Monday, 30 June 2008

Here Be Dragons wrap-up

Time to wrap up yet another challenge. This time it's the Here Be Dragons one hosted by Love at Stray Talk. The challenge was to read 3 to 5 books between the 1st. January and the 30th. June.

I was hoping to read 5 books but in the event only managed 3. Still, I completed the challenge and am quite pleased with myself as it's 3 more books off the tbr pile. The titles I read were:

Assassin's Quest by Robin Hobb
Dragons of Autumn Twilight by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
Eragon by Christopher Paolini

I enjoyed them all but if I were pushed for a favourite it would be Assassin's Quest due to the wonderful writing of Robin Hobb.

Thanks to Love for hosting the challenge, it's been great fun.

Sunday, 29 June 2008

Ender's Game

Still busy reading challenge books! This time it was Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card for the Cardathon challenge being hosted by Becky. This one runs to the end of the year and I've read a couple of books by other authors, as the challenge includes not only books by the author but also books recommended or edited by him; I'd yet to read anything actually written by Card though so it was time to put that right.

Andrew 'Ender' Wiggin is a 'third' - meaning he was the third born child to his family in a world where there is over-population and only two children are permitted. His parents were given permission to have a third child though, this being due to the fact that his older brother and sister were extremely bright and were *almost* right for the task required of them, but not quite. It is hoped that Ender will be less vicious than his brother but not as placid as his sister.

The problem is that fifty years ago the human race was almost annihilated by an insect race of beings from another planet. Known as the 'buggers' (I think because they were 'bugs') they were defeated by a brilliant military commander. The fear is that the aliens are about to repeat their invasion attempt and the hunt is on for another such commander, but he will have to be trained from childhood. Ender fits the bill. He is six when whisked off to Battle school to join hundreds of other boys, to train, in a bid to save the world by way of brutal mock 'games'. But Ender is not popular. He is the brightest of the bright and resented by the other boys and, for some reason, the officers running the school are purposely making his life difficult. In other words he's being tested to see how much he can take. Is Ender up to the challenge?

It's not often that I'm this ambivilent about a story. On the one hand I found it to be a pageturner - Card's writing is extremely readable and the story is pacey and really quite exciting. I finished it in two days and that's pretty quick reading for me, so clearly I couldn't put it down. On the other hand I had issues with a couple of things. Mainly it was to do with the kind of dialogue and thoughts Card embued small children with. It was all too adult and, although I realise that these are supposed to be bright kids, I didn't find that aspect of it realistic. Not that Card is the only author to do this by any means - it's very common.

The other thing that struck me was that Card was writing a novel set sometime in the future. It wasn't clear how many years (a hundred?) but, whatever, I found it bizarre that a science fiction author, who would supposedly be forward thinking, did not forsee the role women would come to play in the armed forces. Even just thirty years after he wrote the book women are fighting and dying in combat zones around the world. He put one girl in his school, *one*.

Nevertheless, despite my issues with the book, I did, as I said, enjoy it a great deal. Much of the book is 'edge of the seat' stuff and it has a fantastic twist near the end which I didn't see coming at all. I must also add that it was the last few pages which intrigued me the most and because of that I plan to get a copy of the sequel, Speaker for the Dead, as soon as possible as I suspect that one might be a bit more to my taste. My husband grabbed Ender's Game off me as soon as I finished so it'll be interesting to see what he thinks.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Two reviews

I haven't actually read Alan Alda'a autobiography, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed, (lol) and possibly it might have been a good idea to have done so before I read Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself. Just for background info really, though I know him as a famous actor who starred in MASH of course - I just wasn't aware that he was such an interesting person.

This book is really a series of essays. And it's like you're sitting with a cup of tea having a long chat to the man and he's talking about his life, his family, his work, the difficulty of being a celebrity, and he's mentally summing up that life and trying to decide what it all really means. I found it fascinating because, although he's quite a bit older than me, they're the same conclusions I and many others come to as we age. That family, the way your're brought up is vastly important but perhaps not the be all and end all. And that maintaining your curiosity about life, until the moment you breathe your last, is the most important thing for the individual - something I personally agree with one hundred per cent.

