Author Archive

St Albans Library

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011

I’ve seen some odd things in St Albans main library (in the Maltings shopping precinct) before but nothing as odd as what I’ve just witnessed.

I popped in briefly over lunch to find the main reading area had a new “installation”. Next to the microfiche readers, a middle aged couple had laid out a large tartan picnic blanket. On the blanket there sat a dog. The dog was clearly not a guide dog, being of a breed not associated with guiding and also being looked after by two people reading normal print books. They were reading normal print books whilst having what I can only describe as an impromptu picnic, complete with a couple of thermos flasks of tea/coffee/other hot beverage.

Now I realise like most of our other cultural assets, libraries are primed for closure in order to save money to pay expensive consultants to justify why it’s okay to close libraries, museums and anything else that might benefit society, but surely things aren’t so desperate that the head count of two (or three if they counted the dog) is necessary, despite plenty of signage to the contrary?

I know libraries have diversified into internet cafe and Blockbusters DVD rental territory in recent years, but I’m struggling to think of any vague justification of allowing pets and picnics to take place.

Still, I have emailed Herts Direct with a query and shall update this post with their reply. In case you’re wondering, all the staff were busy dealing with IT issues in the internet cafe section, and I didn’t fancy waiting until there was someone free.

My top 10 books- part 1

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

At the St Albans book group I attend, someone mentioned doing a personal top ten last week. Excellent idea, so here it is!

A top ten list of books isn’t ever going to be definitive. For starters, it says a lot about me as a person and where I was at the time I read them. I tend to re-read most of the top ten every 5 years or so, and I’m sorry but I can’t be objective about my selection. I was a precocious reader as a youth, I went from primary to secondary school and effectively started reading adult fiction at that point, some of it quite hard going. I don’t think I’ve ever really progressed from that point either, which is a shame.

So in no particular order, here we go with the first five.

The Stand- Stephen King

I’ve read a lot of Stephen King’s horror fiction over the years. Most of what he wrote in the 1970′s is head and shoulders above anything he’s written in recent years, particularly after his serious lorry accident that got him a lot of hospital time and broken bones. I’m a fan of the Shining, IT and Firestarter for example. But my favourite novel of Kings was only his fourth, and that is the Stand.

What King does so very well is write with an accessible style about characters that are in the most believably real. Even if most of his supernatural stories end up with some sort of deus ex machina ending (or a supernatural firework display as the 12 year old me once complained), the path that takes you there is always an interesting one.

The Stand could easily be a standard post apocalyptic tale, in this instance a mutated form of flu is released from a germ warfare lab, but it goes on from that, containing Kings trademark supernatural elements as two sides build, one around Mother Abigail and the other around Randall Flag. Both these two characters have supernatural elements to them but it doesn’t distract from the grounded interaction between the rest of the characters. At the time, the Stand was the longest book I read, and in it’s uncut version, is still probably one of the longest single volume pieces I’ve read. But it’s not hard work, it’s an easy read thanks to Kings style of writing and doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Wilt- Tom Sharpe

From one genre to another and in this instance it’s on to humour. Wilt was written in the 1970′s (and turned into a rather crap film with Gryff Rhys Jones in the 80′s) and follows the life and adventures of the titular character as he works at the local ‘tech and tries to keep his wifes misguided ambitions under control. Sharpe has written some jolly entertaining books over the years, although his output has diminished in both quantity and quality in recent times, there are many many things in this book to find hilarious. It is very much of it’s time and in certain areas is both politically incorrect and rather rude but I guarantee you’ll not reading anything as remotely funny for a very long time.

Wilt dreams of offing his overbearing wife Eva but would never actually follow through and commit the crime. Unfortunately, circumstance leads him to burying an inflatable sex doll in the foundations of new build and when someone pouring concrete into the hole spots the doll, a sequence of events starts that Wilt is powerless to halt. Reading the Inspector Flint interrogations of Wilt count amongst the most entertainment I’ve had with my clothes on. This book was written by an absolute comic genius.

