Riddle Of The Runes – Janina Ramirez

Riddle Of The RunesI first saw Dr Janina Ramirez on TV a few years ago presenting a documentary called Treasures Of The Anglo-Saxons, telling the bigger pictures behind Beowulf, the Gundestrup Cauldron, the Sutton Hoo treasures and many other works of art in a new and engaging way. Since then she’s become a successful author of several nonfiction historical books and presenter of TV programmes ranging from the Hundred Years War and Julian of Norwich, to the Vikings. In addition she runs an active twitter account and a series of Art Detective podcasts. And in between all this she somehow manages to be a course director for the History of Art at Oxford University! It’s fair to say the woman seems tireless, and it’s also fair to say her striking goth look means I have a bit of a crush on her (although hopefully not one that will result in restraining orders).

Riddle Of The Runes is Janina’s first foray into children’s fiction, and it’s wonderful. Set in Viking era Norway around the time of the Lindisfarne raids, this is the start of a series centred on a young heroine Alva Gutharson and her family. Alva is a great character – in this book about 12 years old, intelligent, reckless, brave and foolhardy in equal measures. Alva’s passion is finding out the truth and investigating mysteries, and around her is a cast of characters that alternatively help and frustrate her, her loyal mother Brianna,  the wise, calming influence of Uncle Magnus (my favourite) and her trusty pet wolf, Fenrir.

When a monk from Lindisfarne appears suddenly in her home of Kilsgard babbling of a casket covered in mysterious runes, and a tale of his warrior companion kidnapped in the mountains, the peace of the village is shattered and Alva is filled with purpose – the runes and the casket are a series of clues to a promised treasure and Alva must follow them, keeping ahead of the adults of the village who spend more time debating in the longhouse then getting out there and getting on with it…!

Riddle Of The Runes is a lovely tale of mystery, family, warmth and companionship for children (including grown up children), rooted deeply in Janina’s knowledge and love of this period of history. The whole Viking world of Kilsgard is brought vividly to life, David Wyatt’s atmospheric illustrations complement the story beautifully and as one who spend several happy weekends at Danelaw Viking Village in York drinking mead in the longhouse, tending fires and spit-roasting pigs I felt at times I was back there! I look forward to where Alva goes next.

Rob Glover

Riddle of the Runes – a Viking Mystery by Janina Ramirez with illustrations by David Wyatt
Oxford 241pp

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City of Sinners – A A Dhand

I’ve never had an urge to be famous. I enjoyed acting when I was at school and university but the whole idea of being recognised wherever I went sounds horrid, to be honest. I’m happy that my friends, family and colleagues know who I am and, maybe, that the posts I do for my place of work’s social media (under the store name, not mine) make people laugh, think or want to read a particular book: anything more would be a bit much. But, when a local author opens his latest crime thriller with a body discovered in my actual place of work and asks if it is okay to call the bookseller who discover the body ‘Jane’ then, of course, it would be rude not to say ‘yes’….

36634147City of Sinners is the third outing for unconventional Bradford detective Harry Virdee. He’s used to dealing with murders but this time there are some very odd things about the body – how did a young female bookseller end up hanging from the rafters of a bookshop set in a Victorian wool trading hall, who killed her and why are her eyes both sewn closed and yet still moving….Soon there are more bodies (all female) and Harry can’t work out how they are linked. But when a young student goes missing it soon becomes apparent that she is not yet dead because she is the daughter of the Home Secretary. Harry’s boss needs to transfer the case to a specialist unit but the killer declares he will only deal with Harry: it seems that this case is very, very personal.

This is Bradford Noir at its best. With a real sting in the tail and twistier than barbed wire – don’t miss it (even if just for the cameo role by a real live bookseller….).

