Thursday, July 30, 2015

Reading For Fun, Part Two!

The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller.
Published by Fourth Estate, 2015 in paperback.

Fed up of maintaining a pretense about having read books he had not, and wistful about books he wished he had read, Andy Miller set out to create a List Of Betterment and made a determined effort to carve out time in his busy life to read all  fifty of them.
 Each of the books is discussed at some length, whether or not it had lived up to the hype, been worth reading, been an enjoyable read and so forth. I found it endlessly entertaining and the inclusion of his "Lists" (he ended up with three) has given me lots more books I'd like to tackle at some point as I have only read 10 out of the 50 on the original List Of Betterment.

How on earth can you fail to enjoy a book which analyses "The Tiger Who Came To Tea" in the same way as it does "War And Peace" ?  Enormous fun.

The Science Of Harry Potter by Dr Roger Highfield.

This is a charity shop find, published in 2003 by Penguin Books, so  somewhat outdated as far as the science goes, but still a really interesting read about how much of the magic described in the Harry Potter books can actually be rationalised, explained  and even replicated by science.

I do hope an updated version will eventually be published as science has marched on considerably since 2003.

Lost And Found In Prague by Kelly Jones, published by Berkley Books, 2015

I found this by chance when browsing on Amazon and thought it looked worth reading.  The mysterious death of an elderly nun in the church of Our Lady of Victories in Prague - which is home to the miracle-working statue of the Holy Infant of Prague - brings a reporter, a police investigator, a current nun at the Carmelite Convent and an influential Catholic cleric together in an attempt to solve the puzzle of the nun's death. 

It seems unlikely at first glance that  the death of the elderly and infirm Sister Claire might be linked to the apparently random deaths of several other people in the Czech Republic, but it turns out that the echoes of the Velvet Revolution in 1989 still manage to have repercussions to this very day...

Atmospheric and surprisingly captivating, though I did find the repetitious use of the phrase "religious icon" irritating beyond belief by the end of the book ;-)

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Reading For Fun

A significant portion of my reading is done for review purposes, but I have also been doing a lot of reading purely for fun over the last few weeks. 

Just in case you are wondering what I have been enjoying, these are all highly recommended :-)

The Chronicles of St Mary’s series by Jodi Taylor. The staff at St Mary's Institute for Historical research are historians, researchers and scientists and support staff devoted to investigating historical events. It should be made perfectly clear from the outset that they do not do ‘time-travel’. 
Indeed not. They merely ‘investigate major historical events in contemporary time’.  So, top secret, high-tech time travel it is.....

 The series starts with Just One Damned Thing After Another, in which we meet Max and watch her exploring Norman London, World War One, get to grips with dinosaurs in the Cretaceous period and rescue books from the fire which engulfs the Great Library of Alexandria.

Book Two, A Symphony Of Echoes, sees the team have a perilously close shave with utter annihilation when they meet Jack The Ripper, witness the brutal murder of Thomas a Becket at Canterbury Cathedral, make the acquaintance of dodos and discover there are time-travelling enemies hell-bent on destroying the work of St Mary's.

Book Three, A Second Chance, investigates whether Isaac Newton was as clever as he was cracked up to be, a jump back to the Cretaceous period once more, the Battle of Agincourt and the only marginally less violent cheese rolling competition in Gloucester before Max's life changes forever when her long awaited trip to Troy goes horrifyingly wrong....

I absolutely loved these books - very clever, brilliantly complex plots and believable characters. I have three more to read :-D
 I haven't included the covers as the books are being re-issued this summer with brand new covers; for further information see Jodi's booksite.

The Spider Shepherd series by Steven Leather

Starting with Hard Landing, in which we meet Dan 'Spider' Shepherd, an ex-SAS soldier turned undercover cop, who goes on a perilous undercover mission inside a prison to find out just how a drugs baron is managing his empire while behind bars. 

When Spider's wife Sue is killed in a traffic accident, Dan is faced with being a single parent and an undercover cop - not an easy combination.

 The series is a long one, but so far I have completed Soft Target, Cold Kill, Hot Blood and Dead Men, and thoroughly enjoyed every one of them.
 Nail-biting, gripping the edge of your seat thriller/detective books, and my current bedtime reading!

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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Gift

The Gift

By Wanda Brunstetter

Published by Shiloh Run Press, August 1st, 2015

This is the second book in the "Prairie State Friends" series and this time, we learn more about Leah Mast and her talent for treating others using reflexology. Many sing her praises, but not her neighbour, Adam Beachy. He despises reflexology and takes every opportunity to belittle it and makes Leah feel uncomfortable as a result, especially as she cannot see why he should feel that way.
Leah decides it is best to have as little to do with Adam as possible, but their paths are forced to cross in a dramatic way when Adam's twin sister and her husband are killed in an accident, leaving Adam as the guardian to their three daughters.

