Book Review: The Thieves of Ostia by Caroline Lawrence

The Thieves of Ostia is the first book in The Roman Mysteries by Caroline Lawrence.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

An entertaining, educational and engaging historical mystery for children. Also a quick, easy, fun read for adults. Highly recommended! 4.5 /5

Summary (from back of book)

Mystery and adventure for four young detectives in Ancient Roman times…

While investigating the disappearance of her father’s signet ring, Flavia Gemina makes some friends – Jonathon the Jewish boy, Nubia the African slave girl and Lupus the mute beggar boy. Together the friends start solving mysteries.

Can they discover who is killing dogs in Ostia, and why?

Favourite Quote

“All the wealth in the world is no good if you don’t have a family.”

(From The Thieves of Ostia by Caroline Lawrence, page 44)

Review

First, my thanks to Joy over at Tales of Eneana for recommending this book to me a few years ago. Having now read it, I wish I had come to it sooner!

I really enjoyed this book, and as I read, couldn’t help but wish this series had been around when I was growing up!

The setting was wonderfully described, from mosaics to frescos, from house design to the lighthouse. The ancient Roman port of Ostia was brought to life superbly. One of my favourite locations was the cemetery outside the town walls, and the descriptions of the tombs.

The characters were varied and from all different backgrounds and walks of life. I could easily imagine Flavia and her friends, Jonathon, Nubia and Lupus, as well as Mordecai and Captain Geminus. Flavia is clever but isn’t a show-off, which makes for nicely balanced character. She is also sympathetic and compassionate, which balances the cruelties of the Roman world with what we expect in a protagonist in a modern story.

Even though this is a children’s book, the story was engaging and gripping. It’s a quick read, one I didn’t want to put down. I loved that the chapters were called “scrolls” and that there was enough historical information in the story for it to be educational as well as fun.

I was a little surprised by some of the subjects covered in the storyline, which included the killing of dogs (which is never easy to read) and suicide, but these issues were handled sensitively. As were the issues of slavery and the loss of family members.

The next book in the series is The Secrets of Vesuvius, which I am keen to begin reading soon! Highly recommended.

Rating

4.5 / 5
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Quick Review: Milly-Molly-Mandy Stories by Joyce Lankester Brisley

Summary

First published in 1928, this collection of stories for children centres around the adventures of Millicent Margaret Amanda, or Milly-Molly-Mandy for short. Over thirteen stories, Milly-Molly-Mandy and her friends in the village (and beyond), get up to all sorts of things including giving a party, going to a fete, and keeping shop.

Review

I thought this to be a sweet collection of stories which gave an interesting glimpse of how children of the 1920s saw the world. It was also a useful tool in documenting how English villages were back then, and how much they have changed over the hundred years since the book was published.

The adventures are very gentle and pretty much drama-free compared to modern storytelling, but I think sometimes such stories are just what’s needed in this fast-paced world.

Another aspect I liked was how the stories depicted society during that period. There is very much a focus on the home, and the extended family living together (Milly-Molly-Mandy lives with her mother and father, grandmother and grandfather, as well as her uncle and aunt). It also stresses that one shouldn’t be idle, so everyone is always doing something, even the young children in the village have what we might consider quite extensive chores to complete.

Life was very different in Milly-Molly-Mandy’s world, and from a historical point of view, I found it rather illuminating. I could have done without the repetitiveness of her name though…

A charming read, full of nostalgia for bygone days. It brought to life the world my grandmother would have grown up in, and to me, that makes these stories very special.

Rating

Quick Review: The Borrowers by Mary Norton

The Borrowers is the first book in the series of the same name by Mary Norton, first published in 1952.

Summary (from Goodreads)

Beneath the kitchen floor is the world of the Borrowers – Pod and Homily Clock and their daughter, Arrietty. In their tiny home, matchboxes double as roomy dressers and postage stamps hang on the walls like paintings. Whatever the Clocks need they simply “borrow” from the “human beans” who live above them. It’s a comfortable life, but boring if you’re a kid. Only Pod is allowed to venture into the house above, because the danger of being seen by a human is too great. Borrowers who are seen by humans are never seen again. Yet Arrietty won’t listen. There is a human boy up there, and Arrietty is desperate for a friend.

