Book Review: The Heart Is Noble (HH. The 17th Karmapa)


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Life advice for anybody – not just Buddhists!

TL;DR – Advice and thoughts from a Buddhist monk to the rest of the world. Not just for Buddhists.

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RAGDOLL RATING: 5/5 BUTTONS

Why I read it…

I’ve read lots of snippets from His Holiness around the internet in the course of my day-to-day ramblings, and have found those snippets to be insightful and useful to me, so I have been keen to read a book by His Holiness for some time – this just happened to be the first one I bought.

The Book…

This book is intended as personal thoughts and advice from His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, to anybody who is interested. It is based in Buddhist thought – as you would no doubt expect from a Buddhist monk – but it is not just for Buddhists, it’s good advice for anybody.

The book is split into chapters covering a number of themes, ranging from Healthy Relationships to Food Justice / Vegetarianism to Gender Identity. His Holiness provides his own thoughts on a range of subjects he sees as problematic in the world and offers his own ideas as to how we all can work to combat these problems.

What I liked…

I found this book to be insightful, and very interesting. There is nothing dogmatic about this book – you aren’t supposed to just agree ‘because the Karmapa said so’, or even because it seems like the Buddhist thing to do. His Holiness provides his thoughts in a clear manner, and invites you to test them against your own experiences to determine their validity.

I found the chapter on vegetarianism particularly interesting. I personally find this a difficult subject because of two parts of my personality. First, I love eating meat, secondly, I believe it is ethically wrong of me to do so. I expected this chapter to make me feel worse about it – to go on and on about how terrible I am for eating meat, like so many others have done in the past. But it didn’t. What I got was a story from His Holiness about how things were in Tibet, and how they are now. We start by learning that His Holiness ate a lot of meat when he lived in Tibet – because that’s what was available. He then explains how this changed once he escaped to India. He tells us he became vegetarian after watching a documentary about the meat industry and feeling a surge of compassion for the emotions of the animals. But it wasn’t heavy handed, there was no sense that you must agree with his assessment, it was just stated plainly that this was how he felt and from that he turned to vegetarianism. His Holiness even admits that he still occasionally craves a certain kind of meat he remembers from his childhood. He then goes on to explain all sorts of things about why he thinks vegetarianism is would be a good thing for everyone to adopt, but it never feels pushy or aggressive. But it is persuasive. It has led me personally to make a move towards vegetarianism I felt poorly equipped to make before.

The whole book is like this. In a friendly, approachable style, His Holiness provides anecdotes and the occasional piece of Buddhist wisdom or storytelling to illustrate his points and reminds us constantly about the important of compassion and loving kindness.

What I disliked…

There is nothing about the book I really disliked, but I do have to mention one thing because it may upset some readers.

Buddhism calls for universal compassion, and when I say universal I mean it. Compassion for everyone. In the last chapter we are taught how far this actually goes. It specifically mentions rapists, child abusers and murderers as people who deserve compassion. It states that we are quick to be compassionate to the victims (as indeed we should be) but that we are all too quick to withhold compassion from the perpetrators (which is true). This is hard to read – and His Holiness admits right at the start of the chapter that it is easier read than put into practice. It is a fairly simple concept to grasp, but can be quite difficult to read – especially if you have ever been the victim of something like this.

Just be aware of that.

Final thoughts…

I really enjoyed reading this book. It has been quite the treat for me to sit down every night before meditating and read a chapter of this book. I can’t wait to read some more by His Holiness, and I hope you will consider reading it, whether you are Buddhist or not.

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Please note: I am in no way affiliated with the author or publishers. I bought this book with my own money for my own reasons. The opinions contained within are my own and have not been influenced by any external entity!

Book Review: Notes on a Nervous Planet (Matt Haig)


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Insightful, thought provoking, and very, very real.

TL;DR – This book takes a good, hard look at anxiety, grabs it by the collar and yells “Not today!”

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RAGDOLL RATING: 5/5 BUTTONS

Why I read it…

My mum used to read my chapters of “Reasons to Stay Alive” at night, during one of my worst periods of mental ill-health, I’m not sure how much of it I took in, but it just seemed that reading Haig’s latest offering would be a good idea during my most recent mental health crisis.

The Book…

I suppose you could call this book a self help book, but that doesn’t cover it. More accurately, I supposed it is a collection of ‘anxiety things’, bunched together into a really helpful little manual.

The purpose of the book is to take a good hard look at anxiety, it’s effects on society, and societies effects on it. Through personal stories, quotations, lists and data, Haig takes us through the world of anxiety and offers us things we can do to combat it.

