Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Book Review: Tiddlers in a Jam Jar

Brian E. Priest is a brilliant writer. I don’t say that very often. I think I was expecting a travelogue when I picked Tiddlers in a Jam Jar for review. This is more a ‘lifealogue,’ if one can be permitted to make up such a word. Apparently, Brian always wanted to be a gypsey with a horse and a vardo (wagon), and from his subsequent travels, it appears that he fulfilled this boyhood dream. But every adventure has to begin somewhere, and Brian’s story starts in war time Britain. One sentence stood out for me to describe the era of war time and post war Britain: “Houses were left unlocked in an era of trust.” I found that single sentence very moving (odd though that sounds), given what life is like these days as we surround ourselves with walls, electric fences, alarms, and armed response. Life, although grim and harsh post war, was very different.

Brian takes us through moments of his (to him and his friends) almost idyllic, carefree childhood which nowadays would have been considered by the politically correct arbiters of social and parenting standards to be utterly appalling, horrifically dangerous, and hazardous to any child’s health. But he survived, despite the beige school meals, and thrived, until his peregrinations took him to that far flung edge of the precipice called life. And he jumped. Into the Antipodes…to begin a new exciting adventure. There are a number of ‘vintage moments’ that will delight readers and fans of British royalty, art classes, the Beatles and John Cleese (Monty Python enthusiasts will enjoy references), with a motley crew of eccentric and memorable characters as friends, and his low-level entry into the world of publishing. From there, and after numerous hilarious adventures, Brian headed for Central America (where apparently Americans were not popular) to enjoy some dangerous encounters, some archaeology with even more dangerous encounters, North America and Canada, the mind-boggling hippie culture, and on to Europe and beyond to more adventures in a lifetime than any one person deserves!

This book is an Aladdin’s cave of treasure for the reader who enjoys writing that engages the senses as well as one’s appreciation of great writing. There is just too much worthy writing to do this book justice in a short review. The author’s humour and wit are dry and subtle. Don’t rush your reading or you might miss some deliciously sly descriptions. Each sentence is a polished visual gem, drawing the reader into the events unfolding or the situation described. I confess to going back and rereading sentences I particularly enjoyed. Brian made me laugh out loud on more than one occasion. To be honest, I think I had a laugh on every page. His style is succinct, sometimes choppy, and yet the whole flows in a lyrical way, carrying the reader smoothly along on a never-ending river of images. For me, the imagery evoked in just a few sentences is something I have hardly ever found. What makes it even more enjoyable is that the creation of the imagery is somehow effortless. I have read books where the author drowns their readers in a sea of words, trying to get the point across or create a picture. Not so here. Each sentence does its job perfectly. Nothing is extraneous.

I enjoyed the layout. Each chapter starts with an appropriate image and a brief outline of the contents. This is unusual but perfectly suits the author’s style of writing and the contents of this book. Is this a travel memoir, a life adventure, perhaps literary fiction? Maybe a bit of everything. I absolutely adored this book. I would encourage anyone who enjoys memoirs, travel adventures, and literary writing to grab a copy and sneak off to while away some time on a wholly immersive adventure. The author has enjoyed an enviously enormous amount of fun in his life. A must-read as well for anyone who remembers catching tiddlers and putting them in a jam jar…

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Book Review: All Eyes on Alexandra

Based on the true story of Israel’s annual crane migration, iAll Eyes on Alexandra, young Alexandra Crane is terrible at following her family in their flying Vee. She can’t help it that the world is so full of interesting distracting sights! When it's time for the Cranes to migrate to Israel's Hula Valley for the winter, Alexandra is excited, but her family is worried. Will Alexandra stay with the group, and what happens if a dangerous situation should arise? Might Alexandra—and the rest of the flock—discover that a bad follower can sometimes make a great leader?
What a beautiful story and stunningly illustrated in full page, full colour images by Chiara Pasqualotto. The story takes young readers on an adventure with Alexandra, who may be a bit of a dreamer and a wanderer, but “She’s not afraid to try new routes. She’s got a sharp eye for danger. And she never gives up until she finds the best way.” I like the way author Anna Levine gives the birds their own personalities and familial roles. Alexandra is different and just a bit unique and grandfather Saba recognises this. Alexandra might get distracted with all the interesting things to see in nature, but that doesn’t stop her innate instinct for leadership and navigation.