The Colour of Magic- Terry Pratchett

I once read a quote that said something along the lines of “The world is divided into two camps, those that say they’ve never heard of Terry Pratchett and those that say, Yes of course I’ve heard of him, I’ve read all of his books!”

This was about 15 or so books ago, maybe more but I still think it stands more or less true. Discworld is a phenomonem, so much so that when JK Rowling proclaimed she thought it was nice that Harry Potter had reinvigorated fantasy but she didn’t consider it fantasy, Pratchett was one of the few successful authors able to pull her up with some authority.

The earlier Discworld novels (to my mind) are much funnier than the later ones. I’m not just saying this as I read them first time around to be one of those irritating people who says, “I was there from day one, I’m a true fan” or anything, I think before the enormous cast of characters came about there was something funnier about it all.

The Colour of Magics main protagonist, Rincewind the Wizard, is one of natures great cowards and his inherent ability to flee in the amusing fashion is one of the great features of this novel. Although the fantasy world is pretty well realised, Pratchett’s strength in this and all the early novels is his great ability to write humour and bomb us all with gags. When the denzins of the city of Ankh-Morpork are introduced to the concept of insurance, it takes literally minutes for the first arson based insurance job to happen- just one example of the lovely skewed logic of it all.

A Game of Thrones- George RR Martin

If you’ve read the book, the recent HBO series isn’t very good, the budget needs to be about ten times higher to do the book justice but if you haven’t read the book and you’ve seen the series, you’ll have enjoyed it. That says a lot about the book to me.

A lot of people who don’t read fantasy have some fairly cliched views of the genre, wizards, elves and magical swords feature fairly prominently in their prejudices. In fact the prologue to A Game of Thrones does see some wights attacking people and the main castle at Kings Landing has the bones of some dragons in it but (in this first volume at least) the book is firmly rooted in terra-firma.

Pleasantly the story follows a series of noble houses as they vie for power in a kingdom that has only really been united for a relatively short period of time. There are no village boys who have to follow their destiny on a quest here, there is political machination, violence (and some incest bizarrely), assassination and betrayal, all written with a brutal realism and an attention to detail that make the world utterly believable.

It would be interesting to see what Martin could do in a straight historical setting but to a degree that’s more or less what you get here. The book isn’t short, weighing in at 864 pages, which is about the length of Lord of the Rings in total but if you’ve never dipped your toe into the realm of fantasy, this is an excellent if daunting starting point.

 The Blade Itself- Joe Abercrombie

This is another fantasy novel but about as far as you can get from traditional fantasy. Abercrombie is a relatively young author, well he’s under 40 anway, and has only got 5 books to his name. The Blade Itself is the first in a relatively short trilogy and does away with a lot of the conventions of fantasty. You can tell that from the first couple of pages where our barbarian hero, Logan Ninefingers, is running away through the woods shouting “fuck” loudly.

Abercrombie only sketches location with a broad brush, it’s enough to get an idea of where the characters are but descriptive his works are not. His strengths are in the dialogue which is often laugh out loud funny. In a later book one of his characters monologues, “We talked of many things, Duke Orisno and I. He said he’d have my head, I said I quite understood, I found it immensely useful myself.” There is an underlying vein of very dark humour, which at times isn’t underlying so much as sitting on the surface and blowing a raspberry at you.

Abercrombie delights in taking fantasy convention and turning it on it’s head- there’s an unlikely wizard, a baseborn lad who becomes king and a spectularly terrible quest, as well as the sort of behaviour that would make Pratchett’s Rincewind take notes on how to run away more effectively.

If you’ve tried fantasy in the past and didn’t like it, try this. It’s so very different.

 

 

Against All Things Ending: The Final Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Stephen Donaldson

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

Against All Things Ending: The Final Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen Donaldson must be one of the lengthy titles of a book I’ve read in a while. In keeping perhaps with the loquacious nature of the author himself. Not that Donaldson is prone to excessively long novels, given that the last book I read weighed in at over 1,000 pages in hardback, it’s nice to read one thats perhaps only two thirds of that in length.

