Review Wednesday – The Chalk Man by CJ Tudor

9B7B0633-09DC-4705-B56A-C8C7420E9633Twelve year old Eddie and his mates are like any other group of kids; friends but with a healthy dollop of rivalry and leg-pulling thrown in. A much anticipated visit to the fairground is a chance for the friends to go out together without parents in tow, but the night ends badly and has a life-changing effect on them and Eddie in particular. 

When one of the group receives a bucket of chalks for his birthday the kids begin to use what was at first regarded as a naff present to leave one another secret, coded messages. It’s a great game, but leads to a gruesome discovery in the woods and once again the children’s lives are touched by tragedy. 

The story runs on two timelines, 1986 when the fairground incident occurred and present day when Eddie is forty two years old. The ramifications of what happened in 1986 have never been forgotten and when chalk figures begin to appear the past is brought back in a rush of memories and events that must be confronted. 

There are a lot of twists in this book but, for me, rather than make it more of a page turner, that was its downfall. It’s a good book and an absolutely intriguing premise but in an effort to keep the reader guessing, the author, I think, introduced too many plot lines. The result, for me, was that it stretched my belief too far, particularly the very last twist which seemed to serve no purpose at all. 

Having said that, there were some very good moments; when Eddie goes to see Mr Halloran for the last time, the results of his actions are clear and chilling. 

I enjoyed The Chalk Man but, in this case, a slightly more simplified plot may have been more effective. 

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Review Wednesday – The Northwater by Ian McGuire

18A9F5FD-28DF-45AF-B057-90A58732DD24Having read the long and arduous, true-life tale of The Essex in the book The Heart of The Sea, I had put off reading The Northwater, despite the reviews and praise and despite it being a work of fiction. Although I am drawn to stories of survival in the cold and inhospitable corners of the world, I’d had enough of brutal descriptions of the whaling industry for the time being. Finally, I succumbed to the lure of this book and I say, Wow, I am so glad that I did. 

In some ways, although a work of fiction, The Northwater is even more tough and uncompromising in its descriptions and yet at the same time, for me, it so perfectly captured the place and the era. As the ship set sail in 1859, I felt that I had time-traveled to a world that I could hardly comprehend; rough and uncaring of man or beast. 

Into this world comes Drax, the worst of the worst, and Sumner a doctor with a history he would rather forget. They are thrown together with a rag tag crew to head north from The English port of Hull in search of whales. What neither man knows is that the captain has a very different agenda for the voyage. 

The story surprised me; yes, there are the descriptions of the despicable trade of whaling, and of the totally unfeeling treatment of any other creature the sailors happen upon, including their fellow man, but what made them interesting was the viewpoint, shown through the rough-hewn characters and morals of the time. It felt as believable as it was shocking.

As the story progresses the real purpose of the voyage is revealed along with the escalating crimes of the monster, Drax. Murder and rape are nothing to him and it will take a strong man to stop him. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this tale but beware, ultra-strong language and terminology make it not for the faint of heart.

I couldn’t end this review without a few words about the narrator of the Audible presentation,  John Keating. He was excellent; I couldn’t imagine any voice more perfect for the book. 

Review Wednesday – The Idiot Brain by Dean Burnett

AFCB6892-4C93-4272-8E7E-9B835423C975Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist with a sense of humour. In The Idiot Brain he attempts to describe the inner workings of our minds in a way that we can understand… that is, as far as anyone can understand. Burnett makes no apology about how little even ‘experts’ really know about the functioning of the brain.

If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.

Burnett uses the above quote to illustrate just how little is truly known about the organ that makes us what we are. But he goes bravely on to explain, in a brilliant way with words, what is known, or thought to be known. 

The book is divided into chapters covering the various areas of the brain; the senses, fear, attempts to measure intelligence, memory and what can happen when things go wrong. It is an interesting and, at times, sobering read, despite Burnett’s sometimes hilarious turns of phrase. As someone with a loved one who has suffered a neurological/psychological disorder for the last four years, I know the frustration and heartbreak that such problems can bring. As I said before, for me, the most abiding message in this excellent book is that, despite research pushing the boundaries, so much still needs to be understood. 

I enjoyed The Idiot Brain; I felt I learned something from it. Dean Burnett is a delight. In his introduction he tells us, 

A former colleague once told me that I’d get a book published ‘when hell freezes over’. Sorry to Satan, this must be very inconvenient for you. 

