The Sign of the Beaver – Elizabeth George Speare: 52 in 52 Book #11

The Sign of the Beaver

I suppose it’s time for me to admit to a cardinal sin when it comes to choosing books: I am a sucker for an interesting cover. I know not all books with good covers have a plot of equal greatness and I have read many a wonderful book where the cover would not give you even the slightest hint that anything vaguely interesting lay in its pages. It was the cover of this book that first drew me to it. The silhouettes against the warm yellow spoke to me of adventure and I wanted to know more.

The Sign of the Beaver is about the friendship between two boys: Matt, an America settler who has built a cabin in the forest with his father, and Attean, a Native American boy. When Matt is left at the cabin whilst his father goes to fetch the rest of the family he is alone for weeks. During an unfortunate incident with a bees nest, he meets some Indians of the local Beaver clan. Matt meets Attean when the chief of the Beavers makes a treaty with Matt: reading lessons for Attean in return for food. Over time the boys’ friendship develops. Attean teaches Matt how to hunt like an Indian and provide for himself.

This book is meant for children but I enjoyed it very much from an adult perspective too. I imagine it would send a positive message to children about friendship and breaking down boundaries. I certainly plan to give this book to a child in my family who will enjoy it.

 

Kat

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Battle Magic – Tamora Pierce: 52 in 52 Book #10

Battle Magic

I first discovered Tamora Pierce’s work in my first year of secondary school. I started off with The Protector of the Small quartet and was hooked from there. I devoured her Tortall works and reread my favourites frequently. I didn’t discover her Circle of Magic universe until I was sixteen and despite my love of Tortall and her characters there, my heart was truly captured by the four children who made up the original Circle of Magic books.

Battle Magic is the latest book from this universe, and fills in the gaps mentioned in The Will of the Empress and Melting Stones. It concerns Briar, a plant mage from the original four children, and his travels with Rosethorn, his teacher and fellow plant mage, and Evvy, a child stone mage. They travel to Yanjing and Gyongxe, lands similar to Eastern Asia in culture. They are caught up in a war as the Yanjingi emperor tries to conquer Gyongxe.

I loved this book from the first page to the last. Reading about some of my favourite characters and going with them on a journey of determination, pain, loss, duty and friendship. The characters were true to their previous iterations and behaved as I would expect them to. This book was my equivalent of a large duvet and a cup of hot chocolate: it comforted me and kept me feeling all warm and content.

That said, as much as I enjoyed this novel, I’m not sure how much of it would make sense without reading the previous books in the series. Much of the plot relies on previous knowledge of these characters and their skills and without this certain parts of the story would not make sense. I would urge people who think this book sounds like something they would enjoy to read the previous books. They are all considered young adult fantasy but I feel they would be suitable for any age. This book is darker than the beginning books and does deal with some rather graphic violence as well as touching upon some sexual themes.

This book has cast its magic upon me, just like its predecessors. I loved each bit of it and the way it captured my imagination. I recommend this for anyone who is a fan of Tamora Pierce’s work and the whole Circle of Magic series to anyone who enjoys good fantasy novel.

 

Kat

Leeds Castle – Maidstone, Kent, United Kingdom

Nestled away off the M20 outside of Maidstone lies Leeds Castle, described as ‘The Loveliest Castle in the World.’ Dating back to the 1100’s, the castle is shrouded in history. From Edward I to Henry VIII right up to Lady Bailey’s private ownership in the early 20th Century, this magnificent building has become one of Kent’s best and most attractive tourist attractions.

Leeds Castle in all its splendor Photo Credits: KS. Wigley 2013

Leeds Castle in all its splendor
Photo Credits: KS. Wigley 2013

We have been a few times – we’ll come to a reason why shortly – and have been impressed by its spectacle and grandeur. With its beautiful and vast five hundred acre gardens, moat and lake, it is impressionably quaint, especially around the spring and summer months when the flowers are in bloom and the resident peacocks are in feather. Around autumn, it evolves with the browns and oranges as the trees get ready for the cold, turning the once green foliage into a burning secret gem. What is magnificent is that it still holds a lot of charm no matter how the weather is. You can appreciate the best of the grounds even if it’s incredibly cold or blisteringly warm.

