Book Review – The Martian by Andy Weir

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After watching The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015) I decided to read the book behind the film and I was pleasantly surprised at how closely the film stuck to the book. If you enjoyed the film I would really recommend reading the novel.

The story is told in diary format through a Mars mission log. Mark Watney, an Ares 3 astronaut, begins the log after being left behind on Mars by the rest of his crew; they all got caught up in a fierce sandstorm, but Mark was injured so badly by a piece of flying debris that the crew thought he was dead. As soon as Mark recovers, he realises that he is alone and gets back to “The Hab”. This is the astronauts’ base on Mars. It is a pressurised dome containing all the essentials for the astronauts’ survival on the surface of Mars: water, oxygen, food and medical equipment and supplies.

Mark realises that he faces two main problems. Firstly, the communications equipment has been destroyed by the sandstorm so he has no way of letting mission control know that he is still alive. Secondly, there is only enough food in The Hab for 6 people for 60 sols (martian days). It will be FOUR years until the next Mars mission, so Mark’s chances of survival look pretty slim. Fortunately, he was the crew’s botanist and general handyman so he plans to  survive and escape.

The Martian was packed with interesting scientific facts and dark humour. It also explores the desire of the human spirit to survive as Mark uses all his training to grow his own food and adapt the technology at his disposal to organise his escape from Mars. Because of the structure of the novel, you are constantly given an insight into Mark’s state of mind which I found fascinating.

I think The Martian would appeal to anyone interested in technology and space travel however – a quick word of warning, it contains language that Year 6 teachers would not approve of, so if you are still at primary school I wouldn’t read it in class!

 

Review: Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce

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Summer holidays are a perfect opportunity to re-read old favourites and I picked this one off my self this week; almost impossibly, I found that I enjoyed the book even more than the first time I had read it.

This is the outstanding debut novel by one of my favourite authors, Frank Cottrell Boyce. The plot revolves around the Cunningham brothers, Anthony who is in Year 6 and Damian, who is in Year 5 and is told through the voice of Damian although he constantly refers to the way his older brother would have framed the story. On one level the story is about the brothers’ attempts to deal with a bag of stolen bank notes that they have found in the fields near their new house – which has many hilarious consequences. However, there is another layer to the story which is about a family coming to terms with the death of their mother, and the different ways that the two boys deal with this is beautifully portrayed.

Anthony, who considers himself to be a wheeler-dealer, is very blatant about using the fact that that their mum has died to “get stuff” whereas Damian is obsessed with the lives of saints and constantly refers to the patron saint of whatever situation he finds himself in. You soon realise that he is hoping that one of the saints has spoken to his mum. Frank Cottrell Boyce manages to write about this situation with an amazing blend of humour and sympathy so that you can completely understand each boy’s perspective.

After they find the bag of money Anthony just wants to spend it on consumer goods and in contrast Damian wants to “do good” with the cash. One of my favourite parts of the book is when Damian shoves seven thousand pounds through the letterbox of the Mormon neighbours because he thinks they will give the money to the poor. He is subsequently  shocked when he sees the long list of electronic goods that they buy with the money and realises that he has misunderstood them.

I don’t want to give away too much more of the plot, but this is an extremely enjoyable story which I would encourage you to read (along with all the other books Frank Cottrell Boyce has written); he surely has the patron saint of writers on his side! 5 out of 5 stars.

Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by JK Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne

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Saturday 30th July was a magical night for me; I set off for my local independent bookshop, the wonderful Brendon Books, for my first ever Harry Potter launch party (I was too young to accompany my older brothers when the earlier books were launched)! I took part in a Harry Potter general knowledge quiz (which I won!), a Horcrux Hunt and drank a chilled Butterbeer (Shandy), received a bag of Bertie Botts’ Every Flavour Beans (jelly beans), listened to readings from all 7 books, and once midnight had struck, purchased my  copy of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child which came with a free handcrafted wand!

