Friday, August 18, 2017

Hidden Figures

We had a very enjoyable family movie night watching this offering. Chronicling the years of NASA’s attempts to get man into space, and the exceptional maths required to be computed by hand, it also charts the issues of race relations at the time. Three remarkable African-American women’s lives are included:

  • Katherine Johnson who calculated the flight and landing trajectories for various missions,
  • Dorothy Vaughan, trying to be recognised as the supervisor she already is and to be paid for it, and
  • Mary Jackson, fighting to be allowed to train as an engineer.

There are strong overtones of the tensions of being African-American at the time, and the challenges for women in the workforce. The story is uplifting as you watch each woman challenge societal norms and use their exceptional intelligence in the service of their country. The people who did the math were called computers, and you also see the beginnings of the takeover of technology as the first IBM is slowly built at NASA. Some of the women trained themselves to program the computer, and ensured their job security for longer. For anyone who likes technology, maths and space, this will really interest as well as open up discussion about how quickly things have changed.

As we watched Apollo 13 last year, everyone already had some understanding of the space element. All of us really enjoyed it, and it opened the kids’ eyes (age 10-14) a little more to some of the challenges and issues of the sixties.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Tawny Man

The Tawny Man, Robin Hobb

I devoured this third trilogy of Robin Hobb’s. Back to the world of the Bingtown and the Six Duchies, the timing is about 15 years after the end of the Farseer Trilogy. Fitz has been living the life of a hermit, with his wolf companion Nighteyes. A few friends know of his survival, but most have assumed him dead many years previously. His heroic acts of self-sacrifice have never been openly acknowledged by the Farseer Realm, but Queen Kettricken, Chade and the Fool know the truth of what Fitz once did. Slowly Fitz (who goes by the name of Tom Badgerlock) is drawn back into court life, under the guise of being servant to Lord Golden (the Fool’s alter ego). Because I grew to love these characters in the first series, I enjoyed seeing what happened to them all. 

Verity and Kettricken’s son, Prince Dutiful is coming into manhood and there are those who would both threaten him and use him for their own political gain. The main story revolves around the Fool and Fitz, and the depth of their friendship is fully tested. 

There is one moment when a key character is revealed to be something different than what you thought, linking them to The Liveship Traders. I never saw it coming and sat in disbelief for some time, realising, that now I will have to re-read them all sometime to reanalyse it now with the new information. So, definitely a series I will end up reading more than once!

You really need to read these books in order to get the full benefit of these types of revelations, and there are allusions to the second series in both the first and the third, even though at a surface level they don’t appear to be related. 

Next on to the fourth series The Rain Wild Traders – with four books not three!  I’m hoping all the books will merge together even more.  Hobb is fast becoming my favourite author, on a par with Diana Gabaldon, though with a very different style.

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Inheritance Cycle

This review was written by Mr 14 (with some edits by me!)

The Inheritance Cycle, Christopher Paolini

I wonder what you would find on your regular morning walk. I suspect you probably wouldn’t be carrying the bow that Eragon is holding. Nor would you be likely to have a quiver of razor-sharp arrows slung over your shoulder. I really don’t think that you would find a dragon’s egg, just lying in your path. And I especially don’t think mysterious men would start appearing around your town of Carvahall co-incidentally at the same time that you’d found that egg…

Meet Eragon. A small, wiry boy living with a father and brother (and now a dragon). A 15 year-old boy required to provide food for his family, because there is just no-one else to do it. A 15 year-old boy who has to look after a dragon, because there is just no-one else to do it. The Dragon Riders are dead. There is no hope for anyone, because the tyrant Galbatorix has conquered them all, with his army of Urgals. Now all the hope of the land of Alagaesia rests on the shoulders of Eragon, the dwarves, and the elves (who no-one has seen for a millennia). Eragon must learn to control and use his powers before Galbatorix takes them from him.

Some of my favourite parts are the friendships shown between Eragon and his friends, as they bond in remarkable ways. I also liked it because it shows how much Eragon changes when he was required to, needing be stronger, faster, and smarter than he ever had before.

