Review: Adventures in Time Alexander the Great by Dominic Sandbrook

Published by Particular Books an imprint of Penguin Random House
on 4th November 2021

This superb work of non-fiction aimed at an MG or early teen audience is written with so much verve and flair that I found myself racing through as if it were a fictional adventure story. From the opening scene of the 20 year-old, newly appointed King Alexander, hurling his spear into Persian territory as a symbolic act of intent, I was utterly hooked. The author, Dominic Sandbrook, presents his learning and research with a lightness of touch that is sure to engage his target audience and will likely be enjoyed by many adults too.

Alexander the Great is one of those historical names that many of us are familiar with but, unless we have studied classics, probably have a sketchy knowledge of his life and achievements. As someone who dropped history before O level in order to study sciences, I learnt so much from this book. Firstly, the realisation that “Ancient Greece” was not just one country but a collection of rival cities and kingdoms fighting for supremacy over centuries. The book makes clear that the mythical twelve Olympians of Mount Olympus were woven into the everyday fabric of life for everyone within the Greek world. Thus, although Alexander was the product of the marriage between King Philip of Macedonia and one of his wives, Olympias, he believed his mother’s story that he was actually the son of Zeus. 

It appears that this belief in his immortality drove him to follow his dreams and ruthlessly pursue the conquest of the Persian empire. The compelling narrative explains how the vast wealth of Persia under the reign of King Darius III paid for a fearsome military strength, and how Alexander’s small but highly disciplined army fought their way from the Mediterranean to eventually gain control of the entire empire over the span of a decade. In between the descriptions of battles and military tactics there is a wealth of knowledge imparted about the structure of society, the architecture and the bureaucracy of the greatest single empire in history. 

I like the way that throughout the book the historical facts are presented in the context of modern comparisons, making it relatable for its proposed readership. Many youngsters are likely to be surprised by the discovery that the greatest city of the time was Babylon as they have probably been exposed to a mostly euro-centric view of history and civilisation. The scale of Alexander the Great’s achievements, in leading his conquering army on horseback and on foot across Asia is brought starkly to life when the modern day names of the lands that he amassed are mentioned. We learn that Greek coins have been found in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India! Of course as a librarian, my favourite part of the book was the brief mention of Alexander’s loyal commander Ptolemy’s eventual reign over Egypt where he laid the plans for the Great Library of Alexandria. 

This book will appeal to confident readers of 10+ who have enjoyed the fictional portrayal of the ancient world in books such as Who Let the Gods Out by Maz Evans, The Roman Mysteries by Caroline Lawrence or the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. Dominic Sandbrook lists his sources in an Author’s Note so that readers can pursue further research if their appetites for classical history have been whetted. I would highly recommend this book for non-fiction collections in Key Stage 2 or Secondary School libraries. 

I am grateful to Penguin Random House and NetGalley for allowing me access to an electronic version of Time Travellers Alexander the Great before publication on 4th November 2021 in exchange for an honest review.

AudioBook Review: The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

Finding myself unable to read for a couple of days following minor eye surgery, I decided to fill the void by listening to this debut novel by Richard Osman…and it was the perfect prescription for an enjoyable recovery!

I have been a fan of “cosy murder mysteries” since discovering a cupboard full of Agatha Christie novels on a family holiday when I was 12/13. I love the puzzle-solving element as you try to sift the clues from the red herrings and the satisfying resolution when order is restored and the perpetrators are brought to justice. Richard Osman has elegantly constructed his murder mystery to satisfy all the standard conventions and has done so with panache and an ear for the speech patterns of elderly women which compares to the genius of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads!

His setting of an upmarket retirement village is inspired and his cast of characters with their fascinating range of backgrounds is wonderfully crafted. From Elizabeth, the poised and precise leader of the Thursday Murder Club, the possessor of a list of contacts so extensive that we have to assume she worked for the secret services, to firebrand “Red Ron” in his shorts and West Ham shirt, the protagonists are written with skill and a genuine feeling of warm-heartedness. This feel-good factor greatly added to my enjoyment of the story, it felt as if the author was really searching for the good in all his characters and whilst featuring heinous crimes, the motives were apparent and believable. I really don’t want to reveal too much about the plot for fear of ruining anyone’s enjoyment, but The Thursday Murder Club’s transition from researching cold cases to investigating a murder within their own community is thoroughly enjoyable.

I have to also commend the narration by Lesley Manville in this Audible audio book, her impressive range of voices and accents greatly added to my delight in this story. I have so often had to stop listening to audiobooks due to the choice of narrator, but in this case the narration brilliantly enhances the story.

In summary, a very impressive debut from Richard Osman and I am certainly looking forward to the follow-up which I believe is due later this year.

Review: The Miracle on Ebenezer Street by Catherine Doyle

Cover image by Pedro Riquelme, published by Penguin Random House/Puffin Books

This is the book that everyone should find in their stocking this Christmas! Catherine Doyle’s reworking of A Christmas Carol sparkles with Yuletide magic and is served with a dusting of her trademark lyricism and charm.

This story overflows with magical and mysterious characters as it recounts the tale of George Bishop, a ten year-old whose world was drained of colour three years previously when his mother died in a car accident on Christmas Eve. Since then, his father Hugo has immersed himself in his work running the family property empire and has banned all references to Christmas. As they approach their third monochrome Christmas without beautiful, kind, artistic Greta, the prospects look grim. Or so it would appear, until George’s grandmother takes him on a clandestine trip to the Winter Wonderland and leaves him to explore Marley’s Christmas Curiosities at the end of a row of wooden huts. In this enchanted space, with its myriad attractions, George is drawn to the shelf labelled “last minute miracles” and discovers a snow globe which inexplicably contains a heart-breakingly familiar snowman.

As anyone familiar with A Christmas Carol would expect, visits to Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Future follow, as the snow globe grants George his three miracles. Without wishing to give away any plot spoilers I will just note that these wondrous journeys in the company of fellow travellers such as oil portraits and purple reindeers will make you laugh and cry in equal measure. Moments of great hilarity such as Elf-on-the-shelf Tricksie halting mid-miracle to perform an audit segue seamlessly into Aunt Alice whispering to her late sister in a scene that will cause eyes to leak.

The characters are all beautifully realised, from six year-old cousin Clementine with her loudly joyful ability to see magic around her; Hugo whose grief has caused him to shut all colour from his and his son’s lives and George whose longing for family and home drives the narrative. My favourite of all was Nana Flo, the perfect grandmother; warm and wise with an Irish twinkle in her eye, she wears “mystery like a cloak” and is always “happy to conspire at short notice”.

In summary, I absolutely love The Miracle on Ebenezer Street and wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone, independent readers from 9+, and parents, carers, grandparents, teachers and librarians to read aloud to younger children. Teenagers studying A Christmas Carol for GCSE are also likely to enjoy this thoroughly modern reworking of the story and can amuse themselves finding the clever references sprinkled throughout. Catherine Doyle has written a remarkable story which celebrates the colour, beauty, hope and love of Christmas.

I read somewhere that this book had been commissioned to mark the publisher Puffin’s 80th anniversary and Charles Dickens’ 150th anniversary and feel that it’s timing this year is perfect. With many families facing this Christmas grieving for a loved one, this tender, poignant story might just help children to feel that they are not alone in processing the memories of Christmas past whilst trying to rekindle the hope that we all wish for at this time of year.

Let your heart be your compass, it will show you the way”.

I am most grateful to #NetGalley and Penguin Children’s Books for allowing me access to an electronic copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. The hardback version was published on 1st October 2020 and I hope that the image above gives some idea of the beautiful cover artwork created by Pedro Riquelme.