I am glad he persevered. 

Blackwater – The Complete Saga by Michael McDowell

4C86D523-F1B9-4318-A4A1-662441A77DEBOh my goodness! Reading other reviews I see I am in a very small minority who found this story far too drawn out. That is not to say I didn’t enjoy it. As I came to the last chapter I was actually sorry, on one hand, to say goodbye to the Caskey family and yet, on the other, quite relieved! 

A saga, of course, is a saga and not a short story and I see that this was originally published in several parts. Perhaps, had I listened to the book in parts (an Audible book magnificently narrated by Matt Godfrey) instead of going straight through, I would have found it less daunting. 

About the story: It opens after a devastating flood has inundated the town of Perdido, Alabama. No one has completely escaped the fury, not even the wealthy Caskey family. During the aftermath, a woman, Elinor Dammert, is found stranded in a hotel room and is taken in by the family. 

And so the saga begins… 

It’s part family history, part horror, though, apart from a few key moments the horror is very low key. 

It quickly becomes clear that Elinor is not the stranded newcomer in need of shelter that she claims to be, and she does indeed prove to be the central figure in this complex cast of characters. Her motivations were less clear. The survival of her species? She certainly is also capable of very human traits like revenge. 

The Caskey’s unremitting wealth, despite many family members being either too disinterested or simply incapable of contributing to the business was, at times, hard to believe. The way in which certain actions and attitudes were explained also left me wide eyed. However, the sheer scale of the story was impressive and the characters finely drawn.

Although I did not know this author before, I see he wrote other well received works and I am tempted to try another in the future. 

Review Wednesday – Ready Player One by Earnest Cline

14CFA496-5D56-4FB2-A065-AB499D1A9791Set in 2045, the world is a sadly dangerous and depleted place and Oklahoma teenager Wade Watts lives in a dwelling known to residents as The Stacks. Though the author doesn’t go overboard with his description of this housing (and he does with lots of other descriptions) I quickly formed a vivid and overwhelmingly  depressing mental picture of the place. It’s understandable that anyone unfortunate enough to live there would need some kind of escapism. 

Luckily,  James Halliday, eccentric, mega-wealthy and deceased, had made it his life’s work to invent Oasis, a virtual Utopia where everyone goes by their Avatar and life is good. In his will, Halliday leaves Oasis and all his millions to the person who can find the keys and unlock the Easter Egg, the ultimate prize. 

A quirk that is vital to any chance of winning the prize is an in-depth knowledge of 80’s pop and games culture. Wade, in his avatar guise as Parzival has made it his mission to be an expert and has played 80’s games over and over in a bid to know every character and move. He thinks he has a serious chance of taking the prize but he is not alone, and some of those undertaking the quest are not as friendly or as honest as Parzival’s virtual best friend Aech, or Art3mis or Shoto and Daito.

There is a dark underbelly in the real world and they are determined to win. 

Ready Player One is fun. It’s basically some computer characters wielding their swords and finding golden keys. But there is a huge amount of description, almost like a walk-through of a computer game and, despite excellent narration on Audible, at times I just wanted something to happen. This is a long book, longer, for me, than it needed to be. The 80’s stuff could be a bit wearing. At it’s heart is a love story, a good v evil battle, a dystopian nightmare of what the world might become. It’s the kind of book that I probably enjoyed more in the reflection of it afterwards, rather than some of the real-time reading. But it did make me reflect – and not all books do that. 

New release – Born in a Treacherous Time by Jacqui Murray

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I am so pleased to have been given the opportunity to read this new book from Jacqui Murray. I have read and enjoyed her work before but this is a very different read, something new to me and fascinating. I loved her approach, her telling of the human and emotional side of the story rather than simply the (very real) physical struggle of the era. It’s not sensational in any way, but the times are brutal and unforgiving of the slightest mistake. Murray shows this admirably.

Here is the author’s short description:-

Lucy and her band of early humans struggle to survive in the harsh reality of a world where nature rules, survival is a daily challenge, and a violent band threatens to destroy everything Lucy thinks she understands.

 If you like Man vs. Wild, you’ll love this book. If you ever wondered how earliest man survived but couldn’t get through the academic discussions, this book is for you. It will bring that world to life in a way never seen before.

My Review of Born in a Treacherous Time

Born in a Treacherous time explores the world of Lucy, one of a group of Homo Habilis, tool-maker scavengers who follow the fierce carnivores of the day in their bid to keep themselves fed.