I suppose the big take-away from this book is that modern society is a breeding ground for stress and anxiety, and human beings have not had time to adapt to it. BUT, there are ways to make things feel that little bit better.

This book isn’t going to be a one-stop cure for anxiety disorders, and it isn’t supposed to be. It’s just a collection of useful information and tips, to make something really bad, a little easier.

What I liked…

I suppose the thing I like most about this book (and “Reasons to Stay Alive”) is the fact that Matt Haig doesn’t hold back on his personal experience. He’s not afraid to stand up and talk about his mental health, and to talk about it in detail. One of the parts that stuck out most for me, was when Matt talks about having a panic attack in a shopping center – being surrounded by crowds, being in tears and feeling like the worst has happened. It stuck out for me because I’ve been there, but also because outside of a group therapy session I’ve never heard anyone talk about that before. It’s one of those things that are really hard for people to understand, because they don’t necessarily make sense. These stories of his personal struggles – and the distinct lack of pointless psycho-babble and other rubbish – make the book really relatable, and help to make the rest of the book easier to engage with.

The problem with a lot of books on anything mental health related, is the tendency for them to be written by people who have never personally experienced the things they are talking about, written using a whole bunch of technical sounding terms that tend to just come off as annoying. THIS BOOK DOES NOT DO THIS. The whole book is written in really simple language – as if Haig was sitting in the room telling you his story, instead of you reading it. It’s comforting, and much more approachable. But he also only gives you advice he has tried, and more importantly, he admits the bits of advice he finds hard to follow himself, or that he isn’t very good at doing. It is infinitely easier to follow the advice of someone you  just know understands how overwhelming the advice seems. Someone who freely admits they should be doing something, but they aren’t good at it. Stuff they are trying to get better at.

I also love the way that the book puts focus on the way modern society affects us and can cause us considerable stress and anxiety. Haig explains how elements of society, for example shops or social media or news rely completely on people not feeling content. Feeling they need more, or that something isn’t ‘quite right’. How social media is designed to reward extremes of opinion. Or how the constant stream of camera-phone footage of horrible things happening, can make us feel more involved but also more scared of current events than we ever have been before. He also talks about how many of the things we do day-to-day, are like an addiction. Compulsively checking social media, or taking quick email breaks instead of focusing on one thing at a time. It’s hard to take in frankly. But it is true – I didn’t realise how many random marketing emails I saw every single day until I started unsubscribing from them as a result of reading this book.

Obviously Haig isn’t the only person ever to have spoken about this kind of thing, but he is the only person I’ve come across who managed to put it so clearly, and so obviously that I felt compelled to do something about it.

One final thing I loved about this book was the format. This book has no consistent structure. It is, as Haig puts it, ‘intentionally disorganised’. Each chapter starts with a quote or two, and then the chapter is broken up into seemingly random segments. There are lists, personal stories, data from psychological studies, advice, analysis of society, anxiety and stress…and so on. The reason I love this formatless format so much, is because it makes the whole thing so much easier to take in. You don’t get pages and pages and pages of advice from someone who doesn’t care if you follow it or not. You don’t get long explanations of complex quotations from someone who cares more about coming across intellectual than a ‘real’ person. You get little bits and pieces. Here a story about panic attacks, there a list of things that have gotten faster in recent years, here a bit about addiction and social media, there a little happy thought or bright idea. Mental health is hard to read about, especially when every story can trigger memories of your own – but this quirky little format experiment breaks it all up, and makes for a peculiar, but brilliant read.

What I disliked…

I didn’t dislike anything about the book. I disliked how I felt reading it at times, but that is obviously not Matt Haig’s fault.

One thing you should note, is that Matt does talk about suicide at times so if that’s a trigger for you, be aware.

Final thoughts…

This book made me feel a little less alone. I think everyone should read it, just to get a real, pure look into mental health problems.

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Please note: I am in no way affiliated with the author or publishers. I bought this book with my own money for my own reasons. The opinions contained within are my own and have not been influenced by any external entity!

Kwik Review: Sky Chasers (Emma Carroll)

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A fun little book that got me reading again!

TL;DR – The story of two children (and a duck, a rooster and a lamb) taking to the skies.

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RAGDOLL RATING: 5/5 BUTTONS

What I thought:

I spent a whole week completely unable to read anything for more than a minute until one evening I picked this book off my shelf and just read. It came easily.

The book follows Magpie, child thief turned aviator. After a series of accidents, Magpie finds herself in the employ of the Montgolfier family, who happen to be attempting to achieve the first powered flight by use of a hot air balloon. What follows is a tale of adventure, discovery and excitement.

