

GoodReads – River God

For Tanus, the fair-haired young lion of a warrior, the gods have decreed that he will lead Egypt’s army in a bold attempt to reunite the Kingdom’s shared halves. But Tanus will have to defy the same gods to attain the reward they have forbidden him, an object more prized than battle’s glory: possession of the Lady Lostris, a rare beauty with skin the color of oiled ceder–destined for the adoration of a nation, and the love of one extraordinary man.

 

My Thoughts…

I love historical fiction and am reading a number of books in this genre at the moment. This particular book is set in Ancient Egypt and is set in a period much before all other historical fiction that I have read before. I found the culture and technological advancement fascinating as much of the things Taita creates or modifies are things that we take for granted everyday.

Taita is a slave. He is also a eunuch, a confidante, an architect, a military tactician, an artist, a doctor, a holy man and a seer into the future. He is skilled with carpentry, he can sing, write, direct theatre productions, learn a new language in days and teach his charges all subjects. In short, the only thing he is not very good at is being humble about what he can do and at times this royally got on my nerves. Nobody is this perfect, not even a slave to some of the most powerful men and women of nobility in Egypt.

Taita has been a slave almost all his life and considers himself born to serve. His master is the Lord Intef, the Pharaoh’s right hand man. War against the Pretender cripples Egypt of its wealth. At the festival of Osiris the Lord hosts his Pharaoh, a weak man compared to his ancestors. To better secure his position, Intef arranges the marriage of his fourteen year old daughter to the Pharaoh with the promise that she will become the principal wife if she gives him the male heir he needs to continue his line. Lostris despairs as she has eyes for another, Tanus, an officer in the Pharaoh’s army. At her request Taita works the mazes of Ammon-Ra and foretells that in five years the Pharaoh will be dead. In this secret knowledge, Lostris lives on in the hope that after his death she may join Tanus.

Five years later Pharaoh has his son and heir; war continues to ravage the land and a new threat comes to Egypt. An enemy far beyond the technological advancement of the Egyptians sweeps over the lands and conquers cities. Events unfold as Taita has predicted, and the Queen Regent Lostris is forced into exile with her son and her remaining people in order to survive. Twenty years they spend away from Egypt, relying on the Nile and the goddess Isis for safe passage.

Lostris inters the late Pharaoh safely as promised to him on his deathbed. Her people meet new civilisations, learn from the horrific losses of their previous battles and Prince Memnon grows into manhood. Finally they return to Egypt under their new Pharaoh to overthrow the Tyrant that turned them out.

Aside from my occasional dislikes of Taita when he brags about how much he is God’s gift to the planet, I think there is a lot to love about this book. For me reading is a form of escapism and the great thing about historical fiction is that you can learn in a fun way without getting bogged down in dates and particulars. I wish I had studied history more at school… I think there is a lot we can learn from previous mistakes.

This book comes third in my rankings of historical themed books. The first is the series known as “The Last Kingdom” and in second falls a non-fiction recount of events of the state visit by Khrushchev to the US during the Cold War. This is called K Blows Top, by Peter Carlson. The book is aptly named after Khrushchev loses his temper at not being allowed to visit Disneyland on his state visit, and many other hilarious antics unfold during his stay in the US.

I am currently starting another historical fiction series by Philippa Gregory, covering the period of the Wars of the Roses. At this point I also have a confession to make. After River God I was supposed to be reading A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. A few nights ago I tried in earnest to get started on this book and I just couldn’t get into it. I find the writing style not to my taste. After each chapter I was having to stop and think about what I had just read, to understand what was going on. I don’t mind doing this, but I feel reading this book now would be a hindrance to the progress I have made in my reading challenge.

I am not saying that I won’t read this book, but I am postponing it for now. Dicken’s lovers, please don’t hate me.

Animal Farm – George Orwell

Anyone who follows my blog will know that I managed to sneak this book into my June Reading List, having managed to get through all my planned reads ahead of schedule. I won’t keep you all from browsing too long  – a short review for a short book!

Animal Farm
GoodReads – Animal Farm

A farm is taken over by its overworked, mistreated animals. With flaming idealism and stirring slogans, they set out to create a paradise of progress, justice, and equality. Thus the stage is set for one of the most telling satiric fables ever penned –a razor-edged fairy tale for grown-ups that records the evolution from revolution against tyranny to a totalitarianism just as terrible.

When Animal Farm was first published, Stalinist Russia was seen as its target. Today it is devastatingly clear that wherever and whenever freedom is attacked, under whatever banner, the cutting clarity and savage comedy of George Orwell’s masterpiece have a meaning and message still ferociously fresh.

