5 Book Reviews

Looking at the Stars
Author: Jo Cotterill
Published: 30th January 2014
ISBN13: 9781782300182
Goodreads Rating: 4.18 out of 5
Reviewed: June 2014

Looking at the Stars by Jo Cotterill is a beautiful story targeted at older children and young adults. It handles serious themes that most readers would not have and hopefully will never face.

Amina is thirteen years old, living in a country where women have absolutely no power. She is prohibited from going to school, so she spends her days with her sister, Jenna, weaving baskets and rugs, which they sell to stall holders in the local market. The novel begins with the two girls witnessing the arrival of foreign soldiers. They are overjoyed, believing that all their troubles are over now that the liberation has begun. This, however, turns out to be a false hope.

Separated from their family, Amina and Jenna head to a refugee camp where they hope to find their younger sister, Vivie, and discover information about what has happened to their mother. To prevent them from succumbing to despair, both on the journey and living in the camp, Amina makes up stories about the stars in the sky – hence the novel’s title.

Amina and Jenna’s personalities are vastly different, meaning the reader should be able to identify with at least one of the girls and place themselves within the story. It makes us wonder how we would cope in these situations. Amina is the kind of person who asks questions. She wants to know why things happen and constantly asks, “what if?” Despite being a year younger than Jenna, she is the more confident of the two, and it is partly her determination that keeps them alive. Jenna is quiet, anxious, and always wants to do the right thing. Jenna “just wants everyone to be happy”. She is a realist, whereas Amina is a dreamer.

The storytelling aspect of this novel makes it unique from others in this genre. Many books deal with war, refugees and death, but Amina’s stories provide something extra. They are beautiful and bring hope and faith into such as bleak and dangerous setting.

Whilst this story is set in fictional towns in an unnamed country, it is not unlike recent civil wars in Syria and conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of us can distance ourselves from these stories because, for us, they are just that: stories. They are not something we have to deal with every day. This novel, told from the point of view of a thirteen-year-old girl, reveals what it is like for the thousands of innocents caught up in war. The way it is written helps children and young adults understand and learn more about what is happening in these countries.

These is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881-1901
Author: Nancy E. Turner
Published: 3rd February 1998
ISBN13: 9780340717783
Goodreads Rating: 4.34 out of 5
Reviewed: July 2014

These is My Words is a magnificent historical novel by American author Nancy Turner, told through diary entries written by the protagonist Sarah Prine. For twenty years, Sarah wrote about her experiences, both good and bad, beginning when she was almost eighteen years old.

The first entry in 1881 reveals that Sarah and her family are travelling from Arizona to Texas, which proves disastrous, with her father and youngest brother dying along the way. Soon after they arrive, they decide they would be much better off back home and prepare to make the return trek through the “heathen land”. This time they join a train of travellers accompanied by soldiers to make them feel safer, although this by no means makes it any less dangerous. With constant attacks from Indians, many trekkers are killed or wounded, but thankfully Sarah’s family makes it through. Not long after settling back in Arizona, Sarah receives a marriage proposal from a childhood friend, which she gratefully accepts. Unfortunately, the marriage is not a happy one and ends with the untimely death of her husband, who probably never loved Sarah anyway. Later, a potentially fatal incident brings Sarah together with Captain Elliot, a soldier from the journey to Arizona, and her life takes a new direction.

Sarah is a very likeable character. Her innocence makes her a pleasant girl, but she is admired for her independence. Having grown up on a ranch with only brothers, she knows how to fight for herself and can fire a pistol better than any man. As the wording of the title suggests, Sarah has never been to school, and her grammar and spelling require improvement, which is witnessed throughout the progression of the novel. By being written this way, the reader gets a closer insight into Sarah as a person: the way she talks, the way she has been brought up, and her determination to learn and develop her reading and writing skills.