I think young readers and adults reading to them will be fascinated to learn more about Israel’s bird migration, and the more than five hundred million birds of different species that fly over Israel to and from Africa, Asia and Europe twice a year. The vivid and detailed images take young readers and adults through a variety of magnificent landscapes, which may stimulate readers to do some research on their own and learn more about annual bird migration and the countries they traverse. This is a wonderful story for young readers to explore and I’d recommend it be stocked in home and school libraries. There are plenty of points for story discussion as well, giving youngsters much food for thought.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Book Review: Reconstructing the Shield of Achilles

The Trojan War is one of the earliest wars recorded in the history of human combat. The Iliad and the Odyssey are among the oldest extant works of western literature, written by the blind poet Homer in the eighth century. The Trojan War concerns the Achaeans of ancient Greece and the inhabitants of Ilios, the Trojans. But the story begins before that, at the wedding of the sea nymph goddess Thetis and the mortal but mighty king of the Myrmidons, Peleus. The seeds of this tragic and interminable war were sown when Eris, the goddess of strife, was not invited but arrived anyway, tossing into the company a golden apple inscribed with the words ‘to the most fair.’ Paris, the long-lost son of the Trojan King Priam, is asked to choose between the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. Lured by her promise of bestowing upon him the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Troy, Paris chooses Aphrodite… Unfortunately, Helen is married to Menelaus, king of Sparta. And thus, the epic war begins, brought to life by the words of the poet Homer, and forever cemented in the minds of succeeding generations.

Greek mythology and the various heroes, gods, and demi gods have a solid place in modern popular culture, given the many novels and movies devoted to various mythological themes. Names like Zeus, Poseidon, Achilles, Hector, Paris, Helen, Menelaus and Agamemnon are not unfamiliar, especially the mighty Achilles, hero of the Greek forces. Achilles being the son of a goddess, Thetis, and a mighty mortal, Peleus, meant he was already special. Added to this was his legendary prowess as a warrior. When Achilles loses his armor during battle to Hector, the son of King Priam, his mother pleads with Hephaistos, the lame god, to fashion her son an incredible shield. Thetis, knowing that Achilles’ death would follow upon that of Hector, still had the shield made, bowing, one imagines, to the inevitability of the cycle of life. Hephaistos makes the shield, and the details are minutely described by Homer. These details bring us to the reconstruction of this magnificent piece of armor by Kathleen Vail, who documented this artistic project in her book, Reconstructing the Shield of Achilles.

A lifetime student of Homer’s ancient Greece, Vail has created a 'physical, artistically relevant, life-size reconstruction of the divine shield of Achilles based literally and solely on Homer’s specifications in Book 18 of the Iliad.' This is no easy feat because although many now discovered and similarly crafted and decorated Mycenaean artifacts – swords, daggers, vases, and more - prove the potential existence of this shield, Vail was working from the details in Homer’s poem and existing archaeological discoveries. The shield is described as having an awe-inspiring effect on Achilles’ enemies, notwithstanding his mighty prowess and physical attributes. However, for me, the importance of the shield is what the poet conveys in the descriptions and which Vail recreates for the reader with images of the actual reconstructed shield and the corresponding artifacts which provided the inspiration for the images.

Vail takes each section and describes it in detail, as well as the significance in Greek society at the time, starting with the centre piece, creation, and radiating outward in circles depicting levels of Greek society – civil, judicial, military, entertainment, daily and pastoral activities. Ultimately the shield depicts both earthly and heavenly cycles of life. The shield is a microcosm of civilization, depicting the values and ideals of the ancient world, and the eternal cycle of birth, death, renewal. If the shield ever existed, where could it possibly be now? Thetis held funeral games in honour of her son Achilles, offering his armor as the prize to the ‘best of the Achaeans.’ Odysseus won the armor but given his many wanderings and shipwrecks before finally reaching home and his beloved wife, Penelope, who knows what happened to the shield? Perhaps only the gods know?