Of course, this is a brutal world. Not only must the group protect themselves from the very carnivores they rely on, they have to deal with the prospect of injury and sickness and the violent actions of the earth through the turmoil of volcanoes and earthquakes. Then there are the terrifying glimpses of other groups whose specialisms are different. Clashes can be a fatal. Almost everything can be fatal. 

The character of Lucy was cleverly introduced through an earlier novel, a thriller, by the same author. In To Hunt a Sub,  (click to see my review) which really couldn’t be more different, with the hi-jacking of a nuclear submarine as the storyline, Kali Delemagente, a brilliant student, has developed a programme to track early man, namely Lucy and her group, as they progress beyond their African origins. This programme is recognised as a potentially powerful tool for reasons both good and bad and it’s very existence puts Kali in danger. ( a very good read). To Hunt a Sub is followed by 24 Days

However,  in Born in a Treacherous Time we are taken away from technology and intrigue and back to the primitive world where our ancestors began to make their mark. 

What I liked about Born in a Treacherous Time was the way the author portrayed the many aspects of that early life. Sure, there was the fight to the death with sabre toothed cat, the danger of the mammoth herds, not to mention the geological mayhem, however, the story was finely balanced with the other concerns of an intelligent species. Lucy is a healer, she collects plants along the way and has learned which will help with various ailments. She has foresight and understanding of the pain of others. She feels kinship and responsibility and has fears and flaws just like all the members of the group. 

When a member of another group is observed using a spear to attack rather than waiting to scavenge, Lucy is fascinated by this newly observed skill and eager to learn. 

By exploring human failings and qualities the author very ably told a tale of long -ago characters that were recognisable and relatable and so my first foray into early-man fiction (should I call it early-person?) was an enjoyable and thought-provoking experience. 

Many thanks to the author for an advanced copy of this book. I was not obliged to review or comment. 

About the Author

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Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy, the Rowe-Delamagente thrillers, and the Man vs. Wild seriesShe is also the author of over a hundred books on integrating technology into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice,  a columnist for TeachHUB, monthly contributor to Today’s Author, and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her books at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.

Social Media contacts:

http://twitter.com/worddreams

http://pinterest.com/askatechteacher

http://linkedin.com/in/jacquimurray

https://worddreams.wordpress.com

https://jacquimurray.net

 

Review Wednesday – Land of a Thousand Hills by Rosamund Halsey Carr

CB4520FD-2698-49CE-A0E2-C72A6FE4E798 I was keen to read this book, gifted to me by a friend from my own, old ‘Africa’ days. Modern travel can be, I believe, exciting and fulfilling and adventurous and certainly much easier and quicker than of old, but I do love to read accounts of those who ‘went before’. 

Rosamund Halsey-Carr was a young woman, living in New York, who, in 1949, fell in love with and married big-game hunter Kenneth Carr and subsequently moved with him to, what was then, the Belgian Congo. The marriage didn’t last but Rosamund’s love of Africa was already firmly rooted and she decided to stay on. She moved to close-by Rwanda.

Having spent a good number of years in Central Africa during the 1980’s and 90’s ( Zambia, Zimbabwe and Kenya but not Rwanda ), I am in awe of a lone woman (or man) who would have the guts and determination to build a life alone in such a country before the advent of home computers, the internet, mobile phones etc. There was and is a lot to love about the region but, having experienced an attempted coup first hand, I know how scary that can be, especially without communication with the outside world. 

And yet this woman took on the role of plantation manager and eventual owner. She showed courage and compassion time and again. With the help of her trusted workers she learned the ropes and staved off bankruptcy. 

Alongside the story of her work in Rwanda runs the record of her personal relationships, her continuing friendship with her ex husband, the flamboyant and fun lifestyle of some of the rich colonials and, in some cases, their subsequent tragedies. She knew Dian Fossey and relates the ups and downs of her life in Rwanda and the mystery of her death.

There were plentiful adventures and even the sad times are related in an upbeat manner.

When the genocide came in 1994 Rosamund was finally persuaded to leave the country for her own safety. That wasn’t the end of her African adventure, though. This determined woman (in her eighties) went back a few months later to the place she loved to run an orphanage. 

It’s an inspiring story of a woman who lived her life the way she wanted it to be, and did a lot of good along the way.