Initially, it is difficult to get into the storyline. The blurb suggests that the book is about the journey to Texas, but that is over in a matter of pages. Once they are on the return voyage, it is easier to understand, and there is a stronger connection with and appreciation of some of the characters. It is fast-paced, and most of the diary entries are short, only becoming considerably longer when something of significance is recorded. Towards the end, entries occur less frequently, resulting in the latter ten years flying by.

These is My Words is both humorous and heartbreaking. There is a romantic theme throughout the book from the very beginning, where it is clear that something is happening between Sarah and Captain Elliot, and the reader can only begin hoping that something will bring them together. This book can either make you laugh, make you cry or both – for a book to cause that amount of emotion, it must be good!

Unremembered
Author: Jessica Brody
Published: 28th February 2013
ISBN13: 9781250040022
Goodreads Rating: 3.68 out of 5
Reviewed: June 2014

Unremembered is the first book in a young adult science-fiction trilogy by American author, Jessica Brody. Set in current-day California, Unremembered is told from the point of view of a sixteen-year-old girl, Seraphina, who has no memory of anything before the first page of the book.

Whilst a first-person narrative by someone who does not know anything may hinder the telling of the story, it connects the audience with the main character. As readers, we also do not know what happened before the first page of the story. We learn everything as Seraphina does, the only difference being that we are aware of what certain items are – particularly technological ones – as well as being able to communicate and understand other people, not just through words but also with sarcasm and body language.

At the start, we learn there has been a plane crash into the Pacific Ocean with only one survivor, an unidentifiable girl with amnesia. Further on, it transpires that there was never any record of her being on the plane in the first place. This is where all the questions and mysteries begin. Temporarily given the name Violet, she is placed with a foster family, the Carson family, whose thirteen-year-old son Cody is intimidated by her flawless beauty. He begins to connect with her more after it emerges that she is a mathematical genius. So, another question arises, how can she remember how to solve complicated equations yet cannot even remember who she is?

There are also mysteries surrounding a peculiar tattoo on her wrist; a boy named Lyzender who keeps appearing, claiming to know who Violet, or should we say Sera, is; her uncanny ability to speak fluently in a range of languages; and the number 1609. What is the significance of this number? Not only is it the year Sera believes it is after recovering from the crash, but it is also engraved onto a locket she was wearing along with the initials “S + Z”.

Unremembered is a fast-paced novel with mysteries that get solved at the same time as more questions develop. It shows us how people with no experience of the modern world would struggle to understand the things we take for granted. It also poses the question of what truly makes us human.

A Song For Issy Bradley
Author: Carys Bray
Published: 19th June 2014
ISBN13: 9780091954376
Goodreads Rating: 3.7 out of 5
Reviewed: June 2014

A Song for Issy Bradley is the captivating debut novel of talented author Carys Bray. Set in modern-day Britain, this heart-breaking story shows a family’s struggle to overcome the loss of their youngest child whilst also adhering to the strict rules of their Mormon religion.

It begins with seven-year-old Jacob’s birthday, and Mum, Claire, is rushing around with last-minute party preparations whilst her husband, Bishop Ian, is off attending to his religious duties. Although Claire is aware that Issy is feeling poorly, she does not realize how serious it is until much later – too much later. After being rushed to the hospital with meningitis, Issy’s prognosis is not good. Despite Ian’s blessings and prayers, no miracles occur, and Issy passes away the following day.

The main storyline is about how the characters cope with this sudden loss. Claire hides away from everyone by remaining in bed for weeks and ignoring her duties and her family’s pleas. Ian, worried that Claire is not grieving in the proper Mormon way, throws himself even deeper into religion by focusing on what is expected of him as a Bishop rather than concentrating on his children’s needs.

Zipporah, the eldest, is expected to become the woman of the house until Claire returns to “normal”. As well as studying for her exams and doing the housework, Ian insists she attends all church events for people her age. Alone, she worries about love, marriage and falling into sin; she would really like to be able to talk to her Mum. Alma, on the other hand, is becoming more and more rebellious. Not only does he have a stupid name (Alma was named after a prophet in the Book of Mormon), his ambition to become a professional footballer is not conducive to living the gospel. Although he makes jokes and rude remarks about religious ideas, there is still a part of him that believes, and despite his attitude, it is clear he is deeply affected by Issy’s death.