I didn’t really like the elves’ idealism and how they do whatever they want regardless of consequence or morals. I also didn’t like how the dwarves worship stone as their god.

I really enjoyed this series, I couldn’t put any of them down throughout the four weeks it took me to read them! Made up of four (quite large) books, each one details a different part of Eragon’s journey throughout Alagesia. The books are written in the third person, and do have a difficult and extensive vocabulary. I would recommend these book for boys and girls interested in fantasy/action/thriller books that are 12 or above. Competent readers may also enjoy them from age 10, although they may not pick up on all the sub-plots. I rate the series 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Books are titled: Eragon, Eldest, Brisingr, and Inheritance.  You can read a sample chapter here.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Born to Run

Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen

Considering the fan base in this house, it was pretty certain we were going to read this autobiography of Bruce Springsteen’s.

Born to Run chronicles the 65+ years of Springsteen’s life to date, starting with his rather odd childhood in Freehold, New Jersey. Born as many were in that neighbourhood, to a mix of Irish and Italian blood and seeped in Catholicism; he had a completely overprotective and controlling grandmother, a mother who had to give way, and a complicated relationship with his mentally unwell, alcohol laden and distant father. It was a working class life, with real poverty and grind, yet joy and happiness at times as well.

Inspired by Elvis and the Beatles; he wanted to play guitar and be in a band from very early on.
“…we’d been born at exactly the right moment. We were teenagers in the sixties, when rock and radio had their golden age, when the best pop music was also the most popular, when a new language was being formed and spoken to young people all across the world, when it remained an alien dialect to most parents, when it defined a community of souls wrapped in the ecstasy and confusions of their time but connected in a blood brotherhoods by the disciples; voice of their local deejay” (p429)
By his mid-teens he was doing exactly that. Self-taught, unable to read music, but persistent in learning, practicing and copying, he would play for hours and hours to perfect a song. A succession of band groups followed, with him ending up lead singer.
“I was twenty-three and I was making a living playing music! Friends, there’s a reason they don’t call it “working”, it’s called PLAYING … It’s a life-giving, joyful, sweat-drenched, muscle-aching, voice-blowing, mind-clearing, exhausting, soul-invigorating, cathartic pleasure and privilege every night” (p186)
He charts the formation of various bands and their members, including the definitive E Street Band. Numerous songs are explained along the way including the classics Born to Run, Born in the USA and the Ghost of Tom Joad. I would often go back and listen to the songs again to hear what he was explaining. Sadly for me (!), there’s no explanation of who Wendy is in Born to Run, but what was interesting was how both that song and Born in the USA were defining songs of his career and led to super-stardom:
“Onstage, this music swept over my audience with joyful abandon. We had hit after hit and in 1985, along with Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson and the stars of disco, I was a bona fide mainstream radio “superstar”… Born in the USA changed my life, gave me my largest audience, forced me to think harder about the way I presented my music, and set me briefly at the centre of the pop world.” (p317)
Each album is chronicled and enabled me to appreciate the overarching theme developed for each. I came late to the fan club, not until The Rising album, released after September 11, and I enjoyed reading the story behind that and the later albums. Telling the story of people’s lives was often the impetus for songs, and many reflect on working class realities, the American way of life, struggles for war veterans and race inequality.

He is honest about his relationship with band members and management, including his missteps and idiosyncrasies. He honestly chronicles his first brief marriage and his failings in it. After this it becomes patently clear that his wife Patti is his true partner, confidante and love:
“We could fight, surprise, disappoint, raise up, bring down, withhold, surrender, hurt, heal, fight again, love, refit, then go at it one more time. We were both broken in a lot of ways but we hoped, with work, our broken pieces might fit together in a way that would create something workable, wonderful. They did.” (p372)
He speaks with love and affection for each of his three children and the way they have made their way in the world, creating names for themselves in their own area (his daughter is a champion show jumper).
“Making life fills you with humility, balls, arrogance, a mighty manliness, confidence, terror, joy, dread, love, and sense of calm and reckless adventure. Isn’t anything possible now? … The endorphin high of birth will fade, but its trace remains with you forever, its fingerprints indelible proof of love’s presence and daily grandeur… Whatever the morrow brings, these things, these people, will be with you always” (p368-9)
In the final chapters, he grieves the loss of band members, including saxophonist Clarence Clemons. He opens up about episodes of depression, both in his thirties and, more debilitating, in his sixties. He attributes years of speaking to his doctor as the heart of the book.

