Friday, 24 June 2022

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett


Review by TheMole

Brutha is working in the monastery gardens when a turtle lands nearby - as they do. This turtle was supposed to be a mighty eagle but you can't have everything.

Brutha is a novice in the monastery, dedicated to the god Om, and is not likely to progress because while he seems to lack many skills he also has unrecognised skills. One such skill is to hear the voice of this particular turtle who claims to be the god Om. Brutha is a gentle soul and would not hurt a harmless creature and so he becomes guardian of the turtle god.

Brutha is chosen to go with a delegation to try to persuade them to worship Om but he suspects treachery, murder and war may ensue. And harmless Brutha with his pet turtle are trapped in the middle.

The 13th book in the series this felt like a deviation from the "normal" Discworld books but still delights in the same humorous vein. None of the regular characters appear although you very quickly don't miss them.

Once again you can see parallels to real life and views on those events expressed - but not at the expense of humour and a most enjoyable story.

Highly recommended but if you're new to the Discworld and want to know what it's all about then consider not starting with this one.

Publisher: Transworld

Genre: Fantasy, comedy

Thursday, 23 June 2022

Madwoman by Louisa Treger

In 1887, Nellie Bly arrived in New York determined to make a name for herself in journalism, not in the accepted female range of journalism, of theatre reviews and flower arranging, but as a serious reporter covering social issues and inequalities. She'd had some success in her home town of Pittsburgh, but New York proved a harder nut to crack. In desperation she came up with a plan to get admitted to the asylum on Blackwell's Island and uncover the treatment of the patients there. What she found was beyond her most horrific expectations. 

Madwoman follows the true story of pioneering journalist Nellie Bly, her internment in a mental health facility, and the cruelty and oppression she found there. Although I wasn't aware of Nellie's story, I had heard of the appalling treatment of mental health patients in the days of 'lunatic asylums', and of many cases of people wrongly incarcerated. As such, much of the dreadful treatment didn't come as a shock to me,  and I found the writing style also distanced me from the horror; for my preferences, it was a little too much 'tell', not enough 'show'.

Not a book you'll 'enjoy', but one which many may find informative and shocking.

Thursday, 16 June 2022

Half a Soul by Olivia Atwater

As a child, Dora Ettings wandered into Faerieland, and had half her soul stolen away. Since then she's only experienced emotions in a detached way. She feels neither fear not embarrassment, and doesn't see how falling in love would be remotely possible. 

Now, Dora's accompanying her cousin, Vanessa, to London in the hope of finding husbands for them both during the Season.  In polite society, say at a ball, Dora's curse makes her inclined to say or do the wrong thing, but when her aunt tries to pair her off with Albert Lowe, an eligible 'younger son' who helps as a doctor in the city's workhouses, Dora's lack of feeling proves invaluable; the dreadful conditions she encounters don't repulse her, and she's able to calmly assist when needed. This isn't, of course, what her aunt had planned. Nor is a close association with the Lord Sorcier, Elias Wilder, who she meets though Albert and his investigation into a mysterious sleeping sickness spreading among the workhouse children. 

I'd expected a light Regency Bridgerton-style romcom, with a hint of faerie magic, but found something with more grit. Yes, there are balls and romance, but there are also darker undercurrents which I think made it more compelling for me. On one hand, there's the dark world of Faerie which threatens to trap Dora, just as everything seems to be going well for her. On the other, the work of Albert and Elias among the poor exposes the very real conditions of 19th century workhouses, and also the lack of concern shown by much of society for anyone unfortunate enough to end up there. Neither Bridgerton nor Austen's works concern themselves much with the world beyond 'society', but here the reader is forced to see beyond the fancy ballgowns and marriage market, and encounter complacent attitudes which seem very common today.

I understand there are further books planned in this series, and I'm intrigued to discover what they're like. 


Thursday, 9 June 2022

The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley by Sean Lusk

 Abel Cloudesley is a renowned maker of clocks and mechanical marvels in 18th century London. Left devastated by the death of his wife in childbirth, he tries his best to bring up his son Zachary with the help of a wet nurse, Mrs Morley, and occasional interference from his wife's eccentric aunt Frances, but an accident in the workshop leaves six year old Zachary blind in one eye, and everyone agrees that Aunt Frances's country house with its weird collection of birds and animals would be a better place for a young inquisitive boy.

Zachary has always been wise beyond his years, and able to randomly forecast future events. Now, seemingly aided by an artificial eye created by Abel's most skilled assistant, he seems able to read thoughts and hopes, and when his father is lost on a government mission to Constantinople, Zachary is the only one who believes he's still alive and in need of rescue.