I loved this book. I always say that age ratings in books aren’t good for much. Just because you’re older (and in my case WAY older) than the age range for a book doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it and get a lot out of reading it. Reading should be for fun, and that’s what this book is. Fun. It’s a well written easy read, with lovable characters and an exciting plot.

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Please note: I am in no way affiliated with the author or publishers. The opinions contained within are my own and have not been influenced by any external entity!

Book Review: Ghosts of Shanghai (Julian Sedgwick)


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Ruby is my absolute fave. I could read about her exploits all day.

TL;DR – Follow our little heroes on a dangerous adventure through the underworld of Shanghai. A really exciting book – I can’t wait to read the other 2.

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RAGDOLL RATING: 5/5 BUTTONS

Why I read it…

We’ve had the books sitting around for a while now – my younger sisters have been hounding me to read the series for ages. “You should read Ghosts of Shanghai!” “Have you read it yet?” “Why haven’t you read it?!” “READ IT BEFORE I SET YOU ON FIRE!!” That sort of thing. I was looking for something to read between books of the Maze Runner series (James Dashner) and these happened to be there so I thought I’d finally try it.

The Story…

Ghosts of Shanghai is set, oddly enough, in Shanghai in the 1920’s. It’s a period of unrest, as tensions are growing between the nationalists, the communists, the evil Green Hand gang, and just about everyone else.

Ruby and her little band of ragtag youngsters have found themselves an old book, teaching them how to perform feats of Taoist magic. They find themselves trapping a fox (of the mystical variety, not the little fluffy red dudes) in an old temple, and then there world turns upside down.

What follows is a tale of mythology, espionage, kidnap, betrayal and heroism.

What I liked…

So first off I adore the main character, Ruby. Ignoring the fact that Ruby is my most favouritest name in the whole of ever, she is just a super cool character. She’s been brought up in Shanghai, by English parents who appear to want nothing to do with China at all. They don’t speak a word of Chinese, they aren’t interested in the local culture – they just keep being English. Ruby, by contrast, throws herself into her situation. She speaks the language, she loves the culture, she’s interested in the religions and mythologies of the country. She does everything she can to appreciate what Shanghai has to offer, and that’s a rare treat. I can’t abide English folks who swan off to other countries and insist everything has to be English.

But it’s not just that – we see Ruby start off timid, as a result of an unfortunate incident which led to the death of her little brother. She often alludes to an earlier self – Shanghai Ruby – who was fearless and ready for anything. As the story progresses, we see this personality start to return, and become something more than it was before. Ruby shows bravery and intelligence, and an open heart and mind.

The other characters are less of a focal point, they are important for the plot but less developed during the course of this book.

The plot is really good too. I enjoy a good mythology story as much as anyone, and one of the books key themes is Taoism (or Daoism if you prefer). I can’t speak for the accuracy of any of the themes, I just know I enjoy reading about them, from the foxes, to the martial-artist hermit who arrives spreading wisdom and working his magic.

The plot is full of twists and turns, and it is fun to read about how these kids are thrown into the scary underworld of Shanghai, and how they adapt to the situation and become little heroes!

What I disliked…

I’m at least fairly convinced a handful of the works Sedgwick uses aren’t real words. I’m not talking about the occasional sprinkling of Chinese (of which I understand only a teeny bit), but there are words that are put forward as English and I’m sure they are made up for no apparent reason. It’s not a big complaint, it’s just a bit weird.

Final thoughts…

I loved this book – I’ve already started the second on the series, Shadow of the Yangtze. I love the character Ruby, I love the setting and the plot – it’s all good. It’s a nice, easy read and very entertaining.

Recommended for anybody who likes adventure and mythology stories.

 

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Please note: Although my family do know the author, I have do not. I am reading them because they come recommended by my younger sisters, not because of any connection to the author. The opinions contained within are my own and have not been influenced by any external entity!

Book Review: Head On (John Scalzi)


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Click to see my review of book #1 in the series: Book Review: Lock In (John Scalzi)

Capitalism, pro sports and disabilities don’t mix!

TL;DR – Another fast paced science fiction crime/conspiracy novel. Scalzi’s work makes for excellent reading.

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RAGDOLL RATING: 5/5 BUTTONS

Why I read it…

This book came in as “A book published this year” as part of my reading challenge.

I originally picked this book out because I love a good science fiction read. I generally hate books with sports themes, but the invented sport ‘Hilketa’ sounded like it would provide some interesting concepts.

The Story…

Hilketa is a brand new sport, designed to be played by Haden’s (people who suffer from Haden’s Syndrome, which causes a state called lock in – conscious and aware but unable to move the body). Two teams battle it out in their specially designed android bodies. The aim – to remove the head from an opponent and score a goal with it.