The peacocks actually own the house. Well at least they think they do... Photo Credits: KS Wigley 2013

The peacocks actually own the house. Well at least they think they do…
Photo Credits: KS Wigley 2013

Spring and summer are best suited to castle and gardens as it is the perfect time for picnics with a fantastic backdrop of the castle. And the geese. And ducks. And swans. And many, many peafowl. Due to the warmer climes a botanical wonder also beholds any who enter the grounds with many beautiful and brightly coloured flowers in bloom to delight and amuse you. The gardens hold a serenity that not a lot of places can match. They are well kept throughout the summer and you can wander at your own leisure. As for spring and autumn, parts of the grounds are kept sealed off so the plants and flowers can be replaced without interference. The lakes are linked up by small streams that run the course of the gardens. At one end, there is a summer house and a traditional Japanese-styled zigzag bridge that crosses one of the ponds. At the other is a waterfall that feeds the lower lakes from the larger moat that surrounds the castle itself. The expansive garden also has its own hedge maze, which is as fun as it is frustrating. You start and you can see the finishing point; a raised concrete mound at the centre. You just have to find the route. It’s a fun little time-spender and out of the times we have been, we still haven’t known which way is the correct one. We still recognise specific parts of the maze but don’t know how to get there. Once the middle has been reached, you can see the entire maze to retrace your route and see the correct route you should have taken instead of aimlessly drifting through the hedges, which is what we did the majority of the time. Getting to the middle was just pure luck, we feel.  Once you’ve finished going over your failed route, you exit via an underground grotto, complete with carved stone statues, eerie lighting and this ghastly face…

As if the grotto wasn't creepy enough! Photo Credits: KS Wigley 2013

As if the grotto wasn’t creepy enough!
Photo Credits: KS Wigley 2013

When you’ve had enough of the gardens (or indeed the rain) you can wander around the castle itself and learn all about its history. The walk past the water cascade to the gatehouse hits home that when you see the castle, you realise that this wasn’t built as a defence. There are no portholes or secret nooks for soldiers to hide in, battlements only look decorative, cannons don’t line the front garden, and the castle itself is not belligerent; this was purely built as a place to live. It just so happens to have a moat. With a choice of an audio tour or simply making your own way, you get to explore the majority of the rooms. Starting out in the wine cellars on the lower floors, you work your way up and around the grand building learning about its colourful history as a royal residence and under private ownership. Some of the rooms have encapsulated the Tudor splendor very well and the furniture, decorations and awnings have remained.

Elegant yet tasteful Photo Credits: KS Wigley 2013

Elegant yet tasteful
Photo Credits: KS Wigley 2013

Other rooms have a more modern décor from the turn of the 20th Century; with the bold colours and striking but simple lines. You make your way through into the different rooms, laid out in a labyrinth style, which is somewhat confusing if you don’t know where you’re going. This is an over-thought though as you do make you way through rooms such as master bedrooms and down corridors, peering into servant quarters, the music room, drawing room, the spectacular bathroom and various exhibition spaces. The grand marble staircase brings you to the end of the tour. The castle also features a courtyard; a magnificent spiral staircase made out of one large tree; period art works; historical artefacts and sizable library full of old books.

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Mostly about birds
Photo Credits: KS Wigley 2013

Although not as big or even as spectacular as some royal palaces, Leeds Castle is still an eye to behold. It’s quaint within its surroundings which suites it perfectly.

Leeds Castle does also hold special events in its grounds. We visited during a St. George’s day festival and on a plot of land, overlooking the castle, an arena had been set out and various skilled recreationists took part in jousting challenges. Crowds gathered around, cheering and booing for their respective knights in shining armour; watching on in awe as they stormed down the track on horseback; charging at each other with lances, only to continue their battle on-foot with carefully choreographed swordfights. The castle has been known to hold special open air concerts, guided garden tours and photo walks, a supercar showcase, hot air balloon flights, fireworks displays and Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. These events are rather limited and can be somewhat quite pricey in their exclusivity but on the more down-to-earth front, there are regular occurrences that do take place also.

Moses watches his dinner Photo Credits: KS Wigley 2013

Moses watches his dinner
Photo Credits: KS Wigley 2013

Falconry displays are held at specific times and if you have time during the visit it is worth it. You get to watch the birds of prey dive and swoop whilst a trained falconer talks you through the stories and the procedures of being a falconer and how these winged hunters work. If birds of prey aren’t your thing and you prefer water-bound birds, there is also an opportunity to feed the swans and ducks that reside in the lakes. There’s also a children’s play area where you can let your kids burn themselves out to their hearts content if you so wish. And then there’s the…

If that's your thing, you're in luck! Photo Credits: KS Wigley 2013

If that’s your thing, you’re in luck!
Photo Credits: KS Wigley 2013

And once you need a break you have a choice of a Costa coffee café, the restaurant that serves hot food, a snack bar selling chips and the like or, our personal favourite, the ice cream parlour that sells delicious frozen Kentish diary treats! There are also a couple of souvenir shops that sell gifts such as personalised fridge magnets and key rings so you can immortalise your visit forever.