One thing I didn't know about Alda was how much of an activist he has been, (and presumably still is) especially for women's rights. He's also someone who has given a lot of speeches at various events and many of those are included in this book to illustrate something he is discussing. I also didn't know that he hosted a popular TV science programme in the US because of a lifelong fascination with the sciences. This is an interesting man with a lot to say and I will check the library next time I'm in there to see if they have his actual autobiography.


Eragon by Christopher Paolini is my final book for the Here be Dragons challenge hosted by Love at Stray Talk.

The story, as the title suggests, concerns 'Eragon', a boy of fifteen who lives on a farm with his uncle and cousin in an isolated, mountainous part of Alagaesia. This is a country ruled over by a cruel despot, Galbatorix, who is the only dragon rider left since the wars and who has plans to extend his empire by using an army of urgals (vicious fighters) and strange and frightening beings such as the Shade and Ra'zac. Out hunting one night a stone literally falls into Eragon's hands, only it isn't a stone - as he discovers some time later, when it hatches into dragon. While he is away Eragon's home is destroyed and his uncle killed by two Ra'zac. By now Eragon's dragon has grown somewhat and has been named Saphira and the two of them plus 'Brom', an enigmatic old storyteller, set off in pursuit, determined to avenge the killing. A long journey ensues and naturally many adventures befall the travellers, new characters enter the fray and so on. And the end is not really the end as the second book in the series, Eldest, leads straight on, literally, from the first.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from this. I knew it was written by a teenager and that the book had been popular enough to be made into a film - which I haven't actually seen. At first it seemed fairly obvious the author was young, too many very short, abrupt sentences for instance, the kind of thing I find distracting. That stopped after a while, the writing settled down and I found myself absorbed in the tale. I notice it has some good reviews on Amazon and some really scathing ones! And I will admit there is not a lot that's original - one reviewer actually accuses it of being 'Star wars with Dragons', a comparison which escaped me I have to confess. Despite *all* of that I did actually rather enjoy this book. It has some interesting characters - I really liked the female elf, Arya, for instance, and there are some interesting villains. Even the 'friends' have questionable motives and may not be what they seem. To tell the truth I'm quite in awe that a teenage boy could come up with something this good (he's now 25 I believe) and am wondering what kind of thing we can expect from him in the future. I already have Eldest and will certainly buy the last of the series Brisingr when it comes out in September.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Book porn!

It's one of those strange weeks. My daughter is on holiday from work, which should mean no minding our grandson today and Friday and a nice few outings. We were off to Penzance on Monday, for instance, to visit relatives for the day. But you know what they say about the best laid plans? Our grandson went down with chicken pox on Friday which cancelled everything because not only is he contagious, we might be too and it's no use visiting people and giving them a present they don't really want! So. While waiting to see whether or not I have chicken pox I took a tour of the charity shops and market yesterday to see what book gems I could find to cheer myself up. And thus! some book porn.

This batch of five was on a table in the market marked 25p each or 5 for £1.

The Saffron Eaters is a book I've never heard of but I immediately realised from the title (the Cornish eat a lot of saffron cake) and the cover that it must be set in Cornwall. Indeed it is, a Cornish fishing village in fact, so I couldn't leave that behind.

Death Comes at the End is a totally unknown Agatha Christie book to me. But its background is ancient Egypt so I'm sure it'll be very readable.

The other two crime books, The Glimpses of the Moon by Edmund Crispin and Something the Cat Dragged in by Charlotte Macleod are likewise totally unknown but they looked interesting and at 20p if they're no good they can go to the charity shop.

Lastly, Behind the Wall by Colin Thubron is a travel book, set, obviously, in China.

For the princely sum of £1, I didn't think that was a bad haul.

And then I had a mooch around the charity shops and Waterstones.

Waterstones yielded the new issue of their excellent book magazine (which you get free if you have one of their loyalty cards) and I treated myself to Eldest by Christopher Paolini. I'm currently reading the first in this series, Eragon and like it well enough to buy the sequel. The cover alone is almost worth the money...

The charity shops threw up three gems.