Jacob’s reaction is the most heart wrenching of all. Being so young, he believes everything he is told, especially the Bible stories he hears at church. If Jesus can bring people back to life, perhaps Issy can live again? He puts his faith in God and waits in vain for his sister’s miraculous return.

The story is told through each of these five characters’ points of view, which allows the reader to see how each person’s actions affect the others and gives a greater insight into character development. It is gratifying to witness, albeit slowly, the family pick themselves up and begin to work together and carry on.

As to be expected with a story about Mormons, there are a large number of Bible quotations. Many are from the Book of Mormon, but there are numerous biblical references that Christians of all denominations will appreciate. The author was raised as a Mormon, so it can only be assumed that all the details are accurate. Non-believers should not be put off from reading this beautiful book: it is how people deal with loss that is important, and there is no preaching to the reader or attempts to convert.

The Atlas of Us
Author: Tracy Buchanan
Published: 31st July 2014
ISBN13: 9780007579358
Goodreads Rating: 3.68 out of 5
Reviewed: July 2014

It is hard to believe that almost a decade has passed since the Indian Ocean tsunami at Christmas 2004. Tracy Buchanan’s novel The Atlas of Us is set partly in Thailand during the aftermath of the natural disaster. Yet, this is not a story about the tsunami; it is a tale of love, relationships and motherhood, travel and mystery. Stay-at-home Mum of two, Louise, has flown out to Thailand in a desperate attempt to locate her missing mother. Although they did not have a close relationship, Louise is determined to find Nora and bring her home. An unidentified body was discovered with Nora’s bag containing her passport, but also a book titled The Atlas of Us and a necklace belonging to a woman named Claire Shreve. So who is the body? Is there a chance Nora survived? And just as importantly, how did Nora know Claire?

In between accounts of Louise’s frantic search is Claire’s story, starting from 1997 in Exmoor, where she meets Milo, the potential love of her life, and the rest of his family. But there seems to be more than meets the eye. After a disastrous event, Claire gives in to her wanderlust, and her story continues as she moves from country to country, including Serbia, Finland and Australia, where she writes award-winning travel articles. During this time, she slowly discovers the secrets that Milo has been harbouring that threaten to damage their relationship. This continues until she reaches her final destination: Thailand.

Buchanan creates a sense of foreboding as Claire travels and arrives in Thailand. The reader knows what disaster she will face there and that her chance of survival is slim; Claire, of course, is completely oblivious.

Louise’s first-person account gives an insight into the reaction of relatives of the missing as they take in the devastation left by the waves. Although she has not seen or heard from her mother for two years, there is a powerful need to find her. Louise also talks about her children and what it is like to be a mother, which helps her understand her own mother’s past behaviour and discover how much she loves her. By writing Claire’s section in the third person, Buchanan keeps the question of Claire and Nora’s possible survival unanswered until the very end. From Claire comes the perspective of someone who yearns to be a mother but is unable to conceive. She also explores the effects of the relationship with her father, the way she lives her life, and her passion for travel.

Despite the traumatic storyline, The Atlas of Us is a beautiful story with a lot of detail to keep the reader interested. One minute the focus is on relationships, and the next, a whole new world is opened up with descriptions of foreign places that could spark a desire for travel even in those usually content to stay at home. 


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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Mozart, c. 1781, by Johann Nepomuk della Croce

“Posterity will not see such a talent again in 100 years,” wrote Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) after the death of the classical composer, Mozart. As a child prodigy, Mozart composed music for the keyboard and the violin from the age of five. Thirty years later, he had completed more than 600 works, and many admired his talents, including royalty. Then he died. Many conspiracy theories suggest jealous contemporaries poisoned the young musician. Although people have tried to prove Mozart died from an illness, there is not enough evidence to eradicate these theories. Yet it is not his death that makes Mozart so famous; it is his music. Two-hundred and thirty years after his death, we are still playing his tunes. Mozart’s music lives on. 