After pausing to thank the wonderful owners of Brendon Books, I rushed home to begin reading. The first thing to point out is that this is written a play-script rather than a novel. It starts where the Epilogue of the seventh book in the series left off – a grown up Harry Potter seeing his youngest son, Albus Severus, off to Hogwarts for the first time at platform 9 3/4, King’s Cross Station. Although it has been 19 years since Harry left school, Hogwarts remains reasonably unchanged: Professor McGonagall is now headmistress, Neville Longbottom teaches Herbology, and ever present Hagrid isn’t leaving any time soon.

Albus is the central character of the play and you learn that his journey through Hogwarts is rather different to his father’s. I don’t want to give away any plot spoilers, so I won’t say any more about the story. However it was a gripping read and I’m so glad it was published in the school holidays as I couldn’t bear to put it down until I’d finished reading it. In my opinion J.K.Rowling is a supreme storyteller and  if you are a fan of the Harry Potter series you will love this book. 5/5 stars.

Murderous Events A La Ronde

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Yesterday, I found myself in the lucky position of visiting a National Trust House  not far from my home, where I had the opportunity to listen to, and meet, one of my favourite authors, the fabulously talented Robin Stevens!

Robin told us about her childhood and how it had influenced the creation of her intrepid duo of detectives; Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong. Firstly, she loved detective novels such as Sherlock Holmes and the murder mysteries written by Agatha Christie but always wanted to read murder mysteries where children solved the crime. She said that when she was 22 and still no-one had written a book like this, she decided to write it herself. She has  now written five books in the Murder Most Unladylike series – the fifth will be published in the autumn. One of the things I found most interesting about Robin was that she said she felt slightly out of place as an American at a posh English boarding school; I think this is why she has made Hazel Wong such an authentic, smart and likeable character.

It was really brilliant to meet Robin Stevens and have a chance to ask her some questions and get my books signed by her. She was utterly charming and fascinating and I can’t wait to read Mistletoe and Murder, as well as being massively excited that she is writing the sequel to The London Eye Mystery.

 

I have previously reviewed three of the Murder Most Unladylike books on the Guardian Children’s Books website, you can read the reviews by following the links below:

Arsenic for Tea

First Class Murder

Jolly Foul Play

Review: Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

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Five Children on the Western Front is a sequel to the classic children’s novel, Five Children and It (written by E. Nesbit). Set in the 1910s, when the original five children have become teenagers and young adults, it is a beautifully written story of the hardships and happiness of family life in the time of The Great War.

At the start of the book (nine years from the end of Five Children and It) there is a new child in the family, Edith, who was born after the original adventures with the Psammead (an ancient sand fairy). Edith and Hillary (aka the Lamb) are in their garden one day when they discover the Psammead hidden in the gravel pit! With World War I beginning and their elder brother Cyril going off to fight, the atmosphere in their home is tense; will the Psammead’s appearance be the solution to their troubles, or will he just add to them?

Just before Cyril leaves for war, the “Bigguns” (the four eldest children) and Hillary and Edith discover that the Psammead has lost the power to grant wishes that he used to have, and he tells them that some sort of violent magical upheaval has sent him back to their gravel pit. As the story unfolds the Pemberton children help the Psammead to uncover the reason that he has been sent back to them, and as this happens, many of the events from the Psammead’s early life seem to reflect similar events in the children’s lives.

One of the things I loved about this book is the way that you can feel the underlying theme of family love throughout the story. The Pembertons clearly care for each other and the Psammead, as well as relying on each other. This is summed up by this quote from Jane:

“I think you were attracted to us because we were happy and we loved each other. It sounds like a small thing, but I can see now that it’s the biggest thing in the world.”

Although this book is set in the time of the war and there are lots of tragic moments, there is also a lot of excellent humour for example:

The Psammead said, “I am undergoing certain uncomfortable feelings – it feels quite a lot like trapped wind, but Edie says it’s remorse.”

Another brilliant feature of the book is that it has a prologue (9 years before the start of the story) and an epilogue (14 years after the end of the story) so there are no questions about the children’s past or future life left unanswered; also, this gave the story a definite starting and ending point.