Dragons of Spring Dawning by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, which is book three of the Dragonlance series, the first of which I read recently. Just have to find book two now.

Corsets to Camouflage is a non-fiction book which shows the role of women in the wars of the 20th century, by the renowned BBC war corresspondant, Kate Adie.

I think I'm most pleased with my last find. It's an omnibus edition of Wave me Goodbye: Stories of the Second World War edited by Anne Boston and Hearts Undefeated: Women's Writing of the Second World War edited by Jenny Hartley. The former is fiction and I saw it blogged about somewhere but can't remember where. I decided not to buy it on Amazon but wait and see if it turned up. Well it did. And not only did I get the book I wanted, I also got the second book which is non-fiction writings from WW2 and every bit as good as the first book. I'm well satisfied with that result!

So, without spending a fortune I cheered myself up considerably. (The trouble is... I also increased the tbr mountain by nine volumes!)

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Once Upon a Time challenge wrap-up

Okay, well, it's time to wrap-up a challenge and it's Carl's Once Upon a Time II.

What a lot of fun it's been. Not only reading my own books but also reading other people's reviews and adding recommendations to my 'keep an eye out for' list. In fact I found one of those at the library this morning - River Secrets by Shannon Hale. I know a lot of people were very excited about her writing during the challenge so I'm really looking forward to trying this author's work.

Anyway, as usual I'm digressing. This is the quest I was attempting for the challenge:

Quest the First:

Read at least 5 books that fit somewhere within the Once Upon a Time II criteria. They might all be fantasy, or folklore, or fairy tales, or mythology…or your five books might be a combination from the four genres.

The books I read were:

The Wee Free Men
A Hat Full of Sky

All by Terry Pratchett of course.

Assassin's Quest - Robin Hobb
Dragons of Autumn Twilight - Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

These five were from my list of nine but I also read two extra books which were:

Fragile Things - Neil Gaiman
The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents - Terry Pratchett

It seems I had a bit of a Terry Pratchett fest and I'll admit it, I did. But it was great, I loved it. It was so nice to discover that a series of his that I thought was not for me was, in fact, fantastic. The truth is I loved all of the books I read but if I had to choose *one* favourite it would have to be Assassin's Quest by Robin Hobb.

I'd like to thank Carl for hosting this challenge, and I'm already planning what to read for the RIP challenge in the Autumn - it can't come quickly enough!

Monday, 16 June 2008

The Gone-Away World

Several weeks ago I was lucky enough to be sent a free copy of The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway to review on my blog. Being rather busy I didn’t get to it until last week and realised as soon as I started that reading this book was going to be a full week’s commitment as it was in no way a ‘quick read’. And so it turned out to be.

It’s very hard to know where to begin with this book and I really hope I can do it justice. For starters it’s hard to categorise and we all know how everyone feels the need to pigeon-hole. Is it sci-fi, is it fantasy, is it a war story, a romance? Well yes, is the answer to that. It’s all of those things and quite a lot more. The story begins with a call-out to a fire. The people called out are a group helping to protect ‘the Pipe’ and this fire is a very serious threat. The Pipe, which circumnavigates the globe, is protecting the world from some kind of Armageddon. And that’s about all we learn of the present day as we’re then swept back to the narrator’s childhood. His early life is retold in minute detail, his childhood friendship with a boy called Gonzo and his adoption into this boy’s family, his learning of ‘gong-fu’ under the tutelage of Master Wu, his university days where he becomes an activist, and then his rather mysterious career in the army where he helps to develop a secret weapon. It’s while he’s fighting a very senseless war in Addeh Katir (somewhere in the vicinity of Nepal if memory serves) that the event around which the novel revolves occurs. The Secret Weapon is deployed. The people who deploy it think they’re the only ones who have it. Think again. A catastrophe of global proportions ensues that will be known as The Gone-Away War, and the world as we know it is no more. The narrator and his comrades survive and hide out in the mountains until rescue arrives in the form of Piper 90, a kind of converted oil-rig, which is laying a pipe. A pipe that will encircle the globe and carry a substance that will save humankind and the world - or at least a corridor twenty miles either side of the pipe. What lies beyond that twenty miles is now ‘un’real in a very frightening sense and the pipe is designed to keep that at bay - but there are, of course, ‘grey’ areas…

The second half of the novel deals with what happens when our narrator goes to work on Piper 90. I’m not going into details as the plot is convoluted and there are twists and turns and many shocks in store and if I say anything it will involve serious spoilers. Suffice it to say there were twists that I did not see coming and I consider myself fairly good at spotting these things. I didn’t. Not even close.