Mozart as a child

Online biographies of Mozart tend to disagree about the birth name of the child prodigy. His baptismal records, written shortly after his birth in Salzburg on 27th January 1756, list his name as Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. As an adult, he styled himself as Wolfgang Amadè Mozart, although, at some point, the middle name evolved into “Amadeus”.

Mozart was the youngest son of Leopold Mozart (1719-87) and Anna Maria, née Pertl (1720-78). Of the seven children, only Mozart and his older sister, Maria Anna Mozart (1751-1829), survived infancy. Leopold, a German composer, conductor, and violinist, taught his children to play and write music. Although the young Mozart became the most famous of the two, his sister, nicknamed Nannerl, was also a proficient musician. Leopold also gave his children instruction in academics and language studies.

As child prodigies, Mozart and Nannerl were exhibited across Europe, beginning with a concert for the much-beloved Prince-elector Maximilian III of Bavaria (1727-1777), in 1762. Over the next three and a half years, the siblings toured several European cities, including, Munich, Vienna, Prague, London, Dover, Paris, The Hague, Amsterdam and Zurich. They met with several notable musicians, including J.S. Bach (1735-82), who greatly influenced the young Mozart. During the tour, Mozart composed his first symphony at the tender age of 8.

Mozart, age 14

After the success of this first tour, the Mozart family agreed to more concerts. The journeys were often long and challenging for the young musicians. In 1769, Leopold left his daughter at home while he and Mozart toured Italy until 1771. Leopold aimed to advertise his son’s compositions as much as his performance. During the trip, Mozart became a member of the Bologna Academy of Music and accepted an invitation to attend a concert at the Sistine Chapel. On this famous occasion, Mozart heard Miserere by Gregorio Allegri (1582-1652), a piece of music closely guarded by the Vatican City. The Vatican forbade anyone from sharing the transcript outside the country, but Mozart made an illegal copy of the music from memory.

At the age of 14, Mozart wrote the opera Mitridate, re di Ponto, which told the story of Mithridates, the King of Pontus (135-63 BC). The success of this opera prompted many commissions, resulting in Ascanio in Alba for Empress Maria Theresa (1717-80) and Lucio Silla, which critics considered a moderate success. 

In 1773, Mozart gained employment as the court musician of Prince Hieronymus von Colloredo (1732-1812) of Salzburg. Mozart composed several symphonies, sonatas and serenades for the prince, but he also developed a preference for violin concertos. He wrote the majority of the latter between April and December 1775 before changing tune again in favour of piano concertos. Unfortunately, Mozart received very little money for his efforts and longed to find a position elsewhere. He visited Munich and Vienna in search of work but with little success.

Determined to find a better position, Mozart resigned from his job in Salzburg and continued to travel in search of work. He hoped the orchestra in Mannheim would accept him, and he briefly had a romance with the German soprano Aloysia Weber (1760-1839). When both these liaisons came to nothing, Mozart left the country and headed to Paris. Here, Mozart stayed with the French-journalist Melchior Grimm (1723-1807), while he pawned personal items to pay his growing debts. During this time, Mozart learned of his mother’s death, which added to his despair.

The Mozart Family, 1780

Meanwhile, Mozart’s father pursued employment opportunities for his son in Salzburg, eventually regaining him a position as court organist and concertmaster to the newly styled Archbishop Colloredo. Mozart felt reluctant to return home and the job did not excite him, but with no money he had little option. He took up his new appointment in 1779, earning 450 florins a year.

In 1781, the Archbishop and Mozart travelled to Vienna to witness the accession of Joseph II (1741-90) to the Austrian throne. Colloredo wished to show off the talents of his concertmaster, but Mozart aimed “to meet the emperor in some agreeable fashion, I am absolutely determined he should get to know me. I would be so happy if I could whip through my opera for him and then play a fugue or two, for that’s what he likes.” Mozart eventually attained the goal, despite Colloredo’s attempts to drag him back to Salzburg. 