Jane

P.S. If you want to meet the creator of Harry Virdee the book will be launched as part of Bradford Literature Festival on Friday 29th June. If you are very good maybe I’ll sign the book for you too – after all, I’m famous now…

 

Eve of Man – Giovanna & Tom Fletcher

Nobody wants to be typecast but it is really hard not to get a bit blinkered. Rowan Atkinson, for example, has played so many classic comic characters that it would be very hard to see him play a romantic lead. He could be, indeed probably would be, great but it was take more effort on our part than his to make it work. There are some authors like that – a gritty noir novel by Barbara Cartland or a YA romance from Dan Brown would be equally unlikely. Of course some writers do cross genres – I love Hugh Howey’s thoughtful science fiction but he has also written romance. This hasn’t gone down well with all his readers, however, as some feel he should stick to the dystopias he excels at. Other authors manage to write across genres by using alternative names (even if it is just sticking an extra initial in there, I’m looking at you Iain Banks…): everyone now knows that Robert Galbraith’s crime novels are written by J K Rowling. But how about if two authors, a husband and wife team, write a novel (the first in a series) which is a new departure for both of them? Giovanna Fletcher has made her name writing contemporary women’s fiction and Tom writes for children. How will the authors of Billy and Me and The Dinosaur That Pooped Christmas collaborate to create a dystopian novel suitable for teens (and adults)?

38467635In a dystopian future (where lots of my favourite books are set…) humankind has a big problem. For fifty years only male babies have been born: girls are, occasionally, conceived but are never carried to term. Gradually the population becomes skewed and women of childbearing age are fading fast until, at last, one girl-child, Eve, is born. Despite the care given to her by the best medical teams available the mother dies after delivering her baby and Eve and her father are moved into a vast tower block. After a while Eve’s father is sent away – for her safety, we are told – and Eve is raised by a group of older women, called Mothers, overseen by a rather sinister woman called Vivian and her only friend is a hologram called Holly*. Holly herself is guided by a small group of young men and, although Eve is never told about the different pilots used, she has a favourite. This is Bram, the son of the man who developed the technology behind Holly (who is a downright nasty piece of work too…), and when the two meet, during a set of very unusual circumstances since Eve is meant to be totally isolated from all men, they fall in love. These circumstances revolve around the fact that Eve is now sixteen and the time has come for her to begin the attempt to repopulate the planet with girls with one of three carefully chosen male candidates.

I began to book by trying to work out which passages or ideas were the work of which of the two authors but I was quickly too caught up in the story to care. The world surrounding Eve, which she is never allowed to see, is a bleak place where the remaining population have damaged the environment so badly it is hard to see what kind of world it would be to bring any kind of child into. Although she has always been protected Eve is beginning to question her future – she is a lot feistier than the average princess in an ivory tower – and this is just as well since we soon begin to realise that it would not be a pleasant one. I had one or two quibbles – in particular the way that Eve is dressed up, made up and presented as the epitome of young feminine beauty to meet the first of her prospective mates. Why should it matter – it is not as if they have to choose between her and other, less attractive girls? Some might complain about the fact that the story does develop into a romance of sorts but, given that humans will die out completely if repopulation doesn’t happen, that is fairly forgivable. The science side of the story is fairly standard – cryogenics, holograms and lots of meddling with human biology – but is made nicely sinister in contrast to Eve and Bram’s gently growing romance.

All in all this is an interesting addition to the YA dystopian genre. While the prospect of the way that Eve will be trapped into breeding the new generation – treated as nothing more than a brood mare – means that this is probably not suitable for younger teens it will be of interest to those who are interested in gender politics alongside their post-apocalypse. It isn’t quite The Handmaid’s Tale but would lead a reader there quite easily.

Jane

 

*I did pretty well at suppressing the urge to think of Holly from Red Dwarf when I saw this name. Although the change from female to male made me smile….