Having said that, at 120 pages in, the characters have done little other than wander round a bit and have a chat. Of course that’s a facetious comment, as much as the “Clench Game” is but it’s something I like about Donaldson in a perverse way. The first book of his I read was The Mirror of His Dreams in 1986. I was 11 and a very precocious reader. It was my third step into fantasy, preceded by some Dragonlance and started with the Hobbit. Talk about a step in at the deep end but while I waited for Donaldson to write A Man Rides Through, I devoured both Chronicles of Thomas Covenant and lamented the fact he said he wouldn’t write a third series, even though it was fairly obvious that the final volume was pretty final. This Mordants Need pair of books, of which The Mirror of His Dreams is the first, involve an inordinate amount of talking and plotting. Most of the activities take place in a few rooms of a large castle that feels like it inspired an awful lot of subsequent castles in modern fantasy. True, there is some action, and I’ve still yet to read a better series of sword fights than Artagel’s battles with Gart the High Kings Monomach, but the essence of the story is almost akin to John Le Carre’s Smiley’s People, which from memory involved an elderly spy sitting in a loft reading a lot of field reports in an attempt to spot some inconsistencies that would lead to the unmasking of a double agent. It is about people and the situations they are in. How the people react to one another is key to how things progress, so the dialogue is very important.

I’m probably the last person in the world who can objectively read a Donaldson fantasy book and give an opinion on it but I am enjoying Against All Things Ending rather a lot. The preceding volumes in this new series have irritated me by turn; Kevin’s Dirt is a form of the Sunbane, it’s nothing original, the Insequent are so puissant (to pilfer one of Donaldson’s favourite words) that it beggars belief that they made no appearance in the first 6 books that comprise the original two trilogies and don’t get me started on the likes of Esmer or Anele or I might get a little bit foamy at the mouth.

Still, for all the inherent weaknesses of the evolution of the Land this time round, the frankly embarrassing name that assigned to the previously dead Covenant (Timewarden? it sounds like something from a corny 1970′s sci-fi show!)   and what seems like a greatest hits tour of the Lands past that takes in Berek Halfhand, Viles, Ur-Viles and Caerrol Wildwood amongst others, this volume has me quite excited so far. The ante has been upped a lot, and I get the feeling the characters are at a precipice that might lead to quite unexpected results.

Full review once I’ve finished it no doubt.

The Way of Kings: The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

It’s been a couple of weeks since I finished Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings. Maybe it’s even been as much as a month. I’ve needed some mulling time. It is a huge book, not To Green Angel Tower huge, but then little is nowadays, but longer than a lot of what I’ve read for a while.

My lasting impression is of a book I really enjoyed but if I were to look back, it’s taken me 4 months to read, so it’s hardly a page turner (although admittedly life has got in the way). Sanderson is getting a reputation as a chap who is extremely inventive when it comes to devising magic systems, and this is borne out well here with the use of Stormlight for various super natural purposes being well thought out and coherent. (more…)

The Wheel of Time is a Romantic Drama Masquerading as Fantasy

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

I’ve read the majority of Robert Jordan’s the Wheel of Time about 3 times now. I’m currently up to The Shadow Rising on my final read through (or rather listen through via the rather wonderful audio books) before the final volume is out next Spring.

It’s a lovingly crafted fantasy world, with a deep history and a well thought out magical system that does seem to fit with the universe the story takes part in but….

There is little doubt in my mind that Jordan was a huge fan of Mills & Boon. If you read carefully the fantasy elements and even the over-arching battle between good and evil aren’t actually the main story. The main story is a story of love and finding yourself an ideal partner.

Poppycock, I hear you say! Well hear me out. At the start of the novel everyone is single. Even Queen Morgase is single, and all of the main characters are definitely on their own.