Now free of both Colloredo and his father, Mozart pursued a career in the capital and soon established himself as “the finest keyboard player in Vienna”. He performed the piano for the Emperor and composed the successful opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio). His reputation as a composer soon spread throughout the German-speaking world.

Constanze Mozart, 1782

Whilst in Vienna, Mozart reunited with the Weber family who had moved to the city from Mannheim. He became their lodger and, although he once had eyes for Aloysia Weber, he turned his attention to her sister, Constanze (1762-1842). Mozart lodged with the Weber family and sought Constanze’s hand in marriage. He finally won her hand, and they married on 4th August 1782 in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. The couple went on to have six children: Raimund Leopold (1783), Karl Thomas (1784-1858), Johann Thomas Leopold (1786), Theresia Constanzia Adelheid Friedericke Maria Anna (1787-88), Anna Marie (1789), and Franz Xaver Wolfgang (1791-1844). Sadly, only Karl and Franz survived infancy.

After his marriage, Mozart continued to pursue his music career, often studying works by Bach and Handel (1685-1759). The influence of these Baroque composers is evident in several compositions by Mozart. In 1784, he became friends with Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), to whom he dedicated six string quartets. Haydn allegedly told Mozart’s father: “I tell you before God, and as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer known to me by person and repute, he has taste and what is more the greatest skill in composition.”

To earn money, Mozart performed many of his solo works for the public. Since he could not afford to hire theatres, he played in private apartments and restaurants instead. The concerts proved popular, and he soon had enough money to rent an expensive apartment with his wife and children. He furnished his rooms with items of luxury, including a fortepiano and a billiard table. Rather than saving any of his earnings, Mozart hired servants and sent his eldest surviving son Karl to a prodigious boarding school.

In 1784, Mozart became a Freemason. Typically, Mozart produced four piano concertos a season, but he also composed several pieces of Masonic music, including the Maurerische Trauermusik (Masonic Funeral Music). Records state this music featured in memorial services of at least two of Mozart’s fellow Freemasons. 

Lorenzo Da Ponte

Mozart gradually moved away from piano concertos to focus on operas in 1785. Collaborating with the Italian librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749-1838), Mozart produced the four-act opera Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). The work contained over 900 bars of continuous music, including some of the lengthiest pieces Mozart ever wrote. After its successful premiere in Vienna, the opera moved to Prague, where it received great praise. The Emperor also requested a performance at his theatre in Laxenburg, Austria.

Mozart’s next opera, Don Giovanni, received as much acclaim, earning him the patronage of Emperor Joseph II. The Emperor also hired him as “chamber composer”, but this success was bittersweet, for Mozart’s father did not live to see it, passing away earlier in the year on 28th May 1787. Mozart’s new role involved composing dances for the annual balls in the Redoutensaal (the concert hall at the Emperor’s residence). 

Drawing of Mozart, 1789

The Austro-Turkish war between 1788 and 1791 made life difficult for everyone. The aristocracy no longer had the funds to support musicians and theatres were closed. Mozart’s income diminished significantly, forcing him and his family to move to cheaper accommodation in Alsergrund, in the suburbs of Vienna. Unfortunately, this did not decrease Mozart’s spending, only lessening the housing space to store his purchases. Although he still composed symphonies and operas, including Così fan tutte (1790), Mozart frequently borrowed money from his friends to meet his needs.

A burst of activity in 1791 resulted in some of Mozart’s most famous works, including the opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). The opera has many Masonic elements, evidencing Mozart’s connection to the Freemasons. The librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder (1751-1812), also belonged to the fraternal organisation. Alongside the successful opera, Mozart composed another piano concerto, the motet Ave verum corpus and began working on a requiem. 