Totally out of his depth - and comfort zone - in dealing with the children, who are shocked, traumatised and grieving for the loss of their parents, he ends up asking Leah to help care for the girls so he can continue to work in his hardware store. Seeing each other so often makes their initial attraction slowly develop into more romantic feelings, though neither will acknowledge or admit this openly. The girls become increasingly fond of Leah, and eventually Adam wonders if the best thing for them would be if he asked Leah to embark on a marriage of convenience with him.

When Leah meets a nurse who has just moved to the town and they start a tentative friendship, it turns out there are lots of skeletons in closets. Slowly, the reason for Adam's distaste for reflexology becomes apparent when Leah finds that the reason Adam's mother left her family and the Amish faith was to pursue a career in nursing after using reflexology in her community...

There are lots of twists and turns in the plot of this fast moving book, some of which I anticipated and others I certainly did not. The role of the hummingbirds is simply lovely, the information about banding the birds was fascinating indeed and both Adam and Leah share a great love of nature.  The Amish in this area are depicted as rather more progressive than in other stories, allowing the use of bicycles and we see much less use of  dialect. Leah's parents are often referred to as Mom and Dad as opposed to Mam and Datt, and her parents are very determined that Adam allow Leah to continue her reflexology work after she marries, despite Adam's initially vehement objections.

I found this an interesting read, but don't think it is as good as the first book in the series, "The Decision". It does not seem as neatly crafted as her other books, with quite a lot of repetition of phrases.

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Friday, July 17, 2015

Epic Survival

Epic Survival: 
Extreme Adventure, Stone Age Wisdom, and Lessons in Living from a Modern Hunter-Gatherer

By Matt Graham and Josh Young

Published by Simon & Schuster, July 2015

We have watched Matt Graham on the Discovery Channel survival show "Dual Survival", so I was delighted to be offered the chance to read and review this title as an e-book. His feats of endurance  are truly remarkable -  in only fifty eight days he ran the entire 1600 mile Pacific Crest Trail and has taken part - on foot!-  in  a three day horse race and finished third.

But what motivated this man to more or less leave the modern world behind in favour of living as close to nature - and as close as it is possible to live the lifestyle of ancient hunter-gatherers? Could anyone do it? What does Matt get from his unusual way of life?

A very real love of nature from childhood and a growing feeling that man is doing himself no favours by alienating himself from the natural world and living in a way that humans were not developed to cope with was the catalyst for changing his way of looking at the world. He made the decision not to drive a car for eight months and instead, he ran everywhere, building endurance and gaining a reputation for both speed and stamina in his running, as well as developing a remarkable way of "reading" the natural world around him in his work as a member of a Park Service search and rescue team. Gradually, he spent more and more time living a "wild" life, willingly learning from anyone who has skills to teach him and then seeking to pass these skills on to others.

The way Matt tells it, he feels that his alternative way of looking at the world which surrounds him is accessible to anyone who wants to live at peace and at one with nature. It is not really surprising that  his belief system changes from a basic and lacklustre exposure to Christianity to a form of spirituality more consistent with that of Native American Indians. As his whole lifestyle becomes more focused on living in harmony with Nature and being mindful of an animal needing to die in order to provide him with food, he learns to be wholly respectful of the animals he kills to sustain his own life and makes sure not to waste anything at all in honour of this sacrifice.

Matt does not feel lonely, but this is most likely not a way of life that would be sustainable to many people. Although I enjoyed the book and found it very interesting, I don't feel the urge to follow his example but will continue to admire his exploits and convictions.
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Monday, July 13, 2015

Ghost Flight

Ghost  Flight

By Bear Grylls

Published by Orion Books, June 2015

I am only just managing to haul my jaw back up from the floor after finishing this book.

At the start of the story, Will Jaeger is a man whose life is on the line, being tortured in a prison in a small African state. He is rescued by Raff, an old friend and Army colleague and the two of them only just manage to escape alive.
It really is a case of out of the frying pan, into the fire, however, as when Jaeger finally returns to Britain he finds one of his colleagues - and a dear friend - has died in suspicious circumstances which smack of a cover-up. Why did Smithy have a mysterious symbol carved into him, which wasn't there before his death? Nobody has any answers until Will starts doing some serious research, which raises even more questions than it answers.

To say Jaeger has a troubled past is an understatement, and when a dream of a job opportunity is proposed to him, involving danger, excitement and the chance to make a mind-blowing historical discovery as well as a hefty amount of money, he takes it with both hands, but what starts out as an adventure rapidly becomes a desperate fight for survival in an inhospitable South American jungle, with a very mixed team of people.

