A Column of Fire – Ken Follett

a column of fire cover

“We hanged him in front of Kingsbridge Cathedral.”

Who would have thought an almost-1000 page tome about the building of a cathedral would capture the imagination of so many readers (and viewers, with the subsequent TV adaptation)? And yet, 1989’s The Pillars of the Earth did just that, and spawned a sequel, 2007’s World Without End.

For the third part in the trilogy, author Ken Follett jumps forward half a century or so. We’re still in Kingsbridge, but now in a time of religious upheaval. The Protestant faith has grown, unhappy with the hypocrisy often seen in the Catholic leadership. Henry VIII’s announcement of himself, not the Pope, as head of the church leaves England divided. His successors are his two daughters: first the Catholic Mary Tudor – known as Bloody Mary for the number of Protestants she has executed – and then Protestant Elizabeth, who’d much rather rule over a kingdom of tolerance.

Against this background, we follow Ned Willard and a cast of characters, from Kingsbridge to France, the Netherland, and even the Caribbean. Religious upheaval throughout Europe is the cause of dramas huge and small, and this book doesn’t shy away from the gory details.

Perhaps because of the change in time period, or an over-familiarity with the era in popular culture these days, I didn’t find this book as enthralling as the first or even second in the series. In fact, the opening chapter was enough to almost have me hand the book back to the library without reading any more: “Oh great,” I thought, “another ‘woman married against her will’ history. Urgh!”

I decided to give it one more go, and slowly picked my way through the rest. The writing remains strong, the dramas told well – let’s face it, holding attention for 750 (or over 900, depending on binding!) pages is no mean feat! – but still, hmm. While it didn’t work quite as well for me as the first book, but it was a nice change of pace from my more usual sci-fi and fantasy reads.

Hardback: 751 pages / 30 chapters
First published: 2017
Series: Kingsbridge book 3
Read from 6th April – 5th May 2018

My rating: 7/10

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018)

Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society poster

Surely a contender for the most awkward title of the year award (I asked for tickets for the “Guernsey film”; a friend refers to it as the “Tatty pie film”), this adaptation of Mary Ann Shaffer’s book (which I haven’t read) is rather sweeter than the titular baked goods.

That the Channel Island of Guernsey was occupied by the Nazis during World War II is sometimes a forgotten part of the conflict’s history. As one character puts it, they didn’t just have to survive the war like the rest of Britain, they had to do so while living with the enemy. And a dark and terrifying time it was too, which we see in flashbacks as writer Juliet Ashton (Lily James) delves into the locals’ experiences.

Although I’m not really a fan of the kind of sweet romance that this film ultimately is, that element was very well balanced with the darkness of the war and occupation themes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I really liked the bits about the main character’s writing career – I was reminded a little of a quieter version of Aunt Izzy in Life After Life. There were also similarities to Their Finest, although Juliet doesn’t seem to have many issues that you might expect for a woman in that time period.

The rest of the cast is all excellent, from Michiel Huisman (almost unrecognisable from his Game of Thrones look!) to Penelope Wilton. The aftermath of the occupation is really well explored in their different characters, from regrets to anger and fear to hope. Mainly, though, it’s about the necessity of friendships, as well as the wonder of books and words.

Not for everyone, but if it’s even half your cup of tea then this is a lovely little movie.

Released: 20th April 2018
Viewed: 24th April 2018
Running time: 124 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 7/10

Egyptian Enigma – LJM Owen

egyptian enigma cover

“Sipping a glass of hot apple tea, Dr Elizabeth Pimms watched dawn flow over the desert, blushing shades and grey shadows shifting and merging until they coalesced into the vast Pyramids of Giza.”

Tomb robbers and over-enthusiastic early archaeologists weren’t the only dangers to Egypt’s ancient mummies. Pharaohs rewrote history to remove their predecessors, and then stories of female pharaohs were discounted when it didn’t suit the prevailing social norms. Which only makes the mysteries that much harder to decipher.

I’ve missed a couple of books introducing Dr Elizabeth Pimms, the young Australian Egyptologist. That didn’t seem to matter too much – although I could tell when references to previous events were being made, without it impacting too much on the plot here – as it was easy enough to pick up with the story. Past events have led Elizabeth to a quieter-than-planned career as a librarian and tutor, so when she spots some strange markings on a papyrus during a trip to her beloved Egypt, she jumps at the chance to begin an investigation into the ‘Golden Tomb’ and the unidentified mummies that were discovered there.

Interspersed with Elizabeth’s modern archaeology – 3D printers are fabulous! – we get chapters told from the point of view of Tausret, the last pharaoh of the 19th dynasty – and a woman!

