Thursday, February 7, 2013

John Flanagan's The Outcasts: Brotherband Chronicles (Book 1)

I rediscovered audiobooks a few weeks ago.  I've been trying to become more active and listening to a good book keeps me from sitting and reading.   I'd come across The Outcasts, the first in John Flanagan's Brotherband Chronicles, as an audiobook and soon found myself downloading the next two books in the series.

If you've read Flanagan's Ranger's Apprentice series, you're already familiar with his tales of adventure, friendship and loyalty.  I discovered the Ranger's Apprentice series a few years ago and have been a fan ever since.  This latest series is a spinoff - set in Skandia with a new set of young heroes. 

The blurb:
They are outcasts. Hal, Stig, and the others - they are the boys the others want no part of. Skandians, as any reader of Ranger's Apprentice could tell you, are known for their size and strength. Not these boys. Yet that doesn't mean they don't have skills. And courage - which they will need every ounce of to do battle at sea against the other bands, the Wolves and the Sharks, in the ultimate race. The icy waters make for a treacherous playing field . . . especially when not everyone thinks of it as playing. John Flanagan, author of the international phenomenon Ranger's Apprentice, creates a new cast of characters to populate his world of Skandians and Araluens, a world millions of young readers around the world have come to know and admire. Full of seafaring adventures and epic battles, Book 1 of The Brotherband Chronicles is sure to thrill readers of Ranger's Apprentice while enticing a whole new generation just now discovering the books.

The Outcasts introduces us to a new set of young characters living in Skandia.  While Erik from some of the Ranger's Apprentice series is the Oberjal and an important and occasional presence in this book is driven by an unlikely group of heroes led by Hal.  Hal, his best friend Stig, and the other members of the Heron Brotherband are the boys that were picked over during their year's brotherband competition.  Hal is only half Skandian and throughout his young life has been referred to as the "foreigner".  Stig's father abandoned his family and Stig'd developed a reputation as a hot tempered, pugnacious son of a thief.  Ulf and Wulf are twins with a mischievous streak and a wicked sense of humor that has left their classmates mistrustful.  The other members of the crew have been just as discounted.  But the brotherband training brings these boys together and under Hal's leadership they flourish.  They compete against larger, stronger teams but with ingenuity, loyalty, and their own unique strengths surprise their hometown and surpass all expectations.

The Outcasts is just as much a book about loyalty, friendship, and honor as it is about adventure, Skandia, and youth.  It's a wonderfully written, deeply absorbing, and highly addictive start to another soon to be beloved series by John Flanagan. 

ISBN-10: 0142421944 - Paperback $8.99
Publisher: Puffin; Reprint edition (September 4, 2012), 404 pages.
Review copy courtesy of the New York Public Library.

About the Author:
John Flanagan grew up in Sydney, Australia, hoping to be a writer. John began writing Ranger’s Apprentice for his son, Michael, ten years ago, and is still hard at work on the series and its spinoff, Brotherband Chronicles. He currently lives in the suburb of Manly, Australia, with his wife. In addition to their son, they have two grown daughters and four grandsons.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Park Lane by Frances Osborne

The blurb:
When eighteen-year-old Grace Campbell arrives in London in 1914, she’s unable to fulfill her family’s ambitions and find a position as an office secretary. Lying to her parents and her brother, Michael, she takes a job as a housemaid at Number 35, Park Lane, where she is quickly caught up in lives of its inhabitants—in particular, those of its privileged son, Edward, and daughter, Beatrice, who is recovering from a failed relationship that would have taken her away from an increasingly stifling life. Desperate to find a new purpose, Bea joins a group of radical suffragettes and strikes up an intriguing romance with an impassioned young lawyer. Unbeknownst to each of the young women, the choices they make amid the rapidly changing world of WWI will connect their chances at future happiness in dramatic and inevitable ways.

I've been fascinated with World War I and the years following it.  This fascination goes beyond my fondness for Downton Abbey, Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs series and the Charles Todd series of  Detective Inspector Ian Rutledge, Bess Crawford mysteries.  So when given the opportunity to read another well regarded book set in the period, I grabbed at the chance.

Park Lane is largely told from two perspectives: that of  Bea Masters from "upstairs" whose family is known for its railroad money and Grace, a young girl working as a second housemaid in the Masters household.

We are first introduced to Grace and learn that she's entered service without informing her family.  Her own mother's family owned textile mills but the family fortune has long since dissipated and while Grace has trained to serve as a secretary, she has had no luck securing a position. It was after weeks of unemployment that she resorted to applying as a housemaid.  Her fellow servants regard her with some suspicion as they can tell she's no experience in service.  Grace keeps up a good front, hiding her position from her family, sending money home to help support her parents and younger siblings, and in her time off trying to improve her typing and secretarial skills.  As Grace settles into life at Park Lane, she finds herself slowly growing accustomed to the life and fighting a romantic entanglement until the War breaks.

When we meet Bea Masters, she is recovering from a bad love affair and is looking for purpose. She falls in with the more extreme Suffragettes and begins clandestinely assisting them in their more daring exploits.  Encounters with the police, violence, escapes, and a chance meeting with a young man leads Bea to an unexpected path.  The War breaks her ties with the Suffragettes and she volunteers to drive ambulances in France.

While I sympathized with Grace, I quickly grew impatient with and frustrated with Bea, especially at the start of the novel. Bea only seemed to come into her own when she went through her own heartbreak.  However, Park Lane, the book seems to reflect the period quite well and I'd recommend it to others who are fond of historical fiction.

ISBN-10: 0345803280 - Paperback $15.95
Publisher: Vintage (June 12, 2012), 336 pages.
Review copy courtesy of the Amazon Vine Program and the publisher.

About the Author:
Frances Osborne was born in London and studied philosophy and modern languages at Oxford University. She is the author of Lilla’s Feast and The Bolter. Her articles have appeared in The Daily Telegraph, The Times, The Independent, the Daily Mail, and Vogue. She lives in London with her husband, George Osborne, and their two children.