Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death
Author: James Runcie
Published: 24th April 2012
Goodreads Rating: 3.68 out of 5
Reviewed: July 2017
In 2014, ITV broadcasted the first episode of Grantchester, a drama series based on books by British novelist James Runcie. Although written during the twenty-first century, the story is set in the 1950s in a village on the outskirts of Cambridge. Sidney Chambers, a young Canon in charge of the Church of St Andrew and Mary, is a polite and friendly character who, despite his reluctance, ends up acting as a detective in a variety of crimes.
Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death is the first book of six in The Grantchester Mysteries. Split into six individual baffling cases, the background story of Sidney’s private life continues to develop throughout. Each crime is committed then swiftly solved by the Canon and his friend, Inspector Geordie Keating, although it is Sidney who ultimately resolves the case.
Murder, jewellery theft and art forgery are just some of the felonies with which Sidney grudgingly gets involved. Unresolved crimes tend to land in his lap rather than offering his assistance willingly. Up at dawn to work on sermons before rushing off to capture criminals, Sidney is never off duty.
A vicar may seem like an unlikely candidate for a detective, but people tend to open up to him and unintentionally reveal delitescent information. Listening to suspects and witnesses without pre-judgement allows Sidney to think things through carefully rather than jumping to conclusions. From the moment the crime is committed until the story’s denouement, Sidney passionately does everything he can to ensure the culprit is discovered.
What makes this series different from other crime novels is the focus on Sidney Chambers’ own life. James Runcie emphasises the loneliness of a bachelor living in a vicarage with only a curate and crotchety housekeeper for company. Readers are drawn into Sidney’s stories and hold onto the hope that his dalliances with the beautiful Amanda become something more concrete.
Those who have watched the ITV series will be familiar with the stories in this book because the producer has stuck to the exact storyline, not missing or adding anything extra. The fact that there were only two years between publishing and screen production shows how well-written and thought-out these stories are. Unlike famous detective novels such as Sherlock Holmes or books by Agatha Christie, The Grantchester Mysteries are not set at the time of writing. Although they are historically accurate, the prose is suitable for present-day readers.
Each story is quick to read, making it a relaxing and enjoyable book. It is not a thriller or horror, although some of the crimes are quite terrible. Instead, it is entertaining and often humorous. It is suitable for crime fiction fans as well as those new to the genre.
Regardless of whether you have watched the television series or not, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death is a delight to read. Of course, ITV has given away all the endings, but it is a different experience to read it in print rather than seeing it acted out on screen. Featuring the face of James Norton on the cover to work as a TV tie-in, the series will be easy to spot in prime position on bookshelves, both in shops and personal collections.
How to Stop Time
Author: Matt Haig
Published: 6th July 2017
Goodreads Rating: 3.85 out of 5
Reviewed: June 2017
All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players/They have their exits and their entrances/And one man in his time plays many parts …
How to Stop Time is British author Matt Haig’s latest novel, and very interesting it is, too. In the present day, Tom Hazard is a 40-something-looking man who has landed himself the position of history teacher at a comprehensive school in Tower Hamlets. Despite not having any formal training, Tom is the perfect candidate for the role because, despite his looks, he is 439 years old. But that is a secret that no one must ever discover.
The book jumps back and forth between the current time period and flashbacks to various events during Tom’s extensive past. Born in 1581, Tom has experienced a large part of British history and major events around the world. Constantly changing his name and identification, Tom moved around, switching locations whenever people became suspicious of his never-ageing body.
After a couple of centuries, Tom met a man with the same condition as himself, who revealed that there were many people in the same predicament. Promising to be able to help keep him safe, the stranger coerces Tom into a union called the Albatross Society. There are many rules and conditions to follow, the most important being never to fall in love. Unfortunately, Tom has already done this.
In London in 1623, Tom met the love of his life, Rose, who he eventually married and with whom he had a daughter. Although Tom does age, it is at the rate of one year every 15; therefore, he eventually had to leave his family to keep them safe. However, his daughter Marion has inherited his condition, and Tom spends his subsequent years trying to find her. With promises to help him on his quest, Tom reluctantly joins the Albatross Society, despite their questionable ways.
All Tom wants is to lead a normal life, yet the narrative reveals how impossible this has been, both in the past and now in the present. From Elizabethan England to Elizabeth II’s reign, Tom lives through several monarchs, wars, colloquial changes, industrialisation, sanitisation of comestibles, and the introduction of digital technology. Without the added pressure of keeping his true identity disguised, it is very interesting to experience historical events through the eyes of the protagonist.