I do have a bit of a liking for ancient cultures such as Egypt, and a growing fondness for ‘cosy mysteries’, so I thought I’d give this NetGalley opportunity a go – and ended up gulping it down! The mix of real history – Tausret is real, the Golden Tomb is fictional – and a little insight into amateur archaeology in the technology age was a great mix.

The story is rounded out by various threads about Elizabeth’s friends and family – this is probably the bit most impacted by not reading the first two books, and indeed I’ve probably spoiled the plot to one of those by starting here. Still, the multicultural grandparentage was rather interesting, and I’m also a huge foodie so the descriptions of Chinese, French, and Welsh feasts was rather mouth watering!

Despite those bits, I would offer a warning over some of the ‘cosy’ status: I really shouldn’t have looked up ‘scaphism’ aka death by milk and honey before trying to sleep o_O

Overall: a fairly light yet involving read that moved at a good pace. I am deducting a mark, however, as the biggest non-Mummy mystery is left as a huge cliff-hanger – this isn’t  a stand-alone read, alas!

NetGalley eARC: 384 pages / 20 chapters
First published: 2018
Series: Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth book 3
Read from 9th-13th March 2018

My rating: 7/10

Victoria and Abdul (2017)

Victoria and Abdul poster

Everyone knows that Queen Victoria had a huge romance with hubby, Albert, and found a little relief from her loneliness following his death with ghillie, John Brown. In fact, Judi Dench played the monarch in the movie, Mrs Brown, showing us their friendship. It’s a nice touch, then, to have her back in the role for this next episode.

For the Queen’s golden jubilee, two men from India were rather randomly chosen to present the Empress of India with a token from her Indian subjects. The aging monarch took a shine to one of the men, Abdul (Ali Fazal) of the title, and recruited him first as a general servant, and then as a teacher – ‘Munshi’ – in the Urdu language, the Koran, and Indian culture in general. However, the rest of the court are far less keen on this ‘brown man’ taking a place so close to the elderly Queen, suspecting him of currying (hah hah!) favour, and her of losing her mental faculties.

One thing that shone through very well from the movie was a great grounding in making these unlikely events seem very plausible. Victoria was a willful woman, by all accounts, but also lonely and forced to maintain her regal duties well beyond the point where a quiet retirement would have been far kinder. As she dragged herself through her later years, the chance to relieve some of the boredom was presented in the form of an exotic young man who could fill her head with marvellous tales and new concepts.

There’s absolutely no faulting Dame Judi here, of course. She’s “willful and stubborn and overly attached to power” every beat of the way. Ali Fazal is charming as the young clerk, although I was ever so slightly ‘hmm’ about the way his character arc is portrayed – a flaw, I suspect, of being based on the man himself’s own journals. Still, it’s a lovely friendship, as much about age as class and culture.

I was pleasantly surprised by this movie. It was sweet and heartwarming, with enough bite from the Queen’s stubbornness in the face of her court, filled with a stellar supporting cast. It’s a lovely companion piece to 1997’s Mrs Brown, although its cosy Sunday afternoon vibe is a little let down by the inevitably slightly downbeat events at the end.

Released: 15th September 2017
Viewed: 28th September 2017
Running time: 112 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 7/10

Odd & True – Cat Winters

Odd and True cover

“‘Tell me the story again,’ I urged my sister in the nighttime blackness of our attic bedroom.”

Raised on stories about their mother and uncle’s monster hunting past, Trudchen Grey is still not inclined to believe her sister’s letters, telling of Odette’s adventures in the circus or even wilder escapades. But when Odette returns to their aunt’s house to whisk her little sister into an even bigger adventure, Tru has to make a choice to believe – or not. Either will have repercussions.

In alternating chapters, the narrator switches from Tru to Odette, who fills in some of the mysteries of the family’s past. Soon, the reader is left trying to figure out which half of the story – either side of the fin de siecle – is the bigger mystery.

You might be able to tell from my rating: I loved this book! I went in not knowing too much about it, but I suppose with expectations of a ‘Hansel and Gretel Witchhunters’ ya adventure – which would have been fine. But this is absolutely not that book. It is so much more!

I’m left not really wanting to spoil it all too much for any would-be readers, rather allowing you to make those discoveries for yourself. Suffice to say, this is a heart-pulling drama, a lovely historical slice, and sure – a l’il bit about monster hunting. It’s also a perfect book about the power of stories, and the bonds of family.

Huge thanks to NetGalley for the review copy of the book, and the chance to discover Cat Winters.