The league is hoping to expand globally, and all is going well until a player dies on the field. FBI agent Chris Shane and his partner Vann set out to investigate this unexpected death, only to find themselves following a trail of bodies and a conspiracy that could take down the whole league.

This book follows on roughly a year from the events of ‘Lock In’.

What I liked…

I think my favourite part of this book was that a lot of the social and ethical themes from the first book are explored in greater deal in Head On. One such example from the first book was the idea that the things that made life liveable for Haden’s would be taken over by non-Haden’s in the name of profit. Haden’s make up around 1% of the population, and after Abrams-Kettering (a bill that removed financial support for Haden’s sufferers) the markets for Hadens-related products was set to shrink. In Lock In, preparations were being made to chase the non-Haden market by paving the way for non-Hadens to use threeps (the android bodies Haden’s use to have a presence in the physical world. In ‘Head On’, this theme is explored further, and we see able-bodied protesters, whining that the Hilketa leagues only feature Haden players. Drawing obvious parallels to the sort of nonsense protests we see in the real world about ‘safe’ spaces for marginalised and minority groups. It is elements like this that demonstrate both a good understand of disability and minority issues, and it helps make the world both real and engaging.

We also learn a lot more about the world as seen through the eyes of Haden’s. Scalzi has created a really rich culture for Hadens, and we learn a good deal about the etiquette, social norms and the role of the Agora (an ‘online’ world for Hadens).

Our two main characters, Shane and Vann were the leads in ‘Lock In’, and they continue to be interesting individuals with an entertaining partnership. After a year of working together, Shane and Vann have created an effective working relationship which often involves some delightful good cop / bad cop interrogations that are enjoyable to read and often very amusing to boot. In addition we see the return of the supporting characters in the form of Shane’s housemates, who play a bigger role in this book than in ‘Lock In’.

The plot summary makes it sound like this book is heavily centred around the sport of Hilketa – and it is – but this is not a sci-fi sports novel. I was quite worried when I bought this book that it might be mostly about sport…fantastic science fiction sport, but sport none the less, and that wasn’t of great appeal to me. Fortunately this wasn’t the case. It is first and foremost a crime / conspiracy novel, which happens to involve the sport. We do learn quite a bit about how the sport works but it isn’t the primary focus.

Finally, I love the fact that Scalzi made sure to provide quick explanations of the key terms and themes as they arose. If you had read ‘Lock In’ recently then you might consider them superfluous, but it did mean that if you wanted to, you could read ‘Head On’ without having read ‘Lock In’ first, which I thought was pretty neat.

What I disliked…

I can’t exactly put my finger on anything specific that I didn’t like – I just know I enjoyed the first book more (and I read them back to back). Actually that’s not quite true – for some reason, Scalzi switched from using the word “Harness” to describe the apparatus that held a Hadens physical body, and started using “Creche” instead. I don’t know why, and it’s not exactly a problem, I just found it a bit odd.

I don’t think there was anything wrong with the book – in fact a lot of parts I thought were much better, it just overall felt a little less than its counterpart somehow. I couldn’t decide if I should give the book a 4.5 or 5 button rating – I eventually decided on 5 because it seemed unreasonably to give a book I enjoyed so much a lower rating just because of a vague sense that the first one might have been better.

Final thoughts… 

This book is an excellent sequel to ‘Lock In’ and an excellent story in its own right. Scalzi has created rich and full worlds, chock full of detail and careful thought – such careful world-craft deserves high praise.

The book doesn’t just follow a simple murder or conspiracy track, it also tackles a whole bunch of social and ethical issues which made the whole experience a lot more enjoyable for me.

I would recommend this book to anyone who likes solid science fiction, also to any crime fans who don’t mind the futuristic setting.

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Please note: I am in no way affiliated with the author or publishers. I bought this book with my own money for my own reasons. The opinions contained within are my own and have not been influenced by any external entity!

Book Review: Lock In (John Scalzi)


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“Weapons-grade science fiction. Not to be missed.” 

TL;DR – I was hooked the whole way through. It’s clever and really makes you think. Perfect for the sci-fi fan in your life.

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RAGDOLL RATING: 5/5 BUTTONS

Why I read it…

My primary reason for reading this book was that I wanted to read the sequel “Head On” as part of the reading challenge (A book published this year), but since there was only one book that came before it in the series, I thought I ought to read it first.

I chose this series because I love science fiction and sampling authors I haven’t read before, so this seemed like an ideal candidate for reading.

The Story…

Haden’s Syndrome spread across the globe quickly and unexpectedly. Most people recovered, but an unfortunate percentage experienced lock in – fully conscious and aware, but completely unable to control their bodies.

