Category: Books


Reading is one of the most important skills we can develop. It’s something we use, and have to use, on a daily basis. It is impossible to function effectively without it. I can’t remember ever having not been able to read but there must have been a time when I couldn’t do it. I’m told I struggled a bit at school and needed some extra lessons but the teacher found out I was quite good and used me to help other kids. I thought I had been selected for an extra treat. I obviously got the hang of it as I ended up getting a good degree from Manchester University. 

I can remember clearly what turned me on to reading. My teacher in what is tnow called Year 3 (I’d be 7) had this system where if you progressed well enough along a path on a chart she had on the wall, you were rewarded with a form that allowed you to go to the local public library and join. I desperately wanted that. And when I got it, I was always there borrowing books that took my fancy. After that happened I guess I taught myself.

But some people, especially boys, struggle still. There are too many active, exciting things that they can do that sound better than sitting quietly and reading oa book. People are always trying to do things to encourage people to read. These book benches, decorated with characters from famous books, turned up in Central Library this weekend.

And these ones I found lining the Winter Gardens of the Arndale Centre shopping mall in the city centre.

I have to read for work but I also read for pleasure. So what am I reading now?

After reading all those books set in Anglo Saxon England I’ve jumped 500 years or so to Tudor England and I’m reading a book called ‘Three Sisters, Three Queens’ by fêted author, Phillipa Gregory.

It’s set in the years after the War of the Roses which saw the end of the Plantagenet dynasty of monarchs and the ascendency of the Tudor dynasty after the death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, near Leicester, in 1485. Calling it the War of the Roses makes it sound a very cosy, civilised English sort of war. It was anything but and the Game of Thrones story, not known for holding back on the violence, with the dynastic battles between House Lannister and House Stark, was partially based on this period of history. 

Henry Tudor won and became Henry VII. He married a Plantagent princess as his claim to the throne wasn’t that strong. He had four surviving children, Arthur, Margaret, Henry and Mary. The book is told from the point of view of Margaret who is married off to James IV of Scotland as part of a peace deal with that country. Quite a common thing to happen to a prince or princess in those days. She is the first queen, Queen of Scotland. She had quite a happy marriage even though James was 10 years or so her senior. He’d had quite a lot of fun while he was waiting to get married and Margaret arrived at her new castle in Scotland to find it full of the illegitimate offspring of his liaisons with assorted Scottish ladies who had taken his fancy. I believe a lot of that sort of thing goes on in Game of Thrones. 

Her elder brother, Arthur, was married to Katherine of Aragon, the daughter of the King and Queen of Spain. They were the Ferdinand and Isabella who drove the Muslim Moors out of Spain finally, and sent Christopher Columbus out west to get to India. He found America instead. Katherine and Arthur are married and packed off to enjoy their newly married status in Ludlow Castle. Arthur gets ill and dies of the ‘sweats.’ We don’t have them these days, they seem to have died out. Poor Katherine is a widow half way through her teens. She comes back to London. The alliance with Spain is too important to lose so they marry Katherine off to Arthur’s younger brother, Henry. They get round the fact that she’s been married to his brother (illegal in England in those days and probably still the same today, I’ve never heard of it happening anyway) by saying Arthur was too ill to consummate the marriage. Well he wasn’t ill ALL the time they were in Ludlow and if you put two hormonal teenagers in a bed and EXPECT them to have fun, I can’t imagine them saying  ‘no, I’ve got a headache (bad case of the ‘sweats’). Henry goes on to be the famous/infamous Henry VIII so Katherine becomes Queen of England. Has Game of Thrones done the suspect incest thing yet?

Mary, the pretty one, gets married off to the aging King of France who is old enough to be her grandfather. He also has some rather unpleasant sexual practices (G o T again?) but fortunately for Mary, dies within a year. Now the Dowager Queen of France she hops it backs to England, rich, and marries a handsome boy her own age before they can marry her off to some other, past his sell by date, monarch with dodgy habits. The Holy Roman Emperor was in the frame for a while there. 

So the three Queens and three sisters (well technically two sisters and a sister in law) write to one another as the wars and historical doings of early Tudor history happen around and to them. It’s a good read. Have I whetted your appetite to read this?

I do enjoy a good book. I like to read. And, I’ve discovered it has to be a book. I do have ‘books’ on my iPad but, at the end of the day, I find I don’t like to curl up in bed at the end of the day with my iPad and read a chapter. And I do tend to forget I’ve got books there as well. I’ve downloaded some and they are just there, wherever ‘there’ is, forgotten. I’m not alone either, the sales of paper books is rising again in the UK while downloads are falling. It seemed we still like mooching about in bookshops and picking out a good read. 