 

A Little History of Archaeology – Brian Fagan

My last post mentioned that we’d just been away on holiday and, for once, I didn’t take anything set in the area (the Hebrides and Skye) to read. However, we did visit lots of archaeological sites so reading the latest in Yale’s ‘Little History’ series seemed very appropriate. I’ve always been interested in archaeology – I’m old enough to remember both the raising of the Mary Rose back in 1982 and the Tutankhamun exhibition in London in 1972 (good old Blue Peter…), I followed Living in the Past in 1978 (bedtime permitting) and, of course, I do love a bit of Time Team. Also I worked for quite a few years in academic bookshops: always in stores connected to Universities with highly regarded archaeology departments. Let’s face it, I’m a stones and bones groupie…

36125250This short book (less than 300 pages) gives a whistle-stop tour of the history of archaeology from the early days of, effectively, tomb-robbing to the present where technology has almost taken away the need for digging at all. Of course, as well as explaining the development of archaeology as a science the book also explores the human history which archaeology covers. From early stone tools, through the rise of farming, the splendours of Egypt and other near-Eastern civilisations and onto the Romans and Greeks. We also visit China – the amazing terracotta armies – and cultures in North and South America, and in Africa we go beyond the usual to look at Greater Zimbabwe.  As well as the history and the science we also meet the archaeologists themselves: from the early days of gentleman amateurs to increasing levels of scientific and academic rigour. For every showboating Schliemann there is the less well-known Vincent Gaffney. (Which then takes me back to the years I worked at Bradford University where his brother Christopher developed the ‘geophys’ used on Time Team, and his niece Bella, a talented local folk singer – talk about six degrees of separation…). I feel I know a fair bit about archaeology and still managed to learn from this book. Because care is taken to explain any even slightly specialist term it is also a great introduction for anyone (from a keen youngster onwards) who wants to delve deeper than just watching an Indiana Jones film.

Jane

May round-up

I don’t usually do a monthly round-up. They are popular with book bloggers, as are posts showing planned reading for the month, book hauls etc, but I would prefer to be posting a bit more regularly. I suppose other bloggers also do author interviews, Q&As, blog themes and the like but I enjoy reading and telling you what I’ve read. To quote a famous Russian, ‘simples’… However, sometimes life gets in the way. Over the last month I have had a holiday (which may get mentioned in a bit…), changed my hours at work (dropping my hours – which should mean more blogging time but I have been trying to get back into my running and gardening) and been doing lots of other non-reading stuff. Also I discovered Microsoft Jigsaw. If you want to be productive at all, in any way, don’t even think about Microsoft Jigsaw…Anyway, here are a few of the things I’ve been reading in May.

Whistle in the Dark – Emma Healey

whistledark.jpgI managed to miss Healey’s first book, Costa-winner Elizabeth is Missing, but I heard such good things about it that I was keen to read this. The story is told by Jen and describes the aftermath of what must be one of any parent’s worst nightmares. Lana, Jen and her husband Hugh’s teenaged daughter, went missing for four days while on a painting holiday in the Peak District. The holiday itself and the four days of parental panic are skimmed over a little: what we are really exploring in this book is the relationship between mother and daughter and Jen’s reactions to both the disappearance and Lana’s refusal (or inability) to say what happened.

It is understandable why Jen is worried – Lana has had episodes of depression in the recent past, culminating in an overdose attempt which led Jen to visits to all local pharmacies with a request not to sell painkillers to her daughter – but it seemed to me that Jen is experiencing mental health issues of her own. She obsesses over what could have happened – fearing all the usual worsts since Lana had befriended a teenaged boy on the holiday and was eventually discovered by a man on an isolated farm – becoming anxious, suspicious and a bit paranoid. The whole situation isn’t helped by the fact that the media follows the story closely and that one of the other people on the painting holiday is a slightly strange man whose religious beliefs include the possibility that some children can travel to hell and back. Jen almost stalks her own daughter to try to find answers – listening in on phone calls, searching bedrooms and following her to school – but doesn’t find them until she returns to the Peak.

Not quite a psychological thriller this is a fascinating look into the mind of a woman driven to extremes by the fear of what could have happened to her daughter. The characters are realistically drawn, both Jen and Lana but also Hugh and the older daughter, Meg, and the situation is plausibly dealt with. The final answers (which I won’t give away) are perhaps a little more far-fetched but possible all the same. I’m not a parent but the pain and worry of learning to deal with the fact that a beloved child is both growing apart from you and potentially putting themselves in danger seems very well described.