After a great deal of research, a solution of sorts was found to help. Personal transports (or threeps) where created – robotic bodies that could be controlled through a computer, surgically implanted in the brain of a Haden’s sufferer. This provided Haden’s with a way to interact with the world at large. But tensions are running high as the implementation of a new law threatens to make the lives of Haden’s even more difficult.

New FBI recruit Chris Shane, and his partner Leslie Vann set out to solve a Haden related murder at the Watergate hotel, and soon realise the problem is considerably bigger than they could have possibly imagined.

What I liked…

First of all, you have Haden’s Syndrome. I know (or at least think I know) that getting locked into your body, conscious but unable to move is a real thing that happens – although it’s definitely not a contagious disease. But the way this issue was addressed in this book was fascinating. The idea of personal transports and a virtual world (called the Agora) where an inspired response to the lock-in problem. But you also have people who have set out to cure Haden’s Syndrome and effectively unlock the sufferers bodies – one of the most fascinating parts of this book was the way these two solutions are met by Haden’s sufferers. You can see clearly that the premise has been really well thought out and understood.

The story was fast-paced and interesting. The transition from unusual crime to serious conspiracy was very well written and engaging – I was hooked in to the book very quickly and only once did I stop being completely gripped by every page.

The world building was really the key selling point for me. I’ve already spoken about the interesting aspects of Haden’s syndrome, but the book really goes deep into the descriptions of the condition and the way it has affected the world and sufferers alike. There are times when Scalzi talks about the ethics of the way Haden’s sufferers are treated, by the public, the government and members of the medical profession. Scalzi has also created an alternative world inside the ‘real’ world, in the form of the Agora and it’s incredibly interesting to the see the way this world is accessed.

Finally, it was really clear while reading this book that Scalzi had thought good and hard about disability and how disabled people think about themselves. He notes the differences in opinions between people who contracted Haden’s later in life with those who contracted it as children, and how these differences have affected their lives and interactions with threeps and the Agora.

What I disliked…

At one point, I thought the book was about to fall apart completely. I was almost finished – maybe 50 pages or less to go – and everything was falling in to place nicely. The problem was I couldn’t imagine how the book could possibly end in a satisfactory way in the limited space there was left. As it turns out, this was just my lack of imagination. Scalzi brings this story to an exciting and incredibly satisfying conclusion with great skill and artistry.

Final thoughts…

I was hooked on this book from beginning to end. There was nothing about it that I didn’t like. It was well written and clearly had a considerable amount of thought put into the world-craft, which is something I love to see in a book.

I recommend this book to anyone who loves a good science fiction novel. I would also recommend this to crime readers who don’t mind the futuristic setting.

I can’t wait to get stuck into the sequel.

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Please note: I am in no way affiliated with the author or publishers. I bought this book with my own money for my own reasons. The opinions contained within are my own and have not been influenced by any external entity!

Book Review: The Grantchester Mysteries – Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death (James Runcie)


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BOTM
Book of the Month (May 2018)

“You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy…except in Grantchester apparently…” Obi Wan Kenobi

TL;DR – If you like the whole “Sleepy little town has more murders than small countries” genre, and you like priests you’ll probably like this book.

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RAGDOLL RATING: 5/5 BUTTONS

Why I read it…

I absolutely adore the TV series Grantchester (Al Weaver’s  Leonard is totes adorbs), and I’ve been wanting to read the books basically since I saw the first episodes. Also, it conveniently falls into the “A book made into a TV show that you’ve seen but haven’t read” category of my reading challenge.

Plus I just generally enjoy the easy-read detective story genre so it just seemed like a good idea for a read.

The Story…

The book focuses on “Canon Sidney Chambers”, man of God, turned amateur detective. It is set in 1950’s Grantchester and Cambridge.

There are 6 different short stories in this book, following the fairly simple theme of “Someone in Grantchester got murdered” (or kidnapped, or what-have-you), and Sidney, together with his police chum Geordie Keating are going to figure out who-dunnit.

The is not just a series of short, disconnected crime stories though (although you could probably read them that way if you chose). The ‘main story’ as it were, follows Sidney Chambers life and struggles with romance, friendship, the church, his housekeeper and his dog.

What I liked…

This book was a nice, easy read – it is absolutely perfect for the casual or time-poor crime fan. The stories and characters and engaging and likeable which goes a long way to making this book a low-stress read.

I like the fact that the book is broken up into 6 different parts, but has a sort of ‘main story’ as I mentioned above. A lot of writers would have been tempted to drag each of the 6 stories in this book out into a whole book so in order to try and find a balance between the crime themes and Sidney’s personal and professional life, but Runcie has done the opposite – finding a good balance by saying less. There is a lot to be said for short-and-sweet.