Due to the success of these works, Mozart no longer needed to ask for monetary loans from his friends. Wealthy patrons gradually reappeared after the war ended, asking him to write music for dances and suchlike. Sadly, Mozart could not enjoy his regained wealth on account of his poor health. He fell ill in September 1791, although he managed to conduct the premiere of The Magic Flute at the end of the month. Mozart continued to work as much as he could, but by November, he was bedridden with swollen limbs, severe pain and frequent vomiting.

Determined to finish his Requiem, Mozart worked from his bed. As time passed, his condition worsened, making it impossible to complete his final piece of music. His wife, Constanze, acted as his nurse until he passed away in the early hours of 5th December 1791 at the age of 35. The illness that caused his death remains unknown, and researchers still argue over hundreds of diagnoses, including infections, influenza, kidney complaints and poison.

“Mozart was interred in a common grave, in accordance with contemporary Viennese custom, at the St. Marx Cemetery outside the city on 7 December.” A report of Mozart’s funeral in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians caused many to believe Mozart had a pauper’s burial, but this is not true. The term “common grave” means an individual grave for a common person, i.e. someone who did not hold an aristocratic rank in society. At the time of his death, Mozart’s financial situation was improving, and his family was by no means poor.

“Mozart’s work is beyond all praise. One feels only too keenly, on hearing this or any other of his music, what the Art has lost in him.”

Emanuel Schikaneder
Antonio Salieri

The death of so talented a composer shocked many people in Europe, particularly one so young. Although fatal illnesses were common at the time, many believe Mozart’s death was unnatural. Researchers have generally ruled out murder, but early rumours accused Mozart’s colleague Antonio Salieri (1750-1825) of poisoning him. Despite the 1979 play Amadeus by Peter Shaffer (1926-2016), in which Salieri confesses to the murder, Mozart’s symptoms did not correspond with the side effects of poison. Nonetheless, the accusations damaged Salieri’s reputation and triggered a mental breakdown later in life.

Salieri was not the only person rumoured to have poisoned the great composer. Others suspected the involvement of the Masons and some went as far as to blame the Jews. In reality, Mozart suffered many illnesses during his short life, most likely due to a deficiency in vitamin D. Researchers suggest his final illness had a similar cause.

Rumours that Mozart died a poor man stem from the misconception of a “commoners grave”. He indeed left his family with outstanding debts, but his income had significantly risen over the past year. Constanze appealed to the Emperor, who provided her with a widow’s pension, which helped her feed and clothe her two children. She managed to pay off the remaining debts by arranging concerts of her husband’s music and publishing many of Mozart’s works.

As is often the case, Mozart’s popularity increased after his death. According to a biography by Maynard Solomon (1930-2020), Mozart’s compositions received an “unprecedented wave of enthusiasm”, both from musicians and audiences. Mozart’s work changed the style of popular music, which until his birth was typically Baroque. Mozart’s influence is evident in many composer’s works, such as Beethoven (1770-1827), Mikhail Glinka (1804-57) and Frédéric Chopin (1810-49), who wrote several variations of his themes. Tchaikovsky (1840-93) composed the orchestra suite Mozartiana as a tribute to the talented musician.

Mozart continued to influence many people throughout the 19th, 20th and into the 21st century. His music is widely recognised throughout the world, often topping the Classical Music charts. Mozart not only impacted the lives of musicians but of writers and artists too. Mozart appears as a character in novels by Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) and plays by Shaffer and Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837). Several films and television programmes have focused on the composer’s life, and The Wombles borrowed Mozart’s 3rd movement of the Jupiter Symphony for their song Minuetto Allegretto

Although the interesting aspects of Mozart’s life, or rather his death, are largely mythologised, Mozart is an intriguing person. Composing from the age of 5, Mozart had an exceptional talent, making him a unique individual. Despite dying at 35, Mozart lived a full life, resulting in over 600 compositions. Not only did he have an impressive output, but he also produced masterpieces that still survive 230 years after his death. Unknowingly, Mozart single-handedly influenced and changed the world.


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