The House of Islam – Ed Husain

39988957I’m an atheist but I would never deny others the right to follow any religion – although I would really prefer their religion to promote tolerance, peace and fairness. I have friends who are Jewish, Christian, Sikh, Hindu and, since I live and work in Bradford, many who are Muslim. I am always interested in learning about what other people believe in and also how their faith is reflected in their everyday life so I was keen to read Ed Husain’s House of Islam. I read his earlier book, The Islamist, an account of his youthful brush with the world of more politicised, radical Islam and how he moved away from it: this book promised to be a more rounded and mature look at a major world religion.

Firstly we get a pretty comprehensive history of Islam – its origins, its early schisms and spread around the world. The rise of various sects is covered and some of them are fairly roundly criticised. What is important to Husain – whose particular brand of Islam is based on Sufism, a very spiritual form of the faith – is the essence of the religion, the feelings it should create, rather than strict obedience to man-made laws. As a person who doesn’t follow the directions of any religion this is a good distinction – I like the idea of a world filled with good people rather than Christians/Jews/Muslims/Jedi who follow a set of rules which can cause difficulties, or even suffering, to those who are not following in the same way. Specific areas are considered – sharia law (which almost certainly doesn’t mean what you think it does…), the role of women, education and sex, the relationship between Islam and Judaism and attitudes to death – and some suggestions are made. These mostly seem to be a plea for a greater understanding  of the full range of possibilities for Islam. Although there are many Muslims in the West the view of them held by many non-Muslims is that of one particular aspect of the faith. Often this is that of more extreme versions of what is, at heart, a peaceful faith.

I realise that Husain is giving his opinion here. He doesn’t speak for all Muslims, or even for all moderate Muslims. But he does speak very passionately and persuasively about something he seems to believe in wholeheartedly. Solving the problems of extremism (in all religions) can never be easy but a deeper understanding of other faiths would be a good place to start. I feel I have gained some of that understanding by reading this book.

Travellers in the Third Reich: The Rise of Fascism Through the Eyes of Everyday People – Julia Boyd

34594504Okay. So this doesn’t, on the face of it, sound like fun holiday reading but it was actually fascinating. It looks at the rise of the Nazi party in Germany between the two world wars from the first hand reports of non-Germans visiting or living in the country. The reports – diaries, journalism, letters and memoirs – are from a wide range of people. Diplomats, tourists, socialites, opera-buffs and school children are all represented and British, American and New Zealand voices are heard. Some are serious reports and some are more jokey in tone but, as we are repeatedly reminded, none of these people have the benefit of hindsight.

The majority of the travellers in this book (school-children excepted) are of an age to remember the Great War. This means that many of them are willing to accept many things in order to prevent another conflict. It seems shocking that so many were convinced, even after the persecution of the Jews began, that Hitler was the best hope for peace in Europe but, again, we have history to inform us and they did not. One of the points repeatedly made is that anti-Semitism was widespread and generally accepted in this era (although there is no suggestion that the methods ultimately used by the Nazis to deal with the issue would have been accepted in the same way). These reactions and reasonings are given without criticism – after all, we have no way of knowing what future generations will think of the way we are dealing with the global issues we face today. The main lesson I would like to draw from this gripping book is that we must not fall for smooth-talking political leaders who try to persuade us against our personal morality. Whatever religion (or none) we draw that morality from.

Jane

The Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes – Ruth Hogan

It is always a happy day when you can add to your list of favourite authors – someone whose books you look out for and who you can generally rely on to provide you with whatever it is you get from that writer (laughter, tears, esoteric knowledge or combinations of all the above). Even though this is only Ruth Hogan’s second book I’m fairly certain she has made my own, personal list. She has even made the list of authors who make you feel as if you are reading the words of a friend – who you feel really understands you and your life*. Bliss.