I enjoy the characters, mainly because I know them from the television programme, however I am particularly enjoy the character of Sidney and his relationship to the Church and Christianity in general. I personally really enjoy reading about peoples interaction with and interpretation of their personal faith, and this book has plenty of it – although I am cautious to add, not so much of it that it detracts from the other themes of the book!

Finally, I enjoy the setting – mainly because Grantchester is only a few miles away and I know most of the place names! It makes things slightly entertaining for me…

What I disliked…

There are a handful of times where I found Runcie’s method of description a little peculiar, but not so much that I can remember exactly what bothered me, and certainly not enough to stop reading.

Also it bothers me the way the characters talk during a discussion about homosexuality, but frankly that’s my bad for reading a book set in the 50’s. Having said that, Sidney is very progressive in this regard which makes these passages easier to digest.

Final thoughts…

This book was an easy and enjoyable read. Each story was entertaining, and due to the format of short stories, the romantic subplots I usually can’t stand were engaging, but not drawn out.

The characters are lovable, although not hugely developed in many cases (again, due to the short-story format) but with 4 further books in the series, there is plenty of room for expansion. That said, the crime plots are the real selling points of this book. They are well thought out and a joy to read.

I strongly recommend this to anybody who enjoys a simple crime read – particularly those who are casual readers, are strapped for time, or struggle with longer stories.

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Please note: I am in no way affiliated with the author or publishers. I bought this book with my own money for my own reasons. The opinions contained within are my own and have not been influenced by any external entity!

Series Review: The Pirates! In an Adventure with… (Gideon Defoe)


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“Not since Moby-Dick… No, not since Treasure Island… Actually, not since Jonah and the Whale has there been a sea saga to rival The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists…” ~Goodreads

TL;DR – If you like light reading, humour and pirates, give this series a try.

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Series details…

Released: 2004-2012.

“The Pirates…” series is made up of 5 books; The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists (2004); The Pirates! In an Adventure with Whaling (2005); The Pirates! In an Adventure with Communists (2006); The Pirates! In an Adventure with Napoleon (2008); The Pirates! In an Adventure with Romantics (2012).

The story…

“The Pirates!…” books focus on the tales of a typical pirate crew, and their fearless and ruthless captain; The Pirate Captain! With his pleasant open face, stentorian nose and luxuriant beard, the Pirate Captain leads his fearless – and only slightly inept – crew on a series of adventures throughout the globe.

The books contain a host of lovable heroes and contemptible villains, from Number 2 (the only competent pirate on the boat), to the dastardly Black Bellamy (Pirate Captains Arch Enemy / Long Standing Friend) to the cynical, realistic (and therefore much loathed) Pirate in Red.

The Stories all follow a similar format; The Pirate Captain and his crew are bobbing along through the high seas, with no particular aims or goals in mind – they just like being at sea. (Never before has a single group of people more fully embodied that fine old hymn “Yo ho; Yo ho; A pirate’s life for me”.) The crew find themselves embattled in important philosophical debates – such as the best way to cook a ham – when the Pirate Captain himself enters majestically, and settles the matter once and for all, with an observation so wise and logical, you are left wondering why you never realised it before! Then – usually due to the Pirate Captain’s boredom or generalised moping, the crew set off on a wild adventure, featuring a host of famous figures from history. For example:

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists (2004) – In an attempt to score some major treasure, the Pirates attack a vessel belonging to the Bank of England, transporting oodles of gold and treasures to wherever it is the Bank of England hordes it’s treasures. Unfortunately for the the Pirate Captain, this vessel contains less gold and more brilliant naturalists, in the form of Charles Darwin. Never one to back away from a challenge, The Pirate Captain concocts a scheme to use Darwin to make a fortune in London – leading to an exciting (and utterly bizarre) mystery that only the Pirates can solve.

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Napoleon (2008) sees a depressed Pirate Captain give up the salty world of professional pirating, to follow his life-long (read: half-hour long) dream of being a bee-keeper. He buys an island – which the brochure says is ideal for bee-keeping –  from the devilish Black Bellamy, and (much to the misery of the crew) set’s sail for his new Island – Corsica. Shortly after arriving, a new resident arrives – none other the Napoleon Bonaparte, freshly exiled. The Pirate Captain and Napoleon hit it off badly – two powerful personalities on a small, raggedy island (that is useless for keeping bees on) constantly at each others throats. The pair set about proving once-and-for-all who is the better man, with hilarious results!