This is Nick Harkaway’s first book I gather. Judging by its position in Waterstones the other day (right in front of the tills) my guess is that it will be a success. Did I like it? Well, yes, with certain reservations. It took me a while to get used to the author’s style. He meanders all over the place with diatribes on this, that, and whatever takes his fancy and it is quite hard work staying with him. Once you get used to that and convince yourself that you’re in it for the long haul, it becomes easier somehow. This is no quick fix of a read, you need to devote time and energy to it, but it *is* worth the effort. Why? Well, there’s so much about this book that’s original and incredibly imaginative. It’s creepy in that post-apocalyptic way that always scares the living daylights out of me. I actually would have liked more of that I think. There are ideas here, about the nature of war or big business, for instance, that will take you right out of your comfort zone and really make you think about what our governments are not telling us or who is being allowed to work on what kind of weapon in the name of ‘protecting’ us, the citizens.

I like the fact that this is not a book that fits easily into any genre. Inevitably though, I think it might be read by more men than women, which is a bit of a shame because there is plenty here for women to enjoy. Good characterisation for instance, a truly fascinating narrator - and strong women. There’s none of this ‘weaker sex, keep her in the kitchen, looking after the kids, or at least make her subservient to the blokes’ kind of nonsense that can be apparent in books written by men. It’s just not there at all. I would hope the fact that it doesn’t fit easily into any particular category might make women (and men) pick it up, even it’s only from the local library. A book like this should be read by as many people as possible as it has a lot of things to say that are important and relevant and that we should all be giving consideration to. An excellent debut.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Dragons of Autumn Twilight

I must be reading some older books these days because several of the cover pics I've had to use recently have been blurred and out of focus. I usually grab them from Amazon or Fantastic Fiction and I assume they're scans people have uploaded. Whatever, here's another one I'm afraid. Perhaps it would be better if I took an actual photo...

And then I discover that I actually *have* one. LOL.

That's a bit better. I think...

Enough faffing about.

Dragons of Autumn Twilight by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman (a chap, not lady) is the very first instalment of the huge 'Dragonlance' series of books. I first read about them on Deslily's blog; though I did know about them before this, I was just not aware that I might want to read them. Her reviews made me decide to read the first one (picked up in a charity shop) for Carl's Once Upon a Time II challenge and for the Here Be Dragons challenge as well. So I did.

The story concerns quite a large group of characters known collectively as The Companions. Their leader is Tanis, a half-elf who has been banished from the Elvish kingdom for reasons which become clear eventually. With him are Tasselhoff, the kender, twins Caramon and Raistlin, a warrior and mage respectively, Sturm, a warrior and knight, and Flint, the dwarf. They're meeting up, after five years apart, at the The Inn of the Last Home in Solace. There's trouble afoot - The Queen of Darkness threatens the land of Krynn and they've spent the last five years trying to find out what's going on. They're soon joined by two barbarians, Goldmoon and Riverwind, as they flee the town with the reptillian Draconian army in hot pursuit. The female, Goldmoon, has a strange and magical staff which heals and it soon becomes apparent that this is what their pursuers are after. Why? Their quest to find the answer to this riddle leads them to many places, strange mountains, enchanted forests, the ruined underground city of Xak Tsaroth and, ultimately, to the stronghold one of Queen's chiefs, Verminaard, and his rather vicious dragons who have captured large portions of the population to use as slaves. The Companions final task of the book is to free them.

The charm of this book, imo, is the characters and their relationships with each other. There is much humour and banter which translates as deep friendship and support no matter what the odds. But it's not all beer and skittles. The mage, Raistlin, is an ambivilent character if ever there was one. Is he good or bad? It's very hard to tell and it may be, in the end, that he's just out for himself. His brother, Caramon, is loyal no matter what though and a strong band of loyalty runs right through this book - you support your friends whatever the consequences. Not a bad message really.