39860004Masha has been many things in her life: a free spirit, a lover, and a mother. But right now she is none of those things – since her beloved little boy disappeared thirteen years ago she has become obsessed with drowning. Although she decided that she wanted to go on living she spent years visiting her local lido practicing how long she can hold her breath underwater – reliving her son’s final moments. She can’t speak to her friends or parents about how she feels, she can barely admit it to herself, she is just drifting. The only things that keep her afloat are her good friends Edward and Epiphany and her wolfhound Haizum but she only really begins to live again through her friendship with two older women – the magnificent Kitty Muriel, a force of nature in leopard-print and heels, and Sally who roams the local park, feeding crows and, sometimes, mistaking profanities for everyday conversation. In a separate strand of the novel another woman, single mum Alice, loves her fourteen year old son Mattie with a passion which threatens to smother him until her own health begins to fail. At this point the two stories start to move closer together and secrets are, finally, revealed.

The plot here is actually secondary to the wonderful, wonderful characters in some ways. There is a story (and it all hangs together perfectly well) but the really important thing is who is being affected by the events described. Masha is, at the beginning of the book, almost totally defined by her sorrow but, as she begins to rebuild her life, we see the vibrant woman she should have been all along. Alice is, initially, a deeply irritating character – giving her teenage son no freedom or trust, a total ditherer – but as we learn more of her life her actions become much more understandable. Kitty Muriel is never anything but the kind of woman I want to be when I’m in my 70s but Sally Red Shoes (Masha’s name for her) is my favourite character in the book. We find out about her earlier life – which seems it should have left her colourless and withdrawn but just plain hasn’t – but only in hindsight. Throughout the novel itself we just get to see her in her unrestrained, crow-feeding, tourettish glory: she teaches us, as she does Masha, that we don’t have to be the sum of the awful things life throws at us. If we are lucky we can learn how to be the best ‘us’ possible even when it seems too difficult.

Jane

*Oddly, I hadn’t read Hogan’s biography on Goodreads when I read her first book. It seems we share a few experiences in life including our love of reading, sweetness preferences regarding tea and brushes with cancer. I think she really, really does understand my life 🙂

The Burning Chambers – Kate Mosse

I’m sure I’ve mentioned previously that I enjoy reading books set in areas I travel to and also that, when I visited Carcassonne, I read Labyrinth by Kate Mosse as part of my exploration of the Cathar history of the region. I really enjoyed Mosse’s take on this period of extreme religious conflict (combined with a bit of romance and lots of adventure) so I was interested to see that she had returned to that part of France with her latest novel.

36660443Many things about this novel seem familiar after reading Labyrinth – the setting, the ongoing wars of religion, there is even a character called Alis – but it is also a thrilling story in its own right. Minou Joubert live in Carcassonne with her father, a bookseller who deals with books from all sides of the religious divides, and her younger siblings. Apart from the death of her mother her life has been happy enough but things are becoming difficult: her father has changed, refusing to leave the house and leaving Minou to deal with the shop, the ongoing wars of religion between the Catholic establishment and French protestants, known as Huguenots, are coming closer to the city and she receives a mysterious letter saying just ‘She knows that you live’. When she meets Piet Reydon, a young Huguenot on a mysterious mission, both their lives become more complicated. Their lives begin to intertwine with each other’s and with that of Valentin, a priest who was once a close friend of Piet’s, and Blanche, the chatelaine of Puivert. Danger follows them from Carcassonne, to Toulouse and, finally, to Puivert itself where many questions about Minou’s past are answered.

Kate Mosse has, once again, given us a fascinating insight into the past – I’d heard of the Huguenots but knew very little beyond the fact they were protestants – combined with an exciting story blending romance and adventure. Her historical research is meticulous and her storytelling gripping, her female characters are strong (I particularly liked some of the supporting cast – Alis, the younger sister, Madame Boussay and Blanche de Bruyère) and I’m looking forward to seeing how the story moves on as promised to Amsterdam and South Africa in the rest of the trilogy. Of course, I may need a return visit to the Midi, the Netherlands or even a first trip to Franschhoek to read them…

Jane