NetGalley eARC: 368 pages / 22 chapters plus epilogue
First published: September 2017
Series: none
Read from 6th-12th September 2017

My rating: 9/10

Hidden Figures (2016)

Once upon a time, the word ‘computer’ actually meant a person – someone who does computations. Before we had the electronic versions, even the ones that took up vast rooms of space never mind the power in your phone, calculations all had to be done by hand. And that includes the complex mathematics required to put a man in space – equations for speed and orbit and so many other life-threatening details, all requiring a human brain, pencil and paper.

In the early 1960s, a battle was going on between the USA and Russia to win the ‘space race’: being first was everything in launching satellites, putting a man into space, orbiting the Earth, reaching the moon. And while NASA struggled with such lofty goals, the people working for them were often facing much more fundamental struggles: to be fairly treated if they weren’t white men.

Hidden Figures is based on the true stories of three black women who not only worked for NASA, but were fundamental in the successes that included the famous “One small step” for Neil Armstrong in 1969. History tells of rooms of white males, and finally this movie is trying – albeit imperfectly at times – to point out that that is far from the whole story.

I absolutely *loved* this movie. It was heart-wrenching watching the snubs and struggles, and I felt so pleased to live in a world where my reality is to see that with a large dollop of ‘WTF?’ – shame we’ve still got a ways to go! The film has you rooting 100% for the three female leads – and quite frankly I’m shocked that there were no Oscars taken home – while keeping the story focused on the space race. Such is the power of the story-telling that, even more than half a century on and knowing how things turned out, I was still on the edge of my seat as the flimsiest of tech hurtled brave souls into space.

If I have any complaints about the film, it’s only that I think it still sugar-coated some of the struggles. I have read that the whole removing of bathroom signs was quite wrongly handed to a white character, for instance. It was fascinating – and a bit sickening – to see what life was like under segregation and when women were so openly second class citizens – but for every gain seen, I did find myself wondering if, for instance, the husbands were really so supportive of their ‘little women’, or if that had been brushed over for the sake of keeping the movie up-tempo and uplifting.

Still, absolutely recommended – best film I’ve seen in a long time!

Released: 17th February 2017
Viewed: 28th March 2017
Running time: 127 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 9/10

Cryptonomicon – Neal Stephenson

“Two tires fly.”

I finished Cryptonomicon on a snowy Saturday afternoon, exactly 50 weeks after I started it, and after quite a concerted push to get to the end. Afterwards, I sat in a oddly empty little space, slightly disbelieving that I’d actually got there.

Which isn’t to suggest Crypt is a slog – well, perhaps to some (and people who only know Stephenson from the new and rather excellent Seveneves should be very wary!), but not to me. It’s still rather huge and daunting! Each chapter was less than 1% of the total (I was reading the eBook), and I was averaging a chapter per night. The sheer scale of such a task…! And that’s before you count the massive gap in the middle: I put the book down, not because I wasn’t enjoying it, but because this was easily 3 or 4 ‘normal’ books, and my Goodreads challenge needed (!) the 3 or 4, not the 1. Which is precisely why I have no Goodreads reading challenge this year – this book broke that!

All of which is avoiding talking about the actual text, I suppose. Which isn’t entirely inappropriate: it’s sort of that kind of book. Things happen. Interesting things, to be sure, but not always things that feel wholly relevant, or at least necessary. They are not always high tension, or fast-packed action things, either. They are very readable little snippets in the more action-packed occurrences of the lives of the largish cast of characters; they get under your skin. A chapter or three later, you might come back around to that character, and think, “Oh yeah – what happened to them?”. There was something gloriously unrushed about my reading of this book, until that didn’t really suit the story.

Cryptography and cryptanalysis and cryptocurrencies aren’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Nor some of the ‘behind the scenes’ kind of things of the Second World War, told in one of the book’s two timelines, and via several characters’ stories. However, Alan Turing’s been the subject of several films of late – he gets a cameo here, while the story is handed to other characters – and while cryptography is not my subject, it is vaguely fascinating, all the more so given the actually life-and-death nature of its use at the time.

The second timeline ironically feels the more dated, talking about the ‘new’ language of C++ replacing C, etc. Still, I had to go look up when cryptocurrencies were actually around (vaguely 1980s onwards), given this book was published almost a decade before ‘Bitcoin’ became a thing. Slowly, slowly, slowly the two threads start to collide, pulling everything into a single, decrypted whole.

I’m not doing it a jot of justice, but I liked it rather a lot. It loses a star for a relatively weak ending, in my opinion, but really at over a thousand pages (depending on edition) this had to be about enjoying the journey – and I did. Just, let me have a nice long break before I pick up Quicksilver!

 

Kindle: 1139 pages / 102 chapters
First published: 1999
Series: vaguely linked to the Baroque Cycle
Read from 15th February 2015 -30th January 2016

My rating: 8/10