I'm trying hard to not give away the whole plot, but this is one of those books that seem difficult to give a feel for without doing so! Part historical fiction, part fantasy, it wasn't quite as I expected (I had hoped for a greater fantasy element), but I still enjoyed it immensely. From Abel's workshop to the crowded streets and luxurious palaces of Constantinople it's a very atmospheric read that will cast its spell over you; it's not one to dash through, but to sink into and savour. The cast of characters are equally numerous and varied, from Abel's old school friend now up to something shady in the British government to the black eunuch in charge of the seraglio, who's possibly the real power in Constantinople. I particularly liked the inclusion of LGBTQ characters as people just getting on with life and love, being accepted by others for who they were without any fuss. 

It's an adventure story but also one about love and the ties that bind family, friends and lovers. One I would say for lovers of Alix E Harrow's The Ten Thousand Doors of January or Claire North's novels.

Thursday, 26 May 2022

The Red Arrow by William Brewer

 'A failed American novelist is on honeymoon in Italy, but the day of this story he's travelling from Rome to Modena by the 'frecciarossa' high-speed train (the 'red arrow' of the book's title). He's in the process of ghost-writing the life story of a famous physicist, but the physicist has disappeared - refusing to answer e-mails or phone calls. This has put our unnamed narrator in a fix, as finishing the memoir was the only way he could write off a huge advance from his publishers, but he's hoping to find the physicist at home on his family estate. 

While the train rushes through Italian countryside, the narrator's thoughts wonder back over his life - through years of depression and the life-altering psychedelic drug treatment which saved him. 

The Red Arrow is a difficult book to describe without giving a complete spoiler. The writing is straight forward, very American to my mind (though I'd be hard pressed to describe what exactly I mean by that), but the narrator's thoughts are circuitous, constantly circling round the big 'treatment' event without approaching it. Even so, I found it very readable. 

There's a huge amount of coincidence or interconnectedness to events and characters, and a resolution which resembles the 'which came first; the chicken or the egg?' conundrum. To be honest this seems only fair and fitting as I picked this read up from Netgalley solely on the basis that one of our local buses is named the Red Arrow. What I didn't expect was the brief appearance of my grandmother's next door neighbour, D H Lawrence, but that's coincidence for you.  
All in all, an intriguing book, and one I think I'll read again.

Thursday, 19 May 2022

The Mysterious Island by Saviour Pirotta


illustrated by Davide Ortu

Wolf lives in the Neolithic Age on the islands of Orkney, off the north coast of Britain. He's no good at the things that matter to his family and fellow islanders - things like fishing, hunting, or minding sheep - but has at last discovered his place in life and how to help his people, by becoming a shaman. The village's current shaman is willing to help him, but the shaman's son, Rain, who has never really liked Wolf, wants to be the one to replace his father, and his ambition will stop at nothing. 

Now, Rain has stolen Wolf's precious amulet, and in an attempt to retrieve it Wolf and his friend Crow (a young female warrior) find themselves on a journey across seas and unknown lands to an island at the centre of the world. Along the way Wolf and Crow see caves filled with paintings, a mountain that shoots fire into the sky, and temples constructed by long-forgotten people, but the most important discovery comes from within Wolf himself; that forgiveness is better than retaliatory anger.

This third book in the Wolfsong series continues Wolf's story on the path to achieving his ambition of becoming a shaman, to help his people interpret the spirits around them, and to conquer the evil ones that live within him. Aimed at children aged 7 and over, it fits well with Key Stage 2 history, but is first and foremost an adventure story, full of dangers and wonders, bringing the past to life with characters and situations that children can relate to, aided as always by Davide Ortu's illustrations. 

Wednesday, 11 May 2022

The Mercenary River: Private Greed, Public Good: A History of London's Water By Nick Higham

Clean water available at the turn of a tap is something we all take for granted, at least in the 'developed' world. If you think about it at all it's when something goes wrong and supply fails, or when a documentary about conditions elsewhere reminds you of the value of water piped to your home. Does anyone wonder where their water actually comes from? Probably not; we've grown to expect it to be there when needed. And does anyone ever wonder about WHO decided to pipe water into our homes, and WHY?

These are the thoughts that prompted Nick Higham to research the history behind London's water system. It's basically a tale of two halves - on one hand of the recognition that fresh water delivered via pipes is a basic need, keeping dirt and disease at bay, especially in over-crowded cities; on the other, the realisation that there's money to be made in providing that service. It shouldn't really come as a surprise that such a basic necessity was so easily turned into a source of profit, and at such an early date, but somehow it does.

Medieval Londoners were supplied with water, surprisingly at no cost, via conduits, but as the city grew, so did its need for water, and, from 1619 with the setting up of the New River company, so did the network of pipes carrying it, and ultimately carrying sewerage away. And with the supply of water came other things - the creation of civil engineering, and a new form of financing; the joint stock corporation. The history of London's water supply is seen to be inevitably linked to so many aspects of life from health and hygiene to powering industry to nepotism and financial corruption. 

Considering the complexity and breadth of the subject, The Mercenary River is very readable, balancing anecdotes about the entrepreneurs, investors, and engineers associated with these colossal projects with the overwhelming amount of facts and figures necessarily involved. It's not a light bedside read but if you've an interest in the who and what and why of the development of society than it's very interesting.