I’m about to finish ‘The Flame Bearer’ by Bernard Cornwall. It’s the latest in a series of ten. To say I’ve enjoyed them is an understatement. I’ve read all ten back to back, apart from the last few pages of this one, over the last year.

I like history, and the further back the history goes, the better I like it. ‘The Flame Bearer’ is set at the end of the Dark Ages at the point where England was being forged together out of the old Saxon kingdoms of Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria. I can’t decide where Manchester was in those days. Some maps had us in Mercia, others in Northumbria, maybe we were fought over and moved from one to the other. The remains of the Roman province of Britannia are still there with the Saxons living among the ruins of their towns, wondering how those people could have built so well. The Saxon kingdoms fought each other at that time and all of them were under attack from invaders from Denmark and Scandanavia. First they come to raid as Vikings, later they come to settle, dispossessing the Saxons of their land. At one point it looked as if the Saxons would lose, with the King, Alfred, holed up in swamplands on the Somerset Levels. If he’d lost we would be living in Daneland, not England, now and, maybe, Danish would have become to lingua franca of the world. 

It was a fascinating period in our history and I’m amazed, given how important it is to how we are now, it isn’t better known. Bernard Cornwell has woven a lot of detailed history into his books with actual characters from the period actually doing the things they did. You learn a lot of history.

 

Bernard Cornwell has done a lot of research into his own ancestors and has discovered that he is related to the people who lived in Bamburgh Castle in the Dark Ages. Thanks to Gareth Evans for the great picture above. It’s a dramatic fortification on the north east coast of England, north of Newcastle. The present castle is a stunning medieval building with Victorian additions added to make it a comfortable home. Before that there was the Dark Ages building, the Romans had a place there as did the Ancient British. It’s within sight of Holy Island, an ancient religious place which still has a special atmosphere today. People who believe such things believe that the veil between heaven and earth is very thin here. Both these sites feature in the books.

Among all the history and geography of Dark Ages Britain, Bernard Cornwell has created a fictional character, Uhtred of Bebbanburg (the ancient name of Bamburgh) who may have been his ancestor. Born into a Christian Saxon family living at Bamburgh, he falls into the hands of Danes and becomes a slave. His master grows to like him and treats him as a son. He becomes a pagan and a warrior. His ability as a warrior bring him into contact with Kind Alfred and the fictional story of Uhtred of Bebbanburg becomes interwoven, very cleverly, with the real history of England as the Saxons face annihilation and fight back to establish England as the nation we know today. It’s a damn good read.

I actually started reading the series with the ninth book of the series, ‘Warriors of the Storm.’ I picked it up just before Christmas 2015 as a present to myself and something to read over the festive season. I enjoyed it and was delighted to see that the BBC was doing a televised series of the books called ‘The Last Kingdom.’ It was very well done and very faithful to the books. A second series is being shown this Spring. I am looking forward to that but don’t let the excellent BBC adaptation put you off reading the books. Speaking to a friend, he informed me of the rest of the series which he had read, and passed on the rest to me which has provided me with much of my recreational reading for 2016. I thank him. 

And the pleasure isn’t over. Bernard Cornwell is, I hope, working on the next book in the series, hopefully for my festive reading for Christmas 2017.

I bought this book, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, in the Summer in one of Waterstones’s 3 for the price of 2 offers. It came from their store on Deansgate. Someone had recommended it to me. I started it on 2nd January which was a day off as New Year’s Day fell on a Sunday this year. A piece of light Christmas reading it was not! In fact it would have sat very uncomfortably with all the festive fun if I’d started it earlier.

It is a very powerful book. I picked it up about 10 in the moring to read a couple of pages and the next thing I knew I was being called for lunch and I’d got through 150 of its 305 pages. It was that compelling.

It is set in the near future. Some nameless apocalypse has taken over the world. Nuclear or climate change, it is never really made clear. It’s set in America but you aren’t told that, but there are a few little clues that hint at this. The planet has been devastated, all vegetation has died, the dead forests are burning and the planet is covered in ash. Across this landscape a man and a boy make their way. They are trying to get to the ocean. They skirt burned, nameless cities, forage in nameless towns, cross nameless rivers and nameless mountains to get to this nameless ocean. Though why they are going and what they hope to find there is not clear. The man and the boy have no names and we know little about them except that they are father and son and are on this journey.