I liked this first Dragonlance book a lot. It is quite clear that its origins were in the RP game of Dungeons and Dragons but that's not a drawback as far as I can see - my youngest daughter used to play, in fact. I loved the camaraderie, the humour and the sheer imagination that went into writing it. I'll definitely be searching out the next few books, but from the library as there are over 70 of them I believe and I can't possibly buy them all!

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

A Letter of Mary

I seem to be in a bit of a reading slump at the moment. It's not that I don't want to read but having been rather busy for a couple of weeks it's meant that the books I have been reading have taken me ages to get through. And, although I'm not the fastest reader in the entire world, I do find it hard to maintain interest if all I can read is a few pages a day and one book takes ten days to read.

Anyway, regardless of that, I did actually enjoy A Letter of Mary, which is book three in the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes books by Laurie R. King. Hard really to overstate how much I like this series, it's intelligent, witty and character driven and I love that.

The year is 1923 and life in the Holmes household is quiet. Mary continues with her theology based academic research and Holmes with his chemistry experiments. When Mary suddenly receives a letter from Dorothy Ruskin, an acquaintance from The Holy Land from their time there several years back (during the first book), she is intrigued enough to invite the archaeologist to the house. Dorothy arrives and presents Mary with a beautiful inlaid box which she wishes her to keep. Inside is a papyrus scroll the content of which indicates that it was written by Mary Magdalene to her sister. A bombshell in more ways than one.

A day later, Holmes and Mary hear that Dorothy has been killed in a road accident. They travel to London to verify the facts of her death and quickly discover it was not an accident at all - she was murdered. But who can have wanted the archaeologist dead? It seems Dorothy has been moving in strange circles and a group of zionists, the misogynistic Colonel Edwards, and even her rather odd family are all implicated. Mary and Holmes naturally set about investigating. Mary Russell-Holmes becomes 'Mary Small', a personal secretary, and goes to work for the unpredictable Colonel Edwards, while Holmes, in deep disguise, becomes an odd-job man for Dorothy's sister. Their investigations lead them into some surprising situations and shocking conclusions.

Another excellent installment in this brilliant series. The plot is pacey with a strong undercurrent of menace so that you're never entirely sure what will happen next. The character of Mary Russell-Holmes is one of my favourites in literature now. She's intelligent, bookish, a risk-taker - even though frequently scared out of her wits while taking these risks. She's every bit the equal of Sherlock Holmes and he treats her as such even though he also is occasionally scared out of his wits when she is risking her life for some cause or other. Some find their marriage a bit unbelievable and, yes, there is a huge age-gap. Personally, that doesn't worry me one bit, in fact it's an added attraction as I like unusual romantic couples. I do think too that Laurie King handles the whole thing very tactfully, the sign of a good writer, imo.

It's so nice to still have five more books to read in this series, the next being The Moor which is a tie-in with The Hound of the Baskervilles, I believe. Can't wait.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

A walk by the canal

I feel as though I've been AWOL from the bloggisphere this last week. I have been around but not as much as usual as we've had family staying - my eldest daughter and her family. Anyway, it's been a super week with some very variable weather but Thursday morning was absolutely gorgeous so we took a stroll along the Great Western Canal which runs for eleven miles from Tiverton into the countryside. This is actually only part of a canal, the original plan was to join Bristol to the south coast but they ran out of money, so only our bit got built. The whole length of the canal is now a country park, a haven for wildlife, and a lovely place to spend some time. Here're a few pics including, for Maureen and Juliet, a couple of Devon gates!

Spot the moorhens!

It's the flag season so these lovely yellow flowers are all along the banks.

Certainly this is a place for people who love bridges - which includes me.

Two gates in 'mid-Devon' as promised.

The battery on my camera decided to run out then, which is probably just as well. But anyway, a brief glimpse of my part of the world for anyone who might be interested.

Normal service to be resumed tomorrow. I actually finished a book!