Too often, autobiographies are written too early (eg most political and showbusiness tomes). Here, you are glad he has waited to this age (67) to write the book, and took seven years doing so. His writing is poetic and lyrical at times, which shouldn’t be surprising considering the number of great lyrics he’s written over the years. Even so, it was more descriptive, overflowing with emotion, and had more insight and self-analysis than I was expecting. The most poignant and returned-to theme throughout is his relationship with his father, it overrides the book, his music and clearly his life:
“We honour our parents by not accepting as the final equation the most troubling characteristics of our relationship. I decided between my father and me that the sum of our troubles would not be the summation of our lives together. In analysis you work to turn the ghosts that haunt you into ancestors who accompany you. That takes hard work and a lot of love, but it’s the way we lessen the burdens our children have to carry.” (p503)
This is not just the story of a rock and roll life, although as that it’s a good read. But it’s much more – the analysis of a life through the lens of the people that raise us, the opportunities that we are both given and that we take, and the chance we have to write a new script for ourselves and those who come after us. A very enjoyable and informative read.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Liveship Traders

The Liveship Traders, Robin Hobb

This second trilogy by Robin Hobb was very different to the Farseer Trilogy, for while set in the same world, it’s located in completely different lands. There's no overlap with the Farseer Trilogy, except for hints that this takes place after those events. To me it felt more like what I expect classical ‘fantasy’ to be, a much more different world with less links to our own. Based around the community of traders at Bingtown, we learn that a Liveship is quickened (essentially comes to life), when the 3rd generation of its owners has died. The ownership of a Liveship is a remarkable privilege, bringing the opportunity of great wealth to a family, but also comes at great cost with debt owed to its makers upriver (the Wild River folk) until that is realised.

Althea Vestrit’s family awaits the quickening of their ship Vivacia. Althea has grown up on her father’s ship and assumes Vivacia will one day be hers. Her family is making other plans, with the brother in law due to inherit. At the same time, pirate Kennit desires to be king of the pirate isles, controlling the trade and slave ships in the region, and what better way to do it than by acquiring his own liveship?

This series grew on me. I struggled with the first half of the first book and then I got drawn in. There's  an extensive list of characters, who early on seem unconnected but of course, you come to see how they all intertwine. You start to see the threads of plots as Hobb weaves them together and how they come to overlap. Hints along the way suggest where things must be heading, but she gives away the story so carefully that you feel you are figuring out the links yourself, where in fact, it’s just when she has clearly planned to reveal them.

While I was very happy to recommend the Farseer Trilogy to Mr 14 and did indeed get one of his friends hooked on it, this one I pause to recommend to the same age. There is more swearing and romance as well as general and some sexual violence.  But those are my hesitations, others may not have them.

I have now moved on again to the third trilogy – The Tawny Man, which picks up about a decade after The Farseer Trilogy ends, again with Fitz – yeah!

Monday, July 17, 2017

Birds and Bees by the Book

Birds and Bees by the Book, Patricia Weerakoon

How do you answer your children’s questions about sex, gender and why various families are different? Do you struggle to come up with a succinct, age-appropriate answer and find yourself going “uhhh, uuuum…”.

What about when your primary-schooler says: “My friend has two mummies” or “There was a boy at school, but now he has a girl’s name and uses the girls’ toilets”?

What about the more straightforward question: “How did the baby get there?” Or when your daughter asks, “Why does my brother have a penis, when do I grow one?”