Why did I read them…

My first exposure to this series came from the movie adaption – The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists (Movie – 2012) – which remains one of my Top 5 movies of all time. After watching it a few times and looking on the ‘net, I discovered the books and bought them all. The books did not disappoint.

Why I love them…

The main (and most non-specific) reason is because I enjoyed the books so much. “The Pirates!…” books are the only series I can think of that I have read 3 or more times. I enjoyed The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists (2004) so much that it is my go-to book for reading when I’m in a difficult head-space and need something to soothe and give a little spark of joy. It also holds the #1 spot in my Top 5 ‘light reading’ list.

Secondly, the characters. This series has characters I can really picture and enjoy (which was definitely helped by the movie adaption). I love the Pirate Captain most of all.

The Pirate Captain stands out for me because of the way his character reacts to the world around him. He is a Pirate because he loves the idea of being a pirate. He loves the treasure, and the pirate boat and the running people through. He loves the tattoos and the shanties and the roaring. He is married to the sea and is mostly faithful to it. He loves pirating – he just isn’t very good at it.

For starters, he’s really bad with names (so relatable) so he uses descriptions instead – The Pirate in Green, The Albino Pirate, The Pirate Who Likes Kittens And Sunsets. He also doesn’t know how nautical instruments work; be it an astrolabe or an honest-to-goodness map, the Pirate Captain doesn’t know how to use it properly. But he tries his best, and goes out of his way to make it sound like he knows exactly whats going on – even, and indeed especially, when he has absolutely no clue. The Pirate Crew love him in spite – or perhaps because – of this (except the Pirate in Red who tried to undermine the Pirate Captain whenever he can).

The Pirate Captain is not a man with a plan. He prefers to get an outline (catch the white whale) and fill in the details later. This leads to a series of amusing, over-the-top and mostly ineffective schemes as part of a totally bizarre and wonderful adventure.

Things usually work themselves out in the end, in one way or another, and you never stop rooting for the magnificent Pirate Captain and his rag-tag crew of lovable idiots.

Finally, the stories themselves. The plots are silly. The writing is silly. The characters and situations and footnotes are silly – and that is fantastic. These books don’t take themselves seriously – there’s no worrying about realism or historical accuracy or on occasions, common sense. It’s just fun. Fun for adults, and fun teens, fun for all!

Recommended for…

Most ages: Certainly fun for adults and older children. (Probably find for younger children but use your own judgement).

For readers of: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams etc. Similar sort of humour and writing. I personally rank my Top 3 ‘humour’ series as #1 Discworld (Pratchett), #2 The Pirates!… (Defoe), #3 The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (Adams).

Final thoughts…

The Pirates! series is equal parts funny, weird and wonderful. With situations and characters that are easy to love. They are written in a humorous and easy-to read way (complete with interesting and amusing foot-notes).

The stories are short, and sweet and funny. You really can’t ask for more.

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Please note: I am in no way affiliated with the author or publishers. I bought this book with my own money for my own reasons. The opinions contained within are my own and have not been influenced by any external entity!

Book Review: Coding Unlocked: Scratch and Python: the basics (Hywel Carver)


Goodreads Link

“Oh man this is fun! I made squid-Pong!!” ~Me post-book

TL;DR – A great little introduction to coding with Scratch and Python. Everyone buy this for your kids!

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RAGDOLL RATING: 5/5 BUTTONS

Why I read it…

I was well and truly bored out of my skull since finishing university – then I saw on the news that the world needs more folk with coding skills. We happened to have this book lying around for some reason, so I thought I’d work through it.

This was added to the “A book that will make you smarter” section of my reading challenge.

The Book…

This book gives you an absolute bare-bones introduction to computer coding. It teaches the absolute beginnings of Scratch and Python.

Scratch is a visual coding language; you drag and drop different elements into sequences and build your code that way. It is a very clever tool for developing the kind of structured, critical thinking required in order to use the other parts of the book – Python.

Python is your more traditional coding language. Typing in symbols and words that might as well be an alien language if you don’t know how to use it.

The book starts by introducing you to what coding means, and what it is for. Then it moves on to introducing some basic concepts. Each section has a series of tasks for the reader to complete and understand before moving on which consolidate all that has been covered so far in the book, gradually building and building.

By the end of the book, readers have created a couple of little games using Scratch and several little programs using python.

What I liked…

The book is written in a really easy-to-follow style. It gives you some code, explains what it does and then tests you to see if you can apply what you’ve just learned. It does this through a series of little tests. In Scratch, you are guided gently into creating an extremely simple animation, which makes a cat speak, and gradually you build up to making a fully functional game of Pong. In Python, you are told to solve a series of puzzles, by writing a program and inputting data.