By the end of the twelfth book there are so many pairings it actually looks ludicrous to list them but I’m going to:

  1. Rand, Avienda, Elayne, Min
  2. Perrin, Faile
  3. Mat, Tuon
  4. Nynaeve, Lan
  5. Egwene, Gawyn
  6. Siuan, Gareth Bryne
  7. Galad, Berlain
  8. Moiraine, Thom
  9. Morgase, Tallanvor
  10. Gaul, Chiad
  11. Loial, Erith
  12. Bayle Domon, Egeanin

So that’s 12 relationships (14 if you include all 3 of Rand’s) without any real effort, and that’s ignoring the triangle between Galad, Gawyn and Egwene, and Berlain’s attempts to steal Perrin from Faile. In fact if you were to look at all the narrative given over to the romantic entanglements between the characters, and you were to strip it out, there would be a considerably smaller series left at the end. The comedy conceit of Mat, Perrin and Rand all wishing they had the other ones facility with girls gets tiring pretty quickly but does serve to highlight how much of the series is focused on romantic relationships.

Most of Perrins story involves hooking up with Faile, rescuing Faile and being in trouble with Faile for not understanding women properly. He’s definitely the worst of the 3 lads for it but Rand is as bad, especially as Lanfear is always looking over his shoulder (or biting it).

So there you have it. Coincidence? Or design? Either way Jordan has written tens of thousands of words about romance, even if you’ve read the most part of the Wheel of Time without realising it.

The 100 Book Challenge

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

One of my blogging buddies is undertaking a bit of an epic challenge in January.

It’s January, a new year and new starts all over the place. People are kicking off new year resolutions and a variety of challenges have sprung up on blogs around the blogosphere. Our family are doing something a little different. In the hope of raising money to build a library with Oxfam Unwrapped, we’re starting the year by reading (and reviewing) 100 books in a month. That’s 5 people (4 readers) and 31 days to read and report on 100 books. You can check out more about the challenge on its dedicated page or follow the reviews in their very own category. We’d love to hear what you think of what we’re up to!

Good luck Jax and I for one will keep my eye on your progress!

Eye of the World Unabridged CD

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

I’m still reading Brandon Sanderson’s epic- Christmas got in the way of that one a bit but on the side I’ve been listening to some rather excellent audio books on the way to work.

Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time are available as audio books in unabridged format and they’re rather good. I certainly don’t have the time for a read through of all the books before the final volume is due out in early 2012, so listening to them for the hour or so it takes to walk to and from work in the morning seems an excellent compromise.

It’s interesting to hear the written tics that Jordan has spoken by the two narrators, they sound a lot more irritating than they do on the page. David Langford once described how it invented a drinking game based around Stephen Donaldson’s use of the word “clench” in the Thomas Covenant books that involved two people opening a copy of one of the books and reading until they found the word “clench”, the loser having to have a shot. Well I’m sure you could do that with Jordan if you substituted the word “dryly” for “clench” and if I hear the phrase “‘Ta’veren’, Loial began” one more time I might have to get a bit cross.

Nevertheless, the audiobooks are very good. There are two narrators, a chap who takes the male chapters and a woman who does the female ones. One of the things it deals with nicely is the pronunciation. It’s always a bit tricky with fantasy anyway but given that this is American fantasy read by Americans, a few of the words are pronounced quite differently to how I expected. At around 30 hours for the Eye of the World, which isn’t the longest in the series by any stretch, I think my walks are going to be fairly busy for the next few months.

The Way of Kings: The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson

Monday, November 29th, 2010

I don’t often pick up books on import but the publication date of The Way of Kings between the US version and good old Blighty in this instance was more than a little ridiculous, so I bit the bullet and got the gaudy 1980′s style cover version.  Nothing says epic fantasy like a histrionic cover. To Americans at least.

This is a huge huge book. Over 1,000 pages in hardback in fact, which doesn’t bode well for the paperback version(s). I’ve not read any of Sanderson’s Mistborn series but I have read his continuation of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and I think he’s doing a better job of it than the great man would have himself.

The world Sanderson has created is very different to the general fantasy worlds that are often quite analogous with our own. There is a preponderance of crustacean based creatures in these books, which definitely makes a change. The magic system is quite unique too, not as confusing at the Malazan Warrens or as formulaic as the Channelling in the Wheel of Time books. To be honest, when one of the Shen does a bit of binding himself to walls and the ceiling whilst attempting to assassinate someone, it comes across as a bit Playstation (Prince of Persia perhaps). Still, it’s top stuff.