Who can he trust, if anyone? What is the secret behind the enormous German plane hidden in the rainforest? Who is determined to stop his expedition in its tracks? And why is everything seemingly bound up with the exploits of his grandfather in a top secret Unit during the Second World War?

A coup in Africa. A miraculous escape. A mysterious family death and the abduction of his wife and son, several years previously. An Amazonian tribe with blowpipes living in  a forest with deadly giant predatory spiders. Double agents, Tracking devices, codes and espionage, hallucinogenic drugs, tribal bonding rituals. Add in crocodiles, piranhas and a Nazi plane whose cargo has killed the forest around it, and it seems as though it would end up as slapstick, but it works -  and it works very well indeed. I did anticipate part of what might happen, but there were lots of fascinating twists and turns in the plot, many of which left me glued to the pages.

This is Bear Grylls' first novel, and he has made a very impressive start. I'm really looking forward to finding out what happens to Will Jaeger next!

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Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Hardest Thing To Do

The Hardest Thing To Do

The Hawk & The Dove series, vol 4

By Penelope Wilcock

Published by Lion Fiction, 2015

It is Lent at St Alcuin's Abbey. Always a time of extra prayer and rigorous fasting,  this year's Lent also sees the monks anticipating the return of their much loved Infirmarian to be their elected Abbot. After a year away studying at Cambridge and being ordained priest, Father John is finally on his way home to Yorkshire when he hears about a mysterious fire which has destroyed St Dunstan's Abbey and killed many of the monks. To his great surprise, he meets one of the surviving monks, outcast and avoided, injured and begging for food. John, being John, immediately and willingly provides what food and treatment he can to help before continuing on his way home to take up his responsibilities.

John finds that adapting to his new position at the Abbey is difficult at best, stressful at worst, and soon he is faced with a situation which puts him at odds not only with his helpful attendant, Brother Tom,  but even with most of the monastic brethren when one of the dispossessed monks from St Dunstan's arrives, injured and seeking succour. It is none other than Tom's archenemy, Prior William, who had publicly tormented and mercilessly humiliated Abbot Peregrine in the past. William has now been brought low by circumstances but certainly not lowered his self-esteem, pride and arrogance; he has a quite remarkable ability to cause dissent, squabbling, unease and bad feeling wherever he goes, like a rivulet of poison tainting a well of fresh water.

The tranquil and loving atmosphere of the Abbey is quickly shattered by his arrival. Brother is set against brother when John has to determine whether or not Prior William should be admitted to St Alcuin's or sent on his way to fend for himself and face an uncertain future. William could destroy the peace of the community- or the community could reach out to William and help to heal him.

Just how far can  and should forgiveness extend when there is little sign of repentance?  How much can or should be risked or sacrificed by a community for the sake of one monk? Is any soul beyond hope of saving? The situation is a major test of John's leadership ability, and the wisdom and compassion of both the Gospel of Christ and the Rule of St Benedict prove to be sure and certain guides to the difficult decisions John must make...

Yet another stunning and thought-provoking installment in this remarkable series by Penelope Wilcock, and an absolute joy to read.

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Thursday, July 02, 2015

Discovering Tuberculosis

Discovering Tuberculosis

A Global History 1900 To The Present

By Christian W. McMillen

Published by Yale University Press, June 2015

The discovery and widespread use of antibiotics and the use of the BCG vaccination programmes in the twentieth century initially promised to wipe out tuberculosis globally, yet failed to do so. We are now in the invidious position of tuberculosis staging a huge resurgence across the world, resistant to most antibiotics.

What on earth went wrong and how have we ended up in this potentially devastating situation?

McMillen, a historian, looks at the theories behind the susceptibility of races and transmission of the disease in the 1900s, at the discovery and use of antibiotics to  treat this once-dreaded disease and the problems of using allegedly "expert" opinions to form  policies which were largely based on economics rather than sound medicine and statistical evidence. The implementation of vaccination programmes across the world could in theory have enabled the disease to have been very greatly diminished or even eradicated from large parts of the world in the way polio has been, but this was not the case, with success rates in BCG vaccination trials ranging from  80%  all the way down to a staggering 0%. This illness does not have a "one size fits all" treatment profile and the in-depth study McMillen provides of three areas - Native American reservation populations, Kenya and India - demonstrates this clearly, with concerns about antibiotic resistance actually being expressed as far back as the 1950s.

We face the widespread rise of tuberculosis and a desperate struggle to somehow rein in the disease once again. There really is no room for complacency when dealing with this bacterium, which now kills more people per annum than at any time in recorded history. It is a master of disguise, allowing sufferers to appear healthy for long periods of time, yet many people in the developed nations of the world regard it as an historical disease or restricted to the poorest parts of the world - a dangerous fallacy indeed.

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