Thankfully, there is a new resource available to help parents: Patricia Weerakoon’s series “Birds and Bees by the Book”. I’ve spent the last week with Miss 9 and Miss 12 reading these six, small, readable books aimed at 7-10 year olds, and have also gathered the opinions of a few friends. Here are some of our thoughts:

Me and my family. A lovely book describing families in all their variations. It starts with God’s design for marriage beginning with Adam and Eve, and while many families have a mum, dad and kids; many don’t, including step-families, adoption, fostering, extended and gay families. Each is simply explained with the overarching point that God loves your family and God loves you; and that if you love Jesus – you’re also part of God’s family.

Me and my body. About our unique bodies, how they all different and all made by God. Kids are encouraged to protect and care for their bodies because they’re special. This one jumps around a bit and the logic doesn’t seem as obvious, including comments about cyberbullying, being careful about wanting to look older than you are, and knowing the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad touch’. It’s got a slightly more negative, warning feel to it than the others, but the topics covered are helpful and needed.

Me and my brain. A helpful perspective and one often missing in sex education. By describing how a brain can be healthy or unhealthy because of what we feed it, she paves the way for children to desire healthy brains that grow strong. With an instructive explanation of how the brain works, including both thinking and feeling; and how they are still growing, my girls laughed in understanding that yes, their brains just want to have fun and not think about consequences!

Learning about sex. The message is that sex is good, for marriage and for when you’re older. Using the term ‘sexual activity’ draws the helpful distinction that sex is more than intercourse. Weerakoon highlights that only adults are ready for sexual love; but as a kid, you love lots of people with friendship or family love. I loved the explanation of how you need to change to be ready to be married: your body needs to develop, you brain needs to grow, and you need to be able to care for and look after another person. There are also instructive comments on what to do if someone touches you in a way that makes you feel bad, if you see pictures online, and if you like touching yourself.

On a minor note, I was surprised by the statement that that all children come out through their mother’s vagina. These days with so many born by caesarean, it seems odd not to include it as an option.

Learning about gender. Carefully and appropriately addresses the issues of gender for children, with a clear explanation of how boys and girls are different; and that they don’t have to act in stereotypical ways to be boys and girls. Introducing both intersex and transgender concepts, overall there is a clear encouragement to be kind and love others, no matter who they are or how they feel about themselves.

Learning about pornography. Explains pornography as ‘pictures and videos that are bad for you and unhealthy for your brain’, expanding that to include people without clothes, hurting each other or having sexual activity. This is a slightly oversimplified description, but it probably works within the context and for the age group. Again, using the idea of the thinking brain and the feeling brain, kids are encouraged to use both when deciding what is healthy for them and what isn’t, and how to respond when they see pornography.

One of the great strengths of this series is that each book speaks of how good God is in making us, that we can be part of his family by trusting Jesus and that we can have the best life by knowing him. There’s a strong message of following Jesus’ example and loving each other, never bullying or teasing and always caring for others, even if they are different. These probably are the key messages for this age group (and all of us!)

I did have a few hesitations.

  1. Each book finished with a page saying “Feeling confused? Why not talk with the adult reading this book with you”. Sure, it’s a helpful way to flag the need to check with your child, but it’s a bit patronising. It also reduces the power of the book’s message to finish with that note – almost assuming kids will still be confused at the end. And what about for the child who is reading it on their own? It might have been preferable to suggest speaking to an adult if you have any questions without assuming someone was reading the book aloud.
  2. There seemed to be a slight disconnect between the language and illustrations, and the material presented. The sentence structure and drawings are more set at the 7-8 age group, but the concepts are closer to age 9-10 (and even a bit older), especially the gender and pornography books, which I can imagine parents waiting for a while to read. The illustrations are lovely, very well done, and appropriately cover a range of ethnic groups, but I did wonder if they would appeal more to younger readers.

Of course, this is not the only resource out there on the topic and hopefully by age 7, conversations have already begun about bodies and sex. If they haven’t, I highly recommend starting with God Made Your Body (age 2-4) and How God Makes Babies (age 6-9). After that, this series is a great option to fill in more details for the 7-10 age group. Note this series does not address the changes of puberty at all – for that you need to go to Growing Up by the Book or other material (eg. What’s the Big Deal?).