Probably the best thing about this book is the way it uses Scratch to teach you the way to think about using python. Every concept is introduced in Scratch and you are taught how to piece your code sequences together with a drag-and-drop interface, and a cartoon cat that does what you tell it to. This teaches you the way the code operates, and how to split down a big instruction such as “Answer this number puzzle” into the simplest set of instructions possible – then you are shown how to use these ideas and turn them into python code. The transfer from one language to the other feels very natural, and and very simple.

Finally, it is really good fun. I felt an immense sense of accomplishment as I was working through this book. Completely each chapter feels like a real achievement because you can see it working – everything you learn has a purpose and you can watch it work.

What I disliked…

Code elements are printed in green text on a black background. __Like This which can be a little difficult to read at times, especially if you don’t have good light.

I also would have liked more of it, but it was a book aimed at children so I really can’t complain much that front. However, there could have been a ‘next steps’ or ‘further reading’ section, which it unfortunately didn’t.

Final thoughts…

This is a brilliant little book for learning the absolute basics – a perfect first step into the wonderful world of computer code. It is encouraging and challenging in all the right ways, and gives you a great sense of accomplishment.

If your child (or indeed you yourself) are interested in what makes computers work, then you can’t go wrong with this book. I cannot recommend it strongly enough as a starting point.

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Please note: I am in no way affiliated with the author or publishers. I bought this book with my own money for my own reasons. The opinions contained within are my own and have not been influenced by any external entity!

Book Review: Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters (Mark Dunn)

Goodreads Link

“Inventive and impressive … as politically engaging as it is fun.” ~ Big Issue

TL;DR – This book is a strange little treasure. A must read for lovers of words.

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RAGDOLL RATING: 5/5 BUTTONS

Why I read it…

I honestly have no idea how I came to own this book – I just remember one day I didn’t own it, the next day I did. I assume tumblr had something to do with it. I assume that I read about how unique it was somewhere and thought I’d give it a shot.

Also, it was a the “A book I by an author I haven’t read” category for my reading challenge.

The Story…

Off the coast of America is an Island called Nollop. Named for the revered Nevin Nollop (deceased), creator of the pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

Nollop is not an advanced nation – it’s not even keeping up with the rest of the world. But what Nollop lacks in technological advancement, it’s makes up for with the adoration of language. The Nollopian’s adore words – especially Ella. They adore words, and they idolise the aforementioned Nevin Nollop. A monument to his linguistic prowess stands proud for all to see – tiles with individual letters spelling out the famous pangram.

One day, a tile falls from the monument – the letter Z. The governing body of Nollop – being so fanatically devoted – declare the falling of the tile to represent an instruction from Nollop himself! The message is interpreted to mean the Nollopians should never used the letter again. Not in speech, not in writing…and those who break this divine law are severely punished.

The book is written as a series of letters from various Nollopians. As more tiles fall from the aging monument, the Nollopians are forced to abandon the variety of words they adore so much, until they can take no more…

What I liked…

The book itself is an example – albeit a very strange one – of totalitarian government, fanatical religious leadership and censorship. As the letters fall from the monument, so too are they removed from the book. Dunn writes very cleverly, managing to keep as much variety and love of language in each letter, despite the every increasing pressure caused by the rapidly decrease pool of usable letters. It is clever, not just because it is a physically difficult task, but also because Dunn manages to express so much emotion in so many ways, and when Ella’s heart breaks, my heart broke too.

The format itself, a series of somewhat connected letters, is a very novel and highly effective form of delivery. It was not just a gimmick – it brought the story to life. It took me a little while to get my head around it, and might have been irritating if the story wasn’t so engaging.

Finally, I loved the variety of ‘authors’ for the letters. The letters are written by many different characters; all with different views and ways of dealing with an incredibly difficult situation. Perhaps one of the most difficult, but most rewarding things about this book is that you find yourself questioning which of the characters approaches you think you would follow if you were in their place. Questions like this are what usually make books about totalitarianism very difficult, and often soul crushing to read – but the admittedly bizarre situation allows you to consider these ethical dilemmas, something which I find really important.

What I disliked…

Nothing. I loved it.

Final thoughts…

This book seems really strange. The premise is strange, the way it uses an ever decreasing pool of letters is strange. The use of letters instead of ‘normal’ prose is weird. BUT it is beautiful. It is challenging. It is insightful. It is art.

This book may be better suited to those with an appreciation for linguistic acrobatics, and the art of words, rather than the casual reader – but I would still encourage the casual reader to try it and see. It’s more than worth the effort.

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Please note: I am in no way affiliated with the author or publishers. I bought this book with my own money for my own reasons. The opinions contained within are my own and have not been influenced by any external entity!