Review

This is another one of those children’s books that I never read as a child, even though I knew some of my friends had read it and enjoyed it. I do remember vaguely a TV series based on the books, which I think I did watch, and also a film, made later, which I don’t think I saw. So…I picked up this book with a bit of trepidation, as I’ve not liked a great many of the children’s books I’ve read as an adult (What Katy Did and some of the Narnia books, to name a couple). Yet, I must say, rather surprisingly, I enjoyed reading it much more than I thought I would.

There is something very honest and genuine about the characters. No-one is perfect, none of them have all the answers and it’s interesting to see how they are all trying to make life work in an ever-changing world. A world they have very little control over.

There is something very encouraging and endearing about the friendship that arises between the boy staying with his great aunt and Arriety and her parents, which lies at the heart of this story. A message of overcoming fear of others who we percieve as being different to us, but in reality we are not so different at all.

I greatly appreciated the imagination of the author who was able to look at ordinary things found in a house and envisage how someone a great deal smaller could utilise it.

The next book in the series is The Borrowers Afield, which I’m looking forward to starting soon.

Rating

Quick Review: The BFG by Roald Dahl

Summary (from Goodreads)

Captured by a giant! The BFG is no ordinary bone-crunching giant. He is far too nice and jumbly. It’s lucky for Sophie that he is. Had she been carried off in the middle of the night by the Bloodbottler, the Fleshlumpeater, the Bonecruncher, or any of the other giants-rather than the BFG-she would have soon become breakfast.

When Sophie hears that they are flush-bunking off in England to swollomp a few nice little chiddlers, she decides she must stop them once and for all. And the BFG is going to help her!

My Thoughts

It’s been years since I’ve read any of Roald Dahl’s books, but when a family member gave me a huge bag of books, one of which was The BFG, I thought it would be good to revisit it, especially as I’ve been reading and re-reading some childhood classics in recent years.

And, I thought I would enjoy it more than I did. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. Yes, it’s a highly imaginative story that’s sure to appeal to children, but the bits that I think appeals to them (the long, made-up-tongue-twisting words), don’t really appeal to me.

Also, being almost thirty years old, the book is a product of its time and so some passages haven’t aged particularly well. However, there are some very good passages too, my favourite being one about a matter of perspective: the giants seem bad to Sophie because the giants eat people, but that doesn’t make humans automatically good, some humans do bad things too. And that lesson alone makes the story worth a read, I think.

Rating

Book Review: When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr

Quick Review:

Sensitive, readable, engaging and moving…this is a brilliant book. Highly recommended. 5 / 5

Summary from Goodreads:

It was a small piece of red enamel with a black hooked cross on it. “It’s called a swastika,” said Gunther, “all the Nazis have them”.

Anna is too busy with schoolwork and tobogganing to listen to the grown-ups’ talk of Hitler. But one day she and her brother are rushed out of Germany in alarming secrecy, away from everything they know. Their father is wanted by the Nazis – dead or alive. It is the start of a huge adventure, sometimes frightening, very often funny, and always, always exciting.

Judith Kerr was born in Berlin and left Germany in 1993 to escape the Nazis. Her novels are based on her own experience

Favourite Quote:

I could have chosen so many, but I decided to pick:

‘But it won’t be the same – we won’t belong. Do you think we’ll ever really belong anywhere?’

‘I suppose not,’ said Papa. ‘Not the way people belong who have lived in one place all their lives. But we’ll belong a little in lots of places, and I think that may be just as good.’

(from When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr, page 266)

Review:

I remember a school friend reading this when I was younger but for some reason, I never got around to reading it myself. I am so pleased to be able to rectify this so many years later. What I hadn’t realised was this is the first book of three in the series, Out of the Hitler Time, and although it is historical fiction, it is inspired by the author’s own childhood experience. I very much wish to read the other two books from the series and have added them to my TBR list.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is a very readable, engaging and moving story. The descriptions are wonderful and clearly evoke the different places they visit, from Germany, to Switzerland, to France and then England. The characters feel genuine throughout, from Papa the impractical writer forced to confront being practical, to Mama who is clearly stressed and mentally, emotionally and physically burdened by the changes in their circumstances.