As with all Weerakoon’s books (eg. The Best Sex for Life, Growing Up By the Book, she doesn’t shy away from tricky topics, and provides up to date, and age-appropriate information, while still bringing us back to the truths of God’s love and salvation in Christ. With her wealth of experience, you can be confident a lot of thought has gone into what to say and how to say it. Overall, this is a series I would happily recommend to anyone with kids in this age group (and even a bit older, if it’s taken you a while to broach these topics!).

(Copies of books provided by Growing Faith)

Monday, June 26, 2017

Anne of Green Gables

I’m not sure why I didn’t review these books when I read them to Miss 8 & Miss 11. They loved them. We read the first two aloud Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea. Miss 9* went on to read Anne of Windy Poplars herself.

As they are old-fashioned and take some explaining at points, for the girls’ age they were better read aloud and slowly. I was delighted with them, having never read them in detail myself. (I found Anne rather annoying and long-winded when I tried to read them as a child!) I had seen the mini-series but never realised the depth of the books. L.M Montgomery’s writing is beautiful to read aloud, it ebbs and flows with wonderful expression and description. She is also very humorous, with irony and dry wit scattered throughout. I often found myself chuckling as I read them, and if the girls didn’t get it, it was fun to try to explain. There is also a depth to their faith and belief that is hardly alluded to in the mini-series, as well as many biblical references, such as having a ‘Job’ day (a very bad day).

Personally, considering our own life choices, I loved this quote:
“I’m very glad they’ve called Mr Allan. I liked him because his sermon was interesting and he prayed as if he meant it and not just as if he did it because he was in the habit of it. Mrs Lynde says he isn’t perfect, but she says we shouldn’t expect a perfect minister for seven hundred and fifty dollars a year, and anyhow his theology is sound because she questioned him thoroughly on all the points of doctrine. And she knows his wife’s people and they are most respectable and the women are all good housekeepers. Mrs Lynde says that sound doctrine in a man and good housekeeping in a woman make an ideal combination for a minister’s family.” The new minister and his wife were a young, pleasant-faced couple, still in their honeymoon, and full of all good and beautiful enthusiasm for their chosen life’s work.  (Anne of Green Gables)

We then watched the mini-series (by Sullivan Productions), the one I knew as a child, produced in 1985. As recalled, it was lovely, and a pretty good adaption of the books. We moved onto Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel (1987), which extended the story beyond what we had read in the books, and according to various websites, adds extra material different from the books, but it’s still enjoyable to watch, and has the same endearing aspects of Anne in it.

We should have stopped there, but unknowingly pushed on to Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story (1999) where Anne and Gil live in New York for a time, are then married, and details her search for him on the WWI battlefields. It was for a more mature audience, it was rated M, showed a fair amount of battle gore and tension, and Miss 9.5 found it too much. Upon reflection it was clear it wasn’t based on the books, the feel of it was just too different, and my research since shows it was an original production, changing much of the timing and events of the books. I can see why the production house did it, the earlier series were so popular and they managed to have both Megan Follows (Anne) and Jonathan Crombie (Gilbert) return in their roles. The girls may well return to the first two to re-watch them, no-one is interested in seeing the third again.

Miss 9 is much more interested in continuing with the books so we’ll do that instead!

* I realise all these numbers change throughout this post, it reflects the age when they did it, not the age they are now!

Monday, June 19, 2017

More Philippa Gregory

I went on to read Philippa Gregory’s novels of the 16th C covering Tudor & Elizabethan England. One striking observation is that the version of King Henry VIII that I was taught in high school was quite sanitised. If Gregory’s version is even half true – he really was a manic, murdering despot.  

In The King’s Curse, Margaret Pole, Plantagenet heir, is the daughter of George of Clarence, the third son of York who never gained the throne.  As she and any relatives have legitimate claims to the throne, the Tudors always have them under control.  This great book maps Henry’s VIII rise to power, and descent into tyranny. Margaret serves as a faithful companion to Katherine of Aragon (Henry’s first wife) and is charged with raising the heirs to the throne (including Princess Mary). She is persistently faithful to the reign of the monarch, however his rule plays out, ensuring she never says anything against him.