The vast majority of the population of the planet is dead, there are no animals or birds and even the cockroaches don’t seem to have survived this one. The people who are left have to find food where they can. The boy and the man refer to themselves as the ‘good guys’ who look for food from a dwindling supply that was left after the apocalypse while the others are the ‘bad guys’ who use whatever resources they can find to stay alive including any people they come across.

The boy and the man spend the time on the journey avoiding people as they fear them. The boy is in a constant state of terror and this is transferred to the reader. The man worries because he’s getting weaker and the boy make have to fend for himself in the future. You catch glimpses of what has become of the other people. Once they have to hide from a group of men who have lost all their humanity and will do anything to survive. They see them marching along one of the old interstate highways going south, the men armed to the teeth with what ever weapons they can find, followed by a group of women, some pregnant and then by a group of boys being led in chains, you are left to wonder what the boys are there for, none of the thoughts are comfortable.

You grow to care about the man and the boy and their close, loving relationship. You want it all to end well and that they find a piece of the planet where they can live safe and secure. But you guess that’s not how it will end. It was clever how they author gets you to care so much about two people when you know so little about them, not even their names. It’s as if names are not even important in this post apocalyptic world.

I had to close the book a couple of times when the images were so disturbing and I needed a rest from the unremitting grimmness of the book. Once they come across a group of people roasting something in a clearing. They scare the people off and then discover what it was they were eating. In another scene they go into a once desirable country house. In a locked basement they discover a group of naked people awaiting their fate.

It has been a very powerful read. It’s not for the faint hearted. It’s not a holiday read. Nor is it a good book to read in bed to relax your mind at the end of the day. It is a very good book though. And it has been made into a movie with Viggo Mortensen as the man. I may rent it out  as I would like to see how they have interpreted the book. I doubt if they can have conjured up the images that I have thought up for myself.

I won’t say how it ends as that would spoil the book for people. But it would be giving nothing away to say that it doesn’t end with a trip to Disneyland. My next book will be something light and fun, possibly with fluffy bunnies in!

I like to read books of all types and always have a pile on the little chest next to my bed for reading before I go to sleep. I buy ones that I have heard about or ones that I see that have taken my fancy. I read a lot so I thought I would start to review them.

Just before Christmas I looked through my pile and found I had a lot of very worthy books but nothing particularly light and escapist that I could read over the festive period with a glass of wine in one hand and my other hand in a box of chocolates! Actually that doesn’t leave a hand free for the book does it? Well I alternated the chocolate and the wine. I’d spotted a couple of books on offer at ASDA. One was set in the Renaissance and the other at the time of the Roman Empire. I like history so these books were right up my street. I chose the Renaissance story to read over Christmas.

The book was called Assassin’s Creed by a guy called Oliver Bowden. The main character was an Italian guy called Ezio Auditore who was a member of a sect called the Assassins who were fighting with the Knights Templar for possession of five keys that would open the dooor of a secret library under a castle in Syria. The keys were hidden in various locations in Constantinople (Istanbul today) and a lot of people die in the process of finding them.

Real life characters such as Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci feature in the book. How da Vinci had time to paint I had no idea that he was also an assassin as well as being mixed up with that lot in the Da Vinvi Code books! I’d always been led to believe thet the Knights Templar were the good guys and the Assassins were the bad guys but in this story the roles are reversed. I guess ‘good’ and ‘bad’ depends on what side you are on. For instance, in the UK Napoleon is regarded as a bad thing but the French think he is wonderful.

Did I like the book? Well it made some easy holiday reading. I didn’t learn a lot about history and what there was was very suspect. I expected wonderful descriptions of Rennaisance Constantinople with a wonderful mixture of Ancient Roman, Greek, Byzantine and Islam but it never happened. The people were not described well and I had no picture in my head of how they looked. The story was simple and I kind of predicted the end after about 20 pages. Eventually the secret of the library is realised but I won’t put it in here in case anyone actually wants to read the thing! The people speak modern American English even though it’s spattered with Italian, Turkish and (goodness knows why) Chinese. I found the use of modern American English and the uses of the foreign words irritating. You had to keep referring to a list at the back of the book to find out what they were saying. There were also some 21st century political correctness which I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have had in the Rennaisance.

I have since found out that the book is one of 4 and this was the last. I won’t be searching out the others! It’s also a PLAYSTATION game! I think the book was an after thought and it showed.