This makes for a sensitive introduction to when the Nazis came to power in 1930s Germany. Anna makes for a very good focus of the story, and her account of being a child refugee reads as authentic. There is a simplicity to her, a naivety, which makes her see what they are facing, on the whole, as an adventure, a positive, exciting experience…as long as her family stays together. Naturally, at points she acknowledges there are more serious implications to what is going on, but it is handled and presented well.

A brilliant book. Highly recommended.

Rating:

Book Review: The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis

The last battle front cover

The Last Battle is the seventh and final book in The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

My least favourite of the Narnia stories.  I wished I had stopped with book six, The Silver Chair, which I enjoyed immensely. 1 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

Many Narnian years have passed since Eustace and Jill helped ensure the Royal line. But when they are jerked back violently into this strangest of lands they find the present King in danger and Narnia facing its darkest hour. With Eustace and Jill at his side, the King, the noble unicorn Jewel and a few remaining loyal subjects must stand fast against the powers of evil and darkness and fight the Last Battle to decide the future of this once glorious kingdom.

Favourite Quote

“People shouldn’t call for demons unless they really mean what they say.”

(From The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis, page 81)

Review

It’s hard to write a review and maintain my review policy of ‘no spoilers’ when I feel so strongly about this book.  Sigh.  But I’ll give it a go…

Probably my least favourite of all the books, and I must admit, I was left feeling disappointed with the ending. I wrote this review a while after I finished reading the book, and I’m still left reeling over the conclusion to this series.  And, I can’t help but wonder what I would have made of it if I had read it as a younger person. I certainly can’t imagine recommending this book, but especially not to a child.

The style of the story is very different from the other six books.  The Narnia we get to visit is dark and horrible and very serious. Even when I wasn’t particularly gripped by the storylines and subplots of the other books, I always had the fantasy world-building to fall back on and enjoy.  As I’ve mentioned in my other reviews, I really loved exploring the geography and landscape of Narnia and the surrounding countries, but in The Last Battle, even that was lacking.

Also, there’s no getting away from the fact this book is pretty unsavoury, in terms of racism and sexism, issues I’ve mentioned before with the other books.

Unlike the other instalments (except for the Genesis-inspired passages from The Magician’s Nephew), where the Christian allegory was only noticeable (to me) if I searched for it (I didn’t), The Last Battle is heavy with it. I really wanted to enjoy this book, but when I finished the final page I was left feeling flat.  I understand the ending was supposed to be uplifting but it really didn’t work for me, and certainly not as a children’s book. I also understand the ending in reference to the series arc, but still, not great reading.

I can’t help but wish I had ended reading The Chronicles of Narnia with The Silver Chair.  And, should I return to read the series again, I know now where to stop.  I won’t be returning to The Last Battle again. I did not like it.

Rating

one-star

Book Review: The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis

The Silver Chair is the sixth book in The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

Quite possibly my favourite book in The Chronicles of Narnia. Full of action and adventure, with entertaining characters and an interesting setting, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. If you only read one of the Narnia stories, I would certainly recommend it be this one. 5 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

Jill and Eustace must rescue the Prince from the evil Witch.

NARNIA… where owls are wise, where some of the giants like to snack on humans (and, if carefully cooked, on Marsh-wiggles, too), where a prince is put under an evil spell… and where the adventure begins.

Eustace and Jill escape from the bullies at school through a strange door in the wall, which, for once, is unlocked. It leads to the open moor… or does it? Once again Aslan has a task for the children, and Narnia needs them. Through dangers untold and caverns deep and dark, they pursue the quest that brings them face to face with the evil Witch. She must be defeated if Prince Rilian is to be saved.