Presuming that Haig has done his research and that the historical periods are factually correct, How to Stop Time is as educational as it is entertaining. History lovers will enjoy reading about famous people such as Shakespeare and Charlie Chaplin and getting an insight into the daily lives of past societies. Most importantly, Tom is a captivating character who, despite having lived for four centuries, is still as socially awkward as the rest of us.
How to Stop Time contains a fantastic concept about the progression of time and ageing, but its most poignant point is the emphasis on finding and being yourself. Change is an inevitable certainty, as witnessed by Tom, whose current world looks nothing like his memories. Although people must adapt to ongoing changes, living how you want is more important than adjusting to fit in with everyone else. In essence, do not be afraid to let the world see your true self.
Where Are You Hiding, God?
Author: Elisabeth Zartl
Published: 1st January 2013
Goodreads Rating: 4.22 out of 5
Reviewed: July 2017
Where Are You Hiding, God? is a children’s picture book by the Austrian illustrator Elisabeth Zartl. Published in 2013 under the German title Wo versteckst du dich, lieber Gott?, it has been translated into English to reach a wider audience. Primarily targeted at children of Christian families, the book attempts to explain the concept of God.
The short story begins with an anonymous little girl searching for God in a manner that resembles a game of Hide and Seek. She looks in her bedroom, the bathroom and the garden before giving up in defeat. As she sits desolately alone, a gust of wind and a falling leaf prompts her to realise that God does not have a corporeal body, but is everywhere. Exhilarated by her newfound understanding, she exclaims that God is in all the places she looked and that he is inside her, too. God is everywhere.
Aimed at children ages three and over, Where Are You Hiding, God? explores the confusion a child may have in comprehending the idea of God. For a child, knowing something or someone is there but not being able to see them is a difficult idea to grasp. This book, through the demonstration of someone their own age, helps explain their questions and uncertainties.
Elizabeth Zartl’s illustrations capture the attention of those reading or looking at the pages. Filling each page with a full-colour palette, the drawings are child-friendly but realistic, making it easy to process and accurately create a visual narrative of the written words. The language is also suitable for the intended demographic, and although three-year-olds may not be able to read it themselves, they will certainly understand the story.
From a design point of view, the text and illustrations do not quite match up. The full-page artworks make it difficult to place the short sentences so that both elements work together. This is not the fault of the author/illustrator, who would have originally been working with a German text.
Overall, Where Are You Hiding, God? is a sweet short story that can be read to children or grandchildren over and over again. As well as being a source of entertainment, it introduces them to the beliefs they will encounter during their Christian upbringing and prepares them to develop a greater understanding of God.
Valley of the Moon
Author: Melanie Gideon
Published: 26th July 2016
Goodreads Rating: 4.07 out of 5
Reviewed: September 2017
For fans of The Time Traveler’s Wife (Niffenegger, 2003), this captivating story by Melanie Gideon is an alluring, spellbinding work of fiction about loving, being loved and finding somewhere you belong. With a touch of time travel in an otherwise typical reality, Valley of the Moon will excite, enrapture and touch readers’ hearts.
It is difficult to give a synoptic review without giving too much of the plot away. In short, the book contains the two lives of strangers who meet under unlikely circumstances. It is 1975, and Lux Lysander is struggling to make ends meet as a single mother in San Francisco. Estranged from her parents, Benno has become her life; Lux would do anything for him. The other half of the story begins in 1906 in the Californian Sonoma Valley. Joseph has achieved his dream of creating an Edenic community where races and classes can live in harmony. Greengage is a self-sufficient society where everyone is seen as equal, but something happens to shake up the peace – literally. A huge earthquake mysteriously leaves the valley unharmed but surrounded by a deadly fog. No one can leave, and no one can enter, that is until Lux does.
Until the two characters’ lives collide, the narrative is fairly typical, but it quickly takes on a theme that most minds would attempt to debunk. Through a wall of fog, Lux can pass between 1975 and 1906, whereas Joseph and his friends can only stay in their timeline. Lux begins to live a double life: one with her son Benno and one with the antiquated lifestyle of the Greengage community. Unfortunately, it is only possible to pass through the fog on a full moon, and not necessarily every month.
Lux’s modern appearance and colloquialisms baffle the community, but she soon finds herself a place amongst the inhabitants. For a while, Lux keeps her two lives separate, but one slip-up causes her to temporarily lose the love and trust of her only son. Torn between her own flesh and blood and the only place she feels she belongs, Lux has to decide how far she would go for the people she loves.