Yet the king is constantly on the lookout for challengers, and is trying to redefine the laws of the church and marriage to suit his needs. With cronies like Thomas Cromwell alongside him, anyone who supports the Roman church is under threat. In fact, the Reformers of the English church come off very badly in this account.  As such, it’s an interesting counter to Wolf Hall

It’s best to read these books after all the Cousins’ War series to fully understand what is going on, even the title is explained more fully in previous books. 

What has struck me most that we can fall into the trap of thinking that this is the first time our world has considered itself ‘post-truth’. Gregory’s novels go a long way to suggesting that Henry VIII was a spoilt child who became a king whom no-one could counsel or control, and who changed laws and facts to suit his agenda without redress. Thousands of people died for suggesting anything he did was wrong, and his wives were abandoned or beheaded, and marriages declared invalid to suit his own purposes.  She goes so far as to suggest that his indulgent childhood, where no-one checked him or allowed him to suffer led to the awful leader he became. 

Something to think about for both parents and society at large there!


There are many books in this series, so in brief:
Three Sisters, Three Queens charts the interconnected lives of Katherine of Aragon, Queen of England and her two sisters in law – Mary, briefly Queen of France and Margaret, Queen of Scotland.  Told from Margaret’s perspective, as she is sent as a teenage bride to Scotland to marry King James. Widowed with two young heirs to the throne, she proceeds into two later marriages, both for love but causing huge problems for Scotland. Gregory has set this up as three women who are united as family and by position, yet constantly at the mercy of the men who rule the world, and their own ambition.

The Constant Princess is Katherine of Aragon, mainly in the younger days of her life, first married to Arthur (Prince of Wales) and then in the early years to his brother Henry VIII.

The Other Boleyn Girl -  Mary, sister to Anne, was the first Boleyn to fall under the spell of Henry VIII.  Producing two bastard children by him, she must later watch as her sister ascends the throne.

The Boleyn Inheritance charts the lives of three women – Jane Boleyn (Anne’s sister in law), Anne of Cleves (wife #4) and Katherine (wife #5).   Truly the lives of these women were miserable – each a pawn in the game of trying to please Henry VIII.

One of my favourite’s was The Taming of the Queen, about Kateryn Parr, Henry’s 6th wife.   She seems to have been truly converted to the Christian faith and instrumental in the development of the translation of parts of the bible, and the prayer book. She was the first women in England to have her work published under her own name. Yet she still lived under the rule of a truly murderous, controlling and self-absorbed man.  The only reason I could read it with some semblance of peace was I knew the rhyme regarding the fate of Henry’s wives: “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived”.

Then to The Queen’s Fool, with the interesting character of Hannah Green, Queen Mary’s Fool, who is a secret Jew yet lives as a faithful Catholic or Protestant, whichever way the law of England currently requires. Through her eyes you see the life of Queen Mary, with all its ups and downs in love, ruling and the murderous way she tried to force the Catholic faith back on the people of England.

The Virgin’s Lover is the story of Elizabeth I and her lover Sir Robert Dudley. In the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, she falls madly and hopelessly in love with the married Dudley. He is willing to risk everything for her, including considering putting his wife aside; or is he really just pursuing his own ambition to be on the throne?

And finishing with The Other Queen, about Mary Queen of Scots and her long ‘imprisonment’ by the English at the ongoing order of her cousin Elizabeth I; and the couple who had to ‘host’ her.  

Throughout I have been impressed by Gregory’s ability to write from many different perspectives.  In one book, she can rigidly portray the Catholic point of view, and yet in another champion the Protestant. You can also read a fair amount of ‘tongue-in-cheek’ comments in both, noting both sides were often in clear error and sin.  While it’s clearly fiction, the basis in solid history leaves the impression that monarchs often acted on a whim, were very persuaded by influential counsel, and that there were far-reaching effects of their decisions on the common people and their own practice of faith. I am certainly even more thankful now to be in a democracy, whatever its faults!  I have enjoyed my time in these books.