Favourite Quote

“Very likely, what with enemies, and mountains, and rivers to cross, and losing our way, and next to nothing to eat, and sore feet, we’ll hardly notice the weather.”

(from The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis, page 60)

Review

Quite possibly my favourite instalment in the series. I loved the setting and the characters, and the story itself was good. Fast-paced and full of action and adventure, the quest felt focused and fulfilling, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I loved Puddleglum the Marsh-wiggle. His pessimistic nature ensured he was always surprised when things turned out better than expected, and he is never dull, but rather interesting, engaging and quirky, not to mention brave. Without a doubt, he is my favourite character from the whole series.

I missed the Pevensie children in this one, but I think Eustace and Jill were good main characters. Neither are perfect, but they do well in the face of adversity and are relatable (the Pevensies, even Edmund, do tend to come across as a little too perfect, I think). Jill in particular is strong and likeable, determined and courageous.

Again, we are shown parts of Narnia we have not been to before, and as always, the geography of this world is one of my favourite parts of the books. What was interesting in The Silver Chair is that a large chunk of the story takes place below ground which made for fascinating reading.

One thing I did find strange, and this links back with my reading of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, is that the woman Prince Caspian marries, and who is the mother of Rilian, is never named. She is called Queen, and is referred to as the wife of a king, the mother of a prince, and the daughter of Ramandu, but she doesn’t seem to possess a name of her own.

If you only read one of the Narnia books, I would certainly recommend you read this one. Although not as well known nor as iconic as The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, The Silver Chair is by far the most well-written and most engaging of the stories, at least in my opinion.

The final book in The Chronicles of Narnia is The Last Battle, which I read straight after this one, so expect the review soon.

Rating

Book Review: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is, chronologically, the fifth book in The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

An interesting adventure with plenty of action, mystery and magic. 4 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

Lucy and Edmund, with their dreadful cousin Eustace, get magically pulled into a painting of a ship at sea. That ship is the ‘Dawn Treader’, and on board is Caspian, King of Narnia. He and his companions, including Reepicheep, the valiant warrior mouse, are searching for seven lost lords of Narnia, and their voyage will take them to the edge of the world.

Their adventures include being captured by slave traders, a much-too-close encounter with a dragon, and visits to many enchanted islands, including the place where dreams come true.

Favourite Quote

Most of us know what we should expect to find in a dragon’s lair, but, as I said before, Eustace had read only the wrong books. They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons.

(From The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis, page 70)

Review

I felt like this book was a bit of a mixed bag really.  There were some parts of it which I loved dearly, but others not so much. And, there were parts where I felt the pacing was fast (not too fast) but others where it felt too slow. Hence the rating. Yet, I think this book, out of the five that I’ve read so far, contains the most interesting and inspiring quotes, and so it was with some difficulty I picked the one above.

I really liked the characters in this one.  Lucy and Edmond were always my favourite of the Pevensies, so for them to get their own adventure was fun, yet there is a reminder here that all children grow up.  This time around, their cousin Eustace joins them, albeit unwillingly, but his presence in the story is also very good. We also get to meet Prince Caspian again, who is now King of Narnia.

There is plenty of action and adventure to be found in the story, as well as mystery and magic, of course. My favourite adventure of the book was the one with the dragon (I shan’t go into details for fear of spoilers), but the place where dreams come true was also very clever. And I really enjoyed exploring the different geography in this story: we are taken to distant islands and cover great swathes of ocean and see all sorts of things we haven’t seen in Narnia before.

The next in the chronological order of the series, is The Silver Chair, which is book six and the penultimate volume in The Chronicles of Narnia. I plan to read it in February…

Rating

Book Review: Prince Caspian by C. S. Lewis

Prince Caspian is the fourth book in The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

An enjoyable and engaging fantasy read, with a wonderful cast of characters, both old and new, and with a different Narnia to explore. 5 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

The Pevensie siblings are back to help a prince denied his rightful throne as he gathers an army in a desperate attempt to rid his land of a false king. But in the end, it is a battle of honor between two men alone that will decide the fate of an entire world.