Leeds Castle is a unique place to visit. It’s fairly hidden away but it is a highly recommend place to go. Unfortunately ticket prices aren’t cheap and this may come as a downside – an adult ticket costs £21 – something that when cash is hard to come by, will turn people away, especially if they have . However, what you get for the price is as many visits over the course of a year. Perfect if like us, you live only thirty minutes’ drive away, which is why we’ve been as many times as we have. Not so perfect if you plan on only visiting once. If you are local, you can of course behold the castle in all its splendour. Take a picnic and enjoy the views. Take a raincoat and enjoy the house itself. Or merely take yourself and wander peacefully through what the gardens and grounds have to offer and realises why they call it ‘The Loveliest Castle in the World.’

Photo Credits: KS Wigley 2013

Photo Credits: KS Wigley 2013

Jimmi and Kat

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Gabriel’s Angel – Mark A Radcliffe: 52 in 52 Book #9

Gabriel's Angel

I came across Gabriel’s Angel whilst gently browsing Amazon during my lunch break. Being an unashamed name geek I was drawn in by the name Gabriel on the front cover, a name that causes conflict in my mind every time I come across it. Reading the description I decide to surrender a couple of pounds and purchase a used copy. A decision I certainly don’t regret.

The setting for Gabriel’s Angel is interesting. The premise is a therapy group in a space just below heaven. This therapy group comprises of dead and nearly dead people who are there to talk about their lives and establish whether they go to heaven or back to their lives, or end up in the depths of hell. The plot looks at the lives of these people before and after their deaths.

The eponymous Gabriel is grieved to find himself in a coma and in therapy, stating more than once that he must have already gone to hell. With his partner Ellie, he was going through IVF before he was hit by a car. His plotline also follows Ellie’s attempts to finish the IVF process. Julie, the woman who ran Gabriel over, is also in the group. Her guilt rings through for doing this to Gabriel. Her love life pans out on Earth whilst she is unconscious and provides a lot of the humour within the novel. Yvonne was murdered by Kevin and both are unhappy to find the other is present in the therapy group. The interplay between these two is interesting and humorous but sometimes gets a little straining.

The two angels, Clemitius and Christopher are very different characters and play increasingly estranged roles in the plot. Their character development was one of the highlights of the book for me. I like that the book doesn’t necessarily prescribe to definite boundaries of good and bad and this is something that is particularly evident where the angels are concerned.

An engaging, emotional and thought-provoking read. I laughed at times, felt twisted knots of sorrow in my stomach and genuinely hoped that in the end these characters would find solace. This is the best book of my challenge so far and a book I will remember and think of for a long time yet.

Kat

The Man with the Golden Gun – Ian Fleming: 52 in 52 Book #8

The Man With the Golden Gun

Following on from my Dr No review , I stuck my next audiobook into the CD player in my car for the long commutes to and from work. It is another Bond novel, as I got three Bond audiobooks – Dr No, The Man with the Golden Gun and Goldfinger – in an offer. The Man with the Golden Gun turned out to be a thrilling way to start and finish my day.

As with Dr No, I have never seen the film The Man with the Golden Gun and therefore cannot compare the two. Jim tells me they are good films and along with Goldfinger, I plan to see all three before too long.

The Man with the Golden Gun starts rather dramatically with Bond attempting to kill M after being brainwashed by the Soviet secret service. After recovering from this brainwashing, M decides to make Bond prove himself. He does this by sending Bond to assassinate a gunman in the Caribbean: Scaramanga. Mr Scaramanga is a bloodthirsty individual who has killed several agents previously usually using the titular golden gun.

The following novel is a thrilling escapade with Bond having to use his wits to avoid Scaramanga identifying him for who he really is and killing him. There are others out for Bond’s blood and conveniently they have gathered with Scaramanga in a hotel in Jamaica. The ensuing espionage, shooting, bluffing and murder make for an excellent spy and adventure novel.

Compared to Dr No, The Man with the Golden Gun was a lot shorter. This length difference wasn’t very noticeable but the difference in action was. The Man with the Golden Gun had less adventure and physical action than its predecessor and occasionally lacked the enthusiasm of the other novel. That said, I still enjoyed very word, just not as much as Dr No.

A quintessential Bond novel, The Man with the Golden Gun is complete with sneaking around, gun fights, a Bond girl and an eccentric villain. Every Bond fan should read this novel.

 

Kat