 

George Orwell has a remarkable ability of understanding society. Not only does he understand it – he tears it apart into little pieces, personifies (or rather animal-ises) all these elements and writes it down in simple terms for us all to see.

I am surprised I wasn’t made to study this at school – I know some other classes did, but not mine. It’s the perfect kind of book to pull apart and analyse to death! It’s one of the few books I would argue that was written for this purpose.

Orwell’s satirical approach to reflecting the nature of our society is very accurate. Much like animals, we are divided by our abilities and are expected to produce for what we perceive to be our own benefit. Money is always short, but the Leader never wants for whiskey. The Commandments are set and then the benchmarks moved to suit when the need arises. Hopes and dreams for a better society always remain dreams, yet somehow we never give up hope all the same.

This is a very quick and easy read, and it is a good eye-opener. I rate this book 4/5 stars.

 

The Last Kingdom & The Pale Horseman – Bernard Cornwell

I first came across this series as a television show back in autumn 2015, in which we follow the story of Uthred. Initially baptised as Osbert, he is raised in his ancestral home of Bebbanberg until one fateful day, when riding along the beach with his father, Danish ships are spotted on the coast.
As Ealdorman of Bebbanberg, Osbert’s father has to take action immediately. He sends his eldest son, Uthred, to spy on the ships and report back, however emboldened by the apparent lack of numbers, Uthred attacks and is killed by the Danes; his head delivered to his father as a warning. The Ealdorman is also subsequently killed in battle and Osbert, (now baptized Uthred as the eldest son of the family) is raised by the Danes that killed his father and took his home.
Thus begins the invasion of the Danes. Throughout the first book of the series, “The Last Kingdom”, we observe as the majority of the kingdoms of England are gradually taken over by the Danes, leaving only Wessex to make a stand for its freedom.
Uthred’s mixed loyalties are constantly challenged throughout the books so far. Whilst he spends the majority of time bound by allegiance to King Alfred’s fight for a United England, in hope that one day he can take back his ancestral home, he secretly longs for the Danish way of life, to serve his half-brother and join the Danes.
I only discovered that the series was based on Bernard Cornwell’s novels when my sister bought me the DVD of Season 1 for my birthday. I discussed this with a work colleague of mine who happened to have a copy of the first book. I loved the book that much I read it in a week, using every free minute to read.
It is the second book of the series I have just read and I felt it appropriate to include the first book as part of this write-up to fully explain where I am in Cornwell’s novels to date.
The second book of the series, “The Pale Horseman” begins with Uthred returning from battle with the Danes, in which he gave Ubba, one of the men who raided his home his warriors death (Danes believe that warriors, upon death, go to feast in Valhalla). He then goes to find his wife and child before returning to Alfred, who has been told different stories of Ubba’s death. His immense pride gets him in trouble once again, and Alfred forces him to pay penitence by crawling to an altar in front of a laughing crowd for God’s forgiveness. Oswald (the King’s nephew) convinces Uthred to do it to keep the peace and accompanies him, drawing attention away from him by making a show of himself instead.
Uthred continues to fight for the King as Wessex is raided by the Danes, at one time commanding ships for him, others serving as a hostage. Peace is negotiated and broken time and time again between the two sides whilst the Danes bide their time, waiting for more ships to land and join forces. Uthred becomes impatient with Alfred’s lack of actions and at one point let’s himself off the leash, taking the last ship he has command of and raiding England, disguising himself and his crew as Danes to acquire wealth.
Alfred is slowly driven into hiding with his family deep in the country of Wessex until they at last have to make a final stand and fight, or die.
I have only given the bare bones outline here as I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else who is reading or wishes to read the books. I would absolutely recommend them to anyone who loves historical fiction. I found the place names used take some adjusting to; as they are in archaic English (and not consistent apparently – though I haven’t noticed yet) some are very unlike modern names. Cornwell does however provide a reference for anybody interested in learning the names and where they relate to in modern-day England.
I think having watched the series helped me read these books. Whilst this is a genre I liked to read, it helped give context as to the roles people played and the hierarchy within society etc. These are explained by Uthred in the novels, but I found it easier to see and to have the constant reminder of it in this way rather than just a one-off explanation.
If anyone had read these books please share your thoughts! Did you enjoy them? Alternatively if you are struggling perhaps or have any questions, maybe I can help. Please drop me a line either way.
My next book of choice is Terry Prachett’s “Reaper Man”, which I will introduce to you all and review in due course!