Favourite Quote

“That’s the worst of girls,” said Edmund to Peter and the Dwarf. “They never carry a map in their heads.”

“That’s because our heads have something inside them,” said Lucy.

(From Prince Caspian by C. S. Lewis, page 105)

Review

Prince Caspian was the second Narnia book written by C. S. Lewis to be published.  However, in the chronological reading order it is actually book four, and it is this order I am reading the series in.

I think Prince Caspian might be my favourite book in The Chronicles of Narnia so far. I loved the time travel aspects of this book, with hundreds, if not a thousand years having passed since the Pevensies were kings and queens of Narnia. The country as they remember it no longer exists, the people having changed and the landscape having evolved with the passing of time.  Yet, all the things which made Narnia special lives on in folklore and memory.

Lucy, as always is my favourite, but Edmund really has grown up. The lessons he learnt in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe have had a profound effect on his character, whilst Peter and Susan are more adult than children, which is reflected in their decision-making, making them appear a little out of step with the world they find themselves back in.

The names of the characters were well-chosen.  Not only did they sound like they reflected the characters, but they were just simply awesome.  A few examples being the mouse Reepicheep, the centaur Glenstorm, the giant Wimbleweather, the dwarf Nikabrick.

Again, I can’t help but see parallels with Tolkien’s writings, and I love that they were friends and were part of the same writing group, so would have discussed these aspects of their books together. Yes, I digress…In this instalment, it was that small people can be brave and save the world, and as for worldbuilding / fantasy elements there was a part that reminded me of the march of the ents…

There was only one part of the story I didn’t like, and it did interrupt my enjoyment of the book, albeit briefly. It was when a group of schoolgirls were said to be “mostly dumpy, prim little girls with fat legs”, (page 171), and a group of schoolboys, “who looked very like pigs” with “mean little faces” (page 172). The descriptions seem unnecessarily mean and cruel, and there appeared to be no justification for it.

The next book in The Chronicles of Narnia is The Voyage of The Dawn Treader, and I must say, I am really looking forward to it. After enjoying Prince Caspian so much, my expectations have risen…

Rating

Book Review: The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis

The Horse and His Boy is the third book, chronologically, in The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.

Quick Review (read on for full review)

A fairy tale-like story full of beautiful landscapes and adventure. 4 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

The Horse and his Boy is a stirring and dramatic fantasy story that finds a young boy named Shasta on the run from his homeland with the talking horse, Bree. When the pair discover a deadly plot by the Calormen people to conquer the land of Narnia, the race is on to warn the inhabitants of the impending danger and to rescue them all from certain death.

Favourite Quote

“Child,” said the Voice, “I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own.”

(From The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis, page 130)

Review

I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed this story. It had a fairy tale quality to it which I liked. I didn’t expect most of the tale to take place outside of Narnia, in the kingdom to south called Calormen, but I found the location fascinating.

One of my favourite parts was the description of the journey north, and the different landscapes they passed through as they try to reach Narnia. I liked the characters.  Bree and Shasta, and Hwin and Aravis were interesting and I liked how Shasta and Aravis interacted. Aravis’s shy, gentle talking horse was my favourite. And, although the main characters were different, we still got to meet the Pevensies, who were now all grown up.

What I really didn’t like about the book was that you can’t get away from the undertone of racism in some of descriptions of the people. This certainly dates the book back to a time when this was acceptable, and it did hamper my enjoyment of it, hence the loss of a star, though I wonder if it should have lost another…I did struggle to rate this book because of this.

I noted a couple of similarities between Lewis’s Narnia and Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The first was the use of the name “Bree”.  The second was a description of the city of Tashbaan, which reminded me a little of Minas Tirith.  I still prefer Middle Earth over Narnia, both in terms of location and stories, but I am really enjoying this series and am happy to be working my way through it, from beginning to end.

Chronologically-speaking, The Horse and His Boy, is the third book in The Chronicles of Narnia, but it was the fifth book to be published. The next book in the series is Prince Caspian, which I am really looking forward to reading. I hope I get around to doing so soon.

Rating