I’m about 400 pages in but you always know when you’re reading a good book when you glance at the clock and see it’s 1am.

The Way of Kings is out on 30th December, and available for pre-order from Amazon for a more than reasonable £11.76

Towers of Midnight, Near Avendesora and Court of the Sun analysis , Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson.

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010
Warning: this post contains severe spoilers that may ruin the book for you if you haven’t read it first.
There is very little of Aviendha  in Towers of Midnight, a scant three chapters in fact. However the second & third chapters has such ramifications that it was difficult reading the remainder of the book without drifting back to what happened in the glass pillars at Rhuidean.
In case you don’t remember, the glass ter’angreal showed the wise ones and the would be clan chiefs the secret history of the Aiel- The Way of the Leaf and all that jazz that the pre breaking Aiel followed, much to the chagrin of the warrior like peoples they became. Of course, as Aviendha rightly points out, Rand has made this a little redundant and it’s her tinkering with the ter’angreal as a result of this that leads to the fortelling of the Aiel’s future that threatens to overshadow the finale of the series.
The key paragraph to the whole revelation is contained on the final page of Court of the Sun:
This was not like the events she had seen when passing into the rings during her first visit to Rhuidean. Those had been possibilities. This day’s visions seemed more real. She felt almost certain that what she had experienced was not simply one of many possibilities. What she had seen would occur. Step by step, honor drained from her people. Step by step, the Aiel turned from proud to wretched.
Perhaps it’s wrong to dwell on this paragraph so much but for me it almost makes the rest of the series irrelevant. This is what will happen, therefore Rand will be triumphant at the Last Battle and Andor will survive (despite the Trolloc invasion via Waygate in the epilogue).
The glimpses of the future happen in reverse chronology but if we were to put them in order,the first one occurs 17 years after the Last Battle, with the Dragons Peace still kept by everyone, including the Seanchan. This pretty much shows us that the Last Battle has been won. Obviously it doesn’t show us either how or at what cost the victory was gained but it is a bit of a suspense killer.
The final (or first if you read in order) sequence shows the “Folk”, not even remembering their Aiel heritage, rummaging through the litter of the Lightmakers as they drive through the Waste. The technology level of the Lightmakers is difficult to judge, they have motorised vehicles and guns of some description but Folk simply refer to it as magic, so it’s not really possible to judge just how far in the future it all is. It’s always been difficult to ascertain the technological development in the Wheel of Time, 3,000 years from the Breaking to a 17th/18th century level seems very slow. The Lightmakers even refer to the Folk as “bloody Aiel”, suggesting that they are remembered, even though they have forgotten their own name.
The subsequent visions show ore prospecting in the Waste, another sign of technological development, and the Aiel more humanised than the almost beastial creatures of the most distant future, and the ruthless breaking of the Aiel by the Seachan over the course of generations.
There are of course more details like the betrayal of Andor, the fall of the White Tower, the residents of the fallen Black Tower fighting a guerilla war and so on, but ultimately it is the vision of the Seanchan triumphant and the Aiel utterly defeated that lingers.
Is that it then? Is the victory at the Last Battle a pyhrric victory that sees the Seanchan cultural and intolerance of Channelers eventually obtain dominance? Obviously life under the Seachan is better than life under the Shadow but it still reeks of failure and leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
Hopefully this gets a better resolution than some of the other stories in the final volume, time will tell…

Towers of Midnight, Book 13 of the Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and brandon Sanderson

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

Towers of Midnight finally hit the shelves yesterday. Rather than a speed read, I’m savouring it, especially since early indications are the final volume is going to miss November 2011 and will be available spring 2012 instead.

I’m only 150 or so pages in so far but am enjoying it  a lot. Still impatiently awaiting the appearance of Mat and his trip to Jain Farstrider and Tom to the Tower of Genji though.

The book weighs in at over 800 pages so it may take me a few more days to finish this one. Then I can get onto the penultimate Thomas Covenant book. Great books, they’re like buses eh?