This was one of the best books I’ve ever read. I completely agree with the quote on the front of the book that says it is a modern classic. I think it would appeal equally to boys and girls of 9 and above. 5 out of 5 stars.

Review: The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

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This stunning book follows Faith Sunderly, the intelligent and inquisitive daughter of a Victorian Reverend/Naturalist, as she attempts to untangle the web of lies regarding her family’s sudden retreat from their comfortable existence in Kent.

When we are first introduced to the Sunderly family you find out that Faith is in awe of her father and wishes to follow in his footsteps in the field of science, her mother is shown as silly and frivolous and her little brother, Howard, relies on Faith for guidance and protection from the displeasure of the stern Reverend Sunderly.

To her family Faith is dull, trustworthy and reliable but inside she is curious, easily angered, perceptive and frustrated at her lack of opportunity to develop her intellect; her ability to hide behind her dull persona proves to be a useful asset later in the book.

The Reverend Sunderly has been invited to the small island of Vane to take part in an excavation of some caves by the wealthy landowner Anthony Lambent. However, soon after their arrival the family are shunned by the islanders as news of the Reverend’s scandal follows them to their new home. As the atmosphere becomes darker and the characters’ true colours are revealed, events culminate with the Reverend’s sudden death. From this point, Faith has to use all of her cunning  to prove her theory that her father was murdered.

The Lie Tree explores the themes of sexism, science versus religion, and the destructive power of lies, within a richly crafted story. Interestingly, I found some similar themes in the newly released Strange Star by Emma Carroll which I reviewed here.  Unexpected plot twists lay around every corner and the metaphors, similes and imagery used were beautifully detailed. Frances Hardinge’s ability with words was breathtaking, and tensions and suspicions were created from a single sentence. For example in a scene where the ladies move into the drawing room after a meal she describes them relaxing once they are away from the men with this sentence:

Without visibly changing, they unfolded, like flowers, or knives.

This was one of many sentences that I had to re-read several times to absorb its full power.

Faith has to battle against the prejudices of the Victorian era such as the belief that women were inferior in intellect, and she is therefore shown as a brave and heroic character who stands up to men who viewed themselves as her superiors. This book is truly outstanding and I would highly recommend it to anyone aged 11 to 100; definitely 5 out of 5 stars!

Review: Lydia The Wild Girl of Pride & Prejudice by Natasha Farrant

This was the last book sent to me by the brilliant Book Elves at the Guardian Children’s Books website and I am delighted to be reviewing it on this blog.

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If you have not read Pride and Prejudice ( or if you do not know the story from film or TV versions) 15 year-old Lydia is the youngest of the five Bennett sisters who reside at Longbourn during the Georgian era. Their mother’s only ambition is to see them all married, otherwise they will be penniless when their father dies. In the original book their story focuses mainly on the two eldest sisters, however Natasha Farrant has retold the story through Lydia’s eyes, as written in her journal.

The journal was a present from her sister Mary, and Lydia is thoroughly annoyed as she would much rather have had some pretty ribbons or some new clothes; it is a great opening and reveals her character very well. Her life is pretty dull until the arrival of a regiment of the militia in the next village of Meryton, henceforth her journal entries become increasingly vivacious, filled with tales of parties and dancing with the handsome officers. In contrast to her frivolous nature, the author also shows you that Lydia is an ambitious girl who wants to travel and see more of the world than just her sleepy village.

The turning point of the story is when Lydia is invited to visit Brighton as the guest of the Colonel’s wife. A quote which beautifully sums up Lydia’s personality is when she writes:

“I may be going to Hell, but I’m going to Brighton first.”

As Lydia might say, “Lord how I laughed” when I read this line!

From this point, the story departs from the original novel as it tells you about the events in Brighton which eventually lead to the denouement of the tale; I won’t put in any spoilers here.

Overall Lydia’s lighthearted narrative is bubbly and amusing and a thoroughly enjoyable read. I think that this book is an excellent introduction to the classic novel Pride and Prejudice, which I now intend to read, and I would highly recommend it to anyone of 10+. I rate it 4.5/5 and I am looking forward to reading more books by Natasha Farrant!