Kathleen Vail offers both the interested amateur and the dedicated scholar a minutely detailed and incredibly well researched literary work, complete with meticulously referenced and labelled images and many bibliographic references. The reconstruction of the shield is, to me, more than a labor of love. There is far more to the story of Achilles, the flawed and magnificent warrior, than the war. The psychological depths, the drama, the tragic emotions, actions, and motivations of the characters, both human and divine, the merging of heavenly and earthly activities, and many grander symbolic themes make the Iliad more than just a poem. The reconstruction of the shield proves this.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Book Review: Self Love

Self Love: A British Tale of Woe and Wit by T.L. Clark is the story of thirty-something, aspiring entrepreneur (her own florist business), attractive but overweight Molly. Our heroine is plagued by what seems to be a malevolent fate. Her weight has become an obsession, her self-doubts are fuelled by the voice in her head that sounds very much like her mother, her boyfriend – Nigel the wanker - has dumped her, and she seems to be spiralling downward in a cycle of binge eating and despair. What’s it going to take for Molly to turn her life around, regain her confidence, and realize that loving yourself must come before anyone else can love you?

Full of charm, realism and British humor, Self Love will resonate with most, possibly all readers. I defy anyone who reads this story not to have experienced at least one of Molly’s issues, be it being dumped by the boyfriend before a client’s wedding, despairing of one’s weight, enduring the worries of a fledgling business, discovering health issues, undergoing the humiliations of online dating, trying yet another diet… the scenarios are myriad and real. There are funny moments, and bitter-sweet moments. The reader hopes that Molly does discover the value of true friendship, real love, a relationship with her mother and, mostly importantly, a relationship with herself just as she is, and embraces who she is.

The story is simple, as most life stories are, without complex plot twists and turns, but that very simplicity is part of the appeal of this tale of woe. Molly is hilarious in dealing with her dramatic events, and her inner monologue/stream of consciousness narration ensures the reader is with her all the way. Molly is very real and relatable and the secondary characters, while not so fleshed out, are still very credible. Her parents, especially her mother, are hilarious. The dialogues are natural, and this makes the events believable. The story flows well and events transpire smoothly. I enjoyed Molly’s story and rooted for her all the way. Most readers will nod their heads in a ‘been there, done that’ way while turning the pages. A delightful, witty, and hilarious escapade through life with an unlikely but tenacious heroine.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Book Review: The Mystic Video Game

The Extraordinary Tales of Melody Magic: The Mystic Video Game by Alex Woburn is the third book in this series, filled with color, magic, action, danger, ghastly monsters, fun and whimsical creatures, and lots of adventure. Melody and her mom, Violet, find themselves homeless after their house was burned down. While Melody stays with her friend Max, Violet gets a job helping to clean up a charming cabin in the woods and is able to live there while doing so. The owner, Saxon, and his son, Charlie, just disappeared many years ago, and Dante, Saxon’s brother, has finally decided to tidy things up and put the cabin on the market. Melody and her friends decide to help Violet, but while cleaning up they discover a very old video game console … and are invited into the World of Whimsy by Ollie, the singing octopus. The kids need to help save the World of Whimsy from great evil. Will they survive the terrible dangers contained within the game? Are they ready for the incredible surprises waiting there?

Since this is the third book, young readers might like to pick up the first two books to acquaint themselves with Melody’s story and how she got her powers. However, since Alex Woburn drip-feeds backstory into the rollicking adventure as it unfolds, there is enough detail to keep readers apprised. The story is a non-stop, helter-skelter ride that whisks young readers headlong into a world of magic and mayhem. The author has an incredible imagination and kids will just love the amazing creatures – both the frightening and then fun ones - he has created. Ollie the singing octopus is just adorable. There are numerous life lessons and messages interwoven into the action and the encounters Melody and her friends have with the real world and the magical one. Teamwork, accepting others for who they are, being kind to others, believing in yourself, looking for answers from within, caring for the environment, and many more.

The author sets the scenes in the real world very well, with Melody’s school and social life nicely outlined. Young readers will relate to the teachers and the mean girl scenario. The entry into the magical World of Whimsy is done in a way that reminded me of the movie Jumanji, where the kids get to choose various powers. These powers are suited to their personalities. The question of would anyone really want superpowers in their daily life is addressed in an interesting way at the end. The story wraps up nicely with, of course, a new adventure looming as Violet takes a job helping the owner of a creepy old mansion turn it into a lovely hotel… A wonderful tale for young readers who love adventure and action stories with a difference!