One of the key themes of the novel is relationships. Although romance develops toward the latter stages of the story, the majority focuses on familial love and love between friends. Lux and Benno’s relationship is particularly important, especially when their love becomes strained by Lux’s secret dalliance with the past. The other significant theme is about finding oneself. Lux lives in an era where despite developments in women’s equality, single mothers are still shunned. Conversely, in 1906 when historically things were worse for women, the egalitarian society feels much more like home.
Lux’s temerity is to be admired as she continues to visit the past despite it being beyond the bounds of possibility. More applaudable is her determination to win back her son as well as her distant parents.
Despite being set for the most part in the 1970s and 80s, Valley of the Moon has a futuristic air about it, with an element of fantasy and science fiction. It is almost a version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Lewis, 1950) but for adults with more realistic themes. Melanie Gideon admits that she got the idea for the novel from the film Brigadoon (1954), in which the protagonist stumbles across a magical land in the woods. With some similarities, Gideon has created her version of this fairy-tale-like scenario.
Journeying through a range of emotions, Valley of the Moon is a story that engages readers from beginning to end. With ups and downs, the author explores the lives and personalities of the main characters, which develop beautifully over time. This book is not likely to disappoint its readers.
Where the Wild Winds Are
Author: Nick Hunt
Published: 1st January 2017
Goodreads Rating: 3.86 out of 5
Reviewed: September 2017
From the moment the great storm of 1987 almost blew six-year-old Nick Hunt away, he has had the urge to travel. So many travel books are on the market, and it is difficult to produce something new and exciting, but after coming across an interesting map of Europe, Hunt was determined to go on a journey that not many have attempted before. With a map listing the named winds of Europe, Hunt sets off on a quixotic quest to follow the winds.
Beginning in the Pennine Mountains, Nick Hunt takes the reader on a personal journey through the continent as he explores the towns and valleys the winds flow through whilst hoping the elusive tempests will occur so that he can experience them himself. With a mix of euphoria and disappointment, Hunt details his arduous journey providing additional knowledge along the way.
Some winds are more evanescent than others – one, discouragingly, not appearing at all – whereas one is so strong, Hunt witnesses a waterfall being blown upwards. Ignoring the warnings of the locals, Hunt, dead set on completing what he intended to do, takes us on a long walk from Italy to Croatia, a trek through the Alpine valleys of Switzerland, and a final expedition to the south of France.
Wind may seem like an odd topic to write a book about, but the Helm, Bora, Foehn and Mistral are no ordinary breezes. Their violence makes Hunt’s journey a dangerous and daring endeavour and is full of stories about past disasters that occurred as a result of the strong, temperamental weather.
As well as teaching us about these four winds, Nick Hunt has collected facts and stories about the general areas he passes through. Personal stories of the inhabitants break up Hunt’s narrative, although myths, legends, history and superstitions frequent the lengthy chapters as much as the winds themselves.
Giving wind a name provides it with a personality, as though it is something tangible that can be met and observed. Nick Hunt notes that artists such as Turner and Constable were interested in the weather and fascinated by the effects the wind had on the surrounding landscape. Another artist affected by the weather was Vincent Van Gogh – some of his paintings took place in France amid the powerful Mistral. Just as the wind can be seen in his starry night skies, the scenery in France is evocative of a Van Gogh painting.
The winds not only affect the lands they blow through, but they also have a strong impact on the well-being of the inhabitants. Some experience physical symptoms such as headaches, nose bleeds, dry skin and so forth, whereas others find themselves growing irritable, depressed and confused. The author himself has the opportunity to undergo the effects of these winds. Hunt also suggests that Van Gogh’s deteriorating mental health was a direct consequence of residing in the path of the Mistral.
From witchcraft to the Greek god Aeolus, there are several theories about why these strong winds blow. There are, of course, meteorological explanations, which Hunt attempts to explain, but admits he finds as baffling as the next person. Regardless of the reason, these winds exist, and it is captivating to learn about this aspect of Europe.
Where the Wild Winds Are: Walking Europe’s Winds from the Pennines to Provence is a fantastic, beautifully written book. Nick Hunt’s narrative is so personal that it becomes more than a travel documentation or informative non-fiction. As we read, we get a sense of the emotions, and physical hardship Hunt experienced, yet at the same time, we learn so much about European culture and Europe’s winds. Whether or not you are interested in travelling, this book will take you on a journey you will never forget.
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